In 1870, as anyone familiar with Canadian history knows, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald authorized the dispatch of a 1200-man military force under the command of Major-General Garnet Wolseley, to the Red River district of Manitoba. The object was two-fold, to quell unrest among the chiefly Métis settlers about land disposition, and to discourage incursions across the 49th Parallel by “Fenian” rabble-rousers from the United States.
In May of that year, steamboats operating out of Collingwood in southern Georgian Bay began the huge task of transporting the soldiers and their equipment and provisions, and a supporting contingent of 500 voyageurs and teamsters, and numerous horses and oxen, up to the head of Lake Superior.
From there, they would travel by overland trail and rowboat the rest of the way to the vicinity of present day Winnipeg.
Remarkably, the force arrived at their destination well before the end of summer.
But in doing so they had to overcome some formidable roadblocks, the first of which relates to a faded old photograph shown here.
When the leading steamer, the Chicora (several boats were involved, including chartered American vessels), arrived at Sault Ste. Marie, United States authorities barred her way. The ship canal bypassing the rapids and leading up to Lake Superior lay on the American side, and no military force of a foreign nation was going to be allowed to trespass on United States soil. So the Chicora had to disembark everything of a military nature, go up empty, and reload on the Canadian side at the top of the rapids.
As did all the steamers, some of them towing worn out schooners, that followed.
The growing pile of supplies and armament (which included some bronze “mountain guns,” had to be transported by horses and men up to Lake Superior via a difficult portage on the Canadian side. And that’s where this old photograph depicting teamsters employed in the work enters the picture.
Duncan Macdonald was born, in 1842, down near the Lake Erie shore, but as a young man he headed north to the frontier of settlement and industry in Ontario, which then lay along a line paralleling the north shore of Lake Huron.
The year 1870 found Macdonald in Sault Ste. Marie at the time that some units of the Wolsely Expedition passed through. Just why he was there is not known.
What matters is that he had his camera with him, and used it to capture rare images relating to this historic event. His views of the military encampment at Sault Ste. Marie are housed in the Archives of Ontario, where I’ve seen them.
Now, the photograph shown here, which I firmly believe is another of Macdonald’s pictures of the Wolseley expedition, has just turned up in Nova Scotia.
The 144-year-old print is owned by Mary Clare, born in Foley Township and now living in Halifax. Mary recently posted the picture in the Parry Sound Historical Photographs corner of Facebook, thus bringing it to my attention.
Right away upon seeing it I told myself “I know who took that picture!” At first glance, it brought to mind Duncan Macdonald’s Wolseley Expedition photographs that I’d seen in the Ontario Archives. Then I looked at the caption, which fairly jumped off the time-yellowed cardboard margin of the mounted photo. During years of reading Duncan F. Macdonald’s diaries and letters I’ve become so familiar with his penmanship that I have little doubt that it is his.
Compare the writing at the bottom of the photo with that in the letter also reproduced here. You needn’t be a handwriting expert to detect the similarity.
Now that I’ve piqued your curiosity I’d better explain that in the letter, written in 1877, Macdonald thanks local MPP John C. Miller for his influence in “securing my appointment” as the “Mudroad Boss” (superintendent of rural road improvements) for Parry Sound District. (Duncan Macdonald and John C. Miller, owner of the Parry Sound Lumber Company, were political bedfellows, and Macdonald’s correspondence with his friend is peppered with such examples of wry humour.)
Macdonald exposed his photographs on glass negatives, which he had first to coat with a light-sensitive agent, and after exposure bathe in a fixing solution, activities that had to be performed under some improvised, light-proof covering.
He would have made his prints later, under better circumstances, but the ravages of time, daylight, and acid paper have not been kind to the results. But for the Photoshopping expertise of Chris Cardy, who performs photographic miracles in her shop on Parry Sound’s Miller Street, I could not have shown readers what this column is all about.