Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Hugh P. MacMillan's Adventures of a Paper Sleuth

Lately I've been reading Hugh P. MacMillan's Adventures of a Paper Sleuth (Manotick ON: Penumbra Press, 2004), telling the story of MacMillan's adventures over the years while searching out treasures for the Archives of Ontario from 1964 to 1989. Now well into his eighties and retired in Laggan, Glengarrian Hugh P. MacMillan has done a number of things over the space of his career, include help form the Glengarry Historical Society, the Nor'Westers Museum in Williamstown, Ontario (where much of the North-West Company ended up retiring, including Simon Fraser and David Thompson) and the Pioneer Museum in Dunvegan, Ontario, as well as scour historical records, attics and various descendants to seek out various papers and other items for the sake of not only historical preservation, but to discover and recount a number of long-forgotten stories. Even the cover flap tells some of the tales, including discovering the papers of Sir John Graves Simcoe with "a farmer from New Zealand," as well as finding a piece of

presumed human skin in a small tin box, with a note announcing "This is a piece of skin taken from the neck of Cut Nose, Sioux Indian chief hanged at Mankato, Minnesota Territory in 1866."
The archivist, whether professional or amateur working genealogy, has a thankless and seemingly endless task: to find those essential items that their current owners might not even be aware of owning, or even care about, that might otherwise become lost or destroyed, and through the process of discovery, MacMillan has been able to expand or even simply shed light on numerous stories, including those of Simon Fraser, the Red River settlement, or even the last fatal duel in Canada that happened in Perth, Ontario in 1833. But like any quest, there are the successes and the failures, and the long disappointments, and he even includes a chapter on "the ones that got away," writing:

One donor I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy was the woman with complete files of two early Ontario newspapers, which she had obtained when the papers stopped publishing. She kept these in her home, most of them in the basement, and was not interested in giving them to the Archives. She had reservations about even allowing us to microfilm them until she finished copying local news from each volume. In March 1970, I asked her if we could purchase the newspapers and she suggested I keep in touch. A month later when I stopped in to see her again, she hadn’t yet finished copying what she wanted out of the papers. A year later, March 1971, she let me take two volumes of the papers for purchase. The other volumes, approximately 26 in number, would be available soon, she said. On 31 August 1971, I drove out to see her again. She had had a radical change of heart since I was last there, and she now wanted to sell. Her basement had been completely flooded, and the papers were in a very bad state. I took the papers back to Toronto to have them dried out and microfilmed. They took months to separate and dry out, and it took an extra two months to remove the odour of the dozens of cats that had enjoyed those papers in the woman's basement. (p 144)
One of the most exciting stories he includes are the ones around the late 1960s, when they founded the Nor'Westers Museum in Williamstown as a Centennial project, and organized a series of canoe brigades to help promote the museum, recreating routes taken by various of the voyageurs and original settlers, and manned by a number of descendants of the original North West Company recruits. With their new 26 foot Chestnut replicas of the fur trade "North canoe," he writes of the first trip:

By the summer of 1967, I had recruited several other descendants of North West Company Partners to help paddle two canoes from Grand Portage, Minnesota, the old mid-continent headquarters of the North West Company, to Williamstown.
On this Canadian Centennial venture, the American crew in the 36 foot Montreal canoe was experienced and dressed in authentic voyageur costumes. Recruited because they had a connection to someone in the original North West Company, our own crews of six to a canoe were mostly inexperienced. One was Richard Hubert, about 60, of Greenwhich, Connecticut, a descendent of Hugh McGillis from Glengarry, who had been a North West Company Partner. Richard had been a CPR agent in Tokyo at the start of World War II, and helped introduce ice hockey to the Japanese. Another of our crew was Donald MacDonell, 20, a direct descendant of John "le PrĂȘtre" McDonell, a North West Company Partner and brother to Miles McDonell, one of Lord Selkirk's agents. Grant Campbell, great-great-grandson of John Duncan Campbell, a North West Company Partner, was also part of our crew. (pp 47-8)
Glengarry County, being the oldest county in the province, is filled with amateur historians of all sorts, so it seems perfectly obvious that someone like MacMillan would come out of the county to end up doing the sort of work he eventually did. Unfortunately, even as MacMillan was in the rare position of creating his own job for the Archives of Ontario, wandering newspapers and the countryside in search of lost treasures, his position was erased as soon as he left it, leaving innumerable papers and other items to possibly be lost to the ravages of time and inattention. Still, this is a wonderfully entertaining book, I would highly recommend this to anyone interested either in Canadian and/or Ontario history, or anyone fool enough to consider themselves an archivist.

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