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The Macleod Letters: A Glenbow Treasure

In March 1996 the Glenbow Archives received a priceless donation. Toby Lawrence, a great-grandson of Colonel James Farquharson Macleod, brought an armful of large envelopes into the Glenbow Archives, and asked if we would like to have the contents. The envelopes held 231 letters written by Col. J.F. Macleod, the famous Mounted Policeman, Judge, and Member of the Northwest Assembly, to his wife Mary Isabella Drever Macleod. They cover twenty years of his life in Western Canada, from the days of the legendary 1874 March West of the newly formed North-West Mounted Police, to just a month before his untimely death by Bright's disease, in 1894.

The letters are rich in historical details, with vivid descriptions of events, people, and places of the time, including the signing of the Treaties, the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and the hanging of Louis Riel. But they are much more than that, for they are also love letters to his wife. They are passionate, filled with emotion, and give wonderful insight into Victorian love, marriage, and family life.

Glenbow has almost always known of the existence of the letters, and knew they remained in the possession of the family. In fact, thirty-one years ago, the family donated nineteen of these letters to us. They were very carefully chosen letters which, for the most part, documented historic events such as the first visit of Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney to Blackfoot Crossing, the site of the signing of Treaty 7. They were also frequently incomplete and full of mysterious gaps, with pages missing, and sentences that abruptly ended in mid-thought. One of the wonders of the new donation was finding the missing pieces, in the package simply labelled "incomplete". Each reunited letter, once again exactly as Mary would have read it over 100 years ago, was greeted with elation. We finally know, for instance, what Jim said to Mary in August 1879, after describing the official events of the Blackfoot Crossing visit. "I asked Dewdney to take a walk with me and led him up to where our old camp was," he writes. He then continues, on the previously missing page, that "... just where our tent was there is a perfect bed of wild roses. I plucked a couple of them to send to you ... Darling it made me so happy to go back to this place but still I felt most awfully lonely and as if I would give the world to fly in a moment back to your dear delicious arms which I know are always open to receive me."

James' letters were clearly meant for the eyes of his wife alone, which would have been relatively unusual at the time they were written, when letters were regularly shared, read aloud, and passed around to relatives and friends. The very passion in the letters is undoubtedly the reason the Glenbow had to wait 31 years for the rest of the letters. In 1965 they were deemed to be far too private for the eyes of historians, academics, and the general public. The letters are so personal in tone that in reading them, even today, one has a distinct feeling of intruding, despite the fact that the writer has been dead over one hundred years.

The correspondence, like most personal correspondence kept in archives, is frustratingly one-sided. We have no letters from Mary to James. Our only consolation is that we know why. Mary's letters too were written for just one set of eyes, and she regularly begged her husband to destroy them. "Your first dear delicious letter from Winnipeg arrived," James wrote to Mary on June 22, 1882. "I was so happy the whole evening after I got it and read and re-read it, and after some hesitation I yielded to your entreaty and burnt it. I did it sorrowfully but as you wish it I will do so hereafter."

There were unexpected surprises in the newly-acquired letters. Some of the letters were still in their original envelopes, with postmarks documenting the often tortuous routes the letters travelled before the CPR spanned the country in the 1880s. Intriguingly, some written on Canadian soil, at the NWMP forts of Fort Macleod and Fort Walsh, bear American stamps, and Fort Benton postmarks, a testament to both the absence of the Canadian post office in the West, and the long trip through American territory that the letters had to travel to get to Winnipeg or Eastern Canada.

Along with the surprises were the inevitable mysteries which hound archival work. One package of letters was entitled "undated". Clues such as the stationery used, and events mentioned in the letters help to date some. One letter mentions the forthcoming marriage of James Lougheed (later Senator Lougheed) to Miss Hardisty. This one can dated to the very day it was written. Several include reports to Mary about the gradual recovery of "poor McCaul". A check of the Fort Macleod newspaper reveals precisely when McCaul accidently shot himself, so these letters can be dated to within a month. Many of the letters, however, we can only date to within a few years.

Why so many letters? Macleod was almost always on the road -- as a Mountie on the trek west, as the NWMP Commissioner travelling from fort to fort, as one of only three circuit judges in all of the North-West Territories, and as a member of the North-West Assembly which met in Regina, the territorial capital. Just a month before he died in Mary's arms, he was still on the road, sitting as a Supreme Court Judge in Southern Alberta. He resented his constant travels and the letters are full of his regrets at having, time and time again, to be away from his beloved wife and five children. Ironically, his very absences are the very reason we now have this rich, written record of his activities, thoughts and feelings.

The letters themselves, as you will read, are simply remarkable. They are informative, eloquent, and even funny. They document, through the eyes of a prominent and influential Canadian, events at a very crucial and exciting period in the development of Western Canada. But they also give us a rare glimpse into the very private life of a lover, a husband, a father, and an altogether endearing man.

Susan M. Kooyman
Archivist

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