Joseph Colebrook Harris with an Introduction by Cole Harris
Sometime in 1927, my grandfather, J.C. (Joseph Colebrook) Harris, began to think of writing a history of the Slocan mining camp, and contacted some of the prospectors and miners who had been in the Slocan in 1891, the year the Slocan rush began. Of the eleven men who overwintered at the mouth of Carpenter Creek (now New Denver) that winter, six were still alive in 1927, and four lived in the Slocan. My grandfather interviewed them. “How we enjoyed our talks,” he wrote, “and what fun we got out of the yarns of old times.” All welcomed the prospect of a history of the Slocan and were eager to contribute to it.
Another survivor of the original eleven, Martin Fry, lived in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, and my grandfather wrote to him. It turned out that Martin spent his summers in a cabin on Whatshan Lake (in the Monashee Mountains north of the Needles–Fauquier Ferry on the Arrow Lakes), and in response to my grandfather’s letter said he would revisit the Slocan to help with the history. “He was,” my grandfather reported, “most anxious to meet the old-timers and see his old stamping grounds.”
Martin Fry was as good as his word, and his “extremely romantic life of adventure and achievement” as well as his “extraordinary character and ability” completely astonished my grandfather. He considered Martin Fry one of the best-educated men he had ever met—widely read in English literature and profoundly knowledgeable about the Bible (high praise from one who knew his Bible). “He has also,” my grandfather thought, “the priceless education of a widely travelled man who has used his eyes to the utmost advantage and stored his marvellous memory with incidents and interests that are an unfailing source of delight to himself and others. He is never lonely and never bored. He can enjoy good society but he is utterly independent of it and lives each summer for weeks by himself in his little cabin by Whatshan Lake.” Moreover, at eighty-four he was still active and, much to my grandfather’s approval, attributed his good health to an outdoor life without alcohol or tobacco.
The story of Martin’s coming to the Slocan, which my grandfather began to record, expanded to a short biography—twenty-five roughly typed foolscap pages—of the first fifty years of Martin’s life. He sent the manuscript to my father, who was then teaching English at John Oliver high school in Vancouver, asking him to edit it and suggest a publisher. My father returned a shortened,
edited version, but had no more idea than my grandfather of a publisher. Probably none was ever approached. The two manuscripts went into a box of family papers from where, almost ninety years later, they emerged. The history of the Slocan was never written.
My grandfather’s account of Martin Fry is reproduced here largely as he wrote it. I have edited it a little, added a few explanatory notes, eliminated three short passages (deletions noted in the text), provided dates where they could be easily worked out, and added a few headings. Otherwise, what follows is my grandfather’s 1927 account, based on his conversations with Martin Fry.
Reading this manuscript now, I am struck by the level of violence in which Martin’s life was situated. He shot on sight animals that would now be admired. Indigenous peoples were being displaced, and the process was not pretty. Martin reported a summary hanging of an Indigenous man—one such incident, presumably, among many. And there were full-blown wars between Indigenous tribes and U.S. troops, wars that the tribes, up against the organization and fire-power of modern armies, would eventually lose. Martin never participated in such wars—his brother, who married an Indigenous woman, was often considered more “Indian” than White — but these wars lurked around him.
I am also struck by the selectivity of memory. The complexity of Martin’s life is compressed into a few pages, basically into a few vivid incidents, as when a seven-month trip by covered wagon along the Oregon Trail is represented by sightings of buffaloes and Indians and burials of dead children. Martin’s memory, good as it was, offers only a lean selection of the myriad doings of his life. Like most oral accounts, his is uncertain about time and digresses into byways. Sometimes his chronology breaks down, and some of his facts are questionable. Moreover, his story is filtered through my grandfather, who had come to the Slocan only five years after Martin but out of a very different, upper-middle-class English background. His notes (which have not survived) must have omitted parts of what Martin told him, and he must have imposed something of his own background, values, and turns of phrase on his retelling of Martin’s story. In short, this biography should probably be read less for specific information about the places and events described, than as a glimpse of the general contours of a remarkable life and of the context of that life in a particular moment of Western North American time.
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