Introduction to the North West Company Manuscripts

he Rare Books and Special Collections Division of the McGill University Libraries houses an important collection of both printed and manuscript Canadiana. Included among these holdings are many documents concerning the fur trade in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Canada and in particular with the North West Company.

The thirty-eight manuscripts and one printed text that are the basis of this first phase of the fur trade project are known collectively as the Masson Papers and cover the period 1778 to 1837 with the majority falling in the period ca 1790 -1820. This material was acquired by McGill University at the sale of the library of Louis Rodrigue Masson (1833-1903) in 1904. One item was acquired later as a gift. Of the twenty-two lots described in the auction catalogue as “North West Manuscripts Journal, Letters”, McGill acquired nineteen; two — Simon Fraser's 1808 journal and Peter Grant's account of the Sauteux Indians — went to the Toronto Public Library and Roderick Mackenzie's “Memoirs 1784-1804” went to the (Public) National Archives of Canada. McGill also acquired three other lots of manuscript material at the sale and these are included in the Masson Papers. The National Archives of Canada also has a collection of Masson manuscripts but these were not acquired at the 1904 sale. The McGill Masson Papers have the shelf mark MS 472. Within this shelf mark the individual manuscripts are arranged according to the lot numbers in the 1904 sale catalogue (MASS 2367) and subsections within a manuscript are indicated decimally (MASS 2357.1) while related manuscripts from the same lot have a letter added to the number (MASS 2367a)

Of the McGill manuscripts, eleven were published, often in a heavily edited version by Masson in his two volumes of 1889-1890 Les Bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest; recits de voyages, lettres et rapports inedits relatifs au Nord-Ouest Canadien. Some of these and a number of the other manuscripts are available in modern editions. But no edition reproduces the McGill manuscripts in their entirety. This means that no attempt has been made to look at the material as a whole or as a unity.

Masson inherited this material from his grandfather-in-law Roderick Mackenzie (c. 1761-1844). Mackenzie had been a partner in the North West Company and conceived the idea of writing a survey of the Canadian North West. In 1806 he had printed a circular letter that he sent out requesting information for his survey. He was interested in geography, longitude and latitude, mountains, rivers, the weather, the soil; flora and fauna and methods of hunting; the Natives and their history, culture, morals and government; and the history of the fur trade. And his letter included a long list of vocabulary as well. All these were to serve as hints to his informants. Mackenzie had as his model The Statistical Account of Scotland published in the 1790s in twenty-one volumes by Sir John Sinclair. Sinclair had requested the minister of each Scottish parish to provide a description of his parish. By examining the Statistical Acccount one can see what Mackenzie had in mind for his own work.

One example of the responses to Mackenzie's circular letter may be mentioned here. George Keith in the Mackenzie's River Department sent Mackenzie a series of letters from 1807-1817 in which he described the country, the climate and the inhabitants. He also included a vocabulary list and First Nation stories including a creation myth.

Among the Masson manuscripts there are other series of letters; as well as journals kept by North-Westers and various business documents. Some of this material exists as originals; others are contemporary copies — the George Keith letters for example are contemporary copies on paper watermarked 1827. The McGill material also includes some duplicate texts — contemporary copies or later nineteenth-century copies that in some cases represent edited versions of the texts. Samuel Wilcocke's account of the death of Benjamin Frobisher exists in a draft original (or contemporary copy) and in a late nineteenth-century clean copy.

Many of the manuscripts are fragile and in some cases faded; and because of their condition, in recent years, only photostatted copies done in the first quarter of the twentieth century have been available to researchers. In a few cases, these photostatted copies now contain more text than the originals. All the manuscripts show signs of editorial intervention, often by Masson (and almost all have some kind of cover page by him) and frequently by Mackenzie as well. Often these are minor — the change of a word — but frequently they represent a major change to the text — passages relating to sexual mores are substantially modified or obliterated.

In transcribing the Masson Manuscripts, it has not been our intention to produce critical editions. Rather, we have attempted to reproduce the original or underlying text as closely as possible. This means that in almost all cases earlier editorial interventions either in the text or in the margins have been ignored and not transcribed. On the other hand, when possible, obliterated text has been restored. The only major exception is the draft of Wilcocke's account of the death of Benjamin Frobisher where all the editorial interventions have been transcribed. In fact, each manuscript has been transcribed according to its own peculiarities.

This site makes the Masson manuscripts available to researchers and students in a new way and reduces to a minimum the need to consult the originals. It also makes this body of material available as a group for the first time, for they are related texts that have a common provenance in Roderick Mackenzie. Thus, not only is it now possible to study these texts for their content but also for their context and the history of their transmission. The bibliographic, or more properly, the codicological and intellectual history of the fur trade is now possible in ways that were not possible before.

Dr. Richard Virr
Curator of Manuscripts
Rare Books & Special Collections Division
McGill University Libraries

Transcription Standards

The transcription team has had to face three difficulties. The decipherment of peculiarities of individual hands has often been a challenge, but practice has made this easier over time. Still editorial conjectures have been placed in square brackets so that words that are unclear, or have been conjectured or reconstructed are clearly indicated. Capitalization has also posed difficulties whether because of the handwriting — is it a small or capital “c”? — or because of the conventions of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century practice. We have tried to be as faithful as possible to the original text and at the same time achieve a certain consistency, but the final result has often been based on intuition. The third difficulty has been punctuation. When the punctuation of the manuscript has been clear this has been followed. But in many cases the punctuation is at best erratic and at worst non-existent — in a few cases the only punctuation would seem to be dashes. We have not imposed a sentence structure on ambiguous phrases, instead we have left them to run on. But where a clear sentence exists even if not indicated, it has become a sentence in the transcription. Our policy has been very conservative in this respect. We have also adopted the modern convention of ending sentences with a period and beginning them with a capital letter even if these are not present in the manuscript, but in every case these appear within square brackets.
The following conventions have been used:
1. Square brackets [...] are used for editorial additions, readings and reconstructions. In particular, text in brackets that does not appear in the scanned image has been established either from the manuscript in the case of text hidden by folds in the paper or from the photostatic copy in cases where the latter preservers more of the text.
2. Lavender is used to record additions to the text that appear in the manuscript or text that has been emended by erasures and overwriting.
3. Strike-through text is used to record deletions in the manuscript.
4. Marginal emendations and corrections unless in the hand of the original scribe have been ignored and not transcribed. It has not always been possible to determine who is responsible for these emendations and corrections.
5. The punctuation of the manuscript generally has been followed, but terminal dashes have been transcribed as [.].
6. The period under a letter in superscript has never been transcribed.

Citation Style
The following format is the suggested style for citing documents on this web site:
Author, Title, page number, MS 472, MASS 23XX, Rare Books and Special Collections Division, McGill University Libraries; [date d/m/y] <http://xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Copyright © McGill University, 2001