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Smith… my kind of clerk

Throughout my years reenacting, I have at times portrayed a “gentleman” and at times, a fur company clerk.  Although my family history (father’s side is predominantly English and Scottish), my religious past (Presbyterian), my first language (English), my education (advanced degrees and being able to read and write), and the fact that I lived in Scotland while studying abroad all makes me more suited to being a something such as a gentleman of the NWCo; I rarely enjoy portraying such people.  I truthfully feel more comfortable sitting on the ground, eating with my pocketknife, smoking my pipe, and living a rougher/cruder life while at reenactments.  This is usually the life of a voyageur.  When portraying an upper class person, I am uncomfortable with the pretentiousness and stuffiness that I feel I have to uphold.

My attitudes toward portraying a clerk of the company has been starting to change.  In the past couple years, I have become acquainted with a clerk that worked here in my wonderful Wisconsin that is my kind of clerk.   William Smith was contracted by Alexander Shaw in 1790 to go to Nipigon. He eventually winds up serving the NWCo and then XYCo in northern WI.  From what I see in journals relating to Wisconsin, George Nelson mentions Smith numerous times, stating that he “recently” left the  NWCo.’s service (1802).  He also shows up constantly in Curot’s diary (his name was incorrectly transcribed from the French manuscript as “Gardant” in the version that was published about his time in the Folles Avoines ) Nelson described him as “the Son of an old Scotch Soldier with a canadien woman” who “had been about 14 years among the indians” at that time.

Smith becomes an interesting clerk to me because he is not the prim and proper gentleman.  Others constantly refer to how vile and villainous he was.  He often is working with and doing work of voyageurs.  He hunts, traps, fishes, and repairs canoes throughout the journals and is even mentioned (possibly) dressing hides.  Although Curot and Nelson seem not to be able to stand him (calling him “villainous” and often speaking of his “excessive irrascibility”); he, in all cases, seems to really know the business of the fur trade and the native people of Northern Wisconsin.  Having been there, 14+ years, he is seen being the one that does most of the speaking with the natives.  He spoke the language and knew the customs.  It does seem that for some reason (perhaps poor returns and mis-managing of the business) he is stripped of the position as head clerk of the Folles Avoines and becomes a second to Curot.

To give a fun overview of Smith, here are some assorted quotes (with some commentary by me) from Curot’s journal…

Tuesday 9. Not finding canoes made for me, I had the men go off as follows: Gardant Smith10 to mend his own canoe

Wednesday 10. Smith worked all day mending his canoe. Mr. McBean arrived this evening at 8 o’clock.

. … Having received a letter from Sir Mackenzie, dated the 5th of the month, that told me to fix it up with Smith. I had him come to my tent, where I told him that I would give him the two rations since he demanded them, that I was informed that he designed to leave the society’s service to go to Mr. Réaume  [this argument over rations was a larger one going back.  Interesting here is that the Sir Alexander Mackenzie, company owner, wrote in on Smith’s behalf.  I assume Smith may have written Mackenzie or something significant must have happened in order to prompt this letter]

 He [Smith] went out presently and carried off the 2 skins, not more than a quarter of an hour later he brought them back, saying that he would not go today. One hour afterwards he came to ask me for one of the skins that he would dress.  [I may be misreading this, but it sounds as though Smith was dressing the hide]

Wednesday 7. Smith and Savoiard had mended and gummed their canoes. I camped this day on the island,35 in order to set the nets, and wait for Mr. Réaume, who had passed the night at the portage we had just crossed.

Sunday 11. I stayed, until not getting any fish, Smith told me that there was another place at the entrance of the river au Boeuf,36 where there would be perhaps a better chance

Monday 12. Between 11 o’clock and noon we left the savages at the encampment to go on to l’eau claire37 where Smith had set our nets.

I afterwards learned that Smith’s wife had left him, and that he had taken another. [*Smith’s wife (not sure which) being mentioned quite a bit seems like quite the piece of work]

Smith took the best of the old nets to mend the other, and went this afternoon to Lake Jaune to set it. [This is nice that it shows Smith not only fishing but mending nets.]

Thursday 15 to Sunday 18. Smith stretched two nets under the ice on Lake Jaune yesterday, these he visited this morning and brought 4 pike. David went to the lodges to stay until tomorrow.

Monday 19. Smith visited the nets, but nothing was taken.

on Friday the 23rd, and Saturday the 24th he went to rejoin Le Jeune Razeur. Smith went with him the savages having asked him to show them the trail they should take. [I get a kick out of this… Smith acting as a guide for the natives]

Smith sold his pistol worth 4 plus and had it put on account, also a beaver and a lynx.  He is to return to the lodges in 4 days.

Friday 6.  Smith and Savoiard, the weather having become fine, went this morning to try to make a fish weir in the rapids.  They did not succeed, as the water was much higher and carried away their work,   [next day] .  Smith went to try for his part and make a weir in a little stream, where he  with Savoiard to the spearing place, getting 2 Barbues and 7 carp.

Tuesday 8.  The rain ceased this morning.  Smith went to spear and got 4 Barbues and 6 carp.  I had yesterday some fish for the voyages cooked for me.  [so within the time of this journal, Smith caught fish using nets, a weir, and by spearing them.]


So, here we see a “gentleman” of the company that was perhaps a bit less gentlemanly, was fairly woods-wise, and worked (knowing and using) the skills of the wintering voyageurs.  Perhaps this will inspire me to pursue a portrayal like this and more often be seen like I am in the following past images…

2 Responses to “Smith… my kind of clerk”

  1. Snapper says:

    I think the “others” you refer to were possibly jealous of his skills and knowledge. It wouldn’t have been the first time that someone tried to sully a person’s reputation for that reason. Smith sounds like a real person and not someone who cared about putting on airs. That might have not set well with his contemporaries either. Whatever the reason, thanks again for sharing this. Lots to digest and think about.

    Take care and until next time…Be well.


  2. John Powers says:

    Ike –
    Oui, Smith is a fun type of clerk to portray. In fact, I am partial to the clerks/traders in the 1780s to early 1800s in NW Wisconsin and northern Minnesota. Perrault, Cadotte, early Sayer, the whole gang. They paddled canoes, hauled goods, got into the mix of things. Not all so well documented as dear old Smith. And, many of the clerks were French Canadians — Roy, Estang, etc. — at a time when Scots were taking over as clerks in the NWCo posts along the main line trade route up to the Northwest. Keep working on it.

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