"With Utmost Hospitality": William and Mary Christie
When the Southesk party stopped over at Fort Edmonton in August, its members found clerk-in-chief Joseph Brazeau in charge. Chief trader William J. Christie, his family, and the voyageurs who made Edmonton their winter home were back east in Red River, where Christie was participating in the HBC's annual Council of the Northern Department at Upper Fort Garry. When the party returned to Edmonton in October, Christie had resumed command.
William J. Christie. Circa 1873.
Mary Christie. 1876.
Southesk wrote that the Christies "received me with the utmost kindness and hospitality." That hospitality may have included the gift of the tabbed fire bag shown here. The initials "WJC", embroidered on one side, were widely associated with the Edmonton trader. If so, the fire bag may have been made for Christie by his wife, Mary. The embroidered initials suggest that the woman who made the fire bag could read and write. And Mary Christie was literate.
The Christies entertained visitors to Fort Edmonton in great style. Christmas 1858, Mary Christie co-hosted a ball with John Palliser. "The room was splendidly decorated," Palliser wrote, "with swords, bayonets, flags ... [and] a splendid wooden Lustre to hang from the ceiling [that] lighted the whole place up with candles and reflectors it was a brilliant sight".
Southesk likewise appreciated the Christies' hospitality. "I felt depressed," Southesk wrote, "almost sorrowful, on leaving Edmonton, where I had been made more than comfortable, through the constant attentions and hospitalities of my kind entertainers." The attentions extended beyond good coffee and cream tarts; Christie lent Southesk his "new and roomy" boat, The Golden Era, in which to head downstream to Fort Pitt.
Whether the Christies' sense of hospitality prompted them to present Southesk with a beaded fire bag as a memento of his travels must remain an open question. All we can say is that it does not seem far-fetched given the earl's exalted social status, Christie's own Scottish ties, and the chief factor's duty, in keeping with Governor George Simpson's directive, to "render [Southesk] every assistance possible."
Mary Sinclair Christie was born about 1830 in the Rainy Lake region of northern Ontario, most likely at the Dalles where her father, William Sinclair II, was in charge of the Hudson's Bay Company post. Her mother, Mary McKay Sinclair, was a Métis woman of Anishnaabe descent and it was here, in Anishnaabe country, that Mary Sinclair spent most of her childhood.
Most Métis girls began to sew at an early age, and Mary Sinclair's earliest needlework lessons likely came from her mother or another female relative. From them, she would have absorbed design ideas and techniques consistent with Métis and Anishnaabe aesthetic traditions. While we cannot know for certain how Mary Sinclair acquired sewing skills, purchases of silk thread, seed beads, and printed cottons recorded against William Christie's account in the Fort Edmonton account books show that she was an experienced needleworker.
By the time she was a teen-ager, Mary Sinclair would have been a member of Red River's social scene. Her uncles, James and Thomas Sinclair, were prominent merchants in the community, and her father's promotion to Chief Trader in 1844 would have secured her entrée into the upper echelons of Red River society. Family ties would have eased her introduction to the round of social activities—dinner parties, balls, and dances—enjoyed by the local élite.
Mary Sinclair became engaged to William Christie during a visit to York Factory. The young man offered excellent family fur trade connections—his father, Alexander Christie, served both as Chief Factor in charge at Fort Garry and Governor of Assiniboia - and promising career prospects. Indeed, he would reach the status of chief trader in charge of the Saskatchewan district within ten years' time.
The Christies seem to have enjoyed a whirlwind courtship. Letitia Hargrave, the York Factory factor's wife, wrote to her mother in August 1848 that, "[Mrs. Sinclair] with the other members of the family came here a month ago ... They arrived on a Thursday and on the following Sunday Mr. Wm Christie asked the eldest unmarried daughter to marry him and she and her mother consented." The couple was married a year later at York Factory. The newly-appointed Anglican Bishop of Rupert's Land presided over the ceremony, and champagne was served amidst "rare merrymakings."
The Christies served at Fort Edmonton for fifteen years, from 1858 until Christie's retirement in 1873. By that time, he had reached the rank of Chief Inspecting Factor. The couple moved to Brockville, Ontario, home to a number of retired fur trade officers and their families, before settling in Seeley's Bay, Ontario, where their son William J. Christie II had a medical practice. Mary Christie died in Seeley's Bay in February 1900.
The likelihood that Mary Christie learned to sew and bead from women who had been raised in an Anishnaabe aesthetic tradition fits well with the suggestion that she created the 'WJC' fire bag with its Anishnaabe design elements. The central blooms visible on side B correspond with the four-petalled rose, a popular motif in mid-19th century Anishnaabe beadwork. Other characteristically Anishnaabe features include the depiction of leaves, buds, fruit, and blooming roses borne on a single stem, the use of translucent beads to create major design elements, stippling (note the placement of individual red beads in the medallion motif on side A), and elaborate leaf motifs. Most striking of all are the series of diamonds that run down each tab. The diamond motif is an ancient Anishnaabe design element that appears in diverse media.
Next: The Missionary Presence