More stories are told about the old-timer, Harry Garbitt, than about almost any other man in the Peace River area of Alberta or British Columbia. Few of these stories have been recorded except in brief remarks in the writings of earlier travelers. Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Tibbetts were indeed fortunate to get the taped interview which follows.
Mr. Garbitt was a Scotsman who was into the Fort Nelson area before there was a Fort Nelson, and a couple of years at least before the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. He had the faculty of getting on well with the Indians so that one might say that he practiced integration in reverse.
After a successful career as a packer and guide, he became a fur trader first at Sturgeon Lake — for the Hudson’s Bay — and later for Revillon Freres at Fort St. John. Eventually he settled at Moberly Lake, setting up his own store business, first on a shelf at one end of his cabin, and expanding over the years. To the Moberly Indians, like Frank Beatton at Fort St. John, he became a friend and counselor. Although he was a magistrate, he never tried a case.
While not all people approved of some of his practices, nobody disputed his status in the eyes of his native neighbors, customers and in-laws.
**For more information, see the Hudson’s Hope section of the book Peace Makers of the North Peace by Mrs. Kyllo.
Text of the Harry Garbitt Tape, Interviewers: Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Tibbetts
Mr. Clarence Tibbetts: Mr. Garbitt, what time did you arrive first in the northern country? Was it in 1896 that you were in the (Fort) Nelson District?
Harry Garbitt: Yeah! That was before the Klondike Rush. That was in ’98 wasn’t it? We were between Fort Nelson and Liard. We wintered there with a bunch of Dogrib Indians.
Mrs. Tibbetts: Did you have dogs or horses?
H.G. Horses, we had the first horses that went through there I think. See – those Fort St. John Indians – there was a big band of Indians there. They all had horses, but those
Dogrib Indians on the other side didn’t use horses. They had lots of women though. They packed their women good.
Mrs. T. The Beavers didn’t pack their women?
H.G. They made ‘em work!
Mrs. T. When did you start the fur trade? You worked for the Hudson’s Bay didn’t you?
H.G. That was quite a while after that. The first time I worked for the Hudson’s Bay was at Sturgeon Lake. John Reed was the chief factor, in charge of this district. I don’t know whether it was thisdistrict – I don’t know whether Alberta or BC – I got caught trading horses here one time. It used to be Alberta.
Mrs. T. When did you trade for furs at Fort St. John?
H.G. I traded with the Hudson’s Bay about eight years, at Sturgeon Lake.
Mrs. T. After that you went to Fort St. John?
H.G. That was for Revillon Bros. – Revillon Freres – they were a French outfit. They paid bigger wages. I’d worked for them for thirty dollars per month, or maybe forty. They used to raise my wages a little every year — no two years — the contract was. I’d always quit at the end of my two years, and I’d get a raise – five dollars a month – ‘til I got up to fifty. And then Old George Harvey – I hit him up for another raise. He was in charge of this district then. Hit him up for another raise and he said he couldn’t do it. I think he was getting six hundred a year. He was the big shot, running this district. That’s as high as he could go.
[Then] I started in with Revillons. They’d bought out Bredin and Cornwall — all their posts — they’d bought out the dogs and the men with them. Jim Cornwall and Old Bredin had spoke to me before. They wanted me to work for them. I think they started off at about sixty a month. You’d get a raise every year if you were any good.
Mr. T. How did you get supplies for your store?
H.G. Boat. Boat up the Peace River. Then we had a little boat at Fort St. John and Hudson’s Hope was an outpost. It just run in the winter time. There was a man there — an Indian from Slave Lake, name of Rede Johnson.
Mr. T. You came to Moberly Lake quite a while after Fort St. John?
H.G. No, it was about a year or so after.
Mr. T. Is that where you were a Justice of the Peace?
H.G. Oh yeah.
Mr. T. Tell us some of the highlights.
H.G. Well, I haven’t tried any cases yet.
Mrs. T. You’d be glad to though.
H.G. No. I had a chance to. The warden come up here once with four or five men. He wanted to camp here. He had a fella named Esswein, who pulled in a poor little fella who had a homestead. He was trapping weasels on it. If [another man] had a registered line he (the homesteader) couldn’t trap on his homestead. He’d lost his rights for trapping. This Esswein had a registered trapline that took in this man’s homestead. This is the outfit that wanted to camp with me. I told the game warden — I forgot his name — he had some witnesses with him — about six of them — and the prisoners – he had him along – a little Swede — nice little fella. “I’ll put you guys up,” I says. “You can all stay here. I’ll bed you down. Bit that sonofabee – I don’t want him around here. Tell him to go and camp in the bush somewhere.”
“Well, I can’t do that,” he says. “We’re all one party.” So I says – “Aw, bring him in.” So he camped with us.
The warden wanted me to try the case. “No,” I says. “That fella is the one I’d put in jail, — Esswein. The little Swede has done nothing wrong,” I says. “There’s the fella should go to jail. He did go to jail later on. I had him sized up all right. I had him sized up pretty good.”
Mr. T. Did you have to handle any of the elections?
H.G. Elections! I run ‘em pretty good. The first election we had — the candidate got to be the judge later on. He was a young lawyer. Dubuc. (or Dubuque?) I guess you’ve heard about him. At last he got to be a judge. They used to send him away down to Aklavik to hang the Eskimos. Them days, if an Eskimo had a row with his wife, he’d kill her. It was better than getting a divorce. Sure. But after awhile they began to try them for murder, so they needed a judge. They hung a few Eskimos too.
Mrs. T. How many people would there be to vote at an election?
H.G. Well, we’d have quite a bunch. You see, they’d come through from Lac St. Ann. Fellow named George McLeod and Marry Meikle, they packed them in. There was no highway. They come in by Whitecourt — there was a pack trail there then. They packed them in from Edmonton. That was the first election. They made me a returning officer — or deputy. Billy Gardiner (Gairdner?) was my poll clerk. When I got up to Grande Prairie I was packing mail. They had engineers all through this country. I used to pack the mail from Lesser Slave Lake to Grande Prairie once a month. They’d all come in to meet me. These engineers were all over different passes in the mountains.
Dubuc was just a young lawyer. Didn’t know nothing. He was all dressed up in woolly chaps and silk shirts. He looked kinda funny!
We got quite a surprise. There was nobody up in this country that didn’t drink. You never heard of a man – you’d offer him a drink – he wouldn’t take it. We had a little meeting there at Sturgeon Lake. We had a shack a little bigger than this. The Hudson’s Bay. Me and Angus were living there — Angus McLean.
I had to go to Lesser Slave Lake to get Jim Cornwall in for nomination day. We tried to get an Indian (to go) there. It was frozen ground – in the fall, see? There’d been mud all the way from Sturgeon Lake to Lesser Slave Lake. None of the Indians would tackle it. There was only three days ‘til nomination day. In the meantime they kept pouring the rum in. They had lots o’ rum. I told George McLeod – I says, “I’ll take ‘er. They had a big bunch of horses then – sixteen or twenty good horses in the corral. He says, “Take your pick of any horse you want and put your own price on it.”
“Aw”, I says. “Don’t want no horses on a trip like that. Horses will play out on you, on that frozen ground, I says. I’ll take a dog and a little grub and walk.”
I made the trip, and was back on time. We got Jim Cornwall and brought him out. Billy Gairdner come along with us.
They made a few speeches there – Angus McLean and – oh! George McLeod. I don’t think Harry Meikl said anything, he was just a young fellow. I didn’t say nothin’. I was just a young buck too.
Angus – he got up to speak. He’d left the old country when he was a kid. The Hudson’s Bay put him on board ship. They used to catch them around the shore, ketchin’ fish or sumthing. They’d shove them on board and they were Hudson’s Bay men then. He didn’t know anything else. Only Hudson’s Bay, Angus didn’t. Just like Old Beatton. You remember him – just the same, all Hudson’s Bay.
When Angus got up to make the speech, they had lotsa booze there. Jim Cornwall brought in a lot. He had lots of pop bottles filled. Angus says, “Come on boys, I’ll buy you a drink on this.” We all got up and had a drink. Dubuc was sitting in the corner of the shack. We didn’t have no chairs then – just boxes. He sat there. Everybody else got up, had a drink before Angus made his speech. Angus told him again, “Come on, boy. Have a drink. Come on boy!” he says, “Get up here and have a drink.” Dubuc was still sitting the corner, sitting on the floor. Angus picks up a pop bottle of whiskey, and hauled off. Dubuc dodged it, and broke it on the wall along side him.
George Mcleod grabbed hold of Angus. “Boy,” he says. “There’s some people in this country, when you get outside into civilization that don’t drink. There’s the odd one that don’t drink.” Angus had never heard of one. He thought this man was too high-toned to drink with us. He (Dubuc) didn’t get nothin’. (no votes)
They (the nominees) traveled with me. I was bringing the mail through for the Grand Trunk for Saskatoon Lake. It was the city then instead of Grande Prairie. Grande Prairie was just a little muddy “crick”. Bear “Crick” they called it. We all met there. Bredin and Cornwall had a store there – Bredin and Cornwall. They put the whiskey on the counter. Dubuc had two big kegs – one packhorse load.
I took ‘em into the bunkhouse – everybody took his bedroll in. If you didn’t pack a bedroll and a grub box you were out of luck. We had our bedrolls all along one side. Dubuc came out to the store with us. He was kinda excited. Dubuc says, “I’ll leave everything to you.” He says, “You know the ways of the country – how to treat these boys,” He said – “You take care of them.”
[NOTE: When this tape was being recorded, the battery ran down before the story of the first election was finished. The interviewers gave me [DHC] a verbal account of the rest of Mr. Garbitt’s story.]
A poll was opened in Sturgeon Lake for the first time. Since most, if not all of the Metis had no experience of casting a ballot, and most of them could not read or write, it was impossible for them to read the names on the ballot paper. Mr. Garbitt explained how he, as deputy returning officer took care of the matter.
It was a hotly contested election. Political meetings at Spirit River and other places had been rowdy to the point of near violence, so strong was the feeling in certain groups against one candidate. The powerful Hudson’s Bay Company would, of course be unanimous for one or the other. Whether deputy returning officer Garbitt was acting under orders or not, we don’t know, but somebody devised a scheme to see that no Sturgeon Lake Metis votes went to the “wrong” man by accident or otherwise.
Instead of the prescribed black pencil in the voting booth he explained to the Metis that there would be two pencils of different colour being assigned to each candidate. The voter should use the color of his choice to make his wishes known. When the Metis came to cast his vote, he found an unexpected circumstance – only one pencil was sharpened!
Now that wasn’t the end of the story. You see, when an election is held and the voted have been cast and counted, it was usual for the returning officer to dispatch a courier, if the poll is a short distance from the returning office, to tell the results of the poll. The box follows soon after. But in a rural district the votes are counted, sealed in the ballot box, along with all of the other papers that were used in the casting of the ballots and the courier takes the ballot box along with the returns to the returning officer at the central point. Well, somebody rode in from Sturgeon Lake and reported that the vote was unanimous, I believe, for a certain candidate, and unofficially that was tallied up. Then they waited for the ballot box to arrive. The rider who had come with the verbal report knew nothing of it, and they waited and waited! The official recount was taken but in the absence of one ballot box the result could not be declared. The result of that was that the elected candidate for the whole area could not take his seat. The whole South Peace constituency was without representation in Edmonton pending the finding of the box and the conclusion of the counting. In the end, the elected candidate or his party had to apply to the courts to have the matter decided. The judge ruled in favor of the candidate and the election was finalized and the man took his seat.
Many years later a little incident was recorded in one of the two Grande Prairie papers, to the effect that the long-lost ballot box had been found at the bottom of a well which somebody was now cleaning out. Whether or not it was a ruse by which the factor of the trading post arranged to have his candidate elected isn’t known, but at any rate — as far as history is concerned — the incident is closed. Who put the ballot box down the well is not known. Perhaps the courier found it too much of a nuisance, coming over the terrible roads from Sturgeon Lake. Maybe not. In any case it’s too late to do anything about it now. You will realize that any conclusions that you or we may come to is a matter of purely circumstantial evidence. Dorthea Calverley