2-023: FRANK BEATTON -- THE BRIDGE BETWEEN FUR AND FARM

 By Dorthea Calverley [1973]

One of the last Company-employed traders to make a name for himself in local our history was Frank Beatton. Canadian history had its Red River Rebellion in Manitoba and its Riel Rebellion in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The year 1912 might have recorded the Peace War if Beatton had not been here.

Beatton entered the service of the Bay in 1883, after emigration from his native Orkney Islands. As manager of the bay post at Dunvegan he must have been the rival of the free trader, Davis, one of whose posts was across the river. Thus for a while the two men were neighbors who were to become part of the Beaver Indian folklore as benefactors and counselors.

The Hudson’s Hope post was open only in the winters and Beatton was there in 1902. By 1906 Revillon Freres had bought out Bredin and Cornwall who had succeeded Davis as free traders. The new company was establishing a chain of posts. The Bay sent their experienced agent, Frank Beatton, to this sensitive area where a trapper could still make $1000 to $1500 in a winter. Steamboats were making trips up the Peace four times a year delivering goods for the surveyors, mineralogists, and the Beaver. The Beaver now made Fort St. John their headquarters since their reserve was just a few miles North of the post.

According to Hulbert Footner, a popular writer of the time,

 

There was no town of Pouce Coupe at this time. Fort St. John was the unofficial capital of the Peace River Block, and would likely have remained so if the railroad had been extended west from Hines Creek as planned. Beatton seems to have been deputy for most government agencies except the Royal Northwest Mounted Police.

In 1912 an apparently gossipy, rather brash and supercilious young man, Philip Godsell, with ambitions to become a writer, was appointed manager of Revillon Freres at Fort St. John. His later writings expressed nothing but scorn for the "untamed Beaver Indians" as he called them. Actually he seems to be the only writer ever to have found them anything but friendly, cooperative and non-violent. His view may have been somewhat clouded by the fact that nothing would induce the Beavers to leave their old friend Beatton, even when Godsell sent out scouts to waylay them and get their furs. He also confessed to the opinion that the quiet, unassuming Beatton was a coward. Later he was forced to change his mind.

By 1912 a crisis had developed. The Indians learned what they had lost by signing a treaty that condemned these nomadic people to a tiny reserve, where they were expected to grow gardens and keep a cow and pigs. Nobody had explained this in a way that they could understand. Settlers were coming in. Surveyors were making cut-lines through the forests that they had considered their own. Fences began to appear here and there. The Indians were less than fifteen years away from the indignities that the Klondikers had heaped upon them. Tempers were beginning to smolder. Some of their wilder hunters agitated to throw the white men out. At first Godsell thought that Frank Beatton was ridiculous to fear that a tragedy might occur, possibly a wholesale massacre. One night two rival chiefs, Cree and Beaver, were incited by the renegade Indian, Wolf, to seize both posts, and kill the white men. Godsell takes credit for herding the Crees into his post, being advised by Beatton to do so. By preventing the sale of any ammunition, and avoiding any of the provocative force which Godsell advocated, Beatton calmed the Beavers. The danger passed.

Meanwhile Beatton’s family of ten boys and two girls began to bridge the gap between fur trapping and field cultivation. They took up a ranch along the flats of the Peace. There he retired after forty-years in the service of his company. He lived to the age of eight-one and died in the year 1944. His name is commemorated in the lovely valley at whose confluence with the Peace the oldest Fort St. John stood. Local people may still refer to the river as the "North Pine" but officially it is and will remain the "Beatton River".

Beatton was the last of the traders who dealt almost exclusively with the Beaver Indians. Almost everyone from the earliest explorers to Twelve-Foot Davis, Cust and Carey, Pete Toy, Bredin and Cornwall, and the Lawrences almost all found them honest, friendly and cooperative.

There are only two incidents of a different nature. First, there was the killing of the trader Guy Hughes and his men at old Fort St. John in 1823 which seems to have been a predictable result of an outrage committed by the white men on an Indian family. Second, the incident at Fort St. John which the writer Phillip Godsell for reasons best known to himself tried to exaggerate into the popular "bad Indian" image.

Thanks to the kind of traders our country had we have no "Wild West" traditions, except that of white men against each other in the Northwest Company vs. the Hudson’s Bay period between 1818 and 1820. The Peace River Country enjoyed among Indians and white traders alike an almost unbroken line of Men of Peace.

 

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