August 27, 2007

FINDING FRED: Part III

Banff, in the rain
Driving into Banff was a bit of an ordeal, coming through two mountain ranges, miles of construction, and driving rain. I arrived about five o’clock to a town undergoing what looked like open heart surgery. Banff Avenue is completely fenced off with huge diggy machines, and bulldozers hard at work along the center.

I made an immediate U-turn and headed for Bankhead, the old ghost town north of town. I was prepared to find the place overrun by the woods, but was nevertheless astonished by the relentless reclamation of nature. Early pictures of me digging around for laundry tubs and cigar cases show a stark contrast of open space next to today’s crowding trees and underbrush. I had to scrabble up stony deer paths and push through young birch trees to find the old Catholic church that I so much love. Ah! But I found it.

Content, I headed for Two Jack Lake and got myself a camping spot.

Bankhead is really only indirectly part of Fred’s life. When he was stationed in Banff—first in 1887 when Banff was created by an Act of Parliament, and then again in 1890 when he married Lucy May—he started the Bankhead Band. It was in this ghost town where Louis Trono met him as a nine-year-old kid in knickers. So I settled down with a crackling fire under the black pine, content to be “home.”

I was saddened, though, to learn the next day from the curators at the Whyte Rocky Mountain Museum that Louis had died three years ago, his wife just three weeks ago. I had to blink a few times. It was my children who first dubbed Louis my “Banff Boyfriend.” They always seemed to be amazed at how easily I picked up old men in my wanderings—men I made strong attachments to and wrote to frequently after getting home. But I hadn’t heard from Louis in awhile, and feared the worst.

The good news, the curators were quick to share however, is that Banff renamed the bandstand for him, and have a lovely plaque in front with a bit of Louis’ fascinating musical history. Fred’s name, I was not surprised to find, is there—mentioned as his mentor and teacher. How rich my life has been by looking for my grandmother. First Fred, then Uncle Dale. And then Louis. Banff feels a little lonely for me now, without my friend.

Getting new information on Fred was a little more elusive than getting the sad news on Louis. In the public library I found a huge book called I Live In A Postcard, a collection of histories on the Banff families. Fred Bagley was not listed. At the museum archives next door, they were just as surprised as I. Pictures of his funeral show a long line of friends that stretched the length of Banff Avenue, even more stepping into the cortege as they rounded the corner onto Buffalo and out to the cemetery. His hearse was accompanied by six Mounties, three on each side, with Mounties stationed along the way, each one raising an arm in salute as he passed. My uncle Dale only has black and white photos of this rather momentous event in the life of Banff, but one of the curators found some color slides for me. Goodness. The day was ablaze with autumn orange leaves and riotous red tunics!

I went straight away down to the cemetery and had a picnic supper at his grave, where he’d been interned with a Union Jack draped over his coffin, and had my supper, prepared for me by one of my mum’s many Goodfellow cousins. I’d stopped at Sylvia’s house in Salmon Arm, B.C., on my way up, and she sent me on my way with an egg salad sandwich and other goodies. I munched it all down, perched on the graves’s concrete edging, back to the tombstone, looking up at Sulphur Mt. as it plunged skyward in a blanket of trees that I was happy to see were not yet dead from Pine Beetle—a scourge that is taking out what appears to be most of B.C.’s forests. I kept thinking about the entrapment of time—a terrible inconvenience to any writer and historian. How is that I was sitting there, alive, Fred dead, and my grandchildren having their whole lives ahead of them?

My real goal was to find where Fred lived in Banff, and where the Goodfellows had their summer cabin. How far apart had they resided--not speaking to each other, my mother the bone of contention between the Montegues and Capulets of Alberta? So my second day was spent back in the archives, where Lena, one of the curators, pulled out the old tax records, heavy tombs of boring information like lot and block and assessed value. I learned that Fred never owned his house—there are no records of him ever paying taxes. The Goodfellows, however, had a home and property worth $650. Taxes ran from $6 to about $11 or $12. The old phone books were the mother lode, however. Major and Mrs. Fred Bagley lived on the corner of Elk and Beaver; which is now an apartment building. Rats. Walter and Isabella Goodfellow summered at 422 Marten Street, about 3 or 4 blocks away; it, too, is an apartment building. Rats, rats, and more rats. I had my heart set on knocking on the two doors and begging to be let in. I do find it interesting that they lived so close; and that they had also been neighbors in Calgary.

I ended my second day at Banff—a glorious sunny day with gentle breezes—researching in the public library across from a man I’d spotted at the hot springs last night. My friend Scott and I used tell each other the stories of complete strangers we’d see. So there I was last night, reveling in the hot springs, making up stories about the various people I saw. I had this guy pegged for a banker, widower, living in his head and trying to pull himself out of it. Turns out he is researching the residential schools in Canada—an online class he was taking. Shows how wrong I was.

In the morning I’m headed down to Pincher Creek to meet my mother’s “missing” cousin, Doug Connelly. Pincher Creek, BTW, is where the Mounties raised their horses, and where Old Buck was put to pasture. It’s nestled in the Rocky foothills, ranch country, and I am quite fond of the rolling countryside, caught as it is between the mountains and plains. I look forward to meeting more Bagley kin, and to learn what memories Doug may have of his grandfather.

Oh! Camping the one night at Two Jack was quite enough for my old bones. The evening was fine, but the morning? Where’s the coffee? So last night I stayed at the Banff Hostel, a grand place for little money and all the amenities. I’ll stay there tonight as well. Best yet, the old Bankhead Train Depot has been hauled out of the ghost town and sits right next door to the hostel. Now that is my cup of tea!


Bankhead Train Depot, moved to Banff in 1926,
now used by the Banff International Hostelry
as staff accomodations

August 21, 2007

FINDING FRED: Part II

Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Research on Fred Bagley begins not on the prairie but on Vancouver Island with my mother's half brother and his wife--Dale and Penny Bent. Penny has been researching Fred pre-Mountie; my mother, brother, and I post-Mountie.

So I got onto the ferry at Tswaassen for the 2-hour trip across Georgia Straight. This was my first time to Duke Point on the Island, which is up about 100 miles from my familiar turf and Victoria. I found it not so interesting.

So I got a binder of my research from the jeep below deck, hoofed it up three flights of stairs, and hunted down the cafeteria where I began re-aquainting myself with what material I had while eating very bad scrambled eggs and not very good sausage.

Dale and Penny moved out from London, Ontario, and I found their new abode on a hillside overlooking Departure Bay. Ferries go in and out all day; on clear days you can see Vancouver across the water. It's just about the nicest place to live I can imagine. But the view paled in comparison to my visit with my Bagley side. To be with Dale, going through Penny's many boxes of stuff, getting treated to the sights and fine dining, and seeing my cousin Elizabeth (who also moved out ) far outranked the view. Even if Dale was on a roll with his humor that had Penny and I rolling our eyes.

If I start with my grandchildren, Penny's research goes back eight generations to Col. James Bland, born in 1793, a retired officer in the Royal Imperial Navy, finishing out his final days on the Island of Jersey in the English Channel. Fred remembers visiting his grandfather when he was only two, being carried by his mother. The memory is vivid, he wrote, because they'd arrived in a storm, with heavy waves crashing up over the board walk. If he was two, this would have been 1860, just when the Civil War in the States was getting under full swing.

To begin, though, Fred was born in the West Indies. His father, Richard Bagley, was an Irishman who'd enlisted in the British Imperial Navy and been sent to Jamaica. Here he met Catherine Ann Bland, daughter of Col. James Bland and wealthy widow of a Dr. Gordon Baker. She defined herself as Scottish, but was born and raised in the West Indies.

Just where Fred was actually born is in dispute: My lost-and-found grandmother, Leona, insisted he was born in Kitts. Her sister Kate insisted St. Lucia. Or was it the other way around? The two of them, Penny says, used to go around and around on this. But their mother wrote down Jamaica, and so Penny and I voted to go with what his mother said. For all intents and purposes, then, Fred was born in Jamaica. Too, articles printined in Banff's Crag & Canyon list his birthplace as Jamaica and he didn't bother to dispute this--something he usually did I've come to realize.

When his parents married, it appears that Richard came into Catherine's wealth and acquired the doctor's sugar plantation--perhaps part of the much larger "Gordon" estate that comes into the story later. Fred's earliest memories were of crying and being shushed with a sugar cane, given him by a black nanny. He writes that it turned him off sugar for life.

Me? I'm a little disconcerted to find that I have family who had servants who no doubt used to be slaves. Particularly since earlier research reveals that slavery in the West Indies had been over-the-top brutal. This is a "skeleton" I'm not happy to discover.

A second picture of Catherine Ann, the widow, with her eldest daughter Nell, however, suggests to Penny that perhaps there is some black lineage in the blood line. I'm far more accepting of this. I rather enjoy the idea of perhaps being something more nutritional than WONDER bread. Perhaps, after all, there is a bit of rye or oats in me. At least whole grain!

Before Fred was two years old his father had gone through all of his wife's money and they moved back to Devon, England. This is probably when Fred visited his grandfather on the Island of Jersey.

The next ten years saw the Bagley family bouncing from town to town, Richard opening up taverns and moving on, poor Catherine always having babies every two years in a different part of the country. A daughter writes that they helped out with the work, though they were very small. Times were different then. Three-year-old children were often put to use serving beer. Five-year-olds in just about every Dickens novel I've ever read certainly knew how to scrape plates and muck out a stable! But what was all this moving around really about? Was Richard running from creditors?

Canada confederated in 1867. This is the turn of Richard's outgoing tide. He immigrated as a Chelsea Penshioner, stationed in Kingston, Ontario, and here he served as part of the British military presence in the brand new country--a very necessary deterent to the aggressive eyes of a post civil war America. Canadian census records show him here in 1870, a year or more before his wife; English census records show her having yet another baby in England in 1871. Penny wonders why this is. Yet I know that on my Goodfellow side, Walter and the older children immigrated before Isabella the younger children. Perhaps this is true of the Bagleys as well. Immigration could be a pricey venture. For a large family?

The Army schooled the Kingston children up through fourteen years of age. When Fred reached the end of his schooling, he joined Kingston's Battery "A"as a bugler and enrolled in the gunnery school. But when recruitment notices from the newly formulated Mounted Police Force went up, he hightailed it down to the recruitment office, thinking he could lie about his age.

Ah, but here he ran right smack dab into none other than the commadant of his school--Col. French, Commissioner. Worse was to come. His father got wind of it all and, according to some reports, there was quite a row. Col. French and Capt. Bagley, old comrades from their Imperial Navy days, up against a fifteen-year-old boy determined to sign on.

Aa self-confessed student of James Fenimore Cooper, he coveted the chance to save the Indians out west from the dastardly American whiskey traders and envisioned himself "hobknobbing about with dusky Indian princesses."

The truth of the matter was that he was running away from home. Richard was a harsh man. To punish his boys, he took them out to the gym and boxed them, then beat them with a belt. Around the girls he managed to keep his fists to himself; nonetheless, they feared the lash of his tongue. So there must have been a hard fight. Finally Dick acquiesced. "Go ahead and take the lad! He'll get over his fascination for buffalo and redskins in short order, I reckon. If nothing else, it'll make a man out of him." But on one condition. "He can only enlist for six months."
"Agreed." Yet Col. French had to know this was a one-way ticket with no nanny to bring the boy home.

When the Force pulled out of Kingston in June, 1874, Fred's mother bid him adieu amidst the fanfare, reminded him to say his prayers each night, and gave him a watch and chain and the diary that helped us find him a hundred years later.
Poor Catherine didn't see him for another fourteen years. The occassion, it seems, called for this remarkable photo with his younger siblings.

I'm not sure how I would have fared if I'd been adopted out. I have always been conscious of the various aspects of my personality reflected in not just my family of origin but in my extended family. Oh, I am behaving just like Auntie Vi! I might say. Or, I think I'm standing just like Grandma used to." To have the missing pieces visibilized is a rare gift.

And for this treat I owe a special thanks to Mum for spotting her grandfather in the Fort Macleod Museum, to Uncle Dale for negotiating my eventual meeting with his and Mum's mum, and to Aunt Penny for her years of research that tell me a little bit more of who I am.

Thanks et merci.

August 14, 2007

Finding Fred: Part I

Part I of my research trip, gathering new information on my great grandfather for a book I'm working on.

"We old ‘originals’ are prone sometimes to believe that we are neglected or ignored by a generation that ‘knew not Joseph’ and his works."
—Frederick Augustus Bagley


The family mythology surrounding my great grandfather Frederick Augustus Bagley was limited and unpleasant when I was growing up. His daughter was a missing grandmother in my life—a woman who had, it was said, abandoned my mother when she was just six weeks old. Where Leona had gone or wherever she was, no one knew and none seemed to care. And while the judgment against her wasn’t particularly harsh (her actions explained away as depression and Granny Goodfellow, after all, been quick to step in and raise baby Betty), Leona’s father, my great grandfather, came under a much harsher light. When Leona asked if she could leave her husband and come home, Frederick Augustus Bagley had said, “Yes, but leave the brat behind.”

And so while I loved and missed my missing grandmother, and grew up yearning to find her, I secretly resented my great grandfather. After all, had he been a bit more understanding of whatever the plight may have been in 1928 my mother would have never been an orphan of sorts and my missing grandmother would not have gotten lost. Who was this man who thought my mother a brat? I didn’t care. I just wanted my grandmother.

I was fourteen when my family drove into Banff, Alberta, for the first time. I was sitting in the back seat, between my two sisters. I had a straight-on view as we came in—the Rockies climbing up the sky all around me, just ahead the stone bridge and stately old hospital. I scooted forward with an exuberance new to me. In my fourteen years we’d moved a lot; any sense of home had dissipated, leaving me with a feeling of transience. But driving into Banff I recognized home. Here, I belonged. Here were roots. Here was my energy source.


Why? I didn’t know.


I didn’t know that my great grandfather had been a Mountie, that he’d been stationed here for a time, that Banff was, in fact, where he’d chosen to retire because he loved it so, that he was buried here in the little cemetery left of the bridge. I didn’t know that he’d started the Banff Springs Hotel band, or that he’d started the little band in Bankhead, the CPR ghost town just north of Banff—another magical place I wouldn’t discover until I was in my thirties. Nor did I know that my missing grandmother had at some point taught school here. I didn’t know any of these things. But obviously my DNA did. The part of me that is my great grandfather, and to a lesser extent my grandmother, was joyous to be home again.


At the time we were living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and were on our way back after spending the summer, as we usually did, at my paternal grandfather’s beach house outside Vancouver. It was with great reluctance that I said good-bye to Banff, yet…in grade four, Miss Bilby had told us stories about growing up on a farm outside Regina and it took my breath to see the prairie unfold as we dropped down out of the Rockies to meet the plains. Was it her stories that made my spirits soar? That gave me that sense of recognition and delight? Perhaps. Yet I’d heard many stories of wondrous places that didn’t, when experiencing them for myself, evoke such a keen sense of connection. We passed Dead Man’s Flat and drove right into the lapping waves of an ocean of grass that in actuality was my great grandfather’s country. I didn’t know he’d spent his life here, that he’d policed the thousands upon thousands of square miles of earth and sky so flat and far-reaching it boggled my mind. I didn’t know…yet I must have known. I was recognizing land I loved and didn’t know I missed. Perhaps this is why Miss Bilby’s stories had meant so much to me.


We pulled into Fort MacLeod in Southern Alberta. My sisters and I—thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen years old, me in the middle—were looking at the doo-dads displayed in the gift shop, trying to keep an eye on our five-year-old brother, when all of a sudden our mother, peering intently at every photograph on the wall, started to shriek: “Roy! Roy! Come quick!” She was hyperventilating, I think—but then the whole scene is probably dramatized in my mind for we were teenagers. Dad went over, I hid behind a bookcase; she was not my mother. “Look! Here’s my grandfather! It has to be him. ‘Frederick Bagley, Crack-shot of the RCMP,’” she quoted and I came out from behind the bookcase.


“Your grandfather was a Mountie?” I asked, meeting his eyes and thinking, he looks like a decent sort.

She was headed for the cash register. I tore my eyes away from this man whose bloodline I carried and quickly trundled along behind my mother, ears on high alert and wondering why I’d never been told this bit of information. He was a Mountie? I pictured of the red-tuniced men parading around on frisky horses in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

The long and short of the ensuing conversation at the cash register was that the curator was just then reading Fred Bagley’s diary, written when he’d crossed the prairies in 1874 as a fifteen-year-old kid. One year older than myself! His diary, however, was open only to family. So why give it to the museum? I privately wondered while Mum patiently explained she was family. Didn’t matter. She still had to get permission from the estate, held in the hands of his three daughters, Kate, Leona, and Marian.


I had to sit down. How did Mum feel about this? My own heart was hammering, high on unexpected hope in the air.


She got the address of “Aunt Marian.” We drove out to her roadside farm and Dad pulled over onto the highway shoulder, and we sat for what seemed like an eternity while Mum mulled things over, hope humming all around me like bees in the sunflowers. “Let’s go on, Roy,” she finally said and the bees fell silent.

That was that. We drove away, not knowing Leona lived only a short ways away, that she’d remarried, that his name, too, was Roy. Roy Bent.

Three years later we were living in Iowa. My parents put my older sister and me on the train in Fargo, North Dakota. Linda and I were headed for Winnipeg, where an uncle would meet us and drive us out to Lloydminster, Alberta. There we’d spend a few days with our cousins, then take the train to Vancouver for another summer on the West Coast. I didn’t know, ticket in hand that hot, sultry June day in 1969 that my departure point was, in June 1874, our great grandfather’s train terminus, end of the rails. I didn’t know that the newly formulated RCMP (in civilian dress, for they’d skirted the Great Lakes by special arrangement of the American government) had disembarked here and “dumped” their baggage onto the “bald-headed prairie.” In 1969 I saw wheat and corn stretching as far as the eye could see. In 1874 our great grandfather saw acres of “ uniforms, arms, ammunition, provisions, bedding, saddles, harness, wagons, hay-rakes, ploughs and harrows.” I didn’t know that he, by special dispensation from his father and Colonel French, had been allowed to join as the force as its youngest member and bugle boy. I didn’t know that he’d rubbed the sleep out of his eyes the very next day and sounded Reveille at 4:00 a.m.; I didn’t know that he and 200 other men and sixteen officers put together 200 hundred sets of harnesses, 300 saddles, and 75 heavy wagons; I didn’t know that his “D” Troop pulled out with twenty-nine fully loaded wagons at 5:00 p.m., headed for Winnipeg; that “E” Troop followed at 7:00 p.m.; and that “F” Troop, left behind to clean up, got under way the next day—without benefit of my great-grandfather’s bugle to wake them. I didn’t now any of this. I was already in Winnipeg and it was exactly ninety-five years later.

In Lloydminster, my aunt took Linda and I to an RCMP band concert, front row seats, with our five cousins. We were all musicians. Linda was a flutist, I was a clarinetist, and my single most joy in Ann Arbor, Michigan, had been our middle school band and symphony where we were the recipients of exceptional directing and private study—an unstated requirement if we were to participate. Consequently, Slauson Junior High won numerous awards and today, when I listen to our recordings, I am astonished. I was in “high fiddle” to attend the RCMP band concert.

Two erect Mounties in dashing red jackets and gold braiding stepped out, curtains still drawn, from stage left and stage right, with five-foot long bugles that glimmered in the light. The executed a few fancy steps, faced each other across the space, snapped their horns into position and, without warning, shot the clear tenor tones of “Oh Canada” into the air with such pomp and circumstance that the short hairs along the back of my neck stood up and I was on my feet without knowing quite how it happened. The crowd was not far behind and I bit back tears. I may have lived in the States for four years, but my loyalty was Canadian and I thought at the time it was the sheer excellence of the music and being “home” that had triggered my nationalistic pride and an ecstasy that never, in fifty-five years, has ever been repeated. What I didn’t know was that my great grandfather, asleep in my DNA, recognized his work and awoke, and that it was he who propelled me to my feet in a shock of joy that can only come after a century of sleep. Frederick Augustus Bagley, bugle boy, had made the RCMP his career and it was he who’d started so many of these bands. Together, unknown to each other but one and the same that night, we listened, our hearts caught in a surreal space where time and distance blended for one magical evening in the harmony of familiar sound.

I was thirty and back living on the West Coast when I began my summer treks to Banff and the prairies. In the silence of my missing grandmother, I’d taken to finding what I could of her dad. The Whyte Museum is where I learned of his short stint in Banff, that he’d returned and retired there, and was buried. I also learned that he’d started the Banff Springs Hotel band. Now that was interesting—and some of the pieces began coming together for me. My musical interest for one, but certainly my passion for Banff.

My first trip to Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, however, gave me a start—and then made me mad. I came across a slip of paper in my missing grandmother’s handwriting. Leona had been asked by a Calgary school classroom to submit a list of Major Fred Bagley’s descendents for a 1974 mountie centennial project they were working on. She listed herself, a son and three granddaughters—Leslie, Maia, and Elizabeth. After the shock of seeing her handwriting—she was real!—I allowed the information to sink in. The first thing I noticed was that there was no mention of her first husband Leslie, my Grandpa Les. No mention of her daughter, my mother Shirley Elizabeth, whom everyone called Betty. Certainly there was no mention of us, of me. And then it hit me. The names.

Leona, for whatever reason, had separated from Leslie—yet her eldest granddaughter bore the same name. She’d supposedly abandoned her infant, Shirley Elizabeth—yet her youngest granddaughter carried the baby’s name. And, like her daughter “Betty,” Leona had married a man named Roy. Coincidence? I was beginning to suspect that our unacknowledged and unknown past struggles for recognition; that we have less choice than we think. We are compelled, and the people around us are compelled, to name the past.

This was the summer I discovered Bankhead—and, happily, Louis Trono. Intrigued by the Bankhead history ParksCanada listed in their brochure and on the various site signs posted about the old ghost town north of Banff, I asked in town if they had any further information. They let me see a short documentary and in the flickering darkness I wrote down the names of the elderly men and women being interviewed. They’d grown up as children in Bankhead, their fathers the coal miners brought in by the CPR from all over Europe.

“You want to know more about Bankhead?” Louis Trono asked when I knocked on his front door later that day, one block off Banff’s main drag. Graciously he invited me in, called for his wife, Joy, to bring us some iced tea for the day was hot. “Tomorrow might be a better day,” he said as we settled in, a lively Italian, eighty-four years old, with slicked back hair and coiled energy. “I have to leave in an hour to rehearse at the Banff Springs Hotel. We play every night.”
“Really?” I said, perking up. “My great grandfather started that band.”

Mr. Trono plunged forward in his stuffed chair. Iced tea slurped up over the glass brim, down his fingers. He didn’t notice. His eyes were on me. “You’re the Major’s granddaughter?”

I started to ramble about my lost lineage, my search of my grandmother, how I had to content myself with Fred Bagley. Mr. Trono interrupted, smile so big, leaning across the room to shake my hand again. “This is fine! This is a pleasure! Joy!” he hollered. “We have the Major’s granddaughter here!” She came running, a woman twenty or thirty years his junior. More handshakes.

“You knew my great grandfather?” I asked, the bees back in my ears and humming. “You knew him?”

“Knew him? He came out to Bankhead and started the Bankhead band. He taught me how to play the trombone. I was only in knickers. At first he said no, I couldn’t join. I was just a kid. I kept badgering him. He finally thought to shut me up by giving me his old trumpet. But I blew my lungs inside out for a week until I finally got the hang of it, showed up at the next rehearsal, and he had to let me have a shot. I’ll never forget the look on his face. He turned to the big guys and said, ‘This lad is a musician, boys. If the rest of you ever learn to play half as good as—what’s your name, Sonny?—Louis here, I should be so proud.’ But your granddad needed a trombone player—so I’ve played trombone all my life, all over the world. Did you know your granddad played at Queen Victoria’s Jubilee? He taught me well. I played for Queen Elizabeth. And I’ve been more places playing music than even your granddad, he was famous for his music, you know. I owe him life, my livelihood, every wonderful thing I’ve ever known in life. Everything. He gave me new direction in that old ghost town, I am indebted to him. And here you are…”

It was too much for the old man. He flopped back in his chair. Joy fussed and clucked. I started to make excuses, asked when I could come back. I, too, needed some time to process the surprise. “Your grandmother?” he said, pulling out of the shock. “What was her name?”

“Leona.” Bees swarmed through the room, honey in their wings.

“Joy, was it Leona?” he asked, “who taught Marco in grade two?”

Joy pulled out some old school pictures. “Yes, she taught at the little elementary school a few blocks away.” Linda, I thought, thinking of my older sister and seeing my grandmother for the very first time, would be interested in this. Linda was an elementary school teacher, and loved the second grade.

“Are you in a hurry?” Mr. Trono asked, glancing at his watch.

“No, I was going to go over and see if the Craigs would talk to me about Bankdhead.”

“Do that tomorrow. I’m taking you to rehearsal, to introduce you to the boys. They’re younger than me, they didn’t know your granddad, but they know of him. Hey, I’ll buy you supper at the hotel. We can visit, and you can stay and listen to us play for the evening.”

Over grilled trout at the Banff Springs Hotel, "Louis" told me that when Bankhead closed down in 1919 all the houses were taken into Banff or Canmore, a little town five or six miles east. “I was twelve. My family moved next door to the Major on Beaver Street and summer afternoons he had us boys over to play with his swords. He taught us how to parade. I of course continued my music lessons.”

The next day found Louis and I in Bankhead, laying out the huge maps I’d gleaned from the museum, Louis putting stones on their corners to keep the wind at bay, everything spread over what was once, he said, the curling green. He filled me in on who lived where and what they were like—and fed me details of my grandmother and great grandfather as they came to mind. He regretted not having made it his business to learn everything he could. “I was a kid,” he told me, taking me over to the old Catholic church, now a basement and stone steps rising to meet heaven. “We didn’t care about that kind of stuff, but once he passed on? I regretted knowing so little.”

Yet what Louis told me that summer and over the next several years confirmed my growing suspicion that Major Frederick Bagley, despite all reports of his grand, military bearing, could never have called my mother a brat. And if this much of the story wasn’t true?

I started to feel a sense of desperation to find my grandmother. What history begged to be told?


Unbeknownst to me, when the bees fell silent outside my great Aunt Marian’s house, my mother still heard them, and had written her aunts and mother three times for permission to have a copy of her grandfather’s diary. Three times she’d been ignored and I think it was this rejection that stung. Or perhaps these were my own feelings, and I visited them upon Mum in my growing reversal of feelings—love and admiration for Fred, less for Leona. But was this fair?

I had children of my own when Mum got a phone call. She and Dad were living in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the time. “You don’t know me,” the man on the other end of the line said, “but my name is Dale Bent.”

Mum reports that her knees weakened, and she sat down. “You are my brother,” she said.

“Yes. And I have something I think you’d like.”

And so a brother walked into Mum’s life, an uncle into mine, bearing the diary Mum had wanted so badly that she’d risked, three times, her mother’s very pointed rejection.

In the end, it was a death bed sort of confession that brought us Fred Bagley’s diary. Aunt Kate was dying. She called in her nephew, told him there were three letters, that his mother had been married before, that he had a sister, that she wanted their grandfather’s diary. Could he deliver it to her?

He could, and did. That was the good news. The bad news was that his mother—Leona—didn’t want to know anything about us. A slap in the face. This grandmother I yearned for not even interested to know if I existed? Stung, I nevertheless resolved to look at it from her point of view. What was an old woman supposed to do when past became present?

My third trip to Glenbow was with Mum. She wrote to see what artifacts they might have of her grandfather. I’d never thought to do that, and so was delighted when we were taken into the archives to see and handle a collection of his uniforms, accouterments, manuscripts, even a horse’s hoof. A Mountie’s regiment number, we learned, was always carved into his horse’s right front hoof so that if his horse ever returned to the fort unmounted the others would know who to look for. “He’s actually quite a famous horse in Mountie history,” the curator explained, telling us the story of how Fred Bagley had “stolen” the bay out from under the nose of a fellow Mountie. “Unlike other Mounties, whose horses were periodically assigned and reassigned, your grandfather managed to hang onto his, and when it was too old serve, rather than being consigned to the glue factory as was the policy, this horse,” she said, handing me the hoof, “was put out to pasture. Old Buck lived to the ripe old age of 32."

"Buck, as in Buckwheat?" one or the other of us asked.

Once-upon-a-time my younger sister had snuck a cock-a-poo puppy from Bellingham, Washington, onto the plane and taken him as gift to St. Paul, Minnesota, for our mother. Mum had called him Buckwheat—Bucky for short. I thought of the other names we shared—Leslie, Elizabeth, Roy…and now Buckwheat for our pets. How was that possible that a man in 1874 could call the horse he fell in love with the same name that his granddaughter, lost to him, would give her own pet a hundred years later? In the name of all that is rational, how is this possible? I handed Buckwheat’s hoof to Mum, K 1 carved into it, grateful for this curious knowledge.

Was it this same summer Mum and I went up to Banff, where we walked past the old train station one evening? “Granny and Granddad had a summer cabin here,” she told me. “Granny often brought me up here from Calgary on the train. Back in those days, the Banff Springs Hotel band came out to greet the trains and to play, always conducted by a kindly old man with white hair with the most regal bearing. I was fascinated by him. I’d dawdle along, staring at him over my shoulder, Granny hurrying me along with a stern ‘come along, Betty.’”

“According to Louis Trono, Mum, that would be your grandfather,” I said.

“I thought of that when you first told me about Louis.”

Did Fred Bagley ever sense his granddaughter’s eyes on him as he directed a rousing “God Save the Queen?” Did he ever catch sight of Granny Goodfellow hastening by, anxious to keep them apart? Did he even know they had a cabin a few blocks from his own?

I took my sons to Glenbow when they were twelve and fourteen to help me go through all the photographs. I was getting desperate to meet my grandmother and wanted to get my hands on a picture that could tell me more about her. We found only one of a child—which daughter was this? Conflicting reports of how many girls Fred Bagley had—anywhere from seven to the three I knew about—provided no clue. I asked for a generated photograph of this unknown child looking over her dad’s shoulder. I’d pretend it was Leona.

It was Phil—the same age I as when I first felt the call of my great grandfather—who asked the curator where his great great grandfather’s badges might be located. We’d gleaned enough information over the years to learn there were many. “Probably in someone’s musty attic or moldy basement,” the librarian offered with a grimace. “If you ever find them, let us know.”

Pincher Creek was a name that kept popping up now and then in my research. It was new country for me and I was curious. I was in talking to the curator at the little museum there when the boys came flying into the office, out of breath, exuberant. “We found them! We found them!”

“Found what?”

“His badges!”

Sure enough, there they were, high on the wall, pinned to velvet and encased in glass. To say he had a lot was putting it mildly. A plaque read “ON LOAN FROM THE CONNELLY FAMILY.”

“Who are they?” I asked the librarian.

“A local family.”

“Any relation to the Bagleys?”

“Cousins of some kind, I think.”

I rather liked the idea of having cousins of a sort in Pincher Creek. But it my grandmother I wanted to meet.

The spring I turned forty my desperation reached a point of near panic. I wasn’t getting any younger, neither was Leona. I called my uncle; he came up with a plan. I’d fly out to London, Ontario, where they now all lived. He’d introduce me as a family friend; in this way I could at least see her and get to know her. I had my ticket in hand when Phil, now a shocking six feet, four inches tall and skinny as a rail (shocking because no one on either side of his family for as far back as we could trace had ever stood over six feet tall), said, “Mum, if you go meet her as a friend of the family, you’ll never get to meet her as family. And isn’t that what you really want?”
Fred Bagley had been fifteen when he left home. Phil was fifteen. I stared at my son—and tore up my ticket.

I raised my children as a writer and at some point Uncle Dale took to setting out autographed copies of my Sweetbriar series, books on Seattle’s pioneer families, for his mother to find, and to read. Sometimes she asked if he knew if I’d be writing any more. “She’s your granddaughter,” he finally told her at some point, “you can ask her for yourself.” She clammed up. The fifth in the series was released in 1997. I was 45, Leona was 93. It was then that she finally said the words I longed to hear, “I think I’m ready to meet Brenda now.”

It was our common interest in history that slowly built the bridge we needed in order to cross over into each others’ lives.
I stepped into a beehive of hurt.

But by grandmother was reluctant to reveal the worst. It wasn’t “nice to speak ill of the dead.” She told me instead of her father—the man we both admired. Fred Bagley, she said, stood six feet, four inches tall; and I found it ironic that it was his six-foot, four-inch great great grandson who enabled me to find her, to be speaking with her.


He was a kindly man, she said. He had a sense of humor and loved a good joke. He had many friends. He treated everyone with dignity and respect, even the prisoners he was assigned to guard. He adored his six daughters, only three of whom survived childhood and hence the confusion. They adored him. “Oh, the good times we used to have,” she said with silver in her laugh and eyes seeing back in time to where I couldn’t go. He abhorred violence, she said. He suffered none to strike them and when a nun made the mistake of taking a whip to Leona’s shins one day in school Lucy May, his wife, promptly withdrew all the girls and settled them elsewhere. The nuns begged she and Fred reconsider. They did not.

Most certainly, he did not call my mother a brat.

In fact, when she was born, he took the train from Calgary to Vancouver see her—wheeling a wicker pram. Here Mum slept for lack of cradle or crib, and when she was taken from Leona at eighteen months old (not six weeks), he did everything in his power to get her back. The Goodfellows, however, were a formidable foe. My mother it seems was the only battle Major Frederick Augustus Bagley ever fought and lost.

All this very nearly didn’t happen. Trouble was brewing in 1884 on the Northern Saskatchewan. First there was the “Poundmaker Racket” earlier that summer and soon there’d be Louis Riel’s Second Resistance. Grandfather and his men were caught up in the tension and under orders to keep an eye on Big Bear of the Plains Cree and his young war chief, Wandering Spirit. So when Big Bear and his band suddenly pulled out of Fort Battleford in the fall of 1884 and started back to Fort Pitt where they normally wintered, Grandfather and his party were ordered to go along as an escort. A hundred years later I was there, researching Big Bear’s subsequent flight from the authorities during the ensuing Resistance. I came across a hair-raising note penned by my great grandfather and my growing dislike for Big Bear’s son Iamisis (The Evil One) crawled out of my belly to leave the taste of bile in my mouth--and a very real sense of fear. Grandfather wrote:
…I had to accommodate my rate of travel to that of the Indians, who traveled very slowly; consequently this trip of 95 miles with Big Bear’s band took 11 days to complete, while I, on my return trip to Battleford with my men, took only 1½ days to cover the same distance. When I, with the Indians and escort, arrived at a point about half a mile distant from Fort Pitt, but on the South side of the North Saskatchewan River, I received dispatch from the officer commanding Fort Battleford ordering me to return at once to Battleford. After wheeling my men, horses, and wagons about, and starting them on the return trip, I met Ayimeesees (The Wicked One), Big Bear’s son, and stopped on the trail to talk to him. He seemed to be in a very excited state, and doubted my word that there was no serious news from the South, and that Louis Riel had not yet started the expected “Rebellion.” In fact, he went so far as to tell me he thought I spoke with a “forked tongue.” In plainer language that I was blank, blank liar. Following his accusation he seized my horse’s reins, and made a dash at me with a big hunting knife. As my men were by that time at least a mile away on the back track, and, as per my orders, traveling very fast, and, as I was, very foolishly, unarmed at the time, I took the only way out and knocked him down by driving my horse at him and so got away after my men. I am convinced that if he had had a firearm he would have shot me.
Big Bear, Poundmaker, Little Pine, Wandering Spirit…these were men I understood, admired even. But Iamisis? He was a bully and coward. He was selfish, unruly. He sought constantly to undermine his dad. At times I felt sorry for Big Bear, shackled as he was in his old age by such an unworthy son. And to learn that Iamisis had tried to murder my own grandfather? And thus me? I went down to the riverbank and stood looking at the ridge where I’d nearly died before I was ever conceived.

But no one died that nearly terrible day. Frederick Augustus Bagley went on to father Leona, then Mum, then me, then my own daughter and sons, and now my grandsons and granddaughter. He went on to bring the prairies music, and today one can hardly pick up a book on the settling of Canada West or the making of the Mounties without reading of him. Or thumb through an old Scarlet and Gold or R.C.M.P. Quarterly without finding his byline. Or see the Musical Ride without hearing his music. His contribution to Canadian heritage is significant; and in May 2007 Glenbow Museum built a new permanent display naming Major Frederick Augustus Bagley one of twenty-four Canadian Mavericks. Yet there is no one definitive work on him. I would like to see this rectified.

It's been said in many places that to tell the story of Fred Bagley is to tell the story of Canadian history. Confederated in 1867, the country was but six years old when he rode out as a fifteen-year-old kid to help establish law and order in an area the size of Europe. The Mounties were assigned the task of protecting the Natives north of the 49th parallel from American whiskey traders; and indirectly to warn off the covetous Americans. Fred's story is indeed Canada's--her past and present, for we are Canadian, not American. For me, though, to tell his story is a far more personal overlay of past and present.
Grandfather left me the bread crumbs so I could find Leona. And by finding her, I found him.

He once wrote: "We old ‘originals’ are prone sometimes to believe that we are neglected or ignored by a generation that ‘knew not Joseph' and his works."

Yet history does indeed struggle to be told; it struggles because who we were and are is our birthright.


August 02, 2007

Forgotten Foundations

One hundred fifty-six year ago, on April 10, 1851, Seattle’s founding families pulled out of Cherry Grove, IL. Louisa Boren, then just twenty-four years old, brought with her some sweetbriar seeds. When she reached the Oregon, she was to plant them, send word to her best friend back home; Pamelia would then do the same with her own seeds and in this way the two friends would never truly be apart. For when the sweetbriar bloomed each summer, they could remind themselves that some day, when “distance and death no longer reign,” they'd once again be together. The sweetbriar was their tryst. In far -away "Oregon," Louisa planted hers at the door of her honeymoon log cabin where Denny Way now ends, and today she is remembered in Seattle's history as Seattle’s Sweetbriar Bride.

She should also, however, be remembered as one of two women who laid the city’s first foundation. In February, 1852, the families had temporarily settled at Alki, across the bay from today’s city. Louisa’s fiancĂ© David Denny and her brother, Carson Boren, were down to Ore
gon to collect the cattle they’d driven across the plains. Her brother-in-law, Arthur Denny, was sick with "fever and ague." But Louisa and her brother’s wife Mary Kays got weary of waiting around on the men in their lives. So they borrowed an Indian canoe from Chief Seattle’s band and paddled the six miles across Elliott Bay, where they chopped down trees, whacked off the branches, notched the ends, and laid the first three log rounds of Mary’s house. I like to picture these two friends swinging their axes in the dark forest along the bank—no doubt with practiced blows, blow after blow, for they grew up in the Illinois frontier.
Mary and Carson Boren’s house became Seattle’s first home, and is commemorated with a plaque at the intersection of downtown’s Second and Cherry. But history has forgotten who laid that very first foundation.

Three years ago I was asked to go back and speak at the Cherry Grove Historical Society’s big April 10th celebration, where the small community that still exists celebrates Seattle’s conception. I stayed with Marie Olinger, who owns John Denny’s farm, from which the four wagons pulled out--an avid historian and walking encyclopedia on Seattle's pioneers. We had breakfast together in Marie’s gazebo reenacting between ourselves Louisa and Pamelia’s last breakfast together so long ago. She invited the community women to a second breakfast, and they all arrived bearing gifts: geneology charts, artifacts, pictures. Pamelia’s great grandniece (who lives where Pamelia grew up) gave me pictures of the old Dunlap homestead--where Louisa and Pamelia in tears kissed each other good-bye. I walked the short road where the wagons rambled slowly through town, picking up speed as the Borens and Dennys waved hankies to friends and neighbors gathered along the picket fences to wish them all a last and teary “God speed.”


The best of the trip, however, was yet to come. For years I’d been in search of sweetbriar. To no avail. My last morning, three women brought by a small twig pulled from the roadway by Louisa's old farm, roots and all. Louisa’s sweetbriar...and now mine!

Louisa's farm, inherited from her mother when Sarah Boren married John Denny

Back home, I waited for it bloom. One summer. Two summers. Three summers. What’s this? A bud? Oh my gosh, hundreds of buds!

Louisa’s sweetbriar is now growing up around the porch of my new house. Every day I look out the window and remember two friends of another time. I like to think of them having breakfast in God’s garden, "never more called to part."

But I also like to remember who it was that laid Seattle’s first foundation. The sweetbriar is more than a promise of eternity, it's symbolic of a determination that seeds great potential.

Louisa's gift to time is not so much the sweetbriar as it is the foundation upon which much has come and is yet to be.