Holding History in My Hands

Holding History in My Hands

My great-great-great-grandfather, Edward R. Umfreville, wrote a book about The Hudson’s Bay Company. An exposé by an 18th-century whistleblower, my ancestor’s book was a bestseller.

And what is even more amazing is that The Present State of the Hudson’s Bay, published 1790 in London, England, is still in libraries.

1024px-Library_and_Archives_CanadaWell…in certain libraries. I’m delighted to say it is housed in Library and Archives Canada (LAC), a short walk in Ottawa from the Parliament Buildings and the Supreme Court of Canada. But LAC is not much like your neighbourhood library.

Not your ordinary library

Our national library and archives provides “services to members of the public who wish to consult the documents of its collection or order photocopies and reproductions.” Researchers don’t even need to visit. Indeed, almost all of their material is accessible online—I’ve read Umfreville’s book several times that way. But I was going to Ottawa on a trip and I wanted to actually see the darn thing.

I called the library and the helpful voice of Natalie confirmed the book was there but cautioned that I was outside request timelines of 7 days. Nonetheless, she helped me put in my order request and wished me luck.

Planning to visit the Library and Archives Canada?

Here are the protocol basics:

  • Pre-register online for a user number; you need it to clear Security
  • Step into the impressive first floor foyer — all marble and a great high ceiling and lots of windows pouring in light everywherenlc011725-v6
  • Stop at Security to show your ID, sign in, lock up stuff in little lockers, and put all pens and pencils and notebooks into clear plastic bags to carry with you. (I was allowed to also carry my purse and cell phone separately and not in plastic bags.)
  • Take the elevators up one floor to visit Reception in a glass-walled room off the main hallway to have the user card checked
  • Up one more floor to the glass-walled Special Collections admin room (it had a velvet rope queue area outside the entry and a sign: Wait to be called in before entering.)

It was here that I got the bad news. My 4-day request to have the book brought in from storage hadn’t been in time. (darn deadlines—ever the writer’s bane.)

At heart, all libraries are the same

But here is where Library and Archives Canada is exactly like a community library. The woman in admin suggested I go to the Special Collections room and ask the staff there. “You never know,” she said. (How many times have we writers benefited from the suggestions and guidance of library staff?)

Special Collections is a huge room, brightly lit by a full wall of windows and fairly sparsely furnished. Two or three office desks were spaced apart against the window wall and three or four very long worktables sat apart in the middle. A man was sorting through a box of index-type cards at the far end. He wore white cotton gloves. Gulp, I thought; no way will they let me even breathe on Umfreville’s book.

The two staff—a pair of lovely women—searched the shelves in the room. If my book was there, it would be with my name attached. Nope. No Walker treasures waiting. I was ready to give up when one of the women asked me, “Is this a rare book?”

Librarians are a writer’s friend

“Yes,” I replied. “I assume so. It’s over 225 years old.”

20160624_103339“Ah, it probably is held off site,” she said. “Let me look back here and see if it’s arrived.”  As she opened a side door, I caught a glimpse of locked wire cages with shelves of boxes and file boxes behind the wire.

They came out smiling, one of them holding a book-sized sturdy cardboard container. On the spine of the container: Umfreville The Present State of The Hudson’s Bay. And inside, wrapped in protective beige paper, an original copy of my great-great-great-grandfather’s book.

Time travel is possible

Thank you Natalie. Your kindness when I called just four days before arriving meant that I didn’t have to travel back to Ottawa to hold history—my history—in my hands. And it is because of the determined staff in Special Collections that I could turn those pages (without gloves!) to gain insights I’d missed in the online version.20160624_104156

Watch for a later post on what THAT experience felt like and what it meant for the book I’ll be writing in the months ahead.

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11 thoughts on “Holding History in My Hands

  1. Hi, I think my husbands great great great grandfather is Edward Humphreville. His father Leonard Maurice Umpherville, son of Malcolm John Umpherville jr, son of Malcolm John Umpherville sr, son of Thomas (Clifford) Umpherville son of Edward , we did some research awhile back and thought that his great great grandpa was Clifford not Thomas, Ron’s Grandpa Malcolm jr & his father (sr) identified as Scottish and said their grandfather returned to Scotland

    1. Hi Heather. Nice to hear from you. The Umfreville name is quite interesting with Norman roots, and has been traced back to William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It’s been suggested that in recognition for glory on the battlefield, that medieval knight Robert Umfreville was granted lands that bordered Scotland (Northumberland) to hold back the “savages” and protect William’s new lands. (Of course, it’s also suggested that Umfreville may have had some claim on the throne — illegitimate, perhaps — and was sent far away to keep William’s throne safe.)

      No matter. Robert Umfreville from Normandy gave birth to many different names over time — Umphreville, Umfraville, Umfreville (my family line) and Humphreville, Humphries, etc. I guess spellcheck didn’t matter as most folks couldn’t read back then. And those that could were reading Latin and Norman French, pretty much, and spelled a lot of words like they thought they sounded.

      My own ancestor returned to London, England, a bitter man about the Hudson’s Bay Company. He married at age 55 and had 5 children — one of which was my great-great-grandfather.

      Thanks for sharing your husband’s family story.

  2. Have you traced Edward’s descendants? Would you happen to know if the Umfreville name still persists among some of them?

    1. Hi David. While I’ve not traced anyone at this point, the name Umfreville showed up on at least one CBC News documentary about land-based programs with Indigenous youth in Northern communities. It looks likely that his name continued. I’ve not done geneology but there are others who have. I suspect a Google search will help you turn them up. Thanks for asking.

    1. Hi Carrie. Edward R. Umfreville, like many of the Hudson’s Bay staff, left behind at least one family on Turtle Island before abandoning them to return to England to marry and then father 5 children. That’s the line I’m descended from but I know I have distant relations here who trace their line back to his time with the HBC. It is a small world, and we are all connected in so many ways. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thank you Ruth for this very interesting and informative blog. Its heartening to hear of a government agency that goes above and beyond helpful. Also, now that I know I can access the National Archives online. I’m going to be all over that. Once again thanks for this great blog.

    1. You’re welcome, Barb. I’ll admit to being a bit unsure of what to expect during my visit but everyone was most helpful. Made for a pleasant experience from start to finish. Enjoy the online version but make sure you visit the place the next time you’re in Ottawa. I only visited a small part of the whole.

  4. I found myself feeling childishly envious of your lineage, Ruth. (The only genealogy my family lays claim to is far from academic.) How wonderful. I look forward to your next chapter.

    1. Thanks Laurel. A family member did some research and can trace our line back to William the Conqueror & 1066 and the Battle of Hastings. But my g-g-g-grandfather was not all together an admirable man. He left behind at least two children from his Cree “country wife” before returning to England to marry and start his “real” family and the line I’m descended from. Our family histories are never perfection…but interesting is always good.

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