GREY OWL THE MAGNIFICENT FRAUD
A MACLEAN’S FLASHBACK
Archie Belaney, a little English kid with a head full of dreams about Indians and animals, became the fabulous Grey Owl of the Canadian north woods. He lived as an Indian, “married” four times and wrote the books that gave a million boys like Archie stirring dreams of their own
THE MORNING of April 13, 1938, broke cold and grey over Prince Albert, a northern Saskatchewan city struggling to rid itself of a long and arduous winter, and just about the time the sharply defined pale-yellow sun cleared the bleak horizon Grey Owl died in one of the town’s hospitals.
Grey Owl, as the newspapers of two continents reminded all that day, was the half-breed son of an Apache mother and a Scottish father, who had saved the Canadian beaver from extinction, who had won an international reputation as an author and lecturer, who had animated and romanticized the wilderness of northern Canada for millions of people in England, the United States and even Canada, his adopted country.
In the last ten years of his life Grey Owl was a colorful, romantic, widely publicized figure, standing six feet two in moccasins, his lean body and powerful shoulders encased in a fringed buckskin costume. His sculptured face with its strong chin and long sharp narrow nose was set off startlingly by blue eyes and black hair pulled tightly back in two shoulder-length plaits. Matthew Halton, in an interview with him in England in 1936, said he was “one of the most civilized men I ever met; few white Canadians have raised Canada’s prestige so high.”
Through his books — gripping human - interest stories of the north—and his lectures in which he pleaded for conservation of wild life and an understanding of the Indian, Grey Owl became a sort of symbol of tolerance. “For goodness sake,” he said one time, “don’t think I’m one of those animal sentimentalists. I am neither a fanatic nor an evangelist. I merely ask for a dignified approach to the animal world.”
His success story was recalled in glowing obituaries that April day in 1938 and then, the day after his death, the Toronto Star shouted in a three-line heading on its front page that Grey Owl was really an Englishman who had perpetrated the greatest literary hoax of the century. The London papers picked up the story, calling Grey Owl a fraud, insisting he had four wives.
A trans-Atlantic newspaper controversy developed, the sensational Press quoting people who claimed to have known Grey Owl when first he came to Canada from England in 1907, the more conservative newspapers equally insistent he was at least part Indian. Grey Owl’s publishers, Hugh
Eayrs, of Macmillan’s in Toronto, and Lovat Dickson, in England, championed their highly successful writer.
Dickson worked for eighteen months trying to find the true story of the man who had written Pilgrims of the Wild (which ran through its seventeenth printing), Tales of an Empty Cabin (seven printings) and the Adventures of Sajo and Her Beaver People (fourteen printings). But from interviews with three of Grey Owl’s four wives—or, at least, with three of the women he “married,” who were not his legal spouses since he’d never obtained a divorce—from talks with two aunts who had raised him, countless conversations with people who claimed to have known Grey Owl in his early days in Ontario and from documents that included his birth certificate, Dickson discovered unalterable evidence that the fabulous benefactor of the Canadian north was, indeed, an Englishman.
Cold Steel for the Conductor
Grey Owl played the role of an Indian so long that people who knew him say they believe he convinced himself he was one. And a wild one, at that; a hard-drinking, hot-tempered man in the late stages of his life. A Macmillan man recalls accompanying the spectacularly garbed Grey Owl into the King Edward Hotel in Toronto for a lecture when he was pestered by a drunk. When the man persisted in bothering Grey Owl, the Chief, as they called him, shoved him halfway across the lobby and dived after him, reaching for the hunting knife he carried at his waist. He was intercepted, insisted he merely wanted to flick the buttons from the lout’s vest.
Another time Grey Owl, buying a first-class ticket, moved to the observation car of a train out of North Bay. The conductor, apparently touchy about the social standard of his clientele, ordered Grey Owl from the train in curt language. The Chief refused to budge. The conductor walked to the end of the car, opened the door and insisted Grey owl leave. The latter reached for his knife, zipped it through the air so that it lodged in the woodwork inches from the conductor’s head. He did not leave the train.
What Dickson, who so desperately sought to prove Grey Owl had Indian blood, discovered, then, was that Grey Owl was Archibald Stansfield Belaney, born Continued on page 36
Continued on page 36
The Magnificent Fraud
Continued from page 15
Sept. 18, 1888, at 32 St. James’s Road, Hastings. He was the first of two sons born to George Furmage Belaney, an Englishman, and Kitty Morris, an American whom Belaney met in Bridgeport, Fla., in 1885.
George Belaney, it appears, was shiftless, unreliable, irresponsible; it is recorded he left his wife soon after the second son was born in England and returned to the United States. Archie was placed with two aunts, Ada and Carrie Belaney, in Hastings. They told Dickson that the boy was fascinated by animals, kept a menagerie and was devoted to cowboys and Indians. He had only one confidante, a little girl named Constance Holmes, who won his confidence because she showed interest in his animals.
In his middle teens Archie told his aunts he wanted to follow his father to America and though they tried to dissuade him, they eventually yielded and paid his fare to Canada. He worked a year in a dry goods store in Toronto, then was lured north by the silver discoveries at Cobalt.
He was rolled by a knife-wielding prospector as he slept out-of-doors en I route, barely escaping with his life. A white man named Jesse Hood, a guide, and two Indians helped him and Hood got him a job as a canoeman on a hunting expedition. One of the Indians, an Ojibway named Michelle, taught him the rudiments of handling a canoe, took him partridge shooting and taught him how to keep his direction in the woods.
A year in the bush made a marked difference in Archie’s appearance. He was burned brown by the sun and the icy winter winds. His hair hung almost to his shoulders and he kept it tied back with a leather thong as most Indians do. He was tall and 'lean, walked with a loping stride, and was slightly pigeon-toed. Thus, when he went to Lake Timiskaming where a summer tourist trade flourished he might easily have been mistaken for an Indian guide or canoeman. Bill Guppy, a tourist camp operator, noted his blue eyes and English accent and I suspected when Archie asked for a job that he was an Englishman. Archie was non-committal; he’d been to Engi land, he said, but he’d come recently from Toronto. Guppy liked him and I hired him.
Belaney spent three years working for Guppy, learned the woods, moved I with him to Timagami where Guppy I started a hotel. He preferred the company of Indians. One day when a tourist grinned at him and cackled: “Escape from justice, kid?” Belaney replied, half musingly, “No, from injustice.”
His winters were spent as mail carrier between Timiskaming and Timagami, a route he traveled by dog team. Frequently he stopped at Bear Island, where a tribe of Ojibways lived, and there he met Angele Uguna who ran away with him and married him his second year in the north. They lived in a cabin a mile from Bear Island.
After some months Archie left Angele and headed into the wilderness to trap, stopping at Biscotasing, a trappers’ headquarters, near the Mississauga and Mattawgami Rivers. When he walked into Bisco, buckskin and moccasinclad, even more uncommunicative after his lonely winters in the bush, he was taken as an Indian. He gave his name as Archie Belaney and opened an account for supplies and took out a trapper’s license. He never returned to the little cabin near Bear Island and
Angele, pregnant, returned tc^, her father’s house.
Stretching north from Bisco for a hundred miles was the great Mississauga forest reserve and Archie trapped there in complete solitude until the war came in 1914. That summer he had joined the Government Fire Rangers and that fall, with a group of rangers and apparently out of no particular devotion to England, he enlisted. He went overseas with the 40th Battalion and was transferred to the 13th Battalion, Montreal.
In 1917 he was wounded in the foot and was also a victim of mustard gas. His aunts took him from military hospital to Hastings to recuperate. They remember him as a lonely man, filled with deep hatred of war, disliking England and white men, talking constantly of returning to the Canadian northland.
He seemed at ease only with Constance, the little girl who had shared his love for his menagerie. In February 1918 they went through a marriage ceremony and in March his medical board declared him unfit for further active service, said he would be invalided home and granted a pension of seventy-five dollars a month. He eagerly told Constance that now they could go to Canada. But she didn’t want to go. Disillusioned and deeply stung he returned to his northland alone.
Aboard the Temagami Belle
At Bisco, where he had avoided white men before the war, he now could hardly bring himself to speak to them. His wounded foot bothered him and his lungs were not recovered from the gas. Had it not been for the Indians he might have died. Ojibway women tended to his wound and fed him. He spent the next four years with them and, except at a trading post or in Bisco, he never spoke English. But he learned every watercourse in that north country.
The leader of the Ojihway band was an old man named Neganikabu (meaning Stands First), from whom Belaney learned a lot. Later he was to write of him: “Neganikabu, my mentor, my kindly instructor, my companion in untold hardships and nameless tribulation, has pulled back little by little the magic invisible veil of mystery from across the face of the forest that I might learn its innermost secrets, and has laid open the book of nature for me to read.”
Near the end of Archie’s fourth year with the Ojibways, Neganikabu adopted him into the tribe in a great fire-lit ceremony that ended with the chanting chieftain calling him Wa-ShaQuon-Asin (Shining Beak, the Grey Owl) and, as the tribesmen did their weird dances around the open fire, Archie Belaney became at last an Indian.
And so it was Grey Owl, the halfbreed guide, who met an attractive Indian girl aboard the Temagami Belle as she plied between Timiskaming and Timagami one morning in May 1925.
“What’s your name, lady?” he asked.
“Anahareo. They call me Pony.”
“I’m Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin,” he said, “Grey Owl. They call me Archie. And with some reason: my father was Scotch.”
He was to say this many times in the years that followed; he even declared that his father’s name was McNeill. Why he did this he never revealed although one time, many years later when his Toronto publisher, Hugh Eayrs, was trying through natural curiosity to learn something of Grey Owl’s background, he placed his arm across the publisher’s shoulder and
said: “My dear Hughie, there is a
lot you don’t know that you want to know; but you never will know.” Grey Owl saw Anahareo, a fullblooded Iroquois, frequently. He told her once his ambition was the ambition of every trapper: to find new and
unspoiled hunting grounds. Encouraged by her enthusiasm he set out that fall, moving on and on, north and east, and when he stopped he was well into Quebec, not far from the tiny village of Doucet. He built a cabin near a lake and in the fall of 1927 he wrote Anahareo and she made the long trip by train to join him. He met her at the station and then they tramped, in single file, ten miles into the woods where he had built the cabin.
That winter Grey Owl was engrossed by his work and missed the fact that the sensitive Anahareo was becoming increasingly silent. One day she followed his trap lines. When once or twice a badly wounded animal had to be put to death in a trap she watched with her hand at her mouth and with frightened eyes as Grey Owl raised his axe to give the death stroke. This day was to be the turning point in his life for he was to become increasingly aware, through Anahareo, of a cruelty that never before had occurred to him as he trapped.
Near spring one of his traps which hung down through a hole in the ice yielded the bodies of three drowned beaver. They were young, barely a year old, and he felt the mother must be close by. He searched fruitlessly for two days. Then toward evening, as he and Anahareo returned in his canoe, he thought he saw a muskrat swimming many yards away. As he later wrote:
At that distance a man could never miss and my finger was about to press the trigger when the creature gave a low cry and at the same instant I saw, right in my line of fire, another who gave out the same peculiar call. They could both be gotten with the same charge of shot. They gave voice again and this time the sound was unmistakable — they were young beaver.
I lowered my gun and said: “There are your kittens.”
The instinct of a woman spoke out at once: “Let us save them,” cried Anahareo excitedly, and then in a lower voice: “It is up to us, after what we’ve done.”
And truly what had been done here looked now to be brutal savagery. And with some confused thought of giving back what I had taken, some dim idea of atonement, I answered: "Yes, we have to. Let’s take them
home.” It seemed the only fitting
thing to do.
They called their beaver McGinnis and McGinty, grew so to love the little scamps that Grey Owl decided to kill no more beaver, though still regarding himself as a trapper. His philosophy was to be revealed later when an interviewer in England asked him if he would no longer kill a deer or a moose.
“Of course I would if I were hungry,” he replied. “We have to live and only by death can there be life. Only by killing a tree can a beaver live. If we don’t kill the caribou the wolf will. No, we must eat and be clothed. Rut what makes me sick is the comic sportsman in his trick outfit who invades the woods, kills the giant moose, hangs his stuffed head in a hall to boast about, and leaves the body rotting in the woods.”
Just after he acquired McGinty and McGinnis he met a trapper named Joe Isaac, a Micmac Indian, to whom he related a desire to start a beaver colony in virgin country which also might offer trapping facilities. Isaac, apparently a wildly imaginative man, related wondrous tales of such a hunting ground many miles removed and, even allowing for Isaac’s exaggerations, Grey Owl and Anahareo decided it would fill their requirements. They canoed and portaged to Cabano in the Temiscouata district of Quebec, where the country was far less magical than Joe Isaac had painted it, and, though it required some weeks of difficult portaging to reach, Grey Owl and Anahareo and their beaver went on into the wilderness to Birch Lake. By the second week of November they had built a cabin which for the next three year§ was the House of McGinnis, their home.
In that first winter of 1928-29 Grey Owl found himself depressed and after Christmas stopped traveling the woods looking for wild life. In the long days and evenings he started to write, with pen and ink, the stories he had told Anahareo, the adventures he had, his observations on their little friends, now hibernating. Particularly, he liked to contrast life as he found it with that portrayed in an English magazine called Country Life. After some weeks he decided to piece together many of his stories and in the spring he mailed them, eight thousand words worth, in the form of an article to Country Life.
That Melting Jelly Roll
With McGinnis and McGinty coming out of hibernation in the spring to the beaver colony Grey Owl had constructed, other beaver were to follow them there. They grew to know no harm would come from the strange twosome who lived in a cabin by the lake, the first time in history beaver had been known to trust man. McGinnis and McGinty showed no fear and would scurry out of the water to the cabin for food. One summer night, however, the two pets swam off into the lake. Grey Owl called to them, cupping his hands to his mouth and wailing something that sounded like “Maw-we-ee-ee” and once, in answer, there came a long clear note followed by another of a different tone. That was the last Grey Owl ever heard of his little friends.
Grey Owl and Anahareo were deeply moved by their loss. Then one night they came upon two baby beaver, a male and a female, and they took them to the cabin in a burlap bag. The male died soon afterward but the female, though she wouldn’t eat for days, hung tenaciously to life and eventually began to recover. A certain self-satisfaction that she seemed to ooze
gave her the name of Jelly Roll and she turned out to be the most famous of all Grey Owl’s so-called Little People. Jelly has been described as determined, wilful, egotistical, cunning and rapturously melting, depending what mood was required to win her way. After she had been with them several weeks Grey Owl went to Cabano for supplies and found a letter from Country Life accepting his manuscript and a cheque for about one hundred and fifty dollars. Also there was a letter from the publisher suggesting Grey Owl write a book. He set himself to work that winter on a project in which he wanted to seize the spirit of the wilderness and get it down on paper and, working laboriously with his pen, he produced a book he called The Vanishing Frontier.
The following summer J. H. Campbell, of the National Parkg, visited the cabin to investigate stories he had heard of an Indian who tamed beaver. When he saw Jelly Roll and her antics he was amazed. He explained that a movie of Grey Owl and his beaver could be used by the Canadian government for publicity. Grey Owl told Campbell of his dream of creating a beaver sanctuary and Campbell said the ideal location would be in one of Canada’s national parks.
As Campbell left, Grey Owl went to inspect his traps. One was missing and he located it under a submerged log. In it was an adult beaver, halfdrowned, frightened, a piece of his scalp hanging looseand a badly mangled foot. Grey Owl took him to the cabin and nursed him and after a few weeks the loose portion of the scalp had dried and was hanging from the beaver’s head like a piece of wrinkled hide. Grey Owl snipped it off and called this new family addition Rawhide.
Jelly Roll was intensely jealous of him but it was Rawhide that gave Grey Owl one of his biggest thrills. He was paddling one day and saw Rawhide swimming many feet away. He called to him and slowly moved the canoe toward him. Rawhide was apprehensive. Then Grey Owl, speaking softly, laid the paddle down to the water so that it made a ramp. He put his hand in the water and slowly Rawhide came to it. The beaver sniffed the hand, then allowed Grey Owl to help him up the ramp into the canoe. Grey Owl was exultant; he had tamed an adult beaver.
In the spring of 1931 a letter arrived from Campbell informing them that Riding Mountain National Park had been selected as the site for the beaver colony and Grey Owl, with Anahareo and Jelly Roll and Rawhide, set off for Manitoba. Cameramen there made a film entitled The Beaver Family, but Grey Owl was not pleased with the location because it was too dry. He wrote Campbell and the following spring the sanctuary was moved to Prince Albert National Park, sixty miles northwest of Prince Albert to Lake Waskesieu and another thirty miles of portaging to Ajawaan, his home until he died. There he built a log cabin, called it Beaver Lodge. At last he had found his perfect location and, too, he had found the perfect confidant in Major J. A. Wood, superintendent of Prince Albert National Park, who joined in his plans with great enthusiasm.
Meanwhile Grey Owl had written another book, Pilgrims of the Wild, and because he was dissatisfied with the publishers of Country Life he consulted the man who had published his first book in Canada, Hugh Eayrs of Macmillan’s, requesting the name of another English publisher. Eayrs had had business with Lovat Dickson and suggested him just about the time
Dickson was looking for Canadian authors. Dickson published Tales of an Empty Cabin and the Adventures of Sajo and Her Beaver People. Later Dickson was to write Halfbreedhis own warm tribute to Grey Owl.
Dickson got the idea of a lecture tour of England by Grey Owl in 1935. His books were tremendously successful and so was the lecture tour, on which Grey Owl made two hundred speeches in four months. Everywhere he was acclaimed and interviewed and the stories were given front-page attention. An interviewer asked him once about his education.
None, formally (replied Grey Owl), but behind me and giving me courage and perhaps some wisdom I have the strength of the wilds. You see, man has taken a prominent part in nature for so long that he forgets the evolution by which he reached that place. He is blind to the things which helped his rise. But we Indians remember and our creed is tolerance. Certainly we kill; if nothing was killed for fifty years there’d be no place for anybody. But we shouldn’t regard ourselves as the gods of creation.
And then he said:
Man, the beaver, the deer, the hawk —each has his own habits. One is no better than the other but they are different and man’s difference is that he is blessed—or cursed—with imagination. This makes him dream and build castles and see himself as a conquering hero. It even makes him so stupid as to say: “God made man in His own image,” when, actually, and quite obviously, men have made a God in their own image. I am a Neolithic man; I am no sophisticate.
On his return to Prince Albert he was able, through Major Wood, to have his views on beaver conservation heard. In long pleas he pointed out that an unlimited open season was driving the animal toward extinction and, before he died,four provinces—Saskatchewan
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Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec—were to have closed seasons for beaver. His efforts are regarded as having saved hundreds of thousands of beaver.
On his return, also, he was to find himself the father of a girl child, Dawn, to whom Anahareo gave birth in Prince Albert. Now the couple discovered their philosophies had changed: be-
cause of his traveling he wanted to settle down to rest; she was the opposite. They decided to separate.
Alone again Grey Owl wrote Tales of an Empty Cabin, used much of his personal funds to produce a movie of his old haunts on the Mississauga, starting at Bisco and following the trail he had followed years before.
Soon he met a Canadien girl, partly of Indian blood, named Yvonne Perrier; later she took her Indian name, Silver Moon. A month after their first meeting they were “married” and went to Prince Albert together.
In the winter of 1937 he made another successful lecture tour of England, this time appearing before the King and Queen. On neither tour is there any record of the former Archie Belaney visiting his aunts in Hastings.
Between interviews and lectures he asked Dickson to arrange for him to broadcast to children over the BBC and he was assigned time on a program called the Children’s Hour. The BBC asked to see his script in advance and vetoed a section in which he appealed to children not to attend meets of foxhounds. The section contravened BBC regulations in that fox-hunting, being a controversial subject, could not be discussed. Grey Owl refused to delete the passage and the BBC refused to let him on the air. The talk was later printed as a pamphlet and sold about ten thousand copies.
On his return to Canada the fiftyyear-old Grey Owl was weary, worn out by his heavy schedule. He spoke to a packed Massey Hall in Toronto where he regained some of his spark but en route west his state of mind was further complicated when Yvonne became ill at Regina and went to hospital for an operation. When she was out of danger Grey Owl continued
on to Prince Albert, near mental exhaustion. Two days after he reached Beaver Lodge a ranger received a phone call from him. He was ill. When the ranger arrived Grey Owl was unconscious on the floor. He was taken to hospital in Prince Albert and there he died.
Then, as his friend Major Wood wrote in a letter to Lovat Dickson, “Within a day the human pack was on him like nothing so much as the scavengers of the forest rending the dead body of some monarch of the wilderness which they would not have the courage to attack in life. I care not whether he was an Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman or Negro. He was a great man with a great mind . . . He will be remembered for his efforts to eliminate cruel practices in the capturing of fur-bearing animals . . . He will be remembered for his courageous stand in regard to blood sports . . . He will be remembered for his efforts to rehabilitate the Indian to a point where he would again possess some of his old-time dignity and independence. Any one of these objectives would be a lifetime job for the majority of men. Grey Owl was courageous enough to attack them all.” if