Farm journals a record of Prairie history

If you want to know from what direction the wind was blowing in Deloraine, Man., in 1895-96, 1922 and 1924, you’re in luck.

A set of journals written by William C. White, held in the archives of Manitoba, contains daily entries from those years, and almost every entry begins with a noting of the wind, unless there is a bigger weather event that day.

White, a Deloraine farmer, found his life ruled by the vagaries of weather, just as farmers are today, and he carefully noted them throughout his journals.

His entries usually begin with weather observations and then note farming activities of the day, along with social activities, such as visiting friends.

On one August 1926 day, for example, he notes the “south wind, a fine drying day,” mentions that “Dave got a load of lumber,” adds that a horse that had eaten recently cut grain was taken out into the field and “we watched her die,” then finding out “Dr. Miller died after a short illness. A dear good friend.”

Even with such dramatic events in a day, the weather still seemed most important to note first.

Modern folk often think about weather records and observations being composed and maintained by scientific and government authorities, with amateur efforts by others playing a decidedly secondary role in terms of historical records.

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However, farmer journals and those kept by people such as employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company provide an invaluable resource to historians and writers interested in the earliest written period in Western Canada.

Manitoba residents are lucky to have not just their provincial archives housed in Winnipeg, but also the Hudson Bay Company archives.

Many farmer journals and record books are in the general archives, as well as other written records referring to weather experienced by individuals.

The Hudson’s Bay archives contain hundreds of “post journals,” which describe daily activities at the company’s posts spread across much of western North America.

Both sets of archives are in the same building.

Weather often played a big role in entries written by the isolated Europeans working at the posts.

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For example, Francis Heron, an HBC clerk at the Upper Fort Garry post, which is now in the centre of Winnipeg, describes the 1826 Red River flood, which destroyed most of the settlement.

Highlights of that journal have been posted on the Government of Manitoba website (gov.mb.ca) under Hudson’s Bay Company Archives.

Historians and analysts have used the detail contained in the HBC records to produce studies that are also kept at the archives library, such as “Climatic change in central Canada: a preliminary analysis of weather information from the Hudson’s Bay Company forts at York Factory and Churchill Factor, 1714-1870” by Timothy Ball.

A visit to the archives can be a revelatory experience for one interested in prairie history, farm life or weather. Leafing through White’s 1922 and 1924 journals reveals a generally cheerful and optimistic person dealing with the manifold demands of pioneer life while coping with the everyday horrors of baby deaths, sickness and harsh weather.

In the 1896 journal, the writer shows honest feelings about the day’s weather, sometimes describing tough days as “nasty” and celebrating good weather as “cold, but sunshine.”

In their focus on the weather, with its harshness and its beauty, the pioneer farmers recorded feelings and preoccupations not so different to those of today.

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