Royal Alberta Museum Online Exhibitions Presents

Introduction


James Carnegie, the 9th Earl of Southesk.

"Towards the close of 1858, while visiting at the house of a friend, I happened to mention my desire to travel in some part of the world where good sport could be met with among the larger animals, and where, at the same time, I might recruit my health by an active open-air life in a healthy climate. 'Why not go to the Hudson's Bay country?' said one."

-from Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains: A Diary and Narrative of Travel, Sport, and Adventure, during a Journey through the Hudson's Bay Company's Territories, in 1859 and 1860, by the Earl of Southesk

In June 1859 James Carnegie, the 9th Earl of Southesk, headed out from Fort Garry, the Hudson's Bay Company's western headquarters in the Red River Settlement, on a hunting expedition. Over the next seven months, the Scottish aristocrat and his Métis guides traveled more than 4,000 kilometres across the northern plains to the Rocky Mountains and back.

While Southesk's primary objective was to hunt exotic big game animals, he also collected objects made by First Nations and Métis people whom he met in the course of his travels. These objects included finely-made garments and accessories, weaponry, and horse gear. Traveling with Southesk when he returned home, they remained at Kinnaird Castle, the family estate, for the next 146 years — until the spring of 2006, when the earl's descendents put them up for auction at Sotheby's in New York.

When word of the impending auction reached the Royal Alberta Museum, we resolved to purchase as much of the collection as we could. Armed with letters of support from First Nations and Métis leaders, academics and museum colleagues, we applied for emergency funding. The Department of Canadian Heritage, the Government of Alberta and the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation all came through. By the eve of the auction, we had raised $1.1 million. It wasn't enough to secure the entire collection, but we did acquire 33 of the 43 objects up for sale. The current Earl of Southesk subsequently donated five additional items linked with the collection.

Although relatively small, the Southesk collection is significant. The objects are early (objects from the northern plains dating to the 1850s are rare), and many are of exceptional quality. The collection also speaks to the cultural diversity of western fur trade society. Although modest in size, it includes work from at least five distinct cultures — Plains Cree, Blackfoot, Métis, Nakoda and Anishnaabe.

Most exciting of all, the collection offers the opportunity to connect with real people from the past. Southesk kept a daily journal in which he wrote about people he met and places he visited. Although the journal was destroyed in a fire at the Southesk estate in 1921, the earl had published an account of his trip, Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains, in 1875. The book incorporates many passages from his journal and discusses some of the objects that he collected. Southesk didn't explain where, how, or from whom he acquired each object, but he provided enough clues to allow us to link some of these objects with the individuals who made or owned them. We invite you to meet these people and enjoy the remarkable legacy that they created.