Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Love and Marriage: the Marguerite Saftig Laimee complication

Marguerite Saftig Laimee, third wife of George Carmack. Courtesy Yukon Archives.

In Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race for Gold, there’s a chapter called “A Troublesome Question” in which the common thread is the shifting of alliances as a means of managing change. The action unfolds from the perspective of three Indians: Lunaat, the Tlingit chief who’s losing control of the Chilkoot Trail; Bob, a young Northern Tutchone on a death march to deliver news of the Fortymile gold strike; and Kitty, niece of Shaaw Tlaa (Kate) and first wife of George Carmack.

Of all alliances, marriage is among the most fascinating, and it doesn’t get much more fascinating than George Carmack’s three marriages, not only on a personal level, but because of the broader sociological entanglements each represents.

There’s much to discuss. Here, let’s stick to a simple complicating factor, in the person of one Marguerite Saftig Laimee Carmack, aka (to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) Biddy McCarthy. In this particular chapter, she gets only a passing mention. I’ll have a lot more to say about her once she becomes George Carmack’s third wife.

What compelled Carmack to take an Indian bride? What were proportions of love, convenience, and strategic alliance were involved? To what extent did he care about Kitty, or later, about Kate? I wanted to reach deeply into the emotions of these alliances without resorting to speculation.

Marguerite, on the other hand, would just as soon have forgotten about her husband’s previous marriages. Read his memoirs, none written in his own hand, and you’d think she was his one and only. I had to comb other primary sources to verify that he first married Kitty, and to create a sense of what that meant to his bride. Here, an excerpt that begins with George Carmack staying behind with the Indians while his fellow prospectors leave the region for the winter:

Instructed by [Johnny] Healy, Carmack needed little persuading. The others went on, but he stayed with [Skookum] Jim on the shores of Lake Bennett, where Kitty and her family had come recently from their summer fish camp. As the caribou trampled by thousands through the narrow valley at the foot of the lake, she and Carmack were married, the Indian way.

There would be among prospectors and Yukon Indians many such marriages. As with all matters of love and allegiance, the motives and circumstances were many, but there was this overarching pattern: after mucking around for a few years in the North, a man would grow attached to a place and a lifestyle and the prospect of fortune just around the next bend in the river. But he would also tire of the company of men, and the longing for female companionship would become too strong to ignore. A white woman was out of the question. During the earliest years of prospecting on the Yukon, there simply were none.

Having come in along the northern route used by Hudson Bay traders, [Arthur] Harper, [Jack] McQuesten, and [Alfred ]Mayo all married Indian women in the summer of 1874, roughly three years after arriving in the North. Their wives were Koyukon Athabascans from the lower Yukon, nearly a thousand river miles from the Tlingit and Tagish. Theirs was a region already penetrated by Russians, some of whom had intermarried long before. While prospecting new territory, Harper, McQuesten, and Mayo might leave their wives in their villages for a year or two at a stretch, but for the most part the women lived with their husbands at the various trading posts they established up and down the Yukon, raising their children much as they had been raised, a hybrid lifestyle, part Indian and part white.

How did love factor into these matches? Undoubtedly there was an attraction, at least on the part of the husband. J. Bernard Moore, who with his father later founded the gold rush town of Skagway, followed the typical pattern. Just as Moore began to get lonely from three years of traveling up and down the Yukon, George Shotridge, son of Koh’klux, invited Moore to a potlatch. “I was twenty years old, with no great and serious thoughts of the future,” Moore said. “I felt light of heart, though lonesome at times, living in and seeing only the present.” Across the warm, crowded clan house, as Tlingit dancers swayed and rocked, back and forth and sideways, Moore locked eyes with a delicate girl of fourteen. She ran off, but when George Shotridge invited Moore to his house after the potlatch, there she was, the girl Moore called Minnie, daughter of George Shotridge and granddaughter of Koh’klux. Soon they were married.

Whether Carmack felt the same sort of attraction for her as Moore did for Minnie will never be known, because his third wife, Marguerite Laimee, erased any mention of Indian women from Carmack’s memoirs.

It would be a lot easier to write about Carmack’s first two marriages if Marguerite hadn’t burned his papers and excluded these women when she herself re-assembled his memoir. But then again, if Marguerite hadn’t come between George and his wife, Kate would never have confronted the choices that make her story so compelling.