Tuesday, April 27, 1999

Q&A with CBC for Harmon documentary "The Winterer"

Background research provided to the CBC for their Spring 2000 documentary Harmon: The Winterer in The Pathfinders series for Canada: A People's History.

Can you describe the type of relationship that Harmon had with Lizette?

They achieved Harmon's stated ideal of a relationship (1800), to "live in harmony together." Their partnership was lifelong, devoted, based on mutual respect, a source of cross-cultural exchange in which each gained entry into the other's milieu, and a dynastic union which satisfied both Harmon's deep need for family connection, and the custom, which he often observed amon Indian women, of cheerfully choosing large families. Harmon wrote that "I cannot conceive it right for a man and woman to cohabit when they do not agree," and their decision to come East together was clearly a mutual one. "I consider that I am under a moral obligation not to dissolve the connexion, if she is willing to continue it," and clearly she was so willing, for his lifetime and for the remaining 29 years of hers.
Much has been made of the fact that Harmon never mentioned Lisette by name. He writes in his appendix that it is a mark of respect among the Cree not to speak the name of a person under discussion, but to refer to them indirectly. In the world of man whose highest devotion was to family and community, there can be no higher state than the one Daniel accorded Lisette. She was "the mother of my children."

Who is Lizette Duval? Can you write up a character sketch? What made her tick? What's quirky and fascinating about her?

Elizabeth Laval, or Duval, was the Métis "daughter of a French-Canadian voyageur and a woman of the Snare people, whose country lies along the Rocky Mountain." She was born circa 1791 in the western Canadian Rockies, and was long thought to be a Snake Indian from the Kootenays. "Snare" was considered a misspelling in Harmon's original journal, of which only copies are known to exist. Recent scholars have speculated that the "Snare" people do exist, and are now the Secwepemec band of the North Thompson River, BC, but band leaders were unable to confirm this in 1997.

Lisette, as she was known, was given into Daniel's care "à la facon du pays" at age 14, in South Branch Fort, Saskatchewan, October 10, 1806. She was "a fair Partner…of a mild disposition and even-tempered." After sixteen years together, she and Daniel were formally married in the Congregational Church before leaving the NWC country. Biographers Kaye Lamb and John Spargo give their marriage as occurring at NWC headquarters at Fort William, ONT, a few days after Daniel's journal records their arrival there on August 18. Their son John, incidentally, was born there on August 24, and the family continued on to arrive in Vergennes, VT on September 11 of the same season.

Lisette was a woman of endurance. She made an epic transcontinental journey while pregnant and nursing a newborn, as well as caring for two daughters aged eight and two throughout the canoe trip. She bore fourteen children, ten surviving infancy, and outlived all but one. She was a devoted and by all evidence beloved mother; she grieved with Harmon over the loss of "our darling son" their firstborn George, and her youngest daughter Abby Maria was buried in her mother's grave. Lisette died at Sault-au-Recollet, Montreal, February 14, 1861, aged 72. A stone to both Harmons in Mount Royal Cemetery was probably a gift of Abby Maria's friends.

Lisette's patient, listening ear and keen eye for detail live on in her work. Harmon's journal, edited by the Rev. Daniel Haskell, includes a Cree dictionary which was made correct "by making the nice distinctions in the sound of the words, as derived from her repeated pronunciation of them." Her one surviving artifact is a quillworked leather shot bag in the Bennington Museum, acclaimed by art historians and anthropologists as one of the finest surviving examples of its genre. The stitches are tiny and close-set, the vegetable dyes rich and bright, the leather fine and supple, and the design exquisite. One can only imagine how many long summer days on canoe trips, and harsh winter nights from the Rockies to Vermont and Montreal, found her sewing by the fire, attentive to her task.

Who is Daniel Harmon? Can you write a short character sketch? Why did he leave Vermont and enter the fur trade? What is his motivation? What did he hope to accomplish?

Daniel Williams Harmon was a moral man whose passions were conversation, religion, and family. He was intense but not an intellectual, intelligent but not educated. Though one of his brothers went to Dartmouth, Haskell bemoans Daniel's lack of a classical education as it shows through in his rough writing style. He was passionately spiritual, intensely reserved, and extremely hard on himself. Every single birthday in his journal finds him condemning his life of “folly and sin," though apart from one or two occasions where he admits to being "three sheets to the wind," it is hard to find evidence of his transgressions. He was serious, earnest and responsible, and inclined to be dry, especially without the society he craved. This was the society of close friends and their books, and he constantly laments the lack of good conversation especially about religion. He missed his family intensely, and yearned for their letters; we can only regret that none of his survived.

As the youngest son of a conservative Yankee innkeeper, Daniel found both the reason and the means to leave Vermont in his father's tavern. The Harmons and the Deweys, his mother's family, were "deeply religious people" (see John Spargo for full quote).

A Voyageur Song for Daniel and Lisette

Certain songs go with certain types of paddling water and thus certain sections of the route. You’ll find most of them, including melodies, here  or here. For a theme song for the whole Harmon story as you’ve framed it, I would use “En montant la riviere.” Though it’s on the first site above, it’s worth quoting here.


C’est dans le mois de mai, en montant la rivière, 
C’est dans le mois de mai, que les filles sont belles 
Que les filles sont belles o gai, que les filles sont belles.

Et que tous les amants, en montant la rivière, 

Et que tous les amants y changeant leurs maîtresse 
Y changent leurs maîtresse o gai, y changent leurs maîtresse.

Mais moi je n’changerai pas, en montant la rivière, 

Mais moi je n’changerai pas, car la mienne est trop belle 
Car la mienne est trop belle o gai, car la mienne est trop belle.

Elle a de beaux yeux bleus, en montant la rivière, 

Elle a de beaux yeux bleus, une bouche vermeille 
Une bouche vermeille o gai, une bouche vermeille.

Oh! qu’il me serait doux, en montant la rivière, 

Oh! qu’il me serait doux, doux de vivre avec elle, 
Doux de vivre avec elle o gai, doux de vivre avec elle.

This is Harmon’s song: all the rest of those gauche Canadiens are faithless lovers, but he won’t change his sweetheart, she’s too lovely, it’s too sweet to live with her.

I’d have the voyageurs singing this as he departs, with him sitting clueless in the bow (poor dumb maudit Anglais). By the time he comes home, with his French wife and a family of his own, he’s learned the truth of the voyageurs’ song as he mounts his own river, the Richelieu, for Vermont and home. I’d have a woman’s voice singing it then as a lullaby (Lisette to Sally and John), and Daniel smiling and nodding along as he remembers. Now he understands.

As-Yet Unanswered Questions

  • When did people start calling Harmon "the priest?" Do you have any other tidbits about him that would make his character come alive?
  • Was Harmon in love with the land before he met Lizette? Did he embrace or accept his surroundings and its people (natives)?
  • What kind of values did he uphold in the interior?
  • What was his religious evolution? Take me through the steps - from him entering the business to leave his religious background, to him reading the bible because he's bored, to his conversion?
  • Tell me about his family and father? Who was he? what was his influence on Harmon?
  • How do you become a winterer? how did Harmon become one? What are the qualifications for the job?
  • How do you get promoted in the interior? It took Harmon 18 years to become a partner!
  • What did Harmon think of the fur trade? What did he think his life was going to be like? Did he have a romanticized notion?
  • Did Harmon feel like an outsider in the interior? Tell me about his loneliness?
  • How was Daniel and Lizette's wedding conducted? What happened exactly?
  • what kind of father and what type of husband was Daniel Harmon?
  • Which English books did Harmon use to teach her daughter Polly to read?