The first child of European descent born in the Interior of BC, was guided into life with the help of a Secwepemc midwife.
WHAT USED TO BE CHRIST’S MASS, second only to Easter on the medieval Christian calendar, is now pretty-much a global commercial phenomenon far more suffused with the secular than the spiritual—and yet the mythic outline of the story endures, perhaps because it offers profound lessons that transcend materialism, commerce and self-interest which can speak to those of all religions, creeds, beliefs or non-beliefs.
So, as we all embark on a national journey toward reconciliation, still tested by simmering tensions over our colonial past, by immigration and shifting cultural tropes, by the manifestations of apparent differences of faith, ethnicity, wealth and social class, consider this a small Christmas story from British Columbia’s own creation myth—the discovery of gold in 1858 that unleashed a torrent of greed and avarice that utterly transformed the social, political and cultural landscape of what is now our shared province.
Pedants might argue that this can’t really be a Christmas story because it occurred one mid-October day 159 years ago.
But then, the original Christmas that we nominally celebrate didn’t take place in late December, either. As far as we can tell by studying the historical and astronomical records, that first Christmas perhaps took place around mid-October, too. It had migrated to December for reasons of politics, propaganda and expedience, conveniently draping itself as a Christian overlay upon pre-existing pagan celebrations—the earlier Roman festival of Saturnalia and Northern European winter solstice rites.
How do we guess that? Thank the astronomers. Their computers determined that a rare conjunction of two of the night sky’s brightest objects, Jupiter and Saturn, occurred in October of the year 7 Before Common Era, or what used to be called Before Christ until science decided that dating methods were better detached from religion.
The actual celestial event resonates with the story of the Christmas star, which, according to the story, led three wise men to the birthplace of the infant Jesus, where they then presented him with expensive presents. In that story, the heavenly beacon also served to signal his arrival to shepherds and, presumably, anyone else who was paying attention to the night sky on that chilly October night.
There’s a bit more corroboration in the records that survive from the reigns of Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of Imperial Rome, and Herod the Great, the descendant of one of Alexander the Great’s generals who was reduced to local kinglet under the thumb of mighty Augustus.
But back to that original story which occurs during a Roman census.
The Christmas story tells of a young family—Joseph, a carpenter, and his new wife, Mary—travelling the roads when the young woman goes into labour. A nearby inn, jammed with similar wayfarers trying to fulfil their bureaucratic duty to register their existence with the Imperial authorities, has no room.
Yet the compassionate inn-keeper lets the couple take shelter in his stable, warmed, at least, by the steaming heat of the livestock. And there, in the humblest of surroundings, the infant Jesus who, in the medieval rendering at least, is destined to be the king of kings, is born.
BC’s story has interesting congruencies.
IT’S THE TALE OF ANOTHER Augustus, August Schubert, his name only the faintest echo of that Roman emperor who founded an empire that lasted a thousand years. Our Augustus, too, is a simple carpenter—a feckless one, judging from the record—and he’s also travelling with his young wife, a gritty Irish woman born Catherine O’Hare, the youngest of nine children, in 1835 in County Down.
She emigrated to the United States as a 16-year-old, one of the “famine Irish” fleeing the great potato blight which killed a million people and sent another two million into diaspora, many of them dying in cholera epidemics on the way.
Catherine worked as a maid and spent her off hours learning to read. She married Augustus, about 10 years her senior, when she was 20, and in 1860 they emigrated with their three children to the Red River Settlement in what’s now Manitoba.
When word arrived of a rich gold strike in distant BC, Augustus decided he was going to make his fortune. He signed on with a party of 150 “Overlanders” who were travelling from what’s now Winnipeg to Fort Edmonton and then over the Yellowhead Pass to the Cariboo gold fields.
But Catherine was not about to be abandoned with three small children while her husband went prospecting. She insisted so strenuously that the party reversed its rule that no women could join the expedition and made a place for her. She didn’t trouble the expedition leader with the information that she was pregnant—after all, he’d assured them it was just a six week journey across the prairies by Red River ox cart, then they’d drift rafts down the Fraser River to the diggings and get rich.
But the journey took six months and it was cruel. Drought, flood, thirst and hunger punished the expedition over the first 1,600 kilometres. At Fort Edmonton, Catherine sold the family’s cow.
“Crossing the Pembina River,” 1862 sketch by William George Richardson Hind, who accompanied the Overlanders, travelling from Fort Garry [Winnipeg] to the interior of British Columbia in search of gold. Courtesy Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1963-97-1.85R)
Nuns at St Ann’s mission begged her to stay with them but Catherine insisted on staying with her husband.
They pressed on. They built eight bridges across icy torrents, lost pack horses that fell into canyons, crawled narrow trails above precipices carrying their children on their backs. It was August 21 when the last of their pemmican ran out, a long, hungry week before they reached the headwaters of the Fraser River at Tete June Cache.
Rafts broke up and capsized in the thunderous rapids, men drowned. Augustus, Catherine and the children took another route to the Thompson River. They got lost. They were starving. They foraged for berries, snared squirrels and ate wild rose hips. They stumbled into a deserted First Nations village, learning only later it had been devastated by the smallpox epidemic which carried off thousands in 1862. But they found an abandoned garden and were able to dig up enough potatoes to keep them going for another four days until, nearing Kamloops, Secwepemc people gave them salmon and huckleberry cakes and pointed them in the right direction.
On the banks of the Thompson River, near what’s now Kamloops, Catherine went into labour with her fourth child.
Two Secwepemc woman took her into their lodge. They gave birthing assistance to the stranger whose language they didn’t share and together, on October 14, 1862, ushered into the world Rose Schubert. And thus, the first child of European descent born in the Interior of BC was welcomed into the hands of her First Nations midwife, a metaphor that should guide us into the uncertain future.
Area where Secwepemc women helped settler woman give birth along banks of the Thompson River. This is a view of North Kamloops looking north from Thompson Rivers University (photo by AC Macaulay, Creative Commons)
Catherine, it’s said, first thought of naming her new daughter Kamloops but decided on Rose because of the wild rosehips that had kept them alive during the last desperate days before they were saved by the Secwepemc band.
Like the Christmas story that still resonates at the heart of all those other trappings, secular, religious, commercial or familial, the story of that birth at Kamloops, the story of Rose, Catherine and her unnamed but not forgotten Secwepemc midwives; of the refugee finding refuge; a story of love and determination, hope and perseverance, kindness and tolerance, sharing and goodwill to strangers—that story offers us a lesson for our own time.
It reminds us that these are the true gifts we should celebrate with one another no matter the troubles or what the differing values and beliefs of those we encounter along the way.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.