Grey Owl - the Strange Story of Archie Belaney
I am Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin, Grey Owl. I come in peace.
Known as a Canadian Indian, writer, environmentalist and champion of the beaver, Grey Owl died in April 1938. But his death opened the flood gates to a mystery that he'd kept secret for many years. The famed Ojibwa Indian wasn't all he'd seemed to be: his own stories about his birth in Mexico and being the product of good Apache stock, no longer fitted in with the facts.
So who was Grey Owl?
Back in the mid 1980s I became interested in the story of Grey Owl after a TV documentary. It seems that an ordinary English schoolboy from Hastings in Sussex had somehow transformed himself into the strange, almost mythical figure who created an equally mythical background, not to mention a string of broken marriages and abandoned children. It was a fascinating story and I immediately went out and bought books by Grey Owl himself, as well as his biography by the publisher Lovat Dickson.
Grey Owl's Books
The Men of the Last Frontier. London: Country Life, 1931
Pilgrims of the Wild. London: Lovat Dickson Ltd., 1934.
The Adventures of Sajo and her Beaver People. London: Lovat Dickson Ltd., 1935.
Tales of an Empty Cabin. London: Lovat Dickson Ltd., 1936.
The Tree. London: Lovat Dickson Ltd., 1937 (from Tales of an Empty Cabin)
When Dickson was sent a manuscript of Pilgrims of the Wild, he knew very little about this relatively unknown author, other than that he claimed to be the son of a Scottish Indian-scout father and an Apache mother. There would have been no reason to doubt the story since Grey Owl spoke Ojibwa, looked like a traditional Canadian Indian and boasted an immense knowledge of the forests and rivers, wild animals and people that fascinated him the whole of his adult life.
However, this was about as far from the truth as it's possible to get.
Born in Hastings in 1888 and brought up from the age of four by his aunts Ada and Carrie, the young Archie Belaney was mad on stories about Indians and animals. He would spend entire days exploring in St Helen's Woods and along the cliffs to Rye, where he'd find snakes and other creatures, often bringing them home to his 'menagerie' in the attic. Archie's interest in all things wild and wonderful, prompted him to pester the aunts to let him emigrate to Canada so he could join the Indians and learn their ways.
Needless to say, Archie Belaney got his way, but the following few years show him in a quite a different light to the thoughtful environmentalist he was to become. Travelling from Halifax to Toronto, then on to Temiskaming and later to Lake Temagami, Belaney became friendly with John Egwuna and his family and it wasn't long before he married their niece, Angele. It is from Angele that he picked up his early skills in trapping and canoeing, but Archie had other metaphorical fish to fry and even the birth of the couple's daughter Agnes couldn't hold him.
By 1912, he was in Biscotasing where he earned himself a bit of a reputation as a trapper, forest ranger and, unfortunately, also as a drinker. While in Bisco, he met Marie Girard, but whatever charms she may have had weren't enough to keep him at her side and Archie was soon on his way, leaving Marie alone and pregnant. No-one knows if Archie knew about the pregnancy, but in any case, Marie died soon after giving birth to a son, John.
Back in Blighty
When war came, Archie signed up and went to fight as a sniper. However, a foot injury in 1916 ended his career as a soldier and landed him in hospital. By a strange quirk of fate, he was sent to Hastings to recuperate and once back in England, Archie got in touch with his aunts. Through an old friend, he met Constance Ivy Homes and very soon the couple decided to get married. Sadly, the pattern of Archie's behaviour did not change and in 1917 he left for Canada, promising to send for his new wife as soon as possible. Rather unsurprisingly, she never saw him again.
In 1926, Archie was back at Lake Temagami and returned to Angele long enough to father another child, Flora, but as usual, he was soon off on his travels again. Naturally, he met another woman, but this time he did not simply 'love her and leave her'. Iroquois Gertrude Bernard was nicknamed 'Pony', but Archie gave her a new name: Anahareo. Archie's trapping activities continued during the winter months, until his attitude to the animals slowly began to change: he started to see the damage being done by so much slaughter, and more importanlty, how the precious beaver were rapidly declining in numbers.
When he and Anahareo saved two beaver kits after catching their mother, Archie's approach to his work changed significantly. Soon he was campaigning for the beaver instead of killing them and he began to write articles in a bid to aid his new conservationist outlook. Country Life magazine, who published his first article, wondered if Archie might be interested in writing a book. The Men of the Last Frontier was published in 1931.
Now with several publications and even short films under his belt, Archie needed a publisher in the UK. Lovat Dickson produced Pilgrims of the Wild and Sajo and Her Beaver People (for children) and in 1935, organised a lecture tour. Audiences were thrilled to see the mysteriouos stranger and hear his wonderful tales of the northern forests. Archie's traditional Indian outfits and supposedly authentic name did nothing to deter their enthusiasm.
Further tours followed in Canada, but the strain began to show and despite having had another child, Shirley Dawn, Archie and Anahareo separated. Shortly afterwards, Archie met and married Canadian Yvonne Perrier, who accompanied him on another tour - this time Britain and North America.
By 1938 at the age of only 49, Archie's hard drinking days caught up with him and he died on April 13 of pneumonia. It would only be a few days before the real story of Grey Owl hit the headlines across the world.
Though he may have been a liar, a bigamist and a pretty crap father, Archie Belaney created a meaningful role for himself - one he played very well, and he left a legacy of conservation and respect for beavers and other wild animals that might otherwise have taken years to come of the attention of the rest of the world.