Wednesday, June 20, 2012

George McDougall and Methodist Conceptions of Death

Image No: NA-659-44
Title: Reverend George McDougall.
Date: [ca. 1875-1876]
Photo: Field, Montreal, Quebec.
The death of the Reverend George McDougall, in January of 1876, is one of the iconic moments in Western Canadian history.  Out on a buffalo hunt with his son John, George lost his way, and was found in the snows, laying on his back as if readied to meet his maker, or those of the search party that would find him.  Sarah Carter, in her 1981 thesis wrote of the mystery of the event:
In January of 1876, George and John McDougall and two other men were buffalo hunting north of present-day
Calgary . On one clear evening George rode ahead to prepare supper for the others but did not make it to camp. The search lasted for several days during which there was a fierce blizzard . His frozen body was eventually found but there were no clues as to the cause of death . The mystery was that there was no explanation for how an experienced frontiersman could become lost on a clear night . (Carter, Man's Mission of Subjugation, p.20)

Grave of George McDougall
Alison Jackson Photograph Collection, AJ 1458
Canadian Methodist missionary writings of the nineteenth century often take a surprisingly positive stance on death.  Oftentimes, the deathbed confessions of aboriginal peoples are taken as moments of joy, which show that they are in transition to a peaceful eternity in heaven.

Ironically, George McDougall took death as the topic of a letter he wrote James Ferrier on 6 January 1876, very shortly before he died on the plains somewhere near today's Calgary, Alberta.

There is something that strikes on all hearts in the spectacle of a great man's funeral. The hearse, the solemn march of the procession are both very impressive, and yet the subject of all this show may have been heedless of the great salvation, and if so, is now suffering the doom of a lost spirit.[...] Reflections like these often cross the mind of the Indian missionary., as he looks for the last time upon all that is mortal of one of his Sabbath School scholars. In the past twenty five years I have assisted at the burial of hundreds of these little red children; the squirrel now gambols in the boughs of the trees that everhang their graves, and the partridge whistles in the long grass that floats over the solitary place, but the incidents connected with their short pilgrimage cannot be forgotten.
(James Ferrier Canadian Methodist collection, Public Archives of Alberta, PR 1975.0572)

McDougall wrote the passage for a model Sabbath School curriculum that Ferrier was organizing, and included the death stories of two  aboriginal children.  There is a curious serendipity to McDougall's morbid topic.  It must have come as a shock to Ferrier to learn, shortly after, if not before he received McDougall's letter, that the famous missionary had departed the mortal realm.

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