By Tina Adcock
“Friday. Left Peace River Aug 30 1929 ran on sand bar, had to stay all night, rained to beat heck.” With this tweet, Derryl Murphy began to narrate a family history that would soon gain a much larger audience than tales of this kind usually do. This past November, Derryl, an author based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, began to live-tweet the diary that his grandfather, Cyril “Bud” Murphy, had kept during his first winter on a trapline in the Northwest Territories. He sent out these tweets under the moniker @TrapperBud.
@TrapperBud was an immediate success. Within two weeks of its creation, it had more than 700 followers—an astonishing number for a non-celebrity account to rack up in so short a time. The CBC and HuffPost Canada interviewed Derryl. @TrapperBud was recommended by Slate’s history blog The Vault and by Canadian Geographic. The surprising popularity of Bud Murphy’s diary reveals some interesting and unexpected insights about contemporary public engagements with northern Canadian history. In attracting a community of people with their own northern histories to tell, @TrapperBud may have also opened up new possibilities for my own research.
The relationship between people and wildlife in northern Canada was central to work and life there a century ago, and remains so today. One has only to look to the anger engendered among northerners by the European Union’s ban on seal products, or to disputes over increasingly lucrative fishing grounds as temperate marine species migrate north, or to the iconic role of the polar bear in global debates about climate change and the Arctic. In the early twentieth century, talk revolved more around Arctic foxes, minks, and other small fur-bearing creatures with fine pelts, to which the global marketplace assigned ever-greater worth. Bud was one of many men who headed north to trap in the 1920s and 1930s, when furs held their value relative to other commodities, and when economic opportunities were more constrained in other parts of North America. My new research project aims to uncover the history of these trappers and their relationships with northern environments, which they came to know intimately through the intensive and exacting labor that successful trapping required.
Bud was born in Victoria, British Columbia, but spent much of his childhood and adolescence living in northern BC and Alberta. At the age of 18, he went to the Northwest Territories with his father Matt Murphy, a well-known northern trapper mentioned by RCC alumnus John Sandlos in his book Hunters on the Margin. Bud’s diary is a typical account of a season on a northern trapline. It opens with the long, arduous journey from Peace River in northern Alberta to the Barrens, a tundra landscape east of Great Slave Lake. Travelling by motorized river barge, and portaging between lakes and rivers on foot, Bud and Matt arrived at their main cabin, situated close to Artillery Lake, in late October 1929. Once settled, they began to prepare their cabins, caches, and equipment for winter. They hunted caribou and fished in order to lay down sufficient food for themselves and their dogs. As autumn turned to winter, they began setting out traps and patrolling their lines regularly. These activities are chronicled in entries from the diary, which Derryl tweets twice daily. Derryl also posts photographs taken by Bud and Matt in the North, and occasionally tweets other kinds of documents, such as lists of equipment and supplies. He frequently breaks the fourth wall by asking his followers for more information about unfamiliar place names, or about the specific location of certain geographical features. Northern residents following @TrapperBud are often able to answer the questions he poses.
In one interview, Derryl attributes the appeal of @TrapperBud to southerners’ continued fascination with the “barren, rugged North.” I don’t doubt the region’s inexhaustible allure to armchair explorers. What strikes me as interesting about Bud’s diary, though, is its tone. It’s not written in the bombastic and overblown style so often favored by southern visitors to the North. Bud is plain-spoken, brief, factual. He describes the mundane, quotidian experiences of life and work on a northern trapline, including necessary indoor tasks such as baking bread and laundering and mending clothes. “I love this moment of domestic life,” Derryl comments after one such entry. “It wasn’t all rugged woodsman, and that’s a delight for me to read.” There seems to be an unexpected public appetite for northern history written in a quieter key—for less obviously exciting stories that reveal, no less clearly, the considerable strength, endurance, and self-possession required of those who overwinter in remote places.
For some, Bud’s story is compelling because it resembles ones told within their own families. Several of Bud’s followers have hinted at their own personal northern histories in replies to his tweets. They speak of their grandfathers who ran northern traplines; of their families who trapped the Athabasca; of relatives who were game wardens in Norman Wells. I’ve heard many similar confidences when I mention my regional area of expertise in casual conversation. Indeed, these kinds of admissions should come as little surprise. As a recent study has shown, Canadians engage most frequently with the past through the lens of family and local history. They save prized historical objects and mementos to pass down to their children. Sorting through boxes of documents in their attics and basements, they become de facto family historians. Canada’s population is concentrated heavily along its southern border. Yet many Canadians, it seems, possess these hidden, often cherished northern family histories. The online reception of Bud’s diary has shone light upon these fine and unexpected lifelines connecting north and south, past and present—and professional historians and their publics.
The widespread appeal of Bud’s diary has strengthened my faith in my own project. There are clearly people out there who want to listen to the kind of stories I want to tell. @TrapperBud’s popularity also enhances my ability to tell that story. One difficulty I’ve encountered so far in my research is the smaller-than-expected number of documents created by trappers that reside in public archives. I suspect that many such documents remain in family hands, as Bud’s diaries have done. When people are compelled by Derryl’s tweets to come forth and say, “I have a northern story in my family, too,” I can then send them a tweet to see if they might like to tell that story to me. In so doing, they would help me to revive historical voices that might otherwise remain mute. The story of @TrapperBud has cemented my conviction that Twitter is a powerful and multifaceted tool for historians (or #twitterstorians, as we call ourselves). With its help, we can construct and broadcast our narratives more broadly than ever before.
@TrapperBud began as a way for Derryl to share Bud’s diaries with distant family members. It has now become something larger: a public, often collaborative northern history to which others add not only their knowledge, but also their own histories of family experience in the region. This seems to me an excellent step toward telling a fuller, more resonant history of non-aboriginal society in northern Canada. If my own contribution to this history attains a fraction of the reach and power that @TrapperBud has had to date, I’ll be well pleased.
Tina Adcock is an assistant professor of history and Canadian studies at the University of Maine. She can be found on Twitter @TinaAdcock.