Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Remembering My Great-Grandfather

In 1916, my great grandfather William, or Bill, as he was called by everyone who knew him well, volunteered for active service in the First World War. 

Canoeing in Northern Ontario

Bill Guppy was an early frontiersman in northern Ontario, whose adventures as a hunter and guide earned him a fleeting fame as the "King of The Woodsman" in the now obscure book of the same name by the writer Hal Pink. 

My great grandfather served as a guide for wealthy southern tourists, who came to the north to hunt deer and moose.

Today, Bill Guppy is occasionally remembered as the early mentor of celebrated conservationist known as Grey Owl.

Archie Belaney, or Grey Owl as he came to be known, was born in Hastings England and raised by two very strict spinster aunts. Archie retreated from this unhappy childhood into romantic adventure books filled with tales of North American Native peoples. When he was of age, he came to Canada to look for adventure in the wilds of northern Ontario. 

This is a faded image of the my grandfather's store in Temagami, Ontario. The store in the wilds of northern Canada sold supplies to fur trappers and groceries to locals and visiting tourists.

My grandfather, Bill gave Archie a place to stay and his first trap line to work. He also shared his first-hand knowledge of native religion, customs and language during that first winter in northern Ontario.

Archie adopted the Indian name "Grey Owl". To look more like an Indian, he dyed his hair black and darkened his skin with henna. When people asked about his background, Archie began to claim to be the son of a Scot and an Apache Indian.

As Grey Owl, he continued to work as a guide and trapper until one day, the young Iroquois Indian whom he had married, convinced him to spare the lives of two motherless beaver kits. Over the following winter and spring, the beaver kits won Grey Owl over and he found he could no longer bare the daily suffering that he saw working a trap line. He began to think deeply about conservation and saving the beaver, which had by then been hunted to near extinction.

Grey Owl began to write stories for English magazines and in 1936 he returned to England to lecture dressed as the romantic Indian he idolized as a boy. At the height of his fame in 1937, he was even presented the king and queen of England as a native North American. It was not until after his death in 1937, that the Grey Owl's fraudulent identity was revealed.

Since that time, there has been a number of books delving into the mysterious figure known as Grey Owl, as well as a mediocre movie directed by Richard Attenborough and staring none other than Pierce Brosnan.

The 1999 movie "Grey Owl" directed by Richard Attenborough and staring Pierce Brosnan.

My great grandfather was also a colorful character in his own right. The Ojibwa Indians of northern Ontario nicknamed the "Little Lynx" because of the bushy eyebrows that stuck out like the distinctive tufts of fur on the ears of a lynx.

When he signed up for active service in the first world war at the age of 42, he was a popular figure who was given the task of first acquiring and then managing a black bear named Kitchener and a moose named Bessie, both mascots for the 159th Battalion of the First Algonquin Overseas Regiment.

Bill Guppy in 1916 with "Bessie" the mouse and "Kitchener" the bear.

When orders came for the regiment to go to France, the bear and moose boarded the Empress of Britain with the troops for the fourteen day trip to Liverpool, England. Neither Bill nor the bear were seasick, but Bessie the moose had a bad time of it. She grew steadily weaker and died.

When the call to the front approached, Bill Guppy was ordered to take the bear to the London zoo for safekeeping. A Canadian black bear was not a typical passenger on an English rail line, so it took quite a bit of persuasion before Bill and Kitchener, the bear could board the train bound for London.

A horse drawn hansom cab, circa 1900.  Image from the London Transport Museum.

When Bill and his bear arrived in London, the station was packed with troops leaving for France and the families seeing them off. The station was quickly in a state of pandemonium, complete with shrieks and yells, as everyone shoved and elbowed to clear a path for the Canadian soldier with his black bear.

Bill and Kitchener rattled through the streets of London in a hansom cab, Kitchener standing on the cab's splashboard, showing his white teeth to the staring crowds of astonished Londoners. 

After releasing the bear into his new pen at the London zoo, Bill left for the front line in France, where he went for a stretch of 39 days without rest. At one point a German shell exploded burying Bill and several other men alive in their trench. Amazingly, he escaped with only minor cuts and bruises.

In 1917, my great grandfather wrote home in a letter that survives to this day. The letter was written hurriedly in pencil on Salvation Army stationary and uses the plain simple language of a man with limited education. Words are misspelled and sentences run together without capitals or periods. He writes:

"I can't tell you much on paper, but believe me Canada is making a name for herself here...We have done great work at Passiondale and Hill 70. We are great pets of the french. Everyone loves the boys from the land of the maple leaf."

Passchendaele in 1917 from the website: the Canadians at Passchendaele-Friends of the 58th Battalion

Then, with that special awareness of men caught in wartime who know they may never make it home, he adds a few final words of advice directed to his sixteen year old son (my grandfather Alfred):

"Go straight, be gentle and honest and you can't go wrong."


  1. Thank you for telling us about your great grandfather with Remembrance Day just around the corner. He sounds like he was a man who was straight, gentle and honest.

  2. Dear Jennifer, What an absolutely fascinating account of your relatives. And, so poignant at this time of year when we remember those who have died that we may live in freedom. The illustrations are very fine indeed, making this a terrific piece of archive material.

  3. Hi Jennifer ~ A compelling tale of one of our own home-grown legends & hereos ... LOVE IT! I will be sure to take a moment during my minute of silence tomorrow and remember all that your great-grandfather sacrificed for our great Nation! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this bit of history of your great grandfather and his friend. What a wonderful history they left. Loved the story!

  5. What a great post! Fantastic story, and that beaver kit... I really want one now :)

  6. What an amazing story! I love the photos and the history!

  7. What a touching story to enhance our observance of Remembrance Day. The close up photo of the Poppy is awesome.

  8. Jennifer, this is a wonderful story. It is great that you know so much about your relatives.


  9. What a wonderful post!! I love it!! Tomorrow is our Veteran's Day and I was wondering how to create a meaningful post dedicated to the veterans in my life. Now you've got me thinking! Thanks!! Your great-grandfather sounds like a great guy. I love his parting words!

  10. Beautiful story! and a very nice family history.

  11. Bringing history to life. Not just another face, but a man with a name. My grandfather died in September, shortly before the peace was declared. I have his name, and dates. Visited his grave in Northern France. But don't know his life story to tell as you have been able to here.

  12. Thanks everyone for taking a moment or two to leave me a comment. I really value your comments and encouragement. I am very fortunate to have may pictures of my great grandfather as well as a few letters Bill Guppy wrote from the front lines of WW1. Best reference of all on his colorful life is the book by Hal Pink: "King of the Woodsmen" You can see it online:

  13. Wow...I love this! Bill Guppy was also my great grandfather. My grandfather was Gordon. I'm working on albums for my brothes for Christmas and thought I should include something about our great grandfather and Grey Owl. I was pleasantly surprised to come across your blog during my Google search. Thank you so much for sharing!

  14. Hi Audrey, I don't check this older post as often as I should and missed your comment. I am glad you found the post helpful in putting your albums together. I bet that you have lots of great pictures and family history. Jennifer

  15. Hi Jennifer, My dad was Harry Leigh-Pink (aka Hal Pink) that wrote this book. Found your story very interesting.

    1. Hi Phyllis, I bet your Dad knew many interesting stories about my grandfather and about life in Northern Ontario.

  16. We must also be related, my Grandmother was Winnie Guppy Carpenter, daughter of Bill.

    1. Hi Daniel, Thanks for stopping by! I believe that your grandmother was my grandfather's younger sister.


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