Family Photos: A Life Documented

The Canadian Journey for both sides of my family began in the mid to late 1800’s. J.L. Cotter came to Sault St. Marie at the age of 18 to begin a long career with the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Dales were drawn to Canada from England by slick government and CPR advertising that promised free land and a better way life.

Like many settlers, their expectations were likely tempered by much uncertainty. Over time the Dales learned to farm and did eke out a living. But extreme winters, drought conditions, plagues of grasshoppers and the blowing dust storms that affected most of central North America in the 1930’s must have at times, made life unbearable.

The Cotter’s were “Hudson Bay People”. They were assigned to remote trading posts along the Labrador Coast, the northern and central regions of Quebec, Ontario around James Bay and in Saskatchewan where housing was supplied. Their stories were more about the friends and the relationships they developed not of the obvious hardships they had to deal with.

The articles I’ve previously posted about my family photos were focused on the history and development of photography. The story of glass plate negatives, large heavy cameras, Kodak’s first Brownie camera and the emergence of transparent plastic negatives and much smaller cameras is remarkable.

But there is another aspect of photography that is also very important. The use of the camera to tell stories: documentary photography.

The stories of grasshoppers devouring crops of wheat on the Dale Family farm near Qu’appelle or my mom’s experience of traveling to and from boarding school in Prince Albert via dog sled in winter and canoe in the spring and fall months are so different from daily life today. But to see how and where they lived in the photographs they collected evokes a completely different emotion. It’s visual and very real.

There are a great many photographs from both sides of the family. From them I have developed a fairly accurate understanding of the environment in which they lived. But it’s my mother’s albums that have really captured my interest. They document her life from her early years through to a short time before she passed away in 2000.

This first set of images documents the 1907 wedding of my grandparents, H.M.S. Cotter and Beatrice Wilson in Longueuil, P.Q. The remaining images were made in and around the HBC post, Fort Chimo on Ungava Bay.

Most of the images in the second group of images were made in Cumberland House, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s first inland post. It was Saskatchewan’s oldest permanent settlement, founded in 1774 by Samuel Hearn.

The last group of images are about life after the Hudson’s Bay Company. Most were made in Victoria, B.C. while the last two were made in Vernon, B.C.

It occurred to me as I studied my family’s photographs that social media is nothing new. The mode of making and storing images has changed dramatically. But even in photography’s infancy images were shared, discussed at family gatherings, sent in the mail and collected in albums. I’m sure that if my mom had the use of an iPhone camera her images would be numerous and well organized. Instead of being stored in plastic tubs they would probably fill the ‘Cloud’.

This entry was posted in My Work.


  1. Jane Rampone April 16, 2019 at 1:26 am #

    Very interesting history of your family. I finally found the photos when I tapped on the website at the bottom of the original posting. I’ll try to get Don to see your posting, Stu. He’s the genealogy guy. Thanks for sharing. Jane?

    • Stu Dale April 16, 2019 at 4:36 pm #

      Thanks Jane! curious about your search for the photos. I’ll have to check that out.

  2. Corol April 29, 2019 at 3:48 pm #

    What a treasure of vintage photos you have, Stu. How fortunate for you and your family that the images are preserved so carefully. It is a legacy to pass along to your children and grandchildren. Our ancestors certainly endured hardships that paved the way for us. Thanks for sharing some of the history.

    • Stu Dale April 29, 2019 at 6:08 pm #

      Yes, we are very fortunate. I wish that I’d sat down with my parents and recorded some of their stories. They and their parents were tough and resilient people. However, the pictures also say a lot. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Dennis Strom February 25, 2020 at 6:02 pm #

    I had an interesting conversation with George Cotter prior to his passing in 2011—didn’t realize he might have attended school in Prince Albert (was it PACI?). At this time I am trying to piece together the story of E.K. Cotter and her role as Public Health Nurse as well as that of her sister Ada. I lived in Cumberland House 1965-1968 then moved to Prince Albert to attend PACI. While in Cumberland House my family lived across the street from Nurse Cotter’s house which we later bought from her estate to make a cabin. I have found a photo of her residence taken in 1936 as well as one of Ada’s residence which I plan to share with the local museum in Cumberland House.

    • Stu Dale February 28, 2020 at 1:40 pm #

      Hi Dennis,
      I’m pretty sure that George Cotter and his sisters Beatrice (mom) and Francis attended PACI. Not so sure about his brother, Chester. It is so interesting that you have a connection to Cumberland House. Mom had many fond memories of her time there. Stu

    • Katherine Pettipas May 9, 2020 at 2:20 pm #

      Does anyone have more information on Nurse Cotter. I also am trying to find out more of her history.
      Many thanks.

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