David Gray’s Discovery of the Story
I first learned about the two trappers' journey to Banks and Melville Island in 1997 when I was researching the history of Aulavik National Park for Parks Canada. In an article describing his circumnavigation of Banks Island by canoe in 1951-52, biologist Thomas Manning told of finding the trappers’ abandoned schooner at the Northwest tip of Banks Island. View map.
Later, while searching for historical material on the Baillie Islands, I found more details of the trapping venture, including the names of the two men, in the RCMP annual report for 1932.
More stories of the two trappers surfaced in 2002 when I was interviewing Elders in Kugluktuk and Paulatuk about their knowledge of people who had taken part in the Canadian Arctic Expedition (CAE) of 1913-1918.
By incredible coincidence I then discovered that an unfinished manuscript of Sandy Austin's Arctic adventures had surfaced in an attic in Scotland, along with an album of his photographs. Sandy’s sister-in-law had found his journal, and recognizing its value, had begun typing it for a local community newsletter.
This manuscript not only gives an account of their great misadventure, but also contains a wealth of rare information regarding survival techniques on the land, Sandy’s work with the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Inuvialuit way of life, local wildlife, and unusual accounts of the individuals they encountered on Banks Island. The latter includes some well-known trappers of the time: Adam Inualthuyak, Jim and Fred Wolki, Alex Stefansson, and Tommy Cheksigalook. For Canadian history, and for the Inuvialuit families who usually depend on oral history, this material is precious indeed.
A listing of the photographs in Austin's album shows over 200 rare and important images, including fox-trapping, many local individuals, RCMP posts, HBC posts and other localities in the Western Arctic and Alberta between 1929 and 1932. The captions in the photo album provide many details of the people and the places.
Archival Research, Edmonton and Winnipeg 2007
With initial research funding provided by the Hudson’s Bay Company History Foundation, I searched the Provincial Archives in Edmonton in 2007 for new information on the expedition and on Napoleon Verville and his family. I located and interviewed one family member, Muriel Verville, Nap Verville’s niece. An interview on this project was published in the Edmonton Journal on July 23, 2007.
I also searched the Hudson’s Bay Company archives in Winnipeg for background information on Austin and Verville in the HBC post journals for Baillie Island, Aklavik, Herschel Island, and Letty Harbour. The HBC Archives provided considerable valuable information on Austin and his relationship with the HBC, and some detail on Nap as well. Unfortunately the post journals for Baillie Island for the critical years, 1930 and 1931, are missing.
Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa 2008
The initial research in the HBC archives in 2007 had turned up some interesting new information about Sandy and Nap and their relationships with the HBC and the RCMP. I was able to continue with that research in the National Library and Archives of Canada in Ottawa in June 2008. It has provided a better understanding of why Sandy left the HBC and embarked on this dangerous and illegal venture with Napoleon Verville. The daily RCMP post records at the National Archives have also provided more information on Verville and his three brothers, all well known to the RCMP. We now know the basic story of Napoleon Verville’s later life and of his death in Alaska in 1948.
Alberta Research, Edmonton 2009
While in Edmonton, en route to Banks Island in July 2009, I interviewed Murielle Verville (daughter-in-law of Nap’s brother Joe) a second time, which helped to cast some light on Napoleon Verville’s later life in the north and his family.
Research at the University of Alberta Hospital (and University of Alberta Archives) proved to be impossible as there are no archives relating to patients or patient care from the 1930s. Thus I was unable to obtain any more information on Verville’s injuries and recovery.
At the Provincial Archives in Edmonton, I searched the photo collection and other databases for new information on the people and localities mentioned in Sandy Austin’s manuscript.
A summary of the story of the expedition was prepared for the HBC History Foundation and Parks Canada in 2007, along with a detailed report on the parts of the manuscript relating to Aulavik National Park and the Winter Harbour National Historic Site. Both are illustrated with a sample of Austin's photographs.
A report on the 2009 research is in progress.