Archie Belaney

A Brief Biography

by George Kuc

“The wilderness should now no longer be considered as a playground for vandals, or a rich treasure trove to be ruthlessly exploited for the personal gain of the few,” to be grabbed off by whoever happens to get there first. Man should enter the woods with the awe of one who steps within the portals of some vast and ancient edifice of wondrous architecture.”

Such was written in 1936 in “Tales of an Empty Cabin” one of a handful of best-selling nature-adventure-conservation books by a self-described half-breed Indian named Grey Owl. Such books were also written by a full-blooded Englishman named Archie Belaney. Both men addressed issues such as the treatment of native peoples, the fur trade, vivisection, trophy hunting, and even child labor: “I found some difficulty in believing that it could be true and still cannot quite grasp why a law should be necessary to put a stop to it.” These very same books, in fact, were written by both men, for they were one and the same man. To comprehend this, one must have an understanding of how one person’s childhood dreams came true.

Archie Belaney (1888-1938) was born in Hastings, England. He was raised by neither parents, for his father, George Belaney, was exiled from the family for his misadventures and relationships, and his mother, Katherine Cox, was too young and didn’t have the means to raise Archie. It was ultimately decided that he was to be raised by his two aunts: Miss Ada and Miss Carrie. It was under their care that he received the formal education of British boys as well as learning to play the piano.

But it was also while under their care that this British boy started to develop an Indian soul, largely through his extensive readings from the library of books and magazines of the stories of Buffalo Bill and other adventurers of the wild as well as the stories of native peoples and the wilderness in general. Archie also collected drawings as well as living specimens of reptiles, insects, and animals much to his aunts dismay. As Archie read more, his dream became more of a true desire to immerse himself in the Indian world and become one with them. He even prepared for this by going without food or drink for a day or more; he slept on the hard floor of his room, and he even crept into the garden at night to sleep outdoors.

Part of his motivation was that, from what he was learning as a teenager, he loathed office work. Archie had a genuine fear of being trapped by civilization, and so he had a constant urge to assimilate himself into the world of nature. It was this urge that made his decision at age 18 to leave his aunts and leave the Liverpool docks, to head for the Canadian northland in 1906.

Archie soon ended up in Ontario and hooked up with Bill Guppy to learn to be a guide and earn his grub. It was while working as a guide that he came into contact with the Bear Island Indians, the Ojibways. Already keeping his hair long, and his skin darkened by the sun, Archie, the urge pushing him on, passed himself off as a half-breed. He soon successfully established what would be a lasting relationship with these native peoples. They taught Archie their language and lore and how to trap and be a woodsman. The Ojibways also gave Archie the name he would be better known as: Grey Owl.

To better assimilate himself in the native world, and explain his blue eyes, he would tell strangers that his father was a Scotsman and his mother was of a certain band of the Apache tribe of New Mexico, and that he himself was born in Hermosillo, Mexico. As he went out to work on his own, Grey Owl, as he became widely known, developed a reputation over the years as a foul-mouthed blasphemer, a daredevil, and an expert knife thrower with, on occasion, gentlemanly manners. One time a young girl accused a local man of attempted rape; Grey Owl cornered the man against a door and was boxing him in with the knives he was throwing at him; the man moved, one of the knives cut him, and Grey Owl then had to leave town for a warrant was issued for his arrest for the attempted murder of the accused rapist; even self-described half-breeds didn’t have their share of rights.

It wasn’t long after his acceptance with the Ojibways that Grey Owl married an Indian woman, Angele; he worked for the Canadian Forest Service as a Fire Ranger during much of this marriage, and had children with Angele. But during what was called at that time the Great War (WWI), Grey Owl enlisted in the 13th Montreal Battalion and was shipped to battle in France. He served as a sniper until he had to be discharged after suffering a wound to his wrist, losing a toe, and being mustard gassed. He was sent with the other injured soldiers of the British Empire to England.

Archie was back in England. Combined with his sometimes long tours-of-duty alone with the Forest Service as well as his time served in the war, it has been four years since he last saw Angele. Perhaps, like his father, it was something in the Belaney blood, a weakness for women that will show throughout his life, but, regardless of excuse, Archie became a bigamist when he fell for and married Connie Holmes, a childhood sweetheart. It was a short but passionate affair, however, for Connie had no intention of leaving England and joining Archie to go back to the wilderness that was calling him.

When Grey Owl came back he took up one of his old trades as a trapper. He became disillusioned as he saw how trapping changed from a means to make a living to a way of getting-rich-quick with no respect for the unwritten laws of native peoples and established trappers concerning preserving the animal populations to ensure future game. With newcomers coming in droves, trapping became lawless and indiscriminate. With little game to hunt, Grey Owl had to rejoin the Fire Service where he also saw firsthand the increasing destruction of forests by technology. During this time, however, he mostly grinned and bore it- until he met a certain girl.

She was an Iroquois girl, only 19 when she met Grey Owl who was 36. Her name was Anahareo, but her nickname was Pony. She was brought up in the modern ways, so she developed an immediate attraction to this 6′ 2″ older, wild, adventuresome person whom she believed represented her traditional roots. The two of them had a very passionate relationship that lasted for years; Grey Owl even once saved Pony’s life when she broke through the thin lake ice one cold winters day. Although Pony was fond of Grey Owl, she grew disgusted of his means of living which was primarily trapping. Grey Owl, not knowing how else to supplement his income, resisted her pleas to quit trapping until one of his traps killed the mother of two beaver kittens. The trap was lost in the river along with the mother beaver, so Grey Owl and Pony adopted the two beaver kittens, and soon thereafter Grey Owl quit the trapping trade and turned to protecting animals.

Beaver were, at that time, on the verge of extinction, with beaver dams abandoned throughout Canada as they were hunted for their fur. Grey Owl started a conservation project with these two, and later two additional, beavers. He brought them along with him and gave local lectures at society clubs and with tourists and talked about the beavers and the wild. These people gladly paid money to see and hear an “Indian” speak so articulately and masterfully about lands they never ventured in. To better support himself and Pony, he also wrote numerous articles for magazines such as Country Life and Forest&Outdoors about the wilderness. This gave rise to a demand for his books, of which he wrote a half dozen of them; these were written not only to tell stories about his adventures in the wilderness, but also to cast light upon the exploitations of the countryside, the humiliations of the Indians so often accorded them, and the senseless cruelty and slaughter of the forest inhabitants. These books were bestsellers in Canada, Europe and the United States.

His growing fame as an “Indian” speaker of the natural world got the attention of the Canadian National Parks Service which approached Grey Owl and agreed to appoint him as a naturalist and Park Warden of one of Canada’s national parks. He and Pony and the beavers finally settled at Prince Albert National Park. He was already being referred to as “An Indian Thoreau in Canada” by the London Times. With the help of the National Parks he made some short films of himself, Pony, and especially the beavers; these films were to be the centerpiece of his upcoming lecture tours – as the demand from the public abroad to know more about the wild grew so too did Grey Owl’s desire to teach people the importance of preserving it.

Grey Owl’s first tour landed him in London in 1935 which was three years after Pony had their daughter, Dawn. Wishing to stress the beauty of nature’s simplicity, Grey Owl would begin his lectures, in full Indian garb, by saying “You are tired with years of civilization. I come to offer you – what? A single green leaf.” He would then go into various stories about the wild, and narrate his films as they were shown on a huge screen. He was so popular in England that he did over 200 lectures in four months and addressed 250,000 people about the beauty and significance of the wild.

His second lecture tour, in 1937, was an even bigger success and included Europe and the United States. At this time he was with a new wife, called Silver Moon, after Pony left to go prospecting for gold on her own, she having her own sense of adventure. His American tour included stops at Columbia University and Harvard. He did 140 lectures between October and mid December. The highlight of this tour was when he spoke at Buckingham Palace before the King of England and the entire royal court to stress the need to conserve the wilderness.

This second tour, however, took its toll on Grey Owl’s health. His lungs, already weakened by the mustard gas, became weaker still with the various climates at the places he went- his stamina strained by the long, intense schedule. By the time he got back to his lodge in Canada, he was very weak; he soon developed a temperature, fell into a coma, and died on April 13, 1938 at age 50 of what was ruled “exhaustion”. The following day a reporter, who knew of Grey Owl’s past but held the story, had it finally published in the next days paper. Both Grey Owl and Archie Belaney were one and the same, and both were now gone. Pony tried to carry on her former husbands work, but many people lost sight of the message in shock of being deceived by the messenger. World War II also demanded attention. Nevertheless, Archie “Grey Owl” Belaney’s work helped preserve the Canadian wilderness, increased the awareness of conservation on two continents, and made possible for there to be fewer abandoned beaver dams along the rivers.

Web Links

  • Virtual Saskatchewan online magazine has a biography of Belaney.
  • Another website has a biography with interesting pictures of Belaney.
  • Another website, from his home town of Hastings, Sussex, England, also has a biography.
  • “Canadian Literature” online has a review of one of Belaney’s books.

One reply on “Archie Belaney”

Grey Owl deserves to be better known and appreciated today. He was one of the first eco-warriors! His beautiful story The Tree is a classic, and as relevant today as when it was written.

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