Museum Musings: Archie McNeil’s Will

Grey Owl with family friends, the Winters, circa 1936

I will admit that one of the pleasures I experience as a researcher in the Bill Smiley Archives is the opportunities presented to review old legal documents. Perhaps my favourite such documents are the wills of individuals who once had an impact on the Prince Albert area but have long been deceased.

One of the wills which I enjoyed reading was that of a former resident who was very generous to the Historical Society. Obviously that generosity brought pleasure when I read it, recognising in its terms how my predecessors in the Society had impacted this woman. But what I found the most enjoyable was the terminology used when she “remembered” her nephew. “To my nephew,” read the will, I leave one Canadian dollar”. For him to receive such a pittance, he had obviously blotted his book somehow, at least in her mind, but to insist that he receive a mere dollar, and a Canadian dollar at that (at the time, the Canadian dollar was probably trading at about three-quarters the value of an American dollar) meant that she wanted him to realise just how far from her favour he had fallen.

That will, however, recently fell into second place on my list of favourite wills when I read the will of Mr. Archie McNeil. Drafted on his behalf within two years of his death by his lawyer, A. Cyril March of Prince Albert, the will was proved and registered in the Judicial Court of Prince Albert on the fifth day of December 1939.

Originally, Archie McNeil appointed two co-executors; the first being Superintendent James A. Wood of Prince Albert, and the second being the Toronto General Trust Corporation. They were to pay as soon as convenient all his just debts and testamentary expenses, and thereafter convert into Trustees investments all of his estate.

The will further stipulated “in recognition of extreme courage shown by my one-time companion” and “in spite of the unfortunate developments which have taken place” Mr. McNeil requested that his executors keep informed from time to time, without her knowledge, of her whereabouts and condition and if at anytime “while living separate and apart from any man, she is found in extreme need, illness, or distress” the executors were to provide financial assistance from the Trustees investments. In other words, he wanted his “one-time companion” to be looked after, provided she was not in a relationship with another man.

From the Trustees investments $100 per month was to be set aside to ensure the maintenance and education of his daughter, such education to be provided in “a Catholic Convent School”. This maintenance and education fund was expected to grow and, upon the daughter reaching the age of 25, or at her marriage, she was to receive whatever monies were available in that fund. Should she achieve the age of 30, she was to be provided with all the income from the estate’s investments. Further provision was included in the will providing for any children born to, or legally adopted by the daughter, and in the case of the daughter’s death without issue, any funds remaining would be used for conservation work.

The original will was executed on November 4th, 1936, with a codicil added on the 31st of December, 1936. The codicil declared that Archie McNeil had married since his last will and testament had been drawn up, and he wished to leave one half of his estate to his daughter and one half to his new wife, Yvonne. Yvonne was, as well, named as a co-executor of the will.

You may, at this point, be wondering who this Archie McNeil fellow is.

Some of you will recognise the name Archie Belaney. Most of you will be familiar with the name Grey Owl. Archie Belaney and Grey Owl were one and the same. Archie McNeil is the name Belaney used when he was passing himself off as having been born in Mexico, the offspring of a Scottish father and an Apache mother. Archie McNeil was the name he gave to Matthew Bernard, the father of Belaney’s future “one-time companion”.

The “one-time companion” was, of course, Anahareo; the daughter was Shirley Dawn. Anahareo’s birth name was Gertrude Bernard. Anahareo was a diminutive given her by Belaney based on the name of her great-great grandfather, Naharrenou.

What is included in this will is interesting, but what is not included is also of interest.

As far as I can determine, Archie Belaney was married five times. It is uncertain how many of these marriages were legal and registered, and whether or not a legal divorce occurred to end any of the marriages.

I have found only one marriage certificate, and that was for a marriage dated August 23rd, 1910, to his first wife Angel (or Angele) Aguena. From this marriage, at least one child, Agnes, was born in 1911. Angel had a second child, Flora, who was born in 1925. This second daughter is not likely to have been Belaney’s child, as by that time he was separated from Angel (and had been “married” twice more).

The first of these further unions was to Marie Girard, sometime in 1913 or 1914. Marie had a son, John (Jimmy) Jero, born in the autumn of 1915. Marie died in the autumn of 1915, perhaps when giving birth to this infant. I have found no information regarding this union in Belaney’s biography or the book written by Anahareo.

In 1915, Belaney joined the Canadian army and served overseas with the 13th Montreal Battalion (now known as the Black Watch). He was wounded in France, as a result of which he lost a toe on his right foot. He also inhaled mustard gas, resulting in some recurring lung issues. While recuperating in hospital in England, Belaney was reunited with a childhood acquaintance, Ivy Holmes, also known as Connie. Ivy was an actress and, although they soon married, it quickly became apparent that their lifestyles were incompatible. There were no known children born to the couple. It is possible that a divorce occurred in this case, as it was discussed when Belaney was being returned to Canada by the army, but there is no mention of an actual divorce in the biography written by Belaney’s publisher, Lovat Dickson.

It was not until the summer of 1925 that Belaney met Gertrude Bernard. Their relationship was blessed in a ceremony conducted by Chief Nias Papate at Lac Simon in 1926. This relationship lasted for over ten years, terminating on November 15th, 1936 when Anahareo left their home on Ajawaan Lake. Anahareo points out in her book Devil in Deerskins that she did not marry again until after Belaney’s death “because a divorce is unknown among the Lac Simon Indians, and I considered Papati’s marriage ceremony legally binding”.

Anahareo delivered a second daughter, Anne, in 1937 and a third daughter, Katherine, in 1942. There is no question that Katherine was the daughter of Count Eric von Moltke, whom she married in 1939, but whether von Moltke or Belaney was the father of Anne is uncertain.
Regardless, only Shirley Dawn, Anahareo, and Silver Moon (Yvonne Perrier) whom Belaney married in Montreal in December 1936 were mentioned in his will. None of his other wives, nor the offspring of those unions, were mentioned.

A very interesting will indeed.