When Grey Owl died 75 years ago today, he was known as a prominent preservationist and author, a fur trapper turned protector of beavers, a man of the wilderness born in Mexico to an Apache mother and Scottish father as they toured with Wild Bill Hickok’s western show.
Grey Owl feeding a beaver (Wikimedia Commons/Canadian National Railways. Library and Archives Canada, e010861684)
Some of this incredible life story was true. Grey Owl was a passionate advocate for the preservation of Canada’s wild lands who had made his mark as a conservationist living among the beavers (literally – there was a beaver lodge in his cabin). Through his writing and speaking engagements, he helped raise awareness and fuel the environmentalist movement in the 20th century.
But when it comes to personal history, reality ends and legend begins. During his life and career, the man known as Grey Owl crafted for himself a biography befitting a man who wanted to be one with nature. And while he lived, nobody – including his publisher and future biographer – knew the truth of his origins: no son of the wilderness, his parents were not Native American, nor were they performers in a Wild West show. Grey Owl was in fact born Archibald Belaney in Hastings, England, where he was raised by aunts after his father abandoned the family.
Young Belaney was fascinated with Native Americans and the outdoors, often exploring the woods near his home and learning to shoot and throw knives. After a stint working at a timber mill, 19-year-old Belaney immigrated to Canada and took to the woods. He began his wilderness life as a trapper in the fur trade, killing beavers and selling their pelts. But eventually, he saw the light of conservation – thanks to urging of a woman (and the overwhelming cuteness of baby animals).
The woman in Grey Owl's life at the time was an Iroquoian named Anahareo who had tried to no avail to convince him to stop trapping and killing. But when Grey Owl killed a mother beaver, leaving her crying kits behind, Anahareo’s message finally got through. He returned the next day for the babies and brought them back to his cabin. There, the beavers did as beavers do – they built a lodge, right there inside the cabin.
Beaver lodge inside Grey Owl's cabin (Wikimedia Commons/James Heilman, MD)
In the years that followed, Grey Owl became well known as a conservationist, thanks to his writings – his notable books include The Men of the Last Frontier and Tales of an Empty Cabin – and speaking tours. It was only after his death that the true story of his birth was revealed to a surprised public. For a time, his reputation suffered. But as the years passed, people were able to overlook the discrepancies in his life story and remember the importance and impact of his life's work.
Regardless of where he was born, Grey Owl died as the man he made himself – a denizen of the northern forests, and a fierce advocate for wildlife.
Written by Linnea Crowther