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Biography of Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal
Chapter III. Life in the Wilderness for Thirty Years


In the service of this great company, Donald Smith spent 30 years of his life. When he appeared upon the scene, Sir George Simpson was Governor. So absolute was his authority, and so autocratic his manners, that he was called "King of the Fur Trade," or ''Emperor of the Plains." Beneath his forbidding exterior, however, he was a man of great ability, and had acquitted himself with credit in critical times, and was recognized as a power in all the vast region. By his orders the youthful newcomer was sent to Labrador, where a new department had been established. Perhaps there is no bleaker place on the earth. There he spent 13 years of his life.

We have very little detailed account of how he spent his time. We may be sure that in those dreary solitudes—where the winter is eight months long, and the thermometer often 50 below zero—where his only companions were the Indians with whom he traded, and the few comrades at the store--his mind must have turned wistfully to the home in the old Scottish town and the friends he had left behind. The reality of his experience must have shattered his romantic visions. Ambition? Wealth? What chance of these in this God-forsaken and man-forsaken spot? It seemed as though he were buried alive—cut off from every chance and prospect of success, doomed, after a life of toil and obscurity, to end his days in this appalling wilderness. So he may have thought, but there is no record of such reflection. It was a hard school into which he was put, but not a bad one. It developed in him those qualities which afterwards stood him in such good stead - self-command, initiative, decision and courage. We may be certain that often in those years he was thrown upon his own resources; had to guard against danger; had to be mentally alert; had to adapt himself to different situations. No better training for his later years could be provided than the experiences of Labrador and Hudson's Bay.

As to how he occupied himself during this long period, we may venture to guess. There were the routine duties of the post. There was trading with the Indians and trappers—giving in exchange for their furs, the goods they had shipped from Europe. There was hunting and fishing, and long tramps on snow-shoes, driving the dog trains. Occasionally the monotony was broken by the arrival of the mail, bringing letters and papers from home. We must remember that the mail came at long intervals. This was an event to which they looked with anticipation and which occurred not more than twice a year. The post route was long and dangerous, covering a distance of 2,000 miles from Quebec to Ungava. This immense distance had been traversed by Donald Smith on foot and 'with dog-sleds. The news from home started from Bersimis, 150 miles below Quebec, then to Mingan, thence to Eskimo Point, thence to Bonne Esperance and finally to Rigoulette, the headquarters of young Smith. In this bleak region travellers were often overtaken by blizzards and their lives were in peril. More than once the young man missed his way, and with his native companion was compelled to take shelter for the night with no protection but their blankets till the storm had passed. It was necessary for the traveller to he always prepared with plenty of warm clothing and an extra supply of provisions, for no one could tell in what an evil plight one might find himself.

The long winter nights would be spent in reading, in writing lengthy letters home, and in cultivating his mental powers. Ile did not know what he was doing, but he was really getting ready for tasks of which he never dreamed. Thousands of youths elsewhere, richly endowed, besieged by every opportunity, were wasting the golden hours, while this raw lad was carving for himself out of the barren north the material for a splendid career.

It was certainly a period of grim and stern discipline. The Company's officers were of necessity stern and rigid. There is a story told of the young man which, if true, illustrates the strictness of the rule, it is said that being troubled with a complaint which affected his eyes, he took the long and wearisome journey to Montreal, to consult an oculist. The story is that Sir George Simpson, the Governor, meeting him near that city, demanded of him why he was not at his post. On the young man's answering that his eyes were very bad and he had come to see a doctor, the Governor broke in impatiently with the question, 'Who gave you permission to leave your post?" Mr. Smith was forced to admit that no one had given him leave (it would have taken a year to get it), and immediately the angry official said curtly, ''If it is a question between your eyes and your service in the Hudson Bay Company, you'll take my advice and return this instant to your post." And according to the story, the young fellow actually went bark immediately and retraced his journey of nearly one thousand miles. The story may not be true, but it may have some basis in fact. He spent practically thirty years in that wilderness. Take thirty years out of the average life, and there would not be much left. lie was forty-eight when he came out of his obscurity—at an age when most men are withdrawing from active service. But he was really at the beginning of his public career. All the years he had lived were spent in making a pedestal on which he was to stand, as a striking figure of the time.

In ten years he had advanced to be chief trader on the shores of Hudson's Bay. In another ten years he was appointed chief factor of the great fur company. In 1868 he reached the highest position, and became Governor of the Company, its chief executive officer in North America—stationed at Montreal. It had been a long and painful experience. It had wrought in him marvellous changes—the timid lad, fresh from his home and protecting friends, had been transformed into the stalwart man, with rugged frame, keen, alert brain, a knowledge of the country and its inhabitants, which made him an authority, a master of the great Company's secrets and policy—and possessed of a wonderful executive ability. The year of his appointment as Governor saw the close of one part of his career, but the curtain was to rise almost immediately on another part—crowded with events of the first magnitude, in which he was to have official recognition, and in which he moved in the highest circles of Imperial, social and political life.


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