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In the days of the Red River Rebellion
Chapter VIII
Rebellion in the Red River Settlement—Riel seizes Fort Garry—Attempts to induce the Indians to revolt— Visiting the tribes to preach loyalty—Indians remain firm—Outbreak of smallpox—Massacre of Blackfeet near Edmonton—The Post invested by avenging force—Narrow escape of a party of whites—A bonfire of carts and a feast—Wolseley crushes rebellion—Terrible ravages of smallpox—Heartrending scenes—The writer's attack and cure—Awful mortality among French half-breeds.


WITH the New Year there came to us, by way of rumor passed from camp to camp, the strange news that there was serious trouble in the Red River Settlement. Mysterious messages came to the leading Indians, tobacco to be smoked, and a cause to be joined which promised wonderful things in the near future. Then it became known that Riel and the French half-breeds and their sympathizers in the Red River had taken Fort Garry. The native tribes were called upon to join them or suffer in their turn, and I was sent out from camp to camp to counteract as much as possible this influence. The large gatherings of Indians during January, February and March of 1870 were at the last points of timber around Calling Lake, and it took long journeys to reach them. Moreover, the winter was a very stormy one, with the roads always full and largely non-existent. I had good dogs, and was always a welcome companion to the Hudson's Bay Company and free traders in their travelling and trading parties passing to and fro. Many a hundred miles did I break the roads for such that winter, and they in turn gave me companionship and great respect and help when needed. Then I would stop for days alone with the Indians, going from lodge to lodge attending councils, and, when I could, holding meetings and giving lectures, which you may be sure were at the time packed full of English history and Canadian experience and fair play, justice and liberty. Such men as Sweet Grass, Pakan, Little Hunter Who Frightens Them, Bob Tail, Big Bear, and a host of their contemporaries were my auditors and my companions. I slept in their lodges, ate with them, and became a friend in whom I verily believe they came to have confidence, for they did not smoke rebellion tobacco and did not budge under the torrent of falsehood and deception which was poured into their ears by interested parties. I am sorry to say there were rebels in the Saskatchewan, but they were not Indians nor yet half-breeds, but men who, while living under the British flag, and enjoying the largest measure of liberty under the same, were and are always disloyal to Britain. The hated English Government was talked about, but during 1870 none of the Indians or half-breeds of the farther west listened to such talk.

Towards spring we heard more definitely about Riel's sojourn in Fort Garry, and also that the Canadian Government was organizing an expedition against him. Of the issue of this we had no doubt, and loudly we sounded our faith in the ears of all the people. In the meantime we were extremely anxious. Around us were firebrands, and intensely inflammable material was to be found in every camp and settlement. Then the problem stared us in the face, where were we to obtain supplies for the coming year, the clothing and ammunition so necessary, to say nothing about groceries and simple luxuries? And then, how long could we counteract the influences of rebellion with its license of loot and plunder? I can assure my readers, as the spring of 1870 opened there were some anxious souls in the great West. To add to this there came rumors of some fell disease to the south of us. It was said that the Indians beyond the border were dying by the hundreds. Smallpox was mentioned, and we shuddered at the sound, for we were a thousand miles from a medical man and without medicine. Worse still, we were without law and in the midst of an ignorant, excitable people. The chief magistrate or chief factor, Wm. J. Christie, Esq., and father had many a consultation on the state of affairs. One proposition was to open up communication with the States by way of Fort Bent, but for some reason this was not done, and after a hard winter of travel and camp life, most of it distant from home so far as I was concerned, spring came and with it an intensifying of war and disease rumors.

One day Lawrence Clark, of Fort Canton, a Hudson's Bay officer, came along and told us of the killing of Scott by Rid, and the possibilities of more such acts to follow. How long would the Indians near us hold out? That was the question. They were being worked hard. Would they yield? We exalted the Government, we decried rebellion, we pooh-poohed the idea of Riel and his friends holding out very long. We said, "Hold on even until midsummer and see," and I am thankful that the people even to a man did hold on to loyalty and reason. Father accompanied Mr. Clark on to Edmonton, but they were headed off by local war up there. The Blackfeet were on the scene. During March a few Blackfeet, believing the most of the Crees were out on the plains and farther east, came into Edmonton to trade, and when leaving they were ambushed at the top of the Southern River, where a most brutal massacre took place. A fellow, Tak-kooch by name, had feasted and danced with them at the fort, and then he had organized his following and arranged his plans, and the result was much blood. This was in revenge for the killing of Maskepetoon, and also for many crimes on the part of the Blackfeet.

When the few who escaped reached the Blackfoot camp there was hasty preparation, and a large party of warriors, several hundreds in number, came in to have their turn at revenge. However, it so happened that the Hudson's Bay Company's post-master at Pigeon Lake and my brother David, who also had a small branch post at the same place, were now on their way to Edmonton and Victoria. The Rev. Peter Campbell was also in the party, and, as it occurred, these just about timed with the Blackfeet on the south bank of the river, nearly opposite the fort. Fortunately some one gave the alarm, and the most of the party, including the women and children, managed to escape across the river and reach the shelter of the fort. So hurried was their flight that they had to leave all their belongings on the south bank. My brother and my friend Samson wanted to organize and meet the Blackfeet at the top of the hill and send them back on the jump, which no doubt would have been the result of such tactics, though some killing would of necessity have been the consequence. But the gentleman in charge of the fort resolutely shut the gates and would not consent to such a move; so David, with Samson, who stayed with him, crossed what stuff they could, and when the war-party came out in full force at the river they were climbing the steep banks before the fort gates with the best packs of furs to serve as shields when the bullets came. Come the bullets did, fast and furious, but as the guns were inferior and the distance considerable no one was hurt. And now that the Blackfeet took none by surprise and the fort was shut, they turned their attention to the carts that were beside them, which were full of goods and leather and furs and provisions. Here was a genuine windfall to these warriors; clothing and blankets, prints and shirts, and all manner of good articles, as well as pemmican and dried meat and tea and sugar. Settling down beside these good things they spent the night, every now and then firing a fresh fusilade at the fort, but doing no harm. They made a bonfire of the carts and divided the spoils, and they kept up a racket all night, and doubtless in their own style and to their own tune sang most lustily, "We won't go home till morning," and then went, for the next day found them a minus quantity near Edmonton.

It was on the night of this occurrence that Mr. Clark and father were approaching the fort, and hearing the constant shooting, and not knowing what it might mean, wisely took cover until the next morning, when, scouting in, they found the fort all right, but still in a state of excitement over the raid. With rebellion at headquarters, which also was the base of supplies, tribal war around us and the fearful scourge of smallpox in sight, truly the whole Saskatchewan country was in a bad state at this time, and for all this there seemed to be no prospect of immediate relief. No government, no protection, no board of health, no doctors, no medicine— certainly under God we were completely thrown on our own resources. Nevertheless, we were hopeful, and at once began to plan. The Chief Factor went to Fort Garry to watch events, and if possible to obtain supplies and forward these west. Father also went east and joined the Rev. George Young in the little village of Winnipeg, where he could follow events. He also was anxious about supplies and friends who might be coming west at that time. Father told me that after reaching the Red River and sizing up Riel and his troops in Fort Garry, he would have been delighted to be one of twenty men to go in and run the whole party out, but there were no men to respond. Word that Col. Wolseley and the volunteers were coining kept up the hopes of the loyal, and also acted upon the Riel faction so as to keep them passive. In quiet these kept the fort, in quiet the balance of the country awaited developments, and in due time the developments came. When the troops reached Fort Garry and found it evacuated, any one asking for the Riel rebellion would have met the echo," Where?" It was gone, had suddenly atomized and entirely disappeared. All now were loyal; the mere mention of rebellion thenceforth would hurt feelings, and so on.

In the greater West we had kept the huge farce out from any actual flame, but as weeks went by we were menaced by woeful disease. Horrible tales of whole camps being dead and the epidemic growing in virulence came in to us from the south. Father had said to me with strong emphasis, "Scatter them, scatter them; do all you can to scatter the people, John, for that is the only hope of saving them." In the meantime, acting on this, we encouraged our settlers at Victoria to move on to the plains early in the season, or to go out to the lakes north of us; and with only four men at the Hudson's Bay post, and a young Indian lad, Job, and myself at the Mission, we kept down the plague and were on guard day and night.

Anxious and careful, and sometimes exceedingly fearful, the early summer of 1870 found us at Victoria, on the north bank of the Saskatchewan, with the people belonging to the settlements scattered, father far distant, no actual definite word from Fort Garry, rumors rife, smallpox drawing nearer, and small war- parties around us. Why the latter did not attack I cannot tell. Of, course, we were always ready; a gun, such as it was, at every window; an axe behind every door; mother and sisters and wife drilled to load and handle guns; Job and I on guard all night, and so far as in was concerned, never really asleep at any time. The Blackfeet shot our cattle and stole our horses, but did not attack us. Many a time during those weary nights and days I wished they would, and let us have it out to a finish, but still the waiting and watching went on.

One day a messenger came from Edmonton on horseback bringing a letter from the Rev. Peter Campbell, asking me to send him by the bearer some sugar that he had stored in our provision shed, also inquiring very kindly about "our friends, the northern Ishmaelites." That night the Blackfeet stole fourteen horses, Mr. Campbell's being the fourteenth, and his horse we found a few miles down the river, stabbed to death, the thieves evidently having quarrelled over the spoils. So I sent his man back on foot, and after writing Mr. Campbell a good long letter on matters in general, I put in a postscript telling him my reason for not sending him his sugar was that his friends, "the northern Ishmaelites," were not dead nor yet sleeping; that they had visited us the night before and had stolen our horses and his also, but had killed his, doubtless having recognized their friend's animal.

Such were the existing conditions when some of our half-breed population came in hurriedly from the plains, fleeing from the approaching smallpox. The tales these brought were alarming, and we felt the coining of the disease to us was inevitable. The Wood Crees would come in without fail, and as many of their young men had gone south on the warpath, the infection must come north. By leaps and bounds the destroyer came on, from Sioux and Grovount and Crow to Piegan and Blood and Blackfoot and Sarcee, and from these to their hereditary foes, the Mountain and Wood Stoneys. We did as instructed. We scattered these half-breeds, we closed our church services and took every precaution, but soon in came the large camps, and already the disease was well spread. We continued to urge isolation, and as many as listened almost to a man escaped. But there were many who were now diseased, and others who would not budge, and others extreme fatalists, and in a few days we were surrounded by disease. The sick and dying and dead were everywhere in our vicinity; however, our isolation cry saved many, and the deaths around us were few compared with the settlements and camps east and west and south of us.

In the vicinity of St. Paul, where the Rev. Mr. Lacombe was starting a mission, there was great mortality. It seemed strange that all through the country the Roman Catholic priests encouraged the people to congregate and gather into large camps, and because we did our best to isolate them the argument used by the priests was that we were personally afraid of the disease. "Come to us and we will save you" was the language of a leading priest to some of our people whom we had succeeded in sending off by themselves, but one of the head men answered that they knew of one Saviour only, and He was Jesus Christ. I firmly believe that hundreds of poor deluded folk became the victims of the congregating of the infected. The disease quickly assumed a most virulent form and became most deadly. Right out in full view of our dining-room windows was a camp in which all had died save one son, a young man, and the father. This son was now dying, and the poor father, heart-broken but assiduous in his attentions, was doing all he could for his boy. Presently the young man died, and the father rushed up to me for a bit of cotton or a shirt to bury him in. Rummaging among my things I brought out an old shirt, which the sorrow-stricken man seized and ran down to dress his son's corpse in. I sat down to dinner, and as I ate watched him. Having laid his boy out, he raised himself up, gave a leap, and himself fell down dead. I ran to him to make sure, and then came back to finish my dinner, and presently found myself with a feeling of shame at my hard-heartedness. The fact was we became accustomed to death and to scenes of sorrow and fearful destitution.

Coming home one morning from a death peculiarly harrowing, I felt the grip of the disease, and had to lean up against the fence several times before I could reach home. Going into the house I asked mother and my wife to have our room emptied of everything, and then asked for a tub of hot water and a double dose of Dover's powder. Having taken the powder and got into the tub of hot water, I presently slid into bed under plenty of clothing, and from excruciating pain went off into a profuse perspiration, which gave me relief. The pain in my back was almost unbearable for a time, but the simple remedies did good in my case, and the next day I was again out amongst my patients. A grand old man, Thomas Woolsey or Red Bank by name, was dying in a little brush hut. All alone I found him, and we sang his favorite hymn. His voice quavered in weakness and mine in sorrow, but our faith was strong, and the good man said, "I am going on, John; it is all right. My body is corrupt and will soon decay, but my spirit is young and strong, and Jesus will take me home." As I stood there beside the bent leaves of the fluttering willows in the shade of which my friend lay dying, his body terrible to behold in its premature corruption, and listened to his clear, emphatic testimony to the comfort and assurance and triumph of faith in Jesus Christ, my own heart was made strong in this blessed gospel. How often during these days did I long for father's company. Some of the Indians were very sullen, and at times most insolent; they went about armed to the teeth, and were ready for any excuse to commit violence. This was a white man's disease, and they hated the whites. We were living all the time on the thin crust of a volcano; we felt it in the air, we met it on the path, it was stamped on the faces of both men and women with whom in past times we had been on the most friendly terms. The strain was continuous, disease and death and danger constant. I often think of the true heroism of my mother at this time. She worked on, perfectly conscious of all the danger, but making no fuss, no noise. To me her conduct was sublime, and my wife and sisters all did their part. We had no scenes; each felt that work and duty were now in place. One day in midsummer, or a little later, a traveller came along going east, and he waited while I wrote a note to father to hurry him up if possible. While writing I heard the neigh of a horse, and recognized it as that of Little Bob No. 2, and running out, there was father. Oh, how glad I and the others were He had with him Mr. Hardisty and my sister, also another sister who had come from Ontario. Having gone away a little girl, she now came back to us in the full bloom of young womanhood. More possible victims of either disease or massacre was the silent thought of some of us, and yet we were delighted to see our loved ones again, and took hold with fresh grip to stand off mishap or evil of any kind. Father's coming was as a breath of strength and security to many; his experience and strong individuality seemed as a refuge unto which one might run and be comforted. He gave us the first real intelligence of the arrival of the troops and the establishing of law and government in the Red River Settlement. He worked almost night and day in the camps around us, and many a poor heart took hold on both material and spiritual life because of his help and cheer. To me his coming was indeed a heaven-send, for within a few days of his arrival, because of undue exposure, I was taken down with inflammation of the lungs, and father dosed and nursed me back to life. As a Western man would say, "it was a close call," but God and father and wife and mother raised me up again. It took three years to bring inc back to my wonted strength, yet I was again at work within the month. From every direction came the reports of disease and many deaths. At Moose Lake, east of us, a whole settlement died, and when the spot was silently approached by a lone traveller, the one survivor, a little boy, fled from out of the unburied dead, and it took considerable search and craft to catch this child and allay his fears and save him. Up the river between us and Edmonton another camp of some fifty souls lay down and died, and but two children survived. I knew all of these and had lived amongst them at Pigeon Lake and on the plains, but in a few days, nay, in a few hours, from strength and cunning and human might and skill, of which in large measure they were possessed, they fell before this terrible disease which was now sweeping over our fair country.

At Big Lake, now St. Albert, right alongside the largest Roman Catholic mission in the West, with bishop and many priests and brothers and sisters and nuns, the French half-breeds were cut down to less than half their number, three hundred and twenty dying in a short time. Along the mountains some of our Mountain Stoneys persisted in entering a Piegan camp, and bringing home the infection, spread it among their people. These all too late started north, and all along the valleys between Old Mans and the Bow left their dead. From where Morley now is, on both sides of the Bow, up to where Banff is situated, as one Stoney said to me, "it was a graveyard, and the crying went up both day and night." From the best information we could obtain it was reasonable to estimate that fully half of the native tribes perished during the season of 1870 through the ravages of smallpox. If it were true that this foul disease was purposely brought among the Indians by revengeful white men (as was reported), then this brutal act accomplished its devilish end, but oh, the suffering and misery of it all! And in the meantime war went on and intensified the trouble. Day and night we had to watch, and so the summer passed with a dark cloud of death and sorrow covering one of the fairest countries in the world, "where every prospect pleases and only man is vile."


 


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