IN my previous volume,
"FOREST, LAKE AND PRAIRIE," which closed with the last days of 1862, I left
my readers at Fort Edmonton. At that time this Hudson's Bay post was the
chief place of interest in the great country known as the Saskatchewan
Valley. To this point was tributary a vast region fully six hundred miles
square, distinguished by grand ranges of mountains, tremendous foot hills,
immense stretches of plain, and great forests. Intersecting it were many
mighty rivers, and a great number of smaller streams. Lakes, both fresh and
alkaline, dotted its broad surface.
Over the entire length and
breadth of this big domain coal seemed inexhaustible. Rich soil and
magnificent pasturage were almost universal. But as yet there was no
settlement The peoples who inhabited the country were nomadic. Hunting,
trapping, and fishing were their means of livelihood, and in all this they
were encouraged by the great Company to whom belonged the various
trading-posts scattered over the wide area, and of which Fort Edmonton was
collecting and shipping of furs Edmonton existed. For this one definite
purpose that post lived and stood and had its being. A large annual output
of the skins and furs of many animals was its highest ambition. Towards this
goal men and dogs and horses and oxen pulled and strained and starved. For
this purpose isolation and hardship almost inconceivable were undergone. For
the securing and bringing in to Edmonton of the pelts of buffalo and bear,
beaver and badger, martin and musk-rat, fisher and fox, otter and lynx, the
interest of everyone living in the country was enlisted. Thirteen different
peoples, speaking eight distinct languages, made this post their periodic
centre; and while at Edmonton was shown the wonderful tact and skill of the
Hudson's Bay Company in managing contending tribes, yet nevertheless many a
frightful massacre took place under the shadow of its walls.
This was the half-way house in crossing the
continent. Hundreds of miles of wildness and isolation were on either hand.
About midway between and two thousand feet above two great oceans—unique,
significant, and alone, without telegraphic or postal communication—thus we
found Fort Edmonton in the last days of the last month of the year 1862.
Edmonton had been the home of the Rev. K T.
Rundle, the first missionary to that section, who from this point made
journeys in every direction to the Hudson's Bay Company's posts and Indian
later on, the Roman Catholic Church sent in her missionaries. These, at the
time of which I write, had a church in the Fort, and the beginning of a
mission out north, about nine miles from the Fort; also one at Lake St.
Ann's, some forty miles distant. When the Rev. Thomas Woolsey came into the
North-West, he too made Edmonton his headquarters for some years, and, like
his predecessor, travelled from camp to camp and from post to post.
Even in those early days, one could not help
predicting a bright future for this important point, for in every direction
from Edmonton, as a centre, Nature has been lavish with her gifts. The
physical foundations of empire are here to be found in rich profusion, and
in 1862, having gone into and come out of Edmonton by several different
directions, I felt that I would run but little risk in venturing to prophesy
that it would by-and-by become a great metropolis.
The second day of January, 1863, saw a
considerable party of travellers wind out of the gate of the Fort and,
descending the hill, take the ice and begin the race down the Big
Saskatchewan; Mr. Chatelaine, of Fort Pitt, and Mr. Pambrun, of Lac-la-biche,
with their men, making, with our party, a total of eight trains. There being
no snow, we had to follow the windings of the river. For the first eighty or
ninety miles our course was to be the same, and it was pleasant, in this
land of isolation, to fall in with so many travelling companions.
It was late in the day when we got away, but
both men and dogs were fresh, so we made good time and camped for the night
some twenty-five miles from the Fort. Climbing the first bank, we pulled
into a clump of spruce, and soon the waning light of day gave place to the
bright glare of our large camp-fire. Frozen ground and a few spruce boughs
were beneath us and the twinkling stars overhead.
There being at this time no snow, our home for
the night is soon ready, the kettles boiled, the tea made and pemmican
chopped loose, and though we are entirely without bread or fruit or
vegetables, yet we drink our tea, gnaw our pemmican and enjoy ourselves. The
twenty-five-mile run and the intense cold have made us very hungry. Most of
our company are old pioneers, full of incident and story of life in the far
north, or out on the "Big Plains" to the south. We feed our dogs, we tell
our stories, we pile the long logs of wood on our big fire, and alternately
change our position, back then front to the fire. We who have been running
hard, and whose clothes are wet with perspiration, now become ourselves the
clothes-horses whereon to dry these things before we attempt to sleep. Then
we sing a hymn, have a word of prayer, and turn in.
The great fire burns down, the stars glitter
through the crisp, frosty air, the aurora dances over our heads and flashes
in brilliant colors about our camp, the trees and the ice crack with the
intense cold, but we sleep on until between one and two, when we are again
astir. Our huge fire once more flings its glare away out through the
surrounding trees and into the cold night. A hot cup of tea, a small chunk
of pemmican, a short prayer, and hitching up our dogs, tying up our sled
loads and wrapping up our passengers, we are away once more on the ice of
this great inland river. The yelp of a dog as the sharp whip touches him is
answered from either forest-clad bank by numbers of coyotes and wolves; but
regardless of these, "Marse!" is the word, and on we run, making fast time.
On our way up I had found a buck deer frozen
into the ice, and had chopped the antlers from his head and "cached" them in
a tree to take home with me; but when I told my new companions of my find,
they were eager for the meat, which they said would be good. I had not yet
eaten drowned meat, but when I came to think of it I saw there was reason in
what they said, and so promised to do my best to find the spot where the
buck was frozen in. As it was night—perhaps three o'clock—when we came to
the place, I was a little dubious as to finding the deer. However, I was
born with a large "bump of locality" and a good average memory, and
presently we were chopping the drowned deer out of the ready-to-hand
refrigerator. This done we drove on, and stopped for our second breakfast
near the Vermilion. We were through and away from this before daylight, and
hurrying on reached our turning-off point early in the afternoon, where we
bade our friends goodbye, and, clambering up the north bank of the
Saskatchewan, disappeared into the forest.
Taking our course straight for Smoking Lake. the
whole length of which we travelled on the ice, we climbed the gently-sloping
hill for two miles and were home again, having made the 120 miles in less
than two days.
jumped out of bed next morning my feet felt as if I were foundered, because
of the steady run on the frozen ground and harder ice; but this soon passed
away. Mr. O. B., whom we had left at home, was greatly rejoiced at our
return. He had been very lonely. I described to him our visit, and told him
of the nice fat, tender beef on which the Chief Factor had regaled us on
Christmas and New Year's day; and surely it was not my fault that, when the
portion of the meat of the drowned deer which had been brought home was
cooked, he thought it was Edmonton beef, and pronounced it "delicious," and
partook largely of it, and later on was terribly put out to learn it was a
bit of a drowned animal we had found in the river.
Holidays past, we faced our work, which was
varied and large: fish to be hauled home; provisions to be sought for, and,
when found, traded from the Indians; timber to be got out and hauled some
distance; lumber to be "whipped," —that is, cut by the whip-saw; freight to
be hauled for Mr. Woolsey, who had some in store or as a loan at Whitefish
Lake—all this gave us no time for loitering. When, horses, dogs, all had to
move. Moreover, we had to make our own dog and horse sleds, and sew the
harness for both dogs and horses. That for the dogs we made out of tanned
moose skins; that for the horses and oxen, out of partly tanned buffalo
hide, known as power flesh," the significance of which I could never
comprehend, unless the sewing of them, which was powerfully tedious, was
what was meant. Turn which way you would there was plenty to do, and, from
the present day standpoint, very little to do it with.
Mr. Woolsey and Mr. O. B. kept down the shack,
and the rest of us—that is, Williston, William, Neils and myself—went at the
rest of the work. First we hauled the balance of our fish home, then we made
a trip to Whitefish Lake and brought the freight which had been left there.
Mr. Steinhauer and two of his daughters accompanied us back to Smoking Lake,
the former to confer with his brother missionary, and the girls to become
the pupils of Mr. Woolsey. The opportunity of being taught even the
rudiments was exceedingly rare in those days in the North-West, and Mr.
Steinhauer was only too glad to take the offer of his brother missionary to
help in this way. The snow was now from a foot to twenty inches deep. The
cold was keen. To make trails through dense forests and across trackless
plains, to camp where night caught us, without tent or any other dwelling,
and with only the blue sky above us and the crisp snow and frozen ground
beneath, were now our everyday experience.