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On Western Trails in the Early Seventies
Chapter I
Condition of Red River Country—Sublime Isolation.


A genuine Canadian winter controlled the situation, especially from the Red Deer River northward and eastward. For this western country the snow was deep, and trails, when made, were easily filled and gone. As yet the population was small and hardly felt in the bigness of this immense area. The plainsmen tribes, among the Crees and Salteaux, were bunched in lots at the last points of timber, stretching out into Canada's big, treeless plain. The buffalo kept out beyond them, and, notwithstanding the stress and storm of the rigorous winter, refused to come into the northern pastures on the Battle and Saskatchewan Rivers. With these Indians times were hard.

They could not go far out on their hunts, lack of fuel and stormy weather forbidding this, and the few buffalo their braver and hardier hunters secured barely kept the camps in life. Under such conditions, all shared alike. It was either a feast or a famine that winter, largely the latter.

Their hereditary foes, the Blackfoot tribes, including the Bloods and Piegans and Sarcees, were more favored by the movements of the wild herds, which swung up out of the plains westward into the foothills and mountains of what is now Northern Montana and Southern Alberta. Here there is a small ribboning of timber and scrub on the many rivers which parallel each other out of the mountains and run eastward and both northerly and southerly through the plains.

On these streams the inhabitants of these moving villages found fuel and shelter and vantage ground from which to rush out upon the herds and secure food and trade for their camps. The Mountain and Wood Stoneys roamed from the northern tributaries of the Missouri to the Athabasca, and generally kept inside of the foothills. These Indians were more independent than the plains tribes, as they were, almost without exception, expert wood hunters. Moose, elk, caribou, small deer, big-horn, goat, all kinds of bear and lynx, as well as buffalo, made up their larder, and yet, like that of all hunters, this was often empty.

'North of the Red Deer the Hudson's Bay Company and some free traders controlled the trade and commerce of the whole land. South of the Red Deer, and within recent years, Americans, or Long Knives, as they were called, had established some trading posts and wolfers' headquarters, and, as rumor had it, at these southern posts, "Made on the Spot Whiskey" was the chief article of trade. The whole country, both north and south, was without law. Tribal war and might dominated throughout the great North-West.

All the missionary enterprise, so far as located, was at this time confined to the North country. We were at the most southerly point of Pigeon Lake, and from that point some three hundred miles stretched between us and the boundary line; and as this line had not yet been defined, one might say there was a vast area, both in Canada and the United States, without law, and the scene of much turbulent life. Here the Indian warrior was in his glory, and the lawless white man, leaving behind all bonds and fetters, had a free hand in following the bent of his wild passions. Murder and massacre were constant occurrences, even in cold blood; but when the wildest of whiskey was running riot, then terrible orgies, both brutal and shameful, were enacted.

Such was the condition south of the Red Deer River, and away on into Montana. North of the Red Deer, the pacific and humane policy of the Honorable Hudson's Bay Company, and the fact that they had banished all intoxicating liquors from their interior posts and general trade, also that from here northward was the scene of missionary work, made a wonderful difference in conditions. While there was no government, nor yet the semblance of either civil or criminal law, still the desire of the Indians and mixed bloods and whites was to live at peace, and, for the most part, kindly relations obtained. That is, that in the northern part of these territories, while it behooved all men to keep their powder dry, as well as trust in Providence, one breathed somewhat freer and was not as tense as was constantly necessary in the southern portion.

At Pigeon Lake, the most of our people were absent, the Stonies south near the mountains, and the Crees out eastward at the points of timber. Those around us were living on rabbits and lynx and fish. Fortunately, with the buffalo so far away, the rabbits and wildcats or lynx were more numerous than usual. Mrs. McDougall took some time to distinguish between wildcat meat and venison. "Such tender venison! Look, John! See; I saved a roast until you came home!" I looked, and saw, and enjoyed the well-cooked roast, and kept my own counsel. There are times when ignorance is bliss.

Old Paul, our nearest neighbor, a French half- breed, but an ultra-Protestant (a rather strange anomaly) would visit his snares, and, as his medicine was good, would generally find from two to six cats strangled in them. As the biggest of all refrigerators was in splendid working order all through the winter of 1872 and 1873, strangled wildcat meat was at a premium, and a long way ahead of rabbits or poor fish. Indeed, wildcat was rabbit in the next stage, and rabbit was tree and plant, purely vegetarian; therefore, wildcat was vegetable, and of such man was to make his food; all natural, all reasonable, all healthy. Thus we thought and said within ourselves: "Why tell this tenderfoot lady, 'This is cat's meat,' and perplex and confuse her mind and stomach with all these metaphysical deductions, howsoever logical they might be?"

Sublime indeed was our isolation—sixty miles to Edmonton, and no trail, snow deep and winter stormy; and when at Edmonton you were nine hundred miles from the nearest post office, and about twelve hundred miles from the last railway station. Humanity was sparse and few in this large territory, and the wilderness primeval, huge in all directions. Cree and Stoney were the dominant languages used, and surely this was a most wonderful change for my Ontario girl. She and my two little daughters were often alone. My wandering, nomadic congregations were seldom at the mission, and we went to them more often than they came to us. We could move so much easier than a large camp of Indians. They had to follow the game, which was forever migrating. In such work, and with one hard trip to Edmonton and Victoria to attend district and missionary meetings, the winter of 1872 and 1873 quickly passed.

There was one very agreeable break in the loneliness of the winter, caused by a visit paid to us by father and mother and our Brother and Sister Hardisty. They travelled out by dog train, and their short sojourn was a delight to our little company. At that time Edmonton was the metropolis of the whole western country. It was only twelve hundred mile's from a railroad, and some thousand miles from a telegraph office, and there was no regular mail communication. Isolation profound was its condition, and yet, to us, in the greater wilderness, a visit from these leading citizens of this lone station was as a bright break of sunlight through the steady cloud of our loneliness.

At this time the Chairman and myself arranged to make a reconnaissance of the southwestern country as early in the spring as possible. For this purpose, we made an appointment to meet at about equal distance between Pigeon Lake and Edmonton. I was to select and furnish the guide, and my sister Nellie was to come out with father and make life less lonely at Pigeon Lake while we were away. To bring her in, I took with me my faithful Donald. I had been fortunate in securing a Mountain Stoney, a brother of Mark Ear, of whom I made mention in my former books. George Ear, like his noble brother, was a true man, and knew the country between the Saskatchewan and the 49th parallel like as a few men know their Bible. He could give you pass and ford, even as the others could chapter and verse. Wonderful brains these men have developed during the centuries for the taking and retaining of true pictures of the topography and geography of a country. They were also magnificently gifted with memory out of the long past, and, without pencil or diary, they never forgot.

Behold us, then, on the morning of one of the first days in April, 1873, bidding our adieus to the little company of loved ones and small gathering of our people, and, with pack and saddle horse, we were soon lost in the dense forest which fringes Pigeon Lake. Remember that the partings at this time were solemn. Before us were wild mountain rivers, unbridged and ferryless; wild beasts, grizzlies and mountain lions, mad wolves and madder buffalo. But, worst of all, tribal war was rampant, so that when you bade your friends goodbye, you looked into eyes more often dim than bright.

Thus, that day, we left our people. The snow had been deep; the swamps and little streams were now full, and our progress was slow. Splash, splash, plunge, plunge into water and ice and mud, and out into dense thickets, where, of recent years, only ourselves had taken time to cut out the trail. In the evening, punctual to the time appointed, we met father and Sister Nellie, and in exchange of news, and glad intercourse, we made camp and spent the night.

In the chill of the early spring morning, Nellie and her escort, Donald, started for the lonely station at Pigeon Lake, and we commenced our journey in what was, to both father and myself, after the first hundred and fifty miles, "the great unknown." We journeyed southward, along the pack trail leading to the Rocky Mountain House, as far as Weed Creek, and then across country to the Wolf Trail. In due time we had crossed the Battle and Blind Man's Rivers, and then we took the Big Red Deer. Ten years earlier father and myself had been on this same spot, and still, as far as humanity is concerned, there was no change. This great, good land was without inhabitants. The primitive condition was still in full sway, and in loneliness we rode on, speculating on the inevitable change that was coming. We knew it was coming. And now the mighty Rockies burst upon our view, and steadily towards them we persistently jogged. Jogged, I say, for on all these long journeys this was our step, from morning until night; neither a walk nor a canter, but a continuous, persistent jog forever; thus we made long distances. The hardy pioneer never thought of himself, but of his horse, and very soon he learned that the jog was the natural and most continuous step in long journeys.

After we crossed the Red Deer, we began to fall in with little bands of buffalo bulls, and often came upon single ancients, who stared at us and then lumbered away over the hills, ever and anon stopping to stand and stare us out of countenance, if this were possible. Being rightful descendants of a distinct portion of the race, this was impossible, and on we went.

Having a good supply of food, we lost no time hunting by the way. Duck and chicken were in myriad numbers, and the tracks of deer were numerous, but we stayed not to hunt at the time. We were looking up the country and its people, if haply we might find these latter.


 


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