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The Life of James Robertson
THE WESTWARD TRAIL


ON the evening of Tuesday, December 30, 1873, a young minister from the country, tall and spare of form and rugged of face, stood in the Union Station at Toronto, facing the westward trail. It was the Rev. James Robertson, of Norwich. There was none with him to bid him Godspeed, and yet a very considerable interest attached to his journey. He was going on a mission for his Church to that great wonderland of the new West. And while the vast majority of his fellow churchmen knew nothing of his purpose and, indeed, would be but slightly interested had they known, there were a few among those who had looked farthest into the future and estimated the possibilities of Western development to whom this mission was of the most profound importance.

It took him ten days to make his first trip to the West. Twenty-three years before, it had taken John Black eight weeks to make the same trip. To-day a servant of the Church going on a Western mission spends two nights and a day in the palatial comfort of a Pullman car and arrives at the metropolis of the West. Robertson’s route lay by Detroit, Chicago, and St. Paul. His New Year Day he spent on the journey between the two latter cities. On the second of January he left St. Paul, got stuck in a snow-drift and so did not reach Breckenridge, the end of the railway, till Sunday afternoon, a day late. Writing his wife from Breckenridge under date of January 5th, he says:

"We got in here all right last night, without making much delay after we started from where we got fast. For those thirty-nine miles the prairie was perfectly level, with no wood in sight till we came near Breck, where we saw some along the Sioux Wood River. Breck is at the confluence of the Sioux and Otter Tail, which two afterwards flowing due north form what is called the Red River of the North. Here there are but few inhabitants, perhaps about a hundred, and very few in the neighbouring country. The Sioux forms the boundary between the state of Minnesota and Dakota territory. The river is not navigable as far as this, owing to the shallowness of the water and sandbars. Up to Moorhead boats come. I am writing in the morning, and may find out more about the place before I go away.

"When I came here last night I found that there was but one hotel in the place. There I got good food, clean and well cooked ; sausage, beefsteak and roast chicken that should satisfy any person. I did justice to what I knew. I never cared to buy a pig in a ‘pock,’ nor did I care much about eating a pig, or something worse, in a ‘pock."

While en route he had his introduction to some new gastronomic experiences. He writes:

"Meals cost seventy-five and fifty cents each, a bed accordingly. Accommodation was tolerable to Moorhead, but in the three staging days things were intolerable. I never tasted butter; beef and potatoes only kept me alive. Bread was an outrage on the name. Potatoes were good if left whole, but when they mashed them you did not know what you had. The beef would do for patent leather soles ; you could eat it, but rubbing it on a dirty plate and cleaning a dirty knife in trying to cut it, you

ate your peck of dirt certainly. After all, however, I felt none the worse. The next day I was hale and hearty."

Arriving at Breckenridge on Sunday afternoon, like a true Presbyterian he set about to discover a place of worship.

"Found out on inquiry that there was no service but by one man in the place, and that he was sick. Found out he was a Presbyterian and a Scotchman, by calling on him after supper. He had been ill with inflammation of the bowels, but was getting better. They had to get a doctor one hundred and seventeen miles off to attend him. He is from Ohio—originally from Scotland. Has a wife and nine children, one only eighteen months, like our Gi, I suppose. Appears to have had no good time. The good man, among the people, longs to get under the old flag and be among Scotch folk. He is much opposed to present changes, etc., among the American people. Is uncertain whether he will stay here. I am afraid he is too old for the place."

Indeed, it is a land that cannot tolerate the old. The young, the vigorous alone, can keep their feet in this rough and tumble West. He leaves Mr. Thomas, the old Scotch minister, a little less lonely and much comforted, and carries away with him as a token of the old man’s gratitude a fur coat, the first he had ever worn, which will stand him in very good stead in the two hundred and nineteen miles of stage journey that wait him.

In Breckenridge he has his first experience of low temperatures. He will have many more before he is done with them. But Robertson enjoys it.

"Had a comfortable sleep after retiring. Piled plaid, overcoat, clothing, etc., over me and felt quite warm. Room was full of snow and water solid; the thermometer stood at twenty-eight below zero after I got up." "Twenty eight below" disturbs him but little. Indeed, his philosophic temper and his God-given sense of humour carry him through much. "Can’t get away from the place till tomorrow, and hence must rest contented. It takes four days to get through even if no storms come on. If it storms we stay on the way." Sensible man, and, indeed, what else is there to be done?

On Friday evening, the ninth of January, 1874, he drives up the straggling street of shacks and stores that huddled on the bleak prairie about the big stone forts over which floats the flag of the honourable the Hudson’s Bay Company, an unlovely, irregular, but very bustling hamlet, calling itself Winnipeg. There was little welcome for him, no deputation of congregation or social gathering for the incoming minister. He puts up at the Davis Hotel and makes himself as comfortable as he can in that roaring, crowded hostelry till morning.

His first business is to send a wire to his wife, and thus he establishes a line of communication between the West and the home that holds those dear to him far away, a line of communication that will not be closed for over a quarter of a century, though neither he nor they guess that any such heart-stretching is to be their fate. In a letter to his wife, dated January 12th, 1874, he says:

"I called on Bryce on coming in here, and found things not very pleasant. There were no preparations made for boarding, etc., the reason of which perhaps appears in the sequel."

And the sequel is not altogether p1easant. The facts appear to be that some four weeks before the representative of the Canada Presbyterian Church arrived in Winnipeg, the Church of Scotland Synod in Canada had sent in a minister, Rev. Dr. W. Clark, to supply the congregation of Knox Church in the meantime, and to assist in the mission work in which the Church of Scotland was anxious to take part. It will throw much light upon the painful events that follow if we remember that at this date the two branches of the Presbyterian Church, namely, that in sympathy with the Established Church of Scotland, the "Auld Kirk," and that in sympathy with the Free Church of Scotland, had not yet come together, and consequently between these sister Churches so closely allied, there was a very considerable and bitter jealousy, with intense rivalry. Members of both these branches of the Presbyterian Church were living in Winnipeg, and although Knox Church was formally attached to the Presbytery of Manitoba which was erected by the Canada Presbyterian Church, a number of those adhering to the "Auld Kirk" had associated themselves with the congregation and were active and influential members of the same. The simple and just solution of the difficulty which confronted Robertson on his arrival was that Dr. Clark should give place to the man who had been invited by the congregation and had been officially appointed by the authoritative body recognized by the congregation, the Home Mission Committee. But apparently that is just what the reverend and worthy doctor was most unwilling to do. He finds himself in charge of Knox Church. The position is much to his liking. He is a minister of years and standing and he hesitates to surrender at the bidding of this stranger. The delicacy of the situation is sensibly increased by the fact that while the party of the "Auld Kirk" the congregation are not numerically great, they are socially influential and are decidedly not to be sniffed at.

"So we went down to see Mr. Black," writes Robertson, "about the whole matter—Mr. Bryce and I. They all felt that it would not be fair to me to do anything else than preach if I insisted on it at once, but that it might do harm if that should be done, by the ‘Auld Kirk’ party thinking that others, i. e., those of our own Church, wished to have things all their own way." Robertson’s answer is characteristic and significant: "I told them," he says, "that I expected to preach here, but that I would not for a while say anything, that I had come to help and not to obstruct, that I would not on any account be the means of giving umbrage and leading to the setting up of another church. Consequently, I am going away after about two weeks, up to Palestine, about one hundred miles away, to preach in the place vacated by Mr. McNab. I will stay there for about six weeks and then come back to take charge of this congregation permanently. I did not quite like it, but I suppose it is best." His good sense, his philosophic temper, and, above all, his missionary spirit, help him to his wise self-denial. So off to Palestine (now Gladstone) he will go, one hundred miles west, for six weeks; a field forbidding enough, but possessed of one great lure. "I can, while away, see all the stations up there, and this will save me time again." Besides, he has the hope that by this move the difficulties of the situation will be smoothed out, for "Presbytery meets on the 4th of March, and after that time Dr. Clark, I suppose, will go up to Palestine." But will he? Not if we have rightly estimated the doctor. But we shall see. This settled, he retires with Mr. Bryce to Winnipeg for the night.

We learn how his first Sabbath in the West is spent from his first Winnipeg letter to his wife. That Sabbath is remarkable for this, among other things, that on that day he heard two men preach while he himself preached but once, which arrangement will not often be made again while he remains in the work.

"Went down yesterday," he writes, "to preach for Mr. Black at Kildonan. He has a good congregation, almost all Highland people and their descendants. Their forefathers came here in 1815." But in the afternoon he heard Mr. Black preach, and then in the evening came back to Winnipeg, where he heard Dr. Clark in Knox Church. "I cannot say I like him," he frankly confesses to his wife. Well, hardly. We must not expect too much of a man standing outside and seeing through the window another eating the dinner that should have been his. Besides, preaching, as we shall see, was apparently not Dr. Clark’s strong point. What a pity he did not enjoy that sermon ! It is the last he will hear for many a day. Hereafter, wherever he is and preaching is being done, Mr. Robertson himself will be doing it.

That day closes as many a day will for him in the years to come, though he knows it not, in homesick loneliness. "Now about home," he writes; "how are you all ? I went to the post-office to-day to see if there might not be something, but was disappointed as I might expect, for you have had no time yet. How 1 would like to look in on you all and see how you are doing! Tina and Willie will be just about going to bed, and what about ‘Ba Buddy’ ? I feel lonesome already without you all. How shall it be before July You must write me often and regularly else I am afraid I cannot stand it."

The westward trail is a hard trail. Fifteen hundred miles away the children are going to bed without their father’s good-night, and he without their warm kisses on his lips. Their mother will need to do for them that night, as for many, many nights to come. Truly the warfare is costly. "He that forsaketh not all that he hath," said the Master. That is true. And He might have said, and He meant, "He that loveth husband more than Me." For as husband and father must pay the price, so that price the lonely wife and mother will pay in the slow, dropping coinage of the heart as the years go on.


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