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
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
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.