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The Life of James Robertson

NOT every day is a superintendent made. Certainly not in the democratic, independent, individualistic Presbyterian Church of ours with its reverence for the doctrine of the parity of elders. Yet it was no new thing, but as old as John Knox, that ancient church-maker, strong of faith, strong of heart and strong of common sense, as witness his parish school, his catechisms, and his superintendents. So old was the office that few had remembered its existence, and thus it seemed a new timing and fraught with danger as, to some, are all new things. If it is true that poets are born, not made; it is also true that our superintendent was both born and made; born of a good sturdy breed, made, shaped, hammered, ground, polished in the battering Western life till he became God’s own instrument for God’s good work for Western Canada.

It began with that trip to Palestine which, with the courtesy and common sense that distinguished him, he agreed to take, leaving Dr. Clark in charge of the church at Winnipeg. He had thought to get away to the West by the next week’s stage, but the 26th of January still finds him in Winnipeg. Writing to his wife, he says:

"The stage went away yesterday evening and was so loaded with mail matter that it could not take any person. Hence I am here. Was down at Kildonan and am to take one of Mr. Black’s horses and keep him while I am away. This is perhaps the best way after all. I am sorry to have lost to-day, however, for it was very fine. Hope for good weather yet. Expect to be away in the morning. Houses for at least sixty miles are all along the way. I am not so sure after, but from that point I expect a guide." Meantime, he is not losing his time. His days are full of work and his moments of observation.

"I preached here yesterday. Day intensely cold in the morning. Attendance good—evening better—I am told it is generally so here. Congregation strongly male and young. Quite a number of them unmarried. They want me very much to take charge of them. I am somewhat apprehensive of trouble unless they are happily settled. We have had a good deal of cold weather since I came. There is not much snow on the ground—not a foot, I think, on the level. There has been keen frost continuously with the exception of a day or two since I arrived. They never have rain here in winter. In consequence of the dryness of the atmosphere and the frosty weather, all can wear moccasins, as almost all do on account of the greater warmth. It looks odd to see men and women going to church moccasined, and especially to see a reverend gentleman," the good Mr. Black, "dressed in gown and moccasins ascending the pulpit stairs." However odd it may appear to him, he has all the tenderfoot’s desire for new experiences hence he continues, "Have been presented with a pair, but they are too small, I fear, for me, and I purchased a pair of moose skin for $1.25. Will put them on to go to White Mud or Palestine. In consequence of the dryness of the atmosphere and the keen frost, there is really no good sleighing, for the snow does not pack. You can go anywhere over the prairie."

At length, on the 27th of January, with Mr. Black’s "old nag, harness and rig to match," he set forth for Palestine. His account of his trip is interesting. "It was nearly noon ere I came away. I stopped at Headingly at Mr. Mc—’s for dinner. Things were rather primitive, but the people were very kind. Went about nine miles farther and came to a tavern where I stopped for the night. Found a large number of travellers there going up and down." Yes, and, doubtless, took full toll of them concerning country, settlement, crops, schools, stray Presbyterians, church services and all the rest of it. He drives with eyes and ears and heart wide open. "Got a comfortable room—a sort of bedroom. Started away and came to Poplar Point, about sixteen miles, and then nine miles farther to High Bluff. Took dinner at a miserable looking place called a tavern, got a good dinner though, and I hope my horse fared as well." We sincerely hope so too. The true traveller cares for his horse, sorry nag though he be, for upon these Western houseless plains that horse may stand between him and death any day. But this traveller only thinks that his horse means to him transportation and that exploration. "Came out four miles farther to Portage la Prairie, to the Rev. Mr. Matheson’s, where I stayed all night." Sat up most of it too, without a doubt, the eager tenderfoot, inquisitive, insistent, shrewdly observant, the old timer overflowing with information, with congenial hospitality and with the burden of the West hard upon him. "From this place to what is called the First Crossing of the White Mud River is about eighteen miles, all prairie, without house or tree. The day was sharp and the roads heavy, owing to a good deal of drift. I set out with good heart, with pony doing but indifferently. Mr. Matheson thought he would not get through. There were some oak posts set up all along the road within every half mile not long ago, but some miscreant cut down the most of them," this same miscreant not unlikely in desperation for firewood upon this treeless plain. We can hardly

blame him. "It is a great pity, for it would be almost impossible to find the road in a storm without them. At last I came to the Crossing. Got dinner—a good one—at Bell’s tavern, and got horse fed and paid eighty-seven and a half cents. Started for the Second Crossing, and not wishing to try the pony’s strength further, concluded to stay there for the night, which I did, at Mr. McR—’s, one of our own people. This is about eight miles from First Crossing. Started next morning and got to Palestine, eight miles farther, but through wrong direction it was at least eleven miles." And no small achievement for a man unused to the plains. For even with oak posts, a drifted trail is easy to lose.

Thus he installs himself in Palestine to put in as best he can the six weeks’ time till he gets back to the place properly his in the city. They are the six weeks of severest weather in the year, and do what he will, doubtless the time will seem long. Let his weekly home letter tell.

"Visited,"—visited! The word arrests us with its familiar ring. We shall hear that word frequently from his lips. "1 visited the people." Is there a difliculty in a mission station? "I visited the people." Is there a deficit in the missionary’s salary? Is there a new settlement to be explored and organized? It is always the same phrase. "I visited the people." The letter goes on, "visited all the families," note that comprehensive adjective, "at Second Crossing when there—six, and a couple of bachelors. All those do not belong to us. There is a good deal of land owned by our people there, and if the field is looked after things will do well with God’s blessing. Came over then to Pine Creek on Thursday, found a young girl of about fifteen very ill in one house. Doctor over thirty miles away and family not well off." What then will he do? He is a traveller, his journey is imperative, He is a minister. Does he offer spiritual comfort and depart, leaving behind him his benediction? No, not he. This minister is also a man, and so, "I advised the mother to go and see the doctor at once, and not being able to get a horse, gave them mine. They were to be back on Saturday, but the doctor being away, they returned only on Sabbath at four o’clock, just in time for me to go to Pine Creek to preach. Got another person to take me to Palestine." For he must keep his appointment. His main business in this country is to preach the Gospel after all.

As he visits the settlement with his eyes wide open for everything, the serious social and economic disability under which the country is suffering begins to attract his attention, the deplorable lack, namely, of the softening, humanizing, prophylactic influences of womankind.

" Pine Creek settlement," he writes, "is not large, and most of the persons having claims are bachelors. I never knew a better chance for old maids—anything will go here. Women have come here that would never have had an offer in Canada, and they have been picked up in a trice, and that by good-looking, active fellows, one by a man at least ten years younger. I wish I had a boatload here, for they would soon be disposed of and that to their own advantage. He would be a public benefactor who would bring women here—a benefactor to this land and to that left." It is perhaps not unnecessary to explain that though this latter observation may seem to be a joke, the situation in Western Canada at that day was anything but a joke, and the wisdom of the remark a wider experience will only illustrate and emphasize. More than once Robertson refers to this.

In a later letter he says, "There are quite a number of bachelors here. Many of them are not clean. For this I make no excuse. Can you not get some hopeless cases of old maids coaxed to come here. Good chances wait them. A man with a large family of girls coming here would be considered a public benefactor. The bachelors I have visited would make your heart sore to see them. Some of the men have been here a year or more, and it would not be true to say that a plate, spoon, table, pot, frying-pan or anything else had been washed since. They cook no porridge, but the layers of grease and dirt are indescribable."

"But," for he is no matrimonial agency, "to return. Called on all the families but two bachelors. Got a Mr. Whaley to take me to Palestine Saturday night. Had a good congregation on Sabbath at all the services and a good deal of interest manifested. Hope they may continue to turn out. Announced school meeting at Pine Creek and was persuaded to remain and help them start a school. Did so, and we got all things arranged to build a house when spring opens. Logs, etc., are to be got out at once and as soon as it is possible the house is to be raised and then by letting it in small jobs it is to be finished." He is to be in the district only a few weeks, yet he seizes the opportunity offering and guides the people in the organizing and directing of the first school building that district has ever seen. "I expect," he continues, "to see a school next winter." Next winter! What of Norwich? Unconsciously the country has claimed him already. "I am going to get one on foot here—I helped to start one at Second Crossing. This will be doing good as well as preaching to the people, I hope." Not a doubt of it, oh, most valiant son of Knox! "There are not many settlers yet, but they expect a good number in the spring and summer. There are quite a number of children here now, for all the families are large, and with those coming in spring, will afford plenty material for a school in each neighbourhood." Yes, schools and plenty of them, with collegiate institutions and university as well, before your day is done!

He finds Palestine sadly lacking in organization. They had had a minister, but the work had proved too difficult for him and he had resigned. There was little or no organization of the work. Robertson takes hold with firm hand. In a letter to his wife, under date February 20th, iS 74, he says:

"Have been making some arrangements for the organization of congregations here. Called the Palestine congregation together and had $186 subscribed on the spot. We will get at least $225 at Pine Creek, and the Second Crossing of the White Mud, as the river is called, will give $100 more. There must be a station also, at the First Crossing of the White Mud. This White Mud is a river that enters Lake Manitoba, and being very crooked in its course, the road to the Saskatchewan crosses the river three times as the river runs from west to east.

"Visited about thirty or more families here in the three places, and many more are coming in in the spring. I have got up a petition and want to take it down to Winnipeg to the meeting of Presbytery so as to have them organize at once. We must send here with them a good minister, if possible, else the cause will suffer. Should such a minister be here, I am inclined to think our cause would soon be strong and that the church would be self-sustaining. The families are widely scattered just now, but soon the spaces will be filled. Many of the people are poor yet, but a few years must make a change.

He sees clearly even now and later years only make his vision the clearer, that the great essential for successful missionary work is permanent organization with a good minister in charge. Oh, if only a good minister, that rara avis, could be discovered and be persuaded to give himself to the cause in such a spot! There is growing up in his heart a sense of responsibility for the country and a loyalty to the cause hitherto unknown to him. In the same letter occurs another word of significance and prophetic import:

"I wrote a letter to the congregation in Norwich, and so you had better go down at once and get a reading of it or hear it read. It is in connection with mission work here. I wrote one to Mr. B— and also to Mr. D—.. I am going to write to Mr. McK— to-day, and to others. I think I must write a letter to Mr. M— and a few others." He finds time amid his many and pressing activities, to write a formal letter to his congregation as well as some half dozen others to friends, giving pictures of the country, of its needs and its opportunities. This is the beginning of a habit that will grow upon him year by year, a habit fraught with tremendous results both to country and to Church, but a habit that will rob him of many hours of sleep and will do much to rob the Church of years of his service.

He is greatly impressed with the country, and takes pains to acquaint himself with its resources, the experiences of the settlers, their prospects for the future. He writes:

"I could wish that all my brothers were settled here on 320 or 640 acres of land. I am half in the notion of coming out here myself. It is a much better country for a poor man than Ontario. We could take up land for our children and keep them with us here much better than in (in Canada, note) " and when they would grow up we would be in better circumstances to give them a good education. What do you say? I am anxious to take up some land, at any rate, and wish I could invest a few thousand dollars." He is too much a Scot, too sensible a man and too good a Christian to fail to lay plans whereby he should be able to provide for his own. Ah, if he only could get a few thousand dollars! But so far during the years of his ministry at Norwich, plain in his living as he is, and thrifty as his wife may be, they have been able to save, as he tells us in another place, at the utmost only one thousand dollars. That he could save as much is greatly to his credit. It were well that he should invest this now. His chance will never be better, and in the future there will be too many needy missionaries and missions to permit the accumulation of many thousands. ‘‘ Just now,’’ he continues, ‘‘there is a good chance, but next summer hundreds, yes, thousands, will come in here and get as good claims as they can. There is plenty of open prairie, but for a short time there must be good land along the rivers...... . . . The country is much better than people in Ontario think. If a person can buy a claim along a river where there is a good deal of wood, he is much more com fortable than even in Ontario during winter. I think I never enjoyed a winter better than this one. Grain may, nay, will not, sell at so high a figure as in Ontario, but it will pay as well because you can raise it more easily. Stock, likewise, can be much more easily raised, and hence must pay well. Milk, I am told, is much richer than in Canada. You can make much more butter from a cow than in Ontario. To a poor man this is a much better country. To all sober, industrious men this land will be a boon.

"I have visited a good many of the people and have inquired about how they like the country, and find almost universal satisfaction. None of those with whom I met would return to Canada. There is no wealth here, but men in a few years will be comfortable. Things

must be rude and not very pleasant for a time, but that is always the case in a new country. Time will effect a great change. I have been saying that in two or three years, if spared, we must come West here, at any rate to see the country. It would be quite a sight to see miles of roses—rose-bushes in bloom—to see the prairie for miles, as far as the eye can reach, sometimes, in bloom. One crop of flowers succeeds another, and it is only the winter’s frost that puts an end to this luxuriant herbage. For ages this has gone on one year after another, and I have often imagined how the land of prairie chickens, geese and ducks and all kinds of fowl, of buffalo and deer, has for ages been kept till man should come and by the plough claim it for his own. The wonderful provision of the Creator in this respect often claims serious thought. Here a hardy race must spring up, a race to play an important part in future."

Later on he finds opportunities for investing which, with faith in the future of the country, he embraces.

"I wrote you a note on Saturday which I hope you will receive in due time. I stated there that I had purchased land, one hundred and sixty acres. . . . I purchased now because in this country wood and water are of great importance, and there is for that lot plenty of both. The wood here affords splendid shelter. I paid, as I told you, $155 for the one hundred and sixty acres. I bought a volunteer warrant and put that on the lot and thus saved five dollars. All the volunteers that came up here got a warrant from the Canadian Government entitling them to one hundred and sixty acres of land. They could locate there wherever they liked. Instead of locating them, many sold them for forty or fifty dollars at first. But owing to the greater number of people coming into the country, and the fact that the Government will not sell more than six hundred and forty acres to any one man, these warrants have risen in value. . . . . . . . I have reserved the right of buying from Government at any rate six hundred and forty acres after this if I please.

"I am going to look about while I am here and try and invest the little I can command for future use. I do not know how much I can command after paying expenses, but think we might invest in all about one thousand dollars.

There are no municipal taxes or anything of the kind just now, and I do not think there will be much of that kind for years to come. There will, of course, be school tax, but what amount I do not know. I think, however, that there will be no such tax as in Canada. For school purposes I am willing to help. . . . . . . . I might say that there are not many settlers here yet. The population of the province, exclusive of Indians, is not more than fifteen thousand. The Canadians are in a few settlements, mostly Sunnyside and Springfield, Rock-wood, Portage la Prairie, Burnside, High Bluff, Palestine, etc. A large number are expected next summer, however, and a good deal of land near us will be taken up. If I wish to sell in five years, I expect, at the least calculation, to double my investment. But as I jokingly told you in my last letter, I think we shall all move out here yet. I have enjoyed myself a good deal this winter, and think that I could live happily here. There is a much better chance for a poor man—and who poorer than a minister—to get along. The only thing wanting is a railway, and that must come before long. It is true people cannot get such a price for wheat here, but they can raise more of it and easier, and that will make up for the price. But I think I must write a few letters for one of your Woodstock papers, and then you can have my views more in detail."

Like many another investor of that period, he had to wait for many years for the profits from these investments. But before many years have passed he will have forgotten all about investments in land.

During this Palestine pastorate of six weeks he is continually storing up and cataloguing a vast amount of varied information that will serve as fuel for the fires of his own enthusiasm and will serve to kindle those same fires in others as well. Difficulties and privations he meets with, of course, but those disturb him not. His philosophic temper and his quick sense of humour carry him through everything with a shrug and a smile. The following experience will recall to the early missionaries and settlers of the West many of a similar kind.

"I have had some rough experience. Have been boarding in a place in which there is but one room. It is not easy to rise or go to bed comfortably. Manage to make a screen of my coat and vest on the back of a chair while I get off my pants and go to bed. It is rather amusing, but what can you do? People are up before me in the morning, and I avail myself of the wife going out after water, etc., to spring out of bed and get dressed. They sleep upstairs, but how they keep from coming through the floor is more than I know. They are very kind, and are very much afraid I may take cold in their not very warm house. You would laugh to see the wife coming to stuff the clothes around my back before going to sleep herself, when she thinks I am asleep and not well covered. They are from the ‘Island of Prince Edward,’ as they call it, and are of Celtic origin." In return for which kindness he gives his Highland hostess from the "Island of Prince Edward" some much needed lessons in the art of preparing the roast of beef for the fire and in the cooking of the same. Experiences of another kind he has as well, more exciting than pleasant. "We had considerable trouble at election. Free fight. One man stabbed, but he is getting better. I am sorry to say that our Canadian people arc more to blame than the half-breeds."

But the time is wearing on. The congregation at Palestine and the other stations are growing rapidly. The services are well attended though held under discouraging circumstances, but these will disappear.

"The roads between the stations are not good. I have to break a road every Sabbath. There is no teaming that way. The driving, however, does not appear to hurt me in any way. I have never felt better. Our meetings are all held in private houses, and often we can scarcely accommodate those who come. Last Sabbath the people had to go on beds, etc., to make room. Soon schoolhouses will be available for service and churches will be erected."

He is due in Winnipeg about the middle of March and, consequently, he arranges that his hundred mile drive shall become a missionary tour—his first in the country.


"Next Monday I go away to Portage la Prairie. I am going to preach at the First Crossing on Monday night on my way down. I did not hear from Matheson, but expect he will be here the Sabbath following. I go away from the First Crossing on Tuesday morning and go to Rat Creek to Mr. McK—’s. Go from there to the Portage the next day and attend a missionary meeting there and in High Bluff the day following. The Monday following I go away to Winnipeg, which I expect to reach on Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning." A not inconsiderable programme this, for the blizzard season, over trails unmarked for the most part and drifted, and that old nag none too reassuring in his powers of endurance. "On the whole," he concludes, "I am glad I came up here to encourage and get the people to take active measures for organization."

The superintendent is by no means yet made. But there is a beginning of that in him which will never die and which, through the grace of God working in the heart of him together with the daily experience which will be his, of the needs and opportunities of this new land, will shape him for this high place and for great work.

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