Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Twenty Years on the Saskatchewan, N.W. Canada
Chapter II. Winnipeg and the Prairies

AT the end of the month of May the prairies around Winnipeg are a sight to see. The earth is a carpet of living green, sweetly woven with golden and other colours. Nature does not appear in a gaudy dress; the fashion she wears is that of chaste simplicity, as if she did not need too much adornment. The sky overhead speaks of distance--of expansiveness; and when the true poet of the prairies shall appear, the clear blue skies of Manitoba will furnish him with many symbols of beautiful thoughts and truths.

Our first impressions of Winnipeg were not delightful ones. It was the time of the locust plague. The chief street seemed to have its full share of grog-shops. Some of the traders evidently thought the new-comers were very green, and several of the most prominent citizens proved 'quite smart' in their business transactions. Two horses which I purchased for my distant journey proved to be utterly useless creatures, and they had to be abandoned on the plains when it was very difficult to manage without them. Till I could start on my journey, of nearly a thousand miles, I lived in my tent near the old Hudson Bay Fort Garry, and I bought my experience dearly. My own idea was to start for Edmonton with two horses, and provisions enough to keep me from post to post as I went along. I proposed to travel some forty or fifty miles each day. This, however, was not considered to be the right course for me to pursue. Besides the buckboard, it was thought necessary for me to have a Red River cart and abundance of provisions, for I was told that I might not be able to procure any when I arrived at Edmonton, and the winter would be at hand. At last, in the week succeeding the sixth Sunday after Trinity, I resumed my journey from Winnipeg to Edmonton, finding the trails as I could, and meeting with all kinds of mishaps from day to day. Sometimes the horses strayed, or the Red River cart, which was built all of wood, would break down, or from careless driving or restive horses would be upset. Now and then the hills were too steep for our horses to draw up the loads, and we had to wait for assistance from some chance passers-by, who would sometimes tie the load to the horse's tail, without any harness, and so pull the load up the hill in the most absurd, yet most effective, manner.

This slow travelling on the plains becomes in time rather wearisome. You rise with the sun, take your breakfast, collect the horses, pack your tent, bedding, and camp utensils, and start off for a ten miles ' spell.' You have no idea of what may be before you--what creeks, or small rivers, or boggy places you may have to encounter. All you know is, that somehow you must be prepared to meet any difficulty and to overcome it. The worse the trouble, the greater is the need of calm self-possession in order that you may be able to devise some proper expedients for meeting the new difficulty. A freighter of course knows the road, and is accustomed to his business, and he secures the necessary assistance; but the inexperienced clergyman has no advantages, and finds it 'a hard road to travel' on his own account.

The first spell of the day done, the horses are unharnessed and let loose to graze, wood is collected, the kettle is boiled, the tea is made, and the cloth is laid for dinner. An hour passes, and then the journey is resumed as before until the setting of the sun tells you that it is time to camp for the night. Then you look out for good grass for the horses, and for good wood and water. You pitch your tent, provide your supper, and eat it heartily; put the logs on the camp-fire, either to bake your bread for the morrow, or to drive away the mosquitoes, or to scare the wolves from the provisions. In the deep silence the sound of the horses' bells is very welcome, for you know the horses have found their pasture-ground for the night, and that they will be easily captured in the morning. If the night is stormy, you secure your tent-pegs and ropes; or if the evening is calm and fine, you open the folds of the tent, and watch the changing shadows of the firelight, or you turn your eyes to the heavens, which are aglow with brilliant stars, and in the silence and the solitude you think and feel as you cannot do amid the smoke and din of great cities. To the mere traveller all this is a pleasant experience, for he knows that it is but for a little while, and he hopes to see the face of friends again, and enjoy the pleasures of reunion. But the missionary who faces the silence and the solitude knows not how long a time his separation may last; his worldly hopes are but few; he has no lust of gold like the miner; he is not in quest of new discoveries, as is the scientific traveller, nor is commerce his aim, in common with the trader or the merchant. His hope in his exile is to be able to build folds for the Good Shepherd, and to gather souls therein who have been redeemed, and need to be prepared for everlasting blessedness. In new lands the missionary desires to plant those seeds of Christian civilization which will grow up to regenerate the nations when he is dead and gone. Bright are the visions of usefulness which God permits the missionary to see in his times of solitude and exile. The Christian missionary asks for no pity; for if the Christian religion be true, his is the most noble work on which the sun looks down.

Before we reached Fort Carlton we met with an accident which might have had serious results. A mare which we had been obliged to purchase on the road was really too young for her work of drawing the Red River cart, and I had often asked the man whom I engaged to drive her to get down and walk up the hills, to make her load more easy, and to give her a fair chance of getting safely to Edmonton. The man was often too indolent to do this, and on coming to steep places he would sit upright, and allow himself to be drawn with great dignity up the hills. He was an old Scotch soldier, and had several medals for brave deeds done in the Indian Mutiny, and he served ns out of pure condescension. Thinking it as well to let this gentleman use the blackboard, and for me, as the master, to take a humble place, I gave up the buckboard to him, and mounted the Red River cart, intending to teach him, by my example, how to walk up hills and lighten the mare's burden. On coming to the hills I did this once or twice successfully, but the Red River cart is an awkward vehicle to get up on and down from, and some tent-poles with long spikes projected close by the shaft near which I had to descend to the ground. As fate would have it, on coming to the next hill, when alighting I in some way frightened the mare, so that she began to kick, and then gallop at a furious rate. I was all the while sitting on the shaft of the cart, and expecting every moment that the heels of the mare would dash my head on to the spikes of the tent-poles close by me. Looking back in my danger, I could see the man of many medals as calm as usual, and much too full of dignity to exercise the courage and quick-wittedness which may have won him distinction on the far plains of India. Of course the events in India were great ones, and he was equal to such occasions; but this Red River cart business was beneath contempt, and not at all worth the risk of personal harm, when no distinction could possibly be won from an admiring country. What, then, was I to do? for the danger seemed to be imminent, and there was no time to be lost. My feet were hanging from the shaft, and I could only spring from the elbows, and I could not hope to do that far enough to avoid the risk of breaking both my legs by the passage over them of the eight or nine hundred pounds weight of goods which the cart contained. Instead, therefore, of springing too far, I quietly dropped under the wheel just where the weight would pass over the strong thigh-bones with the chance of not breaking them. The plan answered very well, but of course the shock was great to the whole system, so that I swooned away. Recovering consciousness, I was placed in the buck-board, and then tried to travel on a few miles; but the pain compelled me to have the tent pitched, and as the next day was the Sunday, we rested in a most desolate place, but I was quietly grateful that, in God's mercy, things had turned out no worse.

At Fort Carlton we remained for three weeks, and received many kindnesses from the gentlemen m charge. Up to this time we had met very few Indians, and they had not molested us in any way. Now and then a brave had ridden up to us with his gun cocked, half begging and half demanding tobacco, but that was all the annoyance we had suffered; as we proceeded, however, we found the Indians discontented and restless, and adverse to the passage of white men through their territories. Before we reached the farther plains we learned that a party of surveyors had been forced to return, and that the Indians had proclaimed their intention of stopping all strangers. In our little party at this time we had a trader going west, and two Chippewa Indians with their families. The presence of these Indians was a source of danger to us, for the Chippewas were hunters, and as these men had killed some buffaloes during their journey they were sure to be discovered. The Crees considered that no strangers ought to kill their game, especially as it was exceedingly scarce, and their families were often in want. We were not surprised, therefore, when, one Saturday evening, just south of Fort Pitt, in the delta of the Saskatchewans, an Indian and a boy presented themselves in our encampment, and, after observing everything, told us that they had been sent by their band to learn who we were, and to order us to return eastward, for they were determined not to allow us to proceed through their country. On receiving this message, we invited the two Indians to share our supper, and requested them to wait while I prepared a communication which they could deliver to their chief and people. In this letter I told the chief, in very respectful language, who we were, and that the great chiefs of the English Church had sent me to teach the people around Edmonton the way of the true Christian religion, and that of course I must go on my journey, and do the work which I had been sent to do. I said I hoped that I should be able to see him and his people on Monday, and that so we might become friends and brothers together, which would give me great satisfaction.

During the Sunday, and on the Monday morning, I noticed the people in our encampment were often in conference together, and that they were anxious about the state of matters; and when we started on the trail I observed that they soon left it, and did not return to it. When I inquired the reason of their leaving the trail, they answered that they wished to find a good crossing of the Battle River, as the usual crossing was a difficult one. However, no crossing could be found, and, on turning a bend in the stream, behold the whole plain was covered with tents, and there were the very Indians that our people had secretly desired to avoid. The trader and the Chippewas looked confounded, and would have escaped if they could have done so. They would thus have brought themselves into danger, for on the plains the Indians seem to observe everything, and fear and flight will never secure protection from them. However, all this turned out well in the end, for the Indians were invited to hold a conference, and when they were seated in circles around the spot reserved for the missionary, he appeared in a formal manner, arrayed in all possible finery, and first gravely distributed plugs of tobacco to all who were seated in the nearest circles.

Then, inquiring whether they were all ready for the conference, he wished to know whether they had received the letter which he had sent. They had, they said. Then he explained again who he was, and what he was sent to do, and asked whether the message to order such a man to go back was reasonable. They answered that it was not. Then, should we be friends and brothers, and would they assist me on the journey, for I was a stranger in their land? They would give me all the help and furtherance they were able, they replied. So with many expressions of good feeling we departed, and for two hundred miles we found the Indians friendly everywhere. This good feeling has been maintained during the vicissitudes of twenty long years.

A short time after this another Cree appeared, and this also was on a Saturday evening. He inquired whether I would go twenty miles to his encampment, and hold a service with his people. If so, he would take me there, and send me back to the trail after the service. Who he was I knew not, nor where he wished to take me. However, I went, and found perhaps twenty tents beside a small lake, and saw for the first and last time a great herd of buffaloes close by the encampment. This man proved to be the chief of the White Fish Lake Indians, and one of Nature's noblemen.

Our trail ran nearly west from Carlton to the Battle River; then, turning northward, we made for Buffalo Lake, and for the trail which leads from the Bow River to Edmonton. The scenery about here was charming, and I never conceived it to be possible for so many fowls to be collected together as I saw around Buffalo Lake in that September. Water and air seemed alive with them, and you could not fire a gun without bringing down several with every shot. The fecundity of Nature, when she is left alone in these regions, is marvellous.

Fort Edmonton came in sight on September 28, 1875. The journey from Ontario took five months. Now, in the year 1896, it is possible in that period to visit the British Isles from Edmonton several times with far less toil and inconvenience than I had to endure in that single journey twenty years ago.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus