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Lopsticks

by Irene Craig

Manitoba Pageant, January 1957

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Hudson's Bay or Everyday Life in the Wilds of North America, the first of R. M. Ballantyne's eighty adventure books is the story of the six years he spent in Canada, as a clerk with the Hudson's Bay Company; and he didn't miss much. In June 1845 on canoe trip from York Factory to Norway House, with two Swampy Cree Indians, he noticed queer-shaped trees.

Coming closer, he says:

"At sunset we put ashore for the night, on point covered with a great number of LOPSTICKS. These are tall pine trees, denuded of their lower branches, a small tuft being left at the top. They are generally made to serve as landmarks, and sometime the voyageurs make them in honour of gentlemen who happen to bk travelling for the first time along the route, and those trees are chosen. which, from their being on elevated ground, are conspicuous objects.

The traveller for whom they are made is always expected to acknowledge his sense of the honour conferred upon him by presenting the boat's crew with a pint of grog, either on the spot or at the first establishment they meet with. He is then considered as having paid for his footing, and may ever afterwards pass scot-free."

He goes on to say:

"My disposition is not a sorrowful one; I never did and never could remain long in a melancholy mood." Sounds fun, doesn't it? Though, in part, it may account for a note sent earlier from Sir George Simpson to Donald Ross, dated at Hudson's Bay House, London, England, December 1, 1842 ... "I find it might be attended with serious inconvenience to the business if you were to absent yourself from your present charge without some competent person to relieve you, and the young apprentice clerk Ballantyne, now with you, is not sufficiently steady nor experienced to take charge in your absence."

Perhaps young Ballantyne spent too much of his time on those woodcuts he made from drawings he sketched on the spot; artists have always been a law unto themselves.

Another joyous adventurer, Sir George Simpson's eighteen year old bride, Frances, also speaks of a LOPSTICK, her very own. In describing her canoe journey from Montreal to make her home in the Lower Fort on the Red River in 1830, her Diary tells us:

"The Voyageurs agreed among themselves to cut a May Pole or "Lopped Stick" for me; which is a tall pine tree, lopped of all its branches, excepting those at the top, which are cut in a round bunch; it is then barked; and mine (being a memorable one) was honored with a red feather, and streamers of purple ribband tied to a pole, and fastened to the top of the tree, so as to be seen by every other object; the surrounding trees were then cut down, in order to leave it open to the lake.

Bernard (the Guide) then presented me with a Gun, the contents of which I discharged against the Tree, and Mr. Miles engraved my name, and the date on the trunk, so that my "Lopped Stick" will be conspicuous as long as it stands, among the number of those to be seen along the banks of the different Lakes and Rivers."

Page revised: 30 June 2009

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