Disappearance of Hector Jordan
by Margaret Van Dusen
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 17, Number 1, Autumn 1971
This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. It may use language, or express views, that would not be considered acceptable today. We make it available here as a free, public service.
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Many stories about the early days of Manitoba have been told, and many more could have been a part of our heritage if those involved had not been so busy living the events that there was no time to record them. Succeeding generations turned their energies to improving and developing their surroundings and forgetting as quickly as possible the hard and adventurous life of their forebears. Some amateur historians and keepers of diaries did faithfully record many day to day happenings, but in some tales passed down by word of mouth, events, people and places have become combined, confused and intertwined so that several versions of the same story now exist.
Thus it is that in her book, John Black of Old Kildonan, Olive Knox says that in 1855, Hector Jordan was lost in a blizzard on his way to Stinking River to get a load of wood—that his oxen and sleigh were found but not a trace of the unfortunate man.
I am sure the writer felt that she had a reliable source of reference, but Archbishop Matheson told a different story in an article in the Winnipeg Free Press in 1936 in which he wrote about several disappearances from the Red River Colony. He said, “The first case [of a disappearance] that I remember was that of a settler named Hector Jordan who had married an aunt of mine. He had set out during the winter season on some errand to Pembina and was never heard of afterwards. My father and other relatives made a careful and diligent search but no trace of him, alive or dead, was ever discovered. My recollection is that he went away, not on foot, but with a horse and vehicle.”
At this point, in reading Archbishop Matheson’s narrative, my mother said, “Uncle is mistaken in this. Of course he would be only two or three years old at the time and would know about it only by hearsay. Father (John Pritchard Matheson), then a lad of fourteen or fifteen, had first hand memories and told us the story many times.”
This, then, is John Pritchard Matheson’s account of the disappearance of Hector Jordan as told by my mother, Agnes Matheson Simpson.
“The snow disappeared very early in the spring of 1855 and as the settlers were running short of some necessary supplies, it was decided to take advantage of the fine weather to make what they hoped would be a quick trip to Pembina to replenish their stocks. The caravan of Red River carts made good time on the journey south but while they were at Pembina a wild spring blizzard struck, bringing great drifts which kept them snow-bound for some days. As soon as possible they set out on the homeward journey but progress was slow and difficult as the now rapidly melting snow turned the trail into a sea of the well known Red River gumbo.
The wheels of the carts “balled up” with mud and the oxen became mired so that precious time and energy was spent pulling out the oxen, punching the gumbo out of the spokes and axles of the cart wheels and repairing carts which failed to stand up to the extremely heavy going. As they progressed it became evident that the brunt of the storm had hit Pembina, its force diminishing along the northern edge of its path and, as so often happens, it seemed probable that there had been no storm at all at Kildonan.
Concern for themselves and their predicament was forgotten as the men realized that their wives and families would be greatly worried by their prolonged absence, having no inkling as to the reason for it. Even though the trail was becoming quite passable, both men and oxen were tired and progress was slow—at best it would take another two or three days before the anxiety of the folk at home could be relieved.
Among the men of the caravan was Hector Jordan, an uncle by marriage of J. P. and S. P. Matheson. Like many other young men of the time, he was accustomed to travelling a good deal by shank’s mare. He was a good runner, and fast, and rather vain of his ability. As they discussed their concern and wished for some way to let their families know that they were all safe, Hector Jordan offered to run ahead to tell them what had happened. He could be home in short order—thus saving their people from at least part of their worry. The others agreed and he set off, soon disappearing from sight ahead of them on the trail.
Relieved of need for further haste, the cavalcade moved slowly on. When at last they arrived at the settlement they were surprised to be met with anxious queries and exclamations of relief that they were finally home. Hector Jordan had run ahead to tell of their misadventures. Where was he? To their consternation they found that he had never arrived. Their weariness forgotten, they hastily organized search parties, combing the area along the trail to the point where they had parted company. Though repeated searches were made, they never found a trace of him. He had completely vanished.”
That is where the story ended on the many times I’d heard it, until one day in the spring of 1957, a few months before mother died, some reference was made to the story of Hector Jordan. Mother sat thoughtful for a few moments, then, her mind made up, she said,
“I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told before. As you know, we moved from Kildonan to the farm seven miles north-west of Stonewall when I was five years old. Years after father received a message one day that an old Indian on his death bed in St. Boniface hospital was very anxious to see him.
As father had many friends among the Indian people, he saw nothing unusual in the request but immediately set out. When he arrived at the hospital he was surprised to find a complete stranger and even more surprised to learn why he had been summoned. The man wanted to make a confession before he died, to rid himself of a burden of guilt he’d carried for years.
On the evening after Hector Jordan had set out to run home, the Indian was hunting near the trail. A flashing movement in the gathering dusk—a shot—and, like many a hunter since, he found to his horror that he had killed a man—not a deer. Full of sorrow and regret, for the Indians and the settlers were friends, yet in fear of reprisals from the white settlers, he hastily buried his victim; carefully concealing all traces of the new grave, so that its existence was never suspected.
Whether the Indian had known and recognized Hector Jordan or whether he had subsequently learned his identity was not clear but it was because there was a family connection that the confession was made to father.”
The story teller continued, “when father finished the story he said that this all happened so many years ago most people have forgotten about it and I see no reason for opening up old sores now. I want you to forget about it and never repeat the story to anyone.”
Again mother said, “none of us thought of questioning father’s decision and from that day to this I’m sure we all respected his wishes. Now, I can really understand his reason for keeping silent, and since I am the only one left who could tell it (her sister Mamie was still living but had lost her power of speech following several strokes) I feel that it is only right that the whole story should be known.”
Page revised: 10 February 2010