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Selections from the Unpublished Recollections of Mrs. W. C. Pinkham, Part 1

by Jean Anne Drever Pinkham

Manitoba Pageant, Volume 19, Number 2, Winter 1974

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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I was born at Lower Fort Garry, Red River Settlement, on the 6th of May, 1849. My father, William Drever, came from Kirkwall, one of the Orkney Islands, in August 1821. He often remarked that he had left home with the proverbial shilling in his pocket, and from that, I should nudge, he must have worked his way out in the Hudson’s Bay Co’s ship. sailing at that time for York Factory, on the Hudson’s Bay. He told me that he had been wrecked, and had spent the winter at Fort Churchill. He spent some years at York Factory, working for the Company, and then left for Lower Fort Garry. He travelled in open York boats, all the way, a journey of some seven or eight hundred miles. I am not sure how long it took them, but I know the early Missionaries spent about six weeks on the trip.

My mother, whose maiden name was Helen Rothnie, of Aberdeen, Scotland, and who as a girl was thrilled with all she had heard of the adventures of the Selkirk Settlers in Canada, made up her mind that in some way she would get out to the Red River Settlement. A wonderful opportunity was afforded her, seeing in some paper that the celebrated Doctor Thom was going out as Judge or Recorder for the H. B. Co., and that he was anxious to secure the services of some young lady, who would be a companion for his wife and be able to assist her with the children, my mother immediately volunteered for the position, and she left London, with the Judge and his family in 1839, and came to live at Lower Fort Garry. Many years after, in July 1885, my husband met the Judge in London, and he sent me a copy of a wonderful book he had written called “The Pentaglot” with the inscription: “From Doctor Thom to Mrs. Pinkham, whose mother and himself, in the spring of 1839, sailed together from London to the Red River Settlement ...”

A few years after my mother’s arrival, my father came from York Factory. He was a tall broad shouldered man of athletic build, and very good looking, in fact, in Kirkwall, he and his three brothers were called “The three handsome Drovers.’’ When the boats arrived at the Fort, all the inhabitants were on the river bank to see them disembark. No doubt there were few opportunities of shaving en route, and he arrived with a fine black beard. My mother was present with a friend, who nudged her when my father appeared and exclaimed, “There is the man for you to marry!” My mother did not like the black beard, and scoffed at the idea; however, probably the beard was removed, for eventually she did marry him. My mother was a tall slender woman and they made a fine couple. After they were married, I think in 1842 or 43, they continued to live at the Lower Fort, in a small log house, which here in Calgary would be called a ‘shack’, my father continuing his work for the Company. Four of us were born there, two brothers and a sister. My mother went through great privations, they had very little to live on, and a child coming every two years made it very hard for her. She was not accustomed to all the hard work which she was obliged to do, and often I fear she suffered very much. She told me how, often when she was really ill, and once, when she had a bad attack of jaundice, she was obliged to go out and milk her cow, but she was a brave, thrifty Scotch woman, determined to make the best of things, and to help her husband to independence, as soon as possible. I think about 1851, they moved to the Upper Fort, my father was still with the Company. Here again they lived in a small log house and I remember Major Caldwell, who was Governor of the Company, and an exceedingly tall man, coming to see my mother and being obliged to stoop in order to enter the door. We always had plenty of good food, our principal bread was Bannocks, as yeast was almost an unknown thing and the first yeast I remember was Brewers yeast or harm. My mother made us children stand around the table while we ate our breakfast, which usually consisted of bread and milk. She seemed to think that standing was a healthy way to take our meals.

My father very soon severed his connection with the H. B. Co., not because he had anything against them, but because he wished to be independent. The Company had always been a good friend to him, and I believe he obtained from them a strip of land, three chains wide, on the northern side of Notre Dame Avenue, he was to have the use of it, the Company being able to take it back at any time, after giving six months notice and paying him for the improvements, but “This man of the Northern Seas managed to keep his grip on it,” and it became very valuable. It is now over a hundred years since my father came out in the Hudson’s Bay ship, and we have dealt with the Company ever since, and I cannot speak too highly of the treatment we have had from them at all times, and I am sure this is the experience of most Old Timers. We trusted them to the fullest extent, they were our Bankers and Lawyers, and as far as my experience goes now, and I am in my seventy-sixth year, they were always true and just in all their dealings, and the title which was given them of “Honourable” was justly their due, and may the time never come when their word will not be as good as their bond. A pew was always reserved for their officers in the old St. John’s Church, and they attended wonderfully well, and always paid a tribute to the Lord’s Day by unfurling their flag every Sunday morning.

Both my father and mother were brought up in the Presbyterian Church. When they came to the Settlement, there was no Presbyterian Church or Minister, so they attended the Anglican Church, but my mother felt the loss of her Church very keenly, and often told me with tears in her eyes, how difficult she found it “To sing the Lord’s song”, in a strange church and in a strange land. When the first Presbyterian Minister arrived, the Rev. John Black, one of the finest and broadest of broad Scotchmen, they became great friends, but he never tried to persuade her to leave the Church of her adoption.

My two sisters were born after we came to live at the Upper Fort, there were no nurses in those days. but some kind and intelligent Indian and Half-breed women, so my mother got along very well. Dr. Cowan, of the Hudson’s Bay Company, was the only doctor I remember in the whole of the Settlement. I don’t know whether there was a smallpox scare at that time but we were all vaccinated, I was a very strong and healthy youngster, and mine “took” beautifully. and the doctor persuaded my mother to allow him to vaccinate a number of his patients from my arm, so off we started, the doctor driving me in his buggy, and I feeling myself a very important person. I think it was a very risky thing of my mother to have allowed, but no harm came of it. The Upper Fort and Village were inhabited largely by Half-breeds and Indians, so many men in the early days having married Indian women. Then there was a Scotch Settlement, afterwards called Kildonan, where there were a very fine lot of settlers, a large number of them being the Selkirk Settlers, among them the Mathesons, Mclvors. MacBeths, Frasers, Bannermans and Munroes. Then there were a large number of French Canadians, the Marions, Gingras, De Chambaults and others, there were a number of very fine looking young ladies among them. The men looked very attractive in their blue Duffel Capots with a red woolen sash, or one called a French belt of many colours, and usually a huge cap of some country fur, and big mitts to match. They sometimes wore a white Hudson’s Bay point blanket Capot, especially for snow-shoeing, and looked very smart. I believe the Winnipeg Snowshoe Club still wear them.

Part 2 here

Page revised: 20 July 2009

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