Life on the Boundary Commission (1872-74), Being Extracts from Letters of Charles Sibbald, Jr. 1873-74
MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 33, 1976-77 Season
“Why is there not a prairie literature?” This question was asked about fifty years ago at a conference sponsored by the University of Manitoba’s English Department. An author from Eastern Canada replied, “Because there is no romance to the opening up of the Prairies.” This was said within the hearing of my mentor, the late Very Rev. J. W. Matheson, whose ties, like those of my family, go back through the Indian connection to the beginning of time.
Dean Matheson wasn’t noted for his tact. He went up one side of the Easterner and down the other and ended with “there are none so blind as those who won’t see.”
I have never forgotten this incident and have tried to keep my eyes open, and what I have seen, especially since my retirement when I have had time to read the Hudson’s Bay Journals, and the writings of those who travelled the country breaking new ground with each step they took, or each mile they paddled has made me realize something of the wealth of information if only our young authors would take the time to read it.
And of course when my wife [Gladys Russell Taylor (nee Lyall)] inherited the letters of her grandfather, Charles Sibbald Jr., I was caught up at once in the excitement of the sort of life lived by those men who waded through the swamps in the North West Angle and pushed across the plains where water was always in short supply except where rivers and lakes were handy, and believed they were living the very best of lives, as they marked the 900 mile Boundary.
The questions which come to mind are, “Who were these men? Where did they come from? How did they get here? and what did they think of the country?” You will, I’m sure, be surprised by some of the information which I have gleaned from my reading about Her Majesty’s Boundary Commission and from the local press of that day, of which, “there are three newspapers in Fort Garry, with only 2000 people. I don’t know how they make out,” Charles wrote to his father.
I hardly need mention that the British Officers who were in charge of the survey, draughtsmen, artists, astronomers and photographers were all from the families of England. Some of the regular soldiers were probably technicians or assistants and they would come from the middle class. But the Canadians who were engaged for the administrative tasks, and as chainmen were young men from Ontario who were from the group which made up the family Compact. They all knew each other and when they met in the West were happy to have each other’s company.
Charles Sibbald, Jr. was born in Toronto, 6 March 1845. In his letter of 18 March 1874 he notes: “I kept my birthday (6th March) a good roast turkey & oysters, I do not know my age now though I feel ten years younger than I really am.” He was 29.
His father Charles was the son of Susan Sibbald who became alarmed because her sons were living in an Inn and came from Scotland to check them out. She was so impressed by the south shore of Lake Simcoe that she went twice: “I tell you I was glad to see someone from Brockville also Mick Harris and Capt Scott from Perth.”
Charles was always on the lookout for a good “spec” and was impressed by the fact that “Town lots sell here for $100.00. It is a good speck here now to invest the place is growing so fast a new store goes up every day.”
He wrote to his mother on July 14th: “We are now camped on the Lake of the Woods shore, West side, very pretty Aislands all about far ahead of Lake Simcoe for scenery, The Indians bring us any quantity of fish for which I exchange pork (in Indian Kookoosli) flour (quasicum). I have already learned quite a number of Indian phrases which comes very handy, being comissary having to do all the trading myself.” And no doubt to win a bit of sympathy he told her, “I have got awfully strong & can rough almost anything today the water being up to my nees ever step of the way up the line I shot a porcupine, Mr. E. had it cooked for his supper, it was splendid, I can assure you if you had tasted it you would have called it delicious.”
In a letter from the North West Angle dated 15 August, he mentions meeting a Mr. Graham from Ottawa, who was the Overseer of the part of the Dawson Road from the Lake of the Woods to Fort Garry. This friendship was rewarded by “a free pass into Garry to take all my meals free at the different Stations on the Road.” A bit of insight into the rivalries is given, “as a general rule the Govt Officials here are down on the Commission but this case is an exception it suits me first rate because I manage to get a great many of my provisions from him instead of going into Garry for them.”
Charles had “a great time exploring when I have nothing to do going back about a mile or more from Camp through the bush & swamps it gives me a good idea of the Country as we move camp so very often.”
His role in the Commisariat was really that of store keeper and it is a bit surprising to learn what he had to distribute. “I am as it were Commissary for only a party that is I have to purchase all provisions consumed by that Party only & issue the same. There is a certain quantity of rations allowed for each individual & and I am supposed to measure or weight out same to the Cook I have also to see that there is a full supply on hand I am furnished with a scale of rations so that I have to go by that so much bread, pork, currants, molasses, apples, pickles, tobacco &c. &c. I generally give out a week’s supply at a time ... We shot any quantity of game every day, partridge prairie chicken & pigeon so that we manage to live well I can tell you.”
In a letter to his mother from the North West Angle he mentions having just come up from Mrs. Beggs where they sang hymns for an hour. This would suggest that there were posts along the Dawson Route at which families lived. To allay her anxiety he wrote “I know it is such a comfort to you to know that I am steadied down & doing so well. I do not want for any comfort in the world. I have any quantity of time to myself to read, go out hunting, fishing &c. but I devote the most of my time to the former, having taken out over 50 books of good reading matter with us & a number of good novels ... the mosquitoes are getting so thick I cannot swallow them all.” In another letter he explained that smudges were kept burning so that the smoke over the camp kept them away from man and beast.
An interesting bit of information was given in a letter written sometime after mid-August. “The Lieut Gov holds the treaty at the Nor West Angle with the Indians on the 26th Ulti.” (This threw me for a bit, but I suppose that if I had to look it up in the dictionary to be sure of its meaning grandfather may be excused, but was it 26 August or September?) “I am sorry I cannot manage to be there a company of Soldiers passed through this morning en route for that place in case of any disturbance.”
By 15 November 1873, the survey party was settled in for the long winter at the back home, sold up the property and set her sons up on the south shore at what is now Jackson’s point. Her original home is now the Sibbald Provincial Park. His wife was Isabella Robinson, daughter of Peter Robinson, founder of Peterborough.
He mentions that a George Kingston was in the same party travelling out. This is a cousin whose mother was a sister of Charles Sibbald, and whose father was Professor Tom Kingston, of the University of Toronto. And another fellow traveller was Dennis Cochran, grandson of Archdeacon Cochran, whose family was living in Brockville, and to whom Charles sent greetings in nearly every letter.
He mentions in one of his letters that “young Bob Miles is out here. I haven’t met him, and perhaps it is just as well I didn’t.”
Now young Bob Miles was a cousin of my grandfather and he died in a blizzard in March 1874, and is buried in the cemetery at Headingly. Like so many of the sons of the families he had a problem with alcohol and from Charles’s letter I gather that he was fond of a nip or two. When you could get good whiskey for 5¢ a glass at the Commissariat, I’m sure he had a great struggle to keep from over indulging which, if his letters are to be trusted he appears to have managed to do.
Those who were engaged as axmen, teamsters and scouts were locals and these people were paid $1.00 a day all found, which made Charles realize that his $45.00 a month was really top pay.
Travel had improved greatly by the time the Boundary Commission staff was gathered together. It was possible to get from England to Pembina in about a month. It was a two week journey from Belville. But we’ll let Charles tell us how he travelled.
His first letter in the collection which survives is dated 11 May 1873, from Moorehead, Minnesota. “I leave,” he writes, “in about an hour for Pembina about 200 miles from here with another party about 70 teams. I am to drive one of them myself. $1.50 per day & found in everything so that I cannot say that my P.O. is “White Mud” after this ... I have had good luck so far on my journey though a good many stoppages on the way, the new trunk is played out already you would require one made of Cast Iron to stand such handling as they get in this country ... The scenery along the Michigan Central Ry is beautiful nothing could compare with it ... I have felt wonderfully well ever since I left Brockville with only a slight cold running which I took on the G.T.P. to Toronto.”
Had he not been engaged as a teamster he could have taken the stage or riverboat to Fort Garry, and mention is made in several letters of travellers arriving over the Dawson Trail. It isn’t easy to put ourselves in the shoes of a young man adventuring into the West only a few years after the Indian troubles. When he mentions in his letters that he hopes to save his scalp, and perhaps if the mosquitoes and blackflies eat him up it will be no worse than scalping, I’m sure it reflects a real anxiety.
In a letter dated 4 June 1873, he wrote, “We are camped opposite the Assiniboyne on the Red Riv Bank a pretty spot. There is a College and also a nunnery next us one of the nuns took a fancy to me and asked very particularly if I could speak french ... I met her on board the ferry. They are nearly all half breeds & Indians round about here a number of the Chippewa’s had a “Pow wow” here yesterday about 100 of them congregated & had a great dance they went through all sorts of gramaces three of the chiefs beating the drum another rattling a lot of elk teeth, you never saw such a sight in all your life.”
He then tells his father, “I met Chilion Jones the morning I reached here quarters at Dufferin, West Lynne. Hope you have not been surprised at my not writing for so long a time, if so you will not be when I inform you that I have been over seventy miles from any person except our own Party for the last month up White Mouth River as far as the Lake, (White Mouth Lake). We had a pretty hard time of it-being frozen in and having to pack all the way down. We arrived at this place (the Barracks) via Fort Garry, ... this place will be awfully quiet till they send out the Parties in the spring the beginning of April.”
On 5 December he wrote, “am anxiously awaiting the mail every time the stage comes in.” This indicates it ran regularly throughout the winter. “I find it awfully dull here in the evenings coming out of the store at four O.C. and having five hours of darkness to spend after that, one good thing is, all my room mates are gentlemen & know the most of my old companions in Ontario.”
In a letter to his friend Eliza Redmond, 18 March 1874, he mentions the loss of his mother and sister. They died when a pleasure boat burned on Lake Ontario during the summer. He boasted, “I am getting on famously on the Commission the only drawback is there is no way of employing one’s time in the evenings though in constant employment during the day in the store issuing rations to about 150 men. There are no nice people to go and see, which seems to me awfully strange to one being so accustomed to society in former times.”
He mentions frequently the amount of good farm land and that he is keeping an eye open for a good claim. He also keeps mentioning that there is any number of good opportunities for anyone willing to build up a small capital. “This country is not to be sneezed at, I can tell you,” was his way of putting it.
On 25 December 1873, Charles Sibbald wrote: “Dear Father, Your last epistle was very welcome I can assure you, being xmas times and so awfully dull here, something I never anticipated a year ago but here goes wishing you a merry xmas and a happy new year.”
The officers were invited to Lieutenant Governor Morris’s reception at Fort Garry, where, no doubt, they were wined and dined with the usual Red River hospitality. But Charles and the other servants dined on salt pork or pemican, out on the lone prairie (not very likely when he had turkey for his birthday!).
During the four winter months he was the boss man at the depot with four or five helpers at $15.00 a month. Apart from playing whist with the Doctor and others in his frame cabin which was large enough to house 28 men, the big event planned by the Engineers was a grand ball. “We are going to take down partitions and all sorts of things I don’t know how it will turn out for there are not twenty white women within 60 miles of the place,” he wrote.
But turn out it did on 2 February 1874, J. E. Parsons described it as a “kid glove affair,” but a report in the Manitoba Weekly Bulletin for 14 March written by an officer of the Dominion government Army in Winnipeg which filled two columns and a bit, suggests a large gathering.
The partitions had obviously been taken down in the large building which was tastefully decorated, for 250 danced quadrilles to an army brass band from Winnipeg.
At midnight they dined on a fine spread which had the tables groaning. Mention of the beauty and charm of the women, including Mrs. Herchmer and Mrs. Alston, wife of the farm manager, indicates that some may have come down from Winnipeg with the troops.
Not to be outdone, the Americans staged a party a month later at which the guests were served “Fried oysters, chicken salad, turkey and hams, then ice cream (a great American dish, explained a British Officer) cake, almonds, raisins and coffee.”
After supper there was a “German dance” with a peculiar headdress or ornament issued to each person for every figure (dance). There were two immense baskets full of these fancy ornaments which had been procured from New York for the occasion.
He was kept busy during the winter as the dog teams came and went to the outposts, and the constant coming and going of men required careful accounting. On 1 April 1874, he wrote: “Mr. Herchmer is really a brick always awful civil to me & he is a person very much thought of up here: 81 teams going out first train 400 miles to go before starting work.” This first train was loaded with oats for the stations along the way. In his next letter he remarks that “nearly all the men are hired ... so that as soon as the roads are in a fit state everything is ready for a start.”
He mentions the arrival of the first boat yesterday in his letter of 28 April and that he was to have a nice little room for himself. He expected to be left at the main depot, but, on 7 June, he wrote “Although I have addressed this from Dufferin I am writing about 20 miles from the place.... We have about eighty wagons in our train over a ton in each drawn by oxen so that 18 miles is all we make in the day.”
He wrote on 14 June, “As we are just passing a train going into Dufferin I just send you a few lines. I am getting along splendidly my little stalion trys to kick up didoes sometimes but I can manage him splendidly. The roads have been good so far with only one or two exceptions.”
And so he went on to 130 miles E R Mts (East of the Rocky Mountains) at which point the party finished the survey and turned back. “The buffalo & antelope are awfully thick out here it is nothing strange to see 100 in a herd, our scouts kill a great many. We almost live upon the meat. I start back with my train for Dufferin tomorrow expect to be in by middle of October, the Line is already nearly finished 3 months sooner than was expected ... The land for the last 200 miles is little or no good except here and there specimens of Coal & perhaps a few mineral specimans. East of that the land is good besides very little water sometimes none for more than 50 miles.” He doesn’t mention that water was hauled in barrels on wheels to overcome this problem.
In his last letter written 22 September from the second crossing of the Souris river, 200 miles west of Dufferin he was “feeding upon pemican dried buffalo beef & ducks also hard tack so you may bet we live well; when travelling near a river I sometimes bring in fifty ducks, having a good dog and gun & any amount of ammunition one of the cooks generally carries the game to their wagon & some of the teamsters pluck them for dinner so sometimes we have a good feed, the pemican we get here is really excellent. I can do my three helps every meal. I never eat so heartily in my life or never felt better.”
It was nearing the end of the Commission. In the same letter he said “The Commission will now soon be over, the Line being completely finished. Parties will all reach Dufferin 10th October & likely all will be discharged a month from that. So you will probably see me walking in some of those days unawares. Though before I go home I am going to get myself a permanent birth in this Country.”
And this he did, being one of the first settlers in the district of Brant just north of Stonewall. He never returned to Ontario and I officiated at his burial in old St. Andrew’s parish the summer of 1931, aged 81.
Page revised: 29 November 2013Back to top of page