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Life in the Early West

by Margaret Arnett Macleod

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1947-48 season

MHS Transactions were originally published by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make online versions available as a free, public service. As an historical document, Transactions may contain language that is no longer in common use and which may offend some readers. They should not be construed to represent the views of today’s Manitoba Historical Society.

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Our past, here in the West, is a kaleidoscopic scene-primitive conditions transformed into civilization in a mere hundred and fifty years or so. And I think you will agree that no background excels our own, for color, romance, adventure and drama. In Eastern Canada, reviewers comment from time to time upon the amount of romance that is compressed into the few pages of our short record. Romance, in Western Canada, lies all around one for the digging.

When R. M. Ballantyne came to Rupert's Land in 1841, he saw a country of Indians and camp-fires, paint, feathers and war-whoops; of fur traders, explorers and settlers; of thundering buffalo, creaking cart, splashing paddles and voyageurs; of dog trains, forts and fur-trade wars. All that you may read in his books on this country published one hundred years ago.

The early western scene was painted upon a large canvas, one-quarter of a continent, and there were plenty of highlights. Picture the immensity of it; imagine the task of settling it; a vast uninhabited wilderness over which men went with dogs, in canoes, on ponies, or on foot, with fur trade posts mostly hundred of miles apart. Yet these men would start off, merely to spend Christmas with a friend, and travel 1500 to 2000 miles by dog-cariole, over frozen wastes, camping out at night in 40-below-zero weather, and thought nothing of it. In summer they came to Norway House or Red River from as far as today's Oregon, crossing the mountains, just to attend a four- or five-day meeting of Council.

I found it quite thrilling when I learned that my husband's father had walked across the Rocky Mountains. He had been a member of Chief Factor Robert Campbell's party, who after their post, Fort Selkirk in the far North, have been wiped out by Indians, walked more than a thousand miles to Red River. On being questioned, my husband said he had never heard his father mention the trip. He understood the party had suffered hardships, but it was part of the life, that was all.

And for a routine trip, these early westerners might take months but why not? There was no hurry, and after all, they succeeded in settling the country.

They were so resourceful, these early people-they had to be! There were annihilating conditions to be met at times; years when deep snow kept the buffalo away, or when fish failed in the streams, and small game on the prairies. In one such year, while the officer in charge of a fort went for help for his people who were almost starving, a fifteen-year-old Indian girl kept them alive until his return, by feeding them with soup made from every living thing she could snare, even to mice. And romantically, the officer in charge of the fort, John Dugald Cameron, with a fine sense of reward, later married her.

There were floods then, as now. In spring the Red and Assiniboine Rivers sometimes overflowed at their juncture, inundating the country for miles around, with much consequent suffering and loss. Homes were destroyed and buildings carried away, but it is an interesting fact that those who had belonged to the country for generations, and thus knew what to do in such a circumstance, suffered little.

An old woman told me of the flood of 1852 when she was a child, a flood that did a great deal of damage. In March her grandfather, watching the signs so well known to these native people, informed the family there was going to be a flood. Selecting the highest spot on their land, he went away every day and, with help, began to build a house there. Between four well-branched trees, the largest he could find, he built a house big enough for the family to live in, and plastered and waterproofed it so it would float. The family then moved in with all their worldly goods. When the flood came, the house rose as the water rose, but it remained anchored safely between the four trees. The family lived there in comfort, coming and going in their dugout canoe. Every day the old grandfather went off and brought back firewood secured from the tops of trees in high places, and the members of the household never once missed Mass on Sundays! They went to the St. Boniface Cathedral of the poet Whittier's "turrets twain," which being on high ground, had water only to the doors. They tied their canoe at the church steps and each Sunday they watched the high-water mark there; and my informant told me of their joy on the first Sunday when they found it had lowered.

These early people transported the merchandise of the country across the continent efficiently. In winter, over endless snow, men ran beside loaded sledges 80 to 100 miles a day, and each man accounted for five or six pounds of meat at the evening meal. Five men once ate a mountain sheep at a sitting. In summer, such unbending burdens as bells up to 300 pounds in weight, an Irish gig for an Irish gentleman at Red River, and an Italian marble headstone for the grave of a loved woman at Fort Edmonton, were transported, partly by boat, but partly on men's backs, over the innumerable portages. Travelling over the prairies, and through streams, loaded ox-carts went down steep river banks and up again, with as many as eight men to a wheel, and the loads crossed the river safely on rafts made of the cart wheels lashed together and covered with skins. One November, the members of an ox-train waded a shallow stream 37 times in one day in order to get their loads across. Each of those 37 times, the men were solidly abreast against the force of floating ice, and up to their middles in the freezing water.

A horseman, travelling alone, who had to cross a river with valuable papers which mist not get wet, enclosed them in a skin drawn up like a pouch, and took the string in his teeth. At the river's edge he gave the horse an impelling slap on the flank, which started him into the water. As he lost his footing and began to swim, the rider slipped off backwards, took a good grip on the horse's tail and they got over in fine style.

The regular mail service across the country was once a year to some parts, and twice to others. But men in charge of fur-trade posts had other means of communication when necessary. One of the speediest of these was interesting. The writer of the letter sold it to an Indian who carried it as far on its journey as suited him. He then sold it at a profit to another Indian who, in turn, carried it on until he, too, could sell it to advantage. It was thus sold again and again increasing in value as it advanced, until the last owner received a substantial sum from the man to whom it was addressed. A letter in those times was beyond price, and by this method it always arrived surely and safely, as well as speedily.

Picture the remoteness of the life. Chief Factor Camsell of Fort Simpson, received a year's London Daily Times by the one ship a year from England. On the arrival of the papers, he sat down each day to read news a year old, and with almost unbelievable self-control never looked at the latest, so that his daily paper would have interest until the ship came again next year.

And that remoteness intensified tragedy. A settler of Red River, who returned to Scotland to live, left his family behind to join him the following year, when he would have a home ready for them. All that year his wife pictured him as preparing for them. When the ship duly arrived back at York Factory on Hudson's Bay, where the family was waiting to embark, it brought the news that the husband and father had been dead for nearly a year. He had been killed by a building blown down in a storm they day after he had arrived in Scotland, and this was the family's first opportunity to learn of it.

Picture the loneliness. In the 1850s a young Sister of the Order of Grey Nuns, homesick for St. Boniface, was serving at White Horse Plain. It was bleak, empty prairie where the convent's spindling fence posts were loosened by the prevailing west winds. Her suffering and longing was being intensified by a young calf crying for its mother, and she said that even the calves there were desolate, and the very fence posts leaned toward St. Boniface.

Dr. John Bunn, the early and eminent medical practitioner in Red River, gave it as his opinion that women from older countries had actually died from loneliness in those endless unbroken spaces. He never forgot the old woman who died saying, "I think I would live if I could only see a hill."

Men, too, suffered from the loneliness of this empty country. Young Colin Fraser came from Scotland as piper and personal servant to Sir George Simpson, Governor of Rupert's Land. His music contributed greatly to the "Little Emperor's" dramatic arrivals at remote forts, in his big emblazoned canoe. And the piper in full Highland dress, making such amazing sounds, was taken by the astonished Indians to be kin to the Great Spirit. In fact, they used to ask him to intercede for them, and Fraser would comment that they little knew how limited his influence was in that quarter.

Later, young Fraser with one or two servants was put in charge of jasper House, an isolated post maintained at the foot of the Rockies, solely to supply spare pack-ponies for people going across. And it is told of him that his loneliness there was so great that, on many a night as he played his pipes, he danced to his own shadow on the wall.

Picture the life of the women. They crossed those mountains on packponies and carried their babies in their arms. A child was born to C. F. and Mrs. John Harriott on one such journey, and as they travelled the mother and Indian nurse, each on horseback, took turns in holding the baby. The party camped one night above the deep canyon of the Fraser River and Mrs. Herriottt retired to her tent with her nurse and her baby. She was never seen tin. It was believed that she got up in the night and that on going outside in the darkness, she missed her footing on the brush-covered edge of the cliff and fell below to her death.

That baby, a girl, grew up, and at 17 she married J. Rowand Jr., son of Chief Factor J. Rowand of Fort Edmonton. There is a record of the wedding on New Year's Day, 1849, and of the 200-mile wedding trip along the frozen river to Fort Pitt, with nine men as body-guard. There were three gaily-painted fur-lined carioles and four sledges, each drawn by four dogs. Rowand imported dogs of superior breed from Labrador, and on this occasion they were decked in bright embroidered saddle-cloths, innumerable tiny bells, and upstanding plumed feathers dancing in the wind.

The party carried no food on the seven-day journey. Each morning some of the men went ahead, killed buffalo or deer, prepared the meat and pitched the skin tent for the bride and groom. And each night, before the great fires that were waiting for them in the snow, they found steaming pots of savoury soup and sputtering roasts and steaks. A member of the family told me that, when the couple reached Fort Pitt, the young bride found her husband's Indian wife still there. There had been some confusion in the plan to settle her elsewhere.

Speaking of Indian wives, at Fort Hall on the Columbia River, a remote post, a chief trader had three Indian wives. He found this arrangement very useful; he could bring out each wife in turn when the people of her tribe came to trade. In later years, when this man came to live in St. Boniface (minus the wives) and married a white woman, it was all right with Bishop Tache. But when he liked the family so well he took her sister to wife, too, that was another thing, and when the Bishop insisted that he couldn't have two wives in Red River, the man, in a huff, said if he gave up one, he would give up both! However, the Bishop finally won out.

But to resume about women, and travel. A friend told me of her grandmother's trip from York Factory to Fort Garry, to which post her husband was being transferred. One day the York boats had to put into a suitable island and the young wife was carried on shore in blankets. But they were travelling with the fall brigade and there could be no delay. The business of a whole country could not be disorganized by a family crisis. Moreover, there was danger of the boats being frozen in for the winter. So next morning, the young wife, now a mother, was carried back to the boat in the blankets, her first-born in her arms, to continue the journey.

Women of remote posts whom I have known, have spoken of the one complication of the life as the most trying of all. They had to give up their children whose companionship would have lightened so greatly the monotony of their isolated lives, and send them away to be educated. They heard from them once, or at most, twice a year. All the children of C. F. Camsell were thus sent away to school, and Mrs. Camsell told me she would never forget how her heart used to beat when the Indian women came running to say the mail was arriving. What news would be in the letters? So much could happen in a year; so much could happen in six months! She was almost afraid to open them! One of her daughters at the age of six years was sent to England to school, and she returned five years later to know none of her family, not even her mother. Of what use was one letter a year at that age, to keep memories fresh? In a room at Lower Fort Garry, Mrs. Camsell said, the child stood on that day of her return, looking around in bewilderment upon them all, and recognizing no one.

Women of those early times picture a vastly different economy to that of today. Old ladies of my acquaintance have told me that in their childhood in Red River, every article of clothing the family wore was the hand work of the women of the household, from the wool as it left the sheep's back, and the skin of an animal for shoes, with the exception of one garment. This was a shirt, which for comfort, was made of cotton brought by the yearly ship from England. Women then had to be industrious; they had good-sized families to clothe. They knitted when they rose in the morning while waiting for the fire to start and the kettle to boil; they knitted as they walked over to a neighbor's. One day Mrs. Duncan McCrea, wife of the noted Red River stone mason, was knitting, and wrapped in thought, as she went along the road some distance to her daughter's house. When she go there she found she had dropped her ball of wool, and a grandson told me that he had to run back a full mile or more to retrieve it.

Fine cotton and muslin was greatly prized by these early women. Kate McPherson, of the Red River settlers, as she lay dying, sent for her dearest friend. She wished to pass on to her, her dearest possessions; not gold, not jewels, but her caps with goffered frills made of fine white cotton the only concession to a woman's vanity in early Red River.

Speech in the early West was descriptive and meaningful. I mention only the Red River dialect, as picturesque a dialect as that of the Quebec habitant, and more interesting in origin. Speech as it varies in different parts of a country lends color and character, and the pattern of Canadian background would be further enriched if a Dr. Drummond could be found to immortalize the Red River dialect. It is said that "only those gifted with an ear for the greater in music, and with an appreciation of rare inflections of voice and the fine pianissimo accents of various words, can speak this dialect accurately and effectively."

I cannot speak it, and I cannot here go into this fascinating subject, but I will try to illustrate what I mean by the term, descriptive speech. There were colorful words of other languages, French, Cree, Scottish dialect, and Irish, incorporated in the Red River dialect. I might mention two descriptive Cree words. The first represents the sound made by a stone falling from a height into water. An educated native clergyman was preaching in St. John's Cathedral to the most cultured congregation in Red River. He was speaking in English, yet in relating the incident from the New Testament where the swine ran over the cliff into the sea, he said: "And those pigs, my dear hearers, ran over the bank and went chimmuck in the lake."

This is Willie Brass's story. He and his wife, and Eskimo woman, spoke the Red River dialect, and I am sure there is no need to explain the meaning of the one Cree word he used. Said Willie: "John Jems Corrigal and Willie Garge Linklater was out sootin' in the marse, and the canoe went appech-equanee. The watter was sallow, whatefer, but Willie Garge kept bobbin' up and down, callin', 'Lard, save me.' John Jems was on topside the canoe and he souted to Willie and sayed, `Never mind the Lard just now, Willie-grab fer the willas!' "

One gets the color in this early life through colorful people and incidents. Peter d'Eschambault was the son of a chief factor in the far North in early days, and Peter had no fancy when he grew up for a marriage of the only kind possible there then, to an Indian girl, and "after the fashion of the country." He wanted to marry a white girl and he wanted to be married by a priest. So he canvassed the only possibility. He wrote to Governor Wm. Mactavish at Fort Garry asking whether he could find a girl at Red River who was willing to marry him. The governor made inquiries and replied that there was a girl at the convent in St. Boniface named Sarah Bruce, whom the sisters considered unequal to their spartan mode of life, and Sarah said she would marry him. The problem, then, was how to arrange the marriage. So Peter wrote to the sisters-not to Sarah saying that next time business took him to Montreal, he would stop off for the ceremony. They keep early hours at convents, and one winter evening Sarah was roused from sleep and told that her bridegroom had arrived and wanted to be married at once, as it was necessary for him to go on posthaste to Montreal.

Standing at the altar next morning, the young couple saw each other for the first time. The marriage was solemnized and Peter, ready to resume his journey, told the sisters that since he couldn't take his wife with him, he would arrange for her to come North when the water opened and she could travel comfortably. Sarah afterwards confessed that she was much chagrined at being left behind, even though she hadn't seen the man before, and she went North to him the following summer. In later years the d'Eschambaults lived in Winnipeg, and a friend, speaking to Mrs. d'Eschambault one day about her marriage, asked, "Weren't you afraid to marry in such fashion a man whom you had never seen before?" "Oh, no," replied Sarah, nonchalantly, "I knew who he was, so I just took a good look at him out of the corner of my eye as we stood at the altar, and I said to myself, `I guess he'll do!' "And time proved that he "did" very well.

Many stories centre around Chief Factor John Rowand, who was in charge of Fort Edmonton for many years. No one was so completely master on the western plains as Rowand, the great little martinet who built the big house at Edmonton which they called "Rowand's Folly." It is related that, to impress the savage Indians with whom he had to deal, he had the room in which he received them "painted with such barbaric gaudiness, and the ceiling so filled with fantastic gilt scrolls, that no white man ever entered it for the first time, without a start."

Rowand was the son of a Quebec physician. He was a pushing, bustling man in the Hudson's Bay Company's service, and brave as a lion. He was short and stout, of a rough, determined aspect, with steel blue eyes and a terrible temper. He died while urging his son on in a fight. He had just shouted to him, "Can't you do better than that?", when he expired from the excitement.

A problem now arose. Rowand had asked that he be buried beside his father in Montreal. But he didn't choose the season of his going; it was summer, so this was impossible. The worried family buried him where he died. But was the last wish of the great little chief factor who had always been obeyed, not to be carried out? The family remained uneasy until a way was found to do so. There are various versions of what then happened, but I offer you what a grandson in Winnipeg told me.

The winter following Rowand's death, Governor George Simpson, who honored and respected the memory of this loyal officer of the company, ordered the body disinterred. An Indian woman was employed to scrape the bones and boil them, after which they were packed in a keg and labelled "Smoked Buffalo Tongues," to avoid trouble with the superstitious boatmen. When the waters opened in the spring, the keg was shipped east by the old Nor'-Westers' route. However, a bad storm arose on Lake Winnipeg and the boatmen, who had been suspicious of the keg ever since they started, threw it overboard. An old lady in Winnipeg, whose father was one of the boatmen, has heard him tell impressively of how they lightened the boat by throwing out heavy cargo, casks of rum, iron ploughshares, but all to no purpose. Destruction still threatened the boat. Not until they got rid of that keg, he said, did the storm abate. Of course the boatmen had to retrieve it later, and Governor Simpson told in a letter of being afraid to trust the keg to them again. He took it in his own canoe to Red River and changed its route. It was shipped to York Factory and from thence to England, to be reshipped to Montreal. On the arrival of the keg in London, proper respect was paid to John Rowand's bones. A funeral cortege received the keg and it lay in state at Hudson's Bay House until it was carried in another funeral procession to the boat to go to Montreal. Governor Simpson wrote from Montreal to the family, to say that equal respect was paid to their father's bones at the end of their long journeyings, and that they had been laid in a handsome tomb in the Cemetery of Montreal, which would cost the family the fine sum of £500.

Another colorful figure was Hon. Jas. McKay, member of Manitoba's short-lived Upper House, the Legislative Council, in the 1870's. McKay was a large man. He weighed nearly 400 pounds. He travelled in a specially constructed buckboard. But it couldn't take his wife's extra 200 pounds plus, so they used two buckboards going places. He slept in a mahogany four-poster brought from Paris, and when he wanted to change his position in bed he wound a handle on one of the posts and the springs turned him over gently. Large people, however, were not unusual in the early West. On one occasion, at a wedding at Jas. McKay's home, Deer Lodge, he and his wife, with another couple, stood up to dance, and their combined weights added up to 1372 pounds.

McKay kept a large establishment at Deer Lodge, with a staff of servants, two kitchens and two cooks. The family cook was an American woman whom he had bought from the Sioux after the Minnesota massacre of 1852. He also bought at that time a white child named Augusta, whom he adopted and educated at the Convent in St. Boniface. It seems that at school, Augusta could always command a breathless audience when she told of how the Sioux came and killed all her family, and choked her father by stuffing his own paper money down his throat. The Indians used this dramatic form of revenge for slighted demands upon the American government, more than once, in this massacre.

In his youth Jas. McKay was a noted hunter and trader; no one knew the trackless plains better, and he was usually put in charge of visiting expeditions. Lord Southesk, on his way to shoot big game in 1859, and travelling with Sir George Simpson, told of McKay coming to St. Paul, Minn., to conduct them to Red River. His description of McKay is almost a classic. He said the big fellow, padding softly along the carpeted hotel corridors in his moccasins, with quiet dignity, made the Americans in their squeaky boots, seem like noisy little steam engines.

It was Simpson's first overland trip to Red River, and finding it a wet year he was inclined to turn back. However, on McKay's word that they could get through, the word of an eminent traveller, they proceeded. There is an unauthenticated story here, that to implement his word McKay had to carry Sir George over the wet places on his back, but however that may be, they made Fort Garry at the exact minute he had promised: seven days on the last lap from Crow Wing, at the ringing of the fort's noon bell!

This early life in the West might be characterized as an accented life; it had to do with fundamentals. People worked hard, played hard, lived hard.

The last person I wish to mention is a quick-witted, resourceful woman for whom I have a great admiration, an Indian woman who lived on the empty prairies in 1815. At that time there was constant warring between the North West and the Hudson's Bay Companies, each with Indians loyal to its cause. During a skirmish, John Pritchard (grandfather of the late Archbishop Matheson), a man who belonged to this woman's enemies, was being chased by her people, and he was due to be scalped in short order, unless a miracle intervened. Some distance ahead of his pursuers, he found himself nearing this woman's lodge. She was of the enemy, but he had once done her a kindness, so he decided to throw himself upon her mercy. She recognized him, and rose to the occasion. She must act quickly! She must hide him! But where? In a skin tent, on the bald prairie? His pursuers would be all through that tent in a moment! But she hid him. She hid him successfully! She sat on him!

He was a small man, and she was a large fat squaw, with skirts made of several widths of material sewn together. When he burst in upon her she had been sitting making rush mats, so she resumed her seat on a low buffalo-hide hassock and hid him under her skirts and her work. Stolidly she sat all day and wove her rush mats; she sat all day and smoked her pipe, while her men folk came in and out during their search for the fugitive. And it was not until daylight faded and night came, that she was able to get him away to safety under cover of the darkness.

Page revised: 1 October 2012

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