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Inscriptions in Manitoba

by William M. Hugill

Manitoba Pageant, January 1959, Volume 4, Number 2

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In the history of almost every civilized country some of its earliest and most reliable records were found engraved on stone or bronze. In fact we obtained the first key to our knowledge of the wedge-shaped writing of the Assyrians from a great inscription on the face of a mountain in Persia, and our knowledge of the picture writing of the Ancient Egyptians is derived from the famous Rosetta Stone. Quite recently the secret of the language once spoken in Crete has been worked out from a study of clay tablets found in that large island and in Greece.

Stone and bronze are more durable than other writing materials. Because the space is usually limited and because it is more difficult to impose writing upon these materials than upon paper, the historic message is likely to be briefer and more concise. It usually happens also that the inscribed record was engraved at a time closer to that in which the event occurred and is therefore more trustworthy. Such inscriptions are found on public buildings, boundary stones, memorial monuments and in many other places.

Curious old-fashioned epitaphs on private tombstones in old cemeteries, particularly in England, have been published in many interesting collections. They testify to the simple faith of the people of the time and sometimes to their sense of humour. One might suppose that in a young country like Manitoba such epitaphs would be very rare, but I may quote an example from the churchyard of St. Andrew's on the Red, which is so weather-worn and overgrown with lichen that it is just barely decipherable:

Through Adam's sin cut off by early doom
We yield our much-loved infant to the tomb.

Her name was Mary Jane Smith and she died on June 5, 1850. Far too many of these epitaphs to be found in these old cemeteries are those of very young children, many of whom would have lived longer in these later times.

St. Peter's Church

St. Peter's Church
Source: Archives of Manitoba

By far the most interesting of all the epitaphs which I have seen in Manitoba is still quite legible in old St. Peter's churchyard three miles north of East Selkirk. It is on the tombstone of the Venerable Arch-deacon Cowley, one of the founders of the Church of England in Rupert's Land and a devoted missionary to the Indians for forty-six years. He was Archdeacon of Cumberland, Canon of St. John's and Secretary for Rupert's Land of the Church Missionary Society. He is described on the memorial stone as "wise, gentle, self-forgetting, unwearied: the trusted adviser of his revered Society and of his Bishop: the friend of all the clergy of the Diocese." He was born April 8, 1816 and died September 11, 1887. Because his life was devoted to the conversion of the Indians the memorial inscription concludes with a quotation from the bible given twice, first in Ojibway and then in Western Cree. The Ojibway version runs thus:

Kekenoowahbuhmeshig, debishkoo
kuhya neen azhe kekenoowahbuhmug Christ.

It is repeated in Western Cree as follows:

Noosookowik, tapiskooch neya
ka isse noosookowuk Christ.

Both versions have the same meaning which you can find in any New Testament if you read the first verse of the eleventh chapter of First Corinthians. (I Corinthians Chap. 11 - v. 1. "Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.")

This is the only example I have ever seen of an inscription in which an attempt was made to write in English letters the language of the Manitoba Indians. I think that it must be unique. If any reader has seen another in Manitoba, I should be very grateful if he would inform me about it.

In the same churchyard of St. Peter's some years ago a beautiful red granite monument was erected by the Lord Selkirk Society to the memory of Chief Peguis, the Saulteaux chief who was the staunch friend of the Red River Settlers and who was baptized as William King. Unfortunately due to the action of frost upon the soil the base of this monument has tipped and the top half lies flat upon the ground. So far money has not been available to reconstruct the foundation of this fine historical monument. It would not cost very much and it would be a splendid project for a number of Junior Chapters of the Manitoba Historical Society to raise modest sums of money which when added together would easily cover the cost of the work.

One other little bit of investigation I should like to suggest to some enterprising members of a Junior Chapter if there is one anywhere near the S.W. Quarter of Section 36, Township 28, Range 31 West of the First Meridian. For it was there west of the Duck Mountain that Ernest Thompson Seton and his brother Arthur built a cabin of hand-hewn logs in June, 1884. Ernest Thompson Seton, as you know, became naturalist to the Government of Manitoba and a popular author of the well-known book Wild Animals I Have Known. He later became an American citizen and never returned to the homestead where the cabin was built. In his autobiography he wrote: "Who eventually owned and occupied it, I do not know. If the ultimate occupant has any doubts, he can find cut in the lintel on the door, the words 'E. T. Seton, 1884'."

I wonder if the cabin still stands and if the name can be read above the door. It is the distinguished name of a man who made his mark in Manitoba. This also was a Manitoba inscription but wood is not as durable as stone or bronze. Can anyone tell me if the carving still exists?

Page revised: 28 June 2019

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