On the Trail in the Forties, Part 1
Manitoba Pageant, April 1960, Volume 5, Number 3
The following story, from an original manuscript in the Archives of Manitoba, tells of a journey from Red Lake, Minnesota, to Fort Garry in 1843. The story of the return trip will be published in the September Pageant.
Sketch of my First Trip to the Selkirk Settlement
Our number at that time at Red Lake (Minnesota) consisted of the late Rev. F. Ayer, and his wife and two sons, 7 and 9 years of age, ... the late Rev. D. B. Spencer and Rev. L. G. Wright myself and wife. Messrs. Ayer and Spencer had commenced operations there in the summer of 1843. The former had left his family in Ohio to join him in the Fall with recruits. Leaving Mr. Spencer in charge of their bark hut and garden, he came down to La Point Lake Superior to meet us. Our family goods not having arrived, Mr. Ayer and family and my wife tarried for them while Mr. Wright and myself hastened on to Red Lake in a birch bark canoe with three half-breeds to make preparations for the coming winter. We reached our destination on the 14th of Aug. (1843), and immediately sought a place for making hay for Mr. Ayer's two horses. Our station was on the South shore of Red Lake, about 20 miles from the outlet. About mid way between ... (was) some wild grass which we cut and stored in stacks. This done we returned and set about completing a house which had been commenced. The party left at La Point did not arrive until the 6th of Oct., and the winter closed in upon us almost immediately putting a stop to our house building; so our bark hut had to be our winter quarters. Scarcity of provisions necessitated the trip to the Selkirk Settlement.
Mr. Ayer concluded to take his horses to the settlement and dispose of them and purchase cattle, which would be more easily wintered in that cold region. We made one horse train after the fashion of what is now called "toboggan" (a corruption probably of the Ojibway "Otahbon") a thin board hewn out of a tree 3/4 in. thick, 15 or 18 in. wide and 10 or 12 feet long, turning up at the front to which were fastened thins, or trams as they were then called. The other vehicle was a home made pung, on which to carry the bulky articles, as hay, bedding, etc. Having obtained a letter of introduction from the French trader at Red Lake to a Frenchman in Selkirk (Settlement) we took leave of our families on Nov. 30, 1843. Mr. Ayer had his two horses and some money with which to purchase cattle and provisions, and I had my rifle and a few yards of Ohio cloth hoping to dispose of them and purchase a cow. Our first night's encampment was at our hay ground. Mr. Ayer drove the horse attached to the train, and (I) took the pung. We had a young Indian for a guide, who trotted along ahead on the shore of the lake with his gun over his shoulder.
The morning of Dec. 1st dawned upon us on our way down the lake shore ... my pung somewhat bulky with hay, but a comfortable seat ... some distance from the river outlet we struck across the frozen marsh so as to strike the river below the open water as it flowed out of the lake. Finding the ice sufficiently strong to admit of travel we trotted briskly along its edge. The weather was intensely cold, obliging us to wear double mittens. On the second day from the lake as we were trotting leisurely along the river, the guide striding along ahead. Mr. Ayer following, and I behind with my two pair of mittens, holding a slip of paper on which I had written sentences of the Indian language to learn on the way, I noticed how clear the ice was. I could see the current running swiftly underneath. Leaning over to watch the phenomenon I was suddenly startled by a general crash, and the next moment horse, pung and driver were struggling in the cold water. The river had fallen some 15 inches since the formation of the ice, and the pressure of our teams had caused the catastrophe, the ice breaking nearly half way under Mr. Ayer's train as he turned a point enabling him to escape the cold bath. Meanwhile the swift current had carried the pung ahead of the (horse), who was struggling to swim up stream. and I swam ashore to assist in saving her from being sucked under. The pung had lodged against a large flake of solid ice, the animal still struggling for liberty.
By an impromptu bridge of poles we succeeded in reaching the pung and detaching the animal from it return to the shore with a long line around her neck, by which means we got her to the shore some rods above, where we hoped to get her out of the freezing water. By great effort we got her upon the solid ice with the exception of one hind leg. Mr. Ayer not being a swimmer dared not go near the edge, and the Indian preferred to stand on terra firma and pull the line, so I ran to the edge of the ice and grasped her foot with a desperate effort while the others pulled. Just before the foot reached the top the animal gave a desperate struggle, and the next minute both she and myself were engulfed in the river. Grasping my hat which I saw being carried down stream I threw it ashore and started for the animal who was being carried down towards the suction. Seeing Mr. Ayer holding on to the line and being drawn on the slippery ice, the Indian standing back looking on, I swam ashore, and, all dripping with freezing water ran to his assistance, and lying flat on the ice grasped his coat tail in order to check the animal. Just as she had almost reached the dangerous spot, and Mr. Ayer's feet were on the brink of the water she turned suddenly and swam upstream. Calling the guide to help we all succeeded in getting her up to the shore and out of the water. Mr. Ayer sent the Indian to driving her about the woods to keep her from freezing to death whilst we made preparations for a Sabbath's camp.
What of the drenched man? He kept himself from freezing by cutting and breaking wood (for) the camp of sufficient quantity to last two nights and one day. At eleven o'clock at night he was standing before a large log fire drying his clothes and writing in his journal.
An early start on Monday enabled us to reach the mouth of "Thieving River" from whence our route lay across a prairie country, interspersed with groves of small poplars, and larger woods along the banks of small streams.
Our next Sabbath was spent within two day's travel of the Settlement. On our arrival we found that the French settlers occupied the upper part of the Colony some miles above "Fort Garry". We were most cordially welcomed and hospitably entertained by the man to whom we presented our letter of introduction. Acting upon his advice, the next day we accepted the use of his horse and "carriole" and visited the Governor of the colony, the Hon. Duncan Finlayson, by whom and his estimable wife, both Scotch, we were cordially greeted and earnestly (invited) to return and dine with them at 8 o'clock p.m. He advised us to go down to the Scotch Settlement, some 4 miles below the Fort, as they had the best stock of cattle and were honest ... The ice being solid on the Red River, our road lay on it, along which, on either bank were the dwellings of the settlers near together, their farms being from 4 to 8 chains wide and extending far out into the prairie, so as to allow a frontage and access to the river. Passing leisurely along we saw on the left bank quite a large herd of good looking cattle. Mr. Ayer remarked that there were some fine looking cattle and proposed that we turn up there and take a look at them. As we drove up towards "byres" (barns) a man came out of the house clad in Scotch cloth, having a broad fur cap, and greeted us with "good day gentlemen". We told him we were in search of cattle, and seeing some fine looking ones here we took the liberty of turning in to look at them. "oh, yes, yes," says he, "come right along gentlemen," leading the way towards them. "You see those cattle gentlemen," says he, "and you might think that one a noble animal" pointing to one of his cows, "but she has" such and such faults, describing them; and so over his stock, some good and some bad. Mr. Ayer remarked to me aside, "Here is honesty. We had better do our purchasing of these honest Scotch farmers." We were invited into his house and urged to "take a cup of tea." We told him we had promised to dine with the Governor at 8 p.m. But that did not suffice we must eat with him, which hospitality we afterwards found wherever we went. On leaving, we told him we would be down the next day and look over his cattle ...
Page revised: 29 October 2009