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Letters of Egerton Ryerson Young

Preface by Harcourt Brown
Professor Emeritus, Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island, USA, Professor Emeritus, Brown University
(A grandson of the Reverend Egerton Ryerson Young)

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1971, Volume 17, Number 1

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Egerton Ryerson Young (1840-1909), Wesleyan Missionary at Norway House from 1868 to 1873, and at Berens River for a year or more beginning in the summer of 1874, has written of his work among the Indians of the North-West in about a dozen books, of which the most comprehensively factual are By Canoe and Dog-Train among the Cree and Saulteaux Indians (1890), and Stories from Indian Wigwams and Northern Campfires (1892).

These accounts of personal experience were elaborated with material collected in preparation for extensive lecture tours in the United States and Britain which began in 1888 and continued until the spring of 1909. Describing the events and conditions in which he took part and suffered, the author maintains an objective tone, free from self-serving tendencies and intimate revelations. The writer is present, often concealed under a third-person pronoun or a reference to "the missionary."

These books are, in short, not autobiography, but rather a contribution to the history of civilizing and Christianizing of the Indian, while at the same time promoting the mission of the Christian churches.

Even his ostensible novels Three Boys in the Wild North Land and Oowikapun - the latter bearing the epigraph "A Nosegay of Facts tied with the Ribbon of Romance" are based on the things seen or told by credible witnesses, and present a massive record of Indian life and customs, folklore and character, useful to the anthropologist rather than satisfactory to the critic who dismisses them as merely adventure stories for the adolescent or prize books for the Sunday School of eighty years ago.

The impersonality of the published narratives lends special value to three private letters which have survived from this period and which are published herein for the first time. "Libbie," to whom these letters were addressed, was born Elizabeth Bingham in Bradford, Ontario, in 1843. Elizabeth Bingham and Egerton Ryerson Young were married by the Reverend Egerton Ryerson on Christmas Day, 1867. They were members of a party of Wesleyans led by the Reverend George Young, and sent from Ontario to organize missions in Rupert's Land for the Methodist Church.

The tedious journey to Manitoba has been described by George and Egerton Young in their books. Egerton went on from Fort Garry to Norway House in the summer of 1868, where he stayed five years. During this time his long absences over a very large mission field made communication impossible, and there are few documents on which we can draw for private impressions, the observation that reveals the man, not merely the consecrated missionary but also the objective recorder of external circumstances.

The letters that follow were written in August and September of 1873 and in April of 1874; the first two being dated from Norway House, the third, in two parts, from Berens River.

In the summer of 1873, Mr. Young was called back from Norway House to report to the Conference in Toronto on his five years in the Great Lone Land. However, before departing, Mr. Young had to await the arrival of his replacements, while Mrs. Young and her children took advantage of the summer weather to make the long trip to Fort Garry and thence by Red River, Minnesota, and the Great Lakes to her home in Central Ontario.

After the Reverend John H. Ruttan and Orrin German arrived at Norway House, Mr. Young left there early in September, stopping on the way south at Berens River, which was to be his new station. He spent an active winter in Ontario, preaching and lecturing in support of the Indian Missions. In the following Spring he returned to Manitoba, and when the new mission house and church were nearly ready, he was re-joined by his family.

The background of events referred to in the following letters is described in By Canoe and Dog-Train, Chapter XXI, and one date given therein may be rectified from the third of these letters. Although readers of this book will recognize most of the persons who reappear in the letters, a few lines of commentary may be helpful. Three of the "class leaders" at Rossville Mission were Timothy Bear, William Memotas, and Big Tom Mamanowatum, while different members of the Papanekis family played important parts in the mission work at Norway House and Berens River.

Mary Gibb was long a member of the mission household, Peter Badger taught in the school, and Sandy Harte was a crippled youth who had been rescued from neglect among the Indians of Nelson River. There were apparently two officers of the Hudson's Bay Company named Flett, one at Fort Garry, the other at Berens River. John Semmens came from Ontario in 1872 as an aide to Mr. Young. He was stationed at Nelson River in 1874 and at Berens River in 1876.

Four of Mr. Young's children were born in Manitoba. Eddie, the eldest, later to be known as the Reverend E. Ryerson Young, was a member of the Toronto Conference of the Methodist Church. Lillie married Robert Newton Helme of Lancaster, England, where she lived from about 1890. Nellie, born in 1872, died on the way to Fort Garry in August, 1873, and was buried at Selkirk. Florence, born at Berens River, married Reverend A. Boylan FitzGerald, and lived in New Jersey from about 1907.

The letters speak for themselves: the endless struggle to create and maintain a consistent way of life, the loneliness without bitterness, the immense affection for the Indians with whom the missionary lived, the emotional commitment on which his work was based - these are what one expects of such a man. Beyond these traits is the sense of humor that runs through the exchange with John Semmens in the Arctic cold over a man's rights to ruffled spirits, and whether a good Wesleyan may be justified in travelling before dawn on the Sabbath even if he must reach his appointed mission that day. Here is a taste of the eloquence and wit to which many hearers later testified, which is not so easily perceived in his published books.

At least one letter between the second and third is missing; it was written from the Stone Fort, presumably in late March. It is possible also that pages concerning family matters have been separated from the originals as we have them now. But there is no doubt of the authenticity of these letters; they are as they were sent through the mails, and they have been in family hands without a break since they were first received.

The paper is ruled laid double sheets, 10" x 8½" - watermarked. A. Annandale & Sons - Superfine. The first letter is from the collection of diaries and other documents in possession of the writer; the second and third letters are part of a similar collection in the possession of the Reverend H. Egerton Young, Toronto.

Norway House,
August 4th, 1873

My darling Libbie,

We watched your receding boats until they went out of sight near Montreal Point. That my heart was sad and lonely I need not stop to say. A great large vacuum all at once seemed to have taken the place where my heart was supposed to be. As you faded out of the vision of your husband's eye, he earnestly prayed that the all-seeing eye of the ONE, who beholdest all things would ever be upon you and on our darling little ones.

I was in no mood for shooting that evening and so we remained upon that sandy shore until sundown.

We parted on that shore, Love,
You for our childhood home;
I to the field of toil, Love,
Where the redmen do roam.

As the mosquitoes were thick, we went out to a little rocky island which was destitute of trees and spent the night. My bed consisted of an oilcloth, one blanket and a pullover. I rolled myself up in the blanket and oilcloth and slept well, although my side was a little sore in the morning as the rock was a rough one. At Prayers both morning and evening all prayed. It would have done your heart good to have heard Sandy pray. I was amazed at his fluency and earnestness. Poor fellow, he mourns over your departure in a way that shames my apparent indifference.

We spent the day in shooting, called at Johnny Oig's in the evening and saw the dogs. Tell Eddie Shunias and Robin and Lothair and all the rest, even Poquashikum and Koona are all well, and were glad to see me. We reached the Mission about dark. Mary had returned before us. Everything is neat and tidy. Poor Timothy is very feeble. He eats with me and I think it is the best arrangement we could have made. Times are hard. The nets yield us but little. We have eaten up the dried fish and must live on Pemmican as there are no sturgeon. We had a nice mess of green pease yesterday. I am teaching the school while Peter is away at Red River.

Yesterday I packed up my tools, medicines and two cases of books. Harriet Badger is making me some moccasins and Mary is working on the gloves. I have sent Willie and four others to cut hay. We have a little boy to bring in the cows, and Chloe milks them.

I have not got Martin off yet. I am annoyed that he is so slow, and begin to think that the better way would be to go and board at Mr. Flett.

If I only knew that I was to go on to join you in Ontario, I would soon decide what to do but this uncertainty is what perplexes me. Depend upon it, I will come as soon as I honourably can, but not before even if I never come. No one shall accuse me of deserting my post and running home without authority. Still I am well convinced that I could serve the Church better this year at home than out here. But you will say there is a good deal of concate as Pat would say, in that last sentence: well scratch it out then if you like.

The Indians all miss you very much. They come and sit around and look so sad that I have to get out of their sight to keep from having the blues. We have had two fine showers, hope they did you no harm. We all hoped you got to Beren's River for the Sabbath and for fresh milk for the dear little ones.

As a few days have dragged their slow length along since I wrote the previous sheet, I will now commence another one.

This is Saturday. I have been trying to get up my work for tomorrow, but the thoughts do not seem to flow with their accustomed freedom. Perhaps because it is that my thoughts are far away. The wind has been contrary for you for the last few days, still we hope you have managed to get to the Stone Fort ere this.

I have packed up most of the books and tools and medicines. The women have well cleaned the house from top to bottom. I think they have made a good job of it.

I have looked over the Old Letter box and have sorted out a great pile and burnt a still greater lot. I read and read until the brain got in a whirl, and the memory of other days drove the present out of thought.

The day is cloudy with an amount of high winds. Slight showers have been falling but the ground is very dry. The wheat is a complete failure this year and I don't think we will more than get our seed potatoes back again. We are having plenty of green pease but very few young ducks to eat with them.

Tell Eddie and Lillie their little pussies are able to run around the floor a little. The men are away at the hayfields. They have to cut it all under water then gather it in boats and take it to the shore and spread it on the rocks to dry. Very slow and very expensive work.

I think that I have packed up everything that is to go from here. It is a little wearing on the nerves, this being in a state of such great uncertainty as to the future; however "God reigns on high," all will be right and we shall yet praise Him.

August 11th

I have decided to hire Martin and have given him a hundred dollars advance. This will put the Mission on a good footing at once, as his son Donald will keep the school. I will be able then to come on to Ontario as soon as possible after I get word. I have been at the Old Letters again. Oh dear what a time ...

We are nearly all starving. Out nets yield nothing and there is precious little else and that is not very satisfying. However we will get through. Poor little Mary is really so ambitious to do well, and, for her, she does well. She tried to make a little porrage [sic] for my breakfast this morning, but she burnt it dreadfully, and then she was so vexed about it. The bread is very good, considering the bakers.

[Charles?] Paulette was married today to Ellen Memotas. William's relations were hopping mad about it. When I scolded some of the Scotchmen for not coming to church, their answer was that the church seemed so sad and drear without Mrs. Young's sweet strong voice that they felt better at home. So you see even those poor fellows miss you.

They are so very kind and friendly at the fort that I would if I dare leave the extensive Mission premises, go over and stop there a great deal. But I have a great deal to do, and must stand by the stuff.

I am teaching the school which I find not very pleasant for the olfactory nerves this warm weather.

Enormous fires are raging in the woods all round us. The air is full of magnificent smoke clouds. The wind is blowing a gale, and the Lake is lashed into foam.

A large number of boats under reef sail have shot by in the distance. They have come up from York and I am a little nervous that perhaps the Red River boats may be among them and so you will not get this letter. However if I can hire a couple of men to brave the raging waves I will send this letter across to Mr. Ross to forward it to you.

This is the 14th of August. Two weeks ago you left your Northern home, the birthplace of your children, the home still of your husband. God bless and take care of you and our little ones. I will not disguise the fact that I am very lonesome, still I am not downhearted as I believe your going was for the best. I will feel anxious until I hear from you.

John Sinclair has written up another of his miserable letters. He now accuses Dr. T. of having been on the spree and of having done incalculable injury by his constant drinking before the poor Indians etc., etc., etc.

Sandy and Isaac Keeper have gone to the Old Fort to try and get us a few ducks. I would have gone with them only I am busy getting Martin ready and in keeping the school. Now darling I know of nothing else to write about. I hope you are well and that you have met with no misfortunes. If you cannot get a lock for the big trunk, get a good needle and thread and completely sew together the canvas cover. This would be a good way to fix the ones you do not wish to open. I hope you have found plenty of dear friends to aid you in your affairs. I felt a little uneasy about your purse as it was in that big casette near the top. The H.B. Company's bills are in it also, they are of one pound each. They will pay your board bills if you are at [sentence unfinished].

As I have not yet heard about the arrangements made by the Conference of course I can give you no advice as to the future. Be influenced by your own feelings and health and that of the children and also by the judicious advice of friends.

Give my love to Mr. and Mrs. Flett, Mr. Armstrong, Mr. Semmens, Mrs. Young, George, and all the others you meet including the Mr. Stewarts.

I will close this and then go and see if I can find anybody willing to go across with it. Kiss the dear ones and tell them Papa sends lots of love to them. God bless you my dearest. May he ever have you in his holy keeping and save you from all harm. So prays as ever

Your affectionate husband
Egerton R. Young

Norway House
September 8th, 1873

My darling:

Our successors have arrived and entered upon their duties. I think they will do well. Mrs. Ruttan is very young and will have much to learn. The Lord help her. They have a beautiful organ, so our dear little melodion has its song put out. I must leave it here for the present and also the pictures. They are not as well supplied with clothing etc. as I should like to have seen them. They are well off as regards provisions etc. They will live well.

Mrs. German is two days late for the last Brigade and so must go in a Canoe. I am to go today with Big Tom to my new field.

I hope to be with you about the middle of October. I was so dreadfully disappointed that Mrs. Ruttan had no letter for me from Libbie. But I suppose you were too busy. Well darling, this is the last letter from Norway House. The place of many joys and more sorrows. The birthplace of our children, the battleground of many a victory.

Yesterday I preached to the Indians in the afternoon. Mr. Ruttan in the morning and Bro. German at the Fort.

I never thought the poor creatures loved us half so well. There was weeping and crying all over, and my own heart was deeply moved.

Mr. and Mrs. Ruttan are wonderfully pleased with the mission. The Lord give them prosperity. We are to make arrangements today about their servants, etc. etc. Mary refuses to stay. She has done nobly for me.

Well so at last our career here had ended.

Well let us thank God we have not labored in vain or wept or suffered for nought. Love to Eddie and Lillie. Kisses and loving words to them I send: our little treasures who saved (us) from many a weary hour. I do not think I will have another chance of writing. Love to all the dear ones. God bless you my dear good faithful wife. So ever prays

Yours lovingly

Ferrier Mission
Berens River
April 6th 1874

Dearest wife:

One week has passed since I reached this place. As there is to be an extra packet sent in towards the end of this month, I will not delay until the time for writing is limited, but will commence now.

My last to you was written at the Stone Fort. We left that place a few hours after the letter was sent off. The day was warm, and snow soft, the sun brilliant, and so we suffered. We had not gone half a mile, ere one of Mr. Semmens' new dogs slipped himself out of his harness and started off on a run for his home, a place twenty-five miles away. We spent about an hour trying to overtake him, but it was all in vain, so we pushed on without him, much to Bro. Semmens' chagrin.

At an Indian house a couple miles down river, I found Donald Papanekis, who had come in as one of the Indian lads for me. He had injured himself by running too much and was very sick. He and most of the Indians thought he had better not attempt to return to Beren's River, but I thought differently, and carried my point against them all, and carried the lad in my cariole, all the way back to his anxious father and mother who were overjoyed to see him with them again. He is far from well, yet still he is better than when we left Red River. He rode in my robes and blankets every step of the way. So you can imagine that the trip was not as pleasant a one as I had anticipated as I had to walk much more than I had fondly hoped would have been my lot.

After we had left the settlement and the river we at once reached the bitter cold, which made us shiver. The fierce north winds blew against us every day, with but one exception. The bright sun on the dazzling snow blistered our half frozen faces and partly blinded our eyes with its brilliancy. When we came to where the boys had cached the fish for our dogs, they were not to be found, and so we had to take our fresh beef and bread and share with our dumb and patient companions, the dogs. Fortunately I had purchased a hundred weight of fresh beef fondly hoping I might have it to use with the white fish but alas the best-arranged plans sometimes get all astray.

Mr. Semmens fell and badly hurt his knee just as we were starting and the result was he was in misery all the time. His dogs were small, one untrained, (the one purchased to take the place of the rascal that slipped off his collar and ran away). Sometimes a fit of stubbornness would come over them and they would be thrashed until the good brother would get a little riled in spirit and flushed in face. When the battle was over, and the dogs were once more thrashed into line, he would shout out: "Bro. Egerton, do you believe in Christian perfection?"

"Yes, my brother, I do."

"Well, do you believe we can enjoy it and live, when training and driving stubborn obstinate dogs?"

"Yes, my Brother, firmness and decision in conquering dogs are not sins, and if we ever expect the Esquimo dogs to be of service to us in carrying us to proclaim the glad tidings of salvation to the bands of Indians, who can in the winter months be visited in no other way, we must teach them obedience and give them a few proofs of our power to enforce it."

"Bro. So-and-So," says he, "never gets ruffled. What do you think of such an experience?"

"Well, perhaps there is not depth enough in him to make a ruffle," I answer. "Our Saviour was ruffled when he cleaned out the temple of the money-changers. Stephen was ruffled when he delivered his splendid address, closing with: 'Ye stiffed-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears ...' Moses was ruffled when he saw the golden calf, and as the sabbath child said, 'smashed all the commandments at wonct.' "

"Let us push on brother Semmens, the night is advancing," (for we had been travelling on the frozen lake throughout the long cold night). See the Bear is fast completing its circuit around the North Star, the little stars that have been shining so brightly through the long night now like little children are the first to retire out of sight. The glorious Milky Way that all night long like a great white bow of promise spanned our sky sinks into oblivion. We are getting tired out with this walking and running and riding, and our dogs also seem weary, and as we are nearing this well known point let us turn in and make a fire and have something to eat and drink."

We dug a hole in the snow, spread out some boughs, opened out our camp bed, and then after eating, and not forgetting our faithful dogs, wrapped ourselves in our blankets and robes and went to sleep. It was a fearfully cold night or rather morning.

So it went on day by day. Saturday night found us forty miles from home. But now our circumstances were different. I had a sick lad in my cariole. Our dogs' fish had been stolen and they were not at all satisfied with the fresh beef we could afford to give them. So I assumed the responsibility, and said we would push on. We travelled thirty miles that Saturday night Sunday morning found us ten miles from the new Mission field. We had breakfast, then on we pushed. A fearful headwind arose. The Lake smoked with the blinding snow, and the storm roared like a dozen Niagaras.

"Cannot face it," says one.

"Yes we can," I shout. "It is from the Devil, who is angry at our coming to rout him from this place where he has so long had his seat."

Gallant Jack and Cuffee, with the new dogs Boxer and Muff, answer nobly to my words of cheer and pushed on barking with delight at the fierce elemental war. Sometimes so dense was the blinding snow, that the head dogs of the train would be invisible but success crowned our efforts, and the whole four trains safely reached the shore. We were close to the little humble dwelling of Martin Papanekis ere we were seen. Martin rushed out to meet us and I saw his face was full of anxiety about his boy, but his respect for Ookemou caused him first to shake hands with me, and then I threw off the robes and told him his boy was better. A great big lump came up into my throat, as with tears of gladness in his eyes he stooped down and so lovingly kissed the poor sick fellow. I felt so glad then that I had brought him out with me instead of leaving him in Red River, as the other proposed.

Well, we were so thankful to get into a house again. But what a sight we were. Our faces blistered and burnt out of all recognition. A week has passed since I arrived here, and I spend a portion of each day in picking off the dried skin which comes off like fish scales.

I am living in my end of the little house which has been fitted up for me by Martin. It is small, cold, cosy and I am not uncomfortable. I have so much to do that I can eat anything eatable, and then when night comes can sleep anywhere. But I must leave for another time and sheet a description of my work.

Ferrier Mission
Beren's River
April 10th 1874

My darling wife,

I must write you a letter on this glad day. I have had as pleasant a day as I possibly could under the circumstances. I arose early, had white fish and flat cakes and tea for breakfast. Then chopped wood for a while - then write letters until noon, after doing which I went over to Mr. Flett's for dinner and remained there until after tea and now just as the glorious sun is sinking to rest behind the western snowy expanse I am again at my table in my little room, with pen writing to my heart's treasure on this the anniversary of her natal day. I can only say the Lord bless thee, my darling, and spare you to see many happy returns of this glad day.

I went out last Monday to the big Island with the men. I had my own dogs and worked like a good fellow, hauling the timber, logs, etc., etc., out of the dense forest to the shore. We had over four miles to go with some of them, and I assure you it was hard work. The men had made a little log shanty in which to live, and if you could only have seen it, and observed the rough way we lived you would have been amused and amazed.

The flat cakes were made on the lid of an old packing case. When they were taken off the box, Cuffy and Jack would go and lick up what flour was left. Then when dinner was ready, that same box served as my chair, while my table was a rough work bench with a dirty old flour bag as a table-cloth. For breakfast and supper we had fish and flat cakes and tea. For dinner we also had a little meat. We slept on the rough boards in a bed composed of a blanket and buffalo robe, and slept well too.

This was the way, my dear, that I spent my birthday. I am feeling strong and well, and have so much to do that I keep up in spirits splendidly. What is there to cry or fret about, when all nature is rejoicing and the world is bright and sunny? The Indians are very kind and respectful and I have bright hopes for the future of this place. 'Tis true there are not many here at present, but they will crowd in as fast as it is possible to make them welcome and comfortable. Mrs. Flett got up such a nice dinner and supper in honor of the day. You must really feel grateful to her for her kindness to your faraway beloved on this happy day.

A nice pound cake has been sent up to me by Mrs. Flett. It must go a long way, and last a long time. It was made on your birthday. Am I not highly honored?

Mrs. Flett has another son, a fine little fellow a few weeks old. His name is Donald McTavish. So you see they have their hands full without boarding me. I am going in for fruit etc., etc. So if you come out we must have a fresh supply. I expect to leave here as early as possible so as to be in Winnipeg early in June. Shall I meet you there? Take good care of your dog; if he is going to be large, perhaps somebody coming by the Dawson route will bring him for you. Don't try to bring him by cars. It would cost 25.00 to 30.00 dollars.

The barking crows are flying. So spring is coming.

Our new house is to be more of the style of Mr. Geo. Young's of Winnipeg as it will cost less than Mr. Ferrier's den would, be more easily heated and more convenient. Only it will have a good large bedroom below.

(This unsigned letter, apparently incomplete, may have been continued on pages which are now missing.)

Rossville Mission, Norway House, date unknown.
Photo: United Church of Canada, Home Missions and Stewardship Services, Winnipeg.

Berens River Mission, Norway House, date unknown.
Photo: United Church of Canada, Home Missions and Stewardship Services, Winnipeg.

Mrs. Egerton Ryerson (Elizabeth "Libbie" Bingham) Young, from a Woodbury Print, London, about 1889.
Photo: Harcourt Brown, Providence, RI, USA.

Page revised: 20 July 2009

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