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Wintering on the Bay

Little is known of the many strange things which must have taken place on the voyage. On board the Edward and Ann sickness was prevalent and the ship's surgeon was kept busy. There were few days on which the passengers could come from below - decks. When weather permitted, Captain Macdonell, who knew the dangers to be encountered in the country they were going to, attempted to give the emigrants military drill. ' There never was a more awkward squad,' was his opinion,' not a man, or even officer, of the party knew how to put a gun to his eye or had ever fired a shot.' A prominent figure on the Edward and Ann was a careless-hearted cleric, whose wit and banter were in evidence throughout the voyage. This was the Reverend Father Burke, an Irish priest. He had stolen away without the leave of his bishop, and it appears that he and Macdonell, although of the same faith, were not the best of friends.

After a stormy voyage of nearly two months the ships entered the long, barren straits leading into Hudson Bay. From the beginning of September the fleet had been hourly expected at York Factory, and speculation was rife there as to its delay in arriving. On September 24 the suspense ended, for the look-out at the fort descried the ships moving in from the north and east. They anchored in the shallow haven on the western shore, where two streams, the Nelson and the Hayes, enter Hudson Bay, and the sorely tried passengers disembarked. They were at once marched to York Factory, on the north bank of the Hayes. The strong palisades and wooden bastions of the fort warned the newcomers that there were dangers in America to be guarded against. A pack of 'husky' dogs came bounding forth to meet them as they approached the gates.

A survey of the company's buildings convinced Macdonell that much more roomy quarters would be required for the approaching winter, and he determined to erect suit-able habitations for his people before snowfall. With this in view he crossed over to the Nelson and ascended it until he reached a high clearing on its left bank, near which grew an abundance of white spruce. He brought up a body of men, most of whom now received their first lesson in woodcraft. The pale and flaky-barked aromatic spruce trees were felled and stripped of their branches. Next, the logs were 'snaked ' into the open, where the dwellings were to be erected, and hewed into proper shape. These timbers were then deftly fitted together and the four walls of a rude but substantial building began to rise. A drooping roof was added, the chinks were closed, and then the structure was complete. When a sufficient number of such houses had been built, Macdonell set the party to work cutting firewood and gathering it into convenient piles.

The prudence of these measures became apparent when the frost king fixed his iron grip upon land and sea. As the days shortened, the rivers were locked deep and fast; a sharp wind penetrated the forest, and the salty bay was fringed with jagged and glistening hum-mocks of ice. So severe was the cold that the newcomers were loath to go forth from their warm shelter even to haul food from the fort over the brittle, yielding snow. Under such conditions life in the camp grew monotonous and dull. More serious still, the food they had to eat was the common fare of such isolated winterers; it was chiefly salt meat. The effect of this was seen as early as December. Some of the party became listless and sluggish, their faces turned sallow and their eyes appeared sunken. They found it difficult to breathe and their gums were swollen and spongy. Macdonell, a veteran in hardship, saw at once that scurvy had broken out among them; but he had a simple remedy and the supply was without limit. The sap of the white spruce was extracted and administered to the sufferers. Almost immediately their health showed improvement, and soon all were on the road to recovery. But the medicine was not pleasant to take, and some of the party at first foolishly refused to submit to the treatment.

The settlers, almost unwittingly, banded together into distinct groups, each individual tending to associate with the others from his own home district. As time went on these groups, with their separate grievances, gave Macdonell much trouble. The Orkneymen, who were largely servants of the Hudson's Bay Company, were not long in incurring his disfavor. To him they seemed to have the appetites of a pack of hungry wolves. He dubbed them 'lazy, spiritless and ill-disposed.' The 'Glasgow rascals,' too, were a source of annoyance.' A more . . . cross-grained lot,' he asserted, 'were never put under any person's care.'

Owing to the discord existing in the camp, the New Year was not ushered in happily. In Scotland, of all the days of the year, this anniversary was held in the highest regard. It was generally celebrated to the strains of 'Weel may we a' be,' and with effusive hand-shakings, much dining, and a hot kettle. The lads from the Orkneys were quite wide awake to the occasion and had no intention of omitting the customs of their sires. On New Year's Day they were having a rollicking time in one of the cabins. But their enthusiasm was quickly damped by a party of Irish who, having primed their courage with whisky, set upon the merry-makers and created a scene of wild disorder. In the heat of the melee three of the Orkneymen were badly beaten, and for a month their lives hung in the balance. Captain Macdonell later sent several of the Irish back to Great Britain, saying that such 'worthless blackguards' were better under the discipline of the army or the navy.

One of the number who had not taken kindly to Miles Macdonell as a 'medicine-man' was William Findlay, a very obdurate Orkneymen, who had flatly refused to soil his lips with the wonder-working syrup of the white spruce. Shortly afterwards, having been told to do something, he was again disobedient. This time he was forced to appear before Magistrate Hillier of the Hudson's Bay Company and was condemned to gaol. As there was really no such place, a log-house was built for Findlay, and he was imprisoned in it. A gruff-noted babel of dissent arose among his kinsfolk, supported by the men from Glasgow. A gang of thirteen, in which both parties were represented, put a match to the prison where Findlay was confined, and rescued its solitary inmate out of the blaze. Then, uttering defiance, they seized another building, and decided to live apart. Thus, with the attitude of rebels and well supplied with firearms, they kept the rest of the camp in a state of nervousness for several months. In June, however, these rebels allowed them-selves to fall into a trap. Having crossed the Nelson, they found their return cut off by the melting of the ice. This put them at


The Country of Lord Selkirk's Settlers


the mercy of the officials at York Factory, and they were forced to surrender. After receiving their humble acknowledgments Macdonell v/as not disposed to treat them severely, and he took them back into service.

But what of jovial Father Burke since his arrival on the shores of Hudson Bay? To all appearances, he had not been able to restrain his flock from mischief. He had, however, been exploring on his own account, and thoroughly believed that he had made some valuable discoveries. He had come upon pebbles of various kinds which he thought were precious stones. Some of them shone like diamonds; others seemed like rubies. Father Burke was indeed sure that bits of the sand which he had collected contained particles of gold. Macdonell himself believed that the soil along the Nelson abounded in mineral wealth. He told the priest to keep the discovery a secret, and sent samples of sand and stone to Lord Selkirk, advising him to acquire the banks of the Nelson River from the company. In the end, to the disgust of Macdonell and Father Burke, not one sample proved of any value.

Weeks before the ice had left the river; the colonists became impatient to set forward on the remainder of their journey. To transport so many persons, with all their belongings and with sufficient provisions, seven or eight hundred miles inland was an undertaking formidable enough to put Captain Macdonell's energies to the fullest test. The only craft available were bark canoes, and these would be too fragile for the heavy cargoes that must be borne. Stouter boats must be built. Macdonell devised a sort of punt or flat-bottomed boat, such as he had formerly seen in the colony of New York. Four of these clumsy craft were constructed, but only with great difficulty, and after much trouble with the workmen. Inefficiency, as well as mis-conduct, on the part of the colonists was a sore trial to Macdonell. The men from the Hebrides were now practically the only members of the party who were not, for one reason or another, in his black book.

It was almost midsummer before the boats began to push up the Hayes River for the interior. There were many blistered hands at the oars; nevertheless, on the journey they managed to make an average of thirteen miles each day. Before the colonists could reach Oxford House, the next post of the Hudson's Bay Company, three dozen portages had to be passed. It was with thankful hearts that they came to Holy Lake and caught sight of the trading-post by its margin. Here was an ample reach of water, reminding the Highlanders of a loch of far-away Scotland. When the wind died down, Holy Lake was like a giant mirror. Looking into its quiet waters, the voyagers saw great fish swimming swiftly. From Oxford House the route lay over a height-of-land to the head-waters of the Nelson. After a series of difficulties the party reached Norway House, another post of the Hudson's Bay Company, on an upper arm of Lake Winnipeg. At this time Norway House was the centre of the great fur-bearing region. The colonists found it strongly en-trenched in a rocky basin and astir with life. After a short rest they proceeded towards Lake Winnipeg, and soon were moving slowly down its low-lying eastern shore. Here they had their first glimpse of the prairie country, with its green carpet of grass. Out from the water's edge grew tall, lank reeds, the lurking place of snipe and sand-piper. Doubtless, in the brief night-watches, they listened to the shrill cry of the restless lynx, or heard the yapping howl of the timber wolf as he slunk away among the copses. But presently the boats were gliding in through the sand-choked outlet of the Red River, and they were on the last stage of their journey.

Some forty miles up-stream from its mouth the Red River bends sharply towards the east, forming what is known as Point Douglas in the present city of Winnipeg. Having toiled round this point, the colonists pushed their boats to the muddy shore. The day they landed, the natal day of a community which was to grow into three great provinces of Canada, was August 30, 1812.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

The Red River Colony, A Chronicle of the Beginnings of Manitoba, By Louis Aubrey Wood, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company 1915

 

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