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Sketches of Red River Settlement

Red River rises in swamps and small lakes in the distant plains of the south; and after receiving a number of tributary streams that serve to fertilize and beautify as fine a tract of land as the world possesses, discharges itself into the eastern extremity of Lake Winnipeg in lat. 50°. The climate is much the same as in the midland districts of Canada; the river is generally frozen across about the beginning of November, and open about the beginning of April. The soil along the banks of the river is of the richest vegetable mould, and of so great a depth that crops of wheat are produced for several years without the application of manure. The banks produce oak, elm, maple, and ash; the woods extend rather more than a mile inland. The farms of the first settlers are now nearly clear of wood; an open plain succeeds of from four to six miles in breadth, affording excellent pasture. Woods and plains alternate afterwards until you reach the boundless prairie. The woods produce a variety of delicious fruits, delighting the eye and gratifying the taste of the inhabitants; cherries, plums, gooseberries, currants, grapes, and sasgatum berries in great abundance. Coal has been discovered in several places, and also salt springs.

Lord Selkirk having been made acquainted with the natural advantages of this favored country by his North-West hosts in Montreal, determined forthwith on adopting such measures as might ensure to himself and heirs the possession of it for ever. Accordingly, on his return to England, he purchased Hudson's Bay Company's stock to an amount that enabled him to control the decisions of the Committee; and thus, covered by the shield of the charter, he could carry on his premeditated schemes of aggression against the North-West Company, with some appearance of justice on his side.

With the view of carrying out these schemes, he proceeded to the North of Scotland, and prevailed on a body of Highlanders to emigrate to Red River. To induce them to quit their native land, the most flattering prospects were held out to them; the moment they set their foot in this land of promise, the hardships and privations to which they had hitherto been subject, would disappear; the poor man would exchange his "potato patch" for a fine estate; the gentleman would become a ruler and a judge in—Assineboine! Who could doubt the fulfillment of the promises of a British peer? His Lordship, therefore, soon collected the required number of emigrants—for the Highlander of the present day gladly embraces any opportunity of quitting a country that no longer affords him bread.

At the period in question, Red River district furnished the principal part of the provisions required by the North-West Company, and was a wilderness, inhabited only by wandering Indians, and abounding in the larger animals—elk and rein-deer in the woods, and buffalo in the plains.

As Red River flows into Lake Winnipeg, which discharges itself by Neilson's river into Hudson's Bay, and could therefore be included within the territory granted by the charter, our noble trader concluded that, by taking formal possession of the country, he would obtain the right of expelling other adventurers, merely by warning them off the Company's grounds; and that, if the warning were disregarded, he could claim the aid of Government to enforce his rights, and thus ruin the North-West Company at a blow. His Lordship's Governor was therefore instructed to issue a proclamation, prohibiting the North-West Company by name, and all others, from carrying on any species of trade within Red River district, and ordering such establishments as had been formed to be abandoned.

The North-Westers read the proclamation, and—prosecuted their business as before. In such circumstances quarrels were unavoidable, but they were generally settled with ink; a collision ultimately took place that led to the shedding of blood. The North-Westers had collected a large supply of provisions at their dépôt, and were about to forward it to the place of embarkation, when they were informed—falsely, as it afterwards appeared, that the Governor intended to waylay and seize the provisions. A report, equally false, was brought to the Governor, that the North-Westers had assembled a strong force of half-breeds to attack the fort. These lying rumors led to an unhappy catastrophe.

The Governor sent out scouts to watch the North West party; and ascertaining that they were on their march with an unusual force,—which they had brought in order to repel the attack which they supposed was to be made upon them,—he seized his arms, and marched with his whole party to meet them. The North-Westers seeing them approach, halted, and standing to their arms, sent forward one of their number to demand whether Mr. Semple and his party were for peace or war.

During the interview a shot was fired—it is a matter in dispute to this day who fired it—the half-breeds immediately poured a volley into the ranks of their opponents, and brought down nearly all the gentlemen of the party, including the unfortunate Governor; the remainder fled to the fort, so closely pursued, that friend and foe entered together. Thus the poor settlers found themselves suddenly surrounded by all the horrors of war; their anticipated paradise converted into a field of blood; husbands and brothers killed; their little property pillaged, and their persons in the power of their enemies.

An arrangement, however, was entered into by the rival Companies, that allowed the emigrants to take possession of the lands allotted to them, and in the course of a few years their labor had made a sensible impression on the forest. Cattle were sent out from England; pigs and poultry followed, and honest Donald was beginning to find himself at his ease, when, lo! all his dreams of future wealth and happiness vanished in a moment. Red River overflowed its banks, and inundated the whole settlement. This extraordinary flood caused immense loss; it overthrew houses, swept away the cattle, and utterly ruined the crops of the season. The buffaloes, however, proved abundant, and afforded a supply of provisions enough to prevent starvation, and the settlers soon recovered from the effects of this misfortune. Another calamity followed—the caterpillar appeared—at first in small numbers, afterwards in myriads, covering the whole land, and eating up "every green thing," and thus the crops were destroyed a second time; but the consequences were not so severely felt as formerly; the preceding season had proved extremely abundant, and a sufficient quantity remained to supply the failure of this year. Since that time the colony has advanced rapidly, enjoying undisturbed peace; industry has its sure reward in the abundance of all the necessaries of life which it procures.

Since the coalition took place, Red River has become the favorite retreat of the Company's servants, especially of those who have families; here they obtain lands almost at a nominal price. A lot of one mile in length and six chains in breadth, costs only 18l.; and they find themselves surrounded by people of congenial habits with themselves, the companions of their youth, and fellow-adventurers; those with whom they tugged at the oar, and shared the toil of the winter march; and when they meet together to smoke the social pipe, and talk of the scenes of earlier days, "nor prince nor prelate" can enjoy more happiness.

The last census, taken in 1836, gave the population at 5,000 souls; it may now (1845) amount to 7,000. Of this number a very small proportion is Scotch, about forty families, and perhaps 300 souls. The Scotch carried with them the frugal and industrious habits of their country; the same qualities characterize their children, who are far in advance of their neighbors in all that constitutes the comforts of life. These advantages they owe, under the blessing of Providence, to their own good management; yet, notwithstanding this, and notwithstanding that they are a quiet and a moral people, they are objects of envy and hatred to their hybrid neighbors; and thus my industrious and worthy countrymen, in the possession of almost every other blessing which they could desire, are still unhappy from the malice and ill-will they meet with on every side; and being so inferior in numbers, they must submit to the insults and abuse they are daily exposed to, while the blood boils in their veins to resent them. Thus situated, many of them have abandoned the settlement and gone to the United States, where they enjoy the fruits of their industry in peace.

The French half-breeds and retired Canadian voyageurs occupy the upper part of the settlement. The half-breeds are strongly attached to the roving life of the hunter; the greater part of them depend entirely on the chase for a living, and even the few who attend to farming take a trip to the plains, to feast on buffalo humps and marrow fat. They sow their little patches of ground early in spring, and then set out for the chase, taking wives and children along with them, and leaving only the aged and infirm at home to attend to the crops.

When they set out for the plains, they observe all the order and regularity of a military march; officers being chosen for the enforcement of discipline, who are subject to the orders of a chief, whom they style "M. le Commandant." They take their departure from the settlement about the latter end of June, to the number of from 1,200 to 1,500 souls; each hunter possesses at least six carts, and some twelve; the whole number may amount to 5,000 carts. Besides his riding nag and cart horses, he has also at least one buffalo runner, which he never mounts until he is about to charge the buffalo. The "runner" is tended with all the care which the cavalier of old bestowed on his war steed; his housing and trappings are garnished with beads and porcupine quills, exhibiting all the skill which the hunter's wife or belle can exercise; while head and tail display all the colors of the rainbow in the variety of ribbon attached to them.

The "Commandant" directs the movements of the whole cavalcade: at a signal given in the morning by sound of trumpet alias, by blowing a horn, the hunters start together for their horses; while the women and servants strike the tents, and pack up and load the baggage. The horses being all collected, a second blast forms the order of march; the carts fall in, four abreast; the hunters mount; and dividing into their different bodies, one precedes the baggage, another closes the line, and a third divides in both flanks. The third blast is the signal for marching. They halt about two hours at noon, for the purpose of allowing their cattle time to feed; and the same order is observed as in starting in the morning. When they encamp at night, the carts are placed in a circle; and the tents are pitched within the enclosed space, so as to form regular streets; the horses are "hobbled" and turned loose to graze.

All the arrangements for the night being completed, guards are appointed to watch over the safety of the camp, who are relieved at fixed hours. In this manner they proceed until they approach the buffalo grounds, when scouts are sent out to ascertain the spot where the herd may be found. The joyful discovery being made, the scouts apprise the main body by galloping backwards and forwards, when a halt is immediately ordered. The camp is pitched; the hunters mount their runners; and the whole being formed into an extended line, with the utmost regularity, they set forward at a hand gallop; not a soul advances an inch in front of the line, until within gun-shot of the herd, when they rein up for a moment. The whole body then, as if with one voice, shout the war whoop, and rush on the herd at full gallop; each hunter, singling out an animal, pursues it until he finds an opportunity of taking sure aim; the animal being dispatched, some article is dropped upon it that can be afterwards recognized. The hunter immediately sets off in chase of another, priming, loading, and taking aim at full speed. A first-rate runner not unfrequently secures ten buffaloes at a "course;" from four to eight is the usual number. He who draws the first blood claims the animal, and each individual hunter is allowed whatever he kills.

The moment the firing commences, the women set out with the carts, and cut up and convey the meat to the camp; where it is dried by means of bones and fat. Two or three days are required for the operation, when they set out again; and the same herd, perhaps, yields a sufficient quantity to load all the carts, each carrying about one thousand pounds,—an enormous quantity in the aggregate; yet the herd is sometimes so numerous that all this slaughter does not seem to diminish it.

The buffalo hunt affords much of the excitement, and some of the dangers, of the battle-field. The horses are often gored by the infuriated bulls, to the great peril sometimes to the loss of the rider's life; serious accidents too happen from falls. There are no better horsemen in the world than the Red River "brulés;" and so long as the horse keeps on his legs, the rider sticks to him. The falls are chiefly occasioned by the deep holes the badger digs all over the prairies; if the horse plunges into one of these, both horse and man roll on the ground. Fatal accidents, also, occasionally happen from gun shots in the melée; and it is said, I know not with what truth, that a wronged husband, or a supplanted lover, sometimes avails himself of the opportunity presented by the melée to miss the buffalo, and hit a friend—by accident.

A priest generally accompanies the camp, and mass is celebrated with becoming solemnity on Sundays. The "brulés" attend, looking very serious and grave until a herd of buffaloes appear; when the cry of "La vache! la vache!" scatters the congregation in an instant; away they scamper, old and young, leaving the priest to preach to the winds, or perhaps to a few women and children. Two trips in the year are generally made to the prairie; the latter in August. The buffalo hunter's life assimilates more to that of the savage than of the civilized man; it is a life of alternate plenty and want—a life also of danger and inquietude. The Indians of the plain view the encroachment of the strange race on their hunting grounds, with feelings of jealousy and enmity. They are, accordingly, continually on the alert; they attack detached parties and stragglers; they also set fire to the prairies about the time the "brulés" set out for the hunt, and by this means drive the game beyond their reach. Owing to this circumstance, the "brulés" have returned with empty carts for these two years past; and their only resource has been to betake themselves to the woods, and live after the manner of the Indians. Could they find a sure market for the produce of the soil, so as to remunerate their labor, there can be little doubt but that they might be gradually detached from the half-savage life they lead, and become as steady and industrious as their neighbors.

The English half-breeds, as the mixed progeny of the British are designated, possess many of the characteristics of their fathers; they generally prefer the more certain pursuit of husbandry to the chase, and follow close on the heels of the Scotch in the path of industry and moral rectitude. Very few of them resort to the plains, unless for the purpose of trafficking the produce of their farms for the produce of the chase; and it is said that they frequently return home better supplied with meat than the hunters themselves.

The Indians who have been converted to the Protestant religion, are settled around their respected pastor at the lower extremity of the settlement, within twenty miles of the mouth of the river. The Sauteux, of all other tribes, are the most tenacious of their own superstitions; and it would require all the zeal and patience and perseverance of the primitive teachers of Christianity to wean them from them. But when convinced of his errors, the Sauteux convert is the more steadfast in his faith; and his steadfastness and sincerity prove an ample reward to his spiritual father for his pains and anxiety on his behalf.

The Indian converts are entirely guided by their Missionary in temporal as well as in spiritual things. When he first came among them, he found their habits of indolence so deep-rooted, that something more than advice was necessary to produce the desired change. Like Oberlin, therefore, he set before them the example of a laborious and industrious life; he tilled, he sowed, he planted, he reaped with his own hands, and afterwards shared his produce with them. By persevering in this, he succeeded in finally gaining them to his views; and, at the present moment, their settlement is in as forward a state of improvement as any of the neighboring settlements.

They have their mills, and barns, and dwelling-houses; their horses, and cattle, and well-cultivated fields:—a happy change! A few years ago, these same Indians were a wretched, vagabond race; "hewers of wood and drawers of water" for the other settlers, as their pagan brethren still are; they wandered about from house to house, half-starved, and half-naked; and even in this state of abject misery, preferring a glass of "fire-water" to food and raiment for themselves or their children.

There are at present three ministers of the Episcopal communion at Red River. The Scotch inhabitants attend the church regularly, although they sigh after the form of worship to which they had been accustomed in early youth; they, however, assemble afterwards in their own houses to read the Scriptures, and worship God after the manner of their fathers. There are also three Roman Catholic clergymen, including a bishop;—good, exemplary men, whose "constant care" is not "to increase their store," but to guide and direct their flocks in the paths of piety and virtue. But, alas! they have a stiff-necked people to deal with;—the French half-breed, who follows the hunter's life, possesses all the worst vices of his European and Indian progenitors, and is indifferent alike to the laws of God and man. There are, in all, seven places of worship, three Roman Catholic, and four Protestant, including two for the Indians.

The education of the more respectable families, particularly those of the Company's officers, is well provided for at an institution of great merit; the gentleman who presides over it being every way qualified for the important trust. The different branches of mathematical and classical learning are taught in it; and the school has already produced some excellent scholars. In addition to the more useful branches of female education, the young ladies are taught music and drawing by a respectable person of their own sex. Thus we have, in the midst of this remote wilderness of the North-West, all the elements of civilized life; and there are there many young persons of both sexes, well educated and accomplished, who have never seen the civilized world. There are also thirteen schools for the children of the lower class, supported entirely by the parents themselves.

The Company have here two shops (or stores), well supplied with every description of goods the inhabitants can require; there are besides several merchants scattered through the settlement, some of whom are said to be in easy circumstances. The Company's bills constitute the circulating medium, and are issued for the value of from one to twenty shillings. Of late years, a considerable amount of American specie has found its way into the settlement, probably in exchange for furs clandestinely disposed of by the merchants beyond the line. The petty merchants import their goods from England by the Company's ships; an ad valorem duty is imposed on these goods, the proceeds of which are applied to the payment of the constabulary force of the colony. The Company's charter invests it with the entire jurisdiction, executive and judicial, of the colony. The local Governor and Council enact such simple statutes as the primitive condition of the settlement requires; and those enactments have hitherto proved equal to the maintenance of good order. A court of quarter sessions is regularly held for the administration of justice, and the Company have lately appointed a Recorder to preside over it. It is gratifying to learn, that this functionary has had occasion to pass judgment on no very flagitious crime since his appointment.

In the work to which I have so frequently referred, it is mentioned, that a "certain market is secured to the inhabitants by the demand for provisions for the other settlements." If by "settlements" the miserable trading posts be meant, as it must be, I know not on what grounds such an affirmation is made. A sure market, forsooth! A single Scotch farmer could be found in the colony, able alone to supply the greater part of the produce the Company require; there is one, in fact, who offered to do it. If a sure market were secured to the colonists of Red River, they would speedily become the wealthiest yeomanry in the world. Their barns and granaries are always full to overflowing; so abundant are the crops, that many of the farmers could subsist for a period of two or even three years, without putting a grain of seed in the ground. The Company purchase from six to eight bushels of wheat from each farmer, at the rate of three shillings per bushel; and the sum total of their yearly purchases from the whole settlement amounts to—

600 cwt. flour, first and second quality.
35 bushels rough barley.
10 half-firkins butter, 28 lbs. each.
10 bushels Indian corn.
200 cwt. best kiln-dried flour.
60 firkins butter, 56 lbs. each.
240 lbs. cheese.
60 hams.

Thus it happens that the Red River farmer finds a "sure market" for six or eight bushels of wheat—and no more. Where he finds a sure market for the remainder of his produce, Heaven only knows—I do not. This much, however, I do know,—that the incomparable advantages this delightful country possesses are not only in a great measure lost to the inhabitants, but also to the world, so long as it remains under the domination of its fur-trading rulers. In the possession of, and subject to the immediate jurisdiction of the Crown, Assineboine would become a great and a flourishing colony—the centre of civilization and Christianity to the surrounding tribes, who would be converted from hostile barbarians into a civilized and loyal people;—and thus Great Britain would extend and establish her dominion in a portion of her empire that may be said to have been hitherto unknown to her, while she would open a new field for the enterprise and industry of her sons.

In describing the advantages of this country, candour requires that I should also point out its disadvantages. The chief disadvantage is the difficulty of the communication with the sea, interrupted as it is by shoals, rapids, and falls, which in their present state can only be surmounted with incredible toil and labor. Yet there cannot be a doubt that the skill of the engineer could effect such improvements as would obviate the most, if not the whole, of this labor, and that at no very great cost. The distance from the mouth of Red River to York Factory is about 550 miles; 300 miles of this distance is formed of lakes—(Lake Winnipeg, 250 miles in length, is navigable for vessels of forty and fifty tons burden). The greater part of the river communication might be rendered passable by Durham boats, merely by damming up the rivers. Along the line of communication, many situations may be found suitable for farming operations.

Notes of a Twenty-Five Years Service in the Hudson's Bay Territory, 1849


Notes on Hudson Bay Territory


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