Project Canterbury

Snapshots from the North Pacific
Letters written by the Right Rev. Bishop Ridley (Late of Caledonia).

Edited by Alice J. Janvrin.

London: Church Missionary Society, 1904.

Chapter XIV. First-fruits from the Stikine River

"Most wondrous things
Descend on everlasting wings,
Enriching earth with grace abounding,
While heaven is stirred by praise resounding."

ONE more letter from the Stikine River shows that the Bishop had lost none of his powers of endurance, nor of his apparent enjoyment of hardships! But however this may be, the end of his journey must have quite compensated him for the efforts made on the way. To see the fruit of the Memorial Mission did indeed rejoice his heart.

"Glenora, on the Stikine Siver, British Columbia,
"June, 6th, 1900.

"On May 26th I embarked on the river steamer Strathcona, which, after a twenty-three miles' sail, remained three days at the Fort Simpson Wharf. Some of you will remember my faithful Chinese servant, Cha Li. I left him behind, a downcast prophet. In 1898 I took him with me on my rounds, and he was a great comfort, but a greater expense. He pleaded hard to go again. 'Costs too much, Cha Li. Two tents, two mouths to fill in the wilds, two sets of steamer, railway, and canoe fares.' So off I started alone as he muttered that I was sick and old. Very impudent, no doubt, but quite true. 'Oh, I shall never die, Cha Li,' said I, as a last farewell; but he looked all the more woebegone to stay at home and take care of an empty house. He and the cat disagree. Last November we parted--I to go to England for a year, he to China to see his widowed mother and risk the consequences of sea-sickness and marriage. The claims of the C.M.S. on me at the New York Conference altered my plans, and I wrote to him instructions to join me at Metlakatla early in May instead of October. In broken English his reply asked, 'What for write two words? What for come back quick? What they do to you in England? Now I marry too quick and leave wife to work for my mother. She tell me to write thanks to you for kind to me, and she say you beat me if I not too good."

"At Fort Simpson I met large congregations, but was not well enough to preach more than once. Then came the voyage to Wrangel, about 130 miles along Alaskan waters, favourable on the whole, and always charming. Not a whale in sight. Now that mineral oils have displaced sperm, the whales sulk; feeling neglected, they shake the dust off their feet. Formerly they rollicked in shoals; now we rarely see one.

"Wrangel was reached in sixteen hours, and there we loaded for a trip up the Stikine River. It depends chiefly on this river trade, and is a mongrel little town with more than half its shanties empty. It is an American town of the least savoury kind. There is one church only, Presbyterian, which is served by the Rev. Mr. Courser, who invited me to give a lecture to the whites in it. Later I addressed the Indians, about eighty in all, I think. They are less advanced than those nearest to them in Canada, our Zimshians, for instance, and the reason is, I think, that the missionaries are not required to learn the vernacular, and do not. They have no school under their direction. The Government is supposed to teach both whites and Indians, and there is no place for religious instruction in their system. The missionary staff is not inferior to ours, but because of the divorce between the schools and religion the results are plainly inferior. The Indians are able to procure spirituous liquor easily, and drunkenness is common. They are well fed, because the sea, with its food supply, never fails. The interior tribes, who face terrible winters, and depend upon the precarious chase for food, find it often fails them, and they come near starvation point. Those Heathen farthest from the whites are healthiest and most moral, according to their own loose standard. They have their virtues, but those do not fall into our categories. These interior tribes used to depend on those from the coast for imports and barter, and were generally cheated. The coming of the white trader exchanged this for liberty to copy his loose living, and this is incredibly low and degrading. License to the Indians is more deadly than bondage, and the whites sink with them, from our standard, more hopelessly low.

"This is the way things go where there is no ministry, and this has been the state of things for a quarter of a century till three years ago, when Mr. Palgrave settled for a term of five years on this river. His life and work have been like twin rays of light in the darkness. It has been almost a living martyrdom. Greater courage or self-forgetfulness or truer devotion to our Master's work I have yet to discover. Would that he could remain permanently!

"I was much struck with the complaint of a trader who said the magistrate was becoming stricter of late. In one year he inflicted fines on drunken Indians amounting to £300. 'But who supplied the liquor?' I asked. 'The white man.' The presence of the missionary has been a stimulus to the magistrate. 'He takes the Indian's money from us,' moaned the man. 'You plied your trade,' I said, 'until the Indian would hunt just long enough to be able to buy drink, and then trade away his women to eke out his income to live on. You kill the goose to get at the egg quickly, and now sell loss than ever legitimately, to your own loss.' Nothing is sadder than to see these, our fellow-countrymen, unconsciously act as if thoughts of God and about their souls never come to them. Christless and reckless!

"8th.--On this voyage up the river it is so very low, on account of the lateness of the winter's snow in thawing, that the steamer cannot reach Telegraph Creek, the outpost of so-called civilization on this river. So here I am, landed twenty-six miles short of my destination. This ought to be a small matter, but not now for me. My health is still weak, so I pitched my tent here in Glenora, under the lee of a deserted building, for protection from the westerly gales, and beside a sparkling stream that dances down the rugged bank to its own joyous music. The margins have put on their beautiful apparel of flower-decked verdure to teach one the blessedness of being planted by the river of life, and the joyful duty of pleasing Him who delights in all beauty, especially the beauty of holiness.

"In 1898 I was camped near by, between a company of soldiers and about 3,000 miners. Now it would be a solitude, but that the Hudson Bay Co.'s store remains occupied. In the stable I found a spade to level the floor of my tent with, and some hay and a potato-sack, which makes an inviting pillow, a real treat just now, when sleep conies to me unwillingly.

"Of course it is rather soft to provide creature comforts; nor is it always a success. In my kitchen box I packed a small paraffin-oil stove, taking care, as I thought, to empty it. On shipboard it travelled upside down, and some drops penetrated the single packet of corn-starch I had. This morning I had some leisure, and thought I would fry an omelet. I had a dozen eggs--now but ten. Two I broke into the starch with some tinned milk. I am half ashamed to confess to such luxurious tastes--not habits, for I was only indulging in a special breakfast. In the tiny frying-pan that holds but a half-pint the omelet looked deliciously yellow and brown. Here is cooking for you! thought I. I swallowed a spoonful before I could help it, and sat like a martyr before the concoction with the spoon at rest. Then, turning round, I flung the mess out among the waiting dogs, who did not seem to object to the high flavouring of paraffin. Two eggs gone! Well, thought I, dinner will make up for this. In my kitchen box I had the knucklebone end of a ham. That, too, was tainted, but only outside. In a box given to me before I landed, by the steamer's cook, was a loin of mutton he bought at Wrangel and cooked for me. That was free from taint.

"Before dinner I went out of my tent, shut it carefully, and returned about half an hour later. To my surprise I saw a strange Indian emerging, and, behind him--ruin! Then, on coming closer, I saw a pair of legs belonging to another man. His face at first was above the slit forming the doorway. I exclaimed, 'What are you doing there?' The mutton-box was on its side, the top torn off, and it was empty! Captain's biscuits strewed the floor, and the debris of other chattels. The legs belonged to Mr. Palgrave. Strange, indeed, was the welcome to his legs, but his astonished face made amends for the lost mutton. He had not rifled my scanty store.

"I sat down on the empty box, and, out of sheer desperation, laughed, to guard against any other emotion. Then I explained it all. Dogs had raided my tent, and had left me with nothing but farinaceous food, and much of that nosed over and nibbled. That ringleader of the dogs came again in the middle of the night and forced himself halfway in. Ah, then was my chance! Forgetting my bare legs, I kicked him, but less than I meant to. It surprised him so much that the great brute did not stop to bite my feet. He howled as he retreated.

"That I did not instantly recognize Mr. Palgrave was not my fault. He looked like a cadger of the first water, without a reputation to lose. Will he forgive me if I try to describe what I saw?

"On his head was a shapeless felt hat--dirt-colour to hide dirt--with three holes in it, not for ventilation, because round the sides and rim. It covered a head as close cropped as ever Newgate sheared its victims. This is a wise and economical fashion, as it does away with the use of brushes or pomatum. Then came a faded Cardigan jacket. One pocket seemed intact, the other torn down. That, with the slouched bat, might have been worth nine-pence, but I would not have picked it out of the gutter. Then below were stained blue linen trousers: no pawnbroker would have taken them in. Last of all were the boots, all strange to blacking, and with long rents in them, or cuts, so that as he walked through the mountain streams the water would ooze out as fast as it oozed in. The wearer does not shave, but uses scissors to keep down the growth of hair on face as well as head.

"Such a missionary costume I never saw before, and yet there one saw God's gentleman through it all. So complete an instance of the truth of the Divine words, "The body is more than raiment,' I never saw. May I be forgiven for thinking I had caught a thief before I saw him face to face! I had sent for him to come to me, and he appeared a day sooner than I thought it possible.

"Then followed my grief at my loss. The mutton was gone that I had intended chiefly for him. 'What shall I give you to eat? Nothing but oatmeal left!' 'Oh, I don't mind.' Nor did he. I had a mouldy loaf of bread left--mouldy, but gnawed. That pared off, we had oatmeal and bread--no butter--for supper, bread and oatmeal left overnight, for breakfast. I need not go further into it as to dinner. The only difference was bread fried in milk and water. Which course came first I forget.

"A stranded gold-prospector hoard of our short commons, and next morning brought round a pot of beans and bacon to share with us, and a nice relish it was.

"Just before Mr. Palgrave arrived I had rambled off to the spot where my tent stood in 1898. What a flood of thought burst over my heart; there was the space I cleared for my tent; there stood the very pegs I drove; there remained the skeletons of the fir branches that formed my bed: on that particular spot I knelt more than a hundred times, remembering my ties to earth and the stronger ones above. The river just below the bank still sang on without rest, and will till winter gags it; and the fine mountains held their heads up in the same blue. Around me bloomed lupins, marguerites, very fine strawberry blossom, potentillas, roses, with many other flowers peculiar in these parts, and to me nameless. An old copy of the Record lay among anemones near by a cluster of tiny bushes with the roses in bloom. Close by the steep bank of the river yet stood a clump of young aspens, one leaning over ready to fall when the next very high water undermines it completely. They used to throw their grateful shade across my tent, and the branches are shaking their glittering shields as of old.

"But what is this among the roses? A little mound five spans long, a wooden peg driven at each end, and one in the middle bearing the one word, 'Baby.' When I left the broad flat in 1898 it was dotted for a mile or more with miners' tents. I think I saw three women among them, accompanying their husbands in the quest for gold. Their names I have forgotten. The solitary graves of adults in the wilds make one think of long-continuing mothers' tears. Here, however, was something much more pathetic. Here, within the few square feet once covered by my tent, was a baby's grave. Here a young mother's tears fell as her sorrowful husband made the grave and filled it. Here she last saw the dearest object of her reverential love laid in its tiny bed consecrated by love and tears. Shall I tell the whole truth? With no one near but God and those melting thoughts, I knelt again where I had before so often knelt, and now dropped a tear on the holy ground. My Bethel was a Baca. Here a mother's love lingers on and will linger--God bless you, woman--till she passes, let us hope, where a pure face, brighter than all other to her, may revive a love that even heaven cannot spare to complete its happiness.

"June 9th.--Mr. Palgrave persuaded me against my better judgment to try to ride to Taltan and there inspect his work. I longed to do so, and finally found myself on horseback. The first four miles I greatly enjoyed, but when we reached the steep places and I had often to dismount, the weariness began to tell. At the end of thirteen miles I could go no farther. Mr. Palgrave seemed as fresh after six hours' walking as at the start. He is tireless. We had come to an empty log cabin. He slept in one corner and I in the other--at least, there I lay all night, but could not sleep, and often almost fainted from exhaustion.

June 10th.--Next morning he saw I was ill, and, standing over me, he felt my pulse and started off, without my hearing where he was going. About midnight, I think, but am not sure, he returned after walking to the fishing camps of the Indians, sixteen miles distant, and asking as many as he met to come to me next day (Sunday). At first they demurred at such Sabbath journeying, but he removed their scruples by suggesting that Monday should be kept as Sunday. This walk of more than thirty miles seemed to this earnest soul as nothing for one day.

"I am writing this in bed, and wondering how I shall be able to get back out of this forest to my tent at Glenora. I got up and took a service this morning for a company of forty-three whites on their way to the mines at Cassiar. Lay down again until the Indians began to drop in. The children soon lay on the floor, weary, like the dogs, after the long tramp. Poor little things, I pitied them.

"I proceeded to examine the catechumens, tired as they were; first an old medicine-man, then his much more attractive old wife. He was a man of few words, but of deep thought. She treated him with much respect. Her face was a finer one than could have been expected among these people, and a contrast to the deeply-lined visage of the man. Next came a widow of about forty-five years of age, whom Mr. Palgrave regards as a saintly heroine. For years she slaved for a husband with an injured spine and an idiot son. The father died a Christian, and even the idiot showed more intelligence in religious thought than in any other thing. According to the pagan customs, she must mourn long for the dead.

"To me the most interesting was a young woman whom I doctored some years ago when she was very ill.

"June 11th.--I heard the torrent roaring through the gorge all night, and the deeper bass of the beautiful falls about a hundred yards lower down. Nearer, the mosquitoes sang round my head and wakened my dull ears. I have had a busy day, and walked one and a half miles to Telegraph Creek for services.

The catechumens came again for further examination this morning, and I was surprised at the progress made. It testified to the successful toil of the missionary during his three years spent among rude barbarians.

"The difficulties are unusually great. The trail leading to the mines passes near by Taltan, and the miners, after the season's work is done, decoy from their homes the young women, and provide them with the tawdry finery dear to their hearts. Telegraph Creek is their winter quarters, and there drunkenness and debauchery are so established by long usage that no one seems to see the sin of it. Young Indian men ape the manners of the whites. The only sober and grave Indians are those who refuse to associate with the wicked crowd. It is among these separated ones Mr. Palgrave has been successful.

"The Roman Catholics have been hindering his work, and will do so. The day-school teaching is the chief barrier against such machinations. The Romans do not, so far as I have seen, educate their Indians, and therefore the Heathen eventually see the difference and value our efforts the more. They have good boarding-schools in Canada, but not in these parts. I have never met a Roman convert who could read and write. It is the rare exception when ours cannot.

"In the afternoon I baptized the adults, and the children at Telegraph Creek in the evening, eight in all. Other catechumens of much promise were kept back for further instruction.

"The youngest woman I began to write about had a son named Kaiser, about whom I wrote in 1898. Her first husband, a Heathen Indian, died while she was but a mere girl. Her second she got in this way. A canoe was capsized in the rapids and its living freight swept past and drowned, excepting a young half-breed. She, seeing his peril, waded as far out as she dared where she thought he would drift past, and rescued him. 'What could I do after that but take her to wife?' he asked, when telling me the story. She had two sons by him, and when they died he deserted her in her grief. Instead of falling into evil courses among the vicious whites, she put herself under religious instruction and has developed a character of unusual strength. She is a pleasant and intelligent woman, who has behaved beautifully ever since her bereavements, and has shown as much aptitude in teaching others as in learning. Yesterday she acted as my interpreter, and did so with uncommon grace, and, Mr. Palgrave says, ability.

"The log-cabin was the scene of interesting events. Like an Oriental she sat cross-legged opposite the person examined, and the lifting up of her eyes to heaven--such lustrous eyes--when interpreting a prayer, was a sight that reminded me of the Magdalene at the cross, one of Scheffer's lovely pictures in the Dresden Gallery. When Christ revealed to her His love, it filled her with devotion, lighting up her countenance with the beautiful glow that made one praise the grace that works such wonders. I am surprised at the man deserting her. Perhaps he felt her too good for him.

"Just before I rose to baptize them Matilda asked if she might put on the white dress she had made for the occasion. There was no one to suggest such a thing. It was an innate piece of refinement.

"Mr. Palgrave had not his surplice with him, so I put on my chimere and lent him my rochet. 'Twas a novel vesting in a curious vestry--a small log-cabin in the forest at the edge of a mountain torrent.

"The old medicine-man pledged himself to ever abstain from 'offering for the dead and potlaching, and ordered, that at his death no one should make an offering to promote his happiness after death, because 'Jesu Chreest would see to that.' Mr. Palgrave teaches them to pronounce the holy Name thus, in order to differentiate it from the common way of saying it in its general blasphemous use among whites.

"The font was a common basin so wreathed with willows and flowers as to disguise the homeliness of the utensil. The old man held his head over it as I thrice poured water over him in baptism; and he prayed all the time. His name is Istadaga Degulli. His wife's Stagulthet Kahalti. Her head was oval, unlike the Mongolian type of which the Indian is a variety. Her nose was aquiline, brow broad and lofty, surmounting fine black and gentle eyes. Her mouth was slightly sensuous, with rows of teeth so regular that among whites they would be attributed to the arts of the dentist. It was a noble head to delight an artist.

"When Matilda, the interpreter, came forward she took a second name, Ayediga, and behaved as if ladyhood had developed into saintliness. The natural dignity of these people, coupled with a frank manner that is at once brave and simple, leaves nothing to be desired. These children of the forest grow into fine types of humanity until animalized by contact with lustful whites, who disgrace their Christianity and degrade the barbarian.

"As soon as the baptisms were performed I proceeded with confirmation. That completed, Ayediga took off her white dress and sat down to listen to my instruction in the matter I wanted her to interpret at another service.

"Because the old man Istadaga was suffering a good deal from influenza he could not walk to Telegraph Creek, where the next two services were to be held. I therefore had a special service in the log-cabin which he could attend.

"That over, Ayediga walked off in her green skirt under a check bodice, her thick and long black hair hanging in a plaited tress behind her, and tied up at the end with a bit of red ribbon. I wonder whether she knew her dark skin harmonized with her simple dress. She was innocent of hat or bonnet. Away they went, the tottering old man leading and Ayediga bringing up the rear, her precious bundle containing the white dress under her arm, to be ready for wear at the next services. The old man soon rested under a tree. He is much more be-whiskered than most Indians, and age has silvered his wiry locks. Bound his head he wore a black band before baptism, but I did not see him resume it. Perhaps it was an official badge that he put off for ever. He had sacrificed his gains as a medicine-man. Little can we enter into the tremendous trial of discarding a position of tribal importance, of profit and honour--all for the sake of the Gospel. Some of the evil whites, as if to justify their conduct, try to undermine the missionaries' influence by telling the Indians they are paid for converts so much per capita.

'One of the good signs of progress was the coming on foot to me of the fine old chief of these Indians and his wife from their fishery sixteen miles distant. It is no small sacrifice during the salmon fishery to cease fishing for nearly a week. Like most of the elderly people, his behaviour is dignified in contrast with that of the young men, who think the rude whites are the pink of perfection, and imitate them. This chief, named Nannook, is a man of medium height, and, though I think over sixty years of ago, is straight as an arrow. His head, like the medicine-man wife's, is oval rather than round, which is the Mongolian type. His long black hair hangs over his ears, but is cut short and nearly straight across a forehead so broad and lofty as to indicate much power behind it. Beneath his side locks gold earrings dangled as he moved his head in gesticulation that marked the orator. I could, from the natural grace of the movement, often read the meaning of the words rippling or racing from a voice remarkably sweet and rich in tone. The rather thin lips, close pressed when at rest, bespoke resolution true to the man and honourable to the chief. Between deep-set and yet capacious eyes arched forward a powerful nose that told the same tale as the lips, and the man's history has exhibited the quality. His long oval nails, cresting delicate fingers, were like tongues, speaking their own language to the eye, and only needed music to appeal to the ear. I had before me a courtly gentleman, to refinement Nature's heir.

"How do you account for this? He lives a nomadic life. So did Abram, my noblest type of gentleman. Though his shadow never darkened Porch or Academy, yet no Alcibiades could behave with more grace than my vis-à-vis. He has nothing to learn as to deportment, tone or gesture. I admire and envy these fine qualities, and can no more regard myself as his superior than as the equal of royalty. There is not a single sign of the barbarian or savage, yet we call him one or the other because he dresses without a looking-glass or goes well-nigh undressed, till winter as his valet suggests a blanket or fur in which to meet King Frost.

"My hour's interview with him through Ayediga as interpreter was a singular pleasure and entertainment. He spoke to me as if he credited me with power to understand him, and not to the interpreter--yet he paused for her as gracefully as he spoke. His eyes sparkled with confidences, and his finger-tips played his thoughts from the instruments of silence.

"I was so charmed with the man that I could hardly take my eyes off him to jot down his words, as I often do in meeting with strange Indians. My memory, a poor one, might eke out my notes, but it is safer to record only what I noted:--' You have come with good words from the west [coast]. A voice from the east [Roman Catholic] bids us--but too late now that we are awake--to face the sun-rising for light. But we find the sun does not set in the west--it shines on high and conquers night. Let the day shine on. Darkness is before light, and we slept. The sun is not rising, but has risen. We want no more night. The light you sent awoke us. The words from the east made the heart sick. Now it is strong because I see your face. Let it shine always and not set. Our youths began to build a school-house. Some stopped. Let them finish it to prove their obedience. From my father I learnt much of the past, of which part was true wisdom: "To the woman whom thou choosest be not wrathful but kind, and she will serve thee and make thee happy. Remember when I am dead that I prayed and made offerings, because I wished to live in the great home of heaven's good Chief." Yes, my father prayed and danced moderately before the sacred fire. He sang hymns known to the ancients but not to us. Bui though we know not the meaning of the words, the great Chief [God] knows and likes to hear them. My last word to thee, my chief, is this: "We now know a new thing. It is this: for all chiefs and all their people in all the world there is but one God.'

"After this came, in the vernacular, a service of prayer and praise in the cabin. I could not understand it, yet I enjoyed and shared in it. It was a solemnizing thing to watch this company of about thirty souls worshipping in their tongue our glorious God. His light, apart from Nature's, had not reached them three years ago. They stand facing the same way, chanting the Te Deum and other canticles; they sing, 'Nearer, my God, to Thee,' and 'Gentle Jesus, look on me,' both so slowly and solemnly that a new meaning supervened, adding more than ever a heavenly force and spirit to human productions.

"After the others had filed out, Ayediga waited a brief space to thank me for saving her body from the grave (alluding to my medicine), and then sending God's man to teach her things to save her soul. 'He taught me much before I was baptized; tell him to teach me much more now that I am within His family, that I may know how to please Him. I want to know more of God's Son, Jesu Chreest. When I know what is right I shall not do the wrong. Now I am not afraid to die. God's Son makes all safe and sure.'

"That evening I went to Telegraph Creek and held a service in a trader's store, where I baptized five Indian children whose parents are catechumens. The youngest, an infant, about a year old, I baptized first, and called her Jane Ezyuta, after the name of her to whose dear memory this Stikine Mission is dedicated. If she can see the cause of Christ's joy over these converts, she shares it. The other children ranged from six to nine years of age, and were presented to me by their parents, whom I hope to baptize if spared till next year. They, as catechumens, learn the Creed and Lord's Prayer, but are not taught to use them publicly in the services. Of course they learn many other things, and publicly join in other parts of the services. I have never seen this plan used before. It originated with Mr. Palgrave, and has much that can be said in its favour.

"Finally came a feast in my honour given by Mr. Palgrave, and speeches followed. I have already written more than I meant to, and therefore will not give further details. When all was over Mr. Palgrave and I retired to the upper room of the store among furs, blankets, bale on bale, with other articles of mechandise. He was soon audibly asleep, and, after many hours of rather distressing heart irregularity caused by the day's strain, I, too, slept and recovered strength for further journeying.

"Instead of attempting to ride back, I meant to hire a team and drive in the springless waggon over the eighteen miles of rough road that winds between the mountains, far from the horse trail that is often at the edge of fearful precipices. Then someone said, "Why not go down in a canoe?" Happy thought! In ninety minutes I ran through the rapids, and returned to Glenora to await the arrival of the steamer from the coast. Mr. Palgrave came down here with me, and we spent all the time we had together in discussing the terms to be used in translating certain religious ideas. All at once he asked what time it was. His watch had been stopped for two years. On hearing the time he started up, saying, 'I must go at once.' 'Stay,' said I, 'to dinner.' 'I cannot." Off he was going, when I said, 'Take some food for your twenty-six mile walk.' He cut off a two-inch hunch from the mouldy loaf, stuffed it into the one pocket of his Cardigan, and glided off; but not until he asked for my blessing, and received it on his knees. God bless him!"

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