Chapter IV. The Father's Business (1865-1870)
A WRITER tells us he once saw a statue of a knight of the olden time, clad in mail, with his good sword at his side. His pose was one of conscious strength, and his face alight with intensity of purpose, as he lifted before him a scroll which bore for a legend the single word "Credo."
In this picture we see the young knight, William Bompas, with heart aglow, touched by the altar-flame, taking up his great work in that far north land, proving by deed the faith he confessed, and anxious to pass it on to others.
Previous to the year 1858 the North-West America Mission had not advanced into the far northern territory of vast distances, having confined its efforts to the Algonquin nation of Indians. On June 6, in the year 1858, which has been called the "Annus Mirabilis of missionary enterprise," Archdeacon Hunter resigned for a time his charge at Red River, and started north with one of the Hudson Bay Company's "brigades." The Roman Catholics were already establishing missions at various places, so, not to interfere with these, it was decided to go further and carry the Gospel to the regions beyond.
Archdeacon Hunter was well received at the various forts along the way, and after a journey of 2,000 miles, occupying two months and ten days, reached Fort Simpson, the principal station in the Mackenzie River District. He remained in the north the following winter, and visited Forts Liard, Norman, and Good Hope. Seeing a number of Tukudh Indians from beyond the Rocky Mountains, he longed to carry the good tidings to that densely ignorant people. But this was reserved for another hero of our Church.
It was the privilege of a young man stationed at Red River to continue and extend the work thus begun by Archdeacon Hunter. This was the Rev. William West Kir kby (afterwards Archdeacon), who, in 1852, had been sent out as a schoolmaster by the Church Missionary Society. Upon Archdeacon Hunter's return from the North, Mr. Kirkby was hurried forward to take his place. With Fort Simpson as his head-quarters, he laboured faithfully among the whites and Indians in the vicinity, and succeeded in building, so he tells us, "a little gem of a church." Concerning his work here, Mr. Bompas bore testimony a few years later:
"Few missionaries have endured more privations and hardships from the climate and isolation of his position. ... In spite of all opposition he has established a fine mission-station, built a beautiful church, learned their (Indian) language, printed in it a useful book of elementary instruction, and now he has translated two Gospels."
During the spring of 1862 Mr. Kirkby resolved to cross the Rocky Mountains, and carry the message of peace to the far-off Yukon region. On May 29, after he had asked the blessing of God "on those who journeyed, and on those who remained behind," Mr. Kirkby began his long journey in a canoe, which he called the Herald, accompanied by two Indian lads.
Down the mighty Mackenzie River he wound his tedious way, up the Peel, and then over the Rocky Mountains. Standing there on the summit which separates the rivers flowing into the Arctic Ocean from those rolling down to the Pacific, the noble soldier of the Cross knelt down and prayed that the entrance of the Gospel light into those new regions might be abundantly blessed by God.
Then on he pressed, against many difficulties. The mosquitoes were bad, and caused his temples and the back of his ears to stream continually with blood.
"Our course to-day," he wrote, "was more varied than before: at one time walking up to our knees through dirty swamps, at another, climbing up the craggy sides of the mountain ridge; now fording a river; then treading with weary steps over large patches of unthawed snow. The rivers were neither very wide nor deep, but the current in all was very strong. In all, we crossed twenty-five to-day. . The current of one was very strong; but by all three of us holding fast together, we managed to ford it."
A hearty welcome was given him at La Pierre's House, a Hudson Bay Company's post.
"I never thought to see the day," said the officer in charge with tears in his eyes, "when a minister of the Gospel would be at La Pierre's House."
Proceeding on his way down" the Porcupine River, Fort Yukon, another Hudson Bay Company's post, was reached on July 6. Notwithstanding the warning Mr. Kirkby had received about the danger he would encounter from the medicine-men, he preached Christ boldly. The result was marvellous. The Indians crowded around him incessantly, and one after another renounced their evil way, and promised to lead better lives.
"Oh, it was a goodly sight," said Mr. Kirkby, "to see that vast number, who had never prayed before, bending their knees, and trying to syllable the name of Jesus."
After a stay of seven days, the missionary, on July 13, began his long return journey. This was much more difficult, as the way was nearly all up stream. But by Grod's grace Fort Simpson was reached on August 29, after an absence of three months.
"I have travelled over 3,000 miles," thankfully wrote Mr. Kirkby, "and have been honoured by God to carry the glad tidings of salvation far within the Arctic Circle to a people who had never heard it before."
The news of Mr. Kirkby's successful journey to the Yukon so stirred a missionary meeting at St. Andrew's, Red River, that a young catechist offered to go to the Indians in that far-off region, and the congregation proposed to raise the funds to send him. This was Robert McDonald, afterwards Archdeacon of the Yukon, a name destined to occupy the very foremost place among the heroes of the Canadian Church. He reached Fort Yukon that same fall (1862) and was bravely holding the post when the young and ardent recruit, William Bompas, entered the field.
Upon reaching Fort Simpson, Mr. Bompas learned that Mr. McDonald had recovered from his sickness, and was able to continue his work. Though this news filled him with thankfulness, yet he was disappointed for himself, as his heart had been set upon the Yukon region as his special sphere of labour. Nevertheless, he began with enthusiasm to master the Indian language at Fort Simpson, assisted by Mr. Kirkby, with whom he remained till Easter, 1866. Then he pushed forward to Fort Norman, on the Mackenzie River, north of Great Bear Lake, where he remained till August. The Hudson Bay Company built him a house, and engaged a schoolmaster, Mr. Murdo McLeod, to assist in teaching the Indians, which encouraged him very much. [This school was established principally for orphans left by the epidemic of scarlet fever during 1865. The school was broken up in 1868.] He tells us that he did "not find the Indian children deficient in intelligence, but only in application. Their restlessness and want of thought appear to he the chief difficulties to be overcome.
"With respect to the adults, I have not been dissatisfied with the reception given to the Word, though I cannot speak of results at present. God's book, is treated with respect, and if I visit their tents Bible in hand, it is seldom that I cannot find some one ready to listen to it. My chief impediment is the imperfect knowledge of the language, but I am thankful to speak even a few words in the name of Jesus."
In August Mr. McDonald arrived from the Yukon, and, accompanying him, Mr. Bompas returned to Fort Simpson, where those three heroes of the Cross assembled to consider the Master's vineyard and arrange plans for the future. The question was, where to place Mr. Bompas. After a long and earnest discussion, it was considered best to give him a roving commission rather than a settled station. With this plan Mr. Bompas was well pleased, as it accorded best with his "judgment and wishes."
"I am quite willing," he tells us, "to push on to the extreme north, to try and carry the Gospel among the Esquimaux; but meanwhile it seems best for me to try and learn first one language thoroughly, and that the Slave, that I may be fit for itinerating throughout the different posts of the district."
It mattered little to him where he was sent, as his feelings were those expressed by an English poet:
"Should fate command me to the farthest verge
Of the green earth, to distant barbarous climes,
Rivers unknown to song . . . 'tis naught to me,
Since God is ever present, ever felt,
In the void waste as in the city full."
After the conference, Mr. Bompas returned to Fort Norman, taking with him two Indian boys to be trained at the school, and then plunged into earnest work among the natives, visiting their camps, making journeys some distance away, and patiently studying the language.
"My time," he tells us, "was occupied in visiting the separate tents, and trying to convey the simple truths of the Gospel to the natives. Some few of the Indians, especially one of the chiefs and the Indian who hunted with me, took great interest in my instructions. Living in the Indian tents was not hard to me. The habits of the Indians are quiet and inoffensive. Their hours of eating, sleeping, etc., are regular, and they are mostly occupied in some useful way--fishing, snaring rabbits, net-making, turning snow-shoes and sledges, and other manual labour, while the women are ,chieny engaged in dressing deer-skins.
"The month of December was occupied by me at the fort, chiefly in conversing with Indians, who arrived almost daily in large or small bands, and nearly all of them visited me at the schoolhouse for instruction.
"One of the Indians, of whom I thought better than any, died during this month, after a few days' illness. He had built a house near the fort for the express purpose of being near the mission. He hunted for us until his illness, and showed every desire to receive what instruction I could give. I baptized him before his death; his name was Antoine. Another Indian also,-whom I baptized in the spring by the name of Christian Kaia, has behaved very well. He took me in his canoe to the Indian camps, hunted for me, housed me, and waited on me with every care and attention."
Strongly did these Great Bear Lake Indians appeal to Mr. Bompas's noble nature. He sympathized deeply with them in their many troubles, and of them he wrote most pathetically:
"Do the noble ladies of our land, when they wrap around them their highly prized fur, consider that they cannot choose but be indebted for this luxurious boon to the half-naked savage roaming the woods, houseless and homeless, in a temperature nearly 100° below the freezing-point, wrapped in his single blanket, and kindling in the deep snow his solitary fire, owing his preservation and food--not daily food, perhaps--to the one great Father, who regardeth not the rich more than the poor, for they are all one in His hands? Oh, pray for the souls of these poor Indians, that they may become our brethren in Christ, that so their pitiable state on earth may be forgotten in the joys of one common heaven above!"
Leaving Fort Norman on January 10, 1867, he started on a long journey to Fort Rae, on Great Slave Lake, in company with Mr. King, the officer in charge of the Hudson Bay Company's post at that place. They were twenty days in making the trip, passing on the way one large brigade of Dog Rib Indians, whom Mr. Bompas visited for a few hours.
"The name of Jesus," he says, "was that which I sought feebly to proclaim, and with this they did not seem familiar. Two I saw nearly in a dying state."
He found the Indians at Fort Rae greatly diminishing in numbers, owing to European diseases, which they contract "through intercourse with the whites. This is a call to us," he adds, "to be earnest and active in ministering to them the Gospel, that a 'remnant may be saved.'
"My feeling in regard to this country is much the same as that expressed by the Moravian missionaries in a similar sphere in Greenland--namely, that for any other object than that of walking patiently and humbly with our God this country offers but a poor position; while if we ever keep in mind our Saviour's words, 'Whosoever shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven,' then we shall, I think, view our sphere of labour here as affording a good school for heaven."
He earnestly longed to acquire the Indian language, that he might the better impart the truth, and yet he found many difficulties in the way.
"The little I already know," he writes, "the Indians often ascribe to magic, or 'medicine,' as they call it, but I trust I know how to ascribe it entirely to the help of God's Spirit. Beyond this, a familiarity with the Indians' habits and feelings and modes of thought, the hardening of one's own constitution to bear the exposure of associating with them in their tents, the discovery of the best means of approaching them with the truth, etc., are all matters of time, and in this country progress is slow."
It appeared to him to be of little use to teach the Indians to read their own language until books were printed in it, and he longed for "a small quantity of large printing type, with ink and paper," that he might teach "the Indian lads to read in Slave. Had I these things," he continues, "which I have mentioned, I think I could cheerfully resign myself to a lifetime spent in the wilderness, devoting such of my time as is not occupied among the Indians to the study of God's word in the original languages--a favourite study, which the bustle of home-life sadly interrupted, and which the infidel assaults of our day and generation urgently demand."
Mr. Bompas remained at Fort Rae until the latter end of June, and then went to Fort Resolution, on the opposite shore of the same lake. He travelled in company with a Roman Catholic priest, Pere Gascoigrie, who had spent the winter at Fort Rae. During this trip Mr. Bompas endeavoured to bring about a dispassionate consideration of the differences between Protestantism and Romanism, but in vain.
From Fort Resolution Mr. Bompas went to Fort Chipewyan, on Lake Athabasca, where he remained during the summer. Here good work was carried on among the Cree and Chipewyan Indians, when they assembled around the fort to receive their supplies. Though for fifteen years the Roman Catholics had held sway at this post, Mr. Bompas was very anxious to start a Church of England mission here, and the Hudson Bay Company's officers gave him every encouragement.
"A mission here," he says, "would form a sort of connecting-link with that at Fort Simpson, which hitherto has been so far isolated, and we might then, I think, consider that the whole country is brought to some extent within the sound of the Gospel, with the exception of the Esquimaux, for service among whom I would gladly volunteer at any time if this and nearer stations can be otherwise filled."
Mr. Bompas shows how good work done in one section of the country affects another many miles away. He mentions that at the post were Indians who had been brought up in the mission-schools at Red River and the neighbourhood "who are now married and with families, and who, in their education, habits of life, and deportment, do great credit to their instructors. The seed sown at Red River is thus bearing fruit at a distance of more than 1,000 miles."
He pleaded earnestly for a man to take up work at Fort Chipewyan, and urged that "the small Protestant community here needs the rites of baptism, marriage, and burial performed for them. It is a Cree-speaking student from St. John's College, Red River, that I should rejoice to see labouring here."
Early in January, 1868, Mr. Bompas left Fort Chipewyan and travelled up the Peace River to Fort Vermilion, and found himself in the country of the Beaver Indians, whose physical condition he described as "very pitiable. They are very careless and neglectful in their dress, and, though quick and intelligent, appear idle and dissipated. There are but few among them sound in health, and they seem fast dying off. I do not think there is any hope of saving their lives in this world, as well as their souls for the next, except through the ameliorating influence of Christianity, brought to bear on them by means of a mission established in their midst."
"The most necessary adjunct to winter travelling in the North is a dog-sledge, for dogs alone are there used for hauling provisions and fuel over the winter snows. The strength and endurance of a train of three or four dogs is wonderful, Each dog is expected to haul a weight of 100 to 150 pounds. . . . Hard blows and unfeeling usage are too often the experience of the dogs in the North, and hence their temper is snappish and their intelligence and affection but small.
"Much pride or zeal is shown in the North in decking the sledge dogs in gay trappings with ribbons, beads, coloured cloth, and with numerous jingling bells. A number of dog-trains together form an animated scene."
A good dog-team in the North costs from 100 to 200 dollars, averaging about twenty-five dollars a dog. Some of the best in the country are bred by the natives, nearly every grown-up Indian having his own dog-team and sledge or toboggan. The Indians make their own sledges and harness, the former being made of birch wood, and the latter of moose-skin.
The affection of the dogs towards their master is of the kind that has been called "cupboard love." They attach themselves quite readily to the one who feeds them. They resemble mankind to a certain extent in this respect, and also in the matter of work, some being very willing, while others are lazy.
Their life, as a rule, is a hard one. At times they suffer much, not only from the cruel lash, but their feet become bruised and sore, owing to the sharp crust and ice, and blood often marks the trail. The snow, too, gathers in lumps between their toes, and often the driver is forced to stop and clear this away. Sometimes the dogs themselves will pick out the snow and ice with their teeth. To obviate this, little moccasins are made for the feet, which give the animals much comfort. When a dog is disabled he is turned loose to follow in the best way he can.
They can travel from twenty-five to thirty miles a day, under ordinary conditions, for two or three weeks, and longer if given an occasional day's rest. "They show a marked difference of character," says the Rev. John Hawksley, who has lived for over twenty years in the North, "some being mild and gentle, with a certain amount of affection, while others are most ferocious, and very quarrelsome with the other dogs in the team. Others, again, are very uncertain, at one time licking your hand while harnessing them, at another snapping fiercely at you." They do not mind being shifted about in the team. The leader, who has been carefully trained for his position, is seldom changed.
The dogs are fed only once a day, after camp has been pitched for the night. If fed in the morning or while on the trail, they become so lazy and indifferent that no progress can be made. Their food consists of either dried fish or rice, cornmeal, rolled oats or flour, boiled either with bacon or dried fish well cut into small pieces.
Seldom does the traveller ride during a long northern journey. He is thankful if the dogs draw the load, and at times he is forced to assist. Day after day he must follow the sledge, running by the side of the dogs, urging them on, or plodding ahead breaking a trail through the deep snow. This is all done on the light and springing snow-shoes, which have been well named "northern slippers.".
"Anyone who has tried walking in the rough country of the Arctic region in summer-time will readily admit the increased facility of movement in winter over smooth snow on snow-shoes. The ground is mostly marsh, clothed with a coarse grass, which eats out the soil into high tufts or lumps, on or between which the ankles of the pedestrian twist and writhe. These tufts are locally known as "women's heads," being, from the long grass pendent from them, like dishevelled hair. Certainly, to walk over them may be compared to what it would be to walk over the heads and shoulders of a crowd.
"Snow-shoe walking requires care to avoid troubles. If the snow-shoe lashing or any other bands are too tight on the limbs, or if the feet are held too stiffly, a very painful affection of the muscles supervenes, known as the snow-shoe sickness. This sickness sometimes causes the legs to swell like those of an elephant, and renders them so powerless that the feet may have to be lifted with the hand by lines attached to the front of the snow-shoe. Such an accident, when the end of the journey may be 100 miles off, and no provision nearer, and hence no chance of resting, is not pleasant."
In addition to the labour of travelling, Mr. Bompas had the severity of the climate to contend with. Though at times the weather is mild and pleasant, yet only too often the thermometer plunges down to 60° and even 70° below zero. This extreme cold is bearable owing to the dry-ness and perfect stillness of the atmosphere.
"For outside travelling," continues Mr. Bompas, "it is possible to keep warm on the coldest day without heavy clothing by walking very fast, which pace is often alternated with running by a good voyager. ... It is the hands and feet which require the most careful covering of blankets and leather, the covering of the hands being locally termed mittens, and of the feet moccasins."
Though each day's journey was made with difficulty, yet at night there was the bright camp fire in some sheltered spot. The process of this camping is interesting, and has been well described by Mr. Bompas.
"As sundown approaches, a spot is selected in the woods, where some' dead trees are seen standing. The snow is scraped away, by using a snow-shoe for a shovel, from a circular space sufficient to seat the party. This space is next thickly strewn with pine-branches lopped down for the purpose, and which are locally termed brush. The axes are then in requisition to fell a sufficient number of dead trees for the consumption of firewood for the night.
"With a few splinters of dry wood and shavings cut from them, or with a piece of birch bark which burns like a torch, a fire is started and piled to a sufficient height with logs. Water is procured by melting some of the surrounding snow, and kettles are brought for preparing the evening meal. Dogs are fed with fish, and when supper is consumed, shoes and socks are dried for the next day's travel, and the travellers seek repose wrapped in their blankets on the pine-brush before the fire embers, till shortly after midnight, when preparations begin for another day's march.
"To sleep in the woods is much easier than to sleep without woods. In the Saskatchewan plains, which are mostly bare, a traveller's life may be lost by his being overtaken with a storm in the open plain, far from water, shelter, or fuel. The fact that the cold is not so extreme there as in the far North may make the danger only greater, for if the snow melts about a sleeper, it will soon freeze him to death. For this reason one falling asleep in the snows of Europe will rarely wake again, whereas in the far North a lost traveller overtaken in a storm without fire or shelter, by burying himself in the snow, may probably sleep well and awake in the morning none the worse.
"Want of fuel in a winter camp is a great trouble, but a benign Providence arranges that dry wood may be found almost anywhere. The most difficulty in finding fuel occurs in the approach to the Arctic coast. Where dry pines are lacking, a fire can be made of green pines, by felling a number together and igniting them in the heads with the brush or branches upon them.
"If there are no pines, fire can be made with dry willows. If these are lacking, even green willows are supposed to burn when once ignited, though the theory is rather a difficult one to reduce to practice. Should there be none of these, there may probably be no fire, unless as a last resort a sledge can be chopped up for the purpose.
"There may be inconvenience also in the lack of materials for starting a fire. In the absence of lucif ers or sulphur matches, fire is commonly made with flint and steel and a piece of country touchwood, which consists of a fungoid growth or excrescence on the bark of theJbirch or poplar. A small particle of this touchwood is kindled to a spark with flint and steel; the touchwood is then placed in a handful of shavings cut from dry wood, and the whole is waved together in the air till it bursts into a flame. When a steel is missing, a knife may be at hand, or fire may be obtained by snapping a gun. An Indian chief has told of his life being saved at a last emergency by obtaining fire from a piece of green stone, carried for a whetstone, and an iron buckle from his dog harness.
"If a traveller in the woods happens to meet with an accident by cutting his foot with his axe while chopping firewood, his position is not an enviable one, and on this account it is not customary in the North, except with natives, for the voyager to travel alone. In case of such a mishap, the lamed one will be carried by his companions on the dog-sledge; if they have one, to the nearest house, which may be a hundred miles distant.
"As to finding the proper direction to travel through the woods, a native Indian is seldom at a loss, though a stranger may soon lose himself. For one lost in the woods,' when neither sun nor stars appear,' the best hope of knowing his position or the direction in which to travel is by observing the bark and branches of trees. These in an exposed position may be somewhat blasted towards the north compared with their southern aspect, and hence the points of the compass may be surmised." Mr. Bompas believed that Fort Vermilion offered remarkable advantages for a mission-station, and was the only place he had seen in the north where an ultimate Indian settlement appeared hopeful. He thought there were facilities for farming, rearing cattle, horses, etc., that would render missionary work more cheerful and promising as far as the present world is concerned than farther north.
Writing to his sister in England from this place, he said:
"In your letter I am amused at your regret that you cannot promise me no snow and ice in heaven. All I can say is, let us be thankful for it here while we have it, and say,' Praise Him, snow and vapours.' Depend on it there would be a gap in the display in the wonders of God in Nature if this country were left out. Nowhere in Nature is God's power more forcibly shown, as you will find explained in Job xxxvii. and Psalm cxlvii. Besides this, you must know that I have already returned to Southern climes, being now in the latitude of Scotland, and with a length of day in winter nearly like yours. We can no longer say with Habakkuk, 'There is no herd in the stall, and the fields yield no meat,' for there are plenty of horses and cattle here, and the fields would grow any quantity of corn and vegetables.
"Food is abundant here. The Indians live on moose and beaver; we on moose alone. It is well that there is the beaver for the Indians to fall back on, for moose-hunting is rather precarious. It is only in a wind that the hunter can elude the animal's quick scent, and onlywhen the snow is quite soft that he can escape its keen sense of hearing. Last fall, when there was calm weather, and the surface of the snow became hard, through rain falling on it, some of the Athabasca Indians were nearly starved to death, there being no beaver there--by so precarious a thread does the life of these poor wandering Indians hang. The beaver are numerous here. About 4,000 beaver skins have been traded at the fort this winter, and there are but about fifty Indian hunters.
"I have paid the Indians a couple of visits in the woods since I have been here, but not to stay long with them. Lately they have been, most of them, at the fort. I have tried to learn something of their language, which is a new dialect for me. Sometimes I think they were the first people that were made, because they call a finger-ring 'O' and a star 'Sun.' What can I teach, except to look to Jesus and ask Him to give them good hearts? "You can have little idea of the way in which we count here by years what you count by days. You would say, 'I will get it to-morrow.' We say, 'It has not come this year, perhaps it will come next'; or, 'I must order such a book from home; if no mishap occur, in three or four years I may hope to see it." A bit of white chalk would, I think, have been more use to me the last twelvemonth than fifty sovereigns, and I have often thought I would barter everything I brought out with me, except the Bible, for one or two Sunday-school primers. . . . But I hope I can say I am learning in whatever state I am therewith to be content, and to rely on the promise that' My God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory by Jesus Christ.'"
While Mr. Bompas was at Fort Vermilion carrying on his Master's work, a change had taken place at Fort Simpson. After sixteen years' absence from England, nine of which had been spent on the Mackenzie River, Mr. Kirkby returned home for a well-deserved rest, and also with a view to the printing of the Gospels of St. Mark and St. John, which he had translated into the Chipewyan language. It was his earnest wish that his work at the post should be carried on by Mr. Bompas, who returned from Fort Vermilion for that purpose, about August 20, 1868, took charge of the mission premises, and continued the services. The latter's time on week-days was occupied chiefly in "schooling about a dozen children, all of them natives of this country, about half of them children of white men, and the other half pure Indians."
That fall a medical man, Dr. Mackay, arrived at the fort, "who had been sent by the Fur Company chiefly for the purpose of investigating the diseases of the Indians, with a view of recommending remedial measures." He was given a room in the mission-house for the winter, and the missionary supplied him with much assistance in the way of interpretation, and felt very "grateful that the Fur Company had taken interest enough in the Indians' welfare to send a medical officer to so great a distance on their behalf." Mr. Bompas believed that "in this country one is sometimes tempted to think too much of the physical aid, and yet the misery here, as elsewhere, is the fruit and punishment of sin, and the Physician of souls is He to whom recourse must be had for a medical cure. Still, I should be delighted for the Gospel and medical science to go hand in hand."
During the winter and spring he remained at Fort Simpson; but a change was soon to take place which would remove him to the far north among hardships and dangers of the most thrilling nature, the account of which must be reserved for another chapter. In this has been given the outline of a work carried on over a vast extent of country, where thousands of miles had to be travelled, and obstacles and dangers overcome, that the Father's business might be performed and precious souls brought home.