Project Canterbury

An Apostle of the North
Memoirs of the Right Reverend William Carpenter Bompas, D.D.

By H.A. Cody, B.A.

London: Seeley, 1908.

Chapter VII. Sowing beside Many Waters (1870-1873)

"When Thy word goeth forth, it giveth light and understanding to the simple."--Ps. cxix. 130.

NOT long could Mr. Bompas rest at Fort McPherson; there was great work before him, and, like his Divine Master, he had to be ever going about doing good, sowing the seed of the Gospel beside all waters in that great northern region. Two thousand miles away was the Peace River Valley, which needed his attention, and towards this he once again set his face. The Mackenzie and Slave Rivers had to be ascended, and this took him ten weeks to accomplish. Then six weeks more passed before he reached Fort Vermilion on the Peace River, having travelled since May, 1869, 4,700 miles, all in a canoe.

Travelling in the North during the summer is by boats, and of this Mr. Bompas has given a vivid description.

The boats for long journeys are generally built by the French half-breeds in the employ of the Hudson Bay Company, assisted by the Indians. They are not decked. Some of the Indians can build well-modelled, substantial boats, though they prefer canoes.

"The average distance accomplished in a day's journey, whether in summer or winter, is from twenty-five to thirty miles, with many delays in summer, either by rain or contrary winds, sometimes involving detention in one spot for days together.

"The travel is tedious and monotonous. In summer the day's voyage begins about 3 a.m. and is continued to 7 or 8 p.m., with a halt of about an hour twice a day for breakfast and dinner. The progress in boat voyaging is either by tow-line, hauled by four men on the river-bank, or by eight or ten heavy oars, unless a fair wind permits of hoisting a sail. The canoes are propelled by the Indian paddles. Any impediment to the navigation in the way of rocks, causing an impassable rapid, occasions delay, and the boats have to be hauled over the land till the obstruction is passed. In other places, the cargoes only have to be carried by land.

"An accidental breakage of the boat on the stones obliges the steersman to insert a piece of wood by way of a patch, which causes a detention of some hours. The breakage of a canoe by a stick or stone is more frequent, as the canoes are constructed of tender birch bark. This, if torn, is patched with a piece of fresh bark, sewed with roots, and cemented with gum or pitch.

"As the trading posts are mostly from 200 to 300 miles apart, houses are generally seen on a summer's voyage about once a week. Between these a few Indian tents may he passed, hut on most days no human heing is encountered; yet so incessant is travelling that it is hardly possible to land in any spot along the river-bank, without traces appearing of some person having been there previously, who is betrayed by a chopped stick or by his long-extinguished fire.

"What is termed in the North a rapid, or by Americans a ripple, is an interruption to navigation occasioned by a shallow or rocky point in the river, where the water is hurried turbulently among the stones or in eddies, sometimes with small cascades, till it gains a less confined channel.

"The test of skill in the Canadian boatmen is the passing of these rapids, especially in the descent, when the boat (mostly lightened of its cargo) is often urged with headlong speed down the swift waters, the traveller trusting to the coolness and skill of the helmsman and bowsman to avoid the stones. It is needful to urge the boats more rapidly than the hurrying current, in order to have headway enough for steering, and a quick eye and ready hand are quite essential.

"The boat's cargo is generally carried past the obstruction by a land track, technically termed a portage. There are sometimes as many as fifty to one'hundred of these interruptions in a single voyage, so rocky are the channels of these northern rivers, and so impeded their navigation.

"Such, however, is not the case with all the rivers. The great Mackenzie has no obstruction for about 1,400 miles from the sea. Then, after one long rapid of about fifteen miles, the navigation is again undisturbed for about 300 miles more."

On the Peace River Mr. Bompas tells us that "large masses of driftwood descend the river from the mountains with the ice in spring, and some of these, lodging along the banks, form drift-piles, not without danger for a passing voyager. His canoe may be wrecked and sunk among the snags, and himself whirled by the eddying current into midstream, or sucked under the boiling rapid."

In addition to the difficulty of travelling by water, the flies are a continual pest. "An African traveller, who passed down the Mackenzie, stated his experience to be that the flies of the North were more virulent than the insects of Africa.

"And these are of 'divers sorts.' Early in spring appear the large blue horse-flies, which bite a piece out of the skin. These are succeeded by the mosquitoes, the summer infliction, which are at times so numerous as to cover the clothes andi fill the mouth and plate at meal-time.

"In some travellers lately arrived, with a soft skin, the mosquito bites produce a kind of fever, and greatly disfigure the face and neck."

This magnificent river "received its name from Peace Point, one of the angles in its course, where about a century since the Indians were persuaded by the traders to terminate their former wars and feuds, to bury their weapons, and to devote themselves to peace and commerce."

Arriving at Fort Vermilion in October, this messenger of peace remained there during the winter, teaching the natives for miles around. But in the spring of 1871 he again went down Peace River, and, after visiting Fort Chipewyan and Fond du Lac, on Lake Athabasca, once more ascended Peace River as far as Rocky Mountain Portage.

"It is now, I believe," wrote Mr. Bompas," nearly thirty years since a Protestant minister visited the upper part of Peace River, and I am thankful to have been brought by Grod's providence thus far. . . . These head waters of the Peace River in the Rocky Mountains, about ten days' travel hence, have been the scene of a great excitement during the last twelve months, in consequence of the discovery of new gold-mines there. About 2,000 miners are said to have been working there during the past summer, and of these some hundreds will probably remain to pass the winter among the snow. Some of them, of course, have not been very successful, but a considerable quantity of fine gold-dust has, I believe, been procured. This discovery will doubtless tend to the opening up of the country. Wagon roads are being made at Government expense from the coast to supply the miners with provisions and necessaries, and already the traffic is considerable. In the end it may turn out that one of the readiest ways of access to this part of the country will' be from the Columbian side. The rivers here actually seem to cross through the mountains, and are doubtless intended, in God's providence, to be a channel of communication from east to west."

Mr. Bompas formed hopes of visiting these miners, but was unable to do so. He was much encouraged by what he heard, that "nearly all abstain from work on the Sabbath, notwithstanding the excitement of their occupation, and that the mining operations are restricted by the frost to about four months in the year."

"We hear," he wrote further, "of several parties from the Columbian side of the mountains being sent out to explore a route for the proposed railway from Canada to the Pacific, and in this way I trust the progress of civilization, and Christianity also, in this wild country may be facilitated. God's providence is plainly working in the changes that are going forward, and I trust they will redound to His glory."

In a letter to his sister in England, Mr. Bompas describes another phase of his work in this region, and lets in a little light which is most interesting.

"This spring my chief character has been that of public vaccinator, I should think I must have vaccinated about 500, and as 2,000 Indians are said to have died last summer of smallpox at one post only, in the plains, vaccination is not uncalled for. The smallpox also broke out last fall at Peel's River, only about two months after I left there. Five died, and many others, including Mr. Flett's family, were attacked. . . . Knowing the danger of the smallpox to the Indians, it has been a pleasure to me to vaccinate them, though rather troublesome sometimes to persuade them to submit to the operation."

In the same letter he describes the death of Mrs. Donald Ross, the wife of one of the Hudson Bay Company's clerks:

"I had not seen her," he goes on to say, "since I was here three years ago, and this spring she fell into consumption. . . . She expressed a wish to see me before her death, and they were bringing her down to me in the boat, when she died, and her body only came to me to be buried. I have this morning buried her little girl, born about three months before the death of her mother. Mrs. Ross was a very quiet, kind woman, and seems to have been fully prepared for her death. She expressed herself quite happy to the last, and during the last night was often asking for the candles to be put out, for she said, 'It is all broad daylight with me now.' Her delight was in hearing the Bible read, especially the fourteenth chapter of St. John. I feel this death rebukes me for having expressed in a letter this spring a fear that our Saviour gathers no lilies from this desert land, for here are two,"

Having ministered to the Indians around Rocky Mountain Portage, Mr. Bompas in the fall moved down the river, sowing the Gospel seed as he went. Reaching Fort St. John, he gathered the Indians around him, who gladly received his instruction. It was here that a fearful massacre of several of the Hudson Bay Company's men, by the Tsekanies Indians, took place years before, and on that spot where the awful deed of violence was committed, the noble ambassador delivered his great King's message. Only a few days did he remain here, and as he continued on his way he received letters from the committee at Red River, instructing him "to proceed next spring (D.V.) to the Youcon district, to replace Mr. McDonald, who has obtained leave of absence. This quite accords with my own views," continues Mr. Bompas, "of what is fitting and necessary, and, with God's permission, I shall hope, if life is spared me, once again to visit the far North, being the district to which I was appointed on leaving England."

From Vermilion he crossed overland till he struck the Hay River, and, following its course, reached Great Slave Lake in safety in the spring of 1872.

"Hay River," he tells us, "takes its rise near the Rocky Mountains, not far from the source of the Peace River. In descending the river, I witnessed its stupendous cataract, which is, I think, one of the wonders of the world. It is a perpendicular fell of about 150 feet high by 500 feet wide, and of surpassing beauty. The amber colour of the falling water gives the appearance of golden tresses twined with pearls, while in the spray was a rainbow reaching from the foot of the fall to the rocks far above its brink. We viewed the fall only from the brink, as the access from below is precipitous. I named the cataract the Alexandra Falls. The waterfall which I have described impressed me much more with its beauty than did Niagara, which I saw on entering the country about seven years ago. Both at Niagara and Alexandra Falls I spent a Sunday. The beauty of the scene was much enhanced by the rainbows in the spray."

Though Mr. Bompas longed to take up work at Fort Yukon, still it caused him much anxiety to leave the Athabasca district vacant.

"If I have to leave this district a second time unoccupied," he writes, "the Indians will lose all confidence in the permanence and reliability of our instruction, and will be thrown more completely than ever into the arms of Rome."

Then the earnest traveller was feeling the effects of his long journeys. For seven years he had been ever moving from place to place, and, like the great Apostle of old, he had endured much "in journeyings often, in perils of water, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the wilderness, in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in cold and nakedness."

"As I am now once more directed to return to the far North," he writes, "I do not think reliance should be placed on my being able to return hither again; for even if life should be prolonged, which is doubtful, I cannot reckon on being able to accomplish repeatedly so long a journey from north to south. I hope God's good providence.will order the arrangements made according to the Divine will."

A question I might naturally arise here concerning the advisability of Mr. Bompas's extensive travelling. Could he not have done much better work by remaining in one locality, and cultivating it thoroughly, instead of spreading over so much country? No doubt there is much truth is this; but there is another side which needs careful consideration.

The Indians in the North at the time of Mr. Bompas's arrival were mostly in heathen darkness, and the work of evangelization had only been begun in a few places. To the Indians the Gospel message was new, and in their unenlightened minds the progress could only be slow, like leaven in the meal. Having sown a little seed among one band of Indians, it would be necessary for the missionary to pass on to others. This was what Mr. Bompas did. He was, to use a naval metaphor, a "detached cruiser," speeding from place to place, that he might bring in the Gospel dawn to widely scattered bands.

And, further than this, we find the Indians were ever on the move themselves. They were forced to travel in order to obtain a living. They were to be met with in so many places: a little group by some river bank, or a few encamped near a lake. These he would meet as he passed to and fro. The seed would be cast, and then more sown when he met them again.

In reality this has ever been the principal method of work among the Indians in the North. The missionary establishes himself in some place where the natives congregate. For months they will be away hunting, but at certain seasons they return to the mission. They may remain only a few weeks, and in that time the work of instruction must be carried on. The lessons learned in this short time are not forgotten. A missionary along the Yukon River unexpectedly came upon a camp of Indians miles away from the mission. It was night, and he found them sitting around the fire repeating what he had taught them, and singing a hymn learned but a few weeks before.

Pushing on his way down the Mackenzie River, Mr. Bompas spent the fall and winter and spring in the regions to the north and west of Fort McPherson. During the fall he "visited a tribe of Esquimaux encamped on the sea-coast about 200 or 300 miles west of the Mackenzie River, and found their camps full of American goods, which they trade from the whaling vessels in the Arctic Sea, inside Behring Straits, somewhere about Point Barrow."

He also visited La Pierre House, west of the Rocky Mountains, and the reception he met with from the Loucheux Indians there filled him with thankfulness, and encouraged him much in his work. Writing of these Indians, he says:

"I have been much cheered in my work among them by finding them all eager for instruction and warm-hearted in their reception of the missionary. Each day I spent in the Loucheux camps was like a Sunday, as the Indians were clustered around me from early morning till late at night, learning prayers, hymns, and Scripture lessons as I was able to teach them. I never met with so earnest desires after God's word, nor have I passed so happy a time since I left England; indeed, I think I may say that, had I ever found at home such a warm attachment of the people to their minister, and so zealous a desire for instruction, I should not have been a missionary. These mountain Loucheux seem the 'fewest of all people,' but I cannot help hoping they are 'a chosen race.' "

On April 28, 1873, he wrote the following letter to his sister in England from Peel River:

"As I have again an opportunity of writing home, 1 will send a line to tell you that, by God's providence, I have been safely preserved during the past winter with the Indians in their camps, and walking with them over the snow, and that in the coldest part of the country and in the coldest season, yet I have not suffered from cold, hunger, or fatigue. God's good providence has most visibly watched over and protected my ways, in answer, I suppose, to the prayers of friends at home, and I have been much happier the past winter than any time previously since I left England.

' News reaches us this spring that men are to be sent here shortly to cut an ox-road across the Rocky Mountains, with a view to steamboats being placed as soon as possible on the Yukon and Mackenzie Rivers, and a communication opened between Rupert's Land and the Pacific. It is therefore probable that in a few years civilization will reach this remotest spot on the earth's surface, and the two ends of the earth here meet. I have this winter again visited Fort Yukon, where the American steamer came again last summer, and thence, via San Francisco, you could reach Europe in two months.

"The Indians here have treated me like Christian brothers all winter, and I quite look on them in that light. They are all eager for instruction, and warmhearted, so that it is a pleasure to be among them. I must have walked more than 1,000 miles among the Indians this winter, but that is nothing--not so much as I used to walk in a winter in the streets of London. On the last day of my winter's marching I composed about 200 lines of poetry on the Loucheux, which I shall enclose to you. I was walking about eighty days, and in camp with the Indians about as many. I am now trying to learn a little more Eskimo from the interpreter here, though I do not know that I shall be able to instruct the Esquimaux at once, as I hope (D.V.) next winter to visit Fort Yukon again."

Later we find Mr. Bompas far west, beyond the Rocky Mountains, carrying on his work along the Yukon River. Of this he says:

"There is much that I might tell you of my labours. The summer has been spent in visiting all the Indians on the Upper Yukon. I am thankful to relate that the Word of Life was received with penitence and tears. Some of these Indians have now been under instruction for nearly ten years, and I thought it right to baptize the more advanced of them, to the number of thirty-five adults and eighty children. Already, I regret to say, has an epidemic reached these tribes, and of the newly baptized infants, one at least, and perhaps more, has ere this been summoned to glory as the first-fruit of this flock of lambs freshly gathered into the Saviour's fold. I?irectly my time of instruction with them (the fishing for men) was over began the literal fishing for salmon, the Indians' harvest here, and they let down their nets for what is likely, I think, to be a plentiful draught, reminding us of New Testament scenes."

Travelling up the river, he was much pleased with the beauty he observed on every hand.

"It is a splendid river with high wooded hills on each bank, occasionally broken into bold and cragged rocks. The margin of the river is rather flowery with lupins, vetches, bluebells, and other wild-flowers; and I was surprised to see a few ferns in the clefts of the rocks, so close to the Arctic circle. Gold has not yet been found in the Yukon, but I brought down with me good specimens of iron ore, of which there seems to be a great quantity close to the river's bank. This may some day be utilized."

These words were penned in the summer of 1873, and what changes this missionary was to see before the closing of the century! Instead of the iron which he thought "some day would be utilized," the gleaming gold would be luring thousands into the country.

Mr. Bompas ascended the Yukon for 300 miles, and everywhere he was gladly received by the Indians, who gathered around him to hear the message he had to deliver. But a change was soon to take place in the life of this noble man, and while quietly and humbly pursuing his work, a letter reached him, summoning him back to England to be consecrated Bishop of the huge diocese. To the hardships and dangers of travel there was to be henceforth added "the care of all the Churches."

Project Canterbury