Project Canterbury

Dayspring in the Far West
Sketches of Mission-Work in North-West America

By M. E. Johnson

London: Seeley, Jackson and Halliday, 1875.

Chapter II. The Red River

The Red River.--Early History of the Settlement.--First Missionaries.-- Progress.--Present Condition.--Indian Settlement.--Scanterbury.-- Lansdowne.--Islington.--Portage La Prairie.--Westbourne.

ALMOST at the central point of the North American continent, and not far south of the boundary-line between the United States and the British possessions, two small lakes may be noticed on the In the one, Lake Ithasca, the mighty Mississippi takes its rise, and flows southwards for 3000 miles, until it falls into the Gulf of Mexico. From the other, Ottertail Lake, which is nine feet higher (1689 feet above the sea level), flows Red River in an exactly opposite direction, crossing the boundary-line, and running northwards till it falls into Lake Winnipeg. It is 900 miles in length from its rise to its estuary. "Its name is said to have been derived from a bloody Indian battle which once took place on its banks, tinging the river with crimson dye. It certainly cannot be called red from the hue of its water, which is of a dirty white colour."

"The plain through which the Red River flows is fertile beyond description. At a little distance it looks like one vast level prairie, through which the windings of the river are marked by a dark line of woods fringing the whole length of the stream; each tributary has its line of forest, a line visible many miles away over the great sea of grass. The effect of sunset over these oceans of verdure is very beautiful; a thousand hues spread themselves upon the grassy plain; a thousand tints of gold are cast along the heavens, and the oceans of earth and sky intermingle in one blaze of glory at the very gates of the setting sun. Here at Red River we are only at the threshold of the sunset, its true home is yet many days' journey to the West, where the long shadows of the vast herds of bison travel slowly over the immense plains, huge and dark against the golden West, where the red man still sees in the glory of the setting sun the realization of his dream of heaven." [The Great Lone Land.]

Along the banks of this river, and stretching farther west still, through the basin of the Saskatchewan, to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, is a land abounding in mineral wealth, clothed with magnificent forests, where extend boundless prairies, affording rich pasturage for countless herds of buffalo, in many places gay with various species of wild flowers, through which roam tribes of Red Indians, who depend for subsistence on fishing and the chase--where darkness has for ages veiled the land, and gross darkness the people--where ignorance and superstition have long held their sway--where deeds of cruelty, treachery, and blood have long denied the land.

Upon this land of darkness and desolation the day has at length dawned. Already "the morning spread upon the mountains gives promise of a gloriousjday of light and gladness; superstition, folding her sable wing, recedes before the advancing dawn; and the bright beams of the Sun of Righteousness gilding the mountain tops afford an earnest of their noonday splendour."

Of the progress of the Gospel in this interesting country we purpose giving some account in the following pages.

The Red River Settlement dates from the year 1811, when the Earl of Selkirk purchased from the Hudson's Bay Company and the Cree and Saulteaux Indians a large tract of land stretching along both banks of the Red River and the Assi-niboine. The country was at that time inhabited only by wandering tribes of Indians, and visited from time to time by the agents of the Hudson's Bay and North-West Fur Companies, who had trading-posts in the neighbourhood. Vast herds of buffalo, now driven to the west of Red River, then roamed over its prairies, and frequented the rich feeding grounds of Minnesota. The greater number of the settlers were Scotchmen and Protestants, yet there was no minister of the Gospel among them, no place of worship from north to south, from east to west of the wide-spreading territory. Is it therefore to be wondered at that God's laws were set at defiance, and deeds of violence committed which were a disgrace to civilized men? In 1820, Mr. West, a clergyman selected by the Church Missionary Society, arrived in the settlement in the capacity of Chaplain to the Hudson's Bay Company. He was instructed to reside at Red River, and to endeavour to ameliorate the condition of the Indians. In 1822 the Church Missionary Society determined to commence a Mission at Red River, and appointed the Rev. David Jones their first Missionary; he arrived at the Settlement in October, 1823. In 1825 the Rev. W. Cockran was sent out by the Church Missionary Society to preach the Gospel to the Indian tribes. "To the untiring exertions of this pioneer of Missionary enterprise in the Far West is owing in a great measure, under the blessing of God, and the influence of the Holy Spirit resting on his labours, the improved condition of the Indians and half-breeds in the settlement." [British North America. Religious Tract Society, 1872. For full account of Mission-work at Red River, see "Rainbow in the North."] "At that time Red River was an isolated settlement of civilized and half-civilized men in the midst of a vast region of barbarism. A very small portion of land had been brought into cultivation by the European settlers. The rest of the inhabitants, Canadians, half-breeds, and Indians, depended chiefly for subsistence on the chase and fishing. Their principal dependence was the buffalo hunt, which took place twice a year, when 700 or 800 hunters would set out in pursuit, accompanied by their wives, and children, and horses to bring home the spoil." If for any reason the hunt proved unsuccessful, both Indians and settlers would necessarily be reduced to great straits. It was therefore necessary for the Missionaries to cultivate land and rear cattle in order to provide food for their families and schools, as well as to assist the number of destitute half-breeds and Indians, whose improvidence reduced them to the last extremity of starvation. For everything they needed beyond the produce of their farms, for furniture, hardware, tools, books, clothing, and other things which contribute to daily comfort, Missionaries and colonists were dependent on England.

Very different is the aspect which Red River now presents. Professor Hind thus describes his first impressions of the settlement in his narrative of the Red River Exploring Expedition of 1857:--

"Red River enters Lake Winnipeg by six different channels. Fourteen miles from the mouths of the river is the Indian village, founded by Archdeacon Cockran. A little below the village the country rises, the banks are about thirty feet high, the timber is imposing, and all the aspects of a level, fertile region invest the scene, but the sameness in the general appearance of the banks becomes monotonous after the wild and varying beauties of the Winnipeg. The sight of clearings, however, with the neat white houses of the settlers at the Indian Missionary village speedily creates other impressions, aroused by such fair comparisons between the harmonizing influence of civilization, and the degraded brutal condition of a barbarous heathen race. These suggestive signs of improvement in moral and social position rapidly create a healthy tone of feeling in passing from the cascades and rapids of the Winnipeg, where half-clad savages fish and hunt for daily food, to the even flow of Red River, where Christian men and women, once heathen and wild, now live in hopeful security on its banks."

"About, four miles above the Indian Missionary village, a bend in the stream gives rise to a sharp projection of the level plateau, called Sugar Point, from the groves of maple which cover it. Near Sugar Point is a school in connexion with the Indian Mission below, situated north of the line which divides the parish of St. Peter from that of St. Andrew, and marking the northern limits of Red River Settlement. At the Grand Rapids, so called from the character of the river which flows through it, is grouped an assemblage of substantial stone buildings, which create a favourable impression of Red River resources and comfort, not unfrequently repeated in ascending the stream."

"A farmer is attached to the Indian Settlement, whi'ch is cultivated with great care by the Indians; it is intended to serve as a model for other Christian Indians, and also to provide them with seed and supplies in the event of their own stock failing--a contingency by no means improbable, since habits of forethought and economy are rarely acquired by these people until the second generation. Potatoes grow to a size unknown in England, many weighing as much as ten ounces each; asparagus, cabbages, brocoli and shallots grow luxuriantly. In the farmyard may be seen ducks, fowls, turkeys, pigs, sheep, and excellent milking cows, while flowering shrubs and annuals adorn the garden which surrounds the Mission-house."

Between St. Peter's Church in the Indian settlement, and the point where the Red River is joined by its tributary, the Assiniboine, there are four Christian churches and congregations which owe their existence to the labours of the Church Missionary Society. One of these, St. John's, formerly known as the Upper Church, at the junction of the two rivers, was made over to the Bishop of Rupert's Land, when that see was created in 1849, by the appointment of Bishop Anderson, who for sixteen years laboured with much zeal to promote the highest interests of the Indian. A second church, six miles lower down the stream, formerly called the Middle Church, now, St. Paul's, was also transferred when the work ceased to be missionary. Eight miles further down the stream, in the neighbourhood of the Grand Rapids, is St. Andrew's, formerly known as the Lower Church, and nearly midway between it and the Indian Settlement Church, from which St. Andrew's is eleven miles distant, stands St. Clement's, Mapleton. The congregations in these two churches are chiefly either Europeans, or persons of mixed descent, with but a small sprinkling of native Christians, and the duties are chiefly of a pastoral character.

The Red River territory is now called the Province of Manitoba. Its capital is Winnipeg, a rapidly rising town near the junction of the Red River and the Assiniboine. Here is St. John's College, which includes a boarding-school for boys and girls, and is under the immediate supervision of Bishop Machray. A superior education is given, and some of the pupils have distinguished themselves at the English universities; while others have been ordained to preach the Gospel in their native land. There are also parochial schools, and a model training institution; no less than ten Church of England schools are supported by the Church Missionary Society.

About twenty miles from the Indian Settlement is another Missionary station, known by the name of Scanterbury. It is situated on the Broken Head River, one of the small feeders of Lake Winnipeg. Here is a little community of native Christians, numbering forty-three individuals. Some sixty miles north-east of Scanterbury is Fort Alexander, on the Winnipeg, not far from which is the Mission Station of Lansdowne. About one hundred miles from Lansdowne is the Mission station of Islington, formerly known by the name of Chien-blanc. It stands on an oasis of two hundred and fifty acres, on the banks of the Winnipeg, not far from where it issues from the Lake of the Woods.

The Roman Catholics were the first to establish a Mission at Islington, but having withdrawn from it, the Church Missionary Society occupied the Station, sending Mr. Philip Kennedy there as Catechist in 1850. In 1851 the Rev. R. James was appointed to this Mission, and he it was who changed its name of Chien-blanc to Islington. An English lady afterwards gave £1000 towards this Mission, to which she generously added £100 per annum for its maintenance. It occupies an important position between the province of Manitoba and Canada Proper. A farm is attached to the Mission; wheat, Indian corn, and potatoes grow well here. In North-West America it is necessary for each Mission Station to have its farm whenever the nature of the soil admits of its being cultivated; and this not only for the supply of the wants of the Missionary and his family, but in order that he may be able to assist the Indians who flock around him in seasons of scarcity; were he unable to supply their wants they must disperse in search of food, and thus the opportunity of retaining them for a time, and giving them religious instruction would be lost. The Indians at Islington belong to the Swampy Crees, and hunt on the Lower Winnipeg. The heathen Swampys acknowledge the existence of a supreme and good Being, but they address their invocations to the Evil Spirit. Many of the Saulteaux Indians are also found on the route between Canada Proper and Red River. "They are not likely to be brought under the power of the Gospel," wrote Archdeacon Cowley, towards the latter end of 1871, "without much patient labour and, endurance on the part of the Missionary, and very considerable expense of money and prayer by the Church. But these are souls for whom Christ died, necessity is laid upon us, and woe unto us if we preach not the Gospel."

The Rev. Baptist Spence, a native pastor, has the charge of this Mission. For many years he did good service as a cate-chist, and was ordained to the work of the ministry in 1869. The sale of intoxicating drink to the Indians has greatly hindered the work of this Mission; that there is, however, reason to look-hopefully to the future, the following extract from a letter written by Mr. Phair in 1871 will show. "The effect of the prohibition of the sale of ardent spirits may be better imagined than described; suffice it to state, that where hitherto poverty and vice predominated, there is now not only a desire to come to church, attend the meetings for prayer, and an attempt, outwardly at least, to walk consistently with their profession; but there is the means, the food to enable them to remain within reach of Christian instruction. During the past year I perceive that a spirit of prayer is manifesting itself here and there among the people, and this in connexion with the additions from time to time from among the heathen, give us reason to believe that our labour is not in vain in the Lord. On my arrival here some seven years ago, there were not ten houses in connexion with the Mission; now there are more than forty, and the past year has witnessed the erection of more than one fourth of that number. The fur hunt has been almost a total failure lately, and the consequence is that the Indians have turned their attention to settling, farming, and other pursuits more favourable to our work among them. On Sundays the church is well filled, and on other days the meetings more regularly attended. No Indian appears to loiter about idle, as has been the case heretofore; all are busy, some clearing land, others cutting logs preparatory to building their houses; and a spirit of new life appears to have entered my people."

Prairie Portage, on the Assiniboine, which owes its existence to the zeal and energy of Archdeacon Cockran is," wrote Professor Hind in 1857, "next to the Indian Settlement, the most interesting illustration of an Indian Christian Settlement in a wilderness still inhabited by roving bands of Indians, who as of old occupy themselves in barbarous warfare, hunt for daily food, and submit with abject humility to the conjuror's malignant influence. The church is constructed of wood, and contains about thirty substantial family seats, but is capable of holding three times that number; each scat is manufactured by the owner according to a pattern supplied by the archdeacon. The congregation on Sunday was composed of Plain and Swampy Cree Indians and half-breeds: near the door of the church, inside the building, a number of heathen Indians stationed themselves to indulge their curiosity; they remained quiet and grave, and conducted themselves with the utmost propriety during the service." Prairie Portage is now chiefly peopled by settlers from Red River, and the work is rather pastoral than missionary; hence it is about to be transferred to the Church organization of the colony, and the Missionary must advance further into the west, in order to preach the Gospel to the Indian tribes, who retreat into the wilderness before the advancing tide of emigration. At present this station is under the pastoral care of the Rev. Henry George, son-in-law of Archdeacon Cockran.

Sixteen miles west of Portage La Prairie is Westbourne, occupied by the Church Missionary Society in 1859. Westbourne is on the White Mud River, and is so named after the Rev. John West, the pioneer of Missionary enterprise in North-West America. The population of this place now also consists chiefly of Europeans, and the Indians are about to leave the station for a reserve set apart for them by the Government. No longer a Missionary station, it has become an important colonial church, where the settlers find the means of grace already provided for them.

In addition to these churches in the neighbourhood of Red River, there are various Missions scattered over this immense territory. In every direction along the banks of distant rivers, which fall either into the Polar Sea on the north, the Pacific on the west, Hudson's Bay on the east, and Lake Winnipeg in the interior, the ministers of Christ have gone forth to spread the glad tidings of salvation. Of the progress of the work of evangelizing the heathen in these remote regions, the following pages contain a brief account.

The solitary life, the privations, the many trials endured by Missionaries in these far-off lands are such as could only have been borne by men in whose hearts glowed the love of Christ. That their labour has not been in vain, the facts about to be related abundantly prove. May some who read be stirred up to gird themselves for the battle, and armed in Divine panoply "go forth to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty"!

"With hope's green branch the welcome Dove returns,
Hails the bright star that tells the Dayspring near."

John the Baptist. (Prize Poem.)

Project Canterbury