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

By M. E. Johnson

London: Seeley, Jackson and Halliday, 1875.

Chapter VII. Mr. Bompas' Journeys in the Far North

Appointment of Rev. W. C. Bompas to Mackenzie River.--His Journey North.--Great Bear Lake.--Indian Camps, Fort Rae, Fort Vermillion.--Return to Athabasca.--Youcon.--Peace River.--Gold Mines.

IN the year 1865 the Rev. W. C. Bompas, having offered his services to the Church Missionary Society, was appointed to the Mackenzie River Mission. It was intended that he should proceed, as soon as he had acquired some knowledge of the language, to the Youcon district, to supply the place of Mr. Macdonald, whose health had temporarily failed. He left London June 30th, and travelling by way of the United States, reached Cumberland House, on the north bank of the Saskatchewan, August 28th; hastening on from thence, he reached Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie, on the morning of Christmas Day. Mr. Kirkby thus expresses the pleasure he experienced at his arrival.--"You will imagine better than I can tell you, our delight at the unexpected arrival of Mr. Bompas. Such a thing as an arrival here in winter is never thought of, nor had ever before occurred. After the boats have left in the fall, we have no visitors until June, when the rivers again open."

The joy with which the Missionary welcomed his fellow-labourer may be better imagined, when we remember that Mr. Kirkby had been working alone for six years, utterly isolated during that long period from the civilized world. Moreover, the autumn of that year had been a peculiarly trying one; scarlet fever had broken out amongst the Indians, and the whole of Mr. Kirkby's family had been prostrated by the malady. Thus with a heavy heart he had ministered to the sick and dying Indians in their tents around, with none to cheer him with sympathy, or to render to those dear to him the kindly aid so much required in times of sickness.

Mr. Bompas arrived in time for the morning service, and in the evening he began his work by preaching from St. Luke ii. 10, "Behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people"--the very text from which Samuel Marsden first preached to the New Zealanders exactly fifty-one years before.

He thus describes his journey north from Cumberland House:--"Our course at first lay across Cumberland Lake, which is large, and connected with various other lakes in different directions. From Cumberland Lake we entered Sturgeon River, whose shoals are of great notoriety among the navigators of this country. Though only twelve miles in length, as the crow flies, it took us five days to pass this river, the boat's crew being mostly in the water tugging the boat over the shallows, and the rainy weather made this part of the voyage unpleasant. After leaving Sturgeon River, and crossing Beaver Lake, favourable winds made our progress more expeditious, and some bright sun enabled us to dry the tents, bedding, and cargoes, which were all becoming gradually saturated with wet. The banks of the rivers maintained generally the same appearance. Thick woods of birch, alder, poplar, and ash, shut out any distant prospects, while the rocky shelves of granite or hard limestone gave but little promise of fertility in the soil. At Frog Portage we were delayed two days; one of these was Sunday, and we had a quiet service on shore, attended by the few men of the crew who profess the Protestant faith. A few days brought us from Frog Portage to Rapid River, where we were again detained two days. From Rapid River our course was expedited by favourable winds. A short service was held regularly on Sunday, and such of the crew as were Protestants attended and joined in singing a hymn such as they had learned in our churches at Red River."

Arrived at Isle a la Crosse, a detention of three days occurred. Here Mr. Bompas was entertained by Mr. Mackenzie, the Company's officer in charge of the district. Many Chipewyans were encamped round the fort, but for the want of an interpreter Mr. Bompas was unable to address them. This place is the head-quarters of the Roman Catholic Mission for the north. There is a good church and three houses, in which reside a bishop, priest, one or two lay brothers, and two or three sisters of mercy." On the 12th of October Portage La Loche was reached, and after the delay of one day, Mr. Bompas obtained a horse and cart to transport his luggage across the hills, and continued his journey. "The view from the brow of the hill, which terminates the Portage, is very striking. You see the river gliding from among the hills at the foot of the steep, and winding for many miles between lofty slopes, covered with birch and pine, until a ridge of blue hills in the distance bounds the prospect. The country to the north of the Portage is more interesting. The soil no longer consists of a thin layer of earth on the hard rock, but is more abundant, and on a soft or sandy foundation. The trees are therefore more lofty, and the woods, moreover, less frequently devastated by running fires. On the banks of the Athabasca River, the various geological strata are well displayed in the cliffs, and these are frequently rilled with fossil shells and corals, &c. In some places there are salt springs, in others abundance of bitumen, both in a solid and liquid state. The woods occasionally open out into fine prairies of hay grass; horses are allowed to remain unprotected in the prairie all winter, where they find their food by scraping the snow with their feet from the grass beneath." After eight days' paddling in the canoe, Fort Chipewyan was reached on Athabasca Lake. The winter's frost had now set in, and for several days the water froze on the paddles of the canoe, but the weather continued fine and bright, and Mr. Bompas determined to push on. He obtained a large canoe, and engaged three Indian lads to take him down Slave River to Slave Lake. In seven days he had accomplished considerably more than half the distance, but then ice appeared in the river, and it was necessary to cut a passage with an axe. On the Qth day he was compelled to leave his canoe and baggage "en cache" on the river bank, the ice having become too thick to allow of his proceeding by water. He and the three Indian boys set off to walk through the woods to Fort Resolution, the nearest of the Company's forts. Two days' scrambling through brushwood and thickets brought them to their destination. Here Mr. Bompas was compelled to remain three weeks, until the ice on Slave Lake became sufficiently fixed to enable him to travel with a sledge and snow-shoes. As soon as this could be done with safety he continued his journey, and arrived, as we have already seen, at Fort Simpson, on the Mackenzie, on the morning of Christmas Day.

Here he learned that Mr. Macdonald, having regained his health, had already resumed his work in the Youcon district. Mr. Bompas therefore remained at Fort Simpson until Easter, assisting Mr. Kirkby, and acquiring the language, in order that he might as soon as possible commence an itinerating Mission amongst the Indian tribes scattered along the shores of the lakes and rivers of the north. He first proceeded to Great Bear Lake, which he thus describes:--

"This large lake is about 200 miles long by 150 broad. The Hudson's Bay Company's Fort, known as Fort Norman, is situated at the south-western extremity of the lake, in latitude 65° north, longitude 123°west. The lake remains covered with ice from the beginning of November till the end of June, or eight months out of twelve. The adjoining country is covered with snow for nearly a similar period, viz., from the middle of October to the end of May. During the short summer, many pretty wild flowers of small kinds grow on the shores of the lake, especially those of a lilac colour, one like a small azalea on the marshy ground, and one like a clarkia amongst sand, also wild roses, anemones, &c. Many varieties of small ground berries also spring up very quickly during the summer months. They ripen in the fall, and many of them remain all the winter under the snow, so that en the return of spring they are found at once ready for eating, for the benefit as well of man as of ducks and geese, which fly across the lake in great numbers at the time of their spring and autumn migrations.

"The temperature of the shores of the lake is cold even in summer. The thermometer on some warm days shows summer heat (76° Fahrenheit), but generally there is a cool air from the lake, at least until the ice has quite disappeared. The mosquitos are troublesome from the end of June to the end of July. Fish is plentiful in the lake. The chief kinds caught at Fort Norman are the herring and trout. The herring is twice the size of the salt water herring caught on the English coasts, but resembles it in form and in the structure of its bones as well as in taste, which is delicate and good. The herring is caught in nets in the summer time, and in the winter it is speared through a hole in the ice; one man will sometimes take in this way a hundred in a day. The trout are large, weighing from twenty to thirty pounds, and sometimes even as much as sixty pounds. The appearance and taste are much like rich salmon. In the fall they are so fat that lamp oil is extracted from them. They are taken with cod hooks and with nets, and twenty or thirty may be caught in a day. In other parts of the lake white fish are caught. In spring a few wild geese are shot. The principal supply of food is deer's meat. Bands of many thousands of migratory reindeer traverse the lake in winter. The Indians commonly kill a deer and take only its tongue, leaving the carcase to rot. The hides alone would be valuable in England, could they be transported thither.

"In summer, the deer migrate to the barren grounds on the shores of the Arctic Sea, principally, it is supposed, led by their instincts to shun the mosquitos which abound in the woods in summer. The Indians follow the deer for their summer hunts until the snow falls, when both deer and Indians return to the neighbourhood of the Lake. Besides the deer, the Indians hunt for the Company the beaver, marten, fox, &c., for which they are paid by the Company in supplies of clothes, kettles, axes, beads, tobacco, and other things brought from England for the purpose. For meat they are paid only in ammunition. From the intercourse which the Indians have now for some time had with white men, and especially from their receiving from them European clothing, the appearance and demeanour of the natives has lost much of its savage character. At the same time in morals or intelligence, in the arts and habits of civilized life, it does not appear that the Indian has been at all raised or improved by trading. This appears a complete answer to the question whether trade or the Gospel is to be the instrument for raising the barbarian to the rank of civilized men.

"The Indians show considerable skill in the manufacture of their birch-bark canoes, of their snow-shoes, and leather mocassins; in making twine, fishing-nets, and rope; in working with porcupine quills and beads; and the Europeans are content to learn these arts from the natives, or else employ them to work for them in these matters. On the other hand, it does not clearly appear what the Europeans have taught the Indians, unless it is the habit of smoking and playing cards; so that the balance of obligation would seem to remain in favour of the savage. With respect to moral character, too, though the heathen have not much to boast of, yet it is generally admitted that the preference should be given to them rather than to the white men, or at least that the natives have learned more harm than good from us, even though, in this district, the white man has not yet introduced that fatal destroyer of the Indian race, alcohol. In health the Indians have sadly suffered by the arrival of the white man, having become liable to several European diseases.

"They appear to be gradually losing their native hardihood, partly, perhaps, through the constant use of tobacco; while the use of copper kettles, in a filthy state, from which the tin lining soon disappears, endangers a slow poisoning from verdigris. By imparting a true and sound religion, the white man might atone for, or, at least, supply a remedy for all these evils; but no, in this he sins against the Indian worst of all.

"The Indians here were quite free from idolatry. Their religion owned a good and an evil spirit, together with the immortality of the soul, and retribution after death for good or evil done in this life. How is it now? A bishop, seven or eight priests, several brothers, and perhaps sisters, too, are industriously teaching these 500 credulous Indians (the whole estimated population of the district) the established principles of idolatry and superstition. The whole of this company of priests append to their names the initials O. I. M., or devotee of the Immaculate Mary; and they are sworn to uphold the glories of the Virgin, and especially the doctrine of her immaculate conception, as invented and promulgated by the present Pope.

"Every Indian, therefore, on seeing a priest, receives from him, first, a brass medal to wear round his neck, with the letter M on one side, and an image of the Virgin on the other; secondly, a rosary, with, alternately, ten small beads, for as many Ave Marias, and one large one for a Pater Noster; thirdly, he gets a large gaudy-coloured picture of the Virgin, surrounded by prayers to her; and fourthly, when baptized, he receives a small crucifix. All these idols he is industriously taught to worship, and is forced, also, to kneel down in the priest's presence and worship the cross, or the Virgin's image. When besides this, he has been taught that if he visits the Protestant Missionaries he will at once die, and go to the 'big fire,' the poor credulous Indian's religious education is then at last complete."

Mr. Bompas remained during the spring and summer at Great Bear Lake; the months of October and November he spent in the Indian camps, three or four days from Fort Norman. He thus describes the mode of life. "Living in the Indian tents is not hard to me: their hours of sleeping and eating are regular, and they are mostly occupied in some useful way, fishing, snaring rabbits, making snow-shoes, and sledges, and other manual labour, while the women are chiefly employed in dressing deer-skins." The Indians in this locality are good-natured and hospitable, and they cheerfully hunted rabbits and deer for Mr. Bompas, and a party of eight persons who had joined him from Fort Norman. He visited the tents day by day, and found willing and attentive listeners. One of the chiefs, and the Indian who hunted for him, took special interest in his teaching. In January, 1867, Mr. Bompas went to Fort Rae on Great Slave Lake. This place had never before been visited by a Protestant Missionary, but a large number of the Indians had been baptized by Romish priests. It took twenty days to reach Fort Rae, travelling on foot, and accomplishing from twenty to twenty-five miles each day.

Here our Missionary remained till the summer, when he proceeded to Fort Chipewyan on Athabasca Lake. Here he remained eight months, diligently teaching the Indians the first elements of the Christian religion, and at the same time learning to speak the various dialects of the different tribes.

In January, 1868, Mr. Bompas carried the Gospel message to Fort Vermilion on Peace River, one of the feeders of Lake Athabasca. Here are found the Beaver Indians, who arc lively, intelligent, and good-tempered, but idle and helpless, and the tribe appears to be fast dwindling away. Thus in the course of two years, this zealous servant of the Master had travelled 1300 miles on foot, preaching the Gospel to 1500 Indians, belonging to four different tribes. Twenty years previously Mr. Evans, a Wesleyan Missionary, had visited Vermilion, and his visit was held in grateful remembrance by the Indians, even at that great distance of time. No other Protestant Missionary had reached Vermilion during that long interval. But here Mr. Bompas found Indians who had been brought up at Red River, living with their wives and families, of whom he says, "In education, habits of life, and deportment, they cannot be distinguished from Europeans. The seed sown at Red River is bearing fruit looo miles off."

At Vermilion moose and beaver are abundant, the climate mild, the soil good, and adapted to the growth of wheat, barley, and vegetables; horses also abound here. The Indians manifested an earnest desire for instruction; and let it not be said that Protestant Christians withhold from these poor children of the wilderness the glorious light of the Gospel of Christ, when it is in their power to give it to them, and thereby to save many souls alive. Nor must any time be lost through intercourse with the white man; the Indian constitution seems to have been enfeebled, and he falls an easy prey to the diseases introduced by the European. Measles, scarlet fever, and smallpox, are peculiarly fatal to the Indian; and unless prompt measures are taken for his evangelization, thousands will have passed into eternity, knowing no God, and having no hope.

In May, Mr. Bompas returned to Athabasca Lake, remaining there until August, when he again returned to Fort Simpson to supply the place of Mr. Kirkby, whose health rendered it desirable that he should visit England. From this place he penetrated into the Youcon territory, where Mr. Macdonald had now laboured alone for seven years. How gladly he welcomed his fellow-labourer, and how cheering it was to him to enjoy intercourse with a friend for the first time during his solitary exile, we must leave our readers to imagine. In April, 1870, Mr. Bompas, accompanied by two Esquimaux, descended the Mackenzie River (then in a frozen state) on snow-shoes, in order to visit the Esquimaux, whose numbers are considerable, and who were living in the darkness of heathenism. Of his sojourn amongst this people our next chapter will give a full account. In the autumn of 1869, the Rev. W. D. Reeve had arrived at Fort Simpson to occupy Mr. Kirkby's post, and thus Mr. Bompas was set free to carry on his itinerating Mission in the wide field, extending from English River to the Polar Sea.

In the spring of 1871, Mr. Bompas ascended the Peace River to Rocky Mountain Portage, the extreme point of Rupert's Land on the west, separated from British Columbia by the Rocky Mountains.

At Fort Dunvegan, in this district, he found 150 Cree Indians from the plains south of the Saskatchewan, who had fled from the ravages of smallpox in the plains. "Great excitement," wrote Mr. Bompas, "has been caused by the discovery of gold at the head waters of the Peace River; 2000 miners are said to have been working there during the last twelve months; some of them have not been successful, but a considerable quantity of gold has, I believe, been procured. This discovery will doubtless lead to the opening up of the country; waggon roads are being made from the coast, at Government expense, to supply the miners with provisions, and other necessaries; already the traffic is considerable.

"No Protestant minister has ever visited the gold-mines in New Caledonia. The miners are said to be orderly and well regulated, a judge being resident among them, and everything provided for them except the Gospel. They are said nearly all to abstain from work on the Sabbath, notwithstanding the excitement of their occupation, and that mining operations are restricted by the frost to four months in the year.

"The miners are of all nations, Chinese and Negroes as well as white men, and nearly all speaking English. The Indians in New Caledonia are under the teaching of the Romish priests, who also visit the Fur Company's forts, and baptize the children of Protestants. They try to entrap the English half-breeds, refusing to marry them unless they are rebaptized into the Romish faith."

Mr. Bompas had up to this point travelled over 3000 miles from Fort Youcon. Only in this manner can the Gospel be conveyed to the little bands of Indians sparsely scattered over the vast extent of country. These Indians are subjects of our Queen, and as such have a claim upon us, which cannot be set aside.

We have now surveyed the network of Missions which extends over the whole British territory, from Red River to the Polar Sea, and from Hudson's Bay to the Rocky Mountains. When it is borne in mind that there are in this vast field only ten European Missionaries and nine ordained natives of the country, varied feelings of astonishment, admiration and gratitude fill the mind. Astonishment at the large amount of work accomplished by this handful of labourers, admiration of the zeal, energy, and devotion of these excellent men, of whom it may in truth be said, that they count not their lives dear unto them, if only they may preach Christ to souls perishing for lack of knowledge; and gratitude, deep gratitude to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, that He has put it into the hearts of English Christians to send the Gospel to these distant lands, and raised up men admirably fitted to carry out this labour of love; men of varied talents and acquirements and powers of endurance, each fitting into his exact sphere, and with noble self-denial consecrating every power and talent to the service of his Lord. Other feelings also find a place in our hearts, feelings of humiliation, for though the work accomplished is great in proportion to the number of workers, the question arises, how is it that the labourers are so few in a land from which England has for centuries drawn a vast amount of wealth? Let us picture to ourselves what our own country would be, if there were only nineteen clergymen scattered throughout the land. Have those who have been enriched by the fur trade contributed any adequate portion of the wealth which God has given them towards sending the Gospel to the Red Indian, through whose agency they obtain this article of traffic? Have English women of gentle birth, with tender loving hearts, possessing bright and happy homes of their own, ever thought as they clothed themselves in luxurious furs, of the sad condition of the families of the poor savage hunters in the wilds of America? These are questions which we are not able to answer; but we would fain hope they may find an echo in the hearts of some, who awakening to a sense of their responsibilities, will hasten to share the privilege and honour of ministering to the Lord of their substance, by helping to send labourers into this portion of His vineyard.

"Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye did it unto Me," will be the gracious words of recompense which will thrill with joy the heart of the faithful steward of his Lord's bounty in the last great day.

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