Project Canterbury

The Rainbow in the North
A Short Account of the First Establishment of Christianity in Rupert's Land by the Church Missionary Society.
By Sarah Tucker.

London: James Nisbet, 1851.


Chapter I. Rupert's Land and Its Inhabitants

"Without hope and without God in the world."--Eph. ii. 12.

WHO is there among us that has not watched with interest the evening rainbow, when, after a black and stormy day, the setting sun gleams out and paints the distant shower with tints of varied light? Swiftly and silently the bright vision steals across the sky, till the bow of heaven stands out complete in all its radiant loveliness; making, it is true, the surrounding gloom appear still more gloomy, but giving promise of fairer and brighter days to come.

Surely there can scarcely be a more fitting emblem of missionary work in a heathen land. When the first missionaries begin their course, all is dark and cheerless, and for a time every step they take serves only to make the darkness appear more impenetrable and the prospect more discouraging.

But in His own good time, the Sun of Righteousness shines forth, His quickening rays touch the dark mass of heathenism, and light and beauty gradually appear. He owns the persevering labours of His faithful servants, a little band of sincere believers stand out more and more distinct from the heathen round them; and faith rejoices in the earnest of that glorious day when nations shall walk in the light of the New Jerusalem.

To no mission, perhaps, can this emblem be more truly applied than to that among the North American Indians: no people were ever enveloped in a thicker darkness, and in no spot has the light been reflected in more vivid hues. And though the colours must lose much of their brilliancy and beauty while being transferred from the original journals to the present pages, yet we hope that this attempt to trace the progress of heavenly light may lead our minds more deeply to consider the degradation of man in his unconverted state, and to magnify the power of the grace of God.

Every missionary field presents, of course, its own peculiar features, and requires, in some respects, its own peculiar cultivation; but the mission we are now considering is, in many ways, so very different from any other, that, in order to understand its special difficulties and encouragements, we must enter somewhat at large into the previous state of the country.

An impenetrable mystery still hangs over the early history of all the nations of America: when that vast continent was first peopled, how, or from whence its first inhabitants reached it from the older countries, are matters of only vague conjecture.

With regard to the northern part, we only know that when first visited by European adventurers, it was found to be peopled, by nations of wild uncivilised men, who from the copper colour of their skin received the appellation of Red Indians.

As fresh bands of settlers from Europe arrived from time to time, these rightful owners of the soil began to melt away before the white man; and though even now a few diminished tribes remain scattered here and there in Canada and the United States, yet many other tribes became extinct, and the mass of the people were gradually driven back into the immense tract of country on the north and north-west of the white man's settlements. [It was among these that those devoted men, Elliott and Brainerd, laboured, and were blessed in their labours.]

Here they still remain, roaming free and uncontrolled, but enduring all the miseries and privations inseparable from a state of barbarism. They are divided into tribes, each with its respective chief, and each, as it would seem, with a wide range of country, considered as its own, for hunting or for fishing; and are again subdivided into smaller bands under the guidance of inferior chiefs.

On the east of the Rocky Mountains they have neither town, nor village, nor farm, nor field. Seed-time and harvest are unknown to them, nor have they even, like the Bedouins of the Eastern deserts, flocks or herds to supply their wants.

They live by hunting, shooting, and fishing; and their food varies, both in kind and quantity, according to their success. Sometimes the flesh of the buffalo or the deer furnishes them with abundance; sometimes a flight of partridges or a flock of wild geese supplies their wants; and at others they find support from the lakes and rivers. Very often they are for days together without any food but the berries they may chance to meet with in the woods; and there is many a fearful tale on record of children and friends having been sacrificed to appease the hunger of their parents or companions.

This great uncertainty, however, in their supplies arises very much from their deeply-rooted habits of improvidence; the present moment is all that an Indian thinks of; the memory of past suffering or dread of the future never seems to occur to his mind. When he has plenty, he eats to excess, lies down and sleeps, or sits and smokes his pipe, till the cravings of hunger drive him again to the plains, or woods, or rivers. [Occasionally, but very seldom, the women dry the flesh of the buffalo, and preserve it for future use.]

They are a singularly wandering race, and their habitations are suited to their habits. Notwithstanding the severity of their winters--far beyond anything we can realise in England--they have no other shelter than a miserable tent, or wigwam, made by driving a few poles into the ground, and hanging over them the skins of animals roughly sewn together, or sometimes only long strips of the thick soft bark of the birch-tree. A small opening is loft at the top for as much smoke as chooses to find its way there from a fire of logs in the centre, while the remainder fills, and helps to warm, the tent. The only article of furniture is an iron pot for cooking their meat, and their only implements are a knife, a gun, a war-club, and some bows and arrows. Occasionally, in summer, a fluctuating party of two or three hundred families may be found congregated together for a few weeks or mouths on the bank of some lake or river where the fish are plentiful, but except on these occasions there are seldom more than two or three tents ever seen together, and generally they roam about in single families. When they have remained a few days in one spot, and exhausted its resources of food, they take off the covering of their tent, roll it up, and, placing it either in their canoe or on the shoulders of their wives, set off for some new abode.

The dress, and indeed the whole deportment, of the North-west American Indian, differs greatly, according to their locality. The appearance of those among them who border on either the English or American population is miserable in the extreme. Some will be clothed in dirty, ragged blankets; others in still dirtier dresses of worn and tattered hareskins; while others will be seen with no other covering than a cloth round their waist. [See Bishop of Montreal's Journal, p. 32.] Those who are better off will have, perhaps, a leathern jacket, with a cleaner blanket over it, their faces painted black, with circles of vermilion round their eyes, and their long, black hair adorned with brass thimbles, which they have purchased from some neighbouring trader.

The appearance of the tribes in the interior is more manly and independent, and their clothing much more substantial and comfortable. Some of their chiefs even display a kind of savage magnificence in their attire; their leathern jackets are often worked with porcupine quills and hair of the moose deer, dyed of various colours; and their robes and caps of fur are sometimes very handsome. But with that strange propensity to imitate the inferior creatures, they not only ornament their head-dress with feathers, but often fasten into it the ears or horns of some animal. The hair of the women is kept short, but the men encourage theirs to grow; it often is so long, that it reaches to their feet, and sometimes trails upon the ground. [Reversing what we are told in 1 Cor. xi. 14, 15, is the natural order.] They divide it into tresses confined by bands of quill-work; and when the natural hair does not grow long enough to suit the fancy of the owner, he often glues on false locks under these convenient bands. That portion of their hair which grows at the top of the head is called the scalp-lock, and is prized above all the rest. This scalp-lock is the favourite trophy in Indian warfare; and when a warrior has slain his enemy, or made him prisoner, the scalping-knife is always at hand to cut off the flesh of the upper part of the forehead and head. As may be supposed, it is a dreadfully painful operation; but the dark places of the earth are full of cruelty; and the scalp-lock of the sufferer is made into fringes for the sleeves and robe of the conqueror.

In speaking of the dress of the Indians, we must not omit their neatly-made leggings and mocassins, of soft deer-leather, often very prettily ornamented with quill-work, "and fitting," we are told, "as tightly as a lady's glove." ["Hudson's Bay," by E. W. Ballantyne. Blackwood and Sons.]

It will readily be supposed, that the cultivation of their minds forms no part of the employment of these sons of the forest and the prairie; they are entirely ignorant of every art and science, though the poetical eloquence of some of the impassioned addresses of the chiefs, the skill shown in the work of the mocassins, and in the rude, yet spirited, attempts at sculpture occasionally seen on rocks, show that they are not deficient in natural talent.

The education of the boys consists merely in training them to the management of their horse, and to the use of the bow, the gun, or the war-club. Their first essays in the art of destruction are against the beautiful butterflies or humming-birds that flutter round them, or on the grasshoppers beneath their feet. By degrees, they are suffered, to engage with nobler enemies, till they are thought worthy to accompany their fathers to hunt the deer and buffalo, or to a savage conflict with their enemies.

The most valuable articles of an Indian's property are his horse and his canoe. The former he obtains from the plains, which in many parts abound with them, they are small, but very fleet and strong; and an Indian is never so happy as when, with his bow and quiver slung upon his shoulder, and a shield of buffalo skin upon his arm, he mounts his impatient steed to dart upon his enemies, or to plunge into a flying herd of buffaloes, and send his unerring arrow to the heart of his selected victim. His canoe is made of birch bark, lined with extremely thin flakes of wood, with some light timbers to give strength and tightness to the fabric. In this frail bark, generally from twelve to fifteen feet in length, a whole Indian family will travel hundreds of miles, through rivers and lakes innumerable--now floating swiftly down a foaming rapid, and anon gliding across a quiet lake; or when a waterfall or dangerous rapid impedes its progress, it is so light as to be carried on one man's shoulder along the "portage."

Their religion seems to consist in a vague idea of a Supreme Being, whom they call "the Great Spirit," or "the Master of Life," and a scarcely less vague belief in inferior spirits of evil, to whom they sometimes offer sacrifices, and of whom images have occasionally been found; but they have no temple or place of worship even of the simplest description.

There is among them an universally received tradition of the deluge, though mixed with the wildest fables. They have some idea of a future state, where the evil are condemned to dwell in perpetual ice, and the good are admitted to a land where the hunting-grounds are always good, where the sun for ever shines, the trees are always green, and where there is an endless succession of feasting, dancing, and rejoicing.

There is one very remarkable custom, evidently connected with their religious ideas, which, though abandoned by the tribes on the frontier, is still observed by those in the interior. It is, that every man must have a "mystery bag," to which he pays the greatest homage, and to which he looks for guidance and protection through life. [Or, as it is often called, a "medicine bag." The Indians connect the art of healing with that of divination and mystery, and having borrowed the term "m├ędecin" from the French Canadians, they apply it to everything mysterious.] This mystery bag is often actually worshipped; feasts are made in its honour, horses and dogs are sacrificed to it; and when it is supposed to have been offended, days and weeks of fasting and mortification are undergone in order to appease it. It consists of the skin of some particular animal; sometimes it is a musk rat, a beaver, an otter, or even a wolf, or, it may be, a snake, or a toad, or a mouse, or a sparrow.

The manner in which this indispensable possession is obtained is as follows:--When a boy is fourteen or fifteen years of age, he leaves his father's tent and wanders into some secluded spot in the woods, where he throws himself on the ground, and remains in that position for three or four, or even five days, without food, crying to the "Great Spirit." When at last he suffers himself to fall asleep, the first animal he dreams of is, he believes, the one appointed for him by this mysterious being. He returns to his father's tent, takes some food, and sallies forth to procure the required animal. When he has succeeded, he dresses the skin, ornaments it according to his fancy, and carries it with him through life as his strength in battle, and in death as his guardian spirit who is to conduct him to the beautiful, hunting-grounds in the world to come. He values it above all price, never can be induced to sell it, and should he lose it in battle, can never replace it except by seizing on one belonging to an enemy, whom he must slay with his own hand.

The being who exercises the greatest influence over the minds of the Indians is the conjurer, or "medicine man," who, uniting in himself the offices of oracle and physician, turns the superstitions and sufferings of his countrymen to his own profit.

These poor people consider all diseases to be occasioned by an evil spirit, sent into the afflicted person by some other conjurer, at the instigation of a secret enemy. This spirit is to be expelled by incantations, drumming, and the use of certain herbs; if the sick man recovers, it is considered as a victory of his own conjurer over the supposed enemy; or if he dies, it is of course attributed to the superior power of the adversary.

It is not only in times of sickness that the "medicine man" is consulted; his advice is sought for on all occasions of importance, either of a public or private nature; he guides the decisions of the tribe as to war or peace, and directs his inquirers to the best places for hunting or for fishing.

When called upon to exercise their art, these impostors dress themselves up in the most frightful and absurd manner. We read of one who covered himself with the skin of a bear, the head serving for a mask, and the huge claws dangling from his wrists and ankles, the skin itself being also adorned with those of frogs, bats, and snakes. In one hand he held his frightful rattle, the sound of which, continuing as it often does, through night and day, and associated, as it must needs be, with the degradation and superstition of which it is the token, is described as one of the most depressing sounds imaginable; and in the other he brandished his magic spear, jumping, dancing, yelling, and growling, as if he were possessed by an evil spirit. And these men are the religious guides of these poor people!

The Indian possesses great control over the expression of his feelings; whatever be his sufferings, his eye is always bright, his cheek retains its colour, while his power of endurance is almost beyond belief. The heart sickens at the tortures borne with unflinching courage by prisoners taken in battle; while those voluntarily undergone by the young men of a tribe to appease soma evil spirit, or to prove themselves worthy of being warriors, are scarcely less appalling. One of the latter resembles the hook-swinging of the Hindoos, though attended with far greater agony; hut the various kinds of these self-inflicted sufferings are too numerous and too frightful to be dwelt upon.

The Indian, as he still roams in his native plains and forests, rarely trodden by a white man's foot, is, it is true, less degenerate than his brethren of the border; and there is, among them all, a bravery and noble independence, and an intense love for their tribe and kindred, and especially for their children, that excite one's interest; but on the whole they are sunk to almost the lowest point in the scale of humanity: haughty, vindictive, cruel, and blood-thirsty, unable to appreciate either moral or intellectual excellence; indolent, improvident, and selfish beyond conception, without hope and without God in the world.

Thus low was their state when first visited by Europeans, but a still deeper degradation awaited those among them who, when the territory was claimed as British territory, came in contact with so-called British Christians.

It was in the year 1609 that King Charles II. granted a charter to Prince Rupert and some other persons associated with him, empowering them to undertake an expedition to Hudson's Bay, in North-west America, for the purpose of discovering a new passage to the South Seas, and for various other objects; and securing to the Company the exclusive right of trading in furs, minerals, or any other productions of the country.

This right at first extended only to those countries watered by the rivers that fall into Hudson's Bay, and which are comprehended under the general name of Prince Rupert's Land; but as the Company increased in wealth and influence, their power also increased, till now their territories extend from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, and from within the Arctic Circle to the northern boundary of Canada and the United States.

Throughout this vast region, east of the Rocky Mountains, there is, as we have already said, with the exception of the Bed River Colony, which will form the subject of the succeeding chapters, neither town nor village, nor any work of civilised man, save the scattered stations of the Company (called forts), established here and there for the purpose of carrying on the fur trade with the Indians of the neighbourhood, of which the principal one is York Fort, on the western shore of the Day. But what these forts are, and how little they can affect the general state or appearance of the country, will be better understood by the following extract from a work by one of their own servants. ["Hudson's Bay," by E. M. Ballantyne. Blackwood and Sons.]

"Imagine an immense extent of country, many hundreds of miles long, and many hundreds broad, covered with dense forests, expanded lakes, broad rivers, and mighty mountains; and all in a state of primeval simplicity, undefaced by the axe of civilising man, and untenanted by aught save some roving hordes of Red Indians, and myriads of wild animals. [Chiefly buffaloes, deer, and wolves, besides a multitude of the smaller animals, whose skins furnish materials for the fur trade.] Imagine, amid this wilderness, a number of small squares, each enclosing hall a dozen wooden houses, and about a dozen men; and between any two of these establishments a space of forest, or of plains, from fifty to three hundred miles in length, and you will have a pretty correct idea of the Hudson's Bay Company's territories, and of the number and distance between the forts. It is as if in the whole of England and Scotland there were three hamlets, one in the north of Scotland, one in the south-east coast of England, and the third at the Land's End, with altogether a population of thirty men, six or seven women, and a few children."

We will not attempt to follow out the sad tale of sin and suffering that ensued upon the planting of these various forts; we will only observe, that as the servants of the Company were generally young men of enterprise and adventure, without any fixed religious principles, removed so far from those early friends whose influence might have restrained them, and left without any outward means of grace, we can hardly wonder at their falling into habits and courses of sin, from which, under other circumstances, they might have been preserved. Nor was the evil confined to the Europeans, for instead of shining as lights among their heathen neighbours, they led them into depths of thicker moral darkness.

The Indians near the forts were used like slaves; intoxication and other sins spread rapidly among them; and disease and increasing misery followed in their train: an eye-witness writes--

"The Indians are sunk to almost the lowest state of degradation to which human beings can be brought; their life is spent in struggles for its support, and they pass on from infancy to death without comfort, without hope in this life, while no bright gleam of future hope enlightens their dark and cheerless path, for no one has ever told them of a Redeemer's love."

But besides the ungodly Europeans and the heathen Indians, a new race had sprung up round each of the Company's posts; the children and descendants of European fathers and Indian mothers. These neglected "half-breeds" generally added the heathenism of their mothers to the irreligion and immorality of their fathers; and, as they grew to manhood, in most cases returned to the wild habits of their Indian relations.

This state of things was not much improved by a colony formed on the Red River, in 1811, by Lord Selkirk, who invited persons from Europe (especially from Scotland) and from Canada to settle on the spot, and which was gradually increased by the retired servants of the Company also taking up their abode there. The Canadians were French Roman Catholics, and were occasionally visited by a priest; but for the so-called Protestant portion of the colony, no means of grace were provided. It was in 1815", one hundred and forty-five years after the country was taken possession of by England, that Major Semple, Governor of York Fort, when speaking of the desolation occasioned by a fierce struggle between the Hudson's Bay and the North-West Companies, in which he afterwards lost his life, thus writes of the Red River Colony:--

"I have trodden the burnt ruins of houses, barns, a mill, a fort, and sharpened stockades, but none of a place of worship, even on the smallest scale. I blush to say that throughout the whole extent of the Hudson's Bay territories no such building exists."

Could any prospect be more gloomy, or the state of any people, whether we look at the Indians, the Europeans, or the half-breeds, more dismal? Yet even here GOD was preparing a way for the manifestation of His grace; and in the next chapter we shall hope to trace the first faint tints of the cheering Rainbow.


Project Canterbury