Chapter II. The First Missionary "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace!"--Is. lii. 7.
IT was in the autumn of the year 1820 that a little boat of birch-rind might have been seen to leave York Fort, on the western side of Hudson's Bay and after coasting for a while along the shore, enter one of the rivers that flow from the interior.
There was nothing in this circumstance to attract the attention of a casual observer--similar boats were continually arriving at, and departing from, the fort during the few bright months of summer and early autumn; this canoe was, as usual, manned by natives, and, as was frequently the case, an European gentleman was sitting at the stern.
But if any of God's own people had seen that boat depart, they would have watched it with the warmest hope and joy; and, as it gradually lessened to the view, and soon was hidden from their sight by some projecting headland, earnest prayer would have gone up that God would speed that little vessel on its course, and give His abundant blessing on its object. It was bound for the Red River Settlement, and was conveying to that distant spot the first messenger of the glad tidings of salvation that had ever visited these neglected regions.
The attention of the Hudson's Bay Company in London had for some time before been drawn to the sad state of this settlement, and they had endeavoured to promote education among the people. But the plan had met with very little success, and they now, in conjunction with the Church Missionary Society, resolved to send out a chaplain, or rather a missionary, in the hope of benefiting them.
The Rev. John West was appointed to this work; he arrived at York Fort in the end of August 1890, and it was his boat that on September 3d might have been seen to leave York Fort, and soon after to enter Port Nelson River.
The Indian canoe, which has been already described, is the only vessel that can be used in this country, where the rivers are so often obstructed by rapids, cataracts, or shallows, that more substantial craft would be useless. Frail as they are, therefore, all the voyages are made in them, and they are the only means for conveying goods and stores to the inland posts.
Mr. West's course up the river was a tedious one; not only had the boat to make its way against the stream, but it was often brought to a stand by what is called a "portage," or carrying-place, that is, by a cataract or rapid, where the men are obliged to land, unload the boat, and carry both it and its contents on their shoulders along the banks, sometimes for five or six miles, over broken rocks, or through deep and miry swamps, till they come to smoother water again.
At night the party landed, lighted a fire of logs of pine to warm themselves and dress their food; and Mr. West, wrapping himself in his blanket, laid down to sleep on branches of the pine.
September in that country is as cold as January in England, and some of the boatmen, finding how unaccustomed he was to the severity of the climate, used kindly to make a sort of rude tent to shelter him. They themselves slept without any shelter, except that in rainy weather they would creep under the canoe, which was always drawn ashore and inverted for the night.
We must not omit to mention the care that was taken every night to examine this fragile vessel, and to ascertain whether the birch-rind had been injured by sharp rocks or any other obstacle. A keg of resin and some spare pieces of bark are always taken on these occasions to spread over the seams, or to repair any more serious injury.
In Mr. West's progress up the liver he passed Oxford House, one of the Company's posts, and in about a month after he left York Fort he came to another station called Norway House, on the north-east shore of Lake Winnipeg; or, as it might he more aptly called, the Sea of Winnipeg, for this large sheet of water is not less than 300 miles in length and 50 in breadth.
The voyage from Norway House was much more rapid and agreeable than it had been up the river. The little sail was hoisted, and as the boat glided along the unruffled surface of the lake, or danced over its blue waves, Mr. West was able to enjoy the varied scenery of its shores, and the picturesque islands that adorned its bosom.
There might now be seen sitting by his side two young Indian boys, dirty, half-clad, and uncivilised. One had been intrusted to him at York Fort by his father; the other was given to him at Norway House. They knew but little of English, and nothing of God, but Mr. West was endeavouring to lead their minds to Him, and teaching them to pray; and the simple prayer, "Great Father, bless me through Jesus Christ our Lord," was often heard in broken accents from their lips.
On October the 13th the party entered the Red River, and two days more brought them to the settlement.
Mr. West had suffered much during this voyage of 800 miles; for six weeks he had passed the whole day, from sunrise to sunset, in an open boat, exposed to every change of weather, his limbs cramped by want of space, and benumbed by the wintry air; but the spirit that glowed within his breast was not to be quenched by difficulties; and though it was Saturday afternoon when he arrived at the settlement, he would not lose one precious opportunity, but gave notice of Divine service on the following day.
The population at Red River consisted at this time (besides the Roman Catholic Canadians) of between 500 and 600 Scotch and English settlers, a large number of half-breeds, and some native Indians, none of whom had access to any means of grace, unless, as was very rarely the case, any of the Europeans happened to have brought a Bible with them from their fatherland.
Mr. West was much encouraged by finding on Sunday the large room at the Fort crowded, and the people very attentive to the prayers and to the sermon; and he commenced his labours full of hope.
To many among the congregation the words of our beautiful Liturgy fell on the ear and heart as a long-forgotten strain, bringing back many a thought of former days and long-lost privileges, perhaps unappreciated at. the time; but to the greater part of the assembly both the prayers and the preaching were a new and unknown sound; for never before had the glad tidings of the Gospel been heard in that colony.
This first setting forth the message of salvation produced much emotion among the people; and though some of this afterwards proved to be like the early dew that passeth away, yet to many the word of truth proclaimed on this and on succeeding Sundays proved a savour of life unto life. One of the settlers in particular spoke of the first Sunday that he had attended Mr. West's ministry as the happiest day in his life, as it restored to him the blessings of public worship, of which he had been deprived for the last thirty years.
Mr. West found full employment among the Europeans and half-breeds; many of the former he prevailed upon to marry, and among the latter, he baptized the very few who were at all prepared, instructed those who were willing to be taught, and established a school under Mr. Garbage, in which he was much encouraged by the progress of the children. But his heart especially yearned towards the native Indians, and the thought of their sad condition weighed heavily on his mind. His own appointed sphere of work reached 800 or 400 miles into the interior; but his thoughts and desires stretched far beyond, and he mourned in spirit as he remembered, that from the Atlantic to the Pacific, no Protestant missionary had ever been sent, no word of salvation had ever sounded.
The Canadian Roman Catholic priests had attempted to do something among those tribes by joining themselves to them, and conforming to their savage life; but the attempt failed, and except that the shores of the Pacific have since been visited by the American missionaries, these Indians still remain in their heathen state, unthought of and uncared for by any Protestant church. There were, however, a considerable number of these children of the forest within Mr. West's own appointed limit; and an expedition he made early in the next year to two of the Company's posts (Brandon House and Beaver Creek) gave him an opportunity of seeing something of them in their own plains and forests.
He set out in the beginning of January (1821), in a sort of sledge called a cariole, the only carriage that can be used in that part of the country; it was drawn by dogs, and our readers will be surprised to hear that when the track is good and the wind favourable, these faithful, docile creatures will carry a person eighty miles in the twenty-four hours. Mr. West's route lay across hills and plains of frozen snow, unenlivened by the sight of a cultivated field, an European dwelling, or even an Indian wigwam. The only living beings that broke the stillness of the snowy scene were occasional herds of buffaloes, with their enemies the wolves following in their track to seize upon the weary or the wounded. Ho travelled the whole day, and as night approached his attendants sought for a, spot well supplied with trees, where they lighted their fires, and hanging their guns on the branches, prepared their evening meal. The whole party then spread their blankets on the frozen snow, and after amply replenishing their blazing fires, covered themselves with cloaks of buffalo skin, and lay down till morning.
On one of these nights they were aroused by the barking of their dogs, but found it was only a herd of buffaloes that were travelling past. Another night they were alarmed by hearing the drums of a hostile tribe of Indians, apparently very near them. They extinguished their fires and watched till morning, fearing an attack; but this danger also was mercifully averted; and excepting on these two occasions, their only nightly disturbance was the howling of the wolves around them in search of prey. The cold, however, was intense, the thermometer sometimes being forty degrees below zero during the latter part of the night.
Mr. West was absent about a month; he visited the two outposts above mentioned, and had many opportunities of speaking to the very few Europeans and half-breeds that were residing there. He had also some interesting intercourse with some of the Indians; but though he was listened to both by Indians and Europeans with attention and interest, the general impression made on his mind during this journey is thus painfully expressed. Speaking of the occasional magnificence of the sunrise, he says,--
"The heavens do indeed declare the glory of God, and day unto day uttereth speech; but in this wilderness the voice of God is not heard among the heathen, and His name is scarcely known among the Europeans, except to lie profaned."
In this journey Mr. West travelled between 500 and 600 miles, and returning to Red River early in February, resumed his work there with increasing ardour.
The plan which suggested itself to him as the most hopeful, with regard to the Indians, was the formation of an establishment for native boys, where they might not only be instructed in the first rudiments of general knowledge, and be taught the way of eternal life, but where they might gradually become accustomed to agriculture, and might learn some of the simpler usages of civilised life.
To this plan, however, the wild and wandering habits of the Indians presented formidable obstacles. Not only would it be difficult to induce the boys to remain long enough in one place to gain much profit, but he knew that these Red men of the woods despised any one who could not hunt, and fish, and shoot, and it would therefore be necessary that these lads should be permitted, while at school, to retain some of their native habits.
On the other hand, there was much to encourage him; the two' boys he had brought with him from York Fort and Norway House, as well as another who was afterwards sent to him, were already able to speak English tolerably well; they were beginning to read, and could repeat the LORD'S PRAYER, and he had been able to excite in them a love for gardening, by giving them a piece of ground to cultivate for themselves. The proposed school had been a frequent subject of conversation between himself and the Indians he had met with on his late expedition, and had excited so much interest in their minds, that several had promised to think about it, and perhaps to bring their sons to him in the summer. One little fellow, seven years old, was actually given up to him at once, his friends saying, that as Mr. West had been sent to them by "the Great Spirit," they could refuse him nothing.
Some of these people fulfilled the hopes of Mr. West, and brought their boys to him in the course of the summer, so that in September 1821, he wrote, full of sanguine hopes, that early in the following spring the establishment would be completely formed, and a building erected for the reception of "as many boys as British benevolence would enable him to support."
In the summer of this same year he had visited York Fort, and while there had the privilege of assisting Mr. Garry, one of the Company's Directors, in the formation of an Auxiliary Bible Society,--an immense boon to the whole country, and especially to the colonists at Red River, who joyfully availed themselves of this first opportunity that had been offered to them of providing themselves with copies of the Word of God.
During the following winter the work went on as usual, and in the summer of 1822 Mr. West paid another visit to York Fort, where he had the gratification of meeting with those two well-known men whose names have since awakened emotions of admiration and anxiety, of hope and fear, in every English heart. Sir John (then Captain) Franklin, and Dr. (now Sir John) Richardson, were returning from their perilous journey to the shores of the Polar Sea; and the accounts they gave, and the interest they expressed for the Esquimaux among whom their route had laid, and of the openings for schools among them, kindled fresh zeal and desire in his heart for extended missionary undertakings.
While there, he received from the Committee of the Church Missionary Society the joyful news that they had determined decidedly to adopt Red River as one of their missionary stations, and had appointed to it the Rev. David Jones, whose arrival might, if all was well, be looked for in the following year.
He returned with renewed spirit to his labours at Red River, and this prospect of permanency induced him to attempt the erection of a special place for public worship. He succeeded so well that early in 1823 a small wooden church was opened for divine service, and shortly after this he had the satisfaction of baptising four of his Indian boys, two of whom were those he had originally brought with him from York Fort and Norway House.
Alluding to these circumstances, he writes:--
"As I was returning the other evening from visiting some settlers nine or ten miles off, the setting sun threw a lengthened shadow from the newly-erected church and school, and the thought that there were now in this wide waste a landmark of Christianity, and an asylum for Indian children, filled my heart with praise, and awakened the hope that the Saviour might make them the means of raising a spiritual temple in this wilderness to the honour of His name."
The expected arrival of Mr. Jones seemed to open to Mr. West a favourable opportunity of returning to England to fetch his wife and family, from whom he had now been for three years separated, and in June 1833, he left the settlement, as he then believed, for a temporary absence, though circumstances that afterwards arose prevented his ever returning to it. Writing of his departure, he says:--
"On leaving Red River I addressed my farewell to a crowded congregation, and after the administration of the Lord's Supper we all joined in prayer, that the missionary who was on his way hither might be tenfold, yea an hundredfold more blessed in his ministry that I had been. I parted with tears from this anxious and arduous scene of labour."
It was a love that "seeketh not her own" that prompted this prayer; but when we trace back the labours of Mr. West during the short time of his residence at Red River, and the blessing that had attended them, we shall see another instance of that truth that in spiritual as well as in temporal things, "the hand of the diligent maketh rich." During Mr. West's detention at" York Fort, he made a lengthened journey on foot along the north-west shore of Hudson's Bay, to Fort Churchill; and his visit there quickened his anxiety that the Church of CHRIST should at once enter in, and take possession of, the whole country in the name of her Lord.
Soon after this he sailed for England, but not before he had had the satisfaction of welcoming the Rev. David Jones to the shores of North America.
Mr. Jones arrived at Red River in October 1823, and was rejoiced and encouraged by the evident blessing that had been vouchsafed to the work of his predecessor, A very different aspect of things now presented itself from that which had so distressed the mind of Mr. West on his first arrival three years before. Marriage, which was then almost unknown, had now become general, and had brought with it its attendant blessings of domestic comfort and social improvement. Many of the parents were availing themselves of the opportunities of education provided for their children; the Sabbath was well observed; and the public ordinances of the Church were well attended. Nor were there wanting evidences that some hearts had been truly converted to God; and Mr. Jones was much cheered by finding, that during the few months that had elapsed between the departure of Mr. West and his own arrival, a social prayer-meeting had been established.
During the following winter the little church was crowded with Europeans, half-breeds, and native Indians; and even the hunting grounds bore testimony to the power of the Gospel; for there were many even there, who, far away for a time from the public means of grace, resisted the temptations, and endured the ridicule of their companions, and continued to keep the Lord's day holy.
It was not long before an additional place of worship was required, and with the kind assistance of Governor Simpson, and by his own personal influence and exertions, Mr. Jones succeeded in erecting a substantial church, ten miles lower down the river, at Image Plains. This was opened in January 1825, and was soon as well filled as the Upper Church, several of the congregation coming from a distance of nine or ten miles every Sunday.
The schools continued to go on favourably; 109 boys and girls of all classes were on the Sunday-School books, and the establishment for native Indians now contained twelve boys, who were gradually improving in general and scriptural knowledge. The two elder ones had made such good progress in English, that Mr. Jones hoped it would not be long before he should be able to avail himself of their assistance in the arrangement of a grammar of their own language--the Cree.
Mr. Jones found much encouragement in his Sunday evening meetings with these twelve Indian boys, and he mentions one evening in particular, when, for the first time, he observed anything like real feeling among them. In giving out the hymn beginning "Lord, while little heathen bend," &c., he was led to tell them of the cruelties practised in the idolatry of the East, which are alluded to in the hymn; they were affected even to tears, and one of them, an Assiniboine Indian, asked, with great simplicity, "Sir, is there no schoolmaster there to tell them not?" [Assiniboines (or stone-boilers; derive this name from the singular mode in which they used to boil their meat. While the other tribes made use of strong earthen jars, the Assiniboines dig a hole in the ground, which they line with the raw hide of the animal, and fill with water. The meat is then put in, and large stones, which have been made red-hot in a fire close by, are thrown in till the meat is boiled. They now use iron kettles purchased from the traders, except at their public feasts, when they adhere to their ancient custom.] But early in 1825, Mr. Jones had the grief of losing two of these promising pupils by death: the first who died, and to whom the name of William Sharpe had been given, had been sent from Churchill Fort soon after Mr. West's visit there in 1823; he was very young, but gave satisfactory evidence of a real change of heart. The other, Joseph Hurbidge, was the Assiniboine boy who had been promised to Mr. West on his first excursion, early in 1821, to Beaver Creek, and who had afterwards been brought to him by his father with the remark, that as he believed him to have been sent by the Great Spirit, he could refuse him nothing. The conduct of some of the relations of this boy after his death throws considerable light on the natural character of these Red men of the woods, and shows how truly they appreciated the kindness which had been shown to this lad. Mr. Jones, writing on April 25, says--
"While performing Divine service yesterday I observed it strange Indian looking in at the window, whose features struck me as being like those of poor Joseph Hurbidge. I saw no more of him till this morning, when he came and told me the boy was his sister's son. I walked with him to the grave, and was surprised at the feeling he manifested. As we approached his countenance changed; and at last he burst into a flood of tears: he threw himself on the grave moaning piteously, he then rose up, took off his mocassins, and with the sod of an arrow, notwithstanding my remonstrances, dreadfully lacerated his feet. He walked back from the grave barefooted, his steps marked by the blood from his self-inflicted wounds. How does one daily see in these poor Indians the noblest of God's creatures in a state of ruin!"
Soon after this Mr. Jones one day picked up a small leathern bag near the grave, and, on opening it, found in it the sod of the arrow, and a red substance like vermilion.
A few weeks after the visit of the poor boy's uncle, Mr. Jones observed some Indians, whose horses were laden like those of the Assiniboines, come up to the fence of his garden, but he took no particular notice of them till he heard the women begin a melancholy dirge. Suspecting from this that they must be friends of the deceased, he sent for them into the house, and found that his conjecture was right. They had come nearly three hundred miles from Beaver Creek "to cry over the grave," and said they had eaten nothing for six-days. Among them were the grandfather and the mother of the lad. The appearance of the mother presented a sad instance of the cruel practices of the Indian warriors. She had been taken prisoner in her youth by some hostile tribe, and been scalped; and though the wound had long been healed, and tufts of hair were growing on the top of her head, yet the muscles of her forehead and eyebrows had been so contracted, that her appearance was truly hideous. The father had sent Mr. Jones four moose-skins, saying that he was not well enough to come himself, and besides, that "the grave was too new."
Mr. Jones set before them some fish and potatoes, of which they ate voraciously, and then lay down to rest, saying they would visit the grave in the morning. They did so, accompanied by Mr. Jones's Indian servant, and spent some little time there, making lamentable cries, and lacerating themselves, as the uncle had previously done. They then came back to the parsonage, and on the following morning, after a long conversation with Mr. Jones on the subject of Christianity, returned again to their wild forests.