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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 III. Flood and Famine

"It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn Thy statutes."--Psalm cxix. 71.

IT is sometimes profitable to dwell more at length on the history of the earlier Missionaries, their difficulties and their labours, partly that we may have a more clear and definite idea of the mission in all its subsequent, workings, and partly that we may thankfully observe how God is pleased to raise up peculiar instruments for peculiar work, bestowing special gifts on those whom He employs in laying the foundations of His Church in a heathen land.

On these two accounts it is our purpose to enter somewhat in detail into this part of the history of our North West American Mission, intending to pass more rapidly over intermediate events till we come nearer to the present time.

It must be borne in mind that Red River is an isolated settlement of civilised and half-civilised men in the midst of an immense region of barbarism, and that, its inhabitants are obliged to depend entirely on their own resources for the means of subsistence.

At the time of which we are speaking, a very small portion of land had been brought into cultivation, and this had been done almost solely by the European settlers, who had also succeeded in rearing cattle in considerable numbers. The rest of the inhabitants, Canadians, Half-breeds, and Indians, had recourse chiefly, if not wholly, to the chase or to fishing for their support.

Their principal dependence was on the buffalo hunt, which took place twice in the year, when, perhaps, 800 hunters would set out in pursuit of this animal, accompanied by their wives and children, and attended by as many carts to bring home the spoil.

When the settlement was first established, the buffaloes were found in great numbers on the neighbouring plains, but they had gradually retreated farther and farther into the distant country, till now the hunters had sometimes to traverse 200 or 300 miles before they could meet with a herd. When, however, they did find them, the slaughter was prodigious, and, on some occasions, not less than 6000 were killed in one expedition. [The herds of buffaloes are sometimes almost incredibly numerous. "On one occasion we were going down the river in a canoe when we saw an immense herd crossing just below us. We had heard their roaring several miles distant, and when we came in sight of them, we were actually terrified at the numbers that were streaming down the green hills on one side of the river, and galloping up and over the bluffs on the other. As it would have been imprudent to have ventured among them, we ran our canoe ashore, and waited for some hours to see the river clear, but in vain. As soon as the numbers began to diminish we ventured to push off, and at last made our way through them. From the immense numbers that crossed the river at this spot, the bank fifteen feet in height, had been torn and trodden down so as to form a sort of road. This was only one instance in which thousands and tens of thousands congregate and move about together."--Abridged from Catlin's North West American Indians.] Part of the flesh supplied them with food during the hunting season, the rest the women either dried or made into pemican for future use. [Pemican is made by pounding the fat and the lean together in a mortar, and then putting it into leathern bags in which it is often preserved for months without spoiling.]

From this statement it will be seen that if the season should prove unpropitious, either to the hunters or the agriculturists, the colonists must necessarily he brought into great straits, as there was literally no external source whatever from which their wants could be supplied.

It was on this account that the Missionaries had, from the first, found it necessary to cultivate land and rear cattle, so as to raise their own supplies of provisions for their families and schools, as well as to he able to assist the number of starving half-breeds and Indians, whose improvidence threw them on the bounty of others. But for everything that they needed beyond the produce of their little farms,--for all other articles of food, for furniture, hardware, tools, hooks, clothing, and the various minor things that contribute to our daily comfort, the colonists were, and still are, entirely dependent on England.

This inconvenience is increased by the impossibility of obtaining any supplies from home except once in the year. Hudson's Bay is blocked up by fields of ice, except for a brief space during the summer months, so that vessels can seldom reach York Fort before the end of August, and are then obliged to unload and take in their cargoes as quickly as possible, lest their return should be cut off by a barrier of ice forming at the entrance of the bay and preventing their leaving it during the whole winter. This annual visit of the ships is also the only opportunity of either sending or receiving European letters, except that once in the course of the winter, the Missionaries had the privilege of sending a small packet with the official despatches via Canada.

But to return from this digression to the history of the mission.

Mr. Jones's health had been greatly injured by the severity of the first winter, which had occasioned the breaking of a blood-vessel in the lungs, from the effects of which he afterwards frequently suffered. At the time of which we are now speaking he was still alone in the mission, and had not only Sunday and week-day services at the Upper Church, but the same also at Image Plains; and we may judge of the difficulty and fatigue he often encountered by the following passage from his journal, which is only one among many similar ones:--

"March 26. Divine service as usual at Image Plains; the track was so had that I was obliged to leave my horse, and wade for the last three miles through water lodged on the surface of the ice to the depth of eighteen inches; a crowded congregation as usual: returned to the services at the Upper Church; in the evening my usual class of Indian boys."

Suffering as Mr. Jones now was from broken health, deprived of all ministerial advice and sympathy, and shut out for months together from all intercourse with his native land, it required a more than usual measure of strong faith, unwearying zeal, and ardent love, to prevent his spirit from sinking and his heart from turning back. But God endowed him richly with all these graces, and there is a cheerfulness and devotedness in his journals at this time that show how communion with God in the Christian's daily walk will support and cheer him under difficulties and privations.

He had also granted to him much encouragement in his work. The congregations at both churches continued to increase, and it was sometimes with difficulty that he could make his way through the crowd to the reading-desk. Often, when setting forth a Saviour's love, he saw the deep feelings of his hearers, especially among the half-breeds, manifesting itself in tears; and on one occasion he speaks of his own mind being much affected at the manner in which the whole congregation, English, Scotch, Swiss, Germans, Canadians, Norwegians, half-breeds, and Indians, joined in singing "Crown him Lord of all," little thinking, he says, when he first read that hymn in Welsh, in the account of the formation of the London Missionary Society, that it would be brought home to his heart with so much power and interest in the American wilderness.

In October, 1825, Mr. Jones had the comfort of welcoming the Rev. Mr. and Mrs. Cockran to Red River; and the female part of the population soon began to find the advantage of having a missionary lady among them.

It was not long after this arrival that the colony was subjected to the most severe trial it had ever experienced; and a short account of the circumstances will serve to illustrate the trials of the Missionaries as well as to show the work of the Holy Spirit upon the heart of many.

From some cause, which does not appear, the hunters had failed in their winter expedition of 1825-6 against the buffaloes; so much so, that instead of bringing back the usual supply of food for future use, many of them had, even while in the plains, been reduced to the extremity, not only of devouring their dogs, but of eating old shoes, buffalo-cloaks, and the leather of their tents.

This of itself was a severe trial to the colony, but a far more severe and more general calamity was at hand. As the spring of 1826 advanced, the river became swollen from the melting of the unusual quantity of snow which had, during the winter, fallen on the higher lands; the thick crust of ice, with which it was bound, was gradually raised to the level of its steep hanks, till, early in May, the frozen mass, four feet and a half in thickness, was dislodged "by the impetuous torrent and borne towards the lake, carrying with it everything that impeded its resistless progress; young maple-trees, oaks, and large elms, being uprooted and swept away.

Soon the water rose above the banks, and now began a long course of varied calamities to the inhabitants. The houses in the lower part of the settlement were rapidly filled with water and deserted by their occupiers; and soon the higher ones shared the same fate; the cattle were driven to the few spots still left dry, where their piteous wailings for food and shelter added to the general distress of the scene.

All this time the thermometer continued five degrees below freezing point, the weather was stormy, with sleet, hail, and driving snow, and the suffering inhabitants were driven to take refuge on the nearest hills. Some fled towards the Lake, and pitched their tents on. the Cedar Hills, nine or ten miles distant from their homes; while 500 or 600 of the rest found safety in an opposite direction, and fixed themselves on the Snake Indian Hills, about the same distance from the settlement.

By degrees, the mission family and a few strangers, who sought shelter from them, alone remained, their house and the Upper Church were still untouched, but all around was desolation. As far as the eye could reach on every side, the mighty torrent was holding on its way, always troubled, and sometimes lashed into waves, several feet in height, by storms of wind. Oil one side, were seen many of the log-houses of the settlers higher up the country carried by the flood across what had before been plains; while, on the other, their eyes and hearts were pained by the sight of the property and furniture of their nearer neighbours swept past by the resistless current without the possibility of saving them. Still the waters rose, and now the mission-house itself began to be in jeopardy. The Missionaries endeavoured to secure some of their own property and that of the Society, by placing it in the roof of the Church; for though the waters had entered the building, the walls still stood firm. They also prepared a wooden platform to which they might retreat in case of sudden necessity; and it was well they did so, for, in the course of the night, the water suddenly burst into the house.

Sunday, May 14, "was a very dismal day; no people assembling to celebrate the day of rest, no church to go to;" but they held Divine Service on the platform, now the only abode of about forty persons, including, besides themselves and the Indian boys, a few poor people who had lingered near their ruined homes in the vain hope of saving some of their possessions.

For three days, they continued there, but the flood still rising, and the wind becoming so strong as to threaten, the safety of their fragile retreat, they determined to follow the example of their neighbours. With some difficulty they procured boats, and taking with them as many small articles of daily use and comfort as they could, they rowed over fields and plains, now an almost uninterrupted waste of water, to the Snake Indian Hills. Here they pitched their tents, and here they remained a month in anxious suspense, watching the continual rising, and at length the subsiding of the waters, with feelings of alternate fear and hope, sorrow and thankful joy, till the 12th of June.

It was a month of much bodily as well as mental suffering; the weather was inclement and the cold severe; the encampment consisted of 130 tents, besides many Indian wigwams; the want of furniture and other conveniences caused great discomfort, while the state of Mrs. Cockran's health made every privation to be doubly felt.

On one occasion a violent hurricane arose suddenly in the middle of the night and blew down many of the tents and all the wigwams: the scene was one of indescribable confusion, and in the midst of it, their alarm was wrought up to the highest pitch, by a spark from one of the tents having set on fire the long grass with which they were surrounded. The flame ran swiftly along the ground, and destruction seemed inevitable; but God in His mercy preserved them.

A torrent of rain was sent which extinguished the fire; the wind lulled, and all further danger was averted.

It is refreshing to mark the spirit in which these trials were received, not only by the missionaries themselves, but by their flock. Of himself and his fellow-labourers, Mr. Jones says,--

"Every recurrence of our devotional hours brings with it a subject of gratitude in some visible proof of the care of our gracious God for His unworthy servants. Let me beg that the language of gratitude, as well as of prayer, be employed at your assemblies in behalf of this infant mission. Our trials have been great, though we have not dwelt much on them; we would rather join in thanksgiving to the Author and Giver of life, that we are still monuments of mercy, and permitted to lift up our feeble voices in testimony to the goodness of Jehovah."

Again, he says,--

"The people seem to receive all this as a chastisement from God, and they await the issue from His gracious hand. House less as they are, their language is still, 'It is the Lord.'"

Then, after enumerating the deliverances and mercies they had received, he adds that their chief concern was for Mrs. Cockran, who, however, bore all these trials with never-failing patience and cheerfulness.

An interesting anecdote is related of a little incident which occurred about this time, and helped to cheer them. A party of settlers, who were crossing the inundated plains one Sunday morning in their canoes, thought they heard the voice of singing. They rowed towards the spot from whence the sound proceeded, and found, on a wooden stage, not more than eighteen inches above the water, a party of half-breed young women singing hymns: they were resting for the day, anxious, as far as might be, to keep it holy. The settlers passed on, unwilling to disturb them, but not a little struck with thus hearing, in the midst of surrounding desolation, the sweet voices of those lately ignorant and degraded beings floating over the waters in songs of praise.

On the 12th of June, the waters were sufficiently abated to allow of the people's return; but it was a dismal scene that awaited them. Only three houses in the whole settlement were left standing: one of them, to the joy and thankfulness of the missionaries, was their own dwelling; but they only found the outer walls; everything else was gone: the partitions between the rooms, the doors, the windows, and the furniture, had all been swept away.

The Upper Church had suffered less than any other building; but that on Image Plains had not fared so well.

"The glass windows were driven out by the current, the seats were shattered and mostly carried away, the pulpit swept from the foundation, the doors battered down, and all the plastering washed off; in short, the desolation," writes Mr. Jones, "was complete. But," he adds, "I could not help thinking this might be intended as a useful lesson to me, to teach me not to suffer my mind to wander from the main object of my ministry by any external circumstances. I had often looked on this church as a child of my own rearing. I had worked at it many a day with my own hands; and with the aid of the settlers had brought it to a tolerable degree of perfection: now my idol is completely tarnished. Still I am thankful that we are not deprived of it as a place of worship, and the Gospel will sound as well from behind a table as from my handsome pulpit."

Very melancholy was the return of the missionaries and the people to their former abode: their houses in ruins; much of their stock of provisions, both for themselves and their cattle, destroyed by the flood; and the supply of preserved buffalo meat, as we have before said, very scanty. But the trials of this eventful year did not end here: the inundation had occurred just at the season for sowing their crops, and though the spade and plough were at work again as soon as the land was sufficiently dry, it was too late for them to expect even a tolerable harvest. Distress and famine seemed their only prospect, and their fears were but too soon realised.

The missionaries were often reduced to the extremity of not knowing from whence the food for the next day could be procured; and more than once, the only supply for themselves and their household, including the Indian boys, was some half-ripe barley. With a view of preventing, if possible, a recurrence of the same distress, Mr. Cockran, with his characteristic energy, determined to bring a little more land into cultivation; but having no means of feeding another labourer, he was obliged to plough it up with his own hands, while he taught two of his Indian boys to drive the oxen.

The journals of the missionaries during this long season of suffering are very interesting, but we will only make the two following extracts from that of Mr. Cockran:--

"Being in difficulty from want of provisions, I took my man with me, and went and cut ten sheaves of barley. It was not fully ripe, but we had no other means of subsistence. We threshed it and gave it to Mrs. Cockran to dry by the fire, that it might be ready for the evening. I then went and ploughed the appointed hours."

Soon after, he says,--

"I spent an agreeable evening with two Christian friends. We beguiled the time by talking of our 'Father's house, where there are many mansions;' and strengthened one another in the Word of God, by freely communicating the manner in which God had fed us day by day for the last three months. We found He had fulfilled His promises to each of us. He had, as it were, sent us manna every morning to supply our present wants, but the bread of to-morrow we often knew not whence it would come."

The barley and potatoes, though from their having been sown so late they did not come to perfection, yet sufficed, with the greatest care, to keep the mission family through the winter from actual want of food; but they were subjected to great privation, and many of their neighbours suffered still more severely. Some lived on hazel-nuts, some obtained an uncertain subsistence by angling through holes cut in the thick ice, but many suffered inconceivable hardships.

There could, of course, be no material improvement in the state of things till the next harvest (1827), when it pleased God to send them a fair crop, and they were once more, after seventeen months of scarcity, able, as Mr. Cockran expresses it, "to eat their bread without weight, and their potatoes without measure." "We trusted," he adds, "in the Lord, and have not been ashamed. He gave us our portion of meat in due season, and made it doubly sweet by the zest of a grateful heart.''

These outward trials were blessed by the Spirit of God to the souls of many; the Word grew and multiplied, and a spirit of earnest inquiry was poured out; the churches were crowded, and the number of communicants continually increased, though none were admitted who were not, as far as human judgment could penetrate, the subjects of Divine grace.

The language of many a heart might now have been,

"Father, I bless Thy gentle hand;
How kind was that chastising rod,
That forced my conscience to a stand,
And brought my wandering soul to God!"

All this improvement, however, was chiefly among the Europeans and half-breeds; the native Indians had scarcely been reached, though here and there the missionaries were privileged to admit a Red brother or sister to the fold of Christ.

One of these was an aged woman of the Saskatchewan tribe, whose Indian name was "Koschud," from her youthful beauty. She had come from the north of Hudson's Bay to reside with her daughter, who had married a half-breed young man, one of the communicants. She worshipped idols, and had one special favourite household god, to which she was devoted, and which she kept carefully wrapped in a piece of red cloth. She could not be prevailed upon to attend Divine worship or to join her son-in-law and daughter in their family devotions, nor would she listen to any of their persuasions. All this was a continual subject of sorrow to her children, who little knew that under this apparent resistance to the truth, the Holy Spirit was secretly carrying on His work in her heart. One day the man came to Mr. Jones to tell him that, to his wife's and his own great joy, an unexpected change seemed to have taken place in the poor old woman, and that she had sent him to request the missionary to come and teach her to worship the true God.

Mr. Jones gladly obeyed the summons: he found her in a very inquiring state of mind, and after due preparation he baptised her, "with hair so gray and forehead so wrinkled," yet brought to Christ at the eleventh hour. Mr. Jones expressed one day a wish to see her former idol. "Nay, my grandson," was her reply; "to hear of these things now pains my ears; to think of them troubles my heart; I pray you therefore to pass them by."

Another interesting case was that of a man called the "Cask." He had heard something about the Gospel at Norway House, and had come to Red River to get further instruction. He built a dwelling for himself, and regularly attended the means of grace. During the winter, he and his wife, who was like-minded with himself, gave a pleasing and encouraging proof that the Word of God had not been declared to them in vain.

They had joined a party of about three hundred people, chiefly Canadians, on one of the annual fishing expeditions on Lake Winnipeg: it was an ungodly company, and no difference was made between Sunday and any other day. Our Indian and his wife had, however, learnt differently, and continued to take up their nets on the Saturday evening, that they might observe the day of rest, though by so doing they exposed themselves to much trouble and risk, as well as ridicule. Every Saturday, as soon as they had removed their nets, their companions invariably took possession of their ground, and every Monday morning they were obliged to lose much time in seeking for a fresh spot.

After their return home, they continued to go on very satisfactorily, and Mr. Cockran looked forward to their admission by baptism into the visible church; but before this could be done, it pleased God to take the husband to Himself, though not till he had given satisfactory evidence of his being a living member of the mystical body of Christ.

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