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 IV. The Grand Rapids

"Establish Thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish Thou it."--Ps. xc. 17.

THIS was a very appropriate passage of Scripture for our Missionaries as they pursued their various labours; but more especially might it have been the language of Mr. Cockran's heart, when, in 1829, he settled with his family at the Grand Rapids.

This name had been given to a part of the colony several miles farther down the river than the Upper Settlement, where Mr. Jones and Mr. Cockran had hitherto resided; and it included a tract of land lying about twelve miles along the river, and stretching several miles into the country.

The inhabitants were chiefly half-breeds, with but few Europeans, and a still smaller number of Indians, among them. With a very few exceptions, the half-breeds here were, as elsewhere, scarcely raised above the Indians; they followed the same heathen practices, they pursued the same mode of life, and were, indeed, in most cases so identified with them, that it required an experienced eye to distinguish between the two. At the Grand Rapids the chief difference seems to have been, that when they returned from their hunting or fishing expeditions they could shelter themselves in a more substantial dwelling than the Indian wigwam.

There were, however, a small number who were rising a little above this state, and who were making some rude attempts at tillage. Bat, except these few patches of half-cultivated ground--"few and far between"--the whole was a wild, desolate, and swampy plain, dotted here and there with the miserable log-houses of the inhabitants, and too often resounding with the dismal, discordant noise of the conjurer's drum.

The inundation of 1826, and the consequent sufferings, which, had, as we have seen, been blessed to many of the people at the Upper Settlement, had not been entirely without fruit at this place also. Several persons had been awakened to a concern for their souls; and Mr. Cockran, in his occasional visits to them, was often cheered by finding a considerable number (sometimes as many as thirty) collected together to receive his instructions.

The openings for usefulness appeared so promising, that it was arranged that while Mr. Jones continued in charge of the Upper Settlement, Mr. Cockran should establish himself here; and accordingly, in the summer of 1829, he moved with his family into a log-house he had built on the western bank of the river, about fifteen miles below the Upper Church and Parsonage, and ten miles from Image Plains.

Everything around was, as has been said, dreary and uncivilised: the commonest necessaries of life could only be procured from the Parsonage at the Upper Settlement; and for some months the only bread they had was made of flour ground between two stones dug from the bank of the river, and afterwards sifted through a piece of parchment pricked with pin-holes.

Mr. Cockran soon saw that, not only for their temporal but for their spiritual welfare, it was of the utmost importance to reclaim the people as much as possible from their wild and wandering habits, and to lead them to more settled and peaceful employments. While, therefore, he took every opportunity of declaring to them the Gospel in all its simplicity and power, of endeavouring to lead them to a conviction of sin, and of the need of a Saviour, he spared no pains, either by argument or example, to induce them to turn their minds to agriculture. He took a considerable piece, of land near his own house into cultivation, partly for the support of his own family and his future schools, and partly as an opportunity of accustoming the men to labour.

The difficulties he found in this and in following years, in teaching these people the use of the various implements of husbandry, can scarcely be read without a smile, though they must have been very trying to his patience at the time. They would often throw down the hoe or the spade, declaring they would use them no longer, as they made their backs and arms so stiff. If a tree was to be felled, they complained that the hatchet blistered their hands. But the sickle was their great trouble; as was to be expected, they at first frequently cut their fingers in using it; and rather than endeavour, by care and practice, to overcome their awkwardness, they would devise all kinds of new ways of reaping--thus often losing much of the few precious days of fine weather, during which alone the harvest could in that country be gathered in.

The only thing in which they found no difficulty was guiding the plough: the quickness of eye they had acquired by their early training in shooting and hunting enabled them, from the first, to do that with ease which our English labourers often are so long in acquiring; and their furrows were always straight.

We may understand something of Mr. Cockran's position, at this time, by a passage in one of his letters three or four years later:--

"I am obliged to be minister, clerk, schoolmaster, arbitrator, agricultural director, and many other things, to this mixed and barbarous people; and it is no sinecure. They are scattered over twelve miles of country, without roads, full of swamps and miry creeks, where in wet weather I have the utmost difficulty in reaching them. I have everything to teach them, to enter into all their personal concerns, to be a peacemaker, and to teach them to manage their temporal affairs. Wearying as all this is to the flesh, it is very beneficial to the people: it leads them to look oil me as one of themselves; they feel they can depend on my friendship, they know that I shall advise them only for their good; and this leads them to listen with a willing ear when I tell them of spiritual things."

Mr. Cockran soon began to see some results from his patient, self-denying labours; and though the people did not entirely relinquish their former mode of life, yet they set about the cultivation of the land and the rearing of cattle in good earnest: so that it was not long before the whole face of the country assumed a very improving aspect. The few bright months of summer they devoted to the care of their land; and though still obliged to eke out their subsistence by hunting and fishing, yet, if their expeditions proved unsuccessful, they found a sufficient supply in their own farmyards to keep them from actual want.

Their spiritual progress kept pace with their external improvement; they eagerly sought for religious instruction; many adults applied for baptism; and in 1831, only two years after his settling among them, Mr. Cockran's congregation had increased from thirty to three hundred, while the alteration in their general habits and moral conduct bore testimony to the reality of the work within.

Many of his present congregation were Indians newly arrived from distant places, drawn hither by messages and invitations from their relations among the half-breeds already settled here; and the description Mr. Cockran gives of the way in which these poor wanderers were gathered in is very touching:--

"When," he says, "I speak to my own people of our state by nature, of a Saviour, of repentance and faith, and of the condition of the heathen, I sometimes stop, and put this thrilling question, 'Are not your relations in this state? Are they not heathen? Are not their bodies perishing for want of food, and their souls for lack of knowledge?' This will often lead them to think about their unfortunate relations in the wilderness, whose numbers are diminishing from scarcity and hardships, and whose souls are passing into eternity without ever hearing of Christ, the only Saviour. They will tell their anxiety to some trusty friend who is going to York Fort, where he will meet with men from all parts of this vast continent. To some of them he communicates the messages, which pass from one to another till they reach the persons to whom they are sent; and these, messages often induce them to come and see what this new thing is."

It was especially among the tribe of the Swampy Crees that these messages were listened to and followed. They came to the settlement from various places in the far north---sometimes a family or two together, some times more; and on one occasion a little fleet of twenty canoes was seen making its way up the river on this voyage of inquiry. They would laud, pitch their tent near any half-breed family with whom they could claim any relationship, and expect them to maintain them as long as they remained.

It was a hard struggle to the settlers, who were themselves but just beginning to reap the fruit of their newly-acquired habits, and were as yet scarcely able to raise grain enough for their own consumption, to have so many to support in addition to their own families; but their hearts had been enlarged by the Spirit of God, and so anxious were they to rescue their relations and fellow-countrymen from the state of heathenism and ignorance of which they had themselves so lately experienced the misery, that they never discouraged them, but would share with them their last mouthful, rather than that they should be driven by hunger beyond the sound of the Gospel. And their disinterested self-denial was blessed: it was very seldom that any who came in this way to the settlement ever left it again; they applied themselves to agriculture, listened to instruction, and in very many cases gave evidence of being converted to God.

Mr. Cockran could not but rejoice at the gradual improvement he witnessed year by year, even in the outward condition of his people.

"Instead," he writes, "of seeing some poor Indian woman, in the depth of winter, hauling her half-naked children on a sledge over the frozen snow to some lonely creek, there to cut a hole in the thick ice, let down her hook, and shivering wait for hours till some fish lay hold of it to serve for their scanty meal,--we now see her and her children nicely and warmly clothed, with a buffalo cloak folded neatly round them, in their own cariole, drawn by their own horse or ox, bringing them to the house of God to thank Him, as well she may, for all His temporal and spiritual mercies."

On Mr. Cockran's first settling at the Grand Rapids he had collected together a good number of children, and built a good-sized room to serve for a school; and hitherto it had been in this room that the congregation had assembled for divine worship. But the increase in the number of worshippers soon determined him to attempt the erection of a church; and poor as the people still were, they came forward readily to assist him to the utmost of their power. Great was his joy when this new witness for God was completed, and stood out as a testimony that His servants had obtained a footing here. In 1831, he says:--

"Three years ago my house, school, congregation, and church, were all imaginary: the timber was growing in the forests, the glass and nails were in England, and one-half of my congregation were wandering heathen, worshipping no God but profit or pleasure, acknowledging no Saviour, and knowing no Sabbath. But when the time appointed came, Death and Hell could no longer hold then: prisoners: their jubilee was come--they must go free; and, gathered from the shores of almost every river between Hudson's Bay and the Rocky Mountains, they were brought to this place, where God had provided for them the glad tidings of salvation."

Mr. Cockran frequently mentions the regularity of his people's attendance at the house of God:--

"In England," he says, "it is a frequent and painful remark, 'So many at market, and so few at church!' but here it is the reverse. On week-days you may travel for miles, and not see a human face; but on Sundays, as the time of sendee draws near, the track is covered with old, and young, and middle-aged, pressing forward to worship God in the congregation. It never comes into their minds that a slight cold, or a soaking rain, or a violent snow-storm, or a piercing frost, are any reasons to keep them from public worship. They have made up their minds to be found always in the house of God, and hitherto their strength has been equal to their day. Be the weather ever so bad, none ever stay away but the aged and the sick; and when the ground is too wet for the women and children to walk, they are put into their little carioles; while the men, carrying their shoes in their hand, walk by their side through mud and water reaching half-way to their knees."

We shall be better able to appreciate this regularity of attendance when we consider the peculiar nature of the climate: sometimes in summer the thermometer would be at from 80° to 100° in the shade, while in winter it was often 30° or 35° below zero, and occasionally even 40°.

On Sundays, the church being full, the winter cold was not so severely felt during the time of service; but the external air congealing the breath of the people as it rose, when the fire was extinguished the ceiling would be covered with a coat of ice, while the desk, pulpit, prayer-book, and Bible, shone with silvery par tides of frozen vapour. On the week-days in winter, when the congregation was smaller, Mr. Cockran describes it as being, notwithstanding a good fire in the stove, like "a temple of ice."

Mr. Cockran's constant intercourse with the people during the week gave him an insight into their individual character which he could not have obtained in any other way, and which, was particularly valuable to him when candidates for the Lord's Supper presented themselves to him. He was very strict on this point, and would admit none of whose real religious principles he was not well persuaded, or of whom the rest of the communicants could report any inconsistency in their daily walk.

The number of communicants, however, continued to increase; and although the natural taciturnity and reserve of both Indians and half-breeds prevented him from enjoying the communion with them which he so much desired, yet the correctness of their moral conduct, their habits of family devotion, and the tears of deep feeling often drawn forth by the services of the sanctuary, convinced their faithful pastor that his labour among them had not been in vain in the Lord.

Sometimes, too, he was cheered by a clearer manifestation of the work of grace, when some powerful emotion or an attack of sickness would overcome their natural reserve, and lead them to lay open more of the feelings of their hearts. One of these cases was that of an Indian woman, who, with her husband, had arrived at the settlement in 1831. The man had, as is usual among the Indians, taken two sisters as his wives. On his arrival he had pitched his tent near one of the settlers to whom he was related, and by whom he and his family were for some time supported.

This relation, as well as some of his pious neighbours, frequently endeavoured to lead the minds of the newcomers to Christianity. They tried, also, to show them the sinfulness of their present mode of life; and by degrees the two wives became so deeply impressed with this, that they determined it should be so no longer. It was decided that the woman of whom we are speaking should leave her husband, and reside in a separate tent, at some distance. They had constantly attended divine worship, but had not sought for any personal intercourse with Mr. Cockran, till, a short time after this separation, the poor woman was taken very ill, and sent for him. He found that as yet she knew little of divine truth, but that little had reached her heart; she felt its power, and desired to be transformed into a new creature In her simple way she told him,--

"When I came here, fifteen months ago, it was to hear about this new religion, and I intended to accept it if it proved as good as it was reported. I came, I inquired: all was new, and astonished me. Oh, I thought, if I can but escape the bad place, and obtain the good one! I was told that I must put away my sins, and believe on Him who came into the world and died to save sinners. I considered; I felt willing to give up my Indian ways; as I came to the knowledge of bad things, I put them away, and I now go on putting them away."

Mr. Cockran had further conversation with her, and, satisfied with her sincerity, yielded to her anxious desire and baptized her.

Another case was that of a man who had been living for some time at the Grand Rapids, but with whom Mr. Cockran had sought in vain to get into religious conversation. But on his visiting him during a severe fit of illness, he seemed to forget his habitual reserve, and exclaiming, "You know not how much God strove with me before I would hear him," proceeded to give some account of his own conversion. It seems he had heard something of Christianity while still leading a life of wandering, and had had many conflicts with himself whether or not he would listen to the word of God. At one time in particular, when chasing a moose-deer in vain for several days, the thought occurred to him that perhaps the "Master of Life" intended to starve him because he would not attend to His message. He set out, therefore, for the settlement, with his wife and children, determined to attend the means of grace; but when he arrived there he could not persuade himself to enter the church, fearing lest he should be arrested by an invisible hand; for at this time he looked on the preaching of the Missionaries as similar to the incantations of the Indian conjurers His heart again turned to the Indian life, and he again set off with his family for the plains. In his way he passed a spot where Mr. Cockran was engaged with a carpenter in preparing some work, and turned aside to have a little talk with him, with no other purpose than to while away the time. The carpenter was a pious man, and the conversation soon turned to serious subjects. The Indian became wearied with this, and soon left them; but what he had heard was not so easily to he got rid of: it was as a nail fastened in a sure place. He could not sleep; and at last his life became so burdensome to him, that he determined to return to the Grand Rapids, and fix himself where he might hear the whole of God's truth.

"And," adds Mr. Cockran, "he was not an unprofitable hearer; he became a true believer, and brought forth the fruits of the Spirit, in faith, patience, and a tender conscience."

There are many other instances mentioned in Mr Cockran's journal which are very interesting, but it would exceed our. appointed limits were we to enter upon them fully. We shall therefore content ourselves with selecting only two or three, which in different ways show that the work of the Holy Spirit produces the same effects on the heart of the wild Indian of the forest as upon the subtle, philosophising Brahmin, or on the intellectual and polished European.

One of these was a man who one day, in conversation with his minister, told him that when the word of God came to him it made "his heart sore," and the sense of his sins was as if he were in a thick wood, surrounded by flies, from which he could not get free, till he found the Saviour had made a beaten track by which he had escaped. No one who has not been in that country can fully enter into the force of this simile, for he must have experienced the torment of these insects before he can know the relief of getting free from them. When passing, in summer, through one of those pathless woods, they surround you, bite you, dash into your eyes, sting your face, hands, and neck; you inhale them with every breath, while slowly making your way among the trees and bushes. But if you fortunately meet with a trodden path, you rush forward, the current of air drives your enemies behind you, and you can once more see and breathe.

Another instance was that of a woman whom Mr. Cockran visited in her illness, and who, in reply to his questions as to what chiefly occupied her thoughts while lying alone on her bed of sickness, mentioned Matt. xi. 28, and John, vi. 37. "These words." she added, "dwell in my mind day and night." Then, clasping her hands, with the tears rolling down her cheeks, she exclaimed, "Precious Saviour! thou art the best friend in the day of sickness!"

The last case we shall mention was a man who, finding himself very near his end, sent to Mr. Cockran to come and see him. When he entered, he exclaimed, "This is the last visit you will ever pay me. I know I shall soon die, but I have no fear: I have a Saviour, a friend in heaven, who hears my prayers, who draws away my heart from all below, even from my wife and children, and leads it to Himself. I have sent for you to tell me all you know about this new state." Then, stretching out both his arms, as a bird stretching out its wings to fly away, he exclaimed, "I want to go and be with Him who has washed away my sins in His own blood, and now gives me rest and peace in the midst of pain and suffering." Five years before, as we find from the journals, this man was a heathen!

It was not the adults alone in whom Mr. Cockran endeavoured to awaken a desire for useful employment: he made his schools, as far as he could, schools of industry; the boys were instructed during part of the day in husbandry, carpenters' work, &c,, and the girls were taught to spin. When they first began, the only material to be procured in the country was buffalo's wool, which is too short and coarse to make good thread; but soon afterwards Governor Simpson conferred a great boon upon the colony by importing some sheep from Canada; and by degrees, as these multiplied, the girls were able to produce a finer and more durable article.

And now, having brought the history of this station down to the year 1836, we must pause, and in our next chapter give some more general information, though we cannot leave the spot till we have, in a few words, placed before our readers the change which had been effected there in the course of seven years.

The log-houses of the Christian part of the population had been made neat and comfortable dwellings, each with its little garden and farm-yard attached to it; the once dreary, swampy plains, were now covered with herds of cattle, or adorned with waving corn; a church, school, and parsonage-house, had been erected; and the din of the conjurer's rattle was exchanged for words of prayer and songs of praise. Above sixty children attended at the day-schools; the number of communicants was nearly seventy; and his flock, which was continually increasing by the baptism of adults from the remaining heathens in the settlement, now amounted to six hundred.

The Indian village had also been commenced, but the account of this we must reserve for a future chapter.

Mr. Cockran would unite with us in saying, "Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy Name give the glory, for Thy mercy, and for Thy truth's sake."

Project Canterbury