1. The Mathesons of the Red River
by Alexander Sutherland
Into the woof and web of that historic settlement which, under the guidance of Lord Selkirk, fringed the banks of the Red River in 1812, is woven the name of "Matheson" in no uncertain coloring. Among the original company of adventurers leaving Scotland in 1811 for the great enterprise of seeking new homes in an unknown wilderness, inhabited by savages who were depicted as cruel and ferocious in the last degree, were three daring young men of the Matheson clan, Angus, Alexander and John. In the person of John, who lived to the beginning of the twentieth century, is epitomized that great epic commencing with the stormy eviction of Scottish tenantry, through tempestuous weeks on icy northern seas, by way of the buffalo trail over the unbounded plains, through fire and flood, massacre and banishment, rebellious strife and untainted loyalty, down to the great cities and complex innovations of modern life in the largest and most promising of the British Dominions. These three adventurers, we then find rearing for themselves new homes in the very heart of their New Kildonan on the western bank of the Red River about three miles north of the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine streams.
Here the family associations remained almost intact down to the days of the great land booms of the early eighties, and the family characteristics were so well maintained that the writer can visualize without effort the fair complexions and brown locks of his Matheson cousins. One notable defection, however, occurred in the person of Angus Matheson, known as Little Angus, a son of Alex Matheson previously mentioned. Little Angus migrated to Iowa in the early days of the colony, and today almost an entire street in a wealthy exclusive suburb of San Diego, is occupied by his descendants. A reference to the telephone directory of that city will readily reveal the well-known family names of Samuel, Pritchard, Angus, Frank, Murray, Alex, John, etc.
Harkening back to our original adventurers, we read of Angus Matheson bargaining shrewdly for the disposal of his right to brew twenty gallons of whisky annually in the still erected by Lord Selkirk for the convenience of the colonists, which right he valued at one hundred pounds, or more than double the sum demanded by other holders of this truly royal Scotch privilege. As the family were noted more for their generous Highland hospitality than for proverbial Scottish care and close dealing, let us hope that he had been basing his claim on the extent of entertainment provided for the friends who so constantly gathered around his fireside. We cannot but read with anxiety of the recommendation of Governor Simpson that he be allowed to "compound" with the amateur brewer in the sum of twenty pounds and meditate on the probable value of the "right and privilege" had it been handed down intact to the present days of bootleggers and lucrative government monopoly.
There is told an amusing anecdote at the expense of John Matheson, who lived to the ripe age of ninety-four, retaining his faculties and physical activity to the end of his clays. When age had debarred him from more strenuous employment it was his custom to chop firewood for the family requirements. When wearied by the monotony of this exercise, his favorite recreation was reading from Boston's Fourfold State, until drowsiness overcame him. He would carefully place a marker in the volume, and after pushing his spectacles hack on his forehead, would compose himself for a nap in his easy chair. Noting his habit, a mischievous youngster of the family one day undertook to move the marker, which he placed nearer the front of the book, and finding that the trick remained undiscovered, he continued to repeat it for a number of days. A friend coming in to visit the old gentleman remarked to him, "I see, John, that you are still reading 'Boston.' Do you never tire of him?" "Ah, no," was the reply, "I think he iss a wonderful writer whateffer, but I have one fault to find with him, he repeats himself so often."
It is a far cry from the terrors of Covenanting days, spoken of with bated breath by the early settlers, to these when the older members of the community speak lovingly of His Grace, Archbishop Matheson, Primate of Canada, as Sammy, and not only look on him as one of the elect, but as a sort of Ambassador-Extraordinary between themselves and their friends of the Episcopalian faith. Indeed it speaks volumes for the character of this great Matheson of the Red River that he should be so regarded by the exceedingly strict and not unnaturally prejudiced members of that sorely persecuted sect, in whose homes Foxe's Book of Martyrs ranked second only to the Bible and the tenets of the Shorter Catechism. His life is too well known to dwellers in Western Canada to require detailed recognition here, but for historical purposes it might be stated that he was born in Kildonan on the western banks of the Red River in 1852. Owing to the untimely death of his mother, he was adopted at the tender age of nine days by an uncle, Hugh Pritchard. Mr. Pritchard's father was secretary to Lord Selkirk, and came from Shrewsbury, England; He was a member of the established church. In this manner the youthful Matheson came to receive his education at St. John's Episcopalian College and naturally joined that denomination, where his unusual platform ability and brilliant scholastic attainments rapidly advanced him to the highest office of the Anglican Church in the Dominion of Canada.
An equally lovable character and one scarcely less noted as a scholar is his nephew, Dean John William (Jack) Matheson, who followed his illustrious uncle into the Episcopalian fold. After graduating from Manitoba University with the highest honours he taught in St. John's College for four years, and after serving as rector in the charges of St. Andrew's, Souris and Boissevain, where his personal magnetism endeared him to his parishioners, he returned to university work, in which he is at present engaged, a familiar and outstanding personality in the educational life of Winnipeg.
An amusing story, typical of the devout character of these early Scotch pioneers, is related of Angus Matheson, better known as Tailor Matheson, who derived his nickname from his occupation as tailor for the settlement. One day, in company with a friend he was hewing trees, and being more expert in the use of scissors than an axe, he brought down the sharp blade direct on his foot. Feeling that he had almost severed the useful member, he sat down on a log and removed his heavy outer stocking which was completely saturated with blood. He next, with some difficulty, removed his moccasin, which was also filled with gore, and lastly removed the inner sock, and as the saying is, came to himself, when he was overjoyed to discover only a long shallow gash, showing more blood than injury. Looking up in the face of his friend he exclaimed, with reverent thankfulness: "I kent the Lord was nigh me alway, but I never dreamt before that he would be between my stocking and my foot."
Possibly the member of this family who enjoyed the most interesting experiences of pioneer life was John Matheson, father of the Archbishop. As a youth, he, in common with other children of the settlers, learned the use of Gaelic, Indian and French dialects before he could speak a word of English. He was a police officer during that turbulent period when the rivalry between the Hudson's Bay Company and the North-West Fur Trading Company verged close on civil war, and was in charge of the court house during the famous De Sayres trial, which was looked on as a test case to determine the rights of the trappers to dispose of their pelts to other than the Hudson's Bay Company. The court roam was daily filled with some four hundred excited and partisan French half-breeds who made known to him in no unequivocal language, that, should the decision go against De Savres, the officials responsible would never leave the court room alive.
On another occasion during a blood feud between the Chartrand and Monkman families in the Oak Point district, one Paul Chartrand, either in anger or self-defence, slew with a sharp chisel, one of the Monkmans. Matheson was assigned the unpleasant task of arresting Chartrand, who was not only a dangerous character, but was made desperate by the predicament in which he found himself. Matheson traced him beyond Lake Manitoba, which he crossed unaided in a canoe, only to find his quarry waiting him on the farther shore with a loaded shot gun in hand. Matheson was warned that should he attempt to make an arrest one or the other would not return alive. He, however, fortunately knew Chartrand personally, and after a parley persuaded him, under a promise that no handcuffs would be used, that it was in the interests of himself and his family that he should return and stand trial. Chartrand was eventually released, escaping under a plea of self-defence.
The Indians in those early days were uniformly peaceful and friendly to the white man, but they simply could not remain steadily at work for more than a day or so at a time. They had formed a very bad habit of accepting employment for a stated period and under pretext of requiring money for the needs of their families, would draw their pay in advance and then desert their work. The Hudson's Bay Company who were constantly suffering loss in this manner, determined to put an end to the practice and for this purpose issued warrants for the arrest of some nine Indians who had contracted to convey boats from Fort Garry to Norway House and had deserted their task in the vicinity of Selkirk. The warrants were handed to Matheson, who, knowing that the Indians belonged to a large encampment, demanded the services of a suitable force of men, and in particular that one, Bruce, a noted athlete, shrewd and experienced in the wiles of the Redman, should accompany him as a sub-officer. Proceeding northward by the west banks of the Red River, they met with a most unfortunate accident. Bruce, while kneeling to take a drink from the stream, unwittingly touched the trigger of his gun, discharging the contents into his body and expiring almost instantly. Although oppressed by this unfavorable omen, Matheson and his party continued their march, only to find to their chagrin on arriving at the Indian village that it was occupied only by the aged chief, the squaws and children of the tribe. Knowing the futility of attempting to locate the culprits in the wooded country to which they had dispersed, Matheson fell back on his native ingenuity. Taking from his pocket an old letter which happened to be on his person, he proceeded to read therefrom very solemnly to the chief somewhat as follows: "This is the paper of the Great White Mother. I command you, John Matheson, to bring to Fort Garry the nine had Indians (here he read out their names) who have stolen money from the Hudson's Bay Company by taking same and not doing the work for which they were paid. Should these Indians not give themselves up to you, I command you to take in their places their chief, who will be punished in their stead." Waiting a few minutes to give the culprits an opportunity to surrender, Matheson, with a great show of authority ordered his men to take the chief into custody. He then quickly proceeded to the east side of the river so as to frustrate any at tempt at release, and lodged his captive in the most disreputable cattle byre he could find in the neighbourhood, but discretely allowed the messenger boys from the camp free access to the Chief. The ruse succeeded admirably and before the day was over, Matheson was on his way back to the Fort with his nine prisoners in tow, where a short prison sentence had the desired effect.
There were three distinct families of Mathesons among the early settlers who immigrated from Ross-shire, but no doubt, they were originally of the same family tree and owing to intermarriages are now almost indistinguishable. Of Reverend Alexander Matheson, son of John Matheson, who came out in 1815, particular mention should be made. He had a fine platform appearance, with a voice almost as sonorous as that of the great Archbishop himself. He possessed a most unusual gift of oratory and was of all public speakers to whom we have had the pleasure of listening, the most easy to follow. The rapidity of his utterance resembled the smooth flow of water from a high-powered hydrant, and it was indeed a dull and dense listener who could relax under his vivid depiction of the beauty and joy of eternal blessedness and the absolute dejection and despair of the unredeemed soul. On graduating from Knox College, Toronto, in 1860, he returned to the Red River as a missionary, working in unison with the Reverend John Black, for whom he had the highest regard and affection. He preached at Little Britain, taking the afternoon service at Kildonan, while Doctor Black mid service at Fort Garry. His qualities naturally endeared him to his fellow co1onis a number of whom had hopes that he might be induced to consider a call to Kildonan Church when it became self-sustaining. The great disinterestedness and magnanimity of the man is apparent in his prompt appreciation of the ethical delicacy of his position. On the first hint that he might encroach on the rights of his friend, he, at great personal inconvenience to himself and his family and at a considerable financial sacrifice, accepted a call to Eastern Canada. Leaving his work in the colony, to which every dictate of his nature had attached him, he did not return West until after his co-worker had been inducted into the Kildonan charge, where his name is still held with so much reverence. So delicately yet firmly did Mr. Matheson act that it is a certainty that his friend never even guessed at the underlying motive prompting his action. Mr. Matheson, the first teacher in the historic Kildonan West School, later on established the congregations of Portage la Prairie, Burnside, Little Britain and Springfield. He sleeps in the old Kildonan cemetery, whose headstones mark the resting places of so many Mathesons, departed from this life in the certain assurance that the cares and privations of the overburdened pioneers would receive a just recompense in the Land of the Hereafter.
Two Mathesons of the Red River Colony who carried the family name to distinction far beyond the bounds of Manitoba were John Richard Matheson, known everywhere throughout Western Canada as John Grace, and his brother, Canon Edward K. Matheson, D.D., sons of Hugh Matheson, and grandsons of Angus (Tailor) Matheson.
John was a man of powerful physique and led a life of ad venture from the early age of sixteen, when he enlisted as mail carrier for the Hudson's Bay Company, his route running from Norway House to the Rocky Mountains, a distance of 1,800 miles. For forty years he hunted buffalo, built bridges, led the carefree life of the voyageur and had numberless adventures with the Indian tribes. His life is reflected in greater detail in Agnes Laut's "Freebooters of the Wilderness," in which he appears under the guise of the figure "Matthews." In his later years he established the Indian Mission School at Onion Lake, Sask., of which he had charge from 1892 until his death in 1916. Here he became known as the "Sky Pilot of the Crees," and so thoroughly was his work accomplished that this school has developed into one of the largest and best equipped in Western Canada in connection with the education of the Indians. As is most suitable, his bodily remains repose at the location where he devoted so large a proportion of his life to the service of his fellow men. One of his interesting experiences occurred in his youthful days when he was, as a very special favor, permitted to take part in a Fall buffalo hunt in the neighborhood of Edmonton. Here, some 470 hunters had assembled in charge of Abraham Salois, an experienced half-breed buffalo hunter, who took Matheson into his special charge. A large herd of buffalo had been located and the usual arrangements completed for the chase to commence sharp at daybreak. The young Matheson's eagerness, however, overcame him, and contrary to the strict instructions issued by his chief, he slipped out of the camp in the darkness to reconnoitre. Riding through the night he came on a large buffalo bull, which was fortunately an outcast of the herd. Matheson rode round the beast several times in efforts to rouse it to action, and so thoroughly did he succeed that before he was well aware of what was happening he received the full impact of its charge and was thrown violently to the ground, while his horse, badly gored, dragged itself to the shelter of the nearest bush. The infuriated beast then turned its attention to the prostrate man, who retained sufficient presence of mind to throw himself into a deep declivity formed by the rain having washed through the cart-ruts of the trail. The formation of the buffalo head does not permit of goring an object on the ground nor can the animal see a prostrate foe while it is standing over it. In this manner Matheson escaped serious hurt and the animal backed away to renew the attack. Matheson, to deceive the beast, would move out onto the level ground, only to repeat his manoeuvre of dropping into the hollow at each charge. The animal, finding its repeated efforts foiled, took to snorting and pushing its victim violently with its nose and to licking him with its rasping tongue. It evidently did not relish the taste of the Matheson clan, as it finally moved away in disgust, when Matheson, badly bruised and with his clothes torn to shreds, slipped into the bushes and regaining his steed, stole hack to camp to receive a tongue-lashing from Salois, which so far outdid the efforts of the buffalo that Matheson declared he never forgot it through the after years of his life.
Later on in life, when Matheson had become an experienced plainsman, he was in charge of a party through the wilds of Saskatchewan, and one evening had occasion to send his party forward with instructions to locate for the night at a point where there was an abundance of wood and water. He himself took his gun and made a detour in search of game for the evening meal. While doing so, he unexpectedly fell in with a body of men who were totally unknown to him and who inquired as to the most suitable location to camp for the night. Before taking the responsibility of directing them to the spot chosen for his own party, Matheson made inquiry as to who they were and what they were doing in the neighborhood. Somewhat nettled, their leader, rather in a pompous manner, informed him that he was the Earl Percy, and that he and his party were travelling for the sake of adventure. Sensing a madman, Matheson replied: "I am delighted to meet the Earl Percy. I myself am the Duke of Edinboro', but I am travelling incognito and do not wish the matter referred to before my retinue." He directed the strangers to his own camping ground, and thoroughly enjoyed the joke on himself when it turned out that it was actually the Earl Percy to whom he had been speaking.
His brother, Canon Edward Matheson, D.D., who was born in Kildonan on April 21, 1855, also took up his life work in Saskatchewan, and at the age of 22 made his first trip from Winnipeg to Fort Carlton by ox-train, walking the entire distance, which took seven weeks to accomplish. Fort Carlton was an old Hudson's Bay post some forty miles down stream from Saskatoon. He took up the profession of teaching at Snake Plains and afterward at Sandy Lake, but being ambitious of higher attainments, he entered Emmanuel College in 1879, and was the first graduate from that Institution in 1882.
In writing of the history of pioneering families it is too easy to repeat worn platitudes on their struggles in laying the foundations of a new country, but who shall tell of the long years of sacrifice and hardships endured by the wives and daughters of these heroes of the plains. Idioms of speech fail in any attempt to render tribute to the fortitude and dogged determination by which they held on from year to year, with nothing in prospect to inspire and only the unselfish love of the wife and mother to guide and hold them to self-imposed tasks. While the writer has touched freely on the lighter side of their lives in an effort to render his article more readable, it would be unfair to close without drawing the attention of the reader to the fact that these men and women were dependent entirely on their own resources, that their churches a n d schools, their homes and clothing, and, in fact, every necessity of life were the products of their own hands and brains. Without railways, telegraphs, vessels, almost without coinage, and with none of the advantages of modern life, they wrought for us an inheritance, the greatest that has ever been handed down from father to son in the annals of the human race. No prouder distinction can be claimed by any people than is due to the pioneers of Western Canada, through whose unaided efforts this magnificent country was preserved to the British Empire, in which great accomplishment an active and leading role was taken by "The Mathesons of the Red River."