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Narrative of a Journey to the Plain Country of the Saskatchewan, North-West America.

By Thomas Thistlethwaite Smith.

From Church Missionary Intelligencer, London, 1867, pages 139-143.

WE are enabled to introduce from time to time itinerancies carried out by our Missionaries into the interior of unevangelized lands, the starting-point being some advanced Missionary post on the verge of the wilderness, and the object being the acquisition of a more accurate knowledge of the country and its people, with a view to the prosecution of more extended efforts. Thus in our two last numbers we introduced details of journeys made by the Rev. J. D. Valentine into the interior of densely-populated China, where, in every direction, there are thousands and tens of thousands to whom, without hindrance, the Gospel may be preached.

In remarkable contrast with these are now presented notices of a country where the people are as sparse as in China they are numerous. If, in China, the Missionary is overwhelmed by the vastness of the work, in North-west America his sympathies and energies are chilled by the loneliness of his position and the desolation which reigns around; for there a circuit of a thousand miles may be traversed, and not as many human beings met with as there are hundreds in the thousand.

Into the vast regions of North-western America our Missionaries appear to have been providentially introduced for the express purpose of converting and saving as many as possible from amongst those races which appear to be fast hastening to extinction. Our Missionaries have wrought earnestly to preserve a seed which, invigorated by Christian influences, mighty reproduce these races anew; but whether the effort will be a successful one appears very doubtful. The destructive influences, so far from diminishing, appear rather to increase. The best portions of the country, where agriculture might be successfully pursued, are open to the raids of the Plains Indians, and are consequently insecure; while, farther north, the spots which would respond to the space and the plough become more and more difficult to find, until, beyond a certain degree of latitude, they cease altogether. There the Indian has to depend exclusively on his hunting and fishing, but these sources of supply are becoming more and more precarious.

The great evil, however, which threatens to overbear all our efforts for the preservation of the Indian race is the fire-water, now brought in without let or hindrance, and in great quantities, by free-traders from the United States. These men [139/140] care not what evils they inflict, if only they may succeed in prosecuting a gainful trade; and their success in this respect is no uncertainty, for the abandonment of the Indian to this temptation is reckless in the extreme. Even to the Christian Indians it is a powerful temptation: how irresistible, then, in its influence on the defenceless heathen, devoide as he is of any principle which would enable him to resist it, may be well conceived. Hitherto the more northern Indians, the fine race known as the Tchutche, on the west of the Rocky Mountains, and towards the borders of Russian America, have been too distant, and have escaped the poison; but if it be indeed true that Russian America has been ceded to the United States, then we fear there will be, in the distant north, a repetition of the same evil, and the free-trader become the messenger of degradation and of death to the Tchutche and the Esquimaux.

The itinerancy which we now introduce is one carried out by the Rev. T. T. Smith into the plain country of the Saskatchewan River. It had been thought that places suitable for the commencement of Missionary labours might be found in that direction, and therefore, from his station at Devon, situated on the lower course of this river as it approaches Lake Winnipeg, he started on a journey, the particulars of which will be found in the following journal.

Tuesday, Oct. 10, 1865--This, evening, after dark, a boat arrived at the Hudson's-Bay Company's Fort, conveying the captain and mate of the steamboat plying between George Town, Minnesota, and Fort Garry, on an exploring expedition up this river, with the view of ascertaining the practicability of running a similar craft up to Carlton House. As I had been from week to week frustrated in my attempts to start on a visit to the Nepowewin, I hailed this opportunity with delight, and, deciding at once to embrace it, wrote a note to Captain Munn, requesting the favour of a passage with him. An answer was immediately return, offering me a passage as far as I thought well to go.

Oct. 11--After an early breakfast, bade adieu to my family, and embarked with Captain Munn and Mr. Hutchison. On Thursday made the grand detour, and reached Cumberland House on Saturday, the 14th. Left the Fort the same afternoon and ran down the Big-Stone River to the Saskatchewan, where we camped. Our progress from this was rather slow, partly owing to the shoalness of the river, which winds considerably. The points are long, flat, sandy bars, covered above the average water-mark with willows. The current, excavating the opposite bank, makes the river more and more tortuous, until it seeks a new channel, leaving the old to be filled up by the sand and mud carried down by the annual freshets. The main banks are densely wooded with rough and smooth bark poplar, spruce, maples, juniper, and willows, equisetum growing thickly beneath.

Oct. 17--Passed the mouth of the Sturgeon River, into which a strong current was running from the main river. It is remarkable that the greater body of water passes from the main channel through this Sturgeon River into the swamps and offshoots of Cumberland Lake, and then out to the main river again by two small rivers, one at Cumberland House, the other at the end of the lake. There is scarcely any current at all in the main river below this point.

Oct. 18--Our progress is now slower, owing to the greater strength of the current. Arrived at the foot of Thoburn's Rapids, and commenced the ascent. The drift wood on the banks indicate that the height pf the summer freshets is about twenty feet above the present level of the river.

Oct. 19--The sun rose eclipsed this morning. Still toiling up the rapid, the men discharging the cargo frequently to lighten the boat over the shoal place.

Oct. 20--Left the rapid. The river widens considerably from this point. At the rapid it is confined within high bluffs, but now there is the same succession of sandy points as below. Sturgeon appear to be abundant above the rapid: we saw also a fine "bald eagle" (Haliactus Iseucocephalus), but could not approach him.

Oct. 23--We are now entering an entirely different country. The river at the alternate bends approaches precipitous bluffs of clay, crowned with spruce, or, where the fire has passed, with aspen and an abundant undergrowth of wild vetches. The sides of the precipitous banks are covered with the fragrant Artemisia, showing our proximity to the plains. On the shores, at the foot of the bluffs, we picked up many specimens of pyrites in nodules, some of a dull grey on fracture, others of a more arsenical nature, silvery white, and, where exposed to the [140/141] atmosphere, a bright golden colour; so that some of the men, having heard of the gold found on the Saskatchewan, imagined they had alighted upon a rich mine.

Oct. 25--Met the return provision-boat from Moose Woods. This is the boat which I expected to return by, but not having achieved the object of my journey, I must proceed, and trust to some opportunity offering itself for my passage back. Wrote to my wife, telling her not to expect me until the winter had set in. A little whisky-jack (Perisozeus Canadensis) was so impudent to-day, at dinner time, that I set a snare close to me and caught him. On letting him go again he appeared in no way disconcerted, but, alighting on a willow about two yards from me, eyed the viands spread out in the most saucy manner possible.

Oct. 26--Started off on foot this morning, and arrived at the Nepowewin Mission about eight o'clock. Found only two or thee females at home, Mr. Budd having gone off to procure provisions. Crossed the river in a bateau, and went up to the fort, where I was most hospitably received by Mr. R. Clarke. While at breakfast the boat arrived. They left after dinner to endeavour to reach Carlton. I determined to await the return of Mr. Budd, and, if possible, to proceed to Carlton, according to the instructions of the Corresponding Secretary, Rev. A. Cowley.

Oct. 27--Visited some of the free men settlers. Had reading of the Scriptures and prayers with them. The land appeared very good, covered with a young growth of aspen: not much had been cultivated yet. The house was clean and neat, and the Word of Life had its place therein, and was brought forward cheerfully for me to lead them in worship to the throne of grace.

Oct. 28--The river full of ice to-day: my friends in the boat are sure to set fast. Took a walk to observe the leading features of the place. The pine grosbeaks (Pinicola Canadensis) twitted gaily among the bushes, and a solitary belted kingfisher (Ceryle Alcyon) passed me, warned probably of his delay by the approaching of winter. The woods abounded in rabbits (Lepus Americanus). The larger ones, having assumed their winter dress, were plainly discernible; but the smaller, being tardy, were more secure from the hunter's gun. The Fort is situate on the river bank of the Saskatchewan, at the opening of a valley which runs from the river far back among the hills: behind it is a thick growth of spruce; above, the hills are covered with poplar; while along their crests runs a belt of scrub pine (Pinus Banksiana), only a few hundred yards deep, but extending for a distance of fourteen or fifteen miles I am told. The soil is very sandy where they grow. The Mission is directly opposite the Fort, upon a flat table-land, or point, facing the south and south-east, and defended by a range of hills from the north and north-west. It is admirably situated, with plenty of wood for building and firewood, and excellent land available to any extent for farming. The Mission premises are commodious, but the school chapel is not yet finished. There is excellent feeding for cattle: any amount of hay may be had.

Oct. 29--Preached at morning service at the Fort to an attentive congregation, and in the afternoon walked up to Turner's, to baptize their infant daughter. Afternoon service at the Fort, where there was another attentive congregation. The services are entirely in English, as there are no Indians here.

Oct. 30--Took a sketch to-day of the Mission opposite. [See engraving in "Church Missionary Intelligencer" for April.]

Nov. 5--Engaged in the usual services at the Fort, where there was a good people of the establishment and settlers, about fifteen in all. Mr. Budd had a free service at Turner's in the afternoon, while I conducted the service at the Fort.

Nov. 9--Started for Carlton in company with Messrs. Clarke and Wilson, of the Hudson's-Bay Company and one man on horseback, for Carlton House. After passing the belt of pine, our course lay southwest over an undulating country, well wooded and watered for about five miles; then we came out upon the Paoonan, a beautiful elevated plain, about two miles long, as flat as a bowling-green, covered with rich short grass. From this point the country was much broken, affording excellent spots for settlement.

Nov. 10--Our men shot a fisher to-day, which had taken to a tree on the first alarm. It is the Mustella Pennantii of Erxleben. The country to-day is more barren and less precipitous, but undulating.

Nov. 11--Wolves stampeded our horses last night right through the camp, and gave us a wild serenade to lull us to sleep again. Crossed the Munuchenas, a large hill situated on the border of the plain country, and made a straight cut for the crossing-place of the south branch of the Saskatchewan, passing over a rolling prairie, dotted with small salt lakes and bluffs of poplar. On our arrival at the crossing-place, discovered that Captain Munn and his party had passed, the day previous, on their way to Red River.

[142] Nov. 12--Crossed the river on the thin ice without much difficulty, and ascended the opposite bank, where we found the carcase of a horse, which one of the Carlton-House men had hobbled there the previous evening, partly devoured by the wolves. The poor creature had had a long struggle with his enemies, but was overcome at last. There will be only the bones left to-morrow morning. Rode on to Carlton, over a prairie country with very little wood, and came upon the Fort rather suddenly, located in the valley of the river. The place has a barren, desolate look at this time of the year, owing to the want of trees and the withered state of the grass. Held service in the Fort, which was attended mostly by the fresh hands lately arrived on their way to Edmonton, the servants of the country being mostly Romanists.

Nov. 14--Started early to cross the plains to the south branch, in the direction of Moose Woods. No water to be found fit to drink: plenty to be seen, but as salt as brine. My companions thought it would yield pure salt on evaporation, but the taste was that of sulphate of magnesia.

Nov. 16--Continued the course of the river, and found, some distance up, the boat of the Hudson's-Bay Company, which had been left at a cache of provision made on the first setting-in of the ice. Remained by the boat with two men, while Messrs. Clarke and Wilson rode on to discover the position of the cache. We had brought an additional man from Carlton, with an ox and two carts, to bring the provisions down to Fort à la Corne. This evening Thompson, one of the men, missed the ox, and, started up suddenly to run over the plain to seek him, made a false step, and ruptured the outer hamstring of the right knee.

Nov. 18--Placing Thompson in one cart, and, leaving Mr. Wilson and the other man to go on to the cache with him, Mr. Clarke and I rode on to moose Woods, distant across the plains about forty miles. Saw many wolves and some buffalo. In the evening experienced a severe storm of hail and rain. Moose Woods proved to be a miserable place. A number of human beings were crowded into a little house. Rum had preceded us, and the Indians were bent on a display of its debasing influence. Many of them were already drunk, so it was of no use speaking to them. There were several tents there of men, women, and children, the latter in marvellous numbers. After dark they began to throng into the house, naked, painted, and singing their heathen songs. The women generally urged on the men, and never have I seen such bold, shameless specimens of women. Compelled to quit the house, I stood for a long time on the bank of the river in the pitchy darkness, lifting up my heart in prayer to our heavenly Father, asking Him to keep my heart stedfast in love for souls, even such as these, since He could love them and send His Son to die for them. Returning to the house to dry and warm myself, I found an interval of quiet to draw the few Orkney men present into conversation, and was pleased at the results: all had Bibles, with the exception of two, who had lost theirs, but eagerly applied for others. The Indians continued to annoy us through the night, but towards morning all were subdued by the fumes of the liquor. Rising early, I called the few Christians together, and we united in offering prayer and thanksgiving to plead for the poor creatures around us.

On our return journey to Fort à la Corne, we pressed on our horses, making about fifty miles a day and arrived in beautiful weather, more like spring than winter: the willows, bursting their catkins, added to the deception.

At the Fort found Mr. James Isbister desirous of returning to Cumberland, and about to embark the next day in a skin canoe, to proceed as far as he could by that means, then to take to the land. Busy closing business matters with Mr. Budd, and preparing to embark to-morrow.

Nov. 23--After breakfast, embarked in a skin canoe with Mr. Isbister and a "green hand" from the Orkneys. We had a sled with us, and dogs ran along the beach. The craft in which we were embarked was formed of willows, tied together in the manner in which crates are made for earthenware, and a buffalo hide is firmly stretched over these, so as to form a craft about as manageable as a washing-tub, but with the disadvantage of having to navigate a river full of rapids instead of a mill-pond. On running the first rapid we took in a little water, which made us more cautious for the future.

Nov. 24--The rabbits are very numerous along the shore: at times we see ten to twelve chased by one dog alone on the side of the bluffs. Plenty of exciting work to-day running rapids. Our craft is very much soaked with water, and consequently more unmanageable towards evening. Mr. Isbister shot a fine specimen of the golden eagle (Aquila Canadensis) this evening, which I skinned in camp with my pocket-knife. We saw six in all, a remarkable fact at this late season of the year.

Nov. 25--Made a portage and demi-charge [142/143] this morning at rapids which looked too formidable for our unwieldy craft.

This afternoon, found the ice apparently choking in the river; so, cutting our way to the shore, we landed, and, running along the bank, found the river gradually filling up with ice. Upon this we tracked further up, and sought a passage through the floating ice to cross over to our dogs. On reaching the opposite side, we found the ice already jammed along the shore: there was no possibility of getting into it, as the drifting ice was carrying us down rapidly, and between the two we should have had our frail craft severed in the middle. At this time it was getting dark, and the ice was surging and grinding fearfully: we were at its mercy, but it was subject to the will of our Lord and Saviour. We then perceived a check in the ice before us at the side, so, pushing as near as we could to the choked ice, we were taken in the nip. Vigorously plying our paddles, we sought to remove the ice from our leeward side, so that the pressure might force us on to the masses of ice rather than crush us: if it had done the latter, we should have sunk at once, for the ice was pounded into a mass like wet snow, and as deep as we could thrust our paddles. We now found ourselves about 120 yards from the shore, our craft covered with ice, and darkness upon us. There was no hope but to gain the shore; so, again plying our paddles, we scooped the ice from our bow to the stern, and, bit by bit, strove to force our craft along. We had much water in her, and, weighted as she was by ice, if the ice had given way again we should have sunk with the weight. After the first hour's incessant work we found we had advanced about ten yards; the next hour, twenty yards; then, the ice being older, it was not so difficult to clear, and in the last hour we made sixty yards--four hours' incessant toil to progress 120 yards. We immediately lit a fire, and knelt down to praise our merciful Father for our deliverance.

Nov. 26--Morning prayers, and spent the day in camp in reading Scripture and conversation thereon.

Nov. 27--The ice being now firmly set fast we started to walk over its broken surface, each carrying a pack on the back, the rest being put on the sled for the dogs to haul. We had set a young spruce in the ice at the point of our lane through it, with an inscription on its side, with the date of the event, and "We praise Thee, O God" in large letters below.

Nov. 28--Snow for the first time this winter in any quantity. Dined at Pemican Point. Owing to the open water in the river among the islands we were obliged to retrace our steps, after making a circuit of about five miles.

Nov. 29--Could not travel on the river, so we had to cut our way through the woods, and only advanced about a mile and a half in the morning. Mr. Isbister remembered having seen Indians land here to make a portage, they said, over to a small river which flowed into the lower Sturgeon River below Thoburn's Rapids. Continuing in the same direction, we came upon the portage, and follow it. Camped at the small river.

Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 was spent in this river, traveling in the right direction we knew, but to what point we could not tell. On the Saturday, at midday, were cheered by the sight of some Indian tents, and found them to be some of our Christian Indians from the Grand Rapids. Procuring a guide from them, we continued on for about fifteen miles across a swampy portage, and came to a small post of the Hudson's-Bay Company. Here we had an attentive congregation, and a child was brought forward for baptism by some other Christian Indians who were encamped close at hand.

Dec. 4--Arrived at Cumberland House and found all well. They have passed a very miserable fall from want of provisions, caused by the failure of the duck-hunt and the tardy progress of the winter.

Dec. 8--Started for home. During my stay I have had most attentive congregations at public prayers, and have had one baptism. The children have been also gathered together twice a day for instruction.

This is a post that might be occupied with great advantage by a catechist as there are a good number of Indians frequenting the post, and most of them are baptized. More children can be gathered together there in the winter than generally come to school at Devon during the severe weather.

Dec. 9--Arrived at home, and found my family quite well. On setting out I expected my stay to be about three weeks: now it is two months since I left home.

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