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Twenty Years on the Saskatchewan, N.W. Canada

By the Rev. William Newton
Hon. Canon of Saskatchewan

London: Elliot Stock, 1897.

Chapter VI. Securing a Dwelling-Place

TO one coming from Ontario in these days it seems difficult to realize the fact that this North-West is not more modern than other parts of Canada. Excepting Quebec, the far North-West might be called the oldest part of Canada. Travellers reached these countries from Hudson Bay by the great rivers and lakes; and very early in the eighteenth century the French Canadians, bent on discovery or trade, had visited the most distant places. For a hundred years Edmonton has been the centre of a large fur trade, where Crees and Blackfoot traded. Hundreds of miles were of no account to the natives, who travelled in large bands as convenience dictated. All places were the same to them if the hunt was prosperous, and they had ammunition and a few necessaries. Hence at the forts few Indians were seen, except at certain times, when they gathered from the plains, and pitched their tents and did their business, exchanging their furs for the things they required. Then they would disappear again for months.

As a rule, our food was very bad in those days; pemmican or buffalo meat, mixed with fat, was the great luxury. Our bread was made with soda instead of yeast; the commonest food was often unattainable. One day a man, four miles away, promised me a quart of milk if I would send for it. I was really yearning for milk, and was ill for the want of it. As soon as the boy was gone the eight miles for the milk, I placed myself at the window overlooking the road to watch his coming back, and as soon as he returned I divided it, and drank my share with the utmost greediness, as if my life depended on it. Such luxury was felicity.

A few months sufficed to reveal the real difficulties of my position as an isolated missionary. I had gone into a partly-finished log house, which I obtained by a mere accident; two hundred dollars of my own money had been spent in making the house at all habitable. We used the whole of the upper part for a chapel, and in fine weather it was very suitable, and looked very well; but in snowy weather the storms gave us great trouble. Often on Sunday mornings we had to use shovels to throw the snow out of the window; then, when the fire had melted the snow on the open rafters, the wet came down on our heads, and caused discomfort at the services. I could find no accommodation in the small log cottages close by. These generally consisted of two rooms, and were occupied by large families. In these there was little method of housekeeping, and no privacy. If I was to remain in Edmonton, it seemed difficult to know what to do, for my house was held in a very precarious manner. One morning a neighbour, who was a trader, presented himself, and offered to sell me his house and land for a thousand dollars, as he badly wanted money. This seemed to be a Providential offer, for the house alone had cost that amount. On sending to the Church authorities, however, I could only learn that there were no funds available for such a purpose, and my affairs continued as unsettled as ever.

Since then the land alone has been sold for many thousands of dollars for building purposes, and funds have been secured for the building of a fine church, and the provision of an endowment for the minister in the town of Edmonton.

A little time after this a communication came to me from the owner of the house in which I lived, telling me that the use of the house was immediately required, and that he wished to have possession by ten o'clock the next morning. Of course I was a little surprised, as the house belonged to the chief trader, who was expecting to leave the Hudson Bay service. He had claimed three settlers' lots for himself and his brothers, but held them in a precarious manner; for the Canadian Government, in buying the Hudson Bay Company's interests in the North-West, had, in their bargain, included all Hudson Bay officers; and as these already had their share of the spoil, they were prevented from becoming settlers on their own separate account. These three lots led up to the Methodist mission property, and comprise a large part of the new town of Edmonton. It is a curious part of the local history which records that these lots were conveyed to other persons, and helped to make the fortunes, in one case, of two persons. If history, in small and large matters, were truly written, without gloss, and just as the facts occurred, what a commotion would be created, and how many would want it suppressed!

However, as I could not purchase a piece of land to build a cottage where Edmonton now is, I had looked about me for a 'location,' and I chose the Hermitage, where I now live, and I took possession of it a few days after receiving the notice above mentioned. It was in the middle of December, 1876, that I took up my permanent residence. A part of the summer had been occupied in clearing the spot of willows, and in building a small log house, for when I took shelter there--as Paddy says---there was no roof over my head, and no floor for my feet. It was with the greatest difficulty that I obtained lumber and shingles at heavy expense, and then I had to fetch them almost entirely by myself from a great distance, and to spend two nights in the snow in doing this team-work. Let those who suppose colonial pioneer missionary work is easy and luxurious, try it under such circumstances, and they will soon be converted to a more reasonable mind.

The Hermitage is situated on the North Saskatchewan river, about seven miles from Edmonton; it would in most countries be considered a pleasant locality. Around it are hills and valleys, trees and water. From it for twenty years missionary journeys have been made to settlements, and Indian tents, over a space of two hundred miles, and it has been the centre of all the work which one solitary missionary has been able to accomplish.

As this district is now well settled, it may interest readers to know one of my experiences on the first morning that I spent at the Hermitage in clearing the ground. We had pitched our tent in a valley by the brook, and early in the morning the boy came to the tent door shouting, 'Sir! sir! there is a man coming with cows.' The answer was, 'That is not possible, for where can he be coming from, and where can he be going to?' Around us there were no paths or roads of any kind, and the matter was dismissed from my mind. Soon, however, the voice exclaimed again, 'It is not a man; it is bears!' On looking from the tent, surely enough there were five bears--a large bruin, a black bear, and three cubs--quite near to us. Quickly I got a revolver and sharp knives, and, placing the boy behind me in the tent, I told him not to be frightened, but to do whatever he was told to do. The bears looked around unconcernedly for perhaps ten minutes, until the bruin led the way up a hillside, and they all disappeared. We never had visitors of any kind that we were more pleased to see quietly go about their business, as any accident might have brought fatal consequences.

Shortly after we took up our residence at the Hermitage, several events occurred indicative of the crude state of our civilization, and the lawlessness of the district. On my land I had a beautiful grove of spruce firs, and being fond of trees, I spent time and money in clearing the grove. Once, on returning home, I found persons had in my absence taken down the fence, cut down some of the trees, scattered the waste around, and carried the timber away. Presently I found the man who had done this wrong, and told him not to come on such business again. Instead of being ashamed, he told me he should do as he pleased with the grove, and that he should not hesitate to take it all away. When I complained to the only civil authorities we had, they replied that they had no instructions about Crown lands and timber limits, and so refused to give protection. Soon others came and did the same, and gave me to understand that they had the sanction of the local men, who did not recognise the right of anyone to a piece of land, or of what was on it. Out of this folly and injustice arose lots of trouble to the Canadian Government by 'claim-jumping,' which, as a piece of local history, may be mentioned in its place.

Just then there was a small band of American outlaws, and others, who stole horses and cattle, from whom I suffered, and could get no protection. Civil government could hardly have been more hopelessly inefficient in any part of her Majesty's Empire.

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