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A Heroine of the North
Memoirs of Charlotte Selina Bompas (1830-1917)
Wife of the First Bishop of Selkirk (Yukon)

With Extracts from Her Journal and Letters

Compiled by S.A. Archer

London: SPCK, 1929.

Chapter III. Athabasca


St. Peter's Day, June 29, 1876.

THE scene has changed from home to the boats en route for Athabasca. We started Tuesday morning. Such a business getting off I can hardly describe, and my room thronged with Indians, wives and men, to the last, all wanting something—i.e., medicine, or a "make of tea," or a little flour, or any small remembrance. It was hard to pack under such circumstances. Then there was a grand gathering on the river bank of Indians and white people to see the boats start, and then a universal hand-shaking and occasional kissing, and then the signal was given, and we started. And now you must try to picture the scene, for it is a pretty one. There is the beautiful wide river, with its swift, swift current, and high banks on either side, just now covered to the foot with beautiful shrubs in full bloom, soon to be laden with berries, also abundance of wild roses and other flowers. Now you catch sight of eleven portage boats in full sail when the wind is favourable, at other times either rowed by our crew of eight men, or "tracked," —i.e., drawn by four or five men with ropes. There is the first boat in which sits the Master—i.e., Mr. Hardisty, chief officer of the Hudson Bay Company—then comes another with Mrs. Hardisty and family, then others in succession, among which you notice the Mission Boat, where is seated in the stern-sheets Mrs. W. C. Bompas holding small Jeannie on her lap.

"Lipimy," the head steersman, takes the lead in everything, and steers and masters boat. He calls us up in the morning with a loud "Lève! Lève! Lève!" Times our starting in the morning (at four o'clock), and the halt for each meal—eight a.m., one and eight p.m., the last being supper and camping time which we all welcome with delight, being, as you may fancy, rather tired of our boats when we have been in them nearly sixteen hours. We are called, as I said, a few minutes before four o'clock, and about ten minutes after, my tent man appears and begins most unceremoniously taking down the tent, so that all my toilet has to be performed at night. I wish you could see my tent, it is so pretty and comfortable. I am very fond of it. One of the crew acts as our cook. Our breakfast consists of salted deers' tongues and tea, dinner of dried meat and tea and biscuits, supper of pemmican (which is very good), biscuit or "bangs''—as the Indians call what is just the fried batter cakes which you advised me to make, and which are very popular among us—and the everlasting tea. Now I think you know all about our tripping experiences. I hope that vous n'en êtes pas fatiguée?

Our daily routine is varied when we reach any of the Forts, where we are hospitably entertained by the officers and their wives. Just at present the heat has not been unbearable, but I fear it is likely to increase as we get on. The mosquitoes are terrific. My poor little Jeannie is almost maddened by them. I have to spend a great part of the day in driving ,viygy tr*-enemy from her face, hands, etc. I am ashamed of the untidy appearance of my letter, dearest, but y;n must excuse, as I write under difficulties, and since I began this page a thunderstorm has come on, which is responsible for these blots; still, it has cooled the air, which is a blessing, and now we are all hoping for a fair wind in order to hoist sails.

These poor Indians are no great hands at rowing, and it is pitiable to see the state of exhaustion they get into, and then there is the pleasing anticipation for them of five portages close together before they get to their journey's end, and in three or four of these not the whole cargo only, but the eleven boats themselves have to be carried across the land to the next starting-place on the river.

Saturday, July 1, 1876.

We are having regular July weather—namely, heat and scorching sun and then thunderstorms. Such a storm we had yesterday! In our open boat it is not pleasant. We had to heave to and all creep under some oil-cloths which are kept in every boat to defend the precious furs, and which really helped to keep our less precious selves dry. To-day the air is lightened, and, a fine breeze having sprung up, we are sailing, which is just delightful. To-morrow, Sunday, we hope to reach the rapids "Fort Providence," so we may look for a quiet day and one service, at least, from the Deacon. There is a French Sisterhood there, and I hear they have a most beautiful harmonium which I am planning to go over and play. I fear my poor little instrument has come to grief in the boat; it is impossible to keep the men from treading on it.

Friday, July 7, 1876.

We got to this post this morning, after sailing all night. Dr. Mackay, Omcer-in-charge, and his wife are very nice and kind. We do not fare much better than in the boats, except that here we get a little fish and some milk. We are to stay here until Monday, so I shall enjoy a quiet Sunday, and Mr. Garrioch will hold services, and I shall spend part of the day in simmering over some of my dear sisters' letters.

I shall try and send you an Indian air which I partly arranged, and with which I sing little Jeannie to sleep. It was sung, I presume, impromptu, by an Indian who "died, and, after some time when men had made medicine, he came to life again!" I tell you this as it was told to me.


July 8, 1876.

A pleasant three days' sail to Slave Lake, but such a bitterly cold north wind. I could hardly manage with all my wraps to keep myself from freezing. This was followed by a boisterous, rainy night, when one's tent is not so pleasant, as it gets perfectly sodden and the eaves blow up, which invites some of the countless dogs to enter, one of whom, I was roused to find, was actually eating with relish the porridge of my Indian baby, and another lying soaking wet on my dress. Then came a bright day with pleasant sailing, which was encouraging—the wind continuing so fair that it was decreed we should keep on late and start very early. Under these circumstances it is best to sleep in the boat, which I did, and was hardly conscious when we moved off again at 3.30 a.m. I was roused, however, by an immense stir amid the crew soon after six o'clock. Something exciting was at hand and I sprang up at the words '' La Real—La Real!'' The cause of the excitement I soon perceived, for swimming across the lake (which at this part is very narrow) was a fine moose deer. Poor thing, it had nearly reached the centre of the water, so the excitement in the two boats which were nearest was waxing tremendous, everyone seizing and loading their guns, and in the meantime steering towards the poor swimmer, who I hoped still might escape. The other boat got the start of ours and, getting quite close to the deer, one of the crew stabbed it with a large knife tied on to a stick. To describe the cries and hurrahs of all the men would be impossible. By this time the boats were close together and the crews helping to raise the poor creature into the boat. I suppose it was dead, for it offered no resistance, and the water was reddened by its blood.

ATHABASCA. August, 1876.

We reached Athabasca (which word means "the meeting-place of many waters ") in the early morning of a beautiful day towards the end of July, and were most kindly welcomed by the Head Officer at the Fort (Fort Chipewyan) and his wife, who gave us a dinner of fresh meat and stewed apples—luxuries long unknown!

The lake is very picturesque, with small islands dotted on its surface, reminding me somewhat of the coast of Argyleshire. The Hudson Bay Fort stands high on a rock, and is the principal house in the colony, which consists of ten or twenty wooden dwellings occupied chiefly by the officers and clerks.

The Mission House is not yet finished, and, what is worse, the church not yet begun, but wood is being collected for the latter and we hope to watch its progress. The "Bishop's Palace" pro tem., consists of a small tenement with one large room out of which a ladder leads up into a small attic.

I did the best I could to make it habitable, and placed the cooking stove in the yard enclosed in a skin tent or lodge. I find this a great comfort, and wonder why people at home in want of space do not make use of lodges.

Mr. Garrioch, who travelled down with me from Fort Simpson, is appointed to Fort Vermilion, Peace River, south-west of Slave Lake, where the Bishop thinks there is a good opening for mission work. When he goes we shall have no resident clergyman. I am anxiously longing for my husband's return from the very far North. Meanwhile, I find plenty of occupation, and I have undertaken the school daily until we get a master out from Red River. It is held in a small, wooden shanty; there are not many children at present, but among them I have chosen a few promising boys for a choir, and we have already started some chants in the service—quite a new thing for the Chipewyans.

The work here is very unsatisfactory so far. The Indians are all of the Cree or Chipewyan tribes and are for the most part Romanists. There is a French Mission House just beyond the Fort, with some priests and sisters who work very energetically. It is a very great thing in the work when it is carried on, not singly, but even in small handfuls of earnest-hearted workers together. Oh, that we had some men and women from England! I will not say who do "no work," but where perhaps work is not so urgently needed as it is here. There is but a sprinkling of white people and half-breeds here, and there are Presbyterians.


I am settled into our house with the little Indian babe whom I brought all the way from Fort Simpson. I think it will be comfortable, but it was hastily finished and is very cold. I have fitted up the largest room as a temporary chapel. A schoolmaster is come out from Red River and reads the service very reverently. Still, one's soul faints for something more, and I have to remember that Daniel prospered upon pulse. I am weary of looking in vain for the boats which are to bring the Bishop.

My Indian girl, Theresa, is improving, but she has given me much trouble. She was about the very worst girl at Fort Simpson, and, therefore, I brought her away with me. My husband feels that it is such we should select, and strive to civilize and train to higher influences. She is very spiteful and jealous, and has conceived such a jealous hatred for my dear little Indian babe that I dare not leave Jeannie with her. The dear babe is still very delicate and has needed constant watching and care ever since she came to me a year ago. Still, she has been a great blessing and comfort to me, and I know not what I should have done on some of these long dreary nights without her little hand patting my face, and her bright little face cheering many an anxious hour. She has given me many a sleepless night, from which I doubt my poor eyes ever recovering, and the more trouble she gives me, the fonder I seem to get of her. I have now also a little boy under my charge—a small Raphael—a half-breed. His father—a man from Lewis—is away at the Fishery, and the child was learning all sorts of evil and bad Cree ways.


We have been living for the last three months only upon fish, under which I was thinner daily. The Indian hunters will soon, I hope, come in with some moose deer.

The other day I had a message from a Cree woman: "Tell big Minister's wife that my husband killed a 'Tzas' (beaver), and I will give it to her for that petticoat she had on the other day, and if she will be good to me, I will be faithful to her all the winter, and when kill bear or beaver and make grease I always give her some."

So my good woman had the skirt and I had the beaver, on which I bid some others to feast with me.

Our Cree Neighbours, or the Story of the Red Shawl

Most of the Indians who visit this Fort are Chipe-wyans. Their hunters bring us our meat and most of the furs to the Company. In the summer and fall a number of Chipewyans arrive in canoes from the different islands, bringing berries, which we are only too glad to purchase to turn into preserves, and so add to our winter stock of dainties. An old stuff petticoat or shawl, still more, a pound of tea, will buy a whole roganful of these berries, the rogans being kind of baskets skilfully constructed out of bark, and of different shapes and sizes.

But, besides these Chipewyan visitors, we have a sprinkling of Crees coming from Saskatchewan, having drifted on from time to time in pursuit of food from their original habitation.

The characteristics of the Crees are altogether different from the other tribes around us. Their faces exhibit a great deal more intelligence. They are more slightly made, and, for the most part, better looking than the Chipewyans, but Crees of all ranks are proverbially light-fingered, and many of them are incorrigible thieves. The Chipewyans often steal food, but beyond this they do not bear a bad character.

My acquaintance with "Madeline," my Cree neighbour, began last fall in the following manner: The fish-boat, which usually appeared every morning bringing us our daily provision of white fish, had been detained by stormy weather, and, in consequence, we were short of "prey." In other words, we had nothing for dinner. This generally involved a visit to some of the camps, where by dint of a little coaxing and the promise of some tea or sugar I seldom failed to secure a fish or two. But on the present occasion I was rather unfortunate. All the camps were bare and the Indians somewhat cross, as is often the case; they wanted nothing for the moment, and, in consequence, they had no object in being obliging. Theresa, my little Cree maiden, was disgusted, and I myself somewhat dispirited, as we turned away with the prospect of no dinner but a cup of tea and some biscuits.

But there was still one more camp we had not visited, and to my maiden's great delight the inmates turned out to be Crees. "Have you got a little fish to spare, or anything you can sell us?" she began again. "We have missed our prey and have nothing for supper."

A bright good-tempered-looking woman was seated in the tent surrounded by a number of little, grimy, black-eyed children; for a moment she looked doubtful, and I thought we were going to meet with another refusal.

Then suddenly an impulse of pity seemed to seize her and she bent towards the fire and took up a fine duck which was roasting on an extempore spit, and, handing it to us, said: "There, I feel pity for you, take the duck I was roasting for my supper. When my husband kills beaver you shall have some." Of course, we bore away our duck in triumph and feasted on it with thankfulness.

That evening "Cree wife," as she was always called among us, came up to the Mission to be paid, for you must clearly understand that when an Indian talks of '' giving '' he does not do so at all in the same sense in which we should take it, but expects the full value of his gift to be paid him then, or at some future period. But my little Cree was not unreasonable in her demands; a trifle satisfied her as payment for the duck, and from that time she became our general purveyor, and helped us in many little ways when I required assistance. The beaver which she had promised us was duly killed and brought us in course of time; then came rogans full of berries, and after these moss, that soft dry moss which is so universally used by the housewives in this country, and the comfort and cleanliness of which to lay young infants in has only to be tried to be appreciated.

At one time I found that I was running deep into debt with the Cree wife, and I had to insist on her telling me what she was in want of as payment. Then came the usual Indian shy laugh of assurances that she wanted nothing—all of which I took, of course, for what they were worth, and I found that she afterwards confided to my little handmaid that she had no shawl. So a shawl I must rout out for her at whatever cost, for an Indian takes in a remarkably bad grace your refusal to supply him with any article he may fix his mind on.

Shawls—new shawls—I had none, and of other—more or less worn, I had—yes, I had one; but I shrank from parting with it. It was a real old friend—such as shawls, more than any other article of dress, will become. As I held it up in the light, and recognized the fact, for the first time revealed to me, that its best days were over, its colour a little—just a little—faded, and then looked back over the space of years which had gone past since that shawl was given to me, I felt a clinging to and fondness for it not to be described, and which, as I told myself at the time, was simply childish. The dear home-look and smell were still about it, and how could I part with such an old friend and treasure? No! I folded it up and laid it back in the box from which now it seldom moved. I resolved that while life lasted, my old red shawl and I should never part! But my mind was not comfortable that evening, nor my heart at rest. In fact, I and myself got into a small controversy on the matter, which I am glad to say ended by the shawl being again taken out of its seclusion and handed over to the Cree wife as payment for certain rogans full of berries, and sundry odd jobs of work which she did for me when they were required.

I see my old friend frequently even yet, though it has already a far more shabby appearance than when I parted with it. Madeline wears it with a style of her own, low down on her shoulders and surmounted by a red and yellow silk handkerchief on her head, which is very becoming. It has been washed and torn and mended, and at times handed over to one of the children—a small girl some eight years old, who wears it in would-be-imitation of her mother, with half a yard of it trailing on the ground. Lately it has been wrapping up a newborn infant. Soon I may expect to see it used as ai swing or hammock for the said baby, tied up to the boughs of a tree, or suspended in their tent or "skin lodge." What will be the next stage of shawley's existence it would be hard to conjecture, but I think it may be said even now to have done its work and to have fulfilled its task of ornament and usefulness, and I do not myself regret the second thoughts which prompted me to give instead of keeping it—believing that it behoves us missionaries to seek more than others for the spirit of divestment.

Just at Christmas (1876) I fell ill. My husband was away on a missionary journey; my Cree handmaiden, like many Indians, took fright at my illness, and would hardly come near me. Thus alone and un-tended, I passed some days of acute mental and physical suffering, but I cried loud for help to the dear Saviour, and He delayed not long to come to my rescue. It was one morning when I had passed a. suffering and almost sleepless night and I was betaking myself to that worst of consolations—a hearty cry—when a low tap was heard at my bedroom door, and on its being opened, who should appear but my little Cree friend.

Yes, there she was, with smiling good-tempered face, the red shawl, folded square, upon her shoulders, a new yellow silk handkerchief tied jauntily on her head. At first Madeline seemed inclined to be playful, but I suppose the sight of my suffering countenance and swollen eyes checked her mirth.

She came and stood at my bedside, and said, in kind, almost remonstrating tones: "You are ill; why not send for me? I work for you; I do anything for you; scrub house for you; wash clothes for you; nurse baby for you!''

Oh, how can I describe my feelings of joy and thankfulness at this sudden and unlooked-for help! I could only take that small dark-coloured hand in mine and stroke and press it while I thanked God for putting it into this poor- woman's heart to come to me in my extremity; and I had, in the days following, full proof that my friend was sincere in her offers of assistance.

My greatest source of anxiety and trouble now arose from the sickness and constant wakefulness of my little Jeannie, and then my own brain seemed reeling from want of sleep. If I could get Jeannie soothed and comforted for a few hours, I might snatch a little sleep myself and so be better able to tend her again. And I had but to say a few words to make the Cree wife understand what I wanted her to do.

That evening, soon after six o'clock, in she walked, evidently prepared for night work, with pillow and blanket, which she proceeded to spread upon the floor. Then, stepping quietly to my side, she took my little Jeannie from me. I was hardly conscious from that moment. The feeling of mental relief was such that I must have sunk off almost instantly into the sleep I so greatly needed, and through that night all was peaceful and quiet. Only once did I awake to consciousness, and the picture before me was so pleasant that even in my weariness and exhaustion I was fain to look upon it again. My little "wife" was seated on the floor and whistling in the softest way between her teeth some wonderful military march kind of air, while Jeannie, newly wrapped in fresh moss, with shawls and flannels round her, was propped upright between blanket and pillow in a manner peculiarly Indian, and though wide awake, was perfectly calm and contented. The glow of a bright wood fire lighted up the faces of the two; too happy and thankful even to utter a sound, I closed my eyes again and sank off into unconsciousness.


January 30, 1877.

I must now turn to another phase of our mission life—even the sad history of my dear little Jeannie's death. It may be wondered that I felt it so deeply, but so soon one learns to love these little ones, and from the first I viewed the Indian children as my especial charge.

This little motherless babe was brought to me on Christmas Day, 1875, and coming to me on such a day and under such circumstances I could not refuse the charge, in spite of all that it involved. I did everything for her myself, and I shall never forget her moan whenever I left her, or her pretty chirp of joy when I returned. She was always very frail and delicate, but with unceasing care she struggled through the first year of her life until, just before my illness, she seemed drooping and a cough came—which assumed more and more of a consumptive character and indicated serious mischief at the lungs. I scarcely thought it possible that a fifteen months' old babe should be doomed to go through all the phases of that dire disease, but so it was, and she bore it most patiently. I gave her all the nourishing food I could devise, but all was in vain. The Bishop came in one day and read part of the service for the Visitation of the Sick by her cradle, which was a great comfort. In the beginning of January she had far more signs of vitality than I had myself, but yesterday—the Feast of the Purification—we laid the little one to rest, digging her tiny grave through the deep snow, most thankful that the little suffering life was ended, and that she is among those Holy Innocents out of whose sweet life Christ hath ordained praise.

Towards the middle of January my husband returned to me after more than seven months' absence. Then all grew brighter and my health improved, though a long period of great weakness followed.

The Bishop seems, on the whole, well satisfied with this last expedition; within these thirteen months he has taken in the whole breadth of the diocese from north-west to south-east, about 2,000 miles—passing over in going and returning at least double that distance, as he has been to all the mission stations and posts in the way. This visit to the Tukudh Mission, presided over by Archdeacon Macdonald, and which comprises the Lanchoux tribes, was a very interesting one. He confirmed 133 candidates amongst them, and found the Indians increasing in religious knowledge and earnestness. The children are learning to read the Gospels in their own language, the Archdeacon having accurately translated them into Tukudh. There are 1,460 Christians amongst these tribes, and they have eighteen lay teachers who faithfully carry on the daily service, some of them keeping school daily with about forty pupils. The scarcity of provisions up there was very great, but wherever it was known that the Bishop halted to hold services and to administer the Holy Sacraments, the Indians came in eagerly from their hunting grounds, and all the services were well attended.

There are now mission stations at Forts Vermilion, Rae, Norman, McPherson, and Rampart House, besides Fort Simpson and Chipewyan. The Bishop gave an interesting Charge at the First Diocesan Synod held in September (1876) at Fort Simpson, and strongly urged extra exertions as to the erection of more churches in the diocese, and the immediate completion of those already begun, also as to organising a training institution for native teachers in the Far North.

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