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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 VI. 1884-1892

BISHOP BOMPAS was a man of giant strength, but the many long and terrible journeys through the length and breadth of the North-West, which devotion to duty and an heroic, indomitable will had prompted and enabled him to achieve during eighteen years, had told upon him.

"'I feel,' he wrote, 'much gratitude to Almighty God for the needful health and strength granted me for the past year's travel, but I do not feel so much energy for journeying as before, and may be unable to accomplish the same again.'

"He maintained that the great extent of the country, 3,000 miles long, rendered his own superintendence of the missions rather superficial; but, he continued, ' if the zeal and affection of friends at home would provide an additional Bishop for Peace River, then I think the whole diocese, as large as half Europe, might be viewed as an end worth an effort to accomplish.'

The long desired change at last took place (in 1884). A definite step was taken by the Provincial Synod of the province of Rupert's Land, and a new diocese was carved out of the southern part of the old. This included the Peace River district, and retained the name of Athabasca.

''Here, then, were two dioceses—one the Mackenzie River, stretching from the 60th parallel of north latitude to the Arctic Circle, and westward beyond the great mountains, bleak and desolate; the other nearer civilisation, and only half as large, but with great prospects before it. Which would the veteran take? The one that promised greater ease? No, that was never his plan. Leaving Athabasca in charge of Bishop Young, who had been consecrated on October 18, 1884, for that special field, he set his face steadfastly towards the frozen North, as far as possible from the restraints of civilization."

In the year 1885 there broke out the great rising of the half-breed element along the banks of the Saskatchewan River, which is known as the "North-West Rebellion."

"It was brought about through several causes, such as the advance of civilization, the threatened famine due to the rapid disappearance of the buffalo, the 'fear that their lands, of which they had received no patents or title-deeds, would be snatched away by speculators,' and the dissatisfaction ' with the Government's method of surveying the land, which interfered with the old French plan of having all the farms fronting upon the river.'

"Led by Louis Riel, himself a half-breed (the leader of the Red River Rebellion in 1869), and joined by the Cree Indians of Saskatchewan, they spread terror over the country, committing at the same time a number of unwarrantable murders. The North-West Mounted Police, of whom there were only 500 at hand, bravely held them in check until General Middleton, Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Militia, arrived from Eastern Canada with a force of 4,400 men. After several sharp encounters at Fish Creek, Batoche, and Cut Knife Creek, the rebels were defeated and the rebellion brought to a close. . . .

Though the disaffection did not extend to the Indians of the Mackenzie River Diocese, yet the mission stations suffered severely, as some of the Hudson Bay Company's posts were in the disturbed districts, and at these places mission supplies had been stored, ready to be forwarded during the summer. . . .

Not only did the rebellion cut off the Mission supplies, but it was a sore hindrance to Mrs. Bompas, who was returning from England with recruits for the work in the Far North. Several times they essayed to go forward, but in vain, and for a whole year (until April 30, 1886) were forced to remain in Winnipeg."


November, 1886.

The Mission party which left Winnipeg on April 30 last only landed at Fort Simpson on August 2. We were indeed thankful to find ourselves thus far in health and safety; some of us to be stationary, at all events through the winter months, while others, after a few weeks' breathing time, will be starting off again for their respective stations on Peel River and the Yukon.

The first part of our journey—i.e., from Winnipeg to Calgary—was most enjoyable. We travelled by Canadian Pacific Railway through lovely prairie country—the fresh air and sense of repose were indescribably soothing and refreshing after our last busy days in Winnipeg. We stopped three times each day for our meals, and the strange-sounding names of Moosomin, Moose Jaw and Swift Current, Medicine Hat, etc. represented neat little towns, or settlements, where we were as comfortably entertained as the most fastidious travellers could desire. Having left Winnipeg on Friday morning, we reached Calgary on Sunday, May 2. The first sound which saluted us was the bell of the little English church ringing for morning prayer.

At Calgary we went through one of our many times of waiting and suspense. The heavy luggage, which we had sent on from Winnipeg fully a week previous to our own departure, had not arrived. No one knew the cause of the detention and no one could predict with any certainty when we might hope to see it; in vain we wrote and telegraphed and tormented all the railway officials with ceaseless inquiries.

To start without our luggage, with the prospect of its lying in the H.B.C.'s store at Calgary for the next year or two, or getting mixed up with the goods of Athabasca missionaries (a large party of whom were expected in shortly), was not to be thought of. The ladies of our party shrank from the idea of moose-skin dresses for the coming winter, and they and the gentlemen thought of many small articles which should help to make their homes warm and comfortable, and, still more, of the books which should shorten the long wintry hours of the Far North. All things considered, it was resolved to wait, and, in the meantime, we explored the beauties of Calgary, and a most charming little town it is, having sprung up within the last four years, but boasting now of three churches, a handsome post office, and other public buildings. The view of the Rocky Mountains from Calgary is indescribably grand and beautiful. We gazed at them in all directions, and they presented, as mountains will present, ever new effects, according to the time of day, sunrise or sunset, or our own position while gazing on them. They were, of course, at this early season, snow-capped and nearly snow-covered, yet here and there one could discern small patches of green brought to light by the warm embrace of our May sunshine.

The whole history of the making of the C.P.R. is full of interest; it is certainly one of the great achievements of our age, and men may well be proud who have had any hand in its construction. The men appear to have worked in gangs about 800 in number, with (in Yankee parlance) one Boss and one or two foremen over them. At one time they worked day and night, the night brigade coming on when the other retired, and working on by electric lights, four of which were kept alight for their benefit. The big Loop is one of the remarkable pieces of engineering skill which characterises the C.P.R.'s progress through the Rockies. The Loop is in the Selkirk branch of the mountains. Here the road describes the figure of the letter S doubled. At the western end of the Loop you are 800 feet above the level of the sea, and at the eastern end you are 2,000 feet above it (the distance being only 45 miles). The mountains here rendered a direct course impossible, and the height to be attained still more so. At the upper end of this loop you catch sight of the Big Glacier, which is one of the wonders of these mountains. The west side of the crossing and farther on there are 43 miles of trestles 30 feet high, and 47 miles farther on the last spike was driven which completed the road.

About this part, too, there are some lovely lakes—some of them of tremendous depth; it is said of one of these that a line of 2,000 fathoms could not touch the bottom! and a rock which had been blasted, and which was computed to measure some 2,300 cubic feet, fell into the lake without leaving the slightest trace of its presence or raising the water by half a foot!

We were now in the region of the Blackfeet Indians, and a number of these dark-skinned, but tall, well-built and good-featured men were continually hanging about the streets and stores of Calgary, observing and taking mental notes of all the wondrous changes wrought by the white invaders of their country. One cannot help feeling strong sympathy and respect for this brave, though hard-headed race, and especially for Crowfoot, their intrepid Chief. Whatever part they may have taken in the late rebellion it was, as Crowfoot solemnly declared, forced upon them by others—i.e., by unscrupulous men who made money by war on the Indians.

These Blackfeet, like all the races of Indians, have indomitable pride, and cling with undying faith to their old traditions, and this should be taken into account before they be treated like children or branded as traitors. If the white men did but appreciate or understand the sagacity and sharpness of intellect which many of the despised red men exhibit, they would, perhaps, learn a little more prudence and tact in dealing with them. As it is, the Sioux and Blackfeet have, perhaps, been more troublesome and unmanageable than any to the missionary. They have a curious admixture of truth and error in their Creed, which it is hard, very hard, to set right. They believe in a Supreme Being, in the immortality of the soul, in happy hunting grounds prepared and made ready for all good Indians. They hold to miserable sandhills somewhere in this lower world where the bad Indian must be content to hunt diminutive buffalo; and yet they still keep up the solemnity of their sun dance, where the great deeds of their deceased warriors are related, and the candidates for fame submit themselves willingly, even gladly, to excruciating tortures. Wooden skewers are run through the flesh of back or breast, and the victim is suspended in the air and expected to remain there until the flesh gives way under the weight of his body.

The Blackfeet have a superstitious veneration for the number seven; it is to them a mystical number and seems to have had a singular association with all their past history. There were seven tribes. The whole nation is and was divided into seven classes or ranks. Seven women were always appointed to guard the Buffalo pounds. At their feasts seven stones are used for the bath. The origin of this veneration for the number seven is probably the following poetical tradition:

Seven youths were once watching the field in which the sacred plant tobacco was sown, and they were so good and faithful that the Great Spirit was pleased, and He came down and invited them up to Heaven; they danced their way there, and to this day they may be seen as the Pleiades.

There is a curious custom observed among the Blackfeet which I noticed last winter among the Sioux—i.e., the husband must never see the face of his mother-in-law! The most ingenious and amusing devices are hit upon to prevent this undesirable encounter ever taking place.

The Sioux have another superstition which I doubt not is shared by the Blackfeet, as their beliefs and customs are so much alike. This is a small imp called "Heyoka," which one would liken to a Spirit of Contrariety, as it prompts men in all cases to run counter to common sense and prudence or discretion. In winter those possessed by Heyoka will divest themselves of all covering; in summer they will dress in furs and blankets. They call black white; they ride facing the horse's tail; they always aim away from the object they wish to shoot at.

May 8, 1886.

Our lost goods have come at last and we are thankful. We start at once for Edmonton—a drive of some 300 miles. Our array of equipages presented a rather imposing appearance wending its way through the streets of Calgary. First comes a four-wheeled vehicle called a '' Democrat'' with two horses; then a two-wheeled buggy with one horse; after these, at a demure snail's pace, came the nine waggons or carts bearing our goods, tents, provisions for the way, etc. The horses attached to these carts are poor, miserable-looking creatures. They proved themselves equal to their task, however, working on day after day through drenching rain, or blinding snow, or scorching sun, with no other food given them but the short prairie grass which they chewed at will through the night.

Later on, however, when the mosquitoes began to swarm in good earnest, the sufferings of these poor patient brutes were much increased, and they are known sometimes to forgo their food and stand for hours round the fire kindled for their benefit, in the smoke of which is their only comfort and safety.

The scenery at this part of our journey was dull and monotonous, only a vast expanse of prairie land, low and level, with hardly a tree or bush to vary its monotony. From the swamps and lakes which we passed rose countless ducks and other water fowl, and our freighter made good use of his gun, and occasionally presented us with some of his lovely spoils. The first Sunday on the prairie we are not likely to forget, a cold, incessant, drenching rain set in and continued all day. Our tents were soaking and the rain beat in under the eaves. Moreover, as we now discovered, we had no firewood! This important item had been completely overlooked or forgotten in our hurried start from Calgary. So we sat shivering and disconsolate in our respective tents, only meeting occasionally, or at meal times, "Patrice," our half-breed freighter, kindly boiling our tea-kettle for us, as he had brought a small quantity of wood for his own use.

On the Wednesday following this rainy Sunday, we had a similar visitation of snow, which began at night and continued steadily nearly the whole day. Our tents were hard as boards, and as far as eye could reach there was nothing but unbroken, untrodden snow. The prospect was wild and dreary enough, and we sighed often enough for a good English coal fire. Our circumstances were here somewhat better, however, than on the previous Sunday, as we were within a short walk of a small house (one of the calling houses of the mail-car from Calgary), and Mr. Scarlet kindly permitted us to turn in there from time to time and thaw ourselves by his store fire. The snow discontinued that evening and, although several inches deep, had quite disappeared before the end of the week.

We now fell into a regular routine which continued with few deviations until we reached Athabasca Landing. We rose at half-past five or six o'clock and got our boy up and breakfast cooked by seven. Tents down, provision cart reloaded, and waggons off by eight. Then, when our camping ground was cleared and quiet, our Mission party assembled for prayers, Mr. G. (chaplain at Fort Rae) conducting the service. We sang our morning hymns, and very sweet did it sound in that still, unbroken silence of the prairie. And then came the word "all aboard!" and we sprang into our conveyances and prepared ourselves as best we could for another day's shaking and jolting, for the roads across these prairies are no roads at all, but simply tracks grooved by some years' traffic. Sometimes a poor horse, with all his goodwill and much endurance of whip and abuse, would stick fast in the deep mire, unable to move backwards or forwards, and the joint efforts of three or four men would be needed to effect a move.

May 19, 1886.

The songbirds are beginning to make themselves heard as we approach the woods, some geese also have been seen, a few plovers, a number of prairie chickens, and one crane. The weather is getting milder and is now for the most part very enjoyable. We hope to have seen the last of the buffalo heads which lie in numbers on the prairies, sad relics of the days when those prairie monarchs were ruthlessly destroyed for mere sport, and then left to rot in the hot sunshine. The buffaloes are now nearly exterminated. I secured one of these buffalo heads and carried it as a trophy under our ''democrat''—it looked quite imposing in that position.

Mr. and Mrs. G. met with an adventure one day which might have ended unpleasantly. They had a little diverged from the rest of the party and lost their way; finding themselves near a wood where there were recent wheel tracks—they drove through it. After they had gone a few miles they noticed on one side of the track a grey-looking animal standing and looking towards them; a few minutes after, another of the same kind came in sight. They turned out to be wolves. Mr. G. did not waste time on this discovery, but put spurs to his horse and drove safely by, not a little thankful to be unmolested.

One night in my tent I felt something nestling at my side; on putting out my hand I clasped something warm and furry, which immediately loosed itself and got away. It was probably a marten or ermine.

May 22, 1886.

Nearing Edmonton! Heat most intense, our faces all peeling from scorching sun, and this in spite of hats and umbrellas. We have come in sight of the Saskatchewan river, flowing calm and broad and beautiful under the high rocks of Edmonton. This is the centre of an extensive district of peculiar fertility. The settlers tell you of unexpected success in their reaping of crops, even "off the sod "—i.e., the first season that the soil is ploughed. Coal, too, is so abundant round Edmonton that a man may get his winter's supply for the trouble of digging it. There are three churches at Edmonton, an hotel, schools, post office and telegraph station, and it is also an important depot of the Hudson's Bay Company.


[The winter 1886-1887 was a terrible one. The famine increased. Game was scarce, few moose were to be obtained, the rabbits all died, and the fish nearly all left the river. The Indians asserted that the scarcity of the finny '' prey '' was caused by the propeller of the new steamer Wrigley, which first churned the head waters of the great river the preceding fall, but was unable to reach the northern posts owing to the ice—hence the lack of supplies. But any excuse would serve the Indians, as on a previous occasion when fish was scarce (so Mrs. Bompas tells us) the natives said it was due to the white women bathing in the river. Such a radical change as cleanliness was evidently as much disliked by the fish as by the Indians.

"We have been living for some days," says Mrs. Bompas, "on flour and barley soup, and potatoes twice a day. We are four in family, and William gives us all the giant's share and takes so little himself. One hears terrible accounts of the Indians all around, all starving, no rabbits or anything for them to fall back upon. Here many of them hunt for rotten potatoes thrown away last fall. Oh! it is heartrending!"

At length so serious became the trouble that the Bishop, to lessen the number at the Fort, left for Fort Wrigley. Thus the winter and spring passed, and not until the steamer arrived with supplies did the famine cease. On this steamer Mrs. Bompas left for England, and never again did she visit the Mackenzie River Diocese. The Indians and all missed her very much, and kept asking continually when she would return. "I tell the Indians and everyone else," wrote the Bishop to Mrs. Bompas, "that I have sent you home against your will."

During the several years which Mrs. Bompas now spent in England she was able to send a few special things to her husband which she knew he needed and would appreciate. That he did so is shown in this extract from a letter she received from him: "I shall bless the day you were born, for two things you have done for me. You sent me my first pair of spectacles when I was getting blind, and so imparted new strength to my bodily eyes; and you sent me the Syriac Testament and Lexicon, and so have let the light of Heaven into my darkening mind. I find the Syriac text leads me nearer to God than all the commentaries I have ever read."

Thereafter he spent more and more time in studying and translating the Bible from the Syriac.

Meanwhile changes were taking place beyond the mountains, along the great Yukon River, the Quikpak of the Russians. Gold had been discovered, and the reports of the Government surveyors were attracting miners to that region, and it became necessary that more complete episcopal supervision should be made. The Bishop, writing concerning the matter, said:

The missionaries now labouring in the district referred to are very isolated, and much need the support of episcopal oversight, which it is hoped may be no longer denied them. From the Mackenzie River it appears impossible to superintend the district. A visit thither from the east side of the Rocky Mountains would involve a journey of 5,000 miles or more, and an absence of two years. The Rocky Mountains form a natural barrier between the Mackenzie River and the large country farther west.

"The result was that in 1890 the Provincial Synod of the province of Rupert's Land sanctioned the division of the Diocese of Mackenzie River. Archdeacon W. D. Reeve became Bishop of the eastern portion, stretching to the Arctic Ocean on the north and the Hudson Bay on the east, while Bishop Bompas gave himself up to the work along the Yukon River. . . .

"Even after the division was made, Bishop Bompas had no small sphere of work before him. His new diocese comprised 200,000 square miles, more than twice the area of Great Britain, and the third largest diocese in British America. . . ."

"In August, 1891, we find him still at Fort Norman, and in a letter to Mrs. Bompas, who was in England, he wrote:

"'I am now engaged in packing up, with the view, if God will, of shortly and finally leaving Mackenzie River for the far West.'

"Before his consecration he had paid two visits to Fort Yukon, and travelled up the river to where another stream, the Forty Mile, joins the Yukon. To this spot the Bishop turned his attention in 1891 as a suitable site for his abode. Crossing the Rocky Mountains, he spent the winter of 1891 and 1892 at the lonely Rampart House.

''In the spring he went down the Porcupine River to the Yukon. It was here he met Mrs. Bompas, who was returning from England."]

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