Project Canterbury

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 VIII. Forty Mile Creek


You know that the exact position of my husband's diocese is between the Rocky Mountains and the United States Territory of Alaska, extending from the Arctic Ocean on the north to the boundary of British Columbia on the south. The diocese contains 200,000 square miles; the population is now only about 5,000, including some hundreds of miners.

The neighbouring country is reported to be very rich in gold. The diggings hitherto worked appear to be chiefly on the American side of the border, but access to them is through the English territory, and smelting is done on the British side. The river steamers on the Yukon bring supplies for the miners in the summer, and there is every prospect of the country opening ere long to civilization.

The mission centres now established consist of one at Rampart House on the Porcupine River, St. John's Mission, Buxton, and at Selkirk, both these latter on the Upper Yukon. Intermediate mission stations are greatly needed, and work amongst the miners is most important.

At present the only certain communication with the outer world is by steamers from San Francisco in May or June, or occasionally in August.

The great drawback to this position is that we are not far from the gold reefs to which the miners come in crowds from all parts of the world, and they intend making our station their headquarters during the winter months, when they cannot work the mines. We have every reason to fear that their goings on will be very sad and distressing, and to the ruin of our poor Indians. I want to try and open a sort of club-room for the miners with magazines and papers and occasional music, and to get a few of the men to join the "White Cross Army."

The Mission House is prettily situated above the river brink on the right bank, the mountains all around, range behind range. Our house is about fifty feet above the fine old Yukon, and we are really on an island—the Creek bounding us on both sides.

We have been working very hard ever since I arrived, and what has been accomplished is really marvellous. The house here was scarcely finished when Mr. Ellington left on account of failing health, and Archdeacon Macdonald put one of the native catechists in charge, who allowed a number of Indians to have free run of the house, and the state of filth and disorder when we took possession was really terrible. However, with much hard work and patience, a good cleaning has been effected, many repairs carried out, partitions made in the rooms, besides tables and benches, and hanging up the school bell. I have taken up my quarters for the present in a good-sized loft, which is divided into three rooms by means of curtains. I have my own furniture round me, which came quite safely, my chairs and little tables and carpet and mats, all the dear home treasures of pictures and photographs, with my bookshelves which are quite full, so you may think of me as very snug and comfortable, although with only sloping rafters. I sit at my window and look at the beautiful Yukon flowing by so stately and yet swiftly, and at the Eastern mountains which I tell myself lie towards Salisbury! The quiet life and mountain air suit my health. There is no bustle or excitement here, but yet I have so much to do that I never feel dull. God has granted me the desire of my heart in bringing me back to my husband and my work amongst the Indians. My life henceforth is doubly consecrated to Him in humblest service.

Our household now consists of Mr. Totty, who is in training for Deacon's Orders, and two Indian girls whom I am training as servants (I expect shortly to have two more), besides the Bishop and myself. The school is close by, and we take it on alternate days until we can get a schoolmistress from England.

A church is begun, but it is infamously built, so we propose turning it into a schoolroom and trying to raise funds at once for a more satisfactory church. You can imagine the pleasant talks I had with dear Mrs. Canham, who felt so much for me in my having had to give up for so long a time the work to which I had consecrated my life.


August, 1892.

In vain I look and long for tidings from my dear ones. One realizes now our immense distance from civilization. Not only is there no Government mail, but this is the first year that any stamps have been in the country, and there has been such a rush for them by the miners, that they are all sold already, so we have to trust to a happy chance of someone stamping and forwarding our letters from St. Michael.

August 18.

The Yukon steamer came in last night, which was the cause of much excitement. I heard a whistle and the shouting of the Indians, and William was up in a few minutes and off to the River, returning with several newspapers and a few letters, all more than a year old! We were very busy through the remainder of the night, writing, as the steamer returns at once.

September 1.

The Bishop is going off in the steamer to-morrow to Selkirk to see the Canhams, who are in a mess about their house. He will only be a short time absent, returning in a canoe. He is better in health than I have known him to be for years—except for these occasional attacks of cramp, which seize him at night, and are very severe—less depressed about his work and more hopeful, and full of all thoughtful kindness and consideration for me. He has roughed it so very much, and I can hardly persuade him even now to let me do anything to make him comfortable.

November 6.

I feel this long silence between us very deeply—it seems harder to bear as the months roll on. Were it not for our times of meeting in prayer and intercession one could hardly keep up under it. My life here is a very busy one, but just such a one as I love, with plenty to do for the hands and heart, and not overtaxing the brain. Of course, some things one would wish very different, but apart from this, one has such a store of mercies as one could hardly deem possible to be vouchsafed to one so utterly unworthy. My dear husband is in so much better health since he came to this side of the Rockies.

Our Mission House is very small, but William, by dint of many clever contrivances, has made it warm and comfortable. Our rooms are all lined with what they call ''drill'' here (we should call it cotton twill), which is pasted on the walls and then painted red. The red gets sobered down by degrees and looks warm and our pictures look well on it.

In these regions winter sets in very early. We seem more thoroughly Arctic than at Fort Simpson, and everyone dresses accordingly. We wear such beautiful fur boots made of fur and deer-skin, or Russian shoes made of sheep-skin with the wool inside. They are warmer than moccasins, but still one has to wear warm stockings and blanket socks inside the shoes.

January 20, 1893.

We have been here six months. It seems much longer, for we have got into regular routine, and the weeks fly by only too quickly. The little Mission House is very plain and homely, and very small, as, especially in the winter, we have to live in the smallest space possible to economize fuel, as, of course, we burn only wood here. We have a good outer kitchen, but we can only use it in summer, as the air comes in between the logs at every chink, so, with the four Indian girls, we are confined to the three rooms, and they none of the largest, and I find it difficult to keep them all in order. For the most part our days run thus:

William is up between five and six and kindly sees to the starting of the three stoves. I have a short, quiet time and then call up the girls, who dress and proceed to their different duties. "Tosca," whom I have made the cook, a fine handsome girl of fifteen, gets the breakfast, usually dried fish (always salmon here), tea, bread and butter. The latter, and flour, we get from the traders, and I make—myself—all the bread for the household. Before breakfast we go into the Bishop's study for prayers. I have a nice harmonium there and play a hymn when the keys are not too hard frozen.

The school bell rings at 9.30, and then comes a scramble to finish washing up, sweeping rooms, etc., and each girl comes to me for inspection before going in to school. Then Baby Mary and I have the house to ourselves. I make arrangements for dinner and then, if it is not too cold, take a short walk with baby, wrapped in her " parka," as it is called here—a pretty deer-skin coat with a hood coming over the face. It is very warm, and she looks so quaint and pretty in it. I shall try to send you home a parka to see. It is very merciful of God to let me have charge of another little Indian child. It was very painful at first, as she is just the age of my dear little Lucy the year we went to Fort Norman, and one seemed living over the past again, and at times almost forgot the interval of deep sorrow. But she is quite unlike my little "Owindia," except in some of her quaint Indian ways. She is really a lovely child with passionate black eyes. Her mother was a Chilkat Indian—a tribe which has always been very warlike, and given at times a great deal of trouble. Mary's fits of passion are fearful. I was quite frightened the first time I saw her in one of them, when the small creature threw herself on the floor and rolled backwards and forwards across the room, roaring as loudly as she could. She clings to me with great affection, and if she wants anything coaxes very prettily by putting up her mouth to "kuss." One day last autumn she was thirsty, so with the pluck and independence of her nation and tribe, she toddled alone down the bank to the river's brim and there lay down and drank, sucking up the water with avidity. It was such a pretty picture! The great Yukon River rolling on its turbulent course of more than 2,000 miles, and the tiny child quenching her thirst out of it as if it had been only a saucer.

We are here in the centre of a large gold-mining district. Fresh creeks are constantly being prospected and found to be rich in ore and gold dust. These are most of them on American territory, but the access to the mines is from the British side. Miners are arriving every year in increasing numbers. About 350 are now stationed at Birch Creek, some 100 miles from Fort Yukon. They are already building houses, and have named their new settlement Circle City, being situated close to, if not within the Arctic Circle. The miners make this, Forty Mile Creek, their headquarters during the winter. They have built themselves neat, comfortable cabins, some of them with kitchen gardens. Many of them are well-educated men, far ahead of the low average level of the mining camps. But others, again, are of a very different type, and these come from their mines flush of money, ready to spend it in any way that will furnish them with comforts, luxuries, and amusements. And two first-class traders are here, with well-equipped stores, containing every article that heart could fancy, from a flour-bag to a wedding ring (which latter article, alas, is perhaps the one least frequently asked for in the whole colony). Here is a good lending library and billiard-room. Here at least six saloons, several restaurants, and a theatre. We can also boast of two doctors, two blacksmiths, one watchmaker, and one dressmaker, with the latest fashions from Duncan. And, worse than all these, there are several distilleries where rum or whisky is made and sold to the Indians, and they have learned to make it for themselves, and that other highly intoxicating spirit called "Hoochino." Thus our Indians, being brought into contact with the white man, fall in only too easily with his taste for luxury, love of gambling, coarse, vile language, and for the miserable and ruthless degradation of women. Our American citizen would scorn to marry an Indian; indeed, by an iniquitous law of his country he is forbidden to do so; but the higher law of God he can set aside and ignore. The sweet, oval face and laughing eyes of our Indian girl please him; he knows that she can be made as deft with her hands, as tidy and orderly, as skilful with her needle as any white woman. She is sadly, deplorably vain, poor child, and a gay shawl or two, a pair of gold ear-rings, will sorely tempt her, as the bag of flour has tempted her father to wink at the transaction. .

Yet even we are not without some gleams to cheer us, some light amid the clouds to whisper hope and comfort. We have, thank God, a few, too few, yet each time an increasing number of Indian communicants. There are some of our men making strenuous efforts to keep from drink. We have heard of some leaving this neighbourhood and going off into the woods to be out of the way of temptation. Throughout the last winter, with a temperature as low as 55° and 64° below zero, when the lamps would hardly burn from the frozen oil, we never failed to have our little band of worshippers at Evensong; men holding their ears from the cold, women wrapped in their blankets, little ones toddling along in their rabbit-skin coats, would hasten in at the sound of the mission bell, and join reverently in the prayers and singing.

It is well for these Indians that their Bishop is as at home in Tukudh as in many other Indian languages. The variety of tongues we meet with is a serious difficulty in the work. We have at present but five mission children boarding with us, but amongst these are three distinct languages.

The Bishop contemplates opening another mission beyond Selkirk, where are a number of heathen Indians who have never yet heard the sound of the Gospel.


January 29, 1893.

It is a strange state of things here, for there is no law and no magistrate. The miners have their own code of laws, which are, for the most part, pretty fair, and they often do most generous acts among themselves and to others also. By-the-by, on Christmas Day a deputation of miners came up to see us and presented me with a gold nugget worth about £10 in honour of my being the first white lady who has wintered so far north.

As to my health, this last and closing chapter of my life exhibits quite a new condition of things. I am wonderfully stronger and able to get through a very tolerable amount of work in the day, feeling none the worse at night, except natural tire.

May 22, 1893.

By the great mercy of God I have been greatly comforted and refreshed by four of your letters brought over from Juneau, on the Pacific coast, by the first miners. I must begin by saying, in answer to your cravings for news of us, that we are quite well, thank God, having all of us, including Mr. Totty, Bishop, and myself,with the Indian girls, now seven in number, passed through the eight months' winter without one day's illness, or any sufferings to speak of from the cold.

It was comforting to feel the sun, which we had not seen at all for six weeks, gaining daily, and the days lengthening. The snow melted gradually, and little bits of green grass appeared from time to time. Then a fly upon our window, which caused great excitement to little Baby Mary, then came snow-birds, and ducks and geese and snipe and the dear swallows. Large spaces of open water then appeared upon the river, growing larger and larger, and last Friday (May 12) at 10.30 p.m. came the sound of rushing wind or water, and behold! all the river was in motion, the great mass of ice moving along suddenly, while huge blocks five or six feet thick were tossed up on the banks as if they were only foam. It has been interesting to watch the disappearance of the ice. As soon as the great Yukon was clear of its own share, down came the Pelly River ice, and then that of the White River and more from the lakes north of this.

This letter will have to wait for another month, when the steamer comes in. I have many to write before this great annual mail starts.

I am thankful that you had our letters which were taken out by the miners to Juneau in April.

A petition has been sent to Washington for a monthly mail from Juneau, and I trust this may be granted to us, as it would make a great difference in communication.

Our short summer is drawing to a close—there are already many signs of autumn coming on. Our winter store of wood is lying near the house on the bank, in the shape of great trees which were cut down and brought here on a raft. A man is engaged to cut them into small logs and faggots to fit each stove. It has cost us £60 to get all this done, but it is a splendid lot of dry wood, and will, I hope, last throughout the winter.

Our birds have all ceased singing. The song of one of them is very sweet, and is exactly the first three bars of the slow movement of Haydn's "Surprise Symphony." The swallows are leaving us already; they skim over the Yukon just the same as over the Fraser, or the pretty little river at Salisbury with that charming view of the cathedral and the Chancellor's garden.

Our Sundays are very peaceful. The Indian service is at ten o'clock, and we have a good number at it. The English service immediately afterwards, when some of the miners come, and we hope the number will increase. The singing is very nice and hearty, especially at the Indian service. The Indians are very musical and have good voices. I enjoy teaching them, and they so respond to all one's efforts and take a real interest in the service. Some of them are fine manly fellows, beside whom a great proportion of the miners look small and pitiful. If we could only get more clergy out here!

August 30.

The steamer just come in and all is bustle and confusion. We have a large mail of letters and newspapers, but your package is not come, and I wanted many of the things I sent for. Never mind! I must wait patiently and hope for it in another nine or twelve months!

A Mrs. Beaumont, wife of one of the traders, came up from St. Michael to have her first baby baptized. "Mary Yukana " behaved very prettily, and is said to be the first white child born within the Arctic Circle.

Since then W. has been very busy opening our Mission goods which have come from London. We have two large bales of clothing for our Indians, and such nice boxes of books from the S.P.C.K. and the R.T.S. These are especially valuable for the miners. Also a bale of splendid blankets; these are most welcome in every way, and you need have no fears as to our not being warm enough this winter.

W. is most anxious to have a Syriac Lexicon sent out. I hope it may come with my packages next year.

December, 1893.

A friendly miner is going off on business to Juneau and offers to take letters to post there for the Mission, making an exception to the general charge of these men of one dollar a letter, and conveying ours free. I have, therefore, the unexpected pleasure of sending you some tidings from Upper Yukon in midwinter. For ourselves, I have, of God's mercy, only good to report. We are weathering the winter, which is pretty severe just now, without suffering or any great hardship. By dint of constant effort during the last two months W. has got our house into a far more warm and comfortable condition than it has been before. He has had all our rooms lined with what is called here "drill," a coarse strong calico, and then covered with a thick coating of red paint. The schoolroom was the last to be papered, but we fear it will be lost labour here, for the cold was so severe (that is, 50° below zero) that the paste froze on the wall before it could dry (in spite of a large fire), and all the paper is cracking.

Our great business of the day is getting in our wood and water. It is so picturesque a scene that I must describe it.

At twelve o'clock Miss M. and the children come out of school and the five elder mission girls muster on the bank—all wrapped up to their noses and with their fur mittens on—and run down to the water hole, which is some short distance out on the river. The girls all carry pails, and the Bishop precedes them with an ice chisel and axe to open the water hole, which has to be done anew every day. Then he bales out the water and the girls run up to the house, where there are one or two large water-kegs close to the stoves. It takes three or four pails to fill the two kegs, at each of which Miss M. stands to empty the pails into them, or the children are sure to spill the water, which immediately becomes ice.

After this they are all summoned to get in wood. Our firewood is now chopped and piled on the top of the bank, extending for fifty or sixty yards, and is six feet high. The girls put the billets of wood into a neat little sledge which the Bishop has had made and haul it in, and then carry them in to the woodboxes in the different rooms.

It is wonderful how much wood we consume this weather. I fear that our large pile will hardly carry us till spring.

It is a comfort that the children all like the wood and water business and think it high fun. Yesterday, with glowing cheeks, they assured me it was not at all cold. At that time in the middle of the day, with a bright sun, the thermometer was 50° below zero.

Our greatest trials just now are the very short days. Miss M. says she is quite out of breath trying to catch up her time. We shall lose the sun now for some weeks. He has been rising later and later and describing a smaller arch each day, but one has still most lovely colouring at the time of rise and set, and then the gloaming is so passing beautiful.

I often think when I turn out in the morning at eight o'clock it must be like the light on the first day of creation, when God said: "Let there be Light."

I have been so mercifully kept in health, hardly ever a headache, and my digestion is so much stronger that I can live on the porridge and dried fish, which is now our principal food, without suffering as I did at first. In spite of all this, however, I feel the infirmities of age coming rapidly upon me. My hair is growing grey, and I have had to take to spectacles, when I can get them, but alas! according to the invariable practice of old ladies, I am for ever losing them! And yet one's inner man is still youthful enough.

Our household goes on very peacefully and happily. Miss Millett is a real blessing to us. She is a thorough Irish girl and a good churchwoman. She gets on well with everybody. The children are devoted to her, and she keeps them in first-rate order. One comfort is that she has good health and is not troubled with nerves. She bears the cold manfully, and was only a little startled lately when her blanket at night was fringed with icicles from her breath freezing. The Bishop is teaching her Tukudh, which she takes to very diligently. We work at it together in an evening when I have time. I am understanding it more and more easily and can even now follow the prayers and join in the hymns at the Indian services and make the Indians understand me in some degree. The children go on nicely and are much improved. My little Mary was three years old on the 2ist, St. Thomas' Day. I produced a home-made scrap-book, truly of scraps, which caused her excessive delight.

January 16, 1894.

The letters which were to have started ten days since are still delayed, our good miner having been forced to postpone his start in consequence of a severe spell of cold. How severe you will understand when I tell you that for some days our thermometer ranged between 60° and 70° below zero, and for two days went down to 73° and 75°. It was a very sharp experience, such as I had never before undergone, and certainly was trying enough, but God's hand sustained us and we were kept in health and in good spirits all the time. Even this low temperature is endurable so long as the air is still, but, if the least wind rises, it requires very strong courage and resolution to take a walk. But our North-West attire is such as to render us almost impervious to cold and our ''brave northeasters," and even 100° of frost fail to penetrate our seal-skin, long-legged boots, and deer-skin "parquets," which parquets are a coat and hood all in one, the latter completely covering the head and forehead, and is edged with a thick fringe of grey wolf fur. One night during the intense cold we had a most glorious aurora and were obliged to stand outside and watch it, with only our eyes uncovered in spite of everything. I cannot describe to you the beauty of the colouring which shot across the sky. The very heavens seemed to open in a beauty which one cannot describe.

Can you imagine the cold of the handle of a kettle on the fire being so intense that one cannot touch it, while the kettle itself is boiling? The temperature has now moderated and we can breathe more comfortably, although you will not think 46° (below zero) very mild.

We welcomed the first disc of the sun back on January 7. We had had no sun above our horizon for nearly six weeks, and so we hailed his return almost with shouts and acclamations. Yet in these snowy regions our winter nights are by no means of pitchy darkness. Even had we no aurora to shed its consecrated gleams upon our sky, the reflection from our bright carpet of snow is enough to make visible most of the surrounding landscape. Our twilight also is so long that, even when the sun does not rise at all, there are lovely streaks of day-dawn in the south-east in the early morning, and the last streak will not expire till nearly 5 p.m.

It is very pretty to see one of our Mission children often seated on the ground with a group of Indian women around her, showing and carefully explaining Scripture prints. The exclamations of amazement and admiration are wonderful, and the intelligence and interest they evince are very interesting. I have a choir practice every week and our children sing from notes. The men sing from ear and are very correct. W. is preparing several of them for H.C. at Easter. There is so very much to be gone through before they could be prepared. Deep mire to be trodden through and many erring ways set right, but some of them are very hopeful.

But I must not say more. W. protests against every letter I write. In truth, my brain is weak. I feel writing at all an increasing difficulty. I have to write a little and then run out for a breath of air. I fear that my various falls on the ice have certainly injured my spine and this tells upon the poor brain. Still I plod on in hope. I cannot tell you how precious some of the books that you have sent are to me. Of the large parcel that you speak of nothing has been heard as yet. Maybe it will arrive in July after two years' wandering!

To L. C. W.

July 20, 1894.

... I have come down the river to meet a young lady friend of mine, Miss Macdonald, who is come out from Scotland to take charge of the school at Selkirk. Last year we had an Irish lady join us for the same object. The C.M.S. will not send us any men, so we are driven at present to work on for the rising generation of Indians, and the Bishop and his two (!) clergy itinerate as far as may be among the scattered tribes of the diocese of 200,000 square miles.

ALASKA. January 25, 1895.

In our slow-going monotonous existence time flies amazingly rapidly, strange to say. We are an active, busy household of eight—the Bishop, Miss Macdonald, our five Mission children, and myself. I think we may say we have not one half-hour unoccupied from dawn to dewy eve. Of our Mission work I cannot say there is much, if any, progress or improvement to record, and yet there have been a few little chinks of light amid the general darkness, for which one feels glad and thankful—i.e., on Advent Sunday we had a celebration at which seventeen Indians communicated, and the earnest and reverent demeanour of our dear people at the service was very touching. Moreover, some of the young men came to the Mission the next day to ask the Bishop if they might go hunting, or was it not too soon after their Communion? Then I do not think the whisky making and drinking has been quite as bad this year. We fancy that both Indians and white men were scared by the visit of a Revenue officer last summer and his intimation that police will be sent in this year to put a stop to whisky traffic. And yet the immorality of the place is, I fear, as bad as ever, although several families of white people came in last summer who seem fairly respectable. One ought to have a missionary from the S.P.G. for these poor white men; it is terrible to think of such numbers being massed together without any church ministrations whatever.

[In 1896, Mrs. Bompas was summoned to England to the bedside of her sister, who was dangerously ill.

On her way she rested a few days in Ottawa, and in September wrote to her friend L. C. W.] [Miss L. C. Wickstead, Ottawa.]

SALISBURY. September, 1896.

Just a month since I landed in Liverpool . . . after the pleasant five days with you in August, when you so kindly responded to my telegram and received the wayworn wanderer. . . . Since my arrival in Salisbury I have been terribly idle—it took some time, I found, to recover from the strain of the last two months. The shock of meeting my dear sister was rather severe. I was hardly prepared to find her quite so thin and fragile . . . but her rallying powers and tenacity of life are wonderful . . . we are very happy and thankful.

I had very kind welcomes from many friends, and many invitations, but I cannot make up my mind to run away just at present, and the English railways try me so much that I shudder at the very thought of them.

To L. C. W.

SALISBURY. Holy Innocents, December 28, 1896.

... I am jogging along pretty well, grumbling a little (one always does find something to grumble at) at the English climate, which is so damp and dismal after beautiful, dry, sunny Canada. . . . We had a lovely bright Christmas Day and glorious services. My thoughts were with you and in Montreal, and in Alaska, as you may fancy. I am heartbroken to find that the much-talked-of Canadian Government contract with Alaska to carry our winter mails has not come to anything—it only holds good for the summer.

To L. C. W.

June 12, 1897.

I fully hoped and intended to go back via Canada; I have been counting upon this and looking forward to it for months past, but Providence (ordering certain course of events) has interposed and made it impossible for me to leave England before July 12, which only allows me just time by the quickest route to reach 'Frisco by August 1, the day when the last boat for St. Michael sails. Things have been rather vexing and contrary! I have paid ten visits since Easter, have held several drawing-room meetings, and have about £200 towards our Mission church! . . . My sister is so well and bright now. We do not speak about my leaving, but she knows it has to be, and she said she felt I was right to go back to my husband and work.

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