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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 XI. Carcross

["YEARS of strenuous work were telling upon the Bishop's gigantic constitution, and he began to realize that ere long he must lay down the staff of office. For some time he had his attention turned towards the southern portion of the diocese, to the Indians who were gathered at Caribou Crossing, which had become quite an important railway centre. In August, 1901, he and Mrs. Bompas bade farewell to all at Forty Mile and started on their journey up the river."]

December 18, 1900.

I am no longer the busy over-occupied person I used to be. Our Mission children are now made over into the hands of a Mr. and Mrs. Gordon. Mr. G. is an Oxford M.A., and well-experienced in educational and mission work. Mrs. G. is an American, active and energetic, who takes kindly to the children, even to the two little Boers who led me such a life last year, and so, you understand, Mr. Gordon is head of Selkirk Diocesan School, Forty Mile, and assistant priest of St. James' Church for the white men, while Mr. Hawksley is in charge of the Indian Mission—St. John's, Buxton.

This is a lovely spot, and the climate far more moderate than on the Yukon, and we are 1,500 miles nearer Canada and England, and we get letters from England in three weeks and newspapers all thro' the winter. So it is not wonderful that I should feel better here and seem to have taken a new lease of life. Yet I fear the chances of my visiting you are but small (much as I should like to do so), because of the expense, for the husband has been straining every nerve to start two new Mission stations—Christ Church, White Horse (about forty miles from here) and this one of Caribou, which the Bishop is now holding.

The demands upon the episcopal finances have been many, and rather severe, and we have to economize in every direction, but are thankful to be helped on day by day and for the few gleams of light which at times come even upon Selkirk.

May 8, 1901.

I have been very ill. I went to White Horse for my Easter Communion, and soon after my return I was seized with severe pneumonia, followed by bronchitis. I have turned the corner now. I suffered terribly—had bags of ice all round my body. I have been most tenderly and lovingly nursed and cared for. Mrs. Bowen came from White Horse and stayed a fortnight. All my white neighbours, too, were most kind. I have fresh milk provided for me every day, and new laid eggs—the first time for twenty-seven years (in the North) that I have had such luxuries.

Carcross, Past and Present

[The earliest data in the history of this place are suggested by its original name—Caribou Crossing. About ten years ago this was changed to Carcross for the following reasons: First, because Caribou Crossing was too long for the address of letter or document; secondly, because there were two other places named Caribou in the North-West, causing endless confusion in the postal department; thirdly, Bishop Bompas, then resident in Caribou, had been asked to suggest another name for the place, and whereas formerly the deer, when about to cross the lake, had with their usual animal sagacity chosen that narrow part for their crossing, so when the magnates of the Yukon and White Pass Railway had hit upon the same locality to build their bridge, and the railway cars and ponderous engine had usurped the place of the graceful deer, the name of "Carcross" at once suggested itself to him, and was by the majority of the residents in the neighbourhood looked upon with favour. True, there were some dissentient voices even in that small community; we doubt if, at the railway station, the name "Caribou Crossing" has ever yet been effaced, and the question might to this day have remained in abeyance, had not a message come down from Ottawa stamped with unalterable decision: "The name is Carcross."

It was in the year 1901 that the Bishop and Mrs. Bompas came up the Yukon from Forty Mile to White Horse (then only known as a promising new mining camp and as the head of navigation for the steamboats down the river to St. Michael, Alaska). They spent one night at White Horse with Mr. and Mrs. Bowen in their tent (in which Mr. and Mrs. Bowen lived for some months till a house could be provided for them, and in which Mr. Bowen held services for the Indians and white men).]

The following morning (Mrs. Bompas writes) we proceeded to Carcross, a distance of forty miles along the side of the lake, passing the White Horse Rapids, where many a lusty but too venturesome miner has lost his life. Carcross had been selected by the Bishop as a suitable spot for starting a new mission station. There had hitherto been no one to minister to the Indians gathering there from time to time from Atlin, Teslin, Lake La Barge, and Little Salmon River; moreover, there was a station at Carcross of the Yukon and White Pass Railway, and it was certain that crowds of white men of every nationality would now be coming into the country, attracted by the gold-fields of Klondyke, Dawson, and Bonanza, etc. Many of these prospectors would come from Seattle or San Francisco to St. Michael and ascend the river to Dawson, but the larger number of them made use of the but recently completed magnificent railway passing the Divide at the summit, and there entering British territory.

The Bishop had placed Rev. Flewelling in charge at Dawson, Rev. J. Hawksley at Forty Mile, Ven. Archdeacon Canham at Selkirk, and Rev. R. Bowen at White Horse. It looked as if the Bishop's long cherished scheme to do something towards evangelizing the southern part of his large diocese was about to be realized.

There was, as far as we knew, no house awaiting us at Carcross. We were prepared for this possibility, and had brought a tent with us, although the prospect of a tent for our winter habitation was not encouraging. The only inhabitants then visible to our inquiring gaze were a couple of the Royal Mounted Police, the owner of the "Hotel Caribou," the stationmaster, and two or three Indians from Skookum Jim's camp across the lake. We noticed one tidy looking tent a few yards from the railway station, which proved to be a road-house where travellers might get shelter and refreshment. It was kept by a respectable old Scotchman, who, on our seeking admission, gave us a hearty Scotch welcome and a sumptuous repast, to which we did full justice, and for which the good man stoutly refused payment. It was from Mr. Anderson that we learnt that there was a vacant house the other side of Lake Bennett. The house had been used as a road-house, also a post office; it belonged to one of the trading companies, and Mr. Anderson thought that it might be rented or bought for the Mission; and of that house we at once took possession, glad and thankful for the prospect of its shelter during the coming months of winter.

The house was a long, one-storied loghouse standing about fifty yards above the lake, and about the same distance from its margin. There were two good-sized rooms in it, one with large tables and benches, also a small room or office, over which we saw in large letters the words "Bar Room." The other large room had evidently been used as a sleeping apartment, as it contained bunks on each side with very shabby broken-down shelves or bedsteads for the occupants. There was also an office with high desk, intended for whoever took the duties of postmaster, and a fairly good-sized kitchen. The house was not attractive in any way, either from its present conditions or the suggestiveness of its past; one had to shut one's eyes to the internal aspect of things, and to dwell on its possibilities and surroundings. But in this the mountains were helpful, and anyone who has lived long among mountains will bear witness to their calming, soothing influence. The beauty of their outlines, their ever varying tints and shadows, the mystery of their dark fissures, the rapture of their glory at sunsets all speak of Him who '' in His strength setteth fast the mountains and is girded about with power."

Our first night in the road-house, after a ten years' interval, I have still in vivid remembrance. The Bishop, with the help of an Indian, had been very busy bringing up the goods which had come with us from Forty Mile. We had persuaded an Indian "lady" from the camp to commence the process of scrubbing, which our floors sadly needed, but it would take several days' application of soap and soda ere the reminiscence of road-house festivities could be wholly erased; moreover, the place was infested with mice and squirrels; the mice attacked our rice and other stores voraciously and without compunction, the squirrels were equally adept at thieving, and between their various acts of depredation would spring on the rafters and sit grinning at us with the most amusing sauciness. Other reminiscences of road-house convivialities were evident in the scent of tobacco smoke and whisky which haunted the apartments. The space round our house was strewn with empty whisky bottles; an Indian boy soon cleared this for us, with the help of a wheelbarrow which he borrowed at the Caribou Hotel. We paid him 50 cents an hour, and by working strenuously for the space of three hours, the bottles were carted off and flung into the lake. After this operation we felt that outwardly, at least, we presented a more respectable appearance.

As soon as we took possession of our log-house the Indians began to rally round us. Tents sprang up along the lake a short distance from us; several families with numerous children and dogs appeared as occupants, and, thus, a good prospect of occupation for us was rapidly provided. The Bishop's medicine-chest was soon brought into requisition, for an Indian is apt to look upon all "yaltis" (praying men) as more or less "medicine men;" we have to treat all manner of complaints, real and imaginary, describable and indescribable. A man once came to us for medicine—strong medicine, in case he should be ill next winter"—leaving us to select, as well as to treat, the symptoms which might occur! The children (the nucleus of our school yet to be) were in and out of the Mission all day. We loved the dear little dark-eyed gipsies, full of fun and mischief. It has always been a wonder to find how soon they get into our hearts, and take such deep root there that one is ready to join in that most thrilling of all cries, an Indian mourner's wail, when a child is taken from among them.

Our church services had now to be organized in Caribou, involving various difficulties. There was a large tent standing on the open ground near the station which might be obtained and fitted for the purpose till cold weather came. A few benches were procured, a decent table, which was all we could aspire to for an altar, also a prayer-desk improvised by the Bishop, and a few tin candlesticks borrowed from the hotel and affixed by wires to the roof pole of the tent. We had a good-sized handbell to summon our congregation, which numbered at first only half a dozen Indians, one or two of the Mounted Police, the stationmaster's wife, etc. Our church tent was decorous, but hardly luxurious, especially as the cold winds of autumn came on; the tent eaves were lifted up from their moorings, our small stove threw out but little warmth, and I must confess my fingers nearly froze on the keys of the harmonium. None of that congregation but were glad when the Bishop gave notice that "from this time forth services would be held at the Mission House."

The school at Carcross, when first opened, stood on the other side of the lake, and nearly opposite the Mission. A house newly built, but as yet untenanted, had been offered the Bishop. It had many qualifications for a school building; it was in a good situation, well and strongly built, with rooms capable of ventilation, etc., so the Bishop decided to make the purchase, and the house became Mission property. Before many weeks were over, Miss Ellis and half a dozen of her little folk from Forty Mile had come up with bags and baggage and taken possession of the new premises. "And how about furniture?" you will ask, dear friends of our Mission who do not need to be reminded that we have no furniture stores in Carcross. But we have a sawmill in full work close at hand, and piles of good lumber; moreover, tools, nails, etc. are ever an essential part of a missionary's equipment. The Bishop and a couple of Indian boys set to work, and in a few days a number of small bedsteads, warranted to bear any weight, a dining-table and two smaller ones, and some strong benches were ready for use. Chairs were improvised out of boxes—one, especially, being fashioned by the boys out of an old barrel picked up on the lake shore, the circle divided, and a false bottom put halfway up for seat. This, after being cushioned and upholstered by Miss Ellis, was presented to the Bishop for his own use.

But the school across the lake was not of long duration. Flaws soon appear in all human work and contrivances. The poet says, "The best laid schemes of mice and men gang oft agley," and the Bishop's clear-sighted mind soon detected the weak part in the airy castle of our Mission school. Desks and benches were already in evidence, maps and blackboards, slates and pencils, copy-books, ink-powder and pens, and, last but not least, Bibles and reading-books for all ages and of all descriptions—these were all at hand, but how to master the one remaining difficulty which hitherto had been completely ignored—the bridge of the Yukon and White Pass Railway which lay between the Indian camp and the Mission school! The children thought nothing of the dangers of crossing that bridge. They would run across for their five cents' worth of candy even when a train was in sight rounding the corner on the line from Bennett; they would skip fearless over one, two, three of the sleepers which lay so far apart that one could see the blue waters of the lake flowing, yea, often tossing beneath. But the children's indifference to the danger did not lessen its magnitude in the Bishop's eyes. A few weeks after the commencement of school operations, when chaos had been fairly reduced into order, and confusion into rule and discipline, the Bishop imparted to Miss Ellis his wish to remove the school at once to the same side as the Mission House. He had persuaded Major Snyder of the Royal Mounted Police to consent to a change of quarters; the barracks would henceforth be appropriately stationed the same side as the hotel, saloon, store, and white men's cabins, while the school would have its home in the old barracks.

By dint of strenuous labour the change was soon effected—the barracks was transformed into a schoolhouse, and the newly purchased and equipped school-house became the station of the Royal Mounted Police, whose care and protection we have ever to acknowledge, and for whose many deeds of kindness to the members of our school staff we are duly grateful.

The first year of school life is often very irksome to an Indian child. He will be merry as a grig at times, but if he catches sight of his father or any friend going hunting, the hunger for freedom comes upon him—he will start to run after the hunters, and if caught and sent back to school he will cry and yell until the whole camp is roused, and tearful, sympathizing mothers rush in to know why the Mission folk are killing their darling? The girls are equally resentful of restraint, and look upon a closed door or window as their natural enemy. These spasmodic fits of intolerance of confinement cease after a year or so, but we have always to remember that fresh air is an Indian's natural food—he was born and bred in the woods and has early been used to such extremes of temperature as would make a white child shudder. I will tell you an incident. One of our girls, about eight or nine years old, made off in the woods one day without a word of warning. She contrived to pull out nails from the bedroom window, removed the window, and clambered out. Her reason for doing so, she afterwards explained, was that she was tired of the house (also she wanted to pick berries—i.e., hips—the only berries at that time to be met with), also she was "thinking long" for her brother who had lately died.

Of course, she was very wrong to run away, and there . . .

For about three hours Frisky played about perfectly happy—after that time she got hungry—so hungry that even chewing gum did not satisfy; then by good luck—after getting pretty far in the wood—she discovered a small cabin belonging to a white miner, and having got out of one window, Frisky had climbed in by another, and soon found a very acceptable cake of dried meat and hard tack—i.e., sailors' biscuits. With these this small child proceeded to regale herself unmolested by anyone (unsuspicious of danger and utterly forgetful of the Eighth Commandment).

Then the day wore away and, as evening drew on, Frisky retraced her steps, singing as she drew nearer home. By this time she began to feel weary, and it may be conscience had something to say to which the little girl did not quite like to listen, so she walked on and sang on until she came in sight of the school and the Bishop's house beyond. Just behind the Bishop's house on the slope of the hill there was a cluster of trees, and there the girls had been accustomed to play whenever they were located at the Mission. One of these was an old crooked tree which Frisky had often climbed, and she now stretched herself along the bough and found it a not uncomfortable couch for a little tired maiden.

The search party had dispersed and come back announcing that nothing had been seen of the truant, but two of the Mounted Police had whispered that certain small foot-tracks were seen near the house, and so the excitement had cooled down, and the school authorities took comfort in the reflection that such things had been known before and had generally ended well, and Frisky, "little madcap" as Miss E. had once called her, went fast asleep in the crooked tree with only her shawl folded round her. She fancied that she heard the bell for prayers, but she could only keep herself awake to say the verse all the children said the last thing before they lay down.

The following is Bishop Stringer's report of the school at Carcross for the year 1908: "The school is doing good work, and its influence, I am sure, will be widespread. We hope for a new building and enlarged work during the coming year. A few important changes have taken place in the staff. Miss Ellis resigned her position as matron, which she has held for several years with faithfulness, devotion, and self-forgetfulness. Miss Thompson has also resigned after fulfilling her promised two years' work as teacher. Miss Collins, a graduate of the Deaconess House, Toronto, has taken Miss Ellis's place as matron, and Miss Bell, from England, is teacher. These two ladies, together with Miss Hutchinson, constitute the present staff of the boarding school under Rev. J. Hawksley as nominal Principal of the school."

A friend at White Horse thus writes of her visit to the Mission school at Carcross: "I found everything in the school so exquisitely neat and orderly, such method, quiet, and discipline pervaded each department! Miss Collins, Captain of her Brigade, understands fully the characteristics of those she has to command, and every man under her understands his duty and knows what is expected of him. It is well for the Yukon Indians to be thus wisely and tenderly brought under control. In no other way could the haughty, defiant spirit be broken or tamed. Our present relations with the Indians are such that Christianity and civilization must be taught simultaneously.

"Before leaving the school, Miss Collins said she would let me hear a patriotic song, composed by Mrs. Bompas, with action, which the children had lately learnt. It ran as follows:


Oh, a sailor's life is the life for me,
On my own man-of-war on the briny sea,
And I'll join the brave, the gallant, the free,
And I'll serve my King and Country.

(At the last line 'I'll serve' the children bow and open their hands as for service.)

And I'll haul, haul, haul,
Or I'll row, row, row,
Or I'll climb the mizen mast
To look after the foe;
If enemies be near,
Why Jack knows no fear,

(Here all shade their eyes to watch for the enemy.)

For he'll fight for his King and Country.

(At the word 'haul' the children make the movements of hauling ropes on the rigging—at 'row' they pretend to ply the oars—at 'fight' they clench fists at an imaginary foe.)

And when duty calls,
Jack says ever 'Aye, aye, Sir!'
And he'll stand to his guns
Till right wins the day,
And 'What matter,' says Jack,
'Should my heart's blood pay?
For I'll die for my King and Country!'
(At 'I'll die' all fall down motionless.)

''The song and the hearty rendering of it by the Indian children kindled in me strong emotion. I thank God that the white man is beginning to understand the Indians a little better, and to realize their capacities and their just claims upon him.

With the sound of those young voices still ringing in my ears, I quitted the Mission school, and as I took my seat on the train to Skagway, the words of an old Scotchman found echo, partly serious, in my heart: 'Weel, man, I'm thinking King Edward, if he only kent what brave defenders of the faith and upholders of his crown he had in the Indians of Yukon Diocese, more especially those of Carcross, shure he'd be a prood man!' "

We must not close this chapter without referring to the fact that a neat little church, named St. Saviour's, was consecrated at Carcross in August, 1904. Funds for this had been raised chiefly by friends outside the diocese, the Women's Auxiliary contributing the lion's share of $800. Bishop Bompas not only superintended, but took an active part in its erection. The Mission House had proved far too small for the evergrowing congregation, and it was, therefore, a great comfort and joy to him to see the new little church completed and to hold the first service beneath its roof.

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