19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon
“Truth … has to be concrete. And there is nothing more concrete than dealing with babies, burps and bottles, frogs and mud.” ~Jeane Kirkpatrick
The Red Lake River flows into Red River at Grand Forks, North Dakota, some 12 or 13 miles below Fisher’s Landing. It is much the narrower stream, with so many bends that when we were not running headlong into the left bank, we grounded on the right. The boat frequently formed a bridge from one bend to the other, and heads were ducked down or drawn back suddenly to avoid having eyes scratched out by the spreading boughs of beech and hazel that stretched over the stream. It was nothing unusual to find our course impeded by a large branch becoming so entangled in the wheel at the stern, that men had to get down and chop it away before the boat could proceed.
At Grand Forks, site of a Hudson Bay Company trading post, a billiard saloon, hotel, general store, and post office all in one, and a few smaller houses, the ferry is a large flat-bottomed sort of platform, railed on either side and fastened to a long thick rope stretched across the river. When there is a load to ferry over, this platform is let loose from the shore, and the current carries it across, the rope keeping it from going downstream.
The shores of Red River are almost bare. A few miserable poplars here and there, one or two small loghouses and mud huts from which wild, dirty Indians emerged to watch the boat pass, were all we saw. The banks, for the most part, are so high that only from the upper deck could we see inland.
The frontier post, Pembina, is well known as the spot beyond which in 1869 the rebel Louis Riel, the “Little Napoleon” of Red River, would not allow William McDougall, the “lieutenant-governor of Manitoba,” appointed by Canada, to pass. Here we had a visit from the customhouse officers. They were good specimens of their different countries. The Canadian was a round, fat, jolly, handsome, fair man; the Yankee was tall, slight, and black-eyed, with a cadaverous look, increased by his close-fitting mackintosh [full-length raincoat] and cowl [hood]. They did not give us any trouble, and I felt sorry for their lonely life, and the pounds of mud they had to carry with them everywhere.
Such mud! There is no wharf or planking of any kind, and all freight and baggage is landed on (or into) the muddy bank. Barrels rolled through it became unrecognizable, and were doubled in weight before they reached their warehouse. Men worked on bare feet, with trousers rolled to their knees, and the slippery, swashy look of everything was horrible. An Indian (not of the Fenimore Cooper type) leaned against an old cookstove stranded on the bank, and an old squaw squatted on a heap of dirty straw, watching with lackluster eyes the disembarkation.
A mile or two above Pembina is the American fort, with its trim barracks, fortifications, mounted guns, sentries, and some military life about it. Near it is the house built by Captain Cameron, when out with the expeditionary force in 1867. The remainder of our journey up the Red River of the North was uninteresting, and we hailed with delight our arrival at Winnipeg, on Saturday morning, June 4.
It took some time to disembark from the Minnesota. The immigrants had been up at daylight, and after making haste to get their property together, found that they had to wait the arrival of the customhouse officer. At about 8 o’clock, a wagon being procured to take our luggage, we, carrying our traveling bags and shawls, walked—for there was no cab nor omnibus—into Winnipeg.
The Minnesota had stopped at the old customhouse wharf, the bulk of her freight being for that end of the town. We had to traverse the entire length of Winnipeg to reach Mrs T—, who had kindly invited us to remain with her until Mrs C— could find a suitable house. Up narrow, rickety planks, through mud and mire, past two loghouses fast falling into ruin—which were pointed out as having been the only houses in Winnipeg, besides the Fort Garry settlement, ten years before, and within three years used as customhouses—we made our way to the broad main street.
The street is lined on each side by large, handsome shops, one or two banks, the new post office under construction, and the large square townhall, also unfinished. Then follow the new customhouse, land office, Canada Pacific Railway offices (square white brick buildings), and the round turret-like bastions [projecting part of fortifications] of Fort Garry; the fort, with its massive wooden palisades [fence of wooden stakes], and low log buildings, sets at the extreme end of the street, at the confluence of the Assiniboine and the Red River. We had to cross a few yards of prairie to reach Mrs T—’s house, formerly the officers’ quarters of the RCMP, now removed to Battleford and Fort McLeod. We were received cordially, a welcome being extended to me, though a total stranger.
The first thing that struck me in Winnipeg was the mud. I had heard that Red River mud was the worst in the world, and I now for the first time realized how bad mud could be. Not only was the roadway so soft that every turn of a wheel loaded it inches deep with the sticky compound, and made it so heavy that the driver had frequently to stop and clear his wheels with a stick, but, trodden from the crossings into the sidewalks, it covered them with a slimy mixture difficult to walk on. From the windows I could see men slipping and sliding about so much that anyone ignorant of the cause might have attributed their unsteadiness to the strength of their morning libations [drinks]—the absence of women making that appear possible, if not probable.
On Sunday we went to Holy Trinity Church, a pretty little frame building with a full congregation. Part of the church was occupied by the regiment of artillery quartered in Fort Osborne, a neat little barracks to the west of the prairie. The choir was passable, and could boast of one thoroughly good tenor. An energetic clergyman preached an excellent sermon.
Toward the end of June, Mr C— and his party left for the line; and we, having taken the house vacated by the T—s the week before, were busy getting comfortably settled. Numbers of people called, many were old friends whom we had lost sight of for years; and everyone was so cordial and friendly, that we anticipated great pleasure during our stay in Winnipeg.
It is a strange place, peopled with a strange variety from all quarters of the globe. Tall Indians stand in groups at the street corners, wrapped in long dirty-white, dark-blue, or scarlet blankets, held well about their shoulders, and hanging below their knees. They wear beaded or embroidered cloth leggings, blue, scarlet, or black, tied with colorful ribbons. Their feet are in moccasins. Their long black hair is braided with beads or ribbons. And a black silk handkerchief, in which either feathers or a bunch of ribbons are fastened, is folded and knotted round their forehead. Young squaws with shaggy, flowing hair, short, colorful merino skirts, and shawls over their heads, sit on the sidewalks, chattering in their guttural tongue, and laughing over some joke.
Fat, glossy, half-breed ponies, in gorgeously-beaded saddlecloths, stand at the edge of the road awaiting their masters—short, lithe, dark men, who seem to touch the reins, vault into the saddle, and reach the end of the street in the same instant. The speed and strength of these small horses is wonderful; their glossy coats and well-kept manes testify to the care taken of them. An Indian never beats his horse, nor drags at the reins in the cruel way so common among more “civilized” riders, but sits his horse as though it were part of himself.
A long train of oxcarts is waiting to be loaded for the distant prairie hamlets. The half-breed driver stands by in trousers and checked shirt, a loosely-knotted handkerchief about his neck. He sometimes wears a hat, but oftener his short, shaggy black hair is his only head covering. His squaw sits in the bottom of the wagon; his little russet-pigmented papooses are peeping out from between the bars at the side. Other children, laced up in queer, birchbark cradles or moss bags, leaving only their arms free, and the upper part of their bodies visible, lean against shop doors or scattered bales of goods.
I watched some Indians shopping, and was astonished to see how invariably they waived aside inferior goods and chose such materials as merinos at $1.50 to $2 a yard. One of the merchants told me it was useless to offer them anything but the best. An Indian who could not speak English or French, and wanted five things, divided his money according to his idea of their relative cost in little piles on the counter, and going through a pantomime descriptive of his wants, was handed first some silk handkerchiefs. Taking one up, he felt it, held it up to the light, and throwing it aside, shook his head vigorously, uttering an “Ugh!” of disgust. When shown a better one he was doubtful; but when a much superior article was produced, he took it, and willingly handed over one pile for it. This, however, was too much; and when given the change, he put it on one of the other piles, and proceeded in the same way to make the rest of his purchases.
“How easily they could be cheated!” I said to the clerk after the Indian had left.
“No,” he replied, “not so easily as would appear. They generally come in from their camps in great numbers about once a year to sell their furs and make purchases. They go to different shops, and on their return compare notes as to the quality and cost of their goods. Then, if one has paid more than another, or has been cheated in quality, he will never enter the shop again, and the firm that gives the greatest bargains is most patronized on their return.”
A few minutes afterward another Indian came to buy a blanket, and was told to go upstairs where they were kept. Slowly and doubtfully he ascended, feeling his way step by step, and holding closely to the banisters till he reached the top; then he turned to look back and express his astonishment in the “Ugh!” which, in different accents, means so many different things.
The Mennonites and Icelanders interested me too. The former, who are all thrifty and energetic, make excellent settlers. They have a large settlement some 20 miles southeast of Winnipeg. The dress of the women is quaint, yet neat. They wear short, full skirts, just showing their small feet; jackets; and becoming white caps, from under which their round black eyes, small straight features, and intelligent expression, greet one pleasantly. The men are taller, with a quiet, unconscious air of superiority, which is refreshing.
The dress of the Icelanders is somewhat similar, but they are more lethargic-looking. They have bright “milk and roses” complexion, great opaque blue eyes, and a heavy gait that gives them an appearance of stupidity, which is not a true index of their character. They learn English rapidly, and are teachable servants, neat, clean, and careful, but have not constitutional strength to endure hard work, and, when separated from their friends, become lonely and dispirited. There is a large settlement of them at Gimli, about 60 miles from Winnipeg, on Lake Winnipeg. Some of the authorities in Winnipeg told me that, as an emigration speculation, they were not a success. The grasshopper plague which visited Manitoba during two consecutive seasons destroyed their crops, and the ravages of smallpox during the fall of 1876 and spring of 1877 told on them so severely that they have so far only been an expense to the Canadian Government.
The Hudson Bay Company store had a great attraction for me. It was a long, low building within the precincts of Fort Garry, stocked with everything either useful or ornamental, from a ship’s anchor to a lace pocket handkerchief; a sort of curiosity shop of all the necessaries and luxuries of life—an outfitting establishment where one could not only clothe oneself from head to foot, but furnish his house from attic to cellar, at reasonable prices. Whatever the charges may be at the outlying posts, competition keeps them within bounds in Winnipeg. As a rule, the goods are excellent in quality; and, to judge by the number of carts, carriages, and saddle horses grouped about the door of the store, a thriving business is done there.
The Red River at Winnipeg is much wider than at any other point, yet so high are the banks that, until quite close to it, one cannot see the water. On the opposite or western shore is St Boniface, the terminus of the branch line from Selkirk, and the site of the Roman Catholic cathedral, convents, and schools. The cathedral, a large square building, has a musical chime of bells; and the ringing of the “angelus” [Catholic devotion], whose sound floated over the prairie unmarred by steam whistles, factory bells, or any other of the multitudinous sounds of a large city, was always welcome.
Nowhere is evening more beautiful than in Manitoba. One instance in particular I noticed. The sun was setting low down in the heavens as in a sea of gold, one long flame-colored line alone marking the horizon. In the southwest rose cloud after cloud of crimson and gold, crossed by rapid flashes of pale yellow and white lightning, which momentarily obliterated their rich colors. To the south was a great bank of black thundercloud crested with crimson, cleft to its deepest darkness by successive flashes of forked lightning. Immediately overhead a narrow curtain of leaden clouds was driven hither and thither by uncertain winds; while, below, the prairie and all its varied life lay bathed in the warmth and light of the departing sun, throwing into bold relief the Indian wigwam, with its ragged sides and cross poles.
Squaws were seated round the campfires, or dipping water from a pool hard by; Indians were standing idly about; droves of cattle were being driven in for milking; groups of horses, their fore feet tied loosely together, were hobbling awkwardly as they grazed; tired oxen were tethered near, feeding after their day’s work, while their driver lay under his cart and smoked. Above the low squat tent of the half-breed, there rose the brown-roofed barracks, its lazy flag clinging to the staff. Through the surrounding bushes, water gleamed here and there. In the distance could be seen long trains of oxcarts, coming from remote settlements, the low monotonous moan of their ungreased wheels making a weird accompaniment to the muttering thunder; or a black-robed procession of nuns, on their way to the small chapel on the prairie, whose tinkling bell was calling them to prayers. An Indian on his fiery little steed, his beaded saddlecloth glistening in the sun, was galloping in mad haste over the grass, away to the low hills to the north, which deserved their name of Silver Heights as they received the sun’s good-night kiss.
Then the clouds, losing their borrowed tints, closed in like a pall; the low wail of the wind grew louder as it approached and swept them away to the south, leaving night to settle down on the dwellers of the prairie city, starlit and calm, while the distant glow of the prairie fires rose luridly against the eastern sky. But all night long the creaking moan of the oxcarts went on, giving the prairie a yet closer resemblance to “an inland sea.”
“Misery is a routine you can learn to live with. It’s like rain. Once you’re soaked to the skin, you can’t get any wetter.” ~Alan Gibbons
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Winnipeg Looking North from Fort Garry (c 1870)
*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 4. Quotes, photos, links, emendations added.