19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon
“One day you stepped in snow, the next in mud, water soaked in your boots and froze them at night, it was the next worst thing to pure blizzardry, it was weather that wouldn’t let you settle.” ~EL Doctorow, Welcome to Hard Times
Snow lay several inches thick on the ground at Christmas, and we had sleigh drives over the smooth white prairie, one great advantage of Manitoban winters being that when once the ground is covered with snow, if only to the depth of five or six inches, it remains, and there is good sleighing until the frost breaks up in March or April.
Sleighing parties are varied by skating at the rink and assemblies in the townhall, where we meet a medley of ballgoers and their hosts, each indulging his or her favorite style of dancing—from the old fashioned “three-step” waltz preferred by the elders, to the breathless “German,” the simple deux temps, and the graceful “Boston” dance, peculiar as yet to Americans and Canadians. The band was composed of trained musicians who had belonged to various regiments, and, on receiving their discharge, remained in Canada. The hall was well lit, the floor in good condition, and we enjoyed taking a turn on it, as well as watching the Scotch reels, country dances, and Red River jigs performed by the others.
It was a carefree and amusing scene, but the heavy winter dresses—many of them short walking costumes—worn by the Manitoban belles, looked less pretty than the light materials, bright colors, and floating trains of an ordinary ballroom. The absence of carriages and cabs, and the intensity of the cold, compelled ladies to adopt this somber attire. The mercury averaged from -10° to -20°, frequently going as low as -33°, and occasionally into the -40°s; yet the air is so dry and still, that I felt the cold less when it was -33° in Winnipeg than when only -5° in Ottawa, and did not require any additional wraps.
On New Year’s Day the now old-fashioned custom of gentlemen calling was kept up, and we had many visitors, among them the American Consul, Mr James W Taylor, known in the Consulate as “Saskatchewan Taylor,” from his interest in the Northwest and anxiety on all occasions to bring its capabilities before the public. He came in the evening, and, following the American style, remained more than an hour, so that we were able to get beyond the conventional topics of health and weather, and found him pleasant and entertaining.
During the afternoon the maid came in, looking rather flurried, and said that visitors in the kitchen wished to see us. Going there, we were greeted by seven Indians and their squaws, come to pay a New Year’s visit. As I looked at their russet-pigmented faces and long, loose hair, memories of stories told by cousins in the Hudson Bay Company service, of having to kiss all the squaws on New Year’s Day, sent the blood with a rush back to my heart; but, happily, this ceremony was dispensed with.
Only one of the party could speak English—a handsome, clear-skinned, straight-featured Indian, in blue blanket coat, red sash, leggings, and colorfully-decorated hat. He stepped forward and made a little speech, wishing us “A long life of many moons, sunshine, health, and rich possessions, and the smile of the Good Spirit on the blue-eyed papoose,” finishing by shaking hands all round. The others, with an “Ugh!” of acquiescence, and smiling faces, followed his example.
Our hostess was unable to give them wine or whisky, because of the stringent prohibition laws, but she regaled them on great slices of cake, with which they were much pleased. When Mr C— came in from the line with his dogsled—four strong beasts drawing a light cariole or covered toboggan, more like a great shoe than anything else—the blue and red coat of his Indian runner, Tommy Harper, was much admired by our visitors. He told us afterward of their admiration for everything they saw in the house. This Tommy was a good-tempered old fellow, but, when not running, was invariably asleep or smoking over the kitchen fire.
About the middle of January (1877) we had a terrible snowstorm, the worst that had been known in Manitoba for years. At 5 o’clock in the evening the wind rose suddenly, and in half an hour was blowing a gale, sending the snow whirling through the air in such blinding volume, that it was impossible to distinguish anything twenty yards off. As night closed in, which it does early at that season, the storm increased in violence, and though there was then little snow falling, the wind drove in all directions the dry snow lying on the ground.
Many people lost their way. A shop boy running home to tea, only round the corner of the block, missed the turning into the gateway, and wandered till daylight on the prairie, knowing it was certain death to lie down. A family crossing the prairie, and seeing the storm approaching, hastened to reach a wayside inn 400-500 yards distant, but before they could do so lost sight of it. After driving several hours they were obliged to stop and, digging a hole in the snow with their hands, covered themselves with robes and sleigh rugs. Drawing the sleigh over them as a little protection from the wind, they waited until daylight—to find themselves within a 100 yards of the inn! All next day stories were continually reaching us of narrow escapes, of frozen feet and hands, of lost horses, frozen oxen, and travelers’ miseries in general. But this certainly was an exceptional storm, or “blizzard,” as the natives say.
Toward the end of winter it was proposed that some tableaux should be exhibited in the townhall for the benefit of a local charity. The suggestion was hailed with delight, and everyone likely to be useful was invited to “talk it over” with Mrs C—. And talk they did, at such length and with such vivacity, that I wondered how the two stage managers, Captain H— and Miss P—, could ever evolve order from such a chaos. The great clatter of tongues in that small room reminded me of an old Scotch nurse of ours, who, being summoned to keep house for a minister cousin, was anxious, first, to learn how to play the lady and entertain her guests. The cook advised her to listen at the drawing room door when we had a party: but she quitted her post in disgust, having heard nothing but “a muckle clackit.”
At last it was settled that the tableaux were to represent the story of “Beauty and the Beast,” “Elizabeth knighting Raleigh,” scenes from “Hamlet” and “The Bohemian Girl,” an emblematic group of the nations included in the British Empire, surrounded by representatives of the army and navy, and some well-known statues. Assuredly there was variety enough in our program to suit all tastes!
Our dress rehearsal, held in the old church before mentioned, was more amusing—to the actors, at all events—than the performance itself. The “sides,” which looked well enough to those without, proved a delusion and a snare to those within. They were used as dressing rooms, but their partition from the stage being only partial, and their flooring stopping far short of the front, a great gap was left—a pitfall down which everything tumbled. Their appointments were primitive, consisting of a small looking glass, a pincushion, and a piece of comb in each room.
The “properties” on the ladies’ side were an old straw bonnet wreathed with artificial flowers, and a gaudy overskirt; and on that of the gentlemen, two hats, and a pistol and tin mug—which had probably done duty for the “dagger and the bowl,” in the last scene of a dreadful tragedy. Some of our amateurs were fortunate enough to get complete costumes made, but others appeared in a fragmentary condition, with a bodice from the time of Elizabeth and a petticoat from the time of Victoria. Sir Walter Raleigh wore the old felt hat belonging to his dressing room, and pathetically appealed to the spectators to imagine it adorned with a white feather and jeweled clasp.
The girls who appeared in more than one scene had to change their dresses, and it is impossible to describe the confusion of belongings then thrown in a vast heap on the floor, or the despair of one young performer whose polonaise [Polish dance] had disappeared in the gulf. As all were in different stages of déshabille, no gentleman could be called to the rescue; so I lay down on my face and groped about with my hands till I fished it up. But before I succeeded, two or three people were standing on my skirts, and a pile of Gypsy costumes was deposited on my legs. My rising sent dismay to the owners’ hearts, and they wailed that they would “never be able to find their things again!”
When the great night arrived we, by means of jewelry constructed of gold paper and glass buttons, and other ingenious devices, made a brilliant show, and the general effect was pronounced excellent. We had crowded houses for two consecutive nights, and the only drawback to the pleasure of our tableaux was the sad and sudden death of one of Captain H—’s children, which took place on the first night, and aroused general sympathy.
Soon after our theatrical entertainments the snow almost entirely disappeared, cricket was played on the prairie, and people began to look forward to the reopening of navigation, and to bet actively on the day and hour when the first steamboat would arrive, though the ice was still so solid that horse races were held on the river.
April 20 was a warm day, succeeding heavy rains, and it was hoped that the ice would move next day. In the evening we were at our assembly in the townhall, which is built on the side of a broad, shallow coolé, or gully. About 10 o’clock, seeing several people look anxiously from the windows, we went to inquire the cause, and found the “water was out.” Freshets [snowmelt] from the prairies were rushing down the coolé beneath, carrying everything before them—dog kennels, logs, broken furniture, boxes, and all the usual débris found scattered about the houses on the prairie. The freshets increased so rapidly, that it was feared if we did not leave at once we should never get home, the water being level with the bridge, which was in imminent danger of being carried away. The lower story of the hall was also flooded, and considered scarcely safe. So there was cloaking in hot haste, and the gentlemen who lived near brought all the top boots and galoshes they could collect for the benefit of those who had to cross the partially-submerged roads.
The ice did move next day, and on April 27, at the sound of the steamboat whistle, I ran to the window. As if by one impulse, every door on the main street opened, and the inmates poured forth, men putting on their coats, women their bonnets, while holding the kicking, struggling bareheaded babies they had snatched up in their haste to reach the landing as soon as the boat. Boys of all sizes, ages, and descriptions, gentle and simple, rich and poor, mustered as though by magic. In five minutes the streets and banks of the river were covered with people rushing to meet the steamer, and the shout that greeted her at the wharf was loud and genuine. It was the last time her arrival caused such excitement, as before another season the railway was running to St Boniface, and freight and passengers could get to Winnipeg all through the winter.
The spring of 1877 was wet and backward, and we looked forward, with anything but unmixed pleasure, to our journey out to the contract, where a house was nearly ready for us. In the hope that the state of the roads might improve, we delayed our departure until the first week in June. For my own part, I rejoiced over every additional delay, as I was loath to leave Winnipeg, and the many kind friends I had made there.
“Winter is the season in which people try to keep the house as warm as it was in the summer, when they complained about the heat.” ~Anonymous
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 6. Quotes, photos, links, emendations added.