19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon
“You start making progress in life when you realize that you don’t always have to resume where you left off.” ~Robert Brault
After many days of packing, general confusion, and disturbing dust, culminating in breakfast in the kitchen, dinner on a packing case in the parlor, high tea at a neighbor’s in our traveling gear, and a night at the hotel, we rose at 5 o’clock on the morning of June 5  to be ready for our journey to Clearwater Bay. All the teams, with the household goods and chattels, had started the day before, except two for personal baggage, and the one we were to occupy.
Of course, we were ready too soon, and hours were spent in standing idly about, and going to the gate to see if the trams were coming. When they were at last packed and off, it was decided to be altogether too late for us to follow until after luncheon, which, with only an uncertain prospect of a heavier meal later, we turned into dinner. Then someone remembered half a dozen forgotten things that it was impossible to do without, and it was nearly 4 o’clock when our wagon arrived—a springless vehicle with three narrow seats, and drawn by two broken, winded steeds.
After we had packed all our impedimenta [gear, equipment] in the wagon, there was literally no room for us. What was to be done? Between our efforts to make the driver, a stupid, tipsy French half-breed, understand English by screaming it as loud as we could, the variety of our baggage, and the curiosity of the passersby, we soon had a small crowd of interested listeners and apparently sympathizing friends.
Finally, the livery stable keeper made his appearance and, after some discussion, agreed to exchange that wagon for a larger one. Jumping into it, he lashed the horses, who went at a furious pace down the street, proving their power, but, alas, scattering the half-packed contents of the wagon—rugs, cushions, blankets, tin kettles, and pails—at irregular intervals over the road. In half an hour a larger vehicle was brought, and we hastily repacked, receiving contributions of our property from everyone who passed while the operation was going on, so that it was late in the afternoon before we left Winnipeg.
When we arrived at the river, of course the ferryboat was on the opposite side, and we had to wait for its return, which seemed the climax to the day’s worries. We growled audibly, feeling that we were entitled to do so, having had enough provocation to ruffle the most angelic temper. With scarcely room to sit, and nowhere, to speak of, to put our feet, bodily discomfort helped to put us out of humor.
Can you imagine a three-seated wagon, containing a load of valises, traveling bags, a tin box of edibles for a week’s journey, tents, blankets, pans, kettles, pails, a box of earth filled with bedding plants, a bundle of currant bush slips, a box of cats—being the cat and five kittens—a box of family silver, engineers’ instruments, wraps of every description, provender for the horses, a bag of bread, the driver’s own provisions (it was part of the bargain that he was to “find” himself), loose articles of all kinds, thrown in at the last moment, five adults, two children, one small dog, and an unhappy-looking canary? This motley assemblage was stowed away as well as possible, the kettles and pails being hung at the back and sides, after the fashion of the traveling tinkers’ carts. There certainly was an emigrant-like appearance about the whole thing, in spite of the tasteful trimming of our shade hats.
The ferryboat came for us at last; and as we drove over the prairie at a moderate rate, delays having become things of the past, we were for the next hour almost merry. This transient joy was soon dispelled by our driver, who, without any warning, turned off the road through some swampy ground. Pulling up suddenly before an apparently unbroken line of trees, he craned his neck first one way and then the other in search of an opening, unheeding the expostulations in French and English with which he was assailed, until, finding what he sought, and nicking his whip over the horses’ ears, he condescended to reply, “Je fais le détour! Bad, voila!”
Then, urging his horses on, he charged into the bushes, and drove along what had been once a cart trail (one could hardly call it a road), overgrown with underbrush. Long branches met overhead, and we were kept busy, alternately warding them off our faces and holding on to our seats—for the track was a succession of uneven hills, hollows, and short turns, with which our driver seemed as unacquainted as ourselves.
About 6 o’clock we came to the high road, which crossed the end of our track—the high road that has cost our country over $13 million—the far-famed and much-talked-of Dawson Road. It was some two feet higher than our rough track, and separated from it by a large mud puddle, in which, after a lurch to one side and a violent jerk from the horses, the wagon wheels sank on the other. A volley of oaths was discharged by our half-breed, followed by a crack of his long whip, and a sharp struggle, and then the near horse fell back on his haunches, and we stuck fast.
Down rolled the best valise, out sprang Jehu, carrying with him into the mud our biggest blanket. Mr C—, in slippers, sat on the top of the wagon demanding his boots, which where somewhere at the bottom. Somebody else was searching wildly for a rope and axe, which proved to be nowhere. Everybody was giving a different opinion on the best means of extricating ourselves, only uniting in one thing; namely, abuse of the driver, who stood knee deep in mud, hitching up his trousers and muttering something about le détour.
We women, meantime, tried to quiet the screaming children, and prevent the “unconsidered trifles” that filled the corners of the wagon from falling out—a duty not unattended with danger, as the cat, on guard over her nursery, and excited by the general bouleversement [upheaval], gave a spiteful claw to any foot or hand that approached too near her box.
No rope, axe, nor chain, could be found; there was nothing but mud on every side in which to unload. Not a house for miles to shelter us for the night. Fortunately, before long a wagon passed on the high road, whose occupants were a kindly Irishman, his wife, and child.
“Faith, is it help ye want, yer honor? It’s meself never refused help to any man,” said Paddy. And jumping down, he produced a chain. Fastening the tongue of the wagon to one end, and the horses to the other, he drove them up to the high road, where, having firmer foothold, a few pulls drew us out of the mudhole. We thanked the old man for his help, but saw him and his chain depart with regret. Having better horses and a lighter load, he soon left us far behind.
On we jogged, sometimes on the road, but more often off it, driving through every clump of trees that grew in our way, as the roots gave some firmness to the swampy ground. Now and then, when returning to the road, the wagon would almost stick; but, after a lunge, pull, and struggle, attended by a volley of French from our Jehu and a screech from the women, it righted itself again.
A little later we passed the teams that had left Winnipeg so long before us in the morning; one of them was stuck deep in the mud, and the drivers were just parting company—the first, a French Canadian, declining to help the second, an Irish Canadian boy, whose good-natured face was a picture of dismay, as he stood contemplating the scene of disaster. The Frenchman declared that he had stuck three times, and had to unload both teams twice, and he wasn’t going to do it again. So he whipped up his horse and left poor young “Stick-in-the-Mud,” as we dubbed him, to his fate. Promising to send a yoke of oxen from McQuade’s, five miles farther on, where we intended putting up for the night, we also left him, but not without regret.
I could not help feeling sorry for the poor boy out there alone on the prairie, perhaps for the whole night, as it was by no means certain that the hoped-for yoke of oxen would be forthcoming. But the lad was so civil, and evidently so determined to make the best of things, that fortune favored him. A mile farther on we met a long train of carts, and Mr C— shouted to the driver of the first to go and help “Stick-in-the-Mud,” promising to pay him for his services.
By this time it was getting dark, the mosquitoes were troublesome, and the children were hungry and cross, and we joyfully hailed the first glimmer of the lights at McQuade’s. But though in sight of the haven where we would be, our troubles were not yet over. Crossing a broken culvert not half a mile from the house, one of the horses fell in, and we all had to get out and walk, an annoyance which we felt to be the “last straw” on our much-enduring backs.
McQuade’s is merely a farmhouse on the main road. But in the usual condition of those roads it is the first stopping place from Winnipeg, and McQuade’s, or “Little Pointe du Chêne,” as it is sometimes called, is familiar to all the engineers on the staff of that part of the Canada Pacific Railway. The yard was full of the teams which had left Winnipeg the day before, and the kitchen, or general living room, was crowded with teamsters, who, however, when we appeared, withdrew to a dark little cookhouse a few yards from the door.
The room vacated for us was low-roofed, with unplastered ceiling, whose rafters were hung with bunches of garden herbs. Two narrow windows were set sideways in the wall, their deep window seats serving as bookcase and sideboard: holding the Bible and almanac, the old lady’s best bonnet, a pot or two of preserves, a nosegay of spring flowers, and a tea caddy. An old-fashioned four-poster bed stood in one corner, covered with a patchwork quilt; in another was an impromptu bed [pallet], spread on the floor, and occupied by a woman and two children, apparently asleep. A table, covered with oilcloth, with some cups and saucers on it, stood between the bed and a dresser cupboard, containing rows of shining milk pails, piled one on the top of the other and separated by a board. Behind the house door a flight of narrow steps led “up ter chamber,” as the old woman in the rocking chair informed us. Underneath these stairs was a primitive washing apparatus, consisting of a bench holding a basin and two wooden pails, with a long towel hanging from a stick.
The farmer bustled in and out, greeting some of us as old friends, summoning Alice, the maid-of-all-work—a downtrodden, stupid-looking girl of fourteen—to make up the fire and get the kettle boiling, and putting his head into the doorway, “just to tell the missus,” as he ushered us in. “The missus,” a kindly-looking old Irishwoman in a white cap and kerchief, wriggled over in her chair to greet us, for she was “set fast by the rheumatism,” and could not rise. But from long confinement to her chair she had learned to get about in it well, her natural energy expending itself on shuffling all over the room, screaming to Alice to know why “that there kettle didn’t boil?” and generally making us welcome in her way.
“There’s lots of milk—plenty; you’re welcome to it; and there’ll be boilin’ water presently. If I could only get a holt of that Alice, I’d make things lively for her! I’m wore out with her entirely. If you’ve brought your own provisions all right; but there have been so many travelers by lately, there isn’t a bite in the house, till me eldest darter comes and bakes for me tomorrow.”
Yes, she had seven “darters,” “all well married round about, blessed be God!” And they came “turn and turn about” to look after the old people, do the work, and see after things, while she just kept “the bit thing Alice” to do the chores and wait on her; but “she warn’t much good.”
Thus, our hostess ran on, until the horse was extricated, and we got possession of our rugs and provisions. The boiling water appearing at the same time, we soon sat down to tea; and, as it was too late to pitch our tent that night, we spread our rugs and blankets on the two bedsteads “up ter chamber”—a mere unfurnished garret—and were soon in bed.
Not long afterward, hearing a great deal of laughter downstairs, I listened, and gathered that “Stick-in-the-Mud” had arrived, and the men were chaffing him for having paid the half-breed $2 for lending him two oxen for five minutes to extricate his train.
Tired as I was, the mosquitoes were so attentive that I found it impossible to sleep. About midnight “that wretched Alice” crept up the stairs, and lay down in a corner, partitioned off from the rest of the garret by a grey blanket nailed to the rafters. I am sure she did not undress much, nor could she have slept long, as she was downstairs again before 3 o’clock, and I heard the old woman rating [reprimanding] her from her bed.
When we descended at about 6 o’clock, the men and teams were gone, and the tenants of the floor bed had taken advantage of an offered ride to help them on their way. Poor woman! She was journeying from Detroit, to the work on “15,” to join her brother. She had been a month on the road, and had still another week or ten days of walking before her.
“A man begins cutting his wisdom teeth the first time he bites off more than he can chew.” ~Herb Caen
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Winnipeg, Manitoba
*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 7. Quotes, photos, links, emendations added.