The Indian Mail Carrier*

19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Frontier Days
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon

“Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes along.” ~Samuel Butler

A detailed account of how we spent the next few weeks would be of little interest, so I will give it only in outline. We slept in the house and took our meals at the fort, Carrière doing the cooking under a low tent close by, which, as a kitchen, was decidedly a curiosity. It occupied a small space not ten feet square, in only five feet of which we could stand upright, and contained cases of tinned fruits, vegetables, sauces, and meats, barrels of flour and meal, caddies of tea and coffee, a small sheet-iron cookstove, all the pots, pans, pasteboards, and all other culinary necessaries. There was also a rickety table, at which the men, often five and six at a time, had their meals, sitting on the nearest case, bag, or barrel. It was so crowded that one wondered how Carrière managed to get up such excellent dinners with such limited accommodation. He also made delicious bread, baking it in a hole in the side of the hill, heated by building a fire round it.

By degrees we moved into the house, as the carpenters moved out, taking their bed of shavings with them; and we found daily amusement in the novelty of our surroundings. The house stood on a slight elevation in the valley above the lake, about 150 feet off. To the west was a perpendicular wall of rock, rising to a height of 40 or 50 feet, covered with tall pines, moss, and ferns. To the east lay a plot of grass, divided by a deep narrow creek from half a dozen dirty tents occupied by the navvies [“navigators”: road or rail construction crew].

The largest of these had a fire burning before it, over which hung a perpetual kettle of pea soup. Hard by stood a long table of rough boards, laid on rudely-fashioned trestles; another board, narrower, and several inches lower, serving as a seat. This table was set almost as often as the pea soup was stirred. Its appointments were simple, but satisfactory to the guests. There were tin plates and cups, heavy knives and forks, a pepper pot, a mug of mustard, another of salt, a bottle of pickles, and one of sauce.

When dinner was ready, the cook, a little fat man, with an apron tied round his waist, a long red toque [small cap] on his head, and his shirtsleeves rolled above his elbows, put his hands to his mouth, and gave a loud halloo [hello]. Then from every part of the works poured the men belonging to his mess, going first to the creek to wash their hands. As soon as they were seated, the little fellow filled their plates first with soup and next with pork and beans, out of another steaming pot. Ten minutes of rapid feeding satisfied their appetites, and they adjourned to the fallen trees and scattered logs to enjoy their pipes at leisure.

Vigorously wiping down the table, the cook set it anew for the “officers”—that is, the contractors, engineers, and their assistants; the doctor, paymaster, and anyone of similar status, who happened to be en route to another part of the line. Their dinner call was a shrill whistle, and their bill of fare differed from the navvies’ only in the addition of pies made of dried apples, and an unlimited allowance of pickles and sugar. Their dinner hour, too, was a “movable feast,” as in rainy weather they took it between the showers; the navvies did not mind a wetting.

Behind Mr C—’s house the ground rose more rapidly to the line of railway, and at the north end of the west rock was a fishpond, which never had any fish in it, though a good deal of attention was paid to stocking it. About 400 feet to the east is another rock almost as high as the one on the west, beyond which the lake narrows, and the future railway crossing is projected.

Of course, it took much longer to arrange and make up the necessary useful and ornamental “fixings,” as the Yankees call them, for our new house when we were thrown entirely on our own resources than it would have done in town, where stores and assistants are always to be had. That “necessity is the mother of invention” we repeatedly verified. Time, therefore, never hung heavily on our hands, and everything about us having the charm of novelty, gave zest to what to many people would have been but a dull life.

The climate is delightful. A cool fresh breeze always blowing from the lake, tempers the heat, and to a great extent keeps off those foes to comfort in the bush—mosquitoes, blackflies, sandflies, and deerflies, or bulldogs, as they call them there.

Manitoba mosquitoes larger than those of any other part of Canada, and nothing but smoke will drive them away. Many people who live on the prairies, instead of going for their cattle at milking time, a smudge (a fire of chips mulched with wet hay or green twigs when well started, to create smoke) near the milkhouse, and the cattle will come to the fire to obtain relief from the mosquitoes.

The blackflies are smaller, and the first intimation one has of their attack is a small stream of blood trickling down one’s neck from behind the ear. They bite and die, but there are myriads to take their place. The blackflies are most troublesome during the day, the mosquitoes at night.

Sandflies, as their name implies, resemble a grain of sand, and their bites are like a thousand red-hot needles piercing the skin at once, they are attracted by a light, and no netting will keep them out.

Last, but by no means least, are the deerflies [horseflies], great big brutes, larger than the largest bluebottle fly. They generally devote their attention to cattle, and I have seen the poor cows rushing madly down the clearing, the bells round their necks jangling wildly, lashing their tails and tossing their heads, never stopping until safe from their tormentors in the shelter of the dark stable.

The dogs, too, are often so covered with these wretched pests, that nothing but dragging themselves through the thick underbrush will set them free. Their bite is venomous. One of the engineers showed me the back of his hand where one had bitten him a few hours before; it was blue and angry-looking, swollen to twice its usual size, and painful. Fortunately the deerfly does not bite often.

We were able to explore the lake, as Mr C— had two Rice Lake or Peterborough canoes. boats are built by a firm in Peterborough, Ontario, and are steadier than birchbark canoes, though not so light. They are much used in all parts of Canada, though the Indians prefer the birchbark. We went out almost every evening, named all the bays, points, and islands, caught lots of excellent pike with a trolling line, which relieved the monotony of bacon and ham for breakfast.

Or we went to the net spread at the mouth of a little river or creek emptying into Lake Deception, and brought home great jackfish weighing from two to six pounds. From a little stream to the northwest of the house we had delicious brook trout, and occasionally large lake trout from some of the other lakes, presented by the fishermen in their neighborhood. I weighed one which was over 19 pounds. Sometimes we took short walks up the line, and through wood paths made by the men on their way to work. We picked blueberries whenever our hands were not employed in driving off the flies.

But our chief excitement during the week was the arrival of the mail. Our first thought every Thursday morning was, “This is mail day,” and Joe’s white canoe was eagerly watched for—often in vain, as storms on the Lake of the Woods, when the canoes could not venture out, delayed its coming until Friday.

Strange as it seems, few Indians can swim, probably from their fear that they will drown while learning. They believe that, if drowned, their spirit wanders forever in a vain search for the happy hunting grounds, and no Indian will marry the daughter of one who has met his death in that way, lest the curse should descend to him. Yet they have such faith in their canoes, and their own skill in their management of them, that they will go out fearlessly in storms that a white man would never face.

On mail day our field glasses were in constant requisition, and whoever was lucky enough to announce the appearance of Joe felt the hero of the hour. There were other canoes as white as Joe’s, so after several disappointments I studied the trimming on his hat, and never made a mistake afterward.

Joe was such an important person that I must describe him. He was a short, slight, though broad-shouldered Indian, wearing a grey flannel shirt, striped cloth trousers, alpaca [llama] coat, prunella [silk or twill] boots, and black felt hat, with several folds of pink and white net twisted round it. He always had a broad grin on his face, and a hearty “Bon jour, nitchee,” for everyone. The dress of his companion or partner differed from Joe’s only in the absence of boots and hat, and wearing the hair braided in two long tails, instead of being cut short.

How we appreciated our letters no one who has not been in the woods, with mail coming only once a week, can understand.

One day after our mail had arrived, a lad came in from the shanty to ask if there was anything for him. His sad face, as he turned away on being told that our mail carrier was no longer allowed to bring mail for the contractors’ men, haunted me for days. Poor homesick boy! He had not heard from his people for months. I often thought of him afterward, when, the contractor having made arrangements for a mail carrier independent of the Government, I saw the huge bag brought in every week, and watched the eager crowd of faces waiting for its contents to be distributed.

Another source of entertainment was the telegraph, providing communication between Winnipeg and all the houses on the line; someone in the office good-naturedly kept us posted on current events. Talking to others along the wire was like having an invisible guest, who could hear only what we chose to repeat. When anything amusing was said, one involuntarily listened for the invisible laughter. This telegraphic conversation was a nuisance in one way, for often in the middle of dinner Mr C— would exclaim, “There’s D— calling!” and away he would go, and probably not come back till dinner was cold, the cook cross, and the confusion general.

We were not without visitors, for the doctor, contractors, and engineers were coming and going continually. About mid-July, 1878, the contractors’ headquarters at Darlington Bay being finished, and more work going on at that end of the line, his officials moved there, and we were left with only a gang of forty men in a nearby shanty. Our fat cook also went to Bear Lake, about a mile west of the house, which, by that time, had received the name of Inver Lodge.

One day toward the end of August a rumor reached us that the woods were on fire on the other side of the west hill, and that the flames were traveling toward us. I put on my hat, went up to see if the report was true, and found flames curling along over the moss and underbrush near a sand embankment where two or three men were working. The fire did not look formidable to me, and on asking the men if there was any danger of its reaching the house, one put down his barrow. He slowly wetted the palms of his hands, rubbed them together, and said, “Na fear, me leddie; a barrowfu’ o’ sand noo an’ then wul keep it fra’ gangin’ any further.” So I went back reassured.

But as night came on, the blaze increased so much that it became alarming. Mr C— and the men were away at Kuwatin, some 15 miles from us, and could not be back before daylight. A kindly old Irishman, Michael Cahill, who for a drink of buttermilk came in the evenings to work in the garden, offered his services to sit up and watch the fire.

“Not that he thought there was a ha’porth of danger, but, Lord bless them! the misthress and the childre ‘ud be frightened.”

Poor old man! He had a true Irish heart, with an air of better days long vanished, and a deep loyalty to “thim of the ould stock”; and his boasts of grandeur and valiant deeds were mingled with childlike credulity.

The fire was at its height about midnight, and had reached a large tree in a line with our house, when the wind from the lake caught and drove it back. The underbrush soon burnt out, but the trees were like pillars of flame, crackling and roaring in the silent night, till they fell with a crash to the ground. Half-roused by the noise, old Cahill would mutter something about keeping watch until the master came home. The old fellow had wrapped himself in his greatcoat, and was sitting on a chair in the yard sound asleep.

Fearing that he might catch cold, I woke him. But he treated the insinuation that he had slept a wink with such indignant contempt that I had to leave him to take his chance. The fire burned itself out before daylight, and we felt as if we had made more fuss than was necessary, when Mr C— and the men arrived after four hours’ hard paddling. About Ingolf the fires raged so fiercely that the engineers moved all their valuable instruments and papers into the canoes, and left the shanty to its fate; a change in the wind, however, saved it, driving the flames back when the walls were scorching.

“Idealism is what precedes experience; cynicism is what follows.” ~David T Wolf

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Manitoba Landscape

*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 10. Quotes, photos, links, emendations added.


About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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