19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon
“The days may not be so bright and balmy—yet the quiet and melancholy that linger around them is fraught with glory. Over everything connected with autumn there lingers some golden spell—some unseen influence that penetrates the soul with its mysterious power.” ~Northern Advocate
The chimneys in Mr C—’s house were built of mud, and one of them, which smoked whenever a fire was lighted, had to be pulled down and rebuilt. The workmen, of various nationalities—Carrière an Indian, old Cahill an Irishman, a Scotchman, and a Mennonite, who thumped the mud mortar with a dogged perseverance that was quite amusing—were all engaged on this chimney.
One day I heard Carrière contradict an assertion of Cahill’s with regard to the work, calling it “a d—d lie!”
Stepping back from the foot of the ladder on which Carrière stood, the old Irishman lifted his straw hat with the air of a courtier, and replied politely, “Carrière, ye’re a gintleman! an’ that’s another.”
Before the chimney was quite finished, Mr and Mrs C— went down to Kuwatin to spend a few days, leaving me with the maid and old Cahill to superintend the housecleaning; and many a half-hour’s amusement had I, listening to the old man’s reminiscences of Ireland. When he found that I knew and took an interest in many of the people in his own country, his delight was unbounded.
The height of his ambition seemed to be to have “tin min undher him,” and his greatest trial was “huntin’ thim tarmints of cows.” He was the butt of all the jokes and tricks in the camps round, yet he took everything good-naturedly, his only comment being “The boys must have their laugh sometimes.” He said he was only thirty-seven, but, according to his own account, he had been “kept at school till he was sixteen, lived tin years on the Knight o’ Glynne’s estate, and gone fishin’ with him in the Shannon, been twinty-five years with Colonel Kitchener in Limerick, siven years undher Mr. Usborne of Aruprior Canady West, and knew the Ottawa as well as any man, two years with his brother in Michigan and two years in Kuwatin, and all the fault of the editor of the Ottawa Times newspaper, for praisin’ up the country and tellin’ lies about the wages.”
Cahill always dressed in his best on Sunday. How he managed to get up his white shirts was a mystery. To be sure, one was made to last several Sundays, for when one side got dirty he turned the other out. The navvies [“navigators”: road or rail construction crew] called him the forest ranger, because he always took the gun with him when he went for the cows, and each day as he passed the shanties on his way back empty-handed, they chaffed him about his want of sport.
One evening he returned as usual, apparently empty-handed, but coming into the kitchen for the milk pails, he produced from his pockets five partridges and four pigeons. When I asked him why he did not carry them to show the men that he did shoot something sometimes, he gave me a knowing look and said, “Shure, I wouldn’t give thim that satisfaction.”
We were glad of the game [fowl], as a change from the continual salt meat and fish, being unable to get fresh meat until November, and then only Montana beef. The second year the contractor bought only Canadian cattle. The difference in the meat is great, the one being hard and full of threadlike sinews, the other juicy and tender.
The evening before the September mail went out, I was sitting up late writing letters, when Mrs C— in a frightened tone called me to “listen to that strange noise“—a crunching, rustling sound from the rocks west of the house, as if some heavy animal was making its way through the underbrush and dry moss. Rumors of nearby bears had reached us that day, and we jumped at once to the conclusion that Bruin was on us. What was to be done? We were quite certain the poor calf, tethered to a stump on the grass plot, would fall an easy victim.
Then all the windows were wide open downstairs, and we did not think it probable Bruin would respect the mosquito netting sufficiently for us to depend on it as a defense. Mr C— and the men were away down the line. The doctor, who had come in that day, was enjoying a slumber, from which it seemed cruel to disturb him after his hard day’s tramp. However, as the noise increased, and seemed nearer every moment, it had to be done.
Did you ever try to wake a sound sleeper, making apparently noise enough to awaken the dead, and when, about to give it up in despair, have him answer, after your last effort, in a mild, good-naturedly aggravating tone, which impresses you with the belief that he has only closed his eyes for a moment’s meditation? Just so did our excellent Esculapius [medical provider]. Imploring him to get up, and telling him that the bears were on us, I rushed to obey Mrs C—, who screamed to me to shut all the windows.
While I was scrambling onto the kitchen table to reach the last, the doctor appeared, much en déshabille, with his hair rumpled and a general air of incompleteness about him, demanding the whereabouts of the bear. At the same moment Mrs C—, in her nightdress [nightgown], leaned over the banisters above, listening, all ears.
The absurdity of the whole scene so struck me that I could scarcely refrain from laughing outright. Sallying forth, armed with a big stick, the valiant doctor drove out—from behind the woodpile on the rock—a large, half-starved dog, who was trying to worry a meal off the dried hide of a defunct cow!
The night was brilliant. Bright moonlight lay like a long string of diamonds on the bosom of the lake. A blue, cloudless sky spread overhead. But faraway to the south a great bank of murky clouds, lined with silver, was momentarily rent by fierce flashes of forked lightning, followed by the muttering of distant thunder.
In November a sad accident occurred, by which Mr C— lost one of his staff. The weather was cold and disagreeable—the few transition days between the beautiful Indian summer and clear Canadian winter. Until then the thermometer had registered 70° in the shade at noon, but the change had come suddenly, as it does in Manitoba, and in a few days the smaller lakes had frozen over wholly, but the larger ones only partially. The mail had been delayed in consequence of there being no means of passage either by land or water.
On November 10, Mr W— and Mr K— dined at Inver, and the former, being anxious to reach his station, Ingolf, next day in time to intercept the expected mail carrier, resisted all persuasion to remain until morning. Feeling sure he could reach the intermediate station, Kalmar, before dark, he left about 3 o’clock.
What seeming trifles sometimes make all the difference between life and death!
That day dinner was half an hour late, an unusual thing in our punctual house; and if Mr W— had only had that half-hour more of daylight, his fate would have been changed. He crossed the three first lakes in safety on the ice, and naturally thought that he would find the fourth equally firm, forgetting that the sun had been shining on the north side with a heat doubled by the high, rocky shore. He attempted to cross, but, alas, never reached the other side.
The next evening (Saturday), not hearing him work the telegraph, Mr K—, who had been detained at Inver, inquired of the intermediate station, Kalmar, when Mr W— left, and the answer that he had not seen him told us the sad news at once.
Next morning, at daybreak, a party went in search of the unfortunate man, and found his body not 30 feet from shore. His hat, profile (or map), and the long pole carried by all who have to cross unsound ice, were floating near. His large boots, which were so strapped round his waist that it was impossible to get them off, had kept him down. The Red Pine Lake is small but deep, and he had died alone in the forest, with only the giant rocks around him to echo back his dying cries.
While I write, memory recalls his laughing air, when telling me that morning how he had tried to cross the narrows of our lake, but had desisted, fearing a ducking on such a cold day; and I, pointing to his immense boots, said they were scarcely fit to wear when running such risks. How little I dreamed what harm they were doomed to do! His great brown eyes, with the sad, faraway look in them, as if, unknown to himself, they saw into the future; his graceful, manly figure, as he sprang up the hill behind the house; and his cheery “Good-bye, till I see you again,” can never be forgotten.
When the winter roads became passable, they took Mr W— to Winnipeg and laid him in the Roman Catholic cemetery there—alone, away from all he loved, without a kindly hand to tend his last resting place. His death cast a gloom over all our party. Though grieving for him and missing him continually, we could never realize that he was really dead. And the knowledge that it was so even to us made our heart fill with sympathy for one faraway, to whom the sad tidings would have more than the bitterness of death.
Our great excitement after winter had set in in earnest was the arrival of the first dogsled. Hearing the shrill “Marsh-sha” (Marcha) of the driver, we all rushed to the window to see the pretty beasts, in their delicately-worked saddlecloths and merry bells, come down the hill; then, when a halt was called, to watch them sit down on their haunches and look proudly about them, as if quite aware of the interest they excited. The toboggans they drew were not heavily laden, and as far as I can judge from my limited experience, the dogs are invariably kindly treated by their drivers; all looked well fed and in good condition. During the summer, and sometimes in the winter, when the poor Indians themselves are more than half-starved, it is little wonder that the dogs fare as badly as their masters, and look lean and miserable.
The winter of 1878 was mild and open, moreso than had been known in the Northwest for 30 years. The snow had vanished almost completely from the portages, and water covered the ice on many of the lakes. When, at Christmas, the staff accepted Mrs C—’s invitation to spend the day at Inver, the question was whether they would come with dogs or canoes. Neither, however, were practicable, and they had to walk—some of them 18 miles.
We amused ourselves icing the cake, inventing devices, with the aid of scraps of telegraph wire, as supports for the upper decorations, decorating the house with cedar and balsam wreaths, and providing as good a dinner as it was possible to obtain in the woods. With the exception of having nothing for our guests to drink, we succeeded tolerably well. Because of laws prohibiting intoxicating beverages, it was necessary to ask the lieutenant-governor of Manitoba for a special “permit” to have wine sent out. We were answered that “if the men had to do without whisky, the gentlemen might do without wine.” So we had to content ourselves with half a glass of sherry each, the remains of some smuggled out with our luggage in the spring.
We soon had proof that the men rebelled against prohibition. The presence of whisky being suspected in a neighboring camp, a constable, who had been but recently appointed and was anxious to show his zeal, never rested until he had discovered the smuggler and brought him to justice, the clause that the informer was entitled to half the fine of $50 not diminishing his ardor.
To a lawyer the proceedings would have been amusing, for all parties concerned were novices in their respective rôles. The justice of the peace, with a great idea of his own importance, the majesty of the law, and the necessity for carrying it out to the letter, had obtained several manuals for the guidance of county justices of the peace and stipendiary [salaried] magistrates, over the technicalities of which he spent many a sleepless hour. No sooner had he mastered the drift of one act, than the next repealed so many of its clauses that the poor man became hopelessly bewildered.
Handcuff there was none, neither was there a lockup, and the constable spent his time guarding the prisoner, being paid $2 a day for the service. The latter was fed and housed, and, not having been overburdened with work or wages for some time, did not object to the incarceration.
Ultimately the prisoner was tried, found guilty, and fined $50 or a month in jail. Many arguments arose between magistrate and constable, as the latter, having served in the United States, and there learned a smattering of Yankee law, was resolved to make his voice heard in the case. The inability of the prisoner to pay the fine, of course, made it necessary to fall back on the alternative—30 days in jail, which jail was over a 100 miles away. There was no conveyance to take him there and no road; and the man refused to walk.
“If I had the money I’d pay the $50 and have done with it,” he said; “but, not having it, I can’t do it. If I am to go to jail, all right—take me; but whoever heard of a man walking there of his own accord?” and he whittled away at the stick in his hand feeling that he was master of the situation.
Being remanded until the next day, to keep up some semblance of proper procedure, he went away quite contentedly, only to return the next day and the next to repeat the same farce. At last both magistrate and constable began to look rather tired, while the prisoner, on the contrary, was quite at his ease.
The [telegraph] wire was down between us and Winnipeg, and no advice could be obtained. So, at last, the constable, agreeing to forfeit his share of the fine, and the magistrate to take a time-bill [IOU] on the contractor for the next section of the railway for the remaining $25, they let the man go, neither of them, I am sure, seeing him depart with regret.
The next whisky seizure that occurred in the neighborhood was a small two-gallon keg, found in the middle of a barrel of sugar. The load was owned by one man and driven by another, whose consternation at finding he was a holder of contraband goods was so genuine that the authorities thought emptying the whisky on the snow was sufficient punishment, and—possibly dreading a repetition of the last trial—let the man go.
Soon afterward several kegs of whisky were found on an island in the Lake of the Woods. The owner gave himself up and entered the service of the contractor as special whisky detective, and such was his vigilance that no whisky ever passed him. He was quite impartial, not letting even our mailbags go unquestioned, and so was not disliked. During his term the line was quiet and orderly; but, unfortunately, he went into Winnipeg on leave, shot a youth belonging to one of the river steamers in a drunken frolic, and was convicted of the murder.
One day, hearing a peremptory-sounding knock at the door—a knock at any time being an event—I opened it in haste, to see a short, jaunty-looking man, red-haired and red-faced, clad in long stockings drawn well over his trousers and moccasins, a short skin coat [jacket] tied round his waist with a red sash, and on his head a long red toque [small cap].
“Good mornin’, miss,” said this odd apparition. “I’m come for Mr K—’s legs.”
Seeing that I had not the faintest idea of what he meant, he touched his forehead again. “Please, ‘m, Mr K— sent me for his legs. He said I’d find them in the office.”
And the little fellow, who seemed all on springs, craned his neck round to see into the room. Fairly puzzled, I stood aside to let him pass; so in he went, returning instantly with a tripod on his shoulder.
“Here they are, miss,” he said cheerfully. “Much obliged. Fine day, miss.” And he was off to the lake before I had recovered my surprise at his amazing request and his general absurdity.
“Joy, temperance, and repose, slam the door on the doctor’s nose.”
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Autumn Aspens Northern Manitoba
*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 11. Quotes, photos, links, emendations added.