An Indian Village*

19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Portage Travel
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon

“The American Indian is of the soil, whether it be the region of forests, plains, pueblos, or mesas. He fits into the landscape, for the hand that fashioned the continent also fashioned the man for his surroundings.” ~Luther Standing Bear

Toward noon we turned westward into Clearwater Bay, and were soon at the landing. How changed from the night when we landed here nearly a year and a half before! Then it was only a forest traversed by a narrow path; now the scene is crowded with a log storehouse and well-used roads, several shanties, piles of nitroglycerin cans, a barge waiting the arrival of the tug, swarms of boats and canoes, and groups of navvies [“navigators”: road or rail construction crew] standing round the storehouse, whence we hear the twang of a rudely played, but not unmusical, violin: Indians and squaws, beside their wigwams, complete the picture.

Here we met our old friend Cahill, who came on board to say good-bye. He had been away haymaking when I left Lake Deception, and I regretted not seeing him. He had made up his mind to leave the country and return to Ontario. In despair because he had not his two trunks with him, so that he could accompany us, he implored us to wait until he went and fetched them. When we tried to explain that we should have no means of conveying his trunks, he drew himself up and informed us with dignity that he could afford to pay his way like any other honest man.

But, at last, understanding that our mode of traveling would preclude any such weighty baggage as trunks, he bade us farewell and a hearty Godspeed, muttering as he walked away that he would not be long after us in “this God-forsaken counthry, that all the gintlefolks were lavin’.” I have never heard if he carried out his threat; but wherever he may end his days, I am sure his kind Irish heart will be unchanged.

Taking the barge in tow and our Indians—Carrière, who was to act as guide, and a merry Iroquois named Frank Saddler—coming on board, we steamed out of Clearwater Bay, and in the fast-falling rain reached our landing place, a large rock on a sandy, wooded shore, from where we were to make our first portage into Ptarmigan Bay. The captain let the tug run close up to this rock, and with little difficulty we disembarked on a spot that seemed to lead nowhere. Bidding us a cordial good-bye, good luck, and speedy return all round, the jolly old skipper left us; and we watched the little tug, with the barge hugged close alongside to keep it off the sunken rocks, disappear in the rain.

We decided that it was too wet and late to make any further progress that night, so Carrière and Frank went in search of a campground; and soon the merry ring of their axes, the crash of falling timber, and the crackling of fires, which sent ruddy gleams through the trees, raised our drooping spirits and dried our damp clothes.

No merrier party ever clustered round the welcome blaze. We enjoyed our pan of fried pork and cold roast beef, accompanied by tin pannikins [cups] of tea, more thoroughly than the most recherché [exotic] repast served in the most perfectly appointed dining-room.

Spreading the waterproof sheets and robes on the ground in the tent, Mr F— made the bed over its entire width, then rolled the ends up, leaving us space to dress. We had a huge fire across the doorway of our tent, and about 10 or 12 feet away blazed another fire, behind which rose the tent of the gentlemen.

“Now we’re in camp, away with the frivolities of civilized life,” cried Mr F—, as he took off his collar and necktie and tossed them into his wife’s lap. “I’m not going to put those on again until I get to Winnipeg, and fashion demands the sacrifice; nor coat either—unless,” he prudently added, “I’m caught in the rain.” And he looked up at the still weeping clouds.

Rising at 7 o’clock next morning, we made our toilet [grooming] on the shore of the small bay where we had landed the night before. It required some little practice to wash our faces, standing or kneeling on the slippery stones, without getting our skirts wet or letting the water run up our sleeves. No ribbon, no bow, no extra adornment was to be allowed; and when I appeared with some, I was voted a rebel by the assembled travelers. In mock politeness I was offered a stump on which to sit, a knife, a fork, and a spoon all to myself.

After breakfast we packed up. The men, having taken over the canoes, we all followed, each carrying what we could, through a narrow belt of woods. Then the path rounded a grassy swamp to a long, rocky point. Mr M— was some distance in front, with the frying pan in one hand and a basket containing cutlery in the other, while my load was the lantern, whisky keg, and a small tin pail of pork. Just as I reached the rock, Mr M—, who was feeling his way along the top, and warning me to be careful, slipped, turned, and, vainly trying to grasp the rock, went down on all fours with a run and splash into the lake.

Away went Frank after him, shouting with a laugh, “I’ll save the frying pan!”

“What’s that?” cried Mrs F—, who was behind me with a load of shawls.

“Only Mr M— in the lake,” said I, adding conceitedly, “Wait a minute, Mr M—, and I’ll come and pull you out.”

I stepped on what was apparently firm ground, and sank to my knees in soft, slimy mud, from which I was, with difficulty, extricated. When the canoe loads were divided, it was voted unanimously that Mr M— and I should be put in the same boat, to sink or swim together.

The day cleared, and we reached our next portage after a three-hour paddle, from Ptarmigan Bay to a nameless lake, one of the most beautiful I ever saw. The portage is about half a mile long, up a narrow path over a hill. The men loaded and traveled so well that in two trips they had carried everything over, while we, though more lightly laden, accomplished only one. Somebody called attention to the wisdom with which I had chosen my load, as it had gotten lighter at every trip, especially the whisky, which, by the way, was contraband.

Of course, we gave the lake a name—in fact, it had half a dozen before we left it, one being in honor of the dear little baby, who, through all the discomforts of our trip, enjoyed and bore it best among us. But the name it retained was Cedar Lake, from a lovely passage, 300 or 400 feet long, between the mainland and an island, each high, rocky bank being covered with large cedars, which almost met overhead.

Passing out from among the cedars, Carrière paused a moment; then, steering the canoe in another direction, said, “This is the way, Mr M—. I doubted a moment, for I was only over this part of the trail once, nearly four years ago. Four years this Christmas.”

“Why, how can you tell which way to take? All the points and islands look alike to me.”

“By some landmarks. I paid an Indian $1 to show me this road, and I never forget. I know the dry wood yonder, and I know the portage by a big stone I cooked my dinner on. There’s an old tree fallen in the water by the landing, which will be troublesome,” he added.

Ten minutes afterward we reached the spot and had a great deal of difficulty in getting the said tree out of the way, and ourselves ashore.

This portage is longer than the first, and over quite a steep hill, where, in spite of its diminishing character, I found my load almost more than I could carry, and gladly gave the pork to Frank. It was noon when we reached the mouth of a creek in Shoal Lake. Sitting down comfortably on a quantity of mown hay on the shore, we had our lunch, the first man over the portage having made a fire, and rested for an hour. The unfortunate Mr M—, reaching from a log for water, and stumbling in again, afforded us some entertainment; but this time I did not propose to rescue him.

Shoal Lake is about 12 miles long and 5 miles wide, and is at times the roughest lake in the chain. Canoes are often wind-bound for days on its shores, and we congratulated ourselves on our good fortune in having such a fine day in which to cross. It was a long 12-mile paddle. As we crossed the northern end, Carrière pointed out the winter trail to the “Nor’west Angle,” 6 miles from its southern shores, which could be followed for over 9 miles by the lopsticks in view. The Indians formerly made these lopsticks only to commemorate some great event, but now they will make one in return for a bag of flour or a feast. Choosing one of the tallest trees, they cut off all the branches, except the very topmost, and their bare stems make them distinguishable from the rest of the forest a long way off.

There is a Hudson Bay Company post on one of the islands on Shoal Lake, and we could hear the trained dogs there howling dreadfully. About 6 o’clock we reached Indian Bay, on the northern shore of Shoal Lake. Its entrance is guarded by an island, and round its western point lie the low meadowlands at the mouth of Falcon River.

The Indian village on the shore of the bay comprised but a few scattered loghouses and untidy-looking wigwams of birchbark, most of them empty. The ground about the lodges was planted with potatoes, and upright poles with cross sticks stood near, on which to dry fish and skins. The Indians, with the exception of a few half-grown boys, were all away at the Hudson Bay trading post to get their treaty money, which varied in amount according to their rank in the tribe, the chief getting the immense sum of $25 a year.

A group of squaws turned out to greet the approach of our canoes, which excited far more interest than ourselves. We went up a long path to the chief’s house, where an old squaw with five children, aged three to sixteen, lived. Another house close by was inhabited by Shashegheesh’s youngest wife, a tall, slight, rather good-looking squaw, wearing a merino skirt and loose cotton jacket. Mr F— had commissioned Carrière to buy some potatoes of her; but before the bargain was completed, her old rival, a puffy-cheeked, but still handsome woman, came forward, asserting her prior right, assuring us that her potatoes were the best.

On this, the younger squaw, without a word of remonstrance, dropped the half-apronful she had gathered; and the old one, sending for a birchbark tray, sold the potatoes off her rival’s domains, and pocketed the 25 cents. Carrière tried hard to induce her to throw in one or two miserable-looking carrots for the same money; but, laughing derisively, she declined unless he would pay more. Anxious, however, to sell them, she followed us down to the shore, carrots in hand.

We peeped into the house; it was bare of all furniture, a roll of skins and some matting which they make themselves being the only things we could see. Yet Shashegheesh is one of the richest chiefs in that part of the country, and has two wives, because he can afford to build and keep two houses. Several other houses, well built, with good mud chimneys, were empty, but, Carrière said, only during the summer.

A tattered birchbark wigwam near the landing was inhabited by a squaw and half a dozen children. A papoose, laced in his birchbark cradle, his face covered with blood, was roaring lustily. The squaw said his face was sore, and he had scratched it. His screams increasing at our appearance, she seized hold of the strap the cradle is carried by, and gave it a violent shake, making a queer guttural remark that silenced him at once.

The inside of this wigwam was more comfortable than Shashegheesh’s house. The floor was strewn with clean cedar boughs, leaving a round space in the center, where there were still remains of a fire. The squaw and the girls here, too, were better dressed than the chief’s family. One child about ten had a bright pink merino dress, profusely trimmed with narrow black velvet and small white china buttons; her hair was braided with colored ribbons and beads, strings of beads also encircling her wrists, neck, and ankles. She came out and danced for our entertainment, twisting and whirling about, snapping her fingers over her head, and tossing her long braids. Her friends regarded her performance with evident admiration.

While we looked on, a canoe, laden with cedar boughs, and paddled by two pretty young squaws, came gliding in along the shore. Frank, who could not understand a word of their language, sat on a nearby log, and soon peals of merry laughter betrayed a lively flirtation. Close together, the girls sidled up to him; and he, casting insinuating glances at them, poked them in the ribs. They ran away laughing, hiding behind the low bushes that skirted the shore. Presently they peeped out, to find an expression of utter indifference on Frank’s face, as he idly kicked the pebbles at his feet.

When they gradually returned to the charge, Frank, with a mischievous look at us, said something in his own tongue, to which they listened with finger on lip, looking at each other, as though saying, “What does it mean? Shall we remain or fly?”

Before they could decide, Frank made a feint [pretense] to spring after them, at which they turned, and fled like frightened fawns. Not being followed, they ventured to return, coming closer and closer, until Frank, watching his opportunity, sprang after them, grasped the prettiest by the elbows, and bent her lithe body back until he could look close into the brown eyes. Then, as she struggled violently, with a laugh he let her free.

It was time to embark, and kissing his hand to the girls, he leaped into the canoe and pushed off. We followed more slowly, taking a last look at the group on shore—the Indian wigwam, the pretty squaws, leaning sadly against each other as they watched Frank’s canoe round the point; the stout matron, still flourishing the emaciated-looking carrots, and shrilly vociferating [arguing] their perfections to Carrière; and the dancing girl waving a farewell with a huge cedar bough.

Carrière told us that during the previous winter the village was full. When he stopped a night there, en route from Winnipeg, some of the Indians took his dogsled over to an opposite point for a fiddler who lived there. All spent the night in a grand “spree” of dancing and drinking. But in the morning only the shattered remains of his toboggan and dogs were to be found. The half-starved native animals had devoured provisions and robes, and gnawed the toboggan to pieces, so that he had to make the best of his way home on foot—a sadder, if not a wiser, man.

“A little thought and a little kindness are often worth more than a great deal of money.” ~John Ruskin

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit

*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 15. Quotes, photos, links, emendations added.

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About Christseekerk

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