Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

Trooper and Redskin In the Far North-West
Chapter I

Winnipeg—An unlucky squaw—A contrast—Fort Osborne Barracks —Accepted—A reminiscence—The ups and downs of life— Off to Regina—The journey West.

Winnipeg, in 1871, consisted of a straggling range of wooden huts; upon the outskirts of which stood the dingy teepee of the Indian, and the noisome tent of the half-breed. It is now a city of nearly 25,000 souls, standing upon a flat expanse at the junction of the Red River and the Assineboine. I had seen many bird's-eye views of Winnipeg in emigration pamphlets; very florid in detail, with tramcar lines radiating in all directions along wide and magnificent streets. There were steamers speeding over broad rivers, and open spaces laid out as parks. This may be the happy state of affairs in the future; but I was much disappointed in finding nothing of the sort.

It was in a transition state in 1884 ; the dirt, drink, and debauchery of the half-breed hovel being cheek by jowl with a shining structure of brick dedicated to religion. Main Street, which is now a fine thoroughfare, was then a perfect muskeg; and I saw an unlucky squaw, with her pony and Red River cart, firmly embedded in the glutinous compound which did duty as a roadway. I have had some experience of mud, and once imagined the Constantinople product could not be beaten; but for fixity of tenure I give the palm to the cement-like mixture of the Canadian North-West. The Red River cart is a peculiar institution, constructed entirely of wood, and drawn by an Indian pony. These native quadrupeds, in the Far West, are called cayeuses, or shagganappis. When this wondrous rheumatic vehicle is set in motion the creaking and groaning is most excruciating ; at one time it was the sole mode of transport across the plains in summer. Place the body upon runners, and you have the "jumper" sleigh.

Instead of gay passenger craft skimming the far-famed Red River, I found a couple of steamboats laid up, owing to the shallowness of the water. The stream is but a muddy ditch, and the Assineboine is little better. There were a few lumber-mills along the sides. The stores and drinking-saloons were principally occupied by immigrants from Ontario.

I must say I observed a great improvement in the city on my return in 1888. Main Street is paved with blocks of wood, buildings of brick and stone everywhere meet the eye ; the hotels are all that can be desired, while the new City Hall rears its lofty pinnacles in proud superiority.

The increase in population shows more clearly the growth of a city than any other evidence, and the following figures at periods of eight years, prove the marvellous strides Winnipeg has made; the 1000 of 1872 had risen to 6500 in 1880, and to 22,000 in 1888. I may as well mention here that the city does not stand on the margin of the huge lake of the same name. It is fully sixty miles from the shores of that inland sea, which stretches its desolate waters a length of 240 miles.

It was a lovely morning—clear and slightly frosty—at the end of September, when I wended my way, past the ruins of old Fort Garry, towards Fort Osborne. Fort Garry at one time was the headquarters of the Hudson Ray Company, and was held by Riel during the first rebellion, which caused Lord (then Colonel) Wolseley's expedition to the Red River. The borders of the bush along the banks of the two rivers were rich in the russet and scarlet of autumn tints, the blue sky was flecked with fleecy clouds ; and a fresh breeze came scampering from the western prairies, laden with health.

Fort Osborne, in those days, was the only recruiting depot for the North-West Mounted Police. The force only consisted of 500 men; and it was not so very easy then to obtain entry into the ranks. The strength of the corps is now 1000; and, since the rebellion, Ottawa has been the principal place for obtaining men; though recruiting parties have at various times made a tour of Ontario. Men who joined in 1884 were obliged to make their own way to the capital of Manitoba; and had abundance of time to reflect upon the undertaking before them. Now, a recruiting sergeant is not so very particular as to the antecedents of the candidates before him; and many youths in a chronic state of joviality are shipped to Regina, who imagine that the only duty they have is to ride round the prairie in a general state of independence.

On arriving at the gate of the fort, the first thing that met my eye was a strapping sentry, with his carbine at the "Support," and his revolver in holster at his side. His buttons, spurs, helmet spike, and chain glittered in the sun, his brass cartridges, peeping in even rows from his belt, gleamed with a brilliant lustre; his white helmet was pipe clayed without a speck; while his scarlet tunic and long boots were perfect in fit. A small detachment of North-West Mounted Police was stationed here to look after certain stores belonging to the Militia Department. Government House, the residence of the Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba, was just over the way. The barracks consisted of a series of wooden huts, whitewashed, and standing in a line. On the other side of the square stood the stables. The wooded banks of the Assineboine were behind the stables; and a few artistically painted wooden villas were scattered about the surrounding ground.

On stating my errand, I was told to go across to No. 4 block; and there I found a smart orderly, with spotless gauntlets and riding-whip, sunning himself on a bench in front of the building. He conducted me to the sergeant, a slightly-built man, with a little, fair moustache. I immediately addressed this youthful non-com. as Sergeant-Major, not on diplomatic grounds, but because I observed a gold crown above his triple chevron. In the British Service this is the badge of a troop sergeant-major, but it is worn by every sergeant in the N.W.M.P. I informed him that I wished to join the force, and he, pleasantly, told me that the doctor would not be in attendance till eleven o'clock, and that I could either wait or come back at that hour. As Fort Osborne was some distance from the city, I preferred to remain. So my booted and spurred Mercury led me to the barrack-room, where I was made to feel at home at once. I might have been a returned comrade for all the attentions I received. I was offered many seats, and many plugs of tobacco were produced, with invitations to " have a smoke."

The interior of the room was just the same as any other troopers' quarters from Peshawur to Hong Kong. The floor clean, stove polished, walls white, beds in a row, bedding made up, blankets folded, and kits on shelf, according to regulation pattern, tables down the centre, men employed as usual when off duty ; with jackets off and sleeves rolled up. One engaged in burnishing; another brushing, and a third daubing his gloves with a wet pipeclay sponge. One trooper with a black moustache, sitting reading and smoking, but nearly all "chewing the rag," which is service vernacular for talking. The corporal was busy with his enigmatic "returns," which generally resolve themselves into an arithmetical puzzle. They had a pleasant time of it, these lucky ones. No drills, short stables, and very little in the way of duty. Day and night guard was the sole trouble. The guard-mounting and ornamental work was solely on account of a few obsolete field-pieces, and-the representative of royalty across the way.

There was a very cheery fellow polishing his cartridges, who had been in the Scots Greys, and who informed me he would rather clean a sword and scabbard any day than these. There are twenty Winchester and twelve Enfield cartridges in each belt, which is constructed like a bandolier. This jovial Yorkshireman gave me many hints regarding my future, and said I should meet some jolly fellows at Regina.

At 10 a.m. the sergeant entered and handed me a printed paper, which he told me to read carefully. It contained a number of queries, as to whether I had served in her Majesty's service, was I married, could I read and write, was I able to give testimonials as to character, and was I accustomed to the care and management of horses. At eleven o'clock I was marched into the orderly-room, where an officer, in gold lace, forage cap and patrol jacket, was seated amid a pile of papers. He put a lot of searching questions, eyeing me keenly the while. Apparently this inquisitorial examination was satisfactory, and I signed a paper, in duplicate, vowing allegiance to the powers that be, and engaging myself to serve for five years in the North-West Mounted Police.

I was then introduced to the sanctum of the medico, who put me through the usual tests as to eyesight, and examined my architecture generally, while I stood in peris naturalibus. During this pretty severe ordeal I observed a paper pinned to the wall above the desk which revealed to me that the previous candidate had been rejected. This made me feel rather nervous as to the result; but I was relieved to find that I came through, with the magic word "accepted " against my name; and here also my papers were signed by the doctor, and given me to take back to the orderly-room. After handing in my medical documents, the sergeant informed me I could make myself at home with the men for the remainder of the day, and that I should start the following morning for Regina.

The day passed pleasantly over with jokes, yarns, laughter, and tobacco. The men all seemed to possess a good-humoured spirit of camaraderie, and all seemed content. Certainly they were well off, and led a totally different life to the others in the Territories. Many indeed applied for a transfer to head-quarters, after a spell of this Capua, so that they might have a chance of saving money. Winnipeg and its gaieties were too much for their slender pay. A month's pay—which at the lowest is fifteen dollars, or three pounds—drawn upon a Saturday, would have entirely vanished by the following Monday. The grub at the Fort Osborne barracks was excellent. There was a rattling good dinner of tender beef, mashed potatoes, and rice pudding. But they luckily possessed the services of a female cook, each man subscribing ten cents (fivepence) daily towards the expenses of the mess. The non-coms and men messed together in the barrack-room.

I slept that night once more in the narrow cot of a soldier, taking possession of the bed of a man on guard. I remember, when leaving the old regiment at the Island Bridge barracks in Dublin, the regimental sergeant-major saying to mc, on my way to the office for my discharge, "Well, tired of soldiering, eh?"

"Yes, sir, for a spell," I replied.

But when I doffed the blue and white of the lancer, I certainly never dreamed of joining any band of exiles in such remote quarters as these. So, musing upon the vicissitudes of fortune, I fell asleep, and was awakened about I a.m. by a dilapidated arrival from town, who required the services of a sleepy fatigue party from the surrounding beds to remove his clothes. I was soon over once more in the land of nod, and remained there till reveilld.

A defaulter of the previous day was to be my escort to Regina. We made a hasty breakfast of beefsteak, coffee, and bread and butter, and found the transport waggon ready to convey M--and his baggage and myself to the station. The corporal occupied a seat in front beside the driver, and we took up our perch behind them. We jumped on board the west-bound train at 7.30. The Canadian Pacific Railway was not at that time entirely completed. The trains only ran as far as Calgary, 839 miles west of Winnipeg. It was Fort Calgary then, and merely consisted of the Mounted Police post and a congregation of canvas dwellings. British Columbia was not so easy of access then as it is now. The early French adventurers who first sighted the gleaming summits of the Montagnes des Rochers never imagined that a day would come when the iron horse would rush shrieking through the awful chasms, beneath their ice-clad peaks.

My chum had a cargo of whisky stowed away among his baggage to take to Regina for distribution among "the boys." Each member of the force is expected by his comrades when entering the territory to bring a libation of "old rye" or "bourbon" with him, from the more favoured regions. This is a pretty commentary upon the prohibition law.

The car in which we were seated was peopled with a few Manitoba farmers and Winnipeg grain dealers, and one commercial "gent" in the cigar line. This latter representative of the artistic manufacture of cabbage-leaves attracted my attention from the fact that every cigar he offered for inspection was superior to the preceding one, although he had pronounced each in turn to be the very climax of perfection. The usual newspaper "boy"—cetat. thirty—walked through the cars, making periodic visits with peanuts, apples, candies and other indigestible matter at fancy prices. These are fixed with a lofty disregard of the principles of political economy, and seem to be imposed specially to stop the demand.

The country between Port Arthur and Winnipeg, to the east, is muskeg, rock, and forest, gloomy and rough. The scene changes marvellously on crossing the Louise bridge, over the Red River. Here, as one travels westward, the prairie stretches away flat as a billiard-table, far on either side, though in the distance, to the south, you can see the fringe of bush that denotes the windings of the sluggish Assiniboine. The only place to look for timber out here is by the banks of the streams. Log-houses are scattered about at intervals in a sort of skirmishing order, but no pleasant orchard or shady grove adds a tinge of romantic beauty to these lonely western homes. All is bleak, and cheerless, one homestead is the direct counterpart of another. A log-house thatched with straw, a cattle-shed, and corral make up the prairie farm. There are an improved class of houses now, but I am speaking of the general run of pioneer dwellings in 1884.

At Carberry we make a frantic rush across to the hotel for dinner. There were no sumptuous dining-cars attached to each train in those days, as there are now. On to Brandon again, crossing the Assiniboine by a trestle bridge. Here lies a steamboat which once succeeded in reaching this spot during an exceptional spring flood ; but which can never return, save in its original fragments. A few Indian teepes stud the flats by the river.

It was evening when we reached Moosomin, the first station in the North-West Territory. From here to the Rockies, a distance of 700 miles, the train runs through the Great Lone Land. There were only a couple of the Mounted Police stationed here ; and this is the extreme eastern limit of their jurisdiction. The train is supposed to be searched for whisky, but a constable or corporal merely promenades with clanking spurs down the aisles of the cars. Freight deposited at the station, however, undergoes a rigid scrutiny. My friend, the corporal, whom I had met in Brandon a month ago, was now stationed here; and he came on board, with blue cloak reaching to his heels, for it was raining. We adjourned to the lavatory (to save scandal) where we each had a sup out of a mysterious bottle.

It was dark when we reached Broadview. Here, in the dining-hall (Anglic refreshment-room) we partook of supper consisting of a tough mallard, tea and buns. For this we paid sixty cents (2s. 6d.) each, police rate. Unfortunate civilians had to stump out fifteen cents more.

Resuming our places on the train again, a Winnipeg banker, with a friend of his from Scotland, joined us in conversation. The stranger,—a gentlemanly man in a light ulster—was going to visit the Bell Farm, near Indian Head. This was one of the show places of the North-West, and was always paraded as one ofthe seven wonders of the world. It is not mentioned now, in emigration pamphlets, I see. It consisted of 10,000 acres of wheat land, and was a gigantic failure; it is now being, or has been, sold in small patches of 160 acres each.

Travelling on these trains is dreary work, even now, when they run from ocean to ocean. In spite of their sleeping-cars and bath rooms, in spite of the delicacies of the dining-cars, in spite of the rich upholstering, the polished red and white mahogany and satin-wood, in spite of the adornments of antique brass—they cannot, exceed the speed of twenty miles an hour, even now. It was, if possible, worse in 1884. The engineer "guessed" he didn't care, no more did the conductor. The train was only going that night as far as Moosejaw; about forty miles west of Regina, and the end of a section. There were only three trains a week further west. So Mr. McA., the banker, produced a pack of cards; and by the struggling light of a wobbling oil-lamp we played whist. Indian Head (where there is a reserve of Assiniboine Indians) was reached eventually, and my chum and I were left alone, till, at length, about 2 a.m. we were set down, in a drizzling rain, upon the desolate platform at Regina.

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus