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The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk's Colonists
Chapter 5 First Foot on Red River Banks

The weary winter passing at Nelson Encampment had its bright spots. Miles Macdonell in the building erected for himself, on the south side of the Nelson River, kept up his mess, having with him Mr. Hillier, Priest Bourke, Doctor Edwards, and Messrs. John McLeod, Whitford and Michael Macdonell, officers and clerks. Those Immigrants who took no part in the rebellion fared well. True, the scurvy seized several of them, but proved harmless to those who obeyed the orders and took plentiful potations of spruce beer. With the opening year a fair supply of fresh and dried venison was supplied by the Indians. In April upwards of thirty deer were snared or shot by the settlers. Some three thousand deer of several different kinds crossed the Nelson River within a month. "Fresh venison," writes Macdonell, "was so plenty that our men would not taste salt meat. We have all got better since we came to Hudson Bay."

But as in all far northern climates the heat was great in the months of May and June, and Governor and Colonists became alike restless to start on the inland journey.

The passing out of the ice in north-flowing rivers is always wearisome for those who are waiting to ascend. Beginning to melt farther south, the ice at the mouth is always last to move. Besides, the arrival was anxiously awaited of Bird, Sinclair and House. By continuous urging of the dull and inefficient workmen to greater effort, Miles Macdonell had succeeded in securing four boats—none too well built—but commodious enough to carry his boat-crews, workmen, and Colonists.

Though Macdonell sought for the selection of the workmen who were to accompany him to Red River, he was not able to move the Hudson's Bay Company officials. Two days, however, after arrival of the Company magnates from the interior his men were secured to him, and he was fully occupied in transporting his stores up the river as far as the "Rock"—the rapids of the Hill River which here falls into Hayes River. For a long distance up the river there is a broad stream, one-quarter of a mile wide, running at the rate of two miles an hour through low banks. The boatmen have a good steady pull up the river for some sixty miles, and here where the Steel River enters the Hayes is seen a wide, deep, rapid stream running about three miles an hour. The banks of this river are of clay and rising from fifty to one hundred feet, the clay of the banks is so smooth and white that a traveller has compared them in color to the white, chalk cliffs of Dover. Thus far though it has required exertion on the part of the boatmen, a good stretch of a hundred miles from the Factory has been passed without any obstruction or delay. Now the serious work of the journey begins. The Hill River, as this part of the river is called, is a series of rapids and portages—where the cargo and boat have both to be carried around a rapid; of decharges where the cargo has thus to be carried, and of semi-decharges—where a portion of the cargo only needs to be removed.

At times waterfalls require to be circuited with great effort. A high mountain or elevated table-land seen from this river shows the rough country of which these cascades and rapids are the proof. Here are the White-Mud Falls and other smaller cataracts. To the expert voyageur such a river has no terrors, but to the raw-hand the management of such boats is a most toilsome work. The birch-bark canoe is a mere trifle on the portage, but the heavy York boat capable of carrying three or four tons is a clumsy lugger. The cargo must be moved, the non-effectives such as the women and children and the old men must trudge the weary path, varying from a few hundred yards to several miles along a rocky, steep and rugged way. When the portage is made the whole force of boatmen and able-bodied passengers are required to stand by each boat, pull it out of the water, and then skid or drag or cajole it along till it is thrust into its native element again. To the willing crofter or Orkney boatmen this was not a great task, but to the Glasgow immigrant, or the lazy waiter-on-fortune this was hard work. Many were the oaths of the officers and the complaints and objections of the men when they were required to grapple with the foaming cascades, the fearful rapids and the difficult portages of Hill River. Mossy Portage being now past the landing on a rocky island at the head of the river showed that the first "Hill Difficulty" had been overcome.

Swampy lake for ten miles gives a comparative rest to the toiling crews, but at the end of it a short portage passed takes the beleagured party into the mouth of the Jack Tent River. Day after day with sound sleep when the mosquitoes would permit, the unwilling voyageurs continued their journey. Ten portages have to be faced and overcome as the brigade ascends the rapid Jack Tent River, covering a stretch of seventy miles. The party now find themselves on the surface of Knee Lake, a considerable sheet of water, but a comparative rest after the trials of Jack Tent River. The lake is fifty-six miles long and at times widens to ten miles across.

But there is trouble just ahead.

The travellers have now come to the celebrated Fall Portage. It is short but deterrent. The height and ruggedness of the rocks over which cargo and boats have to be dragged are unusually forbidding. The only consolation to the contemplative soul, who does not have to portage, is that "The stream is turbulent and unfriendly in the extreme, but in romantic variety, and in natural beauty nothing can exceed this picture." High rocks are seen, beetling over the rapids like towers, and are rent into the most diversified forms, gay with various colored masses, or shaded by overhanging hills—now there is a tranquil pool lying like a sheet of silver—now the dash and foam of a cataract—these are but parts of this picturesque and striking scene.

But Fall Portage was only a culmination, in this fiercely rushing Trout River, for above it a dozen rapids are to be passed with toilsome energy. After this the party is rewarded with beautiful islets, and the lake for a length of thirty-five miles lies in a fertile tract of country. It was formerly appropriately called Holy Lake, and as a summit lake suggests to the traveller abiding restfulness. To the traders on their route whether passing up or down the water courses, it was always so. After the long and tedious voyaging it was their Elysium. Not only are the sweet surroundings of the lake most charming, but the Indians of the neighborhood have always been noted for their good character, their docility and their industry.

Greatest Merchant of the Red River Settlement.
Came to Red River Settlement in 1812.
Died in Winnipeg in 1881.

A short delay at Oxford House led to the continuation of the journey over what was now the roughest, most desolate, and most trying part of the voyage. On this rough passage, perhaps the most distressing spot was "Windy Lake," a small but tempestuous sheet. The voyageurs declare that they never cross "Lac de Vent" without encountering high winds and very often dangerous storms. Again "the Real Hill Difficulty" is encountered above the lake at the "Big Hill" portage and rapids—one of the sudden descents of this alarming stream. Those coming toward Oxford Lake run it at the very risk of their lives, but the painful portages impress themselves on all going up the "Height of Land," which is reached after passing through a narrow gorge between hills and mountains of rocks, the stream dashing headlong down from the mile-long Robinson Portage.

This region is an elevated, rugged waste, with no signs of animal life about it. It is the terror of the voyageurs. This eerie tract culminates in the ascending "Haute de Terre," as the French call it—the dividing ridge between the waters running eastward to Hudson Bay and those running westward and descending to meet the Nelson River, on its headlong way to Hudson Bay as well. The obstacle known as the "Painted Stone" being passed the Colonists' brigade was now on its way to the inland plain of the Continent.

The portage led from this string of five small lakes to the head waters of a trifling, but very interesting stream called the "Echimamish River." A doubtful but curious explanation has been given of the name. On the stream are ten beaver dams; which ever of these filled first gave the voyageur the opportunity to launch in his canoe or boat and go down the little runway to Black Water Creek. It was said that in consequence it was called "Each-a-Man's" brook, according as each voyageur took the water with his craft first. The way was now clear, down stream until shortly was seen the dashing Nelson River, or as it is here called, "The Sea River." When this was accomplished the Immigrants had only to pull stoutly up stream for forty miles or more until Norway House, the great Hudson's Bay Fort at the north end of Lake Winnipeg was reached.

The weary journey—430 miles from York Factory—was thus over and the worn out, weather beaten, ragged, and foot-sore travellers had come to the lake, whose name, other than that of Red River, was the only inland word they had ever heard of before starting on their journey.

It was the first standing place in the country, which was now to have them as its pioneers.

There is no turning back now. The Rubicon is crossed. Thirty-seven portages lie between them and the dissociable sea. For better or for worse they will now complete their journey, going on to found the Settlement which has become so famous.

The appearance of Norway House with its fine site and evidences of trade cheered the Colonists, and the sight of a body of water like Lake Winnipeg, which can be as boisterous as the ocean, brought back the loud resounding sea by whose swishing waves most of the settlers, for all their lives, had been lulled to sleep. It is a great stormy and dangerous lake—Lake Winnipeg. But for boats to creep along its shore with the liberty of landing on its sloping banks in case of need it is safe enough. The season was well past, and haste was needed, but in due time the mouth of the river—the delta of Red River—was reached. Now they were within forty or forty-five miles of their destination. At this time the banks of the Red River were well wooded, though there was open grassy plains lying behind these belts of forest. There was only one obstruction on their way up the river. This was the "Deer," now St. Andrew's Rapids, but after their experiences this was nothing, for these rapids were easily overcome by tracking, that is, by dragging the boats by a line up the bank.

Up the river they came and rounded what we now call Point Douglas, in the City of Winnipeg, a name afterwards given to mark Lord Selkirk's family name. They had completed a journey of seven hundred and twenty-eight miles, from York Factory to the site of Winnipeg—and they had done this in fifty-five days. Now they landed.


At York Factory the Colonists had met a Hudson's Bay Company officer—Peter Fidler—on his way to England. He was the surveyor of the Company and a map of the Colony of which a copy is given by us marks the Colony Gardens, where Governor Miles Macdonell lived. This spot they chose, and the locality at the foot of Rupert Street is marked in the City of Winnipeg. A stone's throw further north along the bank of Red River, Fort Douglas was afterwards built, around which circles much of this Romantic Settlement Story.

This spot was the centre of the First Settlement of Rupert's Land and to this first party peculiar interest attaches.

There can only be one Columbus among all the navigators who crossed from Europe to America; there can only be one Watt among all the inventors and improvers of the steam engine; only one Newton among those who discuss the great discovery of the basal law of gravitation.

There can be only one first party of those who laid the foundation of collective family life in what is now the Province of Manitoba—and what is wider—in the great Western Canada of to-day. There may have been not many wise men, not many mighty, not many noble among them, but the long and stormy voyage which they made, the dangers they endured on the sea, the marvellous land journey they accomplished, and their taking "seisin of the land," to use William the Conqueror's phrase, entitles them to recognition and to respectful memory.

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