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
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.
ANDREW McDERMOTT, ESQ.
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
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
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
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.
THE RED LETTER DAY OF THEIR LANDING WAS
AUGUST 30TH, 1812.
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
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