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The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk's Colonists
Chapter 22 What the Stargazers Saw

The writer remembers meeting in Boston, a good many years ago, a scientific explorer, who along with two companies, one of whom is the greatest astronomer in the United States, as an astronomical party in 1860, made a visit through Red River Settlement, on their way to the North Saskatchewan to observe an eclipse. The disappointment of the party was very great, for, after travelling three thousand miles, their fate was "to sit in a marsh and view the eclipse through the clouds, so heavy was the rain."

The three astronomers have given their account under assumed names in a little book, of which there are few copies in Canada. Their view of Red River Settlement in 1860 is a vivid picture.

What an extraordinary Settlement! Here is a Colony of about ten thousand souls scattered among plantations for thirty miles along the Red and half as many along the Assiniboine River, almost wholly dependent for intelligence from the outer world on one stern-wheeled steamer. That breaks down; and before word can be sent of their complete isolation, weeks must pass before the old and painful canoe-route by way of Lake of the Woods can be opened, or the wagon make its tedious journey to the headwaters of the Red and back, improvising on the way its own ferries over the swift and deep streams which feed it.

Finding haste of no avail, and despatching our luggage on carts to the Upper Fort and centre of the Settlement, twenty miles away, we start there on foot the next day to view the land and its inhabitants. The road, "the King's road," is a mere cart-track in the deep loam, taking its independent course on either side of the houses, all of which front the river in a single wavering line; for the country is given up absolutely to farming, for which the rich mould, said to be three or four feet deep, eminently fits it; and the lots each with a narrow frontage at the bank of the river, extends back two miles into the prairie. All is at a dead level. John Omand had asked us to dine at his house; but accidentally passing it without recognizing it from his description, we select a fair representative of the common class of houses, and ask for dinner. It is a log-cabin, like all of this class (some far better ones have walls of stone) with a thatched roof and a rough stone and mortar chimney planted against one wall. Inside is but a single room, well whitewashed, as is indeed the outside and exceptionally tidy; a bed occupies one corner, a sort of couch another, a rung ladder leads up to loose boards overhead which form an attic, a trap door in the middle of the room opens to a small hole in the ground where milk and butter are kept cool; from the beam is suspended a hammock, used as a cradle for the baby; shelves singularly hung held a scanty stock of plates, knives and forks; two windows on either side, covered with mosquito netting, admit the light, and a modicum of air; chests and boxes supply the place of seats, with here and there a keg by way of easy-chair. An open fireplace of whitewashed clay gives sign of cheer and warmth in the long winter, and a half-dozen books for library complete the scene.

Our hosts feel so "highly honored to have such gentlemen enter the house"—these are their very words—that it is with the greatest difficulty they are forced to take any compensation for the excellent meal of bread, butter, and rich cream which they set before us, and to which we do ample justice.

This was not the only interior we saw; we had before called on the single scientific man of the Settlement, Donald Gunn, and later in the day are forced by a thunderstorm to seek shelter in the nearest house; where we are also warmly welcomed, and the rain continuing, are glad to accept the cordial invitations of its inhabitants to pass the night. This is a larger house, but only the father of the family and his buxom daughter, Susie, a lively girl of eighteen or nineteen, are at home, the others being off at the other end of their small farm, where they have temporary shelter during the harvest.

We have each a chamber to ourselves in the garret, reached in the same primitive method as before mentioned—and are shown with a dip of buffalo-tallow to our rooms. The furniture of these consists of a sort of couch, with buffalo skins for mattress and wolf skins for sheets and coverlet, a chest for a seat, a punch-bowl of water on a broken chair for a washstand, and a torn bit of rag for towel; while a barrel covered with a white cloth serves as a centre-table, and is besprinkled with antique books. Among those in his chamber our naturalist discovers one which appears to be a catechism of human knowledge containing, among other entertaining and instructive information as an answer to the question, "What is a shark?" the highly satisfactory reply that it is "An animal having eighty-eight teeth."

The wants of the Colony were few, the peasantry simple and industrious, and their lot in life did not seem to them hard. The earth yielded bountifully, and in time of temporary disaster fishing and hunting stood them in good stead. When they hunt, they go accompanied by Indians, who live on the outskirts of the Colony. Further and further they have been compelled to go, until at our visit no buffalo could be found within a hundred miles at nearest.

The hunt is just over as we reach the Settlement, and every day carts come in laden with the buffalo meat, hides, and pemmican. The prairie, back from the river, by Fort Garry, is dotted with carts, lodges and tents. Many are living in rude shelters formed of the carts themselves, placed back to back, and the sides secured by hides.

These carts illustrate well the primitive nature and the isolation of the Colony. They are the vehicles in universal use, and are built on the general pattern of our one-horse tip-carts, though they do not tip, and not a scrap of iron enters into them. They are without springs, of course, and rawhide and wooden pins serve to keep together the pieces out of which they are constructed. As they have no tires, and the section of the wheel part or crowd together, according to the moisture, a train of these carts bringing in the products of the hunt is a strange sight. Each cart has its own peculiar creak, hoarse and grating, and waggles its own individual waggle, graceless and shaky, on the uneven ground. To add to its oddity, the shafts are heavy, straight beams, between which is harnessed an ox, the harness of rawhide (shaga-nappi) without buckles.

Everybody makes for himself what he wishes in this undifferentiated Settlement. We return in tatters. Not a tailor, nor anything approaching the description of one, exists here, and a week's search is needed to discover such a being as a shoemaker. A single store in the Hudson's Bay post at each of the two forts, twenty miles apart, supplies the goods of the outside world, and the purchaser must furnish the receptacle for carriage. For small goods this invariably consists, as far as we can see, of a red bandanna handkerchief, so that purchases have to be small and frequent; not all of one sort, however, for the native can readily tie up his tea in one corner, his sugar and buttons in two others, and still have one left for normal uses. How many handkerchiefs a day are put to use may be judged from the fact that the average sale of tea at Upper Fort Garry is four large boxes daily—all, be it remembered, brought by ship to Hudson Bay, and thence by batteaux and portage to the Red River.

The caravan by which we and a number of others were carried back to civilization was a stylish enough turnout for Red River. It was supplied by McKinney, the host of the Royal Hotel of the village of Winnipeg. Three large emigrant wagons, with canvas coverings of the most approved pattern, but of very different hues, drawn each by a yoke of oxen, convey the patrons of the party, with the exception of a miner, who rides his horse. The astronomers take the lead under a brown canvas; a theological student for Toronto University, a gentleman for St. Paul, and others follow under a black canvas full of holes; and the third wagon with a cover of spotless purity, conveys the ladies of the party and a clergyman. Behind them follow not only half a dozen Red River carts, with a most promiscuous assortment of baggage, peltry, and squeak, but also a stray ox and a pony or two; a number of armed horsemen, and for the first day a cavalcade of friends giving a Scotch convoy to those who were departing. The astronomers at length reached St. Paul, when they declare their connection with the world again complete, after an absence of about three months, during which they had travelled thirty-five hundred miles.

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