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The Story of Manitoba
Chapter XXI The Social Life of the Settlers


To the student the early history of Manitoba presents many unique features. Few newly founded colonies have been so remote and so isolated as the Red River Settlement was for forty years after its establishment. Seven hundred miles of muskeg and forest, broken by numberless lakes and rivers, lay between the settlement and the sea on the north; and after the traveller had reached that sea, many more hundred miles of ocean must be crossed to reach a settled country. On the east the settlement was separated from the other settled portions of Canada by more than a thousand miles of fresh-water sea or by wild, forest-clothed wilderness. On the south the pioneers of the Mississippi valley were steadily pushing the frontier northward, and yet it was some hundreds of miles away from the Red River Settlement when the first settlers there had become old men. On the west lay half a continent, unoccupied save by wild Indian tribes and a few employees of the fur companies. In the summer there was no better means of communication and transport to the north and the east than the York boat and the birch-bark canoe; while the Indian pony and the Red River cart served the same purpose over the vast plains to the south and west. But in the winter all communication with the outside world was shut off, and the people lived in complete isolation. In this way they were thrown almost entirely upon themselves, and their home life and social customs, being peculiarly their own, become matters of more than passing interest to the people of our time. They also demonstrate in a striking way the sterling qualities of the early pioneers of Manitoba,

The population of Manitoba is not, and never has been, homogeneous. From the earliest history of the country its people have differed in race, language, and religion. Leaving the aborigines out of the. list, the earliest inhabitants of the country were the men connected with the fur trade. In the northern part of the province these were islesmen from the Orkneys and the Hebrides and natives of Scotland, England, and Ireland; in the southern part they 'were French, with a few Scotchmen, who had come from Canada. In both the north and the south some of the whites took Indian wives, and in a short time the country had a half-breed population which outnumbered its white inhabitants. Metis, differed from the English and Scotch half-breeds as much as the French differed from the British. The de Meuron soldiers and the Swiss immigrants represented other races and other languages; but most of them left the country a short time after coming to it, and those who became permanent residents were too few to exert any noticeable influence upon the history of the colony. But each of the other elements of the population has left a distinct impress upon the. life and character of the community and has helped to determine its development and its history.

The Frenchmen who retired from the fur trade and settled in Manitoba seldom became agriculturists, nor did the humdrum life of a farm appeal to the Metis. The latter were excitable, fond of adventure, easy-going, and improvident—-a product of life 011 the frontier of a country which was passing out of the hunting-ground stage but hail hardly reached the condition where the people depend on agriculture for a livelihood. The Metis were capable of great exertion when necessity for it arose, but they showed aversion to steady, plodding toil. The roving life of traders, boatmen, or hunters suited them; and while they tilled a very necessary place in the early development of the country, they would have been slow to develop those agricultural resources upon which its progress really depended. For the most part they led a comfortable life. Hunting, trapping, fishing, or work for the fur traders generally gave them plenty of food and supplied the other simple necessities which they required. If his supply of provision ran low the Metis harnessed his pony to his creaking Red River cart, put his family and few belongings into it, and started out across the plains in search of buffaloes or made his way to a lake or river in which fish were plentiful. If all the ordinary sources of supply failed, he could bear hunger and cold with the silent stoicism of the Indian. The Metis was open-hearted and hospitable, a very generous friend, and a somewhat implacable enemy. Most of the men were well made, and many of the women were decidedly handsome.

The Scotch and English servants of the Hudson's Bay Company were far more ready to settle upon the land as farmers than were the French employees of the Montreal traders, for the freedom of a roving life in the wilds seldom attracted them after they became middle-aged men. They preferred the comfort of a home, even if it were humble and poorly furnished. Thus it happened that after the Earl of Selkirk established his little colony of farmers, it was reinforced year after year by time-expired servants of the Hudson's Bay Company; and even though most of these men had no practical knowledge of farming, their character and training made them most useful members of the community. Lord Selkirk had high ideals of home life, education, and religion, which he hoped his people would carry out; and eventually these ideals were realized. In spite of privation and suffering, the frequent failure of crops, the loss of their homes, expulsion by hostile half-breeds, the ravages of grasshoppers, and destructive floods, most of the colonists stayed in the country, unwilling to give up the struggle because they foresaw their ultimate success. Progress was slow; but year after year they struggled on, adding to their cultivated land, their stock, and their buildings. Little by little their social life grew and took form, and in their isolated world on the vast prairies ail the essential elements of contentment and happiness could be found.

The French half-breeds were inclined to follow the roving lives of their mothers' people; but the English-speaking half-breeds have generally shown a disposition to follow the occupations and adopt the customs of the whites. For this reason they became an important part of the settled population of the country from an early period in its history. In all departments of the life of the province—as farmers, merchants, professional men, ministers of the gospel, and legislators—they have played their part.

In a small community, composed of people so diverse in race and temperament, some disagreements and disturbances were almost inevitable. Perhaps i hey would have been more serious and more frequent, had not the total population been so small in comparison with the vastness of the country that no one element could entirely disregard the help which the others might give. The vastness itself may have fostered in the people a spirit of tolerance, and the very isolation of the colony may have promoted that spirit of neighborly helpfulness which characterizes the frontier. The readiness of the French and Metis to help the newly-arrived Scotch settlers was shown again and again during the hard winters which followed the coming of the first parties'; 'and the Scotch settlers showed an equal kindness toward those who came after them.

Gradually most of the people in the country, including the less restless of the Metis, settled on the land. They built their homes along the Red and Assiniboine Rivers and began to cultivate the narrow farms allotted to them. The rivers served as highways for canoes and boats in the summer, and their frozen surfaces made good roads for sleds in winter. They also furnished water for the farmer's stock and for use in his home. The narrowness of the farms was a hindrance to cultivation, but it brought neighbors closer together. The difficulty of procuring implements retarded farming for several years; but the soil was so fertile that abundant crops of grain and vegetables rewarded the farmer's efforts. At first the hoe and the spade had to be used to prepare the soil for seed, and the sickle was the only implement for harvesting the grain; but in time the hoe gave place to the crude plow, and the cradle took (he place of the sickle, to be succeeded later by a clumsy reaper. For many years flails were used for threshing, and when the two-horse threshing-machine was introduced, it was a remarkable advance. In the early days the grain was separated from the chaff by the very method followed in the Orient since farming began, and it was many years before grain-mills were brought into use. When the clean grain had been obtained the next task was to convert it into flour. At first this was probably done after the manner of the Indian tribes with a crude mortar and pestle; then the stone hand tool, almost identical with that used in India, was employed; and when the first grist-mill was set up, there was great rejoicing among the people, who felt that its establishment was a long stride in civilization.

The French half-breeds had depended on the herds of buffaloes for food from the time they first reached the prairie country, and the British settlers learned the value of these animals almost as soon as they reached the colony. The skins of these wild cattle provided the half-breeds with robes which took the place of blankets, and when dressed, they supplied coverings for tents. The dressed skins and the sinews afforded material for moccasins or Indian shoes. The flesh supplied meat and pemmican, and the tongue and the hump, along with the nose of the moose and the tongue of the reindeer, constituted the * characteristic table delicacies of Rupert's Land. For many years after the white man came to the prairies, they were the grazing grounds of herds of buffaloes, whose numbers almost pass belief. With such an accessible and inexhaustible supply of food and other necessaries, it is not strange that the

Metis were slow to abandon the hunter's life and adopt the more laborious and monotonous calling of the farmer; and we can understand their feelings of resentment toward 'des jardiniers," whose settlements on the plains drove the buffaloes further and further from their old haunts and made it more and more difficult for the hunters to obtain a livelihood in the old way. Nor is it strange that the farmers themselves took part in the buffalo hunts year after year, seeing that the hunts gave tliem a few weeks of exciting recreation and a plentiful supply of meat.

It is not easy for people living in Manitoba to-day to understand how large a place the buffalo hunt tilled in the life of the community seventy years ago. The preparations for the hunt, the systematic way in which it wa§ conducted, and the number of people engaged in it made it seem like a military campaign against some foreign foe. Sheriff Ross has left us a very graphic account of the summer hunt of 1840. On the forth of June in that year, men, women, and children with horses, carts, tents, and other equipment, started from every part of the Red River Settlement and took the road for the hunters' rendezvous at Pembina. When the whole party had assembled there, it comprised 621) hunters, 650 women, and 360 boys and girls—a total of 1,630 souls. They had 403 buffalo horses, 655 cart horses, and 586 draft oxen; and the total number of carts in the cavalcade which set out from Pembina was 1,210. Dogs seem to have been a necessary adjunct to every half-breed encampment, and on this occasion no less than 542 of these noisy animals accompanied the hunting party. Before starting for the distant hunting ground the party adopted a code of rules for the regulation of the hunt, the government and protection of the camp, and the punishment of offenders. Ten captains were chosen, one of whom acted as head of the camp; each captain had ten men under him to assist in maintaining discipline, and ten guides were appointed, each taking his turn as guide of the expedition for a day while the hunt lasted. When all arrangements had been completed, a priest celebrated mass, and the expedition started. A journey of two hundred and fifty miles had to be made that year before the buffaloes were sighted; but they were plentiful, as will be shown by the fact that in the evening following one day's successful hunting no less than 1,375 buffalo tongues were brought into camp. On another occasion 2,500 animals were killed in two days' hunting. The party returned to Pemlina about the middle of August, having been absent eight weeks: and it brought nearly five hundred tons of buffalo meat in various forms, besides a large quantity of hides. It was estimated that this hunt would have supplied every individual in the settlement with two hundred pounds of meat. Of course a good part of the proceeds of the hunt was sold to the Hudson's Hay Company and brought the hunters about £1,200—quite as much as the farmers realized for all the produce which they sold that year.

The settlers had raised horses and cattle as soon as it was possible to secure a few of these animals; but it was some time before they began to rear sheep to any great extent, for they feared that wolves would destroy the herds. But when the attempt was made, it proved successful, and as soon as the farmers' wives began to spin, there was a great stir in the settlement and domestic life was greatly improved. Angus Poison, who was a worker in wood, was the chief maker of spinning-wheels for the colony. In 1837 Governor Simpson told

Bishop Proveneher that the Hudson's Bay Company would bring out two women to teach the art of weaving to the daughters of the settlers and would pay their salaries for two years, if the mission would provide the teachers with food and lodging and a building in which to give instruction. The offer was accepted, and the weavers arrived in 1838. The bishop furnished a house and some looms, and in a short time a number of girls had learned to weave. This school was the forerunner of technical schools in the west. It was recognized as a great benefit to the community; but misfortune soon- overtook it, for in March, 1839, the building and most of its contents were burned. The company-made a grant to help the bishop, and he was able to reopen the school after a short time. Soon the weaver's loom was a familiar sight in the houses of the community; and while the processes from the shearing of the sheep to the completion of the home-made suit were primitive, the garments, when completed, were good and durable. Some progress was also made in growing flax, and cloth of a fairly good quality was made from its fibre.

In the summer time the farm stock ran wild on the prairies; but during the long, cold winters it had to be fed, and so haymaking was a very important part of farm work. The cutting was usually done about the third week in July, and for the most part on the open prairie which was free to all. The men camped out near the good hay meadows, and each made a line around the spot he wished to mow. There was rarely any trouble over the claims, and the tent villages proved sources of invigorating and helpful experience. All combined in mutual defence when the hay was threatened by the destructive prairie fires; and we are told that in one case, when a settler's stacks had been destroyed by fire, his neighbors joined together and put a hundred cart-loads of hay into his farmyard.

The Red River cart was a unique vehicle. It was constructed entirely of wood, the axles and rims being no exception to the rule. Originally the wheels were about eighteen inches in diameter, being composed of solid blocks of wood nearly a foot thick which had been rounded with an axe;: but after some years they were constructed with hubs, spokes, and felloes, although iron tires were not considered necessary. The only tools needed to construct or mend a cart were an axe, a saw, an auger, and a draw-knife. The lack of iron in these carts was not regarded as a disadvantage, and in the country traversed by them there was generally plenty of wood with which to repair breakages. The price of a cart in the settlement was about two pounds sterling. It was drawn by an ox. harnessed between a pair of enormous shafts, except when speed was an object; then a horse was substituted for the ox, the horses used being the wiry-little Indian ponies. The harness was made of dressed ox-hide and was rude but serviceable. When a train of a hundred carts passed by, the creaking of the ungreased wooden axles made a noise as unpleasant as it was loud.

The farm houses of the settlers were not built on the open prairie but folwood. The houses of the very first settlers were probably constructed of round timbers, and the roofs were thatched; but after a few years squared timbers were used, and in many cases the roofs were shingled. Among the poorer classes the houses had only two rooms each. The better houses were more commodious and comfortable, being about thirty feet in length and about twenty feet wide. The average cost was about £60. A few were two stories high, and some were ornamented with verandas. It was a long time before glass windows became general, parchment being used instead. The houses were usually whitewashed both inside and outside, and this gave them a neat appearance. They were often enclosed by fences made of poplar poles laid between two -upright stakes - but we are told that it was common for some of the less provident settlers to cut poplar rails for their fences in the spring and burn the dried rails in the following winter for fuel. After several years the people began to use the native limestone in their buildings, the cathedral of St. Boniface being one of the first made of this material. The depth of the soil made it difficult to lay a foundation which would prevent stone buildings from settling, for pile-driving was not known.

The nearness of the houses was conducive to the frequent exchange of social visits on the long winter evenings, and hospitality was unbounded. Entertainments of various kinds, long talks about the dangers and hardships which they had passed through, tales of their ancestors in the far-away homeland, and the recital of the old Celtic legends and folk stories filled many a long evening in a pleasant manner. There were no "days at home" or; Card parties in the old time. A lady went to visit her friend when it was most convenient, and she was sure;-of receiving a welcome, if the neighbor was at home. For many years the musical art of the settlement was confined to playing the violin, probably because the instrument was so easily carried; and although much time was spent in practice, the class of music produced was not very high. The monotonous jig was the most admired of the player's exhibitions of skill. The instrument was in such common use that violin strings were forwarded as a part of the consignments of goods for the northern districts.

During the summer months the people were too busy for much amusement; but the gun and the fishing rod furnished sport for the holidays, and ''bat," a game of ball in which leagues and professional players had no part, gave recreation during the long evenings. Driving parties were very popular in the winter. Processions of perhaps twenty cutters and carrioles would set out for a long drive over the snow to the home of some friend, where all the party went in for an informal dance, concluding the visit by singing in a hearty way some of the old and well known songs. The gayly painted carriole, the fine horse, the bells and ribbons, and the swift dash across the snow made caroeing a favorite pastime among the French and Metis. One of the occasions which brought out carrioles in large numbers was the celebration of midnight mass at the cathedral of St. Boniface on Christmas eve; and the congregation gathering from all quarters, with the bells on the carrioles ringing clearly in the frosty air, created an excitement in the midst of what was really a solemn occasion. The young Scotchmen were quick to see the fun to be had in driving the carriole of the Canadian and the half-breed and could be seen gliding over the ice 011 a Sabbath morning with a fine horse and gay sleigh, not driving moderately as befitted a devout church-goer, but striving spiritedly with his fellows for the honor of arriving first at the church.

There was no telegraphic communication with the outside world, the solitary post office was far away, and newspapers from the east were few and far between; consequently the churchyard grew to be a place for the interchange of news. The settlers would gather there some time before service, and "What's the latest news?" was an oft-repeated question, in answer to which each gave ati item from a letter or a paper received during the week. Only one or two mails could be expected from Great Britain during the summer months, and none during the winter nor were those from Canada much more frequent. The mails came at no stated times, but only when a brigade of boats or canoes arrived from Montreal or from Hudson Bay. After people began to come into the country by the Mississippi route, a third avenue of mail communication was opened, but for a long time it was not much better than the others. In 1853 a monthly mail service was established between Fort Garry and Fort Ripley in Minnesota, and people thought this a great convenience. In a short time the service became fortnightly, and in 1863 a weekly mail service between Fort Garry and Pembina was inaugurated. The Canadian government had tried to carry on a regular postal service to Red River by the Dawson Route in 1858.! but the attempt was not successful. Only two mails a year were sent into the far interior. Letters were kept down to the minimum weight, but even then they made no trifling burden. Divided into toboggan loads, each drawn by a team of "huskies" or Esquimaux dogs, gaily caparisoned, the mails were hurried northward and westward under the direction of half-breed drivers. It took eight days to traverse the four hundred miles between Fort Garry and Norway House. Newspapers, being more bulky than letters, were more rarely received. We are told that Sheriff Ross received a year's supply of the London Times at the end of the year, and that he read the news regularly, week by week, but always a year late.

The people soon began to set aside special days for holidays which were appropriately celebrated. Christmas was not very generally observed, but New Year's Day was the day of days for one and all. The celebration opened with volley after volley from the settlers' guns, without which no celebration was quite complete. Early in the forenoon the men dressed in their best clothes and started on a round of calls upon their neighbors, which occupied a good part of the day. There was always a liberal supply of refreshments for callers, including those liquid refreshments which were an essential element of the hospitality of the colony at the time. Even the Indians made calls from house to house, always expecting something to eat at every stop; and they carefully stowed away in a convenient receptacle what could not be eaten and carried it off for future use. The squaws took kindly to one custom of their pale-faced sisters and insisted upon kissing everybody whom they met; and many a hasty exit was made from the rear door, as the dusky ladies entered that at the front of the house.

The officers at the forts always joined with the settlers in their pleasures and amusements; and in their turn, they entertained at the forts in a royal manner when occasion demanded it. They generally gave a dinner and a ball on New Year's Day; and to the latter all the employees of the company were invited, and the best of good fellowship prevailed. The custom of giving this annual ball was kept up at all the factories from York to the Labrador coast, and was observed even at remote posts on the Yukon and within the Arctic Circle.

The arrival of the ship of the Hudson's Bay Company about the 20th of August was another great event of the year at posts on the bay. Guns were tired to announce her arrival, and the packet of letters which she brought from the outside world was opened amid great rejoicing. Letters, giving news of joy or sorrow from dear ones over the sea, were read with eager interest; and men, not engaged in unloading and storing goods from the ship, interchanged news with their friends. No less welcome were the brigades of canoes, bringing their precious cargoes of furs. The returning traders and tripmen brought many tales of adventure, and added their quota to the general rejoicing, although in a' rather boisterous manner. The fiddle occupied a prominent place in the evening's entertainment which followed. It may have been noisy, but it was sincere celebration of a safe return from a long, perilous voyage.

The 24th of May was always celebrated, and people came to Fort Garry from points as far away as Lake Manitoba and Portage la Prairie, sometimes even from Pembina and St. Joe. Horse races were the principal events of the day, and many a horse was ridden from Fort Garry down what is called Main Street to-day. Competition was keen, but a race was run on its merits, the best horse invariably being declared the winner. Dominion Day was not known then; but the 4th of July was celebrated by friends from the United States with the proper salute, sports, and horse races.

A wedding and a funeral were important occasions, which were observed with all due respect. A marriage of the old times was not like the social function of to-day. The wedding breakfast was not lacking, and there were numerous dinners and suppers in connection with the celebration, which lasted several days; but other features would seem unusual now. A sure way of inviting the guests was adopted, the postal facilities being very uncertain, and the father of the bride went from house to house, giving a personal invitation to each of his friends and neighbors. The wedding generally took place on Thursday, and the procession of guests, driving to the church in cutters and carrioles bedecked with ribbons and flowers, made a gay picture. The return trip gave the party an opportunity to exhibit the speed of their fine horses, and many a "gallant" gave his partner an exciting ride, although the rule that no one should pass the bridal party in the race was strictly observed. After the return to the home of the bride there was dancing. It was not the languid waltz nor the lazy cotillion of to-day, but a lively "Red River jig," which required some endurance as well as skill. The old "Scotch reel" or "reel of four" and the popular "eight-hand reel" also served to keep the fiddler busy most of the evening. The Sunday following the marriage was quite important, being the day of the "kirking," when the bride and bridegroom, accompanied by their bridesmaids and groomsmen, drove to the church in which the marriage had been performed. After the service, which the minister tried to make very impressive, the party returned to dine together at the bride's house. Tuesday-was the day fixed for taking the bride to the home of her husband. Then his parents did their part towards the festivities, and feasting, dancing, and merrymaking continued until sunrise the following morning. Then all departed to their homes, put off the wedding garments, and settled down to the daily routine of work, as if there had been no celebration the previous night.


FORT SMITH IN 1862 Showing ox carts loaded with furs ready for the 16-mile portage to avoid the rapids on Slave river

There were some peculiar local customs, and the services for the dead were among them. Invitations to a funeral, like those for a wedding, were given by some relative of the deceased person, who went from house to house giving personal invitations. Refreshments in the form of bread, cake, cheese, and sometimes liquors were served on the day of the funeral, and their absence would have been considered a breach of hospitality and a mark of indifference to the memory of the departed. Hearses were unknown in those days, and to put the coffin into any conveyance to be taken to the churchyard would have been looked upon as a mark of disrespect; so it was borne on a bier by four men, relieved by four others at intervals, when the presiding elder in front gave the word, "Relief." The men seldom had to serve twice, unless the walk to the church was a very long one.

"What has been said about the schools of the colony will show that its educational facilities were rather meagre for many years, and so it often happened that the men who kept the shops could not read or write. One of these, having seen a newspaper advertisement of a steamship company which showed a ship sailing away, hit upon what he considered a very clever method of keeping his accounts with the settlers. He drew a rough picture of a horse, cart, or other article purchased by the settler opposite his name on the account boob; and a story is told that in closing the account of one of the settlers after the season's work, a cheese was named among the things which had been furnished to him. The settler denied having received a cheese, but the storekeeper produced his book and showed the drawing. The settler still denied the purchase, but said that he had received a grindstone for which he had not been charged. Then the merchant remembered the transaction, and coolly remarked that he had intended the drawing for a grindstone, but "had forgotten to put the hole in it.'',

Literary clubs were formed at a later date. Bishop Anderson and his sister, who arrived at Red River Settlement in 1849, formed a reading club for mutual improvement, to which Rev. John Black, pastor of Kildonan. belonged and to which he gave his hearty support. At St. Andrew's there was a literary club, for which modern books were imported; and three lectures were given before this club during the winter and an entertainment in the spring to defray the expense incurred.

The libraries at the posts of the Hudson's Bay Company were a source of keenest pleasure to many a mar. during the long winter months spent at isolated points. They were formed by the officers of the company and were increased Prom year to year. In the autumn of each year new books were sent to the officer in charge of the post, and they proved a great boon to the men. Peter Fidler had a library of five hundred books, which was divided into two parts, one being kept at Upper Fort Garry and the other at the Lower Fort. It formed the nucleus of the "Red River Library," many volumes of which were afterwards absorbed by the provincial library and the library of the Historical Society. The "Red River Library" had its headquarters in St. Andrew's parish, and was circulated in the whole Red River district. It was maintained largely by donations from retired officers of the Hudson's Bay Company and other citizens. The council of Assiniboia once granted £50 for the purchase of books for this library.

The people of the Red River Settlement enjoyed some singular advantages, because they had no landlords, no rent-days, no land-tax, nor dues of other kinds to either church or state, and all they earned was their own. They erected homes which were more and more comfortable, and their tables held a bountiful fare. The faith and patience of the pioneers had been sorely tried, but they were beginning to reap the reward of their perseverance. With their increased prosperity came greater ambition to have good schools and good churches; but of these something will be said in subsequent chapters.


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