Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine


Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Father of St. Kilda
Chapter V - Fort York in 1859


Writers on uncivilised countries are strongly tempted to write in a sensational and highly coloured style. I feel the temptation, but fling it from me at the outset, being resolved to confine myself to naked truths, though they should consume me. So to my tale.

Infant Babylon on the Euphrates, infant Nineveh on the Tigris, infant Rome on the Tiber, infant London on the Thames, and infant Fort York on the Hayes River! Ail have their beginning. Some have had their ending. I do not mean to imply a prophecy that Fort York shall yet rule the world. Yet the smallness of its beginning would not prevent even that. There was no pomp or ceremony to celebrate our arrival. No plant burgomaster, with golden keys on velvet cushion, came forth to welcome us; no white-clad virgins sang in chorus as we riled into this square wood-built fort. We were greeted only by a host of contemptible husky dogs, growling, snarling, and yelping in breathless and angry protest.

How one’s eyes are astonished and delighted with novelty when first one touches a foreign soil! The ugly faces of the Indians, redeemed by lustrous eyes ; the children, gaily bedizened in many colours; the old witch-like women, with bronzed, shrivelled parchment for skin, carrying their children strapped to their backs, were curious and interesting sights to me. The young men and women were in gaudy array, the former with beaded fire-bags, gay scarlet sashes, leggings girt below the knees with beaded garters to match, and moccasins elaborately embroidered ; the latter in short coloured skirts, revealing embroidered leggings with moccasins of white cariboo skin, beautifully worked with flower patterns in beads, silk thread, moosehair, and porcupine quills dyed in many colours. All these things told me I was far from Ness.

Yet I felt at home in it, for it was but the realisation of my early dreams. The descriptions of these very things had carried me to fairyland. But at the best I had scarcely expected that the dreams were to come so entirely true. I was full of hope and earnest purpose, resolved to be diligent in business, and to rise, if will and resolution could bring it about, to a much higher position in the Company’s service.

The first difficulty was the languages. As the reader knows by this time, I had no alma mater to feed me with the bread of knowledge in my youth. Perhaps it was as well. I think sometimes there are, after all, too many roads to learning, too many devices to save the learner’s pains, too many aids to indolence. Why, are there not divines who seriously urge that some of the difficulties in St. Paul’s Epistles are deliberately introduced to try the faith of those who should come after—nuts for the future to try its teeth on? Difficulties, I had already decided, should never deter me. Accordingly on 3rd September, 1859, I recorded a resolution to have learned within a year from that date the various Indian languages in use in my adopted country. A good resolution, than which nothing is better except a good will to maintain it.

The old fort, three miles off, has remained in ruins ever since it was captured and destroyed by the French admiral La Perouse in 1782. The new fort, or main factory building, was in the form of a square, with a courtyard in the centre. In the middle there stood a very high “look-out,” bearing in huge letters the initials “H. B. C.”—“ Here Before Christ,’’ as we used to interpret them. The front centre of the building was three storeys high, the other portion two storeys. On one side ran a long summerhouse, which was used to accommodate the officers from the inland posts when they paid their annual visits to bring up furs and take back goods. All round the square there were store-rooms, meat-houses, shops, trading-houses, provision stores, coopers’, tinsmiths’, and blacksmiths’ shops, and the doctor’s, clergyman’s, and other houses. In front of the factory buildings was the only bit of arable ground on the whole coast-line. It was called “The Gardens,” and was divided by two main walks leading from the esplanade to the river-bank. Potatoes and turnips were the principal produce of these gardens, and these grew fairly well considering the unkindly latitude. The whole fort was surrounded for protection by high palisades. Outside was the powder magazine, also enclosed within high palisades, and so was the graveyard hard by. Upon one gravestone I read the following inscription: “Sacred to the memory of Wm. Sinclair, Esq., Chief Factor, Honble. Hudson’s Bay Coy. Service, who died 21st April, 1782 aged 52. ‘Behold, Thou hast made my days as an handbreadth, and my age as nothing before Thee. Verily every man at his best estate is altogether vanity.’” Two inscriptions I noticed written in Cree, and on that account they attracted a little attention, but beyond these there was nothing particularly interesting.

The Church Missionary Society had an indefatigable agent working amongst the natives. A number of text-books were already printed in the Cree language. The same syllabic characters were used as in teaching Chippewayan, and the children were taught in Cree to read and write and apply the rudiments of arithmetic. The Indian village was half a mile from the fort, and contained about three hundred inhabitants, living some of them in log cabins, but most in pole-tents. The village was literally alive with children and dogs, which seemed to be engaged in a perpetual rivalry as to which should make most noise. When I paid my first visit the women were standing about chatting and talking to each other with great volubility, occasionally casting a glance at me, or at the row of infants behind them—a dozen or so standing bolt upright in their tightly laced cradles. Each wore a blanket, shawl-fashion, and had a coloured handkerchief on her head and embroidered moccasins on her feet.

A curious object in the village was the large day oven, in which baking was done once a week for the whole of the inhabitants together. The oven was heated, and each woman brought her own dough ready for firing. The forty or fifty pans were put in, and when the bread was ready, the squaws selected their respective loaves and carried them away rejoicing. The oven was built for them by the Company. The Company and the Indians were mutually helpful, and their labours complemented each other, though the latter had a smaller share of the “ unearned increment.”

At the time of the year when I arrived, there were generally hundreds of inland Indians, mongrels, and Metis at the fort, who were engaged for the trip to work in the boats. They were rationed every morning at no small expense on salted geese and pemmican. The latter was very sustaining, and although it contained no salt, it was so prepared by the Indians of the plains as to keep good for generations. It consisted of sun-dried buffalo beef, pounded and put in a raw hide bag of buffalo skin, with buffalo fat boiled and poured over the whole.

These curiously mixed peoples, from the faraway plains of the Saskatchewan, English, Swan, Red, and Rainy Rivers, and Cumberland and Norway House districts, passed away the time in sleeping and eating and gambling, and in conjuring to their hearts’ content. They seemed quite at home in the occult art, and were experts of no mean ability in its mysterious wiles. I remember the conjurer’s being asked to give information regarding the safety of Captain L. McClintock and his crew, already lost for two years. He undertook the task with the greatest air of confidence, and declared them to be safe, professing to see them at that moment working their way out of the last ice floe on the way home. In the course of his interview with dark spirits far beyond our ken, he certainly made his small tent shake terrifically, and the deafening shrieks and shoutings that issued from it were enough to wake the dumb gods of the prophets ol Baal. The gambler played his game openly, except for his hands, which were carefully hid under his blanket. But he too made a dreadful noise, toning it down gradually, however, till the sound vanished as if in the last convulsion of death. All the time he kept bowing like a Chinese mandarin, but in a stiff, unnatural fashion, suggestive of a galvanised mummy.

The local medicine-man was of an inquiring disposition, ever striving to obtain such knowledge of natural phenomena as might aid him in his occult labours. Lie was quite uninstructed, however, and had no knowledge ot minerals, and only a general acquaintance with the properties of medicinal herbs and certain roots and animal productions. Since Zadkiel (or was it Old Moore ?) hit the bull’s-eye, thanks to the misapprehension of a subordinate, by predicting snow in harvest-tirne, any sufficiently audacious weather prophet has been tolerably sure of an attentive hearing.

Our local great man, Mes-Kee, Ke, Way-nan, managed to unite with herb knowledge a faculty of observing weather signs, and so to foresee coming changes and win for himsell the reputation of being able to command rain or sunshine. He had to invent and think out a character for the Mamtos—the supernatural beings he believed in—so as to be able to inform his less gifted neighbours of their deeds in the dark world in which they dwelt. He maintained all ceremony, and when seeking to propitiate the spirits he was clothed in such elaborate paraphernalia as would enable him to meet with ail grace the eyes of those spirits with whom he had to do. In any other garment than that which he himself designed, his efforts to persuade them might be fruitless. His headgear was made from the varying abundance of the feathered tribes of the air; his overall cloak was a variegated masterpiece, surpassing Joseph’s coat of many colours; his feet and legs were a mass of dyed quills of all the hues of the rainbow. So that, though he charged no fee, his personal well-being was amply secured by these and other gifts. It ;s only fair to say that, at least in one case, this “ medicine-man ” cured a case after the fort doctor had given up. A man had been down with scurvy, which had developed into rheumatic gout. “Life is life; a life for a life,” exclaimed the son of Nature, and promptly ordered the sick man to get a bullock, to shoot it through the head, and to have the inside at once removed. Then he placed bis patient, naked as he was born, inside the animal, leaving out only his head, and kept him there till he was well-nigh dead. Having undergone such a process of half-cooking, the man promptly recovered, and when I saw him enjoyed the best of health, and was never tired of repeating the unique experience. Whether this crude scientist regarded the causes of his successes (weather included) as personal or impersonal, I was unable to find out; but the subject of his thoughts and speculations was the same as that of his brother medicine-men in Asia and Africa, and his methods not very unlike.

These three outstanding men I have been able to sketch only very lightly. All this part of my life was very wonderful to me, and the recollection of it is vivid still. But to describe it as it impressed me then—I so young and ardent, my surroundings so new and strange—would demand a pen of fire dipped in the dyes of the rainbow.

The question suggests itself how and whence these nomad tribes reached and made their home in a land so uninviting. There are many points which showed a strong comparison with Jew and gipsy. Like them, they have been driven from theii first home, and, like them, they have maintained even in dispersion, through a certain proud reserve and isolation of character, if not by the special “blessing” of Providence, their individuality and separate existence as a race. Like them, they are accused of practising the “dark arts,” of holding intercourse with the Evil One, of cannibalism or human sacrifice.

There are advantages in this roaming life which at one time or another have attracted most of us. The open-oir existence, the constant change of scene, the easy indolence, the delightful freedom from inhabited house duty and similar exactions of civilisation, seem more than enough to outweigh the disabilities of an Ishmaelism whose hand, potentially at least, is against every man’s. This last characteristic was not noticeable in my Indian friends. They were neither fiery nor quarrelsome, perhaps by the influence and habit of the repressive North.

The pioneer work in Arctic exploration has been done in great part by our own countrymen. In commercial enterprise Scotsmen have taken the lead. The prosperity of Hudson's Bay and its companies and territories is due to brave men from north of the Tweed. Scottish caution is generally sure-footed. It built up an East Indian empire, and for two hundred years, having obtained a charter from Charles II. in 1669, it began to build up this frozen dominion in the North, with Sir George Simpson at its head, and seven-eighths of ‘ts officers Scotsmen. What a number of Scottish names can be found scattered broadcast over the country, from Briash Columbia and Alaska on the Pacific side to Labrador and Ungava on the Atlantic, and to the United States boundary on the south, a territory so vast that it could drown Europe in its fresh-water lakes—Ander-sons, Christies, Baillies, Barnstones, Colvilles, Campbells, Douglases, Finlaysons, Frasers, Grahames, Isbisters, Kennedys, Mathesons, McFarlanes, McKays, McDougalls, McGilli-vrays, McDonalds, McKenzies, Rosses, and Sinclairs! The story of trading enterprise and discovery in the North-West reads like a muster-roll of the clans. As I took my humble place in the service to which I was bound that autumn of 1859, I told myself proudly that I belonged to the land of Bruce and Wallace, of Knox, of Burns, of Chalmers and Carlyle; and though I might never see her again, I gloried in thinking that I, too, was her son.


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