FIRST YEARS IN REGINA - THE PEOPLE OF THE PLACE - THE DRY YEARS - THE ST. BONIFACE CONVENT - A COLD CAMP - OUR RANCH IN THE SOUTH COUNTRY - AN ENCHANTED LAND - THE NORTH WEST MOUNTED POLICE - I MEET GABRIEL DUMONT - OLD ENEMIES FRIENDS AGAIN - A PLUNGE IN THE RIVER - PRINCE ALBERT THE FIRST WHITE SETTLEMENT IN THE SASKATCHEWAN COUNTRY - REV. JAMES NESBIT.
In the middle eighties of the last century Regina was rather a horrible place. There were few of the amenities of comfortable living. The town consisted of an unpretentious railway station, a few stores and a queer assemblage of dwelling places straggling about the prairie. The Government offices stood by themselves like a cluster of islands in a prairie sea, about half a mile west of the inhabited area; the Mounted Police Barracks was at least a mile farther out.
The habitations varied from twelve-by-fourteen shacks with flat roofs to more pretentious buildings of four or even five rooms. Most houses were attended by a clutter of nondescript heaps such as stables, cowsheds, chicken houses, piles of hay, loads of firewood and tall narrow erections of a more intimate nature that had an individuality of their own. On one occasion when Nicholas Flood Davin was showing a lady journalist from the East around she said: "What are these queer little erections behind the other buildings, Mr Davin?" He was stumped for a moment but rose to the occasion.
"Why! my dear young lady," he said. "These are sentry boxes." "Goodness me!" she replied, "how interesting; do you still have trouble with your Indians?"
At first the streets were marked out and that was all; not even an earth grade. The early years were wet and the mud and mire of the thoroughfares baffled description. The heavy clay soil of the Regina plains is impregnated with a colloidal substance known as bentonite, chiefly remarkable for its adhesive quality; and how that mud did adhere! It would stick to wagon wheels and gather until they could no longer turn. Everything in the place was be-spattered with it. A few plank bridges were laid down by merchants in the somewhat limited business section to enable customers to reach their emporiums without suffering the fate of Christian in the Slough of Despond.
Drainage there was none and water was a problem. For cleansing purposes, it was hauled in barrels from the Creek and retailed from door to door. At least one comfortable competence was secured from the sale of Pile o' Bones water. Wells were dug and, at considerable depth, a fair supply of water obtained; but some of it had an alkaline tincture and a good deal of practice was required before the interior machinery of the citizens became habituated to its use. It occasioned a rather inconvenient disability politely known as summer complaint. However, with deeper digging the water improved and the people became impervious to the effects of the alkaline variety. But strangers enjoyed no such immunity and at the earlier meetings of the North-West Council, Regina water was credited on several occasions with having prevented a quorum from being present when important business was up for consideration. Indeed it is stated that after a while the legislators refused to imbibe water at all while in Regina. It was not a water-drinking age anyway and perhaps this was no great deprivation.
There was not a tree or shrub within sight of the town, and if anyone had wanted a stone to throw at a gopher, he would have had to journey at least ten miles to find one.
There was some settlement in the surrounding country. A few hardy pioneers had taken up land to the north between Regina and the Qu'Appelle, but west of Last Mountain Lake there was scarcely a white man's habitation between the Valley and the North Pole. There were a few homesteads close to the southern border of the town, but farther out, the prairie stretched unbroken to the American boundary.
Despite the difficulties with which they were confronted, the pioneers set themselves to work with courage and determination to build a city, and on looking back it seems to me there was a spirit of co-operation and kindliness such as I have never seen elsewhere. No one was allowed to suffer for want of what his neighbour possessed.
To Eastern or overseas eyes, the appearance of our population must have been strange. On ordinary occasions, the women protected themselves from the sun and weather beneath poke bonnets, and on festive days donned headgear which fastened under the chin with broad silk ribbons and was adorned with little bunches of jet ornaments that danced and jingled at every movement. Whether at work or play or Sunday or Saturday, they wore a multiplicity of skirts that cascaded in streaming lines from a horse-hair contraption known as a bustle.
Practically every man wore knee-high boots, sometimes beneath the trousers, but more often outside them. The farmers wore black slouch hats quite low in the crown which, when weathered, took on an appearance indescribably disreputable. Stockmen from the south country wore sombreros like those of the cowboys of the American plains.
Colour was given to Regina streets, Heaven save the mark! by the smart uniforms of members of the North-West Mounted Police, some of whom were often to be seen downtown, riding in pairs, or ringing their spur chains on the planks that served for sidewalks. There were Indians in bright coloured blankets and feathered array, and cowboys from the Montana country in chaps and wide Stetsons, swaying with the easy grace of practised riders to every movement of their handsome, wild-looking horses. Wagons lumbered along the thoroughfares, drawn by spans of horses of varying quality and slow-moving oxen that stepped with such deliberation that one might count at least six between the rising and putting down of each cloven hoof. Buckboards, vehicles that nowadays can be seen only in museums of western curiosities, were much in use, and Red River carts built of wood without a nail or bolt, and guiltless of all lubricant, proclaimed their advent miles away by a dolorous, complaining and creaking.
The first years were wet. There was water everywhere and the sloughs on the prairie were brimful. Wherever there was traffic there was mire, and the rain came down in torrents. Then in a year or two, it began to dry up and kept on drying. We were to learn that however unpleasant the moisture might be, it was preferable to the long-continued drought that parched grass and grain and every growing thing. Cracks opened in the baked prairie, and there were legends of horsemen falling into them and suffering grievous injury. Sometimes clouds gathered in the sky; there were vicious flashes of lightning and awesome thunder but, despite the threatening aspect of the heavens, the clouds would just spit out a few contemptuous drops and then pass on out of the scene. It seemed as if it could not rain any more. Strong winds blew every day, fresh enough in the morning, but by noon as hot as if they were being belched from the mouth of a furnace.
As all vegetation dried, smoke in the air and an acrid burning smell indicated the menace of the prairie fire. In those dry years, again and again, we saw Regina ringed by a circle of flame. The town was protected by ploughed guards; and the Mounted Police, skilled in fire-fighting, were close at hand, so that Regina itself was in no particular danger, but it was no uncommon sight to see the prairie a black and melancholy waste as far as the eye could reach.
Then, too, the mosquitoes were dreadful. During early summer they came in innumerable swarms and feasted upon us. Every night the smoke of many smudges proclaimed the hostilities being carried on against them. Netting and muslin were utilized to bar them from the houses; but they were a curse and a torment, particularly to the children.
The dry seasons brought discouragement. Things would not grow, the farmers had not yet learned to conjure with the magic of summer fallow and there was difficulty in obtaining fodder for the stock.
In 1686, the year following the Rebellion, things were bad in Regina and my father suffered severely in his business. He had given much credit, and collections were impossible. He liked the livestock business and learning of the splendid range country far to the south near the American Line, where there was pasture and shelter and hay, and room for thousands of cattle, he arranged to go out of the mercantile business and engage in the life of a rancher.
In making this move, the problem was how to provide schooling for my sister Victoria and myself, while my father and mother and our brothers were establishing a new home on the open range. It was decided that we should be despatched to a convent at St. Boniface; and there we went a short time before our parents, then well on in middle life, started on their new adventure.
I am afraid I must have been rather a spoiled youngster. I was by several years the youngest of the family and had all the privileges implied by that status. I then had fair hair, which must have given me some distinction amongst a swarthy brood and which was rather remarkable in view of the raven plumage that came to me with adult years. I had been petted and protected against all the ills of childhood. It is, therefore, not much wonder that I did not take kindly at first to the discipline of the convent. There I was only one of a considerable number of little girls, most of whom lost their individuality in mass formation, and I had no special privileges. It was a lonely experience for a child who had not quite, completed her eighth year.
The three years of our sojourn at St. Boniface dragged slowly. My sister was with the older girls and I saw little of her. Home and kindred seemed far away, and sometimes I had spasms of fear that my parents had forgotten all about me and I would have to pass the remainder of my life within convent walls, subject to the direction of austere and solemn nuns.
It may, therefore, be imagined with what delight we received word in the early spring of 1889 that we were to return home forthwith. Full of excitement we prepared for the journey and when we were actually on the train I could not keep still a moment. Father was at the Regina station to meet us, and I leapt into his arms with a feeling that at last, I had come back to love and sanctuary.
We remained only a couple of days in Regina. Father had come from the Ranch for supplies and brought with him several Metis and their teams to transport his goods. As soon as the wagons were loaded, we commenced our journey. The parish priest of Regina was a member of the party, and my brother Pascal, who had just returned with his bride from Montreal, travelled in a buggy and team. We were quite a caravan.
When we took the old Wood Mountain trail that had been the ancient highway of the buffalo hunters, after a little more than an hour's travel, we were swallowed up in the solitudes. The region through which we had to travel for at least one hundred and twenty miles was utterly void of human tenancy. It was late March, and the morning of our departure from Regina was fine and mild. There was still some snow on the ground but the brown and withered prairie grass was emerging in patches from its winter coverlet; spring was in the air. My sister and I were snugly ensconced among robes and blankets in one of the wagons and every mile of the journey was a source of delight to me. We had tents and, as there was no bush along the way, we carried a supply of firewood. The Metis were veterans of the trail and our camps were well made and comfortable.
The heavily laden wagons travelled slowly and the priest, who was in a hurry to reach the little Metis settlement at Willow Bunch, asked my brother if he would take the buggy and push ahead with him. Pascal agreed and they departed before daylight the next morning.
Scarcely had they gone when there was an ominous change in the weather. Daylight came with a heavy, leaden sky and it became frosty and cold. The wind rose, with quick snow flurries and, when the time came for our noon halt, it appeared as if winter once more had come down upon the country. The tent was put up and preparations made to light a fire. Then my father discovered that the satchel containing the matches had been in the buggy and, quite unconsciously my brother had driven away with it. There was not a match in the whole party and there were still many miles to be traversed. We ate a cold lunch before hitching up and moving on again. The temperature continued to drop during the afternoon, and when we stopped for the night we were all thoroughly uncomfortable.
That evening father searched vainly for flintstones from which to strike a light. We had to go supperless to bed for the increasing cold had frozen our food. Father had a keg of brandy, and before we retired beneath our robes and blankets, we were given a stout jorum that enabled us to bear our hunger and hardships with a little more equanimity. The following evening we reached Willow Bunch, very cold and desperately hungry.
But we were still about fifteen miles from our ranch, and after a good meal in a warm Metis cabin, father, who knew how anxious mother would be, had the horses hitched up and we resumed our journey.
I do not remember much of that night's drive. I was tired and sleepy and probably dozed most of the way. I did realize, however, that we had now left the level plain and entered upon a region of hill and valley. Indeed, much of the trail seemed to wind through the flats of a wide and deep valley and once we surmounted a considerable height. At last, as we turned a bend, I could see what seemed a star on the hillside, and father said: "See! There is our light; Mother is watching for us."
Soon we heard the dog's bark and mother came out to welcome us. I think I was as near human happiness as is possible in this world that night with my mother's arms about me.
The morning after our arrival the weather changed. The sun was shining brightly and the breeze was soft and balmy. I was up early and rushed out of doors to enjoy the new scenes. There were many springs in the hillsides, and the water, freeing itself from the winter's ice, made liquid music as it hurried through little channels to the valley below; early gophers were running about outside the pasture bars; all around were dark and wooded ravines, and the level meadows of a wide valley stretched away for miles. High overhead I caught the clarion cry of a squadron of wild geese winging their way to the nesting grounds of the far North.
I ran about everywhere, peering into the dark mysteries of the ravines, racing down slopes and climbing the heights until a splendid scene of hill and valley, meadow and plain lay spread before me. After the years of convent, of loneliness and homesickness, it seemed like an enchanted land. I felt that if I leapt off the cutbank upon which I stood I could fly like a bird.
In later years, I thought father had picked the most beautiful and convenient location in all the country; and I think so still.
At the time of our arrival the ranch buildings were of logs, hewn and mortised by the axe of my father, and placed in position with the help of some Metis whose services he had engaged. Later we had a good house, the lumber for which was freighted over the long trail from Regina, but we were then comfortable enough.
Father was a notable gardener and I think he raised everything the country could produce. He led water from the hillside springs upon his cultivated land, and the growth in that sunny location was little short of marvellous. It was his pleasure and relaxation to dig and work in his garden and he certainly possessed the growing hand. Our cattle herds were thriving and increasing and my father was well on his way back to modest prosperity.
For the first years my mother was the only white woman in all the south country. I think she must have had a quality near to heroism. She was well on in middle age, her health anything but the best, yet after the reverses of the Regina business, at a time of life when she might have expected some rest and comfort, she took up the burdens of pioneer life with undimmed courage and made splendid contributions to my father's ultimate success.
It was during the first years at the ranch that I became familiar with the North-West Mounted Police. Many officers and men well known in the history of the Force were at various times stationed at Wood Mountain some forty miles to the south-west. It was the nearest important post of the Force to the International boundary. There was then a good deal of lawlessness in Montana, and some of the bad men from the American side occasionally drifted into Canadian territory, but the vigilance of the Mounted Police prevented them from pursuing their unlawful activities with any degree of success on the Canadian side. There, was a large Sioux reservation at Wolf Point, just south of the Line and parties of these restless Indians were often crossing and recrossing. A tremendous extent of the country had to be patrolled and the men of the detachment had plenty to do. Much of the region consisted of tumbled hills, deep valleys and lonely coulees that made ideal hiding places for rustlers and other questionable characters, and this rugged terrain added greatly to the work of the men of the Force.
There was a weekly patrol from Wood Mountain eastward, the members of which always made our ranch a place of call. Every Monday they came up the trail with a trim looking wagon containing the camping outfit and mounted men riding alongside. They were mostly young Englishmen with clear, fresh complexions and they looked very smart in their service rig, black riding boots and polished spurs. They camped near our house, remained the night and pulled out the following morning. They kept eastward until they met a similar party from Woodend on the Souris River near the present town of Estevan and, after exchanging experiences, turned about and came back the same way.
Hospitality was like a religion to my father. Our house probably had more comforts than any other place in the south country and I think the Mounties enjoyed visiting us. My sister, who was then about seventeen and quite a good looking girl, may have had something to do with the attraction the ranch had for a number of those personable young men.
Those early years were quiet ones. We were very remote; there were none of the disturbing elements that in later years entered the country. Our doors were never locked and every chance wayfarer was sure of a welcome. The formula was always the same: "Put your horse in the stable; the oat bin is behind the door; dinner will be ready soon."
To me it was a period of quiet happiness. Once however, we had a little flurry of alarm. It was at the time of the Messiah craze in the States when Sitting Bull was killed. There was fighting across the Line and talk of the troubles spreading into Canada. One day a party of mounted and armed Sioux arrived and camped in our meadow. During the afternoon they kept coming to the house to sharpen their knives on our grindstone. It was rather alarming and my sister was afraid. She refused to go to bed at all and sat by the window all night, expecting they would come and scalp us. I was either too young or too foolish to be frightened; so I just laughed at her fears and, going to bed, slept soundly until morning when we found they had departed.
In 1892 I went off to school again, this time to Prince Albert, where there was a good convent school. It was the first years of the railway north of Regina, and there was then no settlement between the Qu'Appelle and the Saskatchewan, a distance of about a hundred and fifty miles. The rolling prairie through which we passed had a deserted and melancholy appearance. The journey was a tiresome one.
There were not many passengers on the train and I was sitting prim and solitary when I was addressed in French by a tall, swarthy, bearded man with a scar across his face. After a little talk, he informed me that he was the redoubtable Gabriel Dumont of Rebellion fame.
I think he was gratified at the awe with which I received this announcement, and he proceeded to tell me about some of his adventures. Like most of the Metis, he was thoughtful and courteous even to a little girl, and he did a good deal to lighten the tedium of the journey. He was regarded as a hero by his compatriots and I had heard many stories from our Willow Bunch Metis of his exploits during the old buffalo days and the Rebellion, some of them probably exaggerated. He had come back to Canada, under the terms of the amnesty proclaimed by the government, from Montana where he had taken refuge following the collapse of the Rebellion, and he told me that he was then returning from a visit to French Canada where he had received a great deal of attention. I always heard that he had taken a very active part in the fighting, but he did not then appear formidable to me. Dumont was in command of the party of Metis that defeated the Mounted Police and volunteers during the ill-starred advance of Major Crozier on Duck Lake that opened the Rebellion of 1885. Major Crozier, who was in command of the Police, realized after he had lost several men that he had fallen into an ambush and there was nothing left but to withdraw and he gave orders to that effect.
Crozier was fearlessly exposing himself. Just as the police party was about to move off, Thomas MacKay of Prince Albert saw Gabriel rise to a crouching position in a clump of wolf willows and take careful aim at the police officer. The range was short and Dumont a dead shot. But, Mr MacKay was as good a frontiersman as the redoubtable Gabriel and he took a snap shot at him as he hung on his aim. It took effect, and Dumont rolled over like a shot rabbit. This must have discouraged the rebels, for their fire slackened at once and the police and their auxiliaries were able to draw off without suffering further casualties, although they had to abandon some of their dead and a field piece. It transpired afterwards that Mr MacKay's bullet had merely creased Dumont. He quickly recovered from the effect of the wound and was active in the field during the balance of the campaign.
Several years later, when Rebellion bitterness had died down, my husband, Mr Zack Hamilton, was travelling to Prince Albert with Mr MacKay. The northbound train from Regina carried no diner, and it stopped along the line to enable the passengers to get their meals. On that occasion, the halt for breakfast was at Rosthern and when Mr MacKay and my husband entered the dining-room they found Gabriel Dumont at his breakfast. These two old opponents greeted each other warmly.
"I see, Gabriel," said Mr MacKay, "that you still bear the mark of my bullet. I am glad now, it went no deeper."
The years I spent at Prince Albert was full of happiness and contentment. The convent was under the direction of a Roman Catholic sisterhood known as The Faithful Companions of Jesus. There were several day scholars and some boarders. I was one of the latter.
Study and recreation alternated in wholesome measure. There never was a day in winter, no matter how cold and it could be frosty in Prince Albert when the girls, under the chaperonage of a nun, did not sally forth for fresh air and exercise. Our recreation period was a time for fun and frolic in which our teachers sometimes joined with gentle merriment that detracted not a whit from their dignity. What kind and sympathetic people they were and wise in the direction of our opening minds. I will always think of them with love and gratitude.
Mother Stanisclaus, the Superior, was a remarkable musician. She had studied under the direction of some of the great European teachers and, on the shores of the blue Mediterranean, had been a schoolmate of the Princesses of the great French House of Chartres. Many a tale she told us of these scions of a royal line.
In summer we made excursions across the river to the forest, where we picked wildflowers and berries, and sometimes went through the motions of fishing in the river, although I do not remember that we ever caught anything.
Once I nearly fell a victim to the North Saskatchewan. We had been flourishing our rods over the bank, but never a nibble rewarded our efforts. There was a rock in the stream not far from the bank and I felt that if I could reach it and cast my line farther out, I would be sure to catch a fish. After we had eaten our lunch and the others were resting, I took my rod and attempted to jump on the rock. My feet slipped on the smooth surface and down I went into the deep water with a most convincing plop. The sound of the splash attracted the nuns and the children, who came running to the bank as I reached the surface. I caught a projection in the rock; one of the girls poked her rod at me and I was hauled out gasping like a fish. It was a narrow escape because the water was deep and swift. I was divested of my soaking clothes, which were spread out to dry, while the girls formed a close circle about me to hide my nakedness from the birds, insects and other inquisitive eyes of the forest.
My chief difficulty at that period was the English tongue. French had been the language used at the St. Boniface Convent, and as we invariably spoke French at home, I had forgotten much of the English I had picked up in the earlier days in Regina. However, I soon learned it again, although the girls laughed a good deal at my Gallic inflection.
Prince Albert was a lovely place. The town occupied a picturesque position on the banks of the North Saskatchewan which is there a wide and noble river. The business section was situated close to the south bank. The houses of the residents clung for the most part to the hillside and were surrounded by trees and foliage. Close by were cultivated fields and some natural meadows, in summer covered with wildflowers. North, across the river, lay the forest, dark, remote and mysterious.
The earliest white settlement in what is now the Province of Saskatchewan was at Prince Albert and the place had a characteristic appearance of its own, entirely different from that of the clapboarded monstrosities known as towns, then springing up along the mainline of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
It was founded in 1866 by the Reverend James Nisbet who had been Assistant to the Reverend John Black, the first Presbyterian Minister of Kildonan Parish on the Red River. During that long-gone summer, Mr Nisbet led a caravan into the wilderness. There was a wagon, Red River carts and men on horseback in the company that during the long days plodded its way through the solitudes. This was no mere summer adventure to spy out the land. The travellers carried their families with them, the vehicles contained the essentials for pioneer housekeeping and their most cherished household goods. They were searching for a new country and when they found it, there they would lay the foundations for a permanent settlement.
Mr. Nisbet had learned from some of the native hunters at the Red River of a garden spot in the wilderness where there was a ford on the North Saskatchewan and, when the party reached the Hudson's Bay post at Carlton House, these reports were confirmed by the officers of the Company. Accordingly, the argonauts built a large raft upon which, with their livestock, goods and vehicles, they allowed the River to carry them to their destination. It was in midsummer that Mr Nisbet's party ended their journey and camped on what is now the townsite of Saskatchewan's forest city.
Later they were joined by other pioneers, Metis families from the Red River, some of the second generation of the Selkirk settlers and, during the seventies, immigrants from eastern Canada and even from across the ocean. In time, it became the home of several retired Hudson's Bay officers, who usually left the service with sufficient means to surround themselves with some rude comfort, which they might enjoy there without being subject to the burdensome restraints of urban life. The place was named Prince Albert in honour of the Royal Consort of Queen Victoria, and before long it developed into a wilderness metropolis of sorts.
On a visit to Prince Albert in 1942, my husband and I had the opportunity of talking to Mrs Christina Mills who, as a child, had been a member of Mr Nisbet's company. I do not think that anything ever gave me a stronger realization of the rapid development of this western country than our contact with this fine old lady. She was old as years go but still active and taking a keen interest in social, religious and welfare movements. It seemed to me almost incredible that we were talking to one who had been an original member of a party that started the very first permanent white settlement in all the Saskatchewan country.
When I was at the convent, Prince Albert still retained a strong savour of the old West. In summer, voyageurs embarked in their canoes to penetrate the intricate system of waterways leading to Hudson Bay or Lake Athabasca. In winter, dog teams pulled out to a chorus of sapristis and sacres for Lac la Range, Ile a la Crosse and other distant outposts. It was the meeting-place for the hunters and wanderers of the wood when they came in for barter or relaxation.
The stores featured guns, ammunition, fish lines, nets, traps and other requisites of the hunter and trapper. On the streets were to be seen the Metis hunter in fur cap of otter, or marten, blanket capote, or fringed buckskin jacket, blue cloth leggings and beaded moccasins; Indians in belted robes and blankets; Mounted Policemen with their scarlet uniforms and smart military appearance; native women with the bright tartan shawls that were the contribution of the Highland officers of the North West Company to the sartorial elegance of the country; and farmers and settlers from the surrounding region in the usual bucolic habiliments.
The lately constructed railway was there to carry people to and from the centres of population in the East; but within a few miles lay the forest, dark, mysterious and inscrutable, where the giant moose splashed through the shallows of woodland lakes at evening, the antlered elk paced with majestic mien through forest glades, and the deep-throated hunting cry of the timberwolves fractured the icy stillness of the winter night.
Prince Albert was a watch-tower of civilization, rude as yet, but emblematic surrounded on three sides by the untrodden and unconquered wilderness.