Our First Winter In Algoma.

Shortly after making this tour with Chief Little Pine, arrangements were made for our finally leaving Sarnia and removing our head-quarters to the Indian Mission at Garden River; the Committee of the Church Missionary Society agreed to the change as an experiment, and undertook to support the Mission for one year; but the withdrawal of the New England Company and the fact of so many of the Indians having already been converted by the Roman Catholics, made them a little doubtful as to whether it would be a suitable spot for establishing one of their Missions permanently.

Before leaving Sarnia we had the satisfaction of seeing the little brick church on the Reserve completed and opened for use. This, together with the Kettle Point Mission, was now handed over to the charge of the native pastor, the Rev. John Jacobs.

I must mention one little incident that happened at this time. It was in the evening, and I had called to see Mr. Jacobs. He met me with his usual geniality, and we sat conversing for some time. Near the sofa was a large clothes-basket with a blanket over it. By-and-bye some little faint cries came from the neighbourhood of the basket. “What have you got there, Kesheg?” I asked. Mr. Jacobs was a little confused, and laughingly muttered something about an “arrival.” The blanket was removed, and there lay two little mortals nestled together, one fair like his English mother, and the other dark like her father. The Indians afterwards gave them Indian names–“River Prince” and “River Princess.”

It was the end of September when we left Sarnia. A little girl had been added to our family three weeks before. We had great difficulty in getting servants to go to so wild and out of the way a place as Sault Ste. Marie and Garden River were conceived to be. After many fruitless endeavours we were obliged to give it up, and took no one with us except our faithful Jane as nurse. There were no Canadian boats at that time running from Sarnia, so we had to take passage on an American vessel. We went well supplied with provisions sufficient to last us through the winter, and had all our furniture with us, besides horse, buggy, sleigh, and two cows. At that time there was but one clergyman in all the Algoma district, and he was located on the Manitoulin Island, 150 miles east of the point to which we were bound. To the west and north our nearest clerical neighbours would be the Missionaries of Hudson Bay and Rupert’s Land, 500 or 600 miles away. It had been arranged that we should spend the winter at Sault Ste. Marie, a village of 300 or 400 people, twelve miles above the Garden River Mission, and a house had been engaged there for us to live in; the Church people at Sault Ste. Marie were anxious that we should do this,–a little stone church, St. Luke’s, had just been built, and they, of course, were desirous to have regular services held; and I expected every Sunday to hold one service at Garden River, besides visiting the Indians during the week.

It was late on Saturday night, about 10 p.m., when we reached Sault Ste. Marie. The captain had kindly promised to put us off on the Canadian side, but it being so late and dark, and the channel not a safe one, he was unable to do so, and we were hurried off, boxes, tables, cows, horse, and all on the American dock. This placed us in a dilemma. Ten o’clock, Saturday night, and ourselves and our things all in the wrong place,–the right, place being a mile and a-half across the water. The first thing to do under the circumstances was to take my family up to the hotel, after which I returned to the dock, and fortunately found a friend in need, Mr. Church, the owner of a sawmill on Sugar Island, a short distance below Garden River. He most obligingly undertook to put all my things across to the Canadian side for me. His men set to work with a will–several of them were Garden River Indians–and in a little time all was packed on board his scow, and we were steaming across the Ste. Marie River. Fortune, however, seemed to be against us,–we were about one-third of the way across when one of the cows who was tethered to a parlour stove jumped overboard, taking the stove along with her. Happily the rope broke, the stove sank, and the cow swam. A boat was put off, the cow taken in tow, and rowed back to the American side. However, in due time she was once more safely got on board and made fast, and in a little while we had reached our destination, and everything was landed at the Canadian dock. It was about one o’clock in the morning when I arrived there, and I went up to the empty Mission-house which we had occupied in the spring, and found a bed on which to snatch a few hours’ rest.

On Sunday morning the Indians came round, all delighted, to see me again. After holding service in the church, I engaged two young Indians, and getting into _The Missionary_, we started for Sault Ste. Marie, as I was to have service there in the evening.

During the next day or two we were moving our furniture, &c. into this house which we had rented for the winter. It was roomy enough, but close to the river, and intolerably damp; so after a week or two of great discomfort we resolved on changing our quarters, and one fine morning, almost before light, saw _The Missionary_ and another boat, loaded with our household effects, and running before a stiff breeze to Garden River. The Indians were delighted at the change, and all welcomed us warmly; but now fresh difficulties arose: the little log parsonage was so cramped and small that we had nowhere to bestow our goods, and a considerable proportion of them had to be stowed away in the stable until two additional rooms could be built. It was rather late in the year for building operations, the winter being just about to commence; nevertheless we managed to secure the services of a couple of workmen, and in a little time a “balloon frame” was run up and two new rooms added to the house.

A terrible winter it was–one of the worst winters that had been known–the glass being sometimes from 30 to 40 below zero, and the snow very deep. One great snowdrift completely blocked the east end of the parsonage–it was about fifteen feet deep. The lower room was entirely dark, and we had to make a tunnel through the snow bank to let in the light. Some mornings it was so cold that we could not sit to the breakfast-table, but had all to huddle round the stove with our plates on our laps, and the empty cups that had been used when put back on the table froze to the saucers. Bread, butter, meat, everything, was frozen solid, and we began to realize what an Algoma winter was. But, apart from these discomforts, we had a very pleasant winter with our Indian friends; the services at the church were well attended, and there were generally upwards of thirty at the Holy Communion. At Christmas time we had a great feast; nearly a hundred of the people came, and after partaking of the good things, we gave them a magic lantern exhibition, which pleased them greatly. Then we always had service in the schoolhouse every Wednesday evening, at which there was an exceedingly good attendance; and on Friday evenings we held a cottage lecture, sometimes at one house, sometimes at another. Perhaps the most discouraging thing was the day-school. It is so hard to induce the Indians to send their children regularly to school. There may be thirty names on the register, but the average attendance is probably not more than nine or ten, possibly at times twelve to fifteen. It seems to be the same everywhere. The old people do not sufficiently realize the advantages of education themselves, and so seem to care little whether their children are in their place at class or roving about the bush with a bow and arrow. The Indians are great people for medicine. I had a good stock of it, and they were constantly coming to me with their ailments. They make medicines themselves from roots and herbs, but prefer generally to get the White man’s physic. There was an old white-haired woman, an aunt of the chief’s, who used to come stumping along with a thick stick, and caused some consternation in our nursery; she never knocked at the door–Indians rarely do–but would come in and sit herself down in the middle of the floor, the children scampering away to hide. She was a good-natured old creature, and of course would do no harm, but she frightened the children nevertheless.

We had one rather narrow escape while driving on the ice. It was on Christmas Day; I had been taking Morning Service at Sault Ste. Marie, and was driving back to Garden River with my wife and a young lady who was coming to stay with us; the wind was blowing, and the glass was in the neighbourhood of zero. All went well till we were within four miles of home; we had just passed a log cottage on the shore, and were striking out to cross a bay; we fancied we heard a shout behind us, but it was too cold to stop and look back; however it would have been better if we had done so, for a few moments more and our horse was plunging in the water, the rotten ice having given way beneath his feet. As quick as thought we all hurried out at the back of the sleigh and made for the solid ice. There were two or three inches of water on the ice, and our feet got wet, but otherwise we were safe from danger. In the meantime some Indians had seen us from the shore, and came running to us with a rope and some rails. It was twenty minutes before the poor horse was extricated; he was down in the water up to his neck, his eyes looked glassy, and I was afraid the poor thing was dying. However the Indians evidently knew what to do, they got the end of a rail under him as a lever to raise him up, and put a noose round his neck; then, having first loosened the harness, they pulled with a will, and in a few moments had him out of the hole kicking on the ice; they then gave him a good rubbing, and soon he made a plunge and was on his legs again, trembling and shaking; one of the young fellows took him off for a sharp trot to restore the circulation, then the sleigh was fixed up, and after a delay of about an hour we were enabled to continue our journey.

During the winter our mail was brought by men on snow-shoes with a dog train; they had to travel about 150 miles to a distant station, where they were met by other couriers, who exchanged bags with them and took them the remainder of the distance. The men go along at a jogging pace, and at night camp out in the snow.

Wilson, Rev. Edward F. Missionary Work Among the Ojebway Indians. London: Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge. 1886.

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