The Red River Expedition.

The year 1870 was memorable in Europe for the great war between France and Germany, followed by the loss of the Pope’s temporal power, and the establishment of secular government in Rome. Here in Canada the excitement of the day was the Red River rebellion, to quell which a military expedition was despatched under the command of General (then Colonel) Wolseley. I had arranged to make a Missionary tour to Lake Superior during the summer, and it so happened that I fell in with the troops on their way up the lake and did service for them as chaplain while they were encamped at Thunder Bay.

It was a busy scene in the dock at Collingwood just prior to starting. There were about a hundred Iroquois Indians who had been engaged as guides and boatmen, and these were to precede the expedition and arrange for the portaging and crossing the rivers before the arrival of the troops. The steamship _Chicora_ was moored to the dock, the whole vessel from stem to stern being heavily laded down, and there was considerable delay before we started, but at length the ropes were let go, the planks drawn in, and we were off. This was the _Chicora’s_ first trip of the season, and large crowds gathered about the docks at the various places where we stopped on our way up the lakes, the general expectation evidently being that the troops would be on board. The disappointment was great when it was found that we had only an advanced guard of Indian Voyageurs with us. One old lady, accosting one of the passengers, in her enthusiasm exclaimed, “Have ye got the army on board?” Above Manitoulin Island the channel becomes very narrow and is sprinkled with little rocky islets clad scantily with fir and birch trees. On one was living an old grey haired man in charge of a lighthouse; he had been there the whole winter shut in by ice and snow, and was so full of delight at witnessing “the first boat of the season” that he saluted us by firing his gun, to which we responded by a grunting whistle. At last we reached Garden River, and stepping on shore, I was soon exchanging hearty greetings with Mr. and Mrs. Chance. The _Chicora_ was detained four hours at this place, as all the boats for the expedition were to be taken off before they proceeded further and to be rowed by the Indians to Sault Ste. Marie, a distance of twelve miles. It was necessary to do this because the only way for the _Chicora_ to get into Lake Superior was through a canal on the American side of the river, and if the boats were left on board they might be regarded by the American Government as munitions of war and so be refused passage. So the Indians were to take charge of the boats and pole them up the rapids, while the _Chicora_ expected to go innocently through the locks as a boat of peace. However the plan did not answer; the _Chicora_ even though divested of her boats, was refused passage, and having unloaded everything on the Canadian side was obliged to return whence she came. Then a road had to be cut along the Canadian shore, the red-wheeled waggons brought into use, and everything conveyed a distance of some three miles to a point above the rapids, where a dock was constructed and another Canadian vessel, the _Algoma_ employed to carry the things on to Thunder Bay on the shore of Lake Superior.

As there was likely under these circumstances to be considerable delay before I could continue my journey, I passed my leisure time under the hospitable roof of Mr. and Mrs. Chance, and was glad of the opportunity to renew my acquaintance with the Indians whom we had met last fall. I had hoped that Mr. Chance would have been able to accompany me on my expedition up the Lake; indeed it had been his own wish to do so, and in that case we should have taken his own boat _The Missionary_ and a crew of Indians, and so have been independent of the steamboats. Circumstances however occurred to prevent the carrying out of this plan, and in the end I started alone by steamboat, with my tent, camp-bed, a good stock of books, provisions, &c., and a Garden River Indian named James as my attendant. Col. Wolseley and his staff and a large detachment of troops were on board the steamboat, and on arrival at Thunder Bay, about 300 miles distant from Sault Ste. Marie, we found a scene of the greatest activity and excitement. The troops, about 1200 in number, were encamped on a wild bare spot with only a few rough shanties and houses, about three miles from the Hudson Bay Company Post, Fort William. The Bush had been burnt over, and it was a most desolate, uninviting looking place, although the distant scenery around was grand. There was considerable difficulty in disembarking, as the water near the shore was shallow and there was no dock, so everything had to be taken from the steamboat to the land in a flat scow hauled to and fro by a rope. We pitched our tent on the shore, close to the soldiers’ camp, other tents of explorers and travellers being close around us. From this point the troops were to start on their journey to Winnipeg. First, forty miles of road had to be constructed, and boats and everything had to be carried on waggons till the first water in the chain of lakes and rivers was reached. This had to be done for the whole of the 700 miles to Winnipeg; wherever possible the troops went by boat, and where there was no water on the route, a road had to be constructed and the waggons used. It was no easy task that Colonel Wolseley had before him in this wild, uninhabited and rocky country.

Very soon after my arrival at Thunder Bay I began to look about for Indians, that being the primary object of my visit. I found quite a large settlement of them at Fort William, but was disappointed to discover that they were all Roman Catholics. The Jesuits, it appeared, had been among them for more than a century. They had a priest resident among them, an old man, I was told, gentlemanly, courteous, and generally beloved and respected both by Indians and Whites; they had also a little church decorated with flowers and images. However, I managed to draw a few people around me, and scarcely a day passed but I had Indian visitors to my tent. The Indian Chief, whose name was Mungedenah, did not seem to be at all bigoted in his religion. Pointing to the sky, he said, “I know there is only one God, and I do not think Christians ought to be divided.” He seemed most anxious to have an Ojebway Testament. I told him that the Garden River Indians could nearly all read the Testament for themselves. Tears came into his eyes and he said he wished indeed it could be the same with them. When he rose to leave, he thanked me, and pointing up to heaven said God would bless me.

After the visit of their Chief the Indians got quite friendly, and used often to come and see me in my tent. One of them remarked once that he thought there must be a great many white people in the world, to judge by the large number that had come together that summer in such a short space of time. Some of the poor creatures were evidently afraid of being reported to their priest when they came to visit me; they generally squatted at the entrance of the tent, and appeared to be keeping a watch all the time, so that it was very seldom that I had an opportunity of reading to them. Perhaps the most interesting incident that occurred was an interview that I had with some wild pagan Indians from the Interior. Some one put his head in at my tent door, and said, “Have you seen the Indian Chief from Rainy Lake?” “No,” I replied, “where is he to be found? I should like very much to see him.” Indeed I was most anxious to meet some Indian from that quarter, as I had heard that there was a large settlement there of some thousand Ojebway Indians all in the darkness of paganism. I was directed to a store where the Chief had gone in, and immediately went in search of him. There he stood, a fine, upright, muscular man, with sharp set features, and a fierce forbidding eye; long shaggy black hair straggled down his back, a mink-skin turban graced his forehead, into which were stuck four white eagle feathers, and behind it hung an otter skin appendage like a great bag, and covered with little pieces of bone or metal, which rattled as he walked. I addressed the Chief in Indian, and he turned and shook hands with me, and after a little conversation he agreed to accompany me to my tent, where I prepared a meal for him. He was very ready to converse, and told me that his name was “Makuhda-uhsin” (Black Stone), that he had arrived at Midday, that he was accompanied by four other men, two boys, and a woman, that they had come by canoe, and had camped six nights on the way. Koojeching, he said, was the place where they had come from, and there he had left a thousand warriors.

While he was talking, the rest of the party arrived, seeking their Chief. They all squatted down, and I had to feed them all, and then give them tobacco for a smoke. They were all wild-looking creatures, their countenances as thoroughly unchristianlike as could be conceived. As soon as their hunger was satiated, and they had filled their pipes, they were rising to go, but I asked them to remain as I had a few words still to say to them. I then told them briefly who I was, where I had come from, and my object in coming to Thunder Bay. I had heard, I said, that they were all pagans at Koojeching. I was very sorry for it, and very anxious that they should embrace Christianity. A change came upon their faces as I spoke; they shuffled uneasily, eyed me suspiciously, and were evidently impatient to get away. They probably thought that I had got them into my tent with the idea of using some enchantments or exercising some witchcraft upon them. I did not understand all they said, but James told me afterward that they were all very angry. They said they were all pagans, and intended to remain so. When I asked whether, if I were to visit them some day, they would listen to me, and if they would like me to come to see them and tell them about God, Black Stone replied, “Come if you will, but as for my people they will never become Christians” I heard afterwards that a Jesuit priest once visited their settlement, and after he had left the small-pox broke out. In then superstitious ignorance, they attributed the disease to the priest’s visit, and so determined never to accept Christianity.

I had arranged to visit the Lake Neepigon Indians on my way back down the Lake, and took my passage on board a steamboat which was to call at Red Rock at the mouth of the Neepigon River. But my purposes were frustrated; the steamboats were under the direction of the military authorities orders were changed at the last moment, and instead of Red Rock I found myself at Michipicotun. At this place there is a Hudson Bay Company Post and a small settlement of Indians. The approach to the Post is very picturesque, the river being bordered by high-wooded banks, and the clean-looking white-washed buildings of the Company presented a striking contrast to the wild scenery around as we approached, rowing up the river in one of the ship’s boats. We pitched our tent in a cleared spot just across the river, opposite to the Post and near to some Indian wigwams. During our stay, which lasted about ten days, I visited every day among the people, and at nightfall we would meet together in one of their wigwams for reading the Scripture and prayer. The name of the Chief was Tootoomenaun; he lived like the rest of his people in a simple wigwam made of a circle of sticks sloping to a point, and covered with birch-bark; and there, with his family and his dogs, he lay by the fire and smoked his pipe, while I read or talked to them, the smoke circulating about our heads and then finding its escape among the blackened pole-ends at the apex of the little domicile. Another Chief from the neighbouring settlement of Batcheewanig, about 90 miles distant, was on a visit, and I had many a long talk with these two red-skinned brethren. They said they had had no minister to visit them, either Jesuit or Protestant, since the previous summer, and they seemed very anxious to be taught, and listened very attentively when I read or expounded the Scriptures. Finding the people all so anxious to learn, I opened a little day-school in the Chief’s wigwam. I had a box for my seat, and the young people squatted round on mats. There was an attendance of eleven scholars. Two of the young men I found already knew the alphabet, so I set them on to commence the first book while the others were kept busy with the A, B, C. They were sharp at learning, and nearly all of them, with the exception of one or two of the youngest children, knew the capital letters and figures from 1 to 10 by the time the two hours of study were over. This school teaching was continued every day until the steamboat arrived which was to take us the remainder of our homeward voyage to the Sault.

It is interesting to me to recall this, my first missionary visit to Lake Superior. Certainly it did not seem that much was accomplished during my tour, and I was a little disappointed that there was not a larger number of pagan Indians among whom I might look forward to establish Missions in the future. Still I had gained, at any rate, some insight into the condition of the people; there were the obdurate pagans from Rainy Lake, Blackstone, whom I was destined to meet again at a future day, the Thunder Bay Indians all seemingly under Jesuit influence; then these more accessible Red men of Michipicotun and Batcheewanig. Some Pic River Indians also I had chanced to meet on my travels, and had some conversation with. The Neepigon Indians I was sorry to miss seeing. I was obliged to leave them for another time, together with the people belonging to several other settlements on the North shore.

Altogether, the result of my trips to Garden River and to Lake Superior was that I felt inwardly drawn to come and labour among the people of these more Northern regions in preference to remaining among the semi-civilized Indians of Sarnia. How the way would open I could not at that time foresee, or how soon it might be my lot to move into these wilder regions I could not tell. It was merely an unshaped thought, the beginning of a desire created in my breast.

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

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