The Canadian Prairie Province – Across The Prairie

OUR trip down the Red River has been told, and we have made the reader acquainted, to some extent, with the Dawson Route. It remains to tell of the stage road from the Prairie capital to the American Northern Pacific. This is the only means of access from the south-east during the cold season, and will, till railway communication be completed, be of manifest importance.

The office of Carpenter & Blakely’s St. Paul Stage Company is near the old post office, and here, for $15 in summer, while the river opposition lasts, and for $24 in win-ter, may be obtained the necessary ticket. This company carries the mail for the United States and Canada, for which service it receives something over $25,000 a year. The same company have made proposals to run stages from Winnipeg along the Assiniboine, to Fort Pelly or even Carlton. The careful traveller will not fail to fill a handbasket with provisions for the way.

At early dawn, towards the end of August, we are called, and soon find the two-horse waggon filled with men travellers. There is trouble in the stables, horses are sick, and we are to take the first fifteen miles thus, and then to get a four-horse stage the rest of the way.

Off we go in the cool morning, a light rain falling, and the wonderful black loam sticking in lumps to the wheels and horses’ hoofs. Our way is past the spot where Scott was shot, under the towers of the old Fort, and we haul up on the bank of the Assiniboine. No bridge or means of crossing is apparent, but the driver has an idea, and, like Chieftain to the Highlands bound, cries, ” Boatman, do not tarry ! ” But long he calls, till from the opposite bank a hundred yards across moves towards us an open scow. How propelled, and why it should come across at all, is a mystery. Down we slide over the mud and are on board. A little man with red-dish hair seems at once ferryman and co-traveller. His carpet bag he throws in with ours and announces that he

has done with the ferry, and is off to the land of freedom. He shows us the modus operandi of the craft. A cable runs across from bank to bank ; attached to this by a pulley from bow and another from stern, the scow lies in the current, which is the propelling power ; the pulley rope is hauled in on the end of the boat which is desired to go forward, the rope on the other end being loosened, so the scow swings off at an angle of about thirty degrees and the current slowly pushes it over. To return, the opposite tactics are adopted. At St. Boniface, over the Red River, there was, till within a few months, a similar mode of ferryage ; now a heavy wire takes the place of the rope and a hidden wheel under the vessel is moved by steam. These contrivances may do for a time, good folk of Garry, but are by no means satisfactory. Should the rope of the one give way, who would pull the stage and horses out of the mud into which they would soon be capsized ? Should the wire cable give way, its weight would render unmanageable and perhaps sink the St. Boniface ferry. Bridges are much needed over both rivers. The Dominion Government has offered $25,000 towards defraying the expenses of a bridge to connect the city with the Pembina Railway station at St. Boniface, so before many months, a safe crossing will, doubtless, be provided the city contributing such further outlay as may be needed.

Up the bank again, and we are in the prairie on the west side of the Red River. The chickens don’t like the misty weather, and we start but one covey before reaching the hamlet of St. Norbert, where a diminutive mail bag is left. Near this lived relations of Riel, now spending his years of banishment in New England. Roads heavy and horses fagged, but we reach the end of the first fifteen miles’ stage in time for breakfast at you a tall French half-breed, with curly hair turning silvery, moustachoed but beard shaven. In early life a buffalo hunter and trader, you left, as September came on, this pretty place by the river’s bank, for the far off plains, taking tents and guns, wife and family, and returning in the spring with pony and ox-carts laden with skins and pemmican. A tall man and large hearted surrounded by children, from the full-grown blushing damsels with plaited hair, who prepare our breakfast, to the little toddler that peeps from behind a door, but becomes more docile ere we leave. Count them, and then you will see to how large a tract this good family will be entitled under the ” Manitoba Act,” since he and every pair of bright eyes among the household will get scrip for a quarter section of as good rich meadow land as the world affords.

Talk with Pierre, as he comes to the door and points to his herd of many cows, log barns and great stacks of hay. He looks across the river to cottages among the bushes, and these are his. His hay farm contains already fifteen hundred acres. He has a grade bull from the States, and has given up buffaloes to raise fat cattle for the Garry market, where they fetch good figures. He has half a dozen sheep that seemed rather lean, and were the only live mutton we saw on the road ; the long prairie, and sharp-pointed rye grass and low ground is not well adapted to them, but they do well in other parts of the Province and produce great fleeces. As to the fruit, he has plenty of small fruit ; he had also planted some apple trees in a place sheltered with poplars, but the frost cut them down ; they are springing up, and he hopes to succeed with them or with some hardier variety in time. Good potatoes and onions were in the garden.

Delorme is of plain habits, does not smoke, and shakes his head when we talk of Scott. ” All right but for that,” he says. He perhaps thinks of what we elsewhere heard. His brother, who dwelt in the Pembina region, had also been a trader, but offended an implacable red man, and was left by him stark dead but a year ago. Mr. Delorme was a member of the first Dominion Parliament, but gave up politics for which he had no taste. In fact, the good Bois-brulé felt quite bewildered in Ottawa, soon resigned his seat, and went back to his home on la chère Rivière Rouge. He is, however, still one of his Honour’s advisers, being a member of the North-west Council, as stated in a previous chapter. His house is a model of the better class of the Metis, so we will glance at it :

A story-and-a-half high, of logs, but clap-boarded with-out, having a large sitting-room, off which are half a dozen doors opening into dining-room, little parlour and bed-rooms. A table, chest of drawers, sewing machine, and half a dozen chairs with seats of wood or shagynappi, and box stove, are in the reception-room, into which the outer door opens direct. No carpets are seen a city luxury. Neatly served, plain and substantial was our morning meal, and then we roamed about, scaring the golden plover, blackbirds and snipe, for the stage had not yet arrived from above. The mercantile men lay down for a snooze. A pony is brought to the door, and we find it saddled with a pretty home-made affair of skin richly wrought with beads. The senator sat or walked about, and smiled as he pondered on the coming greatness of the Dominion.

One, more prying, opens the parlour door, and finds to his astonishment an excellent cottage piano of London make. Such an instrument must have some one to use it. The pretty girl with plaited hair has milked her cows and washed the dishes. Coy and shy, with little understanding of our rude tongue, yet soon she came, did honour to the teaching of the good nuns of St. Boniface, her instructors, gave us with fine expression a ” Wedding March,” and was at the last notes of a ” Ray of Sunshine” as the stage drew up, and we shook hands with many thanks and adieux to the fair musician and the whole family now laughing around us.

The stage that has just passed down took two days and five hours from Fargo, but was heavily loaded.

We left Delorme’s at 10.30, and had a heavy four-horse stage with canvas cover, seating nine persons, and with room beside driver for two more. Twelve miles in this run but there was little run in the poor horses. They had lived on grass only for three weeks ; oats had been sent from St. Paul, but the low water in the river had impeded the work of the ” Kittson Line,” and no grain could be got. Such oats as the new country had started, had fattened the ” hoppers.” Sadly hung the poor steeds’ heads and angry waxed the drivers. Be who first took the lines was a young fellow, and was by no means cultivated in profanity. His oaths were many and vile —attacking the parentage of the patient animals, their heads, their tails, their hoofs, the fleecy clouds that hung over them, and the black wash through which they trod —all terribly strung together. The second driver holding the four lines, had a particular antipathy to the off wheeler. He breathed profanity and spat out horrid curses from between the coarse red bristles that lined his jaws. Can he, Saxon though you call him, be of better mettle than this band of dark aborigines whom we have just passed ? They have taken down the poor smoked buffalo hide that formed their tent ; a squaw carries it and other articles in a bundle on her stooping back. Other squaws have similar loads, and strange to say, an old man with wrinkled face also bears his bundle ; but then he is not a chief or brave. Beside them trots a large black dog, having strapped on his back a buffalo robe, and seeming proud of the business.

Still we move along the telegraph line, and always in sight of the elms that mark the river. This wire and the high posts supporting it are valued land-marks to the plain-driver, who, when untrodden snow covers the ground and fills the air, can, by driving from post to post, still keep his course. To lose the way then on the prairie might prove no matter for jest.

Wild ducks are on the lakelets and streams, paying us little attention. Many cattle are passed, all feeding one way, with tails to the wind. Ponies are scattered among them, the first letter of the owner’s name branded on their haunches. But who are the passengers ? First, the worthy senator, who falls asleep at 11 a.m. ; the ex-ferryman, who chews his quid and thinks of home ; a young Detroit merchant traveller, who dozes off at noon ; another, who has a pet dog, with which and the driver he discourses on the box, and a chiel who is taking notes, and inly praying that the next time he comes this way oats may be as abundant as oaths. Consider the lilies as they grow, covering the ponds, from which the black heads of young duck peep, and forming hiding places for the brown mud hens. These bushy yellow flowers are wild artichokes, and these opening disks sunflowers. That cloud of blackbirds scurries- away from a hawk, which rests on a telegraph pole till we pass. Impudent little robbers are they. The farmers can’t find boys enough to scare them from the fields, so they plough a furrow and sow it thick with grain steeped in strychnine. The next turn of the sod covers their bodies. We end the second stage at 1 p.m.

The sky cleared, and the new team moved on well. The driver was an old man, and more modestly profane ; used but two forms a curse and adjuration which he considered sufficient for the occasion. He has credit for powers equal to his fellow-drivers on an emergency. The next Jehu was like him. The fifth, a decent young fellow, who swore monotonously, and was sad, quite disconsolate indeed, about the horses. If they do not get grain very soon he will quit his seat, with its ” $25 a month and found,” and go to shooting prairie chickens, which fetch twenty cents a piece in Garry or Fargo. We soon came to Sale or Stinking River, so called from the weed found in its muddy bed ; pass many good new waggons and ox-carts of stout polite Mennonites, who bow to us or lift the hat.

In the next ride we pass, by a long bridge, Scratching or Briar River, which flows into the Red River. Seven miles or so from this, on Plum Creek, is Wild-acre, an Ontario colony, mainly from Napanee, having been pioneered by Mr. George Wild, and forming the nucleus of a prosperous settlement. Early last summer they had a large area ready for cultivation. The land is very rich and rolling, with good wood supply on the east side of Red River. In their vicinity a considerable number of Mennonites have settled, and along the river front a number of Ontarians have secured farms. Some twenty miles west the bulk of last year’s immigration of Mennonites have settled, as stated in another chapter. From this section of country a very large and prosperous trade must settle towards Winnipeg in a few years.

We go down a large dry ditch, the bed of the Marais River in wet seasons, by ” Little Lake,” filled with innumerable wild fowl, and at 7 p.m. are 35 miles from Garry, in the garden and substantial story and a-half log house of Wm. Wright, an old Englishman, who, with his good Cornish wife, has lived here for four years,

Wright purchased a half-breed’s claim, with the present house and barn, for $400, and took up the adjoining quarter section as a free-grant settler. Corn is in the garden in tassel, but turned brown and dead by the late frost, potatoes growing well but tops nipped. The ‘hoppers were here three days and destroyed sixteen acres of grain. They darkened the air and covered the ground The only wild animals that touch his fowl and pigs are an occasional fox or prairie wolf. The sunset was very fine this evening. For hours the mists had been rising from the distant margin of the prairie in wonderful shapes, making cities, palaces and castles of snowy whiteness. Over them was .the rich splendour of the sunlight breaking through thick clouds of every conceivable form, colour and shade, and between them and above was the expanse of deep, deep blue. The stage had not come, so we took tea, fanned off the mosquitoes, talked of ‘hoppers, of Indians, of half-breeds, of game, and of the ” husky ” dogs. A squaw worked silently about the house. But what is that pretty animal that comes with a driver ? His general build is that of a colley dog, yet the head, with its ears and beautiful restless brown eye, was, as was the tail, that of the fox or wolf. His legs and feet were small and well made. He was playful yet snappish, and quick to turn and run when attacked. His colour, a tawny white. He, with four others, were, when pups, brought in by an Indian to Norway House, and said to be the cross offspring of wolf and fox ; we surmised, however, that an Esquimaux dog, rather than a wolf, had been one of the parents. Crosses between wolf and dog are not uncommon among the Inidians, the Crees especially, and in the far off Hudson Bay forts, are said to be unequalled in strength, fierceness and endurance, and are therefore used in making long sled journeys. Then the travellers tell us of the storks they have shot on the upper waters of the river flowing beside us, of the cranes of the Sand hills, the bitterns of Scripture that may be seen running and playing with each other near Otter Lake cunning fellows, that can count up to ten, but if one man out of a less company leaves the waggon, in hopes of crawling up his absence from his comrades, is remarked by the watchful birds, and away they go to the head waters of the Mississippi. So passes the evening till bed time. The good senator takes a couch, the ex-ferryman retires to the stage coach, the others get a big mattress and quilts on the floor ; mosquitoes, the pet dog and cat, the dog that is half wolf and half fox, and visions of prairie wolves trouble for a time, but soon comes ” nature’s sweet restorer.” The senator snores, we follow the timely example, nor wake till we hear the stage horses’ bells in the early morning.

ABOVE THE MARAIS

The Pleiades were up, watching the silent air ; The seeds and roots in earth were swelling for summer fare. -KEATS.

Orion was guarding the west. For an hour yet the skirmishers of old Sol appear in the eastern horizon. Then he himself leaps out very red and large, rises with balloon-like vault above the green edging of Red River, drives through a skirting of white clouds and soars into the clear blue sky. We pass a camp of Indians, twelve tents picturesquely grouped, men, women, children and ponies scattered here and there ; also more Mennonites. We see a four foot post with small staff nailed to it. This marks the boundary between the Queen and Uncle Sam. Here is the old Hudson Bay fort a few wooden houses surrounded by fences. We come to West Lynn, passing this we are in the town of Pembina, where our baggage is examined, at 6.30 a.m., a place of some 500 inhabitants, that was settled by British, thinking they would be on the Queen’s soil, but in time found that they bad been mistaken. The less said of the poor hotel the better. We pass over the Pembina River, a dashing stream, on foot, the lightened stage following on the rotten wooden bridge that totters under it. Then find on the right the United States fort and barracks of Pembina, the white boarded houses prettily showing among the trees. The mercantiles break out with the ” Star-Spangled Banner” as we pass the flag. We are now joined in company by Mr. Wm. Gidley, manager of the northern half of the stage road; by a lady and her little girl, whose merry eyes and chattering endeared little Carrie to us ; by a smart Ontario boy, who had been two years in the Province, and was going home for a visit ; and by two Mennonite gentlemen, intelligent, plainly dressed, having broadcloth overcoats lined with dressed sheepskin, the woolly side next the person. They were on a business trip to St. Paul, but would soon return.

Eight hundred families, in all about four thousand five hundred of their country folk, have settled on Manitoba soil, as stated in Chapter V. Others rested on their way in Ontario, but will, doubtless, soon join their brethren here, and if they report favourably, many more will follow from Russia. Our two companions passed the time in chat, or with their pipes and a religious book which one of them had. We asked them how they liked Manitoba. “0,” said they together, brightening up, ” a guttes-land, a schones-land.” “‘A guttes-land’ you say, and I believe you, old Mennons,” said the ex-ferryman, rousing himself, ” and you broad-brims have the best of it ; you get a free passage from Quebec, and then squat here close to the river, with one hundred and sixty acres, a free gift to each of you, and the railroad soon to pass your doors. Then you have no fighting, no lawyer’s bills, and I guess but little doctor’s stuff to swallow or pay for, you’ll soon make this a land of Goshen.” ” How’s that about fighting and doctors,” put in the smart boy, while the two Mennonites looked on, half understanding and much amused. ” Why, these old sober-sides are a sort of Dutch quakers,” replied the ferryman, “but I would not advise you to tackle any of their boys without taking their measure well. If they don’t strike from the shoulder, they may squeeze like the bears of Russia, from which they came, being invited to leave because they won’t go soldiering for the Czar. I’m told they settle their disputes by friendly arbitration, hate the smell of gunpowder, and as to physic the very women are stronger than our average American men. When I was coming down on the old International, one of the fraus borrowed a mattress, disappeared down the hatchway about noon, but was up again before sunset with a little Mennon in her arms, whose first squall was heard about Pembina. Ask purser Smith and he’ll tell you all about it.”

” They are indeed a remarkable people ; have been harshly treated ; they deserve our sympathy and will make good settlers,” said the Senator.

” Those are the people that should set up for women’s rights. They could enforce their doctrines,” said Mercantile No. One. ” Yes,” said the Senator, ” I have no doubt they will create a new civilization in this home which they take to so readily. We don’t grudge the ten or twelve dollars a head, and the land and other favours extended to them, and if report speak true, your western people rather envy us the acquisition of this stout fraternity.” ” As to that,” said Mercantile No. Two, ” the investment ain’t a bad one if we are to take the Castle Garden view that each healthy immigrant is directly worth one hundred dollars or more to the country, and these emigrants who settled along our Union Pacific road were found even more solid than that; nearly every head of a Mennonite family having brought cash with him to stock his homestead. The storekeepers look on them as a god-send–their pockets-were full of thalers and kreutzers. ” But pardon me,” he continued, ” is it not a somewhat peculiar policy, one that only William Penn or George Fox, the Quakers, and you Canadians, would have hit upon, thus to settle non-combatants and give them so many square miles at the door of the country, round the land and water highways, which we Yankees may some day take a fancy for.”

The road manager was on his settling tour, and we had at several stations to wait for more than an hour while he was passing accounts with the station-keeper. A good, hearty, bluff fellow, and specimen of a western boy as one would care to meet is Gidley. “Monte” men and cross Indians had better keep shy of his burly arm and ” little shooter,” yet we were sorry to see that he, too, had what must be regarded as the language of the road. This driver he praised for good management and glossy skin of his four steeds ; the next he scolded for careless habits. The passengers beside him he would amuse with stories ; but praises, scolds and stories were all filled in, bedecked and jewelled, so to speak, with varied oaths and curses. It is said that Nor’-west horses are so used to this that they will not go well without the proper language of the road. Drivers of ” bull-teams ” on the Missouri plains have credit for being able to swear continuously for fifteen minutes and not repeat the same expression. The red man supposes the oft-heard words refer to the oxen. One when met on the plains, and asked if he had seen a train pass, could not understand or answer till the motion of the whip and driver’s language were imitated, when he quickly pointed to the trail, saying, ” Ugh, Agh, Gee, Haw, G— D- ! ”

The eighth stage of sixteen miles brought us to Kelly’s Point at half-past 7 p.m. The next eleven miles’ run was more full of the peculiar troubles incident to staging on the plains than all the others. The four spiritless steeds were in command of ” Old Jake,” a grizzled little man, who limped up with a sad countenance. His oaths were low and deep, often broken off half complete. On an ordinary occasion they would have stirred the most weary jade to activity, but now, as he looked at the black-clogged wheels and low-hung heads, he sighed in despair : ” What’s the use,” he would say, ” in exerting oneself or pushing the beasts who have had no corn for so long ; they are like a man shut off from his grog, sir ; ” so he would close his lips with a grim shake of the head and drop the whip. In an hour we had not made more than two miles. The rain fell slowly, the air was warm, and the roads sticky. Remember that McAdam is unknown, and corduroy only met at bridge and swamp crossings. The Prairie Road is but the track over the grassy plain. Hard and glittering in dry weather, but heavy and sticky when wet. As darkness fell, mosquitoes came in buzzing clouds. Every exposed part was simultaneously attacked. The coach was like an angry beehive. All, from little Carrie to the grave senator, had to fight them, and still the swarms were not lessened. The Mennonites Old Midnights, the smart boy now called them put up the long collars of their sheep-lined coats and smoked philosophically. I escaped and sat beside old Jake. The nigh wheeler, ” Old Pat,” was failing, and the old man was in sad pickle. Two of us at last started on foot, plodding on for three miles till we came to the station ; pushed open the door and struck a light ; roused up a couple of men lying on a rude bed in one corner, who got up and made known to the female department that hungry visitors would soon be with them. The place was new and very poorly provided. Throwing myself on a mattress I waited. Soon in came the Mercantiles, then the smart boy, lastly old Jake, carrying Carrie, followed by her mother. The team had entirely given in, were unhitched and led to the station. Jake roused a pair of stout oxen and was off for the waggon, which the stout beasts pulled up in time. The Mennonites had remained stationary, puffing their meerschaums —good old Midnights ! The senator had settled in his mufflers to a nap, when an inquisitive gopher jumped on his knee and spoiled his slumbers, The ex-ferryman, too, slept and dreamed of the scow on the Assiniboine. Our stopping place was where the Upper Marais joins the Red River.

After midnight we were off with fresh horses, all but the driver inside the coach, making ourselves as comfort-able and getting as many naps as possible. The eleventh stage of horses brought us to Grand Forks. The Red River is here joined by its second largest tributary, the Red Lake River, much increasing its volume. Here the Kittson line of boats have their repairing and dock yards. A. pretty village, with prairie behind, wood and river in front. A number of Chippewa tents were in sight. Their owners, with tomahawks in hand, and some with faces striped with paint, were sitting in blankets round the Hudson Bay store, the only one now in this region, south of the line, thus showing their confidence, which is universal among the tribes, in the great Company. Soon we pass large fields, some in fallow preparing for spring grain ; in others fine crops of wheat were being cut with horse-machines. The twelfth run of twenty-two miles brought us to Frog Point at tea time. Goose River was reached before ten p.m. We see good fields of wheat and potatoes, We listen to Gidley’s stories ; learn wisdom from the senator the ex-ferryman and smart boy together promise to give up the use of the ” weed,” so well had the senator discoursed, in that kind and mellifluous manner that becomes him, of its baneful effect. Brightly shone the sun of the Sabbath morning ; many and gay were the black-birds, and merry was their whistle ; fair was the prairie, with its long grass and varied flowers, as we ended our last course from point to point of the Queen River of the North ; came in view of the pretty town of Fargo, and were greeted by mine host of the Head Quarters Hotel. We had macle the trip of about 250 miles in three days and four hours. Our last station was the sixteenth. Shall we say with Tom Hood,

The greatest pleasure of all the rout Is the pleasure of having it over.”