The Canadian Prairie Province – Down The Red River

MOORHEAD is on the Minnesota, and Fargo on the Dakota or west side of the Red River of the North. They are straggling villages. The latter is a seat of law, with large court-house and gaol ; Dakota is not yet organized as a State, but is a territory under Federal control. The prairie extends on all sides, and through it, between the two towns, and dividing State and Territory, flows the dull and muddy stream. The rain of the previous day had formed a tenacious mud. The International was ready for her passengers in the early morning. This vessel is of the scow-built, light water kind used on these waters, where, in the dry season, the bottom often lies at twenty or thirty inches from the surface scow-built, with round nose, propelled when floating by a horizontal wheel at the rear ; and when stuck on the stones or mud, pulled off by a cable, one end of which is attached to a tree on the bank, the other to a capstan turned by the ” Nigger ” engine.

The International is the oldest vessel of the Kittson line, and carried Captain Butler in July, 1870, when he went to spy the land for Colonel Wolseley, and then to see the “Great Lone Land ” beyond. She is in length one hundred and forty feet ; breadth, about one-third of length ; three decked the lowest for freight, engine, deck passengers, cattle, &c. ; the second, with cabin, state-rooms and cov- ered promenade ; the third has the wheel-house and open deck, Than Captain Seger and Mr. Joseph Smith, the purser, none could be more attentive to passengers, and, what we also admired, civil and kindly to the crew of thirty or more that worked the craft and the scows, which some-times ran on in the more rapid current, but were more generally lashed to our side. We started with one such, laden with bags and barrels, over fifty tons, for Garry, but at Grand Forks exchanged these for two barges, laden each with fifty tons of rails for the Canada Pacific. The Red River rises in Otter Tail Lake and Traverse Lake, in Minnesota ; passes between Moorhead and Fargo ; its breadth for its first 100 miles varies from 150 to 300 feet. A strange rover is he as he winds through this wonderful prairie land for 700 miles, joined here and there by twenty-three smaller streams, the largest of them being the Assiniboine, entering at Winnipeg ; the Red Lake River, which joins the Red River at Grand Forks ; and the Roseau River, which drains the wooded country between the Lake of the Woods and Red River, at Pembina entering the Dominion, and finally lost in Lake Winnipeg, where its waters mingle with those of the Saskatchewan, Winnipeg, and other rivers, and thence pass into Hudson’s Bay by Nelson River.

The head of steam navigation on the Red River is about 46 degrees 23 min. The river is five feet deep at the mouth of Sioux Wood River, at Cheyenne six feet, thence to Goose River nine feet, with an intervening rapid with but five feet of water on it. From Goose River to Red Lake River twelve feet thence to Lake Winnepeg fifteen feet. These measurements are in its ordinary state ; when we passed down, the water was lower ; when the spring floods come, and the snow, melting on the prairie, flows in, the river swells in compass, in many places overflowing the banks. As we passed slowly around various curves, Captain Smith pointed to several coulees with little water in them, which are at such times swollen to rivers, up which the vessel may float, and even shorten her course in Red River, by, to borrow a surveyor’s phrase, passing along the bases of triangles.

The sun rises ere we pass far from Fargo. Very pretty is the sight as we cleave our devious way between stately elms, cotton-woods and oaks, that line the banks, but so winding, that our prow points as often towards the Ant-arctic as the Arctic pole. Among our passengers we find a Government officer on his way to the Indian country ; two Montreal gentlemen, who have no doubt an eye to prospecting in lands and the fur trade ; a young civil engineer, and a fair lady who has joined hand and heart, and goes to find a home in the little capital ; a young banker, who will take charge of a branch of one of our Ontario banks just opened there ; and others, whom pleasure or hope of gain bring to see the Prairie Province. Beautiful is the scene as the vessel winds along. Willows sweep our side as she creeps on, hugging the bank for deeper water or to get room for the next turn. Nature has with lavish hand studded the banks for half our way with clusters of stately elms, ash, oak, maple, basswood, poplar and cotton-wood, that spread their branches over a rich vegetation long grass, wild plum and cherries, prairie roses, the white blossom of the wild hop, wild tea, the winding convolvulus ; the dark green of ivy and grape vines hang from the trunks ; clusters of the pink squaw berries, Scotch thistles of great size ; beautiful flowers of many varieties purple, white and yellow dot the green carpet.

This lining of the prairie is of varying depths, from fifty or one hundred yards to a mile, and through it we may see the sky. The upper deck is generally on a level with the land, but sometimes, as at Frog Point, the banks rise as high as the top of the smoke-stack. During the numerous stoppages of the vessel we run up to view the land see a rich meadow stretching before us. On the river’s bank may be seen the log house of a settler, and in grass to their knees, as Wordsworth has it.

” The cattle are grazing, Their heads never raisin, Forty feeding as one.”

Hard indeed was it at once to realize the vastness of the prairie a sea of waving grass extending from us to the Missouri measured by miles not acres, coursed through by numerous rivers, of which the Red River of the North with its tributaries is but one, for ages the home of the red man and the bison ; its soil enriched and enriching year by year with the ashes of the prairie grass ; its verdant outskirts only yet touched by civilization, destined to be the happy home of millions of the Saxon race. As we run over it, coveys of prairie chickens start up or run chirping to the parent birds. Our feet scatter the little mounds of the gophers or ground squirrels ; but the air is hot as it sweeps over the broad level, and we return to the bushes that skirt the river, to be thence soon escorted to the boat’s deck by a lively band of mosquitoes.

On board again, we lie in wait for the chance hawk or pair of ducks, which we pop at with revolvers to the little damage of the birds, however. The young men jump over to one of the scows, set up a target and practise with their revolvers. Some puff the fragrant weed, or read, or while away an hour in whist or euchre ; run out as the vessel again rubs her broad nose on the bank, to view the prairie, and find to our sorrow that the poor cottage we hoped had been left, is still in sight from a different standpoint ; we have gone circling round through the prairie. The water is low; fat cattle stand in it switching the flies off with their dripping tails. The ” Nigger ” is oft-times called into play. We cannot expect to see Garry before Saturday evening, although we left Fargo on Tuesday morning. The Government officer says ” That won’t do for me,” and leaves us at Grand Forks to take the four-horse stage which will carry him in in thirty hours. We hear complaints of monotony.

The sun sets, the trees are high enough to conceal the best part of his glory, and from them now come in myriads buzzing swarms with spear bills that seize on every exposed part. We take refuge from them on the upper deck, where the cool breeze stops their humming, and at last retire to our berths discomfited. Still disturbed from above and from beneath, we dream of rivers that run straight through flowery meads, of mines with ” pockets” of gold and gems, of town lots that are such in fact as well as on paper, where prices e’er go up and taxes are unknown. But the music breaks out with threatening hum-hum and troubles move below, and we open our eyes with thoughts on murderous raids intent. As each night grows on, a great reflecting lamp is set on either side of the prow to light the way. Beautiful and strange is the sight as the lamps throw their white weird light on the weeping willows, clinging vines, and shadowy poplars which we pass like a theatric show with ever-shifting scenes. The moon sails above and below each bank the varying panorama is reflected in the water. The wheel-house rose on the upper deck. Its roof was a favourite vantage-ground from which on clear evenings to look on the glorious sun-set of the prairie, of a varied beauty and magnificence surpassing description.

On the last day of the trip some rain fell. The woods also generally receded from the banks, leaving them covered, however, with willows, bushes and vines. The’ mosquitoes were not so assiduous in their attentions. Pembina is reached in the early morning. At the Hudson Bay post of West Pembina the Customs officer welcomes us to Her Majesty’s dominions.

From the east the Roseau river now comes in with slow, reluctant motion, to swell the tide flowing to the Bay of Hudson. It has drained the lake of the same name which lies a few miles south of the boundary, and some great muskegs, or swamps, which form in winter the pasture ground for hundreds of ponies of the Indians of the Reserve. They paw away the snow and reach the long rich grass, and are in better condition in the spring than when turned out in the autumn. Then starting on a southerly course, the Roseau runs for a while still in Minnesota, with the evident intention of joining Rainey River and the Mississippi ; but the way is blocked with sand and detrital matter, so he tacks about, passes swiftly for a dozen miles over a gravelly bed the rapids of the Roseau, where are many excellent mill sites and finally zigzags into Red River past this beautiful well-wooded Indian Reserve of 13,500 acres, and forming its northern boundary, bearing many great pine logs, hewn from the Pine river, Roseau and Lake of the Woods forests, to the saw-mills of Garry. This reluctance to travel northward seems inbred, not only in the Roseaue but in the Red River and most of the waters of any size hereabout. If we listen to what the geologists say, we will hear a wondrous tale. They fetch out instruments and find that our outlet into Lake Winnipeg is but seven hundred and ten feet or so above the level sea. We are here on the International, some eight hundred feet high but following up the Red River till its sources in Lake Traverse separate from those of the Minnesota, we ascend to but nine hundred and sixty feet above salt water. Elevate this northern end of Red River Valley, or lower the other extremity but a few hundred feet, and the course would be changed the canoe here launched would float to the ” Father of Waters,” pass St. Paul’s at an elevation of but six hundred and seventy feet, and at last feel the warm sun of New Orleans.

This and other more startling sights might have been witnessed in pre-Adamite times. We might indeed have taken passage on an iceberg, and ridden from the North Sea all over this beautiful valley, then but a rocky ocean bed. The breadth of the submergence is estimated to have been from the high lands east and south of the Lake of the Woods to hills west of Manitoba Lake, or perhaps farther west, with a height given by Mr. G. M. Dawson at 1,428 feet. He says :

” The river valleys and lower levels frequently show tile or boulder-clay, while the summits of the plateaus are generally covered with shingly deposits, which appear to consist chiefly of beach material like that of the flanks of the Rocky Mountains, and may have been carried here by small icebergs from the mountains themselves, or by shore ice.”

A “superficial current,” mingling with a “deep northern flow,” like the Arctic current and Gulf Stream on the Newfoundland Banks, was what bore them on, rolling great boulders with them, of which some of the most marked specimens are found in the region of the Lake of the Woods. One such, says the geologist referred to, of red granite, and actually lying in the groove it had made in the lake bed, was found to be eleven feet long by seven feet high.

The traveller may become acquainted with this and other old antediluvians by diverging from the Dawson route and calling at Buffalo Point, in the south-west margin of the lake, Some of them. form fine perched blocks. How long have they sat waiting to tell their strange story of flood and earthquake, of the subsidence of the ocean bed, and the formation of new courses for great rivers ? Their tale would be of the crossing of the Straits by the red man while Carthage was yet a flourishing city ; ere Nero looked on his burning capital ; while rude barbarians, clothed in skins of beasts, dwelt in the British Isles. Indian boys may then have played round these old relics as familiar landmarks, and, in summer evenings, jumped from them, laughing, into the water. They tell us of the time when French rule was claimed from these parts down to the Mexican Gulf, and all the intervening region was called in honour of a Louis ; of the chase of great beasts, and fierce struggles between the Ojibway and the Sioux ; of the hardy traders and hunters who passed from the dalles of the Winnipeg to the old town, their chief depot at the Two Mountains, now a great city ; of the quarrels of the rival Companies, and the passage of the gallant Wolseley.

As we look on the stream, up whose course our thoughts have passed, we recall the concluding words of Bryant’s ” Story of the Fountain : ”

” Haply shall these green hills Sink, with the lapse of years, into the gulf Of ocean waters, and thy source be lost

Amid the bitter brine ? or shall they rise, Upheaved in broken cliffs and airy peaks, Haunts of the eagle and the snake, and thou Gush midway from the bare and barren steep ?”

But let us revert to the things that now are. Lo, with his squaws and papooses of all ages, is seen on the banks—-sometimes dressed as poor white men dress, but generally with a blue or white blanket over his shoulders, hair long and unkempt, complexion very dark, figure generally of light build, and countenance of low expression. Here and there are a few cords of wood which squaws have cut and piled for sale to the passing steamboats. On one a ” buck ” stands, waving a blue blanket over his head as we approach, signalling his desire to effect a sale. Among the trees we see here and there the residences of this poor .remnant of brave nations : sometimes they are daubed with mud— more often the wigwam conical in shape, is made of sailcloth or birch bark, supported on saplings ten feet high, not closed at top, as the smoke from the fire within must get out there or by the door in front, which generally faces the river. Sometimes we see Indian boys fishing oftener see that lines or nets have been set to catch the great catfish which abound in this muddy river, and are of excellent quality, clear of flesh and with spotted skins. This band has decreased since 1871, and now numbers 480 souls. They have a dozen houses built the major part of them live in skin tents. They are docile. Men of lighter though not less dirty hue are sometimes visible with the red folk. These are ” half-breeds,” or more shortly, ” Breeds ” and ” Metis,” from the Spanish American mestee or mustee, as are called all whose blood is mixed. They are also called bois brulés, from their dark complexion, like scorched wood. The growing town of Emerson, whose wooden houses we see from the vessel, and the village of Whitehaven are passed, and the settlers’ cottages are often seen, log-built, plastered with mud, and thatched with the long bluejoint hay of the prairie, which is said to wear as well as shingles. At Scratching River is laid out on paper the town called Morris, in honour of the popular Lieutenant-Governor of the Province. At Point Gruette the Crooked Rapids are passed, twenty-five miles from Garry by land, but so circuitous is our course that we have yet nearly twice that distance by water. As to these and other so-called rapids’ on this river, they seem so named by contradiction so far as locomotion is concerned, as they are but places where the current is roughened by passing over stones, and we always go slowly and get ready to work the ” Nigger.” Let us not forget the pretty cottage on the left bank, below Dufferin. Here Captain Cameron for a time resided.

He was aide-de-camp to the Hon. Wm. McDougall, C. B., who came, to be first Governor of the Province, but got no further than the Hudson Bay post at Pembina, being there held in surveillance by Riel’s band of half-breeds during the month of November and till the 18th of December, 1869. He wearied of the business and returned to Ottawa. The gallant captain ventured on to the River Sale, which here runs into Red River. Three score of half-breeds were before him with a barricade a “blawsted fence ” he called it, and would, Romulus-like, have leaped it, but that was not to be. His horses’ heads were turned southerly. Discretion was the better part of valour. The captain lived to be a major, and to command the expedition which in 1874 settled the international boundary between this territory and the States. Mr. Provencher came thus far at the same time, and met the like fate. He also survived the discomfiture, and is now Indian Agent for Manitoba. The cottage and a larger house near by, used as a depot for emigrants, belong to Government. The broad faces and stout forms of Mennonites, dressed in brown homespun, men, women and children here greet us in numbers. We have elsewhere seen and heard of them occasionally, as many have settled near the river’s banks. The purser informed us that several parties of them passed in by boats this season. They have generally large families children of every age up to puberty. One man had his second wife and twenty-three children.

The sun falls, leaving the west in a blaze of glory. Preparations are made for the last night on board. We talk of old times, and of the ” Company ” which late ruled all we saw ; compared notes as to the future. Two go to see the beauties of the Saskatchewan. One will renew his acquaintance with the buffaloes. Others will look up locations, quarter sections, town lots, and otherwise seek pleasure and fortune. State-room doors open and shut with ” good-night ! ” The old vessel still puffs on in a wheezy way in the still damp air. We awake in the morning and find we are laid up in the Assiniboine, under the martello towers of the old fort where Scott fell where Captain Butler played his provoking game of billiards while Riel looked on, and where Wolseley won his laurels.