Whittlin' Round The Cracker Barrel

Staff Sergeants

Courtesy of George Shepherd, 808 Colony St., Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. The Sergeants and Staff Sergeants of the North West Mounted Police. Photograph taken at Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan in 1879. The commissioned officers of the

George Shepherd

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Author of 'West of Yesterday' and 'Brave Heritage' and Curator of the Western Development Museum at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada essays to talk about old time threshing.

Perhaps, before I start to talk about threshing in Canada at the turn of the Century I should tell you a little bit about these strange people living north of the International Boundary Line. Some people seem to think we are part Eskimo, living in snow igloos and we almost need to be to survive the short cold January days of this region. Some folk seem to think we are part French and there is a French element in Canada.

The French sailed up the St. Lawrence River over 300 years ago and established themselves on its banks in Quebec. At the same time the ever daring sailors of England were voyaging into the Hudson's Bay. The English were given a Charter by King Charles the Second of England, which gave them clear title to all lands draining into the Hudson's Bay and, what was of equal importance, in those days, the sole right to trade in the furs of that vast inland empire.

Winnipeg, lying north of St. Paul and Fargo, on the Red River, flowing to the north, was the gateway to the Canadian North West. It was here that the English from the North and the Frenchmen from the east met in disputed territory. The prize was the vast area now comprising Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, with British Columbia thrown in for good measure.

These white men, both French and English found themselves thousands of miles from their homeland and, taking to the free open life on the lakes, woodlands and prairies became permanent traders and settlers of this brave new world. With no white women at hand, these hardy, bold venturesome men intermarried with the Indian girls. In the West it was principally with the Crees who were divided into the Swampy Crees who lived around the swamps, rivers and lakes of Manitoba. Then there were the Woody Crees who lived in the northern woods and the Plains Crees who lived on the open prairie plains.

The Cree Indians were more amenable to the so called civilizing influences of the white man. The descendants of these marriages often resulted in lovely women and hardy well formed men. They often combined the characteristics of the Indian with the background of the white man. They became tireless courageous hunters and traders and Canada owes much to these people.

A few years ago I was billed to speak at a Live Stock Convention on some of the early history of our West I was introduced by a very good friend of mine of Scottish extraction who, when introducing me, instead of getting down to the business on hand started in on a long winded story in which he thought he would take a crack at my English ancestry. According to my friend a traveler was journeying through our northern vastnesses some 150 years ago and was supposed to be talking to a young Indian girl about life in the wilderness.

The traveler was remarking to the Indian girl that when he came to a trading fort that was manned by Frenchmen he could not help but notice that there were a lot of little

French-Indian boys and girls among the Indians living in the vicinity of the fort. Continuing, he said that when he proceeded a little further and came to a post manned by Scotchmen he found a lot of little Scotch-Indian boys and girls among the surrounding Indians. Continuing on the traveler said that when he came to a fort or trading post manned by Englishmen there were no little English-Indian boys and girls among the Indians around the fort. The traveler questioned the Indian girl as to why this peculiarity. At this the Indian girl was supposed to have dropped her eyes and replied, 'Well sir, you see us Indian girls have to learn to draw the line somewhere'.

We do have in certain areas of Western Canada a small proportion of Metis families. The word is of French origin and means people of mixed blood. It is pronounced Meti or Metisse. Strictly speaking a Metis is of French-Indian extraction while a half-breed is of Scotch-Indian or English-Indian birth.

Settlement in Western Canada lagged behind settlement in the great plains area of the United States. The one thousand miles of rivers, lakes, rock and mountains between Ontario and the west effectually prohibited the great overland caravans that crossed the plains area from Independence, Missouri to the great American west.

Much has. been made of the undefended frontier but, one hundred years ago the state of Minnesota was casting longing eyes on the vacant Canadian North West. It is a matter of record that in 1867 the State Legislature of Minnesota set aside the sum of six million dollars to purchase the rights and titles of the Hudson's Bay Company who were preparing to surrender their two hundred year old Charter to the newly confederated Canadian Government. Minnesota thought her ultimate destiny lay in the Canadian North West. It was a grandiose scheme and might almost have happened.

Then in 1872 an armed, though unofficial, band of whiskey traders from the Montana Territories crossed the International Line into Canada just north of Fort Benton. There was a clash between the dozen or so whites and an encampment of Canadian Indians. By the time the shooting was over, one American had been killed and up to eighty Indians had been slaughtered. These were Canadian Indians camped on Canadian soil.

The whites were never punished but this senseless massacre caused International repercussions between Washington and Ottawa. Sir John A. Macdonald, the Canadian Prime Minister forthwith ordered the formation of the North West Mounted Rifles to patrol the International plains border to put a stop to such occurrences. Washington objected to this proposal of an armed body of riflemen patrolling the boundary line. In some vexation, Sir John reached for his quill pen. Scratching out the word rifles he wrote in the word Police and as the North West Mounted Police, the force has had a long and honorable record. Today, policing Canada from sea even unto sea, they are known as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

On July 8, 1874 three hundred officers and men comprising the Mounted Police started the long overland trek from Winnipeg to the present day location of Lethbridge at the foothills of the Rockies. It was one thousand miles over the unmapped, desolate, treeless, unpopulated dry plains. One third of the horses and work oxen died from hardship and malnutrition, but fortunately none of the men. Its a long story, but with the coming of the Mounted Police, law and order came to Western Canada and so started the last great land rush on the North American Continent.

By Jove old chap I jolly well forgot that I was going to tell you about my coming out from England and home-steading and threshing on the Canadian Plains in the early 1900's. Ask a short question and you get a long answer. Perhaps the editor can be persuaded to set aside a little space in the next issue.