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
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
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
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
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.