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In the days of the Red River Rebellion
Chapter IV
A big hunt planned—Tragic death of Maskepetoon—District meeting at Victoria—Jacob Bigtoney - Rev. Wm. Lacombe—Jacob's skill in tracking—A strong temptation—Consecrated to the ministry—Wars and rumors of war.

OUR programme for the summer of 1869 was a big gathering of hunters on the plains. Mr. Steinhauer was to come with all his people, and also the Lac la Biche half-breeds and Indians. Father and the Hudson's Bay Company officers from Victoria were to be there, with the whole settlement, and the big Wood Cree camp, of which Maskepetoon was head chief; and I was to bring as many Crees and Mountain and Wood Stoneys as I could muster. The object was protection and the cultivating by lecture and sermon and personal intercourse of education and loyalty and Christianity. This was the first effort of the kind. The Rev. Mr. Campbell, of Edmonton, was to join us, and any teachers who were in the Mission employ were to come along. To effect this any amount of prejudices and petty jealousies had to be overcome. Maskepetoon went into it heartily, but others did not favor the scheme, and all manner of obstruction was laid; but as we had until the last of May to arrange, we were hopeful. This primarily with other minor matters had brought me to Victoria, whence, having counselled with my Chairman, I returned home via Edmonton.

In March I was kept busy at work on the Mission with Indians coming and going all the time, all concerned and excited over the contemplated gathering of the coming summer. About the end of the month, or early in April, there came the dire news of the killing of Maskepetoon and his Sons by the Blackfeet. This was a sad blow to our Mission, as the grand old man had always been favorable to Christianity, and was a staunch friend of the white man. When the details of his tragic death came to us I never felt more like going on the warpath myself, and was not surprised when I knew that many a Cree had schemes for revenge planned for the spring and summer. It turned out that the Crees and Blackfeet were in proximity, having been forced there by the movements of the buffalo, and the Blackfeet made proposals of peace, which Maskepetoon answered favorably, and himself and his son with a small party set out to arrange and ratify the compact. As he approached the camp of the Blackfeet, the latter came out to meet him with loud acclaim, and seemed very friendly, and the whole crowd of both sides sat down to quietly converse, and, as far as Maskepetoon was concerned, to smoke the pipe of peace. But while this function was going on, at a signal given by one of the Black- feet, the massacre of the old chief and his people began, and very soon all were killed by this consummate treachery. Not satisfied with this, the Blackfeet dismembered and severed the old hero's body, limb from limb, and dragged these at their horses' tails into their camp. My old friend had been a great warrior, but for many years had worked hard in the interest of peace, and had won an enviable reputation amongst all the tribes and camps, go that many of the enemy highly respected him. I have no doubt it was envy and jealousy in the minds of ambitious and base base men that led to the foul murder of our true friend.

There was mourning in many a camp on the Saskatchewan, and among the pagan peoples much weeping and wailing because good old Maskepetoon was no more. Both father and mother sorrowed for him as a dear friend, and I not only felt sorry, but almost thirsted for revenge, it was thought that this most sad and tragic misfortune would break up our contemplated gathering, but as the spring opened up we went on with our arrangements for it

The District Meeting for this year was held at Victoria early in April. There were to attend it as ordained men the Rev. George McDougall, the Rev. H. B. Steinhauer, and the Rev. Peter Campbell, while I went as a probationer; a small gathering, but covering an immense territory. I took with me Jacob Bigstoney, a semi-Mountain and Wood Stoney, and a genuine type of real manhood, a splendid-looking fellow, a great hunter, and a swift runner. Many a bull moose and elk had my friend run down. He was noted for his speed and endurance amongst his own people, who were almost to a man speedy on foot and had great staying powers. The Wood Stoneys, even down to the little children, were wonderful pedestrians, for they had but few horses. Jacob and his band had plenty of horses, but hunting as they did in the mountains and woods kept up limb and lung ability. Jacob had never been as far east as Edmonton. To him it was a great place, and when we reached Victoria, now quite a settlement, he thought lie was in a metropolis. I had become attached to Jacob; he was not much older than myself, and we had a good deal in common. It was a pleasure to try and educate this man along the line of Christian civilization, and to watch his mind expand and his whole nature respond to teaching and kindness.

Between Edmonton and Victoria we came upon two priests, also going eastward, one of whom was Rev. Mr. Lacombe, one of the pioneers of this country. They had one cart and one horse, and now this horse was lamed so that he could not travel. All I could do was to let them have my saddle-horse and foot it myself, which I did, and we pushed on, leaving the priests with their load to follow more slowly.

After an early lunch I left Jacob to bring on the cart, and set out on foot for Victoria. I had about thirty-five miles to run, but there had been thawing and freezing, and now the road was icy in spots and as hard as flint. Before I had gone half way my moccasins gave out, then my duffles (we had no socks in those days), and now I was down to "hard pan," so to speak—down to the soles of my feet—and it was either sit and wait for Jacob or go on and grin and bear it. I took the latter course, and by the time I reached Victoria had several big blisters on each foot, which were exceedingly painful and caused me to walk circumspectly for several days after. I reached Victoria about two p.m., Jacob came along late in the evening, and our friends, the Catholic priests, arrived the next afternoon, very grateful for the loan of my horse.

It was while at Victoria this time that Jacob evidenced what struck me as wonderful skill in tracking. We kept our horses on what was known as "the flat" above the Mission, and it was Jacob's duty to look after them. The day after the District Meeting I said to Jacob, "Are all our horses there?" ( I had left some at Victoria the fall before, and now we had seven in number.) There was a brown mare I was afraid might try to get away, and I asked him particularly about her. "She is there, I just now changed her hobbles," was his direct answer. About a couple of hours after this father and I rode to a settlement some ten miles north, and when some three or four miles out I saw a number of horses in a swamp on one side of the road, and to my great surprise here was the identical brown mare. This somewhat staggered me, but I still held to my faith in Jacob; s, merely taking stock of the other horses the mare was with, I said to myself, "I will pick her up as we come back." To my astonishment, as we came back, here were the same horses, all but the brown mare; but as it was now evening we rode home. After a while I asked Jacob about our horses, and his answer somewhat surprised me when he said, "They are all on the flat; I saw them since the sun went down." Is the brown mare there?" I asked. "Yes, she is," he unhesitatingly answered. "Was she there all day?" was my next question. Then Jacob smiled and told me that soon after we left he went to look after our horses and found that the brown mare had left the others, so he went to hunt her up, and found her just where I had seen her, between three and four miles out north in a swamp with some strange horses. I let him describe to me the spot and the country intervening, and the color and size and sex of the animals the mare was with; and knowing that the whole region was tracked up, and that the road was constantly in use both to and fro, and furthermore being somewhat expert at such business myself, I said, "This man is at the top in such matters." Brain and eye and instinct all strong and forceful, what scouts such men make! Jacob and his whole clan would be invaluable as allies . and exceedingly dangerous as enemies.

It was also at Victoria at this time that one of the crises of my life took place. On the way down, when at Edmonton, the Chief Factor, Wm. Christie, Esq., in charge of the Saskatchewan district, took me up to his private office and spoke to me in this wise: "John, the Methodist Church does not want you; you have been serving them for years, and as yet there is no recognition of you even as probationer. I have carefully followed the report of last Conference, and your case was not considered. Now, as it is clear that they do not want you, I have to say that we do want you. I will put you in charge of the Mountain Fort, I will give you a chief clerk's salary, and you shall be found in every particular. We want your business ability also, and, better, we want your tact in dealing with the Indians. We have been watching this when you did not think we were doing so, and now I want you to take my offer into serious consideration. You are going to the District Meeting, and you can tell your father, for as yet the Church has no hold on you."

Of course I was altogether taken by surprise, and, as was natural, was very much flattered by what Mr. Christie had said. I knew that up to this time my case was very much in the balance so far as any action by our Church authorities was concerned. I had been recommended by a District Meeting of 1864, and this was after four years of constant mission work, and it was now the spring of 1869 and still my case hung. The Chief Factor knew all this very well, and he also knew my work for nine years, but especially for the last seven on the Saskatchewan. He had previously offered me the charge of the Hudson's Bay post at Victoria, which I had declined in respect to my father's wishes, and now this opening from the worldly standpoint was good and promising. Also I saw that I could do a great deal of true missionary work as officer of the Hudson's Bay Company, and thus the whole question came to me with a sore temptation to accept the Chief Factor's proposition. Then my own brother-in-law, Richard Hardisty, chief trader, came to me and asked if Mr. Christie had made me an offer, and when I answered, "Yes," he said, You will take it; you must take it, John," and as he was older than myself, and a man I very much respected, I was sorely beset. Thus perplexed in mind, I went down to the District Meeting. When this was opened, and my opportunity came, I asked for the acceptance of my resignation, but this was vigorously opposed by Mr. Campbell and Mr. Steinhauer. Father kept silent, but to me his looks spoke volumes: The brethren spent all the morning in a prayer-meeting, then adjourned, and I was face to face with the problem of my life. So it seemed to me at the time, and for some hours I wrestled with it, until finally I told the good Lord that I was done and would fully give myself to what I thought I was called to. This was my act of consecration, and I then and there entered into the experience of such a condition. When I told the brethren of my determination they sang the doxology, and I began to feel that these men, at any rate, believed in me and in my ability to work in this field for God and country.

And now our District Meeting, having fully determined to muster the clans for the unique gathering during the coming summer, and Jacob having seen and "done" to his satisfaction the huge metropolis of Victoria, and as now I had ceased from fighting destiny, we left for our still more western home. A young lad from Toronto, Skinner by name, whom father had brought out the previous autumn, accompanied us. This boy had had full swing in the city, and was naturally precocious and clever, but was now being put through a new school. I was glad to have him with us; so was Jacob, for he livened up our camp and was very amusing with his broken Cree, which by the way he was mending rapidly. Father had said, "Take the boy with you, John, and do what you can with him."

Westward we rolled with our cart and loose horses, as fast as the roads and the rivers, now breaking up, would let us. The third evening found us within thirty or more miles from Edmonton. I said to Jacob, "I want to go on to-night, and you can come in in the morning," to which proposition he readily assented. Then young Skinner pled to be allowed to go with me, but as he had no saddle I objected. Then he offered to ride in bareback, and finally we put a robe on a pony and let the boy come along. My gait was a quick steady gallop, and for the first five or six miles Skinner was all animation. He plied me with questions, and told me about his life in Toronto, but soon there came a change, and I had to say, "Come on, Skinner," and had repeatedly to do this. Finally the boy began to cry, and when I asked him why, he said he was tired and sore. I reminded that this was what I had feared for him. "But now," I said, "we are pretty nearly half way to Edmonton, and I am not going to turn back with you nor yet let you go alone; you must just grin and bear it, old fellow," and I brought his pony up beside mine and sent both horses into a sharp gallop, which by and by had the effect of making my Toronto lad forget his pain and weariness, and thus before the gates were closed we were in the walls of old Edmonton.

Before I slept that night I had told the Chief Factor of my decision, and while to my face he said I was foolish, yet I knew in his heart he respected me the more. My brother-in-law was quite indignant, and roundly scolded me. Later on he also came around and said no doubt the Lord had given me a training for a special work. I in the meantime was at rest as never before, and thanked God and took courage and slept.

Next day, Jacob arriving, we crossed the Saskatchewan and went on to Pigeon Lake. From there on Indian camps kept us busy. War parties and thieves were in the field worse than ever; there seemed to be nothing but wars and rumors thereof in the air. Already, while the spring was yet young, Maskepetoon's murder was being avenged and many scalps were taken. We had need to be watchful and careful with an exceedingly excitable people all around us, an omnipresent enemy on the keen lookout for lives and plunder, a big country without law and order, and every man his own master. We kept our old trading guns and powder dry, and trusted Providence for the rest. We also often kept our tempers when to have acted rashly would have endangered the lives of all the whites in the North-West.

Paralleling all this the arranging for the big meeting on the plains went on. This was ticklish business; we were bringing the participants in old feuds together. Camps and men who for years had been shunning each other to keep from killing we were now trying to make see that men may dwell in peace together. We did a good deal during the spring of 1869 to prepare for the treaties with our Government which came, years later. My share was peculiar. I had Wood Crees and half-breeds and Mountain and Wood Stoneys, and between these parties old quarrels and long-standing feuds and petty jealousies strongly obtained. These Stoneys were hard to manage; they did not give a snap of the finger for anybody. Self-helpful, as Indians go, much more than the others were they, and extremely self-conscious; as hunters and warriors easily at the top of the heap; though few in number, greatly respected, especially by the Blackfeet tribes; quick, impulsive and nervous. Needless to say, I found my task by no means an easy one. Such men as Jacob and his father, old Adam, were invaluable to me. Then I began to win some of the wild young fellows. I could outrun them and outjump them and outlift the strongest, and was gradually becoming quite skilful in hunting, especially in picking off buffalo, and these things were, in the minds of the boys of these camps, rare good qualities. Then I could run a horse to get his speed out of him, or camp here to-day and very far yonder to-morrow, and these fellows admired action and pluck, and thus Our influence was growing. Still ever and anon there would be trouble over gambling and women and horses, and then all our plans would be knocked crossways for a time. But we kept at it and slowly won our way, so that by the middle of May we had a respectable contingent ready to move from Pigeon Lake, and another to join our route later farther south and east.


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