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The Selkirk Settlers in Real Life
Chapter IV - Settled and at Work

THE great flood of 1826 passed over, and the colonists at once returned to their farms on the Red River, and settled down to the regular routine of work. The real purpose of these papers can now be fairly entered upon, for it was only after this flood that the settlers were able to cease from the running fight for life and take up in some steady way the business of colonizing and the purpose of living. To write on the life they were to lead till the advent of new conditions changed it, to write on this life as seen from the inner side, is to make an effort at reproducing on paper scenes long since vanished, and no more to be reproduced in actuality on the globe. There is no spot left upon our continent, at least, where, for well-nigh half a century, a colony could remain practically untouched by the rest of the world, unvexed by its artificial troubles, and unspoiled by its mad racing after material greatness. Speaking to his class one day as to the way in which men find that some one has preceded them everywhere, a keenly humorous professor, for illustration, said that, "thanks to the enterprise of the modern advertiser, the legends of the patent medicine man now haunted us in the deepest solitudes of nature;" and that is but one way of saying that in our time we cannot, if we would, isolate ourselves from a telephoning, telegraphing, railway and steamship travelling humanity. It was far otherwise in the days of the Selkirk Colony, for I have often heard my father (who left Scotland, as we have said, in the opening of June, 1815) say that they never heard of the battle of Waterloo until late in the following autumn. Think of the solitariness such a statement implied, for while the cannonade of "that loud Sabbath" might have almost made itself felt through vibrant air across the globe, a considerable number of British subjects remained for months uncertain as to how the long struggle on the battle-ground of Europe had eventuated, and unaware of the fact that Napoleon, the troubler of the world’s peace, was immured on a lonely rock safely guarded by the restless sea. From that date onward for nearly fifty long years that little band of Highlanders remained shut out from the rest of the world, till through freer communication with "the States" to the south, and "Canada" to the east, the tide of a larger life rolled up against us, and prepared the way for our entry, "not without tumult," into Confederation. It shall be our effort in the few chapters that follow to give those interested an idea of what these hermit settlers were doing in the meantime.

They chose to settle along the banks of the Red River on narrow farms (the general width being ten chains frontage on the river), running back at right angles from it on the prairie. These farms extended back two miles, as a freehold, with an additional two miles as a "hay privilege." Ultimately, these "outer two miles" were given in fee simple to the owner of the frontage, except in cases where others by actual occupation had secured possession of them in part, in which case the frontage owner got an equivalent elsewhere. These ten-chain lots, owned by the head of the family, were frequently subdivided among the sons, so that when Ontario people, accustomed to square farms, began to come amongst us, they were greatly amused at our "farming on lanes," and pointed out the disadvantage of having to go to work on the cultivated plots ("parks," we called them) at the outlying ends of these river strips. But there was "much method in the madness" of long narrow farms, or, to be plainer, there were many good reasons to justify that plan of settlement. To begin with, the settlers built along the river banks for convenience in obtaining water, which, at that date, before there were any cities along its banks, was more drinkable than it is now. Outside the swamps and sloughs the river was practically the only reliable source of steady water supply. Wells were little known, suction pumps were unheard of, and I remember that a "chain-and-wheel" pump, which my father imported from "the States," was one of the seven wonders even in my time. Then, again, settlement by the river had food as well as water supply in view, for, unvexed by the present-day hindrances to fish-culture in rivers, large numbers of fish, from the "gold-eye" to the sturgeon, offered a provision by no means to be despised. As to the narrowness of the farms, it can readily be seen that the colonists settled close together for mutual defence in troublous times, and for the advantages of social life, as well as for church and school facilities; and if the sons, settling on subdivisions, seemed lacking in ambition, it must be remembered that to go outside the settlement in the early days was to exile oneself, absolutely beyond the pale of these advantages.

From the beginning of settlement, farming was the principal occupation of the colonists. Buffalo-hunting, fishing, etc., were incidents in the life of somewhat rare occurrence thereafter. Some of the younger men did follow the buffalo, but for the most part the delicacies of buffalo meat, moose nose, beaver tail, etc., were obtained by trading with the half-breeds and Indians, who had no taste for agriculture but had an unquenchable love for the plains and rivers. The facilities for farming, as may be supposed, were not of the best. The implements (spade and hoe for planting and sowing) were almost as primitive as those which might have been used by the "grand old gardener," but with these by dint of great toil the settlers soon managed to make a livelihood. The reaping was done with the sickle and the cradle. Then the age of machinery came in, and the hoe gave place to the old wooden plough, whose oaken mould-board was pointed with such an iron attachment as Tubal Cain might have made "in the days when earth was young." The sickle and cradle gave way to the first cumbrous reaper, which had to be put in and out of gear by lifting the machine with a fence rail and moving the big wheel into or out of contact with the smaller cogged one. Behind the platform of this reaper a stand was placed for the able-bodied man who "forked off" the grain in sheaves as it fell, and to do this with regularity and neatness in heavy crops tested even the brawniest Highlander of them all.

The same cumbrous machine was used for a time in hay-cutting, and it is said in the case of the first one imported, lest the evident design of the maker should be interfered with, and lest any dislocation of the parts might be attended with serious results, the platform was retained and the hay "forked off" in the same manner as wheat. However, the cutting of the wheat was only the beginning of a series of difficult processes through which finally bread was reached. The threshing was carried on at first with flails, with the use of great "fans" and winnowing riddles to separate the wheat from the chaff, a process which enables us to understand the scriptural figures of the fan and the threshing-floor. Shortly after this era of flails the two-horse tread-mill was introduced, by means of which threshing became a comparatively easy and uneventful process, the only occasional excitement being caused when one of the horses, growing wearied with the monotony, would vary proceedings by breaking his halter-line and turning a somersault on the fanning mill, or when the band would fly off the drive-wheel, and the horses would be forced to run until the ever-useful and ever-ready fence rail introduced below the treads brought matters to a standstill. To get the wheat into flour was the next difficulty. First of all the "quern" was used, two flat stones (the upper and the nether)—the upper having a handle which turned it upon the wheat and brought the grain into some semblance of flour, not over white, but in the best degree a health-producing and dyspepsia-obliterating substance. We do not know how far oriental customs prevailed, but it was in view of such a scene as might be witnessed at these "querns" that our Lord spoke of identity of occupation and diversity of character in the words, "Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken and the other left."

In time the Hudson’s Bay Company sent out an expert, and built a windmill at Point Douglass, in working at which Hugh Polson, one of the settlers, took such careful observation of the process that he afterwards built one for himself and several others at different points in the settlement. These mills did fair work, but when a long calm prevailed there was always danger of a flour famine, unless by borrowing from one another the supply could be eked out until the wind arose. Next in order came water-mills, of which we remember Inkster’s, Matheson’s and Tait’s. Hydraulic engineering was not in a very advanced stage; there was generally trouble with the dam, and except during freshets that were strong enough to drive the wheel, the mill-ponds fell into the somewhat ignominious use of vessels in which to wash the sheep before shearing. But the era of steam was at hand, and if the early settlers grew strong on brown bread with a marked tendency to blackness, their descendants were to have the doubtful advantages of the maximum of whiteness with the minimum of nourishment from wheat whose life is crushed out by modern methods and the exactions of the "five o’clock tea."

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