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3. Petitot's Journey 1862


"LES PAYS D'EN HAUT"


A journey from Fort Garry to Portage La Loche with the Portage La Loche Brigade in 1862


The French book 'En route pour la mer Glaciale' by Father Emile Petitot describes a journey from France to the MacKenzie River in 1862. 

Father Petitot describes his journey from Fort Garry to Portage La Loche in part two of this book. 

He titled part two "LES PAYS D'EN HAUT" which means 'the lands of up above'.

Some sections of part two have been translated by rd laloche and published on this page.

Red River Map 1870





Father Petitot leaves Fort Garry


"We took our place, M. Grouard and I, in one of the boats of the Hudson Bay Company that left that day for the ‘Grand Portage La Loche’.

The name is given to the point where the waters that flow into the Hudson’s Bay and the waters that flow into the Glacial Sea divide. This line is situated at 56’ 40’ latitude north. It was the most direct route to Lake Athabasca and the Mackenzie River which is where we were going.

The distance from Fort Garry to Portage La Loche was 482 French leagues which we would undertake in a small vessel called a York boat.

York boats are flat bottomed, pointed at both ends and displace 8 to 9 tonnes, which give them a capacity of 4 to 5,000 kilos. The keel measures normally 30 to 36 feet. It is rowed or sailed and steered with a long ‘aviron’ called a sweep and a rudder.

The York boat is crewed by nine to ten men, a ‘timonier’ called a gouvernail, a bossman or ‘devant de barge’, and eight rowers called the ‘milieux’. These milieux are also the porters.

These boats travel in small flotillas of three to twelve units called brigades. Each brigade has a pilot or guide.

New sailors, and the travellers on their first trip to the interior are given the nickname of ‘mangeur de lard’. This name is equivalent to ‘bejaune’ from our schools of the old days, and of ‘greenhorn’ or ‘green-hand’ of the English. We were therefore ‘mangeur de lard’, Grouard  and I. There were several others on our boat also.

Our guide was an old French Canadian called Baptiste Lesperance. At 80 years old his actions were slowed but not his voice. His boat, always the first, was guided by his son.

A kind of guide, the Metis Michel Dumas, led our boat. Our cook and porter was another Metis called Baptiste Boucher, ‘mangeur de lard’ like us who was forced to come out of need. Our brigade had seven boats, all crewed by French Metis with a few ‘Savanais’ and Chippewa Christians.

A great cry: “Aoh! Aoh!” Pousse au large!” came from the lungs of Lesperance, made me understand that the old guide, however white haired he may be, was nevertheless a ’diable a quatre’ still green and full of energy.

A savage cry: “Wi ! Wi !” uttered by the crews, answered this order, and the seven York boats took their leave on the ‘Miskwa-Kamaw Sipiy’.

Twenty five years later I still seem to see the pitiful figures that  Grouard and I made in our boat filled with sugar boxes, barrels of powder, bolts of cloth and cases of tobacco, with only a felt hat for shade, seated on the first piece of baggage we found". (pages 203-205) ........."En route pour la mer Glaciale" by Father Emile Petitot


Note: Petitot spells 'mangeur de lard' as 'mangeux d'lard'. This was the way it was spoken (phonetically) by the French Metis of Red River.

Baptiste Lesperance mentioned here is actually Alexis Bonami Lesperance. This may be an editing mistake or he may also have been called Baptiste.


leagues:  one league=3 miles=5.56 kilometers


Lower Fort Garry (the Stone Fort) in 1848. It was 32 kilometres down the river from Fort Garry. (artist H. J. Warre)

Father Petitot's supplies


At the Stone Fort, I bought some more provisions for our journey. Our complete list of supplies now included 125 kilos of flour, two bags of sea biscuits, 25 kilos of pemmican, 4 smoked and cooked hams, 6 large loaves of bread, a big bag of buffalo tongues and smoked meat, a small case of eggs, a little bag on onions, 3 pounds of Congo tea, a small barrel of maple syrup; some sugar, ground coffee, salt, pepper and butter.

Two blankets rolled in a oil skin bag, a hatchet and a case of clothes completed our baggage.

I had not expected to travel in such a grandiose way. I had even protested in all my power. This brought to mind “St. Paul et son baton”! As a response the good bishop who had accompanied us, Monsignor Tache, smiled like a father and with a little irony told me:

-Take what is given, dear one. You are still too much of a “mangeur de lard’ to make sacrifices right now. You will soon be so abandoned!  Saint Paul did not travel to savage lands. Hard days and misery will come for you sooner than you think.

And with this prudent council he gave us his benediction with tears in his eyes.

In a friendly manner the old Lesperance added jokingly:

-Ah! Well, I will tell you that you are set up like men of importance. It’s too bad that you have to travel with such rich supplies. You’ll hope for a little bit of it when you are on the great northern river; there you will only find “du tondre et des bardeau” to eat.

Enjoy, enjoy this ham while you have it. It may be the last one that you eat for the rest of your life. (pages 205-206)


Note: "St. Paul et son baton" could be St. Paul Aurelien who kept refusing the bishop's crook (a stick curved at one end) only to have it returned again and again. It may be that Father Petitot was trying to give back the hams to Bishop Tache but the bishop would not take them.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Aurelian


Passengers are picked up 


“Between the Stone Fort and Lake Winnipeg was a protestant mission of “Savanais”. These Indians are now called “Machkegons”.We stopped a few moments to pick up in one of the boats a Scot Chippewa Metis, who was going for four years to the Mackenzie District. The reverend Mr. MacDonald was a man of 35 years, with amber eyes and the complexion of milk in coffee. He was dressed all in grey and he was single. That is he was not accompanied by a wife.

There we also picked up a young “Savanaise”with a small child who was to join her husband, William Charles Burke at Fort Yukon, towards Alaska. This courageous woman had to travel by boat 1500 leagues of this empty land to reach her husband. What courage! Without my knowing then, I was destined, after accompanying her to the Mackenzie, to see and appreciate her even more later on at Fort Good Hope.

We also had in our brigade a Catholic Chippewa family whose head, Francois Wabisten, also called Canard, would later become a member of my flock at Great Slave Lake.” (page 206-207)  ........."En route pour la mer Glaciale" by Father Emile Petitot


John Franklin's 1819-1820 map of northern Lake Winnipeg and the Saskatchewan River portion of the brigade route. 


The brigade steal sturgeons from a village on the Saskatchewan River


The sight of us on the Saskatchewan caused a general alarm among the “Savanais” camped on the left bank. From far away as soon as these Indians saw us coming, they ran in all directions, dragging by the gills or carrying on their naked backs huge sturgeons. They hurried to hide their catch from the Metis who were starved for fish. 

However swift they were in hiding them from us they had been seen. In my eyes this panic put into question the honesty of the boat crews.

-Ah! Look at them, cried the furious Metis. See how they run carrying their fish into the woods.

We will make you give them up, your sturgeons, just you wait a little while, my boys.

Saying this, they quickened their rowing to get to the tents before their women had completely emptied them. Along the shore, aligned like penguins, the men of the camp waited for us with long poles in their hand.

-Are they going to attack us, perhaps, with their lances? I asked our guide. He started laughing.

-No Father; they want to sell us these poles for our use in the rapids. They do this every time we pass. We are always assured of good poles when we pass this village.

-That’s good! Does that mean you won’t get any fish.

-We will see. Instead of food they have just poles to offer, that’s too much! And us who carry their ammunition and dry goods that the Hudson’s Bay Company gives them! Ah! well, they are too miserly these ‘Savanais’. We’ll have to teach them some manners.

Suddenly, the boats went up to the shore, and the Metis, without looking at the poles being offered, ran up the incline of the high shoreline and in all directions chased the hysterical women. In vain, the ‘Savanais’ protested that they had nothing and had no fish to sell; but soon, the Metis came back with screams of joy and great laughter, carrying by the gills enormous sturgeons, followed by the women of the camp that our less than gallant men had just dispossessed. The women protested but their cries fell on deaf ears.

-Ah! Selfish ones! We have never seen you be so sneaky. You should not have hidden your sturgeons, we would have paid for them.

The good Metis seemed to believe happily that this fish was their due and the ‘Savanais’ women were stealing and hiding them from their greed.

-It’s wrong, what you’re doing, I told our guide. I can’t even look at what’s happening.

-Ah! well, Father, they will catch more. There are lots in the river. It will teach them for the next time. It doesn’t cost them anything!

-But, Michel, if these Indians are miserly, it seems to me we should give them a good example with generosity and hospitality, instead of stealing.

But no one agreed with me. It goes without saying that Grouard and I refused to eat any of their theft, so as to protest to the end the injustice a such a proceeding. (pages 229-231)


Note: This Portage La Loche Brigade, the Lesperance Brigade, with its seven York boats carried 65 men plus perhaps 20 passengers. They could easily overwhelm any of the villages that they passed on the way. This Swampy Cree camp may have had about 50 or 60 people. The camp was at Grand Rapids at the mouth of the Saskatchewan near Lake Winnipeg according to the following article. In 1962 a dam was built at Grand Rapids.


"Grand Rapids derives its name from the four miles of turbulent rapids through which the Saskatchewan River dropped seventy feet to drain into Lake Winnipeg. For centuries native fishing parties harvested bountiful supplies of sturgeon at the Rapids. In the historic period the natives stood on the rocks beside the deep pools at O nika pik (the Carrying Place), moved a pole slowly downstream through the deep water until they felt the sturgeon’s ridged back-bone, and came back through the water with their scoop to catch the fish. Quantities of fish oil, used for subsistence and for trade, were made from the catch. The whitefish were also caught in scoop nets, smoked and dried, and then pounded over rocks to produce a fish pemmican, suitable for use in winter and on the  trail." .http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/15/thunderingwatersstilled.shtml 



John Franklin's 1819-20 map of Lake of the Woods near Frog Portage. This important portage leads to the English River (Churchill River).


Mary Wabisten gives birth on the boat


“On June 28 we camped on the shore of Lake of the Woods. It was a beautiful site that the rain did not let us admire very much. We passed the night in the boats, turned into sleeping quarters with the aid of coverings.

The next day, the rain had stopped, but it was still cool and uncomfortable so I put my winter jacket over my shoulders. When the tent coverings that had sheltered us were removed the first person that I saw on the wet rock was the big Marie, wife of the Chippewa Francois Wabisten. She was bareheaded, barefoot and smoking her pipe. As soon as she saw me she smiled showing me a long package that she carried in her arms. She unwrapped an old shawl that once was red and extended with pride a scarlet coloured baby, big and ugly like a caterpillar, that started crying as soon as he felt the cold air.

-Here, Father, she said, in broken French, the first I heard from her since our departure, baptize my boy, he was born last night…, in the boat.

This was said with many stops, and cuts, in the chanting tones of the Chippewa language.

-This night! in the boat! You’re kidding me? I exclaimed while giving Wabisten a questioning look.

-Oh! no, Father, it’s true. My wife gave birth last night. Did you not hear anything near you?

I couldn’t believe it. The brave woman had delivered her baby by herself, without any help, without even waking her husband, who was exhausted from his work.

Should I say it? What surprised the Metis more than this event, which to my readers might appear incredible, was my own astonishment.

-What, Father, he told me, are the French women of the old country less capable than our women? Here, ours do as such. It doesn’t hurt them more than our women to give birth. (page 253-254)


   "Vale of the Clearwater River from the Methye Portage" a 1828 etching based of Sir George Back's 1825 watercolour. 


Father Petitot arrives at Portage La Loche July 20, 1862 

“Clear Lake and Buffalo Lake that we then crossed were beautiful and scenic. The second is around 43 kilometers. The first is even bigger but the dimensions are not yet known. A sinuous and flat river joins them to Lac La Loche which is 13 kilometers long. We arrived at this last lake on July 18, but we were not able to cross to the ‘Grand Portage La Loche’ until the 20th. because of the wind.

That is where the Lesperance Brigade was bringing us with its cargo of English merchandise to later return filled with furs from the north to York Factory on the Hudson’s Bay. Such is the commercial operation that ends every year at the ‘Grand Portage’.

I had just travelled 482 leagues since Fort Garry, 1,222 since Montreal, 2,924 since Marseille, and it had taken 42 days by York boat to arrive at this separation of waters that the Metis called ‘la hauteur des terres’.

I’ve already described Portage La Loche. The lake of the same name occupies the high ground. This line measures 19 kilometers 308 metres, that is almost 5 leagues, up to the Clearwater River in a valley 600 feet deep. However on the other side of the river the height of land continues for a great distance that has not been determined.

The soil of Portage La Loche is poor and sandy. Coniferous trees grow especially red pine. The south side is not very high, on the north side it is 1,200 feet above the level of the Glacial Sea.

On the south end of Portage La Loche were gathered 150 Chipewyan. Happy to see us they crowded around us to shake our hand.

--Ah! Fathers, said a Scot Metis catholic, guide to a brigade that had arrived before us, these are good people, that love priests and religion. And when you see the Slaves and the Dogribs on the other side you will find even more hand shaking.

A Scottish guide, Baptiste Bruce, helped by an Irish Metis, Ignace MacKay, and a French Beaver Metis, called Paulet, together built us a large tent with poles and oars from the York boats and tent coverings not being used.

While there were no more than 400 people gathered at the time on the south side of the ‘Grand Portage’ they gave us a little understanding of the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel. There were people from French Canada, Scotland, Orkney, England, Norway, Wood Cree, ‘Savanais’, Chippewa, Chipewyan, Beaver and Metis of all kinds; while Grouard and I represented the French. We would have needed a ‘Pic de la Mirandole’ or a ‘Mezzofanti’ to make ourselves understood in this group. Most of us could only speak our maternal language yet it was adequate.

The Chipewyan tent village was just a little ways from our tent. I wanted to visit it hoping to see some interesting ethnic curiosities. There were none. The tents were made of smoked hides, conical like those of the Lapps; on the earthen floor, a few pine branches were placed around a small fire; in a corner, a pile of old clothes: and, here and there, a few uncured European utensils. Around the lodge were skinny dogs. There were no curious weapons, no native implements, not the least indication of savagery. These were a civilized people, of an indigenous, bohemian and always nomadic civilization. Yet everything was decent and chaste.

The women were wearing red or blue dresses buttoned right up to the collar. On their head they wore bonnets like the ones I saw at Frog Portage. I hope that the French missionaries didn’t furnish them with these extraordinary artistic head coverings. (pages 269-272)  ........."En route pour la mer Glaciale" by Father Emile Petitot


 

Reverend Robert MacDonald holds an evening service at Portage La Loche


“As I returned late I caught the pleasant sight of Reverend MacDonald dressed in a grey suit and a small clerical collar. He was singing with a trembling voice in the middle of the field like an evening singer of Marseille.

He even had the two traditional candles. He had set them on the grass, on each side of his hat, a little ahead of his sacred person. I would have gladly deposited two pennies, if I had any, so much the scene made me pity him. He looked around in all directions to see if anyone responded to his call.. Unfortunately! No one came.

Looking through the gloom, I finally saw a kneeling woman a little way away, head uncovered holding a child in front of her. It was our courageous travelling companion the “Savanaise” Annie Burke. Her faith and devotion touched me. Without offending the grammar, the minister, while addressing this woman, could have called her ‘ma chere auditoire’.” (page 272-273)  ........."En route pour la mer Glaciale" by Father Emile Petitot

 

biography of Reverend Robert MacDonald



Bernard Rogan Ross and Robert Kennicott are described by Father Petitot 

“On July 22 there came from the other side of the Portage a factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company dressed as follows: wool shirt of red and green squares of Scottish design bordered with yellow cloth stuck in a pair of white pants with purplish red stripes. Around the waist an assomption sash. Just below the knees were garters embroidered with glass beads and adorned with tufts of red silk that hung like scalps. On the head a florentine toque of green velvet ringed with silk embroidery. No shoes, no boots but immaculate white Chipewyan moccasins embroidered with silk of many colors. This fantastic costume, very elegant, is characteristic of the “Grand Nord”. It was worn well by a little Irish clerk, with black eyes and great sideburns, who came to meet Governor Dallas, that his Iroquois canoemen had brought to Portage La Loche. The chief factor of Fort Edmonton Mr. Christie accompanied him.”

“The Irishman was followed by a young American naturalist, very smart, petulant, who talked through his nose by the name of Kennicott. He also wore a costume of the “Grand Nord” on which he had embroidered in white ribbon a lizard, a butterfly, a turtle and a snake, the emblems of his livelihood. We might say that he looked like a clown of the new “Cirque”. The lovers of science, we say, are all original and a bit crazed but the naturalists that we meet in the remote areas of America seem to be a unique breed.” (page 273)  






Alexander Grant Dallas wearing a bow tie and his Iroquois tripmen in a Montreal canoe in 1863. 
Governor Dallas would have arrived at the Portage in a "canot du nord" crewed by 6 to 8 Iroquois.


Governor Dallas complains about the Portage La Loche Brigade to Father Petitot.

“After these two gentlemen (Ross and Kennicott) visited the governor we also went, Grouard and I, to pay our respects to His Excellency.

We found him standing alone in the meadow not far from the huge Iroquois canoe that had brought him. He walked around looking bored and annoyed."


"Though no kingdom belonged to this man he nevertheless, at this time, had authority in the North-West in all matters of life and death. And, which to him seemed the culmination of disdain and impertinence, a few steps from him, the French Metis gathered in little groups continued to eat their meal of pemmican, playing hand games or napping and exchanging among themselves sly smiles and a few short sentences in the Cree language.


The governor Mr. Dallas was one of those happy mortals who believe that their title and fortune give them simply by their appearance a more noble character. 

Dressed in grey like a common man- I was going to say beggar-as dry and as straight as if impaled with a stick, 

he looked hurt that no one among the Metis, of a lower class, recognized his superiority or came to give him homage.

His Excellency’s situation touched us and we put ourselves at his disposal. He was polite but lacked some social skills. 

In his words was a secret melancholy that I didn’t understand until later that evening.


His Excellency returned our visit and came to our tent. He, although angry, made sure to speak to us as equals: “Which of the two is the superior?” he began.

-We are both equal M. Grouard said hastily. There is no question of superiority or inferiority between us. 

However as M. Petitot is a year older the bishop has conferred to him the responsibility of our affairs during the voyage.

This was a little too much said.

Very well said the governor graciously turning his back on my friendly companion in a most noble way. 


And now master Petitot I am obliged to give you a sad message to give to your bishop.. Yes, very sad, indeed!

-What catastrophe, sir? I said quickly. Has something happen on your trip, Excellency?

-Oh! no, no, sir, there is no catastrophe but the half-breeds of the Lesperance brigade….

-You mean our brigade! I said.

- These half-breeds, he said in the same sad tone of voice, have greatly insulted me when I arrived and also this morning.

-I didn’t know you were here since yesterday.

-I know, I know. I am speaking of the half-breeds. They were so rude, he said in an agitated manner, even a Company clerk would have been offended. 

I am asking that you write your bishop so that when they return to the Red River they can be reprimanded.

-I assured M. Dallas that I would write the bishop of the matter of the French Metis. 

 

But…Dame! I don’t know what a bishop could do when the governor himself is unable. 

However I reassured him and M. Dallas left satisfied with his little vengeance. I found him a little foolish. 

He, a man of importance, should have ignored the slight and not complain about it to strangers.


Chief Factor Christie of the Saskatchewan District defends the Lesperance Brigade


Almost right away, the chief factor Christie, a big and friendly Metis Scot entered breathless into our tent. He said in very good French.

-Fathers, what did the governor say?

-He complained that the Lesperance Metis insulted him and told me to inform the bishop by way of the returning brigade.

-Oh! Oh! well. And what does he want Bishop Tache to do or say to the Metis?

-Oh! Dame! I don’t know.

-You know, I think, it’s all ridiculous. I hope Fathers, for the honour of the Company, you say nothing. 

It would make us look foolish among the servants.

-Also for the honour of His Excellency since I forgot that the Metis would be the ones laughing.


-Good. I’d like to add the governor’s complaint is just another way of insulting the priests and bishops and to tell them “Look at the fruits of your labour?”  

"Your flock has no respect for authority". Well I’d like to say your poor Metis are perfectly innocent of the governor’s accusations.

-I don’t doubt it for an instant but we don’t know enough to judge.


-Perhaps you accuse me of defending the Metis because I am myself a Metis. By George! We are almost all Metis in the Company. 

Among the chief factors there is not a single Englishman, and maybe not ten Scots with pure blood. 

It doesn’t stop us from being gentlemen with good manners. Is that not true?

- Exactly. And isn’t Madame Dallas a quarter Metis? His Excellency’s son is therefore a Metis'.


-He started to laugh. Exactly. Here is a fact: Governor Dallas comes from London. He is a cold man with strange manners. 

His head is filled with rules of etiquette, convictions and ideas like an English lord. He wants to establish in the North-West 

a rule where there are just bishops, priests, ministers and bourgeois who have the right to shake his hand. 

In their turn, these can only shake hands with the chief traders, the clerks and postmasters but not to the servants or Indians. 

The assistants to the chief traders can shake hands with the interpreters, guides and perhaps to servants  from Europe and the Metis but not with the Indians.


Do you consider this formality absurd, here in the North-West? Oh! no, no sir, he continued with animation like he was addressing the governor himself, 

you will never see that. We are not so extravagant. We are less complicated.


-And so, yesterday evening, when M. Dallas arrived, the good Metis came over to welcome him and surrounded him to shake his hand. 

He moved them away with a great swing of his cane muttering: Rascals! ....Then he turned his back on them.

-Not possible!

-That’s what happened. He would have liked the crowd to gaze in admiration at his perfections, 

to incline their heads like he was a maharajah while yelling Hip! Hip! Hip! Hurrah for the governor! But giving a handshake like equals No! 

He accused them of being rude, gross half- breeds.

-That is what he said.


The Metis respect the governor but they don’t feel obliged to offer it to his canoe, his tent or his cooking pot, do you understand? 

We are not monsters. Well! M. Dallas wants everything that he uses be sacred in the eyes of the public and no one should come nearer that ten feet.

-I am more and more astounded. A sultan! A great Mogul!


-Yesterday, the Metis put their cooking pots on his Excellency’s fire: they made a circle around his tent while smoking their pipe: 

they had the nerve to talk to me, the cook of his Excellency. There is the crime!

-Cook? Are you serious Mister Christie?

-Not at all. Here I am, chief-factor Christie, head of the Saskatchewan District, the humble cook of the governor of the Company, and I eat after him out of his plate.

- I almost burst out laughing. But he has lost his head, your governor.


-I don’t know if he ever had one. There you go, the whole story, the complaints that he has against your Metis. Oh! I almost forgot the last one. 

This morning was the last straw: Coming out of his tent, His Excellency found two or three wagons that they had forgotten during the night a few feet from his tent. 

He came in so angry he was unable to eat his breakfast. If he keeps this up I’ll quit as his cook and perhaps lose my position as chief  factor with its wonderful appointments."

 (pages 272 to 280)  ........."En route pour la mer Glaciale" by Father Emile Petitot


Alexander Grant Dallas biography:   http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=5461

Alexander Grant Dallas resigned as governor of Rupert's Land in 1864  .http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rupert%27s_Land



A section of John Franklin's map of 1819-20 showing Lac La Loche, the Portage and the Clearwater River.

A Dene country wife is abandoned at Portage La Loche 1862.

"On July 29th. a Chipewyan woman ran into my tent crying. I learned through an interpreter that this young girl, still pagan, was married to a Cree man, also pagan. He had repudiated her and leaving right away for Lac La Biche. She came to ask me to intervene on her behalf with her mother-in-law and husband so that they would treat her more kindly. 

I went to their lodge. Neither one nor the other would listen. The young woman, they said, was sour tempered and easily angered and didn't love her husband. In short they didn't want her. I insisted. The old Cree woman, with her nose up, jealous and hostile told me without even looking at me "Never again will she step foot in my tent."

That same day the old woman and her son left Portage La Loche by a road on the left bank and across the woods.They had horses with them with which they had arrived at the Portage to earn some money by transporting baggage for the Hudson's Bay Company. 

These Cree  are French Metis. They are called freemen. They build themselves small houses, plant gardens, feed themselves by hunting and fishing, and earn their living trading furs and renting their horses at the Portage.

The Chipewyan woman placed her child astride her shoulders took her green blanket and disappeared into the forest after her husband.

As for us, the rain had kept us at the Portage for several days but that day the clouds parted and we also left. We had waited twelve days. Twelve days that to us seemed like an eternity. Our brigade, commanded by the guide Joseph Bouvier, numbered five York boats. I did not see the estranged couple until the portage "La Bonne" where they arrived before us.

Thanks to their horses the Cree were able to earn some money on each of the five portages on the Clearwater River. 

That night, the old lady took her canoe and with her two grown daughters went down the swift moving river which in this area flowed 12 to 15 miles an hour.

Her son prepared to follow in his own canoe when the young Dene woman jumped out of the long grass and fell grasping the young man around the knees sobbing.

I was present and moved to tears at this disturbing spectacle. One could not help but be touched by so much love and perseverance. But the young Cree was not moved. For a single moment the man seemed to soften then pushed his wife softly either out of pity or because we were watching. She held onto his belt and refused to let go. A crowd gathered. The Cree man was in a hurry. He did not want to explain the situation to the onlookers.

Then started a terrible fight.

He threw her violently to the ground, kicked her in the stomach, on the chest, on the face; and since she would still not let go he hit her on the head with his rifle and left her barely conscious. 

I ran there right away and with the aid of an interpreter I reasoned with this "sauvage". He answered a single word in Chipewyan "It's difficult".

I retreated and advised the young woman to leave him and return to her parents at Portage La Loche. 

But she had no parents she said. She was an orphan. I finally understood.  

Seeing that I could not move the heart of her husband this poor Dene girl thought to use another way to get her husband back to her. She threw into his arms her little three year old boy "Here, she said, since you don't want me any more it is only fair that you raise your son. You are just as able as I am to feed him."

Then she ran into the forest. The young man put the boy astride his shoulders and ran angrily after her.

They didn't appear again that evening and I didn't see the end of this tragic story until the next morning at the portage "de la Cascade". I found the young Cree man as cold and impassive as before. His son was playing with a captured squirrel. I looked around for the young woman without at first noticing her. Finally I saw her crouched in the grasses by the river, silently crying, gazing lovingly at her son. 

We know the love mothers have for their children. The trick she had employed had not worked. It was evident. It just made her even more miserable. Deprived of a husband she adored she had now lost her only son. This last throw of the dice was her downfall. The little boy no longer fussed for his mother. The squirrel his dad had given him took up all of his attention.

Finally the young Cree man left this portage for the last time not to return to the land of the Chipewyan for at least a year or perhaps never. He would go back up the Athabasca and return to Lac La Biche.

He took his son by the arm like one who picks up a cat and let him down gently in his canoe alongside two dogs whose paws were tied. Then he took his oar put one leg in the canoe and pushed off with his other leg. Sitting down cross legged he was off without throwing a look at the woman who had recently slept by his side.

She didn't complain this time, not even a deep breath. She seemed stricken, bewildered, like someone without hope. Suddenly she got up picked up a small cooking pot, a blanket, everything she owned, screamed so loudly my ears were ringing for a long time after and ran into the wood." 

(pages 282-285)  ........."En route pour la mer Glaciale" by Father Emile Petitot


read about country wives: http://www.northwestjournal.ca/XIII2.htm

forest on the shore of Lac La Loche.... taken in 2010.




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