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Father Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur online

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which at that distance at least seemed to him more
difficult to endure than the hunger of his trip to Nose

At dawn the party spreading out over the plains
to look for water came upon a small creek. They
had now reached American territory, as they knew
by that grim sentinel near the boundary, the Chief
Mountain Ninnistakow recalling to Father La-
combe his old friend, Rowand of Fort Edmonton.

The next day on the banks of the Missouri they
came to a straggling village of log-cabins. Small
steamboats lay rlong the water-front; fur-traders and
Indians dawdled here and there on the dusty street.
The whole aspect of the place was sunny, lazy and

As they hesitated enquiringly on the village street
a French-Canadian servant of the American fur-com-
pany approached Father Lacombe and offered him
the hospitality of his small home.

Benton then was the home of many dashing fron-
tiersmen and traders whose names still linger in quaint
or exciting tales of the old trading-days. I. G.
Baker's log-store was the largest in the village, but
among the rough-shirted, big-hearted traders who
loitered about the sunny streets were Tom Powers
and the Healeys who later struck gold in Alaska,
Kaiser and Harnois, who was to cross Father
Lacombe's life again Joe Kipp and many another
who was to find his way across the border into British


The news soon went among them that Pere
Lacombe was in town, and as the Blackfeet had long
ago carried his fame across the plains, his arrival cre-
ated a stir of which the dusty and tired Blackrobe
was quite unconscious.

As there was no money in currency along the
Saskatchewan, Father Lacombe had brought a letter
of credit from his Bishop to the Jesuit missionaries
of Montana. Borrowing money for his fare to the
mission he went there by stage, only to find that the
Jesuits had no money either. He refused their invi-
tation to wait until they could get some from St.

Instead, he returned to Benton, resolved to go for-
ward to St. Louis at once, with or without money.

Two days later he was selling his pony to repay
what he had borrowed for stage-fare and to renew his
Metis' provisions. For himself, he was a guest of
Captain Rae of the Silver Bow, who offered him a
free passage to St. Louis. He was also the owner of
a well-filled purse, made up for him by the Healeys
and their friends in Benton.

The Silver Bow made slow progress down the
river, because as "the traveller from the British pos-
sessions" recalls "We were continually slowing
down or running aground." Tree-trunks and sand-
bars frequently blocked the current.

"We did not travel by night for fear of accident in
the shallows; the boat was tied up to the bank like
a broncho. We passed the time talking, mostly in


English, of the experiences of each one." But their
finest recreation was watching herds of buffalo come
crashing through the trees on the river-bank and pre-
cipitate themselves into the current.

"Imagine our boat," Father Lacombe writes in
vivid remembrance, "steaming into the midst of the
bison crazed by the shrieks and whistling of the steam-
engine, and the reports of rifles and revolvers. Im-
agine the tumult caused by such encounters! The
water was sometimes red with blood, which flowed in
streams from the bodies of the poor victims massacred
only for the pleasure of killing them."

The night before the steamer reached St. Louis
Father Lacombe's generous travelling-companions,
miners from the new gold-fields, surprised him with a
purse of over one hundred dollars. This with what
the generous Benton traders had given him left him
master of $300. He felt himself a prairie-Croesus.

He was now in St. Louis, the birthplace of his
friend Brazeau the Blackfoot interpreter at Fort
Edmonton. He promptly made his way to the Uni-
versity, but paused outside its hospitable entrance,
as though struck by his own temerity in thus calmly
claiming lodging in what seemed to him magnificence
embodied in masonry.

The massive portal and mullioned windows of the
College were impressive to the prairie visitor to whom
for a score of years the measure of architectural splen-
dour had been the Big House at Fort Edmonton with
its two score of glass windows. Glass! not parch-


ment, let it be noted. Was it possible, he asked him-
self, that he had thirsted on the plains for water and
watched the miners slaughter buffalo only a few days

A warm reception soon made the northerner thor-
oughly at home. He even found a close link between
the University's dignified atmosphere and his own
smoky house-tent. . . . For that Pere de Smet
who had been a professor here forty years before, was
the same who at Fort Edmonton in 1845 laid upon
Father Thibault the mission of Christianizing the
Blackfeet and it was Father Lacombe himself who
had eventually undertaken that mission.

Archbishop Kenrick received the Canadian voya-
geur hospitably on several occasions, and his whole
stay at St. Louis was finely enjoyable. But from
his own observations and on the advice of the Arch-
bishop he resolved before he left to report to Bishop
Grandin against any change being made from the
Red River route to the Missouri.

Amply supplied with funds now he decided to go
on to Canada before returning. His father had died
the year before, and his heart urged him to go and
see his mother again.

Entering the Palace in Montreal unheralded some
days later he was greeted with heartwhole delight by
the gentle Bourget. Others hurried to welcome him,
and coaxed for stories of the adventures and achieve-
ments of the "petite sauvage Albert/'

He first looked into the circumstances and health


of his good old mother at St. Sulpice. Her son
Gaspard was still wandering with the world for his
pillow. There remained to Madame Lacombe near
the old home a married daughter, another teaching
school and her youngest child, Christine. The latter
had developed into a bright helpful girl, and mindful
of the missions' need of teachers her brother invited
Christine to come west with him and teach.

Christine readily consented; and it was arranged
that the mother should spend the rest of her days
as a paying guest at the Grey Nuns' convent in
Montreal. This was Madame Lacombe's own desire.
A few months later, dissatisfied with even that amount
of the atmosphere of a city which penetrates a con-
vent, the brave old mother of the missionary, without
informing him of her discontent, had friends arrange
for her entrance again as a paying guest into the home-
like convent of L' Assumption not far from St. Sul-
pice. Here she lived content.

On his return west with his sister Father Lacombe
placed her in charge of a kindly Canadian woman at
St. Paul de Cris, with whom she remained a few
months before going to Lac la Biche to teach. As
for himself, when he had reported on the Mississippi
route to the Bishop, he resumed his ministry on the

Shortly after the New Year he journeyed up by
dog-sleigh to Rocky Mountain House to meet the
Blackfeet Indians there. As chance had it, Jack
Matheson, a young trader from the Red River, was


going up to the Mountain House and he proved an
interesting travelling-companion. For this lusty
young giant from the Red River, grandson of John
Pritchard the private secretary of Lord Selkirk, was
brimming over with gay spirits, with lore of the
hunter's world and tales of the early settlement of
the Red River.

Jack Matheson was himself to come in time
through many wanderings and a life of much colour
to be an Indian missionary in the Church of England.
But on that trip behind the dogs to Mountain House
there was little thought of prayer or preaching in the
rollicking young trader's head.

Disappointed in not finding the Indians at the post,
Father Lacombe took a young Piegan as guide, and
set out on an arduous trip in search of the tribes.
They suffered from lack of fuel, heavy snow-storms
and snow-blindness, finally being directed to the
camps by a luckless group of jBlackfeet who were
murdered a few days later by a hostile band.

"Before these poor people had separated from
me, I attempted to turn them back from the direction
in which they were travelling: I coaxed them to come
with me, but they were deaf to my invitation. It
seems as though I had some presentiment of evil
. . ." 1 wrote Father Lacombe.

"I could not remain more than three weeks at this
camp. I occupied all my time in teaching them

i Letter of May 12th, 1870, from Father Lacombe to his Superior-
General, published in Annals of Oblates.


prayers, the singing of hymns, the catechism and par-
ticularly in making further studies of the language.

"You will easily understand what trials I had in
doing this : to grasp the sounds and fix them in writ-
ing, finding the meaning, discovering the grammatical
rules ; this is no little affair. Nevertheless, I made a
goodly number of discoveries in a short time, and I
was happy in the progress which with God's help I
had made.

"The Indians on their part showed themselves very
willing even eager to know something of religion.

"When the time came for me to return home I set
out with fifteen families who wished to accompany me
to the Rocky Mountain House. After several days
passed together at the Fort, I parted from them with
regret, to return to St. Albert. But before having
the pleasure of embracing my dear confreres there my
heart was torn with a painful spectacle.

"At some distance from the Saskatchewan River,
as I travelled along the trail with my men, I came
upon some Indians who ran to me weeping. They
had been despoiled of everything and they carried
two of their number who were also wounded. They
were of the Blackfoot nation and were the only sur-
vivors of the group attacked by the Cree-Assina-
boines near Fort Edmonton, eight miles from St.
Albert. They had not eaten anything for three days :
they were floundering along almost barefoot in the
slush and ice.

"Poor unfortunates ! I could not restrain my tears


at the sight of such misery. But that would not suf-
fice; I had to give them some help. I distributed
among them what remained of my provisions; I
tended the wounds of the injured, gave them some-
thing to wear and then lent them my two horses.

"For myself, I had to go afoot, but I had only a
few miles more to make. . . ."

The miserable Blackfeet who met Father Lacombe
,were the survivors of a small trading party attacked
by ambushed Crees as they mounted the south bank
of the river opposite Fort Edmonton. Seven of
their number were brutally killed and two wounded.
The survivors had fled for their lives leaving their
goods behind them.

Their tribe immediately sought revenge. One
night, before Father Lacombe left St. Albert for St.
Paul, a courier from the Fort announced that a war-
party of seven hundred Blackfeet was marching on

"The Father purposed to leave at dawn for the
Fort to aid in averting this misfortune, but toward
midnight a fresh courier arrived, and he departed
immediately. . . ." l

i Letter of Father Leduc to Superior-General of the Oblates, Decem-
ber 22, 1870.


A BAND of Crees employed in cutting cordwood
had first brought word of the revenge-party to the
Chief Factor. They hurried to their tepees by the
Fort, and decked themselves for battle with vivid
streaks of vermilion.

Chief Factor Christie ordered every one within the
stockade and the gates closed. Malcolm Groat hur-
riedly crossed some traders from the south bank.
The cannons in the bastions were primed and every
man held himself ready to defend their stronghold.

A flash of humour relieved the anxiety when
Christie, fastening on the Chief Factor's ceremonial
sword-belt and sword, found that in days of peace he
had so put on flesh the belt was uncomfortably tight.

Malcolm Groat and Harrison Young came to his
aid in girding his solid form with the outgrown belt,
and the pinching and pressing process was rich in
mirth for the onlookers.

As we have seen, Christie sent a messenger gallop-
ing to St. Albert for Father Lacombe and some of
his Metis. Within the courtyard painted Indians and
anxious whites did what they could to pass the unpleas-
ant hours of waiting. ... The Blackf eet arrived
before dusk and lay in ambush among the trees on



the south bank. They announced their arrival and
their intentions by repeated firing upon the Fort.

The bullets whizzed against the stockade; a few
found their way over it into the courtyard, but their
force was spent. With nightfall the real danger
came, and the men in the Fort strained their hearing
for signs of life from the ambushed Blackf eet.

Past midnight the trampling of horses' hoofs was
heard along the St. Albert trail, and in a few moments
Father Lacombe with thirty armed Metis hunters
knocked on the rear gate for admission. Their horses
were speedily corralled in the stable-yard within the
stockade, while some of the Metis were sent up to
the gallery and bastions to man these with the handful
of traders and servants already there.

The firing had been discontinued, but those on
watch feared that under cover of the darkness the
Blackfeet would swim across the Saskatchewan, lurk
in the low brushwood by the bank, and from there
creep unobserved to the stockade to fire it. This was
the Indian's most effective method of atttacking a
Fort, and just such an undertaking as had destroyed
Old Bow Fort decades earlier.

Father Lacombe, who never carried a rifle, felt his
defence must be of another sort. Disregarding the
order for all to remain inside the stockade, he went
boldly out on the meadows around the Fort calling
on the enemy in what Blackfoot he could muster.
He asked them to fire no more upon the Fort, for
lie and the other white men were their friends.


He Arsous-kitsi-rarpi who had so lately come
from camps of their people ; who had given all he had
to their wounded kinsfolk assured them now that
the Company was indignant with the Crees who had
treacherously fallen upon their people. He de-
manded of the ambushed Indians that they depart
in peace.

His absolute lack of fear for his own safety and
his anxiety to pacify the Blackfeet came close
to bringing disaster on himself. In the southwest
bastion beside Malcolm Groat was stationed Donald
McDonald, a new clerk who had narrowly escaped
with his life from a Blackfoot's rifle at Fort Carleton
not long before.

When Father Lacombe, crying out his friendly
plea, came beneath this bastion the closest to the
enemy's encampment Macdonald's ear caught the
strenuous shouts in Blackfoot.

He recognized the language without its meaning;
guided by the voice he took aim with his rifle . . .
and would have fired, had not Groat and a Metis
standing near begged him to desist.

They assured him the voice belonged to Lacombe
Pere Lacombe. . . . Even if he were new to
Edmonton, didn't he know that voice?

The priest, meanwhile, unaware of his narrow
escape, continued his way around the Fort calling out
his message of peace.

Up in the bastions and sentinel's gallery all was
silent as still as the war-encampment across the


river. They waited for some response to Father
Lacombe's plea. There was none verbally, but when
dawn came it was found that the Blackf eet had quietly
foregone the attack and pitched off for the prairies.

Early in the spring of 1870 Father Lacombe in
compliance with a request of Bishop Faraud went
up to Fort Dunvegan to visit Father Tissier. The
journey of over 1,000 miles, attended by unusual
hardships and illness, was undertaken solely with this
object of fraternal charity; as in the five years Father
Tissier was stationed there he had not seen a brother-
priest and had endured much in the performance of
his ministry.

Father Lacombe travelled by pack-horse and canoe,
with one guide most of the way, by the Athabasca
and Lesser Slave Lake.

The trying difficulties of the journey were light-
heartedly put behind him when he saw the welcoming
form of his confrere hurry to meet him on the banks
of the Peace. Father Tissier was still suffering from
the effects of a journey to Wolverine Point during
the past winter, when he had both feet frozen and for
six weeks lay ill in an Indian tepee sharing the semi-
starvation of his hosts.

On his return to Lesser Slave Lake Father La-
combe rallied the Metis of that post about him, and
began the erection of a permanent mission-house at
Stony Point.

From the lake he continued down the Little Slave,
the Athabasca and La Biche Rivers to Lac la Biche,


where he found his little sister Christine teaching
school and striving to acquire a taste for dried meat
and fish, the only food she had.

But he had no time for brotherly solicitude. Ter-
rifying news awaited him: his Indians were attacked
with a strange fatal sickness. He did not pause for
rest, but hurried his borrowed pony along the St.
Paul trail to the urging of this message: "Your In-
dians are dying like flies; and, running away from
the sickness, they die along the trail."

The epidemic, which started early in July, had been
carried by Metis from some infected Blackfeet.
These in turn had taken the contagion from Indians
and traders of the Missouri. An old Indian at St.
Paul assured Father Lacombe the disease was small-
pox, because sixty years before they had it in the
country and it ravaged their camps in the same way.

Father Lacombe soon found himself in the thick
of the epidemic. The only nourishment he could give
the sick was bouillon made of dried meat, and they
drank eagerly, for they were thirsty with a great

Sometimes he was occupied until midnight with the
sick. The hour before sunrise was the time taken to
bury the dead. Then Father Lacombe would call
the young men to help him, warning them that if
the bodies were not buried every one would catch the

Meanwhile up at Victoria the Rev. George
McDougall, the Methodist minister who had come


into the country eight years earlier, was devotedly
helping the Indians around his mission to make a
valiant battle against the plague, until two of his own
children succumbed to the disease.

At St. Albert the battle was being fought with
such reckless devotion by four Oblates Fathers
Leduc and Bourgine, Brothers Doucet and Blanchet
that they were all in turn stricken with the disease.

In the midst of Bishop Grandin's work with the
stricken Indians near Fort Carlton he received a note
from Father Lacombe on the prairies. It was pen-
cilled on ragged brown paper:

"My Lord, I am in the midst of the dead and dying, and
am now hurrying to St. Albert where our own men are
overcome by the disease. I fear there is not even one priest
there able to assist the dying."

Father Lacombe's arrival at St. Albert was timely.
Father Bourgine was down with the disease; Father
Leduc was recovering, though marked for his life-
time with the honourable scars of this year's service.
Practically the whole settlement was affected and only
two or three of the school-children were able to be

In the Annals of the Oblates we read in a letter
from Father Leduc, December, 1870:

". . . Father Lacombe was again near St. Paul
in the midst of the dead and the dying. When he
heard of our distressing condition, he passed the night
administering the sacraments to those Indians who


were in danger of death, then flew to our assistance.
This act of fraternal charity moved me to tears; I
could not refrain from weeping as I threw myself
into the arms of this good Father, who arrived so
opportunely to help us through our difficulties."

When his confreres had recovered Father Lacombe
hastened to return to the prairie and like Father
Andre, who also spent the summer among the In-
dians, he had many gruesome experiences during the
epidemic. For the numerous graves he dug his only
implements were knives and axes, the clay being
scooped out with his hands or improvised wooden
scoops. Sometimes ten or twelve bodies were placed
in one grave, carried there from the tepees in

About thirty or more encampments on the prairies
were affected and there were from twenty-five to forty
families in each. Father Lacombe found his way
to most of these camps, performing the same painful
duties at each.

One morning when the young men were aiding him
in the burials Father Lacombe sent them back for
the bodies of two children, which he had laid aside
and covered with boughs the previous night. The
men went, but the bodies of the little ones were gone.
The dogs had already been there; only the torn
remains were found.

Father Lacombe heard one old man mourning
tragically over this:


"Great Father," he kept repeating audibly, "is it
possible that you let us die with this horrible disease?
and then we are eaten by dogs?"

Even Father Lacombe's doughty heart found here
its limits of endurance and power to console.

"I could not say a word to comfort him," he says,
"I could not speak. It was too tragic. What could
be said?"

Instead he took his extra shirt and socks and bits
of cotton out of the dunnage-sack that served as his
portmanteau, and went out himself to the repulsive
task of burying the torn remains.

The only precaution taken against the disease by
Father Lacombe was to keep a quill with camphor
in his mouth. He did not fear the disease for him-
self; he was too busy thinking of others. But one
evening after his rounds from tepee to tepee he felt
so deathly ill he told himself his hour had come. With
his inherent belief in the efficiency of action he fought
the nausea by drinking painkiller and taking exercise
until he was ready to fall asleep from exhaustion.
The next morning the ailment, whatever it was, had

Before the close of September the epidemic was
over. Father Lacombe estimated that over 2,500
Crees died. Others place the number of deaths
among the Crees and Blackfeet as well over 3,000.
It is impossible to obtain any very accurate figures.

At St. Albert most of the Indian children in the


Grey Nuns' orphanage died, as well as many Metis
and Indians. In every camp on the plains someone
was mourned.

To-day, 1870 is a year from which Old-Timers on
the Saskatchewan date modern events, as previously
along the Red River all dated from 1852, the year of
the Great Flood.


THE great progress made by Christianity this sum-
mer brought consolation to the Oblates after the
scourge of smallpox had spent its virulence. Their
absolute devotion to the Indian had not gone unre-
warded. The pagan warriors were moved by the
unpretentious heroism of the priests: it had shamed
their own fear. The attitude of their dying friends
enjoying religious consolation also had its effect.

An item in the Journal of St. Paul records 2,000
baptisms of adults and children on the plains that
summer. Among the many conversions was that of
Papaskis (Grasshopper), a noted medicine-man, who
embraced Christianity when on his prayer to the
Christian God his daughter, the wife of Chief Ermine-
Skin, 1 was cured.

But the conversion that delighted Father Lacombe
most was that of his friend, Sweet-Grass, the bravest
and most esteemed among the Cree warriors the
Head-Chief of the whole nation of Crees. For many
years the Little Chief had said, "Leave me alone; I
will tell you when my time has come."

Now toward the close of the epidemic Father
Lacombe, calling the stronger Indians to prayer one

i This Chief and his wife still live at Ermine Skin's reserve, south
of Edmonton.



evening, was astounded to see Sweet-Grass and sev-
eral of his pagan warriors enter and kneel with the

After the prayer and hymn were concluded, Sweet-
Grass, mindful of a chief's privilege of oratory, rose
and asked if he might speak. . . .

"My relatives, my friends," he said. "You are sur-
prised to see me here. You have known me as a
strong follower of the beliefs of our fathers. I have
led in the medicine-feasts. To-day, in the presence
of the Great Spirit and before our friend Kamiyo-
atchakwe, I turn away from all that. It is past,
and I will hear the teachings of the Man-of-

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Online LibraryKatherine HughesFather Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur → online text (page 11 of 28)