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Father Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur online

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from the home-folk in Quebec. The priests rejoiced



1860 FATHER LACOMBE 79

openly in the presence of their brilliant and humor-
ous brother.

The Indian children of the school and the old peo-
ple who had never beheld a bishop before, regarded
him with awe; while the Metis couple, Michel and
his wife, were more than ever important since they
had a bishop to cook for.

To Father Lacombe fell the task of secretly con-
triving a crozier for the bishop, when it was found
that he had brought none with him: it was not a con-
venient thing to pack in canoes or dog-carioles. With
an Indian hunting-knife Father Lacombe fashioned
one of greenwood and tinted it with yellow ochre.

The Bishop carried it with dignity at the midnight
Mass, remarking that this was a pastoral staff as
primitive as the shepherds carried on the Great Night !
The motley congregation was impressed, and for
years after the wondrously-tinted staff had a place
over the rafters at Ste. Anne, where it was the sub-
ject of many tender and laughing reminiscences.

Before Bishop Tache went away a very important
step was taken by him in conjunction with Father
Lacombe. Lac Ste. Anne mission, as we have seen,
was established by Father Thibault mainly for the
Crees, because it was remote from the Blackf oot trail
to Fort Edmonton.

But since the visit of Father Lacombe to the
Blackfeet during the epidemic that race had been
hankering for a share of the magnetic little man's



80 FATHER LACOMBE 1860

attentions; while he felt the time had come when he
should turn to this neglected people.

Consequently, one day at Lac Ste. Anne a Black-
foot chief, attired in savage splendour, sought an
audience with the bishop. In the name of his tribe
he asked that a priest should be sent among his peo-
ple. The chief promised that the missionary would
be unmolested, and that, while he was with them, they
would not make war on their Cree enemies.

He wanted the priest to carry a white flag bearing
a Red Cross as a sign easily recognized and to be
respected by all. (This proviso is quite obviously
the result of Father Lacombe's conferences with the
chief and his people.) The interview caused the
bishop to decide upon what Father Lacombe had
been urging for some time the foundation of
another mission nearer the Fort, where the Blackfeet
could be assembled from time to time.

There was still another reason influencing the
bishop. Each year increasing numbers of Metis
were abandoning their nomad-life to settle about the
mission and learn to farm. Father Lacombe in his
numerous excursions through the country had seen
many places with better soil than that about the lake;
where also there were no muskegs to trap unwary
cattle in spring.

Consequently during the bishop's visit it was ar-
ranged the two should visit these points.

They made long trips into the country by dog-
train and snowshoes. One day, they reached a fine



1860 FATHER LACOMBE 81

hill overlooking the Sturgeon valley, where that
pretty river winds on itself in many curves and Big
Lake gleams in the distance. The prospect at once
held the bishop's attention.



VIII

STANDING on this hill-top, where Father Lacombe
had so often paused to rest his dog-train, the two
pioneers made a halt. They surveyed the broad
valley intently, refreshing themselves with a choice
morsel of pemmican as they did so. The Bishop
finally turned from his survey and said:

"Mon Pere, the site is indeed magnificent. I
choose it for the new mission, and I want it to be
called St. Albert, in honour of your patron."

Father Lacombe acquiesced in this order, which
was, he confesses, quite agreeable to him. Then the
bishop planted his staff in the snow where they stood,
saying:

"Here you will build the chapel!"

And on the exact spot where the staff had been
planted, Father Lacombe a few months later erected
the altar of the mission chapel.

Friends of Father Lacombe aware of his intui-
tive knowledge of human nature and the subtle
diplomacy hidden under his most naive and simple
plainsman's exterior will gather from this incident,
as on numerous other occasions with Indians and
whites, that Father Lacombe had his companion do
exactly what he wanted him to do. ... And all



1861 FATHER LACOMBE 83

the while the bishop felt he was the prime mover in
it all!

It was now 1861, and Ste. Anne mission had
arrived at a period where life meant a peaceful round
of work. This was not what the ardent nature of
Father Lacombe desired. He turned with eagerness
in the springtime to the building of the new mission.
Father Remas was preparing then to go up to Jasper
House to hold missions for the Indians there* Father
Caer, who had come in the previous summer to replace
Father Frain, was to go to the prairies with the
hunters for four months. Ste. Anne was almost
deserted by pastors and flock.

The snow had melted from the face of our good old
Mother, as some of his Indians called the Earth, when
Father Lacombe got ponies, oxen and farm imple-
ments together, and with the devoted Normand
couple for servants made his way to the big hill by
the Sturgeon. They pitched their skin tents on the
summit of "la chere colline!' After Mass on the fol-
lowing morning Father Lacombe walked out over
his new domain, showing its beauties to the apprecia-
tive Metis couple with all the delights of a landed
proprietor.

Early on Monday morning Father Lacombe,
Michel and two other Metis crossed the river to the
spruce forest on the opposite hill and began to get
out logs for the buildings. But before the first stroke
was put in the trees, the four knelt, as Father



84 FATHER LACOMBE 1861

Lacombe directed, and asked the Great Master to
bless their work.

Soon the forest rang with the strokes of their axes,
and Rose the wife of Michel in her tent listened
with delight to the echoes as she boiled the dried meat
for their noonday meal.

For ten days the logging continued, one of the
oxen being employed to haul the logs to the site. A
saw-pit was made, and logs sawed under the young
priest's instruction. Meanwhile two of the men were
employed in clearing and breaking the soil.

There was only one plough: Father Lacombe was
anxious to cultivate as great an area as possible; so
he arranged that one man should plough part of the
day with two oxen, while the other man with another
yoke should plough late into the night. This was
possible because of the long twilight of the Saskatche-
wan valley.

Very soon a number of the Ste. Anne Metis and
freemen turned up at the new mission, preferring it
to the summer hunt for a novelty. The men began
to get timber for houses ; the women were set to work
on a large communal garden where carrots, onions,
beets, cabbages, turnips and other vegetables were
sown in abundance. But the ruling-spirit of all this
activity; now in the saw-pit, now at work on the
houses, again in the fields was Father Lacombe,
altogether happy in finding an adequate outlet for
his energy.

All through the spring the work progressed. July



1S61 FATHKR LACOMBE 85

came and the fertile grainlands on the hilltop were
touched with the colour of the harvest. Father
Lacombe and his regiment of workers were enjoying
their own potatoes and vegetables. The houses which
had risen "by enchantment," as the Genius of the
place declared, would soon be ready for habitation.
They were quite seemly structures for the period and
the place, all being fitted with floors and doors and
windows, as well as shingles on the roofs made by
the Genius and his zealous helpers.

Autumn came the incomparable golden autumn
of the western prairies, and the harvests were reaped
and stacked, golden tents on the stripped fields. The
vegetables were covered away in root-cellars on the
side of the hill. The grain that had not properly
matured was stacked for feed for the cattle and pigs,
while the rest was threshed and brought to the Com-
pany's grist-mill at Fort Edmonton.

Alexis and some noted hunters went out to the
plains for buffalo : others at the mission brought home
each night tempting stores of wild ducks from the
marshy ponds fringing the Lake. ... "Qu'il
etait delicieux pour les Metis comme pour I'Indien,
ce temps de VAge d'Qr, quand la chasse etcdt encore
abondante!" Father Lacombe writes rapturously.
. . . "How full of delights for the Metis as for
the Indian, this Golden Age when the Hunt was still
abundant!"

By this time twenty Metis families had been
attracted to St. Albert, and were working on their



86 FATHER LACOMBE 1862

houses or lodges for the winter. . . . And with
all this the heart of Father Lacombe was very glad.

In September a young traveller was carried into
the mission terribly wounded by the accidental dis-
charge of his gun. Father Lacombe put him in his
own bed, where he and Michel did everything they
could for him. They dressed his terrible wound,
mitigating his numbed terror by their sympathy. He
lingered a couple of weeks.

The unfortunate youth was from Hamilton,
Ontario. Father Lacombe never enquired what his
business in the west had been, and he has long ago
forgotten his name, but at the time he wrote to the
man's family and received a grateful response from
them.

The following year, 1862, Father Lacombe says
he opened "with my axe in my hand" at work on
buildings for the new mission. In the spring he
decided there must be a bridge across the Sturgeon
at the foot of the hill. The river was greatly swollen
this season and crossing doubly difficult, yet he held
to his custom of attending the Fort on every alternate
Sunday to celebrate Mass. The previous summer
he had built a small scow or raft, which he used as
a ferry, swimming his pony across.

"But I grew so tired of this," he told me once.
"I say to myself one day 'I'll make a bridge/
Next Sunday after Mass I went outside and called
aloud:

" 'My friends, I'm finished to cross that way in the



186S FATHER LACOMBE 87

water walking in the mud on the bank and pushing
the scow. I'll build me a bridge, and if any of you
do not help me that man will not cross on the bridge :
he will go through the water. Yes, I will have a
man there to watch.'

"Next morning that whole settlement came out
with me. They brought axes, ropes, everything we
need. I put an old Canadien freeman as supervisor,
and in three days we had a solid bridge. While they
worked I fed them all, with pemmican and tea."

For a long time this was known along the Saskat-
chewan as The Bridge. Lord Milton and Cheadle
noted it as the only bridge they had seen in the Hud-
son's Bay Territory. To the inhabitants it was a
marvel. Like children they crossed and re-crossed
it scores of times at first simply for the delight and
novelty of it.

The bridge built and the convent well advanced,
Father Lacombe decided he should go over the
prairies to St. Boniface to report to his bishop and
bring back the yearly supplies of the missions from
Outside. At that time it had become necessary to
pay the Indians and Metis for work. A man's hire
was one skin a day, which meant that he must be paid
in goods to the value of one beaver-skin.

Anticipating the need of several workmen at the
new mission, Father Lacombe decided to secure as
large a supply of goods as possible. To avoid pay-
ing the high freight rates of the Company, he organ-
ized now a brigade of Red River carts the historical



88 FATHER LACOMBE 186fc

wooden conveyance of western Canada, which has
creaked its commonplace way into history as effectu-
ally as did Boadicea's more brilliant chariot.

This was the first brigade of carts to cross the
prairies with freight between Fort Edmonton and
the Red River.

The voyage across the prairies was made each way
in one month, and on his return in August Father
Lacombe brought with him an Oblate novice, Brother
Scollen, to open a school for the children at Fort
Edmonton. This school 1 the first regular school
to be opened west of Manitoba was held in a log-
house within the Fort, and there were twenty pupils,
the children of the Company's clerks and servants.

They were not scholars of a conventional type.
Many of them wore deerskin garments and leggings,
and carried lumps of pemmican or dried meat in their
pockets as dainties. At the sound of the voyageurs'
songs or cheers in autumn, they flew like arrows from
their bows out to the bank to welcome the brigade
home. When gunshot signals arose from the south-
ern bank, they rushed to see what stranger would
return in the boat sent across from the Fort. They
were wild as hares.

This autumn in descending the ladder from a trap-

i It is worth recording that only forty-five years later over one hun-
dred students of the new University of Alberta could look across the
Saskatchewan at the deserted gray Fort, from which this school-house
had long before vanished and speak of the Fort and all pertaining to
it as something connected with an age quite remote. ... So quickly
has this Age made progress in the West!



1863 FATHER LACOMBE 89

door in the storehouse loft, Father Lacombe missed
his footing. The ladder slipped, his load of tools
fell and instinctively grasping the floor above him,
the heavy trapdoor crashed down on his hand. He
called: no one came. .' . .

He grew faint, and in his impatience fearing death
would result, he fumbled in his pocket for his knife,
planning to cut his hand off at the wrist. The knife
was not there. . . . Rallying his strength for one
desperate effort, he drew his body up, crashed on the
door with his head and hand. ... It moved
slightly he wrenched his hand out, and fell to the
floor unconscious.

Michel and Rose, greatly distressed, found him
there a little later, still unconscious, and for fifteen
days his hand was so shockingly bruised he was unable
to celebrate Mass.

By the end of this year 1862 St. Albert had
assumed an air of pastoral permanence. The fol-
lowing year opened peacefully enough for the little
colony. In the spring Father Lacombe sent Father
Caer with some Metis to St. Boniface with the carts,
while he remained at his post an energizing spirit
putting in the grain crops, building a grist-mill and
completing the shelter for the nuns, while work was
begun on a larger house for them.

The past winter had been so hard that the Indians
and some traders were in a state of semi-starvation
for months. The Crees and Blackfeet made peace,
because they needed all their energies for the hunt.



90 FATHER LACOMBE 1863

Fort Edmonton, in spite of its traditional stores, knew
the nip of want toward the end of winter, but at St.
Albert the little colony's store of dried meat was eked
out with vegetables and grain from the mission-farm
and fish dried in the autumn.

The Genius presiding there now became even more
anxious to assure them a continual supply of food,
and with this intention he set to work upon a flour-mill
that he had ordered from St. Boniface with the last
year's carts. His day-dreams already showed him
grain-fields yellowed for the harvest and extending
to all points of "this dear hillside." He gave small
prizes to the Metis for putting in large crops on their
own farms, and the system proved effective.

With the help of an American adventurer, who had
sought the free hospitality of the mission during the
winter, Father Lacombe set up the machinery of his
little mill. It was a vexing task, for neither of the
amateurs understood their work. With the machin-
ery once placed, there was more trouble ahead taming
the Indian ponies to furnish power.

More strenuously than their human prototypes
these bronchos resisted the yoke of civilization, the
drudgery of modern industry. Father Lacombe was
determined, though. His will, that later proved a
match for whole Indian tribes, was not to be over-
come by bronchos. By degrees they were broken in,
and on occasions when they were simply "furious,"
Father Lacombe resorted to the use of oxen, with a



1863 FATHER LACOMBE 91

Metis sitting near to touch them up when they
lagged.

Like a verse out of the history of The-House-that-
Jack-built is the passage written by Father Lacombe
to a benefactor in Quebec concerning "the wild ponies
that turn the big wheel that catches the cogs of a
little wheel, that pulls round the band that sets the
millstones in motion >*' . ." to grind the flour for
the colony of St. Albert.

"Having neither blacksmiths, nor iron, nor imple-
ments the supply of power to our invention was often
interrupted. . . . However, we at last made
flour to the great admiration of our people."

This was the first horse-power mill erected on the
western plains, and it had a somewhat varied course
not unattended by misfortune.



IX

IN August of this year, Governor Dallas of the
Hudson's Bay Company arrived at Fort Edmonton
on a tour of inspection.

With Mr. Christie he went riding out to see the
mission, which had become the one point of interest
easily accessible to the Fort. Furthermore, Dallas,
who had come not long before from Oregon, and had
shared there in the Company's determined opposition
to the entry of American settlers, was suspicious of
Father Lacombe's little colony, where the freemen
and Metis were giving all their time to farming
instead of trapping furs as the Company's dividends
demanded they should.

His irritation attained its height when he reached
the Sturgeon. There stood The Bridge! The boast
of the settlement it might be, but as surely plain evi-
dence of the intrusion of the white man and his unin-
vited Progress. Tut! tut! this was enough to make
any Company man of the old school grow hot. Could
not the Gentlemen Adventurers have built bridges
over every stream in the west if they had wanted to
see them there? And here was this priest building
one with its invitation to settlers the thin edge of
the wedge of civilization being thrust in.

92



1863 FATHER LACOMBE 9S

"Have that bridge removed to-morrow," Dallas
ordered Christie sternly, and the Chief Factor
assented quietly. At the mission dinner-table,
where he was regaled with the best of its cream and
the choicest of its vegetables, the stalwart Governor
grew hot again, but this time with a sort of admira-
tion. Emphasizing his remarks with strokes of his
heavy fist on the little table, he said to Christie:

"See the thrifty way in which these missioners make
the most of everything, in spite of their poverty. See
how with all our resources and our hundreds of serv-
ants, our Forts are falling to ruin, while these priests
who come into the country with nothing but a little
book under their arm" referring to the Breviary
which Father Lacombe had under his arm "they are
performing wonders.

"Their houses spring up from the ground like
trees growing bigger and better all the time; while
our Forts are tumbling to ruin. Sir, things must be
improved!"

Before long things were changed at Fort Edmon-
ton, but when the old Governor in whom the sterner
traditions of the Company seemed embodied had
gone on his way again, no hand was lifted at Mr.
Christie's order against The Bridge. The Factor
had no intention of working such an injustice upon
his friend.

In 1863 Lord Milton and his travelling companion,
W. B. Cheadle, visited St. Albert. They had already
spent one dreary winter in a log hut built by them-



94 FATHER LACOMBE 1863

selves in the vicinity of Fort Carleton. Like most
people on the plains that season they had known what
it was to feel hungry. At Fort Edmonton, where
Richard Hardisty was now in charge during
Christie's absence, the travellers had to spend some
time waiting for horses and guides to push on to the
mountains.

Meanwhile they visited St. Albert and relate in
their book of travels:

"At Lake St. Alban's, about nine miles north of
the Fort, a colony of freemen i. e., half-breeds who
have left the service of the Company have formed
a small settlement which is presided over by a Romish
priest. Some forty miles beyond is the ancient col-
ony of Lake St. Ann's of similar character, but with
more numerous inhabitants.

"Soon after our arrival Mr. Hardisty informed us
that five grizzly bears had attacked a band of horses
belonging to the priest of St. Albans and afterwards
pursued two men who were on horseback one of
whom, being very badly mounted, narrowly escaped
by the stratagem of throwing down his coat and cap,
which the bears stopped to tear to pieces. The priest
had arranged to have a grand hunt on the morrow
and we resolved to join in the sport.

"We carefully prepared guns and revolvers and at
daylight next morning drove over with Baptiste to
St. Alban's. We found a little colony of some
twenty houses built on the rising ground near a small
lake and river. A substantial wooden bridge spanned



1863 FATHER LACOMBE 95

the latter, the only structure of the kind we had seen
in the Hudson's Bay territory.

"The priest's house was a pretty white building
with garden around it and adjoining it the chapel,
school and nunnery. The worthy Father, M.
Lacombe, was standing in front of his dwelling as
we came up, and we at once introduced ourselves and
inquired about the projected bear-hunt. He wel-
comed us very cordially, and informed us that no day
had yet been fixed, but that he intended to preach
a crusade against the marauders on the following
Sunday, when a time should be appointed for the
half-breeds to assemble for the hunt."

"Pere Lacombe was an exceedingly intelligent
man, and we found his society very agreeable.
Although a French-Canadian he spoke English very
fluently and his knowledge of the Cree language was
acknowledged by the half-breeds to be superior to
their own. Gladly accepting his invitation to stay
and dine, we followed him into his house, which con-
tained only a single room with a sleeping loft above.

"The furniture consisted of a small table and a
couple of rough chairs, and the walls were adorned
with several coloured prints, amongst which were a
portrait of His Holiness the Pope, another of the
Bishop of Red River, and a picture representing some
very substantial and stolid looking angels lifting very
jolly saints out of the flames of purgatory.

"After a capital dinner of soup, fish and dried
meat with delicious vegetables we strolled around the



96 FATHER LACOMBE 1863

settlement in company with our host. He showed us
several very respectable farms, with rich cornfields,
large bands of horses and herds of cattle. He had
devoted himself to improving the condition of his
flock, had brought out at a great expense ploughs and
other farming implements for their use, and was at
the present completing a corn-mill to be worked by
horse-power.

"He had built a chapel and established schools for
the half-breed children. The substantial bridge we
Bad crossed was the result of his exertions. Alto-
gether this little settlement was the most flourishing
community we had seen since leaving Red River, and
it must be confessed that the Romish Priests far excel
their Protestant brethren in missionary enterprise
and influence.

"They have established stations at Isle a la Crosse,
St. Alban's, St. Ann's, and other places, far out of
the wilds, undeterred by danger or hardship, and
gathering half-breeds and Indians around them, have
taught with considerable success the elements of civ-
ilization as well as religion; while the latter remain
inert enjoying the ease and comfort of the Red River
settlement, or at most make an occasional summer's
visit to some of the nearest Posts." 1

i In this last statement the travellers were rather severe, for al-
though the Catholic missionaries certainly had gone into the wilder-
ness in vastly larger numbers than any other, and had worked in
heroic fashion, there were at that time two missionaries of the Church of
England in the Mackenzie district, where the first went in 1859; while on
the Upper Saskatchewan the Rev. Mr. Woolsey, a Wesleyan preacher,



1863 FATHER LACOMBE 97

This year with St. Albert completely hewn out of
the forest and all matters progressing favourably,
Father Lacombe felt his old desire to go far out into
the plains to meet the Blackf eet in their own country.
Taking his Alexis and a half-breed Kootenai and
Cree, named Francois, who spoke some Blackfoot,
he rode forth with plenty of dried meat for provi-
sions.

For the first time he carried with him his Red Cross
flag a small white pennon about two feet by one
and a half, with a red Cross emblazoned on it. It
was the signal agreed upon with the Blackfoot chief
at Ste. Anne in 1860. The little party scoured the



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