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Father Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur online

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plains due south and southeast of Fort Edmonton,
but Father Lacombe's time was so occupied with the
bands of Crees he met first that he finally returned
to the mission without meeting any but one small
camp of Blackf eet.

It was during this journey to the prairies that
Father Lacombe had his famous encounter with the
Sorcerer and medicine-man, White-Eagle, the ruling
spirit in a camp of over 300 hostile pagan Crees of
the plains.

had succeeded his kindly little predecessor, Mr. Rundle, and had a
mission at Pigeon Lake.

In this year, too, the Rev. George MacDougall of the Methodist
Church came into the Edmonton country. The latter was a man to
whose useful life and fine character Father Lacombe gladly testifies in
fraternal charity. He came after Milton and Cheadle's visit, however,
and they had naturally drawn their conclusions from what they saw;
meeting zealous French priests at every post and none of any other
race or creed.


For days the missionary camped with his Alexis
within their circle of tepees unwelcomed, while he
and his religion were most subtly misrepresented and
reviled by the medicine-man. To this Father La-
combe opposed a subtlety and determination that more
than matched White Eagle, and a dower of the "faith
that moves mountains." Mounting his pony at dawn
one day he rode outside the circle of tents holding
his crucifix high in one hand and his Red Cross flag
in the other. He raised the Indian chant of Ho-ho-
ye-hi; then called upon the Indians to rise and hear
his story, for he would talk to them again.

The Indians gathered about him again, and this
time White Eagle's arguments were so completely
overturned that the indignant medicine-man left the
camp and before long almost the entire camp became

Father Lacombe returned to St. Albert for the re-
mainder of the year with occasional visits to Fort
Edmonton, which under William Christie's sway had
assumed an improved aspect.

A house and chapel built for Father Lacombe
stood just west of the Big House. This was un-
doubtedly intended not only to please the priest who
was a warm friend of Christie, but to provide the
Fort as well with a lightning-rod against the wrath
of the Blackfeet.

In the following spring in 1 864- for the first
time in Father Lacombe's recollection the Blackfeet
threatened the peace of Fort Edmonton.


A large party over seven hundred in all had
come in to trade, and were camped for some days on
the hill behind the Fort. The meadows were alive
with ponies, dogs and people, until one day after the
trading had been concluded the order for departure
was cried through the encampment much to the re-
lief of the Gentlemen Traders.

The lodges were pulled down and bound with
thongs : the party dropped easily into marching-order,
a file of hunters winding down the steep path to the
river which was then low and easily forded. They
made a picturesque array lusty strong-featured
bronzed men and women with lithe half -naked bodies
and faces streaked with vermilion. The leaders wore
eagle-feathers in their hair: the men were for the most
part naked but for a buffalo-robe caught around
them: the, women wore decorated tunics of antelope-
skin or blue cloth and richly beaded gaiters. Men
and women alike sat their sure-footed bronchos with
the ease of the plainsman, their primitive chattels
fastened to travoix dragged behind the ponies.

The band had already crossed the Saskatchewan
and their straggling numbers were climbing the trail
up the wooded banks on the south side when the
trouble began. A Sarcee had lingered behind the
party, and standing by the Indian Gate near the
southeast bastion was intent upon a horse deal with
Flatboat McLaine. Joe McDonald and a man
named Smith stood near helping McLaine in the bar-
ter. Smith was endeavouring to make a deal for a


bundle of old clothes and a quantity of alcohol in an
old painkiller bottle.

With vigorous pantomime he would first let the In-
dian smell the alcohol, then pointing to the bottle and
the clothes magnificently proffer the whole for the
horse. The Indian dallied: he wanted more for a
pony in those days was worth fifty to sixty skins.
. . . Suddenly a small party of Cree warriors
slipped around the bastion from the south side: with-
out warning Little Pine, their leader, emptied his
rifle into the Sarcee's thighs.

The Sarcee brave fell forward, mortally wounded,
blood gushing from mouth and nostrils. McLaine
seizing the body dragged it to the southeastern gate
while the Crees made off, firing wild as they went.
The Sarcee's wife in dumb agony ran to throw her
arms around the bleeding body: she was pulled into
the courtyard by the men, and the gates speedily
closed by the steward. 1

Father Lacombe was seated writing in his quarters.
Startled there by the cry that a Blackfoot had been
killed he hurried out to find the unfortunate Sarcee
drenched in blood on the floor of the Indian Hall.
His squaw crouched beside him moaning piteously,

i Malcolm Groat, the son of Alexander Groat, a popular drill-sergeant
in Wellington's army in the Peninsular War, was steward of Fort
Edmonton for several years. He was born in Glasgow and is a de-
scendant of that Jan Groote who came from Holland early in the
eighteenth century, and for services rendered had bestowed on him by
King James II those lands upon which John O'Groat's house came to
be built. Malcolm Groat came to Edmonton House from Scotland by
way of the Hudson's Bay in 1862.


The warrior was not dead, and when his wounds were
dressed, he was put in the care of Steward Groat
and carried to a bed of blankets in the latter's

His wife stayed with him, crouching beside him like
a stricken animal, moaning softly with heart-breaking
poignancy. Groat called on McLaine to keep him
company through this vigil, and McLaine a good-
hearted rough fellow essayed to explain to the
woman by signs that if her husband needed any as-
sistance through the night she was to call himself and
Groat. The two men climbed therewith to their

The well-meant offer only roused the pair to alarm,
and from soft moans their voices raised to weird
death-chants and cries, alternating with calls for "La-
combe!" or "Brazeau!" Groat finally brought the
interpreter Brazeau and after he had reassured the
unfortunate pair that no harm was meant to either by
McLaine, they kept stoically quiet for the rest of
the night.

For a couple of days the warrior lingered then
died. His body was buried under the trees in the
Fort burying-ground by the river, and the woman
laden with gifts was sent back to her own people.

Some weeks later a war-party of Blackfeet re-
turned to the Fort. They were met far outside the
gates by Brazeau, who had enjoyed a reputation
among them for fearlessness since his Missouri days.
He conducted the chiefs to the Indian Hall, where


Christie and Father Lacombe smoked the calumet
with them and sent them home laden with gifts.

About July of this year Dr. Rae, the explorer,
passed through Fort Edmonton on his way to British
Columbia. As all travellers did at the time, when
they had heard of the little Utopia north of the Fort,
he went out to see it and its founder.

"Ah, my crops were fine. The place it looked
yes, heavenly!" Father Lacombe recalls with en-
thusiasm. "And Dr. Rae, he was astonished, he say
to me, to see such grain.

"At this time Alexis, mon fameux Alexis, had some
growth on his hand, big as a bird's egg and soft, and
the pain burned him. When Dr. Rae came out to us
like a Providence I had him look at it, but Alexis
said he was afraid to have anything done for it. I
said to Rae, 'When I talk to Alexis and he is turn
from you cut it quick with your lance!' He did,
and it cured the hand. My poor Alexis!"

The crops that year were particularly good, and
Father Lacombe, anticipating plenty of work for his
mill, tried to improve it. With the Brother Bowes
he built a dam on the Sturgeon to provide power. In
June a steady downpour of rain made the lake and
rivers rise; small creeks swelled to the size of young
rivers; the dam was threatened with destruction.

Fearing the worst Father Lacombe got on his
horse and galloped round the settlement calling on his
people to come and help him. They hung lanterns
in the trees by the riverside and all night worked un-


der his direction digging a canal at the bend above
the mill-dam. The water was diverted from its
regular course, pressure on the dam was relieved
and that precious bit of frontier workmanship

A surprise was now in store for Father Lacombe.
Shortly before the brigade returned from Norway
House Richard Hardisty, the young trader at Rocky
Mountain House, had been down to the Red River.
He brought back word to Father Lacombe that a
brother of his was coming up by boat. A few days
later as the newcomer, a slim youth of eighteen, rode
out to the mission the two met on the St. Albert

Gaspard Lacombe was a straight, self-reliant
youth, less emotional than the missionary, yet resem-
bling him strangely in face and figure. The lure of
the open trail, that in Albert Lacombe had been over-
come by his studies and ambitions, had conquered
Gaspard. Suddenly leaving school at fourteen he
set out roaming with a young man down through
Virginia and Kentucky and back again through Ohio
to Ontario working his way as he went.

He returned home. To please his family he held
a clerkship in Montreal for eighteen months. The
wanderlust again seized him and off he went to Al-
bany. Here a letter came from his mother, enclosing
one from Father Lacombe, in which he alluded to
American miners who had made their first find of
Saskatchewan gold.


Within five hours Gaspard was on board a train
for St. Paul.

The next summer he surprised Richard Hardisty at
Fort Garry by asking to be taken to Edmonton

"But, you little fellow," the Edmonton man pro-
tested, "your brother will be vexed if I take you away
back there!"

Gaspard, not unlike his brother in his determina-
tion, finally had his way, and as we have seen arrived
at St. Albert.

Shortly after his arrival Gaspard Lacombe accom-
panied his brother out to Beaver Hills, where a big
encampment of Crees were driving buffalo into
pounds to slaughter them.

"Ah learned then," says Gaspard in his soft
Southern accents, "what the Sisters meant when they
wahned me that Father Lacombe gave everything
away. Ma dear! the first day he gave away ma red
flannel shirt the only one Ah had in ma sack be-
cause he had nothing himself but what he wore.
. . . Heu! the vermin and cold were so bad Ah
only stayed three days in the camp ; some half-breeds
passed bound for St. Albert. I joined them Ah'd
have left sooner if I could!"

From Beaver Hills Father Lacombe went to
Rocky Mountain House to instruct a party of Black-
feet. One morning outside the gates he was hailed by
a weary party * of American miners, half-famished

i Jimmy Gibbons, who recalled these details for me at Edmonton in


and footsore. They had lived on horseflesh from the
Devil's Lake to the Red River, where the Blackfeet
had stolen all the rest of their horses. A fresh travoix
trail had providentially guided them in to the post.

Father Lacombe led them into the Fort entrusting
them to the hospitality of Richard Hardisty, the trader
in charge. Savoury rabbit-stew, the best the post
could offer, was set before the hungry men and de-
voured with relish.

Through Idaho and Montana, at Buffalo Hump
and Orafino, in Bitter-root Valley, at Bannock and
Pike's Peak, then up in the Kootenays the strangers
had known miner's luck, until now, drawn by the
pale lure of Saskatchewan gold they had come on this
voyage of mischance.


It was in December, 1864, that the Rev. Father
Vandenburghe of France arrived at St. Albert with
Bishop Tache on a tour of inspection. Before their
departure on January 9, new posts were assigned to
Father Lacombe and his colleagues. As fond par-
ents do with their children at Christmas, the Superiors
had tried to give each his heart's desire and so there
fell to the lot of Father Lacombe "the mission of
coursing the prairies to try and reach the poor savage
Crees and Blackfeet."

1909, was one of the party himself a red-shirted miner in California
for years before when there still were "deadfalls" in the saloons along
the waterfront of 'Frisco, and when a man could spend at Placerville
on Sunday most of the gold he had washed out of the rich gulches dur-
ing the week.


Father Lacombe was frankly delighted with his
lot ; St. Albert was becoming "trop civilise" for him,
and his happy experience in the plains-Cree camp
had unsettled him for the mission-routine. "I was
dismissed from the prefecture of St. Albert and given
a free field to course after the Crees and Blackf eet on
the prairies. Behold me in my element! Laetatus
sum in his quae dicta sunt mihil"

With all the ardours of his warm nature Father
Lacombe burned to reach every tribe on the plains
group after group, to gather these poor nomads in
fresh colonies to live there in pastoral contentment
and certainty of food. As each settlement was
formed it would be his aim to turn it over to some of
his younger brethren, while he pushed on again into
the wilds with his Red Cross flag and his plough to
bring into Christian submission still other bands of

FATHER LACOMBE was now to be the missionary
free-lance of the plains to come and go as he would.
It is with difficulty we follow the red and white
gleams of his flag during the next six years. It was
constantly appearing at the most unexpected points
on the prairie between the Bow River and the Peace,
the foothills and the Saskatchewan Forks.

This was his immense hunting-ground for souls
an area inhabited by eight different tribes and his
fearlessness, energy and daring there so matched
those qualities in the bravest of their chiefs that they
came to regard him as a great Christian medicine-

Yet there must have been other qualities in him
more noticeable. For the Indian, when he names a
white man, tries to sum up in one phrase the most
striking qualities of the man and to the Crees Father
Lacombe was always known in this period as Ka-
miyo-atchakwe (The Man-of-the-Beautiful-Soul).
To the various Blackfeet tribes he was Arsous-kitsi-
rarpi (The Man-of-the-Good-Heart).

On January 17, 1865, he left St. Albert with his
man Alexis and four good dogs hauling a toboggan-
sleigh on which they had all the equipment necessary
for several weeks blankets and buffalo-robes for



sleeping in, an axe, Alexis' gun and provisions of
dried meat for both dogs and men . . . "Et puis,
nous voila en marchel 33

At Fort Edmonton Mr. Christie's hand was taken
in greeting, as the friendly Factor wished them God-
speed. They pushed on, breaking the trail for the
dogs where it was necessary. The trip was made
without hardship until the third morning out, when
they woke to a heavy snow storm and cutting wind.
The morning meal was eaten quickly, for they re-
solved to reach the Cree camp near the Red Deer
River that night.

"Marche, Pappillon! Marches, mes chiens!" the
little missionary urged in encouragement, and his
good dogs set off in the teeth of the wind, the travel-
lers in turn breaking the way for them with snow-
shoes. There was "a sweet zephyr blowing, and the
temperature must have been forty degrees below
zero," Father Lacombe recalls.

Men talk little on these trips : there was but an
occasional, "Are you cold, Alexis?" and "Not yet
but you, mon Pere?" "Courage! I'm holding out

Nibbling at dried meat instead of pausing for a
meal they pushed on and reached the Crees' camp at

"A person must have experienced a similar arrival
to have any idea of this," Father Lacombe writes in
his Memoirs. "The darkness, the deafening howls
of the dogs, the yells of the Crees, the remains of


butchered animals lying about and then the cold
which devours you!"

But a Christian chief Abraham Kiyiwin who
recognized the priest at once drew him into his tent
and made the two rest there after they had eaten a
steaming dish of buffalo-meat. Even though the hour
was late, some of the men came to talk with the
Blackrobe, squatting about him on the robes near the
fire. He quickly dismissed them however; he wanted
"a pleasant smoke, a bit of prayer and then to bed."

But not to sleep, with the dogs "a band of thieves"
prowling around the tent half the night! In a
dozing state he heard one gnaw at a bone close by
and he sleepily wonders if they would tear his own
body with their strong white teeth. But he is too
tired to continue the speculation "C'est egal: on
dort" He drops to sleep.

For six weeks he laboured among these Crees, and
here as always on the plains-mission his days passed
in a regular routine. If he could get a good tepee,
where there was no snow, or the smoke was not too
thick he would set up a little portable chapel and be-
gin the day with Mass. After his breakfast, eaten
from a rude dish as he squatted on the ground, he as-
sembled the women, teaching them catechism, prayers
or hymns.

Fifty women with almost as many infants! and
when these last began to cry "I assure you," says
Father Lacombe, "it was interesting something then
to try your patience."


At noon he was accustomed to call the children,
both boys and girls about him and spent the afternoon
teaching them. At least with them, he says, he en-
joyed peace and tranquillity. After the encampment
had taken their evening meal his little bell was rung
by Alexis passing up and down through the camp
like a crier, inviting all the men to the priest's tent.

"Ah, this is something more serious and dignified,"
he recalls in his Memoirs. "They come with their
pipes sometimes we smoked a calumet, the cere-
monial pipe. Then I take on an attitude more ma-
jestic, more reserved, for these are the warriors, and
they love ceremony. After each one has taken his
place according to his rank, I intone in my finest
voice a hymn. Then the sermon.

"Then all to our knees some squat ungratefully
on their heels! We pray we sing, and at the last
we pass about the calumet, whose smoke like incense
crowns the religious service."

In addition to these meetings the missionary vis-
ited the sick to be found in most camps, and when he
could, he administered healing drugs to them. Other
diplomatic visits were paid to pagans of the tribe, of
whom there were usually some in each camp. The
most interesting of the Cree pagans Wihaskokiseyin
Chief Sweet Grass, head chief of the nation, was
in this camp, but to Father Lacombe as to other
priests he would only reply on religious matters :

"Leave me in peace. When my time comes I will
tell you." Notwithstanding this withholding of his


personal adherence he was one of the best friends the
priest had on the plains.

Before his departure Father Lacombe held a coun-
cil in which he outlined his new plan of action, in-
viting the councillors to help him select a place as
a permanent mission for the Cree Indians. They
decided upon Kamaheskutewegdk "The-prairie-
which-comes-out-to-the-river," or as it was named by
Father Lacombe, 1 St. Paul des Cris.

Shortly after his return to St. Albert at the end
of February a deputation of Blackfeet came for him,
begging him to go with them. Their tribe was again
stricken with a mysterious disease. They were help-
less and panic-stricken. Father Lacombe hurried
out to their camp and found them down with typhoid.
It was not serious, however. There were few deaths ;
and after a couple of weeks he could return to St.

Here another call to Rocky Mountain House
awaited him. Other bands of Blackfeet were down
with the same disease. He went, and ministered to
them for some weeks.

Early in May he rafted down the Saskatchewan to
the site of his new establishment, 2 one hundred and
fifty miles east of Fort Edmonton. The Company

1 This old Mission station is now named Brousseau.

2 Father Lacombe has in his possession still the Journal of St. Paul
de Cris, written on a sheaf of foolscap pages doubled to about four
inches in width, with a tattered brown Manila cover. This, although
not complete, keeps definite record of many of the goings and com-
ings of Father Lacombe in those days and fortunately so, for even


had objected to this site, claiming that it would draw
away the Indians from Fort Pitt.

But the Crees favoured it. Likewise the soil was
so fertile and so easily broken that Father Lacombe
determined to locate there in the hope of getting some
of the Metis and Indians to till the land as at St.
Albert. He found a large encampment of Crees,
faithful to their promise, awaiting him. They
greeted him with enthusiasm, running into the water
to pull his raft ashore.

On this he and Alexis had fifty bushels of potatoes,
seed-grain, a plow and provisions. His brother
Gaspard and one Noel Courtepatte had conveyed
other provisions over-land in ox-carts. As the multi-
tude of Crees looked on with the interest of pros-
pective owners the raft was unloaded.

On the following day the eager young missionary
started to plow. The women and children flocked
behind him, crushing the earth with their hands into
fine particles. A couple of days later when the
ground was prepared it was the women again who
dropped the potatoes and vegetable-seeds.

The men tacitly objected to taking any active part,
and Father Lacombe soon found it was not Metis
he was dealing with here. He put himself to work
this spring quite as energetically as at St. Albert,
but with less success and half-hearted assistance. En-

his own memory, so retentive ordinarily of details, has but an incom-
plete record of these days. His rapidity of movement confused even


feebled perhaps by his unusual hardships and exer-
tions of the past four months he fell ill. The third
week in May he writes to Bishop Tache:

"The heat of spring has changed the malady of
the winter to a form of dysentery which carries off all
whom it attacks. After ten days I am almost over-
come by it. All our work is stopped, and I can only
minister to the sick. If this sickness carries me off,
at least my sacrifice is made. I will die happy among
my neophytes, ministering to them as long as I have

But he gradually recovered. Then as the Crees
went off to the prairies to hunt buffalo he returned
to St. Albert to convalesce.

In June he returned, bringing his brother. To-
gether they improved the * 'skeleton of a house" built
the previous winter by Gaspard and Alexis. Gas-
pard returned to St. Albert. For Father Lacombe
it was:

"Hurrah for the prairies! We all went. We
traversed creek after creek, swollen now to torrents;
but these were no obstacles to hungry Indians sigh-
ing for fresh feasts of buffalo-meat. . . . Hey!
I am in my element. My cart, my three horses, my
good Alexis, and our Blackfoot cook with whom I
am studying the Blackfoot language, my tent, my
chapel-case, my catechisms and objects of piety-
behold, my church and presbytery!" he writes to the

"To tell the truth, I am as happy as a Prince of


the Church. My people, about half of whom are
Christian and men of great prestige as hunters they
respect me, they love me. I feel like a king here, a
new Moses in the midst of this new camp of Israel.
It is not the manna of the desert with which
we are nourished, but it is the delicious buffalo-
meat of the prairie which the good Master gives


When they had travelled three days toward the
great sea of the prairies the scouts ranging ahead
wheeled back to signal to them a herd of buffalo was
ahead 1 On the moment came the order to pitch camp.
The women and old men hastened about this duty,
while the hunters saddled their ponies. Guns,
powder, balls, whip and lasso they saw all were in
place. Soon they were ready for the command
the Hunt began!

Apart from the buffalo-hunts, which soon lost their
novelty, the life on the plains was full of delight for
Father Lacombe. By day the wide green prairies
drenched in radiant sunshine were pleasing. At

Online LibraryKatherine HughesFather Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur → online text (page 7 of 28)