A Truly Desperate Journey

Two hundred years ago this April a group of men, women and youngsters from Sutherland set out on what has been called ‘the toughest journey ever made in Manitoba’. To commemorate the bicentenary of the emigration of Kildonan people to Red River, Canada, we have the contributions of two guest bloggers.  This week James Hunter, Emeritus Professor at the University of the Highlands and Islands and author of many popular books on Highland and emigration history, shares with us some of his current research, informed not only by tramping through the glens of Sutherland but by making his own journey to Canada’s far north in winter time.

Five days into April 1814, John Charles, chief trader at Fort Churchill, a Hudson’s Bay Company post close to the bay’s western shore, noted that he had that morning despatched ‘an Esquimaux lad’ and an ‘Indian’ to Churchill Creek ‘with a supply of snowshoes’. Situated near the spot where the thousand-mile long Churchill River reaches the sea, Fort Churchill was linked to Churchill Creek, a Churchill River tributary, by a fifteen-mile trail. At the inland end of this trail – beyond the boundary between the tundra-like marshes or muskeg of Hudson Bay’s coastal plain and the spruce and tamarack forests of the subarctic interior – was a little cluster of log cabins. Thrown up hurriedly the previous autumn, this makeshift outpost, where John Charles’s Aboriginal subordinates unloaded their snowshoe-laden sled, was home in April 1814 to between eighty and ninety people from Sutherland – most of them refugees from mass evictions or clearances initiated a year before in the Strath of Kildonan.

Those people were ten months into what was arguably the most gruelling and protracted journey ever made by emigrants from Europe to North America. A disease-blighted Atlantic crossing and a bitter Hudson Bay winter were behind them. But they remained 800 miles short of their intended destination. This was a settlement then being established by the Earl of Selkirk at Red River – a settlement that would grow into present-day Winnipeg. Hence the Churchill Creek group’s need for the snowshoes supplied by John Charles. Only with the help of such specialist equipment, or so it was thought by Bay Company men like Charles, would any of Churchill Creek’s temporary residents have a reasonable chance of completing their odyssey’s next phase – a 150-mile trek to York Factory. This substantial complex was the HBC’s North American headquarters. It was also the stepping off point for anyone venturing into the continental interior by way of the Hayes and Nelson Rivers – together constituting much the most direct route from Hudson Bay to the earl’s still embryonic colony.

Prior to the advent of air transport, the most straightforward way to get from Fort Churchill to York Factory was by sea. But Hudson Bay in April is frozen coast to coast and, by the HBC’s early nineteenth-century operatives, was not reckoned navigable until the third or fourth week of July. From the perspective of emigrants anxious to reach Red River in time to catch the tail-end of the crop-sowing season, that ruled out the option of waiting at Churchill until a sea passage to York Factory became feasible. If Red River’s aspiring settlers from Sutherland were to obtain any kind of harvest in the fall of 1814, they needed to start voyaging up the Hayes as soon as its ice cover broke in May. This meant that some at least of the Sutherland emigrants needed to quit Churchill Creek for York Factory as soon as winter’s grip had slackened sufficiently to make an overland trip possible.

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James Hunter is shown the sights in Churchill, Manitoba, in -35 degrees!

That had long been clear to Archibald McDonald, the young man in charge of matters at Churchill Creek. During March, therefore, McDonald had selected, from among the younger and fitter of the people for whom he was responsible, the thirty-one men and twenty women he intended to lead into the snow-blanketed barrens between the Churchill and Hayes Rivers – the latter the more southerly of the two. McDonald, despite (or perhaps because of) his knowing nothing of wilderness travel, expected all to go well. John Charles, aware that nothing akin to McDonald’s expedition had been attempted before, was less optimistic. Archibald McDonald’s male companions, Fort Churchill’s chief trader reckoned, would ‘make out with ease’ – because their frequent winter forays in search of game and firewood, as well as keeping them in training, had accustomed them to the use of snowshoes. Charles worried, however, about the capabilities of what was the first group of European women to have sailed into Hudson Bay. None of the ‘females’ getting ready to set out for York Factory, Charles pointed out, had walked ‘any distance’ during the six months they had spent at Churchill Creek. Despite their having been ‘directed … to be exercised in snowshoes’ some days prior to their departure, this did not augur well, Charles thought, for the Sutherland women’s capacity to cope with hazards which, as the veteran HBC man well knew, would test the strongest and ablest of men.

Difficulties were certainly to arise. But when, just after six o’clock on the morning of Wednesday 6 April, the Sutherland party’s long march got underway, it did so in a festive atmosphere. This was encouraged by the stirring sound of the bagpipes played by Robert Gunn who came from the township of Kildonan and who, as Archibald McDonald reported, ‘took his station in the centre’ of the column snaking – in ‘single files’ – out of Churchill Creek. At the column’s head was an Aboriginal guide sent some days earlier from York Factory with a view to ensuring that McDonald and his people took the best way south. The guide, McDonald wrote, was ‘followed by the men’ – all of them hauling sleds piled high with tents, ‘bedding’ and ‘provisions’. This arrangement, Archibald McDonald explained, had the effect – especially in places where ‘the snow was soft and deep’ – of creating a beaten-down trail that, McDonald hoped, would make it easier for the column’s female component to cope with the ‘arduous task’ of trudging forward, hour after hour, on snowshoes.

Churchill and the Strath of Kildonan, both of them around 58 degrees north, share the same latitude. But Kildonan Aprils, though they might bring snow and frost on occasion, also bring definite signs of spring – among them, in good years anyway, the early ‘bite’ of grass so critical, before the strath’s clearance, to the wellbeing of its cattle herds. Nothing like this is true of April on the coasts of Hudson Bay. As in Sutherland, to be sure, the month is characterised by lengthening days and rising temperatures. It followed, then, that Piper Gunn and the other Sutherland people making for York Factory did not encounter intense cold of the kind they had endured at Churchill Creek during December, January and February. But neither did they meet with any real warmth. At times, indeed, Gunn and his companions had to cope with windchill so severe that some of them, as they afterwards recalled, were badly affected by frostbite. ‘We cannot form an adequate conception of the misery suffered by these people on this trip,’ commented Manitoba’s earliest historian. ‘The females suffered most.’

Suffering more than most was Jean MacKay, like Piper Gunn a former resident of Kildonan township. While there had been repeated ‘falls and tumbles’ as a result of people losing their footing when ‘ascending and descending … banks and ridges of hard snow’, those had not resulted in serious injury. However, on 13 April, a week into a journey that must at times have seemed interminable, Jean MacKay fell so heavily when crossing a stretch of ‘bare ice’ that she had to be carried into that evening’s camp. ‘I attended her,’ Archibald McDonald wrote, ‘and found her much inclined to vomit, shivering all over, faintish, abdomen tense, pulse throbbing … and somewhat feverish.’ Jean, it transpired, was four or five months pregnant.

What happened next to Jean MacKay and her companions will be recounted in James Hunter’s book, Set Adrift Upon The World: The Sutherland Clearances, to be published by Birlinn next year.

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