When LaVerendrye come up the Assiniboine River in 1738 to today’s Portage la Prairie, he found a village of “Western Dakotas” or Assiniboine near today’s water plant. They co-existed with the Cree when the Cree arrived. He immediately held a council, gave presents to the people, and in the name of France, La Vérendrye entered into a Treaty relationship with them. There he built Fort de la Reine on the south or right bank of Assiniboine with the object of intercepting the Assiniboine trappers on their way to the English posts on Hudson’s Bay as well as extending his supply route as he had done all the way across Lake Superior.
In 1750, the Cree burned Fort la Reine. In the winter of 1750, Pere Mornie spent the winter at Fort la Reine. The fort was rebuilt by Legardeur de St. Pierre in the winter of 1751.
On February 22, 1752, some two hundred Assiniboines arrived at Fort la Reine, passed its gates, took position of the guard house, and threatened to kill Le Gardeur de St. Pierre, the commander. He was forced to leave.
In 1753, the fort was rebuilt once more. But as all French forces began to be needed to fight the English in Quebec. St. Pierre was sent to command the French forces on the Ohio River, where he had discussions with General George Washington. St. Pierre was killed in the Battle of Lake George in 1755.
Which brings this “pre-history” to the complicated, interesting and tragic story of the Cree predecessors of Black Robe. It begins with the horror of smallpox:
“The great scourge of smallpox which raged throughout the west and north from 1780 to 1782 . . . was a disaster which changed the whole history of the Western Indians.”
Estimates are that 75% of the population was destroyed by the plague. As late as 1815, there were reports of the bleached bones of the victims of this terrible epidemic in great numbers at several points.
David Thompson described coming to an encampment on the Eagle Hills.
“None of us had the least idea of the desolation this dreadful disease had done until we went up the bank to camp and looked into the tents, in many of which they were all dead and the stench was horrid… From what we learned three-fifths had died under the disease.”
That was the situation which certain groups of Ojibway migrants found when they first arrived in the Red River Valley.
Now to understand the Ojibway migration. One must go back to the civil war of the British which was triggered by the Declaration of Independence in 1775. That war, known today as “the Revolutionary War”, pitted loyalists to the Crown with those who wanted to be independent of the Crown, to become a “country” instead of a “colony”. That war ended in favour of the United States of America becoming a country.
So it was that in the last half of the 18th Century, the Ojibway/Chippewas were moving westward along two route: they gained occupancy of such important Minnesota sites as Sandy, Leech, and Red Lakes, and secondly, they also had become prominently located on the Lake Superior-Lake Winnipeg water traverse, Rainy Lake, and Lake of the Woods.
When the Red Lake Ojibway/Chippewa came to Pembina to trade in 1790, they found only a small remnant of Assiniboines left, survivors of the smallpox. The Assiniboine invited them to come to live with them in order to increase their protection against the Sioux, since European settlement was pushing both groups into competition for the same territory. That led to an influx of related Ojibwas from the southeastern Lake Superior Region to the Red River area. During this period, around the 1780s, Ojibway from the Red Lake, Leech Lake, and Sandy Lake area found the readily-accessible game supply was diminishing. New hunting grounds were required, and this meant pushing back the Sioux.
As they moved north, the Ojibway found the Assiniboines and the Crees encamped in the Pembina Mountains, where they were received in the most friendly manner, and after smoking and feasting for two or three days, these “children of the forest”, as historians referred to them, were formally invited to dwell on the Plains, to eat out of the same dish, to warm themselves at the same fire, and to make common cause with them against their enemies the Sioux, and were told that the country to which they were invited was extensive and abounded in buffalo, moose, and deer, and that it had become to them a land of death — that whenever they turned their steps they trod on the unburied bones of their kindred. . .”
Subsequently, Ojibway people began to accompany French fur-traders as they arrived Sault Ste. Marie on their journey from Montreal, headed for the Assiniboine River at today’s Winnipeg. That was the gateway to the rich furtrade the Hudson Bay Company was running from York Factory.
This is what had brought Mechkadewikonaie and his people to the Forks of the Red River and the Assiniboine. They became were known as “Saulteaux”, meaning from the “Sault”. “Sault” is the French word for “rapids”, referring to the impressive rapids at today’s “Sault Ste. Marie” where Lake Superior flows into the “St. Mary’s River” on its journey to Lake Huron.
So the Indigenous people of under discussion called themselves “Anishnabeg”. The British called them “Ojibway”. The French wrote it as “Achipoes”. The Americans wrote it as “Chippewa”. And when they arrived in the Red River Valley, they were called “Saulteaux.”
Later, the settlers called the Saulteaux “Bungee”, a term which Peter Fidler said in his journal in 1820 arose because in trading, the Ojibway always said they were being offered “bungee”, meaning “too little”.
Today, it might be said correctly that the “Saulteaux” are Ojibway originating from the area where Lake Superior drains into Lake Huron, now known as Sault Ste. Marie, and are the “Chippeway Tribe” which entered into Treaties 1 and 2.
Like their predecessors from Red Lake, the Ojibwa arrivals from Sault Ste. Marie found the Cree Nation in chaos and despair. Virulent smallpox had decimated the population, even to the shores of Hudson Bay.
At this same time, the surviving Cree and Assiniboine who predominated in the Red River country were moving from fur-gathering to acting as intermediaries in the trade to provisioners to the rapidly-expanding fur-trade network, and with newly-acquired horses, to exploiting the buffalo herds of the plains to the west and south of the Red River country.
The Saulteaux were invited to join the same alliance of the Red Lake Ojibway and the Cree and Assiniboine – to gain allies against the Dakotas to the south.
Both newly-arriving Ojibway groups had enriched their nation by bring in people from other nations. There was considerable intermarriage with the Ottawa, for example.
Thus it was that the resident population of Cree welcomed their linguistic cousins as allies against the Dakota, who also had a claim to this area.
This Ojibway Migration between 1790 and 1795, the smallpox, and the alliance was described by Chief Peguis in an interview with the historian Donald Gunn in 1860. A second account by John Tanner confirms that history.
How were the Ojibway of this time described? Accounts of the day said they dressed elaborately, with ribbons and beads and small brooches “which is very tastefully arranged”. They were attentive to their children. Girls married at 14, had children by age 16, and stopped childbearing at age 30. Some used leather tipis, while others used birch-bark wigwams shaped like beehives, 10-12 feet in diameter, seven feet high. These were painted. The “Bungees” had a reputation for medicine, for which the other native people paid them well.
Peter Fidler noted in his diary that the Ojibways most commonly took their pay in clothing, guns and kettles, while the Cree were paid in rum.
Some people were permanently attached to Hudson’s Bay Company posts: HBC furnished the ammunition, and paid a quart of “high spirits” for each tenth animal. “Our hunter has killed us 38 moose and red deer . . .” Fidler wrote in his journal one day. The trader also gave presents to the hunter’s wife, “such as a half pound of beads, a couple of knives, a little gartering, an awl, steel, and a little of the cheering liquor.”
Some of the Ojibway did not remain in one location and traded at many different posts, sometimes at La Souris, sometimes at Fort Dauphin, sometimes at “Lac du Manitou-ban”, and, as the trader’s journal put it, at “other places wherever fancy leads them”.
In 1792, the North West Company operating out of Montreal extended its operation over the entire Ojibway country from Lake Superior and the Mississippi in both the U.S. and Canada, in contrast to the Hudson Bay Company which operated out of York Factory.
Also at this time, free-trader posts or “Pedlars” entered the scene. Blondish’s Fort was built in 1793-7 by a free-trader on the Assiniboine River below Portage la Prairie. Another, Adhemar’s Fort, was a NWCo. fort located six miles east of Portage la Prairie, south of the High Bluff CPR station.
In less than a year, there were five competing posts working against each other: liquor was the currency, the first thing to be given to trappers when they entered the fort, the last thing they received when they left. In 1796, the HBC Post was rebuilt at the site of the old French fort, sometimes called “Assiniboine River Fort” and later “Portage-la-Prairie”, “La Prairie”, and “Portage des Prairies”. In 1798, David Thompson visited the NWCo. Post here in 1798, calling the place “Meadow Portage”. D.W. Harmon used the name “Plain Portage” in 1805, saying the NWCo. fort was “miserable”, but “the local situation of which is beautiful beyond anything that I have seen in this part of the world. Opposite the fort was a plain, about 60 miles long and from 1 to 10 miles broad, in the whole extent of which not the least rise of ground was visible, and that the natives resorted to this place every spring to take and dry sturgeon.”
At this time, the horse had never been used in this area. The Ojibway had been attracted to the area around Pembina because of “the abundance of furred and large game, notably the beaver, buffalo, deer and bear on streams above and below the Pembina post and in the low wooded Pembina Mountains to the west. It was ideally situated for navigation.” However, the area lacked the characteristics necessary for a permanent settlement, e.g., wild rice and maple sugar. Nor were fish in great supply. The open prairie did not offer protection from enemies.
On April 11, 1800, Alexander Henry wrote in his journal, “the Terre Blanche [White Mud River] having been clear of ice for some time, I embarked in my canoe for Portage la Prairie.
On August 21, 1800, Henry’s expedition left the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers en route for the Pembina region, the base of operations for the 1800-01 fur season. Henry had contracted 41 hunters near Portage la Prairie earlier in the summer. Among those contracted was Black Robe (“Robe Noire”). Henry lists him as a member of a band from the Leech Lake area of Minnesota who had left there for the Red River Country in the years 1789-90.
It was at this time that Daniel Harmon of the North-West Company encountered the man named John Tanner, “the white captive”. Tanner is the second person in the history that can be traced to the “Portage Band”. Harmon describes Tanner as speaking “no other language excepting theirs. He is about twenty years of age, and is regarded as a chief among that tribe. He dislikes to hear people speak to him respecting his white relations; and in every respect excepting his colour he resembles the savages with whom he resides. He is said to be an excellent hunter. He remains with an old woman who soon after he was taken from his relations, adopted him into her family; and they appear to be mutually fond of each other as if they were mother and son.”
The Ojibway gathered around Pembina soon became the target of the Sioux, and the Ojibway moved north into Assiniboine River country. This situation led to the decline of Pembina as a trading centre and forestalled the formation of a stable band of Chippewas in the heart of the Red River Country.
Tanner’s Narrative gives much information about life around Portage la Prairie in the early 1800s. When Tanner travelled westward with his newly-widowed mother, Netnokwa, “After a few days we started to go up the Red River, and in two days, came to the mouth of the Assineboin where we found great numbers of Ojibbeways and Ottawwaws encamped.” This information places both Ojibbeways and Ottawwaws in the Winnipeg area sometime well prior to 1800.
The fact he went “up the river” indicates he arrived via Lake of the Woods to Lake Winnipeg, and from there went to the mouth of the Assiniboine in present-day Winnipeg.
“As soon as we arrived the chiefs met to take our case into consideration and to agree on some method of providing for us. These, our relations,’ said one of the chiefs, have come to us from a distant country. These two little boys are not able to provide for them and we must not suffer them to be in want among us.'” Since it is known Tanner was captured in 1789 as a boy, and since he was still too young to hunt when they arrived, arrival must have been in the early 1790s. “Then one man after another offered to hunt for us. . . We then all started together to go up the Assinneboin River, and the first night we camped among the buffalo. . .” This places buffalo a day’s journey up the Assineboin from Winnipeg, well to the east of Portage.
“We continued to ascend the Assinneboin about ten days, killing many bears as we travelled along. The Assinneboin is broad, shallow, and crooked, and the water, like that of the Red River, is turbid; but the bottom is sandy, while that of Red River is commonly muddy. The place to which we went on the Assinneboin is seventy miles distant by land from the mouth; but the distance by water is greater. The banks of the river on both sides are covered with poplar and white oak, and some other trees which grow to considerable size. The prairies, however, are not far distant, and sometimes come into the immediate bank of the river.
“We stopped at a place called Prairie Portage [Portage la Prairie] where the Indians directed the trader who was with them to build his house and remain during the winter.” Meaning the Ojibway were directing the trader where they wished him to locate.
“We left all our canoes and went up into the country to hunt for beaver among the small streams. The Indians gave Wamegonabiew and myself a small creek where were plenty of beaver and on which they said none but ourselves should hunt. . . We were at length joined by four lodges of Crees.”
This places the Cree and the Ojibways/Ottawas in the area west of Portage at this period of time.
“After we had remained about three months in this place . . . the chief man of our band [Assinneboinainse] now proposed to us all to move as the country where we were was exhausted . . .” On the trail, Tanner meets “a woman belonging to one of the brothers of Tawgaweninne [Tanner’s adoptive father].” He later refers to the woman as his “aunt”.
Shortly afterwards, the group “went down to the place where we had left the trader [near Portage la Prairie at Eagle’s Nest] and arrived there on the last day of December as I remember the following was New Year’s Day. Near this trading house we remained for sometime by ourselves.” There they encounter “Peshauba, a celebrated warchief of the Ottawwaws, who had come from Lake Huron several years before.” Peshauba had heard about the needy old Ottawwaw woman and her family and had come with his three companions: Wausso (The Lightning), Saggitto (He Who Scares All Men) and Saningwub (He Who Stretches his Wings).
Sometime later, Netnokwa and others set out down the Assiniboine for Lake Winnipeg. “The mouth of the Assinneboin is a place much frequented by the Sioux war parties, where they lie concealed and fire upon such as are passing.” They finally arrive “at the house [Post] at Lake Winnipeg.
On their return (after buying a six-gallon keg of rum to take back to the men, paying six beaver skins per quart), they again arrive at Portage. “In the Assinneboin River, at one or two days above the Prairie Portage, is a place called Kenewkauneshe Wayobant (Where they throw down the grey eagle), at which the Indians frequently stop. . . About this place elks were numerous… We continued here hunting beaver, and killing great numbers until the ice became too thick; then we went to the prairies in pursuit of buffalo.”
Later, Tanner and his family “went on to the Prairie Portage of the Assinneboin River, where we found Wamegonabiew and Wawbebenaissa.”
On July 3, 1805, the Sioux attacked the Ojibway at Tongue River, a few miles from the Pembina Trading Post. Among those killed was Alexander Henry the Younger’s Ojibway wife and father-inlaw. John Tanner was one of 20 men who went out to do battle after 1400 others fled.
Which brings this pre-history to Lord Selkirk.
In 1805, Thomas Douglas, the fifth Lord Earl Selkirk began to promote a colonization plan in the heart of the North American continent at the Red River area as the only remedy for a superabundance of population in Scotland. He had already established a colony in Prince Edward Island which was rather successful.
In 1808, Selkirk began to invest heavily in the Hudson’s Bay Company. At that time, its stock was only 20% of an earlier peak value, and the company was considered to be on the verge of insolvency. Selkirk hoped to gain sufficient control to be able to use the Company to advance his plan. His purchased reached nearly £40,000 at a time when the whole Company was worth £100,000. Selkirk’s relatives and friends were appointed to the Board, and he took over control of the company.
Also at this time, an Ojibway settlement was established at the junction of Rat Creek and the White Mud River near the end of the twelve-mile portage placed them in a strategic location which would provide them with work, and put the main highway of the North West at their front door. The village would eventually grow and become “Totogan”. After Treaty 1, is would be placed, against their will, into the “Portage Band” which was divided in 1876 in to three portions, one of which, of course is today’s Long Plain First Nation. [After Treaty 1, “the White Mud Band” would be relocated north to the west shore ofLake Manitoba. Today it is known as “Sandy Bay.”
Selkirk also began a series of conferences with the First Nations to regularize relations between the two peoples. Although the Ojibway were more recent arrivals as contrasted with the longer established Crees, it was Peguis who assumed dominance in the negotiations, while the Cree were extremely reluctant to participate. As a compromise, it was suggested that settlement would be permitted by a 20-year lease, rather than a sale, with settlement limited to lands along the rivers. It was Peguis who persuaded the Crees to agree.
The indenture appears above. Prominent on it is the mark of Mechkadewikonaie,”Black Robe”.
One of the persons who assisted in the negotiations was John Tanner.
Thus it was that a Scotchman named Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk, known as “Lord Selkirk”, together with a “white captive” named “John Tanner”, and an Ojibway leader named Mechkadewikonaie, sometimes translated as “Black Robe”, were gathered on 17 July 1817 in what today is metropolitan Winnipeg to participate in an event that would play a strong role in the historical development of what became “the Long Plain First Nation.
Lord Selkirk’s next objective was to bring in Catholic missionaries. He believed they would be a “civilizing effect” on the French-speaking Catholic Metis. It was not long before Protestant groups saw it necessary to have their own mssionaries in order to compete with the Catholics not only for religious objectives, but for control of the Red River Settlement.
In 1820, the Church of England’s “Church Missionary Society” sent the Reverand John West to begin missionary activity at Red River. The Hudson’s Bay Company assisted by appointing West as “Chaplain to the Company.” The Rev. Mr. West reported that his instructions were “to reside at the Red River Settlement, and under the encouragement and aid of the Church Missionary Society, I was to . . . endeavour to meliorate the conditions of the native Indians.”
At this time, the Red River Colony consisted of some 650 persons of European origin, most of them either Selkirk settlers from Scotland and retired Hudson Bay Company employees and their families.
The competitive missionary activity at this time began to divide the Red River Ojibway first into traditional and Christian factions, and then to further divide the factions further into Church of England and Roman Catholic factions.
At this time, the natural world of the Ojibway was far different than today. Animals consisted of moose, whose hide was preferred for clothing; buffalo produced skins used for housing. The red deer were in herds in the parklands, the does producing two or three fawns each year. The “jumping deer” weighted 100 pounds dressed, and were found farther south.
When rabbits were plentiful, the cats appeared, usually in an 8-10 year cycle. The cats were considered good eating. Black bear were not plentiful, and there were a few “Brown and Issabella” bear, and fewer still grizzlies. The beaver seem to have died off about 1800 from some disorder which attacked them throughout western Canada. There were martens, red and silver foxes, and an occasional black fox. There were badgers, otters, and mink.
Birds included vast flights of wild pigeons and a small baldheaded vulture which did not venture north of the Assiniboine. There were three species of humming bird, the largest “no bigger than a walnut.” There were swans, three kinds of geese, partridge.”
In 1821, the Hudson Bay Company and the Northwest Company merged and the trade war ended. British legislation was passed making the Europeans and the mixed-blood people who lived among them subject to British law, but the First Nations people were not affected. A colony of Metis was established at St. Francis Xavier.
The Rev. Mr. West set out on a tour to visit the First Nation population. He found them living in small groups widely scattered across the prairies. This was not a favourable situation for missionaries, who required a congregation who lived in one place the year around with children attending a school. This also meant the people had to develop an agricultural economy. This meant missionary activity created a tension with the Hudson Bay Company, which depended upon the Indigenous population being scattered about for trapping the furs which was the basis of the economy.
By 1825, twelve Indian students were studying English and religion. Rev. West was particularly impressed by the “Half-breeds”, a term they used with pride to prove they had European blood unlike the “Indians”. This group, he said, “. . . are the uniting medium between us and the Indians: they speak their language, and are accustomed to their modes and habits of life… Taken collectively, [they are] a very promising part of our community.”
In 1825, the growing Indigenous Anglican community was joined by an Englishman, the Rev. Mr. William Cochran. He was assigned to work closer to Peguis’ village at a place known as “the Indian Settlement”.
The move to settlements rather than living in scattered extended family groups was nearly fatal in the Winter of 1825-26. There was unusually deep snow. The buffalo herds left their grazing area. Many hunters on the Prairies were reduced to starvation. The people of St. Francis Xavier and White Horse Plain survived by eating their dogs and horses. Missionary David Jones wrote “News of the most deplorable kind arises from the plains: the Canadian Free-men have, for some time, been subsisting on their leather tents, parchment windows, buffalo robes, old shoes, etc. They have devoured all the carcasses of the horses, dogs, &c. that have died since the commencement of winter: it is further stated that the dead bodies of those that have perished have been eaten by their surviving companions.”
By the time Spring arrived, all the seed grain had been eaten. Then a great flood lasting until mid-June inundated much of the entire Red River Valley. Settlers saw their homes float away. Their cattle were stranded on high ground without feed. Some crops were grown when the water subsided. The winter of 1826-27 was also severe.
In 1829, the Rev. Mr. Cockran moved his family to the “Grand Rapids” on the Winnipeg River (also known simply as “the Rapids”) about twelve miles below the Upper Church. Here on the west bank of the river he began work among a group of “Halfbreeds” who were not agriculturalists in any way. Cockran started to develop a small model farm. He also built a small school in a room adjacent to his log house, using the same structure for religious services. Cockran was the first of the missionaries to focus his efforts almost exclusively on the native population. Cockran did not find the work easy: “I am obliged,” he wrote, “to be minister, clerk, schoolmaster, arbitrator, agricultural director, and many other things to this mixed and barbarous people. . .”
By 1830, there were about 5,000 people living in that four-mile-wide strip along the Assiniboine and Red Rivers known as “the Red River Settlement.
In that year, Rev. Cockran had decided he had to be present right in the midst of Peguis’ village if fhe was to be successful. But first, he had to obtain the consent of Peguis, who was initially quite suspicious of the proposal. As Cockran observed, “The Indian has never met with a disinterested white man. He does not believe that such a being exists. All his dealings and knowledge of the whites have only deepened the conviction that they will cheat and take advantage in every imaginable way.” Rev. Cockran’s motives were to influence Peguis’ people to establish an agricultural settlement and abandon their hunting life – two conditions he believed were necessary for successful missionary work. His plan was parallel to one of the Jesuits a century earlier: “but meagre results could be obtained until the Indians were induced to lead a sedentary life. Their wandering habit nullified all attempts at permanent instruction to the young; it engendered improvidence and laziness, bred famile and disease; and the constant struggle to kill fur-bearing animals for their pelts rapidly depleted the game, while the fur trade wrought contamination in many forms.” Rev. Cockran also saw settlement as the only way to protect the land from invasion by the settlers. By then, land in the Red River area was selling for ten shillings an acre. Speculators had already offered Peguis a keg of rum and three blankets for all of Sugar Point, which was over 1½ miles wide. The soil at Sugar Point was good, and the location was along the main Hudson’s Bay supply route.
Both to accomplish this objective and to gain admission to the reserve, Rev. Cochran promised to build houses for the Head men, to supply farm implements, and to provide personal supervision of the project. By settling as farmers, he said, they would eat well the year around and be well-sheltered in winter. His arguments were met with skepticism.
The winter of 1830-31 was severe enough to cause Peguis to be more sympathetic to the idea, but the head men and spiritual leaders objected strongly. The winter of 1831-32 was even more severe, making Rev. Cockran’s offer somewhat more tempting. But to make it work, Rev. Cockran had to start his farming project on a nearby piece of land which was a traditional Ojibway ceremonial ground. But before he could begin, he had to wait for the traditional fish ceremony to take place. Rev. Cockran was invited to attend. He later scornfully wrote in his journal that the sides of the ceremonial tent were decorated with brightly coloured cloth. He compared the expense of buying the cloth to his own Anglican services:
“They were giving what they could ill spare in order to be told a lie; while to the truth, which they might have had without money and without price, they would not listen.”
Rev. CocKran saw the dancing as mere “shouting and running around the tent.” Because the dancers had rubbed fish oil on their skin, Cockran found the odour more than he could take and he left before the ceremony had finished.
The Rev. Mr. Cockran named his new location”St. Peter’s”. He was able to persuade only Peguis and six others to even partially engage in full-time farming. Rev. Cockran complained that when the weather was bad, the Ojibway “farmers” stayed in their tents, when the weather was good they went fishing and hunting. Cockran himself and his hired servants had to do most of the labour.
Cockran was not impressed with the Ojibway women, either. They were “dreadfully given to gossiping, whoring, and lieing . . .” The only way to save them, he said, was to make them industrious, which alone “can recover them from their evil ways and establish their minds in virtue.”
Cockran was also terrified by information given to him likely as “an Indian joke” – that one of his helpers was a cannibal who had eaten nine bodies. Nonetheless, hired help was hard to find, and the man finished his summer assignment with Rev. Cockran. He wrote in his journal that he could only persuade his work crew to put in brief intervals, not more than an hour at a time. He despaired when they would stop for a smoke or to talk.
By the end of the summer of 1832, Cockran and crew had completed three rough buildings: one for Peguis, one for his brother Red Deer, and a third for himself and his assistants. As history will show, Red Deer became a chief at Brokenhead, but never became a Christian.
There had been a small but successful crop of barley. Four of the seven workers held a feast and ate all their share of the barley. Only Peguis and two others saved their share for the winter.
Elsewhere in 1832, a child who would become known as Chief Yellow Quill was born, A new HBC post was established near Portage to replace Brandon House.
1832 was also the year Rev. Cockran arrived at the conclusion that the Hudson’s Bay Company was opposed to Indian settlements, since settled Indians were not likely to do much fur trading. He was worried that some of his missionary reports would be seen by Hbc, and they would realize that his St. Peter’s Settlement was “for Indians”. He wrote the Church Missionary Society which was paying his small salary, “It would be inimical to the cause to publish any extracts [of my reports] which would lead the Directors of the Company to conclude that I am attempting to make a pure Indian Settlement . . . The evangelizing of the heathen will militate against their trade, and prevent them gathering filthy lucre by handfuls . . . Benevolent schemes have always been received with coolness, delayed as long as possible, and when set on foot, treated with such indifference, scorn, malevolence as to ensure failure.”
He asked the Society to “not give any publicity to my plan. . . We have natural difficulties to contend with, sufficiently great to break the spirits of the most determined. Do not increase them by pointing out my march to the enemy.”
Soon Swampy Cree people from the north moved into Cockran’s mission operation, and it was not long before there were more Cree than Ojibway. In the summer of 1833, Cockran’s work crew increased from six to fourteen, but apart from Peguis himself, all the others were Cree.
Rev. Cockran decided to concentrate his energies on setting up a new Cree settlement. He built a large school, but in his journal he complained that parents exercised little discipline over their children, and did not appreciate it when others imposed discipline. Attendance at the school was sporadic, and even then, seemed more related to a noonday meal, warm clothing, and a bribe to the parents in the form of a quart of flour for the children to take home each afternoon rather than the desire to learn. Rev. Cockran wrote, “If we had the same number of the wildest birds of the forest let loose in a room, we should not find it more difficult to move among them. They run in and out, learn or play, according to their pleasure; quarrel with one another, and always seek to settle their quarrels by the knife or the bow and arrow. To assume anything like authority would be to drive them away.”
By 1837, however, Rev. Cockran had come to understand there was some wisdom to maintaining loose discipline. He wrote in his Journal for November 26, 1837 [cited in CMR for 1839, p. 30], “… they cannot endure the same confinement and close application as Europeans. They are frequently seized with a peculiar malady which they call “thinking long”. When under the influence of this, if you cannot amuse them, and make them take exercise, they soon sicken and die. At the Indian settlement, our discipline is very loose. We allow the children to hunt and fish whenever they are disposed, and I think we have greatly diminished the fatal cases by it.”
The work of the Anglicans with Indigenous children caused Bishop Provencher to move into Catholic mission work with the Ojibway lest they all become Anglicans. The year after his arrival, Father Belcourt was ready to establish his mission on the north bank of the Assiniboine river near the present Portage La Prairie, intending the mission to be for the Cree. He hoped to build a chapel and farm, gathering the native people to live around him. Governor Simpson was asked to lend support of 30 pickaxes and the ironwork for a plough.
In April, 1833, Belcourt moved to the new mission but found the area was then inhabited by the Ojibway, of which most had left for the buffalo hunt. Later he found the Ojibway considered the site too exposed to attack from the Plains tribes, and they refused to remain there.
Father Belcourt therefore withdrew to a place 18 km. west of St. Francois to establish his mission of St. Paul des Sauteaux, better known as Baie St. Paul, where he was given a lot of 29.5 acres by Governor Simpson. By then he had conducted 72 baptisms. The parishioners preferred to hear Belcourt preach in Ojibway, which they understood better than French.
Like Rev. Cockran, Father Belcourt maintained that only a radical cultural adaptation to an agricultural way of life would prepare the Ojibway “to receive the word of God”. He was convinced, therefore, that he must induce the Ojibway to live in a settled village where they could be instructed in the Catholic faith. He insisted on building a combination chapel and school house, laid out a village, began a farm, gave out seeds, and encouraged the Ojibway to establish farms near him.
Bishop Provencher was not convinced by Father Belcourt’s argument. The Bishop asserted that evangelization could be pursued without any preliminary changes in the way of life of the Ojibway, reiterating Bishop Plessis’ earlier instructions that the sole duty of the missionary was to evangelize. The priest should follow the Indigenous people on their rounds, visit them when they gathered in large numbers to trade or fish, preach to them at these sites and instruct them in the faith.
Bishop Provencher also understood the special circumstances of the missions in his diocese. Agriculture was not really viable as a way of life in the West at that time, even for those long accustomed to it. Further, it was not advisable to attempt the change because the well-being of the HBC depended on the furs and provisions supplied by the Indians and Metis, and the well-being of the missionary often depended on the HBC. Finally, it was less costly to be an itinerant missionary.
Father Belcourt’s plan, of course, was more appealing to any missionary because it offered more control of the evangelization process and of the enforcement of Christian morality in the daily life of the new Christians. As it turned out, the Ojibway who checked out Father Belcourt’s new mission did not stay for long, and Metis expanding out of St. Francis Xavier took over their lands in the Belcourt mission.
It was during this time that Black Robe passed on. He was succeeded by his son, Peequawkeegan. Remember the name: it will soon reappear in this history. Pequakeken received with the chieftainship such presents as had been made to his father: some ammunition and tobacco, given both as a reward for good conduct “and use of our lands.” Later it was suspected that Peequawkeegan had a a hand in the murder of a Sioux man at Fort Garry, the presents were withdrawn.
In 1851, Rev. William Cockran finished the construction of the stone St. Peter’s Church, built mostly with Indigenous labour, who had to haul the stone some six miles.
It seems that Rev. Cockran was also looking for a change. Or expansion, maybe. After an exploratory visit to Portage la Prairie in 1851, he “. . . sent tobacco to the principal Indians who wandered over that quarter to meet me at certain places in the month of May. . . I went in June to [Portage la Prairie] and fixed on a location and contracted for a schoolroom. Later, Rev. Cockran reported entering into an agreement with Peequahkeekan, Black Robe’s son, for land at Portage la Prairie in 1851. The agreement was that Rev. Cockran “purchased” or leased from Chief Pequakekan the point of land and the Island on which the City of Portage la Prairie now stands, the price being paid in goods.
“The settlers were to have all the bush land lying within the extensive southward curve of the Assiniboine River, and as much of the adjoining prairie as they might need for cultivation, pasturage and hay. In return, a payment of a bushel of wheat from every settler was to be made, an agreement which was duly honoured.”
The transaction would seem to indicate that Rev. Cockran recognized “Indigenous Title”. On the other hand, the transaction took place outside the requirements of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which specified that such land transactions could be made only the Crown.
A number of English Half-breed parishioners from St. Andrews with their families accompanied Archdeacon Cockran to form the nucleus of the new parish in 1853, including Peter Garrioch, William Garrioch, John Garrioch, Fred Bird, Charles and Martin Cummins, Gavin Garrioch, John and Henry Hudson.
Although the Portage Centennial in 1967 celebrated the “first white settlers who founded Portage,” the fact is that Portage was formally founded and settled by English Half-breeds and Ojibway. The only European there was the missionary, Archdeacon Cockran. A Petition from Portage La Prairie, July 25, 1853, to the Church Missionary Society stated:
“Your petitioners have been residing at the Portage la Prairie for nearly two years, that it now contains a population of 213 souls, Indians and half-breeds . . . Your petitioners are of opinion that the Portage la Prairie affords many facilities for and promises ere long to become an extensive Missionary station, it . . . having a goodly number of Indians around who are really willing to give up their native habits and adopt those of the civilized man, and who are anxious that a praying master should be sent to them. . . “The Roman Catholics have for some time had their eye on this place, and they have now promised that if twenty families of their persuasion will settle here, they shall have a priest. We fear the results, as we know too well the paralyzing tendency of Popery.”