After five days and nights on the train we arrived at Strathcona depot which was the end of steel in those days. Our train journey from Calgary to Edmonton was often so very slow that a few men got out and walked beside of the train for a mile or so. From Strathcona we took the bus to Edmonton. We had quite a bit of business to do and provisions to buy for the next six months. We also purchased a gun and shooting outfit, a couple of iron bedsteads and a few chairs.
In those days the large four-seated democrat stage left Edmonton twice a week, so we travelled to Athabasca Landing by buckboard with the mailman. We could only take with us our grub box, a roll of bedding and one valise. We hadn’t left Edmonton two hours before we began to realize what mud holes were like. A rainstorm the day before had covered up the regular beaten road with a depth of 15 to 18 inches of water in many places, and before we got to the middle of a mud hole our horses would begin to founder in the water. After a number of these experiences, our progress was delayed at one mud hole which was so deep that the driver got down and lifted our box of food and bedding to dry land and then I was treated in the same fashion. The load, of course, was then much lighter and with difficulty the horses got of the mud hole. The driver had intended to cross the bridge at the Vermilion River that night and stay at a farm a few miles further. This was quite impossible as the bridge was broken and it was too dark to attempt to ford the stream. Close to the Vermilion River was an unoccupied native shack which had an old stove but no windows, and only mother earth for a carpet. We had plenty of rugs and blankets, so soon the openings were fixed up while I prepared supper. We had enormous appetites on that trip. Mr. Holmes then put down an old door for a floor and on top of it piled some spruce boughs, rugs and blankets, making it quite comfortable for a night’s repose. I had only been asleep a short time when I felt something run across my face several times and after striking a match, I found mice scattering in all directions. The music of the coyotes in the distance having a concert all their own kept me awake the rest of the night.
As soon as it was daybreak we had breakfast, rolled up our bedding, and intended to cross the river. However, there was such a strong current with three or four feet of water the driver didn’t appear to relish the experience because he wasn’t sure of his horses. Mr. Holmes suggested he should take our grub box and bedding over first and then return for us. This he consented to do after much persuasion. The horses made the trip wonderfully and when we were crossing, the driver said to me, “Now just sit still, put your feet on the seat and hang on tight or else you will be swept off into the current.”
The mud banks on both sides of the river were awfully steep and we had a glorious slide from the top the bank until we struck the old ford. The water was so deep that the floor of the buckboard was well washed but the horses, with difficulty, climbed up the steep muddy bank on the other side.
The trip from Edmonton to Athabasca Landing took three and a half days. On the last day the weather was beautiful. At Athabasca Landing we met other missionaries who were going to Wabasca and Chipewyan. Bishop and Mrs. Young didn’t always go on these long treacherous trips. She was a charming lady! Never shall I forget our morning and evening prayer and readings and the singing of the Doxology each morning after breakfast. Two lady missionaries were also in the house waiting for their boat although they were going to Wabasca and Fort Chipewyan, which was in the opposite direction to Lesser Slave Lake. They told us about their experience with the Indians.
Mrs. Young overhauled our outfit of provisions and clothing for our journey up the river. She had had much experience in this work for her home was a sort of junction for those engaged in NorthWest missions. Her life had been a very practical one and her parting word of cheer to all the missionaries made one feel what a privilege it was to give of our best for God’s work. One of her favourite hymns was “Work for the Night is Coming”, and she set us all that worthy example.
On September 1st we started on the last stage of our journey in a York boat owned by Bredin and Cornwall who had a large fur trading post at Lesser Slave Lake. The boat was about forty feet long and built for freight only. We made ourselves as comfortable as possible near the stern. There was no protection from the weather. The boat was drawn by Indians or [Metis] who towed the boat with a long heavy rope. There were twelve men to a boat and they took their turns in relays of four, changing every forty minutes. This seemed a slow mode of travelling in which to cover 200 miles to Lesser Slave Lake. We expected to do this journey in eight to ten days, but owing to heavy freight on board, bad weather and low water, we were eighteen days.
We enjoyed the trip, however. The trackers, as the men were called, gave me much amusement. Frequently the thickly wooded banks had no towing path and the men would scramble along the side of the high river banks almost falling into the river, or there would be a great tributary to cross and they would plunge into the water with a laugh and a shout. They were merry fellows and tugged the boat along up to their armpits in water for a short time, or they would have to scramble over a huge tree that had fallen across their tracks.
At 6 pm we camped for the night in our tent pitched under some fine old spruce. The gangway from the boat to the shore was four large oars laid together. Across this the Indians carried our grub and bedding and more than once I was carried across and up the steep hill to where our tent was.
We slept very comfortably and awoke at 5 p.m. to find it still raining. Already the Indians had made a fire in front of our tent. One of the trackers told us that he had seen bears at large all night, but there was nothing to fear as they seldom came near a campfire. It rained most of the day and we were glad to turn in to our tent again. The Indians found a native drum on the trail and beat it incessantly that night, singing their native [songs]. Mr. Bredin said no white man could give the same intonation as the Indians to the weird [music].
The scenery was much the same for most of the long trip and became a bit monotonous. From various signs the Indians said there were bears feeding in the distance. After dinner next day when the crew was resting, a huge bear came down to the river to drink and then disappeared. An Indian was at once dispatched to surprise Mr. Bear. He took his gun, powder horn and shot and made off into the thick bush at a brisk pace. When a shot was heard two of the trackers ran off and later came in sight dragging the carcass of a huge bear out of the bush. Then they ran back and brought two half-grown cubs. They spoke to Mr. Bredin in Cree and told him that the mother of the cubs was caught in a trap and was so torn and thin that they shot her and brought the cubs.
There was great rejoicing and feasting among the Indians for Hudson’s Bay Company gave thirty-five of forty dollars in trade for a full-grown bear in season. They skinned the bears and that evening had a feast. Next morning they begged for medicine from Mr. Bredin for they had eaten too much half-cooked bear and very little bannock.
A few days later we had rather a nasty experience as we reached some rapids where an island divided the river. The boat began to grind along the bottom and finally struck aground. The trackers tugged at the rope, but could not move the boat so they jumped into the water and, putting their shoulders under the boat managed to move her sideways. We nearly upset, but luckily drifted into deeper water. I can’t say we exactly enjoyed the rapids, for more than once the boat would suddenly swerve around and we would be at an angle of 45 degrees. In two more days we reached the head of the lake and as a fair wind was blowing a large square sail was hoisted and we were soon scudding before the wind at about eight miles an hour.
Very soon the wind became too strong and we pulled ashore for shelter. Here we camped for three days before the terrible wind ceased. Delicious wild fruit was plentiful, — Saskatoons, raspberries and thimbleberries — and we caught fish. As our bread was all eaten, I had my first experience in making bannock by campfire.
On the third night the wind went down and at midnight we had to strike tent and go aboard for the last seventy miles of our trip. But presently the rain poured down in torrents [again] and the open boat had to be tied up at the mouth of a creek. Later on we made another start and a tent sheet was put over our heads. We were very glad to reach Lesser Slave Lake settlement eventually and arrived there soaking wet. Mr. Bredin lent us his bachelor shack and lit a huge fire in the stove, so we soon changed into dry clothes and enjoyed a hearty meal.
The Anglican mission was across the lake and arrangements were made for us to cross in a Peterborough canoe. When we were half way across the lake a big wind suddenly sprang up and we felt our last hour had come for the water was so choppy, making us feel we might upset any minute. One of the characteristics of Lesser Slave Lake is its sudden squalls which arise without any warning. At Last we reached the “Promised Land” as I had called Lesser Slave Lake. That night we sang the Doxology, our travelling mercies had been many. We had left England on August 2nd, arriving at Lesser Slave Lake on September 18th.
Next morning we noticed the Union Jack was flying and on inquiring found that it was raised when the York boat was in harbor. In those days mail only came in once in six weeks. You may judge that it was a time of great rejoicing and everybody dropped their work and ran down to the shore as soon as the York boat arrived, to get mail and watch freight unloaded.
At once I noticed the Indian babies in moss bags, carried on their mothers’ backs. The mothers were dressed in black. Every married girl adopted the dignity of a black dress. The young girls wore bright colored tartan dresses with many colors of ribbons worn as sashes, hair ribbons and large bows at the neck, regardless of clashing colors. The beautiful beaded moccasins and gloves of the men attracted my notice and the women’s and children’s moccasins were elaborately worked with silk.
Living in the Anglican school building were over fifty boys and girls and four staff. There was the schoolmaster, boys’ matron, girls’ matron and kitchen matron. Besides schoolwork, the girls were taught cooking, washing, scrubbing, ironing and sewing, so that when they left the school, they were thoroughly domesticated. The boys had duties outside working in the garden and fields — feeding cows, pigs, and horses and also milking cows. We made our own butter and baked our own bread. There was also water to haul, which was a job in itself and although we lived opposite the lake, we had to go a mile to the river where the water was clear and soft.
My husband and I lived in the old log mission house in the compound and we were cozy and warm. There was a good-sized log mission church in the enclosure and the first Sunday we were astonished to hear how well the children and their parents sang our Sanky and Moody hymns. Morning service was in Cree while afternoon service was in English. Some of the employees of the Hudson’s Bay Co. store and Bredin & Cornwall, Dr. and Mrs. West and family and some of the NWMP would canoe across the lake to our service. Our community could boast of eighteen white people. The next day we went through the school and were surprised to hear such perfect English spoken. On inquiry, we were told the Indian Children wanted to speak “just like white man”. Most of the children were quick to learn — reading, writing and drawing were their best subjects, but they had difficulty with grammar, geography, and arithmetic.
A month before Christmas suppressed excitement prevailed. When all duties were finished for the day, the girls were busy with their needlework making little presents for the Christmas tree. Much time was also spent on the preparations of the Christmas concert to which parents of the children were invited. Carols, recitations and dialogue filled the first part of our program but the height of the evening was reached when we heard sleigh bells ringing outside. Father Christmas walked into the schoolroom dressed in exactly the same kind of costume that he wears everywhere. He distributed presents to all the children and their parents, and spoke both Cree and English.
The children hung up their stockings Christmas Eve and I know the staff and all of us enjoyed Christmas season as much as the children did. The Indians who had been trapping in the bush always returned for this important festival. On Christmas Day our church was full. It was beautiful to feel that although we were 5,000 miles from home, still the same hymns were sung, the same service the world over.
Six months after we arrived in Lesser Slave Lake my sister-in-law took her five children home to England. The CMS missionaries’ children went to a boarding school in Limpsfield, Surrey. My husband and I then moved into the new mission-house and I kept house for my brother-in-law. It was a happy arrangement for us because the Indians often came to the house to see the “praying Man” as the clergyman was called.
At the end of September 1903, our Diocesan Synod was held. This meant a busy and happy preparation for the event. It was the hunting season and both my brother-in-law and my husband were excellent shots. So our table was kept well provided with ducks, geese, prairie chickens and partridge. Our season was good for three weeks or more. We did look forward to the annual visit of our Bishop and Mrs. Young, bringing us all the news of their other mission.
Just a year from the day we arrived in Lesser Slave Lake, Bishop and Mrs. Young arrived in the Hudson’s Bay Co. York boat. For several days we had been on the lookout for the Union Jack to be hoisted at the fort. This was the sign that the boat was in harbor. Then as soon as the flag was raised our mission Peterborough canoe would cross the lake and bring back our guests. That morning was a cold one so my brother-in-law had put a fire in his study. A few minutes later a boy rushed in saying, “Mission roof was on fire.” There was always a barrel of water kept outside, but my brother-in-law grabbed two iron pots off the stove which he thought had water in. Unfortunately one of them was filled with soup and he raced upstairs into the attic and threw the contents of the pails on the burning roof. In no time some of the clergy, who had already arrived from their distant mission stations, were on the roof and the boys were bringing water and finally the fire was extinguished. But when I went into the guest bedroom, such a spectacle met my eyes! The water and soup had dripped through the ply attic floor onto the spotless best bedspread and onto the floor. Some of the Indian women came and helped to clean up everything. At 5:00 p.m. the Bishop and Mrs. Young and some of the clergy were sitting down to a delicious cold duck supper and no one could judge how narrowly we escaped being burnt out. Three weeks later our little daughter was born.
In January 1904, we moved to Peace River traveling by bob sleigh with good teams. We were warmly dressed and enjoyed the trip, covering the 95 miles in three and a half days. The temperature on that trip varied from 10 to 25 below and a bitter wind kept blowing. The first night we camped at Peter Le Duke’s house. He was a French half-breed, most kind and polite — so much so that he suggested that my husband and the Rev. M. Johnston should have his bed. This my husband declined and the two “Praying Men” made their bed on the floor. Four Indian school children and two lady missionaries were in our party and after supper we made preparations for our beds on the floor. There was a mud chimney in the corner of the one-roomed shack and Mrs. Le Duke told me that I could sleep on the floor next to the chimney. I was certainly glad for just as we extinguished the lantern the dogs began to bark outside announcing the arrival of a number of men who were returning from a fur hunt. The noisy group of Metis trappers trouped in and made their evening meal, cooking bacon and bear’s meat and frying rabbit by the open fire and chattering away in French, Cree and English. I was glad I was next to the chimney because of the mixed odors of their supper, and every man’s after-dinner pipe. Eventually they made up their beds on the floor on the opposite side of the shack from us and our grub box was the dividing line. With the strangeness of it all, sleep departed from me and I saw the funny side of the situation. It was only another experience in life’s program. Two other stopping places were similar. The Indians were glad to have us and before we left in the morning wished my husband to have reading and prayer, both of course being in Cree.
It was forty below when we arrived at Christ Church Mission, Shaftesbury, on the Peace River. All of us, eleven in number, were quite well though rather cold and hungry. During the last eighteen miles we had made very slow progress. The snowdrifts were dreadful. Sometimes the men of our party had to get out and shovel snowdrifts and make a passable road for our horses.
Peace River Crossing in 1904 was inhabited only by Indians and half-breeds who farmed on a small scale, grew a few vegetables and trapped fur in between seasons. The Hudson’s Bay Co. and Revillon Freres were the only stores and the North West Mounted Police were stationed there.
For a long time there were only eleven Indian children in our boarding school. Miss Millen was the teacher. She was a very systematic, conscientious and faithful worker, speaking Cree fluently and reading the syllabic well. She and I would visit the homes of our Indians to make personal contacts with the parents of our children in the school.
Sundays was always a busy day. Quite a list of visiting took place after morning Service, for the parents and relatives of our school children were faithful in attending church service.
I always prepared a huge pot of potatoes, some bannock and bacon, or cooked some rabbits which some Indian had brought in on Saturday. The parents would come over to the “Praying Man’s House” and have a meal with us in our kitchen. Some Sundays, ten to fourteen would be at dinner. Occasionally they brought moose meat, bear and rabbits for the school children and we gave them a little tea, sugar and flour in return. Duncan Testawich was the chief and some of his family had been educated in our school. He set a good example to his tribe for he was a Christian, a good farmer and kindly interested in the families of his tribe.
In February our annual outfit of provisions would come in. The order had gone to the Hudson’s Bay Co. just after Christmas. We divided it into four, and then into monthly piles so that everything was equally divided.
At the mission we had splendid vegetables from our gardens. Mr. Holmes was an excellent provider and looked after the garden in his few spare hours. We grew wheat and oats in the early years. A half-breed would do the work under my husband’s direction and supervision. The wheat was taken to the Roman Catholic flourmill, four miles from our mission, and the flour made nice nutty bread. I made yeast from hops.
The second year we were there, an epidemic of measles broke out on the reserve. The nearest doctor was 100 miles away, three and a half days to get there and three days returning. We felt we must do our best to prevent our school children from catching measles. Accordingly, Mr. Holmes put a sign in syllabic on our gatepost saying there would be no service and no one must enter our compound. This did not have the desired effect because the Indians always come for medicine.
When I saw old Nucum (Granny) entering the gate, I called out to her not to come nearer, but she was most anxious to get medicine for her family that she excitedly said in Cree, shaking her voluminous skirt, “I have no measles on my clothes and am clean. Why can’t I go into the Praying Man’s House to get medicine?” After a lot of explanation she understood. Even with all our precautions our school children took the measles. Our own little daughter, Eunice, who was three year old, was very sick and our anxiety great. It was on these occasions that we did our best, trusting God and knowing He hears our prayers, giving us strength and confidence for such emergencies. Eventually they all got quite well again, although there had been some deaths on the reserve.
Our mission at Shaftesbury was eighteen miles northwest of Peace River Crossing. The manger of the Hudson’s Bay Co. there was most kind to us and allowed us the use of his dining room one Sunday afternoon a month to hold service in. Quite a number came to our service and after tea we visited among the Indians, and then stayed the night with the manager of the Hudson’s Bay Co. and his wife, or at the police barracks. Sergeant and Mrs. Anderson were staunch supporters and we felt we had another home there. Mrs. Anderson had been a missionary in White Fish, forty miles from Lesser Slave Lake before she married the sergeant.
A little portable organ had been sent to us by one of the Women’s Auxiliaries down east and it was of great assistance. Previously we had found it difficult to make the singing go cheerfully. My voice often completely tired out through years of singing. It often would have been wiser to be silent, but there was no one else to carry on.
When we had been in Canada five years, we had a furlough. My husband completed his theological course at St. John’s College, Winnipeg, while the children and I spent four months in Chapleau, Ontario, with my brother-in-law who was Bishop of the Diocese of Moosenee at that time. My husband joined us at Christmas and then returned to Winnipeg while the children and I went to our home in England. Mr. Holmes joined us in May. Needless to say we enjoyed meeting all our families and friends, and the time flew all too quickly. Once again we left England in August 1907 and this time my father came back with us. The Peace River country had been surveyed during our absence. For two years our work continued much the same.
My father was a great help to Mr. Holmes, for when we went to the Crossing for service, father took the English service in the mission and looked after everything. The bishop licensed him as lay reader and he could preach and conduct services.
A new log schoolhouse was built and another lady missionary helper came to us. This lady had been a missionary in the Punjab for many years and when home in England on furlough, volunteered for work in our mission. There were about 25 Indian children in our school. Each morning they answered the roll call by repeating their morning text. This they learned at night before going to bed. Two more of their favorite hymns were, “We’ll Wait Till Jesus Comes”, and “Safe in the Arms of Jesus”.
As the homesteads were filed and settlers were establishing new districts, we did much more visiting. During the summer months services were held at Griffin Creek, eighteen miles away, and Waterhole ten miles further on, as well as at Peace River Crossing. The Services were held in the living room of some interested homesteader. The program was: first Sunday in the month, Peace River Crossing; second Sunday, Shaftesbury; third Sunday, Griffin Creek, and fourth Sunday, Waterhole. If my father had not been with us, we could not have left the mission with its school of boys and girls and two lady missionaries. Father enjoyed his part in our mission life.
One Sunday on arriving at Waterhole a little earlier than usual we found a football game in full swing. When the men saw us they stopped by my husband said, “Don’t stop for us, boys. Have a good game, and we shall be glad to see you tonight at the services”. They thought my husband such a good sport that everyone turned up and joined heartily in the service and after it was over came around the organ and sang hymns till midnight. On another trip, we saw two men ploughing and when my husband gave them a hearty invitation to the service, they were amazed and said, “Why we kept Sunday yesterday, giving our horse a rest.”
We were often asked it we were satisfied with the result of Indians mission work, and Mrs. Holmes would reply, “Yes. It is the next generation that will benefit by all the instruction we are giving them. They certainly live healthier and better lives, spiritually and morally.” Many of the children who came to our school were frightfully dirty and had many sores. We gave them baths and clean fresh clothing, cut their hair, and the children were really grateful to us for making them like “white children”.
During the nine years we were at the mission, three more children were added to our family, and a very healthy, happy family we were. As the doctor was 100 miles away, I had to depend on assistance from a native woman in my time of need. This, of course, was the experience of all the early missionaries’ wives.
When my daughter, Olive, was a little girl, another epidemic of measles broke out on the Indian reserve. This epidemic was much more severe than the one in 1905. This time our daughter was very ill, running a high temperature, and quite delirious. For several days, our schoolmistress, Miss Millen, took complete charge because Olive didn’t know either her father or me, and whenever we went into her room, she became more restless. Mr. Holmes and I prayed as we had never prayed before, with such earnestness that God would bless the remedies used to restore our little daughter to us. The third night about nine O’clock, we heard sleigh bells, and then a knock on the door. It was Archdeacon Scott from Lesser Slave Lake who walked in. As we shook hands, he said, “Why, you look as though you had been crying, Mrs. Holmes.” My husband and I told him of the critical condition of little Olive, and he said, “Let us have a word of prayer and tell the Great Physician all about her”. We told him we had been praying constantly for three days and two nights. He said, “Well, do you know, three days ago I had been undecided whether I should go to White Fish Lake or come to Peace River, and after asking God about it, I felt Peace River needed me and I am so glad I came.”
After he had taken supper, for he was hungry and tired after a long day’s journey, we all knelt by Olive’s bedroom, and the Archdeacon anointed her and prayed God would bless the means used for Olive’s recovery. I shall always remember that night. About 2:00 o’clock in the morning there was a change for the better. Olive’s recovery was very slow for a long time, and when weeks after she was well enough to go outside, she was awfully frail and weak. Several times when she was playing outside and a wind would suddenly spring up she would have been blown down if some of the Indian children hadn’t run to her assistance. Olive’s recovery is only one of the many experiences we had of answer to prayer. Again and again in those mission days, we have proved that true saying; “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity”.
In 1914 we moved to Peace River Crossing and in 1915 the bishop needed a senior man for Lake Saskatoon, so we made the trip by road in a comfortable democrat, taking two and half days. My father was now an invalid and 74 years old. He had had a paralytic stroke the year before and when I wrote to my sister about it, she sold her music practice and came out to us and helped to nurse my father. We had only been a few months in Lake Saskatoon, when my father received his “Home Call to higher Service. Three months later my husband passed away very suddenly, July 21, 1916.
Alberta Historical Review 1964.