Transcripts: The Red River Letters of Charles Mair

Mair, Charles Sept. 21, 1838 July 7, 1927,” photo dated 1901. Credit: Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada / PA-033763 Restrictions on use: Nil, Copyright: Expired

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Charles Mair, “Red River Settlement,” The Daily Globe (27 December 1868), 4.

Red River Settlement

The following letter from Mr. Charles Mair, the Canadian Poet, now employed in the North-West by the Government, will be read with interest,

 Head-Quarters, F.G. & T.B.R.

Mistamiskano, Nov. 27, 1868.

I reached La Crosse on Wednesday morning, after three days of railroading, and had a splendid two days’ sail on the Upper Mississippi to St. Paul. The scenery on the river is magnificent and striking, though I am astonished to find the stream so narrow and shallow. Our steamer, an immense one, though of light draught, was continually grounding on the sands, and the river is not wider than the Madawaska, and much more crooked. The bluffs, though, are a novelty and a sensation, and I never tired of their varying outline and singularly abrupt and elaborate quaintness. I had a fine view of Maiden Rock on Lake Pepin (the legend is of course familiar to you), and indeed, so far as scenery is concerned, had a most pleasant sail all the way to St. Paul. It was night when we reached the city, and I left next day at noon by train for St. Cloud (170 miles west,) I had little time to inspect the town. It is a young giant – that is plain enough, and is finely situated on lofty ground overlooking the river[.] I reached St. Cloud the next night in time to attend Judge Donnelly’s political meeting; he is the orator of these parts, and reminded me not a little of both Joseph Howe and D’Arcy McGee in humour, though greatly inferior to them in purity of language and eloquence. The next morning I took my place in the coach for Van Centre, 7- miles further on. We had four splendid horses, changed every 15 miles, and covered ground fast, reaching the village, which is the extreme outskirt of civilization, and is only four years old, at dark. Upon arrival I found that our stage left for Fort Abercrombie, 150 miles west of South Centre, and with the exception of Fort Totten, on Devil’s Lake, the most extreme military post in Minnesota (Fort Totten, by the way, is in Dacotah Territory.) I accordingly, after great difficulty, and, valuable fact ׀ [sic] only on account of being a Mason, got a splendid team to take me through, with a devil-may-care driver, who trained mules through Missouri, and was conversant with all the Indian tribes from there to the Big Muddy. It was after dark when we left; but we drove all that night, all next day, and all next night, reaching Fort Abercrombie the following morning, where I found Mr. Snow, the surveyor, waiting for me. We passed through a most beautiful country, parts of which were perfect paradises of lakes and hills, swarming with ducks, geese, brant [a species of goose?], and every species of game. The prairie chickens were literally in millions, and occasionally a large elk would bound away, and then stop and stare at you and begin eating quite unconcernedly. This was the greatest place for game I ever saw, and whenever we stopped for meals, at the little outposts, we had invariably elk roast or steaks. Some of the lakes were extremely beautiful – one especially, Pelican Lake, surpassed in loveliness of outline and colour anything I had ever heard or read about; it baffles description. Occasionally we met immense mule-trains, as many as 400 waggons [sic], with from four to six mules to each waggon, returning from the forts on the Missouri and Devil’s Lake. They had to travel in strong bands for protection, and one of the leaders on one of the trains had an Indian’s scalp with him – a poor devil they had shot at Little Knife river. Continually we either met or overtook the Red River cart train – strange rigs and strange drivers. One ox is harnessed like a horse, with collar and all, made of raw-hide, into the cart, which is made entirely of oak, not a particle of iron about it, and no grease. To hear a thousand of these wheels, all groaning and creaking at one time, is a sound never to be forgotten – it is simply hellish. We left Fort Abercrombie with our horse and buggy, (which Mr. Snow had bought at St. Paul), with a complete camping rig, including every luxury, even condensed milk, an admirable thing, and started on our 250 miles journey over the prairie to Fort Garry. We were alone and camped out always on some point of the Red River, which is a beautiful stream, lined its whole length with oaks, but inconceivably crooked, and reached the south side of the Assiniboine one evening just after dark, the convent bells of St. Boniface sounding sweetly over the water. We then crossed our rig on the scow to the north bank, and five minutes afterwards found ourselves in Mr. Emerline’s [sic: Emmerling’s] hotel amidst a heterogeneous crowd of half-breeds and traders in buckskin, playing billiards! After a few days I went over to Dr. Schultz’s, and stayed with him, greatly to my own comfort and convenience. We had a very pleasant stay at Fort Garry, and received all sorts of entertainment. They live like princes here. Just fancy what we had at a dinner party there: Oyster soup, white fish, roast beef, roast prairie chicken, green pease, tomatoes stewed, peaches stewed, and stewed gooseberries, plum-pudding, blancmange, raisins, nuts of all kinds, coffee, port and sherry, brandy punch and cigars, concluding with whist until four o’clock, a.m. There is a dinner for you in the heart of the continent, with Indian lodges within a stone throw. At a party at Schultz’s there were three English Church clergymen, including the archdeacon, and a number of young ladies, with music, chess, and what not. In fact the living at Fort Garry is sumptuous, and we were sumptuously treated. I can tell you, we had to fly from it at last. All that is made out of fur, which is the only trade here. We have our headquarters about 30 miles east of the fort. We rented a house from a half-breed, and have had it fitted up plainly but comfortably. Our living is excellent, and includes every green vegetable that is sold in tins – green peas, peaches, gooseberries, tomatoes, corn, etc., and all in perfect preservation – and a little half-breed cook, who cooked for the mess at the Fort, and who speaks French, Cree, Saulteaux and English, cooks, washes, irons, sews, knits and runs errands, and does all well. There is an Indian village a little way from us, but the Indians are all now off trapping. Next spring I intend to go out to the Buffalo hunt, and up as far as Jasper House in the Rocky Mountains, and spend a week or two among the Blackfeet. Meantime (after New Year) we have arranged for a trip through to the Lake of the Woods, and a moose hunt with dog trains. I have bought a splendid train of dogs, and can ride into the Fort in seven hours easily. The starvation here threatens 5,000 of the half-breeds, but only those. The farming classes are affected very little, if anything at all, by it. The half-breeds are a strange class. They will do anything but farm; will drive ore [sic: ox?] trains 400 miles to St. Cloud and back, at the rate of twenty miles a day – go out on the buffalo hunt – fish – do anything but farm, in a country where I myself have dug three feet into solid vegetable loam without finding bottom. This is a great country, and is destined, before ten years, to contain a larger population than the Canadas. The climate is delightful. To-day the thermometer stands at 33 above zero [Fahrenheit], and is a balmy and mild as a day in September. Snow seldom falls, they tell me, more than one foot on a level, and you can walk on it easily without snow-shoes, it packs so. Alabama! This shall be my home. Lake Manitobah for me! Come out and see me someday. You will be here yet, if I am not mistaken. Oh, if our poor farmers up the Ottawa could only see this country – such is my continual thought. It has drawbacks, and considerable ones, but they can only be temporary – the LAND is here.

“Métis drivers with Red River ox carts, presumably in Minnesota,” dated 1860. Source: Wikimedia Commons, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/64/M%C3%A9tis_and_Red_River_carts.jpg

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Charles Mair, “From Red River,” The Daily Globe (4 January 1869), 1.

From Red River.

Another Letter From Mr. C. Mair,

(From the Perth Courier.)

The following are extracts from another private letter from the pen of Mr. Charles Mair, now at Red River, to his brother Holmes, of Lanark village, which, through the kindness of the latter gentleman, we have been allowed to publish:–

Head-Quarters, Mistamiskano,

November, 19th, 1868

Dear Brother,– I received your long and welcome letter yesterday, and also the papers, but not yet the “Saturdays” you mention, and which I miss very much.—They will yet come along, I have no doubt, but tardily; as the irregularity of the mails to Fort Garry is simply a matter of course. I wrote to you from Fort Garry, and Dr. Schultz has instructed the editor of the Nor’ Wester to send on the paper to you and James regularly. Our trip over the prairie was a stupendous novelty to me. You can imagine nothing like it; but I shall not dwell upon it here. I also briefly described the appearance of the village of Winnipeg, and I need say nothing further about that either, at present.

After putting up at the Dutchman’s [George Emmerling’s] hotel there [at the Town of Winnipeg], I went over and stayed at Dr. Schultz’s [John Christian Schultz], after a few days. The change was comfortable, I assure you, from the racket of a motley crowd of half-breeds, playing billiards and drinking to the quiet and solid comfort of a home. * * I was invited to a dinner-party at Beſſs [sic: Bell’s? Begg’s?], where I found the Governor’s brother-in-law, a wealthy merchant here, Isabister [sic], and other Nor’ Westers. Altogether, I received hospitalities to my heart’s content, and I left the place thoroughly pleased with most that I had met. There are jealousies and heart burnings, however. Many wealthy people are married to half-breed women, who, having no coat of arms but a “totem” to look back to, make up for the deficiency by biting the backs of their ‘white’ sisters. The white sisters fall back upon their whiteness, whilst the husbands treat each other with desperate courtesies and hospitalities, with a view to filthy lucre in the background. * *

We crossed the Red River to St. Boniface, opposite to Fort Garry, the Doctor driving me out in his gig, and drove over the virgin prairie for thirty miles due east, to Oak Point, which we have dubbed Mistamiskene, and where we have established our head-quarters. The country traversed is a beautiful one, covered with a tall, luxuriant hay which springs from a loamy surface in many places four feet deep, resting upon clay of any depth. Inconceivably rich, indeed, is all this country; boundless and rich beyond all description or comparison. At Oak Point, we rented a house from a half-breed, a description of which I have given in my other letter. Here also begin the woods which stretch clear through to the Lake of the Woods. This wood consists mainly of small poplar, a sort of bastard red pine, a few cedars, and vast quantities of red willows, or –genepeney, as the Cree call them. It in no respect resembles a Canadian forest, but rather the growth which springs up in place of a pinery when a fire has swept it away, with this singular difference, however, that it rests upon a perfectly level country almost, and is nourished by rich loams, instead of rock and sand. The poplar is the firewood chiefly used here, and is burnt when dry. Few of them are over six inches in diameter, but they burn briskly and give much heat. About ten miles from here, a shanty has been built, and twenty men are now at work upon the road. Of course, through such a country as I have described, there is little difficulty in the work of destruction. The timber is small, the country is level and free from stones (except boulder), and there is an easy drainage into the numerous rivers (creeks we would call them in Canada) which invariably cut their way for twenty feet or more beneath the surface. I was out at the works to-day, and the cleared portion of the track looks very fine and straight. Certainly, when all is grubbed out and graded, it will be a magnificent road.

There are not many Indians in this neighbourhood at present, most of them being away in pursuit of peltries. The word “wigwam” is never heard here. In speaking of an Indian’s home it is called a “lodge.” The “lodge in some vast wilderness” that Cowper sighed for, can be had cheap here – dirt cheap. It is composed of skins stretched over some eight or nine poles standing on end on the ground, and converging to a common centre near the top (an illustration here accompanies this description, which, of course, we are unable to reproduce in print). The smoke from the fire, which is built in the centre of the lodge, issues out of the top, and, though very comfortable with its buffalo robes and skins of all kinds, it has a very rakish and Ojibway-ish look. I never look at one without fancying to myself that it is full of wolves inside. This is the Nor’ West Indian’s house, and they are to be met with everywhere from Rainy Lake to the Mackenzie River. It looks odd, however, to see them scattered about the village of Winnipeg, where the “poor Indian” comes to barter and drink fire-water.

Next spring, I shall have an opportunity of smoking the calmut with the fierce Plain Crees and the Blackfeet, who come down on horse-back annually to have a “talk,” and smoke the pipe of peace with their “Father” at the stone Fort. These are the real Indians, wild and eloquent; and the Doctor tells me it is a strange sight, to see them at their dances and medicine mysteries, circumscribing that little speck of civilization – the future city of Winnipeg. Many of the Sioux, who committed the horrible outrages in Minnesota, are now about Lake Manitobah, and the Doctor is coming out next week to take me back to the village for a trip up the Assiniboine some seventy miles, to Portage la Prairie and Lake Manitobah. At Portage la Prairie will be the most flourishing city in this great West, for many reasons, which I will defer giving until I have been there.

So far as I have yet seen, the country is great­ – inexhaustible – inconceivably rich. Farming here is a pleasure – there is no toil in it, and all who do farm are comfortable, and some wealthy. What do you think of a farmer within a bowshot of here, being worth seven or eight thousand pounds sterling, and selling to the Hudson’s Bay Company last week £5,000 [unclear: £5,600?] stg. worth of cattle: a man who came from Lower Canada nineteen years ago, not worth sixpence.

The half-breeds are the only people here who are starving. Five thousand of them have to be fed this winter, and it is their own fault – they won’t farm. They will hunt baffaloes, drive ox-carts 500 miles up and 500 miles back to St. Cloud, at the rate of twenty miles a day: do anything but farm. Hitherto, it was so easy to live here that it didn’t matter whether they farmed or not; but the grasshopper put a stop to that last summer, and now they are at their beam ends. As for the farmers: Scotch, English and French, not one of them requires relief; other than seed wheat, which they are quite able to pay for. This is the true state of the ease here: but it does not lessen the claims upon humanity. It will take £40,000 to feed the people through to next fall; but the £40,000 will be forthcoming.

As for the future of this country, it is as inevitable as to-morrow’s sunrise. The climate is delightful. The weather just now, and there is no appearance of a change, is clear, cloudless, bland and inspiriting; and the thermometer has not sunk below 30° for a week. In deep winter, there are short spells of severe weather, but they are short; so they tell me, and certainly my experience so far justifies the assertion. I never felt such fine weather in November in Canada as we have here just now: and there is an exhileration in it quite new to me. But enough for the present. * *

Mr. Snow has gone off for a week to survey, and I drove him out to the first shanty, 10 miles out, where he will remain until Saturday. * * I received a letter from John Parker, yesterday, enquiring about his brother. I saw in the Post-office at Fort Garry, a lot of papers (Couriers) for him, and made some enquiries at the time, but no one seemed to know him. I have requested Dr. Schultz to make enquiries, and as I go up with the Doctor to Portage la Prairie next week, I can myself endeavour to discover his whereabouts. John says he has not heard of him since July, and it is not difficult in this country to be taken out of the way, and never be heard of afterwards, should one be careless. I scarcely think, however, that he is in this settlement, or I should have heard of him.

I enclose you a feather of the prairie-chicken; also, an oak leaf picked up “in the Land of the Dacotah,” 150 miles south of this. The hay enclosed is the celebrated prairie “wire grass;” the other article is a strip of wild sage which grows extensively on the prairies. The finest hops I ever saw were growing wild at Eagle River, Dacotah Territory.

[Ed. Notes: The typography of the article — use of a double long s (ſſ ) — lends uncertainty to determining the host of the dinner party attended by Mair. The guests might have assembled at the home of George Bell of St. John’s Parish, if he had worked in the fur trade or was a descendant of the former cooper of the same name who had worked for the Pacific Fur Company in Astoria/ Oregon. But Bell was a relatively young man who appears to have arrived at Red River from Scotland, so seems an unlikely candidate.  It is also possible, and more plausible, that the dinner was hosted by Charles Begg (of Scotland) and wife Catherine Spence (Métis), who resided in in the parish of St. Clement’s / Mapleton. Begg was older and a former servant of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He was more likely than Bell to have formed contacts with Mair’s fellow guests at the party, being: merchant A.G.B. Bannatyne (married to Annie McDermot), who was the brother-in-law of HBC Governor William Mactavish (married to Mary Sarah/Sally McDermot); and possibly William Isbister married to Mary Anne Begg, who was Charles Begg’s daughter. The most obvious candidates for ‘white sisters’ with falsely courteous husbands would be Agnes Campbell Farquharson, wife of John C. Schultz, and Elizabeth Louise McKenney, who was Schultz’s stepsister and who would, by September, be Mair’s wife.

Mair’s assertions regarding looming ‘starvation,’ among ‘half-breeds’ defy logic: it is hard to imagine, for example, how grasshopper’s were a more devastating occurrence to freighters than to farmers; or how Mair expected the farming “Scotch, English and French” (many of whom were Métis or belonged to Métis families), who required no relief “other than seed wheat, which they are quite able to pay for,” were to get any seed without freighters — whether overland or water-borne — bringing it in. That is, farmers were no more independently capable in the settlement than were freighters. See, for a Red River rebuttal to the letter, “Letter from a half-breed (L.R.) to Le Nouveau Monde (reprinted from Le Nouveau Monde, February 25, 1869),” translated to English from the original French, in W.L. Morton ed., Alexander Begg’s Red River Journal And other Papers Relative to the Red River Resistance of 1869-70 (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1956), 399-402. As an additional note, a ‘fund’ set up by Mair for relief of the ‘destitute’ apparently was never distributed in Red River.]

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More on Mair Making News:

“Red River” The Daily Globe (21 May 1869), 4.

Red River

The Nor’ Wester, 1st inst., says:–

Mr. Charles Mair has just returned from Portage la Prairie; having made, in company with Mr. John McLean, a careful examination of the estuaries of Lake Manitobah. He describes the singular arms of this lake as natural canals, and former communicants with the Assiniboine river, and believes that a very moderate outlay would open up the stream communication with the Saskatchewan by way of Lake Winnipegosis; and thus make unnecessary the long and expensive detour by way of Lake Winnipeg. Mr. Hind’s map of this region he describes as astray and defective; inasmuch as it takes no note of these most important estuaries, and produces the southern extremity of the lake too much to the east. Rat river is exhibited by Mr. Hinds as taking its rise too near the Portage, and the nearest point upon White Mud river as lying within eighteen miles of the same place – an error in both cases.

[Ed. note: there is no 1 May 1869 edition of the Nor’-Wester in evidence at the Manitobia online archive, http://manitobia.ca/content/en/newspapers/Nor%27Wester%20%281859%29/1869.

See, however, Charles Mair, “Special Correspondence by Charles Mair to the Globe, (reprinted from the Globe, May 28, 1869),”  in W.L. Morton ed., Alexander Begg’s Red River Journal And other Papers Relative to the Red River Resistance of 1869-70 (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1956), 402-409, for an article dated Fort Garry, 25 April 1869, about which Morton observes, “Mair’s unfortunate letter to his brother led to his being appointed special correspondent to the Globe. In a series of articles, of which the above is one, he sought to obliterate the impression created by his private letter”– though as the letters below indicate, Mair penned other ‘unfortunate’ missives.]

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For other mentions of Mair in Red River News see:

  • See also Alexander Begg, Dot It Down: A Story of Life in the North-West (Toronto: Hunter, Rose and Company, 1871), for a satire in which Norman Shrive [see entry, “Poet and Politics: Charles Mair at Red River,” below] notes “Mair plays a notorious role and for which — by his propensity for note-taking — he even provides the title. As Begg describes ‘Dot’, he is a bumptious and cocksure young man constantly trying to impress the modest, hospitable Red River settlers with his social and literary prowess. He is also depicted as a would-be gallant, too free with both wine and ladies. As a result Dot’s friends are soon only ‘Cool’ (Schultz) and ‘Sharp’ (Snow); but after several brushes with the law and the righteous folk of Red River — one is over claim-staking — these three are reduced to utter disgrace and leave the settlement. ‘Ah! Canada, how your champions suffered for your sake! Ah! Canada,how you have also suffered by their deeds.’ Sharp becomes the proprietor of ‘a third-rate boarding house’ in St. Paul; Cool disappears to some other community where ‘assuredly there was trouble in store for them,’ and Dot,

the unfortunate correspondent, found to his cost that he had got into bad company, and felt that he was consequently a loser by the connection. His land speculations were frustrated by the action of the settlers in the matter. His expenses while in Red River had been enormous, through his extravagance, and he found that he possessed few friends on account of his untruthful letters to Canada. He, therefore, decided to follow in the footsteps of Cool ; and it is to be hoped when he reached Canada he tried to make some reparation for the evil he did while in Red River.”

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More on Mair in History:

Officers of the Governor-General’s Body Guard. Humboldt, Saskatchewan.” [1885] Caption: “L. to r. standing – Maj. Dunn, Lt. Col. G.T. Denison, Capt. Denison, Lt. Merritt. – seated – Quartermaster Charles Mair, Lt. Fleming, Surgeon Baldwin.” Credit: 1972-270 / Library and Archives Canada / C-002594, Restrictions on use: Nil, Copyright: Expired.

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David Latham, “Mair Charles,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, http://www.biographi.ca/EN/009004-119.01-e.php?id_nbr=8264

Norman Shrive, “Poet and Politics: Charles Mair at Red River,” Canadian Literature 17 Writers on the Prairies (Summer 1963), http://cinema2.arts.ubc.ca/units/canlit/pdfs/articles/canlit17-Mair%28Shrive%29.pdf

“Mair, Charles – Through the Mackenzie Basin … Treaty Expedition (1908),”  Northern Waterways Reference Collection, http://northernwaterways.com/library/content/view/48/46/ [a link to Mair’s Book on his participation in and attitude towards the Treaty 8 process]

[See also “Scrip Commission,” http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100029823 for a photo of Chas. Mair as Secretary to the ‘Half-breed’ Scrip Commission that travelled with the Treaty 8 Commission.]

Allen Ronaghan, “Charles Mair and the North-West Emigration Aid Society,” Manitoba History 14 (1987), http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/14/emigrationaidsociety.shtml

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Mair Musings:

The American Bison (1891)

Tecumseh: a drama (1886)

Mair Mysteries:

CHARLES MAIR, OTTAWA, APPLIES FOR SCRIP 1886. File. RG15-D-II-1. (1886)

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