Women and their Work

The Pioneer Women of the Peace

H. B. MCKINNON February 15 1921
Women and their Work

The Pioneer Women of the Peace

H. B. MCKINNON February 15 1921

The Pioneer Women of the Peace

Women and their Work


ALTHOUGH May had come and the poplar-blanketed banks of the Peace were stippled with the green of bursting foliage, a cold wind swept the river and sighed around the tiny pilot-house of the “D. A. Thomas,” southward bound to The Crossing. It was the first trip of the year for the staunch little steamer and even yet, in land-locked eddies, the ice of northern winter floated in sugary islands, wasting but slowly in the short warmth of noonday. Leaden clouds filled the gaps between the rolling hills and on the mile-wide bosom of the stream the white-caps chased in riot, piling in foamy scum against the reddish clay of the margin. For hours the Thomas had labored against the current and a sudden blast from her whistle brought to the deck the odds-and-ends of her human cargo, made drowsy, indoors, by the wearisome chug of the engines.

-‘See that little hut on the left bank?” said the mate, pointing to a log shanty, near which the crossed poles of an Indian tepee thrust themselves through the frail birch branches. “They’ve flagged us. See that white rag on the tall tree?”— and he began preparations for a landing.

For half an hour, though we knew it not, there bad been watching our progress up the river a pathetic group of three. Now, as the boat warped slowly inward, its individuals became distinctly visible. Framed in the opening stood a young woman. She might have been twenty-five years of age, or thereabouts, and her countenance bore the expression that comes from culture and a gentle up-bringing. In her arms, with its face turned inquiringly riverward, lay a tiny infant. Another child clung to her skirts, its little body hidden behind the frame of a shaggy sleighdog. No man was in sight against the gloomy background of the forest. While we waited for the plank to be run out,

I looked again at the mother. On her face was inexpressible relief.

Her signal had been noticed!

The boat had really called!

All hands helped with the gangway, and soon v. e

were ashore. The giant sleigh-dog, never leaving the child he guarded, knew us for friends. Leaping up and down in an effort to lick the faces of those who went nearest, he whined in sheer delight at the sight of man. His welcoming bark drew from the depths of the bush others of his kind—the skulking yellow curs of the tepee—and these soon added to his their yelps of recognition.

The young mother said nothing. A French-Canadian trapper, forgetting the beaver skins that he was smuggling to The Crossing, had begged for her baby, and now held it aloft on his shoulder. The elder child, losing his fear, came closer and closer, accepting in - childish amazement our offerings of strange things that he had never known—chocolate bars, oranges and candy. Still the mother was silent. It was too much. So long she had waited and prayed for just such things to happen.

It seemed too good to be true. Tears filled her youthful eyes and her lips shaped unuttered words of thankfulness.

A trapper told me her story. A year before, in the late summer, she had come with one child from Edinburgh, to join her Canadian husband in his northern home. His work took him far through the woods-of the Peace, and all winter she had been alone in that hut, with her child—and the dog that watched like a warder. All alone, save for the dark-visaged squaw who now stood, a silent observer, at the door of the near-by tepee. Eight endless months!—with no other woman of her color on that lonely shore; with no one to speak an encouraging word that she would understand, no hu-

man companionship except when her husband came back to the hut from long trips over his trap lines.

“Once in the winter,” the trapper told me, “a friend of mine called at the shack. The baby—the second one was then only a few weeks old—was not well. Their food had run out; nothing hut beans and a few bannocks. But she was plucky. Not a word of complaint. And just out from Edinburgh—think of it.”

Such is the lot of those spendid women whose pioneering instincts encourage them to share with their men-folk the hardships of life in the new North of this Dominion.

I think of another—one whom I saw on a lonely riverside trail. It was at the close of a day in late September of the year lately ended. The first keen touch of frost had nipped the forests of birch and poplar and the curled, dead leaves covered the fading grass on the trail from Peace River Crossing to “The Water-hole.” A cold, dull evening—cheerless as only an autumn nightfall can be in the land below the Circle. Over roads that were almost impassable because of an unseasonable four inches of snow, now almost wholly wasted, we made what speed we could, and, after a more or less perilous descent of the famous Brick’s Hill, emerged near his clearing, on the low shelving bank of the river

At the foot of the hill, beside the trail, a four-horse wagon had halted. The teams were unhitched and their driver was tying them to a nearby poplar. Under the wagon loaded with household effects, sat a woman and several children. They looked.wornout and disheartened. The mother had spread some straw on the damp snowy ground and, over that, a blanket or two, on which she sat with her babies. For her sake alone, one hoped that a fire would soon be built, £or the wind cut like a I lash and the woman was chilled to the

Have you come far to-day?” we asked the husband, as we baited beside the pitiful

group on the roadside.

"Not so far, just from The Crossing,” was the response. “The big hill is pretty sticky to climb. I’d like to go on”—with an anxious look at the heavy sky—“for I wanted the wife and kids to spend the night at one of the stopping-places. But I’m afraid we will have to camp out. Grub? — Yes, thanks, we have lots of grub,” and he threw some hay to the horses.

We were heading for The Crossing—for the comforts of a little town ;for the warmth of a bed and the welcome gaiety of Mother , Nagle’s restaurant. The woman beneath ; the wagon, with her little ones, had turned | her back resolutely and without a whimper on the last settlement that she might see in many months. With her homesteading husband, she was setting out for a quartersection that lay—well, somewhere, miles | away; she knew not just where: her new “home,” where, for weeks to come, she and her infants might have to live in a I tent, thin shield against the gales of autumn.

Perhaps she didn’t mind. At least, ¡ she said nothing the while we chatted a moment with her husband. In a few ! minutes, we bade them good-bye. As we set off, she threw a sheltering arm about her little ones and silently watched the night creep down the trail by the river.

In the great unknown empire that lies north of Edmonton, women are the real pioneers. At Peace River Crossing—the end of steel—they know comparatively little of hardship or inconvenience, but fifty miles “in” from The Crossing— | or from any other of the small frontier ¡ settlements—they face life in all its grimness. From the windows of a tiny log ' hut or sod shaek, they gaze upon a world j filled with all the glories of Nature—hill I and valley, forest, stream and far-sweeping j prairie—yet, for them, it is a world of j shadows. They see no passers-by on j those lonely trails; no friends “drop in” to spend an hour in chat about the great outj eide. Life, when all in the little home are well and at work, is hard and stern; when sickness comes, it is often cruel and pitiless.

“Who is that woman?" I asked, in some surprise, when I saw a neatly-gowned figure on the banks of the Peace, at a point some seven hundred miles from Edmonton and four hundred from the nearest railway station. “What on earth is she doing up here?”

“I don’t know her name, nor where she came from; all I know is that she was a God-send to us when the ’flu was here,”— came the reply from among the crowd before the white-washed post of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The speaker was an old fur-trader, an employee of the Company, and his tone was full of simple reverence.

"There are only two or three white women up here,” he went on, “and she is one of them. Used to be a nurse, they say. At least, she seems to know a good deal about nursing. And when the ’flu qame last winter, when all the whites were ! down and the Indians and breeds were dying like flies, she went from family to family, doing the best she could. She never got sick, and scores owe their lives to her. Don’t know that she got anything for it; probably didn’t expect to. Good?— That’s not the word, friend. She was an

file Barnes of these brave women find no place on any Roll of Honor; their lifelong sacrifice and frequent sufferings as yet inspire no poets to their praise. Is it too much to hope that, in some Chroniclecrf-Country yet to come, there may be set aside for them a chapter worthy of their services to Canada?