Eighty Years on the Red River

W. J. HEALY February 15 1926

Eighty Years on the Red River

W. J. HEALY February 15 1926

Eighty Years on the Red River


FIFTY years ago, on February 4, 1876, Hon. Colin Inkster was sworn in as sheriff at Winnipeg. To-day, Hon. Colin Inkster is still sheriff at Winnipeg, and, for all his eighty-two years, he is at his office in the court house every day. Walking actively, with head erect, alert-eyed, with a nose that has strength and distinction in its modelling, a closelytrimmed grey mustache, a determined mouth and a well-shaped chin, his tall, straight figure is one of the best-known in Winnipeg. Altogether a notably handsome, bronze-faced old man, he carries his eighty-two years so lightly and has such liveliness of interest in the people he meets every day, and in what is going on, that there is little about him to suggest his length of years except his long memory of persons and events.

Fifty years sheriff of Winnipeg, Hon. Colin Inkster is one of the most interesting of the elder Canadians. In his memory live the pioneers who builded a great West. And—youth of eighty-two summers that he is — he still gets up every morning before breakfast to do his “daily dozen” with a skipping rope!

A Pioneer Potentate

“/^\NE of my earliest memories,” he confided to me one day while we were sitting before a fire of birch logs in his house, “Seven Oaks,” in Kildonan, just north of the city limit of Winnipeg, “is of an arrival by canoe of Sir George Simpson one summer in the middle 1840’s—the great Sir George, who was known as ‘the Emperor of the North’—on one of his tours of inspection from Montreal. As Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, from 1820 until his death in 1860, he was to us in the west the greatest personage in the world, next to Queen Victoria.

“He used to make the journey from Montreal to Red River, by canoe all the way, in five weeks.

He always had his secretary with him in his own canoe, which headed the brigade of three or four ' canoes, and used to work at his letters and accounts while traveling. His paddlemen were all picked men, a dozen or more in each canoe, half of them French-Canadians and the other half Iroquois Indians from Lachine. He was a great driver, and he used to stimulate the rivalry between them.

The canoes were decorated with bright colors. A mile or two before they arrived at one of the Company’s trading posts, Sir George always allowed his paddlemen to make a stop, so that they might array themselves in all their finery of dyed feathers, ribbons and colored neckerchiefs, and then they would make a spectacular arrival, singing their paddle songs as they drove the canoes along at top speed. Salutes were fired, and altogether an arrival of Sir George was one of the greatest occasions in Red River.

“I remember also,” the sheriff went on, “my delight as a child in the uniforms of the British regulars. A force of nearly four hundred officers and men—a wing of the Sixth Royal Regiment of Foot, a detachment of Royal Engineers and a Royal Artillery detachment—who were sent out from England by way of the Bay when the ‘Fifty-fourforty, or fight!’ crisis looked serious. After staying a year or two in Red River they returned to England by the same route in 1848, when the war-cloud which had blown up over Oregon blew away again.”

The house Sheriff Inkster lives in is on the west bank of the Red River. He built it in 1874. Within the fence enclosing its grounds stands the old Inkster house his father built in 1851. This is the best remaining house built of oak logs in the time when the Red had not yet become a Canadian river. The windows and the wrought iron door latches and other fittings were brought out in the Company’s ship to York Factory, on the shores of the Bay, and from there, they had a journey of seven hundred miles to make in York boats to the little settlement in the wilderness of the West known as Red River, then far out of the world and accessible only by long and hard traveling through wild regions.

Crossing the Plains

THE Seven Oaks property has at its south end the Seven Oaks monument, which stands as a memorial of June 19, 1819, that day of bloodshed in the fur trade warfare and disaster to the Selkirk settlers. It was two years later that the sheriff’s father, John Inkster, an Orkneyman, came to Red River.

“My father,” explained the sheriff, “was brought out by the Company as a stonemason. In the course of time he was made a magistrate and a justice of the peace, and finally a member of the Council of Assiniboia. He engaged in freighting——by trains of Red River carts over

the plains to the south, and by York boats to and from the Bay. After I had been through St. John’s College, I was keen on going across the plains, and in 1863 I made my first trip to St. Paul. I continued at that until 1870.

“Among the friends I made at St. Paul, which was then a frontier trading town, was a young Canadian from near Guelph, James J. Hill, who was a clerk in a river weighting office there—a ‘mud clerk’, as such employees were called. I used to take down bills of exchange on London for my father, and Jim Hill got me the best figure for them. He had his eye then on the possibilities of the wheat country of the Red River valley and the future of

river transportation and of railway development. As you know, after joining with Donald A. Smith, who later became Lord Strathcona, and George Stephen, who became Lord Mount Stephen, and others, he eventually made himself a figure of great importance in the railway world.”

Of the buffalo hunting—the two great buffalo hunts every year on the plains, which were the best organized, most effective and most picturesque hunting expeditions

ever carred on by any nomadic people— the sheriff has many memories.

“I will never forget the extraordinary excitement of my first experience as a buffalo hunter,” he said. “I yelled louder and louder to my horse, I tore off my coat, I was amazed in my own mind at the fury in my voice, I felt so light the wind seemed to be blowing through me. I was beside myself in the frenzy of the chase. Now I only go duck-shooting.”

In the winters, there was no other way of traveling than by dog carriole or on foot with snowshoes. In speaking of the happy-go-lucky character of the Metis

--paddlemen in summer and runners

with dog carrioles in winter —-— and their fondness for merry-making and all-night parties, the sheriff said:

“I heard General Sir Sam Steele tell a story about an argument at Fort Garry one winter day in the early 1870’s about the distance from there to the village of Fort Headingly, which is fourteen miles. It was arranged that a Metis runner who was starting for Headingly with a dog carriole should have a surveyor’s pedometer fastened to his belt, and should carry a letter to the man in charge of the trading post at Headingly, telling him to make a note of the number of strides the pedometer would show the runner to have made in traveling to that post. But the runner met some friends at Headingly who took him to a dance, and he did not deliver the letter until the next morning, when the pedometer showed that he had traveled some seventy miles.” Sheriff Inkster’s grandfather on his mother’s side was William Sinclair, who, as governor for many years at York Factory, on Hudson Bay, was a notable figure in the history of the Company. The tradition is that he was of the family of the ancient Earls of Selkirk. He died at York Factory in 1818. One of his sons was James Sinclair, who discovered the Sinclair Pass through the Rockies, which the automobile highway from Banff to Windermere follows, and whose granddaughter, Mrs. William Cowan, of Winnipeg, is the oldest woman surviving from the Red River era. Among his grandsons was the late Sir Edward Clouston, president of the Bank of Montreal, and among his great granddaughters is Mrs. R. A. Rogers, of Winnipeg, the first woman elected to the Legislature of Manitoba.

His Daily Dozen

ONE day in the week between last Christmas and New Year’s the writer of these lines had the pleasure of being at luncheon in the house of Mrs. Andrew Strang, in Winnipeg, with Sheriff Inkster and Mrs. Cowan, whose memory and vivacity are extraordinary for a woman in her ninety-fourth year. As she is eleven years older than the sheriff, she says that she regards him as a mere boy. Mrs. Strang (another granddaughter of Governor Sinclair), who is only seventy-four, she pretends to regard as a little girl.

“Did you enjoy your duck-shooting this fall, Colin?” Mrs. Cowan asked.

“Yes, indeed, my dear Harriet,” replied the sheriff.

“And how about the skipping rope?”

The sheriff laughed. “Oh, I am still using it occasionally before breakfast,” he said.

When he was a young man the sheriff began making it his daily practice to use a skipping rope for at least a quarter of an hour before breakfast—a practice which he kept up faithfully for more than fifty years, and which he has not abandoned yet.

The talk went back to the old days when the sheriff used to travel back and forth over the plains. Mrs. Cowan told of her journey with her father’s train of Red River carts in 1848, when he took her, a girl of sixteen, to a boarding school in Galesburg, in Illinois On that journey she saw, before coming to St. Paul, the newly-built log cabin of Pierre Bottineau, then the only building on the site of Minneapolis, now a city of more than 400,000 people.

"Next summer I am going up to York Factory,” the sheriff said. “I am sorry you have so much better a record as a traveler than I have, Harriet. \ ou made the voyage to England three times through Hudson Strait, but I have never yet been to the Bay.”

Mrs. Cowan spoke of the journey she made to James Bay in 1856 with her husband and two y’oung children, traveling by canoe the 1,200 miles from Red River to salt water at the mouth of the Albany River, and the last Continued on page 1,8

Eighty Years on the Red River

Continued from page H

100 miles to Moose Fort in an open sail boat on James Bay.

“We saw white whales and many seals, and met Eskimos,” she said. “Of course, we could take only light luggage with us. Our heavy trunks went by York Factory the seven hundred miles north from Red River to York Factory to be shipped to England in the vessel which made the voyage once a year, and they were brought back to us at Moose Fort by the other ship of the Company, which made the annual voyage to James Bay.”

“Just as if you were to start from Winnipeg now for California, traveling south by train,” interrupted the sheriff, “but sent your trunks to Prince Rupert, from there to be shipped across the Pacific to Hong Kong, to be brought out

next year by steamship to San Francisco —and from there sent on to you at Hollywood, where I do not doubt you would be by that time, my dear Harriet. You are becoming more gay and sprightly everyday.”

Speaking of Moose Fort, the sheriff mentioned that in the last Ontario provincial elections a deputy returningofficer flew from Toronto to Moose Factory and back in an airplane.

“Yes, I read that in the newspaper at that time,” said Mrs. Cowan. “How amazed the Indians would have been if an airplane had appeared over James Bayseventy years ago! But no more than my husband and I should have been, I am

Of most of the men who have taken leading parts in the shaping of Western Canadian history since the closing decades of the old Red River era, the sheriff has reminiscences which should be preserved. Among the many things of historic interest he has in his possession is the large medal which Lord Selkirk gave Chief Peguis (to whom there is a monument in Kildonan Park, in Winnipeg) on July 18,1817, the day on v hich was made the treaty at the forks of the Red and the Assiniboine, by which the Indians gave up their title to the land extending two English statute miles from the banks of the rivers. The Indians’ version of the treaty was that they gave the Silver Chief, as they called Lord Selkirk, the land back from the river banks as far as daylight could be seen under the belly of a pony standing on the level prairie.

Among the documents which the sheriff has is a Hudson’s Bay Company note, dated 1820, for one pound sterling, payable at York Factory. “When I go to York Factory next summer,” he told me, “maybe I shall present it for payment.”

On the Seven Oaks grounds, a stone’s throw from the front door of the sheriff’s house, is a part of the mill built by his father. Part of the mill dam is also preserved but there is only a gully to show

where Inkster’s Creek used to flow. One of the barns back of the old house is roofed with shingles made by splitting cedar logs with an axe. The sheriff helped to make and roof that barn in 1867.

An Old-time Reformer

SHERIFF INKSTER is the only surviving member of the first council of St. John’s College, Winnipeg, and has been the rector’s warden of St. John’s cathedral for more than fifty years _ One of his chief claims to fame, however, is the fact that it was he who abolished the Upper Chamber which once was part of Manitoba’s governmental machinery. He became a member of the old Legislative Council when he was sworn in as Minister of Agriculture for Manitoba in 1875. A year later, the Council recorded a tie vote on the question of its own abolition and Colin Inkster, who by this time had been elected Speaker, cast the vote which signed the Chamber’s death warrant.

Now, fifty years afterwards, he is one of the few links with a past that most Canadians know only dimly. That, in itself, would make him a notable Canadian, but I prefer to think of him as a fine old man whose spirit is as youthful as his memories are old.