The Barr Colony
Comedy, tragedy, heroic achievement — you’ll find them all in this story of the Great Trek of 1903
CAPTAIN C. TWEEDALE
IT WAS not until I read in a recent issue of the Vancouver Province of the death of the oldest member of the “Barr Colony” that I was inspired to make my debut into journalism. As a member of this famous colony, a flood of old memories came to my mind, and I think a brief account of some of our trials and adventures would be of interest to others.
This colony was probably one of themost ambitious efforts of its kind ever undertaken in the annals of Canadian immigration—well conceived but hopelessly carried out.
It was organized in the early part of 1903 by the Rev. I. M. Barr, a Canadian minister. The Rev. George Eton Lloyd, an Anglican clergyman, later to become Bishop Lloyd of Saskatchewan, was appointed vicar of the colony. The idea was to organize in London, England, a party of Englishmen, with some means and an inclination for farming, to form a colony in Saskatchewan bordering on the Third Meridian and some miles south of the North Saskatchewan River, 200 miles west of Saskatoon. A reservation of fifty-six townships had been made by the Canadian Government for the purpose. Mr. Barr’s original idea was for a small party, but as soon as he gave publicity to the scheme he was swamped by thousands of applications. Overnight the whole scheme developed into such large proportions that he was literally carried off his feet, and subsequent developments proved that he lacked the business and administrative experience successfully to manage such a large undertaking with its many ramifications.
Before leaving England, we were informed that every' provision would be made to take care of the comfort and welfare of the colonists en route, and also on arrival at the “Promised Land.” Large marquees were to be erected; wood, meat, bread and other necessities were to be avail-
able. A hospital was to be established, houses were to be built, steam plow purchased, or contracts taken to break many acres of land. Hay and straw wrere to be on hand to fill our ticks for bedding. General stores w'ere to be established at convenient central points, a transport company was to be organized, provisions were to be provided on the trek from railhead to our destination, sanitary arrangements were to be provided both at Saskatoon and on the trek. More of this later.
Mr. Barr’s literature carried this slogan:
"Let us take possession of Canada !
Let our cry be, ‘Canada for the British !’ ”
It was necessary to charter several special boats. These included the Lake Megantic, which sailed on the 18th of March, 1903, and the Lake Manitoba which sailed on the 31st of March, 1903, both of the Elder Dempster Line. The last-mentioned ship was the one I sailed on. She was an old boat of 5,000 tons, and packed first, second, and steerage classes with 2,000 humans. The steerage quarters were simply crude bunks built in the cargo hold, divided by sacking, and approached by a vertical ladder from lower decks through the hatch.
EVENTUALLY we cast off, after a great deal of confusion, all the baggage being hopelessly mixed up. We had barely left the Mersey at Liverpool when trouble started.
In the holds, privacy was impossible. No one could undress properly. The drinking water was almost unfit to wash in, the food worse. No adequate sanitary arrange-
ments were provided, and whitewash fell in great patches from ceiling and walls as the ship was battered by the seas.
During the voyage our discomfort was enlivened by many incipient mutinies, riots, personal encounters, and violent interviews with Mr. Barr. On one occasion he fled to the captain’s bridge and threatened to have the fire hose turned on the crowd. The passengers represented every walk and station in life and made an interesting study, but there were two characteristics most of them had in common —an almost total lack of knowledge of the most elementary principles of fanning; and the style of their dress. I think it safe to say that the majority of the male passengers wore riding breeches, strap leggings or puttees, and broadbrimmed Stetson or African felt hats; and, of course, as befitted such a peaceful (?) expedition, they had provided themselves with firearms of every kind, and dangerouslooking Bowie knives.
During the voyage, a number of talks were given by Mr. Barr on the general plan of the campaign, how we should proceed; and all details of arrangements supposed to have been made by him.
Government surveyors were to be on hand when we arrived at the proposed colony headquarters, and these would locate our homesteads of 160 acres each, and place us on them. I remember vividly the great pride and enthusiasm of the younger members of the party in the thought of owning such an estate and having it as a “free gift” from a generous Government, when otherwise it would have been beyond their wildest dream. Of course, most of us pictured our homesteads as picturesque park land, with grassy, gently-rolling slopes interspersed by clumps of trees, a sparkling stream or possibly a silvery lake thrown in, the whole estate alive with game of all kinds.
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The Barr Colony
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Those colonists who claimed previous farming experience were constantly surrounded by a crowd of respectful and eager students anxious to complete their education in farming before arrival on their homesteads. Very few had the remotest conception of what conditions actually were, or what difficulties would have to be overcome, but trusted blindly to our leader and all his promises, so that later we earned the name of “Barr Lambs.”
I think it was the 12th of April when we arrived at Saint John, New Brunswick, and boarded special colonist trains which would take us to Saskatoon. These were crowded to suffocation, and as the spring was a late one and the weather at zero or below, all windows were kept closed. We had to provide our own food, blankets, etc., and cooking was supposed to be done on a small stove at the rear of each car. As far j as the men were concerned this was a j hopeless impossibility, as the stove was continuously surrounded by women providing for their children, boiling water, and
talking their heads off while they warmed themselves. Many small children wrere in the party, and what with their cries, the noise of the older ones using the passageway as a playground, the loud voices of all and sundry, the thick smoke from the men’s tobacco, the diversified other smells of cooking, bedding and dirty clothes, life was far from pleasant, especially as we had to endure this for about four days.
A great many of us had our firearms with us on the train, and on one occasion, as we were proceeding slowly up a steep grade in a thickly wooded area, one of the passengers took a shot at a rabbit through the window of the car, calmly jumped off the moving train, secured his prey, and boarded the train a few cars to the rear. One of our chief excitements was raiding refreshment stalls or stores at any place we stopped, to secure something to eat and drink. We had a stopover of some hours at Winnipeg—at that time a comparatively small frontier city, with its main street paved with round wooden blocks. The sidewalks were of boards, and in most instances raised above the level of the road. The Hudson’s Bay store was the most important business concern in the city, and there I repaired with others to get some of the necessary things peculiar to the country. It was there that I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. John Ridington, at that time with the Winnipeg Free Press, now librarian at the University of British Columbia, to whom our thanks are due for much kindly advice and information.
I was much interested in our first real opportunity to see horsemen, attired in what appeared to be regular Buffalo Bill outfits, riding broncos.
"pROM Winnipeg we proceeded to ■L Regina, where we left the main line of j the C.P.R. and switched to the new J branch line to Saskatoon and Prince
Albert. The large engines used in coming from the East had been replaced by older and much smaller ones. The line north of Regina was roughly ballasted and laid; and the train swayed and bumped in a very uncomfortable way. The land was sparsely settled and almost bare of trees. We saw many herds of antelope.
After proceeding some distance into the wilds, trouble developed with our engine. On frequent occasions our train would stop with a jerk, and, on getting out, we would see our engine rushing up the track in a cloud of smoke. After a little exercise of this kind, it would return to the train, and when the train crew had used up all the spare wire, etc., available, assisted by the helpful advice of a crowd of admiring colonists, the engine was once more secured to the train and we proceeded. It was on this trip that one of our humorous members wrote a song skit on the colony. The tune was that of a popular song, “The Rajah of Bong,” and some of the lines were :
“Farm, farm, do let us farm, Supposing that some of us can !
We’ll plow and we’ll sow,
And we’ll reap and we’ll mow In the Valley of Saskatchewan!”
Eventually we arrived at Saskatoon, which at that time was a strictly pioneer town. The main street, as usual, fronted on the railway tracks and small station, and consisted of a few frame buildings, some a combination of boards and canvas. There was a hardware store or two, several restaurants, a bank, a bakery, two implement and harness agencies, two hotels with saloons, several livery and sale stables, a barber shop, a large immigration shed built of logs, and other odds and ends of business places, including, of course, the inevitable real estate office. The town bordered the north bank of the South Saskatchewan River.
We wrere all anxious to get our tents pitched, with which nearly everyone had provided themselves before leaving England. These were for the most part of the army bell variety, with a pole in the centre. We also wanted to get our baggage sorted out, and to prepare for the serious business of buying wagons, plows, horses, and other things which we should need on our homesteads, including a stock of food to last some months. This was the last chance we should have to procure such things before our trek of 200 miles to what later became the Lloydminster district, for the small village of Battleford, some 100 miles vest, was not prepared to cater to our wants as was Saskatoon.
It appeared that the baggage and tents were on a freight train that was supposed to be following us. Mr. Barr had been detained at Saint John and would also follow. After we had taken a good look round the place and had some welcome exercise, we became impatient at the enforced inaction and delay. There was
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nothing for it but to spend another night in the train. Some of the women and children were removed into the immigration shed. The weather was very cold for this time of the year, and the river, though broken up, was chocked with huge blocks of ice which made a continuous series of loud reports and rumblings.
The Baggage Revolt
'“PME NEXT day Mr. Barr arrived, but no freight train. Later our tents came, and then we scrambled to pick the most advantageous sites to pitch them on. By this time other trains had arrived, and before long we had an encampment of some 500 or 600 tents. No proper plan was put into effect and adhered to. Most of them were pitched haphazard over the prairie, sanitary arrangements were almost nil, our water supply was the river which was a nice coffee color.
We procured a small tin cook stove, and with our waterproof sheets and blankets made ourselves fairly comfortable except for the lack of our cotton ticks to till with straw and lie on. These were in our baggage. There was also a scarcity of firewood, and bakeries were unable to supply the large amount of bread required, so most of us became flapjack experts, much to the detriment of our stomachs.
At last the belated baggage train arrived, but we were unable to get the cars unloaded as the freight bills had been mislaid or the keys of the freight cars lost. This was the cause of indignation meetings and many demands on Mr. Barr. Getting impatient beyond endurance, we held a mass meeting. Speakers mounted on a box, advocated breaking into the cars, and when one speaker yelled “Shall we release the baggage?” a united shout was “Yes!” The mood of the crowd was getting dangerous when Mr. Barr approached, guarded by a constable of the North West Mounted Police. At this critical juncture the cars were opened and everyone attempted to salvage his own things, regardless of freight bills.
During these days and for some time afterward, Mr. Barr was more than fully occupied in his office tent, answering all kinds of questions, working in vain to put into operation all his promised plans, and trying to explain many things to dissatisfied colonists. Large corrals had been constructed and these contained a great number of horses and many oxen, all of course guaranteed as sound, quiet to ride or drive, by the truthful gentlemen who proposed doing the unsuspecting colonists a favor by selling the animals to them at exorbitant prices. These animals had been gathered together from far and wide, and their wiles and temperaments were varied.
One of our rather amusing difficulties was in finding our own particular bell tent among so many of like pattern, especially after dark. On several occasions we pushed open the flap of what we thought was home, to hear either a shriek from a feminine voice or the curses of some awakened male.
Having spent several days getting our camp in order and our possessions together, we sallied forth to purchase a team and wagon, harness, tools, a plow, supplies of food, and other things. I had formed a sort of partnership with another fellow to share in what was called “our outfit,” and we arranged to settle on adjoining homesteads and generally help each other.
Tricky Horse Dealers
^~\UR FIRST call was on the horse dealers, whom we found as busy as clowns on circus day. Horses were being shown in every manner. Some were being trotted up and down by unshaven gentlemen of the half-breed variety, others were being harnessed and hitched to new brightly-painted wagons. Every now and then a shout would go up as some rider demonstrating the qualities of a bronco or cavuse would charge into the crowd, narrowly missing someone. Men dressed as cowboys stood in the corrals roping
horses as the dealer pointed out the particular animals he wanted to show. Many teams of dangerously horned bullocks were tethered to the fences; and to add to the picture, a number of full-blooded Cree Indians squatted here and there. Every now and then fresh excitement would be caused by the strange antics of a team with brand-new harness and wagon being driven off for the first time by a proud purchaser, who appeared, by the way he handled his ribbons, to be completely innocent of any experience as a teamster.
During the subsequent days it became quite a common sight to see a team and wagon bolting through the camp, sometimes with no driver, upsetting tents and scattering terrified colonists in all directions.
My chum and I, not being satisfied with the appearance of any unsold animals in the corrals or the truthfulness of the dealers, got into conversation with a man who appeared to be honest and of considerable experience. He advised us to look at a team he had seen were for sale at Chambers’ Livery Stables, so there we went. These horses were a well-matched pair of black geldings of the light Clydesdale breed, weighing about 1,600 pounds. We looked them over carefully, and had them hitched up and tried them out. They appeared to handle perfectly, kept well up to their collars and had a nice turn of speed. So we closed the deal at $450, which made a big hole in our capital.
We then purchased a Bain wagon with prairie-schooner top, i.e., wooden hoops with a canvas cover, known to most people as a “covered wagon,” harness, a breaker plow, a logging chain to brake the wheels while going down steep ravines and for pulling us out of swamps or muskeg, a five-gallon can of coal oil, a lamp, axe, spades, pick, bucksaw, ammunition for our guns, nails, feed oats, a bale of hay and a sack of flour, rolled oats, canned milk, a side of salt bacon, dried apples, a tub of salt butter, a tub of jam which resembled sweet paint more than anything elseif labelled “Green Gage.” it left your tongue a nice moss-green shade; if “Peach,” it would resemble the bright hue of an earlyautumn sunset—tea, coffee, and other necessities.
I had brought from England a few good carpenter’s tools, including leather and a boot-repair outfit, besides pots and pans, etc.
Trouble on the Trail
VWT WERE now ready to hit the trail.
* ’ Mr. Barr's original idea was to have the whole party move out together as one huge convoy, but as there appeared no immediate prospect of this taking place and as many others had already pulled out. we decided to do the same, reckoning also that “First come is first served.” The camp, or what was left of it, remained for many weeks after our departure, though as early as this many of the colonists left the party and drifted into the towns, took up land elsewhere, or returned home.
Mr. Barr’s headquarters were in a state of complete disorganization. Crowds of disgruntled colonists constantly surrounded it, and to me there was every sign that he was losing his grip on the whole scheme. I remember him being goaded almost to distraction by a large group of malcontents. He mounted a box and in an agitated voice addressed the crowd somewhat in this manner:
“Just listen to me, men. The worst is almost over. Have faith! Follow your leaders into the land of promise, where independence is waiting for anyone who will work. Mischief-makers are trying to wreck my plans.”
He held in his hand some crumpled telegrams and his appearance was bedraggled. His final shout was “Be British.” but what he might have added was drowned by the general din of the crowd.
Early one fine morning we struck our tent and packed all our earthly belongings on our wagon—and it was “some load.” piled high to the canvas roof—mounted
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i proudly to the front seat and, with a cheer from our immediate neighbors, were off. In a short time we had found the trail, and the camp became nothing more than a group of white spots in the distance.
We left the last signs of civilization behind us. Our general direction was west, and before us stretched mile after mile of rolling treeless prairie—which natives called “baldheaded”—and as we rumbled and bumped along the trail, which consisted simply of a series of ruts made by the wheels of those who had gone before us, we tried to visualize our future home which lay some 200 miles in the distant horizon.
All went fairly well for the first day or two. When we covered an average of twenty-five miles per day with small delays caused by shifting baggage and the difficulty in finding a suitable camping site and fuel, our horses were behaving well. When night drew near we unharnessed our team and picketed them out to feed, or tied them to our wagon wheels. Then w'e ' pitched our tent, started a fire and made a meal of hot tea or coffee with salt bacon and bread and jam. After that we rolled up in our blankets, and went to sleep.
One day we met several outfits that had gone ahead earlier, returning because already they had become discouraged. They told us tales of getting hopelessly bogged, of passing through many miles of prairie that had been burnt off during the previous fall, with no food for their teams, no wood to light fires, none of the things provided that our leader had promised, of upsets negotiating deep ravines, and of becoming bewildered and lost by taking the wrong trail. These people had not even reached Battleford which was our halfway point, though many of them had been on the trail several weeks and the distance was only a hundred miles!
As we progressed, undaunted by what we had seen and heard, we came upon more and more of these outfits in various stages of inertia. Some wagons had stuck to the axles in sticky gumbo swamps, others had broken down through one cause and another, other outfits had camped on account of some person being sick, or animals were injured, lost or played out. You must remember that there were many women and children including old people among the colonists, and most of these had never before been exposed to the elements we faced, such as extreme cold, late blizzards, howling gales, and hour after hour of walking through sticky mud or getting a lift on the wagon and shivering in discomfort, then making camp on the half-thawed snow. On several occasions we got confused by converging trails and, taking the wrong one, travelled many miles out of our way until we were fortunate enough to meet some solitary horseman or freighter who helped us find our general direction.
Most of the wagons were grossly overloaded. Many of the teams were unable to haul the loads through such heavy going, and down and up steep ravines; while the constant jolting of the springless wagons caused flour sacks to be punctured, coal oil to become freely mixed with food, and much similar damage to occur. Many of the wagons resembled Christmas trees, with every kind of article that had refused to stay put hung on them, such as stable lamps, oil cans, kitchen chairs, baby buggies, plow handles, bags, parcels, hats, tools, and anything else that had happened to fall off. Boots became sodden to such a state that they refused to go on the next day. Most of the travellers, especially the women, had their heads wrapped in blankets or similar covering. Faces became tanned, peeled and crimson. When one party caught up with another, they usually made a small convoy for mutual help and company.
Crossing Eagle Creek
MY SYMPATHIES went out to the sometimes willing animals that shared our trials. For the most part, they
were driven by totally inexperienced hands who, after taking the harness off. had great difficulty in getting it back on the next day. The care of these animals wras an unsolved mystery. Many of them died in their tracks, leaving the owners to suffer many hardships; while the emaciated condition of other teams of both horses and oxen bore testimony to their neglect. The stories of the weaker colonists w'ho were returning only added to the discouragement of the ones who were still at Saskatoon. Probably more than half of these left the party, many returning to England after barely forty days.
As the snow melted it formed into innumerable small lakes or sloughs. Purple anemones carpeted the ground, frogs everywhere kept up an incessant chorus, and wild fowl of all kinds came whirring past in the air.
We had to make many wide detours around swamps in order to avoid getting stuck; and then, after a few days on the trail, we came to a multitude of swamps that seemed to merge one into the other as far as the eye could see, though still the ruts, or trail, seemed to lead us on. We chose what appeared to be the safest rout* and, after proceeding with difficulty some distance toward the middle of the morass, our wagon gradually came to a stop and our horses floundered up to their knees i; mud and water. The wheels had sunk tc the axles in the whitish alkali mud. This meant unloading everything from the wagon and wading through the water anc mud to a dry spot, and pullingout our wagon by hitching our team onto the rear with our logging chain. This we accomplished after some hours of back-breaking, chilly work, and once again we were able to progress. This kind of incident happened frequently. In some instances, several outfits were bogged in the same vicinity and lent each other help. The many outfits ahead had churned up all the fords and trails into a sea of mud and deep ruts, which were made worse by the weather turning w-armer causing the frost to come out of the ground
At one swamp we came to we saw a number of large ducks swimming about and, being badly in need of some fresh meat, we stopped our team, took our gunt and, after careful stalking, were lucky enough to knock one down, which of course fell in the water far from dry land. This made it imperative that we should wade in the icy water to get it. It fell to my partner to do the wading, and I stood on the bank with a change of clothes and towel for when he came ashore. He got our dinner, but was nearly paralyzed with cold in spite of all I could do. A little later we came across large numbers of prairie chickens. Sometimes we were able to shoot without getting off our wagon, so tame were they.
We were now drawing near to Eagle Creek, regarding the crossing of which we had heard so many discouraging reports. Occasionally we would pass a string of Cree Indian freighters, with their stolid expressions and teams that seemed to need no hands to guide them.
Eagle Creek wras a deep chasm cut through the prairie, with banks almost as steep as the side of a house; at least they appeared like that to us, especially as we had to lead our team safely down one side and up the other. Of all our experiences, thrilling and otherwise, the overcoming of this obstacle is outstanding. There was a rushing torrent at the bottom of the ravine, which wras crossed by a small bridge. We had to find the easiest grade that would lead us to this. Here we met a number of other outfits that were halted while they considered the best way to get across. It is a wonder that no one was killed during this operation. Many teams got out of control and were killed or injured, wagons were upset and the contents scattered. We locked the rear wheels of our wagon with the chain and one person steadied each horse; and, after much skidding and slipping, men and horses all reached the bottom safely.
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In a short time it began to snow, and later a strong wind licked this into a raging blizzard which numbed us to the marrow. But we kept going, because a few miles ahead there was a large tent erected by the Government as a rest camp and we wanted to reach it before nightfall. Just as dusk was falling we spied the tent ahead in a clump of birches, and were heartened to see smoke from a fire and about a dozen wagons surrounding it. We were soon warming ourselves round a large cook stove crowded with pots and pans of all kinds. It was here that one of the colonists cut his toe off with an axe while trying to fell a small tree.
100 Miles in Two Weeks
'X/f ANY OF the party remained at this camp a week or more. After a few days here we decided to push on, as the weather showed signs of improving. The trail rapidly became worse. On the right, some distance away, were the hills marking the mighty Saskatchewan River’s course to Lake Winnipeg. Clumps of bare poplar and birch trees covered the hills, and in front of them lay a large expanse of alkali swamp. As there appeared no way of going round this swamp, which lay right in our course, we struggled on, our horses bravely pulling and tugging, floundering with sometimes one leg and then two stuck fast in the oozy clay. At times only the axles and wagon-box stopped us from being completely submerged; at others the horses would lie down in the mud and it was with great difficulty that we got them up. After hours of almost superhuman effort, during which time we unloaded and loaded our wagon several times, we at last reached firmer ground. During most of the earlier part of our journey we drove our team while walking beside them, to keep warm and also lighten our load. Here we saw several other outfits dotted about on various crossings, suffering similar difficulties, and a day was lost because of our own troubles and helping others.
Our horses had so far behaved splendidly and we became very attached to them. But in spite of the best of care—covering them with blankets at night, and using up our oats and hay to supplement the grass where it was to be had-they became more gaunt each day and their bones began to appear far too conspicuously. One of them developed a bad cold, and we were glad when at last we crossed the new steel bridge spanning the Battle River, and entered the historic old village of Battleford, one-time capital of the North West Territories, with its Mounted Police barracks, Hudson’s Bay post, Indians and half-breeds, general stores, saloons, livery stables, and small clusters of log and frame houses. The whole, occupying a splendid site on the top of a small plateau, commanded a view of many miles in all directions, being situated at the junction of the North Saskatchewan and Battle Rivers. Its position was evidently chosen in the early days for its advantages from a military point of view.
Incredible as it may seem, it had taken us almost two weeks to cover the hundred miles from Saskatoon. Just outside the town was assembled a camp similar to the one we had left at Saskatoon but on a much smaller scale. Here too we found the genuine Western spirit of good fellowship and hospitality so lacking in our earlier experiences. At that time a saloon was run by a man who later became a Member of Parliament.
We decided at once that we must do something about our horses. After consulting an experienced farmer, he told us our horses were Eastern-bred animals and were suffering from slough fever because of bad water, exposure and overwork. He advised us to trade them for oxen as the latter were great workers and more hardy. So we made a deal with a man in town to take our horses and give us in trade a team of oxen, an old democrat buggy, and some harness. He guaranteed the oxen to plow and pull better than horses. The latter
statement proved true, but we were never able to discover the first accomplishment. It was not without sorrow that we parted with our horses; we had some misgivings as to the oxen. We then purchased two cayuse ponies from Indians at $25 each, and a cheap saddle and bridle. Our buggy was very old and shaky, and we doubted if we should be able to get it intact to our destination.
We spent a very pleasant week at Battleford, resting up and taking our last chance to replenish our stores, send and receive mail, and purchase any needed additions to our equipment. The weather had suddenly become summerlike, with clear blue skies and, during the day, a hot sun. The snow had vanished and the ground dried up as if by magic; masses of early spring prairie flowers were everywhere.
A FTER leaving Battleford we entered a much more pleasing country ; gently rolling, with small clumps of poplar and willow. Dotted here and there on the ground were patches of grass and pea vine, wild roses, etc., and the trails were good. One night we were camped in a nicely wooded spot near the river, and had just turned in, when we heard a distant and regular beat as of some kind of drum. Hastily we got up and, after scouting outside, decided it must be Indians on the war path, so we prepared to sell our lives dearly. Presently the noise ceased and we dropped off to sleep. In the morning we discovered that we were camped in an Indian Reserve—I think it was called “Thunderchild.” Presently we came upon their tepees, and very interesting the latter appeared, but we did not appreciate the flock of mongrel dogs that every Indian camp contained. The Cree Indians were a fine-looking race, tall and athletic, great horsemen and hunters. They always ride bareback, and at that time spoke very little English; also they were very taciturn, but friendly.
We found that our oxen, though good at pulling, were much slower at the walk than horses and not so easy to handle. At times they would become very obstinate. Taking it into their heads that they wanted a drink, regardless of the risk of getting bogged, they would bolt off the trail into some slough or swamp in spite of all we could do to prevent them. As we had only a piece of rope for reins, we might as well have tried to stop an express train. They turned right and left when we shouted “Haw” or “Gee,” but only when they were in the mood to do so. Fortunately, however, we found that they were strong enough to pull us out of most of the trouble they got us into; in fact, on several occasions our oxen pulled out other people’s bogged wagons that teams could not move.
On another occasion, camping near the river, we found we had pitched our tent in the dusk on a colony of grass snakes, but not until we had our bedding on the ground and lay down did we fully realize it by the waggling that took place underneath us. In the morning we found numbers of these harmless snakes coiled up in heaps, and at our approach they scattered in all directions.
It was now the second wreek of May and, as I said, the hot weather and strong winds had dried the long, dead grass to tinder. Several days after leaving Battleford, the sun became almost obscured by a heavy pall of smoke that was driven toward us by a hot dry wind. This grew to shocking intensity as the day wore on. We realized that a prairie fire was approaching, and as we were in the dangerous long-grass country, immediate steps must be taken to save ourselves and teams from being burnt or suffocated. We had already been warned by old-timers of this danger, and how to proceed. We drove our team and wagon into a near-by slough that had a foot or so of water, unhitched our oxen and ponies, and tied them securely to the
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wheels. We covered the animals’ heads with wet sacks, threw water over the canvas cover of our wagon, and started to backfire the grass, beating it out with a spade so as to create a fireguard of the burnt area toward the oncoming fire.
By the time we had completed our task dusk was falling, and as far as we could see, a great line of flickering fire was rapidly closing in on us. Dense clouds of choking smoke and sparks filled the air, birds of all kinds went shrieking past, and the ground was alive with panic-stricken rabbits, gophers, an occasional antelope, and other creatures. We had just waded into the slough and covered our own heads when the fire reached us with a roar and a crackling. The heat was terrific and it was almost impossible to breathe; our oxen became panicky and tore at their ropes and bellowed. It was only a matter of minutes before the worst of the lire had raced past us, but it was some time before the smoldering grass had cooled sufficiently, and the smoke abated, for us to remove our head covering and venture out of the water.
In the light of the fire that was racing away from us, we could see nothing but mile after mile of black smoldering ground. Next day we travelled through a sea of black dust that covered everything and made us look like negroes. We had to depend for feed for our team on the few patches of dead grass left here and there in the fire’s mad haste. It was in this area that most of the casualties to transport animals occurred, they being emaciated by overstrain, lack of food and care. Many lay dead on the trail as mute evidence of their heroic endurance at last overcome.
About a week after leaving Battleford, we sighted in the distance a group of tents, and, strung along the trail ahead of us, a number of other outfits converging on that point. To us it was a thrilling sight. We reached the colony headquarters after weeks of facing every kind of weather, and overcoming almost daily, fresh difficulties. But we were young, and it was all in the nature of a great adventure to us. Little did we dream that we were only at the beginning of our trials and adventures, as the following years proved. Happily, we are not allowed to see what fate has in store for us.
VXiTE PITCHED our tent on the out* ’ skirts of the camp, which today is the town of Llovdminster, and went in search of bread, meat and mail. We found that a large tent had been erected for a hospital, but it had no equipment. Another tent with a tarpaper-and-board annex served
as a general store, but the main articles that had arrived so far consisted of logging chains, door locks and other hardware, cigars, chewing gum, clothing, dried apples, beans, and almost everything we did not need. There was a supposed office tent where one of Mr. Barr’s representatives sat in a state of helpless inactivity. Most of Mr. Barr’s plans had miscarried altogether or were in a state of utter confusion, but we muddled through somehow in the “good old British way.” Most of us, after hanging around the camp for a week or so, waiting for someone to locate us on our allotted homesteads, got impatient and wandered away and settled on any land we could find that looked suitable to us; and in doing so we chose land that had some clumps of scrub or dead poplars and sloughs on it, disregarding the fact that a shrewd hand would prefer flat, clear prairie for plowing.
It would be impossible in a short article to relate fully all our experiences, especially after reaching our land. Suffice to say, we built our first house of sods and dead poplar poles, about ten by twelve feet, inside measurements. The walls were four feet thick, tapering to about eighteen inches at the top.
Mr. Barr made his exit from the colony, and the leadership was taken over very ably by Rev. Mr. Lloyd, after whom the town was eventually named; the surrounding district being called Britannia. Some three or four hundred outfits eventually reached the district.
Whatever criticism may be made of Mr. Barr, he at least should be given credit for choosing a ’mry fertile tract of country in which to locate the colony. No man could have controlled several thousand people who had never met, and provided all the things envisioned in Mr. Barr’s plans, unless he had the trained staff of an army brigade and could enforce the same discipline.
No colonist who had any courage or backbone, in spite of all the grouching, really regretted joining the colony and the unforgettable trials and humor.
The writer spent three years on his homestead and. after getting his deed from the Government, came to Vancouver in the spring of 1906.
Llovdminster is today the centre of a well-settled and prosperous farming community on the main line of the C.N.R., and has won at least once the World’s Best Wheat prize at Chicago. Many of the original Barr colonists or their descendants are still to be found there.
And so, as Mr. Barr’s slogan read, this is how we “took possession of Canada” in 1903.