Any illusion that Manitobans would escape the worst that Old Man Winter could deliver ended abruptly last week. On Tuesday morning, the thermometer plummeted to -34°C in Winnipeg and the wind chill was measured at -45°C. Of course, there arose the customary complaints about the bone-chilling cold, which caused vehicles to fail to start and numerous cancellations, including school buses remaining in their garages in the city and students being told to stay home in the outlying rural regions.
Yet as we complain about our plight, we should consider how the early pioneers of the province managed to survive the rigours of winter without central heating and other modern conveniences that now blunt the effects of winter’s bite.
“Hardy” would be one adjective to explain their endurance, while another may be “patient.” But, invariably they had little choice. They could not return to their homelands — it was a question of survive or die. Given the options presented to them, survival was their first and foremost consideration.
The tale of the Selkirk Settlers is one of perseverance against conditions that they had never encountered until arriving along the shore of Hudson Bay.
“The icy winter is at hand, and all know that they will face such temperatures as they have never seen even among the stormy Hebrides, or in the northern Orkneys,” wrote George Bryce (1844-1931) in his book, The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk’s Colonists.
Bryce was referring to the workmen hired by Lord Selkirk and led by Mile Macdonell, who were to be the advance party, preparing a site at Red River for the arrival of the first proper settlers. The Irish and Scots hired in 1811 brawled among themselves and rebelled against authority as they faced a winter on high ground north of where the Nelson River enters the Bay. When they were finally able to travel south to the Red River, they didn’t land at Point Douglas until August 30, 1812, which was too late to plant crops. Facing the prospect of confronting winter with few supplies, Macdonell ordered a sojourn at Pembina where Fort Daer was then built.
The first group of men, women and children entered Point Douglas only to find the site deserted, and they too headed to Pembina to over-winter, arriving on October 27.
In the spring, they returned to their fledgling settlement.
The experiences of the third group of Selkirk Settlers was twice the ordeal of the earlier two parties, and became a true test of endurance when facing adversity. The 100 colonists left Stromness in the Orkneys on June 28, 1813. En route to Hudson Bay, typhus struck, and ironically the first person to die was the ship’s doctor, Laserre. In total, seven died and were buried at sea. They were further cursed by a callous captain named Turner, who upon arrival abandoned them to fend for themselves at the mouth of Churchill River, 200 kilometres from their intended landing at the relative comfort of York Factory. When ordered to reload the passengers and their freight, Turner, shortly after obeying the command, suspiciously grounded his ship, Prince of Wales, necessitating again unloading people and cargo due to the lateness of the season. The colonists were deserted in what seemed to them to be the harshest and most barren place on the Earth.
Weakened by disease, they made their camp at Colony Creek, some 20 kilometres south of the mouth of the Churchill River and awaited the coming of winter and all the trials it promised.
“What will become of these miserable people, and ourselves,” wrote William Auld, the HBC surgeon at Fort Churchill, “the God in heaven alone can know.”
Surprisingly to the HBC men, the settlers proved to be industrious, building log houses by October 16 to tame the winter. “The settlers themselves,” wrote Archibald McDonald, who was appointed their leader, “were by no means bad hands, and were willing.”
Still, six more settlers died from typhus over the winter, but the survivors did not give up.
They fed themselves on fish, rabbit and ptarmigan in the absence of food supplies lost when the boat carrying their provisions was swamped through the ineptitude of a drunken cox assigned by Turner. The settlers later estimated they had caught and eaten 8,000 birds.
Near the end of the winter, the strongest of the settlers resolved to walk to York Factory and from there head to Red River. Walking single file through the still-deep snow, the fittest men broke trail and were followed by the men weakened by fever, then came the strongest women and children, with ailing women bringing up the rear. It was perhaps one of the strangest processions ever encountered in the New World, as in their midst was a man playing the bagpipes to encourage their progress as they trod bravely through the snow accumulated over the winter season. The remaining members of their party finally made their way to York Factory when the ice cleared and boats could provide transportation.
Exactly one year and one week after they left Stromness, the settlers arrived at Point Douglas. Despite the hardships they had endured, McDonald wrote Selkirk that the new settlers were “never happier and more content than they are here already.”
Even as the Selkirk Settlers gained the skills to survive the severity of a Manitoba winter, it would be years before the cruel blows of the season could be shrugged aside as inconsequential.
In December 1825 a snow-storm struck “such as had not been witnessed for years,” according to Alexander Ross, a retired HBC trader who settled at Red River that year. The blizzard lasted for days and “drove the buffalo herds beyond the hunters’ reach, and killed most of their horses.”
Ross said the cold was so intense that it often reached -45°F (fahrenheit and celsius scales converge at -40°), and the snow averaged a metre on the plains and over 1 1/2 metres in the woods.
“Families here, and families there, despairing of life, huddled themselves together for warmth (on the plains), and, in too many cases, their shelter proved their grave.”
Ross said he encountered two people who had recently died on the road from Pembina to Red River, “and saw forty-two others, in seven or eight parties, crawling along with gr0eat difficulty.” Ross was only able to provide a mouthful of bread to each starving person he met along the road.
According to Ross, 33 people lost their lives during the winter of 1825-26.
Whine about cold today? Bah! Be comforted that we don’t have to face winter’s perils under the same primitive conditions as the early settlers in Manitoba, who were undeterred by its unforgiving fury.