The following has been transcribed by Charles' granddaughter Daphne Bridgen (nee Grimshaw).
NARRATIVE OF THE EXPEDITION TO THE RED RIVER - MAY 20th 1870
by Charles James ROBERTS
In the year 1868, when it was decided by the British Government to withdraw all the troops from the Dominion of Canada, and to allow the
|Charles James Roberts|
A certain individual by the name of Louis Riel, a French half-breed, who had been employed by the Hudson Bay Company as an official at Fort Garry, raised a small body of men, about 700 strong to rebel against the proceedings of the two governments. After some little delay in trying to settle the affair as quiet as possible, several gentlemen were sent to Fort Garry to try and persuade him to desist, but it was found to be of no use. One of the gentlemen, a Mr. Scott, a native of Toronto, was taken by the rebels and cruelly murdered. Some said that he was shot and then buried in quick-lime. Others said that his body was thrown into the river, but he was never found. When the sad news reached Canada the whole country was up in arms.
Another gentleman I must not forget to mention was a loyal half-breed by the name of Monckton. He travelled all the way from Fort Garry in the depth of winter on snow shoes to Canada to persuade the government to send some soldiers up to quell the revolt. He was a very brave man for he suffered a great deal from exposure to the weather and was obliged to sleep out in the open air all night. I must not forget to tell that he was an abstainer from drink. This was in the month of January or February 1870.
Shortly after, it was decided to send an expedition, known as the
Red River Expedition. The reason why it was called by this name was
because it would have to pass up this river in order to reach Fort Garry.
It was also decided that the force should be collected together at Toronto
with the stores, boats etc. The boats had to be purpose built and to be
very strongly made as the load they would have to carry would be no small
one. The whole force was to be about 1200 strong as follows:-
After a considerable portion of the troops and stores had been collected at Toronto, we received orders to proceed to Thunder Bay. We started from Toronto on the 21st day of May 1870 by train to Huron, thence across Lake Huron by steamer. This lake is a magnificent one, the shore abounding with silver and copper ore. Our first stopping place was at the silver mines to take on wood.
Then we proceeded to a place called Sault St. Marie. Here our work began. All the steamers had to be unloaded so that they might pass through the American Canal into Lake Superior. The Yankies would not allow the boats to pass through their canal with warlike material on board and you may be sure that we had plenty of that kind of stuff with us. All the stores had to be taken overland a distance of half a mile, then put on board the boats again. We were at this place one day. Then we proceeded on the 23rd across Lake Superior. This is the largest fresh water lake in the world, about 270 miles across, that is to the place called Thunder Bay, or Prince of Wales Landing. We arrived at our destination, for the present, at the end of the third or fourth day, I forget which. We were not here long before the shore presented a grand sight.
I must tell you that we were not the first party to arrive, there had been a great many men sent up before us. There were a number of men employed besides the 150 I mentioned before, but these were employed to help make the road from Thunder Bay to Lake Shebandowan, a distance of about 45 miles.
As soon as each steamer arrived, the place was all alive with men running here and there, carrying up all kinds of packages. After a very few days the place looked more like a town than a part of a wild forest, for such it was before we landed on the shores. Huts and tents had sprung up in every direction and the place was all life.
Now I must describe to you how we spent the first month or six weeks at Thunder Bay. The first thing to be done was to make the camp secure in case the Indians should come down and scalp the whole of us, as there were plenty not very far away. Besides, there was a rumour abroad that they were going to stop the expedition if possible but this rumour, like many others on such occasions, came to nothing after all.
Well, in order to make the camp safe, the soldiers had to be placed on guard and then a magazine had to be built and a stockade around it, which took a number of hands. Then the road had to be made, through a dense forest, a distance of 45 miles. Woodmen had to go to work and cut down the trees and make a clearing so that the carts might be brought up. So we all had to go to work in right good earnest, soldiers as well as civilians. For the soldiers, it was very hard at first, not being accustomed to hard work, but nevertheless, they worked with a will. They knew the work must be done, so they went at it with a good heart, toiling from early morning till late at night in a hot burning sun. There were many a poor fellow struck down the first month by sun-stroke. I myself saw a poor fellow struck one day, he seemed to spin round and round like a top, then fell to the ground. He was taken back to the camp and attended to by the doctor and very soon recovered.
Well, we worked away at this road making, which was called a corduroy road, rather a peculiar name but that is the name given to all such like roads in America. The trees are cut in lengths of about 12 feet, and then laid close beside each other but only where the ground is soft and not firm enough to bear a cart or wagon.
One morning there was a great stir in camp. Our Chief, which I ought to have mentioned before, Sir Garnet Wolseley, had given out an order that a party of men were to proceed up the Kaministikwia River to explore and see if it would be easier to take the stores up by water than by the land route. This river flows from Lake Shebandowan down to Lake Superior.
The number of men that were sent to explore this river was 12 soldiers and 26 civilians, 38 in all, and this is what all the noise was about, who should go, for all were eager to go ahead. So they had to be chosen and those that were thought most fitted for the work were picked out, I happened to be one of the lucky ones.
We were ordered to pack up what things we should be likely to want on our journey so everything would be ready to start by noon. We left the shores of Thunder Bay, our boats towed by a small steamer or tug for some distance up the river, then left us to proceed on our journey. We only went a short distance that night, as the officer in charge of the party intended to get on as far as he could the next day. We made our boats fast to the trees so that they might not break away during the night. Then we proceeded to gather wood for fires to cook our supper and this was soon done, as wood was not scarce or water either. This was our first taste of camping out, but we were very comfortable as far as circumstances would allow.
Next morning, after a tolerably good nights rest, I can say that we slept very well, for we had plenty of company such as mosquitos, and they are not very nice things buzzing about ones head in the night, occasionally giving you a sting by way of friendship. After we had taken a good breakfast of tea, biscuits and salt pork, we made a start up the river. As we proceeded on we found the river got narrower and the water more shallow. We soon arrived at the first portage. A portage being a place where boats and stores have to be carried overland.
We passed on, coming to a number of these portages and it soon became very tedious work. Day after day passed and we made but little progress. At last, we reached what the Indians called Kakabeka Falls. This was considered half way up the river. We arrived here on Saturday. Of course, the boats had to be unloaded and the stores taken to the other side of the falls and we had to work very hard this day in order that we might rest the next day (Sunday). This was found to be the hardest portage that we had to pass. The boats had to be dragged up a tremendous steep hill. Here we met with a tribe of friendly Indians and they helped us to get the boats over. It was good fun to see them take hold of a boat and give one yell or shout and start off and not stop till they reached the end of their journey. They told us that we were the first white men that had ever passed that way.
After Sunday was over, we proceeded on our way, the river still getting lower and narrower. So with portaging, poling and tracking, we were longing to get to our journeys end.
After the end of nine days hard work we arrived at the end of the river, and I can assure you none of us wanted to do the journey again. It proved that it would take too long to bring the stores up that way, so they had to be brought up by road after all. It was not long before this was done as the road was almost made through. We had to all go back by road to Thunder Bay again. When we arrived we surprised the whole camp for they had not heard of our arrival at the other end of the river. A rumour had been started that the whole party had been killed by Indians, so we were as much surprised as they were, but at the same time, no one doubted that our Chief knew we were safe.
We only spent one night in the camp at Thunder Bay, as we had to start off again the next morning, up the corduroy road towards Lake Shebandowan and we soon reached the place. One Brigade had already started and it was not long before we were busy loading the boats which took us till about 3 p.m. the next day. Then we were off across the Lake, but we only reached a small island in the middle of the Lake. That night, our Captain gave orders to haul into shore to make camp for the night, which was soon obeyed. The little island was soon like a beehive, men running off to get wood to make fires to cook our supper. Others making the boats fast for the night. As soon as supper was over, all except the guards gathered to our tents and rolled ourselves snug in our blankets. The only sounds to be heard were the rippling of the water on the shore and occasionally the loud snore of some fellow as he was perhaps dreaming of the dear ones at home.
The next morning, as soon as it was light, the bugle was heard sounding, for you know soldiers always go to bed by the sound of the bugle and rise in the morning by the same. Of course, we were all soldiers now, for we had been together so long and got so much alike with the work, that you would scarcely know one from the other. Breakfast was soon ready and tents struck and packed up ready for another start.
Breakfast over, a shout was heard that we had not heard for some time, not since we left the American steamers, "All aboard". We were soon in the boats again, pulling away at the oars for about four or five hours. This work was very trying and especially as our boats were well packed with stores and provisions for the journey. Many of them were overloaded, for each brigade had to take enough to last them the whole of the way up and back.
Well, after a pull of four or five hours, as I have said before, we sighted the other side of the Lake and we could see the brigade that had started before us, hauling away at their last boat, to get it out of our way, for they had seen us coming. This was the first portage, it was a mile long and you might imagine to yourselves that it was not an easy task to carry all the stores for a mile, and then have to drag the boats over the same distance, and to do it all without any kind of strong drink. We were all thorough teetotallers now, plenty of good water and wholesome food. Also, plenty of expertise, the three best doctors on the face of the earth. We had two days work at this portage.
We started early on the third morning, across another small lake. When we arrived at the other side, we were delayed for some little time to allow the brigade in front of us to get out of our way. This portage was much like the first but not so long by a quarter of a mile. While we were waiting, we went to look at the falls or rapids, for it would hardly be proper to call them falls. It was one continual flow of water, falling from one shelf to another till it reached the bottom. We had seen a great many falls, also rapids before but we all thought it to be the grandest that we had ever seen. If I were to attempt to describe its grandeur, I should utterly fail, but I must return to my journey.
With the other party having got clear away, we were soon hard at work carrying barrels of pork and biscuits, work that we were all getting pretty well used to. Here we had a kind of song introduced when we were hauling at the boats, and everyone took it up. It ran something like this; "One, two, three, haul". The words were extended to such a length that it made quite a long song of it, but it made the work seem a lot easier.
We proceeded on our way, crossing lakes, small rivers and portages. Our chief amusement was fishing, for all the lakes and rivers were full of fish, which we found a good relish. One of the modes we had to catch the fish was to put a line out at the stern of the boat with a bait called a spoon and we used to catch plenty of fish in this way. Then of course we could get plenty of wild fruit such as blueberries, which were beautiful.
At last we arrived at a small trading post of the Hudson Bay Company, which was at the mouth of a beautiful river. The people in charge of the place were Scotch and they thought to render us some assistance to get our stores over the portage. So they brought down an old bullock attached to a two wheeled conveyance, which caused a considerable amount of amusement. It was such as was used in the days of Noah. We loaded it up and the bullock would not move, so we had to fall back on our portage straps after all. After we passed this place, the portages got much better. They had been used very much by the Hudson Bay Company and this was the furthest that they had been.
As we proceeded down river, it was one of the pleasantest parts of our journey. It was all down stream, so we had plenty of opportunities of looking at the beautiful scenery. It was the most magnificent that I ever saw in my life. At the bottom of this river we came to another small station of the Hudson Bay Company. Here we stayed all night and we got a good supply of new potatoes from the people in charge of the place, who were also Scotch. You may depend that they were a real luxury, after eating pork and biscuits for so long a time.
We arrived at another of these stations, or Forts as they are called, but this one was much larger than than the others, and a much more important one. There was also a tribe of Indians camped near the fort. It was not far from the entrance to the Red River. It was the place chosen by Sir Garnet Wolseley to await the arrival of all the troops, but as the volunteers were so long in coming up, our commander decided to move forward down the Winnipeg River and across a small lake to the mouth of the Red River. In crossing this lake our boats presented a grand appearance. We were formed in a line similar to a fleet of war ships, Sir Garnet's boat leading. To make it much better we had a fair wind so that we were able to sail. Our boats were all provided with sailing gear.
When we entered the mouth of the river, soldiers had to be sent out on each side of the river, to guard the boats on their way up. It took us about a day to reach the lower fort, or Stone Fort as it was called, and it was about two days journey to Fort Garry, where we expected to have a little fighting. We heard a great many rumours as we passed up the river. We passed several small hamlets of Scotch people who were very friendly.
On the second morning, after leaving the lower fort, we made a halt about five miles from our journeys end, so that all should rest, and I can assure you there was a deal of anxiety when we made another start and approached nearer to the scene of action. At last we arrived at a point in the river opposite the fort. The boats were made fast and the soldiers formed up to march and take possession of the fort.
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