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Manitoba History No. 90

No. 90

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Manitoba History: Reminiscences of an Old Timer, Part 1

by Jean A. Drever (Mrs. W. Cyprian Pinkham)

Number 20, Autumn 1990

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

Jean A. Drever, later Mrs. W. Cyprian Pinkham, was born at Lower Fort Garry in 1849. In her seventies, at the urging of friends and family, she wrote the following, which she titled “Reminiscences of an Old Timer.” The largest part of the document, written in the 1920s, describes the life of the Drever family at Red River, the events of the Riel Rebellion, and life in the parish of St. James. Due to the length of the manuscript we have edited certain portions and plan to print it in two parts. The excerpts are printed with the permission of the Glenbow Archives. The text can be read in its entirety in the archives of St. John’s Anglican Cathedral, Winnipeg. This first section takes us to 1864.

I was born at Lower Fort Garry, Red River Settlement, or rather in Prince Rupert’s Land as it was then called, on the 6th of May, 1849. My father, William Drever, came from Kirkwall, in the Orkney Islands, in August 1821. He often remarked that he had left home with the proverbial shilling in his pocket, and from that, I should judge, he must have worked his way out in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s ship, sailing at that time for York Factory. He told me that he had been wrecked and had spent the winter at Fort Churchill. He spent some years at York Factory, working for the Company, and then left for Lower Fort Garry. He travelled in an open York boat, all the way, a journey of some seven or eight hundred miles. I am not sure how long it took them, but I know the early Missionaries spent about six weeks on the trip.

Helen Drever
Source: National Archives of Canada, C51641.

My mother, whose maiden name was Helen Rothnie, of Aberdeen, Scotland, and who as a girl was thrilled with all she had heard of the adventures of the Selkirk Settlers in Canada, made up her mind that in some way she would get out to the Red River Settlement. A wonderful opportunity was afforded her, seeing in some paper that the celebrated Doctor Adam Thom was going out as Judge or Recorder for the H. B. Co., and that he was anxious to secure the services of some young lady who would be a companion for his wife, and able to assist her with the children, my mother immediately volunteered for the position, and she left London, with the Judge and his family in 1839, and came to live at Lower Fort Garry. Many years after, in July 1885, my husband met the Judge in London, and he sent me a copy of a wonderful book he had written called “The Pentaglot,” with the inscription: “From Doctor Thom to Mrs. Pinkham, whose mother and himself, in the spring of 1839, sailed together from London to the Red River Settlement. She to become the founder of her husband’s fortunes, and he during forty—six years, the builder of “The Temple” whose keystone is “To cap absolutely most Human Protection.”

A few years after my mother’s arrival, my father came from York Factory. He was a tall broad shouldered man of athletic build, and very good looking, in fact, in Kirkwall, he and his three brothers were called “The three handsome Drevers.” When the boats arrived at the Fort, all the inhabitants were on the river bank to see them disembark. No doubt there were few opportunities of shaving en route and he arrived with a fine black beard. My mother was present with a friend, who nudged her when my father appeared and exclaimed, “There is the man for you to marry!” My mother did not like the black beard, and scoffed at the idea; however, probably the beard was removed for eventually she did marry him. My mother was a tall slender woman and they made a fine couple. After they were married, I think in 1842 or 43, they continued to live at the lower Fort, in a small log house, my father continuing his work for the Company. Four of us were born there, two brothers and a sister [and me]. My mother went through great privations, they had very little to live on, and a child coming every two years made it very hard for her. She was not accustomed to all the hard work which she was obliged to do, and often I fear she suffered very much, but she was a brave, thrifty Scotch woman, determined to make the best of things, and to help her husband to independence as soon as possible. I think about 1851, they moved to the Upper Fort, my father was still with the Company. Here again they lived in a small log house and I remember Major Caldwell, who was Governor of the Company, [sic] and an exceedingly tall man, coming to see my mother and being obliged to stoop in order to enter the door. We always had plenty of good food, our principal bread was Bannocks, as yeast was almost an unknown thing, and the first yeast I remember was Brewers yeast or barm, my mother made us children stand around the table while we ate our breakfast, which usually consisted of bread and milk. She seemed to think that standing was a healthy way to take our meals. Pemican and dried meat entered largely into our bill of fare.

My father very soon severed his connection with the H. B. Co., not because he had anything against them, but because he wished to be independent. The Company had always been a good friend to him, and I believe he obtained from them a strip of land, three chains wide, on the northern side of Notre Dame Avenue, he was to have the use of it, the Company being able to take it back at any time, after giving six months notice and paying him for the improvements, but “This man of the Northern Seas,” managed to keep his grip on it, and it became very valuable. It is now over a hundred years since my father came out in the Hudson’s Bay Company ship, and we have dealt with the company ever since, and I cannot speak too highly of the treatment we have had from them at all times, and I am sure this is the experience of most Old Timers. We trusted them to the fullest extent, they were our bankers and lawyers, and as far as my experience goes now, and I am in my seventy-sixth year, they were always true and just in all their dealings, and the title which was given them of “Honourable” was justly their due, and may the time never come when their word will not be as good as their bond. A pew was always reserved for their officers in the old St. John’s Church, and they attended wonderfully well, and always paid a tribute to the Lord’s Day by unfurling their flag on Sunday mornings.

William Drever
Source: National Archives of Canada, C114461.

Both my father and mother were brought up in the Presbyterian Church. When they came to the Settlement, there was no Presbyterian Church or Minister, so they attended the Anglican Church, but my mother felt the loss of her Church very keenly, and often told me with tears in her eyes, how difficult she found it “To sing the Lord’s song,” in a strange church and in a strange land. When the first Presbyterian Minister arrived, the Rev. John Black, one of the finest and broadest of broad Scotchmen, they became great friends, but he never tried to persuade her to leave the Church of her adoption.

My two youngest sisters were born after we came to live at the Upper Fort, there were no nurses in those days, but some kind and intelligent Indian and Half-breed women, so my mother got along very well. Dr. Cowan, of the Hudson’s Bay Company, was the only doctor I remember in the whole Settlement. I don’t know whether there was a small-pox scare at that time but we were all vaccinated, I was a very strong and healthy youngster, and mine “took” beautifully, and the doctor persuaded my mother to allow him to vaccinate a number of his patients from my arm, so off we started, the doctor driving me in his buggy, and I feeling myself a very important person. I think it was a very risky thing of my mother to have allowed, but no harm came of it. The Upper Fort and Village were inhabited largely by Half-breeds and Indians, so many men in the early days having married Indian women. Then there was a Scotch Settlement, afterwards called Kildonan, where there were a very fine lot of setters, a large number of them being the Selkirk Settlers, among them the Mathesons, Mclvers, MacBeths, Frasers, Bannermans and Munroes. Then there were a large number of French Canadians, the Marions, Gingras, De Chambaults and others, there were a number of very fine looking young ladies among them. The men looked very attractive in their blue Duffel Capots with a red wollen sash, or once called a French belt of many colours, and usually a huge cap of some country fur, and big mitts to match, they sometimes wore a white Hudson’s Bay point blanket Capot, especially for snow-shoeing, and looked very smart.

My father very soon built a very comfortable house, my mother named Clova Cottage, after some house in Aberdeen. I believe Mr. Charles Mair has a photo of it and it was shown on a screen a short time ago at an entertainment got up by the “Old Timers.” On one occasion a number of surveyors were in the village from Eastern Canada, they were very nice men, my father gave a dance for them and a very excellent supper consisting, among other things, of turkey. I fancy the poor fellows had lived pretty well on Pemican and dried meat so that the good supper appealed to them and one of the party was discovered with a fine turkey leg in his pocket when he was dancing. I was only a youngster but allowed to stay up for the dance and a very nice young man, a son of Judge Johnston, asked me to dance a jig with him, I said I couldn’t as my dress was too short, he suggested I might let down a tuck and we both sat on the stairs and with his help the tuck was let down and I had my dance.

The Red River Settlement in the 1850s.
Source: Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History.

By this time my mother was able to keep two servants, a nurse to whom she paid ten shillings a month, and a general servant at fifteen shillings. These were considered good wages at that time. My mother went to a lot of trouble training them, they were half-breeds of course, she advised them about the spending of their money, and insisted on their having a supply of good and useful clothing, which was comparatively cheap. She made them attend church once every Sunday and in the evening assembled us all around the dining room table, servants and all, and we had to read a chapter from the Bible and then my father had prayers.

The only means of lighting the house in those days was by tallow candles. In the autumn an animal was killed, which served us for our winter’s supply of fresh meat. Every part of the animal was used, the beef was cut in quarters and hung up in an outside storeroom and was soon frozen; white and black puddings were made and hung up; the head was made into “Head Cheese” and the tallow into candle dips, dozens and dozens of them, and stowed away in boxes for winter use. I remember our first coal oil lamp, and the excitement of filling and lighting it, it was quite a ceremony and some of the neighbours came to see the effect. We were all a little frightened of it but thought it a wonderful light.

There were only four houses of any importance in the village at that time, one belonged to Mr. Andrew McDermott, an Irishman, and one to his son-in-law, Mr. Bannatyne, a Scotchman; one to Mr. John Rowand, and the other belonged to my father. For parts of the year we were surrounded by Indian Camps, we did not mind them as a rule, as they were very well behaved, and even when they had too much “Fire Water” they did not trouble us much. My father was always a good friend to them and I think they liked him, and on one occasion when he was very ill with Typhus Fever, they surrounded the house, singing and shouting, my mother was alarmed and asked them to go away, they told her they heard he was ill and were trying to drive out the “bad spirit,” but they went quietly.

I and my three sisters, attended Miss M. Davis’ boarding school at St. Andrew’s. She was a wonderful woman, her father was a Hudson’s Bay Factor and sent her, at an early age, to England to be educated. As she grew older she realised that her relations in the Red River Settlement were receiving no education, so she decided to return to the Settlement and open a school. Her sister, “Miss Nancy,” as we always called her, kept house for her, she could neither read nor write, but was a fine woman, and we were very fond of her.

My mother was greatly interested in the Indians and Plain Hunters, and never lost an opportunity of telling them of a Saviour and a future life. Mrs. John Inkster, a life long friend, was a great help to her, as she spoke the Indian language, and I remember a very small and very old Indian woman, who walked with two sticks (we called her “Wifie”) coming regularly to see my mother. Wifie had white patches on her face and breast and I always thought she had leprosy. The Indians preferred to sit on the floor and it was part of my work to spread a small blanket, kept for the purpose, on the kitchen floor for her to sit on.

St. James Church, Red River Settlement, circa 1860. Jean and her husband, the Rev. W. C. Pinkham, moved into St. James parsonage in the spring of 1869.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, St. James - Churches - St. James 1 (N13813).

The Indian women were very clever, and did the most beautiful bead, silk, and quill work, they dyed the quills of the porcupine and also horse hair, and worked it up in all sorts of patterns on the mocassins, slippers, baskets, etc. We wore mocassins almost entirely as the only boots one could get were of the roughest kind. For dancing we wore slippers of deer skin, embroidered in silk, beautifully tanned, and white and soft as chamois, the men wore them as well, many a pair I have danced into holes. They also made baskets or ‘Rogans’ of birch bark which were most useful for work baskets and other things. I still have the remains of a large one I used (for want of something better) as a bath for several of my babies, and at one time I had it made into a swing cot. They also made very large and strong rogans of the birch bark, I imagine they must have been of double thickness, and in pyramid shape, in which to transport the salt from the “Salt Plains.” I do not remember where these Plains were situated or how the salt was manufactured, but it was very good and white. There were times when it was difficult to obtain, and I remember when we were at Miss Davis’ Boarding school, often having to eat sturgeon and sea pie, which were our chief articles of food, without any salt. A little Englishwoman was staying with one of the Missionaries, and at dinner helped herself to an ordinary amount of salt, and left a small quantity on her plate. She got quite a wigging from her host in consequence, as the salt was quite expensive.

The Plains Hunters who dealt with my father were very fond of my mother, who always had a kind word for them. When they returned from their hunt they always brought us presents of berry pemmican, and bladders of marrow fat, made I suppose, from buffalo marrow bones, it was particularly pure and good. The Hudson’s Bay shop was of course the principal shop in the Settlement, and there you could buy pemmican and dried meat, with groceries at one end of the shop and some of the finest silks on the other. There were some very grand bonnets to be bought there from time to time. We never had our parcels made up for us, if you wanted a pound of tea, (the Hudson’s Bay Company always imported the very finest Shouchong) you were asked what you had brought to put it in, and often you had to purchase a Bandana handkerchief for the purpose, into which the tea was deposited, and then tied around with a string, and if you bought a pound of sugar, it was put on top of that and again a string was tied around it, but as often as not, if the Indians or Half-breed were buying those things they spread out a corner of their blankets on the counter and the groceries were deposited in them in the same way.

I think the Hudson’s Bay Company, and a few of the other traders or merchants, got most of their supplies from the Old Country, which were brought to the Settlement by the York boats. The arrival of these boats was always a great excitement and the whole village was on the bank of the river to see them disembark. We used to get word in some way that the boats had arrived at the Lower Fort, (there was a distance of twenty miles between the two Forts) I suppose by some man riding up from the Fort, so we knew pretty well just when they would come, and made preparations for them which consisted in preparing a tin pail full of rum, and providing a tin cup for each man to have a drink, and indeed the poor fellows needed it. As the boat was approaching you could hear the men singing boat songs and shouting. Then there was the business of unloading the boats. Viscount Milton in his book the “North West Passage,” describes the marvellous way these men could carry their burdens. I believe some of them were able to carry 630 pounds [sic] over a portage, as follows: “These loads are carried in a manner which allows the whole strength of the body to be put into the work, a broad leather strap is placed around the forehead, the ends of the strap passing back over the shoulder, support the pieces, which thus carried lie along the spine, from the small of the back to the crown of the head. When fully loaded the voyageur stands with his body bent forward and with one hand steadying the ‘pieces’ trots briskly away over the steep and rock strewn portage, his bare or moccasined feet, enable him to pass nimbly over the slippery places.” I have often seen them with an immense bale of goods and perhaps a barrel of rum on top, run up a steep bank.

I remember the horrors of the Sioux Massacre in the United States in 1862. These Indians complained of bad treatment from the Government and laid their plans for revenge, no doubt the Government wished to treat them well, but their agents failed, and in consequence, hundreds of men, women and children were murdered and scalped.

The military were soon after them, a large number of them crossed the Border, and came to the Upper Fort. Viscount Milton says, “They came for ammunition,” but I do not think so, I think they came for protection, knowing well that the American soldiers could not cross the line, I shall never forget their arrival, I think they came on a Saturday night and were kept inside the Fort until the morning, no doubt the Hudson’s Bay Company had to feed them. On Sunday hundreds of them came into the village, dressed in the spoils of war. It was said that they had strings of twenty dollar gold pieces around their necks, I do not remember that, but I do remember scalps hung on their belts, and they had all sorts of finery, among other things, one young Sioux wore a beautiful pale blue china crepe shawl, with its deep fringe around his loins for a breech cloth. We were all in a great state of excitement, and felt we were very much at their mercy, there was no going to Church that day, the merchants gave them tea, tobacco and other things, feeling if they did not the Indians would probably help themselves. Nothing very serious occurred, but later on the Americans offered a reward for the capture of Little Six, one of their leaders. He was captured, and gossip was that it was done by a respectable citizen who had him chloroformed, put into a Red River ‘sled’ and sent over the border, during the night.

The same year Viscount Milton and Doctor Cheadle came to the country, they appeared like beings from another world, their book to which I have already referred, is worth reading. Lord Dunmore arrived the same year on his way to hunt buffalo, I wish I could describe to you a real buffalo hunt.

We girls had a very pleasant life in a simple and friendly way. None of the girls had very fine clothes. I have often, when hearing of a dance, began to make a muslin or tarleton dress in the morning and worn it at night, and that without the help of a sewing machine. Mr. McDermott had two or three sons married, and living at Sturgeon Creek, and our greatest excitement was to get up a party and drive out there, in a Cariol, or cutter, if you were fortunate enough to own one. We generally arrived about six o’clock in the evening, and danced until eight o’clock the next morning, mothers brought their babies, and laid them in rows in mossbags under the seats placed around the room, while they “cut in” to dance a Red River Jig. One wonders that the babies did not get mixed up. I do not think they ever did, we usually had a very good supper, consisting of buffalo and deer tongues, beautifully corned, moose nose, and beaver tails. I do not believe we were ever troubled with drunkness at these parties, if men took too much they kept out of the way.

New Years Day was a great festival in those early days, the men called on their friends beginning at a very early hour of the morning, they “kissed their lady friend” in wishing them a Happy New Year and it you did not submit were considered very superior and “stuck up,” they were regaled with the cake and the best Hudson’s Bay Port Wine; the Indians also called and were supplied with small cakes, a large supply being made for the occasion.

Mrs. McDermott had several very fine daughters, Sally married Governor McTavish and Annie married Mr. Bannatyne, the latter was always a good friend to me when I was a young girl. She was a handsome woman and could hold her own with anyone, she always dressed beautifully and was very vivacious, she was much given to good works and was the first to start working for the General Hospital in Winnipeg. She organized work parties for it, with me as her lieutenant, and many a garment have I made and sold at bazaars for the hospital, I believe her father gave the land on which the present General Hospital was built.

Jean Pinkham’s reminiscences will continue in the next issue of Manitoba History.

Page revised: 29 March 2012

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