Social Customs and Amusements of the Early Days in Red River Settlement and Rupert’s Land

by John MacBeth

MHS Transactions, Series 1, No. 44
Read 24 January 1893

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One of our earliest recollections of festivities (and they were of such a boisterous character as to make a lasting impression on my mind) was the return of the boatmen—as they were called—from York Factory. A short description of this interesting and at that time very necessary personage may not be out of place, although most of you are familiar with the character, but few present have seen him in his pristine glory. The boatman, voyageur or tripman, as he was variously called, belonged to that class of settler who did not farm sufficiently to make them independent of the Hudson’s Bay Co. or general merchant. The trips to York Factory were two in the year, known as the summer and the fall trips. These were made for the purpose of bringing goods landed at York by the Hudson’s Bay ships which brought cargoes of supplies for the interior, including the Red River. These boatmen were generally engaged during the winter preceding the voyage. If a man ran short of anything and had not the money wherewith to purchase, or something to exchange for the commodity required, he went to the Hudson’s Bay company’s store or to some general merchant or freighter and got an advance and agreed to pay for the same by going to York. He was then bound to be ready to start about the first of June. In a crew of eight men there was generally found one who furnished fun for the others or who, from some peculiarity, was made the butt of the party. There was generally afiddle or two in the crowd and lots of men who could play it. I am told by gentlemen personally cognizant of the fact, that in one instance there was a boat’s crew, where the fiddle was passed down from the steersman to the bowsman and every man in the boat could play it. It was said on those trips when a flat stone was found it was at once utilized as a ball room floor, and each man in turn “hoed it down” to the enlivening strains of the fiddle. When the different brigades met at York Factory and whilst waiting for their cargoes, I am told by gentlemen who have witnessed the scenes of boisterous hilarity and continued festivities that it simply (to use a purely original phrase) “beggars description”. Upon their return to the Red River and immediately upon unloading their boats, a goodly supply of the “ardent” was broached and they proceeded to make “Rome howl”. It was generally looked upon as a way (a little noisy if you like) they had of celebrating a safe return from a more or less dangerous and perilous voyage.

Old Time Unions

In these early days people were “married and given in marriage”, and I believe the custom prevails even in our times of greater advancement and enlightenment; but O, what a different affair a wedding in the old times was to those of the present day! At the time of which I speak, a marriage license cost the large sum of thirty shillings (about $7.50). As there were very few Rothschilds or Vanderbilts in the country then (although many have appeared on the scene lately, especially during the “boom”), economy was practiced, and the good old fashioned custom was resorted to of publishing the bans. You will pardon me if I digress for a second. I used the words “thirty shillings” a moment ago, and they remind me of a story told me by that prince of genial and social old timers, the late lamented Honorable John Norquay. The incident, which actually occurred, was this: In the early days the currency was pounds, shillings and pence, and when at the time of the transfer it was changed to dollars and cents, it was sometime before the old settlers could master the new system. For instance, a certain woman was asked to sell a wavey, several of which her husband had just brought home, and she was offered fifty cents a piece for them. She indignantly rejected the offer, stating emphatically that she could not take less than one and six pence apiece for them, which sum of course was readily and cheerfully given to the intense happiness and delight of the worthy dame. The purchaser you will observe was ahead a cool 12 ½ cents on each bird he bought. Now to return to the subject. A wedding in the olden times in the Red River settlement was not the tame affair of the present day. It did not consist in orange blossoms, ushers, a wedding breakfast, congratulatory speeches, wedding presents and last but not least, the orthodox honeymoon trip. A wedding breakfast they certainly had, and several of them for that matter, and dinners and suppers galore. When such an important event took place in the settlement the friends and relatives of both the “high contracting parties” were invited. The mode of invitation differed from the present style. Instead of sending out a card something like this:— “Mr. and Mrs. Smythe request the pleasure of your company at the marriage of their daughter Mary Aramenta Jane to Mr. Fred Augustine Horatio de Jones, on Wednesday, the 15th of February, 1893, at 12 o’clock, noon, at St. John’s Cathedral.”

They adopted a surer way, especially considering the postal facilities of the times. The father of the bride generally went personally from house to house and extended the invitation to those he wished to have. I am told that sometimes the bride and one of her bridesmaids did the inviting. This custom certainly did not obtain within our recollection. The festivities generally commenced the day before the solemnization of the marriage (which usually took place on a Thursday). Eating, drinking, but principally dancing was the order. On the eventful day proper the happy couple drove to church, accompanied by a long procession of invited guests in carreols and cutter, beautiful horses all bedecked with wedding-favors, etc., and every “gallant” accompanied by a “partner”. Some times, it is said, “partners” were scarce, and sometimes some young belle was not a little embarrassed by the importunities of her several admirers to accompany them to the marriage. She had, however, to make a choice, often weeks before the event, and although she must necessarily overwhelm several with disappointment and grief she might safely be trusted (as now) to choose the right one. I have a very distinct recollection of only succeeding in getting a “partner” for a wedding (the last of the kind we attended) at Prince Albert, some years ago, after four or five unsuccessful attempts; and at that time I was just about that age when I tlu night—well; that I was not a very bad looking fellow.

The return of the marriage party or procession was generally made t he opportunity for the young men to give an exhibition of the speed ) of their horses (and they had splendid horses then) and the men with the slowest invariably brought up the rear at the finish. There was one invariable rule in these drives and that was that no one would da re pass the bridal party in the race, as to do so would be to commit a breach of etiquette which would neither be overlooked nor forgiven. We have now arrived

At the House

of the bride’s parents which was always used for the feast. The house of a neighbor was always cheerfully given up for the dancers (all unnecessary furniture—including beds sometimes—were bundled out), and now in very truth the fiat went forth, “on with the dance, let joy be unconfined”. These festivities have been known to go on with unabated vigor and joyous hilarity for three days and three nights. It is true they were rather hard on moccasins, but people very often provided themselves with more than one pair, so when ( me was worn out a new pair was ready. But the dance went on until there was nothing but was worn out except the dance floor, and some-t imes there was very little of that left. Some may perhaps think that he mocassin part of this account over drawn, but I can assure you seriously that I am, if anything, under the mark. Of course, you must understand that when I use the word “dancing” I mean “dancing”: not the dances of modern days; no, instead of pianos and orchestras we had the good old fashioned fiddle, and always plenty of able and willing hands to play it. Instead of the effeminate, easy going and dreamy waltz, we had the always exciting and lively “Red River jig,” which required not only skill to dance but lots of endurance as well; instead of the modern cotillion and quadrille we danced the ever reliable old Scotch reel or reel of four, and instead of the somewhat lazy and languid lancers we danced the ever popular and swingy old eight-hand reel.

The next important step with the marriage festivities was the “kirking”. On the Sunday immediately after the marriage the bride and bridegroom, accompanied by the groomsmen and the bridesmaids, drove to church, their horses still flying the many colored ribbons used on the wedding day, and the bridal party themselves all arrayed in their wedding habiliments. They all sat together and were, of course, the cynosure of all eyes in the church, and it is pretty safe to opine that the clergyman would have to use considerable lung power and do a good deal of “desk pounding” to attract the eyes of his flock from this particular seat to himself; and I fancy that the dresses, bonnets, etc. of the bride and bridesmaids would be chief topic of conversation after church instead of the sermon. The bridal party all dine together that day at the house of the bride.

Now you may perhaps imagine that this would end the festivities, but not so. The bridegroom is still at his father-in-law’s, and he must be brought back to the paternal roof, and the new daughter must be welcomed right royal. The day fixed for the groom to take home his bride (always to his father’s house where he lived whilst preparing his own home) was Tuesday. It was now the turn of the parents of the groom. They invited, in the same way as before, all their relatives and friends to celebrate the arrival home of their daughter-in-law. It is now the same old story: fiddle, “jig” feasting and making merry, generally till sunrise the following morning, when all go home, put off their wedding garments, and go about their daily work as if they had been peacefully slumbering all night instead of passing a sleepless one, enjoying to the fullest the giddy dance.

During the winter months private parties were frequently given, and as everybody knew everybody they were much more enjoyable than some of the larger and more formal parties of the more recent times.

An “at home”, a “five o’clock tea”, and the modern “card party” were unknown, as was also a “reception day”. Instead of having some stated day in the week for receiving calls or visits, as we called them, every day was a reception day. When one lady wished to visit another she simply went when it was convenient for her to do so, and always found the latch string on the outside of the door. She invariably found the lady on whom she was calling at home, if she was not out, but never found her out when she was at home. I was told by a lady a short time ago that the words “at home” had two meanings, one of which was “not receiving”. I of course took her word for it and did not worry over looking through different lexicographies to ascertain if the words really had two meanings.

Christmas day in the Red River settlement was not very well observed, but New Year’s Day was the day that was kept. It was a great day, a red letter day, in fact, especially for the aborigines. Every Indian who had a flint lock gun had it loaded up, and it was a very common thing for settlers to be disturbed about daylight on New Year’s morning by a volley of musketry outside the door. This was the way our dusky brothers ushered in the day that would be to them one of continual feasting.

After this preliminary the Indians would divide themselves into squads nd start on their visits, calling at every house on their way and getting something to eat at each place. If they could not eat all that was given them a receptacle was always at hand in which the remnants were stowed away to be discussed later on. The settlers always prepared beforehand for their numerous callers of this class ...

The 24th of May was always a great day in those old Red River lines. People would gather at Fort Garry from Lake Winnipeg to Portage la Prairie, and as far up the Red River as Pembina and St. Joe across the line. We had no military manoeuvres, but horse racing was the whole sport. We have on many occasions ridden races from the fort down what is now Main street, but was then only a trail, to about where we are now standing.

There was very keen competition in the different events, and every race was won on the merits—the best horse invariably winning the race. There was very little gambling at these events and pool selling was unknown. Neither was there any “jockeying”, “pulling horses” or “selling races”. There was always much satisfaction among those who took an interest in horse races to know that if their favorite did not win he was at least fairly beaten.

We knew nothing about Dominion Day, but I can well remember when the 4th of July was celebrated by our American friends then resident in Winnipeg, the proper salute was fired and the day generally observed with horse racing and other sports ...


Your patience must be now fully exhausted and I will not further try it, but will conclude by reading a short poem written by Wm. Gerrond, Esq., lately of High Bluff, but now of Prince Albert. Mr. Gerrond was bard of the Portage la Prairie St. Andrews Society and was always ready with a poem to read on St. Andrew’s day. Many of his efforts were of very considerable merit, but when he expressed the ideas of an old settler in poetry, on the old and new order of things in this country, he certainly did it well. Before reading the poem I may explain that there are perhaps some present who will not understand the words “me whatever”, which occur three times in the poem was, and is yet, a very common expression amongst the natives of this country and they really mean “for my part”. For instance instead of saying “For my part, I’m going to the fort,” he would say “Me whatever, I’m going to the fort.” With this explanation I will give you the poem.

What Was and Is An Old Settler’ Idea

Oh! For the time that some despise,
At least I liked them, me whatever,
Before the transfer made us wise,
Or politics made us clever.

Then faith and friendship, hand in hand,
A kindly tale to all were telling,
From east to west, throughout the land,
Contentment reigned in every dwelling.

Twas then we all in corduroys
Would travel to the church on Sunday
And listen to the good man’s voice,
And do as he had said on Monday.

Our women too, both wife and maid,
Had lovely tresses for a bonnet,
A goodly shawl upon the head,
Was all she ever put upon it.

Then gold was scarce, very true,
But then it was not much we wanted,
Our artificial wants were few,
And we were happy and contented.

But now alas the times are changed,
At least I think so, ‘me whatever,’
And artificial wants are ranged,
And piled in heaps along the river.

Our women’s thrown away the shawl,
And got instead a showy bonnet
With many a costly falderall
Of feathers, silk and lace upon it.

Our men despising corduroys
In broadcloth grace the church on Sunday,
And then go home to criticize
And do as they’ve a mind on Mondays.

Our good old faith’s supplied with doubt
And friendships killed by speculation;
And sweet content is driven out
And grumbling envy fills her station.

Oh for the time that some despise,
At least I liked them, “me whatever,”
Before the transfer made us wise,
And politics had made us clever.

Page revised: 12 June 2014