13: Woman's Experience on the Northern Border
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The vanguard of the "Great Army" which for nearly three centuries has been
hewing its pathway across the continent, may be divided into certain
corps d'armťe, each of which moves on a different line, thus acting
on the Napoleonic tactics, and subjugating in detail the various regions
through which it passes. One corps, spreading out in broad battalions,
marches across the great prairies and winding through the gorges of the
Rocky mountains, encamps on the shore of Peaceful sea: another, skirting
the waves of the gulfs and fording the wide rivers of the South, plants its
outposts on the Rio Grande; a third cuts its way through the trackless
forests on the northern border till it strikes the lakes, and then crossing
these inland seas or passing round them, pauses and breathes for a season
in that great expanse known as the country of the Red River of the North.
Each of these mighty pioneer divisions has its common toils, dangers, and
sufferings. Each, too, has toils, dangers, and sufferings peculiar to
itself. The climate is the deadly foe of the northern pioneer. The
scorching air of a brief summer is followed closely by the biting frost of
a long winter. The snow, piled in drifts, blocks his passage and binds him
to his threshold. Sometimes by a sudden change in the temperature a thaw
converts the vast frozen mass into slush. In the depth of those arctic
winters sometimes fire, that necessary but dangerous serf, breaks its
chains and devastates its master's dwelling; then frost allies its power to
that of fire, and the household often succumbs to disaster, or barely
Fire, frost, starvation, and wild beasts made frantic by winter's hunger,
are the imminent perils of the northern pioneer!
The record of woman in these regions on the northern frontier is crowded
with incidents which display a heroism as stern, a hardihood as rugged, a
fortitude as steadfast, as was ever shown by her sex under the most trying
situations into which she is brought by the exigencies of border life.
Such a record is that of Mrs. Dalton, who spent her life from early
womanhood in that region.
Naturally of a frail and delicate organization, reared in the ease and
luxury of an eastern home, and possessed of those strong local attachments
which are characteristic of females of her temperament, it was with the
utmost reluctance that she consented to follow her husband into the
wilderness. Having at last consented, she showed the greatest firmness in
carrying out a resolution which involved the loss of a happy home at the
place of her nativity, and consigned her to a life of hardship and danger.
Her first experience in this life was in the wilds of northern New York,
her husband having purchased a small clearing and a log-cabin in that
region on the banks of the Black river. She was transported thither,
reaching her destination one cold rainy evening early in May, after a
wearisome journey, for this was before the days of rapid transit.
Her first impressions must have been gloomy indeed. Without was pouring
rain and a black sky; the forest was dark as Erebus; within no fire blazed
on the hearth in the only room on the first floor of the cabin, and the
flickering light of a tallow candle made the darkness but the more visible;
a rude table and settles made out of rough planks, were all the furniture
the cabin could boast; there was no ladder to reach the loft which was to
be her sleeping room; the only window, without sash or glass, was a mere
opening in the side of the cabin; the rain beat in through the cracks in
the door and through the open window, and trickled through the roof, which
was like a sieve, while the wind blew keenly through a hundred seams and
apertures in the log walls.
The night, the cold, the storm, the dark and cheerless abode, were too much
to bear; the delicate young wife threw herself upon a settle and burst into
a flood of tears. This was but a momentary weakness. Rising above the
depression produced by the dreary scene, the woman's genius for creating
comfort out of the slenderest materials and bringing sunshine into
darkness, soon began to manifest itself.
We will not detail the various trials and cares by which that forlorn cabin
was transformed into a comfortable home, nor how fared Mrs. Dalton the
first rather uneventful year of her life in the woods. The second spring
saw her a mother, and the following autumn she became again a homeless
westward wanderer. Her husband had sold the cabin and clearing in New York,
and having purchased an extensive tract of forest-land a few miles south of
Georgian Bay in Upper Canada, decided to move thither.
The family with their household goods took sloop on Lake Ontario late in
October, and sailed to Toronto; from this place on the 15th day of
November, they proceeded across the peninsula in sleighs. Their party
consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Dalton and their child, and John McMurray, their
hired man, and his wife.
The first forty miles of their journey lay over a well-beaten road, and
through a succession of clearings, which soon began to diminish until they
reached a dense forest, which rose in solemn stillness around them and cast
across their path a shadow which seemed to the imagination of Mrs. Dalton
an omen of coming evil.
The sun had now set, but the party still drove on through the
forest-shadows; the moon having risen giving a new and strange beauty to
the scenery. The infant had fallen asleep. A deep silence fell upon the
party; night was above them with her mysterious stars; the ancient forest
stretched around them on every side; nature lay wrapped in a snowy winding
sheet; the wind was rising, and a drifting scud of clouds from the
northeast passed across the moon, and gave a still more weird and somber
character to the scene. A boding sadness sank into the heart of Mrs. Dalton
as the sleighs drove up to the cabin in the clearing where they were to
pass the night. It was occupied by an old negro and his wife, who had found
in the Canadian woods a safe refuge from servitude.
Hardly had they and their horses been safely bestowed under shelter when
the sky became entirely overcast, the wind rose to a gale, and a driving
storm of snow and sleet filled the air. All night, and the following day
the tempest raged without intermission, and on the morning of the second
day the sun struggling through the clouds looked down on the vast drifts of
snow, some of them nearly twenty feet in depth, completely blocking their
farther passage, and enforcing a sojourn of some days in their present
During this time the babe fell ill, and grew worse so rapidly that Mr.
Dalton determined to push through the snow-drifts on horseback to the
nearest settlement, which lay eight miles south of them, and procure the
services of a physician. He started early in the morning, expecting to
return in the afternoon. But afternoon and evening passed, and still Mr.
Dalton did not return. His course was a difficult one through forest and
thicket, and when evening came, and night passed with its bitter cold, Mrs.
Dalton's anxiety was increased to torture. Her only hope was that her
husband had reached the settlement in safety, and had been induced to
remain there till the following morning before undertaking to return.
Soon after the sun rose that morning, Mrs. Dalton and the hired man set out
on horseback in search of the missing one. Tracing his course through the
snow for four miles they at length caught sight of him standing up to his
waist in a deep drift, beside his horse. His face was turned toward them.
So lifelike and natural was his position that it was only when his wife
grasped his cold rigid fingers that she knew the terrible truth. Her
husband and the horse were statues of ice thus transformed by the deadly
cold as they were endeavoring to force a passage through those immense
From the speechless, tearless trance of grief into which Mrs. Dalton was
thrown by the shock of her awful loss, she was roused only by the
recollection of the still critical condition of her child and the necessity
that she should administer to its wants. Its recovery from illness a few
days after, enabled the desolate widow to cast about her in grief and
doubt, and decide what course she should pursue.
As her own marriage portion as well as the entire fortune of her late
husband was embarked in the purchase of the forest tract, she concluded to
continue her journey twenty miles farther to the point of her original
destination, and there establish herself in the new house which had been
provided for her in the almost unbroken wilderness.
A thaw which a few days after removed a large body of the snow, enabled her
with her companions, the McMurrays, to reach her destination, a large and
commodious cabin built of cedar-logs in a spacious clearing by the former
owner of the tract.
Her first impressions of her new home were scarcely more prepossessing than
those experienced upon reaching the dreary cabin on the banks of the Black
river. A small lake hard by was hemmed in by a somber belt of pine-woods.
The clearing was dotted by charred and blackened stumps, and covered with
piles of brushwood. The snowy shroud in which lifeless nature was wrapped
and the utter stillness and solitude of the scene, completed the funereal
picture which Mrs. D. viewed with eyes darkened by grief and
The cares and labors of pioneer-life are the best antidotes to the
corrosion of sorrow and regret, and Mrs. Dalton soon found such a relief in
the myriad toils and distractions which filled those wintry days. A
thousand duties were to be discharged: a thousand wants to be provided for:
night brought weariness and blessed oblivion: morning again supplied its
daily tasks and labor grew to be happiness.
Midwinter was upon them with its bitter cold and drifting snows; but with
abundant stores of food and fuel, Mrs. D. was thanking God nightly for his
many mercies, little dreaming that a new calamity impended over her
One bitter day in January the two women were left alone in the cabin,
McMurray having gone a mile away to fell trees for sawing into boards. Mrs.
McM. had stuffed both the stoves full of light wood; the wind blowing
steadily from the northwest, produced a powerful draught, and in a few
moments the roaring and crackling of the fire and the suffocating smell of
burning soot attracted Mrs. Dalton's attention. To her dismay, both the
stoves were red hot from the front plates to the topmost pipes which passed
through the plank-ceiling and projected three feet above the roof. Through
these pipes the flames were roaring as if through the chimney of a blast
A blanket snatched from the nearest bed, that stood in the kitchen, and
plunged into a barrel of cold water was thrust into the stove, and a few
shovels full of snow thrown upon it soon made all cool below. The two women
immediately hastened to the loft and by dashing pails full of water upon
the pipes, contrived to cool them down as high as the place where they
passed through the roof. The wood work around the pipes showed a circle of
glowing embers, the water was nearly exhausted and both the women running
out of the house discovered that the roof which had been covered the day
before by a heavy fall of snow, showed an area of several square feet from
which the intense heat had melted the snow; the sparks falling upon the
shingles had ignited them, and the rafters below were covered by a sheet of
A ladder, which, for some months, had stood against the house, had been
moved two days before to the barn which stood some thirty rods away; there
seemed no possibility of reaching the fire. Moving out a large table and
placing a chair upon it, Mrs. D. took her position upon the chair and tried
to throw water upon the roof, but only succeeded in expending the last
dipper full of water that remained in the boiler, without reaching the
Mrs. McMurray now abandoned herself to grief and despair, screeching and
tearing her hair. Mrs. D., still keeping her presence of mind, told her to
run after her husband, and to the nearest house, which was a mile away, and
Mrs. McM., after a moment's remonstrance, on account of the depth of the
snow, regained her courage, and, hastily putting on her husband's boots,
started, shrieking "fire!" as she passed up the road, and disappeared at
the head of the clearing.
Mrs. D. was now quite alone, with the house burning over her head. She
gazed at the blazing roof, and, pausing for one moment, reflected what
should first be done.
The house was built of cedar-logs, and the suns and winds of four years had
made it as dry as tinder; the breeze was blowing briskly and all the
atmospheric conditions were favorable to its speedy destruction. The cold
was intense, the thermometer registering eighteen degrees below zero. The
unfortunate woman thus saw herself placed between two extremes of heat and
cold, and apprehended as much danger from the one as from the other.
In the bewilderment of the moment, the direful extent of the calamity never
struck her, though it promised to put the finishing stroke to her
misfortune, and to throw her naked and houseless upon the world.
"What shall I first save?" was the question rapidly asked, and as quickly
answered. Anything to serve for warmth and shelteróbedding, clothing, to
protect herself and babe from that cruel cold! All this passed her mind
like a flash, and the next moment she was working with a right good will to
save what she could of these essential articles from her burning house.
Springing to the loft where the embers were falling from the burning roof,
she quickly threw the beds and bedding from the window, and emptying trunks
and chests conveyed their contents out of reach of the flames and of the
burning brands which the wind was whirling from the roof. The loft was like
a furnace, and the heat soon drove her, dripping with perspiration, to the
lower room, where, for twenty minutes, she strained every nerve to drag out
the movables. Large pieces of burning pine began to fall through the
boarded ceiling about the lower rooms, and as the babe had been placed
under a large dresser in the kitchen, it now became absolutely necessary to
remove it. But where? The air was so bitter that nothing but the fierce
excitement and rapid motion had preserved Mrs. Dalton's hands and feet from
freezing. To expose the tender nursling to that direful cold was almost as
cruel as leaving it to the mercy of the fire.
A mother's wit is not long at fault where the safety of her child is
concerned. Emptying out all the clothes from a large drawer which she had
dragged a safe distance from the house, she lined it with blankets and
placed the child inside, covering it well over with bedding, and keeping it
well wrapped up till help should arrive.
The roof was now burning like a brush heap; but aid was near at hand. As
she passed out of the house for the last time, dragging a heavy chest of
clothes, she looked once more despairingly up the clearing and saw a man
running at full speed. It was McMurray. Her burdened heart uttered a deep
thanksgiving, as another and another figure came skipping over the snow
towards her burning house.
She had not felt the intense cold, although without bonnet or shawl, and
with hands bare and exposed to the biting air. The intense anxiety to save
all she could had so diverted her thoughts from herself that she took no
heed of the peril in which she stood from fire and frost. But now the
reaction came; her knees trembled under her, she grew giddy and faint, and
dark shadows swam before her.
The three men sprang on the roof and called for water in vain; it had long
been exhausted. "Snow! snow! Hand us up pails full of snow!" they shouted.
It was bitter work filling the pails with frozen snow, but the two women
(for Mrs. McMurray had now returned) scooped up pails full of snow with
their bare hands and passed them to the men on the roof.
By spreading this on the roof, and on the floor of the loft, the violence
of the fire was checked. The men then cast away the smoldering rafters and
flung them in the snow-drifts.
The roof was gone, but the fire was at last subdued before it had destroyed
the walls. Within one week from the time of the fire the neighboring
settlers built a new roof for Mrs. Dalton in spite of the intense cold, and
while it was building Mrs. D. and her household were sheltered at the
The warm breath of spring brought with it some halcyon days, as if to
reconcile Mrs. Dalton to her life of solitude and toil. The pure beauty of
the crystal waters, the august grandeur of the vast forest, and the
aromatic breezes from the pines and birches, cast a magic spell upon her
spirit. She soon learned the use of the rifle, the paddle, and the fishing
rod. Charming hours of leisure and freedom were passed upon the water of
the lake, or in rambles through the arches of the forest. In these
pleasures, enhanced by the needful toils of the household or the field, the
summer sped away.
August came, and the little harvest of oats and corn were all safely
housed. For some days the weather had been intensely hot, although the sun
was entirely obscured by a bluish haze, which seemed to render the unusual
heat of the atmosphere more oppressive. Not a breath of air stirred the
vast forest, and the waters of the lake took on a leaden hue.
Before the sun rose on the morning of the 12th the heavens were covered
with hard looking clouds of a deep blue-black color, fading away to white
at their edges, and in form resembling the long, rolling waves of a heavy
sea, but with the difference that the clouds were perfectly motionless,
piled in long curved lines, one above the other.
As the sun rose above the horizon, the sky presented a magnificent
spectacle. Every shade of saffron, gold, rose-color, scarlet, and crimson,
mottled with the deepest violet, were blended there as on some enormous
tapestry. It was the storm-fiend who shook that gorgeous banner in the face
of the day-god!
As the day advanced the same blue haze obscured the sun, which frowned
redly through his misty veil. At ten o'clock the heat was suffocating. The
thermometer in the shade ranged after midday from ninety-six to
ninety-eight degrees. The babe stretched itself upon the floor of the
cabin, unable to jump about or play, the dog lay panting in the shade, the
fowls half-buried themselves in the dust, with open beaks and outstretched
wings. All nature seemed to droop beneath the scorching heat. At three
o'clock the heavens took on a sudden change. The clouds, that had before
lain so still, were now in rapid motion, hurrying and chasing each other
round the horizon. It was a strangely awful sight. Before a breath had been
felt of the mighty blast that had already burst on the other side of the
lake, branches of trees, leaves, and clouds of dust were whirled across the
water, which rose in long, sharp furrows, fringed with foam, as if moved in
their depths by some unseen but powerful agent.
The hurricane swept up the hill, crushing and overturning everything in its
course. Mrs. Dalton, standing at the open door of her cabin, speechless and
motionless, gazed at the tremendous spectacle. The babe crept to its
mother's feet, its cheeks like marble, and appealed to her for protection.
Mrs. McMurray, in helpless terror, had closed her eyes and ears to the
storm, and sat upon a chest, muffled in a shawl.
The storm had not yet reached its acme. The clouds, in huge cumuli, were
hurrying as to some great rendezvous, from which they were to be let loose
for their work of destruction. The roaring of the blast and the pealing of
the thunder redoubled in violence. Turning her eyes to the southwest, Mrs.
Dalton now saw, far down the valley, the tops of the huge trees twisted and
bowed, as if by some unseen but terrible power. A monstrous dun-colored
cloud marked the course of this new storm-titan. Nearer and nearer it came,
with a menacing rumble, and swifter than a race-horse.
The cabin lay directly in its track. In a moment it would be upon them.
Whither should they fly? One place of safety occurred on the instant to the
unfortunate woman; clasping her babe to her breast and clutching the gown
of her companion, she ran to the trap-door which conducted to the cellar
and raising it pushed Mrs. McMurray down the aperture and quickly following
her, Mrs. Dalton closed the trap.
Not five seconds later the hurricane struck the cabin with such force that
every plank, rafter, beam, and log was first dislocated and then caught up
in the whirlwind and scattered over the forest in the wake of the storm. As
the roar of the blast died away the rain commenced pouring in torrents
accompanied by vivid flashes of lightning and loud peals of thunder.
The air in the close shallow cellar, where the women were, soon grew
suffocating, and as the fury of the tempest was spent, they took courage
and pushed at the trap. It stuck fast; again they both applied their
shoulders to it but only succeeded in raising it far enough to see that the
trunk of an enormous tree lay directly across the door.
The cellar in which they were, was little more than a large pit, eight feet
by six, and served as a receptacle for their winter's stores; as it lay
directly in the center of the floor which was formed of large logs split in
halves and their surfaces smoothed, there was no mode of egress except by
digging underneath the floor as far as the walls of the cabin and so
emerging; but this was a work of extreme difficulty, owing to the fact that
the soil was full of the old roots of trees which had been cut down to make
room for the cabin.
The first danger, however, was from suffocation; to meet this Mrs. Dalton
and her companion pried open the door as far as the fallen trunk would
allow, and kept it in position by means of a large chip which they found in
the pit. This gave them sufficient air through a chink three inches in
width; and they next looked about them for means of egress. After trying in
vain to dislodge one of the floor logs, they proceeded to dig a passage
through the earth underneath the floor. Discouraged by the slowness of
their progress in this undertaking, and drenched with the rain which poured
in through the crevice in the door, they began to give themselves up for
lost. Their only hope was that McMurray or some one of the neighbors would
come to their relief.
The rain lasted only one hour, and the sun soon made its appearance. This
was after six o'clock, as the prisoners judged from the shadows cast over
the ruins of the cabin. The shades of evening fell and at last utter
darkness; still no one came. No sound was borne to the ears of the women in
their earthly dungeon save that of the rushing waters of the creek and the
mournful howling of wolves who, like jackals, were prowling in the track of
the tempest. Several of these animals, attracted by the infant's cries,
came and put their noses at the door of the pit and finding that it held
prey, paced the floor above it all night: but with the first light of
morning they scampered away into the woods.
Meanwhile the women resumed their efforts to burrow their way out, taking
turns in working all night. By daybreak the passage lacked only four feet
of the point where an outlet could be had. Ere noon, if their strength held
out, they would reach the open air.
But after four hours more of severe toil they met an unexpected obstacle:
their progress was blocked by a huge boulder embedded in the soil. Weary
with their protracted toil and loss of sleep, and faint from want of food,
they desisted from further efforts and sat down upon the damp earth of that
dungeon which now promised to be their tomb.
Sinking upon her knees Mrs. Dalton lifted her heart to God in prayer that
he might save her babe, her faithful domestic and herself from the doom
which, threatened them. Hardly had she risen from her knees, when, as if a
messenger had been sent in answer to her prayer, voices were heard and
steps sounded upon the floor above them. The party had come from a
neighboring settlement for the express purpose of relieving the sufferers
from the recent storm. A few blows with an axe and the prisoners were free.
Recognizing their preservation as a direct answer to prayer, and with deep
gratitude both of the women fell on their knees and lifted up their hearts
in humble thanksgiving to that God who had saved them by an act of his
providence from an awful death. When all hope was gone His hand was
stretched forth, making his strength manifest in the weakness of those
hapless women and that helpless babe.
Before the first of October a new cabin had been built for Mrs. D. by her
generous neighbors, and the other ravages of the storm had been repaired.
Once more fortune, so often adverse, turned a smiling face upon the
household. Two weeks sped away and then the fickle goddess frowned again
upon this much enduring family.
A long continued drought had parched the fields and woods until but a spark
was needed to kindle a conflagration. Two parties of hunters on the 16th of
October, had rested one noon on opposite sides of Mrs. Dalton's clearing
and carelessly dropped sparks from their pipes into the dried herbage. Two
hours after their departure, the flames, fanned by a gentle breeze, had
formed a junction and encircled the cabin with a wall of fire. A dense
canopy of smoke hung over the clearing, and as it lifted, tongues of flame
could be seen licking the branches of the tall pines. Showers of sparks
fell upon the roof. The atmosphere grew suffocating with the pitchy smoke
and it became a choice of deaths, either that of choking or that of
Only one avenue of escape was left open to the family; if they could reach
the lake and embark in the canoe which lay moored near the shore they would
be safe: a single passage conducted to the water, and that was a burning
lane lined with trees and bushes which were bursting into fiercer flames
every moment as they gazed down it.
Nearer and nearer crept the fire, and hotter and hotter grew the choking
air. There was no other choice. McMurray threw water on the gowns of his
wife and Mrs. Dalton until they were drenched; then wrapping the baby in a
blanket and enveloping their heads in shawls, the whole party abandoned
their house to destruction, and ran the gauntlet of the flames. They passed
the spot of ordeal in safety, reached the canoe and embarking pushed off
into the lake. From this point of security they caught glimpses of the
element as it crept steadily on its way towards the cabin. Through the
rifts in the smoke they saw the fiery tongues licking the lower timbers and
darting themselves into the cracks between the logs like some gluttonous
monster preparing to gorge himself. The women clasped their hands and
looked up. Both were supplicating the Father of All that their home might
A rescue was coming from an unlooked for source. While Mrs. Dalton's face
was upturned to heaven in silent prayer, a large drop splashed upon her
brow; another followedóthe first glad heralds of a pouring rain which
extinguished the fire just as it had begun to feed on that unlucky
After such an almost unbroken series of disasters and losses, we might well
inquire whether the subsequent life of Mrs. Dalton was saddened and
darkened by similar experiences.
"Every cloud has a silver lining." The hardest and saddest lives have their
hours of softness, their gleams of sunshine. It is a wise and beautiful
arrangement in the economy of Divine Providence that the law of physical
and moral compensation is always operating to equalize the pains and the
pleasures, the hardships and the comforts, the joys and the sorrows of
human life. Before continuous, patient, and conscientious endeavors, the
obstacles that fill the pathway of the pioneer through the wilderness are
surmounted, the rough places are made smooth, and the last days of the
dwellers in the desert and forest become like the latter days of the
patriarch, "more blessed than the beginning."
We may truly say of Mrs. Dalton, that her "latter days were more blessed
than the beginning." A happy marriage which she entered into the following
spring, and a long life of prosperity and peace after her escape from the
last great danger, as we have narrated, were the fitting reward of the
courage, diligence, and devotion displayed during the two first summers and
winters which she passed in the northern wilderness.
The wide region, lying between the sources of the Mississippi and the bends
of the Missouri in Dakota, and stretching thence far up to the Saskatchewan
in the north, has been appropriately styled "the happy hunting ground." The
rendezvous to which the mighty nimrods of the northwest return from
the chase are huge cabins, built to stand before the howling blasts, and
give shelter against the arctic regions of the winter. In these abodes
dwell the wives and children of many of those rugged men, and create even
there, by their devoted toils and gentle companionship, at least the
semblance of a home. Almost whelmed in the snow, and when even the mercury
freezes in the bulb of the thermometer, these anxious and loving housewives
feed the lamp and keep the fire burning on the hearth. Dressing the skins
of the deer, they keep their husbands well shod and clothed. The long
winter of eight months passes monotonously away; the men, accustomed to a
life of excitement, chafe and grow surly under their enforced imprisonment;
but the women, by their kind offices and sweet words, act as a constant
sedative upon these morose outbreaks. The hunters, it is said, grow softer
in their manners as the winter wanes. They are unconscious scholars in the
refining school of woman.
Among the diversions which serve to while away the tediousness of those
winter nights are included the narration of personal adventures passed
through by the different hunters in their wild life. Tales of narrow
escapes, of Indian fights, of desperate encounters with beasts of the
forests; and through the rough texture of these narratives now and then
appears a pathetic incident in which woman is the prominent figure.
Sometimes it is a hunter's wife who is the heroine, and again the scene is
laid in the home of the settler, where woman faces some dreadful danger for
her loved ones, or endures extraordinary suffering faithfully to the end.
Such an incident as the following was preserved in the memory of a hunter,
who recently communicated the essential facts to the writer.
Minnesota well deserves the name of the pioneer's paradise. Occupying as it
does that high table-land out of which gush into the pure bracing air, the
thousand fountains of the Father of waters and of the majestic Red river;
studded with lakes that glisten like molten silver in the sunshine;
shadowed by primeval forests; now stretching out in prairies which lose
themselves in the horizon; now undulating with hills and dales dotted with
groves and copses, nature here, like some bounteous and imperial mother,
seems to have prepared with lavish hand a royal park within which her
roving sons and daughters may find a permanent abode.
The country through which the Red river flows from Otter Tail lake towards
Richville, is unsurpassed for rural beauty. Trending northward it then
passes along towards Pembina, a border town on our northern boundary,
through a plain of vast extent, dotted with groves of oak planted as if by
hand. Voyaging down this noble river in midsummer, between its banks
embowered with wild roses we breathe an air loaded with perfume and view a
scene of wild but enchanting loveliness. Here summer celebrates her brief
but splendid reign, then lingering for a while in the lap of dreamy, balmy
autumn, flies at length into southern exile, abdicating her throne to
winter, which stalks from the frozen zone and rules the region with
undisputed and rigorous sway.
In the month of March, 1863, a party of four hunters set out from Pembina,
where they had passed the winter, and undertook to reach Shyenne, a small
trading post on the west bank of the Red river, in the territory of Dakota.
A partial thaw, followed by a cold snap, had coated the river in many
places with ice, and by the alternate aid of skates and snow-shoes, they
reached on the third evening after their departure, Red Lake river in
Minnesota, some eighty miles distant from Pembina. Clearing away the snow
in a copse, they scooped a shallow trench in the frozen soil with their
hatchets, and kindling a fire so as to cover the length and breadth of the
excavation, they prepared their frugal repast of hunters' fare. Then
removing the fire to the foot of the trench and piling logs upon it, they
lay down side by side on the warmed soil, and wrapping their blankets
around them slept soundly through the still cold night, until the sun's
edge showed itself above the rim of the vast plain that stretched to the
east. As the hunters rose from their earthy couch and stretched their
cramped limbs, casting their eyes hither and thither over the boundless
expanse, they descried upon the edge of a copse some quarter of a mile to
the south a bright-red object, apparently a living thing, crouched upon the
snow as if sunning itself. Rising simultaneously and with awakened
curiosity they approached the spot. Before they had taken many steps the
object disappeared suddenly. Fixing their eyes steadily on the point of its
last appearance, they slowly advanced with cocked rifles until they reached
a large tree with arching roots, around which were the traces of small
shoeless feet. An orifice barely large enough to admit a man showed
them beneath the tree a cave. One of the hunters, peering through the
aperture, spied within, a girl of ten years crouched in the farthest corner
of the recess, covered with a thick red flannel cloak, and shivering with
cold and terror. Speaking kind words to the little stranger they succeeded
at length in reassuring her. She came out from her hiding-place, and the
hunters with rugged kindness wrapped her feet and limbs in their coats and
bore her to the fire. The first words she uttered were, "mother! go for
mother!" She had gone away to shoot game the night before, the little girl
said, and had not returned.
Two of the hunters hastened back and succeeded in tracing the mother's
course a mile up the river to a thicket; there, covered thinly with leaves
and with her rifle in her stiffened hand, they found the hapless wanderer,
but alas! cold in death. Her set and calm features, her pinched and wasted
face, her scantily robed form, mutely but eloquently told a tale of fearful
suffering borne with unflinching fortitude. Weak and weary, the deadly cold
had stolen upon her in the darkness and with its icy grip had stilled for
ever the beating of her brave true heart. Excavating a grave in the snow
they decently straightened her limbs, and piling logs and brush upon her
remains to keep them from the beasts of prey, silently and sorrowfully left
Who were these lonely wanderers in that wild and wintry waste! The presence
of the rifle and of the large high boots which she wore, together with
other circumstances, were evidences which enabled the shrewd hunters to
guess a part of their story. It appeared that the family must have
consisted originally of three persons, a man and wife, with the child now
the sole survivor of the party. Voyaging down the Red river during the
preceding summer and autumn; lured onward by the fatal beauty of the
region, and deluded by the ease with which their wants could be supplied,
they had evidently neglected to provide against the winter, which at length
burst upon them all unprepared to encounter its rigors.
The rest of this heart-rending story was gathered from the lips of their
little protege. Her father, mother, and herself had started from Otter Tail
lake in September, 1862, after the quelling of the Sioux outbreak, and
voyaged down the Red river in a canoe, intending to settle in the wild-rice
region a few miles southeast of the spot where they then were. Their canoe
with most of their household goods had broken from its moorings in
November, one night while they were encamped on the shore. The father had
gone to bring it back, and being overtaken by a terrible snow-storm, had
never returned. [His body was found the following spring.] The mother had
managed to procure barely sufficient game during the winter to keep herself
and her child alive. The cave, their only shelter, was strewed with the
beaks and feathers of birds, and with the teeth and claws of small animals;
all the other portions of the game she had shot had been devoured in the
extremity to which hunger had reduced them. Her mother, the little girl
said, was very weak the last day, and could hardly walk. "I begged to go
with her when she took her gun and went out to shoot something for supper,
but she told me I must stay at home and keep warm." Home! could that
wretched shelter be a home for the hapless mother and her child? Tears were
wrung from those rugged sons of the wilderness, and coursed down their iron
cheeks when they visited the spot where parental tenderness had striven to
shield the object of its affection from the bitter blast. The snow banked
about the roots of the tree and showing the marks of her numbed fingers,
the crevices stuffed with moss, the bed of dried leaves and the bedding
which she had stripped from her own person to cover her child, were proofs
and tokens of the love which would have created comfort in the midst of
desolation and given even that miserable nook in winter's dreary domain the
semblance of a home. In the heart of that frozen waste, far from human
fellowship, with hunger gnawing at her vitals and the frost curdling the
genial current in her veins, still burned brightly in that poor lonely
heart the pure and deathless flame of maternal love.
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