Once again, Lovisa writes to us. As one of the few literate women in the Edmonton settlement, her letters home offer us a unique window into our past. In 1878 John and Lovisa are itinerant traders, selling their goods from the back of a wagon as they travel across the territories from location to location.
One constant in the prairies is the unpredictability of the weather and it appears that she ran into snow and frost as she waited for Johns return from Edmonton at Victoria settlement. Contrast this with the hot weather she experienced but a few weeks earlier and we find that the weather on the plains has long been one of extremes.
The numbered treaties were enacted across the prairies during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in order to open up the west for settlement and development. Edmonton is located in Treaty Six territory, the area John and Lovisa were traveling through.
Treaty Six is notable for a number of reasons such as the medicine chest and famine clauses. Several notables signed such as Big Bear and Poundmaker. Payments were made yearly at agreed upon locations. Dozens of traders would descend upon these locations to sell all manner of goods to those with newfound wealth.
Enter John and Lovisa. Lovisa is a new arrival to the territories and she views the world through the eyes of a sheltered girl from Ontario. Working with John as they build a life in the west will eventually change her, but not yet.
Sept. 22nd 1878
Dear Charlie I have set down now to write you a good long letter to tell you all about what we have been doing this summer. It is an odd life to me but rather pleasant to travel around as we have been doing. Well, I wrote a short letter home at Fort Carlton. We started away for the Hand Hills 30th of July. The weather was very warm, we had to travel on the open plain all the way. We over took some traders going to the treaty also and they said it was to be at a place called Sounding Lake , 50 miles this side of the Hand. We reached the south side of the plain the 9th of August & camped an old Indian battleground, the Indians say it is haunted. We fell in with a lot of traders going to the treaty. We camped their until Monday & then went on to the treaty ground where the Indians were. It was only 4 miles. Their were a lot gathered but not all.
The 13th, the Governor & Mounted Poliece arrived, 40 poliece, they looked splendid. The 15th they commenced paying the Indians, paid out $8,000 before evening. Their was about 25 traders, it was just like a little town. I send you a pencil sketch of our stoar, the carts are behind & boxes of goods in front. John used to sit up all night to watch the place. There was some nice gentleman their. The govener is a very plain gentleman. Most of the Poliece are a set of roudies. As soon as they commenced paying the Indians, Johnnie opened out his goods. He done well. We left the 20th, all the Indians were gone & not a camp left as soon as the treaty was over. They were nearly [all] plain Crees, a dirty looking set.
It was wild to here them hevery night drumming & singing in their tents. Johnnie & me went in a tent one night to see them, they made us sit down. Their was a fire in the centre, 4 Indians nacked except a breech clout with drums drumming away, the wemon and children dancing as they call it, bobing up and down like making a courtesy, & humming. Nothing like singing at all, & drinking tea & Painkiller. Their was two of three old men sitting down. They gave us some tea to. I got frightened for fear I did not drink it all they would be mad, & drank all they gave me. It made me sick, their was tobacco in it to. It was the awfulest dose I ever took.
Well, as Johnnie did not sell out their we started for the treaty at Victoria we hired an Indian guide to put us on the right road. His father is a Chief. His name was Go[l] Eagle, a very nice Indian. He had a lovely horse, a Buffalo runner, & a good gun worth $60.00. He is a big bug among them. He went nearly to Battle river with us & then went back to meet his party. I must not forget to tell you that all this time we were in the great Buffalo Country where their used to be thousands & we did not see one. The Indians shot a few but they are very scarce & every person says their will be hard times with the Indians this winter. They say when Indians are hungry beware.
Well, 10 days after we left Sounding Lake we reached Victoria. We came into a lovely country about 40 miles south. Before that we was travelling over a very barren track of country not fit for anything. After we left Fort Carlton we had no wood until we got to Sounding Lake, had to burn Buffalo chips. Well, when we came to the Saskatchewan river we had to cross before we got into Victoria. The banks are very high & steap. Johnnie & me drove [on[ & walked to the river, & he called to a man on the opposite side to bring the boat over. There is only one little boat here to cross in. Mr. Sinclair saw Johnnie with his spy glass & came down to meet him & took me home with him. They were all the next day taking the carts acrost. We was here a week before the treaty.
Victoria is the prettiest place I have seen yet. The people are all half breeds. Look at some of the people in Mara & you see the half breed style, only the people here are all protestents & know more than they do their. George Whiteman is not here he is at Edmondton. He heard Johnnie was here & came right down to see him. He is a nice little fellow. The treaty came of here the 10th of this month. As soon as it was over, Johnnie went to Edmondton & left me here, & here I am now at Mr. Sinclairs. I do not expect Johnnie until Thursday. As soon as he comes we will be off for Winnipeg.
They have had frost & snow here all ready. The leaves have all turned & everything is killed with the frost. The 15 the ground was covered with snow, it snowed a little today but the ground is bare. They say they will have fine weather yet. Every person farms a little here. They have splendid wheat & barley & potatoes, it is a very rich soil. There are lots of berries groes here also. Mr. Sinclairs sets as good a table as you see down in Ontario, only not such rich food.
Traveling between settlements and treaty payments would have been an exciting time which – in spite of the cultural differences – did appeal to Lovisa. The payments were often a celebration and being a trader there was clearly profitable as there were as many as 25 different traders present at Fort Carlton for the event. Even with the festivities there were rumbles of trouble in the distance. The bison had effectively been extirpated from the Canadian plains. Starvation was looming and an early winter would only compound the problem. The next few years would be difficult for those in Treaty Six.
Another thing to consider after reading this is how people and places are perceived by white settlers from Ontario. The land seemed barren and useless until they arrived at Victoria where there were farms. The Cree at the payments were frightening and dirty in spite of the hospitality and teashe was given in their home. Mr Sinclair is also Cree, however he lives in a cabin in Victoria, has an ‘English’ name, and is Christian. Home was back east and must have seemed a much more orderly and safe place. Victoria Settlement reflected the familiar. Misunderstandings are easy with so many language barriers and being new onto the plains. Much of the literatureavailable about the west and the natives is sensationalized or false. As short as a few months later Lovisa seems to like the Plains Cree more.
If you missed the previous letters or need a Lovisa fix, our earlier letters from the past are linked below, in chronological order.
You’ll have one more chance to visit Lovisa’s store and 1885 Street this weekend, and perhaps our earlier Cree Camp by the 1846 Fort and it’s indigenous interpreters. After that we move into School Programs, Rentals, and Special Events for the winter and you’ll have to wait until Lovisa’s next letter from the past!