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History: Memories One Hundred Years Old

Reprinted from the January 1953 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

Memories One Hundred Years Old
By Anne L Gaetz

She was very, very old, this woman of whom I write, for she had seen 101 winters come and go. Her eyes were dim from looking down the years; but her mind was a rich storehouse of memories — memories of unusual experiences that were known to others only through the written word.

The daughter of a French Hudson’s Bay factor, she was born at a Cree encampment and village at Great Slave Lake, 600 miles north of Edmonton. As a young girl she went every summer with her mother’s people on a buffalo hunt, cutting up the meat, making pemmican and curing and tanning hides. Like the birds of the air, they went wherever the chances were good for a buffalo hunt.

Sometimes they went as far east as Manitoba, south to Montana and west to the mountains, without finding a fence or settler’s cabin in all that vast country.

When she was quite young, her mother went on horseback one day to a deserted camp, to gather ashes for the making of soap. Her horse returned to camp without her, and a few days later her body was found partly devoured by wild animals.

“I suppose she was thrown from her horse,” I queried.

“Oh no,” she replied, “Mother was a good rider and would never be thrown from her horse. This was before the Red Coats had come to the Western plains, and queer things happened in those days.”

With the taciturnity of her people she said no more, but it was easy to guess what might happen to the native wife of a Hudson’s Bay factor when she was no longer wanted.

This woman, who was born in 1830, was married at Lac Ste. Anne to Mr. G. Mitchell, Father Lacombe performing the ceremony. For a number of years she remained with Father Lacombe as housekeeper, her husband acting as interpreter and guide for the missionary when he went to visit Indian encampments. She related one incident which happened when she was so employed. A great thunderstorm occurred during the night and a very tall old spruce tree standing very near to the cabin door was burned to the ground.

In the morning, she was idly stirring the ashes of the tree with a stick, when she found a very peculiar shaped bullet which had evidently been embedded in the tree. She showed it to Father Lacombe, who said it was a very old and rare bullet and anyone who found this bullet would be blessed with a very long life. He asked if she would give him the bullet which she did, and she always attributed the long lives enjoyed by Father Lacombe and herself to the magic in that bullet.

Mrs. Mitchell, with her husband and family, were living north of Edmonton in 1869, when the great scourge of small pox broke out. Thirty Indians and half-breeds died in their encampment in one night. Mrs. Mitchell nursed her seven brothers through the dread disease and then took ill with it herself. It was in the coldest part of winter and the task of looking after the sick, making crude coffins and burying the dead was something, she said, she could never forget. One of her brothers was so very ill they thought he was dying and during the night they made his coffin. Come morning, however, he took a turn for the better and recovered. Father Lacombe, she said, was everywhere, ministering to the sick and dying and comforting the bereaved.

About the year 1874, buffalo began to be scarce in the West, and that winter they used 100 pounds of flour, which they considered a great extravagance despite the fact that they had thirteen children. The last wild buffalo she remembered seeing was in 1879.

About that year Alberta experienced a terrible snow storm, which was so severe that the horses died standing up. They suffered greatly, for the cold was so intense and the snow so deep that they had difficulty in procuring wood for the camp fire, or wild game for food.

For a numbers of years, Mrs. Mitchell’s husband freighted for the I.G. Baker Company, overseeing a string of forty Red River carts on the long trip from Winnipeg to Fort Edmonton or Fort Battleford. Later they moved to Rocky Mountain House and Mrs. Mitchell with her family remained within the compound while her husband freighted for the Hudson’s Bay Company, taking a load of furs to Fort Benton, Montana and returning with a load of trade goods for the Fort. Life in the West was very uncertain at that time. When her husband left with the ox brigade on the long trip to Montana, she never knew whether he would be spared to return again.

In these early days, the Hudson’s Bay stock-in-trade consisted mostly of whiskey. When the Indians came to barter furs with the Company, they stopped a distance from the Fort, loaded a horse with the choicest of their furs and sent them with their Chief, who presented them to the Factor. The Factor, in return, loaded up a keg of whiskey and took this as a gift when he went to meet the Indians.

After drinking freely of the white man’s firewater, they proceeded to the Fort with their furs, where the business was dispensed with alacrity. Mink hides brought 25 cents, lynx 50 cents, coyote 50 cents and buffalo hides $2.50.

As a small child, Mrs. Mitchell said she played with dolls like other children, but they were made of buckskin and dressed in furs. Instead of baby carriages, they made miniature travois which they attached to dogs. The women and young girls did beautiful embroidery work on buckskin with split porcupine quills.

Even as a young girl, Mrs. Mitchell made beautiful quilts. One which the family prizes is called “Quilt of Many Pieces.” It was made up entirely of hexagon-shaped pieces about two and a half inches by one and half inches. She made this quilt when quite a young married women under the direction of the nuns at Lac Ste. Anne.

‘Our History’ is curated by former Canadian Cattlemen editor, Gren Winslow.

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