Sunday, December 04, 2011

Letter from 1854

I come across ephemera quite often that touches on my hometown area.  Journal entries, newspaper articles, letters, etc.  The following is a letter being shared from the past, 1854 to be exact, of an early Minnesota politician seeing Pembina for the first time.  He discusses the geography of the area including the Red River, the possibility of a military fort at Pembina, and settlement hopes in the area...
While this is not the letter below, it is an example of a letter sent
around the same time (1854) and from the same place (Pembina)...
I will here subjoin the following extract from a letter addressed to Gov. Stephens by the Hon. Henry M. Rice, the able delegate from Minnesota. It is dated 3rd June, 1854:

It is common to say that settlements have not extended beyond Crow Wing. This is only technically true. There is a settlement at Pembina, where the dividing line between British America and the United States crosses the Red River of the North. It didn't extend there from our frontier, sure enough. If it extended from anywhere it must have been from the north, or along the confines of that mystic region called Rainy Lake. Pembina is said to have about 600 inhabitants. It is situated on the Pembina River. It is an Indian-French word meaning cranberry. Men live there who were born there, and it is in fact an old settlement. It was founded by British subjects, who thought they had located on British soil. The greater part of its inhabitants are half-breeds, who earn a comfortable livelihood in fur hunting and in farming. It sends two representatives and a councilor to the territorial legislature. It is 460 miles north-west of St. Paul, and 330 miles distant from this town. Notwithstanding the distance, there is considerable communication between the places. West of Pembina, about thirty miles, is a settlement called St. Joseph, situated near a large mythological body of water called Miniwakan, or Devil's Lake; and is one of the points where Col. Smith's expedition was intending to stop. This expedition to which I refer, started out from Fort Snelling in the summer, to explore the country on both sides of the Red River of the North as far as Pembina, and to report to the war department the best points for the establishment of a new military post. It is expected that Col. Smith will return by the first of next month; and it is probable he will advise the erection of a post at Pembina. When that is done, if it is done, its effect will be to draw emigrants from the Red River settlement into Minnesota.

Now let me say a word about this Red River of the North, for it is beginning to be a great feature in this upper country. It runs north, and empties into Lake Winnipeg, which connects with Hudson's Bay by Nelson River. It is a muddy and sluggish stream, navigable to the mouth of Sioux Wood River for vessels of three feet draught for four months in the year. So that the extent of its navigation within the territory alone (between Pembina and the mouth of Sioux Wood River) is 417 miles. Buffaloes still feed on its western banks. Its tributaries are numerous and copious, abounding with the choicest kinds of game, and skirted with a various and beautiful foliage. It cannot be many years before this magnificent valley shall pour its products into our markets, and be the theatre of a busy and genial life.

One of the first things which drew my attention to this river was a sight of several teams travelling towards this vicinity from a north-westerly direction. I observed that the complexion of those in the caravan was a little darker than that of pure white Minnesotans, and that the carts were a novelty. "Who are those people? and where are they from?" I inquired of a friend. "They are Red River people, just arrived—they have come down to trade." Their carts are made to be drawn by one animal, either an ox or a horse, and are put together without the use of a particle of iron. They are excellently adapted to prairie travelling. How strange it seems! Here are people who have been from twenty to thirty days on their journey to the nearest civilized community. This is their nearest market. Their average rate of travelling is about fifteen miles a day, and they generally secure game enough on the way for their living. I have had highly interesting accounts of the Red River settlement since I have been here, both from Mr. Ross and Mr. Marion, gentlemen recently from there. The settlement is seventy miles north of Pembina, and lies on both sides of the river. Its population is estimated at 10,000. It owes its origin and growth to the enterprise and success of the Hudson's Bay Company. Many of the settlers came from Scotland, but the most were from Canada. They speak English and Canadian French. The English style of society is well kept up, whether we regard the church with its bishop, the trader with his wine cellar, the scholar with his library, the officer with his sinecure, or their paper currency. I find they have everything but a hotel, for I was particular on that point, though not intending just yet to go there. Probably the arrivals do not justify such an institution, but their cordial hospitality will make up for any such lack, from all I hear. They have a judge who gets a good house to live in, and £1000 sterling a year; but he has nothing of consequence to do. He was formerly a leading lawyer in Canada.

The great business of the settlement, of course, is the fur traffic. An immense amount of buffalo skins is taken in the summer and autumn, while in the winter smaller but more valuable furs are procured. The Indians also enlist in the hunts ; and it is estimated that upwards of $200,000 worth of furs are annually taken from our territory and sold to the Hudson's Bay Company. It is high time indeed that a military post should be established somewhere on the Red River by our government. The Hudson's Bay Company is now a powerful monopoly. Not so magnificent and potent as the East India Company, it is still a powerful combination, showering opulence on its members, and reflecting a peculiar feature in the strength and grandeur of the British empire—a power, which, to use the eloquent language of Daniel Webster, "has dotted over the whole surface of the globe with her possessions and military posts—whose morning drum-beat, following the sun, and keeping company with the hours, circles the earth daily with one continuous and unbroken strain of martial music." The company is growing richer every year, and its jurisdiction and its lands will soon find an availability never dreamed of by its founders, unless, as may possibly happen, popular sovereignty steps in to grasp the fruits of its long apprenticeship. Some time ago I believe the Canadas sought to annex this broad expense to their own jurisdiction. There are about two hundred members in the Hudson's Bay Company. The charter gives them the power to legislate for the settlement. They have many persons in their employ in England as well as in British America. A clerk, after serving the company ten years, with a salary of about $500 per annum, is considered qualified for membership, with the right to vote in the deliberations of the company, and one share in the profits. The profits of a share last year amounted to $10,000! A factor of the company, after serving ten years, is entitled to membership with the profits of two shares. The aristocracy of the settlement consists principally of retired factors and other members of the company, who possess large fortunes, dine on juicy roast beef, with old port, ride in their carriages, and enjoy life in a very comfortable manner. Two of the company's ships sail up into Hudson's Bay every year to bring merchandise to the settlement and take away furs.  But the greatest portion of the trade is done with Minnesota. Farming is carried on in the neighborhood of the settlement with cheerful ease and grand success. I was as much surprised to hear of the nature of their agriculture as of anything else concerning the settlement. The same kind of crops are raised as in Pennsylvania or Maine; and this in a country, be it remembered, five hundred miles and upwards north of St. Paul. Stock must be easily raised, as it would appear from the fact that it is driven down here into the territory and sold at a great profit. Since I have been here, a drove of fine-looking cattle from that settlement passed to be sold in the towns below, and a drove of horses is expected this fall. The stock which comes from there is more hardy than can be got anywhere else, and therefore is preferred by the Minnesotans.