A Summer in Prairie-Land



A Summer in Prairie Land, 1885

It’s about the journey. And the people. And the incredible landscape that opens up the farther North and West you travel.

A Summer in Prairie-Land was published in 1882. It is an account of an expedition led by Alexander Sutherland, a Methodist minister who was charged with visiting Mission outposts in The Great North-West and reporting on the future needs of these missions in the expanding territory.

In 1880, there were two basic routes to The Great North-West. One route was to travel from Toronto via the Great Lakes as far as Duluth at the far end of Lake Superior, then westward via the Northern Pacific Railway. If time was limited, one could travel by rail via Chicago and St. Paul and on to Brainerd or Glyndon, Minnesota. From Glyndon, one would travel north via the St.Paul and Manitoba Railway and enter Canada at Emerson, Manitoba or from Brainerd, stay on the Northern Pacific Railway and continue west through the Dakotas and Montana and enter Canada about 100 miles east of the Rocky Mountains.

The expedition travelled from Toronto to Duluth and on to Brainerd, Minnesota and then onto Bismarck, North Dakota via the Northern Pacific Railway. A steamer would then take the expedition up the Missouri River from Fort Benton and into Canada arriving eventually at Fort McLeod, Alberta. The mission party left on June 17th and returned October 3, 1880. They spent 15 weeks travelling some 6000 miles, 1300 of which by horse and wagon, 700 by open boat and the rest by rail and steamer.


First religious service at Whitefish Lake, 1885

Buffalo sightings

The group reported several accounts of spotting buffalo along the Missouri River. And in one sighting they also encountered a  “group of four Indians” who were obviously not having much luck with their hunting. They disappeared behind the timber, but soon reappeared on the river bank. All seemed to have good horses, but only one carried a rifle. They called several times to those on board, but no-one understood their tongueas we approach them one of them lifts up a small kettle, and puts his hand to his mouth, which we at once interpret as a mute request for some tea; while another poor fellow stands motionless with his hands clasped in a pathetic fashion over his stomach, as if indicating a sense of “goneness” in that region. This led some of us to the conclusion that…we would reward them with presents of food. But even as we were speculating on this point the boat swept on, leaving the noble hunters to the cheap if not always comforting reflection that “virtue is its own reward.”

Further on up the river the passengers on board estimate seeing upwards of 10 000 buffalo sighted along the river banks and as many as ten times that number within a short distance of them.

The foothills of the Rockies

Some 50 miles from Fort Benton, the scenery, during the past few days, has been more impressive. The bluffs are more lofty, and come closer to the river, rising, in many places, perpendicularly from the water’s edge to a height of two or three hundred feet. The sand clay which farther down the river were soft and friable, have been in many places hardened into stone; but the softer portions having been washed away, the cliffs have assumed all kinds of shapes – sometimes majestic, sometimes grotesque, and always impressive. Here is an ancient castle with towers and battlements; there a fortress with frowning ramparts; yonder, a massive cathedral with double tower and graceful pinnacles. Once these were shapeless masses of rock and clay, but nature has been busy with chisel and graving tool, hewing them into pillars, sharpening them into spires, rounding them into domes; while here and there she has hewn out a group of colossal human figures, who sit in majestic silence on their lofty pedestal, while the symbol of advancing civilization stems the current of the river below.


Buffalo skin lodge and Red River Carts, 1885

On reaching Fort McLeod, Alberta

McLeod is situated at the confluence of Willow Creek and Old Man’s River, the latter a powerful stream with a rapid current. There is an unlimited amount of excellent water and good pasturage; but in other respects the site did not strike me as being well chosen for a military post. It lies low by the river’s bank, and commands no view whatsoever of the surrounding country. In this respect it is in marked contrast with most of the American posts that we saw which were generally placed so as to command an extensive outlook. As we were now on the north side of Old Man’s River, and McLeod is on the south side, we had to be ferried in a boat, a task that occupied less than three minutes, and for which we paid the modest sum of fifty cents apiece each way. One wonders why, with a large police force doing little or nothing, a bridge has not been built, or a rope ferry constructed; but echo only answers, Why? (I have since been informed that a rope ferry was constructed, but washed away by a freshet, and has not been replaced)

Questions Answered

Alexander Sutherland’s report on his journey posed a number of questions which he answered with not only his own musings but also with representations of the many speculators he encountered along the way. Many of these questions are still valid today.

What is your impression of the country as a whole?

It is a country of enormous extent. This can only be realized by one who has travelled through it. It is a country of great fertility. One only needs to travel through it noting the quality of the soil, the luxuriant growth of grass and vetches, and the fields of grain and vegetables where cultivation has been tried, to be convinced of that fact.

What about the climate?

The climate is much better than has oft been reported. As a rule the rainy seasons are well defined. The winters are cold; the snowfalls are less than in Minnesota, Dakota, and Montana and I am inclined to believe the climate is better, on the whole, than in the states and territories just mentioned.

Why then do we receive so many unfavourable reports about the country?

Chiefly because of the sources from which these reports come. Often they originate with Americans who are interested in the sale of lands in Dakota and elsewhere. These men are to be found on almost every train carrying emigrants to the North-West and they are by no means particular as to the statements they make if they can induce Canadians to settle under the Stars and Stripes. They represent the North-West as a region so cold that nothing will ripen, and so unhealthy that nothing can live; and not unfrequently Canadians are deterred by these disinterested (?) representations from entering the country at all, and report back to their friends that the North-West is not fit to live in.

Would you advise me to pull up stakes and go to the North-West?

That depends on circumstances. If you are doing fairly well where you are, stay there; it is not worth your while to move for the sake of moving, or for the bare chance of doing a little better than you are doing now. Don’t go with the idea of speculating; there are too many speculators there now. And don’t go out with the idea that you can pick up a living without working – there are no livings to pick up. But if you are beginning your life and want a chance to become the owner of your own broad acres, owing no man anything, you can find as good an opportunity in the North-West as in any land beneath the sun.

What will be the future of the North-West?

That will depend largely upon three things: 1. The class of emigrants. 2. The character of the government. 3. The activity of the churches.



About The Ryerson Press Archive

My name is Clive Powell. I worked for McGraw-Hill Ryerson for 35 years. Recently I was asked to find a home for 3000 publications that represent the Ryerson Press Archive. I am happy to share my discoveries.
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