Robert Rundle and the Many Faces of Maskepetoon

Robert Rundle, a young Methodist missionary from Cornwall, spent the 1840s evangelizing to the Cree, Assiniboine and Sioux bands that sojourned in the shadow of the Rockies during the spring and autumn. [1] The decade was a period when the region was on the cusp of a considerable economic and demographic transformation. The Sioux were at the apogee of their military powers and with their Cree and Assiniboine allies they still controlled the headwaters of the Missouri and SaskatchewanRivers and therefore British and American access to the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. But political and social relations between these masters of the northern Great Plains, and between them and their visitors from the Atlantic seaboard, were increasingly under strain. The communities with whom Rundle lived and travelled had been devastated by the small pox epidemic of 1837-1838 and were visited periodically by winter famine. In his journals he described a social milieu torn apart by alcohol, violence and despair. For the last one hundred years or so intense competition in the fur trade had led to an influx of French Canadian, American and British traders and trappers on both sides of the 49th parallel. These men and the families they formed with local women had begun to establish permanent settlements at Red River and along the Assiniboine and SaskatchewanRivers. By the end of the eighteenth century the fur trade had already swept across the prairies, over the Rockies, and right up to the Pacific coast. By the beginning of the nineteenth the Russian, American and British governments were struggling over the question of which imperialist power had the right to claim the fur-rich territories of the rugged northwest. The 1844 election had been won by James Polk on an expansionist platform and western Democrats such as the Missouri Senator Thomas Benton were talking about Manifest Destiny, and fantasizing about and an Anglo-Saxon empire stretching clear across the continent.

It was in this volatile atmosphere that the Cree band leader Maskepetoon, or Broken Arm, decided to send his son to live with the young missionary. In a note Rundle received in the fall of 1844 Maskepetoon affirmed that this act established formal relations between himself and the Methodists, and that he wanted his “small son Benjamin” learn English from the missionaries. [2] Maskepetoon, whom Rundle never converted but was considerably fond of, had by the time they met been on a diplomatic trip to Washington, brought settlers from Red River across the Rockies to the Columbia, and ranged regularly across the vast swath of land that lay between the Saskatchewan, Red and Assiniboine Rivers. [3] His band included men who were the product of both Cree-English and Cree-French marriages, and he maintained relatively good relations with the Sioux at a time when their old coalition with the Cree and Assiniboine was breaking up under the pressure of increasingly aggressive horse raiding. Maskepetoon was, in short, capable of taking a very broad view indeed of the political landscape, and it was interesting that he was willing to make an ally of a man like Rundle – who seemed to many of his European American contemporaries a sentimental and foolish meddler. The artist Paul Kane for instance, remembered Rundle chiefly for his comedic insistence on bringing his cat along with him as he careened about the prairies by horse and canoe, for his inability to sustain the rigors of such travels, and for needing a Cree woman to save him from a hungry pack of dogs. Yet nonetheless, as Kane notes, Rundle was a great favorite of the Indians, and a player as savvy Maskepetoon went to considerable lengths to cultivate him as a friend. The following paper is a study of that relationship. [4] I will establish the context in which Rundle found himself in the 1840s, review what the primary sources tell us about Maskepetoon, and finally discuss the two men’s’ friendship. I will begin however, with a brief discussion of who Rundle was, where he was from and why he was on the Great Plains to begin with.

Part I: “The Mob of Methodism”

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Methodism was well established in Britain and the first half of that century saw its most sustained period of growth. [5] Methodism’s indignant rejection of a corrupt establishment and its celebration of self-discipline and propriety proved attractive to those who felt both marginalized by the social and economic processes transforming their communities, and hopeful that such processes could yet be harnessed for a greater good. It grew most vigorously in regions where the authority of Anglican Church made the least impression and a mobile laity could spread Methodist doctrines and practices among the laboring poor and the lower middle classes without much institutional interference. Outdoor meetings and aggressive evangelicalism had gained it an early reputation as a particularly populist and egalitarian form of Christianity, and it was accordingly despised by members of the British establishment. In Cornwall, which was both a cultural backwater inhabited by smugglers, wreckers, and miners, and an industrial front-runner in which engineers and capitalists experimented with new technologies and commercial organization, it found a particularly hospitable climate. [6] But the very vigor of Methodist growth in such regions led to frequent power struggles with metropolitan leadership, endless politicking, and quite often actual schism.

By the 1840s Cornwall had long been a hot bed of a revivalistic style of Methodism which caused uneasiness among the growing number of practitioners who desired respectability. Rundle had close connections with those revivalists, whom Jabez Bunting, the leading proponent of denominational respectability and rigid institutional hierarchies, famously called “the mob of Methodism.” The memoirs of Rundle’s maternal grandfather William Carvosso – who as a young man had heard Wesley himself preach in the tiny Cornish fishing village of Mousehole – had were internationally famous in evangelical circles as an example of unpolished lay piety. Rundle’s maternal Uncle Benjamin had been among the earliest of English missionaries to Australia, and had often squabbled with Bunting and the other secretaries of the WMMS over his unapologetically anti-establishment views. Both Rundle’s relatives embraced a theology in which the immediate and personal experience of God’s grace was the keystone of conversion, and Protestant Christianity the only sure path to salvation from the fires of hell. And they wanted to save everyone from the agony of those fires – from the roughest and drunkest tin miner in Cornwall, to the most distant and unenlightened inhabitant of the Antipodes. Yet Rundle himself was a relatively new convert and had by no means been raised in a strictly Methodist environment. Judging from a letter Rundle wrote home in 1837 while attending the business school of Botreaux Castle on the northern coast of Cornwall near Boscastle, his father, a farmer in the parish of Mylor, was – unlike his Carvosso in-laws – quite at home in the Church of England, and at ease with the world. At the time he wrote the letter young Robert Rundle had only recently become “proud to call himself a Methodist” and seemed to be as attracted to the cantankerous Toryism of his instructor a Mr. Avery as he was to the uncompromising faith of his Uncle Benjamin, in whose circuit the village of Boscastle had once been. [7] But by 1839 he had begun attending the brand new Methodist seminary in London and committed himself to his chosen vocation. In the spring of 1840 Rundle found himself with two other young missionaries in the middle of the Atlantic, on his way from “dear Old Cornwall” to “the trackless forests & wilds of America.” [8]

Rundle and his companions, George Barnley and William Mason, were agents of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (WMMS) and were on their way to Prince Rupert’s Land. Prince Rupert’s Land was a territory controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) ever since it was granted to the fur trading operation by the British Crown in 1670. It consisted of the entire drainage basin of Hudson’s Bay, an area that today includes Northern Quebec, Northern Ontario, portions of Nunavut and the North WestTerritories and the entirety of the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. For most of its history the HBC governors had administered the territory as they saw fit, which meant above all administration on the cheap. In the early years of the nineteenth century however they came under increasing public scrutiny, particularly from such organizations as the Aborigines Protection Society, and found themselves pressured to accommodate the philanthropic opinions of politically powerful men and women with close ties to the evangelical community. [9] The HBC charter had been renewed by an act of parliament in 1838 after extensive lobbying, but only on the condition that the Company would make the effort to ameliorate the condition of the native peoples who lived in its vast territory. In response to this condition the Governor of the HBC, George Simpson, made arrangements with the WMMS to begin evangelizing to the Indians. The WMMS involvement in Prince Rupert’s Land, which had begun in 1840 with some fanfare in Wesleyan publications, saw its early successes come to an end in scandal after a half-dozen promising years, and peter out altogether by 1850.

Rundle was posted to Edmonton House, on the upper reaches of the North Saskatchewan River and he spent eight years ministering to the men and women who lived in, or passed through, the district. To the Chief Trader of FortEdmonton, John Rowand, and his boss George Simpson, Rundle and his colleagues were something of a nuisance. Rowand, who seemed genuinely fond of Rundle, nonetheless considered him an incompetent fool whose presence prevented him from treating his staff as severely as he would like. The utterly unsentimental Simpson thought Rundle not only a fool but a gossip whose cheerful fraternizations with the dregs of fur trade society set the wrong sorts of precedents for respectable behavior. And when Paul Kane passed through the district in 1847 and 1848 he described Rundle as something of a clown, ill suited to the rigors of wilderness travel and out of synch with the rhythms of frontier life. But such attitudes toward a Methodist were not so different from those which prevailed in Cornwall during his Grandfather’s career. Carvosso Sr.’s memoirs were full of exhortations to his converts to keep faith in spite of the worldly mockery they faced from friends, family and society. And besides, even if Simpson imagined him as a company chaplain whose primary duties were to set a moral example for the European traders and their families, it was the Indians that Rundle had come to save, and it was the opinions of the Indians about which he most cared.

Part II: The Crucible of the Great Plains

By the 1840s the northern prairies had already seen more then a century of turbulence and change and Rundle’s arrival marked the beginning of yet another significant shift. He was the first of what was to be a steady trickle of Methodist, Anglican, and Catholic missionaries into the territory. They were soon followed by a steady stream of painters, scientists, and adventurers that had had become a flood of settlers by the end of the century. In the spring of 1841 however, the arrival of a European eager to interact with the natives, but uninterested in trade was an unprecedented phenomenon, and one which attracted the attention of people such as Maskepetoon – men and women aware that political and economic relations in the region were highly unstable, easy to disrupt, and in need of close management.

It was once a common place that the history of the Plains Indians was a history of tribes, but the idea of such large and self-contained cultural and political units has been called into question by recent scholarship. Theodore Binnema, in Common and Contested Ground, identifies not the tribe but the much smaller band as the fundamental social unit of Plains life and the data in Rundle’s journal certainly supports that. According to Binnema a band on the northwestern plains was organized around the extended family, and such families functioned in much the same way as extended families everywhere. Leaders carried no formal title and held no institutionalized office, but had influence only in proportion to their reputation. [10]

Band members were free to join and leave bands as they would, and marriage across linguistic and cultural lines was frequent. Kinship and the reciprocal obligations it entailed meant marriage was often a political medium through which alliances and coalitions were formed. [11] Such coalitions might be quite durable and long lasting, but they were ultimately determined by matters of expediency and could disintegrate as rapidly as they had been formed. [12] The combination of such a fluid and dynamic political system with the fact that a single band, such as Maskepetoon’s, might be composed of Cree, Assiniboine, Sioux, French and English individuals makes the contradictory and confusing nature of early European attempts to make sense of them quite understandable. [13] One can also understand why early ethnographers such as the artist George Catlin and the Jesuit traveler De Smet were quick to make use of the political and cultural unit of the tribe as a category of historical analysis, and why it was also attractive to the politicians and traders who engaged the Indians in political and commercial negotiations. It also makes it easier to understand the trouble newcomers to the region, and contemporary historians for that matter, had in making sense of the myriad of kinship relations that existed between Europeans and Indians and the proliferation of labels – French Half-breed, English half-breed, Métis, Country-born, Freeman and so on – that existed for their children.

This shifting kaleidoscope of inter-band relations did however follow some basic patterns, and the arrival of the horse on the northwestern prairie in the first half of the 1700s had set one such pattern in motion – the split between northern and southern interest groups. It was the bands to the south that first acquired horses from the Spanish and they used them to good effect against their northern neighbors. In the 1730s an aggressive coalition of Shoshoni, Crow and Flathead had used the horse to drive the still pedestrian Sioux farther and farther north until they were pressed up against the parklands inhabited by the Cree and the Assiniboine. It was the Cree and the Assiniboine who knew and controlled the waterways along which trade flowed between the Great Plains and the Europeans huddled along the shores of Hudson’s Bay. While the Sioux had quickly acquired their own horses through raiding and trading it was only after establishing a loose coalition with the Cree and Assiniboine that they could ensure themselves a relatively steady supply of fire arms, and turn the tide of war back towards the south. [14] By the late 1740s the Sioux had made themselves masters of the northwestern plains. [15]

This northern coalition began to break down towards the end of the eighteenth century as the fur trade began to change. The British and the French had been competing, often violently, for aboriginal trade for well over a century and their respective strategies were largely the product of geopolitics. The French traded by paddling out from Montreal to meet the Indians along the rivers and lakes of the Canadian Shield. These men operated independently, or in small partnerships, and usually spent the winters in the vicinity of the trappers with whom they traded. The British fur trade on the other hand, was monopolized by the Hudson’s Bay Company and unlike the French the English clung to the coast line of the Bay and expected the Indians to travel to them. In both cases the traders spent lengthy periods of time with the native inhabitants of the land, married local women, and were very much a part of the complex set of relations of which fur trade society was comprised. In the eighteenth century the aboriginal groups with whom the French and the English formed this fur trade society were primarily the Chippewa, the Cree, and Assiniboine, and substantial number of traders, post servants, voyageurs and band members were the children of that society.

Following the Peace of Paris in 1763 the Montreal fur trade came under control of British subjects – primarily Scots – who began pushing farther and farther up the Saskatchewan River and into Athabaska in order to acquire fur as close to the source as possible. Competition among the traders from Montreal, called bourgeois by their voyageur labor, led to journeys deeper and deeper into the Hudson’s Bay hinterland until even the HBC found it necessary to join the westward surge if it did not want to be cut out of the trade altogether. These extended voyages demanded a sophisticated system of financing and credit, and traders from Montreal began to establish larger and larger partnerships in order to spread liability and pool capital. As competition between these partnerships heated up fur trading posts began proliferating along the Saskatchewan and AssiniboineRivers. This process initially strengthened the position of the Cree and the Assiniboine. Those bands who had the closest relationship with the fur traders had long helped to provision the forts and houses along the coast, and the rapid increase in commercial specialists spending winters in the interior led to more opportunities for such native hunters. By the early 1770s traders along the Saskatchewan system, and along the route from Rainy Lake to Lake Winnipeg, were trading heavily for the concoction of dried buffalo meat and berries pounded into powder called pemmican, and a new industry was born, one which spread rapidly westward. [16] The Cree and Assiniboine were so eager to control this industry that there are accounts of their deliberately firing the bush around fur trade establishments to drive off game and thereby increase European dependency on local produce. But if this new subsidiary industry was something of a boon, the westward creep of the outposts meant the Cree and Assiniboine were in danger of losing their control of the trade between the parkland and the plains. By 1800 the Europeans and Canadians were trying to set up outposts among the Sioux themselves. They were trading directly with RockyMountain groups who had previously relied on middlemen. [17]

Another result of the intensification of fur trade competition inland was that the non-Indian population of the Saskatchewan River began to grow rapidly. This population increase was not merely a question of an influx of French Canadian voyageurs and the Scottish bourgeois, but of the children they had with Cree and Assiniboine women. By the 1770s there were some 300 traders and their wives and children living along the river. The relationships between fur traders and local women were known were governed by their own sets of norms, and had been occurring in one fashion or another since the fur trade began, but by the late eighteenth century the patterns were set and the kinship ties between traders and trappers were proliferating. This new demographic development was made more dramatic by the arrival of small pox in the 1780s.

The epidemic originated in Mexico City in August of 1779, by 1780 had spread to New Mexico, and from there it swept across the prairies. It struck the bands of the southern coalition in the spring or summer of 1781 and according to Binnema spread amongst the northern coalition after a Cree, Assiniboine, and Blackfoot war party raided a camp of dead and dying Shoshoni. [18] Binnema argues that the plague hit the adult male population of Indian population particularly hard, and the loss of leaders and hunters led the reformulation of communities into smaller, more mixed bands of the sort Rundle encountered sixty years later. The loss of something like a third of the existing population will not only have been a tremendous source of trauma for the Indian people, but in the highly contested spaces of the northwestern plains will have made space for the emergence of Métis as a power in their own right.

In the eighteenth century European and European American influence on the plains proper had been largely economic in nature and native geo-politics moved at its own pace. In the nineteenth that was going to change. The Russians had been trading furs in the Pacific north-west since the 1740s with little competition, but towards the end of the century American, Canadian, and English companies began to trade along the coast as well. And not just from ships but via overland routes through the Rockies. These companies were not merely after new and untapped markets but also had an eye on the potential posts on the Pacific would have for trading with China. They were all actively lobbying their respective governments to pursue policies that would ensure their control of such a strategically important region.

By 1800 a number of Montreal firms had merged to form the North West Company (NWC) and had become by far the most substantial of the fur trade companies. Even the HBC was struggling to compete with them. The Northwesters had powerful political friends in Britain to trumpet the contributions their explorations were making to British imperialism. By the early 1800s agents of the NWC were exploring the head waters of the Columbia and racing with the Americans towards the rivers mouth to strengthen their claim over the fur rich territory it ran through. In 1805 Lewis and Clarke had crossed the Rockies, and the American fur trade was expanding west of the Great Lakes and up the Missouri from St. Louis, and in 1810 John Jacob Astor established Astoria. When the war of 1812 broke out the Scots and the Americans were already eyeing each other bellicosely across the Colombia. With Astoria under threat from the British navy the NWC shrewdly negotiated its purchase from Astor. But regardless of which of the Atlantic Empires was in control of the western slopes of the Rockies, by the beginning of the nineteenth century more and more Europeans and European-Americans were braving increasing Indian hostility and picking there way through the rugged passes to trade, and even settle, on their Pacific side.

Significant changes were occurring in the north-east as well and in 1811 the HBC attempted to establish a permanent settlement in the Red River valley. The settlement was the brain child of Lord Selkirk, an influential stockholder, and its purpose was two-fold. It was to provide a new home for displaced Scottish highlanders, and a site to which servants of the HBC could retire if they wished to remain in the country. An additional benefit of the settlement was that it would cut across the routes that took pemmican from the prairies to the Winnipeg River system along which the Canadian voyageurs traveled. Conflict between the HBC and Lord Selkirk’s settlers on the one side, and the NWC and their Métis pemmican suppliers on the other, was almost immediate and led to a decade of kidnappings, violence and murder.

In 1822 the British government, embarrassed and frustrated by the legal and illegal wranglings of the two companies, brokered a deal between them. The HBC took control of the NWC trading routes, forts and personnel, and in turn acquired a large number of experienced and ambitious NWC men as traders and factors. The man given the job of overseeing the merger, and rationalizing HBC operations, was George Simpson, the so called Governor of Prince Rupert’s Land. Once more the HBC claimed sole dominion over the drainage basin of the bay but things had rather changed. There were substantial communities of country born men and women along the Saskatchewan and the Red River who Simpson cut loose from the new company, and who did not consider themselves beholden to either the Company or its charter. There was also a growing community of independent British citizens at the forks of the Assiniboine and Red River who did not like the fact that they were ruled by an autocratic company which monopolized the most valuable resource of the territory. And American traders were setting up at Pembina, just across the border and encouraging the locals to challenge HBC authority by trading illegally with Indians and bring the furs south.

To further complicate issues was the fact that traditional relations between Native and European society at the trading posts was also in flux. The NWC had long encouraged its wintering partners to cement ties with the locals through marriage, but the HBC had pursued a much more puritanical policy. They had long forbidden their traders to either bring wives with them into the wilderness and had attempted to prohibit intermarriage. The Company’s anxiety about the extra expense of feeding the progeny of such relationships was couched uneasily in vaguely moralistic terms, and showed a remarkable naivety of the day-to-day functioning of the outposts. The men in London did not understand the necessity of both unpaid female labor and the importance of local marriages to establishing good trade relations, so the prohibition was largely ignored.

A much more serious challenge to this tradition was to be the behavior of Governor Simpson. He indulged in numerous liaisons but was indifferent to the rules that governed fur trade marriages. In 1830, after shunting off a handful of former partners and children onto various employees, the Governor formally broke the Companies 150 year old ban on importing women by marrying his cousin Frances and bringing her out to the territory. [19] The reasons for his decision to make that rupture are disputed but the decision itself is evidence that previously sacrosanct modes of European-Native relations could no longer be taken for granted. Marriage to a British rather than a country-born wife rapidly become a sign of status, a class marker, and perhaps even a mark of metropolitan rather than local sympathies.

Simpson seems to have taken it for granted that he could have sexual access to any unattached woman in the territory, and such women were by definition country-born, in his infamous words merely “bits of brown.” A proper wife in Simpson’s view was an English wife and as Jennifer Brown and Sylvia Van Kirke first pointed out in the 1980s that once other senior officers began to follow his lead a type of racial stratification occurred that had simply not been there before. [20] That polarization was further intensified because Simpson considered both English and French half-breeds to be ill-suited to administrative work. Following the merger company elite began to be recruited almost exclusively from the British Isles and the children of the fur traders who had once had the promise of a good job in the business as their birth right found themselves reduced to dead-end jobs as clerks and laborers. It was in this period that the missionaries with their own ideas of what constituted a proper marriage and appropriate domestic arrangements first began to appear. The Church of England and the Roman Catholics had been in the Red River Settlement since the 1820s but Rundle and his colleagues were the first to be invited into the fur trading territory proper. Despite HBC attempts to limit missionary activity to the WMMS however, by 1840 the CMS had a missionary at the Pas, and by 1841 the first Catholic Priests had made the grueling overland trek across the prairies to the upper Saskatchewan.

Part III Maskepetoon

Maskepetoon was born near the turn of the nineteenth century and will have come of age during the climax of the conflict between the NWC and the HBC. If he himself was not involved in the violence that occurred between the two companies he had friends and in-laws who were. The merger saw the lapse of a competition that had favored trappers rather than traders, and it made the distant American posts more attractive. Not only did they have more liberal policies on selling alcohol, they would purchase the buffalo skins the HBC could not afford to transport across the Atlantic and ship them down the Missouri. He will have been intimately familiar with the rules that governed marriage in the fashion of the country. He will have seen the emergence of the French speaking Métis, whom the Cree called “the people who won themselves,” as an important new interest group on the plains, and one self-confident enough to challenge HBC hegemony. He will have been aware of the growing competition for buffalo and horses between the various First nation peoples who lived on the plains verged on endemic warfare. His people lived in a region in which starvation was an ever present danger, and across which epidemics periodically swept. Small pox had most recently traveled along the fur trade route up the Missouri in the late 1830s, and had hit the Sioux and the southern groups with its usual ferocity, but its impact among the Cree and Assiniboine was dulled by HBC vaccinations. When Maskepetoon first met Rundle in 1841 he was the tough leader of a cosmopolitan band of hunters, trappers and traders. He was capable of the occasional outburst of violence, familiar with the extremes of physical hardship, and had substantially more experience of the world than the young missionary from Cornwall.

In his Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832-1834 Maximilian, the Prince of Wied, reported that he met the Cree chief Maschketipon, or Broken Arm, while visiting FortUnion in late June, 1833. [21] Maschketipon and his people had traveled to FortUnion from their territory between the Saskatchewan and the AssiniboineRivers. They had not come down to trade but to treat with the Fort’s manager Keith Mackenzie. In Maximilian’s words “to do him honor, and prove their attachment to him.” [22] Maximilian noted that Maschketipon wore a medal with the effigy of President Jackson around his neck, an ornament he had received on a visit to Washington. In his 1956 article “When the Light Shone on Washington” John C. Ewers suggested that visit may have been orchestrated by John Jacob Astor in an attempt to gain a larger share of the Indian fur trade from the British by a display of diplomatic largesse. [23] According to Ewers the Indian agent Major John Sanford brought a representative from each of the Blackfoot, Assiniboine, and Ojibwa and Cree groups by steamboat and train to the capital in the fall of 1831, and returned them the following summer. If the goal of that rather expensive diplomatic expedition was to establish trading relations between nations it had at best short term success – Ewers estimated the mission cost $6,450 and assumed it had little effect on the trade. [24] Political and commercial affairs on the plains were much too dynamic for the influence of such a distant power to last more than a season or two at best. As a fascinating anecdote however it has proved a fecund subject for moralizing observers.

George Catlin, the prolific painter of the vanishing frontier and enthusiastic amateur ethnologist, encountered the party at St. Louis and painted two of them. [25] The first he identified as an Assiniboine named Wi-jun-jon or “Pigeon’s Egg Head,” a name more accurately transcribed and translated as Ah-Jon-jon or “the Light.” [26] The second portrait was of the Cree (or Knisteneaux) warrior Catlin called “Bro-cas-sie, the broken arm.” According to Catlin, who joined the party for the last leg of their return trip from St. Louis to FortUnion, “Wi-jun-jon” had undergone such a transformation that his homecoming became a curious spectacle. Catlin describes him as wearing a colonel’s uniform, with beaver hat and high heel boots, and carrying a keg of whiskey under his arm. Catlin:

In this plight and metamorphoses, he took his position on the bank, amongst his family and friends – his wife and other relations; not one of whom exhibited, for an half-hour or more, the least symptoms of recognition, although they knew well who was before them. He also gazed upon them – upon his wife and parents, and little children who were about, as if they were foreign to him, and he had not a feeling or thought to interchange with them. Thus the mutual gazings upon and from this would-be-stranger lasted for a full half hour. [27]

Catlin was so fascinated by The Light’s transformation that he completed a before and after study of the man. The Light had previously been for Catlin a typical example of “a fine and noble race” but in his second painting he is turning his back on that self. [28] The pseudo-civilized man stands awkwardly in his high heeled boots, carrying an effete fan, leaning on an umbrella, with a whiskey bottle tucked into a pocket, and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Of Bro-cas-sie he has little to say other than that the Cree scarcely know the extent of their own country and are “primitive, as no inroads of civilized habits have been as yet successfully made amongst them.” [29] The contrast between the pure and the hybrid Indian is as sharp as it is false – the Cree had been active partners in the European fur trade since the seventeenth century and had become wide-ranging salesmen of European manufactures and goods. Not only had they been the primary conduit of the fire arms which helped make the Sioux masters of the northwestern plains, but as Ewer points out the “Indian” ornaments Catlin painted into Maskepetoon’s portrait were made by white wampum makers in New Jersey, the jewelry in his hair for instance was made from conch shells imported from the Bahamas. [30]

The American fur trader Edwin Denig spun a slightly different morality tale from the same events. [31] In his account the Light returned from Washington loaded with presents and honors and was well received. But consequently his “high tone of manner and action” led to resentment, and his never-ending discourse on the astonishments to be found on the eastern seaboard gained him a reputation as an inveterate liar. [32] Denig, who later married one of the Light’s sisters, ultimately attributes his eventual murder to resentment of his grand claims. [33] As in Catlin’s account, The Light’s Cree companion, whom Denig calls Ah ah to wish kin e sic or Eyes-On-Each-Side, provides a contrast to the Assiniboine. While in Denig’s view The Light “was a man of truth who could not bear contradiction,” and responded honorably to Jackson’s “counseling and good advice,” the Cree “was a scheming, mean beggarly Indian and on his return proved himself unworthy of the attention bestowed upon him.” [34] According to Denig, fearing to meet the same end as The Light, he misrepresented the Americans as “but a handful of people far inferior in every respect to his own.” [35] Eyes-On-Each-Side’s chief offense seems to have been that he was unimpressed by the Americans and Denig’s outrage at that slight was further inflamed by the fact that the man still lived and exerted influence over his people while he was writing his ethnography in the 1850s.

Finally, in Charles Larpenteur, another American trader and a colleague of Denig’s, The Light’s story is a parable of the superficiality of European American influence on Plains behavior. [36] For Larpenteur the only “advance he had made in civilization” was to learn how to use a towel and a house bell. After his return he passed himself off as a great medicine man and claimed no musket ball could harm him. That claim was shortly tested and he was “buried after their own way in a tree” at FortUnion. His skull was later sent down to St. Louis in sack with many others to be studied by physicians. “This is the whole amount of good” that The Light accomplished according to Larpenteur, and he ends his parable with the observation that the Cree chief did not amount to even that much. [37] His sarcasm is present in his two other mentions of the Cree chief as well. In an account of a trading mission to a mixed group of Chippewa and Cree at WoodyMountain in January of1844, he calls him “Mr. Broken Arm, the great chief of the Crees, who had been to Washington.” [38] The chief purpose of that story seems to be to show the drunkenness and squalor of Indian life. In the shorter anecdote which dates from November of the same year, Larpenteur recounts meeting Broken Arm, this time called a chief of the Assiniboine, somewhere north of the Missouri, and being tricked to go and trade with his small band rather than the larger one the trader was looking for. [39] These American accounts of Broken Arm and The Light all emphasize the attempt by the latter to become more European. In Denig’s version The Light is making a heroic but tragic attempt to cope with the realities of American imperialism, while in the others he is a ludicrous figure who merely apes the manners of civilized culture. In contrast Broken Arm, regardless of motivation, remains true to his essential Indian-ness, and for good or worse, aloof from civilization.

From the American perspective Maskepetoon was a representative of a northern band – usually called Cree and occasionally Assiniboine – which ranged north of the Missouri between the Rocky Mountains and the AssiniboineRiver. The Americans considered him shrewd to the point of deceit but were jealous enough of the influence the British had over his people that they employed their President to glad-hand him. North of the 49th parallel on the other hand Maskepetoon’s reputation during this period was as a reliable guide. To the men of the HBC he was a member of the western most of the Plains Cree band who frequented RockyMountain and Edmonton House. They knew he was familiar enough with both sides of the Rockies to recommend him as a guide across the mountains for James Sinclair and his troop of migrating Red River settlers in 1841, a service he repeated in 1855. [40]

George Simpson, who had crossed the Rockies a few weeks earlier than the settlers told the story in his Narrative of a Journey Around the World, During the Years 1841 and 1842 of how that Cree guide, whom he called Bras Coche, expertly guided his wards to the Pacific Ocean, and then went for a ride on the company steam ship Beaver. [41] In his most patronizing tones Simpson describes Bras Coche’s amazement that a boat could be moved by iron machinery without the aid of either wind or paddle. Since none of his country men would believe such a thing, and think him a liar, Bras Coche requested a certificate to verify the truth of what he had seen. “The savage,” wrote Simpson, or perhaps his ghost writer. “Stands nearly as much in awe of paper, ink and pen in steam itself” and such “medicine” would ensure Bras Coche was believed by his illiterate friends. [42] This story, with its emphasis on Indian ignorance of European technologies is curiously similar to the American Broken Arm stories, but should be read less as evidence of what Maskepetoon actually thought and said, than it is of audience expectation. In the preceding pages Simpson had been arguing that “the powers of steam” could quiet “the savages...love of violence and robbery” and reinforce “the red man’s” opinion of the “superiority of his white brother.” [43] Even if Simpson’s Broken Arm was a different person than the one who traveled on a steam boat up the Missouri in 1831, we know that the Plains Cree had been seeing, and occasionally riding on such vessels for over a decade. Just a few pages later Simpson himself is waxing eloquent over the cosmopolitan crew of the steamer which involves French Canadians, Sandwich islanders, and native Cree speakers.

Irene Spry, the editor of The Palliser Papers, claims Maskepetoon also guided the English aristocrat Henry Palliser on his scientific-cum-hunting trip into Prairies in the fall of 1857. Her evidence for this claim is that the guide the adventurers named Nichiwa, or “Friend,” was called “peace-maker” by the Indians. This certainly coincides with Maskepetoon’s later reputation, but there were other Cree leaders who could have met the description. Denig mentions a La Lance, and Rundle also mentions a man known Peacemaker, both of whom were contemporaries of Palliser’s Nichiwa and noted diplomats. Of more interest than Spry’s claims is that Palliser shared the same distaste for bricolage as Catlin and Larpenteur. Upon entering what Palliser called the “neutral ground” where the Cree and the Sioux hunted the same herds of buffalo, Nichiwa “smartened himself up considerably.” He obtained Palliser’s old shooting jacket, a pair of corduroys from another member of the expedition and a waistcoat and handkerchief. Palliser described him as “looking more like a monkey than ever.” [44] Spry’s assumption that Nichiwa was in fact Maskepetoon is not particularly well warranted. But the latter was a well known to the HBC men, and likely a fixture in their attempts to negotiate with the unstable bands that trapped them their furs and provisioned their posts. There is some evidence of that familiarity in the laconic entry for 3 April, 1869 in the Edmonton House journal, quoted by John Milloy in The Plains Cree: Trade, Diplomacy and War, 1790 to 1870, that “two young fellows arrived from the Blackfoot camp and report old Misticpictoons killed by the Blackfoot his two sons and Grandson also about the same time.” [45]

Accounts of Maskepetoon from this later period, the 1850 and 1860s, all emphasize this violent aspect of life on the plains. In these stories it is not the arrival of an industrial civilization that shapes the narratives, but what appeared to be the savage and permanent state of war that existed between the Sioux and the Blackfoot. It was Canadian Methodist missionaries most responsible for the hagiographical accounts of Maskepetoon as a peace maker and a martyr. The various versions written by the father and son team George and John McDougall, and E. Ryerson Young, are virtually interchangeable in their pious enthusiasms. In these accounts the young Maskepetoon was a violent drunkard who scalped his wife alive, and lived a wholly dissipated existence. After meeting Rundle in the 1840s he had a change of heart, was further influenced by Rundle’s eventual successor Thomas Woolsey in the late 1850s, until he was finally converted by George Mc Dougall, the first Canadian Methodist missionary on the plains. By the 1860s Maskepetoon had a reputation as a peacemaker, and according to John McDougall he was treacherously murdered by the Blackfoot while trying to treat with them – an account of his death that the HBC logs support. [46] Egerton Ryerson Young, writing in the late nineteenth century, claimed Maskepetoon as a trophy for the cross. His martyrdom revealed to Young’s readers the power of the gospels over the savagery that existed on the Great Plains, a savagery that had existed for millennia “before the waves of Anglo-Saxon civilization began to surge over those glorious, fertile prairies.” [47]

None of these representations of Maskepetoon – the unrevised Indian of the Americans,’ Simpson’s unsophisticated rube, or the later missionaries’ repentant savage – resemble the Maskepetoon we find in Rundle’s journal. That may well be because he plays a very different role in the Rundle text than in the others. Aside from the intense romanticization of the “savage” that occurs sporadically in Rundle’s account of his journey through Great Lakes and the Canadian Shield, the missionary is at pains to de-emphasize differences that lie between Simpson’s “red man” and “his white brother,” McDougall’s “Anglo-Saxon civilization” and Indian savagery, and which find their starkest expression in Larpenteur’s sack of Indian skulls. It is not that Rundle avoids tropes like “savagery” and “civilization,” but that such terms are strictly moral, and not racial or even cultural categories. Even as Rundle acknowledges the tenderness he feels towards rough men like Maskepetoon, he mourns the failure of his attempts to save them from damnation. His intense sentimentality and his fearless self-righteousness are products of a world view in which all humans are faced with the same moral dilemmas, and judged by the same unbending standards as he is. Like his grandfather and uncle Rundle inhabits spiritual world that is ultimately egalitarian. Reading Rundle’s journals one would never get the sense Maskepetoon is a worse or better human being than Sir George Simpson for example, much more likeable certainly, but not of a different order.

Part IV: Robert Rundle and Maskepetoon

Rundle likely met Maskepetoon for the first time in the spring of 1841 at Rocky Mountain House. Rocky Mountain House was a post with something of a troubled past. It had first been opened up by the NWC in 1799 to challenge the HBC in the rolling plains that ran southward along the spine of the Rocky Mountains. [48] It was not in an ideal location as such and had never proved particularly lucrative. Even after the merger of the two companies it was operated chiefly as a concession to the Sioux that kept them from trading with the Americans. In the 1840s the chief trader at Rocky Mountain House was the Englishman James Harriott. Harriott had a reputation for being good with the Indians and had close ties with the Cree. He was an enthusiastic Protestant, at least relative to the other fur traders in the region, and proved to be not only one of Rundle’s most important allies but the closest thing he had to a friend among the bourgeois of the fur trade.

It was at Rocky Mountain House that Rundle had the most success with the Indians but that success however did not come within the walls of the fort itself. It occurred when Rundle followed the bands that traded there down through the wooded river valleys and out onto the open prairie. Judging from his frequent confessions of inadequacy and exclamations of despair, success for Rundle consisted of little more than attention to in his preaching, participation in singing and praying, an expression of regret at the sinful state of one’s life, the willingness to get married according to the Church of England sacraments, and the frequent baptism of children and infants. Aside from a few women closely associated with the other fur trade posts, whose attentions seem to have made Rundle nervous, attendance at his prayer meetings waned considerably after the first flush of enthusiasm had faded. But among the Rocky Mountain House bands he always seemed to be welcomed. Maskepetoon and his people continued living much as they had before his arrival, but often invited Rundle to join them in their camps, and expressed their regrets at his absence when he could not.

That this polite rejection of Rundle’s message led him to torments of despair is due to his belief that the Great Plains was a spiritual battlefield. He imagined himself engaged at war with the demonic forces that ruled the prairies. In a fascinating letter he composed to his Uncle Benjamin in 1843 he took an imaginary night-time flight over the wide open spaces that lay between York Factory and Edmonton House. In his purplest prose he described a landscape of great natural beauty across which are scattered the tents of many “dwellers in the wilderness.” [49] “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon the scene,” Rundle wrote. “Gaze, but weep for nearly all thou beholdest is claimed by Satan as his own!” [50]

Aside from the oasis of Christianity at Norway House where Evans had planted his infant Methodist community, and a few Christian tents tucked away in the valleys of the Rocky Mountains, Rundle described himself as living in “the moral waste of Canaan.” [51] Among the Sioux in particular Rundle claimed an altar was raised to Satan in almost every tent. Paganism and superstition were for Rundle false systems of meaning in which the hapless Indians were suspended, but they were not simply what we might call false ideologies. Self-interest and ignorance were certainly elements in those systems, but the role of a profound and powerful evil in weaving those webs was absolutely fundamental. The ultimate consequence of false belief was an eternity of torment in hell, and the only cure was the gospel truth. Rundle’s imaginary flight ends in his own sitting room, where he sits writing to his Uncle beneath prints of Wesley’s tomb and the Conference offices.

The fullest and by the far most vivid account of what Rundle perceived that saving gospel truth to be can be found in his description of his arrival in Norway House in1840. Rundle had just spent several months traveling, a good portion of it through the Canadian wilderness, and was very far from home indeed. He had experienced intense homesickness during the journey, and his journal during this period reads as a romantic and sentimental meditation on death, distance and domesticity. From the time he left England Rundle began constructing an analogy between the almost incomprehensible geographic distance that lay between himself and his family, and the abyss that lay between the living and the dead. He saw death, not unreasonably, everywhere – from the darkening hues of the Atlantic, to the mountains along the Hudson which seemed “monuments to the dead,” to the rapids of the Canadian Shield that had claimed the lives of so many voyageurs. In those moments when Rundle came face to face with the possibility of his own death in the wilderness he resorted to the language of revivalist Methodism to collapse literal distance (between the Christians of England and the isolation of the wilderness) and figurative distance (between the living and dead) into the spiritual unity of the Kingdom of God.

After saying good-bye to his colleague William Mason at Lac Le Pluie towards the end of May Rundle finally arrived at Norway House. He was to wait there for his superior, James Evans, before heading up the Saskatchewan to his own station at FortEdmonton. The second Sunday he was there, having obtained an interpreter, Rundle set forth to preach to the Indians. He had spent the evening before preparing his sermon and reminding himself of his awesome responsibility. In a marvelous passage written at midnight Rundle described how back in England the church bells would be ringing, his friends would all be on their way to Church, and that the next morning his own act of ritual worship on the Sabbath would provide a bridge across the unbearable distance. Rundle:

Is it possible the wide Atlantic with the trackless forests of Amer. Are between us? Is it a dream? No I am separated from them but still I find myself one with them. The chains which unite us remain unbroken by distance. Unbroken by distance! Yes, their memory will even survive the icy touch of death & the sepulchral night of the tomb. [52]

His topic for the next day was, of course, to be the Resurrection, and the subject lead him to think, as he had on a number of earlier occasions, of the picturesque spot in Mylor where the ashes of his mother and an older brother lay. “Two grassy hillocks rise to my view, wet with the dews of the night,” Rundle wrote, “but the darkness of the night has disappeared & the morn of the Sabbath has arrived, awakening the scene to life & melody. Dew drops glance in the sunshine & the grass waves gracefully in the morning breeze; but what forms are these that hover in the air? They were laid in the tomb, silent & motionless & the livid aspect of death was on their much loved countenance. But hark! They sing of victory & their celestial vests are radiant with immortality! Then it is no dream we shall meet again!” [53]

On June 14th Rundle preached to the Indians for the first time. Through an interpreter he warned them of hell and promised them salvation, and he described later how he was so overcome with the Holy Spirit while he preached that he fell to his knees and nearly shouted aloud. His impact it appears was immediate for at the end of the sermon he was approached by people eager for baptism. As was the case through out his mission, Rundle did not immediately oblige but chose to wait, not only to see whether the conversion was genuine but in order to prepare the potential convert for baptism by teaching them Methodist self-discipline. This first sermon was preached on the Norway House grounds but before long Rundle was venturing into the local village, and the nearby camps, to spread the word. These were happy days for Rundle and he felt as if both the local Indians and the employees of the HBC were attentive to the state of their own souls. He even had the obligatory local opposition from traditionalists, a few old conjurors camped across the lake ridiculed him and said they would burn him alive if he came out to their lodges. [54] Rundle resolutely had himself paddled across the water to their camps, and preached them a sermon on how Christianity “was invested with all authority & power, that everything that was sinful would finally be destroyed.” [55] Rundle chose not to try “to reform outward acts” but rather aimed his message at “that seat of all corruption, the human heart.” [56] He told them that “by nature they are dead,” and their only hope for salvation and reunion with their lost loved ones was to submit themselves to the will of God. For Rundle the greatest measure of success was to have the people weeping bitterly at his words (“a sight at which angels might delight to witness” [57] ) and his most frequent topics were death and resurrection. When he preached on Lazarus’ he described the effect as thrilling, as if “the conqueror of the grave was present” and felt the presence of the Holy Spirit “in the wilderness of the far west” as he had never felt it England. [58] But even as Rundle celebrated these “golden days” he knew that before too long Evans would arrive and he would be obliged to leave his penitents for FortEdmonton. [59]

Evans arrived with his wife and daughter in an HBC canoe on July 26th and poor Rundle was heartbroken. After two months of evangelical enthusiasm he was so overcome at the thought of leaving the Indians that when he told them he would have to go he broke down and wept. [60] He lingered on in Norway House for a little over a month and finally was sent on his way on September 7th. After a few days on Lake Winnipeg his despondency had lifted, and by the time he and the HBC men arrived at the mouth of the Saskatchewan, on a day he thought resembled May in England, Rundle found himself once more overwrought and trembling at the edge of ecstasy. He imagined himself taking possession of the great river and the lands which it drained in the name of the King of Kings, just as the Spaniard Balboa plunged into the waves of the Pacific and took possession of that Ocean in the name of his master, the King of Spain. But instead Rundle sat quietly in the canoe, with his bible open on his lap, and observed the autumn foliage, “the splendid decorations of decay,” and heard in the rustling of the poplars that lined the river and in the rushing waters “the despairing cry of souls perishing on its banks for the lack of their knowledge.” [61]

Rundle’s conflation of distance and death into a single problem that can be solved by Christianity is not simply a rhetorical figure or symptom of existential anxiety but also an ideological device. Rundle imagined he possessed a singular sort of knowledge, one that had to be felt as well as thought, and one which it was his duty to share with all human beings. It was Rundle’s ultimate hope that the communities he was preaching to, and which seemed to respond so positively to his message, would reconstitute themselves in a form similar to that of the community he was missing so terribly. The Cree and Assiniboine people at Norway House, and later Rocky Mountain House, responded immediately to his resurrection stories but a reconstitution of their community along the lines Rundle imagined would be little less than a social revolution.

It is a recurring motif of Rundle’s journal that when he prepares for the Sabbath celebration he imagines the church bells ringing in Cornwall and his friends and family traveling to and from their parish churches. As a missionary his role was to bring into that same privileged circle some of the many millions who had not heard the gospel message, and to unite them with their Christian brothers and sisters into a single body of believers that did not recognize the boundaries of space, politics and race. The crucial ritual requirements of entrance into that sacred space were, like Cornwall’s ringing bells, all about the ordering time – synchronizing life in the fur trade with life in the British Isles. To be a Christian in Rundle’s view meant above all undergoing the life-cycle rituals of baptism, marriage and burial according to the proper formulae, and overseen by the proper official, and strict observance of the Sabbath.

It was over the issue of the Sabbath that the Methodist missionaries came into the most conflict with the HBC. Rundle, for instance, refused to travel on Sundays, and since he often traveled with Company men, particularly in the earlier years before he acquired some independence of action by attracting his own guides and interpreters, this meant an incompatibility between his sacred schedule and that of his secular hosts. Rundle’s solution on a number of occasions was to travel long into Saturday night while his comrades rested, and then hope to make up the distance he lost on Sunday by an extra effort on Monday. For a small and not particularly healthy man this was a difficult thing to do, and not without its dangers. Rundle even managed to convince some company servants to do their Sunday chores on Saturday night, but on the whole Company time ticked on despite his best efforts to halt it. His superior James Evans, living much closer to both the administrative center of the HBC fur trade and potential allies among the malcontents of Red River, pushed the company much harder than Rundle. When he convinced some Methodist boat men to refuse to work on Sunday he publically challenged Simpson’s authority in a very visible way and this was one of the events that paved the way towards his eventual expulsion from the territory.

Of the three major life-cycle rituals burial was the least problematic. Death was one of Rundle’s primary preoccupations and on the prairies he mourned frequently. The first time he preached in Cree was at a funeral, and he did not approve of the Indian practice of suspending some bodies in the trees nor of the feast for the dead that followed it. Yet even though in some ways death was his chief enemy, and the gift that he imagined himself bringing was immortal life, he wasted little energy struggling against local burial customs. Perhaps this was because after two hundred years of living together the Cree, Assiniboine, and Ojibwa most closely connected to the posts often shared the funeral practices and burial sites of the Europeans.

Marriage on the other hand, was the very problematic indeed. One of Rundle’s chief duties as an HBC chaplain was sanctifying the unions between servants of the company and local women. Such marriages were frequent and not much remarked upon. Rundle and his fellow missionaries never criticized European and Indian unions on racial grounds. In fact, when William Mason married Sophie Thomas, the daughter of an HBC factor and a Cree women, he was roundly congratulated, and if anything envied, by his colleagues. Polygamy was the chief problem the Methodists faced and their horror at marriage in fur trade society was due to the presence of second and third wives among the Cree, and the actions of men like George Simpson who used and discarded women as they would. Rundle was perhaps naive about the realities of fur trade marriages and domestic organization, and was highly critical of any and all marital behavior that did not meet his idealistic standards, but his own extended and regretted bachelorhood is something of a curiosity – he repeatedly requested permission from his masters in London to come home and wed. Yet there are hints that at least one widowed daughter of a Cree leader was interested in him, but she was hardly the educated, well-mannered, thoroughly Christian, and respectable help-mate that William Mason had found in Sophie Thomas.

Finally there was baptism. Rundle’s policy seems to have been to baptize infants and young children with few questions asked, and the frequency with which his own brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews served as namesakes is suggestive of how closely he identified the prospective Christian community he was trying to create, with the nostalgic one he imagined as his past. He was conservative however in the baptism of adolescents and adults. It took him eight years to gather together enough Christians so confirmed in their faith that they could be organized them into a proper Methodist study group. And one of those, their leader, was Benjamin Sinclair, a Swampy Cree from Norway House who had been sent by Evans to help him. To Rundle’s abiding horror the Catholics who followed him into the Saskatchewan district had a different set of standards, and accepted many of those he refused.

During his journey from Cornwall to Saskatchewan Rundle had described his mission as a struggle against paganism. But that original mission was complicated almost as soon as it had begun by the arrival of Catholic priests in the summer of 1842. His correspondence home and to the WMMS secretaries in particular is full of anxiety over the progress his confessional enemies were making among the Canadians and the Indians living north of Edmonton and the Saskatchewan. Rundle first discovered them on returning from his first trip to Rocky Mountain House and the BowRiver. Rundle:

June 22 – Reached the Fort early in the morning & found a Popish Priest there. My feelings can be better imagined than described. Prayers in the morning but found that the Priest had made a dead sweep excepting the English. When will this system of lying vanities end? [62]

A day later Rundle records that the priest, Jean Baptiste Thibeault, was telling the Canadians and the Indians that neither the Governor nor the Queen had the authority to send missionaries to the prairies, but that power belonged to the Pope alone. [63] It is striking, but perhaps not surprising, that the confessional divide fractured along what we would call ethnic and political lines almost immediately. It was particularly painful for Rundle that among the priest’s immediate supporters was Piché, a member Maskepetoon’s Rocky Mountain House band who had expressed interest in Rundle’s message. In his introduction to the The Rundle Journals, 1840-1848 Gerald Hutchison quotes both Harriott and Bishop Provencher of the Red River to show that Piché had approached the Bishop of his own accord, and invited the Catholics to come out west. And it was Gabriel Dumont, the uncle and namesake of the hero of the Riel Rebellion, and the father of children Rundle had baptized, who was Thibeault’s first guide in the territory, and who led him to Lac Ste. Anne, an area in which a number of Métis freemen had established themselves after their release from the fur trade following the merger of the companies in 1822.

The first priest was soon followed by others and the denominational geography of the region was quickly established. The Roman Catholics controlled Edmonton House – much to Rundle’s consternation, the area North to Lesser Slave Lake, and the Saskatchewan River valley up to Carlton. Rundle maintained his hold over Rocky Mountain House and the land south of Edmonton, and increasingly looked to the area around PigeonLake in the hopes of setting up an independent Methodist mission to compete with the Catholic one the Métis had established at Lac la Biche. In the end, despite his declared goal of targeting the hearts of men and not their customs, Rundle pinned his hopes on establishing a community of Methodist free men and Indians that was largely autonomous from the HBC. It is certainly the case that Rundle had, without making much fuss about it, almost immediately begun to find ways to assert his independence from the HBC. He wanted to look to the Americans to find an interpreter for his trips among the Sioux rather than rely on the Companies men, corresponded with American Methodist missionaries along the Columbia, stood aloof from the dancing, gambling, and drinking that was the customary entertainment of the HBC men, refused to adapt to the timetable and schedule of the Company, and spent as much time as he could among the free men and the Indians rather than on Company property. Unlike Evans in Norway House, who made his arguments with the HBC quite public, Rundle was quietly stubborn and never irritated Simpson or his agents into anything resembling open hostility. His host in Edmonton, Chief Factor John Rowand was a practicing Catholic and hard-nosed businessman but his criticisms of Rundle were always tempered with something resembling tenderness. The irascible George Simpson was frustrated with Rundle’s refusal to play the Company chaplain, and wished he would behave with more decorum and gravity, and gossip less with men. But Simpson’s irritation that Rundle was not the epitome of middle-class Britishness he had hoped for in his missionaries led to nothing more than sarcasms. Nonetheless, if Rundle had achieved his vision of a Christian society in the Saskatchewan district it would have amounted to nothing less than a revolutionary challenge to the classed and racialized society Simpson was trying to create. What is striking about Rundle’s Methodism, and it can be seem in the way he writes about Maskepetoon, is that it runs counter to the trends we can see developing in the ethnographic writings of fur-traders and aristocratic visitors of the time. He was not interested in fixing the Indians as of a different order, and thereby governed by different rules, but in establishing the universality of human experience. Rundle considered the domestic circle, unbroken even by death, to be the foundation of such an experience, and he saw Satan at work whenever that natural and sacred order was disrupted by alcohol, violence and adultery.

When Rundle first entered Maskepetoon’s camp the community he described could be an example taken from Binnema’s discussion of the Plains Indian band. He described Maskepetoon as “a kind of chief,” [64] whose position was taken up by his brother when he was away on his frequent journeys. When Rundle mentions visits to them they are almost invariably camped with, or near, the Assiniboine. People of mixed Cree and European descent travel and camp with them frequently as well. The two most celebrated of such folk were James “Jimmy Jock” Bird Jr., the son of former HBC Factor James Bird who had both Cree and Sioux wives, and Wild Cat, or Piché, who had not only guided Thibeault across the plains but Simpson across the mountains. Another occasional associate of the band was Hugh Munro, who like Bird chose to make his life among the Plains peoples rather than in the posts and forts of the fur trade. The band seemed to usually spend early spring and late fall in and around Rocky Mountain House, hunting the buffalo as they drifted into the parkland where they wintered. During the summer however they would travel south right out onto the plains and into what Palliser described as both a neutral hunting ground shared by the Blackfoot, Cree and Assiniboine. [65] They would also travel quite far down the Saskatchewan RiverValley, all the way to large Cree and Assiniboine rendezvous in the vicinity of Carlton. In Rundle’s first spring he tagged along with them out into the open prairie where Jimmy Jock and Hugh Munro acted as his rather unreliable interpreters among the Sioux. Maskepetoon led the same group on a similar trip in 1847. On the latter occasion tensions between the Sioux and the Cree and Assiniboine band ran high after Maskepetoon’s son and some friends stole Sioux horses. Later that summer the young men were hunted down by the Sioux and murdered, along with a group of other band members which included Maskepetoon’s wife Rundle visited the sight of the massacre not long after it occurred, and he was horrified by the signs of the struggle. In Rundle’s view such violence was all too common in the region and inevitably the product of alcohol consumption, gambling, or horse theft. In the summer of 1844 while camped with Maskepetoon’s people he saw Piché and his son gunned down over a gambling debt, and in the winter of 1845 he heard rumors that Maskepetoon had nearly killed a man in a drunken brawl. [66] But aside from the thrill of fear he experienced on encountering what he mistakenly thought was a group of “the terrible Blackfoot” on his first visit to Rocky Mountain House he went about his business with a remarkable lack of anxiety. [67] What he did frequently record was the horror he felt for the damned souls of men and women he had known.

It was when he was visiting the Rocky Mountain House Cree and Assiniboine that Rundle’s entries are the most cheerful and optimistic, even though he held out little prospect for genuine conversions among the adults. For Rundle any revolution, be it of the soul or of a society, was empty unless graced by the Holy Spirit and was always in danger of reversal. In his view there was a constant tension at play in Christianity between the poles of sterile ritualism and of unrestrained fervor that could never fully be resolved, but could be managed through Methodist asceticism. The ecstasy of the revival, which seemed to come easily to the Cree and the Assiniboine, needed to be tempered by the discipline of daily practice, and it was the latter that the people of Prince Rupert’s Land proved reluctant to embrace. One of those who petitioned Rundle most frequently for baptism was Jimmy Jock’s principle wife, but he refused to conduct the ceremony so long as she was in a polygamous relationship. And an old man in the group told him that he feared for his soul but so long as their horses to steal, buffalo to hunt, and scalps to capture he would not convert. It was Maskepetoon, who politely attended prayer services when no one else would, who translated for Rundle when his usual interpreters refused, and who entrusted Rundle as a surrogate father with the education and care of his son, who is perhaps the most intriguing figure of that reluctance.

The one thing that the Methodists were offering to the Indians which no one else in Prince Rupert’s Land had ever even considered giving to them was the gift of literacy. James Evans had invented, or at least crafted, a Cree syllabary in 1841 and it proved to be popular. Maskepetoon was using it by 1844 and regularly corresponding with Rundle. The notes are short, and they tend to feel formulaic, and like the letter that mentions his son they are often expressions of respect and refer to reciprocal obligations. One gets the sense that Benjamin’s adoption into Rundle’s domestic circle was as much a political as an educational move. Rundle at the time lived and traveled with two other youths, William and George. Relations between the missionary and the youths were occasionally troubled, particularly with William who occasionally snuck out to drink and dance. On one occasion it appears Maskepetoon slapped him for being insubordinate to Rundle, but little Benjamin, who Rundle had baptized and named after his beloved Uncle, is only mentioned on a few occasions. He climbed a tree on March 19th, 1846 to retrieve Rundle’s cat, and in the spring of 1847 he became ill. On May 19th, 1847 Rundle saw “poor little Benjamin” for the last time. The sick child was briefly reunited with his father before he was left to die with “a friendly Indian.” [68] From Maskepetoon’s perspective, whatever the emotional toll of the death, the adoption may well have been something of a failed experiment, from Rundle’s it was a minor tragedy, the boy was mourned once more by Rundle as he left the territory in 1848, but at least the lad had been baptized. After the death the relationship of the two men continued on much as it had: they would send each other notes, Rundle often sent tobacco as well, and they camped together when the opportunity arose.

The only reference we have to how Maskepetoon felt about Rundle is to be found in Paul Kane’s account of a conversation he had with the chief he called Broken Arm. [69] In that conversation Maskepetoon suggested that so long as Mr. Rundle claimed that what he preached was the only true road to heaven, and Mr. Hunter the Anglican at the Pas claimed the same thing, and Father Thibeault as well, and they all claimed the others were wrong, his people were likely to remain unconvinced by any of them. He then told Kane the story of a Cree man who became a Christian, did all he was told to, and died. When he arrived in heaven he found it beautiful and good, but while the white men were among their relatives the Indian was alone and could not share in their joy. When God asked him why he was sad the Indian explained. God told him since he had chosen to be a Christian he could not send him to the Indian heaven, but as he had been such a good man he would send him back to earth and give him another chance. [70] It is a curious anecdote because it is very similar to one that the Jesuit De Smet recounts after visiting the same band, but who attributes it to “an adroit imposter” among the Saulteaux people – distant allies of the Cree who lived on the Winnipeg River but with whom they were “considerably intermixed by reciprocal marriages.” [71] In that story the baptized Indian describes a vision in which he was refused entrance to the white heaven on the basis of his red skin, and then refused entrance to the Indian heaven on the basis of his baptism. He was sent back to earth to renounce his baptism and take up his old ways.

Both De Smet and Kane treat the tale as a species of belief but its widespread popularity certainly makes it seem that Maskepetoon’s carefully measured skepticism of Rundle’s value as an ally was probably typical of local attitudes to the new interlopers. The most striking difference between the two versions is that in Kane’s version it is familial relations that determine which heaven one goes to, and in De Smet’s it is racial identity. This is in keeping with the tone of De Smet’s letters which are ethnographically rich and emphasize cultural and racial differences both between Indian groups, and between Indians and Europeans. His letters are also shot though sarcasm and smug superiority in a way that Rundle’s journal is not. These two stories tell us more perhaps, about the people who recounted and published them, than the men who told them, but their wry cynicism towards missionary claims is certainly worth noting.

The most we can say about Maskepetoon’s attitude towards Rundle is that he treated him with kindliness, and practiced a pragmatic skepticism where his mission was concerned. He was careful neither to offend him, nor promise him too much, and quick to exploit Rundle’s most immediately valuable resource, the lesson of literacy. How much little Benjamin could have told him about the Methodists and their ambitions is difficult to imagine, but one does wonder at what the grizzled veteran of some fifty years on the Great Plains will have made of the asceticism that rejected the age old customs of the fur trade, and the young man who tried to draw the entire world into his sentimental dream of a perfectly loving Christian family.


[1] Robert Rundle was born in southwestern Cornwall in 1811. His father, also Robert, was a farmer near the village of Mylor and his mother Grace the daughter of William Carvosso, a celebrated Methodist layman. Rundle had joined the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (WMMS) in 1839 and been dispatched to Rupertsland in 1840. Rundle has already attracted some scholarly attention as a pioneer of Methodist Christianity. The best source of biographical details can be found in Gerald Hutchinson’s introduction to The Rundle Journals, 1840-1848 (Alberta Historical Society: Calgary, 1977). Keith Wilson has published a short biography, Robert Terrill Rundle, (Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba: Winnipeg, 1986). Some other secondary sources that briefly discuss Rundle’s mission in North America are John Webster Grant A Moon Over Wintertime: Missionaries and the Indians of Canada in Encounter since 1534 (University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1984)and Neil Demspey, The Lord’s Dominion: A History of Canadian Methodism (McGill-Queens University Press: Montreal, 1996). Rundle’s original journals and some of his correspondence can be found at the Glenbow Institute Archive in Calgary. There are is also some material concerned with Rundle in the WMMS papers held by the School of Oriental Studies in London.

[2] Rundle Papers, Glenbow Institute Archive

[3] See below.

[4] Paul Kane, “Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America,” in Paul Kane’s Frontier, editor J. Russell Harper. (University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 19–)

[5] For an excellent and readable survey of Methodist history see David Hempton, Methodism: An Empire of Spirit (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2005)

[6] For a comprehensive history of the region and period see John Rowe, Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution: The Impact of the Industrial Revolution on Mining, Agriculture, Fishing & Religion in Cornwall ( University Press: Liverpool, 1953)

[7] Robert Rundle, The Rundle Journals: 1840-1848 , editor Hugh Dempsey, (Historical Society of Alberta: Calgary, 1977), p. xii.

[8] Rundle, p. 4.

[9] See for example Report of the Parliamentary Committee on the Aboriginal Tribes(English settlements): Reprinted with Comments by the Aborigines Protection Society (William Ball: London, 1837)

[10] Theodore Binnema, Common and Contested Ground: A Human and Environmental History of the Northwestern Plains , (University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 2001), p. 11.

[11] Binnema, p. 13.

[12] Binnema, p. 15.

[13] Binnema, p. 14.

[14] Binnema, p. 94.

[15] Binnema, p. 100-102.

[16] E.E. Rich, The Fur Trade and the Northwest to 1857, (McClelland and Stewart: Toronto, 1967), p. 151. See also same author Cumberland House and Brown et al.

[17] Hugh Dempsey, A History of Rocky Mountain House, (Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development: Ottawa, 1973), p.8.

[18] Binnema, p. 120.

[19] See Heather Rollason Driscoll ““A Most Important Chain of Connection”: Marriage in the Hudson’s Bay Company” in From St. Rupert’s Land to Canada edited by Theodore Binnema, Gerhard J. Ens & R.C. Macleod. (University of Alberta Press: Edmonton, 2001)

[20] Jennifer Brown, Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Countries (University of British Columbia Press: Vancouver, 1980) and Sylvia Van Kirke “Many Tender Ties”: Women in Fur Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670-1870 , (Watson and Dyer Printing: Winnipeg, 1980)

[21] Maximilian, Prince of Wied, “Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832-1834,” in Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, vol. XXIII ed., Reuben Gold Thwaites (Arthur H. Clarke Company: Cleveland, 1906)

[22] Maximilian, p. 14.

[23] John C. Ewers, “When the Light Shone in Washington,” in Indian Life on the Upper Missouri, (University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 19–), p. 75.

[24] Ewers, p. 85-86.

[25] George Catlin, Illustrations of the Manners, Customs and Condition of the North American Indians, vol. I, (Henry G. Bohn: London, 18–), p. 55-58.

[26] Ewer, p. 78.

[27] Catlin, p. 55.

[28] Catlin, p. 54.

[29] Catlin, p. 57.

[30] Ewers, p. 81.

[31] Edward Thompson Denig, Five Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri, John C. Ewers, ed., (University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 19–)

[32] Denig, p. 86.

[33] Denig, p. xxxii.

[34] Denig, p. 114.

[35] Denig, p. 114.

[36] Charles Larpenteur, Forty Years a Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri: The Personal Narrative of Charles Larpenteur, 1833-1872 , (Francis P. Harper: New York, 1898)

[37] Larpenteur, p. 413-415.

[38] Larpenteur, p. 184-193.

[39] Larpenteur, p. 332-333.

[40] D. Geneva Lent, West of the Mountains: James Sinclair and the Hudson’s Bay Company, (University of Washington Press: Seattle, 1963), p. 222.

[41] George Simpson, Narrative of a Journey Around the World, During the Years 1841 and 1842 , ( : )

[42] Simpson, p. 140.

[43] Simpson, p. 139.

[44] Henry Palliser, The Palliser Papers, editor Irene Spry, ( : ), p. 144.

[45] John C. Milloy, The Plains Cree: Trade, Diplomacy and War, 1790 to 1870 , (University of Manitoba Press: Winnipeg, 1988), p. 115.

[46] Quoted in Milloy p. 115.

[47] Egerton R. Young, Indian Life in the Great North-West, (S.W. Partridge: London, 1900?), p. 114.

[48] Dempsey, p. 8.

[49] Rundle, p. 143.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Rundle, p.142.

[52] Rundle, p. 22

[53] Rundle, p. 22.

[54] Rundle, p. 26.

[55] Rundle, p. 27.

[56] Rundle, p. 30.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Rundle, p.28.

[59] Rundle, p. 31.

[60] Rundle, p. 31.

[61] Rundle, p. 38.

[62] Rundle, p. 116.

[63] Rundle, p. 116.

[64] Rundle, p. 184.

[65] Palliser, p. 146.

[66] Rundle, p. 172.

[67] Rundle, p. 54.

[68] Rundle, p. 260.

[69] Rundle also mentions a letter he received from the American missionary on the Columbia, a Mr. Lee, which Sinclair’s guide (Maskepetoon) had been instructed by Rundle, and despite the interference of Catholic Priests had remained firm. Rundle, p. 113.

[70] Kane, p. 242.

[71] De Smet, p. 239.