Praying Masters and Trip Men – The Ojibway Canadian Indian Grisdales

Posted: November 29, 2012 in Canadian Settlers, Ojibway Nation, Winnipeg
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Genealogists and family historians are normally concerned with blood relationships. Who was whose father? What became of the children? But names also get passed down in other ways. American and Caribbean slaves took the names of their masters. In Canada and America native Indians also took European names. These were quite often the names of the missionaries who had influenced, or pressured, them to convert to Christianity. It was therefore with much curiosity and interest that I discovered a family of Ojibway Indians called Grisdale in Manitoba, Canada. Many still live there to this day. What was their story?

In Manitoba there is a small river called Broken head which empties into Lake Winnipeg.

When the Indian people first came into this land, they camped at the mouth of this river. Before it was dark they looked out across the waters of the lake. As they stood there they could see a huge shape rising out of the water. They could see that it was a monstrous head with horns and covered with long black hair. To them it looked like a mighty Mis-ko-taypis- a-ka, that is a giant bull buffalo. The most fearless of the band snatched up his bow and quiver and ran down to the edge of the lake. In an instant he let fly at the head with one of his arrows. Its flint tip struck the fearful monster in the center of the forehead so hard that the head split completely in two. Then with a mighty splash the head disappeared beneath the waters of the lake. Never again was it seen, but since then this river has been called Pas-ka-ta-bay Cee-pee, the River of the Broken head.

Red River Indian Settlement in 1846

These were members of the Ojibway tribe. They first came into the area under their famous Chief Peguis in the late 1790s. He led a band of his tribe to the Red River . They weren’t of course the first Indians to live in the area, but as elsewhere in North American the white man’s diseases had taken their toll. Ojibway Felix Keuhn, upon whose writings I rely extensively in telling this story, and to whom I acknowledge a huge debt, says: “Many, many years ago, all of this land was the hunting grounds of the Cree and Assiniboine nation. Then the white people started to come here to trade furs. They brought with them many sicknesses that no medicine man had ever seen, and many, many Cree and Assiniboine died.”

When Peguis and his people arrived at the Red River they found many camps of the Assiniboine in which all the people were dead with smallpox. The Assiniboine’s who had not died with this sickness had left their hunting grounds here and gone far to the west where they hoped they would never see another white man. Peguis and his people made their camp where the Netley Creek flows into the Red River.

Chief Peguis

There are many excellent histories of Chief Peguis and his dealings first with the trappers and then with the increasing numbers of British settlers arriving in the area; I commend them to you. But as regards the Grisdales, the story starts with two Ojibway brothers who “came from the land where the waters of the mighty Lake Superior flow down into Lake Huron”. They said that would go to “this land where there were more buffalo than any man could count and the rivers were filled with the finest beavers”. “So they set out with their wives and children. One of the brothers had seven sons and a number of daughters. The other brother had five sons and some daughters. They made this trip in their birch bark canoes.”

Felix Keuhn continues their story as it has been passed down in the Ojibway Nation:

First they paddled along the north shore of Lake Superior. Then they came to the mouth of a river. When they had paddled up this river, they came to a lake that the white men called Rainy Lake. From here they paddled up another river into a lake now called the Lake of the Woods. That lake was drained by a mighty river flowing to the north and to the west. There were thirty thundering rapids on that river where the Indians had to make a portage. Finally, they came to a lake, wide and deep and very long, which is sometimes called Ou-in-i-peg (Winnipeg), that is ‘muddy water’.

Then they paddled along this lake to the south and to the west. In the evening they looked for a good place to camp. They saw a good place where a small river flowed into the lake. Here they camped for the night. The little river was the Broken head. The next day they continued paddling along the shore of the lake until they came to the mouth of the Red River. Then they paddled up that river until they came to the camp of Chief Peguis. Here there were many Indians living. Some of the camps were their own Ojibway people; others were the camps of the Cree. Here these families from the east lived for many years.

Finally, the families of the two brothers who came from the east said they did not want to live any longer at the Red River. Instead they would go to the mouth of the river where they had camped the first night many years before. There the river was full of fish and all along the banks of the river grew the maple trees from which they made maple sugar. The bush was filled with berries and with all kinds of animals that were good for food. Many water birds nested close by: there were many marshes filled with muskrats and the river and many creeks were filled with beaver. Here they lived for many years.

Broken Head

They moved back to Broken head. But why? At least in part the reason seems to have been to get away from the British missionaries who were trying to convert them to Christianity. A strange paradox given what was to later happen. Ojibway tradition tells us: “With the passing of time there was trouble among the Indians living along the Red River. There were too many there. Some were Ojibway and some were Cree and there was not enough hunting and trapping close by for both. Some of the Ojibway wanted to be away from the white praying masters who were always telling them they were bad people and that their prayers and dances and all their old ways were no good.”

It was one of the of the sons of the Ojibway brother who “had five sons” who was to eventually take the name Jacob Grisdale, but he only did so many years later. We don’t know his original Ojibway name, so unfortunately we’ll have to call him Jacob. He worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company “for 24 summers”.

In those days many, many furs were brought to the forts south of Chief Peguis’s camp. These furs had to be taken in big boats to Churchill on Hudson’s Bay. The crews of these boats were Métis and Indians. They took these boats down the Red River into Lake Winnipeg and at the north end of Lake Winnipeg they went down the Nelson River. The Indians rowed these boats when there was no wind and carried the bales of fur on their backs over the many portages. It was very hard work. The packages of furs weighed 90 pounds and the Indians were gone from home from the first of June until the end of October. On their trip back these boats brought whisky and supplies to the forts. The company paid them very little for this hard work.

“The White people called these Indians ‘trip men’. The Indian who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company for 24 summers later was called Jacob Grisdale.” He lived with his wife, who had come from Saskatchewan, and their nine children at Broken head. For a long time no missionaries, or “praying masters” as the Indians called them, had ventured as far as Broken head, “to tell them they should be baptized”.  The Ojibway people all had Indian names and “followed the old ways”. Of course they knew about “the white man’s God and how they should be baptized and give up their heathen ways” because they often visited Red River.

Signing Treaty Number One – 1871

Eventually the “praying masters” broke them down and individual Broken head Ojibway did start to convert to Christianity. The first “to give up the old ways” was an Indian lady who took the name Mrs. Thomas. Her three children were baptized as well, all by “the praying master called Rev. Cockrane” at Saint Peters (Red River). Then they came back to the Broken head. Soon others went to St. Peters to be baptized or to be married by the missionaries there. The first of the five brothers was baptized and took the name Richard Raven. He and his son were baptized in 1864, when the first Anglican missionary came to visit the Indians at Broken head. This was Rev. James Settee.

But the trip man who was later to be called Jacob Grisdale held out. In 1871, still holding on to the old ways, he was witness to an historic, and ultimately sad, event. This was when Canadian Indians from various Nations signed “Treaty Number one” with the British. This took place at the Stone Fort, Lower Fort Garry. Keuhn explains:

In 1871 the white people called the chief and the elders of all the Indians to come to the stone fort. Here the white people persuaded the Indians to sign Treaty Number One. This is when the Indians gave all their land to the Great White Queen. She promised to give them their own land and many presents each year. Those families who were living at Broken head were to have 1000 acres of land there. Jacob Grisdale was a councillor and he was at the stone fort for eight days. He stood at the door where the Indians and the white people were talking. He was sixty years old at the time and remembered every word that was spoken.

In future the Indians were to be restricted to small Reservations; the “old ways” were over. But at least the British gave them something. The treaty included the following gracious gift from the Crown:

And with a view to show the satisfaction of Her Majesty with the behaviour and good conduct of Her Indians parties to this treaty, She hereby, through Her Commissioner, makes them a present of three dollars for each Indian man, woman and child belonging to the bands here represented.

Keuhn writes: “After that Jacob Grisdale returned to his home at the Broken head. He still was not baptized. This did not happen until 1883. When he was baptised he took Grisdale for his name. This was the name of a missionary who had once been at St. Peters.” The missionary who baptized Jacob and his wife, who took the Queen’s name Victoria, was Rev. Crowley. But who was the “praying master” Grisdale from whom Jacob took his name?

Missionary John Grisdale

He was John Grisdale the son of a poor family of cotton weavers from Bolton in Lancashire, England. He was born on 25 June 1845, the son of weaver Robert Grisdale and his wife Alice Yates. He was in fact a member of the same extended Bolton Grisdale family I have written about on previous occasions. He was related to the weaver Doctor Grisdale, who emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1850, and to the two Bolton weavers, John and Jonathan, who “went America”. Other members of the family also ended up in Quebec, Washington State and Australia.

I will write in more detail about John Grisdale’s fascinating life at a later date (See here and here). He studied to be a missionary for five years at the Church Missionary Society’s College in Islington in London. He was ordained Deacon in Saint Paul’s Cathedral in June 1870. He was then sent to Calcutta to work as a missionary. But he found the climate unconducive and became ill, and so, after returning briefly to England and marrying Annie Chaplin, in 1873 he was sent as a missionary to the wild lands of “Rupert’s Land” in present day Canada. He was based at Winnipeg, served as Rector of Holy Trinity Church. Later he held positions at Christ Church and was professor of systemic philosophy at St. John’s College, canon of St. John’s Cathedral Winnipeg, then dean of Rupert’s Land and, finally, in 1894, the third Bishop of Qu’Appelle in Saskatchewan.

But John was always an evangelic missionary and it was probably in his early years preaching in the Indian settlements in and around Red River and Broken head that he had met and tried to convert the future Jacob Grisdale.

After he became a Christian, Jacob Grisdale gave half of his land – this was lot No. 2 – to the Anglican church and it was here that the St. Philips church was later built. His house stood here for many years. It was a two story log house with a piece built on one end.

Alex Grisdale

Jacob and Victoria had many children, all while still living in the “old way”. They all took the name Grisdale. They included: Andrew, William, Thomas, Oliver, Elizabeth and Beatrice. They have many living descendants in and around Manitoba today – still bearing the name Grisdale.

One of Jacob’s grandchildren was called Alex Grisdale. He was the son of Oliver Grisdale and his wife Catherine. He was born in 1895. But his mother died when he was only two and so he was raised by his grandparents Jacob and Victoria Grisdale. He was to learn the history and legends of his tribe and family from them. Later, his stories were published with the title Wild Drums. Here in his own words in the story of how John Grisdale  eventually baptized Alex’s grandfather:

My grandfather and grandmother were never baptized by any church at all, and never got married white man’s way. One day a minister came to Brokenhead. His name was the Reverend Grisdale. This man got after my grandfather to be baptized. At last my grandfather got sick of it and said he would be baptized next Sunday if the minister would give my grandfather his name. So Bishop Grisdale did this and my grandfather was named Jacob Grisdale from that day. The Bishop also gave my grandmother the name of the Queen – Victoria.

Jacob Grisdale himself  “died on the 20th of November, 1910 when he was 98 years old. He was sick for three months with lung trouble before he died. He was buried in the Anglican cemetery by Missionary Le Clair. His wife had already died in 1906. She was 70 years old”.

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  1. […] Praying Masters and Trip Men – The Ojibway Canadian Indian Grisdales […]

  2. […] Praying Masters and Trip Men – The Ojibway Canadian Indian Grisdales […]

  3. […] port of Whitehaven. His cousin John emigrated to Sydney and his more distant cousin also called John became a missionary in India and later a Canadian Bishop!  His uncle George emigrated with his family to Hudson in Quebec and one member of his family […]

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