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Resources Of Lesser Slave Lake Region.

It was expected that the sergeant of the Mounted Police stationed at the Lake would have set out by boat on the 3rd for Athabasca Landing, taking with him the witnesses in the Weeghteko case a case not common amongst the Lesser Slave Lake Indians, but which was said to be on the increase. One Pahayo “The Pheasant” had gone mad and threatened to kill and eat people. Of course, this was attributed by his tribe to the Weeghteko, by which he was believed to be possessed, a cannibal spirit who inhabits the human heart in the form of a lump of ice, which must be got rid of by immersion of the victim in boiling water, or by pouring boiling fat down his throat. This failing, they destroy the man-eater, rip him up to let out the evil spirit, cut off his head, and then pin his four quarters to the ground, all of which was done by his tribe in the case of Pahayo. Napesosus “The Little Man” struck the first blow, Moostoos followed, and the poor lunatic was soon dispatched. Arrests were ultimately made, and a boatload of witnesses was about to leave for Athabasca Landing, en route to attend the trial at Edmonton, the first of its kind, I think, on record.

There can be no doubt that such slayings are effected to safeguard the tribe. Indians have no asylums, and, in order to get a dangerous lunatic out of the way, can only kill him. There would therefore be no hangings. But, now that the Indians and ourselves were coming under treaty obligations, it was necessary that an end should be put to such proceedings.

Yet the reader must not be too severe upon the Indian for his treatment of the Weeghteko. He attributes the disease to the evil spirit, acts accordingly, and slays the victim. But an old author, Mrs. Jameson, tells us that in her day in Upper Canada lunatics were allowed to stray into the forest to roam uncared for, and perish there, or were thrust into common jails. One at Niagara, she says, was chained up for four years.

Aside from such cases of madness, which have often resulted in the killing and eating of children, etc., and which arouse the most superstitious horror in the minds of all Indians, the “savages” of this region are the most inoffensive imaginable. They have always made a good living by hunting and trapping and fishing, and I believe when the time comes they will adapt themselves much more readily and intelligently to farming and stock-raising than did the Indians to the south. The region is well suited to both industries, and will undoubtedly attract white settlers in due time.

The fisheries in Lesser Slave Lake have always been counted the best in all Athabasca. The whitefish, to be sure, are diminishing towards the head of the lake, but it is possible that this is owing to some deficiency in their usual supply of food in that quarter. Just as birds and wild-fowl return, if not disturbed, to their accustomed breeding-places, so, it is said, the fishes, year by year, drop and impregnate their spawn upon the same gravelly shallows. The food of the whitefish in the lake is partly the worms bred from the eggs of a large fly resembling the May-fly of the East. This worm has probably decreased in the upper part of the lake, and therefore the fish go farther down for food. There they are exceedingly numerous, an evidence of which is the fact that the Roman Catholic Mission alone secured 17,000 fine whitefish the previous fall. Properly protected this lake will be a permanent source of supply to natives and incomers for many years to come.

Stock-raising was already becoming a feature of the region. Some three miles above the Heart River is Buffalo Lake, an enlargement of that stream, and around and above this, as also along the Wyaweekamon, or “Passage between the Lakes,” are immense hay meadows, capable of winter feeding thousands of cattle. The view of these vast meadows from the Hudson’s Bay post, or from the Roman Catholic Mission close by, is magnificent.

These buildings are situated above Buffalo Lake, upon a lofty bank, with the Heart River in the foreground; and the great meadows, threaded by creeks and inlets, stretching for miles to the south of them, are one of the finest sights of the kind in the country.

In the far south was the line of forest, and to the eastward a flat-topped mountain, called by the Crees Waskahekum Kahassastakee “The House Butte.” Near this mountain is the Swan River, which joins the Lesser Slave Lake below the Narrows, and upon which, we were told, were rich and extensive prairies, and abundance of coal of a good quality. To the west were the prairies of the Salt River, well watered by creeks, with a large extent of good land now being settled on, and where wheat ripens perfectly.

There are other available areas of open country on Prairie River, which enters Buffalo Lake at its south-western end, and on which also there is coal, so that prairie land is not entirely lacking.

Though emphatically now a region of forest, there is reason to believe that vast areas at present under timber were once prairies, fed over by innumerable herds of buffalo, whose paths and wallows can still be traced in the woods. Indeed, very large trees are found growing right across those paths, and this fact, not to speak of the recollections, or traditions, of very old people, points to extensive prairies at one time rather than to an entirely wooded country.

Much of the forest soil is excellent, and the land has only to be cleared to furnish good farms. Indeed, it needs no stretch of imagination to foresee in future years a continuous line of them from Edmonton to the lake, along the three hundred miles of country intersected by the trail laid out by the Territorial Government.

As for the wheat problem, it is not at all likely that the Roman Catholic Mission would put up a flour mill, as they were then doing, if it was not a wheat country. Bishop Clut assured me that potatoes in their garden reached three and a half pounds’ weight in some instances, and turnips twenty-five pounds.

The kind people of both this and the Church of England Mission generously supplied our table with vegetables and salads, and we craved no better. Chives, lettuce, radishes, cress and onions were full flavoured, fresh and delicious, and quite as early as in Manitoba. Being a timber country, lumber was, of course, plentiful, there being two sawmills at work cutting lumber, which sold, undressed, at $25 to $30 a thousand.

The whole country has a fresh and attractive look, and one could not desire a finer location than can be had almost anywhere along its streams and within its delightful and healthy borders. And yet this region is but a portal to the vaster one beyond, to the Unjigah, the mighty Peace River, to be described hereafter.

The make-weight against settlement may be almost summed up in the words transport and markets. The country is there, and far beyond it, too; but so long as there is abundance of prairie land to the south, and no railway facilities, it would be unwise for any large body of settlers, especially with limited means, to venture so far. The small local demand for beef and grain might soon be overtaken, and though stock can be driven, yet three hundred miles of forest trail is a long way to drive. Still, pioneers take little thought of such conditions, and already they were dropping in in twos and threes as they used to do in the old days in Red River Settlement, lured by the wilderness perhaps to privation, but entering a country much of which is suited by nature for the support of man.

The best reflection is that there is a really good country to fall back upon when the prairies to the south are taken up. Swamps and muskegs abound, but good land also abounds, and the time will come when the ring of the Canadian axe will be heard throughout these forests, and when multitudes of comfortable homes will be hewn out of what are the almost inaccessible wildernesses of to-day.

By the end of the first week in July the issue of scrip certificates began to fall off, though the declarations were still numerous. But land was in sight; that is to say, our release and departure for Peace River, which we were all very anxious, in fact burning, to see.

By this time there was, of course, much money afloat amongst the people, which was rapidly finding its way into the traders’ pockets. There was a “blind pig,” too, doing business in the locality, though we could not discover where, as everybody professed entire ignorance of anything of the kind. The fragrant breath and hilarity of so many, however, betrayed its existence, and, as a crowning evidence, before sunrise on the 6th, we were all awakened by an uproarious row amongst a tipsy crowd on the common.

The disturbance, of course, awakened the dogs, if, indeed, those wonderful creatures ever slept, and soon a prolonged howl, issuing from a thousand throats, made the racket complete. It seemed to our listening ears, for we stuck to our beds, to be a promiscuous fight, larded with imprecations in broken English, the phrase “goddam” being repeated in the most comical way. We expected to see a lot of badly bruised men in the morning, but nothing of the kind! Nobody was hurt. It proved to be a very bloodless affair, like the scrimmages of the dogs themselves, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.