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To Canada with the emigrants:
a record of actual experiences

Fisher Unwin (1885)

Amongst the Cow-Boys

by J. Ewing Ritchie (1820 - 1898)

   I am writing from Calgary, a little but growing collection of huts and wooden houses planted on a lovely plain with hills all around, a river at my feet, on the banks of which some poplars flourish, and I can almost fancy I am in Derbyshire itself It is a gay place, this rising town, at the foot, as it were, of the Rockies, and just now is unusually gay, as the Queen's birthday is being celebrated with athletic sports and a ball; and, besides, a new clergyman has made his appearance, the Rev. Parks Smith, from a Bermondsey parish, who is to preach in the new Assembly Hall, which is to be set apart as a church on Sundays. I am going to hear him, and already I feel somewhat of a Pharisee -- I have on a clean collar, which I religiously preserved for the occasion, and have had my boots blackened. The sight is so novel that I have spent half an hour on the prairie contemplating the effect of that operation. Already I feel six inches higher.

   I can't say that I think quite so much of Calgary as do the people who live in it. In splendour, in wealth, in dignity, and importance, they evidently anticipate it will be a second Babylon. Well, a good deal has to be done first. The situation is pleasant, I admit. You incline to think well of Calgary after the dreary ride across the prairie, and you have quite a choice of hotels, and of shops, all well stocked; but then these shops are little better than huts, and the hotels certainly don't throw the shops into the shade.

   For instance, I am in the leading hotel. It is too far from the railway, but that is because the C.P.R. have moved their station a little further on, where the new town of Calgary is springing up. We have an open room, where I am writing -- a dark dining-room on one side, and then, on the other, a little row of closets, which they dignify by the name of bedrooms. I am the proud possessor of one. It holds a bed, whereon, I own, I slept soundly; a row of pegs, on which to hang one's clothes; and a little shelf, on which is placed a tiny wash-hand basin; while above that is a glass, in which it is impossible to get a good view of yourself -- a matter of very small consequence, as the glass certainly reflects very poorly the looker's personal charms, whatever they may be. I ought to have said there is a window; and as my bedroom is on the ground floor (upper rooms are rare in these wooden houses in the North-West), I am much exercised in my mind as to whether that window may not be opened in the course of the night, and the roll of dollars I have hidden under my pillow carried off. Then, just as I am getting into bed, I discover somebody else's boots. That is awkward -- very. It is with a sigh of relief I discover that they are not feminine. Suppose the owner of those boots comes into my bedroom and claims to be the rightful owner? Suppose he resorts to physical force? Suppose, in such a case, I got the worst of it?

   Fortunately, before I can answer these questions satisfactorily to myself, I am asleep, and yet they are not so irrelevant as you fancy.

   Last night, for instance, as I was sitting in the cool air, smoking one of the peculiarly bad cigars in which the brave men of Canada greatly rejoice, and for which they pay as heavily as if they were of the finest brands, a half-drunken man came up, abusing me in every possible way, threatening to smash every bone in my body, and altogether behaving himself in a way the reverse of polite. Perhaps you say, Why did you not knock him down? In novels heroes always do, and come clear off; but I am not writing fiction, and in real life I have always found discretion to be the better part of valour. The fact is, the fellow was a strapping Hercules, and I could see in a moment, if the appeal were to force, what the issue might be. Yet I had not done anything intentionally to offend him. He had come galloping up to the hotel, as they all do here -- the horses are not trained to trot -- and his horse had bucked him off. I believe I did say something to a friend of a mildly critical nature, but I question whether the rider heard it. The fact was, he was angry at having been thrown, and seeing that I was a stranger, he evidently thought he could pour the vials of his wrath on me. I must admit that in a little while he came up and apologized, and there was an end of the matter. But the worst part of it was that his friend remarked to me that this drunken insulting ruffian was one of the best fellows in the place. If so, Calgary has to be thankful for very small mercies indeed.

   You ask, How could the fellow be drunk, seeing that there is a prohibitory liquor-law in existence? I have every reason to believe that Calgary is a very drunken place, nevertheless. I have already referred to one case of drunkenness. I may add that, in the afternoon of the same day, I had seen another in the shape of an old gentleman who was going to head a revolt which would cut off the North-West from the Dominion, and which would make her a Crown colony. He was very drunk as he stood on the bar opposite me declaiming all this bunkum. I remarked his state to the landlord, who seemed to feel how unfair it was that men could get drunk on the sly, and that a decent landlord, like himself, should be deprived of the privilege of selling them decent liquor. I own it is very hard on the publicans. At Moose Jaw one of them told me he would give five hundred pounds for a liquor license. "They call this a free country," said an indignant English settler to me, "and yet I can't get a drop of good liquor. Pretty freedom, ain't it?" Unfortunately, the Government, while it prohibits the sale of liquor, does not exterminate the desire for it -- perhaps only increases it -- as we always cry for what we can't get. Unfortunately, also, it is true that, as long as this demand exists, the supply will be found somehow.

   In Montana there are a lot of blackguards and daredevils who will run the thing in some-how. Liquor is also brought in by the railway as coal-oil, oatmeal, flour, varnish, and then it is doctored up and sold at L1 the bottle to the thirsty souls. Now, what is the consequence? Why, that, as a local journal remarks, liquor is sold; the dealers are pests and outlaws; they sell their poison for ten times the price of what people who don't belong to the Blue Ribbon Army call good liquor, and then vanish with their ill-gotten money out of the country, excepting such as they may leave behind them in the shape of fines, when found out. I do think the hotel-keeper has much reason to complain of prohibition. It presses hardly on him, and does not put drunkenness down. I mentioned these facts to a Baptist minister from England, whom I met in Toronto. He would not believe them; I gave him cuttings from newspapers to support my view. His reply was that they were hoaxes. I have now been in Calgary a day, and already I find that these hoaxes, as my friend calls them, are veritable facts.

   I believe that many of my travelling companions were a little fresh last night, from their soberness and dejection of manner this morning. They were away down town, and had not returned when I retired to rest; and this morning several of the householders complain of having had their doors knocked at at most unseasonable hours.

   At meals I meet queer company. We have a Chinese cook. I have a faint idea that he has murderous designs on us all, his smile is so childlike and bland; yet I prefer his placid pleasant round face to those of his female helps, sour and ill-looking, who earn wages such as an English servant-girl never dreams of. His messes seem to be appreciated, and little is left after mealtime. It is enough for me to see the men eat. Every particle of food is conveyed into the mouth by means of the knife, which is also freely used if sugar or salt be required. Our dining-room is simply a shed, and a very dark one, having a canvas on one side and unpainted deal on the other. Few houses at Calgary are painted, though a painted house looks so much prettier than a deal one that I wonder painting is not more resorted to, especially when you remember how paint preserves the wood. Many of the houses here are brought all the way from Ontario, and, perhaps, this accounts for their smallness. They chiefly consist of two rooms, one a shop, the other a sitting and night-room; and the larger number have been erected within the last few months. What we call in England a gentleman's house, I should say does not exist in the whole district. A gentleman would find existence intolerable here, though the air is fine, and the extent of the prairie is unbounded. There are two newspapers in the town, and the professions are all well represented.

   As to my companions, the less I say of them the better. They are young and vigorous, and use language not generally tolerated in polite society. Their talk is chiefly of horses and bets. They ride recklessly up and down the dusty path which forms the main street, and would not break their hearts if they knocked a fellow down; or they drive light waggons on four wheels, creating the most overwhelming clouds of dust as they rush by. As to their saddles, they are as unlike English ones as can well be imagined, rising at each end, so as to give the rider a very safe seat, while their stirrups are as long almost as the foot itself; but the saddles have this advantage, that they never give the horses sore backs. As to the horses, they are all branded, and turned loose on to the prairie when not required. Most of the men are prospectors -- people who go round the country in search of mines; or cow-boys -- that is, men employed in the cattle ranches in the district. The cow-boy is a fearful sight. His hands and face are as brown as leather, he wears a straw hat -- or one of felt -- with a very wide brim. His coat or jacket is, perhaps, decorated with Indian work. Around his waist he wears a belt, which he makes useful in many ways. Then he has brown leather leggings, ornamented down the sides with leather fringes, and on his heels he puts a tremendous pair of spurs. The men on the mountains have much the same style of dress, and are fine specimens of muscular, rather than intellectual or moral, development. On the whole, I am not unduly enamoured of these pioneers of civilization; but, then, I was born in the old country, and learned Dr. Watts's hymns, and was taught to


Thank the goodness and the grace
That on my birth has smiled,
And made me in these Christian days
A happy English child.

   I see a good deal more of Calgary than I wish to. I feel that I have been made a fool of by the station-master. I am, as you may be aware, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. They are some 60 miles off, yet; already I have seen their far-off peaks, glistening with snow, rising into the summer sky. As I have got so far, I must see them. There are trees up there, and the sight of a tree would be good for sore eyes; there are cooling shades out there, and here, though it is but early morning, it is too hot to stir. The scenery out there is the finest to be seen in all the Canadian continent, and I would carry away with me, to think of in after years, something of their beauty. I travelled all this way for that purpose, and hoped to have been off before, and now find I must wait, owing to a blunder on the part of the station-master. He promised he would let me know if he sent a freight train to the Rocky Mountains. Well, he sent off a train at one o'clock this morning, and never let me know anything about it, and the consequence is I must stay two more days in this dreary spot, without conveniences such as I could find in the meanest cottage in England, and at a cost which would enable me to live in luxury and fare sumptuously at home. One lesson I have learned, which I repeat for the benefit of my readers. Never depend upon other people; hear all they say, and then act for yourself. Had I done so, I should have been now in the Rocky Mountains. I trusted in others, and I am, in consequence, the victim of misplaced confidence.

   I gather a few items of interest to intending emigrants. Crops raised in the vicinity of Calgary during 1883 gave the following yields per acre -- Wheat, 33 bushels; barley, 40 bushels; oats, 60 bushels. The Government farm a few miles off, which I have visited, does well. The country round offers especial advantages to sheep and dairy farmers, cheese manufacturers, and hog raisers. My own impression is, and I have mentioned it to several persons who all think it excellent, that any man would easily make his fortune who set up a poultry farm. Eggs and fowls are almost entirely unknown, and if the producer did not find a market here, he could easily send his produce by the railway to where it was wanted. Eggs and fowls help one as well as anything to keep body and soul together.

   I am glad I went to church yesterday. My presence there gave quite a tone to the place (said the head man to me this morning), and so far I may presume I did good service. The congregation consisted chiefly of men, and the collection amounted to nearly 16 dollars -- pretty good, considering (said the above mentioned gentleman) there are two or three schism shops in the place. In the evening I went to the Wesleyan Methodist schism shop, as he called it, and heard a sermon, which touched me more than any sermon I have heard in a long time. As I came out the effect was startling. The sun was sinking in crimson glory just behind the green hills by which Calgary is surrounded. Far off a dim splendour of pink testified to the existence of a prairie fire, while before me stood a gigantic Indian, with his big black head rising out of a pyramid of gorgeous robes, really dazzling to behold. There is an Indian Mission near here, but the Indians are not the only heathens out here.

   I have just had a ride in a buck-cart, which is the kind of vehicle the colonists use. It is of boards on four wheels, on which is placed a seat for a couple of persons, while the luggage is piled up behind. Some of them have springs, as fortunately was the case with the one on which I rode, or I should have had a very uncomfortable ride indeed. Perhaps I ought not to be so angry with the station-master as I was when I interviewed him this morning. I have just seen a man who got on to the freight train, but he tells me it was so uncomfortable that he preferred to wait, and got off after he had taken his passage.

   Money seems scarce. I have just been to the post-office to send a letter to England. The postmaster could give me no change, and I had to take post-cards instead. I suppose all the money goes to the smugglers. In this small town 500 dollars are sent weekly to Winnipeg for liquor; so much for prohibition in Calgary.

   As there is no bank here, people find it hard to get money. A young man waiting here to make up a mining party for the Rockies, tells me he had to telegraph to Toronto for 500 dollars, which were sent in the shape of a post-office order. The post-master charged him five dollars for cashing the order. I have just heard of a loan of 300 dollars effected; the borrower has agreed to pay, in the shape of interest, the moderate sum of four dollars a month.

   Calgary, according to some, can have no enduring prosperity; if so, the land-grabbers who have scattered themselves all over it will be deeply disappointed.

   Edmonton, where they get gold out of the river sand, and where they have already a kind of dredging machine employed for that purpose, it is said, will shortly have a railway to itself, and the men from the mountains, who are the mainstay of Calgary, will go that way.

   I fancy I hear some one exclaim: On those wide plains over which sweeps the ice-laden air of the Rockies, what pleasant walks you must have! My dear sir, you are quite mistaken. Perhaps, as you set out, there comes a herd of wild horses -- and then I remember how poor George Moore was knocked down by one, and avoid the boundless prairie accordingly.

   Then there are the dogs, "their name is Legion," and they are big, and as wild as they are big, and I am not partial to hydrophobia. No; it is better to sit at the door of my tent and watch the flight of the horses, the fights of the dogs, and the stream of dust a mile long which denotes that some Jehu is at hand, who will pull up at the door, deeply drink water, smoke a cigar, use a little strong language, and then mount again and ride off into boundless space. Here and there a pedestrian may be seen making his way to his solitary hut or shop, where at no time do you see any sign of life; and how the people here make a living (with the exception of the hotel-keepers, who are always busy) puzzles me. I meet good fellows, I own. They are friendly in their way. As humour is a thing unknown in Canada and the North-West, they generally grin when I make a remark, which I do at very protracted intervals, fearing to be worn out before the long day is done. Nevertheless, I begin to doubt whether I am not relapsing into the wild life of those around me. Fortunately, I have not yet acquired the habit of speaking through my nose, nor do I make that fearful sound -- a hawking in the throat -- which is a signal that your neighbour is preparing to expectorate, and which renders travelling, even in a first-class car, almost insupportable; but my hands are tanned. I sit with my waistcoat open, and occasionally in my shirt-sleeves. I care little to make any effort to be polite; I am clean forgetting all my manners, and feel that in a little while I shall be as rough as a cow-boy, or as the wild wolf of the prairie. It is clear I must not tarry at Calgary too long.