Bill Waiser

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Saskatchewan is no stranger to bad winters

Saskatchewan has had its share of hard winters. They don’t need exaggeration.

One of the most deadly was the killing winter of 1906-07. The winter began innocently with the first fall of snow on Nov. 5, 1906. Then, a little more than a week later, a brutal three-day blizzard raged across the West, dumping several feet of snow.

Pioneers called it “the earliest, most violent, and longest storm in living memory.” December hinted at a return to normal weather, but a series of heavy snowfalls, accompanied by record low temperatures, pounded the region through most of January and February.

Spring brought little relief. It was as if winter would never let go.

When ranch hands in southwestern Saskatchewan went to assess the carnage in the spring and count the stock losses, they found dead cows hanging in trees in the coulees because the snow had been so deep.

Wallace Stegner, in his classic Wolf Willow, named it “carrion spring.” Rancher R.D. Symons was blunter. He called it “the big smell.”

There was also a terrible winter in early 1947. A staggering four feet of snow fell in parts of southern Saskatchewan in January. Then, the wind started to howl. For one long week — from Jan. 30 to Feb. 8 — one of the nastiest winter storms in Canadian history raged across the prairies.

The blowing snow created incredibly huge drifts that made travel dangerous, if not impossible. Rail lines and roads were choked by snow, while telegraph lines were either blown down or buried.

People in rural areas were completely cut off from the outside world and had to survive as best they could. One farmer reportedly cut a hole in the roof of his two-storey barn to get inside to milk the cows.

The record for several consecutive severe winters probably belongs to the late 18th century — the consequence, in part, of a protracted La Niña event over the Pacific Ocean in the late 1770s, followed by the eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland in 1783. Hudson’s Bay Company’s servants kept a sobering record of the dismal conditions.

The snow was so deep during the winter of 1783-84 that dog teams could not be used at some HBC posts for several months.

The winters of 1788-89 and 1789-90 were even worse, arriving in the early fall and lasting into the late spring. “In the whole of this winter,” Mitchell Oman at South Branch House complained in early April 1790, “there has been the most Snow that has been seen Inland this 15 years past.”

Before the month was over, another foot of snow fell. Malcolm Ross at Cumberland House was just as exasperated. “I never knew the spring to be so backward before,” he observed on May 4, “nor the ice to stay so long.”

These colder temperatures drastically reduced glacier melt in the spring, and the annual canoe brigades could not leave the region on time because “there was no water in the river.”

Indigenous people were accustomed to these climatic fluctuations. But their newly acquired horses were not, and they died in great numbers in the 1780s. Hunting bands responded by raiding rival bands for replacement stock.

The late 1790s were little better. Winter arrived so early in the fall of 1795 that it was possible to ride horseback across the frozen North Saskatchewan River by mid-November.

The annual canoe brigades were delayed again in these years — not because of low water but the lateness of the spring. “The Country around has the appearance of Winter,” James Bird gloomily reported on May 2, 1797, “the Snow being still deep on the ground.”

The HBC canoe brigade somehow managed to reach Cumberland House on June 4, only to find “the (Cedar) lake is still frozen over apparently as solid as it was in the middle of winter.”

The next two winters were just as hard.

“I have never experienced so miserable a time … inland,” William Tomison complained in November 1798, “and no prospect of its mending.”

But the weather did mend. All Tomison had to do — as Indigenous people knew — was wait until next season. The winter of 1799-1800 was so unseasonably mild that bison herds and the hunting bands that pursued them stayed out on the plains.

People probably forgot, at least momentarily, how bad Saskatchewan winters could be.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: Even a locomotive is challenged by Saskatchewan winters. 
Photo Source:Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, R-A27895


Email Bill at bill.waiser@usask.ca

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

The saga of John Rowand’s bones

It was his farewell journey.

In May 1854, Hudson’s Bay Company chief factor John Rowand left Fort Edmonton with the annual spring Saskatchewan brigade. It would be his last trip down the North Saskatchewan.

Rowand planned to attend the annual council meeting at Norway House in June, say his goodbyes to old friends in the trade, and then push on to Montreal and retirement.

But during a stopover at Fort Pitt, Rowand died from an apparent heart attack. So began one of the most bizarre sagas — at least, for his bones — in fur trade history.

John Rowand entered the trade in 1803 as a 16-year-old apprentice clerk for the North West Company and was assigned to Fort Augustus (the rival post to the HBC Fort Edmonton). For the next half century, he would make the northern plains his home.

In 1810, while hunting bison, Rowand fell from his horse and broke his leg badly. A Métis woman, Louise “Lisette” Umfrieville (sometimes spelled Umphreville), the daughter of another trader, came to his rescue. The pair would become partners in a “country marriage” that produced seven children (four girls and three boys). It is said that Rowand never really recovered from Louise’s death in 1849.

By 1820, Rowand’s business acumen earned him a partnership in the North West Company. The following year, when the NWC and HBC merged, he was asked to head the new Saskatchewan district.

Rowand quickly became a legend for his toughness and no-nonsense demeanour. He was literally larger than life. Although short and rotund, he had amazing strength and never backed down from a confrontation. The Indigenous people called him “Iron Shirt” and “Big Mountain.”

Those who worked for him were not so admiring. Rowand could be a tyrant and often resorted to verbal abuse, backed up by the occasional cuff.

By the late 1840s, Rowand was ready to retire. He seemed to sense that the days of the fur trade were coming to an end on the northern plains. But it was not until the spring of 1854 that it became official that the 67-year-old trader would be leaving the interior and returning to Montreal, the place of his birth.

Rowand had made the trip down the North Saskatchewan River with the outgoing brigade dozens of times. He would have known the river and its moods intimately, all the bends and straight stretches, and the familiar landmarks along the way.

He reached Fort Pitt (just east of the present-day Saskatchewan-Alberta interprovincial border) on May 29, 1854. Rowand had selected the site, halfway between forts Edmonton and Carlton, 25 years earlier. His son, John Jr., was now in charge of the post.

That night, the pair likely talked about the senior Rowand’s retirement to Montreal — and how the fur trade had changed and the challenges it faced.

The next morning, the Fort Pitt boats were being readied to join the flotilla that had left Edmonton days earlier. Two men began to fight. Rowand tried to separate them, madly yelling as he stepped forward, only to keel over dead at their feet.

He was buried outside the Fort Pitt palisades. But there was a problem. The night before his death, Rowand had told his son that he wanted to be buried in the same Montreal cemetery as his father.

George Simpson, the overseas governor of the HBC, decided to honour his dead friend’s wish. Sometime over winter of 1855-56, Rowand’s body was disinterred at Pitt, and the remains boiled down in a large kettle. The person who handled the macabre task apparently got drunk first.

The bones were taken to Norway House, where they were picked up by Simpson and transported to Red River. Simpson was worried, though, about sending Rowand’s bones directly on to Montreal. The contents of the package were the subject of whispers and grumbling, and superstitious voyageurs might be driven to throw the bones overboard during the trip east.

The bones were consequently repackaged and secretly sent to York Factory on Hudson Bay for shipment to England by the annual supply ship. Simpson then arranged to have them returned to North America.

Rowand’s journey finally ended on Nov. 10, 1858 — more than four years after his death — when his bones were placed in an imposing, $500 tomb in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo:John Rowand’s memorial in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery.
Photo Source: Sam Derksen


Email Bill at bill.waiser@usask.ca

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.