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Mrs. Walker’s boarding-house was a frame, white-painted house situate in the town of Sarnia, a little way back from the main street. The Indian Reserve almost adjoined the town, so that a quarter of an hour’s walk would take us on to their land. In front of the town and flowing down past the Indian Reserve is the broad river St. Clair, connecting Lake Huron with Lake Erie, its banks on the Canadian side dotted over with the boats and fishing nets of the Indians.
I at once invested in a horse and buggy, and also engaged Wagimah as my interpreter. I could already read the service in Indian, but required an interpreter’s aid for conversing with the people and preaching. Our Sunday services were held in a vacant log hut, in which we had a little desk rigged up and some forms arranged as seats. On my first Sunday among them I baptized two children, an infant in arms named Jacob Gray, and a child of four or five named Thomas Winter. Both of these boys some nine or ten years afterwards became pupils at the Shingwauk Home.
Our great object now was to build a log church and also a Mission house for our own use with as little delay as possible. There was a quaint old Indian, or rather half-breed, for he was partly French, with whom I had some conversation in regard to our proposed operations. “Well, Mr. Leviere,” I said to him one day, “what do you think the Indians will be willing to do? Will they cut down the trees,–square and haul the logs?” “I have been thinking about it a good deal,” he replied. “You want a church forty feet long; this will take a great many logs, not much black ash now in the bush. I don’t think, Sir, you will find enough trees. Why not build a frame church? If you build frame, Indians get out logs, fit the frame one day, raise building next day, board it next day, get done quick; not cost much money, cost perhaps $100, not much money.” “Now, supposing we were to do this, what would the Indians be willing to give? Would they work without pay? I want the white people to see that the Indians are really in earnest; I should like to point to our church and say, ‘The Indians built this church without pay, because it was their wish to build a house to God.’ Do you think the Indians are ready to do this? Are you ready to give a helping hand yourself?” “Oh, indeed, Sir, yes! I mean to work, and keep on working till it is finished; I think there are many who will do so too, perhaps ten or fifteen altogether; we shall want no pay, only provisions.”
Our chief source of discouragement at this time was the opposition of the Methodist party, who were considerably in the majority on the Reserve. As Indian land is held in common by all the members of the band, we were at one time in fear that we might be prevented from building. A petition was sent to Government, and correspondence entered into with the Indian Department, and in the end we were permitted to take possession of one acre of land on the lot of a Church Indian named Antoine Rodd. The opposition, however, was very bitter and rather depressing, and our opponents went so far as to threaten to deprive the old Chief, Wawanosh, of his chieftainship.
On the other hand, we had every encouragement from the conduct of our own Indians. The opposition that they met with only seemed to make them more determined to stand by us and assist in the establishment of the Mission. Directly the land question was settled, three or four of them started back in the bush with their axes, to fell the trees and hew and square the timbers for the frame-work of the church, and I heard that the old Chief had been to the Indian Agent’s office and borrowed ten dollars of the Annuity-money to pay a professed hewer, as none of themselves were good hands at such work. This, I told them, was more than I expected of them; if they would give their labour, that was all that I asked; but no, they would not be dissuaded; they were quite determined, they said, to raise the frame-work unaided, and they would much rather themselves pay for any labour they might have to employ.
The “Raising” took place on the 22nd of September. About fifty Indians were present, and all took part more or less in the work. In the afternoon two teams arrived from the town with a large party of ladies and gentlemen, well supplied with baskets of provisions for a feast, which they had kindly arranged to give the Indians at the conclusion of their work. The roughly extemporised tables looked most inviting when all was spread out, and two or three of the Indian women were most active and clever in getting everything ready. When the feast was over the Indians gathered in a circle, and I expressed to them my pleasure that we had got thus far with our work, and told them that I hoped we should soon now, with God’s blessing, have our little church open and ready for service. Joseph Wawanosh on behalf of his father, the old Chief, then expressed his gratitude that a Missionary had at length come among them, and that a church was in course of erection. After this we concluded with a short service in the Ojebway language.
It was very encouraging to me to find that our cause was being taken up in England; a little circular had been printed and distributed, and by the middle of October L64 had been contributed towards the erection of our Mission buildings.
In the meantime I was holding service regularly every Sunday in the vacant log cottage with an average attendance of from twenty to thirty Indians, and during the week I visited a good deal among the people, my interpreter usually accompanying me. I had prepared a little pocket companion containing passages of Scripture, copied from the Ojebway Testament, sentences of familiar conversation, and Indian prayers and collects. With the help of this little book I was able to make myself understood by the Indians, and soon became almost independent of an interpreter. I had a plan of the Indian Reserve, and usually steered my way through the bush with my compass, taking little notice of the rough corduroy tracks and Indian trails which never seemed to lead to the right place.
One of these expeditions I will briefly describe:
I wanted to find old Widow Kwakegwah’s house, which lay about two miles back through the bush in a south-easterly direction. Wagimah was with me and, leaving the river road, we plunged back at once into the bush without either path or track, and steered our way by my compass. Sometimes it lay through a thick growth of young saplings, which bent aside as we pushed our way through; sometimes over a mass of decaying logs and upheaved roots; sometimes through long grass and swamp up to our knees; occasionally we came to a fallen tree, which we had to clamber over or under. Once or twice we came upon a little log hut standing in the midst of a small clearing, sometimes empty with door bolted, at other times showing signs of occupation. Into one of these we entered; it was a tiny log shanty, with a patch of Indian corn and potatoes enclosed by a snake fence. We pushed open the door, a fire was burning on the hearth, and in a corner was a blanket enveloping something that might be human. I told Wagimah to touch it, he did so, and the bundle moved, part of the blanket wriggled back and a woman’s face appeared. She said she was sick, and that no one had been to visit her. We staid and had a little conversation, and then as it was getting late, hurried on to Widow Kwakegwah’s. The old woman, who had a very pleasant, honest-looking face, gave us quite a hearty reception. I got her to tell me the number of her children and grandchildren, and then taking up her Ojebway Testament read a few verses from St. John iii, and spoke a few words which Wagimah interpreted, after which we knelt for prayer. After this we visited Peter Gray, with his wife and family of eight children, they lived in a small log hut, and there was no glass in the windows. It was now five p.m. and we started on our two miles’ trudge back to Antoine Rodds’ house, where I had left my buggy, and then drove back to the town.