Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Gold, bread, and something more

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IX  (1863) 
Gold, bread, and something more
by Harriet Martineau


In our “voyages by the fireside”—the only voyages that most of us are able to indulge in—there has been a great change of scenery going on for some time past. Scenes that we supposed we had a distinct and faithful idea of, have presented new features within a few years, and some have wholly changed their aspect. An Australian plain was conceivable enough twenty years since—an expanse of coarse grass, spreading to the horizon a surface varied only by a few ups and downs, and clumps or belts of gum-trees; and nothing could appear more simple to the imagination than the position of the shepherd, seated on the great stone amidst the grass, in the intervals of his toils with his sheep. The case was not quite so simple as it looked. That big stone happened to be gold; and when this was found out, the solitary shepherd gave place to hundreds and thousands of such people as put an end to quiet wherever they go. A barbaric town and its rude commerce and conflicts fill the space in the mind’s eye so lately occupied by sheep and their shepherd. Even a greater change has come over our notion of the interior of Africa. We used to see a scorching wilderness of sand, glaring rocks, a sky without clouds, and an earth without water; and now we are preparing to watch the progress of Captains Speke and Grant, as they march for weeks together on the banks of vast rivers, and traverse valleys rich enough to grow all the finest products of the soil. We see them forcing their way through jungles, and taking shelter from the sun under noble timber trees; and, in short, finding themselves plunged into a region of teeming fertility, as unlike a parched, sandy, and rocky desert as one part of the earth’s surface can be to another.

In one of these cases, actual change has been wrought in the aspect of the scene: in the other, we have merely substituted a true for a false conception. The time seems to have arrived for both kinds of change to take place in our mind’s pictures of a region which ought to have great interest for us,—that prodigious expanse of land and water which belongs to us in the northern latitudes of the Western hemisphere. Nowhere in Australia itself have the transformations been so marvellous as some will be, for months and years to come, in certain regions of the Hudson’s Bay territories,—as we have been accustomed to call the expanse which stretches, north of the Canadas, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Some of us thought we knew those regions so well! In the Barren lands, the dreary district west of Hudson’s Bay, we have seen the Esquimaux trudging through the snow, on the track of the musk-ox or the reindeer; or fishing when the lakes melt, and gathering moss and weeds for vegetable food. Even this scene may grow milder and more animated as new reasons arise for seeking the shores of Hudson’s Bay. Due south of these barren lands lies a tract which till lately had hardly come before our imaginations at all. We did not hear of many fur-bearing animals there; and that feature—of furry animals—was the only one we knew of in Hudson’s Bay territory which was not specially described to us. Two or three travellers, or companies of travellers, who had been exploring in search of a road to British Columbia, at length told us what was under the sun in that part of his course. There were lakes of various dignities,—from Lake Superior, to bright pools hidden in the forest, and betrayed only by their streams when the settlers desired to learn whence came the useful waters. In some parts these lakes were known to be deep; but for the most part they were believed to be shallow; and in some so reedy and weedy that canoes could scarcely pass along them. We were able, after reading thus much, to see the polar water-fowl arriving in this watery region, in long lines from the north, the lines becoming wavy and uncertain, and then breaking up altogether, as the wild swans and geese and ducks plunged in throngs into the swamps and lake margins. We could see the Indian fowler skulking in the sedges, with his snares or his bow. He had waited long for more feathers for his adornment, and for this change of food: and now he was patient to wait in his lair till he could bag birds enough to make him welcome at his wigwam. We could image to ourselves, too, the gloomy forest, damp and mossy, which all the settlers who had yet gone there had scarcely been able to open to the light, so as to dry a space big enough to live on. Most of them preferred going a little further west, where the forest stopped short, and the savannas succeeded. There, at the Red River, at the entrance to this region, we see the last of British civilisation. We see farms on the river bank almost adjoining for miles; and a good road stringing them together, so as to make real neighbours of them. Beyond that settlement, everything has hitherto seemed to grow wilder and wilder, till the whole country looked like an unpeopled wilderness.

There was the Saskatchewan River, flowing on for ever without sign of any human being taking an interest in it, except when some roving party of Indians came, hungry and gloomy, to spear fish. When they went away, hiding their canoe in some grassy creek, all was as before, except for the stench of offal on the bank.

From either shore spread the prairies, which were as desolate as a sea without a ship. For weeks together, there was no sound but of the wind, and no movement but of grass and clouds. Then came silently a herd of soft-footed deer; or a thundering throng of heavy buffalo. If unobserved, the creatures fed, and grazed their way gradually to the horizon and beyond it. If discovered and pursued by the Indians, the tumult was tremendous. The most savage of men seemed to be matched with the most savage of beasts; and the uproar was worthy of the occasion. But it was short-lived. There was a gallop across the scene,—the ground shaking with the tread, and the air quivering with the shriek and the bellow, the shout and the roar of the antagonists. The sounds died away, and then their echoes were lost, and then the scene became lifeless as before. The mere presence of observers who could disclose this landscape to us was a prophecy of a change; and those observers were in fact explorers, sent to find a way through the Rocky Mountains to the gold fields of British Columbia beyond.

When they told us, after their return, that there was a mountain pass here, and another there, over which a road might in time be carried, they at the same time disclosed so vast a scene of wilderness lying on this side that the interest of a feasible passage to our Pacific colonies through British territory seemed to belong to a future generation, and to be shared by us only through the imagination of patriotism and poetry. The Red River settlement itself is less than half-way between the mouth of the St. Lawrence and Vancouver Island. It was encouraging to hear that, up to the Rocky Mountains, there were rivers, or lakes, or prairies, nearly all the way; so that we might imagine the line of settlement lengthening till it stretched across, and the number of travellers always increasing till, in some future century, a broad belt of population would make a vast new state for English life to flourish in. Still, for our own time, we could expect to see little there but the full quiet river flowing on, and the Indians fishing, and the grassy plains, with the wild herds roving at will. But already, within a few months, the scene has changed its character; and the change in the prospect is yet more marked.

In the long days of last Midsummer the quiet was gone from some of the stillest spots which had hitherto slept in the noon of the year. The sound of men’s voices and tools scarcely ceased for an hour or two of the short night: for the men were digging gold; and they were impatient to get all they could before others came for a share.

There were half-breeds from the great lakes to the east; and whites, and Indians and half-breeds from Minnesota and Nebraska to the south; and mining adventurers from as far as California, and from England, who had come round by British Columbia. On that side the mountains, rumours had reached them of gold deposits in regions where game and fish were plentiful, and no competitors would interfere with the first searchers. So, last spring, there were parties dropping down from the mountains on the Peace River, which had hitherto seemed the end of the world, and on tracts which none but Indians and hunters had hitherto traversed. There they are now, getting gold, and breaking up the solitude of silence for ever. If we now look, on the map, at the course of the Saskatchewan (as far as known), and the Asineboine, and the Peace River, we may see the awkward half-breeds greedily picking out gold from the mud at the rate of 40l. or 50l. each per week. Where trained diggers have halted, the work goes on much faster; and the river banks are spoiled at a much quicker rate. In May there were not fewer than five hundred of these miners on the rivers which flow east from the Rocky Mountains.

After what we have witnessed in Australia, we know what we may expect to see in our western colonies, in the lifetime of this generation. Already gold has been looked for and found in the very heart of Canada,—even within a few miles of Quebec, and in the district of Ottawa. There is already a thickening of the population wherever any gold has been found; and we may now look upon the familiar scenery of life in those rather inert colonies as a dissolving view. No greater change ever took place in the circumstances of any settlement of men, than may be anticipated for the Hudson’s Bay territories and Canada, now that their soil has begun to yield gold.

Hitherto we have never reckoned the population of Canada as reaching three millions: and it would be difficult to assign any number small enough for the settlers beyond Lake Superior. What will it not now be within a few years, or even months? It is for the interest of all parties—British Columbia, Canada, and England—that there should be a broad and safe highway through British territory from sea to sea; and the road will naturally extend to every point at which gold-diggers are at work. The game will not long suffice for their subsistence, even if their noise and movement do not drive it away. There must be purveyors of food and clothing first, and luxury afterwards:—in other words, commerce must spring up at all the stations. There will be farmers and stock-keepers to supply the food, and merchants to supply everything else to both miners and farmers. Artisans will be sent for at any price; and they will come in throngs. Towns will arise on convenient spots; and an immigration, probably equalling that in Australia, will produce great effects in England, and much greater in her western dependencies. The immigrants will form a populous and powerful state,—as unlike as can well be to the Canada which till now has expected to be nursed and protected by England, and been accustomed to insulting menaces or invitations from the adjoining republic. If the new treasure makes our territory more tempting to filibusters, it will at the same time make it stronger to resist intrusion and repel menace. If a populous and strong group of colonies can live in profitable and amicable commercial connection with their republican neighbour, so much the better for everybody. If this should not be practicable, there is no advantage that the United States have hitherto enjoyed which will not henceforth be equally at the command of the adjoining colonies. The stream of emigration will flow into the Hudson’s Bay territories, in preference to all other American soil, from the day when the new gold shall have caused the peopling and enrichment of the country to begin. The imagination may then mourn the solemn quiet which will have passed away; but the reason and the heart ought to rejoice that a new portion of the earth’s surface is, as it were, given to our people in which to live and flourish, strong in their numbers and power of self-government, and rich in the diligence of their own hands.

The other great approaching change in that part of our world which I am thinking of in connection with the gold discoveries, shows us, as distinctly as we could wish, what the development of our territory will be like. We have so strong an interest in the proposed enterprise, that it may hardly occur to us at first to look at it as yielding a prophecy to our colonists; but it is worth while to glance back for a moment, to see how it is so. At a moment when the great granary of the West is likely to be freely opened to us, we may well inquire whether the creation of that granary is a promise that we shall have something like it from the same causes.

Seventeen years since, an event took place which should have its place in the history of the Western continent, and which may appear hereafter worth mention in connection with the history of the working classes of England. In the summer of 1836, the first ship traversed the lakes which divide Canada and the United States. There had been intercourse by water before,—missionaries and pioneer settlers passing westwards by boats and small steamers; and of late, land speculators and agents, and the hands necessary for building towns. The settlers had tilled the soil, and raised cattle on the prairies; the speculators had made wharves and built stores at the foot of Lake Michigan to receive the new produce; and now the time seemed to have arrived for shipping to show itself, to convey the produce to some populous region where it would sell well. It was true, the lakes had not been properly surveyed, so as to make the voyage safe: there were no stations prepared on shore, no accommodations on board for the convenience of trade or travellers: the thing was an experiment: but it was one of such significance and importance that I have rejoiced ever since that I was a passenger in the first ship which sailed through the chain of lakes from Chicago to Buffalo.

At Chicago, in those days, it was truly the pursuit of commerce under difficulties. The canal was planned, and lots on its banks were selling at vast prices; but not a sod of it was raised. Scattered settlers sent their corn, and beef, and pickled pork, in single waggons over the prairie; and the sales were hap-hazard: but the pork trade of Cincinnati afforded a hint of what the corn and provision trade of Chicago ought to be, with its facilities for water-carriage. So this ship opened the new game; and I, as a passenger, can compare the facilities for water-carriage then, with those which are to give our working-classes cheaper corn than they have ever had yet.

The Milwaukie sailed from Chicago on Monday, June 28th, 1836. She was crowded with roughs for the first eighty miles, the gentry of that description who had been hanging about the land-auctions at Chicago being on their return to the still rawer settlement of Milwaukie. We had to put up with them till mid-day on the 30th, when they tumbled ashore, among the woods. Seven young women came on board to see the ship—the total female population of Milwaukie at that day! A printing press had arrived that morning; and a newspaper would soon bring more settlers, and they would make more commerce for the ship. Already there were apple-pies, cheese, and ale to be had; and orchards, dairies, and corn-fields would rapidly spread back on the prairie. We had but too much opportunity for hearing all about this: for our captain, never having navigated this lake before, and having no proper charts, had got aground on a sand-bar, and we could not get off till the cargo was removed.

Next day came bad weather; and we lay on a leaden sea, under a leaden sky, eating the toughest of salt meat, and with no chance of getting on. When the wind and rain ceased the fog came, and we were at the very base of the high hard Michigan shore, after sunset, when a chance opening in the fog showed us our danger. Next, before sunrise on the 4th of July, we passed the Sacred Isles of the Indians—the Manitou Isles—where the spirits of their dead were believed to dwell. That evening, just in time to see the flags floating, and to hear the last guns firing for the great Fourth, we found ourselves before Machilimackinack—more practically called Mackinaw. The wigwams and bark-roofed huts, the Indians on the shore, and the half-breeds on and in the water, gave the place a wild appearance, though civilised dwellings were visible about the fort. The scene was incomparably beautiful, both evening and morning, and as unlike a trading station as could well be conceived; but a great traffic in furs went on here, at this central position among the great lakes. It is an island nine miles in circumference, lying in the strait between Lakes Michigan and Huron, and communicating with Lake Superior to the north.

We had now, I beg my readers to observe, sailed northwards for nearly 400 miles: and we were about to sail about as far south along Lake Huron. We were making a vast circuit north and south, in order to make another afterwards to the north-east. Lake Huron, be it observed also, is always squally; and I never saw the majestic scenery of storm and of the Aurora Borealis more splendid than during our troubled passage. There would have been a refuge for us within the line of the Manitouline Islands and Cabots’ Head, if the ship’s track had led into Georgian Bay, as it soon will: but we could only take our chance amidst buffeting winds. As we proceeded we met more squalls, a headwind, and so many obstacles that we did not see the southern extremity of the lake till the evening of the 8th. We went aground at the entrance of the St. Clair River, amidst thunder, lightning, roaring winds, scampering wild horses, and gathering Indians, who held us completely in their power all night. Next day, the anxious hours were passed amidst the shallows and eddies of the St. Clair,—the ship now whirling in the pools, and now grazing the shores. Then there was a headwind again: and, in short, it seemed as if we could not traverse the shallow windy Lake St. Clair to Detroit. When within sight of the city we went aground so fast that there was no hope of progress, or of getting a meal (the provisions being exhausted). My party and I had had enough of it. We stepped on board a wood raft, and so gained Detroit. Before we left it, by land conveyance, we saw our ship working her way still south down the Detroit River, after which she would have to turn up to the north-east, and traverse the entire length of Lake Erie to Buffalo. Her cargo, if for exportation, or the New York market, would have a long transit yet to perform,—costly from its transhipments, and absurdly circuitous. It must travel still eastwards, now in canal boats, by the Mohawk or Erie canal for 300 miles, till it reached the Hudson, when it would again be shifted by costly labour into the great river-boats, and carried south once more to New York, for final despatch to England or elsewhere.

Now, let me beg my readers to follow this route on the map, and see what a winding track it is, through many waters, each requiring different vessels, and the levy of a tax on each transhipment. By this method of carriage it will be clear that England will not buy, nor Western farmers sell, much bread or meat from the great Mississippi valley. Let us see how the aspect of the case is changing.

Chicago has grown in proportion to the development of the country behind it; and that country supplies us with one-third of the wheat and one-half of the flour we buy from foreign countries,—even now, when the wheat and flour traverse that long and expensive line of transit which I have described. But, for want of a more direct route, every 100l. worth shipped at Chicago costs us 150l. for carriage to Liverpool, and vast amounts of the best goods are wasted on the spot. It is actually the case that the Western farmers use their wheat as fuel, because, being otherwise useless, it is cheaper than coal or wood. Chicago wants to send away fifteen millions of quarters of corn; and, as it cannot get carried, the surplus lies in sheds, one of which is two miles long, and quite full; or it is used to light the fires. So much for the want of a good channel to the sea!

The natural consequence has followed. The western Americans, the Canadians, and the people of England, as far as they have heard of it,—and especially the English Ministers,—are hoping and planning to obtain this improved channel. As soon as the English people make up their minds to have corn and meat as cheap as the Western growers and shippers are willing to sell it, the thing will be done; and the Duke of Newcastle has publicly declared that the Queen’s Government will do everything in their power to aid an enterprise which is of the highest importance to the country.

The waste of route is, by the new plan, to stop abreast of the Manitouline Isles in Lake Huron. The corn-ships will enter Georgian Bay, and make for French River, which flows between that Bay and Lake Nipissing in Canada West. At the eastern end of Lake Nipissing, a canal will join it with the Mattawa River, which flows into the Ottawa. Thence, all is plain sailing, and as nearly direct as may be, by the Ottawa and the St. Lawrence. The works required will, in all, extend over 200 miles, and cost only 4,000,000l,—a sum which will be immediately repaid by the saving in carriage and transhipment. It is inconceivable that such an improvement should not be at once proceeded with, saving, as it would, 500 miles of costly carriage, which goes to enhance the price of bread to English buyers.

It was in February last that the subject was brought to a practical issue in the Legislature of Illinois, by the appointment of a Commission to confer with the authorities of Canada and of England on the establishment of this route. In March, the Governor-General of Canada received the proposals of the American Commission, and referred them to Parliament; and in April, the Canadian Parliament reported as strongly as possible in favour of the project. The Sheffield deputation which went up to the Duke of Newcastle last month have obtained for us the plain declaration of the goodwill of our Government, in whatever constitutional way it can be shown. When it is sufficiently well understood throughout the country that by means of this open road to the great Western valley, the cost of transport will be so reduced, as that we may bring for two millions what cost us seven millions and a half in 1861, and that the difference will pay for the new route in a single year, there can surely be no lack of popular support.

The cheapness and plenty of bread and meat are not the only benefits to be considered. The whole route, from the head of Lake Michigan, would lie through British territory. What the flow of such a commerce through the heart of Canada would be, we ought to consider. A better thought still is of the close connexion which would thus be formed between the great Western States of the American Republic and ourselves. The project originated with them: it is welcomed in Canada and in England; and, if there be one security for a lasting peace more trustworthy than another, it is a commerce of such vital importance to both parties.

Such are the changes which, new and striking to us, will be old-established facts before the end of the century,—improvements so interwoven with the destinies of our Western territories that men’s wonder will be how colonial life went on before their date.

From the Mountain.