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Chapter III

The Young Emigrant

When Donald Smith reached London on April 29th he at once called on his uncle, who was in lodgings in the part of the city known as Clerkenwell. He met with a most friendly reception, and spent several interesting weeks seeing the sights in the busy heart of the British Empire. He saw fashionable London in Hyde Park and Rotten Row political Great Britain in the House of Commons, and no doubt artistic England in the great galleries, but of this he leaves no record. His uncle took him to the House of Lords, but they failed to gain entrance. He little dreamed then that sixty years later the doors of this great legislative body would be wide open to him and that he would have an honoured place among the peers of the realm.

It was pleasant doing London with his uncle, who had always been his hero and who, he found, was something of a distinguished character in England. Washington Irving's Astoria had, as we have seen, just been published. That epic of the wilderness was being widely read and to many in the city John Stuart was recognised as one of the leading actors in the events narrated in its pages. Moreover, among all the gentlemen he had met, none carried himself with more dignity. Stuart had been called the "Chesterfield of the Wilderness," and his recent sojourn in the fashionable centres of Europe had given him a polish and refinement hardly to be expected in a man who had spent some thirty years of his life in the most remote corners of North America, his only companions rough traders, trappers, and savages. Donald himself was a lad of more than ordinary refinement of manner. Courtesy was his partly by heredity, but more in consequence of his home training. We speak of mother tongue, but there are mother manners too. Barbara Smith, as her illustrious son said at the time of her death, "set great store by courtesy and good manners" and her boys "bonnets were always off in her presence." His comradeship with his fastidious uncle John must, however, have had its effect, and to it was no doubt due something of that courtly dignity, that kindly manner that was his throughout his entire life, in the bleak wilderness of Labrador and in the palaces of the great.

Donald had come to London intent upon entering the service of the Hudson's Bay Company, but now that he was in the city his mind was in a state of chaos regarding his future. On one thing he had determined—to Canada he would go. At this time the Canada Company was holding out special inducements to settlers on their extensive holdings in Upper Canada. Friends of John Stuart had succeeded in both Upper and Lower Canada as landholders and merchants. might not he do the same? Besides, his uncle, who had sent in his resignation to the Hudson's Bay Company, assured him that: "If he had to begin his career afresh he would have nothing to do with the honourable company or with the Indian country, but would settle in Upper Canada, where land is cheap and quite large towns are springing up in all parts." So much was Donald impressed by his uncle's suggestion that on the ninth of May in a letter to his mother he said: "It is doubtful whether I shall enter the service of the Hudson's Bay Company in any capacity." At the same time he was doubtful about the wisdom of settling in either of the Canadas. "Canada," he said in this same letter, "is at present in a most troubled state, and trade is in consequence suffering. Lord Durham sailed for Quebec in the Hastings a fortnight ago with royal powers to effect a settlement of the troubles and administer punishment to the rebels." In the morning he was convinced that his wisest course would be to enter the service of the Company, by evening he was as certain that he could best attain his ambitions in Upper Canada. He was ultimately to choose the Company, and through it was to become one of the foremost men in Canada and the Empire. His uncle helped him out of his quandary. Let the choice of a career stand until he arrived in Canada! He could get him a clerkship in London, but in that case he would be packed off to Hudson Bay to become an unnoticed atom in the great trade organization. If he should decide to join the Company it would be best to get his clerkship direct from Governor Simpson, "who would effect more favourable arrangements, if he were disposed to do so." He would arm him with letters to Simpson and to his old Montreal friends, Alexander Stewart and Edward Ellice, men who had achieved success in trade and land.

On the sixteenth of May the young emigrant left London for Canada, going a la venture, as his uncle put it in his letter to Stewart. He sailed on the Royal William, a ship of about 800 tons a timber ship making the voyage to Quebec in ballast.

His choice of ship was fortunate. In those days the average vessel sailing from England to Canada was little better than a pest house. Its holds, and in fine weather its decks, were crowded with emigrants; deaths were common, and ship fever was epidemic. But the Royal William on this voyage had only two passengers; one of them at least, a Mr. Ross, a genial and helpful associate. Donald Smith, like the canny Scot he was, while holding in abeyance the course he would pursue in Canada carefully studied the situation. The Hudson's Bay Company, its organization and the opportunities it presented for a career he knew, but Canada was something of a terra incognita. He had armed himself with a prospectus of the Canada Company and two emigrant guides—possibly Galt's The Canadas and Evans' guide to Canada, both of recent date. These he studied diligently. In them he learned of colonists who had risen from poverty to comparative affluence. "Industry, sobriety and perseverance" were all that were necessary for ultimate success. He found advice on the clearing of land, the fencing of fields, sowing and planting, and the making of maple sugar. Any settler could, even in his first year in the bush, look forward to a prosperous future and "while indulging in such pleasing visions, the wooden pillow of a new and industrious settler becomes softer than bolsters of down, and his solitary blanket more comfortable than sheets of Holland." He was warned, however, against making "wild, visionary, or romantic ideas or situations . . . the objects of pursuit." Canada according to the guides was a country in which "the emigrants could not expect to eat the bread of idleness, but where they may expect what is more worthy to be denominated happiness—the comfortable fruits of industry." But to begin life in the bush some capital was necessary, and Donald Smith's purse was not a long one. He learned that there was abundant labour for "working artizans, particularly blacksmiths, carpenters, bricklayers, plasterers, masons, coopers, millwrights, and wheelwrights." But this eighteen year old lad's only experience of labour had been in a lawyer's office. He had, too, not even an amateur's experience of farming, and "the partially cleared lots and wooded lands" offered did not appeal to him; so as he voyaged westward over the Atlantic his mind see-sawed between Upper Canada and the Hudson's Bay Company. He learned from his fellow-traveller Ross, a Canadian of experience, much that was not set down in the guides. There had been excessive emigration from Great Britain and Ireland to Canada and there was much unemployment and poverty in the land. Many of the inexperienced settlers who had taken up bush land had been ruined and now filled the towns and villages living as best they could. Success could be achieved, but for the average settler living remote from society in a wretched log-house life was almost unbearable. So, as Donald studied his prospectus and guides his mind reverted to the Great Company with its adventures and the ultimate prospect of a chief factorship.

On the thirtieth of June the voyage came to an end and the lad from Forres gazed with enthusiasm at the spot of earth made sacred from memories of Jacques Cartier and Champlain, Frontenac and Laval, Wolfe and Montcalm—Quebec, the ancient capital of Canada and for all time the historical capital. On the next day he hurried on by steamer to Montreal. As he journeyed past the long line of white-washed farmhouses of the habitants with every here and there the tall tin-covered spire of a chapel flashing in the sunlight, he was reminded of the Canadian rebellion about which he had heard so much in London. The storm of 1837 had been stilled but the sea was still heaving. Lord Durham on his arrival had gone energetically to work and to guard against future trouble had administered swift punishment to some of the rebel leaders. He had humanely decided to exile them instead of sentencing them to death. A steamer, the Canada bearing these prisoners, under a guard from the 71st Regiment, to Quebec en route to Bermuda, passed the vessel carrying Donald Smith to Montreal.

On the second of July, after a pleasant journey of about twenty-four hours, Montreal was reached. This city, rapidly passing Quebec as the commercial metropolis of British North America, did not at first sight give a favourable impression. Its "high buildings, confusedly massed," and dirty wharfs—there were as yet no proper quays—gave it the appearance of a city in a primitive stage of development; and yet Montreal had a history of almost two hundred years back of it. It was a city in the making. The streets that the young emigrant saw on landing were unpaved; there were no watering carts such as he had seen in London, and on dry days blinding limestone dust made out-of-door existence unbearable, while in wet weather the city was a sea of mud. In some places there were no sidewalks, in others crude wooden walks had been laid down, but for the most part the walks were of rudely laid "stones of all sizes, shapes, and positions." In only two places were there really good stone pavements—in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame and along the north side of Place d'Armes. There was no proper drainage system, and occasional stagnant pools could be seen even on the principal streets. St. Paul's was then the principal business street; Craig Street was a residential thoroughfare; and Notre Dame, although rapidly becoming a business street, was lined for the most part with the residences of merchants. Farms and orchards with an occasional handsome country residence occupied the space stretching back from St. Catherine Street to the mountain. McGill College, the chief glory of modern Montreal, had been founded, but as yet it had only a medical faculty with two professors.

At night Montreal was far from being a comfortable city to live in, and if Donald Smith ventured forth he was in danger of tripping over the uneven pavements or stumbling into an open ditch. The streets were unlighted. Some of the more imposing shops were illuminated with gas and the lights from their windows helped to guide the pedestrian through the uneven streets; but after business hours, when the heavy iron or wooden shutters were closed, the city was in stygian darkness.

In the daytime the streets were crowded with foot-passengers; habitants in gay surtouts and bonnet rouge, Highlanders in plaids, Indians in blankets, and a great concourse of ragged, unkempt, poverty-stricken Irish immigrants, the majority of whom had left their "native land in expectation of shovelling up the dollars out of the street" but "had not as yet fingered the ghost of one." Through this crowd passed priests and nuns clad in the distinctive garb of their various orders.

Such was the Montreal that Donald Smith saw in 1838. It had little attraction for him and he wasted no time in sight-seeing. On the very night of his arrival he called at the house of Edward Ellice, with his letter of introduction. Not finding Ellice at home he walked out to Lachine to interview Lewis Grant, a relative of his mother's. He then returned to Montreal and went to Boucherville, a suburb of the city, to present his uncle's letter to Alexander Stewart. But apparently neither Ellice nor Grant nor Stewart could help him to work in Upper Canada. This raw boy would have a rough road before him if he began life as a settler. Stewart seems to have given him a cordial welcome and had him stay with him for two weeks at Boucherville. These two weeks decided his fate. The political unrest in Upper Canada, the hard life, the story of innumerable failures of men who with high hopes had gone into the bush, convinced him that it would be unwise to settle in such a province. He would do as his uncles before him had done—throw in his lot with the "Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay." And so about the middle of July, he once more tramped out to Lachine, his destination being the dépôt of the Hudson's Bay Company. When he was ushered into the presence of Governor Simpson he handed this "king of the fur trade" his uncle's letter. Simpson took the letter, gave a hasty glance at the raw Scotch lad, a lad similar to hundreds of others who had stood before him seeking admission to the service of the Great Company, then somewhat impatiently read the letter, which was as follows:

"My dear Sir:—The bearer of this, my nephew, Mr. D. A. Smith, entertains at present thoughts of following in the footsteps of his uncle and many of our old friends in the fur trade, and for this reason desires the honour of an interview with you, which perhaps for my sake you will grant. He is of good character, studious, painstaking, and enterprising. He has recently been devoting his attention to the law, but has decided to leave this for a more active life. If you know of any way in which he may be of service to the Hudson's Bay Company, the exercise of your interest will only add one more obligation to the debt at present borne by, my dear sir, yours ever most sincerely and respectfully,

John Stuart."

Simpson read the letter and once more glanced with piercing eyes at the lad whose future rested in his hands. For a brief moment he hesitated; he had a grudge against John Stuart who had deserted the Company to become a Highland laird. But this young Scot had likewise an introduction from Edward Ellice, a man of high authority in the Company, and could not be ignored. The fate of Donald Alexander Smith was settled for all time. He was to begin work at once; begin it at a salary of twenty pounds a year. A clerk was called in and ordered "to take Mr. Donald Smith to the fur room and instruct him in the art of counting rat skins."

And so Donald Alexander Smith entered the service of the Great Company as an apprentice clerk. He had chosen his own career. Of his own volition he had put his hand to a rough plough and there was to be no looking back. Long years of hardships and disappointments were to be endured by him; but through it all he kept his sunrise aim, ever having his eyes fixed on the mountain peaks to which after infinite toil and unwavering steadfastness he was to win his way.

[Public Domain] Copyright/Licence: The author or authors of this work died in 1964 or earlier, and this work was first published no later than 1964. Therefore, this work is in the public domain in Canada per sections 6 and 7 of the Copyright Act. See disclaimers.