A Strange Voyage
Following the Home Call of our beloved brother F.W. Schwartz in January 1973, one of his daughters gave me a folder filled with many of his notes and manuscripts. It is from these that the Editor selected this article and adapted it for Ministry in Focus.
One afternoon in 1853, an engineer and his assistant were engaged near the Lake Superior end of the Canal system at Sault Ste. Marie, when their attention was directed to a boat approaching from the west. It was different to any they had ever seen, rather large, with high sides, and evidently built by unskilled hands. A series of long oars on each side propelled it, while a row of white objects moved up and down in unison with them. As the boat drew near, it was seen that six young men were rowing. The white objects proved to be their hats, which were made of white rabbit skins, conical in shape, like the familiar “fool’s caps.” Their motion gave the craft a weird, ghostly appearance. An elderly white man handled the rough tiller. With him were an elderly Indian woman and a number of young “half-breed” women and children. Their camp utensils and assorted bundles indicated that their voyage had been a long one.
An Orkney Orphan
The boat was brought to shore stern first. The old man stepped out, rabbit-skin cap in hand, and asked, in rather broken English, “Sir, can you tell me where I can find a Bible church?” At that time there was nothing in Sault Ste. Marie of that description, but twelve miles down the river there was something which, it was thought, might be what was wanted. Directions were given. The old man glanced at the rapids and enquired whether his boat could pass them safely. Upon being assured that, with the assistance of a rope, the boat could be eased down from a path near the water’s edge, he asked no further questions, and with a few words to the crew in an Indian tongue, directed the boat to the rapids’ brink. There all disembarked and, following directions, soon had their craft on the lower level. Resuming their places, they rowed rapidly out of sight as though on business of the utmost urgency.
It was later learned that they reached their destination the same day. The old man asked a large number of questions. At last, on being informed by the missionary in charge that there was a Bible then in the pulpit to be read and explained to all hearers, he seemed satisfied. He obtained permission to camp on a vacant lot, and informed the missionary that a journey of well over two thousand miles, requiring over two years’ time, was now joyfully ended! The man, whose name was John Sebastian, was probably over sixty years of age—how much more he did not know. He was born in the Orkney Islands and had but a faint recollection of his birthplace. He was left an orphan at an early age and as a lad was taken into the service of the Hudson Bay Fur Company and sent on one of its vessels to the West Coast of Hudson Bay at Fort York. He said that the practice of that company for centuries had been to select indigent, hardy Scotch lads and send them to the vast wilds of Northern Canada to become expert trappers, and by encouraging them to marry Indian women and raise families to attach them to certain localities for life. They became valuable agents in training the natives to rely upon trapping and dealing with the company for subsistence.
To this life John Sebastian was introduced. He was sent to a remote district far in the interior, presumably in the Mackenzie or North Saskatchewan River basins, and eventually married an Indian woman and became the father of a large family. The company required the signing of enlistment papers for a term of five years. If their terms were successful, the “agents” were given special attention by the company’s officers, their families were invited to come with them, and they were given a “good time” in which feasting and drinking figured quite largely.Renewal enlistment papers were signed, and a new five years of exposure and hardship were entered upon. In dealings with the company no money was used. The unit of value was a beaver skin, inferior skins having a lesser value and better ones, such as silver fox, a higher. The skins, after being inspected, were paid for with goose quills of a special type, which served as “checks,” and could be exchanged at the company’s stores for ammunition, clothing, food and other supplies.
A Simple Tract
Sebastian had made about eight of these five-yearly trips to Fort York, when, on one of them, he found a missionary holding services nearby. He attended, and what he heard at once revived memories of the rustic “kirk” on his native Island—of hearing hymns sung, the Bible read and prayers offered. He could not read, and therefore had not been able to supplement those early memories. But now a new impulse seemed to be given him. Instead of feasting and drinking while he remained at the post, he plied the preacher with questions, learned of the existence of the Bible, and imbibed some of its truths. When he left he was given a four-page tract. He carried away with him deep impressions of the things he had heard and a desire to learn still more. The tract was now his only means of information. It conveyed nothing to him, but in his eagerness to know, he determined to make the most of it. Letter by letter, word by word, he pored over it, until he mastered the words, and at length their sense became clear to him. Before the end of the next five-year term, he was rejoicing in the knowledge of forgiveness and was happy in the consciousness of a new relationship between himself and God.
Returning to the post, his first thought was to find the preacher who had been the instrument in bringing the glad news of salvation to him; but, to his disappointment, there was no preacher to be found. He learned that hundreds of miles to the south there was a land where Bibles and preachers were to be found. He knew no way of getting there, so again enlisted for another five years of isolation. But he longed to get to that land of Bibles and at length determined to make a supreme effort to reach it. His family agreed to the undertaking. Again the post was visited and supplies obtained, but this time he declined to re-enlist, though urged to do so. Returning as far as Lake Winnipeg he turned south, obtaining food on the way by hunting and fishing. He followed the lake, it would seem, to the Winnipeg River, and ascending that got as far as the Lake of the Woods, when winter stopped him. The next spring he proceeded. He ascended Rainey River to Rainey Lake, crossed the short portage to the head waters of the Kaministikwia River, and followed that to Lake Superior. He had now gone nearly two thousand miles. So far he had used canoes, but on the broad waters of Lake Superior these would be useless. He spent the second winter near a Hudson Bay Company post, obtained some nails and tools, built his strange boat, and clothed his family in rabbit-skin garments, including the weird conical caps. Thus outfitted, he arrived at the “Sault,” in a country he did not even know the name of, and enquiring only for a “Bible church”!
Not long afterward the engineer met John Sebastian again and enquired as to the truth of the story he had heard from the missionary. “That is the fact,” said Sebastian, “and if you wish I will show you the tract.” He crossed the river in his canoe, and returned with the tract. It was an ordinary four-page leaflet, printed in London, England, giving a simple exposition of a Bible text, probably Matthew 11:28: “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
A Word of Encouragement
But what of the missionary who gave the tract to him? Did he, perhaps failing to see any direct results of his labours, leave that far northern region discouraged? Did the tracts he distributed there, many of them to rude and unlettered people, seem wasted? Or had he just been happy to labour on, believing God, Who sent him forth, could and would give “testimony unto the word of His grace” (Acts 14:3)? It is just like God to magnify His grace in saving the very ones we might be tempted to consider unreachable. John Sebastian’s case is but one among many that prove this.
At the beginning of this New Year, then, let us be encouraged to go on sowing beside all waters, remembering the words of Solomon, who wrote: “In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good” (Ecclesiastes 11:6).
(Author’s note: Mr. Charles T. Harvey, C.E., to whom I am indebted for these facts, is the engineer referred to in the story. These same facts are related in a “Souvenir Book” issued some years ago on the occasion of a semi-centennial celebration at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.)