John Ramsay the native Indian|
An Article by Guttormur J. Guttormsson
The following article appeared in Andvari, Nýr flokkur, 1975, pp. 75-83. It is reprinted here with the permission of Guttormur's family.
When Björn Pétursson (who later became a Unitarian missionary), and his family settled in the hamlet of Sandy Bar (1876), he found the native Indian John Ramsay already settled there. He lived in a good-sized log cabin, along with his wife Betsy and their three children: a girl, Mary, and two boys, both younger than Mary.
Many native Indian families were living in the town and the surrounding woods. Around this time, more Icelandic families settled in the town and on the rolling hills east of Sandy Bar. Among them were Jón Björnsson, Gunnar B. Björnsson´s uncle from Minneapolis, and the great runner Hálfdán Sigmundsson. During the first winter, these Icelanders living in the area saw the arrival and spread of smallpox. Smallpox caused great casualties in and around Sandy Bar, especially amongst the native Indians who fell quite literally like straws. Ramsay lost his wife and both boys. His daughter fell sick and survived, only to bear the horrible scars for the rest of her life. I have never seen a person as deformed by the disease as she was. Ramsay's wife and the two boys are buried in the graveyard at Sandy Bar. The marble headstone that Ramsay laid on his wife's grave was the first such stone placed in northern New Iceland. It still stands solidly. The fence around the grave was renewed by Trausti Vigfússon (Rev. Oddur Gíslason's son-in-law) on account of a dream he had. This dream is recounted in the weekly journal Heimskringla. Twelve or thirteen dead native Indians were bound with sashes on flatbed sleighs, pulled north of the town, and buried in a single grave. (The mound is still visible, though overgrown with brush). Two Icelanders helped with the deed, namely, Jón Björnsson and Hálfdán Sigmundsson.
Soon after this, Ramsay moved with Mary up to Icelandic River. The events so far are recalled from before my own memory. I first remember Ramsay as being married to a beautiful native woman named Elín. It was a happy summer's day when the couple, with their child in its first year, came south down the river in a new birch-bark canoe and landed here at Víđivellir.
Elín came with the child in her arms to our door. She didn't come in, although I am sure my mother asked her to. My mother gave Elín milk in a cup, and Elín gave the child to drink. Elín wore a beautiful light-coloured dress with a red and green chequered shawl. Natives sought much after dresswear of bright colours. While Elín gave the baby to drink, I recall that Ramsay came up to the house carrying a paddle and appeared as "happy and handsome as the god Manitu." He greeted mother with a laugh, as was his custom. He was in the prime of his life. Not only was he the most good-looking native I have ever seen; he was also one of the best-built and ablest of men that I have seen. He was taller than the average man, with a straight back and broad shoulders, and his chest was thrust forward like that of a class French "officier." His neck was thick and strong. His hair was thick and full, cut above the shoulders, black and shining like a raven's. He combed it up and away from his straight and wide forehead. His eyes were dark brown beneath black, arched eyebrows set in a face the colour of russet. When he was not making fun or joking, his eyes appeared serious, yet never without goodness and warmth. Usually his face was alight with happiness. His laugh (for he certainly was of good spirits) had a pleasing timbre. His nose was slightly curved, his mouth was tenuous and fair; a subtle beard grew above and below the lips, and there also, a cleft chin. He had neither high cheekbones nor hollow cheeks. His face was thin, though not wanting of flesh; altogether an even and smooth countenance. He was light of foot and supple in grace. He was dressed then, as I often I saw him on trips to town. He wore a costume comprised of a red chequered shirt and star-white trousers of expensive and thick material, with a colourful sash around his waist to hold up his trousers with tassles on either hip (natives never used suspenders). I must say how fond I was of the couple's wonderful costumes which were so different from the way Icelanders dressed. In the bottom of the canoe, which was wholly without leaks, were piles of rich covers made from goat and sheep-wool, white as snow and clean, with broad black trim (known as Hudson Bay blankets) for the couple to wrap themselves in. Such abundance! Such wealth! What a far cry it was from the provisions of the impoverished Icelanders. Is it any wonder that one wished one were a native like Ramsay? Was it any wonder that one's greatest aspiration was to be a native like him? And to compare the shoes that the couple had; made from light-brown curried hide and embroidered with silk roses all around - to compare them with our rock-hard, Icelandic leather shoes! What a difference! I can't describe how great my joy was when I received my first pair of moccasins.
I don't remember how much time had passed from this visit to Ramsay's next. The next time he also came in the birch-bark canoe, the same way, that is, down river from up north. Only the next time, it was later that same summer. He announced to my mother, laughing, that the woman Elín and the baby were both dead. I was a child, and I wondered how he could be laughing while reporting this most tragic news. I didn't understand it then, but now, nearing my eightieth year, I do.
I was not old enough to remember that he had buried his child on a forested knoll a short distance south of the first cabin at Möđruvellir. (The cabin lay across from the printing house Framfari which stood east of the river.) There came to be a small cemetery there. There, other than Ramsay's child, rest a child of Friđjón and his wife Guđný, and Vilberg, aged 15, Guđný's brother.
A few years later, Ramsay buried his daughter's son there, a child in it's second year. There he placed a black cross adorned with white diamonds. (Native Indian burial sites were marked with diamonds cut in trees and coloured various colours. I don't know what the diamonds signified). After Ramsay lost Elín and the child, as I have previously recounted, only Maria remained as his one child. He was exceptionally good to her and caring, even though she was so horribly deformed from the pox.
Ramsay owned a log cabin in a dense wooded area (now called Riverton East) east of the river. The cabin was well made and warmed by a wood-burning stove. That was where he lived most of the time while Elín was still alive. During this time, I don't know how often, he invited Fúsi and myself - we were just children- and our parents and other families to dine in his cabin. A white tablecloth was placed on the middle of the floor and the meal was served there in flower-painted ceramic pots. Blankets were spread on the floor around the tablecloth and people would sit or lie down at the meal. The main courses were: boiled moose, an Indian flat-bread called banok (made from flour, water, fat, and baked at an open fire), butter and black tea with syrup. Very generous were the portions. What most distinguished the meal, however, was that when the guests would stand up after having eaten all they could possibly manage, Ramsay wouldn't hear of anything else than them sitting down to eat again. And everyone had to please him by eating some more! I remember another such feast, many years later, at Ramsay's. Icelandic men, women, and children had been invited. They ate dried and smoked moose (I have described this elsewhere). When all the guests had eaten their fill, María his daughter and Julia (who later became his wife) stood up and served everyone further portions of the delicacies.
During these first years, native Indians seemed to the Icelanders in New Iceland to live well, much better than the Icelandic immigrants. The natives knew how to hunt, and the Icelanders did not. The whole country between the lakes of Winnipeg and Manitoba was uninhabited and filled with many kinds of wild animals. The swamps and ponds along Lake Winnipeg were full of ducks and geese. Pelted animals were everywhere, but they were hard to trap. At the time, New Iceland was not a white man's land, nor did it suit him. But it was the native's paradise. They were happy and content, without a worry in the world, even though they did not have food for their next meal. They found no reason in the summer to save food for the winter. However, the arrival of winter brought food shortages. Then they simply went out to hunt. If someone had better luck than another, they shared their bounty. Icelanders who visited them were welcomed with a special joy, in other words, with laughter. The natives laughed fit to burst, so comical were we, the Icelanders, in their eyes! It goes without saying how we felt to be the objects of such laughter. However such receptions were not the rule. On other occasions, they received the Icelanders dryly and gravely, conversing little with their guests, instead talking loudly amongst themselves and gesting towards their guests about whom they were talking. We felt such behaviour was just as unpleasant as the mockery. A greater discomfort was felt when they came, many at a time, uninvited and without knocking, to an Icelandic home. They would sit themselves down without saying a word, and stay put for many hours, often when only a woman was at home alone with her children.
Some of the native Indians were extremely talented with their hands. Their canoes were works of art in shape and make. Skiffs and other small craft that they made from planks were a sight better than those that the Icelanders made. The natives did not take Icelandic craftsmanship as their example. On the contrary, the Icelanders tried to copy the small boats of the natives, but to no avail. The shape of the boat could never be copied. Nevertheless, the Icelanders managed to make many good boats indeed. The crafts the natives made were without any leaks. Unfortunately, it was all too common that when one saw two Icelanders together in a boat, one was rowing while the other one bailed! The native Indians displayed their wonder and indignation by smacking their tongues against the roofs of their mouths. Yet all that progressed for the Icelanders declined for the natives, and that is how things have been up to this day.
Right from the very beginning, Ramsay was the finest native in the area, and remained so all his life. He was free of their bad manners and idiosyncrasies. For example, they treated their sleigh-dogs very badly. They starved and beat them so badly without reason, so much so that their wails were heard from afar. Ramsay had a fine and well-kept team. He was never hard on them, neither with whip nor hand. In daily conduct, no one was more polite and civil than he. Though he had other customs and bearing than his fellow natives, he was nevertheless loyal to his tribe. His house was open to natives and Icelanders alike. When he stayed with Icelanders, enjoying their hospitality, and he heard of natives nearby, he went to stay with them, even though he had to sleep outside. No native was as helpful to Icelanders as he was. This can be seen by what is already recounted and so much more. He was most dependable in trade. He never tried to short-change anyone, though he himself, like other native Indians, was cheated by white businessmen. It is worth pointing out that native Indians had a different view of things than the white man. If a native found a thing to be desirable, such as something that caught his eye, i.e. coloured cloth, glass beads, silk thread or assorted baubles, then it meant all to him to possess it and make a small sacrifice for it.
Ramsay had money (some people said that he had money in a bank) and could afford much that others could not. He was a very diligent and competent hunter. In this respect, among other things, he was better than others of his tribe, and never had any company on a hunt, choosing always to go alone. Moose hunting during the winter was not for the weak-at-heart as gales and hail weather was best for tracking. Tracks often had to be traced long distances in order to get close to the prey. A cold job it was too cutting up a carcass in freezing weather. Sometimes it was too late to start the trek home, and one had to shore up in the woods. Then it was important to find a pine forest, chop a protective wall of pine and ferns, make a hollow shelter, and light a fire. He who lies in the hollow has to turn his cold side to the fire and the hot side away, thusly turning to and fro all night long. There was no reason, with a whole carcass of moose by one's side, to lie down to sleep with an empty stomach. All that was needed was to cut a decent-sized piece of meat and spear it with a frying-stick. A pot to melt snow in to make tea was indispensable. This was the good life for natives. Even if the temperatures were forty below, groups of hunters were often found, happily spending time together. Jón Sveinsson, the uncle of the poet Einar Benediktsson, experienced such an adventure with the natives. He asserted that never in the halls of kings had there been such joy as in a typical native shelter beside a bonfire. He said that they had slept in shifts, drunken tea, and eaten all night long. Perhaps it happened more often than not, however, that night came and no game had been bagged. In such instances sitting down was ill advised. It was better to walk around to keep warm, but perhaps risking wandering into a mesh of fallen trees and getting stuck. Few things were worse however than being caught out in the open in a cruel and wailing storm.
Often we saw Ramsay disappear into the forest with his dog team and sled, gun, hatchet, teapot and other supplies. He was off to hunt. He travelled on snowshoes when he had to break a new trail through the forest, for otherwise the dog team and sled would sink in the deep snow. Either a short or a long time passed until he came back with a moose on the flatbed sleigh. He sold the meat to Friđjón Friđriksson's store at Möđruvellir for five cents a pound. Friđjón and Sigtryggur had many men in the woods sawing logs, and Ramsay had a good market there for all the moose he could shoot, which was quite a lot. He caught whitefish ice-fishing and took it to the store. He also sold whitefish and moose-meat to pioneers, sometimes to barter and sometimes as gifts. He was the cleverest hunter of small game and often traded pelts at Stonefort (Lower Fort Gary between Selkirk and Winnipeg). The Hudson Bay Company had an outpost there, and natives came from far and wide on dogsleds, loaded with furs to trade.
One winter, during this period, Ramsay and his daughter Maria lived at Ós, the nearest hamlet north of Möđruvellir. At the time, Benedikt Kristjánsson and his wife Hólmfríđur lived there. Ramsay and María stayed in the attic. Once my mother took me to visit Hólmfríđur. While I was playing outside, I saw the horrible visage of María for the first time. She was out walking when I saw her. I screamed in fear and terror, and thought that this was Grýla*, the wife of Skógar-Grímur. Unruly children were told stories of this couple to frighten them. In some homesteads, Skógar-Grímur, the husband of Grýla was called Dúđadurtur (Rags-Clod). Children believed that this scoundrel stole naughty children and dragged them off to the woods. It was no wonder then, that I felt ill at the sight of María. My mother and Hólmfríđur came running out to correct my misunderstanding.
Later that same winter we visited Ós again. Ramsay was not at home. He was probably hunting, and María was in the attic. Ramsay had recently returned from Stone Fort and had given María a new-fangled musical instrument. My mother was eager to hear the instrument (I confess, so was I!) so Hólmfríđur took us up to the attic. María received us well, but she was very shy. She couldn't bring herself to play the instrument and whispered to Hólmfríđur to play instead. The instrument, which lay on a table, was a well-polished black box. A long strip of paper (probably seven inches broad), with a tight row of holes ran in one end of the box and came out the other, when a crank on the side of the box was turned. For the length of the strip of paper a sweet melody rang out. One song followed another and I was awe-struck and delighted. This was the first instrument I had ever heard. I believe I had seen beautiful pictures of angels with instruments, but none of a pox-marked, deformed native Indian angel with a "lyre-box" (which is what my mother called it). The one thing which convinced me that María was no angel was the fact that Negro and native Indian angels did of course not exist! We assumed that Ramsay had had to trade several pelts for a treasure as grand as that music box.
Generally the native Indians were not inclined to teach the Icelanders their arts, nor did they seek to learn anything from us. The natives chose light, thin, and razor-sharp hatchets. The Icelanders preferred lead-heavy, thick, and more or less dull tools. Knives and hatchets were also used differently. For example, native Indians whittled toward the body, while Icelanders whittled away from it. Ramsay was the only native to teach Icelanders much which they found useful (this has been described elsewhere), such as ice-fishing, making roofs whole with mud and straw, and making walls wind and draft-proof by mixing hay and mud, and putting it between the cracks in the logs. It could well be that he was the native that warned my father of the floods and advised him to build his house on a three-tiered step. One can scarcely imagine better counsel. The Icelanders would have fared better to learn more from the natives, such as the gathering of all sorts of dyes, which the native women had to colour moose-hair and twine for decorations in shoes and hide-shirts. Icelanders suffered from scurvy and hardship. The lack of milk was said to blame. At the time, natives had no cows, but they knew how to utilise herbs for, amongst other things, so-called Indian tea, which was unfamiliar to Icelanders.
Ramsay was especially good to young people, and all young people cared for him. His favourites were Vigfús, my brother, and Guđmundur Jónsson at Fögruvellir, he who found the origins of Icelandic River. Ramsay gave Vigfús a fine birch-bark canoe, a splendid gift. He took Guđmundur hunting with him and taught him how to make bear-traps and other hunting skills. Guđmundur gained a reputation as a hunter.
I remember an incident which helps describe Ramsay well. It was during the time that he lived with us. He was often occupied with making paddles for his canoe. He cared not for sawed planks, but rather used material from the woods, even though shaping it was more work. Once I came to him while he was at work. I brought a pole of birch and a length of string. He asked me what I intended to do with the birch. "Make a bow and arrow", I said. Ramsay laughed and said such material would never do for a bow as there was no elasticity in it. He put down his paddles, went out to the woods, and collected two sticks of willow, one rather sinuous and the other straight.
He sat down by the fire, for everywhere he sat, he had a fire for cooking and a pot of tea at hand. He then began to whittle the straight stick. I was surprised to see that the straight stick was to become the bow. He understood my expression and laughed. It couldn't be that he was going to make an arrow of the crooked stick. The arrow most certainly had to be straight! But that was in fact the case. When he had finished the bow, he began to whittle the arrow, which, being of willow, zigzagged every which-a-way. I was appalled, and told Ramsay in no uncertain terms that this stick would never become an arrow. He was truly amused. I pointed to the birch I had intended for the bow and asked whether it were not a more opportune material for an arrow, for at least it was straight. How greatly he was entertained! I tried to convince him that it would be impossible to hit anything with such a snaking arrow. He said that he would be the first to hit a target and asked me to run home, only a short distance away, and fetch some duck wings which he had there. When I came back, the arrow had become straight. I never found out how he straightened it. When I asked him - as I so often did- he simply shook his head and smiled. Here was something he cared not to teach a white man. Can a scientist or any man other than a native Indian solve this mystery? He had no other tools save a knife and a hatchet. Truly, he had both fire and water close at hand, yet the arrow showed no marks of these elements. Only the marks of his knife could be seen on the shaft around those places where the crooks had been. When he had strung the bow and tied three duck feathers to the arrow's end, Ramsay placed arrow to bow and drew. He shot, and hit his target.
*Grýla, a troll-like witch.