The legend of “Fireaway” – the ‘voyageur’ horse…

An equine pioneer

An excerpt from Grant Macewan’s delight book, Blazing the Old Cattle Trail, Fifth House; Revised edition, 2000.

York Factory, Hudson Bay, Canada. It is located about 600 miles north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, know as Fort Garry in
York Factory, Hudson Bay, Canada. It is located about 600 miles north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, know as Fort Garry in  1830s.

Fur Trader Anthony Henday, after a notable trip through the unknown parts of Western Canada in 1755, returned to York factory, on Hudson Bay, with hard-to-believe tales about his adventures. Having penetrated into what is now Western Alberta, he was the first white man to see the Canadian Rockies and, still more astonishing to his Hudson Bay Company friends, to report seeing the Indians riding horses. Although his listeners had doubts, Henday was reporting truthfully. Natives of the Blackfoot tribes had recently acquired horses, mainly by theft from their more southerly neighbor’s. Hence, the white man had nothing to do directly with the introduction of horses to Western Canada.

The Selkirk Settlers were able to get horses for their immediate requirements from the Natives but, having known the massive and improved breeds of Scotland, England and Ireland, they were unimpressed by the small and broken-colored Indian cayuses. These latter were, however, hardy and sure-footed and, as historian Alexander Ross quite correctly said, “their appearance is not presupposing, but they are faster than they look. Few horses could be better adapted for the cart and the saddle, and none so good for the climate.”

But the local horses were not appreciated. To most people they were ugly and spiritless. Sharing that view, Governor George Simpson wrote: “some plan must soon be fallen upon to increase our stock and improve our breed of horses as they are becoming very scarce and of such small growth as to be quite unfit for our work.

“We should select good mares from the United States and from the stock at our own posts,” the governor added, “and get a superior stallion from England.” The result, he hoped, would be heavier horses for farming, and faster horses for buffalo hunting.

Delivering an English stallion at the Red River Colony would present unusual difficulties. But from York Factory Simpson made formal request to Hudson Bay Company officers in London, and under date of February 23, 1831, came the reply from Deputy Governor Nicolas Garry, “we shall send a stallion of a proper breed by ship to York Factory. We should think the experimental farm at Red River the best place to commence raising horses for service.”


A rendering of Fireaway being brought down the chain of rivers and lakes to the Selkirk Settlement.
A rendering of Fireaway being brought down the chain of rivers and lakes to the Selkirk Settlement.

That stallion was the famous Fireaway. On arrival at York Factory in the summer of 1831 he was transferred immediately to one of the oar-propelled York boats used on the route between Hudson Bay and Fort Garry. Hay and oats were carried but there were the many portages, at each of which the horse had to be unloaded and reloaded. It wasn’t easy and the horse didn’t like it any better than the men who were obliged to sit at the animal’s feet. Once the great horse fell out of the boat and swam to shore where he was caught and reloaded.


fireaway  - york boatNotwithstanding the numerous hazards created by a horse struggling constantly to balance himself in moving boat—call it a freight canoe or York Boat—George Simpson could report, ultimately, to London that the stallion “reached the settlement in perfect safety … and will soon give us a better breed of horses. He is looked upon as one of the wonders of the world by the natives, many of whom have travelled great distances with no other object than to see him.

For the breeding season following, twenty-five selected mares were brought from Athabaska River to Fort Garry and Twenty-five from Fort Carlton—long trail by any standards.

In due course there were foals bearing the clear marks of superiority; and in the years that followed, the maturing Fireaway horses came to be regarded as the swiftness buffalo runners and the most useful road horses in the country. Indeed, for 50 years thereafter the settlers of Red River talked about the speed and endurance of Fireaway stock. A horse know to be a great-grandson or great-granddaughter of Fireaway was likely to command a substantially better price than a horse of equal quality and unknown breeding.


As late as 1877, settlers in the Portage la Prairie area revived their affection for the memory of that horse, which was also the first purebred race in all of Western Canada. A stranger driving a fast horse blew into town a day or two before 24 of May and promptly challenged all comers to a matched race. With the honor of the community and the reputation of local horses at stake, townsmen came together for serious discussion. Settlers with swift horses were remembered, and thoughts turned to Farmer John Macdonald at High Bluff who had a nimble great-granddaughter of Fireaway. A message was dispatched: “Bring your mare to town at once. We need her for a race.”

Macdonald was plowing with a two-horse team when the exhausted courier reached him. Reluctantly, he unhitched the good mare and her mate from the walking plow, hitched them to his democrat and drove to Portage. Farmers and townspeople couldn’t honestly expect a homesteader’s plowhorse to win a race against a barnstorming flier from St. Paul but they recalled her breeding and nursed a silenthope. It was a great race; every pioneer who saw it agreed and, sure enough, the blood of Fireaway was still virile if not invincible and Macdonald’s mare, drawing a farm democrat and an exultant Scottish settler, came down the Portage la Prairie Street to leave the professional racer from Minnesota a convincing distance behind.

Men talked again about the greatness of Fireaway forgotten were the heroic men who accepted the nigh frightening task of bringing stallions from Hudson Bay to the as the location of Winnipeg when there was no means of transportation than a freight canoe.

Where did the famous stallion go ultimately? On that point there was speculation. According to one story, he was sold to a United States buyer; another report poll of the horse being stolen and whisked across the boundary, and still another, that his breeding worth he became so well established that he was taken back by way of Hudson Bay to England where he was used to produce steeple chasers.

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John (Giovanni) Cabot

Discovery Day, Newfoundland and Labrador, June 14th, 1497

John Cabot in traditional Venetian garb by Giustino Menescardi (1762). A mural painting in the Sala dello Scudo in the Palazzo Ducale, Venice.
John Cabot in traditional Venetian garb by Giustino Menescardi (1762). A mural painting in the Sala dello Scudo in the Palazzo Ducale, Venice.

John Cabot (Italian: Giovanni Caboto; c. 1450 – c. 1499) was an Italian navigator and explorer whose 1497 discovery of parts of North America under the commission of Henry VII of England is commonly held to have been the first European encounter with the mainland of North America since the Norse Vikings visits to Vinland in the eleventh century. The official position of the Canadian and British governments is that he landed on the island of Newfoundland.

There is very little precise contemporary information about the 1497 voyage. If Cabot kept a log, or made maps of his journey, they have disappeared. What we have as evidence is scanty: a few maps from the first part of the 16th century which appear to contain information obtained from Cabot, and some letters from non-participants reporting second-hand on what had occurred. As a result, there are many conflicting theories and opinions about what actually happened.


Modern-day replica of John Cabot's ship, the Matthew. Although there is no contemporary 15th-century depiction of the Matthew, this historical replica was built for the 'Cabot 500' anniversary celebrations in Newfoundland during the summer of 1997. This photo shows the Matthew during its call at St. John's Harbour.  Reproduced by permission of Wayne Sturge. Photo ©1997.
Modern-day replica of John Cabot’s ship, the Matthew.
Although there is no contemporary 15th-century depiction of the Matthew, this historical replica was built for the ‘Cabot 500’ anniversary celebrations in Newfoundland during the summer of 1997. This photo shows the Matthew during its call at St. John’s Harbour.
Reproduced by permission of Wayne Sturge. Photo ©1997.

Cabot’s ship was named the Matthew, almost certainly after his wife Mattea. It was a navicula, meaning a relatively small vessel, of 50toneles – able to carry 50 tons of wine or other cargo. It was decked, with a high sterncastle and three masts. The two forward masts carried square mainsails to propel the vessel forward. The rear mast was rigged with a lateen sail running in the same direction as the keel, which helped the vessel sail into the wind.

There were about 20 people on board. Cabot, a Genoese barber (surgeon), a Burgundian, two Bristol merchants, and Bristol sailors. Whether any of Cabot’s sons were members of the crew cannot be verified.

The Matthew left Bristol sometime in May, 1497. Some scholars think it was early in the month, others towards the end. It is generally agreed that he would have sailed down the Bristol Channel, across to Ireland, and then north along the west coast of Ireland before turning out to sea.

john cabot's two voyabes - mapBut how far north did he go? Again, it is impossible to be certain. All one can say is that Cabot’s point of departure was somewhere between 51 and 54 degrees north latitude, with most modern scholars favouring a northerly location.

The next point of debate is how far Cabot might have drifted to the south during his crossing. Some scholars have argued that ocean currents and magnetic variations affecting his compass could have pulled Cabot far off course. Others think that Cabot could have held approximately to his latitude. In any event, some 35 days after leaving Bristol he sighted land, probably on 24 June. Where was the landfall?

Cabot was back in Bristol on 6 August, after a 15 day return crossing. This means that he explored the region for about a month. Where did he go?

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Francis Pegahmagabow, MM-two bar

The most highly decorated Canadian Native in the First World War

[See also, this excellent CBC documentary at:  Legendary Ojibwa sniper unsung hero of WW I]

sniperCpl. Francis Pegahmagabow of the Parry Island Band in Ontario was decorated three times for the marksmanship and scouting skills he displayed in Belgium and France. Known as ‘Peggy’ to other members of his battalion, he survived the war and later became chief of his band.

The most highly decorated Canadian Native in the First World War was Francis Pegahmagabow. An Ojibwa from the Parry Island Band in Ontario, he was awarded the Military Medal (MM) plus two bars for bravery in Belgium and France. Soldiers who had been awarded the MM and later performed similarly heroic acts could receive up to two bars to it, denoting further awards. Pegahmagabow was one of 39 members of the CEF who received the maximum two bars to the MM.

Pegahmagabow enlisted with the 23rd Regiment (Northern Pioneers) in August 1914 – almost immediately after war was declared. Previously, he had worked along the Great Lakes as a marine fireman for the Department of Marine and Fisheries. Within weeks of volunteering, he became one of the original members of the 1st Canadian Infantry Battalion, which, along with the rest of the 20,000-strong

1st Canadian Division, landed in France in February 1915.

Sniping was his specialty. It has been written of him, “His iron nerves, patience and superb marksmanship helped make him an outstanding sniper.” In addition, Pegahmagabow developed a reputation as a superior scout.

The 1st Battalion experienced heavy action almost as soon as it arrived on the battlefield. It fought at Ypres, where the enemy introduced a new deadly weapon, poison gas, and on the Somme, where Pegahmagabow was shot in the leg. He recovered and made it back in time to return with his unit to Belgium.

In November 1917, the 1st Battalion joined the assault near the village of Passchendaele. Here, roughly 20,000 Allied soldiers crawled from shell crater to shell crater, through water and mud. With two British divisions, the Canadian Corps attacked and took the village, holding it for five days, until reinforcements arrived. The Allies suffered 16,000 casualties at Passchendaele, and Corporal Pegahmagabow earned his first bar to the MM.

His citation reads, “At Passchendaele Nov.6th/7th, 1917, this NCO [non-commissioned officer] did excellent work. Before and after the attack he kept in touch with the flanks, advising the units he had seen, this information proving the success of the attack and saving valuable time in consolidating. He also guided the relief to its proper place after it had become mixed up.”

It is not known how Pegahmagabow earned the MM itself and its second bar. It has been said, though, that he merited them during the

Second Battle of Ypres in 1916 and at Amiens in 1918.

In April 1919, Pegahmagabow was invalided to Canada, having served for nearly the entire war. Afterward, he joined the Algonquin Regiment in the non-permanent active militia and, following in the steps of his father and grandfather, became chief of the Parry Island Band and later a councillor. A member of Canada’s Indian Hall of Fame, Pegahmagabow died on the reserve in 1952.

Source: The Canadian Regiment.

Newfoundland Tsunami…

“Like a bolt out o’ hell..”

newfoundland tsunmi3On 18 November 1929 a tsunami struck Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula and caused considerable loss of life and property. Giant waves hit the coast at 40 km/hr, flooding dozens of communities and washing entire homes out to sea.

The earthquake was centred on the edge of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, about 400 kilometres (250 mi) south of the island. It was felt as far away as New York and Montreal. The quake, along two faults 250 kilometres (160 mi) south of the Burin Peninsula, triggered a large submarine landslide (200 km3 or 48 cu mi). It snapped 12 submarine transatlantic telegraph cables and led to a tsunami that arrived in three waves, each 3 to 4 metres (12 – 13 feet) high, that struck the coast at 105 km/h (65 mph) about three hours after the earthquake occurred. The waves travelled at speeds up to 129 km/h (80 mph) at the epicentre; they were recorded as far away as Portugal.

newfoundland tsunamiThe tsunami destroyed many south coastal communities on the Burin Peninsula, killing 27 or 28 people and leaving 10,000 more homeless. All means of communication were cut off by the destruction, and relief efforts were further hampered by a blizzard that struck the day after. It took more than three days before the SS Meigle responded to an SOS signal with doctors, nurses, blankets, and food. Donations from across Newfoundland, Canada, the United States and United Kingdom totalled $250,000.

There was never an accurate official list of the victims produced by any branch of the Newfoundland government. In the report entitled “Loss of Life,” the Honourable Dr. Harris Munden Mosdell, Chairman of the Board of Health Burin West, reported: “The loss of life through the tidal wave totals twenty-seven. Twenty-five deaths were due directly to the upheaval. Two other deaths occurred subsequently and were due to shock and exposure.” Later research attributed an additional death to the earthquake.[4]

In 1952, American scientists from Columbia University put together the pieces of the sequentially broken cables that led to the discovery of the landslide and the first documentation of a turbidity current. Scientists are looking at layers of sand believed to be deposited by other tsunamis in an effort to determine the occurrence rates of large earthquakes. One sand layer, thought to be deposited by the 1929 tsunami, at Taylor’s Bay was found 13 cm below the turf line. The occurrences of large tsunamis, such as the one in 1929, are dependent upon deposition of sediments offshore because it was the landslide that made the tsunami so powerful. The deposition of such a large volume of sediments will take a while before there is enough to form an underwater landslide the same size as that in 1929.

*Source: Wikipedia

farmer sewing seed

My list of of interesting books about Canada (to date).