Searching for Robert Rundle

by Gerald Hutchinson

In 1950 I discovered, to my amazement, that Robert Rundle had initiated a mission on the north shore of Pigeon lake, in the area now identified as Mission Beach. The prominence of Mount Rundle in Banff, and the prevalence of his name elsewhere in that region, left me with the casual assumption that his work and influence were centred there. So began the merry chase that has claimed my attention ever since.

The first information was easily found. He was one of the four British Wesleyan missionaries appointed as chaplains to the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), and his base was Fort Edmonton. He arrived in October 1840, and departed for England in 1848. In 1858, the Palliser Expedition was searching for favourable mountain passes. Along the Bow River they met the Stoney Indians who had been strongly influenced by Robert Rundle. Presumably either Captain John Palliser or Dr James Hector or both named Mount Rundle. The name appears on the Palliser map of 1863. In 1914, the Banff Chapter of the IODE wanted to name its chapter after Robert Rundle and were able to correspond with Rundle's daughter, who provided them with "extracts from Father's jottings." This information was not widely known, but fortunately was preserved in the Legislative Library. Some English Methodists who had known Rundle in England after his return, settled in Fraser Flats, Edmonton, in 1910, and named their church in his honour. In 1940, the Alberta Conference of the United Church met in Edmonton, at which time a pageant was prepared depicting his arrival in Fort Edmonton in 1840. In 1941, the United Church in Banff was officially designated the Rundle Memorial Church.

Despite this honouring of his name, little was known about his ministry, his travels or the response of Indians to his ministry. Since the HBC mission was British, and all reports were sent to England, little information could be found in Canadian archives, but interest was rising steadily on the north shore of Pigeon Lake, and the Rundle's Mission Society was formed in 1956. A two-storey lodge was constructed in 1959-60, and the mission was recognized as a National Historic Site in 1965. The dedication service, centred on the newly constructed monument, was offered by the Government of Canada and the United Church of Canada. Also in 1965, my search for Rundle himself suddenly yielded results.

My work in the United Church of Canada involved considerable travel, so I was constantly exploring any possible sources. Shortly after the dedication service I had a meeting in Toronto, so I made a side trip to Ottawa to present pictures of the dedication service to the Hon. Arthur D. Laing, then Minister of Northern Affairs. Then I went to the Public Archives of Canada and spent hours in my first search of the microfilm of the Hudson's Bay Archives. This was a profound revelation, for the letters of Governor George Simpson over a period of eight years gave information and interpretation of the British Wesleyan Mission that I had never imagined, including charges of scandal and the recall of the Superintendent, Reverend Mr. James Evans. This provided me with a new background and perspective for understanding the work of Rundle when at last it became available.

I also learned, however, that the Chief Factor at Norway House, Donald Ross, lived daily with Superintendent Evans and his family, and with Reverend Mr. William Mason and his family. Ross reported regularly, and often privately, to Governor Simpson, but the Ross papers were in a separate collection held by the Public Archives of British Columbia. So I had to await a trip to Victoria to get into this exciting material. Many of us were searching, and sharing our results. Hugh Dempsey, archivist of the Glenbow Museum, Reverend Mr. John Travis, of Rundle Memorial Church, Banff, Reverend Mr. J. Ernest Nix, and others were all involved, and each contributed to the dramatic recovery of the documents. Very shortly after my return from Ottawa, Ernie Nix and I were attending a conference in Banff. John Travis telephoned to ask us to hurry down to the church. A young man had just introduced himself as a great-grandson of Robert Rundle, and delivered the long-sought diary and journals of Rundle's eight-year ministry. He also gave us the address of his mother, who had the rest of Rundle's papers. The journal, a heavy, bound book, was placed in the Glenbow Museum, and I began to anticipate a trip to Britain.

In 1973, my wife and I managed the British trip. We visited the Rundle grand-daughter, who gave us pictures and letters, as well as family background. We also visited the Mylor Church and Dowstall farm, on Falmouth Bay, where the Rundle family had lived. We spent four weeks in the Archives of the British Wesleyan Society collecting copies of the correspondence to and from the missionaries and the Society, as well as letters written by the Native Christians who maintained the Pigeon Lake mission. By 1977 Hugh Dempsey and I had combined our efforts and had the Rundle journals published, including diary, letters, occasional notes, and the entire Baptism and Marriage Registers for 1840-48. In effect, we had published the known archives of Robert Rundle, thus making them available to the public for the first time.

The British Wesleyans had not been interested in his material, the granddaughter said. It was just as though he had done something wrong. The HBC mission had been a great disappointment. Superintendent Evans was recalled in 1846 amid a flood of scandalous reports, and died of a heart attack. George Barnley returned to England in 1847, angry and complaining publicly. So when Rundle returned with a broken arm in 1848, the British had already decided to turn the mission over to the Canada Methodist Conference. He moved quietly into the circuit ministry of the Methodist Church. He died in retirement in 1896.

The search for Robert Rundle has been an experience, an education, an inspiration and a resource to be shared with all who will listen or read. His records reveal clearly the importance of the northern route into Western Canada — Hudson Bay and the great Saskatchewan River. The fur companies pioneered the route opening the north, with Fort Edmonton as the centre of the empire. The entire area south of the Saskatchewan River system was solely and entirely occupied by the aboriginal tribes. Rundle developed a special ministry by going to them, depending on their hospitality and generosity, making the Gospel available to them in their own language, and developing teachers and leaders from among them. Superintendent Evans had recently perfected the use of the syllabic alphabet so that Rundle could copy out "Sunday books" to be read in their own language in their own camps. For 30 years the Native Christian movement grew without having a church at all, or a budget, or an organization. He seemed to have introduced the greatness and goodness of the Spirit of Christ into the profound spiritual beliefs of an ancient people.

Thirty years later, the scene changed dramatically with the Confederation of Canada, and the sale of the HBC rights to Canada, so that the West became the Northwest Territories of Canada under the occupation and domination of the "white" culture. The entry to the West was no longer the river. All supplies now entered by way of St. Paul, Minnesota, then Winnipeg, and hence overland. Police, the railway, troops, and settlers followed the trails across the prairies, and eventually Calgary became the centre of the southern empire to establish the strong, dynamic rivalry so constant in the Alberta story. However, Rundle has provided the documents — especially the invaluable Registers — by which native Christians are now able to discover their roots and sustenance in their own people.