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The Life of John W. Johnson
Chapter 2
First Memories - 1834 to 1841
(age 5 to 11)

Transcribed - June 1998 - by Ne-Do-Ba

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We shall pass over an interval of a year and a half, as the first recollections that young Johnson had was in the year 1834, and we shall also give the reminder of the narrative in the person of the subject himself.

[1834 to 1835]
The first recollection I have was in the winter of 1834, as near as I can judge. I was with the Micmac Indians, and crying for bread, but as this tribe was engaged in hunting upon the "Great Hunting Ground," near Halifax, N. S., and they lived principally upon meat, I spent my breath for nothing. I recollect the following winter of being with the same tribe, and at play with the Indian children at a game called "snow snakes." The "snake," so called, is a piece of maple some two feet in length, about four inches wide, and like a sled runner, being flat and turned up at one end. The children would dig out a very narrow path in the snow, upon some hill side, quite long, and then standing at the top set the "snakes" down, and let them run down the path; sometimes they would jump out at the side of the path into the snow, other times stop, and ones behind would often jump over them and bound on. The owner of the "snake" that went the greatest distance in the path would be entitled to the others. This little game I have played many hours, often times barefooted, as they would take away my moccasins to keep me in, and when my feet were cold I would run into the camp, and put them into the ashes near the fire which would make them smart badly, and when warmed, run out again to resume my play. This tribe told me that my father was an Indian, and my mother a white woman, and that they were both dead, and when told this an in distinct recollection would oftentimes flit across my memory of a pale-faced woman standing over me, and at other times a little prayer that I was wont to repeat at my home would crowd itself upon my memory, but yet I could not remember a word of it; but nothing more than these did I remember. The spring following I remember of using the bow and arrow, and so expert had I become that I killed a partridge, a kind called spruce, or black partridge, which in that section of the country were very tame. I was so pleased with my exploit that I seized the bird and wrung his head off. This little adventure with the bow I remember very distinctly, and the feat is not uncommon with the Indian boys. Being used to exercise their limbs more than white children, and to accustom themselves to recreation in the open air, their strength becomes developed at an earlier age. I have known small Indian boys, not more than five years of age, to shoot with their bows and arrows, rabbits and other small game. At this time the tribe was near the great lakes north of Halifax, and I remember of going in the spring with the Indians in the night to spear salmon, in the rapids that connect the lakes together; they wanted me to tend the torch that is usually placed in the bow of the canoe. Their canoes were made of birch bark and lined with fir and sometimes ash. These canoes are very light, and to manage them requires great skill and experience, for a small weight upon either side in clines them over, and oftentimes in the rapids when spearing salmon, the Indian who handles the spear loses his balance, and is precipitated into the water, overturning the canoe, putting out the light of the torch, and endangering their lives. They head the the canoe up stream, and while one tends the torch, another uses the spear, and a third, sits in the stern and paddles the canoe.

The spear is about a dozen feet in length with a small round pointed piece of iron about six inches in length driven into the end. Just above where the iron is inserted is fastened by strings a piece of wood, narrow and thin in the shape of a horse-shoe, called "jaws." This is fastened on the pole so that each side of the jaws extends in the form of an arch nearly to the end of the iron in the end. The Indian strikes the salmon upon the back, and the iron enters the vertebrae, and the jaws which are rather pliable, open, and the fish is caught between them; the spear is then drawn quickly up, and struck upon the inside of the boat, and the fish drops off. I have sometimes seen the canoe filled with salmon speared in this manner, so that we had quite a load when we returned.

[1836 to 1837]
My next recollections are of scenes that occurred the following winter 1836-7, when I was with another tribe (whether taken or sold, I do not know), called Wabanauke, which tribe inhabited British America.

At the time of my remembrance they were traveling on sledges drawn by dogs upon the snow, and we had great quantities of furs, which were collected in the winter. In the following spring, we visited some trading stations, and disposed of our winter's work, or exchanged for food, bread, tobacco, and whisky, which they thought was the most valuable of all. We lived principally upon animal food, with fish, and sometimes a scanty supply of bread. In the spring and summer following, I remember that we traveled such upon lakes and rivers, sometimes fishing, trapping, and occasionally shooting bears, sometimes upon land, and at other times chasing them with canoes in the water.

I remember that the tribe went north upon the Labrador Coast, and that they had a skirmish with some sailors, and that one of our number was killed in the engagement; they buried him in the snow, covering him over with stones, and throwing snow upon the top. I think that at this time I might have been with the Esquimaux Indians, as we lived in a stone hut, a kind of one that they usually inhabit, lined with moss, and in the top a hole for the smoke to go out. This hut was a very comfortable one, much more so than many that I have since lived in. To got into it we had to crawl some distance through a narrow passage.

In the winter of 1837 I was with the Wabanauke tribe. They were engaged in hunting moose and other game, and that winter they secured quite a stock of furs, and the next spring they built canoes and went down rivers and crossed lakes, until they came to settlements of whites, where they disposed of their furs, or exchanged them for cloths, provisions, ammunition, and other necessary articles.

In 1840 I lived with an Indian and his squaw, and called them father and mother, and they belonged to the Micmac tribe. I think they told me the same story in regard to my parents that the former Indians had. This Indian had no children, and the place where we were camping was near Amherst, N. S. I used to leave the camp, and go to the houses of the whites, and play with children, and at one house that I used to go to daily to get milk, there was a white lady, who took quite an interest in me, and taught me the letters of the alphabet. I had quite a privilege while I was with these Indians, for I went over to this lady's house, and studied the alphabet, and while stopping there I learned to read a little. Some days the Indians would load up a sled with baskets, pails, and fancy articles, and harnessing in a couple of dogs, I would go and sell them in the white settlements, starting early in the morning, and be gone until night, when I would hurry back to the camp. This tribe used to make something at repairing tubs, &c., and they also made some very nice fancy boxes out of porcupine quills, dyed different colors. I shall always remember of the kindness of the white lady, although I do not know her name; she gave me a small primer in which I learned my letters, and I remember that she was very patient and forbearing with me in her efforts to learn me to read, and I was very reluctant when spring came to leave the place where I had found such a kind friend. But the Indian life is one of change, and from spring until snow comes, they are roving from place to place, rarely stopping more than a week, and not often that, in one place. The most of the summer is spent in hunting, fishing, and trapping, and when winter comes, they pitch upon some good place to hunt, or upon the edge of some settlement where they make baskets, and thus pass the winter. In the hot summer nights the Indians often hunt moose as they assemble in the water upon the edge of some lake to got rid of the flies, and when thus situated the hunters paddle in their canoes, keeping to the leeward of them, and when near enough shoot them down.

The tribe the following winter stopped at an Indian village called Aristigooch, which is near Pictou, and I remember of going to the Catholic Church, which was built of stone, with the Indians. I carried my little primer given me by the white lady, the first time I went and the priest seeing it, took it away from me, and boxed my ears, saying that I had no business with such a book as that, for I might learn to read, and then in all probability I should become a Protestant, and if I died in that belief I should be miserable forever. I could have borne having my ears boxed very well, but to have the little primer that the lady gave me, the only memory I had to remember her by, taken away, was too much, and the tears flowed down my cheeks and aroused my indignation, and I wished that I was a man that I might punish him for his treatment to me.

The impressions of childhood are very often lasting, and a striking incident taking place in early life, will oftentimes be fixed upon the memory forever; and some little event in youth will also often affect the future history of a person. The little occurrence with the Catholic priest, trifling as it may appear, had a deep, a lasting impression upon my mind, which did not wear off, but rather only increased as years rolled away; time only deepened the breach, and age widened it. It made me bitter against Catholicism, and I can trace my present dislike back to that little affair with the priest; it commenced then a little dislike, until it has grown into a hatred of their forms and ceremonies, and a contempt for their heartless, unfeeling conduct toward their people, withholding from them, as they do, the great advantages of life, that they may retain their power and exercise their authority over them, and thus keep them in ignorance and superstition.

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