The Long Walk To Freedom

Picture this scene – you have to walk cross-country over the roughest terrain to reach the coast. You have nothing but the clothes on your back and a few personal effects. As darkness of night falls, your bed is the hard cold wet earth beneath you. As the morning sunrises you drag your aching body towards a leaking ship that will take you away from your family and home forever! As the ship crosses the Atlantic you are faced with disease and danger at every turn and the little strength you have goes to caring for the sick onboard. After a deadly ocean crossing you’re dumped in the middle of nowhere on an unforgiving foreign land to face yet another 900 miles on foot in sub zero conditions. In total it will take you a year to reach your final destination - if you’re still alive that is! This may sound like the exploits of some heroic polar explorer, but it’s actually the very real account of a brave young Scots woman who left her family home in 1813 and board an emigrant ship bound for the New World. This is her story...

Kate McPherson’s story Along with around 80 other passengers from the Strath of Kildonan, including John her younger brother, Kate McPherson set out from the far north Scots county of Sutherland to the Red River settlement (now known as Winnipeg) in Canada. These courageous young individuals were paving the way for other family members to follow on the creaking timber vessel The Prince of Wales.

Her mother’s spinning wheel apart, Kate’s possessions were few, but this was no ordinary young woman. Conditions aboard were appalling during the two-month crossing, with typhoid fever raging, and following the death of the ship’s doctor, Kate nursed the sick as everyone looked to her for guidance.

The ship was eventually forced ashore, by the Captain, at Churchill River some 100 miles short of its actual destination at York Factory where vital provisions were awaiting the weary travellers. It was too late in the year to forge ahead to Red River and the group were forced set up camp not far from where they landed. Food was scarce and the settlers were ill prepared for the brutal conditions which saw the mercury dip to minus 50°C. Again fever and death followed, but the spirited Kate refused to give in. Wearing handmade snowshoes, the depleted group eventually traversed the freezing 100 miles to York Factory with Kate’s courage strengthening those falling by the wayside.

It took over eight months for the group to finally arrive at York Factory - but still the settlers remained 800 miles short of her intended destination, the Earl of Selkirk's Red River colony. This epic journey undertaken by Kate and other brave settlers has been described as “arguably the most gruelling and protracted journey ever made by emigrants from Europe to North America”.

Her tenacity and resilience to keep going and help others underline Kate’s powerful resolve. This brave woman eventually settled at Point Douglas where she built a new timber home with her husband Alexander Sutherland, who emigrated in 1815, from a neighbouring village back home in Scotland. Given that her only child went on to become a Canadian Senator, it would have been unthinkable that such a thing could have happened if Kate stayed at home in Scotland. The young woman from the Highland longhouse clearly used all her native qualities to survive and prosper. Kate died in 1867 and was interred in the Kildonan Presbyterian Church cemetery, Winnipeg, Canada - a mere 4000 miles from her Highland home in Sutherland.

One of Kate’s living relatives is Lynda Jonasson, her granddaughter six great-times removed, who lives in Manitoba and extols the virtues of her forebear: "From what I can gather, she was very much looked up to. She was a very strong woman, she helped the other women (in the colony) and she helped her man, right in there with him (plowing fields)".

Alexandra Paul, reporter with Winnipeg Free Press adds: “Kate McPherson is a forgotten public heroine here in Canada. She was among the best and brightest of the Selkirk Settlers and her descendants live here to this day.”

© 2017 Robert Aitken



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