08 July 2020

The Boy in the Badger Hole

In June 1873, a young boy living on a farm in Springfield, Manitoba, outside Winnipeg, went missing. His family and neighbors searched the prairie. After a week, people despaired of finding the boy alive.

On 19 July, however, the Manitoba Free Press reported this news:
FOUND.—The little lost boy of Springfield has turned up alive and well, after a ten days subsistence on swamp water and what few strawberries the grasshoppers left for him. A Half-breed who resides in St. Paul’s, whose name we did not learn, discovered the little fellow at Little Lake, some eight miles from his father’s house. On seeing the man coming the little fellow became alarmed and concealed himself in a badger hole which for some time he had made his dormitory. On the day previous to his recovery, and [sic] boy had seen his father (who had been constantly searching for him since he had been lost) passing near, and ran shouting after him, but failed to attract his attention. We don’t know when we heard anything that surprised and pleased us so much as the above piece of news.
In 1881 a reporter for that newspaper, J. F. Galbraith, published a roundup of stories about life in the province under the pseudonym Jeff. Gee. That book, A Sketch of Both Sides of Manitoba, offered more detail about the case of the lost boy, starting:
There is, I have observed, in all very new countries, or sections of country, a bond of sympathy, that unites each man to his neighbor. So, when, one morning in June, a messenger arrived from Springfield with the announcement that a little four-year-old son of Mr. Wm. Service had strayed away from his home two days before, and all efforts to find him had been fruitless, there swelled through the Winnipeg pulse a great throb of sympathy. . . . Would Winnipeg supply fresh search parties? I should say so. Every man, woman and child wanted to turn out: the entire community would respond en masse, if need be.
Six days of searching didn’t turn up Willie Service, as Galbraith called him. The authorities offered a $200 reward. On the tenth day, however, the boy was found.

Galbraith then wrote more than two pages in the voice of the man who found the boy, whom he called a “French half-breed.” According to this account, the man saw cranes fly from a particular spot and decided that something around there must have disturbed them. He persisted in searching that area (with breaks for tea) even after his son and son-in-law gave up. And then he heard a strange noise.
“I get my gun ready and go on e-easy. Hear queer noise again, eight, ten yards off. I look: see dirt like badger hole. I stop. Then I put out my gun and walk close, slow. I point my gun, and look down. Hole dark; can't see nothing. I bend my head and look down, close. See hand—black, black; four fingers, no thumb. I draw back. I not afraid; but queer noise and black hand without thumb—don’t like it. I look again; hand move, and thumb come out from under. Then I make little noise, and two big eyes look up—wild wild. I see face. I drop gun, put out my hands and say,

“‘Oh, my poor little boy, come out, come out. Your father and mother look all over prairie and can’t find you. Come out and I take you to your mother.’

“He say nothing, but look—big eyes, scared. I ask him again come out, but he not move. Then I kneel down, and say,

“‘My poor little boy, come out, and I take you to your mother, I give you plenty bread, plenty tea, you poor little boy, you must be hungry. Come with me—I feed you, I warm you, I bring you home.’

“I reaching down all the time, and then I catch him by the hand, and say,

“‘Now, my little boy, I got you, I bring you to my wife. Don’t be afraid; I not hurt you.’

“He draw back, but I take him out, and put my arms around him, and hold him up tight, and pat him on the head, and he never say nothing. Then I take him to my wife, and my wife, and my daughter, and my son’s wife, hurry up, and make broth, and give him some in cup. My, but he hungry. Want to drink it all; but my wife say,

“‘No, not too much; I give you more after awhile.’

“Then he go to sleep, and my wife wake him soon and give him more broth. Then he sleep again, and my son go and tell his mother, and his mother come and take him away.”
Galbraith didn’t name the man who found the little boy.

According to a 1960 article in the Manitoba Pageant, transcribed here, that rescuer was Peter Fidler, Jr. (1820-1881). I don’t know the basis of that identification and thus how reliable it is. Fidler’s mother Mary was Cree; his father was not French but English by birth.

The same Manitoba Pageant article showed another way the story changed over time as people sought meaning in it:
When Archbishop [Samuel] Matheson told the story of Billy Service in 1936, he stated that Mrs. Fidler was said to have had a dream in which it was revealed to her that the boy could be found in a badger hole and that she induced her husband to go out and look for him.
In the 1880 account, the man who found the boy said nothing about a dream. He noticed unusual bird behavior, meaning he relied on experience in the world, not supernatural guidance.

TOMORROW: Another version of the same story, based on oral traditions.

No comments: