Reflecting on the legacy of Rev. Robert Terrill Rundle

This month (October) marks an important, but largely overlooked milestone in our province’s history. It was 175 years ago, on Oct. 16th, 1840, that Rev. Robert Terrill Rundle, the first missionary in Alberta, arrived at Fort Edmonton.

Rundle was born in Mylor, Cornwall on June 18th, 1811. He enrolled in a business school in northwest Cornwall in 1837. While there, he began to take an active interest in the Wesleyan Methodist Church.

After several months of religious training, Rundle was ordained as a minister in March 1840. Almost immediately, he was selected to be a missionary in the vast territories that belonged to the Hudson’s Bay Company in western North America.

While the HBC had struck a deal with the Wesleyan Missionary Society to bring missionaries to Western Canada from England, the Company was quite ambivalent about the initiative. It had the benefits of improving the Company’s image with both government and the general public.

However, the Company was concerned that the spread of Christianity, even under controlled circumstances, would distract its employees and the First Nations from the fur trade. Moreover, it worried that Christianity might interfere with such business practices as the use of alcohol as a trade incentive.

The Rundle’s trip across the North American continent was a long and grueling one. Rundle also had apprehensions about the First Nations with which he would be working. Fortunately, he quickly found that he generally got along very well with the natives and most of the Company’s employees.

Rundle was to serve as a Company chaplain at the fur trade posts. However, almost immediately, he began to travel to the various First Nations encampments, to meet the people in their own communities. This helped to strengthen Rundle’s rapport with many First Nations. Conversely, it bothered the HBC’s management that he was thereby removed from their strict oversight and control.

In early 1841, Rundle made the first of many trips to Rocky Mountain House. He also made visits to First Nation’s camps near Gull Lake and Pigeon Lake.

In 1842, Rundle was very upset when Father Jean Baptiste Thibault arrived to start missionary work in the region including Fort Edmonton and Rocky Mountain House. Rundle felt threatened by a Roman Catholic “competitor” in the same area.

Despite his worries, by the summer of 1843, Rundle was enjoying great success with his work. In August, he conducted a large baptism service along the Red Deer River and, shortly thereafter, on the Tobacco Weed Plains farther south. Rundle got a great deal of assistance from the famous Cree chief, Maskepetoon, and Maskepetoon’s son, Benjamin.

Rundle had considerable success in teaching Cree syllabics to many of the people he met. Cree syllabics were so easy to learn and understand that the ability to read and write was soon more widespread amongst the First Nations than with the fur traders and laborers employed by the HBC.

Nevertheless, there were continuous reminders of the widespread violence across the region. During a visit to the Red Deer area, Rundle had the horrifying experience of witnessing a double murder a short distance from his tent. Two days later, he was forced to spend the night in the same tent as the murderers. On a number of occasions, Rundle came across the sites of bloody battles between warring First Nations.

As Rundle’s mission progressed, he struck a warm friendship with Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, a Jesuit priest. In 1847, he established a permanent mission site on the western shores of Pigeon Lake, which was later managed by his protégé, Benjamin Sinclair.

In 1848, a fatigued and somewhat ailing Rundle returned to Britain. While he initially planned to return to Western Canada, he never did so. He passed away at Garstang, Lancashire on Feb. 4th, 1896.

Mount Rundle at Banff is named in honour of Rev. Robert T. Rundle.

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