A Source for Duncan Campbell Scott’s
“On the Way to the Mission”

by Leon Slonim

     It is John Masefield who provides a clue as to the possible source of “On the Way to the Mission.” In his “Foreword” to Scott’s collected Poems, Masefield writes:

After [the] poems of primitive Canada come some of the transition from savage to pioneer life. Of these, the best is the vivid ballad On the Way to the Mission, describing a crime common enough in the days of the pioneers, the murder of an Indian by white men who hoped to rob him of his furs. Parlunan quotes a fragment of a play upon such a theme. In Mr. Scott’s ballad the murderers find that the load on their victim’s sled is not fur but the body of the Indian’s dead wife.1

A search through the works of Francis Parkman reveals the “play” to be Major Robert Rogers’ Ponteach: or the Savages of America (London, 1766), the first two scenes of which appear as an appendix to The Conspiracy of Pontiac.2 Each of these two brief scenes is illustrative of a different atrocity perpetrated by the white man upon the Indian. In the first (Act I, scene i), some natives at a trading-post are persuaded to barter away their furs in ex change for rum. In the second (Act I, scene ii) — that with which “On the Way to the Mission” has the more obvious affinities — two Englishmen treacherously shoot a “couple” of Indians and rob them of their cargo of furs. Of course Masefield does not explicitly say that Scott’s poem is based upon Rogers’ play; perhaps he was only drawing a vague comparison be tween the two works.3 Nor are the resemblances between the poem and the play so overwhelming as to rule out the possibility of a coincidental similari ty. Yet, Parkman does make a plausible candidate for the source of “On the Way to the Mission.”

     Written in 1901,4 “On the Way to the Mission” was first published, so far as we know, in Scott’s third book of verse, New World Lyrics and Ballads (1905), a volume which contains at least one poem the source of which is definitely known to be Parkman.5 As well, a confluence of events suggests that, around the turn of the century, Scott was very interested in the writings of the famous American historian. Of these a grand Canadian edition had ap peared only the year before the composition of Scott’s poem (see note 2 below) and a selection, edited by Scott’s close friend and confident, Pelham Edgar, published in the following year (see note 5 below). (Both of these editions, were the product of Morang, the Toronto firm which was also to be responsible for publishing New World Lyrics and Ballads and for which both Scott and Edgar laboured during the early years of the century as joint editors of the Makers of Canada series.) It is also worth noting the interesting possibility that Archibald Lampman — another close friend of Scott — had used the works of Parkman as a source for one of his own narrative poems, “At the Long Sault,” written in 1898-99.6 It is reasonable, there fore, to suppose that Masefield’s allusion to “a fragment of a play” is a covert allusion to the source of Scott’s poem.

     Keeping in mind that we cannot be certain that Rogers’ play is the source, let us, for the moment, assume it to be so, and examine the implications of that assumption. Comparing the poem and the play,7 we are struck by certain differences between them: (1) The Indian characters in Ponteach are probably both men (this is not explicitly stated but there is no evidence otherwise) whereas in “On the Way to the Mission” they are a man and a woman who are, moreover, husband and wife. (2) The Indian’s toboggan in Scott’s poem does not contain a treasure of furs but rather the corpse of the wife. (3) The Indians in Pontiac are not Christians. Indeed, one of the white men uses this fact to rationalize his subsequent behaviour towards them:

’Twere to be wish’d not one of them survived
Thus to infest the World, and plague Mankind.
Curs’d Heathen Infidels! mere savage Beasts!
They don’t deserve to breathe in Christian Air,
And should be hunted down like other Brutes.
                                           (Parkman, p. 348)

By contrast in Scott’s poem the Indians are explicitly characterized as Christians: “Under her waxen fingers / A crucifix was laid. / He was drawing hoedown to the Mission,” (ll. 49-51). (4) In Ponteach the focus is upon the white men; the Indian characters do not have even a word of dialogue. In Scott’s poem the focus is upon the Indian (see, especially, ll. 4, 17-19) and it is the white men who are the background figures.

     The cumulative effect of the changes which we suppose Scott to have made is quite clear: it is greatly to enhance the element of pathos in the story and to increase the reader’s sympathy for the victimized characters. This is interesting for what it may tell us of Scott’s feelings towards the native peoples, with whose well-being he was, as an official in the Department of Indian Affairs, concerned. Equally interesting are the consequences which the changes have for the meaning of the poem.

     In Ponteach the irony can already be found in the “savage” behaviour of the Europeans (who even go so far as to scalp their victims). In Scott’s poem this irony is seemingly extended: the white men are still “savage,” being fearful and superstitious into the bargain (they mistake a bird for a “spirit”8), but now it is the Indians who are the true “Christians.” Yet — irony heaped upon irony — the Indians’ Christianity does not save them from being further victimized by the white man. Indeed it is “On the Way to the Mission” — the way of Christian passivity — that the victimiza tion occurs. Furthermore, while in Ponteach the certainly brought out (for instance, in their reason for scalping the Indians), in Scott’s poem this trait is emphasized to such a degree as to imbue it with a special significance. Three times the white men are described as “servants of greed” (ll. 3, 30, 38) and their lust for furs is also conveyed in the following passage: “But they saw the long toboggan / Rounded well with furs, / With many a silver fox-skin, / With the pelts of mink and of otter,” (ll. 26-29). This emphasis suggests that the white men are to be seen as metonymic of the fur-hungry Europeans generally, who, in colonizing the “New World,” did an injustice to the land’s aboriginal inhabitants. The entire drama of Scott’s poem, then, can be regarded as symbolic of the relations between white man and Indian, at least at one point in history. Thus to contrast “On the Way to the Mission” with its possible source in Parkman gives Scott’s Poem a significance which is not so apparent when it is read in isolation.


  1. John Masefleld, “Foreword,” Poems of Duncan Campbell Scott (London: Dent, 1927) n.pag. (Masefield’s “Foreword” does not appear in the Canadian issue of Poems, published by McClelland and Stewart in 1926.)[back]

  2. Francis Parkman, The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War after the Conquest of Canada (Toronto: Morang, 1900), II, 343-51. (We cite this—the “Frontenac” edition of Parkman’s history [itself first published in 1851]—because it may have been the text with which Scott himself was familiar.)[back]

  3. Letters between Scott and Masefield in the D.C. Scott papers, Thomas Fisher Library, University of Toronto, do not shed any light on this statement of Masefield. These letters, however, do not necessarily represent the entire body of correspondence between the two writers. It is possible that Scott elsewhere informed Masefield of the source of his poem.[back]

  4. The poem is dated “15, 9.01” m the 1899-1914 Notebook, D.C. Scott papers, Thomas Fisher Library.[back]

  5. In his note to “Dominique de Gourgues” in New World, Scott stated: “My attention was drawn to this story by my friend Dr. Pelham Edgar who was then working on ‘The Romance of Canadian History’.” The story of Dominique de Gourgues is narrated in the tenth chapter (vol. 1) of Parkman’s Pioneers of France in the New World. Edgar, however, did not include it in the aforementioned The Romance of Canadian History: Edited from the Writings of Francis Parkman (Toronto: Morang 1902).[back]

  6. See Margaret Kennedy, “Lampman and the Canadian Thermopylae: ‘At the Long Sault:, 1660’,” Canadian Poetry, No. 1 (Fall/Winter, 1977), 54-59. It is interesting that “At the Long Sault” and “On the Way to the Mission” resemble each other in form: both poems are in free verse (though Lampman’s is heavily and Scott’s very lightly rhymed) and both poems end in lyric quatrains.[back]

  7. In the comparsion which follows, all references to Ponteach are to Act I, Scene ii only, as quoted in Parkman. The remainder of Rogers’ play does not concern us here.[back]

  8. The “Spirit” referred to in lines 25 and 37 is probably the most obscure element of the poem. My interpretation (“spirit” = “wood-pigeon” or bird generally) is based upon both internal evidence (ll. 14-15 and l. 22 [the verb, “flit,” can describe a bird]) and external data: in the rough draft of the poem, located in the 1899-1914 Notebook, “flew” appears to be the word which was originally written in l. 37; it was cancelled and the word, “passed,” substituted.[back]