Manitoba History: Salt-Making in Manitoba
by Virginia Petch
Salt has played an important role in the development of human history. In fact, no substance other than water has been used with such regularity as salt. For example, its use as a condiment and agent in “… cleaning, bleaching, dyeing, degreasing, dehairing and softening leather …” is known world wide.  The extent of its use by the aboriginal inhabitants of Canada is difficult to ascertain. The oral history record reveals very little about the indigenous use of salt, while the early historical record of organizations such as the Hudson’s Bay Company provide only brief mention.
One of the earliest references to aboriginal salt is found in the journal of Pierre Esprit Radisson. When captured by the Iroquois in 1652, Radisson remarked “… they gave me salt that served me all my voyage. They also took pains to put it up safe for me, not taking any of it for themselves.”  No reason for this cautious behaviour was given, as Radisson never speculated on the possible cultural value of salt amongst the Iroquois. Observations by Alexander Henry in 1799 indicated that the salt springs played an important role in native hunting, as many animals were attracted there by their physiological need for salt. The aboriginal people took advantage of this and incorporated the area of the salt springs into their seasonal hunts.  La Vérendrye observed “… that it was easy to get a living by hunting and fishing as buffalo and tourtes (pigeons, but thought to refer to deer here) were attracted there all year round by a saline spring that was close by.” 
The two most common methods of early salt production were natural solar evaporation and induced evaporation through boiling the brine. Solar evaporation of brine at the salt springs, especially during a hot, dry summer produces thick crystalline salt crusting around the edges of the spring. The amount of naturally produced salt is dependent on the absence of rainfall.
An early Hudson’s Bay Company map from Prince of Wales Fort, built near the mouth of the Churchill River in 1717, indicates salt deposits in the region. Hudson Bay Company personnel gathered information from the local Chipewyan (Dene) about their homelands, and this was translated into maps of Indian country. One such map, drawn in 1760 for Governor Moses Norton, identified several interesting geological features in the Indian lands. One of these features was the presence of salt to the south-west of Churchill. 
The earliest recording of salt in Manitoba is found in the journals of La Vérendrye. Aside from a mandate to encourage native trade with the French, he was commissioned to investigate the potential of the natural resources around Lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba. Between 1732 and 1741, La Vérendrye learned of naturally occurring salt near the bottom of Lake Winnipeg and commented that
The salt presented to La Vérendrye was the product of natural evaporation. This suggests that minimal technology was employed in obtaining the product and that it may have been a secondary activity. It is not possible to assess the cultural significance of salt amongst the local Aboriginal population at the time of La Vérendrye. Like Radisson, he was more interested in the business of developing a fur trade network and discovering a route to the western sea.
In 1741, La Vérendrye sent his son Pierre, to the mouth of the Mossy River to establish a small trading post.  Fort Dauphin, as it was known, functioned for several years. Although salt springs are abundant in this area, no record of salt-making was made. The location of Fort Dauphin has never been positively identified. However, J. B. Tyrrell later suggested that Fort Dauphin may have been located in the present town of Winnipegosis.  The proximity of the site to local salt springs provided easy access to the wildlife.
The La Vérendryes were not the only explorers to identify the abundance of salt around Lakes Winnipegosis and Manitoba. As Anthony Henday probed deeper into the interior in 1754, he made several references to the abundance of salt when he “Passed two salt lakes, large lumps of salt candid laying round the edges,” and “… pitched on the side of a lake or rather a pond of water, a disagreeable salt taste, salt laying on the surface an inch thick.”  That same year David Thompson noted salt springs on the west side of the Red River. He wrote:
These may have been the same salt springs that La Vérendrye identified twenty years earlier as the source of salt of the local Aboriginal people. This area seems to have been well known for its salt, as Daniel Harmon in the early 1800s also commented that:
Harmon also judged the salt springs on the Swan River as making a “tolerable salt.”  Unfortunately, the exact location of the salt springs that were used by the posts was never identified, but the base of Thunderhill was suggested as one of the locations of former salt springs. 
On investigating the country between Lakes Winnipeg and Athabasca in the late 1700s, Andrew Graham commented on the abundance of salt that lay “… in large quantities …” and looked “… like snow…”  This was later described by Philip Turnor in 1791 as “… a place reported by some to be a salt hill where salt is dug out, but by others to be a place where salt dries upon the grass by the of a Lake and Salt springs … the Canadians get great quantities of it from the Indians. 
Self-sufficiency was a prerequisite for the fur traders and when Charles Isham was sent to the Swan River District to establish a post in 1790, he immediately made use of the salt springs. A salt spring near the mouth of the Shoal River provided enough salt for his post and York Factory.  At the beginning of the 19th century, entries in the Fort Pelly post journal reiterated the importance of salt-making in the Swan River area:
Salt-making continued at Shoal River for over 60 years and there are signs that it became a family tradition similar to that in Scotland.  While “Old man Brass … made 200 bushels of salt”  at Shoal River, his son Peter was also making salt. 
It was not coincidental that Father G. Belcourt, a Catholic missionary, established a mission at Duck Bay in 1839. The resources of the marshes there provided a yearround food supply. The fall fishery, one of the most important and reliable aspects of the native economy, was extremely productive at the mouths of the Duck and Drake Rivers.  Father Belcourt noted that the production of salt was an important resource in the economy and it enabled the Sauteux (Ojibway) and Métis to live comfortably in a permanent setting. 
Some ethnographic accounts of the Ojibway in the Lake Superior area suggested that salt was not used by Aboriginal people prior to European contact.  However, this does not mean that they did not know of its existence. A song “We Have Salt” recorded by Frances Densmore at the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota in the early 20th century indicated that, by 1847, the knowledge and use of salt by this band of Ojibway was an important item in their treaty negotiations.  The ownership and production of salt as a part of the regional economy of the Duck Bay Ojibway and Métis was never negotiated in the terms of Treaty Five  and salt production was not pursued by either group by the turn of the 20th century.
The offspring from the country marriages between fur traders and native women provided a unique and vital labour force. The combination of European technology and Aboriginal ingenuity was crucial to the success of the fur trade. This was also true of the salt industry. Many Scots, especially those from the Orkney Islands, brought with them a working knowledge of salt-making. The Scottish salt industry had flourished from the mid-1500s, and techniques popular in Scotland during the 1700s were transported to the Manitoba interior via the fur trade and later the Selkirk Settlers of the Red River Settlement. Lack of proper equipment meant improvisation and this often resulted in a coarse, impure salt.
The quantities of salt necessary for preserving meat demanded regular production. Company men, as well as hired Indians and Métis, engaged in salt production not only for their own local post needs, but also to furnish salt for the newly established Red River Settlement. As the settlement grew, so did the demand for salt, for example “… 200 bushels of country salt from Swan River …”  It appears that during the period 1839 to 1875, salt-making shifted from the Hudson’s Bay Company to independent salt-makers such as Monkman, Brass, and Campbell. As the fur trade declined, and transportation routes shifted from the Hayes/Nelson/Hudson Bay tracks to the Red River and steamboat and rail, many of the indigenous Natives and Métis returned to traditional economies, such as fishing and hunting. Agriculture had been introduced into the area and both farming and ranching became prevalent. At this time, salt-making became part of the regional economy, supplying the growing farming communities and Red River Settlement. Small settlements sprang up around the salt springs and provided a steady labour force.
Perhaps the most well-known of the salt-making Métis was the Monkman family. James Joseph Monkman established himself as a salt-maker as early as 1818, working the springs at Swan Lake, Duck Bay and finally at the Red Deer Peninsula on Lake Winnipegosis. By the 1870s, “old Joe Monkman,” assisted by his sons John and Joseph, was producing 1000 bushels of salt per year.  When Henry Youle Hind visited the Monkman Saltworks in 1858, the works consisted of “two small log-houses and three evaporating furnaces. The kettles of English construction, are well-made rectangular vessels of iron, five feet long, two feet broad and one foot deep.”  Here, thirty gallons of brine produced one bushel of salt, and two bushels of salt could be produced from each kettle daily. During the summer, the Monkmans kept seven kettles in continuous use in order to meet production demands. The furnaces were fired by wood, and the labor involved in keeping up with production demands caused the laborers to complain constantly.  Wood-burning furnaces were also used by the early fur traders in the Swan River district as well as along the Red River. The “kettles” were actually rectangular salt pans 5 feet by 2 feet by 1 foot. These were “laid upon two rough stone walls about twenty inches apart, which form the furnace.”  A low chimney was constructed at one end of the salt pan. Another method used by the Métis at Duck Bay was described by T. W. Spencer in 1873. Here reservoirs or pits were “…dug four or five feet deep…” into the soil before the ice formed.  As the salt water filled the pits it was collected, boiled and the salt extracted. This salt sold for 10 “chelons” [shillings?] a barrel at the Red River Settlement.  Because of the corrosive nature of the salt, wooden planks were tied to the labourers leather moccasins in order to protect their footwear.
Salt production was usually seasonal and pans were simply turned over at the end of the season. However, there is evidence that salt was occasionally made during the winter months as well. For example, “Peter Brass … intends to make the remainder [salt] in winter ”  and “January 13, 1799 I sent two men to make salt above Park River.”  The finished salt was packed in 100-bushel birch bark rogans and transported by York boat to Oak Point on Lake Manitoba. From there it was transferred to Red River carts and sold to the Red River Settlement, Portage la Prairie, and the numerous homesteads that were being established along the river banks. 
Geological explorations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries noted that Manitoba had more to offer than just arable land. Between 1873 and 1915, T. W. Spencer (1873-74), J. B. Tyrrell (1889-90), and L. H. Cole (1915) conducted surveys across the province to determine whether the saline solution issuing from springs along the west side of Lake Winnipegosis were natural or the result of groundwater percolating through a bed of rock salt.  Rock salt was easier to extract than salt in solution. As well, geological research in the United States identified oil deposits in conjunction with salt deposits found in the form of salt dome.  It was thought that perhaps this might be the case with the Manitoba saline deposits.
The geological survey of 1873-74, under the direction of T. W. Spencer, confirmed the location of salt springs described by Henry Youle Hind in the late 1850s. These surveys, in part, prevented the development of the salt industry by the Métis and indigenous Native people. The preparation of their land for entrance into Confederation and the signing of Treaties limited the economic development of the native community. When the railway entered Manitoba in 1875, so did high quality, cheap rock salt from Ontario. The competition proved to be too much for the local salt makers such as the Monkmans and Brasses, and by 1887 salt production in Manitoba had become an insignificant industry. When J. B. Tyrrell and Dominion Land Surveyors visited the Monkman Saltworks in the 1880s, they found only the ruins of two log houses and the remains of two kettles.  The only salt-makers left in the Lake Winnipegosis area were occasional Indian families who stopped off to make salt for their immediate needs as their ancestors probably had hundreds of years before. A short-lived revival of the site in the early 1900s by William Flett met with the same fate as his predecessors. 
Closer to the village of Winnipegosis, Paul Wood attempted to work the salt springs starting around 1896. His Northern Saltworks Company was short-lived; by 1898 the operation had folded. Here, as at the Monkman Saltworks, the significant distance from markets, combined with the high cost of production and transportation were factors in its demise.
In 1915, L. H. Cole provided a detailed account of the saline pools of Manitoba, in particular the Lake Winnipegosis area, and concluded that solar evaporation would probably be the most economic means of obtaining the salt.  Analysis of samples obtained by test drilling in the Saline Waterbelt and Brandon areas were favourable for full scale industry. The Neepawa area was identified as being the best site in terms of brine flow.  In 1932, the Neepawa Salt Company (later the Canadian Salt Company Limited) began producing salt at Neepawa. Brine was pumped from two drilled wells and salt was extracted by the vacuum pan evaporation process. At its peak 18,000 to 22,500 tonnes of salt was produced annually. 
At the same time that the Canadian Salt Company was establishing the salt industry at Neepawa, another type of salt was being considered for its marketability. By 1937, geological attention had turned to potash salts as a means of soil fertilization. Based on the association of potash with common salt in Stassfurt, Germany, a group of speculators, including local entrepreneur L. J. McArdle of Swan River, formed the Northern Salt Syndicate and employed the services of Dr G. M. Brownell, Assistant Professor of Geology and Mineralogy at the University of Manitoba, to analyze test material recovered from salt springs at the Red Deer River. Based on his report that “… the discovery of a strong brine or a bed of rock salt offers an opportunity for commercial exploitation …”, the Northern Salt Syndicate submitted a proposal for drilling and developing the brine flow.  The operation at the Red Deer River (McArdle Salt Flat) was not profitable and folded soon after it was formed with distance from markets, high transportation costs, and internal problems being cited as the main factors in its failure. 
The province of Manitoba continued to conduct geological surveys in an attempt to locate potash, phosphate and salt but the inhibiting factors appear to have been the cost of recovering the minerals from the brine and distance from market. As a result, no serious operations were established north of Neepawa. Wells east of Brandon continued to process brine until 1978 when they were abandoned as it became cheaper to ship in raw materials from elsewhere.
9. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (hereafter, HBCA), York Factory 1772-1773 Travels to the Interior: Anthony Henday, 1754, B239/a/ 69 fo 17.
13. T. W. Spencer, Report on the Country Between the Upper Assiniboine River and Lakes Winnipegosis and Manitoba. Ottawa: Geological Survey of Canada Report for 1874-75. Canada Department of Mines, Mines Branch, 1875.
15. J. B. Tyrrell, Journals of Samuel Hearne and Philip Turnor. Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1934, p. 110.
16. HBCA Swan River Journal of Charles Isham 1790-1791, B213/a/1; HBCA Swan River Journal of Charles Isham 1791-1792, B213/a/2 fol2d; Frank Tough. Native People and the Regional Economy of Northern Manitoba: 1870-1930. Ph.D. dissertation, York University, Toronto, 1987, p. 161.
17. HBCA Red Deer River (Swan River) 1812-13, B176/a/1.
19. Archives of Manitoba (hereafter, AM), Letter from Adam McBeath, Duck Bay, 20 November 1861 to Alexander Christie, MG 1 D9 1861.
20. AM, W. J. Christie, Salt Springs Post and Bishop Tache, MG 1 D7, 1854, p. 4.
21. McCarthy 1987.
22. Father Georges Belcourt 1840. Letters at the Archbishop’s Archives of St. Boniface, 2961 and 3033-34.
26. AM, Red River Settlement Papers 1823-1836, MG 2 A6 1836, p. 109.
28. Henry Youle Hind, Narrative on the Canadian Red River Exploring Expedition of 1857 and on the Assiniboine and Saskatchewan Exploring Expedition of 1858. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1971, p. 45.
32. Martha McCarthy, Pre-1870 Roman Catholic Missions in Manitoba. Unpublished manuscript, Winnipeg: Historic Resources Branch, 1987, p. 73.
33. AM, W. J. Christie, Salt Springs Post and Bishop Tache, MG 1 D7 1854, p. 4.
35. Manitoba Free Press, Red River salt makers and their musical train. 28 March 1908.
36. J. B. Tyrrell, Northwestern Manitoba with Portions of the Districts of Assiniboia and Saskatchewan. Ottawa: Geological and Natural History Survey of Canada. Report on Progress, 1890-1891, Vol. 5, Part E, 1893.
38. J. J. Dufresne, Exploratory Survey of the Lake Winnipegosis and the Swan and Red Deer Rivers. Annual Report of the Department of the Interior for the Year 1887, Part II, No. 12, Sessional Paper No. 12, 1888, p. 71.
39. G. E. Cole, The Mineral Resources of Manitoba. Manitoba Survey Board, Winnipeg, 1915; Harvey Brown, personal communication to author, Winnipegosis, 1986.
Page revised: 11 May 2023