Our First Newspaper
Manitoba Pageant, January 1958, Volume 3, Number 2
Can you imagine what it was like to live here before there were radios, television, a telegraph system, newspapers? Today when the Russians launched a satellite we heard about it on the radio a few hours after it began whirling around the earth. A century ago when peace was declared after the war between Britain and Russia in the Crimea, the people who lived in the Red River Valley did not hear that the war was over until many weeks after the armies laid down their arms. There were no radios, no telegraph lines, and from Ontario to the Rocky Mountains, no newspapers. A few people in the Red River settlement received newspapers from London or from Toronto but the news was always weeks, even months, old before it reached them. Sheriff Ross subscribed to the London Daily Times which was brought in by way of Hudson Bay. We are told that Sheriff Ross read his paper every day, just a year from the day on which it was published. We wonder whether, when the news was very exciting, he did not sometimes look ahead to find out what happened.
In 1859, two young men, William Coldwell and William Buckingham, set out from Toronto to establish a newspaper at Fort Garry. They had been working on newspapers in Toronto and whenever they could, they interviewed people who had been in the Red River Valley; people who could tell them about the opportunities there for enterprising newspaper men. They found out how to get to Fort Garry. They made lists of what they would have to take with them printing press, type, paper, ink, etc., for they knew they would not find any of these things in the settlement.
Coldwell and Buckingham were not the first to plan a newspaper for the Red River Settlement. Another enterprising journalist had set out from Owen Sound by way of the Great Lakes, bringing with him his press and his type. When he reached Sault Ste. Marie he discovered that there was no way of getting his heavy equipment from the head of the lakes to the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. There was no railroad, no passable road, and his printing press was too large and too heavy to be brought in by canoe and carried over the portages.
Coldwell and Buckingham assembled their equipment in St. Paul and there they bought three Red River carts and oxen to draw them. On the morning of September 29, 1859, they made, as Coldwell described it, “a very wild start, indeed”. In the second issue of the paper, Coldwell wrote, “Hardly had the oxen been yoked to the carts when they kicked up their heels and ran off in every direction. Being unused to the yoke and fresh from the pasture the animals were as wild as harnessed buffaloes and kicked and plunged for nearly an hour.”
The oxen were not used to harness and it is quite probable that the young men were not used to handling oxen. They had to gather up the type which had been scattered in the streets of St. Paul before they could go on their way.
In those days travellers from St. Paul to Fort Garry liked to travel in parties for fear of Indian attacks. There had not been any difficulty with the Indians in the Red River Settlement but the warlike Sioux had been causing trouble south of the border. Coldwell and Buckingham joined a party which was proceeding to Fort Garry by the Crow Wing Trail. They had still about four hundred and sixty miles to travel before they would reach their destination. There were rivers to be forded, swamps to be crossed, and sometimes the carts were upset on the rough trails. Coldwell wrote, “In our slow-going sleepy travel we did not exceed fifteen or twenty miles a day.” It took from September 28 to November 1, thirty-five days, to make the journey which we can make today in less than a day by train or motor car.
As the weather grew colder the travellers began to fear that they might not reach the settlement before the Assiniboine froze over. On the last day of October the weather turned very cold and snow began to fall. The leaders decided that they must make haste. On the morning of November 1 they broke camp before three o'clock, ate their breakfast in a blinding snowstorm, and set out long before daylight on the last lap of their journey. That night they reached Fort Garry safely.
One member of the party was young Jemima Ross, daughter of Sheriff Ross, the man who subscribed to the London Daily Times. In thirty-five days on the trail the young people had plenty of time to become acquainted. William Coldwell did not waste any time. Shortly after the young editors established their newspaper, Jemima Ross and William Coldwell were married.
At that time there were very few buildings where Winnipeg now stands. Coldwell and Buckingham took a small mud and plaster hut near the corner of Main and Water Streets for their printing shop. They had to do everything themselves. They were, as Coldwell wrote, “our own editors, reporters, compositors, pressmen, news boys, and general delivery agents, besides having to undertake a house to house canvass throughout the entire settlement.”
The first subscriber to the newspaper was an Indian chief, Chief Hole-in-the-Day, whom the young men met in Minnesota on their way to Fort Garry. We do not know whether he could read but we do know that he paid the required three dollars and told Coldwell that this was “the first big news” to which he had subscribed. They did not find it as easy to persuade the people of the settlement to part with their money. “We met people,” Coldwell said, “who said they did not need the newspaper because they knew more local news than we could, and as for foreign news, they could learn about it from papers which came from London or Toronto or Montreal.”
The Nor'wester was the name chosen for the paper. It was a good name for this was the first newspaper in the northwest, the first one in British North America between Lake Superior and the Rocky Mountains. The plan was to publish the first number on New Year's Day, 1860, but when the editors learned that the Hudson's Bay Company was sending out a shipment of mail on December 28th they decided to have their paper ready to go out then. Otherwise they might have had to wait several days before the mail would go out again. As they had more subscribers outside the settlement than in it, they naturally did not want to miss the mail.
In those days it was the custom to dampen the paper the night before printing. Coldwell and Buckingham dampened the paper as they had been accustomed to do in Toronto. In this country, however, the weather is usually very cold in December, and the editors were surprised to find when they went to the shop the next morning, that the paper had frozen into a solid block. They had to thaw it out before they could begin the printing.
The Nor'wester was very different from the newspapers published in Winnipeg today. It consisted of only four pages. There were no full page advertisements, only small notices stating what the advertisers had to offer. There were no pictures nor comic strips. Since there was no telegraph service to Fort Garry accounts of news from Eastern Canada or from Europe were published weeks, sometimes months, after the events had taken place. In the Provincial Library in the Legislative Buildings in Winnipeg, there is a file of the copies of The Nor'wester, now yellow with age, carefully preserved so that historians may study this first newspaper to be published between Lake Superior and the Rocky Mountains.
Page revised: 30 June 2009Back to top of page