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The Cradle of Winnipeg History

by Harry Shave

Manitoba Pageant, September 1957, Volume 3, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The forts of the fur traders were the first signs of civilization in what is now Winnipeg; but the very cradle of the city’s history, insofar as a settled community is concerned, is the section known as St. John’s. It was here that the river lot farms of the Scottish settlers started; they were the original tillers of the soil in this western city. These hardy pioneers were sent here from Scotland by Lord Selkirk, at his own expense, in several parties from 1812 to 1815.

Immediately after the arrival of the settlers, a burying ground was established on the exact spot which is now St. John’s Cemetery. In the year 1817, Lord Selkirk visited the settlement and had a conference with the settlers. This took place at a spot a few yards south of the present St. John’s Cathedral.

Three years after his Lordship’s visit, there arrived in “Red River Settlement” (as it was known then), the Reverend John West, an Anglican Missionary. He was official chaplain to the Hudson’s Bay Company and as such, travelled extensively, visiting the various trading posts of the Company. In 1822 he received a grant of a considerable sum of money from the Church Missionary Society in England; it was designated for the purpose of “Establishing a School and Mission House” at Red River. With this “grant” and support from the Hudson’s Bay Company, he built the first church with school attached in what is now Winnipeg. Located at the south east corner of the present St. John’s Cemetery, it was not a pretentious building, being only 20 feet wide and some 60 feet long, built of logs and rough hewn lumber, roofed with hand made shingles. This building became the centre of all activity outside of Fort Garry. There were no newspapers in the settlement, but news and notices of various kinds were posted on the church doors for the benefit of the populace.

The little wooden church, having fallen into disrepair by 1833, was replaced by a stone church. The stone, or “Red River Church” as it was called, was built just south of the present Cathedral. Then, in 1849, there arrived at this spot (St. John’s), the first Bishop of Rupert’s Land, Bishop David Anderson, D.D. “Red River Church” then became, in effect, the Cathedral of the Diocese, and in 1853 was given the name of St. John’s.

The first Ladies’ College in Western Canada, known as the Red River Academy, was situated in what is now St. John’s park. The “Academy”, built of logs in 1826 or 1827, was sponsored by Mrs. Mary Jones, the wife of the Reverend David T. Jones. Mrs. Jones was the teacher until her death in 1836. A marble tablet to her memory is set in the south wall of the Cathedral. It was first placed on the wall of “Red River Church” some 110 years ago “by the pupils of Red River Academy”.

St. John’s College came into being in Bishop Anderson’s time (1849 to 1864). Hundreds of men in all walks of life have fond memories of life in it and on the campus, but not many are now living who attended the old first St. John’s College on the river bank, north of St. John’s Park.

And what of the streets in St. John’s? Redwood Avenue was named because about the time Winnipeg became a city there was a little log cabin with a red roof on the river bank where Drewry’s Brewery now stands. Boyd Avenue was named after the Honourable A. G. Boyd, Provincial Treasurer during Manitoba’s early history. Mountain Avenue, honours the first Anglican Bishop to visit Western Canada - Bishop G. J. Mountain, 1844. The connection with the Church is obvious in the names of St. John’s, Anderson, Church, Machray and Cathedral Avenues; Bannerman, Polson and Matheson Avenues were named in honour of original Selkirk settlers; Luxton Avenue, for W. F. Luxton; St. Cross Street after an early day Girls’ School in the district; O’Meara Street after a Dean of St. John’s Cathedral nearly fifty years ago; Charles Street after Charles Brown, City Clerk of the early days; Scotia Street after “Auld Scotia”, the land of our pioneer settlers. At one time the pioneer missionaries John West, T. D. Jones, William Cochran and John MacAllum were so honoured. With changing times, and possibly a lack of knowledge as after whom these streets were named, West Street was changed to Charles Street; Jones Street to Aikins; Cochran to Emslie; and, for the time being, MacAllum Place is non-existent, being now part of St. John’s Cemetery.

Even the cemetery at St. John’s has a fascinating history. This hallowed spot is the last resting place of princes of the church - Archbishops Machray, Matheson, Stringer, Harding and Sherman. Here were buried the earliest settlers, many whose epitaphs are not now discernible on their grave stones. The legible ones include Andrew McDermott, one of Winnipeg’s first merchants; Robert Logan, who owned the first grist mill; Sir John Schultz, part owner of Winnipeg’s first newspaper; W. F. Luxton, co-founder of the Free Press; and many other builders of the West. John Norquay, Premier of Manitoba in the early days; Colin Inkster, former M.L.A.; Alex Logan, one of our first aldermen, later Mayor; all educated in St. John’s, are among the honoured dead in this historic old spot.

Page revised: 30 June 2009

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