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When Mail Came Only Twice a Year

by Peter Thomson

Manitoba Pageant, April 1961, Volume 6, Number 3

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.

Reprinted with kind permission of the Winnipeg Free Press.

A far cry from twice-a-year mail expresses of pioneer days, carrying six-month-old mail to news-hungry Red River settlers, is Manitoba's present postal service with more than 250 mail deliveries into and out of the province every week. Instead of dog sleighs, canoes, stage coaches, Red River carts, pony express and couriers of yesteryear, the mail flows steadily into Winnipeg from fifteen trains and twenty-one planes every day. Besides this interprovincial service, locally operating trains and trucks carry hundreds of mail shipments to the central distributing point from towns and villages throughout the province. Such service is not considered exceptional today — but it would be hard to visualize by Manitoba's pioneers whose postal communication problems form an integral part of the province's early history.

For many years after the first Selkirk settlers arrived in 1812 the only means of transporting letters to and from Red River was b Hudson's Bay Company or North West Company packets or brigades. Fur company expresses travelled from Western posts to Montreal once or twice a year. Their service to the settlers was strictly on a courtesy basis. There was no guarantee that they would carry the mail. For many years, the Red River settlers had a semi-annual mail service by Hudson's Bay Company express. One brigade followed the eastern route down the Winnipeg River to Lake of the Woods and on to the Lakehead. It then followed the northern shore of Lake Superior, journeyed to Lake Nipissing and down the Ottawa River to Montreal. The other mail outlet was by packet to York Factory on Hudson Bay. Each year, a boat sailed from England to York Factory carrying supplies and trading goods to the company's many forts in the northwest and mail for the Red River settlers. From York Factory, a dog team and sleigh carried the mail to Norway House on the northern end of Lake Winnipeg where it was met by another dog team from Fort Garry. Incoming and outgoing mails were exchanged and thus the settlers received their six-month-old mail from Britain.

Dog-team transports.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

If the mail service proved inadequate during the first thirty years of the Red River settlement the settlers could not blame the fur company which supplied the best possible service. But in 1844, according to the records, the local governor of the company issued a proclamation ordering all letters to be sent from Red River to be turned over to the company by January 1, and to be left open unless the sender had previously lodged a declaration against trafficking in furs. This order, while not bothering the settlers, aggravated free-traders at the post into looking for new mail outlets. Within three years, they had established an express service to carry Red River mail south for posting in the United States, and to bring Red River mail in. A post office, established at St. Paul in 1846 (there had been a post office at Fort Snelling since 1828), was the closest contact point for some time but as other post offices were opened in northern Minnesota and in North Dakota, mailing points came nearer to the Red River settlement. This service, called the Kittson express, depended to some extent on the co-operation of Norman Kittson of the American Fur Company who often sent messengers carrying incoming Red River mail to Fort Garry. Establishment of United States post offices at Crow Wing in 1852 and at Fort Ripley in 1851, shortened the route followed by the Red River express. But due to irregularity of service from these northern post offices, especially in winter, the express from Red River did not always head for the same United States point. Service was extremely irregular.

On February 28, 1855, Ross House was established as the first post office at Red River. The Assiniboia Council appointed William Ross as postmaster and recommended that regular mail service be set up between Red River and the United States. In 1850, a post office had been established at Pembina, North Dakota, just 70 miles from the Red River settlement and in 1855 regular monthly service was established between the two points. However, the United States government and the government of Canada did not consider Red River mail officially posted until it was stamped in the United States post office.

By 1858, eastern Canada was becoming anxious over the dependence of the Red River settlement on the United States. The government set up an all Canadian route giving monthly service between Fort William and Fort Garry. Twice a month, the mail was shipped from Collingwood to Fort William by boat, and from there, to Red River by canoe. In winter, the mails were carried by dog sleigh along the north shore of Lake Huron and Lake Superior. Owing to the difficulties of the route and inferiority of service the attempt to provide an all-Canadian route was abandoned after two years. During the next decade, Red River settlers were entirely dependent on mail service through Pembina. United States stamps were sold at post offices in the settlement to pre-pay postage on letters going through the United States. New post offices were opened at St. Andrews in 1862 and at St. Norbert in 1868. By 1866, Portage la Prairie settlers were agitating for regular service to Red River and by 1868, regular courier service was established.

When Sir Adam Archibald, first Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba, reached Winnipeg in 1870, he found there were five post offices and three mail routes. The principal route ran down the Red River from Pembina; the second followed the Red down to St. Andrew's and the third connected Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg by a weekly courier service. When Manitoba became a province in 1870, the Dominion government legalized exchange of mails through the United States from Windsor via Chicago, St. Paul and Pembina, to Winnipeg. Mail reached Winnipeg from Ottawa over this route in ten days. During the next few years, mail was carried between Winnipeg and Pembina by horseback, stage coach and Red River Cart. Building of a railroad between the two points in 1878 permitted mail to be shipped to eastern Canada by an all rail route for the first time. Several other post offices were opened in the new province during the early 1870s. One of the first of these was at Portage la Prairie where Charles House became postmaster of the new office, July 1, 1871. In 1885 the CPR was completed as far west as Winnipeg, and since that time, Manitoba mail has travelled to Eastern Canada on an all-Canada route.

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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