Red River School Day, 1871

by Betty Woods

Manitoba Pageant, January 1961, Volume 6, Number 2

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The twenty children who went off to school that Monday morning, 31 October 1871, didn’t know that they were making history. They were the first children to attend the first public school in Winnipeg, still known as Red River Settlement until the City of Winnipeg was incorporated on 8 November 1873.

This first school was a log cabin in Point Douglas at the corner of Henry Avenue and Maple Street. It was on the estate known as Maple Grove and William Gomez Fonseca had used it as a store when he first came to Red River Settlement in 1860. He and his bride had had living quarters there. Now that he had a larger house on the same property, he offered the cabin rent-free to be used as the first public school. (Today the Disraeli Freeway goes by this spot.).

When the children entered the school they saw long tables with benches for them to sit on. They used slates to write on and to do their arithmetic. They also used foolscap paper. Those who stayed at school for lunch took along their bannock and brown sugar.

In winter, the building was heated by a stove. On dull days, home-made candles were lit as the small windows didn’t let in much light.

The teacher who greeted the children that Halloween day was William Fisher Luxton, born in Devonshire in 1844 and educated in St. Thomas, Ontario, where he had taught school. He tried his hand at writing and the Toronto Globe sent him to the North-West as a special correspondent to write about what was then a comparatively unknown land. He taught a year and then left teaching to found and edit the Manitoba Free Press.

Three men who went out collecting funds to start a school were successful in raising one hundred and sixty-four dollars from the two hundred and fifteen residents. When the first school board was formed, these three men were elected as school trustees, on 8 July 1871.

The men elected to the first school board were William Gomez Fonseca, merchant, Archibald Wright, harness-maker, and Stewart Mulvey (who was later known as Major Mulvey when he joined the 95th Manitoba Grenadiers in 1885 and went to the front in the North-West Rebellion. Both William Fonseca and Archibald Wright had been imprisoned by Louis Riel during the Red River Resistance. Stewart Mulvey came from the East with Colonel (later Lord) Wolseley and the Red River Expedition in 1870.

William Fisher Luxton - 1871.
Source: Winnipeg Free Press.

Winnipeg’s first Public School - 1871.
(Enlarged by Angela Campigatto of Gordon Bell School from a small sketch loaned by the author.)

One of the pupils in that log cabin school was Hattie Barber, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. E. L. Barber. Today Hattie Barber, who became Mrs. Charles Graham, is a little lady who loves to talk about old times.

She is now the only person in Winnipeg who was a pupil at that log cabin school eighty-nine years ago.


Two present day Winnipeg schools, Luxton and Mulvey, bear the names of the first teacher and one of the first trustees.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: First School in Winnipeg (Maple Street, Winnipeg)

Page revised: 15 November 2014