Red River Salt Makers
Manitoba Pageant, January 1963, Volume 8, Number 2
From the Manitoba Free Press of Saturday, 28 March 1908.
As this article about a little known pioneer industry is in line with the type of information that Manitoba Pageant tries to bring to its readers, it was decided to reprint the story just as it was written in 1908, at a time when this industry was already part of Manitoba's historical past.
To not a few of the younger portion of our population, and also of those whose residence among us has not been very long, I have no doubt this will come more or less as a piece of news. Comparatively few people in Manitoba at the present time are aware that in the beginning of her career she manufactured at home, a considerable proportion of the salt that she consumed. This, however, is nevertheless true; and the fact is one that is very familiar to all the old-timers of that day.
In those days there were regular salt makers in the country who followed the business for commercial profit, and regular manufacturers where this very necessary article of consumption was produced.
It has long been a matter of common knowledge that some parts of the west are very rich in saline springs and deposits. Some of these are located to the north of Manitoba,  and some are in the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. All of these natural springs of brine were well known to the Hudson's Bay Company's servants and the men of the plains in the early days.
The problems of transporting a cheap, heavy article like salt from England into the heart of North America, and selling it at a price that would be profitable and yet reasonable enough to make possible its general use, was one that appealed very strongly not only to the company, who had to make the profit, but to the consumer as well, who had to pay the price. When, therefore, the splendid springs of brine, just referred to, were discovered, there were those in the settlement who were not slow to see in them a means of solving their problems - to say nothing of the opportunities afforded themselves for personal gain. A number of wide-awake and energetic individuals, accordingly, soon became actively interested, and the actual experiment of manufacturing the salt was commenced. The experiment proved satisfactory to the highest expectations of those interested, and it was not long till the settlers were salting down their fish and venison with a good quality of salt made practically on the spot.
One of the first among these parties to engage in the new industry was a man by the name of Monkman. This name will come with a familiar ring to those who are versed in the early annals of the Canadian west. Joseph Monkman, the elder, or "Old Joe Monkman," as he was familiarly called, to distinguish him from others of the same name among the younger generations of the family, early established a salt-making plant on Lake Winnipegosis, and in conjunction with his sons, of whom there was a large family, successfully operated it for many years.
Upon the retirement of the old gentleman from the business it was taken up and continued by two of his sons, John and Joseph, who conducted the enterprise until changed conditions and the opening up of a closer commerce with the outside world made the undertaking unprofitable. It was the latter of the two sons just mentioned who figured so conspicuously during the troublous days of the first Riel rebellion. It was this Joseph Monkman who acted as guide to Dr. Schultz on that now famous snowshoe journey made in the dead of winter across country from Fort Garry to Ontario, and whose good offices, to induce the Indians to remain loyal, was sought and obtained by the Dominion Government, with such happy results.
Joseph Monkman, the younger, although a native of the country, was a man of extraordinary energy and intelligence. The part he played in the history-making events of those stirring days shows that he as a man of influence and courage, and his connection with the salt-making enterprise indicates a mind keenly alive to the natural opportunities that lay about him. This Mr. Monkman had a large family of sons, some of whom still survive, and with their descendants live in different parts of the country. Several of the family make their home at Selkirk and in the neighborhood of Lake Winnipeg; and some of these surviving sons, who assisted their father in his salt-making operations, still have vivid recollections of the process and have many interesting things to tell of the various incidents connected with the venture.
The springs exploited by Monkman and his sons were situated at a place called Salt Springs, on the northwest shore of Lake Winnipegosis. The brine, for the manufacture of the salt, was obtained in most cases from naturally flowing springs, but where such were not available wells were dug in the ground, on low, wet flats, devoid of vegetation that lay close to the water's edge.
Besides the Monkmans there were a number of other families who operated at this point. One of these, a family of the name of Campbell, carried on salt-making operations on quite a large scale, and were among the largest producers of those who were engaged in the business. Each of these separate families had their own systems of wells from which they obtained the brine.
The process by which the salt was made was very much the same as that employed in the making of maple sugar. It was done, of course, by evaporation from the brine; but as a great deal more brine had to be handled and a very much larger output produced in order to render it profitable, a system of somewhat more effective and complicated appliances had to be used. Generally the evaporating device consisted of a large sheet-iron pan or dish, set upon the top of a rudely constructed stone fireplace, a couple of feet in height. These sheet-iron pans were usually about 4 by 5 feet square, and a foot in depth. Each establishment had a number of these, which were kept going throughout the principal part of the summer. The brine was poured into the pan on top, and, with a hot fire in the furnace beneath it quickly evaporated, leaving behind the white, sparkling crystals, which were then taken out and stored away in receptacles provided for that purpose.
The finished product was put up in bags and "rogans" the bags containing various amounts according to the size they happened to be; but the rogan was the standard, and was made to contain one or two bushels or the fraction of a bushel. These rogans were made of stout birch bark, after the usual Indian pattern and method of construction, and were procured by the salt-makers, from the Indians, large numbers of whom were always camped conveniently in the neighborhood. These rogans were strongly sewed with root fibre and made tight by means of pitch smeared over the seams. A stout wooden hoop made of willow was bound about the mouth which gave strength and solidity to the finished vessel. There was also a cheaper and coarser rogan made for this purpose from which both the willow hoop and the pitch were omitted, and this type of vessel was very frequently used on account of its cheapness and ease of construction.
These rogans were generally square at the bottom tapering off to round at the top, and were somewhat deeper than broad. The dimensions of a bushel rogan would be about 15 inches square at the base, 10 or 11 inches across the mouth and 16 or 17 inches deep. The fill of one of these was sold in the settlement for five shillings, or about $1.25 in our present currency.
It is not very easy to say, at this date, just what amount of salt was turned out each year by the different operators. The Campbells, I am informed by one who was well acquainted, made anywhere from 160 to 200 bushels, and it is altogether probable that the Monkmans made a good deal more than that. This, of course, is only conjecture, but as the Monkmans had by far the biggest reputation in the settlement as salt makers, I think the inference is safe and justifiable.
The question of transportation from those then far away regions where the salt was made was one that naturally bulked pretty large in the minds of these enterprising pioneers of industrial development, and determined, no doubt, to a considerable extent, the size of their output and the length of the period of their activity. They could only carry back to the settlement a certain quantity, and whenever they had that amount they quit. The common method of transportation relied on was by York boat from Salt Springs to Oak Point, on the southeast shore of Lake Manitoba. The Campbells, already mentioned, had two York boats at their disposal capable of carrying from 80 to 90 bushels of salt apiece, so that whenever that amount was reached, that marked the end of the salt-making season for them, and they loaded up and came away. The Monkmans and others, I fancy, were regulated in their output and their time of winding up the season by similar considerations.
At Oak Point the York boats were met by the squeaking train of Red River carts and on these the season's cargo and the general outfit were transported over the remainder of the settlement. For an output of salt such as that indicated above, and the necessary impediments of the party it would take probably a train of twenty of these carts to perform this task. As the train approached the settlement, long before It appeared in sight, the settlers would know that the salt-makers were coming, for the sound of the cart's squealing wheels could be heard at a great distance.
The first place they struck the settlement was usually at Portage la Prairie, or sometimes the cavalcade divided, some going to that point and the remainder heading for Fort Garry and Kildonan.
The aim was to take in the entire settlement and before they were through with their peddling operations they generally traversed it from end to end. They passed along from house to house, disposing of a bushel here, a half bushel there, two bushels to somebody else, and so on until the supply was exhausted. The quality of the salt, if I remember this fea-:are of it rightly, would not compare very favorably with our best table samples of the same article now-a-days; it was coarse grained and rather dirty in color, but it was all right for certain purposes for that time, and the people were glad to get it. The salt while not the best for table use, was all right for salting down meat, and large quantities were required throughout the country every year for use in this way. The :ask to the salt makers, therefore, of disposing of their season's out-put was not a difficult one. The Hudson's Bay Company were always ready to take a lot off their hands for their own use, and what was left they had no trouble in selling to the settlers.
Such is the story of the salt-makers. They have passed away long since, with many other interesting and picturesque things of the early days. They remain among us now, merely as a memory, but the memory is a pleasant one, and not without its element of romance. It is also suggestive and instructive.
In these days of cheap and rapid transportation, we act upon the :ea that it is easier and cheaper to grow wheat and buy everything e that we need from outside than to develop our own natural resources. So much, indeed, has this idea taken possession of us, that we almost seem to have forgotten the fact that we have natural resources, outside of our wheat producing ability.
These records of what the people of the country, in the early days accomplished in the way of making the country itself supply their needs, it should be a lesson to us in this respect, and should open our eyes to the latent possibilities that are lying all around us.
In those early days, the people of the country not only manufactured their salt, but they produced many other useful articles of household consumption, such as maple sugar and syrup, various kinds of cloth and knitted goods made from native wool spun in the home, also tanned and dressed leathers of different kinds. Even the wild voyageur and tripman was aware of the ready wealth of his country and was not slow to lay it under tribute for the supplying of his daily needs. One of the commonest and most indispensable of these was "pitch" to keep his boat or birch bark tight, and this he knew just where to get. He knew where the pure black tar boiled up out of the soil, at points along his course of travel, and whenever he passed that way he carried a supply of it with him. These people looked to the soil to supply almost everything that they required, and it is most instructive to know, at this date, how generously the soil responded to their expectations.
May we not regard these interesting, precocious achievements of the past as prophetic of the future, and as indicative of what shall yet be done, on a much larger scale, in the country, as one by one its great latent resources are discovered by capital, and their commercial possibilities are brought to light?
1. This would mean that they were north of the original Manitoba boundary.
Page revised: 18 June 2020Back to top of page