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A Red River Industry

Manitoba Pageant, April 1964, Volume 9, 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.

An excerpt from The Red River Settlement by Alexander Ross:

The fortunes of the colony were sensibly affected in this year (1825) by a new project set on foot by the magnates of the fur trade, who had from time to time visited the settlement and watched its progress with some degree of interest. The plan contemplated by these ambitious and restless men was a joint stock concern, under the high-sounding title of the "Buffalo Wool Company." The scheme consisted of one hundred shares, of 201. each, with provisions for remodelling and extending it at any future period; its chief manager being Mr. Pritchard, a gentleman of considerable experience.

Photo:
Alexander Ross - Historian of Red River.
Source: Archives of Manitoba.

His calculations appear to have been all based on the supposition that wool and hides, the staple articles required, could be had for the mere trouble of picking them up. The express objects of the company were as follows:

1. To provide a substitute for wool; as it was supposed, from the numbers and destructive habits of the wolves, that sheep could neither be raised nor preserved in Red River, at least to any extent.

2. The substitute contemplated was the wool of the wild buffalo, which was to be collected in the plains, and manufactured both for the use of the colonists and for export.

3. To establish a tannery for manufacturing the buffalo hides for domestic purposes.

It was the chairman's belief, to quote his own words, that "To accomplish these important ends, neither much capital nor much skill was required;" but others thought very differently of the project, and were assured that much would depend on economy and proper management. Nevertheless, the capital, amounting to 2,0001., was no sooner placed in the bank than operations were commenced with as much confidence as if the mines of Potosi had been at their door. All the plain hunters were set in motion; the men were encouraged to exert every nerve to procure hides, and the women to gather wool. A new impulse was thus given to industry, but it was attended with two evils—evils which might have easily been foreseen. First, the wool and the hides were not to be got, as stated, for the picking up; and, secondly, all who had previously applied themselves to the cultivation of the soil, threw aside the hoe and spade to join the plain-rangers. The hope of realizing gold from articles hitherto perfectly useless, diverted the elements of civilization into the channel of barbarism, and substituted an uncertain resource for the solid reliance of agriculture. The hides, likewise, rose in price proportionate to the demand, and soon cost 6s. each to the company; wool, 1s. 6d. per pound. Still warning was not taken. Orders were sent to England for machinery, implements, dyes, and skilled workmen; a superintendent, a clerk, a storekeeper, and many others, were engaged at high salaries; and as nothing could be done in those palmy days without the bottle and the glass, spirits were imported by the hogshead.

An establishment was formed befitting the dignity of the Buffalo Wool Company. All Red River at work. High wages gave a high tone to the undertaking. A second immigration of operatives consisted of curriers, skinners, sorters, wool-dressers, teasers, and bark-manufacturers, of all grades, ages, and sexes. Boys and girls advanced from 2s. 6d. to 7s. each per day; men had at first 7s. 6d., but they kept ascending the scale till they reached 15s. per day. Such were the prospects, the encouragement, the miscalculation, the extravagance! Light come, light go! Money was spent as if the goose that laid the golden eggs was to live for ever. Meanwhile, provisions became dear, and at length scarce; for while labour obtained these high rates at the manufactory, no one would willingly take the hoe or the spade at 2s. per day.

Such was the state of things in full operation when curiosity led a few disinterested persons, the writer among others, to take a peep at this fool's paradise. Alas! what scenes of disorder! what waste, what excess and folly! Half the people were off duty, officials as well as others, wallowing in intemperance. One man lying drunk here, an-other there; the bottle and glass set up at every booth, and all comers invited to drink free of cost. The hides were allowed to rot, the wool spoiled; the tannery proved a complete failure. In short, besides ex-pending their 2,0001. capital, the company found themselves indebted in the amount of 4,5001. to the Hudson's Bay Company, who had been their bankers. This heavy loss hung over their heads for several years, till the honourable Company drew the pen through it, and relieved the bankrupt Buffalo Company from the terrors of a lawsuit. A few samples of cloth had indeed been made and sent home; but that which cost 21. 10s. per yard in Red River, would only fetch 4s. 6d. in England!

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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