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The First Half Century: A Sketch of the Early Years of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba

by David A. Stewart, MD

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1979, Volume 24, 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.

1979 marks the centennial of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba (Manitoba Historical Society). Dr. David A. Stewart was president of the society from 1930 to 1934. His paper, presented in 1934, outlines the beginnings, growth, decline and rebirth of the society during its first half century.


The Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba was organized at a meeting held at the old court house, that is, the very old court house, on Main Street, on 23 January 1879. There were twenty-six original members, almost everyone a maker of history in his day: Hon. Joseph Royal; Chief Justice Wood, who was the first President; U.S. Consul Taylor whose United States citizenship always seems a hazy thing compared with the real essential citizenship of his adopted city and Province; Hon. John Norquay, afterwards Premier; Rev. Dr. George Bryce, vivacious, ever-busy, so busy that he cultivated widely, sometimes, rather than deeply, but a man whose volume of work of all kinds was stupendous; Rev. Thomas Hart, beloved scholar; Dr. Cowan; Rev. Dean Grisdale, afterwards Bishop; Rev. Dr. Robertson, who left a mark upon Western Canada such as few, if indeed any others, have done; Dr. Pinkham, afterwards Bishop; Canon O’Meara, afterwards dean, enshrined in the hearts of all old St. John’s men; Hon. A. G. B. Bannatyne, a survivor out of the remoter past; Hon. Gilbert McMicken; Hon. A. A. C. LaRiviere, Edouard Richard; J. F. Bain, afterwards Mr. Justice Bain; S. C. Biggs; Jas. H. Rowan; R. H. Kenning; H. M. Drummond; W.W. Campbell; Thos. Spence, organizer of the republic of Portage la Prairie, and writer about immigration to Manitoba; Alexander Begg, historian; Alex. McArthur, who gave special attention to the mystery of Thomas Simpson; S. R. Parsons, and our honourary President Dr. C. N. Bell.

The new Society was set out with all the proper legal trimmings. It had “perpetual succession,” could “sue and be sued, plead and be impleaded,” could “hold any estate real or personal or mixed.” The objects of the said Society were, “the collection and preservation of publications, manuscripts, antiquities, curiosities, specimens of natural history, and the formation of a library and museum.” It was provided that “first and chiefly such publications, manuscripts, specimens and other objects collected and preserved” should “pertain to the Social, Political and natural history of America.”

The incorporating act was assented to on 25 June 1879 and the first annual meeting, beginning a custom of many years, was held on the second Tuesday in February, 1880. The fee was three dollars a year and life membership twenty-five dollars. There were active, honourary and corresponding members. The executive Council met monthly, and there was a monthly meeting of the Society as well. Special committees were elected to deal with finance and property, library and publication, archeology and natural history, and there was a special library committee to meet with the library committee of the City Council.

Among other trifling pursuits this young society set itself to build up three libraries. It organized, purchased, managed, housed and made available for the people the only public library and reading room the city had until the Carnegie library was opened. A second, the special joy of the Society’s heart, was a general reference library which included a fairly complete collection of books, historical and other, relating to Western Canada. Part of this collection went to the Carnegie reference library, and part was buried in the catacombs of the Parliament building. The third of the Society’s libraries had as its nucleus the books bequeathed by Mr. Isbister. This carefully preserved, used, and added to, was the beginning of the library of the Manitoba University.

As though three libraries were not enough, the Society collected, built up, housed, shelved and opened to the public the first museum of the Province. Growing quickly, far beyond room and shelving space this museum rode like a veritable old man of the sea on the backs of its unfortunate committee and the wail at every annual meeting was for more money for more cataloguing and more space.

The Society was the natural history Society of its day and no fewer than eight of its earlier papers deal with birds and bird lore, three with other phases of Western Fauna, and nine with geology. The first historical monument in stone, the Seven Oaks Memorial, it originated and carried through. While direct descent cannot be traced it was at least the forerunner if not the progenitor of the Natural History Society ... and the legion of other kindred societies of today. It preserved papers and journals of value and never failed to publish its transactions. Apart from the Natural History papers already referred to, twenty-seven dealt with biography and early history of the Red River and the farther North-west, two with the Arctic and the Hudson’s Bay, three with Indian lore and language, four with the City of Winnipeg, for instance advocating a permanent water supply, and others with such matters as crops and markets, geography, place names, and strangers within our gates.

Dr. John Rae, who uncovered the mystery of Franklin, delivered a lecture, a promising youth of the Carberry Plains, one E. Thompson Seton, read two papers. Next to Dr. Bryce, whose pen flowed perennially, comes Dr. C. N. Bell with seven well-considered papers. Others are by Sir John Schultz, John McBeth, R. G. McBeth, Roderick McFarlane, Mr. Fonseca and Father Drummond. The strong bent toward geology came from J. H. Panton, M.A. whose removal from Winnipeg seems to have been one of the first considerable blows to the growing Society.

To review reports year after year would be time-consuming, and, however active the Society, perhaps tedious as well. If we look about for sample years we could not do better than go back to the fifth annual meeting held in February 1884. There was congratulation upon a year of growth, - 112 members on the roll at the beginning, and 147 added during the year. That does not mean 269 diligent historians and scientists. Membership carried certain library privileges, and for such loaves and fishes many followed. When at a later date the privileges of the libraries were given free to college students, withdrawals of paid memberships were noted with concern in families which had students who could borrow for all without a fee. The genuine active membership may be more nearly indicated by an attendance of 27 at the annual meeting. Mr. Alex McArthur was in the chair as president. The new president was Dr. Bryce, and young C. N. Bell after winning his spurs as chairman of the finance committee was given the more congenial post of corresponding secretary.

The Society recorded the death of an honourary member Alexander Kennedy Isbister MA. LLB, Barrister of London, England, noting his distinguished services in the opening of the North-West “and self-denying labours for the people of his native land.” The Society had become affiliated with the Royal Society of Canada. It had sent, in charge of the chairman of the Museum Committee, all the way to the Dominion Exhibition at St. John, New Brunswick, 340 specimens from the Museum. This Society of quiet scientists and historians had even risked its peace of mind in the tempera-mental atmosphere of artists and hanging committees, by holding a gigantic art Exhibition in which 4,000 articles were exhibited by 150 people. A balance of $450.00 was spent, in books of reference $200.00, books of North-West and Arctic $100.00, circulating library $150.00.

“An event of the greatest magnitude” had to be prepared for, the visit of the British Association to Montreal the following Summer. Assuredly some of the Association would come West, so “it would be extremely fitting for the Society to take a lead in whatever may be necessary for their comfort and information when in our region.” And what was our region? Nothing small, only “the North and West of Lake Superior.”

And this Society had cultivated its wide region. Though transportation was yet at the brickboard and shaggi-nappi stage a delegation duly appointed to visit the Rocky Mountains had actually visited them and had reported to this meeting. Eight men, Bryce, Goodridge, Panton, Bell, Armstrong, Hughan, Stewart and the Rev. Dr. D. M. Gordon “representing the departments of history and archaeology, natural history, geology, topography and ’The Press,’ ” had scattered on various enquiries across the prairies, then made rendezvous at Moose Jaw and travelled to seventy miles West of Calgary. “The information as to the country afforded as a result of the expedition has been recognized as most important both at home and abroad.”

The Rev. A. B. Baird, M.A. of Edmonton had enquired about little golden colored globules imbedded in snow, in size from large shot to pin point. Dr. Baird tells me confidentially that he is still waiting for the Society’s pronouncement. For any young man who propounded such tough nuts for cracking, there was but one disposal - he was made a member, a corresponding member, and so made to share the responsibility of getting his own questions answered.

The Museum which was already bursting its bounds had received extensive collections of fossils, a collection of marine invertebrates, and bayonets of Lord Selkirk’s soldiers. Papers read during the year - nine in number were on “Roadways and Carriage Ways” - a treatise on road construction; The Sioux Language which dipped into philology; Sources of North-western History; Navigation of Hudson’s Bay and Straits - in which the navigability of the route was discussed historically and practically by Mr. C. N. Bell; “Discovery of The Sources of the Yukon” - a paper by chief Factor Campbell, their discoverer, who had been forty years in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company; “In Memoriam A. K. Isbister, Esq.”; Notes on Harmon’s Journal; Fragmentary Leaves from the Geological Records of the Great North-west - a report by Mr. Panton, one of the members of the Rocky Mountain Explorers; Water - recommending for Winnipeg a Lake of the Woods supply.

Events of the year duly recorded by the Society had been coal from North-west coal beds, now being sold in Winnipeg; the opening up of the Canadian Pacific to the West which “afforded us in the North-West an opportunity of studying series of orctaceous and later rocks not possessed by any other part of Canada”; “Increasing indications of mineral wealth in Lake of the Woods and Rocky Mountains,” 15 degrees of frost on September 7th, and “The Art Exhibition which had stimulated study along several lines.”

What a year of activity - and worthwhile effective activity. It would be almost unbelievable apart from the stimulating atmosphere of a pioneer period in a now and almost untouched country, where any new exploration of any kind was a fresh adventure. I think what I have outlined was the Zenith year, though for ten years the work of the Society was full and ample. I will give occasional notes of the ups and downs at first mostly ups, and later mostly downs, in the years that follow.

’85 found the Society in new quarters shared with the Board of Trade, the Pet Stock Club, the Reform Association, the Medical and Chirurgical Society, the University and the Shorthand Reporters Association. A great exhibition had been put on primarily to interest the British Association for the Advancement of Science, but incidentally bringing in nearly $1300.

In 1887 Dr. Hart was President, and among the honourary Members were Colonel Palliser, General Wolseley, Sanford Fleming, Dr. John Rae and Principal Grant, and among the corresponding members Professor H. Y. Hind. In spite of such heroic effort as 28 meetings of the executive there was the first note of pessimism. “The Society is not in as flourishing a condition as we could desire.” The chief burden, as usual, was the public library and the City had helped somewhat by giving free rooms in the City Hall.

The notable visitor of the year had been Professor Goldwin Smith who gave a resume of the critical changes in English history - unfortunately not published. The reference and Western library had 2,000 volumes, the Isbister University library, about 4,700, and the public circulating library about 5,000, including a set of Dickens that had been worn out and should be replaced!

In ’89 Mr. Dickens, the son of the novelist, gave readings for two evenings, but this venture set the Society back $103. Negotiations had begun for the preservation of the Fort Garry Gateway. Active members numbered 59.

The inaugural address of the President, Mr. C. N. Bell, was what we would call only distinctly stimulating. While the Society had not been idle there was much yet that should be collected “The languages, social life, dress, dwellings, utensils, medicinal preparations, mortuary customs” of the Indians, and their legends, before they were “diluted by the intrusion of modern reasoning and coloring.” The changes of territory of Indian tribes also should be studied, especially following the recession of the buffalo, the trade movements and exploration by whites, the history of religious work and of education, and the various forms of government in the Selkirk settlement. The early journals should be collected and historic sites marked, for instance Seven Oaks. Members of geological turn of mind need never be idle, “Meteorology should prove a fruitful subject,” floods should be investigated, and the action of frosts on soils. The botanical field was almost virgin, medical members might study the Indians’ medicinal preparations, including the Seneca root. Those of agricultural interest could enquire about early crops and the sources of the seed. Entomology, the habits of wild animals, the periodical disappearances of wild animals, the fish of the lakes, the birds of the air, the reptilian life, including the Stony Mountain “Snake hole,” fresh water and land shells, mound builders’ remains. Place names being chosen, should have their stories put down. Pamphlets, prospectuses, reports of public speeches should be preserved and information should be distributed.

In 1890 an association of boys and young men having for its object the prosecution of studies on natural history, and styled the Junior Historical Society, was given permission to meet in the society’s rooms, and to have access to its reference library and museum, free of charge.

By 1892 Rev. Mr. Baird of Edmonton had become Professor Baird of Winnipeg, and instead of the easy irresponsibility of writing embarrassing questions was given the responsibility of the Presidency and the answering of questions. Among the many exchanges of the Society at that time one notes the Library of the Vatican. A copy of Schoolcraft’s Indians had been bought for $60.00, and the first volume of Murray’s great English Dictionary for $15.00. A fine musk ox skeleton had been received, but the fly in the ointment was the scandalously high cost of mounting the exasperating thing.

In 1894 the death of Archbishop Tache was recorded, and a visit from Lord and Lady Aberdeen. The Society was getting into leaner times. President G. J. Laird in 1895 deplores “the apparent lack of interest in the most important department of the Society’s work, namely, the carrying on of original work and the reading of papers in connection therewith.”

The President’s address referred to “many troublesome questions which had been a source of public discussion in Manitoba,” evidently the school question, or questions.

The death of Sir John Schultz was recorded in 1896. The Museum was still growing.

In 1897 “the council, while not able to report anything in original research, endeavors to maintain a steady grasp of the objects of the Society by regular monthly meetings.” It “regrets the want of cooperation of the public and the lack of interest by its own members.” But it has a new committee for the “collecting of ethnological and ethnographical materials, and of conserving the otherwise rapidly disappearing remains of Indian language, &c.” The circulating libary had increased to 34,140 volumes, and 1,581 readers’ tickets had been issued. A third librarian was needed.

In 1898 the swelling tide of feminism struck the Society, and Mrs. George Bryce became the first woman member. Naturally there was a swing toward optimism. The affairs of the Society were not as bad as they seemed. Anyway, “a sound and important institution was being established for posterity.” (We are a part of that posterity). The big effort this year was that the museum was again re-arranged and catalogued. The committee got along all right with the ethnological specimens, but, being men of chiefly historical bent, they naturally fell down on the geological.

In 1899 the burdens of libraries and museum were still being carried, with the extra embarrassment of a fine collection of botanical specimens, and no room for them. But only two papers were read.

The first annual report of the new century found the Society at the end of “another year of steady plodding work,” - as it certainly must have been, with a growing museum and three growing libraries to handle, including the full direction of the public library service in Winnipeg. Even though only three papers were read, one, for the first time, by a woman member; and though the Society seemed to itself to have fallen upon bad times; it was actually carrying the heavy burden of much worthwhile public service. Manitoba people were beginning to write, and home-grown books were swelling the special North-west section of the library.

In 1901 the death of Dean O’Meara is recorded. The two chief purchases of the year were the Jesuit Relations, evidently the Thwaite edition of 73 volumes, and the Dictionary of National Biography. The Museum shelves were packed beyond capacity. “The Society regrets its inability to do very much more than accumulate and conserve information and data which will prove most valuable in the future.” “More elbow room in the near future” is hoped for. The committees are, Finance, Archaeology and Natural History, Library and Publication, and the committee or public library jointly with the City Council.

In 1904, under the presidency of the Hon. David Laird, the Society had 6,000 volumes in its special library.

In 1905 the City Hall headquarters were abandoned and meetings held at the Y.M.C.A. After carrying the public library services for the growing city for a quarter of a century, the new Carnegie library had taken over, and the Manitoba Historical and Scientific Society was “clear of responsibility.” One can almost hear the great sigh of relief. But if no one then and there thought of a vote appreciation for that quarter century of arduous and fruitful labor we can appraise it more justly. It was a great bit of work. Two thousand volumes of the special reference library of the Society were handed over as the nucleus of the reference section of the Carnegie Libary. The rest of that special library was stored in the basement of Manitoba College; the Isbister library no doubt went at this time to the University, the Museum found temporary storage in the home of Mrs. A. C. Hutton, and a number of cases of geological specimens were placed in the University Building. Five or six tons of pamphlets and papers were “disposed of.” The Society was an evicted tenant. The accumulation of years had been willed away or scattered as when a man is about to die. The Society was without a home.

What could be expected? The whole body of work of a quarter century had been lost to the Society. A complex new city had grown up with many and varied societies and groups. The infant city in which one group could focus in itself, the chief interests in history, research, ethnology, geology, museum, natural sciences, libraries and literature, had gone. There were mere fragments left to pick up. And what heart had the old stalwarts for fragments? The Society, bereft of home, of work, of goods and of heart, dragged along until 1910, then went into a state of coma. Three years later, in 1913, a heroic effort was made to restore animation, but the heart of the organism had been broken. It could not be galvanized into action. Then there opened up, square across the trail of this and of many other life interests, the stupendous chasm of the Great War.

It was not until 6 May 1926 that the Society began to think of reviving, or rather Dr. Bell began to think of reviving it, with a very considerable effusion of new blood. There were present at the organization meeting, Dr. C. N. Bell, Professor Chester Martin, Professor A. B. Clark and Mrs. Clark, Mrs. H. J. Parker, Mr. J. H. McCarthy, Mr. George Adam, Mr. G. J. O’Grady, Mr. Alan Crawley and Mr. W. J. Healy.

The letter sent out as a fiery cross points out that “valuable historical materials will be irratrievably lost unless a more systematic attempt is made to collect them,” and “The encouragement of an interest in local history is one of the surest signs of local patriotism.”

The first regular meeting of the new-old Society was held on 24 November 1926, under the presidency of Dr. C. N. Bell, the first paper being by the President himself, on The Earliest Fur Traders on the Upper Red River and Red Lake Minnesota. It is not too much to say that the very life of the Society, from its beginning had been in a very great measure the interest, the energy, the effort, the vitality of its life-long member and officer Dr. C. N. Bell.

Page revised: 20 July 2009

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