Memorable Manitobans: John Semmens (1850-1921)
Born at Penzance, Cornwall, England on 9 January 1850, son of John and Sarah Semmens, he came to Canada with his family in 1860. He was educated at Victoria College (Cobourg, Ontario) then commenced his clerical career at Walkerville, Ontario in 1871. The next year, he relieved Egerton Ryerson Young at Norway House, where he became an authority on the Cree language. He came to Winnipeg in 1872 and, eight years later, he became pastor of Zion Methodist Church, then Emerson Methodist Church, before heading west in the 1880s, to Carberry Methodist Church (1887-1889). In 1890 he became pastor of Wesley Methodist Church and then McDougall Methodist Church, both in Winnipeg. In 1895 he organized the Industrial School at Brandon for the education of Indian children, leaving in 1900.
He published Mission Life in the Northwest and The Field and the work: Sketches of Missionary Life in the Far North (1884). He also published four books in the Cree language. In 1890, he read a paper on a Cree Syllabic to the Manitoba Historical Society. Ill health led him to retire from the ministry and to accept an appointment with the federal department of Indian Affairs. In 1911, Semmens was Dominion Inspector of Indian Agencies, and Commissioner, based at Winnipeg. He was a Half Breed Scrip Commissioner. He procured the surrender of 133,000 square miles of Keewatin, and took ten different Adhesions to Treaty No. 5.
He was married twice, first to Hellen Kalista Behimer (1855-1901) of Conetown, Ontario, with whom he had seven children: John Nelson Semmens, William B. Semmens (1881-?, husband of Louie Guest, daughter of William John Guest), Francis Harold “Frank” Semmens (1882-1959, father of Margaret Kilvington Trott), Percy R. Semmens (1884-?), Fred A. Semmens (1891-?), Clara Kalista Semmens (1886-1971, wife of George Albert Broadbent), and Sarah Tannis Semmens (1888-?). On 4 December 1907, he married Elizabeth Gibson Cross (?-?) of Winnipeg.
He died at Winnipeg on 1 February 1921 and was buried in the St. John’s Cathedral Cemetery.
Birth and death registrations, Manitoba Vital Statistics.
1901 Canada census, Automated Genealogy.
“Mrs. Semmens dead,” Manitoba Free Press, 14 June 1901, page 5.
Who’s Who in Western Canada: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Men and Women of Western Canada, Volume 1, edited by C. W. Parker, Vancouver: Canadian Press Association, 1911.
The Canadian Album: Men of Canada or Success by Example, Vol. III, Bradley, Garretson & Co., Brantford, Ontario, 1894.
Marriage registration [John Semmens, Elizabeth Cross], Manitoba Vital Statistics.
“Semmens - Cross,” Winnipeg Tribune, 5 December 1907, page 6.
“Rev. John Semmens, pioneer Methodist missionary, dies,” Winnipeg Tribune, 1 February 1921, page 1.
“Frank H. Semmens joins Borden firm,” Winnipeg Tribune, 6 September 1930, page 10.
Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by John M. “Jack” Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.
Obituaries and burial transcriptions, Manitoba Genealogical Society.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 15 April 2022