Manitoba Historical Society
     Keeping history alive for over 138 years



Field Trip:

Field Trip:


No. 82

This Old


in Manitoba

Local History


Historic Sites
of Manitoba

Poles Among the De Meuron Soldiers

by Victor Turek

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 9, 1952-53 season

MHS Transactions were originally published by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make online versions available as a free, public service. As an historical document, Transactions may contain language that is no longer in common use and which may offend some readers. They should not be construed to represent the views of today’s Manitoba Historical Society.

This online version was prepared using Optical Character Recognition software so that spelling and punctuation errors may have occurred inadvertently. If you find any such errors, please inform us, indicating the document name and error.

Please direct all inquiries to

At the outset of this lecture and before embarking on its subject I feel I owe some explanation concerning the title of the paper. As this title indicates, I will speak of the first Polish settlers in Manitoba who arrived in this province as the De Meuron soldiers. However, as will be clear from the contents, none of these Polish settlers who arrived here with Lord Selkirk's expedition came from the De Meuron regiment. Strictly speaking, there was probably not a single Pole among the ex-soldiers of the De Meuron regiment who arrived in the Red River Colony in 1817. For these reasons, the title “Poles among the De Meuron in the Red River Colony” can be regarded as unfounded and even misleading. If nevertheless I have used it, I did so deliberately not for the purpose of misinforming listeners but to conform to the terminology adopted in Canadian historical publications. It is known that Canadian historians concerned with this period of Manitoba's past and with problems connected with Lord Selkirk's expedition, used to apply the name of De Meuron indiscriminately, including under it not only the ex-soldiers ranking at one time among the members of the Swiss regiment bearing the name of its founder and former owner, Count De Meuron, but also those whom Lord Selkirk recruited from the second Swiss unit, namely from the De Watteville regiment, stationed in Kingston, and even those who came from the British Glengarry Fancibles regiment. [1] The reasons for which the name “De Meuron” has found so wide application are not known. The chief reason, however, must probably have been the circumstances that the men coming from the De Meuron regiment formed a preponderant majority of all the soldiers escorting Lord Selkirk in his journey to the terrain of the present Manitoba. In this manner, the common name of “the De Meurons” has been generally accepted in Canada as indicating all ex-soldiers who accompanied Lord Selkirk in his expedition from Montreal to the Red River Colony and who formed his escort. If one of the streets in the present city of St. Boniface has been named De Meurons Street, it was apparently because the city desired thus to honour all these veterans, regardless of their affiliation to one or other of these military units. And in this rather extended meaning we can also speak of the Polish De Meuron settlers; remembering however that sensu stricto all these Poles whom we have reason to consider the first representatives of the Polish ethnic stock in Manitoba and who will form the subject of this paper, belonged not to the De Meuron regiment, but to that of De Watteville.

On meeting this historical detail, I was to discover unfortunately, neither on the part of Canadian historical science, nor on the part of Polish students who concerned themselves with this problem, had adequate efforts been exerted for an accurate and complete presentation of the history of these first representatives of the Polish people in Western Canada. Canadian historians of non-Polish origin could easily be excused to a certain extent. For them, the question of the Polish De Meurons was only a minor historical detail, without any greater significance. This was not the case with the Polish writers who, as we shall see, displayed a great deal of interest in the first Polish colonists of Manitoba, and from whom a thorough examination of this problem could be expected. They did not, however, take the trouble to establish, on the basis of primary sources, the real state of affairs and to complete or to correct information published by some Canadian historians. By reprinting this information without checking its accuracy and by adding their own commentaries, not always in complete accord with historical truth, they allowed Polish literature on this subject to be filled with a wide range of misconceptions.

In presenting in detail the historical events which led to the settlement of the first Poles in Manitoba, I shall try to straighten out these inaccuracies in line with the results of research I conducted on the basis of available materials. In examining these I came to certain conclusions which could be regarded as original as they have never been revealed in publications concerning Manitoba's beginnings. The research, which I had the opportunity to conduct, enabled me to establish new facts and to discover new names, which make it possible to complete the picture of the beginnings of Polish settlement in Manitoba. Nevertheless, this research does not at all pretend to be exhaustive. Since, in a limited period of time, I had to prepare a study embracing the whole development of the Polish ethnic group in Manitoba, the history of the Polish De Meurons could be for me only a fragment, a mere detail, to which I could not devote as much attention as I should under normal conditions. I am convinced that Canadian archives still contain numerous documents which I was not in a position to benefit from or to examine closely.

Polish soldiers served in both Swiss regiments, which in connection with the British American war of 1812, found themselves on Canadian territory. The presence of Poles in the De Meuron and De Watteville regiments has been discovered by Mieczyslaw Haiman, a well-known Polish-American historian, who explained also the reasons for which these Poles entered the British service. Thanks to his studies, especially to the treatise entitled “Poles in the second American War of Independence,” published in 1938, [2] we know a good deal about the tragic fate of these people who left Poland for foreign countries in order to fight there against the oppressors of their mother country-Russia, Austria and Prussia; and who finally found themselves in the service of the King of England in Canada-far from their home-country and in a continent completely unknown.

These Polish soldiers were volunteers who crossed the borders of the partitioning states and got into France, or into other countries occupied by French armies, with a view of serving in the ranks of these armies under the leadership of Napoleon. Other Poles found themselves in the service of Napoleon as prisoners taken by the French from the Austrian, Russian and Prussian armies in the course of the campaigns conducted in Europe by revolutionary France; or again as refugees escaping from these armies - men who had been forcibly recruited to the coalition armies fighting Napoleon, and who took advantage of the possibility of flight to join those Poles who, with faith in the motto “For your freedom and ours!”, followed the eagles of the great French leader. They hoped one day to return to Poland under his banners and believed that Poland would be restored by the triumphant Emperor. As we know, the wars which the young French republic conducted against coalitions of the reactionary powers at the end of the eighteenth century were contemporaneous with the partitions of Poland, and a large part of Polish nation linked the fate of its country with the defeat of the three despotic powers. The appearance of a military genius in the person of Bonaparte was welcomed by patriotic Poles as a promise of the final victory of Poland, which in 1795 had been wiped from the map of Europe. The French general, according to the deepest hopes of the Poles, was to reinstate it as an independent nation. Thousands and tens of thousands of patriots from all three portions of the divided country gathered in Western Europe, chiefly in Italy and France, where Polish “legions” arose, fighting under Napoleon's command on all fronts and against all armies of the various anti-French coalitions.

This epic of the émigré Polish soldiers, which belongs to the most beautiful and romantic periods of the history of this nation and its struggles for independence, by a tragic intermingling of circumstances, brought these men also to those fronts where French armies opposed English forces. Neither Poland nor the Poles had any controversial issues with England and they had no reason to fight against its armies; nevertheless service under the French leader took them where they had to fight against the English only because England found herself in alliance with the empires which had deprived Poland of her freedom. Here then begins the history of these legionnaires, whom, in the course of time, we find in the ranks of the British army. Here, also, we find the explanation why service in the British ranks brought those soldiers as far as the shores of the St. Lawrence River. Fighting on various fronts in Europe, especially in Spain, and beyond Europe, numbers of Poles became English prisoners-of-war. In tracing the fate of these people, Haiman proved that the conditions in which they found themselves in English captivity were unusually difficult. With reference to competent English historians, Haiman finds that the situation of these prisoners of war in English hands was almost intolerable. [3] Treated in an inhumane manner, imprisoned in old warships in deplorable conditions, these people had only one recourse in order to free themselves from a nightmare: volunteering for the service in the British forces. In this way, the heroes of our story found themselves at one time in the British service in the ranks of two mercenary Swiss regiments, in the De Meuron regiment and that of De Watteville.

Both these Swiss regiments, in their beginnings, were certainly mercenary units. This does not signify however, that all the soldiers serving in them were to be regarded as mercenaries, as is usually the case in Canadian historical literature. As for the Poles, with whom we are concerned here, not one of them was a mercenary soldier. Imputing to them the status of professional soldiers, hired for pay in the service of a power which offers this pay, is the most unjust classification that could have met them on the part of historians not adequately informed as to the composition of the De Meuron and De Watteville regiments. The former of these, created as a mercenary unit by the Swiss, Count De Meuron, was at first in Dutch service in India. [4] It was bought over by English agents on the island of Ceylon and passed to the side of the British who at this time were conducting a war against the Dutch. It never served under Napoleon's command, and, as a military formation was never captured by British Armies. [5] It was stationed in Malta for a certain length of time, and was sent by the Duke of Wellington to Canada at the moment when that colony was threatened by an American invasion, after the outbreak of the war of 1812. The De Watteville regiment had a less colorful history. Great Britain purchased it in 1801, and from that time on it served continually under the Union Jack. It was sent to Canada in 1813, along with the De Meuron regiments. [6]

In his work, mentioned above, Haiman published a list of all the Poles serving in both Swiss units, worked out on the basis of materials from the War Office in London. [7] This list included the names and short biographical sketches of eleven of the Poles serving in the De Meuron unit, some of whom, as Haiman found out, were demobilized before landing on the shores of Canada. Thus we see that there were very few actual Polish De Meurons in Canada. There were considerably more Poles (as many as 529) in the second Swiss unit, the De Watteville regiment, as to which Haiman states that his list of 529 names does not include all the Poles who found themselves in Canada in the ranks of this unit. By comparing the number of Polish soldiers serving in both Swiss units in Canada, the explanation can be found why these men, who participated in Lord Selkirk's expedition to the Red River Colony, originated only from the De Watteville regiment.

Engaging the Polish prisoners-of-war for service in the Swiss regiments, the English were aware that it would be difficult for these men to fight against their kinsmen, who were serving under French leadership, even though they might be willing to participate in military operations directed against France or the French army. For that reason, governed either by a clear obligation contracted towards these unfortunate patriots, or simply being tactful, the British authorities did not employ these units for military operations in Europe. But even on the American continent the position of the Poles meant to fight against the young American republic was not easy. The political sympathies of the Polish nation and its soldiers fighting in the French armies were unequivocally pro-American. In their eyes the American revolutionary movement symbolized progress, patriotism and a struggle against oppression. For that reason, the American War of Independence brought from Europe an important number of Polish patriots, among whom certain ones such as Kosciuszko and Pulaski, thanks to their heroism and merits, entered the pantheon of American national history. [8] When therefore the Poles in Canada, especially from the De Watteville regiment, entered into military operations against the Americans in 1813-1815, the English authorities had some trouble with them. They began to join the republican armies. In the end, however, the desertions ceased. The Polish soldiers were commended by their leaders for their courage and loyalty, and were presented for awards in the form of allotments of land after the regiment was demobilized. [9]

The moment of demobilization of the soldiers of both Swiss regiments at the end of the war in 1816, directs our attention to Lord Selkirk who, while staying in Montreal at this time and planning his expedition to the region of the present Manitoba, was impatiently waiting to choose from among the veterans of these units companions for his perilous journey. Strained, and even hostile, relations between the Hudson's Bay Company and the colony established by Selkirk and the enterprising and unscrupulous North Western Fur Company demanded caution and led the founder of the Red River Colony to provide the expedition with a strong escort of a semi-military character. [10] Lord Selkirk found candidates for this escort among officers of the Swiss mercenary units and used them as his recruiting agents, to engage the non-commissioned officers and privates of the Glengarry Fancibles regiment, as well as of those of De Meuron and DeWatteville. But even at this moment, Lord Selkirk did not cease to be a great colonizer. He did not forget that what he needed most for the safety and future development of the threatened colony were people - settlers who would develop and strengthen the great enterprise on the banks of the Red River. For this reason Lord Selkirk recommended to his agents that these veterans be engaged not only in an escort capacity, but also as future settlers, as farmers who could populate the lands of the present Manitoba and put them under cultivation. I said, “not only”, but perhaps “primarily” should have been said. First and foremost Selkirk was trying to secure settlers, and only then did he wish to have these people as soldiers, to ensure the safety of his expedition. This finding, which in the light of documents examined by us seems indisputable, at least so far as the Poles in Selkirk's service are concerned, is valuable and important. Canadian historians have been used to emphasize only the escort character of the De Meuron soldiers in the Red River Colony and to underestimate to a considerable extent the importance which the founder of this colony attached to these people as future settlers.

Documents found in the Lord Selkirk Papers allow us to state that Lord Selkirk's Chief objective, at least in so far as the Polish soldiers were concerned, was to secure in these possibly the most valuable farmers who were to remain permanently in the new colony, after performing their temporary role as a military escort. In his valuable book about the beginnings of settlement in Assiniboia, Archer Martin quotes evidence confirming the extreme care Lord Selkirk exercised so that the veterans engaged would be efficient settlers: he was very particular in the selection of these people “as none but those of the best character and who knew some of the requisite and useful trades for the settlement would be accepted.”

This agricultural, colonising character of the Polish soldiers engaged by Lord Selkirk finds its surest support in those, unfortunately incomplete, documents to be found in the Lord Selkirk Papers which deal with a grandiose plan of Polish settlement, which Lord Selkirk wanted to see realized with the assistance of one of the few Polish non-commissioned officers of the De Watteville regiment, a certainCorporal Koloshinski. The name of this Pole, Philip Koloshinski, is known from the regimental list published by Haiman, from which we know that Koloshinski was a Polish soldier serving in the above mentioned regiment from the year 1811. [12] Lord Selkirk, on learning of the influence of this non-commissioned officer among the Polish soldiers of the De Watteville regiment stationed in Kingston, as well as of his personal integrity, made great efforts to recruit, with his aid, the largest possible number of Poles for farm settlement in the Red River Colony. He did not put any limits as to the number of Poles who might settle on the terrain of present Manitoba. He wanted as many of them as possible, on the condition however, that they would fit the requirements of good farm settlement. That the bold plans of Lord Selkirk were going far beyond the immediate needs of the escort for the prepared expedition is seen clearly from the fact that he suggested the engagement of Poles, even if they could not come out to Red River in 1816. He foresaw that they could come out in the following year.

In order to encourage them to settle in the Red River Colony, Lord Selkirk ordered his agents to offer them exceptional conditions. As for Corporal Koloshinski, Lord Selkirk was willing to assure him of unusually high financial rewards and an exceptionally large parcel of land, even a township, as he himself wrote in his letter to Captain Steiger of 23/6/1816. [13] To other Polish soldiers he was prepared to allot land under better conditions than those which they were to receive for their military service from the British government.

Unfortunately, as we know, not much resulted from Lord Selkirk's plans for the settlement of Poles in Manitoba. Why? This we don't know, because of lack of adequate information in the documents. Co-operation with Koloshinski did not bring fruits. He himself probably did not take advantage of His Lordship's attractive proposition. From the De Watteville regiment, on which Lord Selkirk was counting for Polish soldiers, only about twenty veterans could be recruited for escort purposes. We also do not know exactly how many of them were Polish ex-soldiers. Incomplete materials allow us to establish, however, that not less than ten Poles arrived with Selkirk in the year 1817, on the Red River and that they settled here under conditions offered them by the founder of the colony. It must be added that the difficulties connected with the establishing of the number of these first Polish immigrants in Western Canada are due not only to the incompleteness of the primary sources of information, but also by the incredible misspelling of Polish names in both English and French documents. Having at our disposal, on the one hand, the list of Polish soldiers published by Haiman, including the names already mutilated to a great extent by British military authorities, we find further disfigurations in Canadian documents concerning the presence of Polish soldiers in Manitoba. For this reason the enumeration of Polish names, which we shall give in a moment cannot be considered as complete or their spelling and pronunciation as accurate.

Everything indicates that from this regiment, in which only a few Poles served, no Polish soldier left for the Red River, yet we are not completely certain about this, and M. Haiman does not rule out such a possibility. [14] Other Polish authors writing on the presence of Polish settlers in the Red River Colony either did not give due weight to the question of membership of these settlers in one or other of the Swiss regiments, or stated incorrectly that they came from the De Meuron regiment. [15] The names in our possession correspond with the, names of the Poles coming from the De Watteville regiment.

The documents in which we can find hints about the Poles in this regiment are in the already mentioned Lord Selkirk Papers, of which photostat copies are found in our Legislative Library, and further in the Bulger Papers, the originals of which are kept in the Public Archives in Ottawa. What is more, we find the names of Poles in the Agreement of September 2, 1817, concluded in Fort Douglas between Lord Selkirk and certain soldiers from the De Meuron, De Watteville and Glengarry regiments, the original of which is in the possession of the Hudson's Bay Company in Winnipeg. [16] To my knowledge, none of these documents was used up to this time in research on the presence of the first Poles in the Red River Colony. Everything that has been written in this regard has been based chiefly on another document, namely on the so-called “Abstract of Several Conditions”, an undated document, which at one time was in the possession of our Society but then through unknown circumstances, found its way to United States of America where it is kept to this time. All the documents mentioned here should naturally be compared with the lists of Polish soldiers published by Haiman, as well as with the lists of the first settlers of the Red River Colony included in the population censuses.

From the confrontation of all these documents, and considering the possibility of errors in the spelling of individual names, we may state, that in 1817, the following Poles arrived in the territory of present day Manitoba:

(1) Michel Bardowicz (or Bardavitsch, or Bartavitche, or Borokovitz), [17] (2) Pierre Gandrosky (or Candrofsky, or Komdrowski, or Anderoski, or Ganderoski), [18] (3) Andrew Jankofsky (or Jankoskey, or Ankoski, or Jankosky, or even Sankofsky), [19] (4) Michael Kaminsky (or Kamnicky, or Caminsky), [20] (5) Martin Kralich (or Kraluk, or Kralic, or even Garlic, or Crallig), [21] (6) Woitchech Lasotta (or Lassota), [22] (7) Laurent Quilesky (or Quiletzky, or Quilecki, or Wilefsky), [23] (8) John Wasilofski (or Wasilowsky, or even Wasilovhokay), [24] (9) Michel Isaak (or Isac, or Isack, or Isak), [25] (10) Antoine Sabatzky. [26]

As to the first eight names enumerated above, there is no doubt that they belonged to Poles, who at one time found themsleves in the De Watteville unit, because these names, or their equivalents, are found in the regimental list published by Haiman. As to the ninth name, that of Michel Isaak, his Polish origin is clearly indicated by data included in the population censuses for the years 1832 and 1833, where he is listed as a resident of Red River, a Pole and a Catholic. The fact that this name is not noted by the list published by Haiman, was probably caused by some striking disfiguration of its spelling which, in the form we find it in the documents referred to, sounds rather unPolish. Similar misspelling must explain the circumstance that the list of soldiers from the De Watteville unit published by Haiman does not include also the last name enumerated above. The spelling of this name, even in its probably deformed shape, leaves no doubt that it belonged to a Pole.

The above enumeration of names does not, however, exhaust the whole problem. Besides these ten Poles, whose presence in the Red River Colony does not seem, in the light of evidence in our possession, to be doubtful, other Poles from among the ex-soldiers of the Swiss regiments could reside in this colony at the time we are concerned with. Certain indications exist that still two other Poles arrived in Red River, in 1817, along with Lord Selkirk. However, I do not exclude the possibility that the persons in question were already covered by the enumeration given above, although in the relevant documents they figure under changed names. I have in mind here a certain Jean Meron, whom the population census of the Red River Colony conducted in 1849, lists as a Pole and a Catholic. It seems that one of the Polish soldiers is disguised under this name, whose long and unpronounceable, though real, surname the Scottish settlers simplified for themselves, in a manner which, slightly disfigured, was to indicate the origin of the bearer as coming from the ranks of the De Meuron soldiers. The second uncertain case is another soldier listed in documents enumerating the De Meuron soldiers under the name of Pollander (or Polender, or Pollender). It could be that under this name, whose meaning, although in erroneous spelling, does not seem to be doubtful, was disguised another Pole recruited by Lord Selkirk.

Now we must turn our attention to the question, who these people were, what was their occupation in the Red River Colony, and how they were faring in this truly pioneer period of the colonization of the Canadian West. From the short biographical sketches included in the regimental lists published by Haiman, and from the data found in the population censuses of the Red River Colony, as well as from other primary sources containing hints about the Polish De Meuron soldiers, it can be inferred that these people were simple peasants before they began their military career. They were uneducated men, nearly all of them illiterates, of whom not one gained even the rank of a non-commissioned officer. After being settled in the Colony under the general conditions established by Lord Selkirk for all ex-soldiers of the Swiss regiments, these people occupied themselves as farmers. The successive population censuses of the Red River Colony contain interesting data concerning the land and house holdings possessed by these Poles, as well as the implements and livestock they had managed to secure. From these censuses it can be deduced that the occupation and way of life of these people were not different from those of other contemporary residents of present-day Manitoba. Perhaps they were a little poorer than the Scottish settlers, perhaps they had a little less land under cultivation and less livestock on the farms. The differences in this respect are not, however, so far-reaching as to be striking.

They all arrived in the Red River Colony evidently as bachelors, though some of them found wives quickly and founded families. They took wives from among the native girls, as did Martin Isaak, who was outlived by his native-born widow, about whom we hear still in 1846; [28] or from among the Swiss girls who arrived here with the group of settlers from Switzerland in 1821, as again John Wasilowski, about whose marriage with Miss Justine Guinaud-Brenets, we learn from the Bulger Papers. [29] It seems that generally, like the De Meurons of other nationalities, the Polish settlers maintained a closer and more cordial relationship with the Swiss colony than with the other residents of the settlement, especially with the settlers of Scottish origin. This is quite understandable. They were close to the Swiss people by their common European origin, a similar background, frequently by religion and even language, since we presume that all these veterans of Napoleon's army knew French better than the English tongue.

In Canadian literature, especially in the older historical studies, we find a very severe appraisal of the settlement value and even of the moral qualifications of the De Meuron soldiers. Descriptions devoted to them, found in Canadian books on the Manitoba of this period, abound in such opinions as, “a rough and lawless set of blackguards,” “quarrelsome,” “slothful,” “famous bottle companions ready for any enterprise” (Ross) [30] or such as “lazy settlers,” “lazy and deceitful,” (Bryce). [31] Such a bad opinion was the result of too far reaching generalizations: at least in respect to the Polish settlers, it was exaggerated and rather unjustifiable. It was probably based on the narratives and complaints of the majority of the residents of the colony composed of Scottish settlers; and since complaints were unavoidable in the difficult conditions of the co-existence of two distinct and dissimilar population groups, there are grounds for fear that the criticisms of the De Meurons as people and as settlers emanated rather from private animosity and antipathy, or from a misunderstanding of the psychology and attitudes of the newly arrived Continentals, than from any objective evaluation of their human and social value. One might even risk asking the question: were not these unfavourable opinions concerning the value of these first immigrants of non-British origin in Manitoba dictated by the same motives of xenophobia, prejudice and misunderstanding which a hundred years later have seriously thwarted the integration into the Canadian way of life of thousands of peasants from Central, Eastern and Southern Europe? After all, it must be remembered that the background of these brave veterans who had wandered across half the earth and hung their hats on many a nail and that of the Puritan Scottish settlers were so different and their temperaments so dissimilar, that this in itself could not ensure friendly relations of these groups of settlers in the new colony. It seems that a much fairer opinion as to the value of the De Meuron soldiers could be expressed by the Swiss, with whom these men were linked by much closer contacts than with the Scottish settlers.

The truth is, as one can see from the historical studies by A. L. Chetlain and A. Adams on the Red River Colony, worked out on the basis of the narratives of contemporary witnesses and from the reports of other Swiss colonists, these colonists raised no objections to the De Meuron soldiers which could amount to an unfavourable opinion of them. [32] In connection with the Polish De Meurons, in particular, doubts as to the fairness of the criticism met in Canadian historical literature may find substantiation in all this care with which, as we know, Lord Selkirk and his agents proceeded in choosing candidates for the Red River expedition. It is difficult to imagine that with such scruple in regard to the moral level of the candidates and to their high agricultural qualifications, these Polish settlers could turn out to be such poor human material. Moreover, our attempt at freeing these first Polish immigrants in Manitoba from the censure inflicted generally on all De Meuron ex-soldiers is supported by the fact that a considerable percent of these Poles did not abandon the colony in 1826, after the terrible flood which caused a mass exodus of De Meurons and of Swiss settlers to the United States of America. Sufficient emphasis has not been placed in Canadian literature on the fact that part of these Poles remained in the Red River Colony. There are historical works which do not mention that some of the De Meuron soldiers remained in Manitoba, and even declare expressly that they all yielded to the temptation of ending the difficult pioneer existence in the Red River Colony and left for the United States. [33] In our eyes the fact that a number of the few Poles staying in Manitoba agreed to part with the majority of their companions and decided to remain is very significant. We find in it a confirmation of our conviction that these first Polish pioneers in Western Canada were persevering colonists and valuable settlers.

We have collected data containing information about these Poles who remained in the Red River Colony, after 1826, from archival materials covering the population censuses of this colony, which, as we all know, form a very precious feature of our provincial archives. [34] Thus, chronologically, the first of the population censuses conducted in 1832, states that in this year there were still living in Manitoba, M. Bardowicz, P. Gandrosky, A. Jankofsky, M. Isaak and finally also a Pole disguised under the name of J. Meron. Together with their families, this small group of Poles numbered 14, or even 21 persons. Gradually, however, the number of Poles listed in succeeding population censuses decreases. In the population census of 1833, there are still 4 or 5 Poles noted, but in the censuses for the years 1838 and 1840, only two or even 3, i.e., Gandroski, Yankofsky and possibly also Meron. In the population census for the year 1843, we find mention only of Yankofsky or also of Meron and of Isaak's orphaned family. The population census of 1846-47 mentions only Isaak's family, while the last population census for the Red River Colony of 1849 notes the presence of only J. Meron's family. [35]

The question of what happened to those Poles in Manitoba who remained here after 1826, and whom the subsequent population figures do not mention, opens a wide field of conjectures. Similarly open is the question concerning the fate of those whose presence in the Red River Colony was proved by the last population censuses, but of whom we have no longer precise information. Undoubtedly, certain of these Polish soldiers died on the soil of Manitoba, as for example, M. Isaak, while others could have moved to other parts of Canada. The possibility that a number of them could have emigrated south of the border is not excluded.

We do not possess any clear evidence, but it seems that at least this one Polish family, whose residence in present-day Manitoba was still noted by the last population census of 1849, stayed on in Manitoba and created, we should like to say, a kind of bridge between the generation of Poles who witnessed the establishment of our province by Lord Selkirk and that group of Polish immigrants who started to immigrate to Manitoba in the 1870s, after this province entered Confederation. It also seems that in a number of Manitoba half-breed families we could trace a lesser or greater percent of Polish blood left by those first immigrants who married native girls. The Polish names could have disappeared due to the lack of male progeny or because of a change of those names; the documents regarding origins could have been lost, but a tiny stream of this oldest Polish blood undoubtedly flows in the veins of a number of contemporary Manitoba residents.

With this I could properly close my history of the first Polish settlers in the Red River. If I do not do so, it is because I wish to explain the way in which the interesting fact of such an early presence of Poles in Western Canada was disclosed, and the information about these first Poles in Manitoba reached the knowledge of the member of the present generation of the Polish ethnic group in Canada.

Sixty-seven years ago in this same Historical Society an older historian of Manitoba, Prof. George Bryce, read a paper which later was published as a special pamphlet entitled “The Old Settlers of Red River.” [36] In his paper Prof. Bryce revealed the existence of the document mentioned above, entitled “An Abstract o f Several Conditions” and quoted the names of several people who signed this document. Among the names found there were also names of Poles, but Prof. Bryce did not risk an attempt at revealing the origins of people bearing them and limited his remarks to pointing out that the names belonged to the De Meuron or Swiss people. Twenty-four years elapsed after this first information indicating the presence of Poles in the Red River Colony before 1820, during which, although thousands of Polish immigrants arrived in Manitoba, not one of them took advantage of this information and not one even suspected that the Polish immigration in Manitoba could pride itself on such early beginninngs. Suddenly, in 1909, on November 2, there appeared in the Polish weekly Gazeta Katolicka published in Winnipeg at that time, an anonymous, but sensationally sounding article, revealing the presence of Poles among the first residents of the Red River Colony. I managed to establish that the author of this article, which created a great stir in the Polish colony in Winnipeg, was Dr. B. Gerzabek, a Polish physician, the founder of the clinic known today as St. Joseph's Hospital in Winnipeg. The article was so written as to give the impression that information of an early presence of Poles in Manitoba had been concealed up to the time by Canadian historians.

Dr. Gerzabek's “discovery” (for he himself thus termed his information), which gathered such a resonance among the Poles that it was even published in newspapers in Poland, [37] was not supported by any references which could have indicated the source of the author's assertions. It mentioned, however, the document known as “Abstract of Several Conditions.” I was puzzled by this for a long time, until I was finally able to establish that the cause and, at the same time, the only basis for the publication of this first article about the presence of the Poles at the founding of the Red River Colony by Lord Selkirk was the article entitled “Land Regulations in Selkirk Colony,” published two weeks before Dr. Gerzabek's publication, by the Winnipeg Free Press (October 16, 1909). This article, based on the above mentioned brochure of Prof. Bryce, contained the essence of the “Abstract of Several Conditions” and also included the names of the Polish De Meuron soldiers, whose signatures appeared in this last document. Dr. Gerzabek, who did not concern himself with the history of Manitoba, and who probably was not familiar with Prof. Bryce's learned study, evidently used to read the popular Winnipeg daily paper and having found Polish names in it, could easily have written an article for the Polish readers of “Gazeta Katolicka.” As I said before, this awakened a great interest among the Poles and became the first of a whole series of later articles and studies on the subject of the Polish De Meurons.

Unfortunately, as already noted, no research studies based on archival materials accompanied these Polish enunciations. With one exception, when at the request of Mr. B. B. Dubienski, the former Provincial Librarian in Winnipeg, Mr. W. J. Healy, with a view to elucidating the problem of the Polish De Meuron soldiers, tried to make use of unpublished population censuses of the Red River Colony, [38] all the other Polish contributions were based on Dr. Gerzabek's “discovery” (which, as we know, came from Dr. Bryce's study) and on the first two censuses of the colony, dated 1832 and 1833. The outcome of such superficiality was that many inaccuracies slipped into these Polish publications. It is not possible to enumerate them all here. It suffices to say that never up to the present time was the complete number of Poles who arrived in the Red River Settlement with Lord Selkirk, revealed; [39] that the date of arrival of those Poles was often erroneously placed (the years, 1812, 1811-1814 and 1820 were mentioned), [40] and finally that the arrival of the Polish De Meuron soldiers was sometimes linked with the arrival “of the first Selkirk Colonists” [41] or, what was even stranger - with a “second expedition of Lord Selkirk”, quite unknown to historians. [42]

On the strength of Dr. Gerzabek's article and of later Polish articles on this same theme, an actual legend arose in the Polish community in connection with the Polish De Meuron soldiers in the Red River Colony. [43] In order to understand the tremendous impact this article had among the Poles, it must be realised that the problem it discussed had not only historical significance for them, but that it coincided with psychological attitudes of the Poles of that period and had for them important sociological results. We must realize the social and cultural inferiority that was the share of Dr. Gerzabek's compatriots at that period of time. Belonging, in the opinion of the Canadian society, members of the generally despised and socially outlawed mass of “Galicians”, the Poles of that time were experiencing a very difficult and severe period as citizens of the lowest class. In this dark moment, these poor, uneducated and ignored foreigners heard that among the companions of the legendary Selkirk, after whom was named the most familiar street in Winnipeg, indeed among the very “fathers” of Manitoba, were found Polish settlers. You will realize what satisfaction and pride must have overtaken the hearts of these people, hitherto burdened with an inferiority complex and with feelings of resentment. Dr. Gerzabek himself was aware of the effect his revelation would stir up and he ended his article with these words: “My jestesmy w domu-jestesmy u siebie”. “We are at home. Here is our home.” What is more, he at once began to organize a special “Slavic Committee” which set as its objective gaining the approval of the Canadian authorities so that Poles be allowed to take part in the Jubilee of Lord Selkirk, planned for 1912. The committee had been constituted with the participation of the Czechs (for an unknown reason) and even the Ukrainians were to join it, but we could not definitely find out what were the fruits of its activities. [44] This, however, is not important. What is important is that the news of the Polish De Meuron soldiers electrified the Poles in Manitoba, brought them relief in their feelings of loneliness and humiliation, enhanced considerably their self-respect, lessened their inhibitions and, by linking their interests with history of Manitoba, it's past and future, undoubtedly contributed to a better adjustment to Canadian realities. For this reason, although an historian has the right to state that the presence of the Polish De Meuron soldiers in the Red River Colony presents only an historical detail of limited importance which should not be exaggerated, the sociologist will admit that in the development of the Polish ethnic group in Manitoba the knowledge that it had representatives among the first builders of this province, had a special and positive significance far surpassing the importance of this fragment of the Manitoba history that has been the subject of my present lecture.


1. Cp. The literature covering this period of Canadian history referred to in footnotes 4, 10, 31 and 33.

2. This treatise has been included in a collection of Haiman's historical sketches published under the title “Slady Polskie w Ameryce” (Polish Traces in America), Chicago, Ill., 1938, p. 29 ff.

3. Cp. Haiman, op. cit., p. 43.

4. The history of the De Meuron regiment has been presented correctly by Haiman, op. cit., p. 29 ff. See also L. R. Reid's review of the book Ceylon under British Rule, published in The Canadian Historical Review, Vol. XV, 1934, Nr. 1, p. 77 ff. Cp. also R. England's article under the title Disbanded and Discharged Soldiers in Canada Prior to 1914, The Canadian Historical Review, Vol. XXVII, 1946, p. 1 ff., and the study by G. Malchelosse, Deux regiments suisses au Canada, published in Les Cahiers des Dix, Nr. 2, 1937, Montreal, p. 261 ff.

5. On this point the story of the military career of the De Meuron regiment presented by L. A. Prud'homme (in the article Les Meurons, Memories de la Societe Royal du Canada, Section I Troisieme serie, Tome XXXIV, 1940, p. 89 ff.) is not completely accurate. What, however, Prud'homme says about soldiers serving in the French armies is true in regard to individual soldiers who, as Poles, in the course of time had been captured by British forces and who managed to get free only by volunteering for British service.

6. Cp. the studies by England and Malchelosse referred to above in the footnote 4.

7. See Haiman, op. cit. pp. 58-95 (List of Polish soldiers in the De Watteville regiment, published with reference to the War Office, London, England, W.0.25/679, Registers, Various, Description and Succession Book-Watteville Regt. Registry of the non-commissioned officers, and War Office, London, England, W.O.25/680-Soldiers of the de Watteville Regiment, Description Book) ; and pp. 95-96 (List of the Polish soldiers in the De Meuron Regiment, published with the reference to the War Office, London England, W.0.25/677, Suite du controle, General du Regiment Suisse de Meuron au Regimental Book, fait par rang d'anciennete a commencer depuis le 14 Octobre 1705).

8. The same Polish-American historian M. Harman, whose study on the Polish De Meuron soldiers we referred to above (footnote 2) devoted to the history of Poles fighting for American independence several interesting works from which we may cite here as valuable Polaey zv walce o niepodleglosc Ameryki (Poles in the American Struggle for Independence), Chicago, Ill., 1931, and Poland and the American Revolutionary War, Chicago, Ill., 1932.

9. For the details - Cp. Haiinan, op. cit. (as above in the footnote 2) p. 47 ff.

10. See Prof. G. Bryce, Manitoba, London, 1882, p. 242 ff., “The Old Settlers of Red River”, Manitoba Historical and Scientific Society, Transaction 19, Season 1885-1886, Winnipeg, p. 3 ff.; A History of Manitoba, Toronto, 1906, p. 87 ff., M. McWilliams, Manitoba Milestones, Toronto, 1928, p. 51; A. S. Morton, History of Prairie Settlement, Canadian Frontiers of Settlement, Vol. II, Part I, Toronto, 1938, p. 19, and England op. cit. p. 9.

11. See A. Martin The Hudson's Bay Company's Land Tenures and the Occupation of Assiniboia by Lord Selkirk's Settlers, London, 1898, p. 25.

12. Haiman, op. cit., p. 58 and 74.

13. Selkirk Papers, Vol. VII., p. 2279. Cp. also A. Martin, op. cit. p. 25, and Statement respecting the Earl of Selkirk's Settlement, London, 1817, p. 60 and LXXXIV (Appendix).

14. Haiman, op. cit. p. 52.

15. So - B. Makowski in his study Polska emigracja w Kanadzie (Polish emigration in Canada) published in Linz a.d. Donau-Salzburg, Austria, 1951, p. 13 and 14, and A. Grobicki in his letter to the Editor, published under the title Polacy w Kanadzie (Poles in Canada) in the Polish weekly Wiadomosci, London, England, Nr. 351/352 of 1952.

16. The text of this document was reprinted in the study by L. R. Reid entitled “Who were De Meurons”, in The Beaver, December 1942, P. 28-29.

17. Cp. List of Settlers in Red River Settlement of August, 1818, Lord Selkirk Papers, Vol. XV, p. 5237-5238, Petition of Soldiers of the ex-regiments De Meuron of July 12, 1821, Bulger Papers, p. 49-50, The Abstract of Several Con litions, Red River Census for 1833, Haiman op. cit. p. 60.

18. See the document enumerated above in footnote 17 (except for The Abstract), Red River Censuses for 1838 and 1840 and Haiman, op. cit. p. 67.

19. Cp. the references given above in footnote 17 and the letter of Capt. F. Matthey to Lord Selkirk of Sept. 12, 1818, in Lord Selkirk Papers, Vol. XVI, p. 5367-5375. See also Red River Censuses for years 1832, 1838, 1840 and 1843, and Haiman, op. cit. p. 90.

20. See List of settlers (as noted in footnote 17) and letter of Capt. F. Matthey (as above in footnote 19) and Haiman op. cit. p. 74.

21. Cp. Agreement of Sept. 2, 1817, The Abstract of Several Conditions, Petition and List of Settlers (as noted in footnote 17) and Haiman, op. cit. p. 72.

22. See The Abstract and List of Settlers, referred to in footnote 17 above, and Haiman, op. cit. p. 76.

23. See Agreement of September 2, 1817, The Abstract, List of Settlers and Petition (as in footnote 17 above) and Haiman op. cit. p. 81.

24. Cp. the documents referred to in footnote 23 and the letter of Lord Selkirk to Coltman of July 27, 1817, in Lord Selkirk Papers, Vol. XI, p. 3847-3848. See also Haiman op. cit. p. 94.

25. See Agreement of September 2, 1817, List of Settlers and Petition, (as above in footnote 17) and the Red River Censuses for 1832 and 1833.

26. See List of Settlers and Petition-as above in footnote 17.

27. Cp. the letter of Cpt. Matthey referred to above in the footnote 19 and Petition (as in the footnote 17), See also The Petition of the De Meuron soldiers to A. Bulger, Governor of Assiniboine of November 28, 1822, Bulger Papers, p. 396 and 397.

28. Martin Isaak passed away somewhere between 1833 and 1838. His widow's name is listed in the successive population censuses for the years 1838, 1840, 1843 and 1846. She, or rather a parcel of land which had been granted to her, is mentioned in the list of grantees of lands in Assiniboia under the Earl of Selkirk and H. B. Company from 1812 to July 15, 1870, published by A. Martin, op. cit. p. 135 ff.

29. See list of marriages celebrated in Red River during the autumn and winter of 1821 and the spring of 1822, Bulger Papers, Vol. II, p. 172-178, published by G. F. G. Stanley in his article under the title “Documents relating to the Swiss immigration to Red River in 1821” in The Canadian Historical Review, Vol. XXII, No. 1, March, 1941, p. 42-50.

30. A. Ross The Red River Settlement, Its Rise, Progress and Present State, London, 1856, p. 41.

31. Bryce The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk's Colonists (The pioneers of Manitoba), Toronto, 1909, p. 153 and 154. Cp. also the same writer's study The Old Settlers (as above in footnote 10) p. 4, A. Begg, History of the NorthWest, Toronto, 1894, Vol. I, p. 227, A. S. Morton History (as above in footnote 10) p. 24, and J. P. Pritchett, Red River Settlement, unpublished thesis for Ph.D. degree, Queen's University, 1930, Vol. III, p. 514.

32. Cp. A. L. Chetlain, The Red River Colony, Chicago, Ill., 1893, p. 18 ff, and the reminiscences of Ann Adams published by the Minnesota Historical Society under the title “Early days at Red River Settlement and Fort Snelling (1821-1829)” p. 83 and 84. See also Malchelosse op. cit. p. 271 and 272.

33. The fact that a group of the De Meuron soldiers remained in the Red River, after 1826, was passed over by Ross op. cit. p. 109, Begg op. cit. Vol. I p. 227, Ch. Martin Lord Selkirk's Work in Canada, Toronto, 1916, p. 240, A. S. Morton A History of the Canadian West, London, p. 664 and op. cit. p. 24, McWilliams, op. cit. p. 56, Prud'homme op. cit. p. 89. Bryce (The Romantic Settlement, as above, in footnote 31) states that all De Meurons and Swiss settlers left the Colony “with one or two exceptions” (p. 160); while Stanley, op. cit. p. 50, assumes that in 1826 “the last of Swiss and Meuron settlers brought to the North-West by Lord Selkirk, migrated to the United States”.

34. Polish historians dealing with the Polish De Meurons in the Red River Colony used to refer only to the population censuses for 1832 and 1833. See, however, W. J. Healy's letter to Mr. B. B. Dubienski of Winnipeg, published in the article “First Polish Settler in Red River” in the magazine Canadians All - Poles in Canada, 1938, p. 8, where the later censuses were also taken into consideration, but with reference only to one Polish settler namely Andre Jankoski.

35. The existence of one Polish family in the Red River Colony has been noted by Dr. Mountain who visited that Colony in 1845. See The Journal of the Bishop of Montreal, London, 1845, p. 97. Cp. also Begg op. cit. Vol. I, p. 293, R. P. Morice, O.M.L., Histoire de l'Eglise Catholique dans L'Ouest Canadien, St. Boniface-Montreal, 1921, Vol. I, p. 266, and his study “L'Ouest Canadien” published in the Bulletin de la Societe Neuchateloise de Geographie, Neuchatel, 1929, p. 47.

36. See supra, footnote No. 10.

37. Cp. Gazeta Katolicka of February 5, 1910, where information as to the publication of Dr. Gerzabek's article in the newspapers in Poland was given.

38. See supra, footnote No. 34.

39. Codex Historicus of the Holy Ghost Roman Catholic Parish in Winnipeg (in MSS) notes that “there are seven Polish families recorded in so-called Red River Settlement in 1812” (p. 3). Cp. also the studies referred to in the footnotes No. 40-43 below.

40. See footnote No. 39 and the article under the title Winnipeg-1949, Jubileusz-Powodz-1950 (Winnipeg-1949, Jubilee-Flood-1950), published in the Calendar-Almanac of the Polish Weekly CZAS for 1951. Winnipeg, 1950, p. 46, where the year 1812 is given as a year of the arrival of the first Polish settlers in Manitoba. Dr. Gerzabek's article of November 2, 1909, specifies the years 1811-1814, as years of settlement of the Polish De Meurons in the Red River Colony. The years 1811 and 1812, were mentioned in another article on this subject published in the Gazeta Katolicka of January 29, 1910. The study Poles in Canada published in the magazine Canadians All - Poles in Canada, 1938, p. 6, refers to the year 1812. Another study published in the same magazine under the title First Polish Settlers in Red River indicates the date of 1820. (p. 8).

41. See articles in the Gazeta Katolicka of July 25, 1922 and of July 9, 1930.

42. Cp. the report of the lecture delivered by Mr. L. S. Garczynski, of Winnipeg, in Warsaw, Poland on June 13, 1929, published in CZAS, Winnipeg, of August 7, 1929. See also the study of the same writer published under the title History of the Polish People in Canada in the magazine Canadians All - Poles in Canada, 1940, p. 35; and the brief submitted by Mr. J. S. W. Grocholski to the Standing Committee on Immigration and Labour of the Senate of Canada on June 25, 1946, The Senate o f Canada, Proceedings of the Standing Committee on Immigration and Labour, No. 3, p. 84.

43. See, for example, the study entitled Polacy w swiecie (Poles in the World) published in the Calendar-Almanac of the Polish Weekly Paper CZAS, for 1949, Winnipeg 1948, p. 85; where “the beginning of major Polish settlements” in Manitoba was attributed to the arrival of the Polish De Meuron soldiers.

44. See Gazeta Katolicka of November 9, 1909, and February 5, 1910.

Page revised: 25 September 2016

Back to top of page


To report an error on the above page, please contact the MHS Webmaster.

Home  |  Terms & Conditions  |  FAQ  |  Contact Us  |  Privacy Policy  |  Donations Policy

© 1998-2017 Manitoba Historical Society. All rights reserved.