Manitoba History: Letters Home: Correspondence To and From the Red River Settlement 1812-1870
by David H. Whiteley
The arrival of the first Europeans in southern Manitoba dates back to 1738 when the French explorer Sieur de La Verendrye arrived at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers and established Fort Rouge, the site of which is believed to be the south-west bank of the forks of the two rivers. In 1810 the North West Company built Fort Gibraltar on the north-west bank as protection from the encroachment of traders from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). In 1812 Lord Selkirk established an HBC sponsored settlement of displaced Highlanders near the Forks at Point Douglas. This caused a further escalation of hostilities between the Nor’Westers and the Hudson’s Bay Company employees. In 1818 Lord Selkirk donated twenty acres on the east side of the Red River to the local French and Métis settlers. On the arrival of Fathers Provencher and Dumolin from Quebec, sent to the community at the request of Lord Selkirk, the settlement was named St. Boniface. In 1821 the two warring parties settled their differences and the North West Company was absorbed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. With the cessation of hostilities and the trade now firmly under the control of one company a favourable climate for commercial development and expansion was created. The authority of the HBC was further strengthened in 1835 when Lord Selkirk’s settlement was ceded to the London-based company.
Besides having to contend with the hostility of the fur traders who did not welcome settlers in their midst, the Selkirk settlers faced many problems. One of their major concerns was the establishment of a regular means of communication with the outside world. It must be remembered that the settlers were isolated from the rest of North America and without any government or postal service, having to rely on the Hudson’s Bay Company’s supply and communication routes.
Even after 1835 the inhabitants could only expect to receive two or three mails a year. One mail bringing correspondence from Great Britain and Europe was carried by the Company’s annual supply ships to York Factory; there the mail was carried by York boat to the Red River Settlement, a distance of 728 miles, a journey which took about four weeks. On arrival the mail was entrusted to the Hudson’s Bay Company Factory at Upper Fort Garry for distribution. The Company supply vessels left England sometime in May and reached the mouth of the Hayes River about the middle of August. Leaving York Factory in September they would reach home sometime in November.  Another mail from Montreal was carried by the annual brigades of voyageurs. They left Lachine in early May, travelling the Ottawa River to the Mattawa to Lake Nipissing and then into Georgian Bay. The brigades then followed the Great Lakes to Grand Portage, (Fort William), which was an important rendezvous, thence westward via the St. Francis and Pigeon Rivers to Lake of the Woods and then down the Winnipeg River to Lake Winnipeg where the brigades separated, two going south to the Red River Settlement and Pembina. The outward journey by this route took about forty days and covered a distance of 1800 miles. 
Letters are also known to have been sent from the Red River Settlement to Canada and England through Fort du Chien on the Mississippi as early as 1819. From Prairie du Chien  the mail probably went to Fort Dearborn, (Chicago), then to Amherstberg (whose post office opened in 1801) and then to York, (Toronto), and on to Montreal. There could also have been a southern overland route, wholly within the United States from Fort Dearborn to Montreal. Letters are also known to have been sent to St. Peters Settlement on the Minnesota River  between the 1830s and 1850s.  The construction of Fort Snelling at the confluence of the Mississippi and St. Peters Rivers in 1819 and the opening of a post office there in 1827 created a closer outlet for mails from the Red River Settlement.
The Hudson’s Bay Company’s absolute control over the community led to friction and tension with some elements of the Settlement. These elements continually attempted to defy the various edicts and decrees issued by the Company, which was determined to maintain its monopoly over the fur trade and stamp out private trading. Many members of the community were also dissatisfied with the Company’s communication system and attempted to find faster alternate routes. By the early 1840s a trade route between the Red River and St. Paul  was opened up. The “Red River Trail” as it was called operated with trains of Red River ox-carts driven by Métis. They carried furs, merchandise, letters and other mail in both directions.  By the early 1850s this trail had become an important mail and trade route used by both settlers and the Hudson’s Bay Company.  During the winter the route was maintained by dogsled, and took between eighteen days and twenty-four days. The route went from the Red River Settlement to Thieving River to Red Lake to Cass Lake to Leach Lake to Crow Wing River and Crow Wing Village to St. Paul.  Relations deteriorated further in 1844 when the governor, Alexander Christie, announced on the 20th December that in an attempt to prevent or control smuggling, anyone wishing to send mail by the Hudson’s Bay Company’s “Winter Express” to Montreal was to have letters and packages at the Company’s premises prior to January 1st, 1845. All mail and packages would be subject to search and perusal.  This obnoxious order remained in effect until 1848. The late arrival of the winter mail in 1846-47, which arrived at Sault Ste. Marie in November but did not reach Fort Garry until April 6th, 1847, caused even the governor to sanction and subscribe to the costs of sending a runner to St. Peters with the mail.  Private citizens also found other outlets for their mail, away from the prying eyes of Company officials. One of the most popular was through their contacts at Pembina who would then carry the packages to St. Peters or Fort Snelling or St. Paul.  One of the more regular outlets was operated by Norman Kitson  who would carry mail and packages between Pembina and either St. Peters or Mindota where his agents would take the mail to the nearest post office, either at St. Peters or Fort Snelling. They would post the outgoing mail and collect any incoming mail, paying the necessary postage and then hand the mail to the courier who would take the mail back to Pembina. John Sinclair, one of the leaders of the dissidents at Red River, would then arrange for the delivery and collection of letters at Pembina. 
Mail was also carried by express canoe from the Red River Settlement during the summer months via Fort William and the Great Lakes. Once a post office was opened at Sault Ste. Marie in 1846,  much of this mail then entered the Canadian Postal system from where the letters were carried via Orillia, Canada West and Montreal Canada West, where overseas mail was then sent on to Liverpool by Royal Mail Steamer. A winter express operated from Lachine to the Red River Colony at least as early as 1825.  Between 1840 and 1856, when it was discontinued, the winter express left from Upper Fort Garry for Lachine some time late in December or early January. 
Although by 1852 the colony at Red River had reached 5000 people, it would be June 1858 before a regular postal service between the rest of Canada and the Settlement was established. Once a post office at Crow Wing (Fort Ripley), Minnesota Territory was established the settlers began to send mail to be forwarded from there. In 1853 a regular courier service was established to carry the mail between the Red River Settlement and St Paul. To maintain this service the colonists had raised sixty pounds sterling to pay a runner to carry mail once a month to connect with the United States Postal Service at St. Paul.  It was expected that the runner would be able to take five trips over the winter months. By the summer of 1854 the money had run out and letters for the Red River were “lying in heaps at St. Paul”. By November 1854 a further sixty pounds had been raised to operate the winter service to St. Paul with Adam Klyne again acting as courier. 
In February of 1855 the unofficial Post Office which had been established in the settlement at Ross House  was officially recognized by the Council of Assiniboia, (but not by the Canadian Post Office), with William Ross as the first postmaster. A post office had also been established at Pembina in 1850 by the United States Post Office. In 1855 a monthly courier service was then established between the Red River Settlement and Pembina. The service was increased to twice a month in the summer of 1856.  The mail was to leave St. Paul on the 1st of each month to reach Pembina on or before the 15th returning on the 16th to St. Paul. The Red River messenger would leave early on the 13th of each month with the letters for Pembina and bring back all mails for the Settlement.  Although these instructions appear explicit enough, some mail still continued to be sent via Swan River, Minnesota Territory. The rates of postage between Fort Garry and Pembina were set at 3d. each single letter and ld. each newspaper.  At this time Ross created his own circular provisional postmark which he applied to mail leaving the Settlement over this route, however very few letters bearing this cancellation exist today. The use of this cancellation was discontinued in 1856 with the death of William Ross.
The Canadian Post Office was, however, not entirely satisfied with these unofficial arrangements. It attempted to establish an all Canadian route by petitioning the Governor-General in Council for permission to establish regular postal communications between Lower Canada and the Red River Settlement.  Evidently the Post Office received permission to proceed because in July 1858 Captain Thomas Dick of Toronto was awarded a contract to carry the mail to and from the Red River Settlement.
The contract called for the mails to be carried to and from Toronto in the summer months along what became known as the “Red River Route,” via Collingwood, Bruce Mines, Sault Ste. Marie, Fort William and Red River. The contractor was to deliver mail to the Postmasters at Bruce Mines and Sault Ste. Marie and to receive from them any mail and packages and then to deliver and distribute as far as possible the letters, packages and papers intended for Fort William and Red River. At Fort William and Red River he was to collect and receive all letters and papers intended to be sent by return mails. 
The contractor was given a number of instructions and procedures to follow, some of which were as follows:
In January 1859 Dick was given a con-tract to establish a winter route to the Red River Settlement. This route, known as the “Timber Route,” went from Penetanguishene to Saulte Ste. Marie, (320 miles) to Fort William, (500 miles) to Red River, (600 miles). The contract called for a twice a month service to Sault Ste. Marie and a monthly service from Sault Ste. Marie to the Red River District. For this winter service Dick was to receive 250 pounds sterling per month. The Postmaster General was able to enlist the co-operation of the HBC employees along the routes in assisting the mail couriers should the necessity arise.  Once these arrangements were in place the following schedule of departure dates from Toronto was established. 
Between the Summer of 1858 and the Summer of 1859 the Settlers on the Red had two official lines of communication with the outside world, one through Canadian and one through American territory. Between them the two outlets provided a fortnightly service to Canada. There is no doubt that a considerable quantity of mail was carried as the return for June 1859 illustrates that the two lines brought in 713 papers, 400 letters and an undisclosed number of magazines and reviews.
Since the Postmaster General had not renewed the Post Office’s contract with Captain Dick the mail for the West sent from Toronto on 15th April 1859 reached Collingwood only to remain there.  In June 1859 a new contract was signed with Mr. E. M. Carruthers for a monthly Fort William-Red River service for the summer season of 1859.  The Toronto Postmaster was therefore ordered to send the first mail for Lake Huron and the Red River to Collingwood on the 10th June, from whence it would be sent west the following Friday, the 17th. The Postmaster was further instructed not to send any further mail by the steamer Rescue, (Capt. Dicks’s vessel), but to send all mail by Carruthers’ steamer Ploughboy.  Similar instructions were also issued to the various Postmasters along the route. They were further informed that the service was to be once a week between Collingwood and Sault Ste. Marie and once a month between Sault Ste. Marie and Red River. Because of Carruthers inability to live up to the terms of his contract, between June and 15th December he only made one trip to Red River and twenty-one full trips between Collingwood and Sault St. Marie,  the postal authorities were obliged to make use of the services of Captain Dick and his associates. At the end of the season, however, there was a surplus of some $6,000.00 which the Postmaster wished to apply to the improvement of the roads on the Red River Route.  During the winter 1859-60 no mail was carried over the Red River Route and in the Spring of 1860 a new contract was entered into with the North West Transit Company. Mails from Collingwood to the Red River would be despatched on the following dates:
Return trips would be made monthly and depending upon the state of the season a trip in November would also be made. Again the Post Office made no provision for a winter mail for 1860-61 over the Red River route.
A mail service to the Red River was operated over the Collingwood - Saulte Ste. Marie - Fort William route during the summers of 1861 and 1862 but was then discontinued leaving only the Pembina route open. Sometime during 1862 a stage coach route was established from St. Paul to Georgetown on the Red River. With the closing of the Canadian route, mail for the Red River Settlement from Eastern Canada was forwarded via Chicago to Lacrosse, (Wisconsin),  at that time the Western end of steel, then by steamer up the Mississippi to St. Paul, then by four horse stage coach to Georgetown. Mail for Pembina was then carried overland once a week by courier.  Subsequently during the summer of 1862 the United States Post Office increased the frequency of mails from Georgetown to Pembina to twice and then three times a week. Two trips per week were made by the courier from Red River to Pembina.
From 1862 to 1871 the Red River Settlement was entirely dependent upon the United States Post Office at Pembina; incoming mail being sent in the American mails to Pembina and then forwarded to Fort Garry (Red River). Outgoing mail had to be prepaid with U.S. stamps which were sold in Fort Garry  and then carried to Pembina and placed into the U.S. mail system. By 1863 Canadian letters over this route took about three weeks. With the creation of the Province of Manitoba the settlement was renamed Winnipeg. The Provisional post office, however, continued to handle the mails until January 1st 1871, when the first official post office was opened in Winnipeg. The new post office, designated Fort Garry by the Dominion Post office, was situated in the Commercial Hotel building on Lombard Street. Prior to the opening of the new post office, Canadian stamps were delivered to the provisional post office for use by the inhabitants. On 17th October 1870 the Postmaster General informed the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba that an agreement had been entered into with the U.S. Post Office for the transmission, through the American mail, of closed mails between Windsor and Winnipeg by way of Chicago, St. Paul and Pembina. 
1. Robson Lowe (ed.), The Encyclopedia of British Empire Postage Stamps, 1639-1952. Volume V, The Empire in North America, (London: Robson Lowe Ltd. 1973). p 82
2. Postage rates were extremely expensive. In 1834 the governor, Thomas Simpson, issued an order stating that packets for England, Canada and the United States would have to be pre-paid. The postage for a single sheet letter would be 2/6d. to Canada and the United States and 5/- to England and so in proportion for letters of a larger size. Fort Garry 13 Dec. 1834. Provincial Archives of Manitoba. Hudson’s Bay CompanyArchives. MG2 A6-81
3. Prairie du Chien was approximately 200 miles south of St. Paul and 455 miles north of St. Louis on the Mississippi River. The population in 1849 was 400. Henry Lewis, The Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated, Trans. by A. Hermina Poatgieter, Ed. by Bertha L. Heibron. (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1967) p 177.
4. St. Peters Settlement was taken over by the U.S. Army in 1819 and renamed Fort St. Anthony. In 1824 Fort Snelling was established just west of the Falls of St. Anthony. In 1827 a post office was established. Ibid. p 55.
5. Robson Lowe and Floyd E. Risvold, The Minnesota Territory, in Postmarks, Letters and History, (Chicago:The Collectors’ Club of Chicago, 1985) pp 24-25.
6. The settlement of St. Paul was established in 1843 about five miles below Fort Snelling. By 1849 it had a population of about 510 which at Sault Ste. Marie 11th June 8 o’clock PM by 1855 had grown to about 5000. The Post Office at Fort Snelling was opened in 1846. The Valley of the Mississippi, pp 84,85. For an extensive account of the various ox-cart trails from St. Paul to the Red River Settlement see Rhoda Gillman, Carolyn Gillman & Deborah M. Schultz, The Red River Trails: Ox-cart Routes Between St. Paul and the Selkirk Settlement, 1820-1870. (St.Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1979), especially Chapter 5, “The Woods Trail”.
7. The Hudson’s Bay Company also sent special couriers from Red River to St. Paul every spring and fall with letters and packages and their western posts. The mail often consisted of over 1000 packages and letters. Risvold, p. 29.
8. Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Hudson’s Bay company Archives A. 12/13, Eden Colville Letters. There is at least one letter bearing a Fort Snelling postmark October 15, 1851. From Fort Snelling the mail was carried to Prairie du Chien by travellers, soldiers or traders going in that direction. In 1836 a regular carrier was employed to carry mail between Fort Snelling and Prairie du Chien. See Risvold, pp. 235-236.
9. Risvold, makes two descriptions of the winter train. One from the St. Paul “Chronicle Register” of March 2, 1851, announced the arrival of the winter train from Pembina and gave a description of the sledge and the three dogs used to pull it. The second, from the United States Post and Mail Assistant, February 1864, quotes a letter describing the arrival of the winter train from Crow Wing at St. Paul, pp. 235-236.
11. Provincial Archives of Manitoba. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, MG2 C33, fol. 82, Letter From Alexander Christie dated 30th July 1847 to Sir George Simpson.
12. Provincial Archives of Manitoba. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, MG2 B5-1. Letter from J. Sinclair, June 30, 1848, to H.H. Sibley, Esq., Fort Snelling. “The bearer Ranville has a packet of letters ... post at Fort Snelling. Should there be any letters at Fort Snelling or the St. Paul’s Post Offices for the Red River, pay postage and have Ranville return with them. I will pay you or Kitson at Pembina.”
13. Norman Kitson was a trader and transport operator with his headquarters at Pembina an had connections in both St. Peters and Mendota.
14. Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. MG C32 contains a series of letters between 1848-49 from Kitson to his agents Sibley in St. Peters and Dupuis in Mindota. During the winter months Francois Rienville carried the mail by dogsled.
15. Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, B235/c/1,fols 133-134d contains a letter from Hudson’s Bay House, Lachine, to “The Gentlemen in charge of Posts on the communication to Red River Settlement” dated 25th May 1846. This letter bears the following endorsements: “Received at Sault Ste. Marie 11th June 8 o’clock PM sent off next morning J. B. Do. Do. Michipicoten 14th June at 1 pm. and sent onwards after dinner same day J. Swanston. Rec’d at Fort William 20th June at 2 p.m. & sent at 3:30 pm. Recd. at Stone Fort R.R.S. 12 July at 6 AM.” See also file A. 12/13 Eden Colville Letters. There are three letters written between July 1851 and October 1851 that were carried from the Red River Settlement and placed at the Canadian Postal System at Sault Ste. Marie.
16. Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, B.235/c/1 fols. 120-130. Letter from Albany to Donald Mckenzie Esquire or the Chief Factor resident at the Red River Colony, dated 11 February 1825 endorsed “On Service”, i.e., on Hudson’s Bay Company business.
17. Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, MG2 C32-196. Ross Papers. Also M.A. McLeod (ed.) The Letters of Letitia Hargrave, (The Champlain Society, 1907) p.81n.
18. The first runner, “Yankee”, Adam Klyne, made his first trip in November 1853 and those residents who had not subscribed to the cost of the runner were charged 5/ - per letter. A letter sent with this first runner on 5th Nov. 1853 reached St. Paul 28th Nov. and Toronto 16th Dec. Risvold pp 249-50 & Ibid. p 87.
19. Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Letter from Alexander Ross Aug. 25 1854 to James Ross. MG2 C14 fol 100 and Letter from William Ross to James Ross Nov. 24 1854. MG2 C14 fol. 112.
20. William Ross was appointed the First Postmaster by the Council of Assiniboia, with a honorarium of five pounds sterling per annum. Risvold p 250.
21. Roger Goulet or Goulillaise was hired to carry the mail between the Red River Settlement and Pembina for 25/- for each round trip. Risvold p 250. A four year contract had been given to certain gentlemen in St. Paul to carry the mail from Pembina to Georgetown and St. Paul. Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, MG2 C32-116 and 166, Ross Letters.
22. Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Letter from W.B. Caldwell dated 12th March 1855 to Governor, Hudson’s Bay Company, London. A.11/96 fol.36 See also B. 235/A/16, Fort Garry Journal 1858-60 which contains monthly references to the arrival and departure of mails.
24. Letter from Sidney Smith, P.M.G. to His Excellency The Governor-General in Council dated 7th June, 1858, cited in Winthrop S. Boggs The Postage Stamps and Postal History of Canada, Vol. II (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Chambers Publishing Co., 1945) p. 1-k.
25. Letter from P.M.G. (W. H. Griffin) to Captain Thomas Dick dated 9th July 1858. Ibid., p. 2-K.
26. Ibid. Griffin’s letter to Dick shows a different rate of postage for the local delivery charges between the Red River settlement and Pembina. See Caldwell to Hudson’s Bay House. Footnote 23.
27. Letters to Sir George Simpson, Hudson’s Bay Company from the P.M.G. and to Captain Dick from the P.M.G. 16th & 22nd October 1858 respectively, Ibid., pp. 3-K, 5-K.
28. Letter from P.O.D. to Sir George Simpson dated Jany 3rd 1859. Ibid., pp. 5-K, 6-K.
29. The Post Office Department ordered the mail for Fort William and Red River lying at the Collingwood Post Office to be returned to Toronto. Letter from P.O.D. dated 25th April 1859. Ibid., p. 6-K.
30. Letter from P.O.D. to Postmaster Toronto dated 7th June 1859. Ibid., p. 7-K.
32. A legislative grant of $12,000.00 had been voted for maintaining the Red River Mail Service, of this amount Caruthers received $1,340.00. Letter from P.O.D. to Governor General in Council dated 11th January 1860. Ibid. p. 9-K.
34. By 1869 the Railway had reached St. Cloud. The mail was then carried from there by rail to Chicago.
35. Georgetown was a Hudson’s Bay Company’s post on the Red River. The Express was operated by J. C. & H. C. Burbank of St. Paul who had a contract to carry the U.S. Mails. The 300 mile distance from St. Paul to Goergetown was accomplished in five days with mail arriving on alternate days. Passengers for Pembina and Red River travelled by steamer from Georgetown. See Robson Lowe p. 88. See also Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, A.12 /42 A printed Flyer advertising Burbanks services and prices included costs for transporting mail and packages.
36. Robson Lowe states that outward bound packets of mail from the Northern outstations of the Hudson’s Bay Company were sent to the Company’s Headquarters at Fort Garry, where a regular private post office had been setup. The letters were weighed and stamped in this office with U.S. stamps and were forwarded by the local mail for postage at Pembina in the U.S. Territory. Lowe also states that U.S. Stamps were sold at Fort Garry for persons wishing to send letters by the regular courier. A cover dated Pembina, Dakota Territory Nov. 6,1868 originating in Fort Garry and addressed to Ottawa bears two Sc. U.S. postage stamps. Risvold, Fig. 195a and Robson Lowe pp. 86, 88. See also Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives Letter from C. Cavaleer, Pembina Oct. 26 1869 to James Ross advising Ross that he was shipping a package of United States Postage Stamps as per order, MG2 C14 Fol. 374. Also “From 1853 to 1869 all letters posted at Fort Garry were paid in U.S. stamps.” Arthur Doughty & Adam Short, Eds. Canada and its Provinces, Vol. VII, “The Post Office, 1867-1902,” pp. 630-31.
37. Boggs, vol. II, pp. K-14-35.
Page revised: 11 April 2010