Manitoba Historical Society
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A Pioneer Journey

by Laura Shanks

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1976, Volume 21, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The following excerpts from a family history deal with the experiences of the author’s grandparents, William and Ellen Shanks and Ephraim and Janette Graham and their families after their arrival in Manitoba in 1879. Two others mentioned in the article are the son of William Shanks, James and his cousin known as Short Jimmy who both set up homesteads about five miles northwest of the Little Saskatchewan (Minnedosa) River and due west of the present town of Rapid City.

In 1879 Ephraim Graham of Silver Creek, Ontario, made the long journey to see the holdings of the Shanks in Manitoba. Ephraim was able to travel by railway as far as the east bank of the Red River at Winnipeg. There he met James Shanks who was awaiting his father, tow of his sisters and his brother John who were coming west on a settlers’ excursion. The excursion train had been delayed in Chicago but a “through” track enabled it to make up some of the lost time. The four Shanks arrived in Winnipeg about two days after Ephraim Graham. No bridge spanned the Red River then. Planks were laid across the open patches in the ice. Here John Shanks saw his first Red River carts, “carts without any iron!” Crossing on the planks to the west shore, John had his first sight of mules also.

The supplies that the Shanks were bringing west had not arrived by the same train. It was decided that James Shanks would wait for them while the others started the journey west. James had bought a team of horses and hoped to overtake the others if the goods were not too long delayed.

Although the weather had been relatively mild on their arrival in Winnipeg it turned much colder before the Shanks and Ephraim Graham started their long trip west. The journey was made in a covered wagon, with a three-decked box, drawn by a team of “freight” oxen, accustomed to the hardships of the trail. In 1878 this same team of oxen had made the long trip to Prince Albert and then back to Winnipeg where they were purchased by James Shanks in 1879. “Freight” oxen wore iron shoes for the winter trail. A special device, somewhat like a cradle fashioned of strong cowhide, was used to lift the oxen until their feet were free above the ground while they were shod. Two half-shoes were fastened to each foot, each half-shoe having a small toe-cork at the front and a larger heel cork, so each cloven hoof had four corks to better grip the slippery frozen ground. In summer the shoes were removed.

The covered wagon made very good time, following the trail that led through Headingley, Poplar Point, High Bluff and on to Gladstone. At Poplar Point seed oats were purchased from a Mr. Rae. His pile of good oats stored in an open shed spoke well for the fertility of the new land. Never before had John seen such “a big heap” of grain. At High Bluff they bought a supply of wheat which later supplemented a quantity of grain that Short Jimmy had secured near Gladstone during the winter.

From Gladstone the trail led to Stony Creek, a few miles west of the present town of Neepawa. Spring thaws had swelled the little creek so that it rushed angrily over its stony bed. Even the ford looked dangerously deep and the oxen refused to advance into the swirling water. While William Shanks urged them from the bank behind the wagon, John at the front “laid on the gad.” Suddenly the oxen plunged forward. The wagon gave a great lurch. Fearing that Mr. Shanks might have been left behind on the bank, Ephraim Graham peered through the rear of the wagon. The spry old gentleman had leapt up, seized the top tail-board and was perched there securely. The oxen forded the stream whose waters rose to the bottom of the wagon box.

At Tanner’s Crossing, a mile upstream from present day Minnedosa, an overnight halt was made. Another day’s travel brought them along the east side of the river to John Ralston’s farm. One more day and then—”home.” But the river was yet to be crossed and the spring floods were still rising. The next day, the eighth day after leaving Winnipeg, they came to the top of the east bank of a wide valley. There the Little Saskatchewan wound through long sloping hills. Ten miles westward stretched the blue ridge which marked the height of land and the foothills of the Riding Mountains. For the Shanks, there lay their future home. For Ephraim Graham, the land that might promise a greater opportunity for his children.

A rude log bridge spanned .the narrowest part of the river at Rapid City. Though it seemed none too secure, it carried the covered wagon over in safety. Later in the day the flood waters proved too strong and the little bridge was carried off downstream. It was not replaced for some time. When James Shanks arrived in Rapid City with the long-delayed goods he was forced to swim the river with his horses and wagon. Later a rope-drawn ferry was put in operation. It too was once swept away. Rescued and replaced by Malcolm Turiff, it was operated successfully by him for some time afterwards.

The Shanks party stopped briefly at the store operated by Ferguson and Garret, near the site of the present Rapid City dam. Then onward once more, arriving at last at Short Jimmy’s home and rest at the end of the trail.

The rest was not of long duration however. Spring work came crowding in. On the arrival of the Shanks party Tob Spearin moved to his own newly constructed house which, as yet, had no doors. The Shanks were soon busy building a house on James Shanks’ homestead and preparing the land for its first crop.

Breaking of the sod was done with two teams of oxen, ploughing about four inches deep. Behind the plough came a team of horses drawing an eight foot harrow. William Shanks used his tailor’s skill to fashion a bag supported by straps about his shoulders. From this he broadcast the seed, seed brought from High Bluff and Poplar Point. After the seed was sown, the harrow was again drawn over the land to cover the seed with a light layer of soil. In the fall a good crop gave a harvest of about thirty bushels to the acre.

The house on James Shanks’ homestead was about twenty-four by eighteen feet, built of logs and divided into two rooms. It had a pitched roof of poles covered with thatch of marsh grass. The best grass for thatching was a hollow stemmed variety which grew to a height of two feet approximately. It was held in place by blue clay, the clay and thatch laid on alternately. Usually two men worked together, using trowels to spread the wet clay and then pressing sheaves of marsh grass into the wet clay. Poplar poles made the best rafters. The second part of the house, built later, had slender cross poles, like fishing rods, laid across the rafter poles and was thatched with flax grown in the Shanks’ fields. These roofs were remarkably warm and comparatively water-proof. Two windows, one at each end of the house, boasted glass which had been brought from Winnipeg in the covered wagon. The loft furnished additional sleeping quarters. The house faced south to trap as much sun heat as possible.

At first the house had earthen floors, but during the second summer, in 1880, they laid a floor of white poplar plank. William Shanks had brought a whip-saw from Guelph. White poplar logs were placed on an elevated platform and two men operated the six-foot saw, one above on the platform, the other below. So the logs were sawn lengthwise to form planks. In this manner, they sawed enough lumber for the floor and a table—and later for some partitions in the second part of the house. When planed the smooth white surface of the poplar had a very pleasing finish.

During the spring of 1879 John Shanks made a trip with ox team to the Griswold Indian Reserve, twenty-five miles distant, where he bought twenty bushels of seed potatoes from Chief Antoine. The Indians kept their potatoes from freezing during the winter by placing them in pits about eight feet deep, six by ten in size. Potatoes preserved from the frost in this way were called “pitted potatoes.” The Shanks boys planted these potatoes in a small clearing left where a prairie fire had burned a bluff. The mellow bluff bottom was an excellent seed bed. They harvested a good crop of potatoes that autumn.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Tanner's Crossing (Minnedosa)

Page revised: 16 July 2011

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