Manitoba Historical Society
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Sidelights on the History of Assiniboia

by Edgar S. Russenholt

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1963-64 season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Since 1961 we have been assembling material for a history of Assiniboia, and the further the work progresses the more fascinating it becomes. The harvesting of material from pioneer residents, and other interested individuals, is only well begun. It is evident, however, that an awakening interest in the realities of our Canadian history, and a dawning realization that each community in our Canadian West is alive with historic fertility have produced bumper crops of good Canadian historical writing. To examine older writings in the light of newer interpretations and to utilize your own lifetime of observations in assessment of both, is a great adventure.

Out of the materials gathered from these researches I have extracted some random "sidelights" which, I hope, will be of interest to you. I must emphasize that this is no attempt at a summary of Assiniboia's history. It is, rather, an invitation to you to follow the lure of some of the side trails which have tempted me in my study of Assiniboia.

Today, Assiniboia is a municipality of ten thousand people, living in an area extending twelve miles, west to east, and four miles, south to north, along the Assiniboine River. Prior to 1920, however, it included present-day St. James, Charleswood, Tuxedo, Brooklands and parts of Rosser and Macdonald. In 1880, it reached to Sherbrook Street, and, on the south side of the Assiniboine, to the Red River. In 1870, the constitution proposed by the Provisional Government of that day, gave the name "Assiniboia" to all of Rupertsland and the great Northwest. In 1841, Assiniboia embraced a one hundred mile circle, centering on "the Forks." In 1811, it was the one hundred sixteen thousand square miles of territory acquired by Lord Selkirk in one of the largest real estate purchases recorded in Canadian history.

In the Encyclopedia Britannica we read that Selkirk "was one of the most generous and disinterested of men in the history of civilization, he fell a victim to the predatory selfishness of his rivals." [1] It is generally agreed that Selkirk was driven by a generous ideal and a great dream of putting his ideal into practice. Some historians hint that he may have had, in addition, a canny eye on profits. What modern businessman can find fault with that? After all, is it not an axiom of modern commerce that, "He profits most who serves best"?

It does appear that Selkirk distributed to his landowner friends a Prospectus for a company designed to buy Assiniboia from him at four cents an acre (about three million dollars) and re-sell to evicted Scottish and Irish peasants at two dollars and fifty cents an acre. His Prospectus forecast: "The amount to which profits may ultimately rise seems almost to baffle the imagination." [2] The Prospectus did not lure shareholders and the idea of forming this company was forgotten.

Within a century, however, another Scot proved the golden truth of Selkirk's Prospectus and used its basic facts to amass a great fortune. In the London Committee of the Hudson's Bay Company, Alexander Mackenzie fought Selkirk bitterly and brought on one of the most virulent invectives in the long history of the "Honourable" Company's existence. In the end, Selkirk attained his grant of seventy-four million acres of land for ten shillings and ten percent of the land. However, as many have learned since that day, real estate projects do not always "pan out" as well as their promoters might wish.

About one-half of Selkirk's seventy-four million acres lay in present-day Manitoba, the other half being in Minnesota and the Dakotas. This southern half of the grant became U.S. territory in 1818. Selkirk received no compensation for it. In 1835, Selkirk's estate sold the northern half of Assiniboia back to the Hudson's Bay Company for four hundred and twenty thousand dollars, a sum which probably did not equal what had been spent on the venture. In 1863, the Hudson's Bay Company sold their holdings (secretly and at an unknown price) to the International Finance Association; and, in 1870, Canada bought the whole Northwest from the reorganized Hudson's Bay Company for one million five hundred thousand dollars, and seven million acres of land in the fertile belt.

In the meantime, in 1862, our first local land boom sent prices at "the Forks" from one dollar and eighty-five cents an acre to one thousand two hundred and fifty dollars, and even up to two thousand dollars per acre. About 1875, W. F. Alloway traded a fine team and carriage for a block of land on the Assiniboine River, and later he sold the land for thirty thousand dollars. Métis script, often secured for a two dollar bottle of bad whisky, was resold for one hundred sixty to eight hundred dollars. A succession of such booms and accompanying busts loom large in the history of Assiniboia.

The choosing of the site of initial settlement along the Red and Assiniboine Rivers may have been determined by several factors. The strategic importance of the position of "the Forks" on the Assiniboine and Red is a matter which has been studied by many scholars. The geographical location itself, at the juncture of these two great rivers, was undoubtedly a determining factor, but we have come to believe that the choice of this site was also a judicious one in view of the location of the Sioux.

Three centuries ago, it is told, the Assiniboine tribe was partner with other tribes in the Dakotahs' "Alliance of Friends." On a great inter-tribal buffalo hunt, an Assiniboine stole the wife of a hunter of another tribe. The husband tried to recover his wife and was killed. The Assiniboines fled northward, down the Red River. The Crees gave them hunting room along the Assiniboine. Other Dacotahs became the Sioux and waged eternal war on Crees, Assiniboines, and white invaders. This story bears out the claim of Alexander Henry that "Life among the Assiniboines is one series of quarrels about women and horses." [3] The Sioux dominated Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. In August, 1862, they killed two thousand white settlers. Newspapers of that day reported: "From Fort Abercrombie to Pembina not a human being, cabin or other mark of white or red man's presence remained." [4] There was no life, no travel along the old Plains Trail until after 1868, when the U.S. army pulverized the power of the Sioux. The settlement at "the Forks" was a safe distance north of the marauding Sioux so long as a force existed to defeat long-range attacks.

The Métis were that force. They were the only force in Assiniboia capable of defending themselves and the settlement against Sioux attack. As their disciplined organization developed, under Cuthbert Grant, the Métis pushed farther and farther into the Sioux hunting grounds on the buffalo hunts which fed the fur trade and settlement. In time, the Métis began to pierce the homeland of the Sioux by freighting exports to St. Paul, and bringing back goods to the settlement. It was the Métis who made possible the development of farming and commercial potentialities of the area around "the Forks" of the Assiniboine and Red.

Great men emerged among the people of mixed blood: Grant, Delorme, Breland, McKay, Falcon, Sinclair, Norquay ... As more material comes under review, I am impressed with the part played in the genesis of Manitoba by persons like Alexander Kennedy Isbister. Some day, some researcher may write the full story of Isbister under the title, "The Father of Manitoba." He was born in the great Nor'West; worked his way to further education at Edinburgh; and became Dean of the College of Preceptors, in London, England. Bryce records that "he was self-denying and persistent." He fought with all his persistence, prestige and power to break the monopoly which, for so long, throttled the development of our Canadian West. He is remembered as donor to our University of Manitoba of a scholarship fund of eighty thousand dollars-in those days a princely sum.

Others whose names are equally famous, and still others whose names are forgotten, were vital to our history. To cite one example, we may recall the seventy-seven riflemen from St. Francois Xavier, some of them twelve-year-old boys, who, in 1851, defended their circle of carts against two and one-half thousand Sioux warriors for two days at the Grand Coteau of the Missouri and inflicted the defeat that broke the arrogance of the Sioux. The history of Assiniboia is a gold-mine of information about Canadians, such as these, who did so much to build our Canadian nation.

Today, interest in our Western waterways is re-awakening. Long ago, canoe brigades followed routes that led to Montreal, beyond the Rockies, to the frozen Arctic, and the sultry Gulf of Mexico. This great system of inland waterways was powered by tough-muscled voyageurs who fed on peas and pork from Montreal to the Grand Portage, on wild rice to Lake Winnipeg, and on pemmican across the plains and through to the Northland. This, the greatest inland water transport man has ever known, was centered here at "the Forks" of the Assiniboine and Red. I hope that the planners of our Centenary do not overlook this historic fact.

The role of the horse, a partner in the development of the West, has received little attention in historical writing. It is certainly true that horses, as they became available in increasing numbers, changed the way of life in Assiniboia and the whole Nor'West. In 1820, when settlers from Assiniboia travelled fifteen hundred miles to Prairie du Chien and back, to bring home seven and one-half tons of seed wheat, they used snowshoe, dog-team and flat-boat-the accouterments of the old fur trade. In 1832, when settlers trekked five thousand miles to buy sheep, they rode good saddle horses.

Horses also multiplied the fun people enjoyed. Proudly practical men have always claimed to live by the economics. The rest of us bow in humble acquiescence. Then, we buy - at ridiculous prices - the "chromiest" automobile for which dealers will accept our promise to pay. In earlier days, fine horses and decorated carioles did the same job and at a much lower cost. Driving on the river ice was the universal winter sport. Alexander Ross, the Red River historian, lamented that young Scots followed the Canadians in this exhilarating pastime.

The horse powered the buffalo hunt. The Métis learned to "run" buffalo from the plains Indians. We may well wonder if more pemmican would have been procured if the Métis had used the methods employed by the American hide-hunters. The American system was very simple. The hunter would merely lie quietly beside a feeding herd, shoot as many buffalo as needed to keep the "skinners" busy, and retire to camp for the day. This method was coldly efficient. There was little "fun" in it. The Métis loved the excitement of the racing, thundering herd. And, after all, does man live by economics alone?

In the twenty years before 1840, Assiniboia hunters killed an estimated six hundred and fifty thousand buffalo. In 1840, more than sixteen hundred men, women and children went on the hunt. Over twelve hundred carts brought home more than one million pounds of meat - six hundred pounds per person! According to some historians, this was only a fraction of what was left to waste.

The horse, with the humble ox and the Red River cart (made, mostly, at White Horse Plain), carried the land freight for the whole Nor'West. In 1844, a Canadian free trader, Norman Kittson, took six carts to St. Paul with twelve hundred dollars worth of furs and left twelve thousand dollars with St. Paul merchants for supplies. By 1858, more than six thousand carts freighted between Assiniboia and St. Paul. These carts carried a quarter of a million dollars worth of furs and pemmican and brought back a million dollars worth of goods. Every spring hundreds of Red River carts left Assiniboia for all parts of the vast area known vaguely as "the Plains." Many, before they returned, covered three thousand miles.

Some writers emphasize the hardships endured by the early settlers and tend to consider pioneer days as a fearful, tearful, terrible time. To use a bit of slang, well-known on radio some years back, "That ain't the way I heard it!"

In 1841, Sir George Simpson, traveling near the foothills, met a party, led by Pierre Dumonais, which was heading for Oregon. The Galloping Governor recorded: "They were agriculturalists of Red River - 25 families. Each had two or three carts, with horses, cattle and dogs. Men and lads were in the saddle. Covered vehicles carried women and children. All healthy and happy, living in abundance; and enjoy the journey with the highest relish." [5]

Other writers record that the Métis and French-speaking freemen, yes, and English-speaking Canadians, as well, loved the wild, free life of the cart brigades. They had fierce pride in the discipline forced upon them by the eternal threat of Sioux attack. At mid-afternoon, they formed carts into a lager. Draft and saddle animals grazed until dark. Then all went inside, except thirty or forty mounted sentries. With abundant fish, game and pemmican, a priest to offer prayers each morning, campfires to sing around each night, these were the happiest people on earth! My own years homesteading, in lumber camps, and over the Northland convince me that this is a truer picture of pioneer people. With supreme confidence, pioneers aim to see over the next rise ... and the next ... to beyond the horizon.

With all this, pioneering meant a tremendous amount of work. Having myself handled horses, yes, and oxen, I cannot escape the question: how were all those horses and oxen fed through the long, hard winters in Assiniboia? One of the big freight outfits had six thousand cart oxen. All summer they freighted from the Great Lakes to the Rockies and south to St. Paul. To winter them required a minimum of twelve thousand tons of hay. Each ton must represent five man - days of work-hard work - with scythe, rake, pitchfork and cart.

Steamboats took over as bulk freight carriers on the main supply routes. Before the railroads came, fifteen steamboats plied the Assiniboine and Red. They required a vast amount of labor both for operation and fuel supply. In 1879, for example, the SS Marquette voyaged up the Assiniboine to Fort Pelly and back in fourteen days and burned one hundred seven and one-half cords of wood in addition to the driftwood which was picked up along the way. Having worked with ax and saw, I know that those one hundred seven cords burned on that one trip represented four hundred man-days to fell, chop, split, pile and move to the river bank. If we wonder how steamboats (two hundred feet long, fifty feet wide and carrying three hundred fifty passengers) navigated the shallow Assiniboine, we should remember a boast of those days that "a good Red River skipper can take his stern-wheeler up a mountainside on the morning dew." Fortunes were amassed by speculators and profiteers, but the foundations of production in this land of ours were built by the skills and muscles of everyday workers.

One of the rewards of assembling historical material is listening to people who helped make our history. For example, Mrs. James Isbister, looking back over her 80-odd years, told me that, as a girl (Mary Bruce she was) she watched steamboats on the Assiniboine. In fact, a pair of newlywed friends from St. Charles took their honeymoon on a voyage to St. Eustache. For her own wedding, Mrs. Isbister went by horse-and-buggy to the old log church. For twenty years, thereafter, she and her husband farmed part of the beautiful loop of the River that is now St. Charles Country Club. Often, she wrote letters (in English or French) for Mrs. Russell, locally famous treater of cancer-and midwife.

A side-paddle steamship brought Nellie White, her brother and widowed mother across the Atlantic from England, in 1886. The passengers were quarantined at Quebec and were annoyed at the delay. A kindly fellow-passenger, who said he knew the strange ways of Canada, offered to take their English money to an uptown bank for exchange into dollars and cents. Many trusted their precious capital to him. They never saw him again! In Winnipeg, Nellie White married Arthur Creak. They farmed on Saskatchewan Avenue. At nearby Silver Heights, Sir Donald Smith had a herd of buffalo and a man to care for them. When this worthy needed cash, the buffalo got loose and wandered. Soon, frantic neighbors were offering the herdsman good money to come and take the beasts away. On the Creak farm those buffalo once ate a precious stack of hay and an even more precious doll.

One Christmas, Mr. and Mrs. Creak drove horse and cutter to a Fort Rouge store for supplies. It was cold. Coming out of the store, they found that the horse had broken away. With a lift or two, but mostly on foot, they made the ten miles home. The horse was not there. Next day Mr. Creak backtracked and found his horse in the stable of a friend on Omand's Creek. The steed had been lured off the Portage Trail by some uncut oats which protruded through the snow. The cutter had upset. Christmas gifts and supplies were scattered and buried in the drifts. A few were retrieved. Weeks later, when the weather moderated, the remainder were recovered, along with many parcels lost from other sleds upset in the deep snow of the Creek. Even containers for Hudson's Bay Company whiskey were found unluckily, all were broken. When her husband drove a streetcar (Mrs. Creak told us) the motive power was a horse. He drove west along Portage, and, about noon, turned north on the spur to the race-track by Sturgeon Creek. He rested his horse there; and while the animal ate a nosebag of oats, he shot prairie chicken along the Creek. Returning with his birds, he hitched his horse-power to the reverse end of the car and returned to Winnipeg.

Among the outstanding citizens of Assiniboia was John Taylor. Teacher, big-scale farmer, merchant - he became a member of the Legislative Assembly and Minister of Agriculture. His diary records: "8 January, 1878: Whitewashing the old kitchen. Government sent tickets for admission to the opening of the Legislature. 9 January: Fine day. Good meeting of the Lodge in the old kitchen. Eleven of the brethren present. 10 January: James Brown and Douglas hitched their team to my bobsled and took Mrs. Taylor, Miss Taylor, Miss Maggie Brown and I ... Drove all the way on the ice ... to attend session. 14 January, Monday: Mrs. Taylor drove me down to town; remained till Friday in session. Two rides and walk home." [6]

Officials could not use railroad passes in those days when there were no railroads; nevertheless, they still got to the Legislature. In 1881, three new members of the Assembly: Clements, of Brandon; Davidson of Shoal Lake, and Crerar of Minnedosa, met in Brandon; built a raft with a tent on it; floated down the Assinboine to Portage; and thence, in style, by railroad to the session.

While early citizens of Assiniboia lacked many things that we have made essential to our lives, they had compensations. Begg writes: "We had no bank, insurance office, lawyers, city council, taxes; one doctor, one policeman; we were tolerably virtuous and unmistakably happy." [7] Assiniboia's first police force, sworn in September 11, 1817, pre-dated the famous London "bobbies" by twenty years.

Writing of the settlement further up the Assiniboine, Garrioch says: "We had no doctors, no knowledge of drugs. Only Epsom salts, castor oil, Perry Davis' painkiller; and, for open cuts, tobacco." [8] Mrs. John Spence, an Indian wife, was local doctor and one of the great women of her time. Everyone knew enough of all the languages to talk together. Friends called each other "Ni-Chiwam" - my cousin. One historian says that there was no litigation until 1857 ... Then quarrels about land ownership began. [9] These introduced the conflict between basically different concepts of land use and tenure.

Of all the outstanding men of Assiniboia, perhaps the most widely famous was Donald A. Smith. He came to Canada in 1836, a laddie of seventeen, with only a letter to Governor Simpson. Sent from post to post around Quebec, he learned "the trade" and to speak French as well as Indian dialects. Back in Quebec, he was invited to tea by Mrs. Simpson. Perhaps she was sorry for the lonely lad, knowing loneliness herself. On a Sunday, Sir George came home, found Smith at tea, and sent him to the farthest desolation of Labrador. In twenty years of exile, Donald showed his extraordinary capacity for "turning everything to account." He studied philosophy, political economy, medicine, history, and "became one of the best-informed and independent thinkers of the time." He found items to export (like salmon) at a profit to the Company and himself. Chosen by the Hudson's Bay Company's wintering partners to fight the London Committee for better terms, canny Donald so conducted himself as to win satisfaction for his clients and a promotion for himself. He replaced Simpson as "head man" for the Company in North America. With Kittson, Hill and cousin George Stephen, Smith engineered steamship monopolies, railways and, finally, the CPR. On the premise that the price of land is measured by the presence of people, he worked to bring mass immigration from Europe. Every trainload of "those men in the sheepskin coats" who settled on raw land anywhere in our Canadian West boosted the price of his holdings. From his manifold enterprises, Donald Smith won a knighthood, a peerage, and a massive fortune which proved Selkirk's forecast of "profits that baffle the imagination." In Assiniboia, Sir Donald's farm at Silver Heights was a conglomeration of eternal experimentation.

Another famous resident of Assiniboia was Lord Gordon Gordon. Here, during the 1850s, he lived like a king, hunting, traveling, and enjoying a host of friends. He traveled south to Minneapolis and east to New York, and, after a few years, returned to Assiniboia. As it turned out, in his travels he out swindled such master racketeers as Vanderbilt and Jay Gould. United States authorities arrested him and attempted to take him back to their country. Their plans were frustrated however, for Lord Gordon's friends overtook them before they crossed the boundary. Gordon came back in triumph. The American officials were taken in custody and, as a result, John A. Macdonald, the United States and the United Kingdom became embroiled in what very nearly became an international incident. Finally, cornered by Gould's hirelings in his cozy quarters in the home of Mrs. Abigail Corbett, in Headingly, Gordon shot himself "like a gentleman." The conscience of that day forbade his burial within the churchyard. He was laid just outside. Even then, he had the last laugh. For, as settlement expanded, more babes were born and more oldsters passed on and the cemetery had to be enlarged. The fence was moved to bring his final resting place within the pale.

This cemetery, the cemetery of old Holy Trinity church, together with other churchyards along the Assiniboine, in St. James and St. Charles, are rich in the history of Assiniboia and of our Canadian West. Mediating in their sacred, restful precincts, I am possessed by the thought:

Surely in these secluded spots is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire
Hands that the rod of Empire might have swayed
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

Certain it is: the names graved on these aged, weathered stones were one day borne by living, loving, dreaming humans, who, with the daily work of their hands, the skills of ingenious minds and the worth of honest character, produced the substance of our great, emerging Canadian nationality.


1. The Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Edition, XXIV, p. 611.

2. Vera Kelsey, Red River Runs North (New York, 1951), p. 75.

3. Martin Kavanagh, The Assiniboine Basin (Winnipeg, 1946), p. 63.

4. Kelsey. Red River Runs North. p. 161.

5. R. C. Russell, The Carlton Trail (Saskatoon, 1955), p. 19.

6. From the unpublished diary of the Hon. John Taylor. Entry of Jan. 10, 1878.

7. Alexander Begg and Walter R. Nursey, Ten Years in Winnipeg (Winnipeg, 1879), p. 7.

8. Rev. A. C. Garrioch, First Furrows (Winnipeg, 1923), p. 154.

9. Ibid., p. 128.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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