Chapter 1:   Setting the Stage

Brandon is somewhat famous skipping the "town" phase and going directly to city status in 1882, slightly more than a year after the first buildings were erected. So while we measure Brandon's existence as a city from 1882, Brandon's real beginning was in 1881.

If there is one month of the year that is especially significant to Brandon's appearance on the map, it would be the month of May. On May 1st, of 1881 no one lived here and by the end of that month dozens of businesses had been established, many in tents, and it was already a bustling place.

Not only did Brandon spring up quickly, it seems its appearance was genuinely unanticipated - no one saw it coming

The years 1881 and 1882 saw the "Manitoba Boom".  Newspaper ads promoted speculative, or "paper cites” with names like "Souris City", "Manitoba City", Dobbyn City" and yes, even "Rapid City" were promoted as "The Next Great City of the West". Fortunes were made and lost in selling real estate, largely in the form of lots in these would-be cities.

 7-April 1881, Winnipeg Times

Brandon arrived by a different path.

While all this speculation was going on, the site of Brandon lay idle, its very sod unbroken, not a building in sight. Rapid City had already experienced its first boom, as investors were sure that the C.P.R. would pass that way. It, along with Birtle to the north and Millford to the south were the only real towns in the area.

A few miles downriver from our current city, William Currie had settled on a farm that straddled the river at the foot of the Brandon Rapids (then called the Grand Rapids). He soon had a ferry crossing and steamboat landing that became the jumping-off point for settlers heading the bustling Rapid City settlement. Thus, it was also called Rapid City Landing.  A post office and store a few kilometres east known as Grand Valley was another sign of settlement, it soon had a warehouse and landing.

Early in the spring when rumours began to circulate that the transcontinental railway, instead of following the expected, more northerly route, might cross the Assiniboine nearby, and strike a more southerly trail towards the coast, it began to appear that the little settlement at Grand Valley might be destined for greater things. It became a place to watch (and an investment opportunity!), while the site of Brandon attracted only a would-be homesteader who hadn't yet bothered to build and plant.

Of course the name Brandon had been associated with this region for decades. A Hudson's Bay Co. post named Brandon House was established in 1793 near Treesbank. The range of hills to the south of our city, previously the Moose Head Hills, began to be called the Brandon Hills some time after the fur trade posts appeared. A post office called Brandon was opened in the area we now know as Brandon Hills, after a group of Nova Scotians settled there in 1879.


An artist’s rendition of Brandon House - by Terry McLean

The name Brandon first appears on this 1819 map by HBC surveyor Peter Fidler, noting the HBC Post near the mouth of the Souris River. It shows the Rapid River (Little Saskatchewan) and calls the rapids we know as the Brandon Rapids, the Grand Rapids. Today’s Brandon Hills were called the Moosehead Hills.

On this map from 1825 we see that today’s Willow Creek was called the Oak River. Fact. Is short for Factory which was a term often used for Fur Trade Posts. We know there was a short-lived post near the rapids. The locations of Brandon House and Pine Fort are reversed. Pine Fort was in the Sandhills north of Glenboro on Epinette (Pine) Creek. And by 1825 Brandon House had been re-located upstream, roughly where Pine Fort is marked here. A cairn now marks the spot.

The area around Brandon had been home to a succession of cultures prior to European contact. The fur traders who appeared on Hudson’s Bay in the 1670’s and trekked from New France in the 1740’s, met the Nakota, Ojibwe, Cree and Dakoka who generally livedin quite mobile villages. A series of fur trade posts filled the role of towns. Provisions could be obtained, furs and pemmican traded.

Before Brandon

The era of European agricultural settlement began when Selkirk Settlers were established farms along the Red River beginning in 1812. Across the rest of the prairies, for some time yet, the only European presence was that of the fur traders and a few adventurers. The site of Brandon is in the Treaty 2 territory negotiated between the Canadian Government and the Chippewa and Cree in 1871.  Earlier, the region had been home also to the Nakota and the Dakota.

The Nakota (also known as the Assiniboine) were once members of the Yanktonai arm of the Dakota Nation, were once a Nation 10000 strong that occupied a territory that spanned the Prairie Provinces and parts of the northern United States. They spent at least two centuries hunting bison on the Souris Plains, and in later years actively participated in the fur trade on the Souris River.

The decline of the bison herds, competition from other groups and the devastation wrought by diseases like smallpox decimated their population and they moved westwards where their descendants now live. 

The Dakota also have a long history in the region.

Early Dakota left behind fragments of pottery which date back 800 years. These fragments indicate part of the territory occupied by Dakota long before the contact era. Records kept by the Hudson’s Bay Company indicate that the Dakota were active in Canada as far north as Churchill River in northern Saskatchewan.

By the 1870’s when the Treaties affecting Manitoba were being negotiated and implemented, European agricultural settlement was beginning to move westward from Winnipeg in to the Portage and Morden areas.

Map of the Province of Manitoba and Part of the District of Kewatin and North West Territory (1876)

Notable points on this 1876 map of what is now Western Manitoba shows the HBC Post of Fort Ellice, near today’s St. Lazare, a “Sioux Indians Temporary Reserve”, which was later replaced by what is today the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, and the British Canadian Reserve, which was the beginnings of Rapid City.

The main trails were the Carlton Trail, which ran from Portage through Fort Ellice and westward to Fort Edmonton, and the Boundary Commission Trail which ran from Emerson through to Fort McLeod.

The site of Brandon was not on any of these routes, although the rapids noted on the above map were the site of a crossing on a used by Aboriginals and fur traders heading southwest.

In 1879 the concept of a village or town with streets, shops, services and residential neighbourhoods, did not apply to the economy, culture and lifestyle of the region.

That was about to change.

The region was making the news.

For instance on June 11, 1879 the Toronto Daily Mail reported that improved river transport would soon make it easier for immigrants to, "be provided with through tickets right to the Little Saskatchewan and to Fort Ellis (sic)" (1) The report goes on the recognize that the river route will cut travel times, between Winnipeg and the Saskatchewan River from eight days to three.


11-June, 1879 - Toronto Daily Mail

The article reminds us that before the long-standing reign of the horse and the canoe as transportation choices came to an end, the steamboat made a short but notable appearance. 

The ongoing saga of the long promised trans-continental railway would soon eclipse all news about steamboats and river transportation.

A long and detailed article in the Montreal Gazette in the summer of 1879 outlines the progress and plans of this project. The first proposed route would have seen the railway cross the Red River at Selkirk and proceed north west through the narrows of Lake Manitoba, through the Swan River Valley, and towards Edmonton. Now, the plan was to go by way of Portage, Fort Ellice, and then towards Edmonton. One effect of the plan was to prompt a fair share of the new settlers to search for land that would be close to this route, and to avoid even good farmland that was far from it. This helps explain why the first notable settlements in western Manitoba evolved to the north of Brandon.


CPR Routes Map - From by Section, Township and Range, by Tyman

By 1880 however, some were leaning towards a more southerly route.

Anyone driving east of Brandon on Veteran's Way will pass by a relatively unobtrusive cairn a few kilometres east of First Street. This is the site of Grand Valley. It was at a convenient river crossing point (right by the Steam Plant) , and home to the first (1879) post office south of Rapid City. For a short period of time (less than two years) it was quite an important spot, especially as a drop off point for freight shipped by steamboat to places like Rapid City. If and when a railway arrived, it would be the logical place to erect a station and build a town.

To get a more reliable picture of the general pattern of settlement in western Manitoba one need only look at the routine publication of Mail Routes and Schedules. An entry entitled "Western Mails" shows us that Grand Valley was indeed on the map and receiving mail service in 1879, on a route that included the well-established village of Rapid City. 


Winnipeg Times, Nov. 9. 1879