An Introduction - Re-Settling the Plains

* From Laurie's 1870 map of Western Canada

In the 1870's, Western Manitoba had no established agricultural communities. The only trading centre was Fort Ellice, a busy
Hudson Bay Co. post on the  on the Carleton Trail. The fur trade was estentially over in the region and former posts along the Souris River near Hartney  and at Souris Mouth had been closed for some time. The buffalo were begining the steep decline that would see them almost exterminated by 1880. The Aborigional people who for centuries had thrived on these plains, were decimated by disease and those remaining were being forced on to reserves.

The area had been carefully explored by Europeans however and this map shows many of the region's geographic features that we know well today.

When William Francis Butler stepped off of the deck of the steamer International as it prepared to dock near the forks of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers in the fall of 1869, the frontier settlement of Winnipeg was not yet the capital of the the region, and the region was not yet the province of Manitoba. Mr. Butler was on a mission, a mission that related to the creation of the province. He was there to meet with Riel and get a feel for the situation.

That mission, a delicate one, carried out with tact and competence, likely had little impact on the outcome of the confrontation that gave birth to our province. But his other mission, that of exploring this new land, had a more impact thatn he would have imagined. Butler wrote an account of his travels which he published as "The Great Lone Land", and that book  painted a picture of the west that caught peoples imagination.and inspired some of them to check it out for themselves.

Quite a few came to what we now call western Manitoba, perhaps in a sense, arriving before it was fully open for business. Like gate crashers at a concert or at a holiday sale in a big box store,
they learned patience. And a few other things.

When the province was created it reached as far west as Portage. By 1879 there were still few newcomers hardy enough to leave the security of the Red River and Lower Assiniboine valleys and push west.

That was about to change.

That region, still officially part of the Northwest Territories, was sparsely populated at the time, but that had not always been so. The wooded valleys of both the Assiniboine and Souris Rivers and their tributaties provided fuel and shelter for Aboriginal camps and Metis buffalo hunters. Archaelogical expeditions are currently helping us decipher the unwritten records of the first peoples, while written records start with the the French Canadian explorers.  LaVerendrye and his party fifty-two men came from the Red River in 1738. He travelled with his brother, two sons, one slave, twenty-one hired hands, and a group of local Assibiboine. We may chuckle a bit at the mistakes in his maps, they relied on hearsay to fill in the parts they hadn't actually visited, but he managed in a relatively short time to provide what was effectively a quantum leap in terms of recorded knowledge of the area. His primary interest was in exploration, but he needed the profits from the fur trade to finance explorations. His business mission was to outflank the HBC and he tolerated the time that trading took away from his real interest. - the search for the "Western Sea".

After LaVerendrye, came the traders. They built forts in an ever-expanding reach from the forks of the Red and Assiniboine. They learned to live in this land, and they learned that agriculture was possible. That led to the first wave of European settlers in the "Manitoba Boom" of 1878-1882. These were the people who started the process of conversion to an agriculturally-based society and economy.

It is far too easy to summarize that process, as our school history books did, as some sort of inevitable evolution - a sort of pre-ordained progress of mankind. It wasn't. What started out, ostensibly as a partnership between the traders and the native people soon evolved into exploitation. It ended in fraud, manipulation and outright theft, before our ancestors were able, sometimes with consciences unclouded, to take title to their homesteads. But that is another story.

From "Historical Atlas of Manitoba"

What did the settlers find here?

Wouldn't it be nice to have more photographs or even sketches of the landscape! The ones we do have coupled with the excellent written accounts and taped reminiscences do help us form a picture.

First, the expression "Bald Prairie" did indeed apply. There were few trees and wooded areas were the first choice for new settlers - it was a matter of survival. Almost all accounts from pioneers mention the availability of wood as a matter of importance. When riverside and other wooded places were taken, few remaining farm sites had trees, and the hauling and sale of wood became a source of ready employment for those with access.

Alexander Henry, while travelling across country from Brandon House to Fort Ash in 1806, noted the great view he had from the hills after stopping at a small lake (Lake Clementi) . He mentions seeing where the "Rapid" river empties into the Assiniboine. As it is a distance of some 25 km I suspect that what he saw was the trees on the banks of those rivers, and that because that was almost the only place trees could be found, he correctly assumed that the river was hidden there.

Reports indicate that the weather hasn't changed much, though one is lead to believe that , in general, there was a little more precipitation in the early 1880's. The rivers seem to have been more navigable, and they had a tendency to call streams rivers, which in damper climates would be creeks as best. Mention is made of creeks that flowed year round, and few of those exist today.

One hundred years is a short time, in the geological, and even geographical sense. And although a comparative set of snapshots of the same stretch of land, one dated 1880, and another dated 1998, would reveal very real differences; those differences are the result of our intervention on the land. We made the changes.

The trees grew because the prairie fires stopped, and because cultivation altered the drainage. The trees, in turn, further altered drainage. Altered drainage likely changed the nature of the rivers, and streams in small ways. But, underneath it all, if you get away from the roads and highways, from the population centres, from the well tilled fields, you will find the land much as it was.

Henry Youle Hind's 1858 expedition, camped along the Souris River.

It was, by most accounts, harsh, yet inviting. It is difficult to get a real picture because the accounts left are so subjective. The impressions of the first settlers were colored by their hopes and dreams. They recount what to us might seem incredible hardships with a matter-of-fact sort of shrug. One gets the feeling that they sometimes reported only the highlights - and that they accepted from the outset that the hardships came, literally, with the territory.

I think that most of the early settlers, like the early fur traders, were so entranced by the newness and the openness of the place that they tended to ignore the loneliness and the harshness of the climate. They were caught up in the excitement of their individual endeavours - leaving the old behind, striking out towards the new. They were just too busy and too distracted by their dreams to pay much attention to trivial details like weather and lack of amenities. And they kept coming.

And they thrived.

Surveyor's maps published annually show that from 1879 to 1882 the place went from being nearly empty - to being nearly full. Well, not quite full - it took a few more years for the dust from the Manitoba boom to settle. While most of the land had been claimed and/or purchased by 1882, it took another decade to separate the speculators from the homesteaders, the buyers from the actual settlers.

The little square sections on the map filled up. The names were shuffled. The quitters quit and their names were replaced by the newcomers. This slowed and the population stabilized.

Maps from "Manitoba Settlement", J.M. Richtie

The "Manitoba Boom"

The Manitoba Boom lasted only a few years. From 1879 through 1882 a flood of Euro-settlers, mainly from Ontario, claimed much of the best land in the Westman area.  Rapid City was well established by 1878. Grand Valley and Currie's Landing were established in 1879. By 1880 the Souris Mouth area was beginning to be settled. Millford, and Souris City were established by 1881.

Then the towns sprang up as increasing income caused the need for services to skyrocket. Many of the first towns didn't survive the transition from the era of rapid expansion to the era of entrenchment and economic growth. They had been situated along the first highways - the riverbanks. And although the exact locations were chosen with an eye towards the coming railway, that factor had involved guesswork. The new towns of the 1890's were based on actual rail lines not proposed ones, and there was a need for lots of them. No one wanted to travel far to deliver their produce, and to purchase supplies, and with the spread of the rail lines, they didn't have to.

The cycle of increased production leading to increased purchasing spiralled through the first few decades of the new century, and after a sobering interlude in the thirties, renewed it's march into the early forties.

And the next change began. Increasingly large and mechanically sophisticated farm machinery made it possible for one family to farm thousands of acres. Increasing costs of production made it seem necessary to do so. The townships (36 sections or square miles of land) that once supported from fifty to a hundred families, now were home to fewer and fewer. Rural depopulation began. And like the spiral of supply and demand that created the rural towns, a new, downward spiral left buildings abandoned on every other old farm site, and empty fields where towns once stood.

Drive through western Manitoba, and you will see fields of wheat larger than the entire farm I once called home. That field can be harvested in a few hours by a combine costing tens of thousands of dollars. A hog barn staffed by just a few men produces more pork per month than an entire municipality would ship to market in years. The era of corporate agriculture has begun and our pioneer past becomes even more remote.

But it would be so nice to stand on a hilltop and see the land as it was in those days before the ox and plow was replaced by the tractor, and before the crooked dirt trail was replaced by the straight smooth pavement.

Online Resources:

Begg, Alexander: Ten years in Winnipeg (1879)
Bryce, George: Holiday Rambles Between Winnipeg and Victoria (1888)
Bryce, George: John Black, the Apostle of Red Rivber
Bryce, George: Manitoba: Its infancy, growth, and present condition (1882)
Butler, William Francis: The Great Lone Land
Carle, Frank Austin: The British Northwest (1881)
D'Artigue, Jean: Six Years in the Canadian North-West
Dawson, McDonell:  The North-West Territories and British Columbia (1881)
First Days, Fighting Days : Women in Manitoba History
Girard, Senate Hearings / CPR West Railway Line, 1877
Grant, George M.: Sanford Flemings Expedition Through Canada in 1872 (1877)
Hill, Robert Brown: Manitoba: History of itsEarly Settlement...(1890)
Hind, Henry, Youle: North-West Territory: Reports of Progress (1859)
Macounn, John: Manitoba & the Great Northwest
McClung, Nellie: Clearing In The West
MacDougall, W.B. MacDougall's Illustrated Guide, gazetteer and practical hand-book for Manitoba and the North-West, 1882
McKenzie, Nathaniel : The men of the Hudson's Bay Company, 1670 A.D.-1920 A.D . 1921.