President of the Prairies

English: Upper Fort Garry in the early 1870s, ...
Upper Fort Garry in the early 1870s, circa 1872 / Fort Garry, Manitoba Credit: Topley / Library and Archives Canada / PA-011337 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the “characters” of Canadian history was Thomas Spence, who proclaimed himself “President of the Republic of Manitoba” in 1868.  He really meant “President of the Prairies”: Spence had big ideas!

He was first in the limelight at Fort Garry in 1866, when the community was divided into camps supporting union with Canada or the United States.  Spence did some “grandstanding” by posing as a leader for Confederation.  He wrote a letter on birchbark to the Prince of Wales, inviting him to come to the Red River and hunt bear and buffalo with the Indians.  The Prince rejected the invitation “with profound regret.”

Spence then opened a store in Portage la Prairie.  On May 31, 1868, he proclaimed the “Republic of Manitoba.” Its boundaries were vague, but seemed to extend south to the United States’ Border, west to the Rockies and east to Fort Garry, or as far as it was safe to go.  Spence was, of course, President, and said his purpose was to hold the country for Canada.  He intended to levy taxes to build a Government House and jail!

Spence seemed to be getting along quite well until the time came to collect taxes.  Charges were heard that he and his “cabinet ministers” were spending most of the money on whisky!  One of the most vocal objectors was shoemaker MacPherson.  Spence sent two of his cabinet ministers, who doubled as police constables, to arrest MacPherson, and after a struggle, MacPherson was bundled on a sleigh to be taken to Portage la Prairie for trial.  When they were passing farmer John McLean, MacPherson shouted for help.  McLean advised MacPherson to go peacefully, but said he would attend the trial that night.

The trial was held in Spence’s store, with President Spence acting as judge and accuser. McLean entered with three friends and protested against the unfair trial.  One of the policemen tried to throw him out, and a fight started.   The policeman was hurled across the room and in the course of his flight upset the lamp, table, and president!  The mêlée continued in the darkness until someone fired a shot into the ceiling.  The defenders of the Republic scurried out the door and when the lamp was lighted President Spence was found cowering behind the upset table, pleading for mercy because his wife and family needed him.

The Republic of Manitoba came to a sudden end.  Spence left for Lake Manitoba and entered the salt-making business.

To learn more about this colourful character, I suggest clicking your way to, an excellent blog about Manitoba urban history by the day. After that, click your way to the, and best for last, be sure to visit CBC Digital Archives!


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