Tag Archives: Prairies

Their clocks could be heard

Bell on the telephone in New York (calling Chi...

Bell on the telephone in New York (calling Chicago) in 1892 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1905, when Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces, thousands of people were flocking to the Prairies. In the first ten years of the century, Winnipeg‘s population grew from 42,000 to 136,000. Regina‘s from 2,250 to 30,000. Edmonton grew from 2,600 to 25,000. Calgary‘s from 4,400 to 44,000. Saskatchewan from 113 to 12,000!

Because of this rapid growth, the provincial governments and municipalities were under pressure to offer public services. On November 1, 1908, the government of Saskatchewan established a Department of Municipal Affairs. Saskatchewan and Manitoba were the first provinces to do so.

The majority of newcomers were taking up holdings on the land, and their huge wheat-growing areas meant that their homes were widely spread apart. Alexander Graham Bell‘s new-fangled telephone had been fully accepted after a long struggle, and was a blessing to the Western farmers. In fact it was so essential to their welfare that a Rural Telephone Act was passed, making it possible for groups of five people to build, maintain, and use a rural telephone system.

In his book Saskatchewan: The History of a Province, J.F.C. Wright has an amusing story of how the rural telephone systems provided entertainment before radio. One prolonged ring on the line was a signal for all subscribers to lift the receivers and listen. There might be an announcement of an auction sale, dance, or public meeting, or perhaps serious news about a fire or other tragedy. Telephone conversations were seldom private, and were made with the knowledge that probably most of the other subscribers were listening. Their clocks could be heard ticking, or perhaps the shout of a child at play, or a sudden snore from grandfather asleep in his chair However, no one ever “let on” that he or she was listening If someone heard that a neighbor was going to town, he or she would allow an interval to elapse, then phone the neighbor and say, “Do you happen to be going to town today? If so, I wonder if you would mind bringing back some groceries for us?”

I remember “listening in” on what was called a “party line” when visiting a relative who lived in the country.  I must have witnessed the more boring conversations.  However, I do remember the parties talking finally knew someone was listening, and I soon heard, “Get off the line!”  I did.


Telephone (Photo credit: HowardLake)

Radio was a blessing in later years but it never provided the intimate entertainment of the country telephone system!

If you would like to read more about today’s post, I suggest going to Archives Canada, and there is a rather extensive article at the Canadian Journal of Communication. There’s an interesting article, also, at the Grey Roots Museum and Archives.


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They Will Become So American!

William McDougall, from Archives Canada http:/...

William McDougall, from Archives Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although John A. Macdonald said in 1865 that he did not think the Prairies were of any use to Canada, he changed his mind quickly after Confederation.  The United States bought Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7,200,000.  In those days some people called the deal “Seward’s folly,” because American Secretary of State Seward had negotiated it.  They had to eat their words later on.  The United States took about $100 million worth of gold out of Alaska, not to mention other assets.  The U.S. was now looking at the Northwest.  If Alaska could be picked up for $7.2 million, why not get the territory in between?  Prime Minister Macdonald decided Canada should get there first.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee reported:   “The opening by us of a North Pacific railroad seals the destiny of the British possessions west of Longitude 90 (the head of Lake Superior).  They will become so American in interest and feeling … the question of annexation will be but a matter of time.”

James W. Taylor, American Treasury agent in St. Paul, wrote to the Hudson’s Bay Company offering $5 million for Rupert’s Land.  He said, “I know that President Grant is anxious to make a treaty with England which transfers the country between Minnesota and Alaska to the United States in settlement of the Alabama controversy and as consideration for the establishment of reciprocal trade with Canada.”

Ottawa obtained secret copies of those documents, and immediately informed the Hudson’s Bay Company that it would have to sell its territory to Canada.  The Government then created the Northwest Territories out of Rupert’s Land, to be administered by a lieutenant-governor and council.  William H. McDougall was appointed lieutenant-governor on September 28, 1869, and left immediately for Fort Garry.  The consequences of the hurried arrangements were severe and will be the subject of future stories.

The British Government put pressure on the Hudson’s Bay Company to surrender its territory to Canada, and the price was set at £300,000, equivalent then to $1.5 million.  The money was supposed to be paid on October 1, but Canada was unable to raise a loan in London and the deal was delayed until December 1, 1869.

If you would like to read more about today’s post, I would suggest the Library and Archives Canada, and then I would suggest visiting Sarah StAngelo who has put together an interesting presentation. I also suggest the Dictionary of Canadian Biography to learn more about William McDougall.

“The opening of the prairie lands would drain away our youth and strength.  I am perfectly willing personally to leave the whole country a wilderness for the next half century, but I fear if the English do not go in, the Yankees will, and with that apprehension, I would gladly see a crown colony established there.” – Sir John A. Macdoanld, 1865


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Little Giant

English: 'Buffalo Hunt on the Southwestern Pra...

‘Buffalo Hunt on the Southwestern Prairies’, oil on canvas painting by John Mix Stanley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was not until 1926 that historians could be certain that Henry Kelsey really did reach as far west as Saskatchewan in 1691.  He was an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company and his career was distorted by witnesses who criticized the company during a parliamentary investigation in 1749.  The story of his journey to Western Canada came to light in 1926 when his diary was found in the library of Castle Dodds, at Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland.

The Hudson’s Bay Company was granted its charter in 1670 on the understanding that it would explore the enormous territory under its control, and try to find the Northwest Passage.  Kelsey, although only twenty years old, was working at the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Fort Nelson, Hudson Bay.  He volunteered to go with a party of Stone Indians to their hunting grounds, and left with them on June 12, 1690.

Many of the great explorers, Cartier, Champlain, Mackenzie, Fraser, and Thompson kept diaries.  Fortunately Kelsey did too, but  much of his writing was in poor verse.  He described his departure:

Then up ye River I with heavy heart
Did Take my way & from all English part
To live among ye natives of this place
If God permits me for one two years space.

Kelsey’s writings are entertaining but do not give a clear account of where he went.  It is known now that he reached The Pas, which he named Deering’s Point after a director of the company.  He was the first white man to see the Prairies, musk oxen, and a buffalo hunt; he actually took part in a buffalo hunt on August 23, 1691.

Kelsey was given the name Mis Top Ashish by the Indians.  It meant Little Giant because he saved an Assiniboine Indian in a fight with two fierce grizzly bears.

Before any other white man penetrated the Prairies (La Vérendrye and his sons did so in 1738), Kelsey had spent nearly forty years on Hudson Bay, including the two years exploring the interior.  He was captured by Iberville in 1694 when the great French-Canadian military leader attacked York Factory.

For more about today’s post, I suggest going to Dictionary of Canadian Biography to learn about the man, and the Manitoba Historical History with more of his diary is revealed. And lastly, a site I just found, the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.



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Where the Buffalo Almost Didn’t Roam …

Métis Hunting the Bison / Métis chassant le bison

Métis Hunting the Bison / Métis chassant le bison (Photo credit: BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives)

One of the great tragedies of Canada was the disappearance of the buffalo.  If it had not been for decisive, last-minute action, the buffalo would have become extinct.  Yet, before the arrival of white men on the North American continent, the buffalo were probably the most abundant large animal in the world.

Buffalo were the staff of life for the Indians on the Prairies.  They slaughtered them indiscriminately, but could not deplete their numbers.  Even when the Indians joined with the Métis and had rifles, the buffalo survived.  Gradually the pressure became too great.  American freebooters came onto the Prairies and the slaughter increased.  As many as 50,000 buffalo robes were shipped across the border in a year.  The slaughter in the United States was worse.  When the buffalo became scarce, the Blackfoot, Cree and Piegan Indians began to starve.

On August 14, 1877, the Northwest Council took action.  It issued an edict prohibition hunters from driving buffalo into pits and ravines where they could easily be cornered and killed.  Destroying buffalo for amusement, or for the purpose of taking their tongues and other choice cuts, was also forbidden.  There was to be a closed season from November 15 to August 14.  The “Mounties” drove out the American freebooters, but the Indians and Métis paid little attention to the laws.  By 1880 the buffalo had practically disappeared from the Prairies.  There was no population count of buffalo in Canada, but in 1900 the United States estimated that there were only 250 left on this side of the border.

A few people like Norman Luxton (see my July 6 post: As Mayor He Fined Himself $5!) took action.  Luxton suggested to Frank Oliver, founder of the Edmonton Bulletin, that Canada should buy a herd of buffalo sheltered by Michael Pablo in Montana.  This was done through the Government and the buffalo were brought to Wainwright, Alberta.  They became the foundation of the great buffalo preserve in the national park.  The buffalo will not become extinct now, but neither can they be allowed to roam, the Prairies.  It is part of the cost of civilization.


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Pushing His Luck …

The Red River drainage basin, with the Souris ...

The Red River drainage basin, with the Souris River highlighted (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lord Selkirk’s decision to colonize the area near the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers was not received warmly by either the North West Company or the Hudson’s Bay Company.  Both Companies hunted and traded in the Assiniboia region.  They feared that a farming settlement would surely interfere with their business.

Friction between the settlers and fur traders soon erupted.  Miles Macdonnell, appointed Governor of Assiniboia by Selkirk, was angry to see the Nor’Westers transporting bales of pemmican through his territory while many of his own settlers were starving.

Pemmican was made by pounding strips of dried buffalo meat into powder.  Wild berries and melted buffalo fat were then mixed with the powder and compressed into bales weighing as much as ninety pounds.  Pemmican was the most important food on the Prairies at that time.

In January, 1814, Macdonnell posted his “Pemmican Proclamation,” forbidding the export of food supplies from Assiniboia.  From the standpoint of the colony, his decision was beneficial, but how were the Métis and the trading companies to survive without their supplies?

Macdonnell was still not satisfied.  He sent an armed party to Souris, a North West Company trading post on the Assiniboine River.  There, they confiscated about 6000 bales of pemmican.  Macdonnell was “pushing his luck.”  He boasted that he would “crush all the Nor’Westers on the river, should they be so handy as to resist my authority.”

The partners of the North West Company, meeting at Fort William, decided to destroy the Selkirk at Fort William.  A temporary compromise was reached on June 28, 1814, but Miles Macdonnell was nevertheless terribly shaken by the enmity he had aroused.  Even the Hudson’s Bay Company men turned against him.  Macdonnell,  a discouraged, beaten man, wrote to Selkirk and asked to be relieved of his command.

Macdonnell spent his later years at his farm in Upper Canada.  He died at the home of his brother in Point Fortune, Lower Canada, on June 28, 1828.

To read more about today’s post, I have a few notable sites for you to visit. There is the Lord Selkirk Association of Rupert Land, and the Electric Canadian .com, and the Roots Web. The always dependable Canadian Encyclopedia. And lastly, if you have the time a 272-page document, I really do recommend the The Assiniboine Basin by Martin Kavanagh.


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British Settlers Arrive in Saint John

English: Barr colonists in Saskatoon, Saskatch...

Barr colonists in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 1903 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many settlers from England proved to rank with the best citizens of Canada, although enduring terrible hardships; and probably because they endured terrible hardships.  The journey made by the founders of Lloydminster on the Saskatchewan-Alberta border shows their courage.

In 1903, The Laurier Government was enjoying a great immigration boom, thanks to an almost worldwide drive for new settlers.   One of the immigration agents was the Reverend I. M. Barr, a silver-tongued orator in England.  Anxious to earn the $5 paid for every head of family and the $2 for every person sent to Canada, he persuaded a large group of people that life in western Canada was better than in England.  Their ship, an old tub called the Manitoba, arrived in Saint John on April 10, 1903, after a dreadful crossing.  Men, women and children slept in the cargo holds.  There was no privacy, the most primitive of toilet facilities, and the food and water were unfit to eat or drink.

When they arrived in Saint John, they were loaded into “colonist cars.”  The train was so slow it was said that the people in the front coaches could shoot a rabbit from a window, jump out, pick it up and get back on one of the coaches to the rear!

When they arrived at Saskatoon, they lived in tents for two weeks before journeying on.  The wagons they travelled in were overloaded; baggage dropped into mud-holes and coal oil spilled into the food.  The temperature was often below zero as blizzards gusted across the prairies.

Many of those people were ordinary city-folk.  Yet, they stuck it out.  The colonists deposed Reverend Isaac Barr and replaced him with the Reverend George Lloyd. He encouraged the colonists, as shown by the founders of present day Lloydminster, which they named after him, because he did so much to keep them going.

Do you want a visual?  Just go to Canadian Museum of Civilization, where you will find a painting by C.N. Frey depicting this voyage. A great place to get a more detailed account, a good place would be at .

If you want to read not only about this, but about everything Canada and Canadian, I highly suggest reading The Oxford Companion to Canadian History.

“Barr Colony, Isaac Barr (1847-1937), a charismatic but inept Anglican clergyman, promised Clifford Sifton‘s Department of Immigration, anxious to import farmers to the thinly populated Prairies, that his colonization scheme would “save Canada for the British”.  The Laurier government did more than usual to ensure the safety and comfort of the 2,000 British townsfolk — bank clerks, butchers, housemaids, gardeners — who responded to Barr’s Call.  Halfway through the 330-km trek, which took them by wagon from the railhead at Saskatoon to the “Promised Land” west of Battleford in the dismal spring of 1903, the colonists deposed Barr and replaced him with the Reverend George Lloyd (1861-1940), another controversial man, after whom they named Lloydminster. Watched by the international press, “the raw Englishmen loose on the plains’ spent a miserable first winter in poorly built sod huts, but most proved their homesteads and eventually became successful farmers and business people.”

The previous is reprinted here, with permission, from  The Oxford Companion to Canadian History, Edited by Gerald Hallowell, (,  -Lynne Bowen, pp.64 copyright Oxford University Press Canada 2004  ISBN: 13:978-0-19-541559 :

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Prairie War Spreading

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On April 3, 1885, the Prairies were aflame with revolution and the Indians were beating their tom-toms as far west as Edmonton.  News of the defeat of the Northwest Mounted Police at Duck Lake on March 26 was spreading like a prairie fire.  The Indians’ hunting grounds were disappearing and they were starving.  Many of the Métis had sold their land holdings for bottles of whisky. This looked like the opportunity to seize supplies and force the federal government to give them better deals.

The Northwest Mounted Police had to abandon Fort Carlton and leave it in flames while they galloped through the night to Prince Albert where many families were in danger.  Settlers in the Battleford area left their homes and sought refuge in the fort.  Wearing war paint, the Crees, under Big Bear and Little Pine, burned their homes and charged into Battleford itself.  The five hundred people in the fort on top of a hill could see them raiding every building, looting and destroying.

Similar scenes were taking place in other areas, as far west as Battle River Crossing between Calgary and Edmonton.  The one bright spot was Qu’Appelle where the newly constructed C.P.R. line brought militia from Winnipeg on April 2.  The Blackfoot in Alberta heard about this and did not go on the warpath, although they were restless.

In the thick of the trouble was Inspector Francis Dickens, son of the famous author Charles Dickens.  When the Crees raided Fort Pitt, they found the watch that had been given to him by his father.  It was recovered later, still containing a picture of his mother and a lock of her hair.

Louis Riel, who went into battle holding a crucifix, did not like bloodshed, but he was in favour of the Indians’ going on the warpath.  After Duck Lake, he wrote to Poundmaker saying: “Praise God for the success he granted us.  Arise, Face the enemy.  If you can take Fort Battle, destroy it.”

In the little Crimson Manual it’s written plain and clear; Those who wear the scarlet coat shall say good-bye to fear. — Robert W. Service, 1909


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