by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
It was an inauspicious start to what was to be a new venture in the Red River Settlement, which was later explained at a dinner meeting of the Manitoba Press Club by William Coldwell, who, along with William Buckingham, had set out from Eastern Canada to set up the first newspaper to serve the community.
“The paper, and much of the plant, had been purchased in St. Paul, in order to save freight between Toronto (our starting point) and the capital of Minnesota; and on the 28th of September (1859) we made a start from the latter city, with ox teams — a very wild start, indeed, as one team ran away at the outset and distributed some of the type in the streets” (Manitoba Free Press, April 2, 1888).
In the January 14, 1860, issue of the Nor’Wester, the newspaper they established at Red River, Buckingham and Coldwell also recounted their journey from St. Paul in more romanticized terms and at such great length that the story of their adventure covered several issues.
In the first article, they wrote that: “Hardly had the oxen been yoked to the carts, when they kicked up their heels and ran off in every direction. Being unused to the yoke and fresh from pasture, the animals were as wild as harnessed buffaloes, and knocked and plunged about for nearly an hour.”
But that was only the beginning to what would become an arduous journey across the frontier.
Once the oxen were subdued, Coldwell said at the 1888 press club meeting that the caravan made “snail-like progress by the Crow Wing trail,” the route that would take them to the Red River Settlement.
“Our material and luggage weighs close up on thirty hundred, and the Rev. Mr. (John) Black’s luggage, &c, is something over six hundred” ( letter sent to theToronto Globe and published on October 7, 1859). “There are our two selves, Mr. Black, his wife, her sister, and his little boy. Our cavalcade will include what I have just enumerated, a teamster, provisions, tent and bedding for the journey, three Red River carts, each drawn by an ox and carrying ourselves and part of the baggage; and a waggon and two yoke of oxen. We gave $40 for each oxen, $10 for the waggon (sic), $20 for each cart and harness, and about $30 and the run of the commissariat waggon to the teamster. We expect to be able to sell our teams at Fort Garry for nearly as much as we gave for them at St. Paul.
“About two miles from this city we shall fall in with a party of nine or ten half-breeds (Métis), who are returning to Red River ... Every vehicle that comes down goes back laden to its full extent. I have just been speaking with an enterprising American, who is about to establish an hotel in the settlement, and has come down to make the necessary purchases.”
They struggled through swamps, around and across fallen trees and stumps, made their way up and down the Leaf Mountains, forded rivers with steep banks and riverbeds covered by rocks, “or puzzled our way via crooked sandbars over which we went zig-zagging with occasional excursions into depths along side. Red Lake River — the widest, deepest, crookedest and swiftest in currents — took some of us up to our necks, and very nearly took me out of this vale of tears altogether,” recalled Coldwell in 1888.
Red Lake River is in northwestern Minnesota and begins on the western side of the Lower Red Lake and flows westward. After passing through Thief River Falls, Red Lake Falls and Crookston, the river merges with the Red River in East Grand Forks.
Captain Hugh S. Donaldson, a settler at Pembina in the Dakota Territory (now North Dakota), who later moved to Red River, witnessed the crossing of the party at Red River Lake. What Donaldson marvelled at was the unlikely sight of a silk stove-top hat that rested atop Coldwell’s head. What he saw was more similar to the picture of a city “dandy” than a frontiersman. “The captain (a title he later received from the U.S. Army for raising a militia to protect Pembina from Sioux raids in 1862), not expecting to see a hat there and then, and completely taken aback by the vision, laughed his heartiest, as he does to this day when he recalls the scene.”
At dusk, they prepared a camp for the evening, “when the oxen were unyoked, watered and turned loose to feed” (Nor’wester, January 14, 1860).
When preparing their camp, some of the party “procured wood and water whilst others ransacked the wagons in search of kettle, pans and edibles. Yet another batch of travellers devoted themselves to the tent ... In a few minutes supper was ready, and the social party assembled inside the tent on these occasions rarely failed to do that justice to the viands spread before them ...”
In the March 14, 1860, issue of the Nor’Wester, they recalled: “Winter was rapidly approaching ... we made forced marches during our last two days out. One morning (October 31) the caravan was on the road by three o’clock, when a lantern had to be used to enable us to see our way. Snow commenced to fall that morning, for the first time since our departure, and by and by a hailstorm came on, in the midst of which we stopped on the prairie, lit our fires, and breakfasted. The following day we crossed the Assiniboine and brought our long journey to a close. A few days afterwards the ice on the river set fast.”
Coldwell said the caravan averaged between 15 and 20 miles a day on the way “to the promised land,” and that it took over a month for them to reach Red River on November 1, 1859.
The Red River Settlement at the time of their arrival had a population approaching 7,000 people. There were only a couple of houses at the site that would become the basis for Winnipeg: a log villa belonging to Sheriff Alexander Ross and the spacious home of Andrew McDermot, a wealthy free trader who owned a general store.
Coldwell had worked at the Toronto Leader, published by James Beaty, a wealthy leather merchant, while Buckingham had been tutored by George Brown, the publisher of the Toronto Globe, one of the most influential newspapers in Eastern Canada. Both Coldwell and Buckingham were parliamentary reporters for their respective newspapers.
At the time, Ontario (referred to as Upper Canada) and Quebec (referred to as Lower Canada) were merged politically and administratively into the Province of Canada and Brown was a member of its legislative assembly. He would later be noted as a Father of Confederation. As the leader of the “Clear Grits” (Liberals) in the assembly, Brown made the “incorporation of the north-west into Canada a plank of the party platform” in 1857.
According to his paper, Early Winnipeg Newspapers, read by John W. Dafoe of the Free Press to the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba (now the Manitoba Historical Society) in April 1930: “What moved these young men to come to the outermost confines of civilization? Undoubtedly their appearance in the Red River settlement was the sequel to the newspaper campaign which had been carried on for eight years by the Toronto Globe in favour of the cancellation by the British government of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s charter and the transfer of the territory of Rupert’s Land to Canada. This campaign was inspired in the first place by A.K. Isbister, a native of this country, who had attained a position of considerable prominence in the educational and legal world of Britain ... He suggested this policy to the redoubtable George Brown, ‘through a mutual friend,’ according to a statement by Brown, and it was steadily advocated, as I have indicated, by the Toronto Globe.”
Dafoe claimed that: “Buckingham and Coldwell came here with a policy ready made for them. They were the forerunners of what came to be known as the Canadian Party.”
During the time of the Red River Resistance, the Canadian Party was led by Dr. John Christian Schultz, who was noted for his anti-Métis, anti-French, anti-Catholic, anti-Hudson’s Bay Company stand and the bringing of the settlement into the Canadian fold as a hinterland to be exploited by the English-speaking population of the region.
But it’s particularly difficult to single out the two men as being the advance guard of a Canada first policy. Certainly, there were those in Red River who saw them as the enemy in their midst.
In his Illustrated History of Winnipeg, George Bryce (1844-1931), a local historian and founder of Manitoba College (later the University of Winnipeg) wrote that Abbe George Dugas, a cleric and historian, who was a missionary at Red River from 1866 to 1888, believed Coldwell and Buckingham were devils incarnate. As an historian, Dugas was a defender of Louis Riel and the role he played during the troubles of 1869-70, which Bryce alleged made Coldwell and Buckingham ripe for his attack.
“They were undoubtedly the serpents, who had insinuated themselves into this peaceful Eden of the fur country!” Bryce wrote.
It should be noted that Riel seized the Nor’Wester in 1869, ending its days of publication in Red River. But by this time, neither Coldwell nor Buckingham were involved with the newspaper.
Bryce said that the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was nervous about their appearance at Red River, which wanted to preserve its fur trade monopoly and so regarded the Eastern Canadians with suspicion.
(Next week: part 2)