Smallpox epidemic 1876-77

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

It was in the fall of 1876 that smallpox reached the White Mud (Icelandic) River.

“According to the journal of immigrant Thorgrimur Jonsson, smallpox was carried to the colony in some clothing purchased in Quebec City by a man named Jon Jonsson,” wrote Ryan C. Eyford in his 2006 Journal of the Canadian Historical Association article entitled, Quarantined Within a New Colonial Order: The 1876-1877 Lake Winnipeg Smallpox Epidemic.

The Jonssons and their families sailed north from Gimli to the White Mud River in early September 1876 to claim their 160-acre homesteads. “Jon had been too weak to help with the rowing during the journey and shortly after their arrival he broke out with a fever.”

Where the families were headed to claim their homesteads was actually an area earlier settled by First Nations people — it wasn’t vacant land.

Missionary James Settee told the Church Missionary Society that an Ojibway settlement was established at Sandy Bar (east of present-day Riverton) in the autumn of 1871. He said that “some of the Indians who are still wandering about had agreed amongst themselves ... that they wanted to take the example of the Whites and follow a civilized life.”

The Ojibway had also established a five-kilometre-long summer settlement along the White Mud River where Riverton now stands.

In fact, First Nations people originally from St. Peter’s Reserve had been seasonally living, hunting and fishing in the area since the 1840s.

In 1875, there were 10 log homes along the river and about five in Sandy Bar.

“In their family gardens they grew mostly potatoes and Red River corn,” wrote Winona Wheeler in the article, The Fur Trade, Treaty No. 5 and the Fisher River First Nation. “The land there was rich and excellent for growing grain and the while region had very good hay and timber lands (the very reason it was later selected by the Icelanders to be the centre of their colony). There was also an abundance of fish in that part of the lake ... The main fisheries were in the fall, winter and spring. There was also lots of game in that region, especially moose, ducks and geese in the spring and fall, and the wild berries and other country food were plentiful, too.”

When Settee visited the village at Sandy Bar in 1875, he found 25 families residing in the community, as well as a few widows. Settee said a school house was under construction and the residents had sent a request to the government to send a teacher.

Among the new residents, who arrived in mid-June 1875 in the region, were 20 Cree families from Norway House who also wanted to establish an agricultural colony.

Employees of the HBC from Nelson House and Rossville, who would soon be unemployed, wrote to Morris on June 25, 1874, requesting farming land for a settlement “in order to help our children from suffering hunger and the better to provide for our necessities.”

First Nations residents were associated with a seasonal Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) post located at the mouth of the Icelandic River near present-day Riverton, which had been established in 1863.

“The outpost was only open during the winter and spring to accommodate the fur and provisioning trade,” wrote Winona Wheeler in the article, The Fur Trade, Treaty No. 5 and the Fisher River First Nation. “Mostly it was a provision post where people traded country foods for supplies.”

Among those who traded at the post was John Ramsay, who had built summer lodgings on the north shore of the White Mud River and a winter camp at Sandy Bar.

In 1875, a plan was hatched by the HBC to relocate large numbers of people from the Norway House Reserve around the abandoned post to create a farming community. The scheme was a direct result from the HBC receiving most of its supplies from the U.S. via steamboats on the Red River, as opposed to the former supply route from York Factory to Norway House and onward to Winnipeg. The change in supply route meant that from 130 to 140 First Nations men were unemployed as York boat freighters, “who were dependent on this business to supply clothing and necessary articles for themselves and families ...” (April 6, 1875 letter to Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris.

On August 6, a delegation went to St. Peter’s to ask Morris to set aside land at Grassy Narrows for their reserve. The lieutenant-governor’s simple reply was, “No.”

Surprisingly, Morris had been an earlier proponent of granting the land outright to the aboriginal settlers. In December 1874, a resolution was passed by the North West Council, headed by Morris, to this effect, and a letter was sent to the Manitoba Free Press urging the federal government to take prompt action.

Soon after, David Laird, the federal minister of the interior, gave Morris authority to enter into Treaty 5 negotiations with First Nations people.

Morris’ negative reply to the delegation was explained in September 1875 during treaty negotiations. “We explained why we could not grant them a reserve ... at Grassy Narrows as they wished, going to the proposed Icelandic settlement there, but offered to allot them a reserve at Fisher River, about forty miles north of the Narrows, and this they accepted,” wrote Morris in The Treaties with the Indians.

This was not quite the case, since many chose to ignore the lieutenant-governor and the terms of Treaty 5 and remain in their settlements following the failed negotiations.

The Icelanders were told by Lieutenant-Governor Morris that these “Indians” would soon be moved to First Nations reserves along Lake Winnipeg outside the Icelandic Reserve. Even Settee supported the stand taken by Morris and the federal government, which can be regarded as a betrayal of the land claims made by the Sandy Bar Band. Settee said the land in question was too close to Manitoba, and thus the young people would be exposed to too many temptations, “which they as Indians could never resist.” It was Settee who recommended the creation of a reserve at Fisher River, a site that offered fewer benefits for First Nations people and was less suitable for cultivation.

At Sandy Bar, only 27 of the approximately 60 male residents signed Treaty 5.

According to a September 14, 1876, article in the Manitoba Free Press, “The Indians however are not at all contended with the idea of giving up Big Island (Hecla Island) to the white men, and if they do finally consent it will be with a very bad grace.”

(Next week: part 3)