Red River floods again — tragedy ushers in new era for settlement

by Bruce Cherney (Part 2)

 David Jones, a missionary with the Christian Missionary Society and an eyewitness to the 1826 flood, wrote

in his journal on May 1, 1826, that

the settlers were wishing for warm weather, but when it arrived it made them apprehensive.

“Every creek pours in its tributary flood and the water has already overflowed its banks in many places ... The ice has not yet moved though elevated nearly up to the level of the banks and is unusually weighty being in general four feet (1.2 metres) thick ...”

“On the 2nd of May, the day before the ice started,” wrote Ross, “the water rose nine feet (almost three metres) perpendicular in the twenty-four hours!”

The estimate is that the water level rose by a total of eight metres between May 1 and 5.

Ross said no one had before witnessed such a massive rise, commenting  that even the “Indians were startled.”

“On the 4th, the water overflowed the banks of the river, and now spread so fast, that almost before the people were aware of the danger, it had reached their dwellings. Terror was depicted on every countenance, and so level was the country, so rapid the rise of the waters, that on the 5th, all the settlers abandoned their houses, and sought refuge on higher ground.”

The settlers fled to the high ground at  Stony Mountain, Birds Hill, Sturgeon  Creek and Silver Heights. Some were transported by HBC staff using boats.

“The (HBC) forts (at The Forks) now stand like a castle of romance in the midst of an ocean of deep contending currents, the water extending for at least a mile behind them, and they are thereby only approachable by boats and canoes,” wrote HBC employee Francis Heron, another eyewitness to the flood.

One man who had placed his bed atop a haystack and had a substantial reserve of food on-hand to ride out the flood, awoke in the middle of the night and found himself and haystack floating toward Lake Winnipeg.

After the people were conveyed to safety, “the first consideration was to secure the cattle, by driving them many miles off, to the pine hills and rocky heights.”

A mass of ice was dislodged by the rapid flow of the Red River and borne towards Lake Winnipeg. The ice flow carried away portions of the riverbank along with trees.

Ross said the area became like an inland sea with few dry spots remaining.

To save their household contents, people were forced to break holes in the roofs of their homes and carry them away by boat.

“While the frightened inhabitants were collected in groups on any dry spot that remained visible above the waste of waters, their houses, barns, carriages, furniture, fencing, and every description of property, might be seen floating along over the wide extended plain, to be engulfed in Lake Winnipeg.

“Many of the buildings drifted along whole and entire; and in some were seen dogs, howling dismally, and cats, that jumped frantically from side to side of their precarious abodes.

“The most singular spectacle was a house in flames, drifting along in the night, its one half immersed in water, and the remainder furiously burning.”

The year-old St. Paul’s Middlechurch  at Image Plain (Main Street and Hwy. 9)  was completely destroyed by the flood.

Meanwhile, St. John’s (Upper Church) was left relatively unscathed.

The Church Missionary Society members at St. Paul’s tried to save their property by placing it atop the roof of the church. They also built a platform to serve as a refuge if the flood persisted.

The flood became too dangerous and  they joined their neighbours in fleeing its  path. They took refuge at Snake Indian Hills (Stony Mountain), pitching tents.

According to Sarah Tucker (died c. 1859), the author of The Rainbow in the North, the missionaries and their congregation were in an encampment of 130 tents and “many Indian wigwams.”

Reverend William Cockran, the minister who served the congregations at St. John’s and St. Paul’s, and his wife were among those forced to flee the flood to Stony Mountain.

“The glass windows (of St. Paul’s) were driven out by the current,” reported David Thomas Jones, a missionary who helped build the church just a year previously, “the seats were shattered and mostly carried away, the pulpits swept from the foundation; the doors battered down, and all the plastering washed off.”

While riding in his boat with a group of men, Ross witnessed one man fleeing the flood waters by tying two oxen together and placing his wife and four children upon their backs. “The docile and terrified animals waded or floated as they best could, like a moveable stage, while the poor man himself, with a long line in his hands, kept before them, sometimes wading, sometimes swimming, guiding them to the highest ground.”

In making his own way to safety, Ross and his men rowed their boat to a barn and spent what he called “a miserable night” in the company of 50 others.

With the waters still rising, they were forced to flee the barn. In boats and canoes, they rode out the flood for two days. High winds whipped up waves so the make-shift flotilla made its way to the banks of the Assiniboine River

(Silver Heights).

“Here, on a patch of high ground, we found a dense crowd of people, and among others, the rascal de Meurons (soldiers hired by Lord Selkirk in 1817 to protect the colony), who, it was well known, hardly possessed an animal of their own, and yet were selling cheap beef all the time.”

Ross, disgusted with the alleged cattle rustlers, again took to the water and “took up our quarters on the delightful banks of Sturgeon Creek (west of Silver Heights), where we remained in peace and quietness till the water began to fall.”

He said provisions became scarce, but the de Meurons “fed them with our own beef” at an inflated price. “These were the boys that had been brought to the country to restore the settlements to order, and keep peace!”

The 1826 flood nearly destroyed enthusiasm for the colony among the settlers. The first to leave were a party of 234 de Meurons and “every idler and other people averse to Red River,” according to Ross. The “idlers” were sped on their way with free provisions provided by the HBC which apparently shared Ross’ distrust for the de Meurons. They left the colony on June 24 for the Upper Mississippi Valley.

George Simpson, the new governor of the HBC, wrote in his journal that he considered the flood “an extinguisher to  the hope of Red River ever retaining the name of settlement.”

Ross said the Scot settlers were not easily discouraged and resumed work on  their farms — the fourth time they had  to start all over again during their tenure  in the colony established by Lord Selkirk  in 1812.

The perseverance of the settlers and the departure of “the dross” was the commencement of a new era in the settlement, according to Ross.

“Before the year 1830 had passed, the colony was completely re-established, and more promising and thriving  than ever. In this brief interval of two or  three busy years, no less than 204 new  houses had been built, besides more enclosures made, and barns erected, on sites far more eligible, and secure from any future rise of the water, than those which the flood had destroyed.”

Another consequence of the 1826 flood was the HBC’s decision to relocate its administrative centre to higher ground at Lower Fort Garry near Selkirk.