On the Portage Road — 1861 trip from Fort Garry to Portage la Praire

by Bruce Cherney

In his book Red River, Joseph James Hargrave, a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader and author born in York Factory along Hudson Bay, provides a first-hand account of what it was like to travel from Winnipeg to Portage La Prairie in 1861. He gives a vivid description of some of the early sights along what eventually became Winnipeg’s most famous road — Portage Avenue.

“In the month of October I accompanied the (HBC) Governor (of Assiniboia, William McTavish) on a visit of inspection he paid to one of the outposts in Red River district, called Portage la Prairie, or Prairie Portage, situated on the River Assiniboine, about sixty-five miles (104.6 kilometres) west from Fort Garry.” 

In 1861, Fort Garry was the common name applied to the heart of the Red River Settlement.

Their journey to Portage la Prairie would take them along what was then known as the Portage Trail. It had  formerly been known as the Carlton Trail, since its western terminus was Fort Carlton, hundreds of kilometres to the west. 

Portage Avenue began as an ancient First Nations trail. Its present width is the result of the need to run Red River carts abreast to keep them from becoming frequently mired in spring-time mud. 

In historical records the trail has had various names. At one time, it was known as the Portage la Prairie Road. The name Portage Road was primarily in use prior to 1873. According to an 1884 map, Queen Street was another — though only briefly used —name. In the 1870s, Portage Avenue became its common name.

Upon entering the Red River Settlement from the west, the trail split into two branches. 

In 1861, the northern branch made a beeline to the Royal Hotel, owned by Henry McKenney, who a year later built the store that established the famous corner of Portage and Main. McKenney’s store and the movement north of commercial activity was frowned upon by the HBC; the Company wanted to see Fort Garry become the commercial centre of the community. 

The southern branch of the trail followed a more meandering route created by travellers hugging the bank of the twisting Assiniboine River en route to Fort Garry.

Since both Hargrave and McTavish were employed by the HBC, their journey started at Fort Garry and followed along the southern branch of the Portage Trail.

On the way to their first stop at St. James Church, both men would have passed Catfish Creek, which is known today as Omand’s Creek. 

A short distance from the creek is St. James Anglican Church, completed in 1854 and consecrated in 1855. Although St. James Church has suffered the ravages of time, it still stands and is located across from Polo Park. 

Rev. W.H. Taylor had been instructed by the Bishop of Rupert’s Land, David Anderson, to build the church in order to minister to those taking part in the westward expansion of the settlement. The cornerstone for the church was laid on June 8, 1853. When it was completed in 1854, the  church stood out for miles around as a solitary structure on the “bald” prairie.

“Three miles (4.8 kilometres) further we reached a very fine part of the settlement named Sturgeon Creek,” wrote Hargrave. “The high level of this locality saves it from the devastating influence of periodic floods, and, on this account, it has been thickly settled and brought under cultivation by a number of farmers.

In fact, during the 1826 flood, which was significantly greater in water volume than the “Flood of the Century” in 1997, Sturgeon Creek became a primary refuge. Another refuge was Stony Mountain.

In his narrative of the Portage la Prairie trip, Hargrave singled out residents John Rowand and John McKay of Sturgeon Creek as being worthy of mention.

A trader and Red River cart freighter, McKay was noted for his imposing bulk. It was said that he packed nearly 300 pounds on a rather short frame. 

The Earl of Southesk in 1860 said Rowand’s Silver Heights home was the “prettiest” in the district. The house was surrounded on three sides by “a gaily painted verandah,” and beyond stretched a garden and an enclosed grass field dotted by transplanted trees.

According to one story, the estate was named for tree leaves that shone silver as they fluttered in the wind.

McKay was the son-in-law of Rowand and had his residence at Deer Lodge. Deer Lodge was mysteriously first known as Reindeer Lodge, but was renamed by McKay’s wife Margaret who noted the many deer in the area.

Hargrave and McTavish then crossed Sturgeon Creek where their track ran through “a desolate and uncultivated plain” until they reached Trinity Church at Headingley.

“Not far from the parsonage at Headingley stood the farm house of another local celebrity, named Oliver Gowler,” who had started out in 1837 as a HBC labourer, according to Hargrave. When he retired, he bought a piece of land in the Headingley district and “brought it to a high state of cultivation.”

When Gowler died in 1865, his farm was valued at £500, a tidy sum for the period.

“The sun was setting as we came in sight of the tin-topped spire of the chapel of St. Francois Xavier, a Roman Catholic establishment ... The situation and appearance of the church, with its adjoining priests’ residence and nunnery standing by the wayside, were somewhat picturesque. Although the houses in the neighbourhood were but barely visible, from the track they were numerous, and the French congregation connected with the chapel was a considerable one.”

The two travellers arrived at the post called White Horse Plain, otherwise “Lone’s Post” for the name of its builder, William D. Lone, an HBC trader in the district.

White Horse Plains was the marshalling point for one of two annual Metis buffalo hunts. A typical hunt starting out from White Horse Plains had 500 men, 600 women and 680 children, along with 730 horses, 300 oxen and 950 carts, and travelled  west to the Qu’Appelle Valley District in Saskatchewan. The other hunt marshalled south of Fort Garry and headed to the Missouri River district of the U.S. 

Hargrave said Lone greeted the travellers “on hearing the noise made by our horses.”

Hargrave described Lone’s Post as being surrounded by a picket wall and built on a high bank of the Assiniboine. The post was located between the river and the Portage Trail. The buildings associated with the post offered “large stabling and other farming accommodations. The officer’s dwelling house was small and snug.”

For the next stage of their journey, Hargrave and McTavish were provided with a guide by Lone as they planned to investigate some of the many tracks that branched off the Portage Road.

He described the country after White Horse Plains as “uncultivated, wild and bleak looking.”

After a five hour ride, they entered Poplar Point where they stopped at a farmhouse “for about an hour to dine and take a rest.”

After their meal, the two travellers and their guide proceeded on the last stage of their journey.

“The country ... grew finer as we advanced. Trees were numerous on the opposite side of the river, where ash, elm, oak and poplar grow. About six o’clock we found ourselves in the midst of an enclosed and cultivated country. Far to the left side of the track lay a church and parsonage.”

This was the church built in Portage la Prairie by Archdeacon William Cochran in 1851.

Further down the trail, they reached the HBC post “on the summit of a pretty steep eminence in immediate proximity to the river bank. Close to it as usual were pitched some Indian tents. The number of houses at the post were three: an officer’s house, a men’s house and a trading shop.”

The supper at the post was “a very palatable kind of Irish stew” after which they retired for the evening.

Portage la Prairie was named after the crossing made by native people over the Assiniboine on their way to Lake Manitoba. 

John Garrioch was the district’s first settler, while the first settler from Ontario was John McLean. Peter Henderson had established a smith’s shop which, along with the post, parsonage and settlers’ homes, formed the basis of the community.

“The Company’s post there is intended entirely for the Indian trade,” wrote Hargrave, “and for retail transactions with the people of the neighbouring settlement. The country about it is very favourable for farming pursuits, consisting of prairie land situated at a high level. It is well cultivated by numerous settlers who, I believe, derive a good return for their outlay.”

Portage la Prairie is still noted for its rich land. The community has become the centre for Manitoba’s vegetable agri-business.

Hargrave and McTavish only stayed one night in Portage la Prairie. Hargrave said they returned to Fort Garry by the same route. 

At Lone’s Post, they were greeted by the news that the proprietor’s daughter had died. They became part of the funeral procession to Headingley where the child’s body was buried.

It is interesting to note that the Nor’Wester, Manitoba’s first newspaper, reported a cemetery consecration of “God’s Acre” at Headingley in 1862.

While the trip to Portage la Prairie is related in great length and detail by Hargrave, the return journey, other than the funeral, takes up little space in his narrative.

Hargrave was promoted to chief trader by the HBC in 1879 and retired to Montreal 10 years later where he died in 1891.