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Ontario GenWeb Project: Immigration To The Red River Valley
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Immigration To The Red River Valley

Contributed by Fraser Forrest, 11 Feb 2003


The first big influx of settlers to rural Manitoba was in the early 1880s, many of them coming from Southern Ontario, where their parents or grandparents settled only a few decades before. This influx was to a large part triggered by the completion in 1878 of the railway line from Minnesota to Winnipeg. Prior to that, settlers travelled from the East by train to the Red River (the line from Duluth on Lake Superior to Moorhead was completed in 1873), and then proceeded down river to Winnipeg. Pioneers travelling to the Pembina River area would disembark at Pembina, N.D. Before 1873, the favoured route was via the old voyageurs trail, called the Dawson Trail for the surveyor who mapped it. Of course one could also come by way of Hudson's Bay as the first European settlers, Lord Selkirk's highlanders, did.

While most of the pioneers were probably awed by the flatness and expanse of the Great Plains, my Grandfather was already familiar with it when he arrived in 1879 with his wife and three children. His big journey began nine years earlier, in the summer of 1870...

Trouble was brewing in the North West territories, which at that time included almost everything north and west of Lake Superior. In June of 1869 the British parliament passed the 'Rupert's Land Act', whereby the territories were purchased from the Hudson's Bay Company for Ł300,000, to become part of the fledgling Canada. William McDougal was appointed Lt. Governor of the area, but because travel was slow and difficult no 'official' leader was present for some time. The majority of the local inhabitants, ie., the Indians and Metis and the Scottish settlers, did not appreciate the idea of being governed as a 'colony' from Ottawa. The former were concerned about their future after the inevitable influx of settlers. To show their discontent, the Metis, led by Louis Riel, stopped surveyors sent from Ottawa from working on their land, and then send Mr. McDougal packing before he could even warm up the seat of government in Fort Garry. In early 1870, Riel was named President of a provisional government.

John A. MacDonald and his Ottawa government took in these activities with great alarm. When Ontario-born Thomas Scott was executed, the citizens of that province forced the Prime Minister to take immediate and extreme steps to quell the 'rebellion'. MacDonald knew he would need soldiers to assert the authority of the Canadian government not only to intimidate the 'restless' Metis but also the American annexationists. Since Canada had no regular army, he had to rely on British troops and officers. Colonel Garnet Wolseley was appointed to lead an expedition to the Red River colonies. His task was to assemble a force of soldiers and militia, as well as men to handle the boats to transport the soldiers and their equipment through the wilderness from Prince Arthur's Landing to Fort Garry. My Grandfather, Sam Forrest, was hired on as one of the latter.

We now digress a few years back to April 13, 1845 to where Sam was born on a 100 acre farm in Admaston Township near Renfrew, Ontario, in the heart of the Ottawa Valley. He had 9 sisters and 2 brothers. His Father's farm was situated on pleasant, southerly sloping land, which prompted his neighbours to call him 'Sunnyside Forrest'. Both his Father and Grandfather were born in the Scottish lowlands and came to Canada in the early 1830s after enduring hardships for years due to the collapse of the handloom weaving trade. Most of the land in the Ottawa valley is very poor and rocky and the family probably had to augment their income by taking jobs off the farm. Sam and his brothers may have worked in the lumbering industry after the crops were in. An enormous quantity of red and white pine was being taken from the headwaters of the Bonnechere and Madawaska Rivers, which empty into the Ottawa near Renfrew. Living so close to the river, Samuel probably learned how to handle a boat at a very early age. Sam was 25 in 1870 when Garnet Wolseley was looking for 300 'voyageurs' to handle his boats. Put yourself in my Grandfathers shoes - here was an opportunity of a lifetime - a chance to see the great North West and to make some money as well! He probably had very few prospects at the time - he was not the oldest son so he probably wouldn't inherit his Father's farm. Here was a chance to get a start in the world. I have a feeling that there must have been a lot of young men interested in joining up, and Sam was one of the lucky ones to be picked.

In a few short weeks a force of 1300 men were assembled in Toronto. They travelled to Collingwood on Georgain Bay by train and then by steamer to Sault St. Marie. There they portaged the equipment and supplies around the mile long rapids between Lakes Huron and Superior (the U.S. Government denied passage of the military and their equipment through the locks). Fortunately, a steamer had already passed through the locks so they were able to proceed across Lake Superior to Prince Arthur's Landing, part of present day Thunder Bay (Colonel Wolseley actually provided the name of the location in honour of the Prince, who happened to be visiting Canada at the time). This was the terminus of the Dawson Road that led to Lake Shebandowan and eventually Fort Garry, and was to be the gateway for thousands of immigrants to the Canadian West.

Here my Grandfather and the rest of the voyageurs met them. Immediately before them lay the first major obstacle - the 48 miles of fast shallow water and tough portages to Lake Shebandowan. This stretch was difficult enough for the canoes of the North West Company, but in its present condition it was impassible for the large heavy boats of the Expedition. Therefore, the men were set to work improving a wagon road which had been used to portage supplies to above Kekebeka Falls on the Kaministikiwa River. Each boat carried eight soldiers and their gear as well as two voyageurs. From Lake Shebandowan they paddled and portaged to Rainy Lake and on to the mouth of the Rainy River to the Hudson's Bay post at Fort Francis. At times the Expedition extended for 150 miles! Paddling the 80 mile along Rainy River brought them to the Lake Of The Woods where they turned north to the Winnipeg River, which runs 163 miles to Lake Winnipeg. On August 23 they reached the Fort Garry, but Riel had already retreated to the United States. Wolseley appointed Donald Smith as temporary governor. The British troops and voyageurs (and my Grandfather, I believe) left for Ottawa immediately, leaving the undisciplined Ontario Volunteers, who overran the saloons and consumed all the liquor in Winnipeg in three days. The reason I don't think he was party to the latter events is because they named a street after him.

Back in Renfrew County, Sam married Katherine Tait and moved to a farm in Bromley Township. During the next nine years they raised three children, Henry, Mary, and Isabel and another, Jessie, was either on the way or was newly arrived. He was probably just waiting for an opportunity to return to the fertile western plains. Whether it was the completion of the railroad, the surveying of the land or just raising enough cash, that opportunity came in 1879, when the family pulled up stakes and headed west. The train must have been a great luxury compared to his last mode of transport. At Pembina, they loaded their possessions onto a wagon and headed about 40 miles west to the new settlement at Manitou. At night they stopped and slept under the wagon. They settled on the south half of section 33, township 3, range 8, 2 miles east of town. It had already been homesteaded but the former owner had gone. There was a building of some sort on the property. The following year, 1890. They were living in a house on the Dixon farm, and having nowhere else to put it, the seed grain for the following spring planting was stored above Sam and Katherine's bedroom. One night when the two of them and baby Jessie were asleep the ceiling gave way and the grain descended upon them. Sam was able to dig himself out of the smothering mass, but he could not save his wife and daughter. They were the first to be buried in the new cemetery.

Following this tragedy Sam continued to farm and raise the three children, with the help of his sister Margaret. In 1890 he went back to Renfrew county for a visit, where he met and married Jean Fraser. He brought his new bride back to Manitou and they had seven children, Marion, Stuart, Bess, Grace, Fraser, Jean and my Father, Charles. In 1905 Sam got an itchy foot again and headed for Vancouver Island with Jean and the 7 children (the children from his first wife were grown up and married by now). There they bought a market garden just outside of Victoria and raised fruits and vegetables. But Jean did not like living there so in 1908 they returned to Manitou and bought another farm. They were not over their bad luck, however, as their house burned down around 1910, when they even lost the tires for their Model T, but fortunately no-one was injured. Sam continued to live on the farm until his death in 1939 at the age of 94, and Jean lived until 1953.

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