The legend of John Ramsay: kindness in the face of tragedy

Betsey Ramsay’s grave lies near the long-deserted settlement of Sandy Bar in the RM of Bifrost

(depicts marker for John Ramsay).

Timeworn and solitary, the marble gravestone surrounded by picket fence lies in a hayfield overlooking the Lake Winnipeg shoreline about five km. east of Riverton.

Its chiselled inscription, in a strange mixture of script and print fonts, reads: “IN Memory of BETSEY. Beloved Wife of JOHN RUMSAY. WHO DIED September 1876. Aged 35 years.”

Lone gravesites from the province’s early pioneer period are common, but many consider this particular site special. The head stone is credited as the region’s oldest; it is also the sole remnant of the long-abandoned cemetery and community of Sandy Bar.

But its chief significance is its connection to John Ramsay, an aboriginal whose contribution to the survival of early Icelandic pioneers is legendary, and whose memory is revered by their descendants more than a century after his passing.

The early 1870s was a time of great change in the Canadian West. The centuries-old fur trade was collapsing, and the new Province of Manitoba (the postage-stamp province) had only just been established in the aftermath of Louis Riel’s “Red River Rebellion.”

Treaties with the aboriginal population were actively being negotiated and signed. The Dominion government had just announced the planned construction of a transcontinental railway. The Dominion survey of the Prairies was well underway and and settlers were beginning to pour into “The Last Best West” to take up prime homesteads.

In 1873, the Dominion government established New Iceland, an exclusive settlement reserve for Icelandic immigrants along the southwest shoreline of Lake Winnipeg. At the time, the lakeshore opposite the southwest tip of Big Island (thereafter called Hecla Island) and a short distance south of the Whitemud (Icelandic) River was home to a mixed aboriginal community of 50 to 60 Saulteaux and Cree.

Their settlement, known as Sandy Bar, consisted of a half-dozen or so well-built winter fishing-season cabins, and a “summer hunting-season” collection of cabins, campsites and potato gardens located a few kilometres inland on the banks of the Icelandic River.

image 04 sandy bar map_opt.jpegThe Sandy Bar band was largely self-reliant and even prosperous, prompting the Hudson’s Bay Company to establish a seasonal trading post nearby and for Roman Catholic missionaries from Fort Alexander, on the east shore of Lake Winnipeg, to make regular visits.

One of the Icelanders’ first contacts upon their arrival in 1875 was John Ramsay, a Sandy Bar hunter and fisherman known throughout the region for being a reliable, hardworking family man. He was devoted provider for his wife Betsey and they were the proud parents of four children.

Despite being informed by government officials that he, and the rest of his band were being displaced by the new arrivals, Ramsay took pity on the woefully unprepared settlers, offering them friendship and help.

Ramsay taught them how to construct a log cabin and make it windproof, how to make a boat leak-proof, how to hunt and fish. When able, he even supplied the neediest with moose meat and fish. He is credited with saving as many as 75 of the settlers from starving and freezing to death during the colony’s first few difficult winters.


Tragically, smallpox swept through the New Iceland colony in the autumn and early winter of 1876, while most of the band still resided at nearby Sandy Bar, hitting the youngest and the oldest, especially in the aboriginal population.

Making matters worse for the aboriginal population, several panic-stricken infected members of the Sandy Bar band fled across the frozen lake to aboriginal settlements on the eastern lakeshore, spreading the infection.

Many lost half of their numbers. At least one band was completely wiped out by the disease. Others were spared only by refusing to accept any refugees, regardless of how much they pleaded for assistance.

During the winter of 1876-77, Dr. James Lynch, one of two doctors sent by the Dominion Government to try to bring the epidemic under control, hired John Ramsay and his dog team to transport him, along with food and medical supplies, to the affected communities on both sides of the lake.

After what must have been a very disturbing journey accompanying Dr. Lynch, Ramsay returned home to Sandy Bar to find that the dreaded smallpox had claimed his wife Betsey, three of his four children and most of the members of his band. His beautiful eight-year-old daughter Mary was left horribly and permanently scarred by the disease. Ramsay buried his wife and children in the Sandy Bar cemetery near the lakeshore just south of the town site, where many other aboriginal and Icelandic victims were similarly laid to rest.

The epidemic claimed 105 Icelanders and untold hundreds of aboriginal victims by the time it ran its course in August 1877 and the government lifted the 10-month-long Lake Winnipeg settlements’ quarantine.

Ramsay continued to live in the Sandy Bar area for several years afterwards regularly visiting and tending to his wife and children’s graves. He continued to assist the settlers, becoming a close and trusted friend to many. During that period, he took a toboggan loaded with his best furs to Lower Fort Garry, near present-day Selkirk, and purchased a marble gravestone for his beloved Betsey. Unable to read or write, he was unaware that the stonemason had misspelled the name Ramsay as “Rumsay” — but it mattered little. The headstone made for Betsey Ramsay is said to have been the first stone grave marker erected in the entire New Iceland region. All others to that point had been wooden crosses or inscribed wooden planks.

Ramsay then erected a picket fence to protect the grave site and soon afterwards he and Mary left the Sandy Bar area for good. They are said to have lived for a time on Matheson Island, and then on a point of land on the west side of Washow Bay, now officially known as Ramsay’s Point.

By the turn of the 19th century the Sandy Bar townsite and the nearby cemetery had been largely abandoned by both Icelanders and aboriginals. The site soon returned to nature, save for Betsey Ramsay’s now overturned marble headstone and a rotting picket fence.

However, the Icelandic community did not forget the debt owed to John Ramsay.

As local legend has it, years later, newly arrived Icelandic settler Trausti Vigfusson began having dreams of the spirit of John Ramsay beseeching him to right Betsey’s overturned headstone and replace the picket fence.

He had never met the man, but he knew of his legendary status among earlier settlers. Despite being so poor he could barely provide for his family, Vigfusson completed the first restoration of Betsey Ramsay’s grave in 1917.

As a result of often outstanding personal initiatives, Betsey’s Ramsay’s gravesite has been repeatedly restored over the 135 or so years since John Ramsay last tended the site.

In 1989, the Rural Municipality of Bifrost designated it a heritage site under The Heritage Resources Act. During a 1998 restoration, a second stone was placed at the site with the inscription, “In Honor of John Ramsay and His Legacy of Kindness and Love. July 1998.”

Trausti Vigfusson’s original log cabin was relocated to the Arborg Multicultural Heritage Village and been restored.

More information on Betsey Ramsay’s grave and John Ramsay is available at:

About the author



Stories from our other publications