Manitoba’s earliest agriculture

Canada 150: First Nations, fur traders and the Selkirk settlers all grew 
some of the earliest harvests in Manitoba

As part of our celebration of Canada 150, the Manitoba Agricultural Museum’s Alex Campbell has written a historical review of agriculture in Manitoba. The Manitoba Co-operator will be printing it as an ongoing serial over the next several weeks.

While Canada dates from 1867, the history of agriculture in Manitoba stretches much further back into history, well before the arrival of European settlers.

There is archeological evidence corn was being grown in the Lockport area in the 1300s. When European fur traders moved into Western Canada, they saw agricultural activities carried out by First Nations groups.

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In 1772 a trader noted a First Nations tobacco plantation, perhaps 500 square yards in size, in western Saskatchewan. Tobacco is a difficult crop to grow and this indicates the First Nations on the Prairies had agricultural expertise.

In the early 1800s, corn and potatoes began to be planted on a regular basis in the Netley Creek area of Manitoba by the Ottawa First Nations who had recently arrived in the area from their home area in the Upper Great Lakes area. They introduced corn production to the Ojibwa people who had also recently moved into the area from the east.

While the area under cultivation does not appear to have been extensive, it did serve as an important source of seed for the Selkirk settlers after their arrival in Manitoba in 1812. The Ottawa people in the Netley Creek area left for the Kenora area about 1812 as their fields at Netley were subject to theft, probably instigated by the fur trading companies who were very opposed to the introduction of agriculture to the area as they saw this as diverting the First Nations away from hunting and trapping. The Ottawa people resumed corn production at Kenora.

The Ojibwa people continued on agricultural production at Netley Creek and they also began to cultivate gardens in other areas of Manitoba, along the Assiniboine, the shores of Lake Manitoba and as far north as the Swan River Valley and grew corn, potatoes, turnips, squash, pumpkins and other items.

No one is quite sure what happened to First Nations agriculture between 1300 and the late 1700s, however, one possible answer is that the “Little Ice Age” period also negatively affected the Prairies, making growing corn and other crops unrewarding. Also there is thinking that the buffalo herds on the Prairies increased in number in this period. In addition, the Spanish introduced horses to North America in 1519 and horses then spread to the Plains First Nations, greatly facilitating the buffalo hunt.

As well as the First Nations, the various fur trading posts on the Prairies also grew gardens plus some posts grew small acreages of wheat, barley and oats. Cattle, poultry and swine were transported to some posts to serve as the basis of breeding herds and flocks. The posts engaged in agricultural activities in order to reduce the volume of supplies to be freighted to the posts as this movement was expensive.

It is interesting to note the Selkirk settlers, while on their way to the Red River from Hudson’s Bay where they had landed, purchased a cow and bull at Oxford House.

From the First Nations and trading post’s agricultural activities grew the knowledge that the Prairies were capable of supporting agriculture.

When Lord Selkirk was looking for an area to settle Scots displaced by Scottish landlords clearing their properties to make way for sheep, one area he became interested in was the eastern Prairies. Selkirk managed to gain control of a large acreage in Rupert’s Land and began to bring settlers into the Red River area.

In addition to the settlers brought in by Selkirk, other farmers appeared, largely people retiring from the fur trade and their offspring.

The early years were a struggle with floods, plagues of grasshoppers and mice plus a difficult climate with a short growing season. In addition there was conflict and violence with people who felt threatened by the appearance of the settlers.

The settlement was not self-sufficient pre-1830 and many settlers had to survive by hunting. Various schemes were tried to provide an economic base for the settlement such as buffalo wool and beef tallow schemes. Collecting hair from buffalo proved erratic and the large number of beef cattle to support a tallow industry proved too difficult to maintain as the cattle needed shelter and feed for the winter beyond the capacity of the settlers to provide.

Many settlers left for the U.S. but those who stayed managed to adopt to the climate conditions and become successful farmers. Sheep and cattle were brought in to the colony along with stallions to improve the quality of horses available as horses were being used for cultivation by the 1820s, as well as oxen.

Wheat, barley, oats and other crops were being produced. Wild hay was being cut for fodder. However, it was largely subsistence agriculture as the market for agricultural commodities was limited in the Red River area, due to the limited population and absence of affordable transport to other markets.

Some observers of the settlement claim it was “smothering in its own fat,” as in some years production far exceeded consumption.

However, in other years, starvation stalked the community. Drought occurred in 1863 to 1865 and returned in 1868 when even hunting and fishing failed.

About the author

Contributor

Alex Campbell is a dedicated volunteer and Member of the Interpretation Committee at the Manitoba Agricultural Museum. http://ag-museum.mb.ca/

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