Prairie agriculture about to turn 200 years old

The Red River settlement was the beginning of 
one of the most important movements in Canadian history 
and the establishment of the farming system of the Prairie provinces

They were poor, landless farmers going to an unimaginably remote land — and forever changing it.

The Selkirk settlers’ arrival at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers 200 years ago this fall led to the opening of the Canadian West and the beginning of Prairie agriculture.

Later this summer, Manitobans will celebrate Red River 200, the bicentenary of the arrival of Manitoba’s first immigrants, brought here from Scotland by Thomas Douglas, the fifth Earl of Selkirk.

The celebrations, organized by a bicentenary committee, include much pageantry and tributes, arrival ceremonies and banquets — and a visit from the present-day Lord and Lady Selkirk on Sept. 5.

Four groups arrived from 1812 to 1815 in what was then called Assiniboia, a vast tract of unbroken prairie five times the size of Scotland purchased by Selkirk from the Hudson’s Bay Company. This would be Selkirk’s most ambitious attempt to find a new home for some of the thousands of Scots expelled from their farms during the “Clearances.” The first group arrived late in the year but wasted no time in planting a crop — sowing a bushel and a half of wheat brought from Scotland on Oct. 7, 1812.

It was a major historical event and not forgotten by those who proudly trace their lineage back to those early farmers.

Jim MacNair of Graysville, brother Neil, and sisters Isabel Rutter and Elsie Coates of Carman are some of them — direct descendants of Alexander and Christina Macbeth, who arrived in 1815. Their son Robert would eventually wed a woman named Mary, believed to have been the first child born among the Selkirk settlers, says Jim MacNair.

“She was either born on the way over or just after arrival, possibly at Hudson Bay,” said MacNair.

Six generations of farmers

Little Mary was the first of many. No one knows precisely how many people are descendants of Selkirk settlers, but a few years ago it was estimated there are about 15,000 in Manitoba alone, says Bill Matheson, president of the Lord Selkirk Association of Rupertsland.

“It could be double that,” said the Stonewall farmer, whose great-great-great-grandfather Alexander Matheson, arrived with his family and widowed mother in 1815.

That makes Bill’s son Nick the sixth generation of Mathesons to farm land in the Stonewall area, which Matheson’s great-great-grandfather John “Bushie” Matheson and his son homesteaded in 1873. Bushie was the last surviving Selkirk settler when he passed away at age 84 in 1898.

The Selkirk settlers left many legacies. They built schools and churches because they valued education and loved God, says Matheson. And because they were keen to own their land, “they worked like slaves,” he says.

They struggled to put roots down, but by the 1830s and 1840s the farming system they started would see many more farms established all along the Red and Assiniboine rivers, and ultimately the spread of agriculture across the Prairies.

The St. Andrew’s Society of Winnipeg wants to generate more awareness of that legacy by commissioning a documentary on the Selkirk settlers — and their first wheat planting, which is commemorated by a cairn in a park near the Disraeli Bridge.

“This history started with that single act,” said Rob Tisdale, the society’s president. “I know a lot of people in agriculture, so I emailed them a photo of the plaque and said, ‘I think we should do something.’”

Others agreed. The society now has an agricultural subcommittee, and its members are keen to see the settlers’ story told, said chair Mike McAndless.

They want the film to begin with the settlers, but tell a bigger story about the advancement of agriculture and how other cultural groups built on the efforts of the settlers.

“It’s going to be a very inclusive story,” he said.

The group has been in discussions with Prairie Broadcasting Service, which has expressed an interest in the film once it’s made. The documentary — which the group hopes will be done by the fall of 2013 — would also be an educational resource so Manitoba students can learn about their province’s history.

“It’s a legacy project,” said McAndless. “It’s something we wanted to create that can have a lasting impact.”

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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