The Month That Was – December 1867

All articles originally appeared in The Oshawa Vindicator

Please note – there are two articles, transcribed as they appeared in 1867, describing the grim death of a woman.


December 4, 1867
Page 1
A man in Toledo, Ohio, lost his wife by death at nine o’clock in the forenoon, at three o’clock in the afternoon he buried her, and at six o’clock in the evening he was married again.

Page 2
A monster hotel will be put up at Niagara next summer – Canadian side

Five hundred thousand dollars changed hands on the recent New York election

The health of Mr. McGee – We learn that Mr. McGee still continues in very ill health.  He is quite unable to take his seat in the Commons in consequence of ulceration of the ankle.  His general health is very much depressed, and though advised by his medical attendants to take stimulants to keep him up, he nevertheless refuses to act upon that advice. Under these circumstances his recovery cannot be expected to take place very rapidly.  Indeed, it is questionable whether he will be able to attend to his parliamentary duties again be the adjournment.
*This article appears to be referring to Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Father of Confederation, and the first of two Canadian political assassinations.

Mechanics Institute – on Friday evening last a sale of the periodicals for the current year was held.  Owing to the inclemency of the weather the attendance was not as large as would otherwise have been the case.  A portion only of the magazines and papers were sold, and these conditionally.  They will again be offered for sale tomorrow night. Any one not present at the last meeting will have an opportunity then to purchase any o the large number of periodicals on the list of the Institute. Those who desire to obtain the [cream] of the literature of the day at about one-half the price that they would otherwise have to pay should not fail to be present tomorrow evening at eight. A meeting of the general committee is called for seven the same evening.

The Hall Works – In order to wind up the estate of the late Joseph Hall, these extensive premises will be sold by auction on Wednesday next. The sale will be held on the premises at two o’clock. The whole of the machine shops, plant, &c., will be offered, forming one of the largest lots ever put up by auction in the Dominion.

December 4, 1867, page 2

December 11, 1867
Page 2
The Local Representation
The eligibility of Dr. McGill to a seat in the House of Assembly seems likely to create an owling amongst old and musty statues that will delight the heart of a chancery lawyer. The case has assumed complications unexpected at first sight. During the term of Mr. Mowat’s reign, over the post offices of the land, the Doctor was offered either a coronership or a magistracy, he chose the latter, and was so appointed. A year or so ago, at the solicitation of Mr. Gibbs, he was appointed a coroner. – But section 17 Cap. 100 of the consolidated Statues declare that no Coroner can be a Justice of the Peace. – The Doctor was a Justice before being a Coroner, and the question arises, does the latter invalidate the former office or vice versa. An old statute of Edward VI seems to favor the latter view. – We understand that this is the reason why Dr. McGill has received no fees for the inquest he held. Since his appointment, the Dr. has acted as a Justice of the Peace, consequently either his acts as a coroner or as a magistrate are illegal. The case may yet come before the Legislature for adjudication, and the probabilities are, there will be no election at least for some time.

December 11, 1867, page 1

Fire Alarms – On Friday evening, a fire alarm was rung. It was caused by a chimney in Pringle’s Hall being on fire. The flames were very fierce, and as the wind was very high, it for a time seemed dangerous, but it was soon put out. Shortly afterwards the chimney of Mr. Gurley caught fire. The gamins made a rush to get into the house, but Mr. Gurley knew better than that, and kept them out with his constable’s baton. Scarcely had this burned out when a chimney of Dr. Clarke’s house was discovered to be on fire. All burned themselves out without damage.

Enlargement – The congregation of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, Columbus, have made arrangements to enlarge their burial ground, and erect a new building for the Sabbath School, and also a new shed. Nearly the amounts required has been obtained, the members having subscribed very liberally.

Hotel Changes – Next spring, Mr. Pringle will move into the large new hotel now being erected by Dr. Eastwood on the old Arkland property. – Mr. Merritt has leased Woons’ hotel for a term of years and will move in when Mr. Pringle moves out.

December 11, 1867, page 2

December 18, 1867
Page 2
Frozen to Death
On Wednesday night last, about six o’clock, as a man on horseback, was going from Oshawa to Whitby, near Gadsby’s corners, he discovered a woman on the road side endeavouring to walk, but apparently unable to do so. He dismounted, picked up a bundle which he found near her, and endeavoured to lead her along. She was so benumbed with the cold that he found it impossible to get her along. He proceeded to Constable Campbell’s and notified him of the case of the unfortunate woman. The constable at once proceeded to the spot and found her speechless. He got her into Mrs. Gadsby’s hotel, but frozen as the woman was, Mrs. Gadsby refused to receive her into the house because she was colored. The constable, instead of compelling the heartless landlady to keep her, procured a cutter, put the already more than half-dead creature into it, and he and an assistant dragged her for two hours through the piercing cold of that bitter night about the streets of Whitby, seeking to obtain some place of shelter. At about midnight he got her into Spurrill’s hotel. Dr. Carson was sent for, but of course by this time the woman was frozen almost solid. He tried every remedy, but she died before morning. Such are but a portion of the facts of a case in which was manifested an utter absence of common sense and Christian charity, such as, for the credit of our civilization, seldom occurs. In the centre of a town, a human being, and that of a woman, freezes to death because no one would take her in!

Christmas Tree – A social entertainment in aid of the funds of the Sabbath School will be held in the Christian Church on Christmas Eve. One of the articles of the entertainment will be a Christmas Tree, the fruit of which will be distributed amongst the audience. Addresses will be delivered by several ministers and gentlemen of the town, and the choir and Sabbath School children will sing some of their choicest pieces. The admittance fee will be a voluntary offering at the door.

December 18, 1867, page 2

For sale.
The subscriber offers for sale, cheap, a DOUBLE PLEASURE SLEIGH, and a young Gray Horse.  Apply to John Hyland, Sen. Oshawa, Dec. 16, 1867.

December 18, 1867, page 3

Page 4
Removal – The subscriber begs to inform his customers that he has removed his Carriage Shop to Bond Street, west of H. Pedlar’s Stove and Tin Shop. Whilst returning thanks to his old customers, he hopes to retain their patronage. – Strict attention will be paid to repairing Buggies, Waggons, Sleighs, &c.; also general repairing.  J. Craig

December 25, 1867
Page 2
Dickens realized $20,000 out of his four readings in Boston.

Brazilian bug necklaces are becoming fashionable in New York.

Mr. and Mrs. Brown of Canaan, NY, have been arrested for killing their child to obtain an insurance of $85,000 on its life.

The Frozen Woman – The colored woman who was frozen to death at Whitby was named Johnson.  She had lived for some time near the lake shore, to the east of Oshawa. Some eight weeks since she came into town, and being homeless, Mr. Fletcher, the barber took her in. She left suddenly about four weeks ago, and for a time was unheard of, but after a few days she again returned, having, in the meantime, being living at an Indian camp four miles from Oshawa. She again disappeared and was not heard [from] until found frozen. The Town Council have properly resolved to investigate the circumstances of her death, and find out upon whose shoulders the responsibility rests. A special committee has been appointed for the purpose.

Christmas Cheer
We are pleased to note that the excellent idea initiated by Mr. Glen, of presenting each of his married employees with a Christmas Turkey, has been this year followed by Messrs. Whiting and Cowan. Over 120 birds were required to supply the two firms. The happy heads of the largest families were presented with the heaviest turkey, and we hope this will encourage the less fortunate paterfamilias, not to remain always in the receipt of the lesser gifts.

Earthquake – On Wednesday morning last, an earthquake was heard and felt throughout the eastern part of the Dominion and a portion of the northern part of the State of New York. A letter from Kingston under date of the 18th says: –

“At ten minutes to three o’clock this morning, I felt a tremulous motion of the earth and a loud rumbling noise, which continued about three minutes. I got up, for the bed and chamber furniture was in a state of vibratory motion. I looked, the air was clear and serene, and the rumbling sound appeared to die away to westward.”

The shock was slightly perceptible here, several persons having felt the trembling, and heard the noise. No damage was done at any place.

Provided for – Mr. Toms has for a second time provided the Vindicator Christmas dinner by presenting us with a pair of young toothsome turkeys, for which he has our best bow. It is comforting to think that even in this uncharitable age there remain some with tender hearts for the unfortunate.

December 25, 1867, page 3

Page 4
Lots for Sale.
The subscriber will sell by private sale, village lots on Centre and Avenue Street. Terms east. RG McGrigor. Oshawa, Nov 6th, 1867.

Henry Grandkids – Thomas Eben Blake Henry and “The Great Desire”

By Jill Passmore, Visitor Experience Co-ordinator

Originally, I intended this blog post to be about the life of Thomas Eben Blake Henry, the next in the planned series about Thomas Henry’s grandchildren. Initial research online confirmed all of the things we already knew from old family group sheets in the Oshawa Museum archival collection, coincidentally prepared by Ina Henry, T.E.B.’s first cousin and third wife. Further research specifically conducted on newspapers.com opened my eyes to a life that could never have been conveyed in census records and other information on Ancestry.com.

We knew that T.E.B. had been an actor based on the 1901 Census. He is listed as living at the family homestead in Darlington (today Clarington) with his parents, George and Polly, wife Mabel and daughter Lola. So presumably, he would be acting locally. But where? How do we find records from local theatres – there aren’t any in the OM collection? How do you identify actors in photos when most are in costume and makeup?

Knowing that T.E.B. ended up living in California near a number of other Henry cousins, I started a search on the newspapers.com, a large newspaper database, instead of communitydigitalarchives.com, which hosts our newspaper collection and a small number of other Ontario archival collections. Now, another problem cropped up. Under what name do I search? Fully, Thomas Eben Blake Henry is a unique name; but, without anecdotal evidence of a nickname or shortened name, researchers are usually at a loss and must come to the sad realization that you will have to explore every option of someone’s name – depending on how bad you want the information.

I did a lot of this research at home, during my out-of-office days, during this time of COVID-19. With internet connections not being good at the best of times, dialing in to access our work computers can be a bit of a nightmare. Remember the old dial-up days of the internet, with lagging conversations, getting frustrated and hitting buttons ten times only to have everything catch up and go crazy on your screen? It’s like that sometimes. So when I hit the jackpot with my T.E.B. research, I don’t remember exactly what it was that I had in my search options besides T.E.B. Henry. Like most discoveries though, I came about it somewhat accidentally. What I learned led me down a rabbit hole I wasn’t expecting.

The Atlanta Constitution wrote on June 27, 1910, “T.E.B. Henry has written a very promising play…will make good in stock or in the high-priced houses.” Set to open at the Bijou Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee in early September 1910, reviews poured in throughout major Tennessee newspapers.

Bijou Theater, c. 2010; ©Brian Stansberry, from wikipedia.com

“No expense spared for the elaborate scenic equipment,” “equal in this respect to any Broadway production,” and “the dialogue is crisp, pointed and direct in its natural simplicity,” claimed the Knoxville Sentinel.

The Chattanooga Daily Times said, “strong, vital play, full of realism, action and gripping situations,” and “it is said that every heart full of a deep purpose and desire will find a note of sympathy wrung from it by the direct personal appeal of the drama.” Meanwhile, the Chattanooga News wrote, “devoid of all lurid, clap-trap sensationalism…deep, absorbing heart interest and intense dramatic strength,” and “story is told vividly, directly and forcibly, carrying the audience through every scene with such realism as to make the pictures a living memory to all who see them.” Later, they also said, “the story is one in which pathos and humor are properly blended,” and “the scenery and effects have been especially prepared by Scenic Artist Charles DeFlesh, who declares that it is one of the best with which his name has ever been linked.”

The Bijou was hoping to draw in more people to see the play, having it open during the 1910 Appalachian Exposition, which ran from September 12 – October 12. The Exposition demonstrated progress in Southern industry and commerce and promoted conservation of natural resources. Former President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, spoke at the Exposition, though it is unknown if he saw a performance of T.E.B’s The Great Desire.

The Chattanooga News, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Tue, Sep 06, 1910, Page 5.

A preview of the play attracted 3000 people on Monday, September 5, 1910. The play takes place in the Selkirk Mountains and “is symbolic of the eventual supremacy of the innate good or mankind over the lower and baser elements of its nature, attained through the intervention of a good man.” The Great Desire and its characters is actually based on T.E.B’s time spent in the Rocky Mountains at a mining camp sometime in the late 1880s or early 1890s. A synopsis provided by The Chattanooga News follows:

Roger McLeod, a frontier parson, a very similar parsonage to Ralph Conner’s creation, “The Sky Pilot,” visits an obscure hamlet in the Selkirk mountains in behalf of the propagation of Christianity. While engaged in his duties he falls in love with Lorraine LaRue, the daughter of Barton LaRue, over whom considerable mystery hangs, and who because of his silence upon [t]he subject enjoys the sobriquet of “Silent Barton.” The parson in the pursuit of his love-making incurs the wrath of Dan Boreland, a frontier suitor of Lorraine’s, and forces him before the latter’s eye to retract a statement he made in disparagement of Lorraine’s crippled sister Nellie.

After Boreland’s true character is shown, Lorraine repudiates him, and the interest in the plot is centered upon the outcome of a three-handed love affair between the parson and the two sisters, both of whom wish to renounce him for the other. In the last scene the crippled sister is killed by her own father in a wild frenzy occasioned by fear and superstition caused by the howling of a wolf before the door.

Upon her deathbed the girl unites the hearts of the parson and her sister, and her father and her mother. The latter had long existed in the woods as a witch, though supposed to be dead by LaRue, he having struck her in a fit similar to the one in which he killed his daughter.

An ad from the (Louisville, KY) Courier-Journal on September 18, 1910 described the play as “a thrilling tale of life in the northwest.” Evening performances cost – 15¢, 25¢, 50¢, and 75¢, while matinees on Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday were 25¢.

It’s unknown at this time if the play toured and was shown at any other theatres.

Engaging Volunteers at Home

By Dylan C., MMC Intern

As a result of the pandemic, volunteers have not been able to return in person to the Oshawa Museum. By not being able to come into the museum, they lose the social aspect of their volunteer experience which is the biggest motivator for some.  The museum has been looking for ways to keep their volunteers engaged at home. One proposed way of keeping volunteers engaged is through the audio transcription of oral histories. But if audio transcription is going to be one of the main ways to keep volunteers engaged from home during this pandemic, then the question becomes how do we incorporate and infuse that process with a social component? One theory of mine includes hosting online discussions through zoom or other web-based programs, where volunteers can discuss what they have learned from completing the transcription. They can talk about the process of transcribing itself or discuss the history that they have learned from hearing the voices of the past.

The first transcription I worked on was an oral history from a gentleman named Wardy Pankhurst who was a life long resident of Oshawa that was born in the early 1900s. (We’ve written at length about the Pankhurst family on the blog – read through past articles HERE) I learned very quickly that I could barely understand what he was talking about between the poor audio quality and the lack of knowledge that I had in regards to Oshawa’s past. It wasn’t until I did a bit of digging myself when I began to understand what were the places and people he was referencing. For example, he is hard to hear, understandably being an elderly man born at the turn of the century, coupled with the fact he refers to places and people as if it is common knowledge, which of course would have been if you were alive during his time or if you are well versed in Oshawa history. The first word or rather name that he kept bringing up when referencing to his work past was Malleable. I could not make out what he was trying to say, so I had to ask my dad to see if he could hear because at first, I could not even distinguish what word he was trying to say. After deciphering the word “malleable,” I then still found myself in the dark. After a quick google search I found out that he was referring to the Ontario Malleable Steel Company and then all of a sudden, the entire context of what he was talking about came to fruition. It connected his tales about working for the McLaughlin’s, to travelling south of the border to Detroit then coming back to Oshawa to sell his services to the highest bidder. Doing this research to simply understand the story he was trying to tell gave me the idea that audio transcription can be more than simply turning speech into text. It could be a rewarding experience that turns social transcribers into an amateur research team that seeks to learn more about the history of Oshawa.

The second part of this is that you could turn the finished and researched transcriptions into mini history resources if you will, that have hyperlinks incorporated in them so if someone wants to read the transcription and has questions about certain topics discussed they could simply click on the highlighted word that takes them to a web page on the subject.

This mixture of independent work with a social meeting aspect may help to keep volunteers engaged even if they are restricted to their own homes. However, it is impossible to replace the in-person social aspects of volunteering but this idea gives some food for thought and perhaps gives us an avenue to engage and stay connected during these unprecedented times.


To hear Ward’s memories as relayed by him, take a listen to our video podcast:


The audio transcription project is being facilitated over our Google Drive – volunteers can sign up for which audio file they want to work on, and the MP3s are accessible from that same online folder.

If you are interested in helping with this project, please email Lisa at membership@oshawamuseum.org

The Month That Was – November 1866

All articles originally appeared in the Oshawa Vindicator

November 7, 1866, Page 2
Gold discoveries – gold has been discovered in some quantities in the Township of Madoc, back of Belleville.  St. Wm. Logan does not promise any large quantities but the people do not put much faith in his predictions.  Land upon which gold indications have been discovered has been sold at a tremendous price.

A Narrow Escape – on Monday last, Mr. Wm. Hezzelwood, of East Whitby, bad a narrow esacpe from being shot.  Accompanied by his nephew and son, he went out for the purpose of shooting rabbits.  As the nephew who was in the rear of the others, was crossing a fence, it gave way with him and threw him to the ground.  The concussion discharged the gun.  A portion of the charge grazed the side of the head of Mr. Hezzelwood, whilst his little boy was slightly wounded in the thigh by another portion.

November 7, 1866, page 1

Mr. Carswell in Philadelphia – the following is an extract of a letter from a resident of Philadelphia, dated October 28th. We are glad to see that Mr. Carswell is likely to obtain a reputation in the city of Brotherly Love equal that he enjoys in the other cities of the Union which he has visited: – “Mr. Carswell lectured last Tuesday evening here.  The audience were perfectly delighted, and say he can scarcely be excelled by Gough, who is considered here to be the finest lecturer of the day.  All he wants to be his equal is the reputation.”

November 14, 1866, Page 2
The United States Government is about to advertise for tenders for iron headstones to place over the graves of Federal soldiers who was killed or died of disease during the late war – The number required is a fearful 475,000.

Canadian residents in the States are being served with notices to quit on or before the 5th of December, by order of the Fenian Brotherhood, on pain of death.

Victor Hugo is writing a history of England.  The work, which will contain all the events of the second half of the eighteenth century, is not expected to be ready before the beginning of next year.

November 14, 1866, page 3

Burned – Early on the morning of Friday last, the mill of Mr. Henry Bickle, known as the ‘Old Starr Mills,’ situated in the 6th concession of Whitby, was burned to the ground.  The miller was in the mill until after eleven p.m., and then as far as he could discover all was safe. It is supposed to have originated from the stove pipe. The mill was wholly destroyed.  Mr. Bickle was insured for $4,000, about half the loss.  The wheat in the mill, amounting to six thousand bushels, belonged to Messrs. Gibbs & Brother. They were partially insured, their loss will probably be $4,000.

When is Thanksgiving Day? – It seems very strange that the Governor has not yet proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day for the present year.  There surely never was a year during which we as a people here received greater cause to be thankful. Three times have we been threatened with lawless invasion, and still we are saved from the devastations of war.  The dryness of the spring, the coolness of the summer, and the wet weather of the harvest threatened to destroy our crops, but out barns are filled plenty. Cholera has afflicted nearly every other nation, whilst we have been mercifully spared. Add to these the opening of a market after the abolition of the Reciprocity Treaty, the good prices obtained for our produce, the preservation of the land from internal dissentions, and we have a year which God has marked by a great display of his Providential care and goodness towards us.

November 14, 1866, page 4

Dedication of a New Church – The Ebenezer Bible Christian Church, situated on the 1st Con, Darlington, was dedicated on the Sabbath last.  On Monday a tea meeting was held which was largely attended.  $116 was realized which was placed to the benefit of the building fund. A subscription list was afterwards circulated when, a sufficient amount was obtained to entirely free the Church. The cost of the church was about $2,000.

November 21, 1866, Page 2
The Columbus Rifles – The match for the medal presented to the company by the people of East Whitby, was shot on Saturday last.  The attendance of members was good, although the day “was most unpromising.” The average shooting was very fair. The medal was won by Private G. Greenwell, with a score of twenty four points, and the money prizes, the first was taken by Private Smith, and the second by Corporal Portcous.

Petty Thieving Again – Last week as Mr. [Pake] was lighting the lamps of the Town Hall, for the Drill Association, he left the room for a few minutes, and when he returned he found that some person had entered and made off with two of the lamps. The boards about the Skating Rink have been gradually disappearing for some time past, but not content with this some person last week broke open the house, stole a lamp, all the lamp chimneys and every length of stovepipe.  What with incendiary fires, and petty thieving, the council will have to employ a detective – The rewards which have been offered during the last few weeks would yield a sharp man a good remuneration for this season.

November 21, 1866, page 3

November 28, 1866, Page 2
JH Surratt, the alleged accomplice in the murder of President Lincoln, was discovered serving in the Papal Zouaves, under the name of John Watson.  He was arrested upon a demand of Gen. King, but afterwards ran the guard, leaped over a precipice, and escaped into Italian territory. The Italian authorities are on the alert, and are endeavouring to re-capture him.

Nova Scotia anti-confederation papers point exultingly to the fact that a portion of Liverpool where thieves and other bad characters congregate is called “Upper Canada.”

Birth – In Oshawa, on the 22nd inst., the wife of Cornelius Robinson, of a son.

Historical Context, Modern Narratives, and Louis Riel

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

One of our popular Blog Series is ‘The Month That Was,’ which looks at a month of newspapers from the past, highlighting interesting stories, images, advertisements, and anything else eye catching. Often, the stories are quaint, humourful, or sometimes, they can give an insight into the happenings and/or politics at the time.  Newspapers leading up to elections are always interesting, especially those from the mid 1800s as the newspapers had very evident political biases. 

Sometimes, a simple annotation to the historical article can enhance a modern reader’s understanding of the event. For example, the August 9, 1872 edition of the Ontario Reformer reported:

Grace Marks received her pardon on condition that she would leave this country never to return.  She left Kingston on Tuesday, for the United States.

With this, an annotation was added, explaining that Grace was the subject of the popular Margaret Atwood book, later turned miniseries, Alias Grace.

When the trivia is short and simple, it makes annotating easy without taking away from the purpose of the article, highlighting stories from decades past.

However, while reading the newspapers in October 1873, news stories gave pause and left questions as to whether to present the articles as written, to annotate, or to exclude the stories because the additional context needed was greater than the blog post allowed. We opted for the latter, allowing another post, this one, to give the needed context.

Many articles in the October 24,1873 edition of the Ontario Reformer were discussing the results of a by-election in Manitoba which saw Louis Riel elected as a Member of Parliament.

The editors of the Reformer published their own editorials, slanted with their Liberal bias:

The Riel Difficulty
Riel, the murderer of Scott, is in Ottawa to-day claiming his seat as one of the People’s representatives, sheltering himself from just punishment behind a pardon granted by Sir John Macdonald… The question will then arise, however, how far that amnesty can be made to stretch.  While granting immunity to subjects in rebellion to Her Majesty’s laws, can it be also held to shelter the wilful, deliberate, unprovoked brutal murder of one of Her Majesty’s loyal subjects – not while in arms against the so-called Provisional Government, but while a helpless prisoner, utterly incapable of either resistance or disturbance. We believe very many of the member’s from Ontario maintain that the amnesty cannot be held to cover this foul crime, and we trust that bad as the character which the second Parliament has earned it, it will not be further sullied by association with a convicted murderer.

There was also the following inclusion:

An Opinion of Riel
We have been requested to publish the following resolution, passed last evening, and we commend it to the attention of the Hon. Mr. Gibbs:

Oshawa, Oct 23rd, 1873

An Emergency Meeting of the LO [Loyal Orange] Lodge, No 686, held at Oshawa, it was unanimously resolved that we regret to learn, that Louis Riel has been elected as a Representative to the House of Commons, of the Dominion of Canada, and , that we, as a Body, feel that his presence as a Representative in your Honorable House, would be a scandal and disgrace to our country, and utterly distasteful to the Members of our Loyal Orange Association, as well as to a large portion of the inhabitants of our Country, and we humbly trust that measures will be taken as will prevent him from taking a seat in the Parliament of the Dominion, and to bring him speedily to account for the murder of Thomas Scott in Manitoba, and that a copy of this resolution be sent to the Secretary of State and the Governor General of the Dominion of Canada.

The words being used by the various authors are strong: “murderer,” “utterly distasteful,” “foul crime,” and “disgrace to our country.” According to the Reformer, the local Orange Society was one of many around the country holding such meetings, wanting to see justice against Riel “if he attempts to enter the Province.”

Without providing additional historical and contemporary context to Riel, presenting these articles, as written, are not giving the full picture of the happenings of the Red River Rebellion or of Riel himself, whom we know today to be a complex historical figure, far more complex than the villain he is painted to be by many of his colonial contemporaries.

According to his Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry, Louis Riel is “one of the most controversial figures in Canadian history,” with the Métis  people regarding him a hero, the French Canadians sympathizing with this “victim of Ontario religious and racial bigotry,” and while those in the mid-1800s in the Canadian east painted him the villain, many today regard him as one of the Father of Confederation, a founder of the province of Manitoba.

Carte-de-Visite Portrait of Louis Riel
Notman Studio. Library and Archives Canada, e003895129
Carte-de-visite portrait of Louis Riel taken in Ottawa after his election as MP for Provencher, Manitoba, 1873.
Image from the Canadian Encyclopedia

Riel was born on October 22, 1844 in Saint-Boniface, Red River Settlement (modern Manitoba).  He was regarded as very well spoken, and he gained notoriety in the late 1860s, standing up for Métis culture, way of life, and rights.

A purchase of land by the government from the Hudson’s Bay Company and subsequent land surveys resulted in the organization the Métis National Committee. They denied the surveyor entrance to the lands, Upper Fort Garry was seized from the HBC, and the Red River Colony, under the leadership of Riel, was formed.  In December 1869, the “Declaration of the People of Rupert’s Land and the North-West,” was issued, rejecting “Canada’s authority to govern the Northwest and propos[ing] a negotiated settlement between Canada and the new provisional government” (Canadian Encyclopedia). Canadian delegates were sent, and negotiations resulted in the Manitoba Act, creating the fifth province to enter Confederation.  It was agreed that 1.4 million acres were to be reserved for Métis descendants, and it was also promised that Manitoba would officially be bilingual.

Meanwhile, a small group of Canadians appeared unpleased with the provisional Métis government.  They proceeded to Portage la Prairie, armed, and surprising the Métis who in turn imprisoned them.  A young Orangeman, Thomas Scott, was sentenced to death by a court martial convened by the Métis, a sentence that was not commuted by Riel; Scott was executed on March 4, 1870.  Protestants and Orange Lodge members in Ontario placed the blame for Scott’s death (or murder, as described later in Oshawa papers) upon Riel, who fled into exile after the Rebellion.

Clearly, the situation surrounding the death of Thomas Scott is layered and cannot be simplified into the black and white. It fits well into the modern narratives of land rights, reconciliation, colonization, and repatriation. The Métis peoples appeared to be defending the lands where they had lived for decades and upon which their Indigenous ancestors had lived for millennia. Riel, representing the Red River Colony, was defending his people and their culture.  To simply present the 1873 ‘English/Orange’ narrative of Riel as murderer without the additional context, is an unfair representation, furthering the mistakes of history and repeating the 19th century detrimental biases.  The editors of the Ontario Reformer, in their wording of ‘so-called Provisional Government,’ made it clear how they felt about Riel’s and the Métis’ actions in late 1869/early 1870.

After his election in 1873, Riel took the oath but never took his seat in the House of Commons, fearing assassination or arrest. In the 1880s, Riel led a second, unsuccessful, rebellion for which he was sentenced to death, which was carried out on November 16, 1885 in Regina.

It is difficult to fully present the Red River Rebellion and founding of Manitoba in a blog post.  In writing this post, content from the Metis Nation of Ontario, the Canadian Encyclopedia, and Dictionary of Canadian Biography was used, and it is highly encouraged that they are examined for further reading.

http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/riel_louis_1844_85_11E.html

https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/louis-riel

http://www.metisnation.org/culture-heritage/louis-riel/