The early settling of Manitoba

Homesteaders exploring opportunities for settlement on the Canadian prairie west of Winnipeg, traveled along either the north or south branches of the Saskatchewan Trail. Prior to 1870 settlements in Manitoba were confined to river lots along the Red River and the Assiniboine River. Technological inventions and new agricultural practices in the decade from 1875 created conditions for successful settlement on the prairie. After the breakthrough of the steel plow, it became easier to cut through the tough prairie sod. The problem of fencing land on the treeless prairie was solved by the introduction of barbed wire.

Another restraint to the development of the West was overcome when the Red Fife Wheat made its appearance. This variety was well suited to the prairies in western Canada. Earlier varieties took over 130 days to mature, while the Red Fife matured in 115 to 125 days. A new method of tillage was also developed. It was better adapted to the needs of the semi-arid environment. Summer fallowing had become an essential part of dry farming practices in the plains area of the United States by 1860, and it got its breakthrough in western Canada in the 1880s.

Homesteading on the open prairie

By 1871 Manitoba had been well advertised in Ontario. During the following three years people from Ontario moved west and established new settlements. At first, very few settlers were willing to homestead on the open prairie, because the land lacked wood for building materials and fuel. Sometimes it was even difficult to find potable water nearby. Immigrants who followed the north branch of the Saskatchewan trail established new settlements at Westbourne, Woodside, Palestine, and Livingstone. From 1877 settlers discovered that the land above the escarpment south of the Assiniboine River was both fertile and better drained than in the valley. New settlements emerged at Darlingford, Somerset, Snowflake, Beaconsfield, Crystal City, Clearwater and Swan Lake. Some new homesteads were built in the Brandon Hills, in places like Minnedosa and Birtle.

Settlers from Iceland

In the early 1870s the Dominion government tried hard to attract settlers from the Scandinavian countries, but failed. It has been argued that Canadian authorities chose the wrong agents. However, the United States had already secured the position as the first choice for most Scandinavian immigrants.

The Canadian government had more success in recruiting settlers from Iceland. Crop failures on Iceland, combined with volcanic eruptions, were in themselves nothing new. But since these factors coincided with a strong advertising campaign for emigration to Canada, some Icelanders let themselves be persuaded to emigrate to Canada in 1873 and 1874. After many wrong turns and mistakes the first group ended up on land along the western shore of Lake Winnipeg. There, Gimli became the nucleus of the Icelandic community. News about the successful transplantation of Icelanders to the Gimli colony in Manitoba trickled back to family and friends in Iceland. It created a “pull’” among Icelanders that led to record emigration from Iceland to Canada in 1876. Six townships were reserved for Icelanders, and the Icelandic reservation extended for thirty miles along the western shore of Lake Winnipeg.

The Canadian government welcomed group settlements

The Canadian government had set aside blocks of land for French settlers from Quebec and Massachusetts. It also sought to attract the religious group called the Mennonites, as new settlers. German-speaking Mennonites from Russia began arriving in Manitoba in 1874. The first groups settled in the “East Reserve”, followed by another group in 1875, who settled on the “West Reserve”, west of the Red River close to the Pembina Mountains.

Between 1874 and 1880 nearly 7,000 Mennonites emigrated from Russia to Canada. The Mennonites were committed to principles like adult baptism, non-violence, and the primacy of religion in community life. Because of these principles they had a history of coming into conflict with state authorities. In order to attract them, the Canadian authorities promised the Mennonites the right to preserve their way of community life and also showed a willingness to adapt the Canadian land management system to the wishes of the Mennonites. They were allowed to farm the land commonly through agricultural villages, according to their system of joint decisions.[1] The German-speaking settlers from Russia were the first to demonstrate that settlement on the open plain was possible on a large scale in Manitoba.

Canadian homestead legislation

The Canadian government introduced a homestead legislation aimed at creating more settler friendly conditions than in the United States. According to the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, section 33, every person who was a sole head of a family, and every male 18 years of age and a British subject, or who declared his intention to become a British subject, was entitled to apply for a homestead. Prairie lands were divided into square townships, each comprising 36 sections of 640 acres, with the basic homestead consisting of a 160 acres quarter-section. A quarter-section could be obtained by paying an entry fee of ten Canadian dollars, followed by the fulfillment of certain conditions of residence and cultivation.

The settler had to reside on his homestead at least six months a year for three years. He was required to build a habitable house, till at least 30 acres, and cultivate 20 of them.[2] The Canadian government spent large amounts of money on attracting settlers. Despite active marketing and a liberal homestead law, the authorities had little success in populating western Canada between 1870 and 1890.

Some of the early Scandinavian settlements

In the late 1880s Emanuel Öhlén (1861-1931), who was born in Övergren, Uppland, Sweden, played an important role as immigration agent for the Dominion of Canada. Together with a colleague Öhlén scouted out land north of the Qu’Appelle River in 1885. The area reminded them of Sweden, because it was hilly and wooded. They thought it would be ideal for a Swedish colony. In June 1886 a group of some thirty Swedish settlers, most of whom came directly from Sweden, took the train from Winnipeg to go to Whitewood, about 30 km south of the nearest railroad station. They had to walk the last leg of the way. The colony was named New Stockholm. It grew gradually and sponsored sister colonies like Percival in 1889.

In his report in 1887 to the Canadian authorities about Scandinavian immigrants to the Northwest, Öhlén wrote that 332 Scandinavians had arrived in Winnipeg that year – 220 Swedes, 49 Norwegians and 63 Danes.[3] Of the arriving immigrants 135 had got work on the railroad, 47 had returned to Scandinavia, 33 settled in the New Stockholm colony, 44 chose to stay in Winnipeg, and 24 travelled to the United States. This was the greatest number of Scandinavians that had ever arrived in the Northwest Territories.

Scandinavia and New Stockholm

Two years later the colony of Scandinavia, organized in 1885 along the Manitoba and North-Western Railway near the city of Minnedosa, had a population of 47. The New Stockholm colony along the Canadian Pacific Railway line, 400 km west of Winnipeg, had 64 inhabitants. The organization of a school district at New Stockholm was under way, and it was arranged with the Scandinavian congregation in Winnipeg that the Swedish missionary would come on a semi-monthly visit.

Around 1890 it was estimated that approximately 3,000 Scandinavians lived in the Province of Manitoba and the North West Territories. Numedal was the first recorded Norwegian settlement on the Canadian prairies. It was located at Brown, Manitoba, just north of the United States border.[4] The settlers, like so many others, named their post office after the district they came from in Norway.

The role of emigration agents

Emanuel Öhlén belonged to a group of men who were active in the emigration recruitment business. Marjory Harper has defined emigration agents as “all who spoke or wrote positively of overseas opportunities, privately as well as publicly, and offered their hearers encouragement – directly or indirectly – to take up these opportunities”. They were “individuals or institutions with a vested military, financial, commercial, philanthropic or political interest in encouraging large-scale emigration, as opposed to the relocation of specific individuals or families.”[5] In the case of Scotland they had been active since the 18th century.

Shipping agents actively participated in the emigration business in the first part of the 19th century. As the century progressed, this activity got institutionalized and shipping lines and railway companies played a significant role in the growth of professional agencies. After the establishment of the Dominion of Canada and until 1900 “an army of professional agents had extended its tentacles into even the remotest corners of the British Isles, Europe and the United States.”[6] Agents were stationed in ports and strategic towns to promote Canada as the preferred destination for immigrants. The Canadian government, as well as the CPR, invested heavily in the marketing of the prairies. The Canadian government used CAD 4 million on promotion between 1896 and 1906. Agricultural communities were the main targets.[7]

Emigration agents played a key role in the migration of Norwegians to the Prairie Provinces. Kenneth O. Bjork has reconstructed how the Canadian Government worked closely with the Canadian Pacific Railways and other railways and established agencies to attract Scandinavian immigrants in the Upper Midwest. Intense promotional work was also carried out trying to draw Scandinavians directly from Europe.[8]

Great recruiters Hans Mattson and Carl O. Swanson

One of the best-known Scandinavian emigration agents was Hans Mattson. He emigrated from Skåne, Sweden, and led his first group from Sweden to Minnesota in 1851. After the American Civil War he became the secretary of the Minnesota State Board of Immigration, founded on his initiative and dominated by him. The Board of Immigration published emigration propaganda in favor of Minnesota, but also helped immigrants in practical matters. Mattson returned to Sweden several times to recruit emigrants.[9] Many emigration agents, though less known than Mattson, followed in his footsteps.

Immigration increased towards 1900

The economic depression in the United States in 1893 coincided with the increased efforts of Canadian authorities to attract Scandinavian-American settlers to western Canada. Kenneth O. Bjork and Viveka K. Jansson both emphasized the work done by immigration agent Carl O. Swanson, a Canadian government agent of Swedish background stationed in St. Paul, Minnesota.[10] Swanson was successful in promoting Scandinavian migration to the farmlands in Alberta in the late 1890s.

In a letter from Swanson, sent from Wetaskiwin in central Alberta in October 1895, he wrote that agents were now much more successful than before in recruiting Scandinavians from the Midwest. During the first nine months of 1895 he had personally accompanied 239 immigrants to Canada, and 105 of them came from American states across the border. In August he had visited farming communities in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

[1] Shannon Stunden Bower, Wet Prairie. People, Land, and Water in Agricultural Manitoba, Vancouver 2011, pp. 36-38.
[2] In practice it was more complicated. See John Warkentin, ”Manitoba Settlements Patterns”, Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, Series 3, 1959-60 Season; J. Friesen, ”Expansion of Settlements in Manitoba, 1870 – 1900”, Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, Series 3, 1963-64 Season.
[3] ”Report on Scandinavian Colonization in the North-West”, by E. Ohlen, Winnipeg, Man., 2nd January, 1888”, No. 26, Extracts From the Immigration Report of 1887 Pretaining to Settlement in the West, Sessional Papers of 51 Victoria (4) 1888, pp. 140-177 in the “Annual Immigration Report”, containing the reports from the various Agents.
[4] Gulbrand Loken, “Norwegians. Migration, Arrival, and Settlement”, The Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples.
[5] Marjory Harper, Adventurers and Exiles. The Great Scottish Exodus, London 2004, p. 112; see also Marjory Harper, ”Enticing the Emigrant: Canadian Agents in Ireland and Scotland, c. 1870 – c. 1920”, The Scottish Historical Review, No 215, April 2004, pp. 41-58.
[6] Marjory Harper, Adventurers and Exiles. The Great Scottish Exodus, London 2004, p. 112.
[7] Marjory Harper, Adventurers and Exiles. The Great Scottish Exodus, pp. 143-158.
[8] Kenneth O. Bjork, “Scandinavian Migration to the Prairie Provinces, 1893-1914,” in Norwegian-American Studies, Volume 26, Northfield: Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1974, pp. 3-30.
[9] Hans Norman and Harald Runblom, Transatlantic Connections. Nordic Migrations to the New World after 1800, Oslo 1987, pp. 128-130; Lars Ljungmark, «Hans Mattson’s Minnen: A Swedish-American Monument», Swedish American Historical Quarterly, pp. 57-68.
[10] Viveka K. Janssen, «Swedish Settlement in Alberta, 1890-1930», Swedish American Historical Quarterly, p. 113.

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