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Manitoba History: Flour Milling at Red River: Wind, Water and Steam

by Barry Kaye
Department of Geography, University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 2, 1981

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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Before the transfer of Rupert’s Land to the Dominion of Canada in 1869-70, the colony founded on Red River by Lord Selkirk in 1812 was the major centre of population and agriculture in the Canadian Northwest. As such, it was also the preeminent centre for the primary processing of the agricultural products necessary for day-to-day life at Red River and for the operations of the fur trade. Selkirk’s main intention in establishing a colony at Red River was to provide a home on British territory for dispossessed Scottish and Irish peasants, thereby reducing both social stresses in Britain and the flow of emigrants to the United States. Selkirk’s plan for an interior colony became a reality only through the cooperation of the Hudson’s Bay Company, on whose chartered lands it was to be planted. For its part the Company judged that an agricultural colony might serve as a reliable and convenient source of agricultural foodstuffs and labour for its growing number of Northwest fur posts. Such a settlement, the Company hoped, would allow significant reductions in the expense of importing the English provisions needed to supplement the local food supplies of its overseas settlements and thus increase its competitiveness in the ongoing struggle with the Northwest Company for commercial supremacy in the fur trade.

Foremost among the secondary industries at the Red River Colony was grist milling, which produced the flour used in Red River households and at the fur posts. From the onset of colonization plans were made for the installation of a gristmill to meet the needs of the first settlers. In a letter dated 12 June 1813 Selkirk advised Miles Macdonell, the first governor of the colony, that “I have no doubt of your finding good mill stones on the east coast of Winipic [Lake Winnipeg] among the granitic rocks.” [1] Writing shortly afterwards, Macdonell informed Selkirk that “A wheel-wright and a constructor of windmills would be great acquisitions to us.” [2] As a result of these exchanges Samuel Lamont, a millwright about whom Selkirk had heard good reports, accompanied the party of Kildonan Scots settlers that journeyed to Red River in 1814. The colony’s first powered mill was erected in the spring and early summer of the following year. This was a horse-powered treadmill constructed out of local timber and using grindstones transported from the Lake Winnipeg area the previous year by the incoming Scots settlers. Unfortunately this first mill was never able to demonstrate its value to the settlers, as all the colony buildings, including the recently erected mill, were burnt to the ground by the Métis in 1815. [3]

A second horse-mill, able to grind from 12 to 15 bushels of grain per day and employing millstones of 4 feet in diameter “found pretty near at hand,” was erected at considerable expense during the winter of 1820-1821 for the use of the settlement. The mill worked well enough in the cold season but during the spring thaw, part of the foundations gave way and by May 1822 the mill was not working. [4] Another mill, built by the Hudson’s Bay Company and intended primarily for Company needs, but also used by the settlers when the colony mill was out of order, was working by November 1822. [5] Earlier in the same year the lack of flour milling capacity at Red River forced the Company to ship grain as far as the mouth of the Winnipeg River for grinding into flour by the mill at Fort Alexander. [6]

It is not known what proportion of the colony’s grain was processed by these first mills. What is known is that throughout the colony’s early years the settlers ground much of their grain in simple handmills or querns. The quern was a hand-operated rotary mill that was still widely used for grinding in the Highlands of Scotland during the early nineteenth century. [7] Many of the Kildonan settlers brought querns with them from Sutherland [8] and Simpson, writing in 1824, claimed that every second or third settler owned one of them. [9] In 1822 the colony also acquired a handmill and two flour sieves from Fort Alexander. [10] For the periods of time when there was no animal-powered mill, most of the colony’s wheat must have been ground in handmills. The quern consisted of “two flat stones (the upper and the nether)—the upper having a handle which turned it upon the wheat and brought the grain into some semblance of flour, not over white, but in the best degree a health-producing and dyspepsia—obliterating substance.” [11] Small amounts of wheat may also have been ground by similarly hand-operated steel mills. [12]

In 1821 the Hudson’s Bay Company sent out to York Factory on Hudson Bay the machinery required for the erection of a wind-powered gristmill. Governor George Simpson came across this machinery at York during his 1821 visit to the Northern Department. He reported to Andrew Colvile, Selkirk’s brother-in-law and one of the principals of the Hudson’s Bay Company, that “the Iron Mill now lays here and is likely to remain in our stores. One piece of machinery alone weighs 10 cwts. and unless boats are constructed purposely and handymen sent from England for the purpose of transporting it, here it must continue.” Simpson recommended that the weighty mill machinery be shipped back to England and “returned to the tradesmen who furnished it even at a reduction in price as here it is totally useless.” [13]

The machinery remained, however, at York Factory and in August 1822 selected parts of it were forwarded to the colony. The selection was made by lames Mitchell, a Scottish millwright who had arrived that year in the Company ship from England to supervise the erection of a gristmill at Red River.

Two years later in 1824, Mitchell was reported by Simpson to be constructing not a windmill but an animal-powered corn mill at Red River, able to grind 17 to 18 bushels of grain per day The equipment transported from York Factory in 1822 turned out to be machinery for a sawmill, not a corn mill, and led Simpson to doubt whether Mitchell had the skill and knowledge to set about erecting a windmill. [14]

Despite Simpson’s apprehensions, Mitchell, aided by Captain F. Matthey an officer of the De Meuron mercenaries, completed the erection of a windmill at Red River. It was located on the southern edge of Point Douglas about a mile north of Upper Fort Garry. [15] The windmill began to grind on October 1, 1825 and was said by the Fort Garry journalist to work “well,” whilst those best able to judge thought the workmanship “solid and complete.” [16] The flour it produced was considered “fine and fully answerable to all demands” by Donald McKenzie, the governor of the colony. Simpson was also favourably impressed by the new mill which seemed to him to answer the needs of both the Company and the settlers at Red River. [17]

The expense of the mill’s construction, which amounted to £1,500, was borne by the Estate of Lord Selkirk. When it was finished the mill, plus one hundred acres of adjoining land which included the site of old Fort Douglas, was sold for £400 by an agreement of June 11, 1825 to Robert Logan, a retired trader who had worked for both the Northwest and Hudson’s Bay Companies. [18] Payment was fixed at one tenth of the grain ground. [19] The mill fortunately escaped serious damage from the 1826 flood and served as a place of refuge for settlers and livestock during the worst periods of that disaster. [20] Logan’s daughter remembered that the mill was a “big round building like a tower—broader at the bottom than at the top, and it had great sails that flapped around and around when there was a good wind and there was grinding to be done.” [21]

The mill erected by Mitchell and Matthey on Point Douglas was the first of several to be erected along the banks of the Red, and to a lesser extent the Assiniboine, during the next 40 years. Lack of relief and fairly regular high winds seemed to ensure a successful future for the wind-powered flour mill at Red River. Logan’s windmill was for a few years the only one at the colony and was still in active use when Alexander Ross wrote his history of the Red River settlement in the 1850s. [22] As might be expected, the expansion of the settled area and the growth of wheat production was paralleled by increasing numbers of grist-mills at the colony. By 1830 a second windmill was in operation and three others were under construction. [23] In 1831 the first mill was under construction at the Grand Rapids (later St. Andrew’s Parish) to meet the needs of the retired fur company servants who settled in large numbers along that stretch of the Red River. [24]

According to Ross, who was himself a mill owner in the early 1830s, the windmills at Red River “were made with the materials of the country, iron only excepted, and finished by the workmen of the settlement, at an average cost, everything included, of £150 sterling.” [25] In addition to the iron work, many of the millstones were also imported. Visiting the colony in 1857, Hind was informed that, although millstones had occasionally been obtained from the Lake Winnipeg area, [26] “they could not compete commercially with these imported by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which, for a time, were sold for a little above cost, even after their long and expensive journey.” [27]

In the 1850s there were two millwrights amongst the few tradesmen at Red River. [28] One of the two was Hugh Polson of Kildonan, who had learnt his trade by helping his fellow Scotsman James Mitchell erect Logan’s mill in 1825. Polson built a windmill for himself in the 1830s and later erected “several others at different points in the settlement.” [29]

By the time of the 1838 census, the first to record the colony’s millers, there were fourteen windmills at Red River. The number of windmills increased only slowly over the next twenty years and no more than eighteen were counted in any census year They were numerous enough, however, to stand out as prominent features in the flat Red River Valley. In the words of an 1848 visitor from the United States: “The grain is ground by windmills, which form picturesque and conspicuous objects in the landscape of the plains surrounding the settlement.” [30] For Hind, the windmills were the only visible evidence of any manufacturing activity at Red River. [31]

North of the Forks along the west bank of the Red River, in what was generally called the Lower Settlement, wind-mills occurred at fairly regular intervals along the river front (Figure 1). [32] The Lower Settlement included the predominantly English-speaking Protestant parishes of St. John, St. Paul and St. Andrew. In 1856 thirteen of the colony’s eighteen windmills were located in these three parishes. The reasons for the concentration of mills in that quarter of the colony are fairly obvious. It was the longest settled and most densely peopled part of the colony and also the part where agriculture was most important and most advanced in the years prior to 1870. [33] The relative dominance of agriculture along the lower Red was not the result of any environmental advantages but of the cultural prejudice of the Scottish Highlanders, who formed a significant portion of the parochial population only in St. John’s and St. Paul’s. It was the Scots at Red River, and to a lesser degree the Orkneymen and English-speaking half-breeds. who were most completely dependent upon agriculture as the main source of their livelihood. The distribution of mills at Red River mirrored this fact.

Figure 1

Even at the centre of the colony windmills were far fewer on the east bank of the Red River. Until the 1850s only one mill sufficed to grind the wheat grown by the Canadian and Métis farmers of St. Boniface. This was the windmill built south of the St. Boniface mission church, sometime between 1840 and 1843, by the Canadian Narcisse Marion.

Outside the agricultural core of the colony the commitment of settlers to farming was weak or nonexistent and mills were consequently fewer. This was particularly the case in the peripheral parishes of St. Francois-Xavier and St. Norbert where the population comprised a mixture of Métis and Canadians, and that of St. Peter which was wholly Indian. Almost all the residents of these parishes lacked any significant agricultural background, and although a few adopted the life of the farmer with some enthusiasm and energy once they settled at Red River, this was not general. Grain production was, therefore, small and the needs of the population could be met by a small number of mills.

For many years one windmill, erected sometime during the early 1830s by the settlement’s founder, Cuthbert Grant, ground flour for the Métis settlement of Grantown (St. Francois-Xavier). Grants mill remained the most westerly one in the Red River country until the early 1850s. At that time English-speaking half-breeds from St. Andrew’s and St. Paul’s began to migrate westwards along the Assiniboine and settle at Portage la Prairie, where a windmill was erected by John Hudson soon after the commencement of farm settlement. [34] Hudson’s mill continued to grind until 1873, when it was pulled down and its timber used in the construction of a blacksmith’s shop. [35]

The most northerly windmill in the colony, that in the Church Missionary Society’s station at St. Peters, differed from the others at Red River in that it was built as a result of encouragement by missionaries. The Church of England missionary, the Reverend William Cockran, encouraged the building of a mill at the mission he had established in the early 1830s amongst the Saulteaux and Swampy Cree living in the vicinity of Netley Creek and the Red River delta. Cockran actively urged the Indians to settle down and become agriculturalists as a step in their conversion to “civilization” and Christianity. He saw mill building as a part of this process. In his journal for 11 February 1835 Cockran wrote that

the Indians began to complain of the inconvenience they were subjected to. from not having a gristmill. The poor fellows are obliged to live principally upon parched corn, when they are unsuccessful in taking fish. This is not agreeable when the settlers above, are enjoying their wheaten bread. I reminded them of their former state, and likewise the present state of the Catholic population, that had not one mill amongst them, but at the same time assured them if I saw them enlarge their farms and raise as much grain as was worth incurring the expence [sic] of building a mill. I would certainly set about as soon as possible. A mill to us here would be of great service. [36]

Six months later Cockran reported his intention to go ahead with the erection of a mill at the Indian Settlement so that he “might be able to give the children a larger quantity of flour, and likewise to grind the grain of the parents upon the spot, to see if they will not be more attached to the habits of civilized life.” [37] The mill was completed later that year or early in 1836, several months before the mission church was finished. Cockran referred to it as “the most conspicuous mark of civilization that we have planted in this rude waste.” [38]

The windmill built at the Indian Settlement in 1835 is the only one at Red River whose precise dimensions are known. The pillar of the mill was twenty-one and a half feet in diameter at its base, while its height from the foundations to the top of the dome was thirty-seven feet. The mill stones were three feet six and a half inches in diameter and the sails, each of which contained seventy-six yards of canvas, were seventeen feet six inches long and six feet wide. [39]

The Indian Settlement mill gradually fell into disrepair and in 1845 had been out of operation for three years. It was rebuilt in that year under the supervision of the Reverend John Smithurst, at a cost of one hundred pounds. Once the mill was back in working order the Indians “made considerable efforts towards enlarging their farms.” [40] In 1852 the mill at St. Peter’s was sold on twelve months’ credit to an Indian settler. Thomas Cameron. In the same year a second mill was built at the Indian Settlement. Cockran informed his superiors that this second mill “may be said to be entirely Indian property—It does a great deal of good. & we get a regular supply of flour, & the two mills give a certain portion of employment to needy individuals and sell flour to others who have anything to represent it. This gives an additional spur to industry and will no doubt induce the Indians to enlarge their farms & look more to the soil for the supply of their wants.” [41]

Throughout its long history as a source of mechanical power the major shortcoming of the windmill has been its failure to provide power during periods of calm weather. One settler at Red River remembered that “The north and northwest winds were the best for the mills. The south and east winds were not so strong and steady.” [42] There were also occasions when “there would be a breeze strong enough to give them power to grind, but not to bolt.” At such times the settlers had to do the bolting themselves. for which was used “a sieve of brass wire which we would hang from a beam and spread a white cloth under it on a table, then by pouring in the ground but unbolted grist we had brought from the mill and shaking the sieve we would get flour.” [43] Prolonged calms sometimes caused or accentuated flour shortages at Red River. The windmills did “fair work,” according to Macbeth, “but when a long calm prevailed there was always danger of a flour famine, unless by borrowing from one another the supply could be eked out until the wind arose.” [44] The Reverend John Black wrote from Kildonan in February 1856 that “The people have almost been out of flour the whole winter on account of the very calm weather.” [45] Against such contingencies as this. many households continued to keep a handmill even after windmills were erected at the colony. [46] Such calms occasionally posed problems for the Hudson’s Bay Company in making up its requisitions of flour from the colony. In 1828, when Logan’s windmill was still the only flour mill at Red River, Donald Mckenzie informed Simpson that ‘With the settlers the harvest has been pretty liberal; in consequence your requisition of flour bids fair to be put up unless the calms present a hinderance [sic] as last year at the mill.” [47]

The Red River settlers harnessed not only wind power but also the energy of flowing streams. With flows regulated by dams, the numerous small creeks that drained into the Red and the Assiniboine provided a source of energy for mills that processed wheat. By 1870 many of the creeks that crossed the colony to one of the major rivers had been dammed, some of them at several places (Figure 2).

Figure 2

The person who first undertook the construction of a water mill at Red River was the metis leader Cuthbert Grant of Grantown. [48] The stream he chose was Sturgeon Creek, which flows south into the Assiniboine a few miles upstream from the Forks. As early as 1817 Miles Macdonell identified this stream as suitable for a mill site. Construction of the mill, dam and stones was completed in September 1829. But Grant’s enterprising venture was not a success; there were repeated problems with the dam and after three frustrating years Grant abandoned the mill and went on to build a windmill at the White Horse Plain. [50]

Grant’s lack of success did not deter others and a second water mill, owned by James Monkman, was in operation by 1830. [51] However, water mill construction did not proceed as rapidly as windmill construction during the 1830s. In the various Red River censuses prior to 1849 no more than one water mill was counted in any census year. Within the next few years the rate of water mill construction increased, however, so that by 1856 nine water mills were in operation. Water mills were tied to streams and consequently were more scattered throughout the colony than windmills, which as indicated earlier, were concentrated on the west bank of the Red River below the Forks.

Lack of sufficient milling capacity, which brought complaints from the settlers, provided the main impetus for the spurt in water mill construction during the late 1840s and during the 1850s. The Irish settler Andrew McDermot commented in 1848 that “All the mills in the Settlement cannot furnish half the wants of the people.” [52] The expansion of the colony’s milling capacity was also encouraged by the Hudson Bay Company. [53]

There were several disadvantages to water mills. The mill dams were frequently washed out and the lack of substantial relief and fast-flowing streams made it difficult to develop a good and steady head of water on the small creeks in the Red River region. According to Macbeth, “except during freshets that were strong enough to drive the wheel, the mill-ponds fell into the somewhat ignominious use of vessels in which to wash the sheep before shearing.” [54] Moreover, since water mills could not be operated at all in winter, they were only used on a seasonal basis. Adding to this unreliability was the occasional Red River summer drought which stopped the water mills. The two hot, dry summers of 1863 and 1864, for example, caused the back-country swamps and many of the prairie creeks to dry up completely. Samuel Taylor, a resident of the lower part of St. Andrew’s parish, noted in his journal for September 1863 that “the water mills are all dry and will not be able to grind this fall,” and again in May 1864 that ‘this spring the water mills cannot grind for want of water.” [55] The failure of the mills to grind brought flour production to a standstill and further intensified food shortages, which had to be relieved by imports of flour from Minnesota in 1864. [56]

Four of the most notable operators of water mills at Red River were Andrew McDermot. John Tait, John Gunn and Louis Riel Pere. For many years McDermot was the colony’s principal miller. He entered the milling business by building, probably during the early 1840s a windmill about a mile north of Upper Fort Garry. Between 1848 and 1851, urged on by the Hudson’s Bay Company, he expanded his milling activities by constructing a water mill on Sturgeon Creek, succeeding where Cuthbert Grant had failed twenty years earlier. [57] Like Grant. however, McDermot had repeated problems with the dam, which burst on several occasions. [58] The flour it turned out was reported to be “of a superior quality” and the colonists thought the mill “the best thing ever don [sic] for the Settlement.” [59] McDermot’s success at Sturgeon Creek encouraged him to begin the construction in 1854 of a second water mill, this one at Rowling’s (Rowland’s) Creek in St. Paul’s parish. [60]

A prominent man-made feature in the Lower Settlement was the large millpond confined behind the dam constructed by the Orkneyman, John Tait, [61] on Water-Mill or Park’s Creek near the southern boundary of St. Andrew’s parish. This creek drained the Big Swamp, a large area of marsh behind the parishes of St. Paul and St. Andrew that was swollen by the 1852 flood. Miles Macdonell identified this creek as a potential source of water power in 1817 but it does not appear to have been dammed until the late 1840s or early 1850s. Tait’s mill was a two-run mill, which means that there were four millstones. [62]

Below St. Andrew’s Church on the east side of the Red, John Gunn built a water mill in 1854-1855 on the lower reaches of Gunn’s Creek. [63] The Gunns were a well known milling family in St. Andrew’s. John’s father was the retired fur trader Donald Gunn, a historian and naturalist who had also run a windmill in the lower part of the parish since at least 1849. John Gunn’s son remembered that his father’s mill was made out of local timber and stone except for “a few metal gear wheels brought by Mississippi steamer and Red River cart from St. Louis, Missouri and some brass bolting cloth from England.” [64] The dam was built with locally quarried limestone and the four millstones, five feet in diameter and eight inches thick, were chiseled out of granite outcrops opposite Grindstone Point on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. George Gunn recalled further that farmers came to the mill “in squeaking Red River carts, in skiffs, in dugouts and York boats, from all over the settlement. They were there from hand-to-mouth yokel of the neighbourhood with a single bag on his back, to the York boat brigades of the Hudson’s Bay company with hundreds of bushels.” [65]

The most famous name associated with the early milling industry at Red River was that of Riel. [66] The involvement of Louis Riel Pere in a number of different milling ventures earned him the title of “the miller of the Seine,” Riel had learned the trade of wool carding in Quebec prior to his arrival in Western Canada in the early 1840s. He maintained his interest in textiles after he settled at Red River and about 1847 erected a fulling mill on his lot in St. Boniface. Lack of success with the fulling mill did not prevent Riel from building a water mill, designed to grind wheat and card wool, on the Seine River, an east bank tributary of the Red, sometime after 1853. Local tradition is that Riel also dug a ditch some ten or twelve miles long from the Riviere a la Graisse to the Seine in order to provide his mill with a more reliable supply of water.

There is no record of windmill construction during the 1860s but during that decade a number of water mills were erected in both the long established and newly settled parts of the colony. In the summer of 1861 Charles Fox erected a water-powered mill in St. Peter’s parish (Indian Settlement). The Nor’Wester commented that “It is to be placed on a stream or rivulet which runs all winter—a very important advantage and will have a circular saw attached for planks, boards, shingles etc.” [67] At about the same time James Cunningham completed a water mill, able to turn out 100 bushels per day and produce the best flour, in the Protestant parish of Headingley (established 1856), a section of the lower Assiniboine where there was still too little grinding power. [68] After the failure of a steam mill enterprise in which he was involved, John Inkster diverted his attention to the building of a water mill, with a dam “perhaps the most substantive in the country.” It was located in Catfish Creek in the Seven Oaks area of St. John’s and commenced to grind in the summer of 1862. [69] Two years later John Clouston, a stone mason and already the owner of a windmill at the Indian Settlement, built a water mill a short distance below Lower Fort Garry. [70]

In his discussion of the Red River Settlement, John Palliser included a section on the “Trade and Occupation of Inhabitants,” According to Palliser, “There can be said to be no distinct trades practised at Red River, every man being his own carpenter, smith, mason, etc., and the women taking the clothing department.” [71] Henry Youle Hind was similarly informed by Mr. W. R. Smith, the clerk of the Council of Assiniboia and the Superintendent of the Red River census, that “no kind of industry or a distinct trade or occupation existed in the settlements. Almost every man was his own wheelwright, carpenter or mason; carpenters, blacksmiths, masons, etc. could be found, but they were also engaged in other occupations, either as small farmers or hunters. Mr. Smith did not think that one man could be found in Assiniboia who pursued any particular trade, or limited his industry to one special branch. [72] Both Palliser and Hind probably suggest a greater degree of self-sufficiency among Red River households than was the case, for to the extent that colonists with a particular craft skill supplemented their incomes by doing odd jobs for their neighbours, there was some specialized activity at the settlement.

In general, the millers were settlers of energy and some entrepreneurial ability who were trying to escape the stifling economic restraints imposed upon the colony by the all-pervasive fur trade and the Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly. [73] The milling business was one avenue of economic advancement. Included amongst the settlement’s millers were some of the most eminent citizens at Red River, men who were involved in a variety of vocations other than agriculture. The Orkneyman John Inkster, for example, was a store owner, merchant, free trader and member of the Council of Assiniboia, as well as a miller. Andrew McDermot, the colony’s most prominent miller, was also a leading free trader, a shopkeeper, a freighter and a dealer in cattle. Narcisse Marion of St. Boniface owned “a shop of merchandise” and a blacksmith’s shop as well as a windmill. Robert Sandison and Thomas Sinclair combined carpentry with milling. John Tait was a carpenter and boatbuilder as well as the owner of a water mill. In addition to Inkster, McDermot and Marion, several other millers owned both a mill and a store. [74] These included Donald Gunn, Thomas Logan, Edward Mowat and John Vincent. Several of the colony’s millers also earned part of their livelihood by private freighting. The boats of John Inkster, Andrew McDermot, Edward Mowat and Thomas Sinclair voyaged twice during the summer months to and from York Factory, carrying goods ordered from England by both the Company and the settlers.

It is also worth noting that the majority of the Red River mills were owned and operated by Protestant settlers as might be expected from their interest in agriculture. These included Scots, Orcadians, Englishmen and English-speaking half-breeds and after 1852-53, an Indian. Of the more than twenty millers identified in the Red River censuses before 1856 only four—Andrew McDermot, Michel Klyne, Narcisse Marion and Cuthbert Grant—were of the Catholic faith.

No account of the early flour milling industry at Red River would be complete without a discussion of the role of the Hudson’s Bay Company in that industry. The Company was by far the largest customer of the Red River gristmills and following 1865 was itself directly in the milling industry. The Company started to buy Red River wheat in 1825, the first year in which there was a surplus. In February 1826 Company carts carried its wheat purchases to Logan’s newly erected windmill for the first time, “to be ground for exportation in the spring, to Norway House and York Factory, for the ensuing summer’s consumption.” [75] After the mid-1820s wheat was the most important item in the Company’s purchases of colonial farm produce. It was also the only item that had to be processed before it could be shipped out of the colony to provision the fur trade.

There thus began in the 1820s the system, which was to continue until 1870, whereby flour produced by Red River millers was annually boated north to the stores at Norway House. Norway House, in turn, supplied the boat brigades of the various districts that composed the Northern Department as they passed on their journey to and from York Factory during the weeks of open water on the Nelson River system. In this way Red River flour and other colonial farm products were distributed to fur posts scattered throughout the vast distances of the Northern Department.

With the increase of gristmills after 1830, the Company patronized a variety of private millers in the colony. Indeed, the prospect of the Company’s business may have been the prime factor in convincing a few settlers that flour milling would provide them with valuable additional income.

After 1850 the Company appears to have reduced the number of mills at which its wheat was ground. McDermot constructed his water-powered gristmill on Sturgeon Creek on the understanding that he would have the right to grind the Company’s wheat for the next ten years. [76] From entries in the Fort Garry post journal, it is evident that a large part of the Company’s wheat purchases during the 1850s was in fact ground at McDermot’s mill on Sturgeon Creek. [77] The flour was boated down the Assiniboine or sent by cart to the flour stores at Upper Fort Garry. McDermot did not, however, have a monopoly of this side of the Company’s business. In 1854, the Company loaned Louis Riel Pere one hundred pounds “in the security of his water mill across the Riviere la Seine” and in the late 1850s Riel was grinding Company wheat at his water mill on the Seine to the east of the Red. [78] After 1857 the Company also made use of the St. John’s steam mill, [79] and in the autumn of 1858 was sending wheat to “Larjemonier’s” mill. [80]

Windmills and water mills were the only sources of mechanical power at the colony until 1856, when the Red River Valley’s first steam mill was erected. Amidst an atmosphere of what one colonist described as a “mania” for steam, [81] during the winter of 1855-1856 a number of prominent Red River citizens organized the formation of a joint stock company, “The Red River Steam Mill Co.,” that would raise sufficient funds for the purchase of a steam gristmill and saw mill. [82] The desire for a new source of power appears to have been instilled by the shortages of flour resulting from the calm weather that halted the windmills for long periods that winter. The machinery and boiler for the mill were purchased in St. Paul, Minnesota, and transported north to the colony along the Red River in a scow, a type of flat-bottomed boat. [83] The mill, driven by a twenty horse power engine fueled by wood and designed to saw timber as well as produce flour, was assembled in St. John’s parish. It had a two run of stones and began to grind in December 1856. The cost of the machinery and its assembly was £1,600, raised in £50 shares. The major shareholder and president of the steam mill company was John Inkster, an Orkneyman, of St. John’s. [84]

The steam mill posed mechanical problems and never turned a profit for the proprietors, but nevertheless it gave valuable service to the colony for several years, particularly during the winter season. The new mill was reported to produce “an excellent article.” [85] This venture unfortunately ended in 1860, when the mill was totally destroyed by fire. [86]

At the time of this disaster the ever-enterprising Andrew McDermot was starting to assemble the colony’s second steam mill. [87] The mill machinery was purchased by McDermot from the United States government at Fort Abercrombie, Minnesota, in the summer of 1859. The mill was located a few yards back from the Red a mile or so north of Upper Fort Garry, close by McDermot’s home of Emerald Grove (Figure 3). It was in operation by November of 1860. [88] The charge for users was eight pence per bushel or one eighth of the grain ground, which rose to one shilling per bushel or the fifth bushel by October 1863. [89] The settlers were heavily dependent on McDermot’s steam mill during the dry summers of 1863 and 1864 when the water mills failed to grind and the windmills were unable to meet the extra demand. [90] This mill suffered the same fate as its predecessor, however, and it was destroyed by fire in December 1872. [91]

Figure 3. Robert Logan House and Mill, Fort Douglas, 1860.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Later in the 1860s steam mills were constructed in other parts of the colony. In 1863 the first steam mill in St. Andrew’s was built at the Rapids on the corner of the parish church lot and was expected to begin grinding early the following year. [92] This appears to be the same mill built by E. H. G. G. Hay, a Yorkshireman who settled at Red River in the early 1860s after a number of years in the United States. In the mid-1860s the Nor’Wester carried advertisements for Hay’s “American Steam Mill” and “new store” at the rapids of St. Andrew’s, grinding at the eighth bushel in wheat. [93] By 1867 Hay’s mill contained a smutting machine and was able to “produce a good article of wholesome flour.” Hay’s mill served the residents of St. Andrew’s until 1877, when it too was destroyed by fire. In 1868 J. B. Holmes of St. Boniface built a steam grist and saw mill at High Bluff to the east of Portage la Prairie, an area of rapid settlement in the 1860s. [94] Other steam flour mills were erected at Portage la Prairie itself during the early 1870’s, the first by William M. Smith, a former resident of Winnipeg who had been that town’s “pioneer flat-boatman.” [95] Lower down the Assiniboine in the Silver Heights district of St. James, a steam mill was built at Sturgeon Creek by Robert Tait in 1869. [96] Tait’s mill was said to produce a “beautiful fine flour” Based on information from 1872, the St. Norbert parish survey map of 1875 locates Joseph Lemay’s steam mill, the first in a predominantly French speaking parish, on the west side of the Red a short distance north of the parish church. [97] The year of its erection is not known.

During the 1860s the Hudson’s Bay Company also involved itself in the steam flour milling business at Red River. This involvement stemmed largely from the Company’s growing dissatisfaction with its heavy reliance on the inconstant wind and water mills of the colony’s private millers. Furthermore, getting the wheat purchased from the settlers to the mills for grinding involved “the Company in a great deal of expensive and time-consuming transportation.” [98] The out-come was that in 1865 the Hudson’s Bay Company decided to enter the milling business for itself. In that year a steam mill, doubling for grinding grain and sawing wood, was installed at Lower Fort Garry. Fitted with grindstones brought in by cart from the United States, it was in operation by November 1865. [99] Entries in the post journal reveal that the new steam mill ground the grain of the local settlers in addition to that harvested from the large farm the Company had maintained since the late 1850s at the Lower Fort. The mill used fuel at a prodigious rate and Company servants were kept busy cutting and hauling wood when it was on steam. It continued to grind until 1879, “when in the face of competition from smaller private mills in the area it was finally abandoned.” [100]

The royalty that Red River farmers paid to the miller, what was known as the “moulter measure,” varied according to the type of mill. The toll on wheat milling in 1869-70 ranged from one sixth of the wheat at the steam-driven to one-ninth at the water-driven mills, with the windmills probably exacting something between those extremes. [101] It was George Gunn’s recollection, however, that certain clients of his father’s water mill, such as the Hudson’s Bay Company and the wealthier local residents, paid in cash. [102]

In the early years of the new Province of Manitoba, which was created in 1870 and embodied the Red River Settlement, flour was turned out by a combination of wind, water and steam mills. During Manitoba’s first decade, steam flouring mills were erected in Winnipeg in the parishes along the Red and the Assiniboine, as well as in the new farming communities that sprang up beyond the old riverfront settlements after 1870. At the same time there was a reduced need for the inefficient and unreliable wind and water mills with their one or two run of stones. These primitive gristmills, therefore, eventually fell into disuse. A few windmills were still working in the Winnipeg area, including one at Colony Creek owned by James Spence, at the time of J. C. Hamilton’s visit in the mid-1870s. His comment was that “most of them have been-dismantled and their machinery taken farther west, steam mills here taking their places.” [103] The proliferation of steam mills did not, however, immediately eliminate the use of windmills in the settlements along the Red and the Assiniboine. In St. Paul’s parish, for example, the windmills continued to operate even after Hugh Pritchard built a “fine” steam mill close by the parish church in the 1870s. The older settlers in particular preferred the parish windmills, believing that they turned out a “stronger and better flour.” [104]

Most commentators on Manitoba in the 1870s agreed that its economic future would reside in wheat farming. Throughout that decade increased grain production was matched by the spread of steam mills, thereby establishing flour milling as Manitoba’s leading industry. It is, however, worth noting that the increased production of food and expanded grinding capacity were not sufficient to meet the needs of the new province’s rapidly growing population. During most of the 1870s Manitoba was heavily dependent on food imports, with the U.S.A. the major supplier. Imports from America included oats and livestock, as well as large quantities of flour, all items that Manitoba could produce itself but not yet in sufficient quantities.


1. Selkirk papers, Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg (hereafter S.P.). Vol. 2, p. 663. Lord Selkirk to Miles Macdonell. 12 June 1813.

2. SP., Vol. 3 p. 787. Miles Macdonell to Lord Selkirk. 17 July 1813.

3. SP., Vol. 63, p. 17, 115, Miles Macdonell to Lord Selkirk. 24 July 1815.

4. SP., Vol. 23, p. 7416, Alex Macdonell to Andrew Colvile. 13 September 1821: SP., Vol. 24. p. 7620. George Simpson to Andrew Colvile, 20 May 1822.

5. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg (hereafter H.B.C.), B235/a/5, fos. 20 and 21, Fort Garry post journal. 14 and 18 November 1822.

6. H.B.C., B235/a/5, fo. 10. Fort Garry post journal, 7 October 1822.

7. On the Use of querns in the Scottish Highlands, see Malcolm Gray, The Highland Economy 1750-1850 (Edinburgh. 1959), p. 47.

8. S.R. Vol. 2. p. 663. Lord Selkirk to Miles Macdonell, 12 June 1813: Donald Gunn and C. R. Tuttle. History of Manitoba (Ottawa. 1880). p. 252.

9. S.P., Vol. 26, p. 8232, George Simpson to Andrew Colvile, 31 May 1824.

10. H.B.C., B4/a/5, fo. 14, Fort Alexander post journal. 16 October 1822.

11. R. G. Macbeth, The Selkirk Settlers in Real Life (Toronto, 1897). p. 38.

12. H.B.C., E5/2, fo. 6, Red River Census, 1828. The census lists against the names of W. H. Cook and James Bird, one stone handmill, one bolting machine and one steel mill. Both men were retired officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Where wheat was grown at Company posts in small quantities steel mills were usually employed to grind the grain.

13. S.P., Vol. 24. pp. 7620-7621. George Simpson to Andrew Colvile, 8 September 1821.

14. S.P., Vol. 26, p. 8232, George Simpson to Andrew Colvile. 31 May 1824.

15. S.P., Vol. 27, p. 8402. Donald McKenzie to Andrew Colvile, 5 February 1826.

16. H.B.C., B235/a/7, fo. 10. Fort Garry post journal, 1 October 1825.

17. SP., Vol. 27. p. 8439. George Simpson to Andrew Colvile, 14 June 1826.

18. Robert Logan Papers, Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Deed of Sale, signed by R. P. Pelly and Robert Logan: Purchase of Wind Gristmill by Robert Logan from Executors of the Estate of Lord Selkirk. Agreement made 11 June 1825, signed 9 July 1825.

19. Rev. J. N. Provencher to Bishop Plessis, 2 and 3 February 1826, in Grace Lee Nutel (ed.), Documents Relating to Northwest Missions 1815-1827 (St Paul, Minn., 1942). p. 440.

20. Alexander Ross, The Red River Settlement (Minneapolis Minn., 1957: first published 1856). p. 145.

21. W. Healy, Women of Red River (Winnipeg, 1923), p. 142. Logan’s eldest son, Thomas, also entered the flour milling business. Thomas Logan is listed as the owner of a windmill in the censuses of 1840, 1843 and 1849. He appears to have taken over the operation of his father’s mill in the late 1830s.

22. Ross, op. cit., p. 145.

23. Alexander Ross to James Hargrave, Red River Settlement, 18 December 1830. in G. P. de T. Glazebrook (ed.) The Hargrave Correspondence 1821-1843 (Toronto, 1938), p. 61.

24. Church Missionary Society Records, microfilm copies, Provincial Archives of Manitoba (hereafter C.M.S.). A77, p. 460. Journal of the Reverend William Cockran, 14 October 1831.

25. Ross, op. cit., p. 145.

26. The place names Big Grindstone Point and Little Grindstone Point, which are attached to two promontories of land south of Washow Bay on the west side of Lake Winnipeg, may indicate the general area in which the colonists sought millstones.

27. Henry Youle Hind, Narrative of the Canadian Red River Exploring Expedition of 1857 and of the Assiniboine and Saskatchewan Exploring Expedition of 1858 (Edmonton, 1971: first published 1860). Vol. I. p. 186.

28. Ross, op. cit., p. 394.

29. Macbeth, op. cit., pp. 38-39.

30. David Dale Owen, Report of a Geological Survey of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota (Philadelphia. 1852), p. 182.

31. Hind, op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 182.

32. John Palliser, Further Papers Relative to the Exploration by the Expedition under Captain Palliser (London, 1860). p. 54.

33. John Clarke, Population and Economic Activity—A Geographical and Historical Analysis, based upon Selected Censuses of the Red River Valley in the period 1832 to 1856 (Unpublished M.A Thesis, University of Manitoba, 1966).

34. Robert B. Hill, Manitoba: History of its Early Settlement, Development and Resources (Toronto. 1890) p. 133.

35. Ibid., p. 134.

36. C.M.S., A78. p. 99, Reverend William Cockran’s Journal, 11 February 1835.

37. C.M.S., A78. p. 80, Reverend William Cockran to the Secretaries, 5 August 1835.

38. Quoted in George Jehoshaphat Mountain, The Journal of the Bishop of Montreal during a Visit to the Church Missionary Society’s North-West America Mission (London. 1845), p. 217.

39. C.M.S., A78, p. 130, Reverend William Cockran to the Secretaries, 28 October 1835.

40. C.M.S., A96, Reverend John Smithurst to the Secretaries, 29 December 1845 and Annual Report of the Indian Settlement, 1 August 1846.

41. C.M.S., A84. Reverend William Cockran to the Secretaries, 26 July 1852.

42. Healy, op. cit., p. 153.

43. Ibid.

44. Macbeth, op. cit, p 39.

45. Alexander Ross Family Papers, Provincial Archives of Manitoba, 163, John Black to James Ross, Kildonan Manse, 9 February 1856.

46. Healy, op. cit., p. 152.

47. H.B.C., D4/122, fo 15. Donald McKenzie to George Simpson, 15 December 1828.

48. Ross op. cit., pp. 145-146. Margaret Macleod and W. L. Morton, Cuthbert Grant of Grantown (Toronto 1963), pp. 104-105.

49. S.P., Vol. 65, p. 17, 277, Miles Macdonell’s journal, 1 June 1817.

50. As part of Winnipeg’s centennial celebrations, a supposed replica of Grant’s mill on Sturgeon Creek was constructed in 1974.

51. Alexander Ross to James Hargrave, Red River Settlement, 18 December 1830, in Glazebrook (ed.) op. cit. p. 61 The location of Monkman’s mill is not known.

52. George Marcus Cary Papers. Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Andrew McDermot to George Marcus Cary, 24 July 1848.

53. H.B.C., D5/27. fo. 177, John Ballenden to George Simpson, Fort Garry, 30 January 1850.

54. Macbeth, op. cit. p. 39.

55. Samuel Taylor’s Journal, Provincial Archives of Manitoba, September 1863 and May 1864.

56. Nor'Wester 14 October 1863 and 3 August 1864.

57. Cary Papers, Andrew McDermot to G. M. Cary. Red River, 24 July 1848.

58. William Douglas Lane Papers. Provincial Archives of Manitoba, William MacTavish to William Douglas Lane. 5 April 1858; Nor’Wester, 28 June 1860.

59. H.B.C., D4/31, fo. 237, Andrew McDermot to George Simpson, Red River 7 August 1851.

60. Ross Papers, 100. Alexander Ross to James Ross, 25 August 1854. I have found no evidence to show that this mill was ever finished.

61. This is presumably the same John Tait who is listed as the owner of a windmill in censuses of 1838, 1840, 1843 and 1846.

62. Hind, op. cit, Vol. 1, Plan of Selkirk Settlement, facing p. 172.

63. Ross Papers, 112, William Ross to James Ross, Red River Settlement, 14 November 1854 and 119, John Gunn Jr to lames Ross, Little Britain, 7 February 1855.

64. George Henry Gunn, “Down by the Old Mill Stream in Manitoba Sixty Years Ago” Manitoba Free Press 30 December 1930. George Gunn’s account of his father’s mill provides the only detailed description I have found of a Red River water mill.

65. Ibid.

66 George E. G. Stanley Louis Riel (Toronto, 1963), pp. 16-17.

67. Nor’Wester 1 August 1861. There is no evidence to indicate that any of the water mills were able to operate in winter.

68. Nor’Wester 31 August 1861.

69. Nor’Wester, 30 April and 9 July 1862.

70. Samuel Taylor’s journal, October and November 1862, July 1864.

71. Palliser, op. cit., p. 55.

72. Hind, op. cit. Vol. 1, p 186.

73. The information in this and the following paragraph is drawn largely from the Red River censuses.

74. Fifty-six “merchant-shops” were enumerated in the 1856 census. The petty traders imported their goods from St Paul, Minnesota or from England on board the Hudson’s Bay Company’s vessels. See Hind, op. cit. Vol. 1, p. 188.

75. H.B.C., B235/a/7, fo 21, Fort Garry post journal, 13 February 1826.

76. H.B.C., D5/27. fo. 177, John Ballenden to George Simpson, 30 January 1850.

77. H.B.C., B235/a/ 15, fos. 4, 8, 9, Fort Garry post journal, 14 February, 6 and 7 July 1852.

78. H.B.C., B235/a/ Fort Garry post journal, 27 April 1854; B235/a/16, fos. 3, 7. 8, Fort Garry post journal, 18 May 22 and 24 June 1858.

79. H.B.C., B235/a/ 15. fo. 9. Fort Garry post journal, 12 July 1858.

80. H.B.C., B235/a/I7, fos. 17, 18, Fort Garry post journal, 19, 25 and 26 October 1858. The Larjemonier mill may in fact have been the Riel water mill. The family name of Louis Riel’s wife, Julie, was Lagimodiere and Riel appears to have sold the mill to his brother-in-law.

81. Ross papers, 167. Alexander Ross to James Ross, 10 March 1856.

82. H.B.C., D5/42, p. 441, John Swanston to Governor Chief Factors and Chief Traders, Northern Department, 9 December 1856: Nor’Wester 14 March 1860; C.M.S., A91, The Journal of the Reverend James Hunter, 30 June 1860; E. H. Oliver (ed.), The Canadian Northwest: Its Early Development and Legislative Records (Ottawa, 1941). Vol. 1. p. 453.

83. Palliser, op. cit, p. 51. Manton Marble. “To Red River and Beyond,” (3rd paper), Harpers New Monthly Magazine, February 1861, pp. 312-313.

84. Colin Inkster, “The First Steam Gristmill” Winnipeg Tribune 9 May 1928. Milling was an Inkster family tradition. The family had operated a windmill in St. John’s parish since the early 1830s.

85. H.B.C., D5/43. fo. 20. John Swanston to George Simpson 5 January 1857.

86. Nor’Wester 14 July 1860; C.M.S., A91, The Journal of the Reverend James Hunter, 30 June 1860.

87. Nor’Wester 28 May, 28 August and 28 September 1860.

88. Nor’Wester 15 November 1860.

89. Nor’Wester 14 October 1863.

90. Nor’Wester 14 October 1863 and 18 February 1864.

91. Alexander Begg and W. R. Nursey Ten Years In Winnipeg (Winnipeg, 1879), pp. 38, 75.

92. Nor’Wester 17 December 1863.

93. Nor’Wester 8 November 1865; 1 December 1866; 2 March 1867; 29 February 1868.

94. Nor’Wester 31 July 1868; Globe, 21 September, 1869.

95. Hill, op. cit. pp. 355, 372; Begg and Nursey op. cit. pp. 31, 55. 70-71; Manitoba Free Press 11 January 1873. Smith had pioneered the system of bringing goods to Winnipeg from the U.S.A. by water transport and hawking them around the settlement from boats on the river.

96. Globe 21 September 1869. New Nation 11 March and 13 August 1870. Tait’s mill at Silver Heights appears to have continued working until the mid-1870s, at which time the remains of the mill were sold to James Spence of Winnipeg. Spence soon afterwards erected a mill below at Mirey Creek, using “imported new machinery including two runs of stones.” See Alexander Begg, A Practical Hand-Book and Guide to Manitoba and the North-West (Toronto, 1877), p. 94. This was probably the same James Spence who, since at least 1854, had owned a windmill on the lower Assiniboine, having purchased it from the Bird family. H.B.C., B235/a/ 15, fo. 49, Fort Garry post journal. 17 March 1854 and Provincial Archives of Manitoba Reminiscences of the Reverend Benjamin McKenzie.

97. The parish survey maps are located in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba. During the 1860s Lemay had been the postmaster and collector of United States customs at Pembina. In 1870 he has elected to the first Manitoba parliament as member for St. Norbert North.

98. George Ingram, “Industrial and Agricultural Activities at Lower Fort Garry,” Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History—No. 4 (Ottawa, 1970), p. 79.

99. Samuel Taylor’s journal, July 1865.

100. Ingram. op. cit., p. 80.

101. “Report on the Select Committee of the Senate on the Subject of Rupert’s Land, Red River, and North-West Territory, together with Minutes of Evidence” (Ottawa, 1870), p 35, evidence of Charles Garrett.

102. George Henry Gunn, op. cit.

103. J. C. Hamilton, The Prairie Province: Sketches of Travel from Lake Ontario to Lake Winnipeg (Toronto, 1876), p. 38.

104. Begg, op. cit., p 36.


I wish to acknowledge the Hudson’s Bay Company for permission to consult and quote from its archives. I also want to thank Dr. Bill Carlyle of the Department of Geography at the University of Winnipeg, Mr. Alex Mackay of East Kildonan, Winnipeg, and Dr. Wayne Moodie of the Department of Geography at the University of Manitoba for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

Page revised: 22 April 2011

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