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Manitoba History: A Founding Father of Winnipeg: James Henry Ashdown 1844-1924

by Lorne A. Shropshire

Manitoba History, Number 19, Spring 1990

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Town of Winnipeg,
Aug. 26th, 1868

Dear Brother & Sister,

I arrived here in good health, after a somewhat protracted journey, the latter part of which, namely from St. Cloud here, was the longest and most arduous part, although I cannot say that I found it very unpleasant .... [I]n the morning of the nineteenth day we arrived and put up at the only hotel in this place. There we got good board, and after resting awhile, I began to look around to see what sort of a country we had landed in, and sooth to say the truth, though the country looked well enough, the prospect was not very enticing. The grasshoppers had about finished their work, and many of them had already flown away. But numbers till remained, and when they had eaten the last of the husbandman’s work off the fields, they began to eat each other, and for days and almost weeks the air was polluted and the water rendered well-nigh undrinkable by their dead bodies, passing down or up the settlement.

Soon after arriving here, I went down to the Scotch settlement ... Their church like most of the others here is connected with, and their ministers are from Canada, though the English church is supported from England. Archbishop McLean is a Canadian and a very eloquent preacher. He is the head of the church here, in the absence of Bishop McRae [sic], who is in England at present. There are several very good churches in different parts of the settlement, the finest of which is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Boniface ... [T]heir Bishop is, next to the Governor, the most powerful person here. We are ruled by a Council appointed by the Hudson’s Bay Co. and consisting of company servants and other residents here. It combines both executive and legislative in itself, and collects revenue by a four percent duty on imports, and spends it where it likes, sits with closed doors, and keeps its own secrets. There is also a judge who is paid by the company and rules accordingly. The settlement is ... reasonably free from crime, above petty theft or drunkenness, which are indulged in with impunity, ... by all who wish.

I am in hopes that something definite will be done about this country soon, ... if it is incorporated with Canada, I think there will be a great influx of immigration. As I have nothing of interest to write about, I will close for the present, hoping to hear from you soon and with my best wishes for your prosperity and happiness.

I remain,
Your Affec. Brother,
James H. Ashdown. [1]

Such were the first recorded impressions by a young James Ashdown, of the Red River settlements surrounding Upper Fort Garry in the District of Assiniboia. He, like others of his time, felt compelled to give up the comforts of the established provinces of Canada for settlement in the West.

James Henry Ashdown
Source: Archives of Manitoba

James Henry Ashdown was born in London, England in 1844, the eldest of three children. The family emigrated to Canada in the early 1850s, settling first in Etobicoke, Ontario and then moving to Weston where James helped his father hew a farm out of the Ontario bush.

At the age of eighteen he apprenticed in the trade of tinsmith. But he was not ready for a settled and sedentary life. James left the family homestead, visiting Chicago and Kansas City before arriving in the settlement of Winnipeg on June 30,1868. [2] Departing from St. Cloud, Minnesota, he spent nineteen days walking beside the Red River carts to reach Fort Garry. The party crossed the Assiniboine River on a small ferry and passed the Fort, finally stopping at George Emmerling’s place in Winnipeg. The village had a population of just over one hundred. [3]

Ashdown’s first priority on arrival was to secure employment. The remainder of the year was spent in a camp cutting wood on the banks of the Assiniboine River, and working on the St. Charles Catholic Church.

Ashdown warehouse, Bannatyne Avenue, circa 1912.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

In the summer of 1869, after accumulating some capital and negotiating a personal loan, he bought out the settlement’s tinsmith, George Moses, for the sum of 243 pounds 6 shillings. [4] Shortly after, James moved his business from the corner of Portage and Main to what is now Lombard Street and erected his first sign: “James H. Ashdown Hardware Merchant and Tinsmith.” It was a move that signalled the beginning of a life long enterprise and a venture that would complement the growth of Winnipeg in the ensuing years.

By the fall of that year the political situation in the territory surrounding Upper Fort Garry was becoming tense. Rumours of the imminent annexation of Assiniboia to Canada were rife throughout the settlements. Louis Riel, by now the undisputed leader of the Métis majority, was vocal and unswerving in opposition to any takeover that he considered a threat to the culture and livelihood of his people. He was being challenged by the settlers who made up the Canadian Party led by the indomitable and, at times, antagonistic Dr. John Schultz. Ashdown, by now a promising businessman with an investment in the settlement, favoured annexation and found himself involved in this potentially explosive situation. Whereas Schultz and associates were abrasive and threatening in espousing the cause of annexation, James Ashdown preached diplomacy and moderation.

Ashdown’s appraisal of the opposition was astute. He knew the Métis realized that the old order, under the Hudson’s Bay Company, was coming to an end and the only feasible alternative for the settlements of Red River was to join Canada. The trouble lay, he reasoned, in Ottawa’s refusal, or failure through oversight, to allay native fears that annexation to Canada would pose a threat to their culture and way of life. He was convinced that a Canadian guarantee to the contrary would do much to diffuse this potentially dangerous situation. To this end, in October, he managed to gain an audience with the Honourable Joseph Howe, Secretary of State to the provinces, who was on a visit to Fort Garry to appraise the situation. He pleaded with Howe to hold a public meeting at the Fort and explain Canada’s policy toward the people of Assiniboia. Ashdown’s request was ignored and, after holding interviews with a few select members of the community, Howe left the settlement. [5]

By November, the Métis and settlers were arming themselves. Riel, in a move to stabilize the situation, called on both the Métis and the Canadians to form a provisional government to negotiate with Ottawa on the annexation issue. He was rebuked by the Canadians. On November 3 an exasperated Riel seized Fort Garry and proclaimed the establishment of a provisional government. But rations were not plentiful in the fort and the cruel prairie winter was fast approaching. The Canadian Party, under Schultz, realized the precariousness of Riel’s position and, in a move to counter the Métis, confiscated government stores of pork located a few miles from the Fort. Ashdown immediately realized the futility, and danger, of such action and protested to Schultz. His protest was ignored. Nevertheless, he stood firm in his commitment to annexation and remained with the party. The Métis, considering the seizure a hostile act and a direct challenge to their authority, dispatched a party to confront the Canadians. Outnumbered, and realizing the hopelessness of their situation, the Canadians surrendered. They, including James Ashdown, were marched into captivity on December 10, 1869.

The men were confined to a room measuring 12 x 16 feet on the top floor of a two storey building in Fort Garry. They had to break the windows in order to get sufficient ventilation. Shortly after arriving at the Fort the prisoners were searched for concealed weapons. Three revolvers were found. [6]

The Canadians were not alarmed. They fully expected to be set free by Christmas. When Christmas eve arrived and Riel had not altered his position they decided to make the most of their predicament. One man, named Smith, asked the Métis for a fiddle, which was promptly provided, and the prisoners held a dance. Even their guards joined in. [7] On Christmas day the men received a real holiday meal, donated by ladies of the settlement, consisting of roast beef, plum pudding and cakes. [8] For most of their imprisonment, however, the men subsisted on pemmican and tea. [9]

In the first week of January, 1870, Riel sent for James Ashdown. He wanted Mr. Ashdown to do some work. After a period of deliberation, Ashdown consented but informed Riel that he would require tools from his shop and the key was in safekeeping in the village. An escort was provided and the two men left the Fort. According to one prisoner, Henry Woodington, Ashdown intended to use this brief period of freedom to get letters and Canadian newspapers. However, due to the presence of the escort he was only able to acquire a recent edition of the Toronto Weekly Telegraph. The Canadians were disappointed to discover the paper made no mention of their confinement. [10] Although the prisoners were allowed visitors they received limited physical comfort from their captors and suffered through the worst months of a prairie winter.

Ashdown retail hardware store, 476 Main Street, circa 1929.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

By early February, 1870, Riel had been persuaded to release some of his prisoners. This led to serious negotiations that eventually led to the creation of the Manitoba Act, which transformed the District of Assiniboia into the Province of Manitoba.

James Ashdown realized that provincial status promised increased immigration. The prospect of telegraph lines and railway would ensure that the former Hudson’s Bay protectorate would become a vibrant and prosperous commercial centre linking the east and the west. With these expectations in mind he devoted his attention to business. In the summer of 1870 he purchased property on Main Street and opened his first retail hardware store. By 1872 he had expanded his tinsmith business to Portage la Prairie in partnership with W. C. White and later with a Mr. McLaren. [11]

Concomitant with his status as a promising entrepreneur, Ashdown became involved in the affairs of the fledging community. In 1871 he was appointed a justice of the peace, a most formidable position in those days. He also became a member of some of the most responsible organizations in the community, such as the hospital and school boards, and he acquired a trusteeship in Grace Church, a position he held for nearly forty years. [12]

By the early 1870s Winnipeg was evolving from a small, obscure garrison town to a rapidly expanding commercial and real estate centre, but no organized urban plan existed for the settlement. The streets were little more than dirt tracks branching out in all directions; there was no water system, no effective law enforcement and no fire department. In 1871 a group of prominent and influential citizens, among them James Ashdown, began to lobby the legislature for the recognition of Winnipeg as a distinct community, and were supported by Alexander Begg’s newspaper The Trade Review. It was a contentious issue and many emotional meetings were held. Ashdown spoke at many of these meetings calling for city status for the settlement. Some would support only a call for recognition as a town or village. Numerous names were considered for the new community: Selkirk, Garry, Assiniboine and Winnipeg. But the majority, now led by Ashdown, held out for the name Winnipeg and for city status. In February 1872, the Bill came before the legislature but was given short shrift. When the Speaker of the House ruled adversely on the bill he was attacked by some supporters. This indiscretion spelled doom for the Bill and it was thrown out. However, later that year, the committee for incorporation drafted James Ashdown as chairman and, with strong public support, he took the question to government. After a year of debate and political wrangling, the Bill passed and Mr. Ashdown’s first significant contribution to Winnipeg was realized. On November 3, 1873, with the passing of the Incorporation Bill, the Red River settlement became the City of Winnipeg with a population somewhat less than two thousand souls. James Ashdown became a member of the first city council. [13]

On February 10, 1876, James Henry Ashdown married Miss Susan Lillian Crowson at Grace Church. The Reverend George Young officiated. [14] April, 1878 saw the completion of the first Ashdown residence on Sutherland Avenue in Point Douglas (subsequent residences were located on James Street, on Broadway Avenue, and finally on Wellington Crescent). The first home was a grand structure. The Manitoba Free Press, in a feature article on April 25, called it a Manitoba Mansion, and the finest structure in western Canada. It had a brick veneer facade, stone foundation with driven piles, and a furnace in the basement. Blackmore and Cadham were the builders and T. H. Parr the architect. It cost ten thousand dollars to build, [15] a tidy sum in 1878. It was also a symbol of the increasing prosperity of the Ashdown hardware business.

Hardware was not the only enterprise that interested Ashdown. During 1878 and 1879 he dabbled in agriculture by buying and exporting wheat from the Emerson area. [16] The profits of all of his business concerns were influenced by freight charges, so naturally he was interested in obtaining low rates.

In 1879, the merchants of Winnipeg in a move to counter the increasing commercial interests of eastern entrepreneurs, formed the Winnipeg Board of Trade with James Ashdown among its charter members. This was a position he would hold for over thirty years. [17] In 1887 Mr. Ashdown was elected President of the Board and was in the forefront of what became known as the disallowance dispute.

The Canadian Pacific Railway, having a monopoly on transportation from eastern Canada, dictated freight rates which greatly affected the cost of business. The Manitoba government, in cooperation with the Board of Trade, issued a charter to build a railroad south to the United States border. It was thought that competition in the transportation industry would result in lower freight rates and be of benefit to both businessmen and consumers. But the influence of eastern interests pressured Ottawa into disallowing the charter. Eventually, through the determination of the Board, the charter was allowed and the railroad built. As it turned out, however, the new railroad had no significant effect on freight rates.

By the late 1880s, the growing population in Manitoba spawned numerous other retail outlets. Taking advantage of this situation, Ashdown diversified his business by entering into wholesale distribution. In 1896, he constructed the first stage of the impressive warehouse on Bannatyne Avenue. It was a four storey building 80 x 185 feet, which was later extended to six storeys and became the first wholesale warehouse west of the Great Lakes. [18] But the wholesale division did not expand at the expense of the retail. In addition to his store on Main Street other outlets were opened in Winnipeg.

Hardware store tool section, circa 1929.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

On his sojourns to the territories of Alberta and Saskatchewan, James Ashdown noticed the proliferation of settlers in the growing communities. He realized building and hardware materials would be in demand so, in 1889, he expanded his business to Calgary. He bought a retail store and constructed a three storey warehouse. This was followed by wholesale centres in Edmonton, Regina and Saskatoon. [19] As Manitoba and the West prospered so did Ashdown.

On March 6, 1900 the Ashdown Special, a forty car freight train laden with miscellaneous hardware supplies and pulled by three locomotives, left the Canadian Pacific Railway station for points west. It was decorated with flags and emblazoned with the Ashdown name, an effective advertisement for the hardware company. The train, operating on a special CPR schedule, was to deliver hardware supplies to various distribution points throughout the prairies. It travelled only in daylight hours to ensure maximum exposure. According to Mr. A. Dykes, the Ashdown representative in charge of the shipment, the train only carried current goods such as Puritan razors and Dyer’s pumps, goods that were presently on order. The shipment did not contain any back orders. [20] This was a tour de force that not only confirmed the Company as a leading wholesale distributor but also proclaimed that Winnipeg was the leading supplier and distributor of goods for all of Western Canada.

On October 20, 1901 Ashdown incorporated his business and it became officially known as the James H. Ashdown Hardware Company Limited. Capital assets at incorporation were declared at one million dollars and later increased to two million. Eventually the Company’s assets were listed at eight million dollars. [21] This was followed by the registration of his trade mark, the “Diamond A,” on February 24, 1904. [22] It soon became recognized as the symbol representing the highest quality merchandise at the most competitive price throughout the west.

A long standing member of city council, Ashdown maintained an avid interest in the growth of Winnipeg. By 1906 Winnipeg was facing some crucial decisions. The city’s water supply system was inadequate for a growing city and a new source of water was required. At the same time hydro electric power was badly needed. In the municipal election of 1906, Ashdown was persuaded to stand for mayor. He ran on a platform of municipal ownership of utilities, with city paid day labour, and contracts to be opened in public but not necessarily awarded to the lowest bidder. [23] On December 11 Ashdown was elected with a total of 5090 votes. His rival, Alderman Latimer, garnered 2329. With a 2761 vote margin it was the largest majority in the city’s history. The majority of Ashdown’s supporters came from labour, those residing in Winnipeg North. He was subsequently re-elected by acclamation in 1907. [24]

As mayor, he was concerned with the city’s financial well being. The water question was shelved in favour of hydro development. Although Council had voted to begin the construction of a hydro dam at Point du Bois, Mayor Ashdown used his veto to override the decision. He realized that the city’s financial situation at that time could not support such a project. It was a credit to his powers of persuasion, and fiscal skill, that he persuaded a majority of Council members to support him. In 1908, the project got under way and was operated as a public utility, a requirement stipulated by Mayor Ashdown.

Following his two years as mayor, James Ashdown returned to private life to devote his energies to the hardware business. The advancing years did not slacken his pace or enthusiasm. He was in fine physical condition and walked to work regularly, returning home for lunch. His physical condition was demonstrated in 1911 while on a visit to Egypt where he scaled the Great Pyramid of Giza. He was sixty-seven. Eleven years later, in 1922, on a holiday at Banff, at the advanced age of seventy-eight, Ashdown climbed a mountain. [25]

Because he seemed in excellent health, it was a surprise to his family, and many friends, when he was forced to his bed, gravely ill, early in April, 1924. James Ashdown passed away on April 5 at the age of eighty years. He was buried on April 8. [26]

James Henry Ashdown left a thriving retail and wholesale business consisting of five wholesale warehouses and three retail stores in Winnipeg, in addition to outlets in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

The Ashdown estate, valued at $1,634,000, was completely liquidated. Northern Trust Company, Mrs. Ashdown and his son, Harry C. Ashdown, were named executors. Charities and institutions that he had supported throughout his life received over $300,000. The Province of Manitoba levied succession duties of over $300,000. It was the highest tax, next to the Strathcona estate, levied in the province. [27]

The James H. Ashdown Hardware Company Limited was reduced in size in the ensuing years and the western interests liquidated. His Winnipeg retail stores, however, continued to serve the citizens of the city for another fifty years.

Throughout his life, James Ashdown devoted his energies to building a respected and thriving business that complemented a growing prairie city. At the same time, he laboured unselfishly for the welfare of the city and, in doing so, earned the respect of the citizens of Winnipeg.

In later years, when asked why he came west to such a rugged and unpredictable territory, he replied, “I never lost faith in Winnipeg. When once you have tasted Red River water you cannot leave the country. [28]

James Henry Ashdown was truly a founding father of Winnipeg.


1. Provincial Archives of Manitoba (PAM), MG14 B6. Information on James Henry Ashdown, 1844-1924.

2. Ibid.

3. Winnipeg Tribune, August 4, 1934.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid, March 31, 1924.

6. PAM, MG13 B11, Henry Woodington collection.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Tribune, March 31, 1924.

10. PAM, Woodington Collection.

11. Manitoba Free Press, February 1, 1873.

12. Tribune, February 4, 1911.

13. Ibid. August 4, 1934.

14. Free Press, February 12, 1876.

15. Ibid., April 25, 1878.

16. W. L. Morton, Manitoba: A History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957), p. 183.

17. Tribune, August 4, 1934.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Free Press, March 6, 1900.

21. Tribune, August 4, 1934.

22. Ibid.

23. Free Press, December 10, 1906.

24. Ibid., December 12, 1906.

25. Tribune, March 31, 1924.

26. Free Press, April 7, 1924.

27. Tribune, June 25, 1924.

28. Free Press, April 7, 1924.

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