Manitoba History: Documents & Archives: The Nor’Wester Comes to Red River

Number 57, February 2008

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In late September 1859, William Coldwell and William Buckingham traveled from Toronto to St. Paul, Minnesota. From there, they planned to travel to the Red River Settlement to start a newspaper, The Nor’Wester. The enterprising journalists purchased Red River Carts and oxen, loaded their equipment and, along with Reverend John Black and his family, headed off. Buckingham mailed a letter, on the eve of their departure, to his colleagues at the Toronto Globe. In it, and in two subsequent letters, he described their plans and the events of the road. The journey had an inauspicious start when their oxen reared up and dumped their printing press on the ground. It begs the question: How might the course of Manitoba history have been different if Coldwell and Buckingham had, in frustration, abandoned the venture at this point? These three letters were transcribed by Ward Skinner of Nova Scotia, from handwritten originals in the possession of Janice Forbes, great-granddaughter of William Buckingham. We are grateful to Mr. Skinner for bringing them to our attention. Editors.

William Buckingham (1832-1915) who, with partner William Coldwell, founded The Nor'Wester, the first newspaper in the Canadian West, in 1859. The portrait was painted in 1870 at Ottawa, where Buckingham was a secretary for Alexander MacKenzie.
Source: Lois and Robert Mountain

On the Eve of Starting [1]

We shall travel with our own teams and drive through four-in-hand. Mr. Burbank, one of the most enterprising citizens of St. Paul, and to whom we are indebted for many favours, highly approves of the plan. Our material and luggage weighs close up on thirty hundred, and the Rev. Mr. Black’s luggage, &c, is something over six hundred. There are our two selves, Mr. Black, his wife, her sister, and his little boy. Our cavalcade will include what I have just enumerated, a teamster, provisions, tent and bedding for the journey, three Red River carts, each drawn by an ox and carrying ourselves and part of the baggage; and a waggon and two yoke of oxen. We gave $40 for each oxen, $10 for the waggon, $20 for each cart and harness, and about $30 and the run of the commissariat waggon to the teamster. We expect to be able to sell our teams at Fort Garry for nearly as much as we gave for them at St. Paul. About two miles from this city we shall fall in with a party of nine or ten half-breeds, who are returning to Red River with, I am told, (but do not vouch for the truth of it) a Roman Catholic Bishop for a new bishopric to be constituted in the settlement. Every vehicle that comes down goes back laden to its full extent. I have just been speaking with an enterprising American, who is about to establish an hotel in the settlement, and has come down to make the necessary purchases. He returns on Saturday. Yesterday I talked with the editor of the paper, started 250 miles westward from St. Paul, in Dakota Territory, in the midst of the Indians. There were only three shanties where he pitched his tent, and only a dozen readers within a circuit of I don’t know how many miles. I also fell in yesterday with Mr. J. W. Taylor, who arrived at St. Paul on Saturday evening after a long visit to the North West, including a month’s residence at Selkirk. He speaks in glowing terms of the country. He states that the Red River people are in need of everything but money, of which, according to him, they have an abundance. The St. Paul people are evidently of the same opinion for they are preparing to do great things there next year. I am told there is only one through mail a month by this route to Red River, and the day of its departure I can only learn at St. Cloud as we go up. The weather is glorious, and everything betokens a prosperous journey. In a month if all be well, we shall be at our Journey’s end. Fancy four oxen prancing up to the gates of Fort Garry with the Nor’Wester.

Red River traders in St. Paul, 1860.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Transportation - Red River Cart 1, N16060.

On the Open Prairie Near Lake Itaska [2]

The Reverend John Black having determined to stop to hold a preaching here yesterday (Sunday) I embrace the opportunity of giving you a few incidents of our journey thus far. Our departure from St. Paul was such as to leave anything but pleasant associations connected with it. The oxen they gave us were as wild as March hares, and no sooner were they yoked than they bolted off through the streets at an alarming speed, greatly to the dismay and bodily danger of the citizens. The only injury sustained however was to our own property, and this was not a trifle. The paper was jerked on one side of the road and the cases of type on the other. The former was easily picked up – not so the latter, which received such a “distribution” as was never seen before. However, we managed to pick up most of the “sorts” and together they constituted a heap of “pi” sufficient, I hope, to serve us during the remainder of our journey. The oxen were then lashed, with heavy ropes to end of the waggon, and amid the jeers of the little boys and the good wishes of the other folk, we made a start once more for the Red River. But the night had stolen a march upon us. It was already dark, and we pitched our tent about two miles from the city. Next morning we were up betimes, and were early on the road. A harder one to travel I never experienced. For we had not made more than twenty yards towards the 500 miles when the wildest of the oxen again kicked up his heels, and the next minute the wheels of the luggage cart were spinning in the air. It had turned completely over, breaking the cart bows and smashing the trunks. A council was then called, and in the end Mr. Black departed for St. Paul to procure another waggon to take the place of two of the carts (the ox in the third cart was docile and did his duty well). In the afternoon with the waggon and a pair of extra oxen, for which Mr. Burbank had given us credit. The carts we managed to sell for their value to a man at St. Anthony, who was about starting for the settlement with hardware. Under the new arrangement we got on very well. The cart carries the ladies, and the paper for the Nor’Wester. The waggons the press and type for ditto and the baggage and other et ceteras. The camp was pitched near St. Anthony; and a terrible night it was! We had thunder, lightening, and rain the whole time and were fortunate in being able to obtain shelter in a neighboring cottage. In the morning the weather cleared and since then it has been delightful for traveling. The distance we have traveled is somewhere about 35 miles, through a country which is very sandy in many parts, giving the oxen some ugly tugs. Whilst waiting at Anoka, two miles below, yesterday afternoon, for the planking of a bridge which was in the course of repair, we fell in with Capt. Blakely, who was on his way to St. Paul. He appeared greatly vexed to think that so much noise had been made about this route, until they were in a position to take all the traffic which is pouring in upon them. The boat, he says, needs considerable repairing. She is now tied up at the settlement and early in May they intend sending up for her and getting her repaired, so as to make the return trip early in June.

In the Woods Near Crow-Wing, Minnesota [3]

As you will perceive, from the point at which I date this letter, our progress continues to be slow. We journey about 17 miles only per day, wind and weather permitting; for when it blows and rains we stop altogether. On the whole, the weather has been and continues to be propitious. Generally, the mornings are very cold and frosty, and the remainder of the day is hot, until the evening, when it again becomes frosty. But we have had two or three heavy storms both of hail and rain, and for the folks whose habitation is unbleached calico, these are not so pleasant. There is, however, not one amongst us who does not do full justice to his rations. You may be interested to know of what these are composed. The catalogue, alas! is not a long one. In the morning, coffee, biscuit, and pork. At noon, pork, and coffee. But small as is the variety, the quantity and quality are there, and we eat enough to keep an army on march. At Little Falls we had the misfortune to break the axle of one of the wagons and we were detained there a day to get it repaired. Last night again, the Nor’Wester wagon was within a hairsbreadth of being tumbled into a ditch, through the carelessness of one of our teamsters. From these and all other calamities may we in future be preserved! To-morrow we winter in a country where there are no wheelwrights and what we should do then in case of accident I will not venture to imagine. One of our oxen has grown blind since our departure and at Suax Rapids one of the Hudson Bay Co’s employees (Mr. MacKay) placed one of the Company’s oxen at Mr. Black’s disposal. So we have now 10 oxen, two wagons, a cart, two teamsters, one dog and ourselves. To-morrow we expect to be joined by the train of Mr. McKinney, who is on his way back to establish the hotel I told you of and we go through the Chippewa country together. We are likely to have a little bother with these rascally Indians, who are now spreeing it at Crow-Wing where they have assembled to get their pay, and where we are told they have already received a few knock-down arguments from carters whose cattle they have attempted to run off. The “wood-road” is our route. It is represented as being the best at this time of year—the water of the streams being low, and there being good pasturage for the cattle—the latter a most important consideration as we find by the lank sides of our oxen produced by the dry grass they have been obliged from want of better food, to eat since they left St. Paul. The stoppage of the boat must be a terrible disappointment to the Red River folks, many of whom had sent down large orders, and whose goods cannot now reach the settlement until next spring. McKay also informed us that dry goods and merchandise of all kinds were rotting by the way, the men who had been hired to haul them having taken two great loads and been obliged to thrown off a portion of them on the road side. I am very glad we are accompanying our own goods, though tedious by the journey. Coldwell is now assisting the ladies to get supper, and to-morrow I shall be driver of the one ox-team. You will therefore see that we follow other occupations than the business we are on our way to prosecute. We are getting semi-barbarians in appearance. Wash our faces as often as we can get the chance-about once in two days, and put on clean shirts (to do which we are obliged to clear out half a mile beyond camp) once a week, and that on Sunday. Can’t you send over a missionary to teach habits of cleanliness? If so, please send soap and water with him.

Red River cart train with oxen grazing near St. Paul, Minnesota, 1866.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Transportation - Red River Cart 18, N17754.


Coldwell and Buckingham arrived at the Red River Settlement on 1 November 1859. No more letters appeared in the Globe but details about the journey were provided in early issues of The Nor’Wester, which commenced publication on 28 December 1859, and in Coldwell’s reminiscences to the Winnipeg Press Club, reported in the Manitoba Free Press on 2 April 1888.

1. Reprinted in the Toronto Globe, 7 October 1859.

2. Letter of 3 October 1859; reprinted Toronto Globe, 17 October 1859.

3. Letter of 10 October 1859; reprinted Toronto Globe, 20 October 1859.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Nor’Wester Plaque (269 Main Street, Winnipeg)

Page revised: 14 October 2012