Manitoba History: Founding The Nor’Wester
The 1850s were an eventful decade for the Red River Settlement, bringing significant developments which opened that colony to the world on a new and larger scale. None was more significant than the arrival of two men and a printing press in November 1859. William Buckingham and William Coldwell had made the arduous journey from Toronto, anxious to get in on the ground floor of what they confidently expected was an imminent boom time on the banks of the Red. Nearly thirty years later, with that much-anticipated boom finally underway, Coldwell took an opportunity to reflect on the somewhat rocky beginnings of the age of journalism on the prairies. Ill health prevented him from attending the Winnipeg Press Club’s second annual dinner, but his paper was read on his behalf by George Ham. That paper, read on 31 March 1888 and amply illustrating the Press Club’s ongoing fascination with the history which its members have witnessed and recorded, is presented here in its entirety for the first time in public. 
William Coldwell (1834–1907) was born in London, educated in Dublin, and came to Canada at the age of twenty. He worked as a correspondent for the Toronto Leader for five years before making his journey farther west.  His partner, William Buckingham (1832–1915), was from Devonshire in England, and got involved with journalism as a shorthand writer for the North of England Press. He came to Canada in 1857 and put his shorthand skills to work as a parliamentary reporter for The Globe.  Although their employers stood on opposite sides of the Canadian political fence, both were intrigued by the possibilities offered by the prairie region.
That region had been very much in the news in recent years. In August 1856, The Globe began calling for Canada to annex the territories west of the Great Lakes—in the interests of land-hungry Upper Canadian farmers and of Toronto businessmen, both seeking new frontiers for themselves. A public inquiry into the Hudson’s Bay Company and its territories the following year, and the subsequent launch of two major scientific expeditions to the prairies, helped solidify the West’s place in the mainstream of Canadian political and economic thinking.
Encouraged by the Globe’s owner and editor, George Brown, Buckingham and Coldwell travelled overland to Red River via St. Paul in the late summer of 1859. The Globe had just published a story about a young newspaperman of similar ambition but less detailed geographical knowledge. He had gotten as far as Sault Ste. Marie before he discovered that there would be no feasible way of getting his heavy printing press from Fort William to Upper Fort Garry.  The two Williams were wiser, travelling light (with only a hand press) as far as St. Paul, where they purchased the bulk of their machinery and all of their paper and type. The journey to Upper Fort Garry took a little over a month, and they arrived in what would soon become Winnipeg literally as the first snow began to fall. Establishing themselves in a small building at the corner of Main and Water streets, they were able to publish their first issue on 28 December 1859. 
As Coldwell mentions in his reminiscence below, the settlement’s first newspaper was not the only major local development of 1859. In June, the steamboat Anson Northup had arrived from Lafayette, Minnesota, ushering in a new era in the history of transportation in the region. The steamboat and the newspaper, though unrelated ventures, were both momentous as significant improvements in communication between Red River and the “outside world”. In particular, the quantity and quality of information about Red River which was circulating in Canada and the United States increased substantially as a result of these ventures. They were less important as Red River’s windows on the world, than as the world’s windows on Red River. The fact that both the steamboat and the newspaper were initiatives based in Minnesota and Canada, respectively, illustrates how eager many “outsiders” were to gain such a window. As The Globe observed, “Toronto has a race to run with St. Paul [Minnesota] to secure the full benefit of the Red River trade and the Nor’Wester affords the best medium for introducing themselves to those they would have as customers.” 
The “Prospectus of ‘The Nor’Wester,’ a journal to be published at Fort Garry, Red River Territory,” promised that the new publication would be “devoted to the varied and rapidly growing interests of that region.”
Buckingham and Coldwell promised to “hasten the change, not only by stimulating the industrial life of the Red River Settlement, but by assisting the work of governmental organization, the necessity for which is admitted on all sides; not only by cultivating a healthy public sentiment upon the spot, but by conveying to more distant observers an accurate knowledge of the position, progress, and prospect of affairs.” Here were two bold statements. One concerned the optimistic and imperialist vision of the West which was becoming ascendant in the council chambers of British North America: agricultural, commercial, and prosperous. The other concerned the power of the press to cultivate and direct social, political, and economic change.
Buckingham and Coldwell described their new publication as “a vehicle of news and for the pertinent discussion of local questions; governed only by a desire to promote local interests, and a determination to keep aloof from every entangling alliance which might mar its usefulness at home or abroad. It will be a faithful chronicler of events—a reporter, assiduous and impartial.”  As the centre for justice and administration across a wide area, and the seat of two bishoprics and several educational institutions, a paper of record was surely needed in Red River. They assured future readers that the new publication would operate on “an independent commercial basis. Indebted to no special interests for its origin, and looking to none for its maintenance, it will rely wholly upon the honest and efficient exercise of its functions as the reflex [?] of the wants and opinions, the rights and interests, of the Red River Settlement.” This was somewhat disingenuous, considering their clearly expressed vision of the region’s future and their initial connection with Brown and other expansionists in Canada. However, the two young editors were newspapermen by training and inclination, and their journalism was of a higher quality than that of their more ideologically motivated successors.
Buckingham returned east in 1861 to become the editor of the Reformer in Simcoe. He went on to enjoy a varied career in journalism, politics, and business. His departure left the Nor’Wester in the hands of Coldwell and James Ross, who had joined the partnership early in 1860.  Ross also became Coldwell’s brother-in-law, after William married James’ sister Jemima. At the same time as Ross became a partner in the newspaper, Coldwell and Buckingham became partners in Ross’ dry goods and hardware store in Colony Gardens (between Bannatyne and Alexander avenues). It was common in those days for newspapermen to engage in other business activities too, and the newspaper had also served as a book-selling business from its inception. Ross’ store gave the two Williams another supplementary income and a place from which to keep their fingers on the pulse of the community. They certainly had their hands full, as Coldwell recalls below: “Having everything connected with the business to do, and no one to help us to do it, we had to become our own editors, reporters, compositors, pressmen, newsboys and general delivery agents, besides having to undertake a house-to-house canvass throughout the entire settlement.” When they advertised for an apprentice in January 1860, they could in all honesty promise that the lucky young man (W. F. Garrioch of Portage la Prairie, as it turned out) would “learn the Printing Business in all its branches.” 
After Buckingham’s departure, Coldwell and Ross ran the newspaper until December 1863, when Ross dropped out. Ross’ involvement in the Nor’Wester had cost him dearly, for an editorial dispute with the governing Council of Assiniboia in 1862 had resulted in his dismissal from his public posts—as postmaster, sheriff, and governor of the gaol.  Dr. John Schultz came in as a partner a few months later, and succeeded to the whole ownership of the paper in 1865, when Coldwell returned east with his family. Under Schultz, the editorial policy became more partisan than it had been before, and The Nor’Wester became a more outspoken opponent of the Hudson’s Bay Company and proponent of annexation by Canada. 
Coldwell returned to Red River on the very eve of that annexation so long advocated by Schultz and (less rabidly) himself. Although Louis Riel’s Provisional Government suppressed the publication of Coldwell’s new venture, the pro-Canadian Pioneer, Coldwell was too valuable a man to leave out in the cold. He served as clerk to the Provisional Assembly during Riel’s tenure. In 1871, he partnered with Robert Cunningham to found the Manitoban, and they soon become the first Queen’s Printers in Manitoba. 
Coldwell remained a fixture in early Winnipeg after his return. Having been a widower since 1867, in 1875 or 1876 he married Jemima Mackenzie Ross, widow of Coldwell’s brother-in-law William Ross.  For nearly thirty years they lived at Brook Bank, or Ross House, now preserved and maintained as a museum by the Manitoba Historical Society—of which Coldwell was a founding member in 1879. His interest in Manitoba’s history was rooted in his personal involvement with that history. As his reminiscences here clearly illustrate, he had been both a participant in and a faithful recorder of some transformative developments on the prairies.
The Story of the Beginning by William Coldwell
November 1, 1859, the first newspaper outfit for Northwest British America arrived on the Assiniboine, at the crossing opposite Upper Fort Garry. The Nor’Wester, with W. Buckingham and W. Coldwell as its proprietors. Up to that date no newspaper was printed anywhere throughout the vast region stretching from the north shore of Lake Superior to the Rocky Mountains, and from the United States boundary lines as far north as any one of our craft would care to stretch. In one little corner of the territory, the Red river settlement, there were 10,000 people; and we resolved (in Salvation Army phrase) to “open fire”.
The paper and much of the plant had been purchased in St. Paul, in order to save freight between Toronto (our starting point) and the capital of Minnesota; and on the 28th of September we made a start from the latter city with ox teams—a very wild start indeed, as one team ran away at the outset, and distributed some of the type in the streets. But by the time we reached our journey’s end there were no more attempts at running away.
I shall not stop to notice our snail-like progress by the Crow Wing Trail, how we struggled through the swamps, worried around and across fallen trees and stumps, toiled up and raced down the sides of the Leaf Mountains, forded rivers with steep banks and boulder-strewn beds, or puzzled out our way via crooked sand bars, over which we went zigzagging with occasional excursions into the depths along side. Red Lake River, the widest, deepest, crookedest and swiftest in current—took some of us up to our necks, and very nearly took me out of this vale of tears. 
One of our respected fellow citizens, Capt. Donaldson,  a famous traveller in those early days, witnessed the crossing of the caravan at that point; and he has a story he tells with infinite relish, as to one of the forders, who was invisible all but a head and a “stovepipe” hat. The Capt. not expecting to see such a hat there and then, and completely taken aback by the vision, laughed his heartiest as he does to this day when he recalls the scene.
On an average we did not exceed between 15 and 20 miles a day in our march through the wilderness to this promised land. Slow going, sleepy travel it was, compared with the rapid transit now the order of the day. This fast age had already left the old land marks far behind. The journey from St. Paul to this point, which took over a month when we first came, has for several years back been performed, in less than 24 hours. On our way here, 29 years ago, we found the Northwestern Railway limits to be at Lacrosse, on the Mississippi.  Beyond that town the traveller in this direction had a choice of staging or steam-boating. Staging could be obtained to Fort Abercrombit [sic] in Minnesota.  Steamboating virtually ended at St. Paul, although some little business was done by steamboatmen beyond that city.
The year 1859 witnessed a great change. The lucrative trade between the Red River settlement and St. Paul had long been carried out, which made the residents of the Apostolic City desirous of still further extending trade relations with this region. These desires took shape the previous year when there was much discussion on the point. Hon. J. W. Taylor, (the esteemed U.S. consul here) then a citizen of St. Paul, had taken a deep interest in the study of the immense resources of the Northwest, and had been frequently their able and eloquent exponent. He warmly advocated the scheme resolved on, that of opening up steam communication with Fort Garry by placing a steamboat on the Red River, which it was hoped would prove navigable from Fort Abercrombie, or thereabouts, to Fort Garry. Next year the Anson Northup dissipated all doubts as to the navigability of the river by steaming to Fort Garry. The experiment was a grand success. 
The first of the steamboats and the first of the newspapers came along here the same year, the steamboat men being ahead. And they continue somewhat ahead of us, I observe, for they have moved northward, and were last year, if I do not mistake, plying on the far-off waters of the Athabasca and the Mackenzie.
We commenced publication on the 28th Dec., and at the outset were greater monopolists than we had any wish to be. Having everything connected with the business to do, and no one to help us to do it, we had to become our own editors, reporters, compositors, pressmen, newsboys and general delivery agents, besides having to undertake a house-to-house canvass throughout the entire settlement. Does any one suppose that we had not enough to do?
We secured a liberal subscription for our fortnightly payments in advance. Of course the inevitable crank had to be encountered even in this remote part of the world, and accordingly in our canvass we met persons who assured us that they did not want the Nor’Wester because they knew more local news than we did while, as to the foreign news, they could learn as much as they desired from other papers which they got hold of at long intervals. They were also afraid that if they supported one journal in their midst, soon there would be two, four; or a score knocking at the door, with a wide diversity of views, to the great bewilderment and detriment of an innocent and confiding public! Each of these cranks left us minus twelve shillings sterling and yet we were incorrigible.
The business thus commenced continued until the winter of 1864, when the office and its contents were burned. Up to that date I had as partners, for various periods, Mr. W. Buckingham, Mr. James Ross and Doctor (now Senator) Schultz.
The last named resolved to resuscitate the paper, and I determined to return to Toronto, but before doing so I helped to get out the new issue. The Bishop of Rupert’s Land allowed us to use one of the old buildings belonging to St. John’s college as a printing office. We got together a little type and paper which had been brought out for mission purposes and from Mr. Alonzo Barnard (a Minnesotian versed in printing, preaching and photography)  we secured a hand press of the most ancient, ponderous and amazing build, possessing, withal, warped and resisting qualities—perhaps we ought to say eccentricities—which insured to the unfortunate pressman the hardest “pull” and the worst impression ever given by a hand-press in this or any other land, I suppose.
Under these auspices, and with the assistance given by Mr. W. R. Ross and Mr. A. Sutherland (both of whom learned the printing business here), The Nor’Wester was revived, in reduced size, for a season. I left it in the hands of Dr. Schultz, from whom it passed to Doctor W. Bown. 
Five years subsequently, returning with material for a new venture, I fell into the rebellion. Lieut. Governor McDougall was fenced-out at Scratching River. A journal-that-might-have-been was fenced out too, by an order from Riel, forbidding its appearance “until peace was restored”. This one never appeared except as a sort of half-and-half arrangement—two pages of which (The Pioneer) favored the McDougall regime, while the remaining two pages (The New Nation) advocated rebellion, annexation and the Riel regime.
Now, stop a little. You must not run away with the notion that I was essaying an act of equestrianism, and riding two horses—not a bit of it. The position was this: an early disallowance act barred my way. I was not allowed to print anything. Instead of compositors, Metis guards held possession of the office. Fiddles, pipes and pemmican were interspersed with pistols, guns and ammunition and this mixture further complicated with a new paper outfit in a very limited space, formed a combination sufficient to drive any printer to the verge of insanity. The press was a fiddle-rack, the cases dotted all over with pipes and tobacco.
I made haste to get rid of that establishment, and joyfully found a purchaser in Major H. M. Robinson.  He published The New Nation, and in the first number the two pages of The Pioneer, already in type, were used. Hence the mixture.
The career of The New Nation ended soon after Sir Garnet Wolseley marched in and Riel marched out.
Mr. Thomas Spence edited The New Nation in its declining years, when the fires of rebellion and annexation were burnt out. 
The Manitoban, a weekly journal, published by Messrs. Coldwell and Cunningham, next took up the running, in 1870, and held its course until 1872, when it was wrecked by a mob who (intending to be quite impartial, perhaps) wrecked the offices of The Nor’Wester, (owned by Dr. Brown [sic]) and Le Metis, (Mr. Royal’s paper).  The Manitoban and Metis came to life again, the former running till 1874, when it was incorporated with The Standard, with Mr. Molyneux St. John as chief. 
The News Letter, an excellent paper, with Mr. P. G. Laurie, now of Battleford as proprietor, was also published here from 1870 for, I do not remember, what period. 
In this sketch I did not intend going further than 1870, which would bring me to the verge of the new era, when we become a province and had volunteers, and a Fenian Raid of our own, and House Guards; when the old governor and council of Assiniboia finally disappeared from the scene; when the new lieutenant governor, “Our trusty and well-beloved, the Hon. Adams George Archibald”—and a legislature with two chambers appeared; when we first indulged in the luxury of a public debt when decimal currency replaced “Hudson’s Bay blanks”, (as the company’s notes were termed) when lawyers and doctors in flocks flew to the rescue—with the usual results;—and when “emigration waves” began to flow and ebb.
At all this I only took a peep. After me came the deluge—of newspapers, and all things became new.
The full text of William Coldwell’s description of the Red River Settlement’s first newspaper, as presented at the Winnipeg Press Club’s reunion dinner in 1888, was reproduced in its entirety in the 1955 WPC Yearbook / Beer & Skits program.
1. Excerpts appeared in the Free Press’ report on the dinner (2 April 1888) and in Aileen Garland, “The Nor’Wester and the Men Who Established It”, Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, series 3 (1959/60 season), available online at www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/transactions/3/norwester.shtml. George H. Ham (1847–1926) had begun his Winnipeg newspaper career as a reporter for the Manitoba Free Press in 1875. He soon started his own paper, the Daily Tribune (distinct from the Winnipeg Tribune of later years), which in 1880 merged with the Times. For his biography, see www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/ham_gh.shtml. Some copies of these newspapers from 1879 and 1880 can be found in the collections of the Manitoba Legislative Library.
2. For more biographical information, see www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/coldwell_w.shtml
3. For more biographical information, see www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/buckingham_w.shtml
4. The Globe (Toronto), 26 August 1859, cited in Garland.
5. In 1958, the Historic Sites Advisory Board of Manitoba unveiled a plaque at 269 Main Street, commemorating The Nor’Wester and its original office building: see www.gov.mb.ca/chc/hrb/plaques/plaq0856.html and www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/sites/norwester.shtml
6. The Globe, 26 August 1859, quoted in Garland.
7. “Prospectus of ‘The Nor’Wester,’ a journal to be published at Fort Garry, Red River Territory”, 22 August 1859; reprinted in The Nor’Wester, 28 December 1859. This prospectus and subsequent issues of The Nor’Wester are available online at Manitobia.
8. “Prospectus,” The Nor’Wester, 28 December 1859, Manitobia.
9. For a brief biography of James Ross (1835–1871), see www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/ross_j.shtml
11. In response to the Dakota War just across the international border, a nervous Council of Assiniboia petitioned the British government for a garrison of regular troops to be posted to Red River. Ross began circulating his own petition, calling for Crown Colony status to replace the HBC-dominated Council of Assiniboia. Matters came to a head when Ross refused to print the Council’s petition (which got nearly 1,800 signatures, although The Nor’Wester questioned the validity of some of those names) in The Nor’Wester, whereupon the Council dismissed Ross from his offices and the HBC withdrew its lukewarm support of the newspaper: see J. M. Bumsted, Trials and Tribulations: The Red River Settlement and the Emergence of Manitoba 1811–1870 (Winnipeg: Great Plains, 2003), p. 160; “The Company’s Hostility to the Press”, The Nor’Wester 24 January 1863, page 3, Manitobia.
12. There has been some debate—from the 1860s onward—about the influence of The Nor’Wester on Red River politics. That discussion is too large to elaborate on here, beyond quoting the opinion of Rev. A. C. Garrioch: admitting that he had “many reasons to feel very kindly towards that old corporation,” the HBC, he had “no hesitation in saying that the paper, while under the control of its first proprietors, and later of Mr. James Ross, was considered by unprejudiced readers as very fair in the stand it took in all public questions.” Garrioch, pp. 142–143. For a brief biography of John Christian Schultz (1840–1896), see www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/schultz_jc.shtml
13. For a brief biography of Robert Cunningham (1836–1874), see www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/cunningham_r.shtml
14. For a brief biography of William Ross (1825-1856), see www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/ross_w2.shtml
15. For details of their journey, see “From St. Paul to Red River”, The Nor’Wester, 14 January 1860, Manitobia; and “The Nor’Wester Comes to Red River”, Manitoba History 57 (February 2008), pp. 40–42. For more on the Crow Wing (or Woods) Trail, see Rhoda R. Gilman, Carolyn Gilman, & Deborah M. Stultz, The Red River Trails 1820–1870: Oxcart Routes between St. Paul and the Selkirk Settlement (St Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1979), pp. 56–68.
16. Hugh S. Donaldson (1829–1904) did not in fact receive the rank of captain until 1862 or 1863: see www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/donaldson_hs.shtml
17. Coldwell is referring to the Chicago & Milwaukee Railway, which (after a few mergers) later became the Chicago & North Western Railway.
18. The Minnesota Stage Company had just opened a stage coach line to Fort Abercrombie in June 1859: Alvin C. Gluek, Jr., Minnesota and the Manifest Destiny of the Canadian Northwest: A Study in Canadian-American Relations (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 65), p. 139.
19. For more details on this “grand success,” see Gluek, pp. 128–140.
20. For a brief biography of Alonzo Barnard (1817–1905), see www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/barnard_a.shtml
21. For a brief biography of Walter Robert Bown (1828–1903), see www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/bown_wr.shtml
22. For a brief biography of Henry Martin Robinson (1845–1907), see www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/robinson_hm.shtml
23. For a brief biography of Thomas Spence (1832–1900), see www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/spence_t.shtml
24. Garland cites J. W. Dafoe’s explanation that the mob—mostly made up of recent immigrants from Ontario—were expressing their frustration at not being able to vote in the upcoming federal election because Manitoba’s election lists were two years old. Judging from the other incidents which occurred at this time, including Orange mobs invading St. Boniface, suggest that there was more to it than that: Gerhard Ens, From Homeland to Hinterland: The Changing Worlds of the Red River Metis in the Nineteenth Century (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), p. 145. US consul J. W. Taylor described the situation as “an alarming condition of affairs” amounting to “anarchy”. Taylor to State Dept, 22 September 1872, quoted in Hartwell Bowsfield, “The United States and Red River Settlement”, Manitoba Historical Society Transactions Series 3, Number 23 (1966-1967 season), www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/transactions/3/unitedstatesredriver.shtml For a brief biography of Joseph Royal (1837–1902), see www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/royal_j.shtml
25. For a brief biography of Frederick Edward Molyneux St. John (1838–1904), see www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/stjohn_fem.shtml
26. The Manitoba News-Letter—printed with some of the equipment formerly belonging to The Nor’Wester—ran from 1870 to 1871. For a brief biography of Patrick Gammie Laurie (1833–1903), better known for establishing and editing the Saskatchewan Herald in Battleford, see www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/laurie_pg.shtml
Page revised: 7 March 2023