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Red River Flood - 1826

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1966, Volume 11, Number 3

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

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

An Excerpt from Alexander Ross' book The River Settlement of 1856.

The winter had been unusually severe, having begun earlier and continued later than usual. The snows averaged three feet deep, and in the woods, from four to five feet. The cold was intense, being often 45° below zero; the ice measured five feet seven inches in thickness. Not-withstanding all this, the colonists felt no dread till the spring was far advanced, when the flow of water, from the melting of the accumulated snow, became really alarming. On the 2nd of May, the day before the ice started, the water rose nine feet perpendicular in the twenty-four hours! Such a rise had never before been noticed in Red River. Even the Indians were startled, and as they stared with a bewildering gaze, put their hands to their mouths, exclaiming, "Yea ho! yea ho!" an expression of surprise, "What does this mean? What does this mean?" On the 4th, the water overflowed the banks of the river, and now spread so fast, that almost before the people were aware of the danger, it had reached their dwellings. Terror was depicted on every countenance, and so level was the country, so rapid the rise of the waters, that on the 5th, all the settlers abandoned their houses, and sought refuge on higher ground.

At this crisis, every description of property became of secondary consideration, and was involved in one common wreck, or abandoned in despair. The people had to fly from their homes for the dear life, some of them saving only the clothes they had on their backs. The shrieks of children, the lowing of cattle, and the howling of dogs, added terror to the scene. The Company's servants exerted themselves to the utmost, and did good service with their boats. The generous and humane Governor of the colony, Mr. D. McKenzie, [1] sent his own boat to the assistance of the settlers, though himself and family depended on it for their safety, as they were in an upper story, with ten feet of water rushing through the house. By exertions of this kind, and much self-sacrifice, the families were all conveyed to places of safety, after which, the first consideration was to secure the cattle, by driving them many miles off, to the pine hills and rocky heights. The grain, furniture, and utensils, came next in order of importance; but by this time, the country presented the appearance of a vast lake, and the people in the boats had no resource but to break through the roofs of their dwellings, and thus save what they could. The ice now drifted in a straight course from point to point, carrying destruction before it; and the trees were bent like willows, by the force of the current.

While the frightened inhabitants were collected in groups on any dry spot that remained visible above the waste of waters, their houses, barns, carriages, furniture, fencing, and every description of property, might be seen floating along over the wide extended plain, to be engulfed in Lake Winnipeg. Hardly a house or building of any kind was left standing in the colony. Many of the buildings drifted along whole and entire; and in some were seen dogs, howling dismally, and cats, that jumped frantically from side to side of their precarious abodes. The most singular spectacle was a house in flames, drifting along in the night, its one half immersed in water, and the remainder furiously burning. This accident was caused by the hasty retreat of the occupiers. The water continued rising till the 21st, and extended far over the plains; where cattle used to graze, boats were now plying under full sail.

As no one deemed it possible to remain in the colony, the choice of another locality had become a matter of eager debate, when, unexpectedly, on the 22nd of the month, the waters appeared at a stand, and after a day or two, began gradually to fall. Wheat, which had fallen to 2s. per bushel at the commencement of the disaster, now rose to 15s., nearly double its former price; and beef, in like manner, from 1/2d. per pound to +d. The height to which the water had risen above the level of ordinary years was fifteen feet. It subsided, of course, very gradually. It was on the 15th of June that the settlers, for the first time, drew near the sites of their former habitations.

During this heavy trial, only one man lost his life by drowning; but many were the hair-breadth escapes that might be mentioned. At one spot, for example, the writer and some others fell in with a man who had two of his oxen tied together, with his wife and four children fixed on their backs. The docile and terrified animals waded or floated as they best could, like a moveable stage, while the poor man himself, with a long line in his hands, kept before them, sometimes wading, sometimes swimming, guiding them to the highest ground. With no slight trouble, we got them conveyed to a place of safety; and, but for our timely assistance, they must all have perished; for the water was gaining on them fast, while they had far to go, and were already exhausted.

Red River flood 1950, Norwood Bridge, Winnipeg.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The sudden rise of the water, when it once got over the banks of the river, may admit of more vivid illustration from the writer's personal experience. My boat then was drawn up at the house door, to be in readiness, when we were surprised by the rush of the water. I immediately ran out to lock a store door, a few yards off; but before I could get back, the water was knee deep, and the furniture afloat; nor could the door of the house be locked for the strength of the current. Em-barking hastily, we pushed off, and made for a neighbour's barn, but had not rowed 300 yards from the door, when the water began to move and carry off the loose property; a cariole went first, carts and slades [2] followed, so that in the space of an hour the water had made a clean sweep of all moveables, nothing remaining but the houses, which soon followed in the general destruction. In the barn we were joined by fifty others, and, after passing a miserable night there, were compelled to abandon it by the still rising waters. We now erected a stage, four or five feet high, in the open plains, and having there piled up such of our little property as could not be stowed away in our boat and canoes, we made it our refuge for two days longer; but the wind blowing a gale, and the water gaining on us fast, at the end of that period we boated off in haste to another spot, where we were still less fortunate, for now the water disturbed us in the night, and we had no alternative but to shape our course for the banks of the Assiniboine. Here, on a patch of high ground, we found a dense crowd of people, and among others, the rascally de Meurons, who, it was well known, hardly possessed an animal of their own, and yet were selling cheap beef all the time. Disgusted with their near neighbourhood, we removed from this otherwise most favourable spot, and next took up our quarters on the delightful banks of Sturgeon Creek, where we remained in peace and quietness till the water began to fall.

While here, provisions became very scarce; pemmican 8d. per pound; salt, 21.5s. the bushel. The troubled state of the people increased the evil. The cattle had been driven to some distance, too far to be available to us, but not beyond the reach of the de Meurons, who fed us with our own beef, at 3d. per pound. When we came to count our cattle, we had but a Flemish account of calves and year-olds. It was no time to quarrel, and hardly safe for a man to claim his own property, as the de Meurons, and others who profited by their example, helped them-selves without scruple to whatever chance threw in their way. These were the boys that had been brought to the country to restore the settlements to order, and keep peace!

The cause of this disaster has been the subject of many conjectures, which, however will not bear investigation. We prefer to state the only conclusion that appears to us perfectly natural, and consistent with well-known facts. The previous year had been unusually wet; the country was thoroughly saturated; the lakes, swamps, and rivers, at the fall of the year, were full of water; and a large quantity of snow had fallen in the preceding winter. Then came a late spring, with a sudden burst of warm weather, and a south wind blowing for several days in succession; the snow melted at once,and Red Lake, Otter-tail Lake, as well as Lake Travers, all overflowed their banks. [3] To these causes must be added the large quantities of ice carried down by the Red River, which came suddenly in contact with the solid ice of Lake Winnipeg; and thus stopping the current, seems to have caused the great overflow of back water on the level surface of the plains; this opinion is strengthened by the fact, that as soon as the ice of the lake gave way, the water began to fall, and it fell as rapidly as it rose.

What has happened once, may happen again. Excessive rains and snows seldom occur, indeed, in one and the same year; but when they do happen, or even when they occur in two consecutive years, they will undoubtedly produce the same disastrous results. The late Mr. Nolin, [4] who was one of the first adventurers to these parts, assured the writer, that when he first entered Red River, in the year 1776, the flood was still higher than on the present occasion; he having sailed that year, as he declared, from Red Lake River, round by the way of Pembina, and down towards the colony; the whole country, therefore, being under water, and the river appearing to him rather like a lake. The Indians likewise mention a flood about the year 1790, and the natives now on the ground affirm that in 1809 the water rose unusually high.

As the waters subsided, the future movements of the colonists be-came the subject of anxious discussion, and they soon found themselves divided into two parties; the one consisting of those who were still resolved, in defiance of all obstacles, to remain at Red River; the other comprising the Swiss emigrants, the de Meurons, and other restless spirits, who, it will be recollected, were never reconciled to the country, and were now resolved to try their fortune elsewhere. This party, now on the wing to be off, were joined by every idler and other person averse to Red River, and so little was their further residence in the colony desired, that food and other necessaries were furnished to them gratis by the Company, with the view of hastening their departure. The emigrating party, consisting of 243 individuals, took their departure for the United States on the 24th of June, and we saw them no more. We subsequently learned, however, that the Swiss had settled on the Mississippi, and were doing well.

The Scotch settlers, meanwhile, not so easily chilled by disappointments, promptly decided on the course they were to take; without a moment's hesitation, or loss of time, they resumed work on their cheer-less farms, which were then bare and naked as on the first day they came to the country. This was the fourth time the Scotch settlers had commenced the world anew in Red River, all the fruits of their former labours having disappeared, like the morning dew. The advanced state of the season held out but little hope of their labors being crowned with success; yet barley, potatoes, and even a little wheat sowed as late as the 22nd of June, came to maturity. In such a latitude as Hudson's Bay, this would appear almost incredible; but such was the effect of the short warm summer of those regions.

Red River flood 1950, Morris.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The patience and perseverance of the Scotch were amply rewarded from this time, for we are now brought to the year 1827, which commences a new era in the settlement. Several causes contributed to this result. The dross had been purged away from our community, so that we were now one people in thought, word, and deed. Before the year 1830 had passed, the colony was completely re-established, and more promising and thriving than ever. In this brief interval of two or three busy years, no less than 204 new houses had been built, besides many enclosures made, and barns erected, on sites far more eligible, and secure from any future rise of the water, than those which the flood had destroyed. To these advantages must be added the favourable crops that ensued, for every wet year in Red River is a crop year, and many years after the high water, the soil was saturated to its full. Late springs have always proved the surest indications of a good crop, as there is then no danger to be apprehended from the frost.

Notes

1. Donald McKenzie, Governor of Assiniboia 1825-1833.

2. A sledge or sleigh.

3. These bodies of water are in Minnesota.

4. Louis Nolin.

Page revised: 18 July 2009

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