Memorable Manitobans: Alexander Ross (1783-1856)
Fur trader, historian.
Born at Morayshire, Scotland on 9 May 1783, he came to Lower Canada in 1804 and worked as a schoolmaster there and in Glengarry, Upper Canada. In 1810 he signed on as a clerk with the Pacific Fur Company and sailed aboard the Tonquin to the Pacific by way of Cape Horn, arriving in March 1811 to help establish Fort Astoria. In 1813 he entered the service of the North West Company and remained until after it joined with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821. In 1813 he married Sarah Ross, an aboriginal woman, in British Columbia and had at least three children, including journalist James Ross and postmaster William Ross. He left the fur trade in 1825 and proceeded across the Rockies, down the Saskatchewan to Lake Winnipeg and to Red River.
Although George Simpson did not like him, he gradually acquired positions of responsibility. He became sheriff of Assiniboia in 1835 and a councillor of Assiniboia a year later. As sheriff and head of the Volunteer Corps of 60 men used as a police force, he refused to enforce the fur-trade monopoly of the HBC. His demeanour was pedantic, and in later years he was known in the settlement as “the Professor.” In 1850 he and a number of other judges and magistrates refused to continue their work while Governor William Caldwell remained in office. He fought for years to create a Presbyterian church in the settlement.
In his later years he wrote three autobiographical books, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon and Columbia Rivers (1849), The Fur Hunters of the Far West (1855), and The Red River Settlement (1856). This made him the pre-Confederation Northwest’s most prolific author, and its finest as well. He may also have written the novel Selma: A Tale of the Sixth Crusade (1839).
He died on 23 October 1856 and was buried in the Kildonan Presbyterian Cemetery. He is commemorated in Winnipeg by Ross Avenue and the former Alexander Ross School. There are some papers in the Archives of Manitoba, but there is no full-scale biography, his own writings serving in its place.
Pioneers and Early Citizens of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Manitoba Library Association, 1971.
Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by John M. “Jack” Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 28 June 2019