Memorable Manitobans: John Sutherland Sanderson (1840-1930)
The first homestead entry in Western Canada was filed by John S. Sanderson, a Scotsman from the Lothians. He landed in Winnipeg on 1 July 1872. The following day he filed his homestead entry and bought a couple of oxen. Early next morning, driving his oxen, he set out over the trail, which is now Portage Avenue, for Portage la Prairie to find the north-east quarter of section 35, township 12, range 7, where he hoped to make his future home. Three days later he set up his tent on his homestead and started to work.
Rather frail in body, but still straight and supple in figure, with sight undimmed, and intellectually keen despite his 85 years of age, Mr. Sanderson is still the typical pioneer. Looking back 52 years to the day he turned his face west and followed the trail with his yoke of oxen to Portage Plains, he gives thanks and declares that it was a good day for him. “There were many difficulties and privations and Iota of hard work in the early days, but it was all worth while, and I am quite satisfied,” he says in reminiscent mood.
Mr. Sanderson was born at Prestonpans, Haddingtonshire, Scotland, in 1840. Home and school he remembers mainly for their common quality of discipline. “At school I gained a knowledge of the three ‘R’s,’ and a far larger knowledge of the cane. At home I learned obedience and a regard for virtue and law,” he said. Leaving school, he learned the trade of blacksmith, at which he worked till 1867, when he determined to seek his fortune in Canada. Sailing from Glasgow on the St. George, of the Allan Line, he landed at Quebec in May, 1867, after a voyage of three weeks. He travelled steerage. Arriving at Portage la Prairie his funds were exhausted. This meant living from hand to mouth. The early days on the homestead were full of hardship and struggle.
“After I had built my log shack, had broken a few acres of land, and harvested my first crop of wheat, things were easier for me,” he said. The wheat grown was a variety called “Golden Drop.” Its yield was somewhat limited, 20 bushels to the acre being considered a bountiful crop. Harvesting was done with a reaper. The grain was bound by hand and threshed with a sweep thresher operated by ox power. Marketing conditions were difficult, Winnipeg being the nearest marketing point for settlers who had a fair volume of grain to haul. Small quantities of grain could be exchanged for supplies at the local store of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Food chiefly consisted of pemmican, potatoes and bannocks. Flour was dear, and bannocks were occasionally banned. Pemmican was also off the menu at times owing to its price. But potatoes were plentiful and cheap, and often were the solitary feature of the menu.
In 1876 Mr. Sanderson married Sarah Green, a daughter of a New Brunswick family settled at Portage Creek. His family consists of three sons and two daughters. Two of his sons own farms in the home district.The other farms a section of land at Deepdale. Mrs. Sanderson passed away in 1919.
Outstanding among his pioneering experiences are the grasshopper plagues of 1873 and 1874. Millions of grasshoppers settled over the land and stripped it of all vegetation. In the fall millions of eggs were deposited over the prairie by the invaders, and next year the plague was greater than ever. Again the land was denuded of grain and grass.
Although his roots are deep in the past, Mr. Sanderson was a keen observer of the present, and is critical of some modern trends. “People do not know anything of the hardships of the old days. They create expenses for which there is no need. They buy far too many luxuries. They are running themselves to perdition,” he claims. For the cry of “hard times” he has nothing but scorn and contempt. He deplores the drift of young people to the cities.
Sanderson died at Portage la Prairie on 14 March 1930. He is commemorated by Sanderson Avenue in Winnipeg, and was inducted to the Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame.
Pioneers and Prominent People of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Canadian Publicity Company, 1925.
Page revised: 26 March 2010