Memorable Manitobans: John William Sandison (1851-1915)
Born at Elgin, Scotland on 26 November 1851, he emigrated to Ontario in 1881, where he was hired to work on the farm of Simpson Rennie (1840-1912) and Isabella Hood Rennie (1838-1917) in Agincourt, near Toronto. Sandison and the Rennie daughter, Elizabeth (1865-1958), eloped around 1882. When she confessed to her family, they gave her a set of silver spoons and a Bible and told her to stay with him. The newlyweds soon headed west to Carberry.
Over the next decade, Sandison became the “Wheat King of Manitoba” (as the newspapers called him) with over 2,000 acres under cultivation by 1890, with farms north of Brandon, as well as near Kemnay and Souris. His agricultural successes were touted in land promotional brochures such as A Scotch Farmer’s Success in the Canadian Northwest (Peel 1911, formerly 1200) published between 1890 and 1892. On trips to Scotland, Sandison recruited prospective emigrants. In 1892, he commissioned Brandon architect W. R. Marshall to design for him a large stone home.
Sandison’s financial crisis came in May 1893. After extensive frost damage to his crops in 1891, he became overextended on credit. Although he had returned from Scotland supposedly brandishing “lots of cash to put in his large crop,” he soon disappeared with the “hired girl” (according to one newspaper source) or a second wife (according to another), “leaving debtors mourning for $100,000 which they will never get.” Sometime after 1893, the spelling of the family’s name changed to Sanderson, perhaps a convenient allusion to John S. Sanderson, a respected pioneer farmer in Manitoba.
In early 1894, he was in New York City where, on 25 January, he married Charlotte Wales Almy. He subsequently abandoned her to return to his first wife, who was by this time living at Toronto, Ontario.
Sandison’s whereabouts were unknown until the turn of the 20th century when he resurfaced in Ontario. His younger daughter believed that he had been in South Africa, where he may have been involved in the Boer War. In any event, he agreed to relocate with Elizabeth to Stayner, Ontario on a mere fifty acres. They had a daughter named Janet, who was born on 31 December 1903 at Sault Ste. Marie. In 1915, with help from neighbors, Sandison dug and poured concrete for a well in his yard. For two months afterward he suffered various respiratory complaints and then died of a heart attack. He was buried at Stayner. His widow, who lived until 1958, died in Toronto and was buried at Stayner. The Sandisons/Sandersons had six children: a girl born in 1884, four boys (one of whom died as a newborn), and Janet.
If Walls Could Talk: Manitoba’s Best Buildings Explored & Explained by David Butterfield and Maureen Devanik Butterfield, Great Plains Publications, 2000, 128 pages.
The bulk of this biographical sketch was provided by grandson Bill Kable.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 1 July 2020