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Manitoba Historical Society
     Keeping history alive for over 143 years

Memorable Manitobans: John MacKenzie Smith (1839-1917)

Shipwright, steamboat operator, farmer, municipal official.

Born at Coulnakyle, Scotland on 30 May 1839, son of Duncan Smith (1810-1879) and Margaret MacKenzie (1913-1877), he emigrated to Canada with his parents in 1840, and resided at Dornoch, Glenelg Township, Grey County, Canada West (Ontario). On 31 January 1866, he married Marion Gilmour Garven (1846-1930) at Holland, Ontario and moved with his wife and family to Manitoba that same year. The couple had eleven children: Robert Duncan Smith (1866-1877), Margaret Jeanette Smith (1868-1877), Elizabeth Olive Smith (1870-1959), Marion Georgian Smith (1872-1872), John Arthur Smith (1873-1877), Sydney Garven Smith (1875-1877), Frederick James Smith (1877-1877), Violet Camsell Simpson Smith (1877-1936), Percy L. Smith (1879-?), John Bain Smith (1882-1952), and Ethel Marion Smith (1885-1886), several of whom died of typhoid fever in 1877.

He was the first registered homesteader in Manitoba, taking a patent on NW28-11-4E in the Rural Municipality of Springfield and Sunnyside, where he served as a member of the inaugural municipal council (1873-1874, 1879) and Reeve (1875-1876). He played a lead role in planning what would become the community of Birds Hill. His property, passed down to his son John and later to a grandson James A. Smith (1926-1987), it became the site of the East St. Paul Fire Hall and Municipal Office, along with the bus depot of the River East Transcona School Division.

He helped to build and captained the steamboat Chief Commissioner for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), the first steamship to sail north from Winnipeg. He was the Mate (1875) aboard the Selkirk for the Red River Transport Company. In 1878, he left his family to be Captain of the Lily based at Prince Albert, North West Territories (now Saskatchewan). He and his wife traveled to Athabasca Landing, where he built and captained the Wrigley, which became the first steamboat to cross the Arctic Circle, in 1886. In the MacKenzie River District, he helped to build the first steamboat on the Athabasca and MacKenzie River systems, and was Captain of the steamer Northwest (1890). He built another four ships for the HBC. He helped to build Fort Smith, which was named for him. In the early 1890s, before returning to Manitoba, he worked at Prince Albert and there assisted in constructing the community’s first lighting plant (1892).

In 1902, he took up farming in the Birds Hill area of the Rural Municipality of St. Paul, serving as Reeve (1909-1910), School Trustee of the Birds Hill School District (1911-1917), President of the Birds Hill Farmers’ Institute, and a member of the local Masons (Brethren of Prince Rupert’s Lodge No. 1). He acquired the rear-wheel excursion steamerJ. M. Smith.

He died at St. Boniface on 30 May 1917 and was buried in the Sunnyside Cemetery.

See also:

Northern Prairie Steamboats: J. M. Smith


Death registrations, Manitoba Vital Statistics.

1901 Canada census, Automated Genealogy.

1916 Canada census, Library and Archives Canada.

Western Land Grants, Library and Archives Canada.

City and Province [Capt. John Smith], Manitoba Free Press, 14 January 1885, page 4.

“Calgary Herald: - Capt John M. Smith [...],” Manitoba Free Press, 25 February 1887, page 2.

“Going north again,” Manitoba Free Press, 13 September 1887, page 4.

“Saskatchewan navigation,” Manitoba Free Press, 22 July 1890, page 1.

“On the Saskatchewan,” Manitoba Free Press, 7 August 1890, page 8.

“A northern pioneer,” Manitoba Free Press, 8 April 1892, page 5.

“Sanitarium committee,” Winnipeg Tribune, 13 May 1908, page 3.

“West’s first free homestead promises a greater yield this year than any former season,” Winnipeg Tribune, 25 July 1910, page 1.

Obituary, Winnipeg Tribune, 31 May 1917, page 6.

Fraternal notices, Manitoba Free Press, 1 June 1917, page 16.

“Mrs. M. Smith, early Manitoba pioneer, passes,” Winnipeg Tribune, 11 September 1930, page 3.

Springfield, 1st Rural Municipality in Manitoba, 1873-1973 by the Dugald Women’s Institute.

Heritage II, A History of East St. Paul, Heritage Book Committee. [F 5649.326 Her 1992 C.1, Legislative Library of Manitoba.]

Lang family tree, Ancestry.

We thank Judy Teague for providing additional information used here.

This page was prepared by Nathan Kramer.

Page revised: 5 August 2017

Memorable Manitobans

Memorable Manitobans

This is a collection of noteworthy Manitobans from the past, compiled by the Manitoba Historical Society. We acknowledge that the collection contains both reputable and disreputable people. All are worth remembering as a lesson to future generations.

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