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Memorable Manitobans: Thomas Spence (1832-1900)

Click to enlargeAuthor, local character.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland on 3 June 1832, the son of a solicitor of the Supreme Court of Scotland, he came to Canada in 1862 with a party of engineers sent out to erect forts at Port Levis, Quebec. In 1866 he came west to the Red River where he practised law and conveyancing. There he married Carlotte Cook. On behalf of the Indians of the settlement, he was instrumental in sending to the Prince of Wales an invitation, written in Cree on birch bark, asking him to visit Red River in 1867. In that year he opened a retail store in Portage la Prairie. He persuaded the Council of settlers there to petition the British Government for a legally constituted administration. He was elected president of the reorganized Council which was set up as New Caledonia, but later became known as the Republic of Manitobah. The boundaries of the republic extended south from Lake Manitoba to the American border and from the western boundary of the district of Assiniboia to the 100th meridian. When the government undertook to raise taxes the Hudson’s Bay Company, as well as some of the traders, refused to pay. A shoemaker named MacPherson was arrested for libel, declaring that the taxes were  purchasing liquor for the president and council. The Republic was never recognized by the British authorities. Public sympathy was on the side of MacPherson and the Republic of Manitobah collapsed in 1868.

According to his parliamentary testimony in 1874, he “had organized a Provisional Government in 1867 over a part of the territory which was occupied by about four hundred people,” and “had communicated this organization to the Imperial Government, and upon hearing from the Imperial authorities that our proceedings were illegal, the organization was broken up. This matter had nothing whatever to do with the outbreak or disturbances in 1869 or 1870. This organization was made simply as a matter of protection for ourselves, as we were outside the Government of the Council of Assiniboia, as Governor McTavish informed me himself.” He was arrested briefly by Louis Riel on 25 January 1870, and was an English delegate to the Convention of Forty from St. Peter’s. In 1870 he was the editor of the New Nation, the Riel government paper. Initially residing in St. Boniface, by 1872 he had moved to Point Douglas. He was later described by J. H. O’Donnell as having “quite a few of the characteristics of Wilkins Micawber; he was always living in great expectations, and when they were not materializing he became depressed, and would tell dramatically how shamefully his services had been overlooked by the federal government.”

He was a Roman Catholic and friendly with Bishop Taché. He later served as clerk of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba (1878 to 1885) and as an immigration pamphleteer, producing such items as Manitoba and North-West of the Dominion (1876) and The Prairie Lands of Canada (1879). He was census commissioner forthe North-West Territories in 1881 and 1885. For a time he was Canadian immigration agent in California. In 1895 he moved to Edmonton where he was assistant registrar in the land offices there.

In 1879, he was a founding member of the Manitoba Historical Society.

Spence died in Edmonton in March 1900.

More information:

Thomas Spence, Dictionary of Canadian Biography XII, 982-84.


Pioneers and Early Citizens of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Manitoba Library Association, 1971.

Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by J. M. Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.

Page revised: 29 January 2010

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