Memorable Manitobans: Gilbert Spence Hackland (1828-1901)

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Gilbert Spence Hackland
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Mariner, pioneer.

Born in Orkney, Scotland in 1828, he was christened in Birsay Parish on 17 February 1828. He was raised on the family’s tenant farm but, at an early age, followed his brothers to the sea and became a blue water sailor during the age of sailing ships. He is reported to have ‘doubled’ Cape Horn more than eleven times, broke a speed record from Jamaica to Liverpool and back, and was mentioned in military dispatches for bravery while commanding the first British transport that forced the boom in the river below the forts at Tain-Tsin during the Opium War in China.

While he had sailed on Hudson’s Bay Company ships in various capacities since he was 17, it was only in 1862, at age 34, that he formally joined the Company. He was put in charge of the Great Whale River post on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay, and was appointed Sloopmaster of the schooner Fox. The Fox had been built at Moose Factory to supply Company posts on the shore of the Bay over the summer months. He continued as master of the Fox for ten years until 1872.

Capt. Hackland, as he came to be known, gathered his family about him while stationed on Hudson Bay. In September 1856, he married an English school teacher, Ann Sharp, in London. Two daughters were born in London. At some point passage was arranged for Capt. Hackland’s wife and children to Moose Factory. They joined him at Great Whale River (now Kuujjuarapik, Quebec) and then at his next post, Fort George on James Bay (at the mouth of today’s La Grande-Rivière in Quebec). More children were born at the outpost. In 1872, the family (parents and six children) relocated to Kildonan travelling by canoe on the Albany River, Michipicoten River, by steamship on Lake Superior, by canoe or boat on Rainy River and Lake of the Woods and finally overland on the Dawson Route to Red River.
Thereafter Capt. Hackland assumed a number of dry land posts for the Company until 1875 when he was appointed Master of the Company’s newly launched propeller steamship the Colvile. The Colvile had been purpose-built to move goods and people around Lake Winnipeg and connect with steamships on the Saskatchewan River to points west, the Company’s water-based transport network to Fort Edmonton and the Athabasca.

Lake Winnipeg presented many challenges that required an experienced mariner in command; its shallowness allowed winds to raise enormous waves very quickly and its rocky shore with outcrops extending far out in some places left only a narrow channel for a steamboat to pass through. There were no nautical charts of the lake at the time. Capt. Hackland immediately deployed his nautical skills to transport participants to what became important events in Manitoba’s history.

On Colvile’s maiden voyage, 17-29 September 1875, Capt. Hackland ferried the Canadian government commissioners around Lake Winnipeg for the negotiation and signing of what became Treaty Number Five with the Saulteaux and Swampy Cree. Lieutenant-Governor Morris, the lead Commissioner, complimented Capt. Hackland’s skill in his report to the Minister. He estimated the trip would have taken at least eight weeks in York boats, if at all possible, that late in the season.

Soon after, in October 1875, Capt. Hackland ferried the first large group of Icelandic settlers in Manitoba from the mouth of the Red River. Over two hundred men, women and children were towed in several open scows by the Colvile and had to be abruptly put ashore at Willow Point south of Gimli for protection against a fast-moving storm.

In September 1877, the Governor General, Lord Dufferin, and Lady Dufferin, boarded the Colvile for a tour of Lake Winnipeg as far north as Grand Rapids and then south for a visit to the Icelandic community at Gimli. A strong wind from the southeast persuaded Capt. Hackland that it was unsafe to enter Gimli harbour when they arrived on 13 September. Indeed, Lady Dufferin commented in her journal entry for the day:

“It has been such a dreadful afternoon — pouring rain and two fearful thunderstorms. I shall have to give you a second-hand account of Gimla (sic). I am very sorry not to have seen it, but the Colville (sic) is such a lively little steamer in rough water that I dreaded fourteen more hours of her!”

The Governor General was undaunted and after steaming south and spending the night at Lower Fort Garry, the Colvile departed early the next morning in fine weather and Lord Dufferin had the much-anticipated visit of the Icelandic settlement.
Capt. Hackland left the demanding post of Master of the Colvile at age 54 in 1882. He spent eight more years in service of the Company as Clerk at the Red River District until retiring in 1890. He purchased the Company’s former post at Oak Point on the shore of Lake Manitoba, where he farmed, made cheese, and was the community’s first postmaster until his death at age 73 on 27 April 1901.
A staunch Presbyterian, he was buried in the Kildonan Presbyterian Cemetery, where his brother James Hackland, a former Chief Trader for the Company, and his sister Ann Smith were also buried. Capt. Hackland’s wife died a year after him and shares his burial monument in the cemetery.

In all, the couple had nine children, two of whom died at a young age: Hector Dalrymple Hackland (1867-1870) and Maxwell Hackland (1878-1884). The remaining children, save for the youngest, settled in Manitoba and played a part in the growth of the province. They were: Margaret J. Hackland (1858-1922, wife of Angus Sutherland), Mary Helen Hackland (1860-?, wife of John A. Morrison), Annie Marie Hackland (1862-1941, wife of Angus Pritchard), James Gilbert Hackland (1866-1915, husband of Sarah Lundy), Winnifred Hackland (1870-1905, wife of William L. Hardisty Jr.), Alfred Ernest Hackland (1872-1955, husband of Mary Louisa Hardisty), and Beatrice Annie Hackland (1875-1960, married three times, lived and died in Montana).


Scotland, Births and Baptisms, 1564-1950, FamilySearch.

England and Wales Birth Registration Index, 1837-2008, FamilySearch.

United kingdom, Merchant Navy Seaman Records, 1835-1941 FamilySearch.

1881 Canada census, FamilySearch.

1901 Canada census, Automated Genealogy.

Birth, marriage, and death registrations, Manitoba Vital Statistics.

“Capt. Hackland dead,” Manitoba Free Press, 29 April 1901, page 6.

“G. S. Hackland, pioneer, dead,” The Morning Telegram, 29 April 1901, page 5.

Obituary [Annie Hackland], Manitoba Free Press, 29 November 1902, page 13.

Begg, Alexander, Practical Hand-Book and Guide to Manitoba-and-the North-West, page 99.

Gimli Saga: The History of Gimli, Manitoba by Gimli Women's Institute, pages 14-15.

The Icelandic People in Manitoba by Wilhelm Kristjanson, pages 71-75.

Lundar & District Historical Society, "The Hackland Story," Wagons to Wheels: History of Lundar & Districts 1872-1980, page 409.

Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, My Canadian Journal, 1872-78, page 357.

“The First Man to Operate a Boat Across James Bay: Captain Gilbert Hackland” by Peter Lorenz Neufeld, Seaports and Shipping, December 1988, page 19.

Steamboats on the Rivers and Lakes of Manitoba by Martha McCarthy, unpublished internal report, Government of Manitoba.

Morris, Alexander, The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, March 1880, Gutenberg ebook Treaties of Canada.

Stevens, Clifford. “A Ship’s Moment of Glory," Logberg Heimskringla, 11 June 2004, page 11.

HBC Biographical Sheets [Gilbert Spence Hackland, James Hackland], Hudson’s Bay Company Archives.

Ships Histories, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives.

This page was prepared by Harry Chandler and Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 1 June 2022

Memorable Manitobans

Memorable Manitobans

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