Memorable Manitobans: William Kennedy (1814-1890)

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William Kennedy
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Arctic explorer, missionary, Hudson’s Bay Company employee.

He was born at Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River in April 1814, the son of Alexander Kennedy, a Hudson’s Bay Company Chief Factor, and an aboriginal woman, Aggathas Margaret (Mary) Bear. When he was thirteen he was sent to Orkney for his education. In 1836 he entered the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company and was stationed on the Ungava Coast. He left the Company’s service in 1848 and went to Canada West where he engaged in his own business, and began to lobby for the expansion of Canada into the north-west.

As a lad at Cumberland House he had met Sir John Franklin, and in 1850 he offered his services to Lady Franklin to help in the search for the Franklin expedition. He commanded two of the Franklin search expeditions and discovered the Arctic passage known as Bellot Strait. He was the first to use dogs and sleds from an exploring ship. In 1853, he presented a paper on these adventures to the Royal Geographical Society in London, England, and wrote a book entitled A Short Narrative of the Second Voyage of The Prince Albert in search of Sir John Franklin.

In 1856, with George Brown’s support, he resumed his efforts to link the Red River Settlement and Canada West by a northern route. About 1860 he settled at Fairford, on Lake Manitoba, as an Anglican missionary and teacher to the Indians. In 1861 he settled at St. Andrew’s on the Red, where he was for a time employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company as a storekeeper at Lower Fort Garry.

He was not very active at the time of the Red River Rebellion in 1869-1870, although at a parish meeting in St. Andrew’s in October 1869 he opposed welcoming Governor William McDougall into the settlement, saying he was suspicious of the man’s character and background. Kennedy on this occasion called for Confederation “on equal terms with other provinces.” He was a founding member of the Historical Society of Manitoba, to which he gave the first scientific address on 13 February 1879. In the 1880s he was one of the first advocates of a Hudson Bay Railway. He was one of the founders of the Winnipeg Board of Trade, in 1873.

About 1859, he married Eleanor E. Cripps and they had two children.

Crippled by rheumatism for most of his remaining years he lived a very retired life at St. Andrew’s. He died at his home on 25 January 1890 and was buried in the St. Andrew’s-on-the-Red Anglican Cemetery. In 1910, Sir Ernest Shackleton unveiled a bronze tablet to his memory in St. Andrew’s on the Red. There are papers at the Archives of Manitoba.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Captain William Kennedy House (RM of St. Andrews)

Captain William Kennedy, An Extraordinary Canadian by Edward C. Shaw
MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 27, 1970-71 Season

William Kennedy, Dictionary of Canadian Biography XI, 470-71.


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

Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by John M. “Jack” Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.

This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 28 June 2019

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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