Early Days of Minnedosa [1]

by Mrs. E. J. Brown

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1964-65 season

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The town of Minnedosa is situated on the Old Edmonton Trail and was called Little Saskatchewan Valley by many, and by others Tanner's Crossing, being the next stopping place aimed for by travellers from the east after they left Third Crossing - later Gladstone. The name "Minnedosa", in the Sioux language meaning "running water", was given to the town in 1880 by J. S. Armitage and John Tanner.

Here the Trail crossed the Little Saskatchewan River which winds from northeast to southwest through the valley. John Tanner, a one armed Métis, had come about 1870 but could not get a homestead until the area was surveyed. After the survey was made he filed on the west half of Sec. 1-15-18, which is the site of the east half of our present town, Main Street being the road allowance between sections one and two, John Norquay, a cousin of Hon. John Norquay took the south half of Sec. 12-15-18, north of Tanner's, and two other Métis families, the Sinclairs and the Sandersons were also nearby. The Trail came into the valley from the southeast and was obliterated by the railroad when it came in 1883. The ford across the river was quite close to where the railway bridge is now and the Trail went northwest from there past where our museum now stands. "In 1878 a detachment of North West Mounted Police, D division, was left at Tanner's Crossing mainly as a mail station for the purpose of carrying dispatches, etc. between Fort Dufferin and Swan River" (from Inspector Raybone, in Minnedosa memories). Slightly over a mile further on the Trail passed through Odanah and the Pass on South ½ of Sec. 10, to higher ground.

Odanah - On the open flats below Odanah Pass the Indians had, for many years, gathered in winter encampments and when the white men came they made their first settlement there. In 1878 a Land Office was built, where homesteaders could file their claims, and a Post Office was also established there. In 1879 P. J. McDermott opened his first store, the village was laid out into town lots, and a number of stores and businesses became active in the next three or four years. Of those we know besides McDermott's were-a sawmill run by McFadden and Bolton, a general store by Dennison and Griffith, W. B. St. John's Photography and Wilson & Co. Hardware Store. [2] The name Odanah means "a meeting place" in Indian, and was given to the Village by Hon. Colin Inkster of Winnipeg who visited here in early times (show map). All this area was in the North West Territories and was governed from North Battleford by Governor Laird. In 1881 the boundaries of Manitoba were changed from the 99° West Longitude, between Arden and Gladstone, to the present line next to Saskatchewan.

The Indians of this area had made a treaty with the Federal Government in 1871 agreeing to the idea of Reserves of land as their own, but were not satisfied with the Rolling River Reservation which had been chosen for the South Quill band until three years later when another quarter section, already homesteaded by John Cameron, had been purchased and added. The name "Rolling River" was given because of the stream which flows through it, which is a tributary of the Little Saskatchewan, starting in the northern part of Clanwilliam Municipality. Flowing almost directly west before turning south, it runs from one end of the Reserve to the other and finally empties into the Little Saskatchewan on Sec. 19-16-18. This water, with the nearby lakes was very important in the fishing and trapping life of the Indians.

Late in 1879 J. S. Armitage who had been a miller in Ontario, came with three brothers to our valley and John Tanner had gotten the patent on his homestead. J. S. persuaded Tanner to sell him the land and immediately he had it surveyed into town lots. The deed of sale for this transaction is in our Town Office. Early the next spring Armitage built a sawmill and quite soon, the first flour mill. At once a village sprang up which soon rivalled Odanah.

When the provincial boundary was extended the County of Minnedosa was formed and in 1883 J. S. Armitage was elected Warden. The County comprised what later became the six municipalities of Strathclair and Blanshard on the west, Harrison and Saskatchewan in the centre and Clanwilliam and Odanah on the east. In two references we have found the name 'Ivanhoe' for Odanah, but it did not remain. The first Provincial Representative was Mr. John Crerar, who had filed his homestead on the west half of Sec. 34-14-18, southwest of town. It is said that one spring before the railway came and the roads were bad, Mr. Crerar drove to Grand Valley, on the Assiniboine River east of Brandon and, with another member, built a raft of logs and floated down to the Legislature in Winnipeg.

The years of 1878 to '82 saw a rush of settlers to the district though a number had come previous to that. The Kerr Bros. had come in 1873. Mr. Alex Cameron and family followed the survey in 1874 and one of his sons, Archie, who worked on the survey had already a homestead near Portage la Prairie. Later Archie Cameron served on the Harrison Council for several years, his brother, Hon. Neil was a member of the Bracken Government, and the youngest, M. Hugh Cameron was either a councillor or Reeve of Minto Municipality for forty years. Cameron School District is named after the family. Other early settlers were the McTavish Bros. in 1876, Angus Grant, McDougall and a few others. Minto Municipality was formed in 1902 by joining the two south townships of Clanwilliam with the two north ones of Odanah Municipality.

As the river settlement grew everyone wanted a railroad and one party after another journeyed to Winnipeg to interview the Canadian Pacific Co. or the Portage and North Western Company, asking that they come and make a town site on their property. I will not go into this further here as my brother, Dr. W. J. Rose spoke on this to your Society in 1960, and later my husband, in 1962, clarified this in an article, a copy of which I gave to your president, Mr. Kemp. - "The Building of the Manitoba and North Western Railway" by Ed J. Brown. Finally it was decided to build the Manitoba and North Western Railway (M. & N. W. for short) into Minnedosa, crossing the river by Tanner's ford and placing the station where it now is. The first passenger train arrived in October, 1883. From the Minnedosa Tribune of 1883, comes the following - "Nov. 27th. The official opening of the M. & N. W. R'ly into Minnedosa was celebrated by a special train coming from Winnipeg and Portage la Prairie. A banquet and program in the school house followed." Gradually the Odanah site was abandoned as the stores and Land Office were moved to Minnedosa and by 1885 it was a ghost town. Surely it could claim remembrance as an Historic Site in this part of Manitoba.

The Saskatchewan and Western Railway Co. built the line through Rapid City from Minnedosa in 1886 and the Canadian Northern Railway was built through Clanwilliam Village from Neepawa in 1902 and '03.

When the town here was laid out J. S. Armitage wanted a more permanent bridge by his mills than the shaky toll bridge erected by John Tanner. First Street ran past his buildings so he engaged George Young, a carpenter who had come from Ontario in 1879 to build what was called First Street Bridge, the approach to which on the south side may yet be seen. It was used for a number of years, but after the railroad came in, the Main Street Bridge was built and as the river had gradually changed its course, the old one was abandoned.

On March 2nd, 1883 the town was incorporated and as the "boom" was not over and lots were surveyed from Odanah to the east side of Section One, all that area, three miles long and two miles wide was, and still is, included in the town limits. The east quarters of Section Two were surveyed into lots by their owners J. D. Gillis and K. McLellan and many were purchased by settlers. However, more Indians had their tepees along the Trail than white people had houses. When John Menzies later purchased the south half of Section Ten, on which Odanah had been located, he had many a headache before he got quit claims from the owners of those lots. In fact, attached to the Map of Odanah is a copy of the act of cancellation of the remaining ones, dated 1903.

With incorporation came the first Mayor and Council. Hon. John Crerar had a law office in town and was chosen as first Mayor. A good school was needed and the first brick school was built on the southwest hill. There were two log schools in town before this, one on Catherine Ave., east of Main Street and one on Minnedosa Ave., on the west side. Mr. Geo. A. Grierson, later Minister of Public Works in the Norris Government, was Principal of the brick school and is still remembered with admiration by many of his pupils.

The first Post Office was established in 1877 under the name of Little Saskatchewan, N. W. Territories. The name was changed to Hall's Ford between April 1879 and December the same year. John Tanner was Postmaster during this time but in 1880 Mr. W. De Mamby became Postmaster, continuing until May 1882, when J. S. Armitage secured the office. His father-in-law, Thos. Boyd was his assistant for many years. (This information comes from Miss E. MacDonald, present postmaster.)

The first newspaper was printed during 1882, and was the Minnedosa Star with Mr. A. M. Armour as publisher. However, it continued for only about one year as Mr. Gibbon came in 1883, and started to publish the Minnedosa Tribune and Mr. Armour withdrew and moved farther west. Since that time the Tribune has been our local paper. Mr. David Cannon soon took over from Gibbon and when he retired because of old age it was run for several years by Mr. Adam Crosley. Another paper, the Mercury, printed by J. Bremner, had a short run about 1908 to '11 and then closed up.

Let us now think of some of the early industries which were essential to living in those days but which are no longer. To build a shelter or house in which to live was the first act of the settler. Poplar logs were plentiful and log houses were built. Lumber to finish them was needed and here the sawmill was established, though the earliest settlers made a roof of poles covered with thatch grass which they gathered from beside the sloughs. Some others, as the Kerr Brothers, whipped their own lumber from logs, with a two handled whipsaw. The sawmills needed logs and the north country had an unlimited supply of trees, with two rivers on which to float them down. In winter many men went to the bush and cut logs as they had in Old Ontario, and when spring came and the snow melted, raising the water level, log drives brought the logs to the mills on Rolling River and the Little Saskatchewan. One leader of the drives was Alex Christie of Brandon who took some of the logs through to the sawmills on the Assiniboine River. Two other leaders were Engman and Duncan Campbell. There was a brick factory here in 1883, which supplied the bricks for the first brick school, the old town hall, and the recently demolished Land Titles Office. Lime was made by burning the lime stones lying about, in caves or kilns in the sides of the hills. Flour for bread was needed and until the flour mill was started here in 1880, the settlers had to go back with their wheat to be ground at Portage la Prairie or later at Gladstone. The first mill here used stones for grinding until 1887 when rollers were installed. You would see one of the original stones reconditioned, at the museum this afternoon.

In 1885 and '86 a group of immigrants from Sweden chose the two north townships of Clanwilliam Municipality in which to settle. This land had lakes and streams abounding in fish, and bush for shelter, with pasture for their cattle as they were used to at home. They soon had log houses, and sawmills followed. By 1902 the last log drive was brought down as far as Minnedosa, though some farmers still go north for lumber in winter, or for shavings for insulation.

When Rev. J. M. Wellwood, the first resident Presbyterian minister came in 1880, he established a Dominion Meteorological Station on his homestead east of town and a telegraph line was connected with a station in U. S. A. In 1884 he moved to town and until 1949 the family continued to send out weather reports from their home on Minnedosa Avenue. When Mrs. Workman, the youngest daughter died, the station was discontinued here.

The years have come and gone, each adding something to the town and community. Churches followed the settlers; this has become the centre of the Rolling River Larger School Area; board sidewalks have been replaced by cement; telephones came in 1900; an Electric light plant was installed in Scott Bros. Sash and Door Factory in 1904 and the town had four street lights. Construction of the Dam on the river began in 1910 and by 1913 a power house was built and the whole town was supplied with light. The name of the river was changed to Minnedosa River in 1928, and from a group of twenty-eight buildings including houses and stables in 1880 (Mrs. H. Proven in Minnedosa Memories) the town has grown to its present size, with paved streets, No. 4 & 10 Highway passing through; daily bus service; a beautiful lake with two beaches and a trailer court; a complete water and sewage system and natural gas heating.


1. Address presented at Minnedosa on the occasion of the annual Manitoba Historical Society field trip, September, 1964.

2. Dan Campbell, who later ran the Queen's Hotel in Minnedosa, had a hotel at Odanah. His homestead was the NW¼ of 30-15-8.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Tanner's Crossing (Minnedosa)

Page revised: 16 July 2011