Floods at Red River: Some Tales of the Great Inundations of 1826, 1852, 1861

by Samuel P. Matheson

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1946-47 Season

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I have thought that some notes on the three floods which visited this country in 1826, 1852 and 1861 respectively might be of interest historically to the members of our society. Various causes have been assigned for their prevalence in the early days and their comparatively rare occurrence in later years. It is contended, for example, by old timers who were here when floods did occur, that they arose from abnormally heavy snowfalls to the south, together with the fact that the swamps and low-lying land were filled almost to overflowing when the frost came in the previous autumn.

I myself recall the latter condition. The time was when in the rear of our river lots the country was composed largely of swamps, often filled with deep water and remaining so during the whole winter season. These swamps were like tumblers filled to the brim, which required very little to make them overflow. Others account for the floods by the blocking of the rivers by ice. Of course there were higher lands and elevated ridges in the rear, but between them were numerous low lying areas. In traveling weekly in the early days to Stony Mountain as chaplain of the penitentiary I encountered more than once deep swamps where, in a very wet spring or autumn, the water reached the bottom of my buggy and not infrequently came into it, with the result that I had to elevate my feet and legs on the dashboard to keep them dry. Moreover there were only certain districts by which you could make your way through these low places to reach your destination beyond them.

There was a trail going out from Old Kildonan and one also from what is now Logan Avenue that were fairly good, but not until you reached a point much farther north towards the Lower Fort was it possible in very wet seasons to get safely across the intervening swamps. I presume that may be the reason why Sir George Simpson and others, in giving evidence in 1857 before a committee of the British House of Commons on the suitability of this country for agricultural purposes, claimed that outside of a narrow strip of land along the rivers the whole hinterland was composed of deep swamps and mossy muskegs. I dare say that that was true when Sir George knew the country as it was in his day. With the system of draining which has since taken place, all this is now changed, with the result that what were deep swamps where some of us can recall shooting ducks are now cultivated fields for grain.

There were numerous creeks emptying themselves into the river containing large volumes of water. Some of these were large enough to have dams erected on them to supply motive power for several water mills which operated in those days. One of these creeks entered the river near my old home in East Kildonan, and higher up in the course was situated Long Angus Matheson’s water mill, which I remember very well, and to which I had often taken wheat to be ground into flour. By means of your modern drainage system, all these creeks are now as dry as a bone, and all the water flowing down them so far from running a water mill, would not move the wings of a mosquito, unless Dr. Speechly was on hand to give it a push.

In motoring out to Stonewall I have often passed by what we used to call “The Bear’s Swamp,” a regular rendezvous not only in the spring, but during the whole summer of crowds of ducks and other water fowl, but now a high and dry farm. My father owned it and used to cut tons of hay on it. I am of the opinion, therefore, that the claim that the chances of recurring flooding are minimized by drainage is a correct one. This view, however, was not concurred in by some of the old settlers, who continued to entertain fears that we might have a recurrence of a flood at any time.

The late Andrew McDermot, for example, for so many years a leading settler in what is now the City of Winnipeg, was so confident that the menace had not passed that he kept a large York boat at the back of his house at the foot of what is now McDermot Avenue and had it carefully pitched and caulked ready for embarkation by himself and his family in the event of a recurring flood in the country. Frequently when I visited him he took me to see his boat and emphasized the fact that he kept it in prime condition for an emergency. I remember also the late Col. Ruttan, for so long our city engineer, when questioned as to his view of the possibility of floods again taking place, remarking that, while the prospects were greatly lessened by the extension of draining, and while the rivers, especially the Red River, had greatly-widened and also were capable of carrying away rapidly a greater volume of water, he did not consider that the danger had entirely passed away. He gave as his reasons that, while doubtless the Red River was much broader all along its course than it once was, yet he had observed that its mouth where it entered into Lake Winnipeg, had remained the same width and he added that a funnel was only capable of carrying through itself what its small end could convey. Be that as it may, I have no desire to play the part of Noah and thus be an alarmist and picture to you the immensely increased population of Winnipeg and the Province trying to huddle together on Stony Mountain and Bird’s Hill and other higher spots, where the members of our little colony in olden days camped comfortably for weeks together until the tyranny of the waters was past.

After these preliminary remarks let me now give you some particulars about those early floods, the records of which, though scanty, are still extant. The first took place in 1826, though the aboriginal inhabitants and old timers have traditions of another and a greater inundation in some former year. The following are extracts from letters of my grandfather, John Pritchard, in my possession, written in the autumn after the flood. He was an eyewitness of what had taken place and wrote this letter to a brother in England 106 years ago:

Red River,
August 2nd, 1826.

With feelings of gratitude to Almighty God, who, though he has afflicted, yet has spared; and in His wrath thought upon mercy, I have to relate a most calamitous event which visited us this spring.

About the 30th of April the ice on the Red River began to give way in particular places, but did not generally break up till the first week in May, when it presented a scene of devastation dreadful to contemplate and very difficult to describe. I have before informed you, that this country is formed of one large plain of many hundred miles in extent, its western boundary the Rocky Mountains, its southern I cannot describe, but I suppose somewhere about New Mexico. It is intersected with very few rivers and the few eminences to be met with scarcely deserve the name of hills. I find it necessary to make these observations to enable you to form some idea of the terrific scene we have witnessed.

When the ice broke up in our neighborhood, it was late in the evening. The night was dark and stormy, accompanied with rain. The flood at once rose higher than ever known by man. The crashing of immense masses of ice was loud as thunder; neither the tallest poplar nor the stoutest oak could resist its impetuosity. They were mowed down like grass before the scythe. The inhabitants fled from their dwellings, and with their cattle sought safety upon the first high lands that presented themselves.

The water continued to rise, but not so rapidly as at first. As it rose the poor settlers daily retired and continued their sorrowful route until those on the east bank reached a hill at about eight miles, and those on the west another at about nine miles distance. From the heights they had the cheerless prospect of one general ruin. Far as the eye could discover, the earth was covered with water carrying on its surface the wreck of a whole colony. Houses, barns, stables, fences, and in fact all that could float was a prey to the destructive element. The water continued to rise till the beginning of June. It then began to fall though by slow degrees. As it retired, we retraced our steps and from the middle of that month till the early part of July, we planted potatoes, barley and some wheat upon such lands as the water had left; and I am extremely happy to say that what we so planted looks well and through the blessings of the Almighty now promises a sufficiency for man and beast.

You may form some idea of the extent of this flood by considering the river whose usual breadth may be compared with the Severn at Shrewsbury having expanded itself over a surface of more than seventeen miles; which is the distance between the hills on which the settlers took refuge. There, of course, it was contracted and its width above must have been considerably greater. The depth was thirty five feet above its common level, being more than twenty feet higher than the former flood which was considered a very high one. It is worthy of remark that the three churches, the residence of the clergy and the house of our social prayer meeting, with the exception of the windmill, should be the only buildings which have not been carried away or so much injured as not to deserve notice. It is no less remarkable that the sites of these buildings were not chosen on account of their central position.

I have now given you the outlines of this disastrous event, and turn in grateful remembrance to Him who directs all things; who in exhibiting the greatness of His power and the justness of His wisdom did not withold his merciful kindness. Incredible as it may appear, not one human life has been lost, and so few cattle perished that they are not worth mentioning.

I am writing this on the site of my usual residence, ‘The Elms’, opposite Kildonan Church where Mrs. Whellams now lives. I returned the day before yesterday after an absence of twelve weeks. I am living under a shed of boards, but before the winter sets in I hope to have a comfortable house. A considerable number of the settlers have left the country and gone to the United States, a few others will return to Europe. The old residents still remain and are very actively employed in re-establishing things as heretofore; so that I expect next summer the remembrance of the flood alone will be retained. To view the country now and compare it with what it was a few weeks ago—a sea of devastation or desolation—it is impossible not to exclaim, O Lord how wonderful are Thy works! Truly the wilderness has become a `fruitful field’ and ’the desert rejoices and blossoms as the rose.

Extract from letter 21 August 1826.

Since my last we have received further accounts of the recent flood and I very much fear for the safety of the American Settlements on the lower parts of the Missouri and St. Peter’s Rivers. Report says that some of their military posts have been overwhelmed and many soldiers drowned. We are also informed that several Indian Villages have fallen victims to these destructive waters. It is now clearly ascertained that they flowed from the Rocky Mountains and passing over the banks of the Missouri (their usual channel to the Gulf of Mexico) overflowed the adjacent country; and were conducted here by the Riviere a La Souris which falls into the Assiniboine River about one hundred miles from this place.

Our crops continue to look well; both wheat and barley are in full ear and the potatoes sufficiently large for the table. When you consider that seven or eight weeks ago we were only sowing after the flood you will join in praise to Him in Whom we live and move and have our being, for His providential care towards His creatures.

This will give you an idea of the extent of the flood if we picture to ourselves the conditions when the Red River arose thirty-five feet above its usual level. It is no wonder that only our two high spots at Stony Mountain and Bird’s Hill escaped being submerged. It seems extraordinary that under the providence of God there were no human fatalities and so few even among animals and livestock generally.

We come now to speak of the flood of 1852, twenty-six years afterwards. Here again I cannot speak as an eye-witness, for, though I was born in that year, 80-odd years ago, either my parents or myself with Scottish caution saw to it that I did not appear on the scene until the waters had completely subsided. So, I shall have to depend upon the particulars given by Bishop Anderson in his Notes of the Flood, which were published shortly after the event.

Bishop Anderson begins his notes as follows:

This little sketch does not profess to be a narrative of the late flood as a whole but of its effect in that part of which I am in the centre. Its effects were very different in different places; they varied almost with every reach of the river and according to the level of the bank at each spot. It was perhaps the most disastrous among the Canadians around and above the Upper Fort; it was very severe in the Upper and Middlechurch districts, Middlechurch and St. Andrews near Lockport. It affected a good deal the lower part of the Assiniboine; while the upper part of the district of St. James and Rat River and the Indian settlements were almost untouched. My own suffering was greater for my having so much on my hands and so many around me. Some have even called our buildings a village. The schools and households numbering sixty to provide for daily might almost be so termed. There was my own house with the Collegiate school, where all were boarders, chiefly from a distance; a little below us the large house of St. Cross, a similar establishment for young ladies. Across the creek, over which I had lately thrown a long bridge, was the farmyard, stables, etc., and the parochial day school attached to the Upper Church, at the far end of which some of my servants lived.” (There used to be a deep creek between what is now Church Avenue and what is now the St. John’s Park and it was there that those buildings stood.)

It would take too long and possibly might be tedious to follow consecutively the whole narrative, so that I shall content myself with giving you excerpts illustrative of how events progressed. On Sunday, April 25th, we find the following note:

The ice having partially broken up rendered it unsafe to cross the river. A few, however, came over in the morning and more to the afternoon service. Large masses of ice passed during the evening and the following day. The water had risen much, even before the ice gave way, and continued doing so during the week, there being no outlet for it as yet towards the lake. The rise was sometimes a foot or a foot and a half in twenty four hours.

Sunday, May 2nd: By this time the prospect became alarming. I determined in consequence to give notice of a day of prayer and humiliation.

At the service on that day the Bishop preached in the morning from a text in the Prophet Amos:

“It is He that buildeth His stories in the heavens and hath founded His truth in the earth; He that calleth the waters of the sea and poureth them out upon the face of the earth. The Lord is His Name.” In the evening he spoke on St. Paul’s experience when shipwrecked, on the text: “The rest, some on boards and some on broken pieces of the ship, and so it came to pass that they escaped all safe to land.” The narrative goes on with the encouraging words: “The evening was placid and calm” and every breast was filled with hope. But on May third a different story is told: “These expectations were encouraged by the slight rise during the night, but from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the waters came so fast as to lead to very painful forebodings. Some houses opposite to us were already abandoned, their inmates tenting on little knolls behind. We hear of one settler taking a bateau right through his house; another with a boat at his door to carry off his goods. From the fort we hear that more than fifty deserted houses may be seen. The owners of some, wholly reckless of the future and regarding their return to them as uncertain, have in some cases offered them for sale and some houses changed hands in this way for thirty shillings and two pounds.” Circumstances became worse and worse, until we find that people were notified during the church service on May fifth that anyone who chose might lodge wheat in the gallery of the church for safety, thirty bushels were brought immediately after. Many besides deposited the articles they most valued to themselves, as clocks, saws, seed, etc. One individual brought as much as 100 bushels of grain of different kinds for storage. On May seventh the note is as follows: “A morning of more wintry aspect. Six hundred weight of flour lodged in the gallery of the Church. Horses of the Hudson’s Bay Company I passed down, sent for security to the stone Fort. They were seen fording and swimming the creeks, now swollen to rivers. In every direction there are processions of cattle, horses and carts going to Little Stony Mountain; the creaking sound of the wheels is melancholy to hear. One stable is seen drifting down the river. The most melancholy sight of the day had been when those tented on the ground moved off and passed over the swollen water to the north of the church. All walked right through the stream, men and women up to their waists. The cattle were swum over and the carts with difficulty got through. Others were housed by us for the night.”

Later on the Church at St. John’s which had been a house of refuge as well as a storehouse for valuables, was flooded, for the Bishop writes: “I went over to the Church and found the water had entered it. It was a melancholy sight to look down from the gallery and as I viewed the Church yard lying under water (the present cemetery at St. John’s) I thought, what could be done in case of death? There had been two funerals the day before at St. Andrews; what could I do if death occurred in the upper settlement?”

Apparently for a time part of the district of St. James was immune from trouble, and a great many went there in canoes or boats and took refuge in the parsonage, which was not yet finished. We are told that as many as thirty-five camped in one room. Later on, however, practically the whole population had to repair to Stony Mountain, Bird’s Hill, etc., and camped for many weeks on these higher spots. Such is the account of an eyewitness of the flood of 1852, which proved a serious setback to the settlement and, like a good many other misfortunes, tested the courage and constancy of those early pioneers who laid the foundations of the old Red River Colony with wonderful pluck and perseverance and of what subsequently became our Province of Manitoba. In these days of depression and difficulty may we, imitating their faith, continue steadfast and keep on our feet. Some of us ought to feel proud that we are descended from those intrepid pioneers who in the midst of disasters never said die. ...

I need not weary you with any further details of the disaster of 1852. I have said enough to indicate that it was sufficient to put a serious damper on the progress and development of the little colony at that date. For the records of the two floods which I have described I have had to depend upon the notes which I have gathered from those who were here when they occurred. In 1861, however, there was an inundation of which I was an eye-witness, though I was only a small boy. It was only of a partial extent and did not cover nearly as large an area as the two previous ones. The fact is, these succeeding floods seem to have grown less, both in extent and in their destruction, as time went on, which is an encouraging feature, bearing upon the possibility of any recurrent ones. That of 1861 appears to have made so small an impression on the public that I have searched in vain for any reference to it in the histories covering that period. Only the low lying lands were affected and as far as I can recollect not many houses were flooded. In portions of Kildonan and Middlechurch considerable inconvenience to the inhabitants was caused, with the result that homes were abandoned and a good many people migrated as they did in 1826 and 1852 to the higher lands.

The farm where I lived at the time was on the east side of the Red River opposite Old Kildonan church. It was located on the river bank and near it quite a deep creek (on which there was a dam and a water grist mill higher up) to which I have already referred, emptied itself into the river near our house. For that reason possibly our farm was seriously affected, in fact, it was covered with water reaching back for about a mile from the river. Just about the time that the floors of the houses were flooded the men removed our goods, chattels and livestock to a higher spot not far from where Transcona now stands. Those of us who were left behind, an aunt, a sister and myself, remained upstairs, which in those days was termed “the loft”, and where quantities of wheat and other cereals were piled up. It was arranged that within a day or two the men were to come back for us and take us out to where tents and board shacks were being built in the meantime to receive us. A heavy storm, however, ensued and we were left there for several days in great anxiety.

In the meantime the water continued to rise rapidly and I remember bringing a canoe, which was tied to a tree outside, into the downstairs rooms of the house, and for a time paddling about throughout the building, which was a commodious one, for it had been used for a boarding school by my grandfather in the early days. I recall that as time went on, the canoe came nearer and nearer to the ceiling of the house, until I had to duck my head when paddling about. One day I espied sitting on the roof of the stable (we called it the byre in those days) a very favorite white hen, but when I essayed to go out in the canoe to fetch her I was strictly forbidden on account of the possible risk.

One morning, however, when the surface of the water seemed smooth, we saw a hay rick and a portion of a stable with hens on it floating by. I slipped out quietly from downstairs in the canoe, paddled to the byre and rescued my hen. Holding her tightly between my knees, I used my hands for paddles, made my way back to the house and went aloft with the hen, which I remember made straight for a pile of grain and feasted on it, for apparently she had been starving for several days. The next day the hen rewarded us for my escapade by laying an egg, which we relished very much, for our supply of tasty food was becoming decidedly low.

Some days afterwards my uncles arrived in a York boat which they had borrowed from Donald Murray, I think it was, and took us out through an upstairs window and conveyed us out to the place where they had established our camp and temporary quarters. On the way out when we had reached land and discarded the boat we came across some livestock which had been left behind on the way out. Carts met us there and among the livestock was a pig and a fine litter of young ones. The mother and family were placed in a cart with a low rail round it and I was commissioned to drive it to our destination. When we came to what was called Bunn’s Creek and had to wade through it with the oxen cart, and when the water came into the cart, Mrs. Pig and her progeny became restless and, resisting my endeavours to keep them in, jumped into the stream and swam to the other side. When we collected them together I recall how some of the little pigs were bleeding around the throat and I was told that, while pigs could swim when they were compelled, they always incurred the danger of cutting their own throats with the sharp points on their hoofs, and if they swam far they were liable to cut themselves so seriously that they bled to death. Be that as it may, our little piggies arrived safely in camp and grew into fine porkers.

Life in our temporary encampment was quite pleasant. We had plenty of food and not too bad shelter and, as there were several families near each other, we had not a little social diversion. I remember how plentiful game was. Prairie chickens, partridges, plovers, etc., abounded on the ridges near us and a deep swamp hard by, encircled by reeds and rushes, seemed to be full of ducks. An uncle who was a good shot kept us supplied with all the game we needed. Every boy in those days had a bow and arrows and one morning, not to be beaten by my uncle, I crept into the reeds and, concealing myself, waited for the near approach of some ducks, which were swimming in the pond. When a large mallard swam close to me I let him have an arrow in the head. He tumbled into the water and, lest he should revive, I hurriedly waded after him, despatched him and carried him proudly to the camp. My foster mother said that I was becoming a Nimrod, but as I did not know the difference between a Nimrod and a ramrod I failed to appreciate the compliment.

On Sundays we used to ride on horseback—for the swamps were too deep to go through in carts—to Bird’s Hill some miles away, where the settlers from Middlechurch were camped. They attended church services there conducted by the Rev. John Chapman, who rowed out in a boat from his parish on the river about three miles away, and who had been living in the gallery of the church, in which he had also taken refuge in the flood of 1852. Twenty-six years before, Bishop Anderson speaks of Mr. Chapman holding services on the same spot and also in the large tent of Mr. Pritchard, who, as he states, had been debarred by infirmity for many years from regular attendance at public worship. ... I recall very vividly an incident which occurred at one of those services at the end of which Mr. Chapman made a painful announcement to us to the effect that Dr. Bunn had passed away that morning. The Doctor was very popular from end to end of the settlement, and was not only an able practitioner but a most devoted family physician. He was the much loved “Dr. McClure” of Ian McLaren’s book Beside the Bonnie Briar Bush. I was only a boy of eight at the time, but I shall never forget the profound impression made. I had seen women break down into convulsive tears but I had never seen full grown men collapse and try to hide their emotions by disappearing one by one into the grove hard by to weep there. A good family physician is a possession of great price.

I am afraid that I have kept you too long already, but let me add, that, as in the case of the other two floods, though we planted nothing much before July, in the good providence of God, nature seemed to adjust itself to our needs and mishaps, with the result that both grain and vegetables matured in time to supply adequately our wants.

Page revised: 20 June 2014