Good sandy loam. A forest of poplars. Beautiful fertile open prairie. Together these handwritten notes could describe none other than Manitoba at its inception, as shown on this 1871 map — the first depicting the province. At the time, the “postage stamp province,” as it was known, covered only about 36,000 square kilometres, roughly 18 times smaller than the Prairie and boreal province we know today.
While the area has for millennia been part of the traditional territories of the Assiniboine, Ojibwe and Dakota peoples in the south and the Cree and Dene in the north, the first Europeans to set foot in what would become Manitoba were 17th-century British migrants lured to the shores of Hudson Bay by a reported abundance of beaver pelts in a vast territory. After multiple ships returned to England with rich cargos of fur, a royal charter was signed to create the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670 and grant it control of Rupert’s Land, a giant territory covering about one-third of what is now Canada and all of present-day Manitoba.
To say Manitoba’s entrance into Confederation 200 years later was hard-fought is an understatement. In the late 1800s, the newly minted Dominion of Canada and the United States were both vying to purchase Rupert’s Land. To stop American encroach- ment and to unify western and eastern Canada, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald set his sights on adding Rupert’s Land to Canada.
The Me?tis of the Red River Colony, around present-day Winnipeg, feared losing their land, religion and culture if Canada gained control of the area. So, when the British sent surveyors to the Red River Valley in the late 1860s, the Me?tis resisted. They elected Louis Riel in 1869 to lead their opposition to the plan, and soon his group took posses- sion of Upper Fort Garry and declared its own government as part of what’s now known as the Red River Resistance. The uprising peaked with the execution of Thomas Scott, an anti-Me?tis agitator, on Riel’s orders.
In early 1870, the United Kingdom sold Rupert’s Land to Canada, while the federal government and the Me?tis settled on a list of rights. Much of their success is credited to Riel, who’s now regarded as the Father of Manitoba.
On May 12, 1870, the Manitoba Act received royal assent, and the new province — then home to about 12,000 — officially joined Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in Confederation on July 15 (read more about Manitoba’s creation in “Borderlines,” page 50.) In the coming decades, Ontarians flocked to Manitoba looking for land to farm. What was once open grasslands in the southern half of the province was quickly converted to agriculture. Winnipeg, now its capital city, grew from 1,000 to 9,000 residents, and the province’s population more than doubled by the end of the 19th century.
The province’s borders were expanded in 1881 and again in 1912, when it reached its current size. Though much of its wild prairie has been lost to agriculture, 150 years later, Manitoba remains as described on this 1871 map — with good sandy loam, beautiful fertile open prairie and forests of poplars.
*With files from Erika Reinhardt, archivist, Library and Archives Canada
Canadian Geographic commemorates 2020 is a series of articles, funded by the Government of Canada, celebrating milestone anniversaries of significance to the country’s history. See more stories in the series.