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Pioneers on the forest fringe: the wood economy of the Red River settlement in western Canada, 1812-1883.

The Europeans who settled North America lived in an age of wood. They used wood to heat and cook, to build houses, barns, and stores, to fence fields, to make carts, boats, yokes for oxen, ploughs, hay rakes, and other farming tools as well as for furniture, buckets, tubs, brooms, toys, and a host of other household items. Wood was also widely used and a crucial commodity on the southern Manitoba prairies.

The settlement that Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, founded at Red River in the heart of the Hudson's Bay Company trading empire was well situated between sprawling grasslands to its west that supplied traders with bison meat and hides and fur-rich forests, lakes, and streams to its north and east. (1) However, timber was in short supply. Wood was scarce as early as the 1820s and by 1858 great swaths of riverbank had been cleared of trees. The demand from the growing population soon outstripped the local supply and people relied more and more on imported wood. How the settlers, commercial enterprises, and the government handled this supply and demand situation makes for a fascinating economic and social history.

This article looks at the wood economy of the Red River Settlement from its beginnings in 1812 until the introduction of railway links between the United States and eastern Canada in the early 1880s. I describe local forest resources, wood uses, and how those uses affected society and the environment by drawing upon early accounts from individuals, in government records, as depicted in historical photographs and paintings, recorded in land and forest surveys, and through analysis of wood and charcoal fragments retrieved from archaeological sites. I also discuss how newcomers managed the scarce resources of the eastern prairies. I conclude that they failed to manage their forest resources wisely. Although the government eventually imposed some regulations on timber cutting in an effort to conserve the natural resources of the area, settlers adapted to the situation not by managing what they had, but by becoming dependent on wood brought in from afar.

The Earl of Selkirk recruited the original colonists from the highlands and elsewhere in Scotland, plus some from Ireland. Upon arrival, they were allocated farm lots along the Red River north of the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red, popularly known as "The Forks." (2) The settlement's population grew rapidly from a mere two hundred in 1814 to two thousand by 1825, due in large part to the Hudson's Bay Company's merger with its fur-trade rival, the Northwest Company, in 1821. (3) By this time, settlers included Scots, Irish, English, Swiss and even De Meurons mercenaries from Germany. More than half the population consisted of Cree and Ojibwa people, French voyageurs, and the Metis--a people of mixed European and Aboriginal parentage. (4)

After devastating floods in 1826, some colonists moved south while those who remained began to rebuild all that had been lost. Less than a decade later, the Hudson's Bay Company regained economic and political control of the region when they bought out Lord Selkirk. (5)

Beginning in 1839, groups of Metis traders travelled 800 km (500 miles) by ox cart to St. Paul, Minnesota to exchange furs and buffalo hides for household goods. By 1858, six hundred carts carrying hundreds of tons of cargo were plying the route. (6) Steamboats began arriving in 1859 and soon free traders built a few stores, hotels, and saloons near The Forks, creating the nucleus of what would become Winnipeg. (7)

Over seventy years, the wood economy of Red River Settlement shifted dramatically from a "Pioneer Era" (1812-circa 1860s), when families cut most of their own wood for fuel and building, to a "Commercial Era" (1860s-1880s) that saw the expansion of lumber imports, the rise of lumber companies, and the control by the Canadian federal government of timber harvesting.

From the start, the Settlement lacked adequate wood supplies. Most (80 percent) of the land within 30 km (18 miles) of the centre of the Settlement was either prairie or marsh. (8) Forests were confined to the borders of rivers and scattered groves (see a map on the following page). (9) Governor Miles MacDonell wrote:

"The Country on West side the river ... is all a plain with a belt of wood on the river edge of irregular depth.... in many places the plain reaches to the river bank. And the East side ... is well wooded. The wood consists of Oak, Elm, poplar, Liard or cottonwood, ash, Maple, &c., there is no pine or cedar. Rivers falling into the Red River are generally wooded on both sides. It would be proper to make reservations of wood on [the] East side [of the] R. R. in the proportion of about 100 acres for every five Settlers ..." (10)

Early maps and descriptions confirm these impressions. Aaron Arrowsmith's 1816 map shows a strip of forest on the east side of the Red River, but only prairie on the west. He describes the area south of The Forks as "Woods interspersed with small prairies extending for several miles" and the area beyond the forest belt on the east of the Red River as "Plains interspersed with tufts of wood." (11)

Based on recent forest surveys, the species that bordered the Red and other prairie rivers included white or American elm (Ulmns americana), green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), Manitoba maple (Acer negundo), peachleaf willow (Salix amygdaloides), eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides), and, in favourable locations, basswood (also known as linden or whitewood, Tilia americana). (12) Stands of bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) grew on higher ground while islands of trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) and balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera) dotted the open prairie (see Table 2). River valleys and prairie groves contained limited building timber, so much had to be acquired from distant forests.

To the east of Red River lay huge tracts of forests covering more than 16,000 square kilometres (6,000 square miles). (13) In the early days of the Settlement, lowland peat bogs probably covered two-thirds of this land, supporting black spruce (Picea mariana), tamarack/larch (Larix laricina), and eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis). Expanses of jack pine (Pinus banksiana) and, in places, red pine (Finns resinosa) could be found on dry sandy ridges and uplands. Scattered groves of eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) grew on slightly moister sites. (14)

Jack pine also grew on soils with intermediate moisture where it was joined by white spruce (Picea glauca), balsam fir (Abies balsamea), and white birch (Betula papyrifera). Aspen was common throughout, on dry to wet soils, either in pure stands or mixed with the other species. Groves of deciduous trees bordered major streams.

Before commercial logging, these forests contained enough standing timber to build thousands of houses. (15) Once cut, it took replacement trees decades to mature due to the short growing season and low soil fertility in the area. (16)

Throughout the Settlement's history, people obtained their firewood and construction timber in one of three ways:

1. Households harvested their own wood, sometimes with neighbours or hired workers. John McDougall, who lived in the Settlement from 1842 to 1862, tells of a cooperative "bee" that rafted logs to a building site where a church was being enlarged. (17) A crew then sawed the timber and left it to season until autumn when the Hudson's Bay Company carpenter completed the building.

2. They bartered or purchased from a woodcutter. In 1816, the governor of the Settlement bought one hundred pieces of squared timber from a local "Freeman" for Fort Douglas. (18) Samuel Taylor's diary records that in February 1864, a load of hay was exchanged for poplar building logs. (19) Rev. George Young purchased firewood in 1868: "The fuel brought by the natives to our Winnipeg market was generally of the poplar-pole sort ..." (20)

3. They purchased from a commercial outlet. John Inkster's store supplied hundreds of planks to the Hudson's Bay Company as early as 1850. (21) Merchants advertised lumber and firewood for sale in The Nor'Wester newspaper's first issue on 28 December 1859.

When the population was thinly scattered along the Red and Assiniboine rivers, most households relied on the first two methods for obtaining wood. (22) They gathered much of their own firewood locally, but many brought building logs from a distance. (23) Axe men usually felled trees during the winter and hauled them to a riverbank to await the spring runoff when the logs could be rafted downstream. As the limited local building timber dwindled, people cut upstream along the Red and Assiniboine, the Red's eastern tributaries such as the Seine, Rat, and Roseau, and from wooded ridges east of the Red River (see Figure l). (24) By the late 1840s, they had to cut wood as far away as the upper Roseau and Red Lake rivers in northwestern Minnesota. (25)

Travelling for wood was time-consuming. The Rev. R. G. MacBeth recalled: "... in certain seasons of the year the settlers were away from home ... during the whole week." (26) Samuel Taylor wrote that oxen often hauled large loads of firewood from as far away as Lake Winnipeg. He noted in his diary, "prepared a meal for a day's excursion to obtain building wood 48-64 km [30-40 miles] away." (27) Diarist Peter Garrioch often mentioned expeditions to collect wood to build a house from locations east of the Red River. (28) In entries from 1845 to 1847, he describes trips to the "Pines" (probably near Birds Hill), the "Far Pines," "Cedars," and "Anderson's Pines." In all, Garrioch's crew hauled 222 beams of wood, including cedar and tamarack. They also hauled six loads of cedar shakes and two loads of cedar wood for framing.

Many men were employed in the cutting of timber, sometimes at the expense of other occupations. Aboriginal and Metis men cut and rafted firewood, building timber, and fencing. (29) Metis loggers cut tamarack from swamps near the Rat River to make wooden boardwalks for Winnipeg. (30) Meanwhile, a Hudson's Bay Company trader complained that many of his fur trappers had left to work in the logging camps. (31)

Downed trees were trimmed and floated as near to a building site as possible before the planks were sawed. Carpenters erected scaffolds to hold the logs for cutting or used "pit" saws. (32) To build a pit saw, a rectangular pit about 2 m (6 ft.) deep was dug. Each log was debarked with adzes and the intended cuts were marked with chalk or charcoal, then the log was laid over the pit. One sawyer climbed into the pit while another stood above, each holding one end of a 2.4 m (8 ft.) saw. (33) Being a top sawyer was not easy, but the bottom sawyer's job was "laborious ... in the extreme; sawdust poured down on his sweating face and bare arms, and down his back ..." (34) Thankfully, sawmills replaced pit saws during the early 1870s. (35)

Building was, of course, a major activity from the Settlement's early days. In the first year, a 15 x 7.5 m (50 x 25 ft.) house and another measuring 4.5 x 6.6 m (15 x 22 ft.) were constructed. Crews also began work on Fort Douglas, named in honour of Lord Selkirk's family, using logs and timbers rafted downriver from the company's post at Pembina. (36) By 1822, the 32 x 40 m (132 x 105 ft.) stockade featured a large hexagonal blockhouse, one large house, six smaller houses, a carpenter shop, an icehouse, a mill, a stable, a potato house, and a forge. Outside the fort, were 126 houses for a population of 1,200. (37) That same year, the Hudson's Bay Company built Fort Garry, named after the Company's deputy governor, at The Forks. The original Fort Garry was destroyed by flood in 1826, but was rebuilt on higher ground in 1835 as part of a more elaborate establishment.

Most builders used a technique known as "Hudson's Bay Style," "Red River Frame," or "posts-on-a-sill." Scandinavians developed it and settlers of New France (Quebec) brought it to North America. From there, French fur traders took it west where the Hudson's Bay Company and Red River settlers adopted it for homes, churches, stores, schools, and outbuildings. Red River Frame remained popular until the 1870s. (38)

To build a house, first a foundation of fieldstones was put in place. A frame of squared oak timbers was laid on this. Next, vertical posts were erected at each corner and along each wall, mortised into the foundation timbers. Grooves were cut in each post, then lengths of timber were slid into the grooves, creating walls. Doors and windows were set between two minor uprights. The technique needed time and skill, but the result was remarkably strong. (39)

About a third of all wood used in the Settlement went for building. The 1856 census lists 6,523 people and includes mention of 922 houses, 1,232 stables, 399 barns, 17 schools, 56 shops, 16 windmills, nine churches, nine watermills, and one gaol. (40) Each modest-sized house needed five to six thousand board feet of lumber including one thousand board feet in shingles. (41) For roofing, people favoured straw thatch as it was "light, watertight and durable." (42) Few could afford cedar shingles, and those of oak warped in the summer heat.

Most homes were modest. The 1856 census lists 597 houses valued at between 12 [pounds sterling] and 25 [pounds sterling], but 25 houses were valued at 300 [pounds sterling]. (43) Many of the 300 [pounds sterling] houses were large, Georgian-style buildings constructed of stone or wood, with one- or two-storeys, pitched roofs, rectangular windows, and ornamented front doors. (44) The rectory at St. Andrew's, built between 1844 and 1849, is an excellent example. The 16 m-wide (54 ft.) building has a symmetrical facade with two windows on each side of the central door and five windows in the second storey. Archdeacon Reverend Cochrane oversaw the building of the rectory and described craftsmen's contributions in his diary for 29 December 1844:

"Stones, lime, shingles, boards, timber, and labour were cheerfully contributed. The shingle makers proposed to give 10,000 each; the lime burners 400 bushels each; the masons proposed to dress the stones for one corner and lay them gratis. Boards and timber were promised in the same liberal manner...." (45)

Builders used a half-dozen kinds of wood. Those listed in the Hudson's Bay Company inventories and purchase orders for the 1840s were, in order of abundance, oak, pine (I presume a generic term covering both spruce and pine), poplar, cedar, elm, and larch. (46) Carpenters used oak for framing, pine (or spruce) for floors, and whitewood (basswood) for furniture. Less-regarded poplar was peeled to make fence poles and house partition walls. (47)

Local carpenters built tables, chairs, and chests from oak or whitewood. Some wealthy families imported their home's wood detailing and furniture from England or the United States with Red River carts bringing oak and walnut woodwork, sashes, doors, and walnut furniture from St. Paul in 1862. (48)

Oak and spruce were the most popular building woods identified at 19th-century archaeological sites and historic houses from within the Red River Settlement. Sampling consisted of two fur-trade sites, three Metis farmsteads, and three standing houses totalling eight locations. Oak wood was found at five of the eight locations, spruce at four (see Table 3). (49) Most of the remains uncovered at Fort Gibraltar were of local tree species, but at Upper Fort Garry only a third were local. (50) The other two-thirds were conifers: spruce, jack pine, white and red pine, larch, cedar, and fir, all probably brought from eastern Manitoba. We also found a few shavings of black cherry (Prunus serotina) that must have been imported as the nearest trees are 500 km (300 miles) away in southeastern Minnesota. (51) With its golden sheen and smooth grain, cabinetmakers ranked it second only to black walnut. (52)

Daily life required a variety of utilitarian wooden tools and containers-including the ubiquitous "pans," circular oak tubs with straight sides and holes for handles, used for making butter, cheese, soap, and candles. (53) As early as 1818, coopers were fashioning such pans as well as oaken barrels and buckets. (54)

Boats, birch bark canoes, and ox carts were built to carry people and goods, while ploughs, harrows, threshing and carding mills, reaping and winnowing machines were among locally made farming implements. Public works involved building wooden bridges and stabilizing muddy roads with wood bundles. In 1855, workers built seventeen bridges, one 38 m (125 ft.) long and 6 m (19 ft.) wide; in 1858, they covered 2,987 m (3,268 yards) of "gumbo" road with faggots. (55)

Alexander Ross wrote in 1858, "Ere long, brick must necessarily be adopted as a substitute for wood." (56) However, builders did not use them until the 1870s.

The quantity of wood used for all types of building was significant, but most wood was burned just to stay warm during the long, cold winters. Robert Coutts writes:

"When the temperature reached minus twenty or thirty Celsius, as it often did in the depths of winter, the stoves and fireplaces were kept constantly burning. Gathering wood for fuel was an essential part of life in the Parish. Each fall, residents had to travel some distance to the various wooding sites on Lake Winnipeg or east of the Red River, where two or three days were needed to chop and stack the wood for transport back to the settlement. The firewood was hauled home on oxen-pulled sleds or on Red River carts. A large quantity of wood was needed to heat the average home through the winter months, and settlers were often forced to return to 'the pines' one or more times to replenish their depleted supplies." (57)

I estimate that each household burned twenty to thirty cords of wood per year just for heating and cooking. (58) A cord represents a stack 1.2 m (4 ft.) high by 2.4 m (8 ft.) long and 1.2 m (4 ft.) wide, equal to two hundred 8-10 cm (3-4 in) saplings or two trees, 45-50 cm (18-20 in) in diameter. (59)

Firewood became increasingly scarce as the settlement grew. As Hudson's Bay Company Governor Sir George Simpson testified before a House of Commons Committee in 1857, "The question of a supply of timber for building purposes is not so important as the requirements of the same material for fuel ..." (60) One settler of that time, Robert Ballantyne, wrote, "Ere long, the inhabitants will have to raft their firewood down the river from a considerable distance." (61) Firewood was at times so scarce that people were forced to burn some of their prized possessions. Historian Diane Payment describes the disastrous winter of 1858-1859: "As hunters had been out of firewood, they burnt upwards of 50 of their carts." (62)

Written records show that stoves and fireplaces at Fort Garry burned oak, poplar, and less frequently, pine (probably spruce). Although more expensive, oak may have been preferred due to its high heat yield. (63) Oak's higher cost is reflected in the proportions of charcoal found at three archaeological sites: oak made up forty-two percent of the charcoal from Upper Fort Garry, but comprised only seven to eight percent from two Metis farmsteads (see Table 3). (64)

To save energy and exclude drafts, people chinked their houses with mud and straw, sometimes adding buffalo hair to the mix. A few covered their outer walls with stucco or clapboard. Windows and doors were kept small to conserve heat. (65) Early on, fireplaces of stone or baked clay were common, although more efficient cast-iron stoves gained in popularity after 1820. (66) To further encourage stove use, the Council of Assiniboia scrapped the import duty on them in 1847. (67) However, most families still baked in outdoor ovens built of a frame of green willow branches plastered with clay.68 Besides domestic heating and cooking, people heated water for bathing, washing dishes and clothes, for making starch, for dyeing cloth, and for making salt. (69) They also burned wood to brew beer and distill spirits. (70)

The small windows that made homes easier to heat also resulted in rooms that felt gloomy and dark, so builders took to plastering and whitewashing the inside walls. Limestone chunks (calcium carbonate, CaC[O.sub.3]) were collected from outcrops along the Red River, broken into small pieces and piled into a stone kiln fired with wood or charcoal. Several days of burning converted the limestone into calcium oxide (CaO), or quicklime. Builders mixed the quicklime with water and clay or sand to make plaster that they applied to interior walls and chimneys. As it hardened, the quicklime combined with carbon dioxide in the air to become calcium carbonate again. For paint, they used a thinner mixture. (71) Though it lightened interiors, creating enough quicklime to plaster a typical house burned the wood from 0.2 ha (0.5 ac.) of forest. (72)

People also burned wood to make charcoal. Charcoal delivered the same amount of heat, weighed less, and burned hotter and cleaner than wood. Producing it was a time-honoured endeavour throughout Europe and colonial North America, requiring great skill. (73) A team of charcoal burners would set up in a forest clearing, preferably near stands of oak and ash. They cut wood into 1.2 m (4 ft.) lengths and split it lengthwise into pieces several cm (inches) thick that they piled into a large mound around a hollow centre that served as a chimney. To ensure controlled burning, the crew covered the mound with soil before inserting a charge of burning charcoal. They monitored the burning for several days, lest the fire go out or, alternatively, burn all the wood to ash. When cooled, the crew had the grimy job of packing the charcoal into sacks. A cord of wood yielded 35 to 45 bushels of charcoal. (74) In the early days, blacksmiths and farriers used large quantities of charcoal in their forges, perhaps up to a couple of hundred bushels annually. (75) Excavations at the blacksmith shop at Lower Fort Garry recovered poplar charcoal remains. (76)

Wind and waterpower had been widely used for grinding grain and sawing wood, but the advent of the steam engine in the 1860s increased the use of wood fuels. Even small engines burned a cord or more of wood a day. (77)

The arrival of steamboats in 1859, the building of a road from Lake of the Woods in 1868, the opening of a stagecoach line in 1871, and the coming of railways in the late 1870s all expanded trade and immigration. The vessel Anson Northup was the first steamboat to dock at The Forks, arriving on May 23, 1859 with a shriek of its whistle as jubilant crowds celebrated its four-day 400-km (250-mile) journey down the Red River from near Fargo, North Dakota. (78) In a fever of competition, transport companies launched a dozen or more steamboats during the next two decades and, by 1882, more than twenty boats plied western rivers. (79) Steamboats became larger, ranging up to 218 tons, able to haul ever-greater cargoes. Some clever soul soon reasoned that a steamboat could move even more tonnage by towing barges. On one trip, the 36-ton Pluck towed three barges laden with freight, including a good deal of lumber. (80) Though they carried tons of wood for commercial sale, large steamers also burned massive quantities as fuel. The Anson Northup is said to have used nearly a cord of wood an hour and had to stop frequently to cut wood along the shore. (81)

Large, flat-bottomed boats that were poled rather than towed also joined the shipping frenzy. A thriving flatboat-building industry emerged along the Red River in North Dakota beginning in the 1860s. Each flatboat of Whitford & Harris, a prominent firm engaged in the trade, carried ten to twenty tons; a decade later, such boats carried up to thirty tons. Shippers used barges and flatboats to transport seed grain, flour, machinery, farm implements, and lumber destined for prairie farms and settlements, including tens of millions of board feet of lumber to Red River over the next several decades. (82)

Less than two decades after the first steamboat arrived, the first train left Winnipeg for St. Paul, Minnesota on 9 December 1878. (83) Crews completed the Canadian Pacific's main line from Fort William, Ontario to Winnipeg five years later. (84) Railways hauled lumber but building them also used much wood. Construction of that line required cutting of vast quantities of timber from the Whitemouth River area for ties, locomotive fuel, and more. (85) Each mile of track needed three thousand "sleepers" or cross ties, 2.4 m (8 ft.) long, 15 cm (6 inches) thick, and 15 cm (6 inches) wide, or 34 board feet. Spaced every 0.5 m (21 inches), this added up to an astonishing 102,000 board feet per mile. (86)

Timber cutting moved even farther afield as thousands of immigrants poured into Manitoba by boat, cart, stagecoach and, now, rail. (87) Crosscut saws could be heard along the Winnipeg, Whitemouth, and other rivers and around Lake Winnipeg and Lake of the Woods as well as in northwestern Minnesota. In the early 1870s, only a handful of companies were operating, but soon lumber milling became Winnipeg's chief industry. The earliest sawmills were erected on the banks of the Red River while later mills were located closer to logging operations. (88) More than twenty mills were operating by 1880, but lumber imports from the United States continued. (89)

Between 1859 and 1870, the year Manitoba joined Canada, the Settlement doubled in size to over twelve thousand people. (90) Winnipeg, which had been a small part of the Red River Settlement, grew into a leading urban centre and the provincial capital, touted as the "Gateway to the West" as towns and villages sprang up across the new province. (91) By 1870, Winnipeg boasted about thirty buildings including eight stores, two saloons, two hotels, a mill, and a church. (92) Within a few years:

"... [Winnipeg had] flour and saw mills, sash and door factories, a brewery and a distillery, dealers in furs and hides; grocery, dry goods, furniture, hardware, drug, book stores and butcher shops; tobacconists and wine merchants, tailors and outfitters; fuel dealers; lumber yards, builders and contractors; agricultural implement and seed dealers, blacksmiths, harness shops and livery stables, hotels, banks, land offices and real estate dealers; insurance agents, barristers and attorneys, physicians and surgeons, dentists, news press and printing establishments ..." (93)

The first issue of the Manitoba Free Press, on 9 November 1872, declared: "the number of new buildings must be considered enormous." (94) As a result of this building boom, lumber prices shot up such that "in the spring of '71 rough lumber sold at $70 per thousand [board feet], and poor lumber it was at that; dressed lumber was $100 per thousand." (95) The clang of hammers echoed across the town day and night. In 1880, over four hundred buildings were erected at a cost of $1 million. Seven hundred more were built the next year, worth $2.4 million, to accommodate a population of over six thousand. (96) Between 30 and 40 million board feet of wood and 220 thousand cords of firewood and lath were cut in five Manitoba districts in 1881. (97) This phenomenal volume was in addition to massive imports of lumber from the United States. Imports would continue to be the main source of Manitoba's lumber for the next few decades. (98)

For all of the building going on, living quarters for the rising population became scarce. As a short-term solution in the spring of 1882, trains brought in 1,500 tents and seven carloads of "ready-made houses in sections" to ease the crisis. (99) For a short time Winnipeg became a tent city, but the boom was not to last. The bubble burst in the summer of 1882 and speculators moved westward. (100) Ten years after the price of lumber had risen to $100 per thousand board feet, it dropped to between $30 and $40. (101)

The total amount of wood cut during the seventy years of the settlement's expansion is almost impossible to estimate, but the pace of its use could have been slowed through sensible forest management. Instead, enthusiastic woodcutting led to almost complete local deforestation. Taking all uses into account, I estimate that in the early years, people consumed several hundred board feet per capita annually. It is not unreasonable to suppose that number to be a thousand board feet or more by the 1880s.

Shifts in forest management practices coincided with political turning points. Before 1835, settlers sought wood where they could find it without encumbering regulations. From 1835 to 1870, the governing Council of Assiniboia regulated both timber cutting and the setting of fires and, in 1859, they prohibited tree harvesting on unoccupied lots along the Assiniboine River. (102) Surviving court records from that time show only three disputes over timber cutting. (103) So few cases might mean that disputes were generally settled out of court, that people observed the regulations, or that there was little monitoring of timber cutting. In all likelihood, the truth is the result of a combination of things.

During the 1870s, settlement spread from a narrow strip along the Red and Assiniboine rivers to 50,000 sq. km (19,300 sq. mi.) of southern Manitoba. (104) Surveyors described much of this area as "prairie and meadow land."105 A young emigrant agreed: "poplar and a few oaks are the only trees here." (106) Since many new farms lacked trees, the government felt obliged to allocate woodlots, though this plan proved contentious. (107) Ideally, each settler could obtain a free woodlot of 4-8 ha (10-20 ac.) on Crown land; later, lots were available for a small fee. Alternatively, if they obtained a permit, they could cut a certain amount of timber on Crown land for their own use. However, some settlers found it difficult to obtain either woodlots or permits. On February 17, 1872, the Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba, the Queen's representative in the province, insisted that the "woods be maintained for settlers ..." The Privy Council agreed, stating that the government would meet these provisions in the forthcoming Dominion Lands Act under which the Canadian government took over forest management in the region. (108)

The Act offered a 65 ha (160 ac.) homestead to anyone who would break the land and live on it for at least six months a year for three years. (109) Through its various amendments the Act allocated timber and firewood to settlers who had no wood on their property, granted licences and permits to commercial timber operators, and levied fines for unlawfully cutting on government land. (110) Government documents refer to permits for settlers in 1872 and later. (111) In a Privy Council report from 1875 such permits are discussed. The government authorized the local Federal Land Agent to allow settlers to cut, free of charge, all the firewood and building timber for their own needs in the vicinity of their homesteads. The report details the modest royalty required from those wishing to cut timber to sell. (112)

Some dishonest settlers cut timber on Crown land without authorization. (113) In the words of William Pearce, "In the early days it was quite common if you met a settler with a load of wood and asked him where he obtained it, he would reply on Section 37. This meant in practice that he had stolen it." Pearce went on: "The principle of permits, as administered, was a disastrous one ... Parties went in, cut and slashed, taking out only the very best timber because they feared someone else would take it if they did not ... The administration was lax in that respect." (114) This kind of selfish cut-and-run tactic without thought of the needs of others amounts to a "tragedy of the commons." (115)

Several years later, protests by the Lieutenant-Governor and Manitoba members of Parliament forced the government to postpone a planned public auction of woodlots in the newly settled areas, arguing that many homesteaders could not afford them. In the end, the government yielded and reserved free woodlots for homesteaders. (116)

The Department of Interior was responsible for allocating commercial timberlands by long-term lease or annual permit while retaining ownership of the land. It originally set the maximum size of Licensed Timber Berths at 130 sq. km (50 sq. mi.), though records show that several berths were larger. (117) Berths were leased for twenty-one years, renewable. Each lessee paid a nominal annual "ground rent" of $2 per 2.6 sq. km (sq. mi.) plus an initial bonus of $20 per 2.6 sq. km (1 sq. mi.). The government also charged a five percent royalty on the value of timber sawn. (118) As immigrants poured into Manitoba in the 1870s and early 1880s, the number of timber leases granted rose from a handful to more than twenty in 1881.

Regulations stipulated that a lessee must erect a sawmill capable of cutting one thousand board feet per day for each 6.5 sq. km (2.5 sq. mi.) of berth. A typical berth thus needed a sawmill with a capacity of 20,000 board feet per day. Lessees were to keep their mills running for six months each year throughout the term of the lease. In 1876, the government began issuing yearly permits that allowed cutting of timber for a fee based on the diameter of the stumps cut. (119)

Clear-cutting seemed the norm with no provision for forest regeneration although both federal and provincial governments did encourage tree planting. An 1876 amendment to the Dominion Lands Act stated that anyone could gain title to 65 ha (160 ac.) if they planted trees, while Manitoba encouraged tree planting along "highways and elsewhere in this Province." Setting fire to standing or fallen timber was also prohibited. (120)

The hindsight of over a century enables us to appraise how effectively the Red River Settlement and its successor, the Canadian Government, managed their forest resources. The apparent aim of both was to ensure the availability of wood for expanding settlements rather than to sustain the resources in the region. (121) At that time, officials knew little about forest productivity, an essential ingredient in estimating the amount of cutting that should be allowed. Science-based forestry did not begin in North America until the 1880s.

At first, the Canadian government made no forest inventories, had few rules for allocating leases and permits, and did little to regulate timber harvesting. Most timber leases were not surveyed in advance; licensees were expected to conduct their own. Leases were supposedly allocated through sealed tender or at public auction, but at times officials seemed to favour applicants with political connections. (122) Moreover, the harvesting fees were modest--between $20 and $40 per thousand board feet in the 1880s. (123) While the regulations of the Dominion Lands Act may have been well intentioned, the government failed to enforce them. Prior to 1879, no government timber agent was available in Winnipeg to inspect logging sites or levy fines. (124) Forest fire protection was organized by the government in 1885, but replanting of cut-over areas did not begin until the 1900s. (125)

With some exceptions, the effects of wood use at Red River on society and the environment were less dramatic when the population was small. People gathered their own firewood, a chore that took time and effort, although most building logs were brought from a distance. (126) As time went on, disparities in wealth grew as manufacturing and trade developed resulting in a more stratified society. (127) Improved transportation broadened the gap between rich and poor. Whereas steamboats could bring in expensive foods and other luxuries, poorer farmers and traders could not afford them. The livelihood of many Metis was tied to the bison hunt and the Red River cart trade, both of which all but disappeared by the 1870s. (128)

The wood economy changed with the times. Wood became a commodity as lumber firms sprang up in the 1860s and 1870s. As fiscal disparities grew, the wealthy built expensive houses trimmed with oak and walnut, decorated with imported furnishings. They could afford to heat their homes and cook their food with expensive stoves and costly firewood. Access to wood, especially quality wood, became more and more a matter of one's ability to pay.

The pace of deforestation is depicted through numerous paintings and photographs. A famous scene painted by Peter Rindesbacher in 1821 shows the winter landscape at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers with only a few scattered trees. (129) Explorer William Keating noted that timber was already scarce when he visited the Settlement in 1823. (130) As decades wore on, local forests continued to shrink and by 1858 Alexander Ross wrote that the "best part of the settlement was treeless." (131) Photographs by Humphrey Hime in that year show bare riverbanks with trees in the distance. Local deforestation was almost complete. (132) Photographs taken in the 1870s and 1880s show bare riverbanks with clumps of wooden buildings set in empty prairie. (133) By century's end, many thousands of mature trees in eastern Manitoba were gone, including virtually all the white and red pines.

Could the settlers have used techniques such as coppicing and pollarding in southern Manitoba to better manage their forest resources? Coppicing and pollarding trees and tall shrubs had long been used in Scotland and elsewhere in Europe. Both had been practiced in the Highlands since at least the 1700s, following the almost complete deforestation of Scotland in previous centuries. (134) In coppicing, shrubs and immature trees are cut near the ground every few years and left to grow again. Pollarding involves removing branches 2.5-3.5 m (8-12 ft.) above the ground to produce more branches. Both techniques help ensure a supply of saplings and branches for building and fuel. (135)

Fast-growing trees and shrubs suitable for coppicing and pollarding, such as poplar and willow, grew along the Red and other rivers, around marshes, and on the open prairie. Poplars are well known to produce sucker shoots when cut or burned and rapidly grow from stumps. (136) In his 1902 textbook on forestry for Minnesota students, Samuel B. Green discusses the coppicing of willows, poplars, oaks, and maples for firewood and the pollarding of willows and poplars to produce branches for firewood, basketry, and other crafts. (137) At least a few settlers must have known about these techniques from their native Scotland. (138) Such management may not have prevented deforestation at Red River, but could have slowed it. (139)

Settlers elsewhere on the eastern prairies shared the problems facing the people at Red River during the prerailway era. For instance, Fort Snelling, near the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, suffered a lack of building timber and firewood as early as 1826. (140) The village of Minneapolis grew so fast in the 1850s that it outstripped its lumber supplies.

Early communities could cope with wood scarcity in four ways: (1) spend more time, effort, and money to obtain wood; (2) reduce demand through conservation; (3) better manage available supply; or (4) substitute another type of resource.

The Red River settlers relied mainly on the first option, although they did insulate their homes to conserve fuel. Some prairie pioneers in Canada and the United States coped with wood scarcity by building houses of sod and burning almost anything at hand--buffalo chips, corn stalks, hay, or wild grasses. (141)

Sadly, it seems no European-style wood management was practised anywhere on the eastern prairies. Given that many settlers struggled to eke out a living, one can only assume that the benefits of cutting and using whatever wood was available outweighed any thoughts of careful management. Wood for building and fuel was viewed simply as a commodity. Forest conservation had to wait several generations, but eventually the long-term effects of deforestation within the Settlement were erased as much of the local forest grew back on its own or through tree planting.

Unfortunately, logging and deforestation for agriculture continue at a rapid pace around the globe. (142) Removing trees on a massive scale leads to a warmer climate as the uptake of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is reduced. As societies begin to take note of this threat, there is hope that people will find new ways to increase both food and energy supplies by linking agriculture and forestry. It does not have to be crops or firewood, it can be crops and firewood. (143)


I dedicate this paper to the memory of Frank H. Kaufert, former dean of the College of Forestry at the University of Minnesota, and one of the founders of the Forest History Society. I thank Nathan Kramer for archival research and am especially indebted to Jennifer Shay, Cole Wilson, and Bev Hauptmann for research and editing. To Moti Shojania, Dean of St. Paul's College, my appreciation for providing research space. I thank Dave Raynard (former Director of Forestry, Province of Manitoba), Katherine Pettipas (former Curator of Native Ethnology at the Manitoba Museum), and Karen Nicholson (Manitoba Historic Resources Branch) for their suggestions and comments. Thanks to Michael Doig and Tim Swanson (Eastern Region, Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship), Lee Frelich (University of Minnesota Center for Forest Ecology), and Chris Kotecki (Archives of Manitoba) for valuable information. I am grateful to Dale Gibson for comments about the Council of Assinibola court records. I also thank Scott Wilson (Consultant Forester and Forest Ecologist, Aberdeen), Fiona Watson (Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands, Inverness), David Foster (Harvard Forest), Alan R. Ek (Department of Forest Resources, University of Minnesota), Don Dickmann (Department of Forestry, Michigan State University), Alan Taylor (Department of History, University of California Davis), Mark Krawczyk (Keyline, Vermont), and Charles Mann (Amherst, Massachusetts) for their comments on coppicing and forest management. Finally, I appreciate the efforts of the editor and the helpful comments by two reviewers.

by C. Thomas Shay

Welton, East Yorkshire, England

Tom Shay earned his PhD in Anthropology and taught at the University of Manitoba for many years. Much of his research has involved bringing historical and archaeological evidence together to study past plant uses. He became interested in the wood economy during excavations of Upper Fort Garry where a wide variety of 19th-century wood remains were recovered.

Table 1
Major events in the Red River Settlement, 1812-1883.

Year        Event                           Popn     Wood Economy

1812        Selkirk colonists begin to      200      Pioneer Era
            arrive at Red River

1815-1817   Armed conflicts between
            North West Company
            and the colonists

1821        North West and Hudson's         2,000
            Bay Companies merge;
            many fur traders retired
            to the Red River Settlement

1826        Devastating floods; many
            settlers move south to
            what is now Minnesota

1835        Metis traders begin trading     3,700
            with St. Paul via ox carts

1859        First steamboat arrives         6,500    Commercial Era

1868        Road to Lake of the Woods

1870        Manitoba joins Canada

1871        Stagecoach line to Moorhead,    12,300
            Minnesota opens

1870s       Shipments of lumber and
            goods expands rapidly via
            flatboats and barges on Red

1874        Part of Settlement becomes
            City of Winnipeg

1878        Railway links Winnipeg
            with Minnesota

1881        Manitoba's population           66,000
            expanding rapidly

1883        Railway links Winnipeg
            with eastern Canada

Table 2

Forest resources of southeastern
Manitoba, circa 1812.

Floodplain Forest

White elm
Green ash
Manitoba maple
Basswood / linden
Peach-leaf willow

Deciduous Forest,

Aspen poplar
Balsam poplar
Green ash
Bur oak

Mixed and
Coniferous Forest

Aspen poplar
Jack pine
White spruce
White birch
Balsam fir
Red pine
White pine

Coniferous Bog, Swamp

Black spruce
Tamarack / larch
White cedar

Table 3
Wood and charcoal remains from 19th-century archaeological sites and
houses in the Red River Settlement.


                                                         Wood    Char
Wood                                                       %       %
Source     Scientific name         Common name           n=23    n=232

Local      Populus                 Poplar / aspen        39.1     7.8
           Salix                   Willow                 --      0.9
           Populus / Salix         Poplar / willow        --      --
           Fraxinus                Ash                   17.4    71.1
           Ulmus                   Elm                    4.3     3.9
           Acer                    Maple                  --      --
           Tilia                   Basswood / linden     17.4     0.9
           Quercus                 Oak                    8.7    13.8
           Corylus                 Hazel                  --      --
           Viburnum                Arrowwood / pembina    --      --

           Subtotal (local)                              87.0    98.3

Eastern    Conifer                 Pine, spruce, etc.     --      1.7
Manitoba   Abies                   Fir                    --      --
           Juniper us              Juniper                --      --
           Larix                   Larch / tamarack       --      --
           Picea                   Spruce                 --      --
           Pinus banksiana         Jack pine              --      --
           Pinus resinosa          Red pine               --      --
           Pinus strobus           White pine             --      --
           Pinus                   Pine                   --      --
           Thuja                   White cedar            --      --
           Betula                  Birch                  8.7     --

           Subtotal (Eastern Manitoba)                    8.7     1.7

From       Castanea                Chestnut               4.3     --
outside    Prunus serotina         Black cherry           --      --
Manitoba   Pseudotsuga taxifolia   Douglas fir            --      --

           Subtotal (Outside Manitoba)                    4.3     --

Totals                                                   100.0   100.0

                                                          Fort Garry

                                                         Wood    Char
Wood                                                       %       %
Source     Scientific name         Common name           n=536   n=24

Local      Populus                 Poplar / aspen         2.8    41.7
           Salix                   Willow                 0.6     --
           Populus / Salix         Poplar / willow        --      --
           Fraxinus                Ash                    1.1     8.3
           Ulmus                   Elm                    1.5     --
           Acer                    Maple                  --      --
           Tilia                   Basswood / linden      2.1     --
           Quercus                 Oak                   24.8    41.7
           Corylus                 Hazel                  0.4     4.2
           Viburnum                Arrowwood / pembina    0.4

           Subtotal (local)                              33.6    95.8

Eastern    Conifer                 Pine, spruce, etc.     --      --
Manitoba   Abies                   Fir                    0.4     --
           Juniper us              Juniper                0.4     --
           Larix                   Larch / tamarack       3.2     --
           Picea                   Spruce                50.9     4.2
           Pinus banksiana         Jack pine              4.9     --
           Pinus resinosa          Red pine               0.6     --
           Pinus strobus           White pine             1.7     --
           Pinus                   Pine                   2.6     --
           Thuja                   White cedar            0.6     --
           Betula                  Birch                  --      --

           Subtotal (Eastern Manitoba)                   65.1     4.2

From       Castanea                Chestnut               0.4     --
outside    Prunus serotina         Black cherry           0.7     --
Manitoba   Pseudotsuga taxifolia   Douglas fir            0.2     --

           Subtotal (Outside Manitoba)                    1.3     --

Totals                                                   100.0   100.0


                                                         Wood    Char
Wood                                                       X       %
Source     Scientific name         Common name            n=?    n=97

Local      Populus                 Poplar / aspen         --      --
           Salix                   Willow                 --      --
           Populus / Salix         Poplar / willow        --      7.0
           Fraxinus                Ash                    --     33.0
           Ulmus                   Elm                    --      2.0
           Acer                    Maple                  --      3.0
           Tilia                   Basswood / linden      --      --
           Quercus                 Oak                     X      8.0
           Corylus                 Hazel                  --      --
           Viburnum                Arrowwood / pembina    --      --

           Subtotal (local)                               --     53.0

Eastern    Conifer                 Pine, spruce, etc.     --     46.0
Manitoba   Abies                   Fir                    --      --
           Juniper us              Juniper                --      --
           Larix                   Larch / tamarack        X      --
           Picea                   Spruce                  X      --
           Pinus banksiana         Jack pine              --      --
           Pinus resinosa          Red pine               --
           Pinus strobus           White pine             --      --
           Pinus                   Pine                   --      --
           Thuja                   White cedar            --      --
           Betula                  Birch                  --      --

           Subtotal (Eastern Manitoba)                    --     46.0

From       Castanea                Chestnut               --      --
outside    Prunus serotina         Black cherry           --      --
Manitoba   Pseudotsuga taxifolia   Douglas fir            --      --

           Subtotal (Outside Manitoba)                    --      --

Totals                                                    --     99.0


                                                         Wood    Char
Wood                                                       X       %
Source     Scientific name         Common name            n=?    n=488

Local      Populus                 Poplar / aspen         --      --
           Salix                   Willow                 --      --
           Populus / Salix         Poplar / willow        --     54.0
           Fraxinus                Ash                    --      9.0
           Ulmus                   Elm                    --     10.0
           Acer                    Maple                  --      7.0
           Tilia                   Basswood / linden      --      --
           Quercus                 Oak                    --      7.0
           Corylus                 Hazel                  --      --
           Viburnum                Arrowwood / pembina    --      --

           Subtotal (local)                               --     87.0

Eastern    Conifer                 Pine, spruce, etc.      X     14.0
Manitoba   Abies                   Fir                    --      --
           Juniper us              Juniper                --      --
           Larix                   Larch / tamarack       --      --
           Picea                   Spruce                 --      --
           Pinus banksiana         Jack pine              --      --
           Pinus resinosa          Red pine               --      --
           Pinus strobus           White pine             --      --
           Pinus                   Pine                   --      --
           Thuja                   White cedar            --      --
           Betula                  Birch                  --      --

           Subtotal (Eastern Manitoba)                    --     14.0

From       Castanea                Chestnut               --      --
outside    Prunus serotina         Black cherry           --      --
Manitoba   Pseudotsuga taxifolia   Douglas fir            --      --

           Subtotal (Outside Manitoba)                    --      --

Totals                                                    --     101.0
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Author:Shay, C. Thomas
Publication:Manitoba History
Article Type:Essay
Date:Jun 22, 2015
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