By 1869–1870, much of the travel technology at Red River involved making use of waterways, as it had from the beginning. By the rivers, the settlement was connected to the “greatest [commercial] inland water network the world has ever seen.”[i] The settlers made use of canoes, boats with sails, and ferries to communicate with neighbours in far-flung parishes of the settlement and communities well beyond — in Rupert’s Land, in Canada and into the United States. By water, with some recourse to overland travel, they were connected to Hudson Bay, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the Gulf of Mexico.[ii]
Red River had entered the era of steam transportation as well. The first American river steamer to dock at Upper Fort Garry had been the Ansom Northrup in 1858. By 1862 the International made the journey; by 1869 making regular journeys between spring thaw and autumn freeze-up, carrying passengers and cargo between Fort Garry and Fort Abercrombie in Dakota Territory, U.S.[iii]
For overland transport, settlers made use of horses and sleighs in winter as well as dog carioles. In summer, along with horses, carts, and wagons owned by individual settlers, oxcart brigades carried trade goods to and from centers in the U.S. such as Fort Abercrombie, and St. Cloud and St. Paul in Minnesota.[iv]
In those American centers, people journeying from Red River could access newly established and ever expanding railroad networks that connected to American ports from New York to New Orleans and San Francisco, and to cities and ports in the new Dominion of Canada.
b) Print Communication
Locally published newspapers were a relatively new means of mass communication at Red River in 1870. Historian Gerald Friesen has averred, “the way in which a society communicates shapes popular assumptions about how the world works.”[v] The common-place way in which society had been shaped at Red River was oral communication — neighbours speaking to neighbours, face to face. Indeed, the settlement has often been described as though it ran on gossip. Written communication had long been present at the settlement, however, and could supply subject matter about which inhabitants might talk.
People wrote notes and letters to send messages from one parish ranged along the rivers to another distant parish. They corresponded with friends, relatives, and associates in locations that were farther away still — at trade posts throughout Rupert’s Land and the North-West, and from Labrador to the colony of British Columbia. Letters were sent south of the international border to the United States (and answers were mailed back). They were sent to, and received from, Canada and other British colonies to the east, and the British Isles.
Reading material, from books to newspapers, had been imported to Red River from at least the 1820s, informing people of the settlement about the wider world. Not everyone in the settlement could read (or write). There was time and inclination, however, for sociability to include readings by the literate for the entertainment of others (and for the writing of letters on behalf of others as well).
Beginning in the 1860s, the people of Red River had the opportunity to do more that just learn, from imported print media, about ‘how the world works’ in other places and at other times. The arrival of a newspaper press at Red River in December of 1859 meant they could reciprocate: informing each other and the wider world about themselves, their activities, and their values — through the mass medium of newsprint.
During 1869–1870, the press at Red River strove to inform settlers about a great deal — about the workings of the political world and how they might be affected, about the state of their society and how it might be strengthened. And, through their local paper, the settlers were made aware of the ability of ‘the press’ to generate ‘noise’ that might shape assumptions a world away — as the New Nation battled within its pages with opinions, expressed in Canadian newspapers, about how confederating with Canada ought to be achieved.
To use 21st-century terms to describe the phenomenon witnessed in 1869–1870: in the prevailing ‘social media’ of the time, Red River was a ‘trending topic.’
Online Resource: Red River Newspaper Chronology and the men who ‘made’ the news[vi]
Newspapers were common in the colonies of British North America and the provinces of the Dominion of Canada before and after the confederation era and, therefore, supply a rich historical resource. Previously, historians made visits to archives to read the papers, and when it came to confederation, the papers most commonly consulted were those published in Ontario and Quebec. Currently, additional newspaper collections are being digitally scanned and made available online as searchable material.
Scanned pages of the New Nation newspaper for 1869–1870 (as well as other historical Manitoba newspapers) are available at the Manitobia website, http://manitobia.ca/. There is no index for the articles, but the site has a word search function.
Brief indications of article contents, grouped by publication date, are available at the Provisional Government of Assiniboia site.