by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
“The alarm at the arrival of the editors (William Buckingham and William Coldwell from the East) recalls the early Winnipeg story of a prominent citizen going down Main Street with his little son,” wrote George Bryce (1844-1931) in his book, Illustrated History of Winnipeg. “On the other side of the street was passing a well-known editor.
“The lad, seizing his father’s hand, pointed across the street to ‘the Editor! The Editor!’
“The father quieted his son by saying, ‘Whish! Whish! my son, you might grow up to be one yourself!’”
Bryce said the fears of Abbe George Dugas, a cleric and historian, who was a missionary from 1866 to 1888 in Manitoba, and his friends, as well as the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), associated with the arrival of the two founders of the Nor’Wester, were well-founded as, “Privilege and monopoly cannot endure publicity!”
Among those favouring the presence of the first newspaper in the Red River Settlement was Rev. William Cockran, who in an address to the students in St. John’s schoolhouse on January 10, 1860, gave the editors his support, but guardedly urged them to allow the settlers time to get their affairs in order. At the same time, he saw the newspaper as a vehicle for getting the settlers to make changes for the better.
He warned that the editors “must not tell of our faults all at once. They must give you a whole year’s time to reform ... You must see the dilemma you are in, with the wild oats in your fields, the big dunghills for 15 or 20 years in front of your houses, and your farms in a state of dilapidation. How beautiful it will look when this goes forth to New York and London and Edinburgh! The newspaper is one of the very best things we ever had in this country, for we want to be spurred up.”
Even before they had embarked for the Red River Settlement from Toronto, the two men had sent the prospectus for their new journal, which they had already named the Nor’Wester, to eastern newspapers.
On August 26, 1859, the Toronto Globe reported that an Owen Sound publisher had started out for Red River with the intention of starting a newspaper, but only made it as far as Sault Ste. Marie.
“Now the enterprise is to be undertaken in good earnest by two members of the Toronto press — Messrs. Buckingham and Coldwell; and their practical knowledge eminently qualifies them for the task ... Our Toronto merchants gave to them a liberal support, both as subscribers and advertisers.”
The Globe commented — as did the Toronto Leader and other eastern newspapers — that Toronto was in a race with St. Paul to benefit from trade with the settlement. Unfortunately for Toronto, most trade was with St. Paul. In the same year that Buckingham and Coldwell arrived, the Anson Northrup became the first steamboat to successfully reach the settlement from south of the U.S.-Canada border, which reinforced St. Paul’s advantage.
For years, Red River steamers would be the settlement’s primary link with the outside world, replacing the much slower freight transportation system provided by Red River cart brigades and the brief ice-free shipping season for goods from Great Britain to Hudson Bay and then by York boat to Red River.
The rivalry between the two cities was reflected in the advertisements that appeared in the first issue of the Nor’Wester, solicited by Buckingham and Coldwell while they were in Toronto and St. Paul. The majority of ads were from the two cities, with half being from St. Paul. In fact, few local businesses — there weren’t that many to begin with — advertised in the newspaper.
Whatever the suspicions centred around their arrival, Coldwell and Buckingham soon set about to prepare and print their first issue out of a small building near the corner of Main Street and what is now William Stephenson Way.
They had intended to publish the first issue of the newspaper on January 1, 1860, but the Council of Assiniboia, the governing body of the settlement appointed by the HBC, had scheduled the mail to go out on December 28, 1859, “so the date of issue was set ahead in order to take advantage of that mail to the ‘outside’” (The First Printing in Manitoba, by Douglas C. McMurrie, 1931).
But before the first issue went to print, the two men travelled around the community soliciting subscriptions. Coldwell recalled that they encountered residents who refused to take out a subscription because they said they knew more about local news than did the two newcomers, “while, as to foreign news, they could learn just as much as they desired from other papers that they got hold of at long intervals. They were also afraid that, if they supported one journal in their midst, soon there would be two, four, or a score knocking at the door, with wide diversity of views, to the great bewilderment and detriment of an innocent and confiding public.”
It was recounted in newspapers over the years and also told by Coldwell that at Crow Wing, Minnesota, en route to Red River, a Native American named Chief Hole-in-the-Day was so fascinated by the technology of their printing press that he became the first non-business subscriber to the newspaper. The chief advanced the two men US $3 for his subscription. In Red River, the annual subscription rate was 12 shillings ($3) for the newspaper — paid in advance — that was to be published bi-monthly. Within three months, the rate was dropped to 10 shillings per year.
Despite what later critics said about the two men, the prospect of a newspaper in Red River was received with a great deal of local enthusiasm. Even the Council of Assiniboia decreed that “all newspapers direct from publishers at Red River be free from postage.”
“This may have been the high point of the newspaper’s relations with the government, as thereafter it maintained an almost constant opposition to the Council of Assiniboia” (The Nor’Wester, Manitoba Historic Resources Branch, 1981).
They used a wrought-iron framed “Washington” hand press, manufactured by New York City-based R. Hoe & Company, which combined the latest improvements and had an “excellent assortment of job type, suitable posters, bills, business, visiting and wedding cards” (Manitoba Free Press, November 10, 1922). The Washington press was noted as being well-suited for smaller printing endeavours. Steam-powered presses were used for the printing of mass-circulation newspapers in larger centres.
“We were our own editors, reporters, compositors, pressman, news boys, and general delivery agents, besides having to undertake a house-to-house canvass throughout the entire settlement,” recalled Coldwell in 1888.
Printing the first edition turned out to be a little more difficult than expected. The night before the Nor’Wester was to be published, the two editors wetted down their newsprint as damp paper receives the “bite” of a type face from a hand press better than dry paper. In the morning, they discovered that the reams of newsprint had frozen into a solid blocks of ice and had to be thawed out. Even with this setback, they managed to get the first issue out on time to meet the mail deadline.
Volume 1, No. 1, of the Nor’Wester hit the streets of the settlement on Wednesday, December 28, 1859, at a cost of six pence apiece.
“We come here as ‘strangers in a strange land,’” wrote Buckingham and Coldwell in the first column of the first newspaper, “not as enemies intent upon spying out its nakedness — not as adventurers indifferent to all considerations save those of self — not as persons resolved to further the ends of party or faction at whatever cost to the peace of the country. We came with a view of making this place our home. We came persuaded that the time has arrived when this fertile and magnificent country, thrown open to people of all lands, needs an exponent of its feelings, its varied yet common interests through the medium of the press.
(Next week: part 3)