Short-lived Republic of Manitobah ends when shots are fired

by Bruce Cherney

Thomas Spence was a man whose pursuit of the “big idea” would bring him notoriety rather than the fame he cherished. His attempts at seizing the reins of power bordered on the side of comic opera, especially in Portage la Prairie where he created the short-lived Republican Monarchy of Manitobah.

John Harrison O’Donnell, a physician from Ontario who came to the Red River Settlement in November 1869, described Spence as having “quite a few of the characteristics of Wilkins Micawber (a character in the Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield), he was always living in great expectations, and when they were not materializing he became depressed, and would tell dramatically how shamefully his services had been overlooked by the federal government.

“It was never apparent what these services consisted of, but it was an excellent text for considerable eloquence on his part, mingled with an occasional tear; but a friendly suggestion of a ‘yard of clay’ and a little of the cup ‘that cheers,’ and he felt sure that his great services would be duly considered by the government.”

Spence was considered a likeable fellow, much as David Copperfield regarded Micawber. Micawber rose from debtors’ prison to the lofty station of magistrate in the colonies. When he was to make his departure to Australia after suffering many tribulations in England, Mrs. Micawber told Copperfield that she wanted her husband to stand on the brow of the ship and declare his intent, “This country I come to conquer.”

Judging by Spence’s early career in Manitoba, it isn’t too difficult to imagine him duplicating Micawber’s declaration and thus announcing his intent to conquer his own new land.

Spence came from Scotland in 1852 and took up residence in Canada (then comprising only portions of modern-day Quebec and Ontario). Although he would eventually rise to fame in Manitoba, when he came to the Red River Settlement in 1866 he started out as a simple handyman.

Upon his arrival, he made it be known that he had been a military officer in a Foot Regiment, a land surveyor and a practitioner of the legal profession. Mrs. Micawber had likewise told Copperfield that her husband told all within hearing distance that he had been an officer in the British Marines, but she wasn’t able to determine if he had gained the status of officer, but was sure he had been a marine. No one quite knew if Spence had been telling them the truth or inventing a new persona for the New World. What is known for certain is that his latter trades can properly be described as author and clerk of the Manitoba Legislature.

His first foray into controversy came on December 8, 1866, when Spence organized a meeting in the Fort Garry Courthouse to secure support for the transference of the settlement into the fold of the British North America Act. At the time, the settlement and all the lands of Rupert’s Land were in the possession of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The meeting was set for 10:30 a.m., but apparently Spence and four of his supporters arrived an hour early and passed the confederation resolutions and then gave three mighty cheers to Her Most Gracious Majesty The Queen.

They then left the courthouse and encountered “Dutch George” Emmerling, a hotel owner who advocated annexation of the settlement to the United States. A discussion ensued which was continued in the courthouse. At the instigation of Emmerling, the resolutions were declared null and void.

A heated argument broke out among those attending and any proposed motions were quickly opposed. Robert Hill, a resident of Portage la Prairie in the 1870s, and author of Early Days in Manitoba, related that “after some time, the entire crowd sought a hasty and uproarious exit from the doors, some imagined with a view to continuing hostilities on a more extended scale outside, but the cooling influences of the December wind led them to seek shelter in Mr. Emmerling’s, where an orgy was instituted which ended about midnight in the demolition of his bar and general destruction of his bottles and earthenware, not to speak of the damage done to his fluids.”

This outbreak was to be the harbinger of what occurred when Spence attempted to create another government on the Canadian prairie.

Hill’s account of the events of Spence’s early career are the most complete and it can be presumed that he had access to first-hand witnesses. His book, relating to the Spence years in Portage, was published in 1890. Given its comical retelling of the events, the book may contain a bit of the blarney. Still, it’s a good read.

Not deterred by his first unsuccessful entry into the political arena, Spence pulled up stakes and made his way west to Portage la Prairie in 1867 where he opened a store. 

The community, which then numbered about 400 people, was outside the jurisdiction of the Council of Assiniboia, the HBC’s governing body for the Red River Settlement and its environs. Spence took this as a good omen since the lack of government meant that the local citizens could establish their own ruling elite with him at the top. The fact that eluded Spence was that the region was still under HBC jurisdiction as part of its 1670 company charter granted by King Charles II.

Hill said it didn’t take Spence “long in inaugurating himself as one of the leading factional spirits of the settlement.

It came to be that Spence had himself appointed president of the new Republican Monarchy of Caledonia with Findlay Ray as his secretary. Caledonia must have been too unpopular because Spence had it shortly changed to the republic Monarchy of Manitobah, the h at the end not surviving the death of his republic. But to his credit, Spence was the first to conceive of using the Cree name, derived from a legend about the narrows of Lake Manitoba, as an official name to describe the land he strove to govern.

Hill said the boundaries of the republic included “hundreds of square miles, extending indefinitely into parallels of latitude and longitude. The only defined boundary was the eastern one, which consisted of the western limit of the municipal District of Assiniboia.”

Spence then had a council chosen with each member taking an oath of allegiance. After the oaths, the first order of business was to build a courthouse and gaol. But, such noble edifices of a government presence require money to build and Spence and his cronies hit upon the idea of a regular system of taxation which consisted of a customs tarrif on imports.

“A notice was sent to all traders, amongst them the officer in charge of the Hudson’s Bay trading post at the Portage,” wrote Hill, “who replied that he would pay no tax or duty on the goods imported for trade at his post, unless ordered to do so by the government of Rupert’s Land.”

The council decided that they could not force the officer to pay duties, but once the goal was built they had a trump card to play to ensure his co-operation.

“A shoemaker by the name of McPherson, who lived in High Bluff (a few kilometres east of Portage), had made himself obnoxious to the president and other members of the government, by asserting that the money obtained through taxation, instead of being retained to build a gaol, was being expended in the purchase of beer and whiskey, for the use of the government and council of Manitobah, a report which was generally credited as being true.”

McPherson made his suspicions known throughout Portage and area, enraging Spence, who resolved to have him arrested and tried for treason.

Constables William Hudson and Henry Anderson were dispatched to arrest the malcontent.

“It would seem that,” wrote Hill, “before starting out, these gentlemen had imbibed considerable government whiskey, as the noise they made in proceeding to McPherson’s house attracted the attention of his neighbours, who, by this means, divined the reason of the constables’ visit.”

Hudson entered the shoemaker’s house while Anderson kept watch at the door. McPherson was observed in the process of cleaning his revolver. McPherson resisted the effort to place him in custody. Anderson heard the scuffle inside and entered, but McPherson eluded them both. He took off out of the house with the intent to run to the Assiniboia District border and cross over to freedom.

The constables managed to procure a horse, pursued the fugitive and started to gain on Mcpherson, “who, seeing that he was going to be overtaken, rushed out into the deep snow on the plains, and was, after a severe struggle, in which all clothes were torn, secured and brought to the Portage in a jumper (sleigh).”

When riding their own sleigh down the High Bluff Road, John and Alec McLean saw the jumper containing three men bearing down on them and heading toward Portage. McPherson jumped out and ran toward McLean and his son with one of the constables in hot pursuit. McPherson reached McLean and shouted out “Save me; save me, McLean!”

When the constable tried to wrestle McPherson back to the jumper, McLean pulled out a two-inch augur he had been using to repair a haystack. 

“Stand back, or I’ll rin the augur through ye (all colloguialisms are Hill’s doing),” he exclaimed.

Seeing the weapon being brandished about to the detriment of their own safety, the constables complied. He told McLean about the reason for the arrest and showed him the warrant.

“McLean read it, and then inquired when and where the trial was to be, advised McPherson to go with them, and assured him that he would be there to see that he got his justice, after which the prisoner of the republic and his captors proceeded to the Portage.”

After eating his supper, McLean in the company of Bob Hastie, Yankee Johnston and a Mr. Chapman as well as two other men set off for Portage and William Hudson’s house where the trial was to be held.

Spence sat at one end of the table while McPherson was at the other with a lamp in the centre.

After an inquiry, Spence told McLean that the shoemaker was being tried on the charge of treason.

“We hae nae laws,” said John, who went on to ask who was the accuser.

“‘Mr. Spence,’ said one of the constables. Turning to Spence, with indignation written on his face, McLean said, “Come oot o’ that, you whited sepulchre, ye canna act as judge and accuser baith’.”

Constable Hudson ordered McLean out of his house, but he at first refused to budge. Hudson challenged him to a fight and McLean stepped toward the door.

Hastie saw both constables following McLean and grabbed McPherson by the collar, telling him to come along and not sit “there like a fool.”

A brother of Anderson’s caught Hastie by the neck and pulled him back, which prompted Hastie, who was a powerful man, to throw Anderson’s brother against the table, upsetting the table, lamp, a nearby stove and Spence.

“At this juncture the miners (Hastie, Johnston and Chapman) drew their revolvers and fired at the ceiling,” related Hill. “In less time than it takes to write these words the house was empty, each one making his or her exit on the double quick, through door and window, whichever was the most convenient in the darkness. Spence, who had fallen under the table, was heard to implore, ‘For God’s sake, men, don’t fire, I have a wife and family’.”

The trial was over, but the republic hadn’t quite died.

The next day, as McPherson was walking down the street, one of the constable’s again tried to seize him and bring him to justice. James McBain saw the scuffle and threatened to “Knock the constable’s brains out if he dared to repeat the act.”

McPherson wanted an end to these shenanigans and confronted Spence, demanding an explanation. Spence denied that he had ordered the arrest and said the matter had been dropped. McPherson received a new suit of clothes to replace those that had been torn in the arrest and the matter was indeed over.

With the authority of council thus flaunted, the republic was effectively finished, but Spence would not give up.

Spence had walked to Fort Garry that spring to get the blessings of MacTavish. But, the HBC governor dismissed his republic as entirely illegal. 

Spence had also sent a letter in February 1868 to London to explain that he had established an independent government.

The Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, replied that the would-be republicans had no power to form a government without references to the HBC or the Crown, and that the exercise of jurisdiction in criminal cases or levying taxes was illegal.

Spence, when giving evidence in May 1874 before the Select Committee of Parliament, which was investigating the Red River Rebellion of 1869-70, said he had attempted to set up an independent government but this had nothing to do with the events that rocked the Red River Settlement.

“This organization was made simply as a matter of protection for ourselves, as we were outside the government of the Council of Assiniboia, as (HBC) Governor MacTavish informed me himself.”

Spence, after the tumultuous years of his republic and Louis Riel’s provisional government, settled down to less stressful and gun-free pursuits, ending up as a legal member of government when he become clerk of the Manitoba Legislature.