by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
“Portage la Prairie, though within the Hudson’s Bay territory of Rupert’s Land, was then outside the jurisdiction of the government and Council of Assiniboia (Hudson’s Bay Company controlled) whose powers extended only fifty miles west of Fort Garry,” wrote Hartwell Bowsfield in the Manitoba Pageant, September 1961. “The community had no courts, no police, no taxation, no government, and no laws except those the people chose to observe. It was an ideal spot for a man of (Thomas) Spence’s ambitions to set up a government in the way and for the purposes he wanted.”
The first step toward a republic came in June 1867, when Spence and a group of residents wrote to Queen Victoria asking to allowed them to set up a local government. No reply was received. This lack of official recongition didn’t deter Spence and his cronies from pursuing their dream of self-government.
Their next step came in January 1868 with the formation of a republic under Spence’s direction.
Robert Hill, who was a resident of Portage in the 1870s, wrote in Early Days of Manitoba, that the boundaries of Spence’s Republic of Manitobah 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.”
A council was then chosen with each member taking an oath of allegiance. Spence was made the president of the republic, while Findlay Wray was named secretary.
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, so Spence and his minions hit upon the idea of a regular system of taxation which consisted of a custom’s 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 (that is, Portage la Prairie),” 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 gaol 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 William 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 — he served on its council — settled down to less stressful and gun-free pursuits, ending up as a legal government employee when he became clerk of the Manitoba Legislature.