Lord Dufferin’s 1877 Visit to Manitoba’s Mennonite Settlements

Lord Dufferin’s 1877 Visit to
Manitoba’s Mennonite Settlements

By George Siamandas

Gov General Lord and Lady Dufferin’s visited Manitoba in the fall Sept 29, 1877 to tour Manitoba’s emerging Mennonite settlements. Lord Dufferin was Gov General of Canada between 1872 and 1878. Dufferin was a well regarded British diplomat who showed a great sensitivity to Canadian concerns and helped bring the country together.

THEIR TRAVELLS IN MANITOBA
Their trip to Manitoba took them to see Winnipeg, Selkirk, Stony Mountain, and Lower Ft Garry. But the highlight of their trip was to see the new Mennonite settlements in the east reserve. The Dufferins were interested to see the progress that this new immigrant group had made as Manitoba’s first major settlers. In less than three years the Mennonites had established 37 villages where there had been only bush, swamp, and unbroken prairie sod.

HOW DIGNITARIES TRAVELLED IN 1877
Dufferin’s party left Donald A Smith’s residence at Silver Heights at 10:00am on Tuesday Aug 20. Lady Dufferin, her 12-year daughter Nellie, Mrs Littleton and her maid travelled in a covered carriage drawn by four horses. Lord Dufferin, Lieut. Gov Morris and two other unnamed men rode horses. Huge 320 pound James McKay MLA served as guide for the group. Other wagons carried food, a cook, camping supplies and etc.

By 2:00 PM a severe thunderstorm found the party stuck waist-deep in mud in a swampy area near present day Ile Des Chenes. On the next day they reached the north end of the settlement where the Mennonites had spent weeks preparing for the Gov General’s arrival. Hespeller who had served as the Mennonite’s agent and who negotiated their coming to Canada had gone out the week before to assist in preparations.

MEETING THE MENNONITES
The party passed through a portal made of evergreen boughs. On a rise just west of present day Steinbach they could see half a dozen villages. A crowd of 1000 gathered to hear the Gov Gen. on a day the Mennonites had declared a holiday. Young girls served lemon-scented tea. A pergola had been created of evergreen boughs. Local produce and samples of wheat, corn, hay and flax were on display. German and Canadian flags flew overhead.

Lord Dufferin welcomed the new settlers on behalf of her majesty Queen Victoria. He reassured them their challenges in Manitoba would not be man but “to conquer the plains” and to “bring peace, corn and plenty wherever they have trod.” Dufferin spoke of “the comfortable homesteads that have risen like magic upon this fertile plain.”

Dufferin offered to share the benefits of Canadian Citizenship with the Mennonites. He told them they would find Canada “a beneficent and loving mother.” He invited them to share our liberties, municipal organization, the chance to choose our members of parliament, and civil and religious freedom. The Mennonites were moved to tears.

The Dufferins were impressed. Lady Dufferin who kept extensive diaries of her travels and life noted the simple dress of the women and their highly regarded “German” characteristics: hard working, honest, sober, simple, hardy people. Everyone speaks German and all the families have at least 6 children.

Dufferin was delighted with what he had seen. On their way out of Manitoba they drove the first spike in St Boniface for the future railway. And as they travelled south on the steamboat the Dakota, at Fraser’s Landing, near present day Fargo, they stopped to see the locomotive that would forever carry their name: The Countess of Dufferin.

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