Because of the disturbed state of the Red River Settlement resulting from the transfer of Rupert’s Land to Canada, the Canadian Government decided early in 1870 to send a military expedition to Red River.  This expedition of brigade strength was under the command of Col. Garnet Wolseley (later Viscount Wolseley) of the Imperial Army.  The force was composed of three battalions, one from the British regular army garrisoned at Quebec, a few Royal artillerymen, and two Canadian militia battalions, consisting in all of approximately 1450 men.

     The Wolseley expedition landed at Prince Arthur’s Landing on the western shore of Lake Superior in late May.  The men of the brigade spent all of June and part of July completing the Dawson Road from the Landing to Lake Shebandowan, forty-six miles inland.  On July 16, after boats and equipment had been assembled at Shebandowan, they set out along the wilderness waterways for Fort Garry, six hundred miles distant.  The force travelled much of the old fur-trade route via Rainy River, Lake of the Woods, and the Winnipeg River, traversing forty-two portages.  On August 24 Wolseley’s advance guard reached Fort Garry to find that Riel, O’Donoghue, and their lieutenants had decamped.  So ended the Red River Expedition, at least for the militia battalions, who went into garrison for the winter; for the regulars it meant a laborious return over the route they had come.

     Major’s Red River Expedition is the only versified account of the several that were published by members of the expeditionary force.  Bibliographically his poem is of interest as the first pamphlet published in the Red River Settlement.1  The only challenge to this distinction is a reference made by Alexander Begg, the Red River historian, to “the first document printed in Manitoba” written by O. G. Corbett in 1870 and entitled A few reasons for a Crown Colony.  As Begg would be familiar with Governor McDougall’s proclamation, the list of rights, and the two or three other broadsides published during the winter of 1869-70, it may be conjectured that the “first document” was of greater substance.  Unfortunately, the only “located” copy is the one placed, with a miscellany of other things, in the cornerstone of Winnipeg’s first city hall in 1875.2 [page v]

     Major’s pamphlet is of interest to the literary historian as the first literary effort to be published in the Prairie Provinces.3

     The date of publication of The Red River Expedition can be fixed as not earlier than September 13, the date on which the first issue of Laurie’s Manitoba News-Letter appeared.  The author had written most of his verse en route to Red River.  In the conclusion, the corrected line suggests haste in composition.  In all likelihood, Major had his poem published while the hardships and camaraderie of the journey were fresh in mind.  The volume may have been intended as a souvenir to give or sell to fellow members of the expedition.

     Of the writer nothing is known other than that he was a member of Cook’s company of the Ontario Rifles.  Whether he returned to eastern Canada with the unit in the spring of 1871, or chose to settle in Manitoba as did many of the militia, has not been ascertained.  In his poem Major expresses his intention of seeking his fortune in the prairie province.

     The printer, Patrick Gammie Laurie, is a colourful figure in the printing history of the Canadian prairies, and had a number of other printing “firsts” to his credit.  Laurie arrived in the autumn of 1869 at the Red River Settlement, where he became involved in the factional struggle.

     Laurie and an American printer, G. B. Winship, published Manitoba’s first broadside.  Governor McDougall’s proclamation, on December 2.  The surreptitious printing of this document is a story probably unrivalled in Canadian printing.4  The printing shop of the Nor’-Wester, where Winship had worked, was being used as a guard room by some of Riel’s men.  Under the pretext of tidying up the shop, Winship in two or three visits walked off with sufficient type secreted in his clothing to print the proclamation.  It took an afternoon and most of a night for the conspirators to print 300 copies by the “planer process”.

     Laurie later fled the colony with a price on his head.  He returned with Dr. Schults in the wake of the Wolseley expedition, arriving in Winnipeg on September 4, 1870.  He purchased what was left of the Nor’Wester press at suction, and the following week issued the first number of the Manitoba [page vi] News-Letter.  The newspaper apparently supported the views and political aspirations of Dr. Schultz.  In July, 1871, Laurie sold the paper to a company which began publishing the Manitoba Liberal.  He worked for some time on another paper, the Manitoban, and later was in charge of the job-printing department of the Manitoba Free Press.  In this position he acted as Queen’s Printer for Manitoba.  Alexander Begg describes him as Winnipeg’s first bookbinder.

     In 1878, when the capital of the North-West Territories was established at Battleford,  Laurie shipped a press and type by ox cart six hundred miles across the prairie to the new town on the Saskatchewan.  At Battleford he established the Saskatchewan Herald, the first newspaper published between Winnipeg and the Rockies.  He became the first Queen’s Printer for the Territories, in which capacity he published the first ordinances.  In addition, Laurie had the honour in 1883 of publishing the first book printed in the Territories.  This was The Battle River Valley, written by his son William with a view to encouraging settlement in the area.

     P. G. Laurie died at Battleford in 1903.

     This facsimile edition has been prepared from the only copy of Major’s poem known to have survived.  The original pamphlet is preserved in the library of the Public Archives of Canada, in Ottawa.

Bruce Peel.

University of Alberta, Edmonton,
December, 1952. [page vii]

The first imprints in the area later to comprise the Prairie Provinces were the booklets of scriptural and devotional literature in Cree syllabics printed by the Rev. James Evans and his successor at the Rossville Mission near Norway House.  However, Major’s work was the first pamphlet in English printed in the Prairie Provinces. [back]
See Begg’s Ten years in Winnipeg, p. 122 [back]
The first poem known to have been composed in western Canada was Pierre Falcon’s song of victory “Chanson de la Grenouillère”, inspired by the Battle of Seven Oaks in June, 1816.  This passed by word of mouth until it became a Métis folk ballad.  It was probably not written down until about 1870. [back]
See the Canadian North-West Historical Society’s publication The Story of the Press. See also D. C. McMurtrie’s “The first printing in Manitoba”, in Printing Review of Canada (October, 1930). [back]