Alexander Ross, Adventurous Fur Trader and Red River Settler
Alexander Ross came to Upper Canada as a fur trader in 1804. Plying his trade, he and his family settled on the Red River, creating a higher-class community
Aboard the ship Countess of Darlington, 21-year-old Alexander Ross sailed from his homeland of Scotland across the Atlantic, headed for the excitement awaiting him in Canada. Earning a living would not be a problem for the young man. Landing in Lower Canada (Quebec) in July 1804, a new life lay ahead for Ross.
The Pacific Fur Company
The new immigrant directly found work as a schoolmaster. The next year, Ross moved to Glengarry County in eastern Upper Canada and another teaching job. Saving his earnings from teaching, Ross bought 300 acres of property in 1809. His heart yearning for adventure, Ross “had come to make his fortune, and in the Canadas it was the fur trade with its excitement and prospect of wealth that lured the young,” said Frits Pannekoek in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. In 1810, Ross signed on as a clerk with the Pacific Fur Company and sailed for the Columbia River.
The group of voyageurs, explorers and clerks established Fort Astoria in Oregon and moved on to build Fort Okanagan. Ross remained to operate business at Fort Okanagan – trading with the natives for luxurious pelts and finest furs desired by the Europeans — while the rest of the group travelled on. Finding a bride, Ross married Sarah, the daughter of an Okanagan native Chief in 1813. That same year, the Pacific Fur Company combined with another trading firm to become the North West Company.
Ross Granted Red River Acreage
Ross was promoted in 1818 to “Chief Trader at Fort Nez-Perces at the headwaters of the Columbia,” said the City of Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee in “140 Meade Street North: William Ross House.” The North West Company merged with the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) in 1821, bringing Ross and HBC head George Simpson together. Simpson did not particularly like Ross, but did grant 100 acres of land to the fur trader for his service. Near the junction of the Assiniboia and Red River, the parcel was not far from Upper Fort Garry (now Winnipeg).
Moving his family to the Red River property in 1825, Ross built a large home for his growing clan. Called “Colony Gardens,” the house became a beloved home to ten Ross children. But the area was not yet prosperous. “The settlement was in a state of starvation,” said Pannekoek. Resourceful and refusing to let his family suffer, Ross and fellow settler Andrew McDermot “took to the plains near Pembina (N. Dak.)… to keep himself and his family supplied with fresh meat,” according to Pannekoek.
Teacher, Councillor, Sheriff
Opening a store, Ross traded goods and food with pioneers and natives until about 1849. Perhaps polishing up his own teaching skills, he established a school to educate his children and those of other settlers. In 1835, Ross was appointed Sheriff of the small colony, and a Councillor on the Assiniboia Council. Eight years later, said Pannekoek, the skilled negotiator was made “governor of the new jail with an annual allowance of £30.” There were inevitable difficulties in the new settlement, such as Ross’ disagreement in enforcing the HBC monopoly over trade in the region, and a conflict with Governor William Caldwell in which none of the magistrates, including Ross, would sit on the bench. By 1851, Ross resigned from all of his posts.
Determined to create a comfortable, enlightened life for his family in Manitoba, Ross struggled for decades to bring a Presbyterian church to the region. The Scottish immigrants were attending the Church of England and other places of worship, but wanted their own church. After 30 years of “letters, petitions and bills of rights to the London Committee and to the church in Canada and Scotland,” noted the City of Winnipeg, “their dogged persistence paid off with the arrival of the Rev. John Black in 1851 and the construction of the Kildonan Church on the Frog Plain.” Three hundred settlers were delighted to worship in the new Presbyterian Church.
Three Alexander Ross Books
Writing about his experiences, adventures and the territory, Ross authored three books. “Adventures on the Columbia,” published 1849, and “The Fur Hunters of the Far West,” published next, shared the exhilaration and trials of fur trading in North America. The third Ross book, “The Red River Settlement,” published in 1856, became an historical reference for the blossoming Manitoba district.
Through their parents’ devotion and determination, the Ross children grew into well-educated, upper-class adults that were not held back due to their Métis blood. “They were advanced in education and Christian values,” mentioned Pannekoek, “that could not fail as a good example.” Unfortunately, class level did not prevent early death. Ross’ second son, William, became Sheriff and Red River Postmaster of the first Post Office in western Canada. The younger Ross built a sturdy log home in 1854 named Ross House for his wife Jemima and growing family. Two years into his flourishing livelihood and affluent home, William Ross died unexpectedly on May 6, 1856. He was only 31 years old. Six months later, his father died.
Legacy at Red River
On October 23, 1856, Alexander Ross died at age 73. Born on May 9, 1783, Ross was raised on the family farm in the parish of Dyke, Morayshire, Scotland. At age 21, he immigrated to Canada.
In the wilderness of the Red River region of the Canadian prairies, Ross left a legacy of culture and community. The first family home, “Colony Gardens,” was torn down in 1885. (Sarah Ross, Alexander’s wife and mother of his 10 children, died at her home in 1884.) The William Ross House remained the family home for many decades. It was preserved and is now museum open for summer visitors at the Joe Zuken Heritage Park, 140 Meade Street North, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
- Pannekoek, Frits, “Ross, Alexander,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online Accessed February 20, 2012
- “140 Meade Street North: William Ross House,” City of Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee Report
- “Memorable Manitobans: Alexander Ross (1783-1856),” Manitoba Historical Society Accessed February 20, 2012
- William Ross House Museum
This article first appeared on Suite101.com in February 2013. Copyright Susanna McLeod