My strangest Christmas

Here is a memoir written by Richard Philip Ottewell in 1937 in which he recounts his “strangest Christmas”, that of 1869 when he was a prisoner of Louis Riel in Upper Fort Garry.

Richard Philip Ottewell was one of the very first settlers in Clover Bar. His life journey at times intertwined with well known events in Canada’s history. Some of his journey captured here in his own hand, and others have been gleaned from various written publications, including the community history book Cherished Memories, and also from historic research at a number of archives in the region.

Twenty-one-year old Ottewell had left the family home in Bruce County, Ontario the previous August to join a government survey party. The party was charged with surveying a road southeast from St. Boniface to the northwest corner of the state of Minnesota. In his memoir, Ottewell writes that the party was running a road to the northwest angle of Manitoba. As the province of Manitoba was not brought into existence until the next year, 1870, it appears that Ottewell simply made a slip, confusing Manitoba with Minnesota. He was, after all, 89 years of age when he composed his memoir.

How politically astute Ottewell was at the time of his incarceration is not known but perhaps can be surmised. After his arrival in St. Boniface the previous summer, he must have been aware of the unease amongst the Métis toward the Government of Canada and its intentions on their society and land claims. One suspects that as an Ontarian and a government employee Ottewell’s sympathies lay with the federal government and its designs on the west, and not with the local population and their fears.

By November 1869, the survey party was somewhere between St. Boniface and the border with the United States. It was in the early part of that month that Louis Riel emerged as the leader of the Métis, refusing William McDougall, the newly appointed lieutenant governor and a well known Canadian expansionist, entry into the Red River colony. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s neutrality—a good business and political move—emboldened Riel and his Métis followers to seize Upper Fort Garry on December 1, planning to use the Hudson’s Bay Company fort as a bargaining chip in what they hoped would be negotiations between Ottawa and Riel’s provisional government. Ottewell’s adventure began on December 6.

~

1937
Clover Bar Alta
This was written 22 Oct.

My Strangest Christmas

Tonight as I recline in my easy chair before the fireplace, my memory travels back to an extraordinary Christmas which I have witnessed. Never in my fifty-years of pioneering in the great west have I spent such a Christmas. From August to December 6, 1869, I was working on a Government highway between St. Boniface and the northwest angle, Manitoba. The foreman was Mr. Snow. Early in the morning of Dec. 6 a half-breed carrier who was sent by Governor William McDougall advised us to report for duty at Fort Garry as soon as possible.

So, six other men besides myself immediately set out. We made the journey in one and one half days. The weather was bitterly cold, snowy and I had the misfortune to freeze my big toes.

While we were crossing the Red River about seven p.m. Louis Reils [sic] soldiers stopped us with the command arretes [sic] – you are under arrest.

We were taken to Dr. Schultz [sic] residence which was formerly captured by the rebels. We had the pleasure of occupying that night Mr. Schultz [sic] bedroom. Next morning we were marched to Fort Garry as prisoners.

Here, we were held until January sixteenth 1870. At the time Fort Garry was the headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay trading post. All free traders were permitted within one mile.

Our food in Fort Garry consisted of dry pemmican and water three times a day.

Christmas day dawned cold and gloomy. We did not lack company on this particular day as there were forty-five of us in a small room.

After a breakfast of pemmican we sang hymns, chatted about home folks and talked of our possible doom. As dinner time drew near we thought of the fat turkeys and puddings that would be gracing some tables in the past. We expected the usual fare but suddenly one of Reil’s [sic] men brought before us a steaming wash boiler of hot coffee, sugar, milk along with a clothes basket brimming with delicious buttered buns. This meal was kindly prepared by three Ladies, Mrs. Geo. Young, Mrs. C? and Mrs. Charles Major. They had received permission from Reil [sic] to make our Christmas much more cheerful. I will never forget that hot coffee. It [sic] was so refreshing and stimulating, the buns seem just to hit the right spot and this tasty meal gave us fresh courage as it let us know that some one [sic] was thinking of us and interesting themselves in our case. 

All afternoon we carried buckets of water from the Red River to the Fort for what good reason did not appear but I think to this day that the rebels made us carry it through sheer ugliness as Reil [sic] emptied each bucket of water on the ground as it came. However, that night as we went to bed on the usual damp floor we dreamed of the delicious Christmas dinner we enjoyed in Fort Garry.

Prisoner of Louis Reil [sic]
Signed by
RP Ottewell (age 89)
Oct 22, 1937

~

The prisoners languished another two-and-one-half weeks in their cell. On January 16, 1870, Riel gave the prisoners a choice: to take the oath of allegiance to his provisional government or to leave the colony within six hours, on pain of execution. In the company of two others who refused to take Riel’s oath, Ottewell hastened from the colony, heading southeast. The trip was brutal. The temperatures hovered around -40˚ F/C and howling blizzards dogged their escape. Nevertheless, it took the men only nine days to reach Fort Abercrombie in the Dakota Territory. Their story caught the attention of American railway magnate, J.J. Hill, who took “the refugees”, he called the three men, to St. Cloud, Minnesota and hence to Duluth.

Ottewell later returned to the Red River colony. Upon hearing of an expeditionary force being formed under the command of Col. Wolsley to deal with Riel’s upstart provisional government, Ottewell returned to Canada to join. While Ottewell had been in the United States, Riel had crossed a line. He had made a critical misjudgment by executing Thomas Scott in February. Canadianists were determined the Métis leader would answer for Scott’s execution. Ottewell may have been disappointed, though. As Wolsley’s militia approached, Riel and his followers slipped out of the colony to seek refuge in the United States.

Ottewell returned to his family home in Bruce County on the north shore of Lake Superior. For the next 10 years, R.P., as he later became known, worked in the sawmills and mines there, work experience that would serve him well later in his life. In 1877, he met and married Frances (Fannie) Trevillion. By the time two children, William and Ella, had been born in quick succession, R.P. was feeling restless. The lure of the west, now supposedly free of its former political tensions, was re-ignited, and R.P. left his family in the care of Fannie’s parents to move west in search of suitable farmland. A keg of Red Fife wheat seed was packed among his few belongings as he and friends Thomas Jackson, William Carscaden and Ed Langrell joined freighters heading to Edmonton in the spring of 1881.

Adventure—never far away for any pioneer—followed R.P. on his way northwest across the plains. There is a family account in Cherished Memories of a dramatic meeting with one of the west’s most famous American visitors. Near Fort Qu’Appelle, the freighters crossed the path of a band of Sioux and their famous leader, Sitting Bull. Ottewell and the others were nervous as the natives approached their camp. Several years earlier, the Sioux had annihilated American General George Custer and his troops at the battle of the Little Big Horn, and had subsequently fled to Canada seeking asylum. The promise of a full pardon by the American President combined with the lack of support from the Canadian government convinced Sitting Bull to return to the United States. It must have been a tense moment as the Sioux passed their camp. The freighters thought they had escaped unnoticed when, suddenly, a lone man appeared before them. “I’m Sitting Bull”, the man announced, and then left to follow his people. The freighters were thankful the moment had passed without incident.

Ottewell, Jackson, Carscaden and Langrell arrived in the Edmonton area in the summer of 1881. Almost immediately, R.P. staked a homestead southeast of the Edmonton settlement. Today, that homestead claim is the Edmonton subdivision of Ottewell. Almost as quickly, though, R.P. abandoned this claim in favour of another. He, along with his friends, had scouted out the empty lands east of Edmonton and found them to be superior. On August 7, he squatted on what would later be surveyed as NW 16-53-23-W4. Years later, one of R.P.’s sons, Frank, recalled his father telling him that the land “was like a peavine, a jungle of forest. He cut his homestead out of the bush by hand.” R.P. hastily built a 10' x 12' “soddie” where he spent the first winter. The next spring, he was busy breaking land and sowing his small field with the wheat seed that he had brought with him from Ontario.

In 1883 after the land had been surveyed, Ottewell purchased for $3 an acre a pre-emption, NE 16-53-23-W4. While the Dominion Lands Act of 1872 had introduced a policy of free land grants, or homesteads, of 160 acres, an ensuing depression had resulted in stagnant immigration numbers. To prod what Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie believed was an untapped desire on the part of Europeans and Britons to immigrate to Canada, he introduced in 1874 an amendment to the 1872 Act. Homesteaders like R.P. were then allowed to purchase a pre-emption of 160 acres, once the patent had been received for their homesteads.

R.P. had not forgotten his family, and in the autumn of 1883 after the harvest was in, he returned to Ontario to bring his family to their Clover Bar home. Fannie was pleased to find her husband had built a substantial two-storey house of squared logs, with tight-fitting dovetail corners, measuring 19' x 21'. The walls were chinked with a clay and straw mixture. Later, R.P. replaced this chinking with one made from sand, lime and horsehair. There was a chimney made of fieldstones and mortar.

For the interior, R.P. had purchased spruce shiplap for the floor and interior walls, and for the door and window frames. On the main floor, Fannie found one large room that served as a combined living room, dining room and kitchen; a trap door in the kitchen area led to a root cellar. In one corner on the main floor, she found a small bedroom. Upstairs, there were three more bedrooms. Later, as the family expanded to number nine children, R.P. built a lean-to onto the house for two more bedrooms. Each bedroom was furnished with a log bedframe and straw-filled mattress. In the big room on the main floor, there was a large iron stove that served as stove, oven and furnace; an organ; Fannie’s rocking chair; and her sewing machine. A neighbour, Frank McNutt, made a sofa frame and a large table using legs purchased from the Ross Brothers’ store on Jasper Avenue in Edmonton.

The joy of the family being reunited was threatened less than two years later. Louis Riel had returned from the United States, where he had been living in exile since 1870, to lead the Métis in their second attempt to secure recognition for their land claims. The problems of 1869-1870 were not far from Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s memory, and when Riel formed a provisional government in 1884, Macdonald reacted by creating a military force to quell the insurgency. The late winter and spring of 1885 was a period of much unrest among the native bands, and fear among the small number of settlers. Like others, the Ottewells abandoned their home and farm to seek shelter inside the walls of Fort Edmonton where R.P. took up sentry duty. In the end, the pitched battles between the Métis (and their aboriginal allies) and government troops did not extend as far west as the Edmonton area, and within three months, with the arrest of Louis Riel and Cree chief Big Bear, the 1885 resistance was over.

By now, it was early summer, and R.P. busied himself with breaking more land with his two oxen, Buck and Bright. For the first number of years, the Ottewell farm was a typical mixed farming operation. In 1886, Ottewell and a neighbour, St. George Jellet, harvested 60 bushels of barley to the acre, 114 bushels to the acre of White Sandwich oats, and 41 bushels to the acre of White Russia wheat. Frank Oliver, editor of the Edmonton Bulletin, could barely contain his enthusiasm: “this big crop had a marked effect in putting heart and confidence into the pioneers who at the time were in much need of encouragement” after a number of years of drought and killing early frosts.

Oats proved to be a hardy crop and the next year, R.P. sold oats on contract to the North West Mounted Police at Fort Saskatchewan. The family also raised swine, Plymouth Rock chickens, turkeys and all-purpose cattle. R.P. and St. George Jellet partnered in the purchase of a sausage-making machine that provided some variety in the family’s diet. Much later, R.P. shifted his farming operation to dairy.

By the 1890s, R.P. had a well-established farm, and he was ready to branch into other interests. The Edmonton and Saskatchewan Land Company, a colonization company that had been awarded four townships in the area in the early 1880s, had defaulted in 1885. The company directors had chosen to dispose all the capital assets including a threshing machine it had just purchased. R.P., with an eye to doing custom threshing, had purchased the Giant steam engine and the Minnesota Chief grain separator. His outfit, most often manned by local natives, was a common sight during harvest as it moved from farm to farm.

By 1891, R.P. reasoned that the steam engine could serve a dual purpose. Going into partnership with Alex Rea, Ottewell set up two sawmills, one at Cooking Lake and the other at Old Man Creek, where his trusty Giant steam engine ran the mill that turned out rough cut lumber. During the winter, R.P. lived in a shack by the sawmill, walking home once a week to visit his family.

A few years later, he experimented with placer mining on the North Saskatchewan River, which was well known to have “colour,” that is, gold. “On a good day, he could make $5.00.” His foray into gold mining must not have been profitable because he gave it up by 1895. However, he purchased an abandoned gold dredge and converted it into a blacksmith shop for his farm, as farmers always had horses to shoe and machinery to fix.

One of the many reasons R.P. had chosen land east of Edmonton was the accessibility and thickness of an abundant number of coal seams. In 1904, he opened the Ottewell Coal Company underground mine on SW 17-53-23 W4 near the current railway bridge over the North Saskatchewan River; it was across the river from the community of Beverly. R.P.’s eldest son, Will, managed the mine, hiring as many as 30 men during the winter season while also farming at Clover Bar. When the mine closed in 1951, more than 455,000 tons of coal had been mined. Later in 1932 during the dark days of the Depression, R.P. opened another coal mine west of Fulton Creek in 36-52-24-W4. It was, at first, an underground mine giving local farmers and out-of-work labourers employment during the winter months. Beginning in 1946 until the mine’s closure in 1950, the mine operated as a strip pit. Approximately 244,000 tons of coal were extracted from this mine.

Farming in the summer, and running sawmills and coal mines in the winter apparently weren’t enough to keep R.P. busy. He founded the Campbell and Ottewell Flour Mills and had an interest in the Alberta Milling Company, known also as the Ritchie Mill (located at the end of steel in Strathcona, Alberta). A son, Arthur, who had been born in 1885, worked at both mills in 1911 while establishing his own farm.

R.P. was also community-minded, serving as a school trustee and being instrumental in having Clover Bar School #212 built in 1900. A farmer first and foremost, R.P. involved himself in organizations like the Equity League and the United Farmers of Alberta, two organizations that worked to improve the marketing of grain and the bargaining power of farmers.

Hard work and perseverance paid off. By 1911, R.P. and Fannie were able to afford to build a large, 17-room brick house that reputedly had triple thick walls and an interior complete with oak trim, a dumb waiter, two fireplaces and hot water heating—the very epitome of a modern house. The old log house that had served them for so many years was then used as a bunkhouse for hired farm hands. In June 1927, R.P. and Fannie celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary with a sit-down noon meal in their brick home, surrounded by 100 children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces and nephews.

Decades later, in 1951 after R.P.’s death, Celanese Corporation purchased from sons Fred and Frank two quarter-sections of the family farm, including the home quarter where the log house was located. Sometime after this date, the log house was moved to Danard’s Great North West Pioneer Village. When the City of Edmonton purchased the Village’s buildings and artifacts in 1967, it moved the Ottewell old log house, now rather dilapidated, to the city’s Fort Edmonton Park where it was restored as an integral part of 1885 Street. The grand brick house, empty after the deaths of Fred and Frank was destroyed by fire on April 17, 1972.

R.P. was one of the original settlers of Strathcona County. He and Fannie raised a large family, all of whom took up farming in the area and raised large families of their own. Along with a brother, Syd, who moved west in 1884 to take up a homestead in the Bremner district and R.P.’s father and brother Alfred, who moved from Ontario in 1890, the Ottewell name has become well known in Strathcona County.

Photo: Richard P. and Fannie Ottewell on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary, 1927

Glenbow Archives, nd-3-3528b

Last updated: Monday, December 09, 2019
Page ID: 49951