Over the past year, I have been learning about the history of colonialism on the prairies, and I have begun to wonder: how do trees fit into the early settler vision for the plains?
Most of the prairie surrounding Winnipeg before European settlement would have been treeless, largely due to dryness (although there would have been the occasional bluff in spots with more moisture) and because of prairie fires. Fires before European settlement occurred naturally but were also regularly set and controlled by local Indigenous communities. As bison and deer were vital to Indigenous ways of life, maintaining and even expanding prairie habitats was extremely important.
Illustration by Gabrielle Funk
Along the rivers grew ash, basswood, elm and Manitoba maples. However, with the establishment of the Red River Colony in 1812 came the increasing need for lumber and firewood.
In 1840, Isobel G. Finlayson, wife of the Hudson’s Bay Company governor of Assiniboia stationed at Upper Fort Garry, recounted her journey to the Red River Colony in her memoir. She recalled the small homes of poorer settlers, describing them as “invariably situated on the banks of the river and all (having) a cold and naked appearance, as scarcely a tree or shrub has been left standing near them.”
The lack of greenery along the river seems to have been an ongoing issue. Thirty-six years later, a contributor to the Manitoba Free Press expressed concern about rapid erosion around the Red River and suggested the planting of willows to shore up the banks.
Articles from the Free Press during the 1870s and ’80s make it clear that European settlers had a very different vision for the prairies compared to that of Indigenous people. Rather than a vast grassland full of grazing animals, settlers envisioned neatly ordered farmlands with plenty of trees.
This is evident in the regular encouragement published by the Free Press for Manitoba farmers to plant trees, along with advice on how best to do so. Trees on a farm were viewed as a sign of an industrious farmer who was ready to alter the landscape in order to better suit their needs. One journalist praised these settlers, saying “These are the right sort of men. They mean business.”
While prairie fires were useful tools for Indigenous communities on the plains, European settlers viewed them as purely destructive, with one commentator bemoaning that “their constant recurrence prevents the land from being clothed with timber.” Another article recommended planting trees to act as a barrier against fires and argued that the enjoyable presence of trees would also “create a popular desire to preserve them, and will thus lend to renewed vigilance on the part of all concerned.”
Interestingly, this same article, entitled “How to prevent prairie fires,” went on to encourage city dwellers to plant trees as well, but for different reasons. While trees in rural areas were seen as a resource and a sign of civilization, trees in city spaces were valued primarily for their beauty and shade.
The Winnipeg city council was eager for inhabitants to grow trees, introducing a bylaw in 1874 that offered a $1 reward per tree planted. However, as a Free Press reporter noted in exasperation, few city dwellers had taken advantage of this reward as of 1887. They advised their readers that “(if) Winnipeg is ever to be made a highly attractive and beautiful city, this must be done. If we are to have any protection from the sunlight which beats down upon our pavements and thoroughfares in the summertime, we must have trees.”
Indeed, “we must have trees” seems to have been the general attitude of settlers on the prairies during the late 19th century. Trees became both a sign of a successful settlement and a marker of a beautiful city, and the landscape of the plains would be significantly altered to fit this vision.
Kathryn Boschmann is a doctoral student in the history department at Concordia University whose research focuses on the relationship between religious communities and Indigenous activism in Winnipeg. She was born and raised in Manitoba and has made Winnipeg her home.