Our Roots

Hugh S. Paterson

Hugh S. Paterson

On a cold October afternoon in 1877 a young man named Hugh Paterson drove a horse team and democrat wagon along a rutted trail in western Manitoba. At nightfall he lit a campfire and huddled under a buffalo robe, listening to the coyotes and wondering if the north wind was going to bring snow. He was only 21 years old and a long way from home, but he was nevertheless pleased about his prospects. His wagon was loaded with tea, sugar, and other food staples, and he was looking forward to doing some business in the pioneer communities along the trail.

Like most of the settlers in pioneer Manitoba, H.S. Paterson had come to the prairies with very little money and lots of dreams. He had first become interested in Manitoba when he worked as a grain merchant in Oshawa, Ontario. Paterson merchandised the first wheat shipment from Manitoba farms, and thought it was “the dirtiest wheat I ever saw, but also the best.” He used a fanning mill to shake out the pigweed and wild mustard seeds, and after he’d cleaned up the wheat he was even more impressed. He gave the grain to the local farmers to use as seed, in the hope that they might grow wheat of similar quality, but of course they couldn’t reproduce Manitoba’s dependable sunshine and rich alluvial soil. “Right then I made up my mind,” Paterson later told a newspaper reporter, “that I was going to the place where that wheat came from.”

The next year he arrived in the rough, mud-caked pioneer settlement of Winnipeg, bought some trade goods, and headed off with his wagon to seek his fortune. The great plains of Manitoba were still wild and unsettled. A few remnant herds of buffalo still roamed the prairie, as did the plains Indians whose ancient culture was based on the animals. The year before, on the south side of the international border, a cavalry troop of 262 soldiers and scouts under the command of George Armstrong Custer had been wiped out by a legion of warriors led by Sitting Bull. When Hugh Paterson arrived in the village of Portage la Prairie, he saw throngs of gaunt Lakota refugees who had fled the retribution of the United States Army. Hugh Paterson was arriving at a pivotal time in history of the west. In the next two decades, the wild prairie would disappear, replaced by grain crops stretching all the way to the Rockies.

Paterson did some trading in Portage la Prairie and established a small store there. He soon met a young lady named Ella Snider, and they married in 1881. Two years later they celebrated the birth of their first child, a healthy boy they named Norman M. Paterson. Hugh Paterson loved trading in grain, and in 1888 he was admitted as a member of the fledgling organization called The Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange.

It was an exciting time for anyone involved in the grain trade. The Canadian Pacific Railway had just been completed, and the new railroad allowed farmers to ship their grain to booming markets in Europe and other destinations around the world.

Thanks to the railroad, the rich farmlands of western Canada would soon become “the bread basket of the world.”

Next: Planting Seeds