BURRISS, RUFUS ALLEN, Disciples of Christ minister, office holder, promoter of colonization, and politician; b. 30 July 1859 in Lewis County, Ky, son of Marcus L. Burriss and Sarah R. Hamlin; m. 16 Jan. 1884 Hester Ann Watts in Fort Erie, Ont., and they had four daughters and two sons; d. 31 Jan. 1930 in Ashville, Chautauqua County, N.Y.
Raised a “poor farmer boy” in Illinois, Rufus A. Burriss moved to Ontario about 1893 as pastor of the Disciples of Christ church at Bowmanville. He came under the influence of Daniel Francis Burk*, pre-eminent boomer of northwestern Ontario, who was a native of that town. Determined to help the “tenant farmer and others who are being oppressed” to escape from “landlordism” and become freeholders, Burriss conceived a Christian colonization scheme in this region for “poor renting families” from the United States. “We will plant the cause of Christ upon the banks of Rainy River,” he proclaimed in December 1897 in the Disciples publication Christian Standard (Cincinnati, Ohio). This promotion attracted a large correspondence. Robert Beith, mp for Durham West, lobbied Clifford Sifton, the Liberal minister of the interior, to assist Burriss. Despite scepticism on the part of the bureaucracy, he was hired on commission as dominion immigration agent for “New Ontario” on 1 Feb. 1898 and that summer he moved his family from Bowmanville to Port Arthur (Thunder Bay).
Burriss’s job was to promote agricultural settlement in cooperation with the Ontario government and its crown-lands agents, on whom he would depend for surveys and colonization roads. The attraction for each settler was 160 acres of free-grant land. Using the slogan “Manless Land for Landless Men,” Burriss lectured with missionary zeal, gave lantern shows in the American Midwest, wrote for the press, and distributed pamphlets, circulars, notebooks, maple-leaf brooches, and souvenir postcards. His aggressive, evangelical promotion, which targeted the poor, suited Sifton’s belief that “just as soon as you stop advertising . . . the movement is going to stop” and his preference for settlers of humble origin. After a joint arrangement had been made with Ontario’s Bureau of Colonization, Burriss was taken on by the Department of the Interior in May 1901 at a salary of $1,000 per annum. The opening in 1902 of the Canadian Northern Railway through the Rainy River valley aided his efforts as did his role as secretary-treasurer of the West Algoma Agricultural Society and the New Ontario Industrial Exhibition.
Following Sifton’s resignation in February 1905, Burriss’s situation became uncertain. His fellow agent at Port Arthur, Conservative appointee James Michael McGovern, resented him, and the commissioner of immigration at Winnipeg, John Obed Smith, had no use for the Port Arthur agency. Because the dominion was focusing on western Canada, Burriss’s work was an anomaly: it could be done by Canadian agents resident in the United States and the Ontario Bureau of Colonization. The first attempt to close his office came in January 1906 but failed because of the intervention of Liberal friends. The second try, made after the Conservatives had come to power in October 1911, was successful and he was dismissed as of 31 December. The cost to Canada for his salary and expenses from 1898 to 1911 totalled $26,929.56.
Burriss subsequently turned to real estate, in which he had been speculating since at least 1901. Also, he served on the Port Arthur City Council in 1913-15. As late as March 1919 this council and the Board of Trade of Fort William (Thunder Bay) were both urging the government to reinstate him. He moved to the United States in 1919 to accept temporary work for the Disciples of Christ in various parts of New York State. His last pastorate comprised the churches at Bridgeburg (Fort Erie), Ont., and nearby Windmill Point. Following hospitalization in Buffalo, N.Y., he died at his home in Ashville and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Bridgeburg.
According to Mae Nugent Burriss, a daughter, Rufus A. Burriss may have attracted as many as 3,000 families to northwestern Ontario. Not all of them took free land, however – many settlers were able to purchase established farms or better land – and fewer were American than he had desired; for every American family, he claimed in 1901, about three came from eastern Ontario. The settlers located in Dorion Township, the Slate River valley townships of Paipoonge and Neebing, the Whitefish River valley townships of O’Connor, Gillies, and Conmee, and the 37 tiered townships along the Rainy River. They supplemented their income from farming by lumbering and working for the railway. A township and settlement west of Fort Frances were named for Burriss. Although the Christian aspect of his settlement scheme there, including the town-site of Christiana, did not prosper, he did attract American evangelicals such as preacher Clara Babcock of Illinois, said to be the first ordained woman amongst the Disciples. Burriss and his mentors D. F. Burk and James Conmee* of Port Arthur can take credit for promoting agricultural settlement in northwestern Ontario, land which most colonization bureaucrats dismissed as “rocky wilderness.”
Rufus Allen Burriss’s article “My first moose,” Canadian Courier (Toronto), 11 Nov. 1911: 9-11, contains some useful biographical information. The online catalogue of the LAC lists other publications by Burriss, all of which pertain to “New Ontario” and the Rainy River district.
AO, RG 80-2-0-422, no.21634; RG 80-3-2-75, no.901112. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Geneal. Soc., International geneal. index. DCB, Biog. data file, Burris/Burriss family, notes by M. N. Burriss, the subject’s daughter. LAC, RG 31, C1, 1901, Port Arthur [Thunder Bay], Ont., Ward 2: 19; RG 76, 165, file 47195. Bridgeburg Review (Bridgeburg [Fort Erie], Ont.), 6 Feb. 1930. Daily Times-Journal (Fort William [Thunder Bay], Ont.), 9 Nov. 1901, 22 Sept. 1904, 18 March 1919. Weekly Herald and Algoma Miner (Port Arthur), 26 Aug. 1898, 2 Sept. 1899. Reuben Butchart, The Disciples of Christ in Canada since 1830 . . . (Toronto, 1949). Can., Parl., Sessional papers, reports of the Dept. of the Interior, part II, immigration, 1898-1903. W. R. and N. M. Wightman, The land between: northwestern Ontario resource development, 1800 to the 1990s (Toronto, 1997).