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SPENCE, THOMAS, newspaper editor, businessman, politician, office holder, and pamphleteer; b. 3 June 1832 in Edinburgh, son of Peter Spence, a solicitor; m. first Charlotte Cook, and they had two children; d. 22 March 1900 in Edmonton (Alta).

Thomas Spence seems to have arrived in the Canadas in 1852. One source claims that he was a British officer sent with military engineers to construct fortifications at Pointe-Lévy (Lévis and Lauzon, Que.) in the early 1860s, but he is not mentioned in the lists of army officers. He may have been engaged on this project and others as a land surveyor. He first manifested an interest in immigration to Canada while on a visit home to Scotland in 1856–57. There he issued a short-lived news-sheet entitled the Scottish Canadian Emigration Advocate. On 1 Feb. 1858 the Ottawa City Council recommended him to be director of a government agency in Europe. When the offer finally came eight years later, Spence had already decided to move to the Red River settlement (Man.). He and his family arrived at Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg) on 1 Nov. 1866 after a “very rough journey”; the following day Charlotte Spence gave birth to a son.

As the new editor of the NorWester, Spence quickly identified himself with the pro-Canadian views of the newspaper’s owner, John Christian Schultz. He announced a meeting on 8 December to discuss the future of the settlement. On that day Spence, Schultz, and three others convened the meeting promptly, or, as their critics claimed, prematurely. Resolutions were quickly passed advocating both the creation of a crown colony and its inclusion in the proposed confederation of British North America Following the meeting the quintet met a party, led by tavern-keeper George Emmerling, that preferred annexation to the United States and they demanded that the meeting be reconvened. The new assembly became a babel, and it dispersed without any resolutions being adopted. Afterwards, Spence collected 84 signatures for the first meeting’s resolutions and memorialized Queen Victoria.

Spence next concocted a scheme to bring attention to the isolated settlement. An address, purportedly from the Indians of Red River, and written in Cree on birchbark, was sent later that year to the Prince of Wales inviting him to visit the territory and enjoy the hunt. Scoffers claimed that the only native aware of the dispatch was the Métis schoolboy who had transposed the text into syllabics. Regrets from the prince were received the following June.

In the spring of 1867 Spence had moved to Portage la Prairie, where he operated a retail store. This settlement lay beyond the jurisdiction of the Council of Assiniboia and was thus without law or official government. On 31 May at a meeting in Spence’s store resolutions were passed emphasizing the urgency of incorporating the settlement into the new confederation; again Spence petitioned the queen. He also wrote to George Brown* asking him to support the resolutions in the Toronto Globe.

In January 1868 the settlers reorganized their informal council into the government of New Caledonia (later called the Republic of Manitoba). Spence was elected president of a territory that was to extend from Lake Manitoba south to the American border and from the District of Assiniboia to the 100th meridian. On 17 January he wrote to Angus Morrison*, member of parliament for Niagara, to ask that the House of Commons recognize the provisional government. He warned that if the request was ignored, Manitoba would be obliged to seek the protection of the United States. Morrison showed the letter to Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, who placed it in the hands of the governor general, Lord Monck; it was also discussed in council. In his reply Morrison begged Spence not to publicize his threat to involve the United States, as such publicity would incite the Fenians to invade [see John O’Neill*]. Meanwhile, on 19 February, Spence sent off a memorial to the British foreign secretary, asking for official recognition of Manitoba. A reply from the Colonial Office, dated 30 May, stated that the settlers had “no authority to create or organize a Government or even to set up Municipal Institutions” without reference to the Hudson’s Bay Company or to the crown.

To raise revenue for construction of a government house and jail, Spence and his council imposed a tax on imports from Winnipeg. A shoemaker named MacPherson started a rumour that some of the revenue was being diverted to slake the thirst of council members. MacPherson was accused of treason and brought before a court presided over by Spence. A brawl ensued, shots were fired into the ceiling, the oil lamp was overturned, and the court sitting ended. With this fiasco the government collapsed and the former president moved to the shores of Lake Manitoba to extract salt.

Spence was back in the Red River settlement during the disturbances of 1869–70 and was thrice arrested by the followers of Métis leader Louis Riel*. On 4 Dec. 1869 James Ross*, spokesman for the English-speaking inhabitants of the colony, noted in his diary that Spence had been held briefly. The following month another diarist, Alexander Begg, wrote that Spence, the delegate from the Indian Settlement (Dynevor), had been taken prisoner on suspicion of carrying letters between persons opposed to Riel. On 17 March 1870 Begg recorded that a party of Métis had returned from Portage la Prairie with three prisoners, one of whom was Spence; yet 11 days later Spence was appointed editor of Riel’s organ, the Winnipeg New Nation.

After the formation of the province of Manitoba on 15 July 1870, a census was taken for electoral purposes. Lieutenant Governor Adams George Archibald appointed Spence and George H. Young to compile the enumerators’ reports. Spence would serve as census comissioner in 1881 and 1885 for the North-West Territories. He was appointed clerk of the Legislative Council of Manitoba on 10 March 1871, and held the post until the council was abolished on 4 Feb. 1876. He assumed the clerkship of the Legislative Assembly two years later. His dismissal by the government of John Norquay* in 1885 would seem to have occurred for political reasons since he had been commended by both the council and the assembly. He lobbied for a pension or reinstatement, but to no avail.

From his arrival in the Red River settlement, Spence had advocated an aggressive campaign to attract settlers. In 1871 he published Manitoba and the north-west of the dominion, the first of six pamphlets encouraging immigration. Factual and well written, these no doubt influenced thousands of settlers to make Manitoba their home.

About 1895 Spence was appointed assistant clerk in the dominion land titles office in Edmonton, a position he held until his death. Early in 1900, about two years after the death of his second wife, he petitioned the minister of the interior, Clifford Sifton*, for an appointment as immigration agent in California, where he wished to move for reasons of health. He died soon afterwards.

When Spence first came to Red River he saw himself as a catalyst who could precipitate a solution by the crown to the anomalous political situation. His memorials having gone unheeded, he took the populist approach. To his frontier contemporaries he seemed conceited and impractical, and his efforts to exercise political leadership were viewed as pretentious and sometimes risible. In later life Spence felt he was being denied the recognition that was his due: his political activities had stirred officials to finalize the transfer of Rupert’s Land to Canada and his pamphlets had encouraged many to settle in the Canadian northwest.

Bruce Peel

Thomas Spence is the author of Manitoba and the north-west of the dominion . . . (Toronto, 1871; 2nd ed., Ottawa, 1874; repr. Quebec, 1876), which has been translated as Manitoba et le nord-ouest du Canada . . . (Ottawa, 1874; 2e éd., 1875); The Saskatchewan country . . . (Montreal, 1877); The prairie lands of Canada . . . (Montreal, 1879; 2nd ed., 1880); Useful and practical hints for the settler on Canadian prairie lands . . . ([Montreal, 1881]; 2nd ed., St Boniface, Man., 1882); The question of the hour! 1883; where to emigrate! . . . ([Montreal, 1883]); and Canada: the resources and future greatness of her great north-west prairie lands . . . (Ottawa, 1886). He also wrote a manuscript account of the Red River rebellion of 1869–70, a copy of which is at the NA.

NA, MG 26, G: 45085a–g; MG 29, E2. PAM, MG 12, A; MG 13, E. Begg, Red River journal (Morton). Canadian north-west (Oliver), 2: 872–78. G.B., Parl., House of Commons paper, 1870, 50, no.443: 481–92, Red River, copy of all petitions that have been addressed to Her Majesty. . . . J. J. Hargrave, Red River (Montreal, 1871; repr. Altona, Man., 1977). Edmonton Bulletin, 23, 26 March 1900. A bibliography of the Prairie provinces to 1953 with biographical index, comp. B. B. Peel (2nd ed., Toronto, 1973). Pioneers of Man. (Morley et al.). R. B. Hill, Manitoba; history of its early settlement, development and resources (Toronto, 1890). [J. W.] G. MacEwan, Fifty mighty men (Saskatoon, 1958).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Bruce Peel, “SPENCE, THOMAS (1832-1900),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 1, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/spence_thomas_1832_1900_12E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/spence_thomas_1832_1900_12E.html
Author of Article: Bruce Peel
Title of Article: SPENCE, THOMAS (1832-1900)
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1990
Year of revision: 1990
Access Date: September 1, 2014