2) Oliver and Mary Gowler


Oliver Gowler of the Parish of March, Cambridge and Isle of Ely, England, entered the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company on May 23, 1836 and on June 5 of the same year, sailed with his wife Mary on the Prince Rupert for the Red River Settlement. To quote Edgar S. Russenholt:

“Two young women move onto the stage of Assiniboia’s history in early 1837. One in the gilded coach of Empire; the other on snowshoes. One, acclaimed by all the pomp and power of a conquering people…the other, hearing only the harsh croak of a raven or the jumpy flight of a whiskey-jack overhead, and underfoot, the crunching raquettes of two dozen pioneers, trekking through the Canadian wilds. One is England’s Queen Victoria beginning her long and glorious reign; the other is Mary, slight young bride of Oliver Gowler, who snowshoes from York Factory to Norway House—with her husband and a party of Lincolnshire farm families, on the way to build new lives in the unknown vastness of Assiniboia.

The story is told that the slight little bride is Mary, daughter of Lord Braybrooke; and her husband, Oliver Gowler, the butler with whom she is determined to share her life.

Mary and Oliver Gowler were wed during the previous summer in their English homeland. Oliver Gowler had hired as servant to work on “the Great Company’s” new experimental farm at Red River.

They landed at York Factory, on the bleak coast of Hudson’s Bay, late in the fall of 1836. Too late to trek the 300 miles to Norway House, then up Lake Winnipeg the further 300 miles to the Settlement, they wintered (unwelcomed) at York.

With the addition of these new-comers to the numbers to be fed, food ran low. Threat of starvation forced the decision to snowshoe 300 frozen wilderness miles to Norway House. Inexperienced and clumsy on their strange foot-gear, they flounder, mile after mile, day after day—over deep snowdrifts, rocky ridges, frozen waters, and around raging rapids. As they master the sliding lope of the raquetteur, each day they cover more miles; but each night are exhausted. Little Mary Gowler cannot keep up with the marching line. She starts out ahead each morning, shares hot soup with the others at noon, and struggles after the party until, in the settling northland twilight, Oliver comes back to help her over the final mile.

After weeks of this gruelling travel, Norway House was reached. When the ice moved out from shore, the party loaded into open craft (probably 40 foot York boats) and voyaged up Lake Winnipeg and the Red River to the Settlement. Oliver Gowler reported for work to “the Company Farm.

Contract between Oliver Gowler and the Company:

An agreement, made this Twenty third day of May in the Year of our Lord One thousand Eight hundred and Thirty-six BETWEEN Oliver Gowler of Well End in the Parish of March in the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely in England of the one Part, and the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England, Trading into Hudson’s Bay, by William Skelton their agent of the other part as follows–

The said Oliver Gowler hereby contracts to enter into the service and employment of the said Company in North America in the capacity of farm servant and that he will embark when thereunto required on board such ship or vessel as shall be appointed by or on behalf of the said Company, and proceed to Hudson’s Bay and for the term of five years to be computed from the said embarkation and faithfully serve the said Company as their
hired servant in the capacity of Farm Servant, and devote the whole of his time and labour in their service and for their sole benefit, and that he will do his duty as such, and perform all such Work and Service by day or by night for the said Company as he shall be required to do; and obey all orders, which he shall receive from Oliver Gowler's Contractthe Governors of the Company in North America, or other their Officers or Agents for the time being and that he will with courage and fidelity in his said station in the said service defend the property of the said Company and their Factories and Territories, and will not absent himself from the said Service, nor engage or be concerned in any Trade or Employment whatsoever, except for the benefit of the said Company and according to their orders. And that the said Oliver Gowler will faithfully obey all Laws, Orders and Regulations established or made by the said Company for the good government of their Settlements and Territories. And at all times during the residence of the said Oliver Gowler in North America he will defend the Rights and Privileges of the said Company and aid and support their Officers and Agents to the utmost of his power. And the said Oliver  Gowler further engages and agrees that if required so to do by the Governors of the said Company…he shall enroll himself as a soldier in any Volunteer, Militia or other Military Corps that may be formed or embodied by the said Company in North America and act in that capacity with courage and fidelity on any offensive or defensive service on which he may be employed…and attend such drill or exercise in order to acquire a knowledge of the duties that may be required of him as a Member of such Corps whenever he may be called upon so to do…And the said Oliver Gowler further engages and agrees that his wife and children shall in consideration of being found in provisions by the said Company if required so to do by the Governors of the said Company in North America…render their services in Reaping, Hay Making, Sheep Shearing, Weeding and such other light work as they may be equal to at the Farm or Farms on which the said Oliver Gowler may be employed by the Governors…and the said Oliver Gowler further engages and agrees that in case he shall omit to give notice to the Governor…one year or upwards before the expiration of the said term of five years of his intention to quit their Service and return to Europe, then that he hereby promises and engages to remain one year longer, and also until the next ship in the service of the said Company shall sail from thence for Europe, as their hired servant in North America, upon the like terms, as are contained in this Contract.

And the said Oliver Gowler also engages and agrees that in case the said Company shall not have any ship which will sail from Hudson’s Bay for Europe immediately after the expiration of the said Term of Five years, or of such further term as therein before mentioned, then he hereby promises and engages to remain in the Service as a hired servant of the said Company in North America until the next ship of the Company shall sail from thence for Europe, upon the like Terms as are contained in this Contract. And the said William Skelton on behalf of the said Company hereby engages, That upon Condition of the due and faithful service of the said Oliver Gowler and his wife and children in like manner as aforesaid but not otherwise the said Oliver Gowler shall receive from the said Company after the rate of Seventeen Pounds per annum Wages to commence on the day of his embarkation for Hudson’s Bay as aforesaid, and up to the day of his embarkation from thence for Europe in one of the ships of the said Company’s service and be found in Board and Lodging for himself and for his wife and children on the conditions aforesaid free of cost, by the said Company. And in the event of the said Oliver Gowler being enrolled in a Volunteer Militia or other Military Corps as aforesaid, he shall be provided by the Company free of cost with a Uniform or suit of Regimental clothes every second year to be worn when on duty in the said corps if so directed by the Officer or Officers who may be appointed from time to time to the said Corps. And shall likewise be provided with Arms and Ammunition free of cost by the said Company. And in the event of the said Oliver Gowler being desirous of remaining in the Territory of the said Company in North America and of settling herein as a permanent resident after the expiration of this Engagement, he shall be permitted so to do by the said Company if his conduct up to that time shall have been to their entire satisfaction and a grant of fifty acres of land shall be made to him free of cost but subject to the like conditions, restrictions, rules and regulations as the other retired Servants of the said Company holding grants of land as settlers under them in such situation or place as may hereinafter be determined on by the said Company. But in consideration of such Grant of Land the said Oliver Gowler shall have to render twenty eight days service or labour in every  year for the first seven years after he shall have become a settler or permanent resident in the country to the said Company on any duty he may be called upon to perform by the Governors of the said Company…without being entitled to any further remuneration for such service or labour. But the permission to remain in the country after the expiration of this engagement to be dependent on the conduct of the said Oliver Gowler during the term of this engagement and discretionary with the said Company…Provided always and it is hereby expressly agreed between the said parties thereto that it shall be lawful for the Governor…at any time during the said term of five years or such additional term as aforesaid…to dismiss the said Oliver Gowler from their service and direct his return from thence to Europe in one of the ships in their employment, and in which case a passage free of cost shall be provided by the said Company for the said Oliver Gowler and his wife and children from Hudson’s Bay back to England and in such case his wages are to cease from the day of his embarkation for Europe. And further that in case the said Oliver Gowler shall at any time during this contract desert the service of the said Company or otherwise neglect or refuse duly to discharge his duty as such hired servant…he shall forfeit and lose all his wages, for the recovery whereof there shall be no relief either in Law or in Equity.

In witness thereof the said parties have hereunto set their hands
To be allowed one ounce of Tea per week.
Signed in the presence of David Grant

Oliver Gowler
William Skelton


Upon completion of his contract in 1841, Oliver retired from the Hudson’s Bay Company and began farming on his own, Lot 672 which had been granted by Hudson’s Bay’ Company gratis. An 1843 census shows Oliver Gowler as being English Protestant, 31 years of age, and having a wife, and two daughters and one son under the age of 16. He had one house, one barn, and one stable, and his livestock consisted of two oxen and two cows. Machinery is listed as one plough and two carts. Six acres of the fifty-acre lot were cultivated. The Red River flood of 1852 caused the family to abandon their farm (which was later transferred to the Bishop of Rupert’s Land) and move west to Headingly where, in June of that year, they acquired Lots 1325 and 1326, which consisted of 90 and 91 acres respectively, for a price of 90 and 91 pounds. The debt was cleared in October 1856. Also in 1856, Oliver bought Lots 1322, 1323, 1324 and 1327 at the price of one pound/acre, with payments completed and title granted on 1324 and 1327 that year and on the other two, on March 10, 1858.

According to information available, Oliver and Mary Gowler had twelve children born to them. Baptism dates, as obtained from Hudson’s Bay Company Archives and Manitoba Provincial Archives, are:

Eliza, September 16, 1838        Oliver, January 1, 1849
Mary, May 28, 1840                  Elizabeth Jane, January 2, 1853
William, February 22, 1842     Griffith Owen, August 6, 1854
Thomas, October 15, 1843       George, October 3, 1856
John, June 29, 1845                 Eleanor, October 3, 1856
Sarah Anne, April 2, 1846       James Robert, June 27, 1858

Mother Mary was also baptized, as an adult, on September 16, 1838. Other available information shows:
Eleanor Gowler, burial, October 4, 1856; 13 days
Eliza Gowler, married John Setter (age 20), 1857
Elizabeth Jane, married Boyd Andrew, 1867
James Robert, married Margaret McLennan (age 17), March 19, 1879

Red River Settlement

Oliver Gowler's first farm

Oliver Gowler's Farm

Quoting from H.Y. Hind (1857):

“On the morning of September 16 we paid a visit to Mr. Gowler, whose farm is situated on the immediate banks of the Assiniboine, about nine miles from Fort Garry. Nearly all farming operations were over, but an inspection of his farmyard and garden enabled me to form an opinion of his success and prospects as an agriculturist on the Assiniboine.

A small stack-yard was filled with stacks of wheat and hay; his barn, which was very roomy, was crammed with wheat, barley, potatoes, pumpkins, turnips and carrots. The root crops were shortly to be transferred to root houses, which he had constructed by excavating chambers near the high bank of the Assiniboine, and draining them into the river. The drain was supplied with a close and tightly fitting trap, which was closed when the water rose during the spring above its mouth, at that time eight feet above the level of the river. The chambers were about nine feet high, and their ceilings three feet below the prairie level. Access was obtained through a hole in the ceiling, which was covered with a neat little movable roof. There were three of these cellars or root-houses before the dwelling-house, and between it and the river. Frost never entered them, and he found no difficulty in preserving a large stock of potatoes and turnips through the severe winters of this region.

“Mr. Gowler farmed fifty acres in white and green crops, hay and pasture being furnished by the prairie. He owned much more land, but found it useless to crop it, as no market for surplus produce existed. In 1856 he had sold many bushels of potatoes at sixpence per bushel, and had carted them nine miles. I had been previously informed of the extraordinary success of Mr. Gowler in growing wheat, but I found upon inquiry that the practice he employed was simply not to grow wheat after wheat; he had grown fifty-six measured bushels to the acre. The price of wheat at the time of my departure was 4s. 5d. sterling a bushel, but last year at the same time it had been 3s. 6d. sterling. His turnips (Swedes) were magnificent; four of them weighed 70 lbs., two weighing 39 lbs., and two others 31 lbs. Whatever manure his yard and stables supplied he gave to green crops and the garden. A portion of the potato crop was still in the ground; they far surpassed in quantity, quality, and size, any I had ever seen before. Mr. Gowler very kindly turned them up out of the soil wherever I pointed out. I counted thirteen, fourteen, and sixteen potatoes, averaging three and a-half inches in diameter, at each root respectively. They were a round white-skinned variety, like those known in Canada as the “English White.” The potatoes were planted on 1st June, and were ready for eating on the 16th or 18th August. The winter supply was rarely taken out of the ground before the beginning of October. The greatest enemy to the turnip crop is the cut-worm (the grub of an elater).

Indian corn succeeds well on Mr. Gowler’s farm, and onions of rare dimensions were growing in his garden. He had had this year a splendid crop of melons, the seed being sown in the open air at the end of May, and the fruit gathered about the 1st September. At the time of my visit the melons had all been consumed, but I had several opportunities of tasting and enjoying this fruit at Fort Garry and elsewhere on the Assiniboine and Red River. In every instance they were grown in the open air, without any artificial aid beyond weeding, from the time the seed was planted to the maturation of the fruit. Mr. Gowler insisted on my tasting his wife’s cheese, and smoking his tobacco, before I departed. The cheese was tolerable; the tobacco, which was grown in the neighbourhood and highly prized by Mr. Gowler, was dreadfully strong, and would involve long training in order to acquire a taste for its qualities. Nevertheless, Mr. Gowler preferred it to some excellent fig-leaf which I offered him; he remarked that he had grown and prepared it himself, and knew what it was.

I may here relate, with a view to show how long old associations linger in the recollections of the European portion of the populations in this remote region, that when I sat down to table Mr. Gowler turned inquiringly to his wife saying, “And where is my plate?” “Oh, John! You would not think of sitting at table with gentlemen?” Mr. John seemed puzzled for a moment; his son-in-law and children were looking in silence from different corners of the room. He cast a hasty glance around, and the true feelings of independence and manly right showed themselves, as he exclaimed, “Give me a chair and a plate; am I not a gentleman, too? Is not this my house, my farm, and these my victuals? Give me a plate.”

As Mr. Gowler accompanied me to the gate, where my horse was tied, he expressed, with much warmth of feeling and manner, the following opinion of husbandry and its prospects in Assiniboia:

“Look at that prairie; 10,000 head of cattle might feed and fatten there for nothing. If I found it worth my while, I could enclose 50, 100, or 500 acres, and from every acre get 30 to 40 bushels of wheat, year after year. I could grow Indian corn, barley, oats, flax, hemp, hops, turnips, tobacco, anything you wish, and to any amount, but what would be the use? There are no markets, it’s a chance if my wheat is taken, and my potatoes I may have to give to the pigs. If we had only a market, you’d have to travel long before you would see the like of these prairies about the Assiniboine.”

The substantial character of the barn, stables, and piggeries, constructed of wood, their neatness and cleanliness, the admirable arrangements of the hammels for cattle, and the sheds for sheep, all showed how far a little energy and determination, instructed by the experience of earlier years, would go in reproducing amidst the boundless prairies of Assiniboia, the comforts and enjoyments which are by no means the rule among the small farmers of Great Britain. I regretted to find that a few days before my visit the grasshoppers had arrived from the south-west and consumed in a single day every green leaf in the garden which remained exposed to their attacks.

The “Nor’-Wester,” a newspaper published for the first time at the Red River Settlement on the 28th December, 1859, mentions Mr. Gowler’s success as an agriculturist in the following terms:– “At seed-time of the present year (1859), all traces of the pestilence (grasshoppers) had disappeared, and Mr. Gowler having before his eyes the pretty sure prospect of a good market, brought under cultivation a greater breadth of land than any year previously. He sowed 63 bushels of wheat, 36 of barley, 24 of oats, and 101 of potatoes, and from these he realized 700 bushels of wheat, 350 of barley, 480 of oats, and 2,100 of potatoes. The cost of the seed was 50 L.; in preparing and tilling the soil, about 25 L. more were expended; and the cost of gathering in and threshing the crops is set down at 100 L.—making a total expenditure of 175 L. ($875) Place against that the sums representing the sale of the wheat at 6 s., the barley at 3s. 9d., the oats at 2s. 6d., and the potatoes at 1s. 3d. per bushel (average prices, which the produce will easily command), and the gross return is $2324, or net $1449. An argument more strong and convincing than could be wrought out by any other process of reasoning, stands stubbornly forth in favour of the claims of the settlement as being one of the best agricultural countries on the face of the globe. It should be added that Mr. Gowler’s profits have already enabled him to enlarge the bounds of his estate to 600 acres; to stock it with a noble herd of cattle and horses, and make the necessary preparations for erecting thereon, next summer, a snug and comfortable mansion.

Further quoting from Ed. Russenholt (1956)

“Historians stress that small acreages were cropped because markets were limited. Harry Bremner, a leading Assiniboia citizen throughout his 82 years, emphasizes that the country was water-logged. Farmers broke only the patches of dry land found here and there. The success of the Gowler family was the result, largely, of carefully selecting land that sloped broadly down to Gowler’s Creek. This creek crosses the Portage Trail at Mrs. Ryan’s shop today and traverses the easterly end of the new park to the Assiniboine. Its well-drained mellow banks provided the first cultivated fields.

At Gowler’s Creek they “had a fine farm, known through all the settlement for its good buildings and thorough management”. What Oliver and Mary had learned, they shared with all. Garrioch records that, as a boy, he heard Oliver Gowler lecture in Portage la Prairie on Agricultural Economy, in 1862. This sturdy pioneer had the satisfaction of leaving a good farm to a fine family when he passed on.

Assessed at $9.50/acre in 1945, 270 acres of the original homestead of Oliver and Mary Gowler was sold in 1962 for $1,000/acre and built into a magnificent public park and golf course.”

Oliver Gowler passed away June 8, 1865 at the age of 52 years.

Mary GowlerAgain quoting Russenholt:

“Mary Gowler was one of the few Methodists whom Dr. Young found when he came in 1868. Her house had long been home for missionaries, like the McDougalls, as they traveled to and from Fort Garry. As the infirmities of age settled upon her, the friends to whom she had endeared herself by her kind-hearted simplicity and devout religious life were close to her.

  Hon John Taylor wrote in his diary: “Tuesday, 5 February, 1878: Mr. Washer and lady called to borrow horse and cutter to drive down as far as Mrs. Gowler’s. The old lady is very poorly.”

Mary Gowler died March 9, 1878.

Both Oliver and Mary were buried in Headingly Cemetery where the inscription on their headstone is:

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
OCTOBER 20, 1816
DIED MARCH 9, 1878
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –