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Alberta, Past and Present, Historical and Biographical
Vol 3
Colonel Justus D. Willson


With the facts which have made history in the northwest Colonel Justus D. Willson, as he is known, is thoroughly familiar—not from a study of the annals of the country, but from actual participation in the events which have shaped its development, growth and progress. His life story, if written in detail, would give a most accurate account of the early conditions here and the changes which time and man have wrought, bringing the country up to its present state of progress and civilization. Mr. Willson was born in Norwichville, Ontario, April 5, 1852, and comes of Scotch ancestry. His grandfather was a descendant of a Scotch refugee and the great-grandfathers on both the paternal and maternal sides of the family were early settlers of Norwichville. in the maternal line he is descended from Huguenot ancestry, numbered among the early settlers of Ontario. His father, a physician, removed to Saint Mary's, Ontario, when it was a new country, becoming one of the first members of the medical profession there. lie had prepared for his chosen calling as a student in medical schools of both Toronto and New York and he rendered most valuable service to the district in which he lived.

Justus D. Willson was but a year old at the time of the removal of the family from Norwichville to Saint Mary's and there he was reared, obtaining a public school education, attending Saint Mary's grammar school, afterward known as the Collegiate Institute. When eighteen years of age he took up the reading of law, to which he devoted a year, but decided to abandon that profession, and crossed the border into the United States, remaining for a year and a half. On the expiration of that period he returned to Saint Mary's, where he managed his father's farm for two years and then in 1877 started for the west, arriving in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in the month of May.

Soon afterward Colonel Willson joined an exploring expedition under a civil engineer named Lucas, who with his party started out to select a better location for the building of the railroad line, the Canadian Pacific having been extended in part to the mountains. They left Winnipeg on the 19th of June, 1877, there being fifteen men in the party, with fifteen Red River carts and forty horses, including saddle horses, while the carts were used in carrying the provisions and outfits. Mr. Willson was with this surveying party from June until the following October, when they reached the McLeod river. With the return of the party to Winnipeg, Colonel Willson decided to remain in the country, at Battleford, and within a few days he obtained an old skiff, which he repaired, and in company with Mr. McLain of the Hudson's Bay Company, he went down the Saskatchewan river to old Fort Canton, a distance of one hundred miles by river from Battleford. At Fort Canton they found Lord Percy, who with his wife was camped there and had an outfit consisting of saddle horses and other equipment for the frontier. They were on a return trip to Winnipeg, having visited the wild western country. Lord Percy, later Duke of Northumberland, died recently.

From the fort Colonel Willson proceeded to Prince Albert, then a small outpost around which lived a few retired officers and servants of the Hudson's Bay Company, together with some half-breeds and a few adventurous white settlers who were farming, freighting and trapping. He obtained a contract to get out cordwood on the Saskatchewan river for the flat-bottom steamers which made the trips on the river for the Hudson's Bay Company, carrying freight from the mouth of the Red river to North Saskatchewan, serving various central posts of the Hudson's Bay Company. Colonel Willson continued over the country to Edmonton in his contract work and had a number. of Indians chopping wood for him, largely doing his cutting near Fort Pitt, through the winter of 1877-8. In the summer of the latter year he worked under the late John Reid, Dominion land surveyor, on the survey of townships surrounding Prince Albert. In the succeeding winter he undertook farming at Red Deer, twelve miles south of Prince Albert, renting a large tract of land from Thomas MacKay, J. P. There he engaged in farming until 1880 and in August of that year his entire crop of wheat—one hundred and sixty acres—was frozen white and was therefore perfectly worthless. It was then that he quit farming and entered the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company at Prince Albert, spending a year in that connection. Later he was employed on Dominion land surveys and at such work as he could find on the frontier, and during these two years he was also lieutenant of a troop of the Northwest Mounted Rifles, which was disbanded in the autumn of 1884, their arms being then turned into the mounted police. In March, 1885, Colonel Willson, with sixty other men, volunteered for service as special constable under the late Major H. S. Moore of Prince Albert. They were attached to the division of the Northwest Mounted Police and posted at Fort Carlton under the late Major Crozier. On the 26th of March, 1885, Mr. Willson, with some thirty-five or forty Prince Albert volunteers, moved out from Fort Carlton with sixty mounted police under Major Crozier, for the purpose of securing a considerable amount of provisions and stores belonging to Stobart, Eden & Company, a fur trading concern. These stores of merchandise were in charge of Hillard Mitchell and were threatened by Louis Riel and his rebel forces, who held the district around Duck Lake, where the fur company had its headquarters and was operating. Ten miles southeast of Fort Carlton their advance guard of a half dozen men under Sergeant Stewart was confronted by about two hundred and fifty French half-breeds and Indians, who were strongly posted on a ridge across their front and occupying log houses which had been loopholed on their right and fairly concealed by trees. They found themselves in depressed ground without cover. They formed a front with the road police on the left and the Prince Albert volunteers on the right.


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