Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Canadian-Born by StateGreat Plains, 1850-1930 Census Years

State 1800 1850 1870 1880 1890 1900 1910 1920 1930
North Dakota 1,458 906 10,678 23,045 28,166 21,507 15,743 12,509
South Dakota 9,493 7,044 6,010 4,462 3,414
Nebraska 438 2,635 8,622 12,105 9,049 7,335 5,780 4,410
Kansas 5,324 12,536 11,874 8,538 7,188 5,352 4,068
Oklahoma 420 1,807 2,871 2,489 2,146
Texas 137 458 597 2,472 2,866 2,949 3,534 4,200 4,563
New Mexico 125 227 681 764 1,023 738 618
Colorado 607 4,749 9,142 9,797 9,581 7,642 5,845
Wyoming 329 475 1,314 1,248 1,431 1,440 1,144
1,172 2,088 9,040 13,826 13,842 14,700 11,193

The influence of immigration and ethnicity on the American and Canadian portions of the Great Plains has been profound and diverse. Although European migration to this region has received considerable attention, little is known about the experiences of Canadian migrants, both those crossing the international border and those moving westward within their country of birth. This is explained primarily by the scarcity of data on internal migrants, although their experience can be reconstructed through manuscript censuses, homestead records, and local histories. The neglect of the Canadian immigrant experience in the United States is explained in part by the assumption that Canadians, Anglo-Canadians specifically, experienced rapid assimilation because they shared the same language and many other attributes with the host society. Yet Anglo-Canadian immigrants invite examination because they played an important role in the settlement of the American Great Plains, particularly in the northern half where they comprised a significant percentage of the foreign population during the period of initial settlement.

North–south intermingling within this region occurred well before European permanent settlement, as the American and British fur-trading systems converged along the upper Missouri River at the villages of the Mandans and Hidatsas in what is now west-central North Dakota. Prior to 1800 several furtrading posts run by Hudson's Bay and North West Companies had established operations in the northern Red River Valley. Anglo- Ontarians, many of whom had been living in Manitoba, made their way south to the Pembina District of Minnesota Territory early in the nineteenth century, but their numbers were small. Pembina, located adjacent to the international border, became the center of a vast trade territory whose main commerce was in furs taken from the Northern Plains and western Canada. Beginning in 1843 oxcarts operated by Hudson's Bay Company traveled from Fort Garry and Pembina to St. Paul carrying furs east and finished products west. An important player in this trade was Norman Kittson, originally from Quebec, who later moved to St. Paul where he and three other prominent Canadian-born businessmen– Donald Smith, James J. Hill, and George Stephen–developed steamboat and railroad transportation links that would open up the Northern Plains for settlement. These developments stirred American capitalists to look beyond the border and extend their empires into western Canada, but the trade monopoly of Fort Benton in Montana and the grand schemes of St. Paul businessmen were ended with the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

It has been estimated that from 1861 to 1931 the net migration of Canadians to the United States totaled over two million, with the greatest flow occurring in the 1880s. Emigration from Canada during the latter part of the nineteenth century was framed by three concurrent processes: the decomposition of rural society, a sluggish pace of industrial development in the midst of a global recession, and the expansion of urban-industrial opportunities in nearby border states. While most Anglo-Canadians located in towns and cities in states such as Michigan, New York, and Massachusetts, considerable numbers traveled farther afield to the Great Plains. Many Canadians intent on taking up land in Manitoba following the passage of Canada's Homestead Act (1872) were attracted by intervening opportunities in Dakota Territory and changed their travel plans accordingly. The well-publicized Dakota land boom of 1879–86 proved especially tantalizing to Canadians. By 1879 Canadians, many of Scottish descent, settling along the northern part of the Red River were so numerous that more Canadian than American money circulated there.

An important factor in the settlement of Canadian and other immigrant groups in the Dakota Territory (and also in Kansas) in the late 1860s and 1870s was the development of a railroad system that provided a critical link between farmers and markets. Between 1870 and 1890 more than 120,000 Canadian-born chose the American Plains over Canada, with present-day North Dakota being the most important destination within the region. As a consequence, more is known about the anglophone Canadian experience there than in any other in the American Plains states. Most Canadians migrating directly to North Dakota came from three major source regions in Ontario: the Huron Tract, Glengarry County, and Bruce and Grey Counties, all areas experiencing significant population pressure. Many others from Ontario and other parts of eastern Canada lived in states such as Michigan and Illinois before settling in North Dakota. Those who came to homestead settled primarily along the Red River and the northern border, a pattern that still dominated in 1910. Transplantation of Ontario communities, as evidenced in the adoption of Canadian placenames, was made possible by processes of chain and cluster migration.

Anglo-Canadians in North Dakota as elsewhere displayed little attachment to group symbols or institutions. The host society associated them with their British roots, as did many of the Canadians themselves. It was generally easier for Canadians to adapt to an Anglo-American way of life where Yankee traditions shaped the banks, businesses, schools, and politics. In fact, a significant number of Anglo-Canadians, again primarily from Ontario, came to North Dakota to take advantage of the business opportunities accompanying the opening of a new frontier. Anglo- Canadians in Grand Forks, for example, mirrored the American occupational profile more than any other immigrant group. Yet residential clustering in farm communities and in the small towns of the region ensured that members of this group interacted at both social and economic levels. As elsewhere in the United States, kinship and kith connections played an important role in both location decisions and adaptation experiences among Anglo- Canadians. In addition, a high degree of endogamy existed among this group in North Dakota, although less so than for the Scandinavians and Germans.

For many Anglo-Canadians, North Dakota would only be a temporary stage in their lifelong migration. Many eventually left the Red River Valley because of increasing land prices and mortgage rates and a series of poor crops. Some of this group tried their luck in the western part of the state, especially after 1904-5, when both the Soo and Great Northern Railroads built lines into the area. But the state's efforts to settle its western half met with strong competition from Canada. Given the poor quality of the generally drier land in western North Dakota and the lure of cheap homestead land north of the border, many ex- Canadians, as well as others from the state and elsewhere throughout the region, crossed the boundary into Saskatchewan and Alberta. The migration focus at the turn of the century was on the Last Best West, and eastern Canadians intent on farming shifted their attention toward the Canadian Prairies.

Little is known about Canadians in other states, but it is likely that many of the same experiences were repeated throughout the Great Plains. Today, the Anglo-Canadian presence is less visible throughout the region, as U.S. regulations have restricted the number of immigrants, and those who do emigrate from Canada generally choose to locate in urban regions with a more diverse economic base. Yet since the Canada.U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1989 and 1994, respectively, the flow of goods between the two countries has increased even as the movement of people has slowed considerably. Canada is the top export market for most of the states in the Plains, and much of their agricultural, energy, and transportation needs are in turn supplied by Canada. Thus, the tradition of close links between people living on both sides of the boundary within this international region continues today, even though the nature of this relationship has changed.


Randy William Widdis University of Regina

Hudson, John C. "Migration to an American Frontier." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 66 (1976): 242–65.

Widdis, Randy W. With Scarcely a Ripple: Anglo-Canadian Migration into the United States and Western Canada, 1880–1920. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1998.

Wilkins, Robert W., and Wynona Huchette Wilkins. North Dakota: A Bicentennial History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977.

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