BEGG, ALEXANDER, businessman, author, newspaper editor, and office holder; b. 19 July 1839 at Quebec, son of Alexander Begg, a druggist, and May Urquhart; m. 20 May 1868 in Hamilton, Ont., Katherine Glenn Macaulay Rae Hamilton, daughter of Dr John Macaulay Hamilton, and they had two children; d. 6 Sept. 1897 in Victoria, B.C.
Alexander Begg led a varied and active life. First and foremost he was a writer and journalist with a strong interest in contemporary events and a natural ability to record them. His presence in the northwest during the critical years of the transfer of power from the Hudson’s Bay Company to Canada and of settlement gave him a valuable opportunity to observe and assess events, including the Red River resistance of 1869–70.
It was, however, not journalism but business that had lured Begg west. After receiving his education in Saint-Jean (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu), Lower Canada, and Aberdeen, Scotland, Begg joined Law, Young and Company [see John Young*] in Montreal, an import-export firm with an outlet in Hamilton. In 1867 he proceeded to the Red River settlement (Man.) as the agent for various companies based in Hamilton. The following year he and Andrew Graham Ballenden Bannatyne* formed a successful partnership as general merchants and outfitters which lasted until November 1871. Through Bannatyne, Begg became associated with the older Red River settlers who, in spite of their earlier opposition to the HBC’s monopoly, were by the late 1860s sufficiently concerned with the problems of stability and the conditions of the impending transfer of the colony to Canada to be sympathetic towards company rule and supportive of the HBC’s attempts to maintain order in an increasingly fractious community.
These connections meant that although Begg was a recent arrival from Canada he remained detached from and even antagonistic towards the group of Canadian expansionists led by John Christian Schultz. Whereas the Canadian party, as Schultz and his followers were commonly known, looked on the HBC as a tyrannical organization ruling without the support of the people, Begg took a more tolerant position. The officials of the company, he wrote in 1869, “are not nor have they for the past twenty years been unpopular to the majority of the settlement.” His position became even more defined when, in October 1869, the Métis of Red River prevented the newly appointed lieutenant governor, William McDougall*, from entering the settlement and thus initiated the Red River resistance. Begg, like Bannatyne, was initially strongly sympathetic to the position of the Métis. He remained severely critical both of his fellow Canadians, whom he saw as the real forces for instability in the settlement, and of the Canadian government for its failure to consult the local population. His criticisms appear in a diary which he kept during the years 1869–70; in ‘Dot it down’ (1871), a fictional account of the troubles at Red River with real figures only thinly disguised; in The creation of Manitoba (1871), a history of the tumultuous period drawn largely from his diary; and in a series of letters to the Toronto Globe in 1869–70 under the pseudonym Justitia. Begg is harsh in his condemnation of those who seemed willing to sacrifice the interests of the local community for the sake of greed or self-promotion. Charles Mair*, the Canadian poet, expansionist, and paymaster on the Dawson Road, comes in for especially severe treatment, in part because of letters he published in the Globe in January 1869 which contained an insulting description of Bannatyne’s wife and other mixed-blood women. Even James Ross*, who had been born in Red River, was viewed suspiciously by Begg as a man of unstable character and excessively pro-Canadian sympathies. The tenor of his writings and the occasionally harsh personal opinions Begg expressed in these critical months reflect not only his political position but also the acrimonious personal rifts that characterized Red River on the eve of union with Canada.
As the resistance continued, Begg’s support for the Métis was tempered by a growing concern over the direction in which the movement was heading. For Begg, the result of the resistance was to be negotiations with Canada that would accomplish the transfer of the northwest while ensuring local interests and rights were preserved. As the weeks went by he became increasingly nervous about elements within the resistance that favoured annexation to the United States [see Enos Stutsman*]. Moreover, by late November the leadership of the movement had fallen into the hands of Louis Riel*, who, Begg felt, handled matters in an excessively arrogant and intemperate manner. As English-speaking moderates, both Begg and Bannatyne hoped for a judicious common front between French- and English-speaking settlers in negotiations with the Canadian government. Riel’s often unyielding and suspicious attitude, however, made it effectively impossible to preserve any common front between the groups. The situation was made worse, in Begg’s opinion, by Riel’s usurpation of the HBC’s authority and property, a move he felt to be unwise. This distrust of Riel deepened in February 1870, when Bannatyne was temporarily arrested by the provisional government. Begg recorded in his diary in April that Riel “could not rule very long here,” given his diminishing popularity among the people. It was thus with some relief that he watched the successful conclusion of negotiations between the Canadian government and the representatives of Red River – Joseph-Noël Ritchot*, John Black*, and Alfred Henry Scott*. Begg’s opinion of Riel was best summed up in a later comment on his execution in 1885 in Regina. “So ended a man who did some good during his lifetime, but who, also, brought much misery and suffering to his countrymen.”
With the transfer accomplished in July 1870, Begg decided to take advantage of the opportunities offered in Winnipeg by an expanding frontier. In January 1872 he founded the ephemeral Manitoba Trade Review, which folded after two issues, and then from March to September of the same year he published and edited the Manitoba Gazette and Trade Review. About that July he had started a soda-water factory in Winnipeg which proved to be successful. Unfortunately the failure of a Montreal firm in which he was involved obliged him to sell the factory. Undaunted, in the summer of 1874 he became editor of the Daily Nor’Wester, a paper that supported the administration of Premier Robert Atkinson Davis*, and he held the post until about December 1875. The following year he established the short-lived Manitoba Commercial College. He was no more successful as editor and co-publisher (with Walter R. Nursey) of the Manitoba Herald, which lasted only a few weeks in the summer of 1877. Turning to the public service, he held office during the administrations of premiers Davis and John Norquay*, as queen’s printer in 1877, sergeant-at-arms of the legislature in early 1878, and deputy treasurer by November of that year until 1884. Begg maintained his interest in writing during this period, and with George Bryce* he was instrumental in founding the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba in 1879. That year he also published Ten years in Winnipeg. Written jointly with Nursey, the work recounts the growth of the city in the years after Manitoba’s entry into confederation. Begg’s increasing interest in the promotion of the west (he had published a guide to the province in 1877) found an outlet when he was appointed by the Manitoba government in 1879 to handle an exhibition of provincial agricultural products at Ottawa.
Begg’s political views in these years reveal a strong consistency. Generally he advocated any measure and supported any group that had at heart what he perceived to be the interests of the west while condemning those who seemingly retarded its advancement. Thus, both the Liberal administration of Alexander Mackenzie and the Conservative one of Sir John A. Macdonald incurred harsh criticism because of their land and railway policies in the 1870s and 1880s. “Both Governments blundered most seriously in their administration of the North-West lands,” he later wrote, “and it took years of experience to enable the authorities to reach a proper understanding of the land question, and in the meantime the whole North-West suffered from the loss of thousands of desirable settlers every year.” In contrast, the attempts made by the Norquay government to secure “better terms” for Manitoba were seen as a continuation of the efforts of the people of Red River to obtain justice from Canadian authorities. Begg’s real admiration, however, was reserved for the two giant corporations that seemed so essential to the past and future progress of the west, the HBC and the Canadian Pacific Railway. Donald Alexander Smith*, a corporate and political figure with connections to both bodies, became, for Begg, the exemplification of the sort of entrepreneurial spirit and personal integrity that would develop the west. Like those of many other westerners, Begg’s politics were to a large degree shaped in these years by his sense of regionalism. What made Begg distinctive was that he had acquired his regional sensitivity so soon after his move west.
In 1884 Begg’s admiration for Smith and his interest in the advancement of the west led him into the service of the CPR as a promoter of immigration in London, England. During the next four years he turned his writing talents to the sort of hyperbolic praise of the west that typified the age, in pieces such as Canada and its national highway. Like many of the pamphlets he published during his stay in London, it was first presented as a lecture to a London audience. For Begg, therefore, the 1870s and 1880s were characterized by a restless shifting of careers tied together by a constant faith in the future of the west, a sensitivity to regional interests, and a determination to take advantage of the opportunities the frontier offered.
In 1888 Begg left the CPR and moved to Seattle (Wash.). There he edited several newspapers and founded the Washington Magazine. He moved in 1892 to Victoria, where he edited the Daily Morning News for a short period of time. During the 1890s he wrote his most ambitious work, the three-volume History of the north-west. Published in 1894–95 in Toronto, it provided a critical and generally well-executed study of the region while maintaining the strong regional perspective that had been the hallmark of so much of his earlier work. In October 1895 he began the British Columbia Mining Record, which he edited until shortly before his death. In 1884 he had published another novel, Wrecks in the sea of life; it followed a typical Victorian moral plot and seems to have had little success.
There are two ways in which Alexander Begg’s significance might be assessed. The first is in his role as a historian and observer of key events. From this perspective his legacy is the writing he left to future generations rather than his own activities, for he was always more the intelligent observer than the major participant. A second perspective, however, would see Begg as typical of a certain late-19th-century Canadian, especially one associated with the frontier, moving restlessly from position to position. Change and relocation were to Begg as much a part of his life as was the drive for success and wealth. His various careers reflected the nature of entrepreneurship on the frontier and the personality of those who inhabited it.
Alexander Begg is the author of The creation of Manitoba; or, a history of the Red River troubles (Toronto, 1871); ‘Dot it down’; a story of life in the north-west (Toronto, 1871); Practical hand-book and guide to Manitoba and the northwest . . . (Toronto, 1877); The great Canadian north west: its past history, present condition, and glorious prospects (Montreal, 1881); Seventeen years in the Canadian northwest . . . (London, 1884); Wrecks in the sea of life, a novel (New York, ); Canada and its national highway (London, 1886); Emigration . . . (London, 1886); The great north-west of Canada . . . (London, ); and History of the north-west (3v., Toronto, 1894–95). In addition, with Walter R. Nursey he published Ten years in Winnipeg; a narration of the principal events in the history of the city of Winnipeg from the year A.D. 1870 to the year A.D. 1879, inclusive (Winnipeg, 1879), and he was probably the author of some chapters in John Macoun et al., Manitoba and the great north-west . . . (Guelph, Ont., 1882). The original of his journal for the years 1869–70, published by the Champlain Society as Red River journal (Morton), is held by the NA. Begg has often been confused with another Alexander Begg* (1825–1905), who had a similar career in western Canada. Madge Wolfenden, “Alexander Begg versus Alexander Begg,” BCHQ, 1 (1937): 133–39, is very useful in distinguishing the careers of the two men.
ANQ-Q, CE1-66, 19 août 1839. NA, MG 29, C1; E29. PAM, MG 2, C5; MG 12, E. QUA, 2026a. British Columbia Mining Record (Victoria), 1 (1895)–3 (1897). Daily Free Press (Winnipeg), 1877–79. Daily Spectator, 22 May 1868. Globe, 1869–70. Victoria Daily Times, 7 Sept. 1897. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898). A historical directory of Manitoba newspapers, 1859–1978, comp. D. M. Loveridge (Winnipeg, 1981). Pioneers of Man. (Morley et al.). Morton, Manitoba (1957). Stanley, Louis Riel.
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Cite This Article
D. R. Owram, “BEGG, ALEXANDER (1839-97),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 5, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/begg_alexander_1839_97_12E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||D. R. Owram|
|Title of Article:||BEGG, ALEXANDER (1839-97)|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1990|
|Year of revision:||1990|
|Access Date:||June 5, 2023|