'It tears at the heart': Manitoba Icelandic museum honours Indigenous hero John Ramsay

A new exhibit honouring an Indigenous man credited with saving the lives of newcomer Icelanders in 1875 will be unveiled at the New Iceland Heritage Museum in Gimli, Man., Saturday.

Ramsay credited with saving lives of Icelandic settlers, despite losing family to smallpox

William Prince, right, during a shoot for a video for his new song, The Ballad of John Ramsay. (New Iceland Heritage Museum/Contributed)

A new exhibit honouring an Indigenous man credited with saving the lives of newcomer Icelanders in 1875 will be unveiled at the New Iceland Heritage Museum in Gimli, Man., Saturday.

The exhibit will tell the poignant and tragic story of John and Betsey Ramsay through song and video, including a new documentary by filmmakers Andy Blicq and Huw Eirug, and a haunting song written and performed by Juno Award-winning Indigenous singer William Prince.

​"It's been a long-term goal of the museum to improve the representation of the relationship between Indigenous people and the Icelanders in general, and Ramsay in particular," said Ryan Eyford, vice-president of the NIHM. 

"It's both conceived as a Canada 150 project and as a response to the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission."

The documentary is a key piece of the exhibit, said Eyford, but it also includes photos and documents relating to the story of Ramsay, and a display with a series of buttons that show short clips from the film when pressed.

Some of those clips show the process Prince went through while writing his song The Ballad of John Ramsay, which is told from the perspective of Ramsay himself.

"It tears at the heart when you really dig into the details of it," said Prince. "I wanted to write the song kind of from the point of his greatest grief.... I'm so proud to be a part of it."

Prince is from Peguis First Nation. According to the New Iceland museum, Ramsay eventually took his treaty rights with the Peguis band.

"He was just an honourable man who tried his best to help people," said Prince, adding he hoped people would gain perspective from his song.

"There's hundreds of stories of tragedy like this all around us ... we should hold those that we care about, hold them dear."

There are no written words from, or photographs of, Ramsay.

The story of John Ramsay

Ramsay's story, though, can be pieced together from mentions in books, historical records, media articles and from an interview with his great-granddaughter.

He lived in a time of settlement and change for Manitoba. Treaties with local Indigenous populations were being negotiated, and the province of Manitoba was still new, following Louis Riel's Red River Rebellion.

The government established New Iceland in 1875, a settlement for Icelandic immigrants journeying to the southwest shoreline of Lake Winnipeg. The settlement was near an Aboriginal community of about 60 Saulteaux and Cree, called Sandy Bar.

The federal government failed to recognize there was a significant Aboriginal settlement in the area and no surveys were done. A portion of Aboriginal-owned land was given to the settlers.

I believe that certain people are in close harmony with the Creator. Ibelieve that the Creator was able to help John because he realized these people would never survive.- Ruth Christie

John Ramsey, an Indingeous hunter and fisherman, had a farm on that land with his wife, Betsey, and their four children. The community had a winter camp south of the farm.

Despite tension between the two communities, Ramsay helped the settlers, showing them how to hunt and fish, even supplying some with moose meat and fish. He eventually made an agreement with his neighbours to share the disputed land, although in later years he petitioned the federal government for compensation for it.

While there are differing accounts of when Ramsay first helped the settlers, it is agreed that he helped saved dozens of people from dying during those first few winters. 

It would cost him dearly.

Smallpox and tragedy

Smallpox made its way into the area in late 1876, hitting the Aboriginal community particularly hard. Some members fled to other Aboriginal settlements along the shore, spreading the disease further.

Smallpox claimed the lives of his mother, father-in-law, wife and all but one of his children. Eight-year-old Mary was left disfigured by the disease.

During that winter, Ramsay was hired to transport a doctor to the area to treat people. Despite his grief, he gathered his dog team and supplies, and transported the doctor to New Iceland and other communities in the area.

At least 105 Icelandic settlers and about 200 Indigenous people died before smallpox petered out over the next year.

Ramsay buried his family in the Sandy Bar cemetery. He continued to live in the area and help the Icelandic settlers, while tending to his wife and childrens' graves. He had a gravestone made for his wife — the first stone marker believed laid in the region — and the stonemason misspelled his wife's last name as "Rumsay."

Ramsay then erected a small fence around the grave.

William Prince stands next to Betsey Ramsay's grave. It's believed John Ramsay and the couple's children are buried there as well. (New Iceland Heritage Museum/Contributed)

Eventually, he and Mary left the area. After his death on  April 4, 1896, his body was returned to the area to be buried alongside his late wife.

Betsey's gravesite and the cemetery were largely abandoned by 1900, and Betsey's headstone overturned.

Legend has it a local carpenter, Trausti Vigfusson, began to dream of Ramsay, despite never having met the man. In the dream, Ramsay pleaded with Vigfusson to restore his wife's gravesite. In 1917, he did the first restoration.

Over the next 100 years, several restorations were done by locals who never forgot how Ramsay saved lives and helped their community.

In 1989, the site was designated a heritage site by the RM of Bifrost. A decade later, a second stone was erected, with the inscription "In honour of John Ramsay and his legacy of kindness and love. July 1998."

Kindness with loss

"It's hard to understand how he could go on after suffering that horrendous tragedy," said Eyford. "But I think you get an insight into it, listening to his great-granddaughter in the film."

Ruth Christie said she is not surprised her great-grandfather helped the settlers who came and continued to do so despite losing his family and numerous community members.

"I believe that certain people are in close harmony with the Creator. I believe that the Creator was able to help John because he realized these people would never survive," said Christie. "It was one of the worst winters when they came into the area. 

"I think John was a very forgiving man, because he had the skills [to survive] and he shared that with these newcomers. They said that he saved 35 families from starvation because he was a great hunter."

The new exhibit at the New Iceland Heritage Museum opens at 2 p.m. on Oct. 21.

More information about John Ramsay and the burial site can be found through these sources, which were consulted by CBC for this story:


  • An earlier version of this story said the area John Ramsay lived in would later become Peguis First Nation. In fact, John Ramsay took his treaty rights with the Peguis band.
    Oct 21, 2017 4:48 PM ET


Elisha Dacey

Freelance contributor

Elisha Dacey is a writer and former journalist who previously worked with CBC Manitoba. Her favourite place is outside in her backyard hammock with her dog, a good book and a wilting garden.

With files from Bridget Forbes