|He has been called Edmonton's pioneer "Dirty Harry." For his part in leading the famous vigilante committee in 1882, Matthew McCauley has forever etched a particular place in our community's history. |
But that only begins to tell the story. McCauley was also the Town of Edmonton's first mayor, a member of the first Board of Trustees for the Edmonton Public School Board and was first chairman of the Board. He represented Edmonton and district in the Northwest Territories assembly from 1895 to 1902 and sat as a Member in the very first Alberta Legislative Assembly in 1905.
In Edmonton's formative years, few figures were as colourful and prominent as Matthew McCauley. The Edmonton Bulletin in March 1914 noted that the "fluency of his speech and ready wit always provide great attraction."
Born in Owen Sound, Ontario, July 11, 1850, McCauley grew up in Ontario and became a farmer. But he was always intrigued by what lay beyond the horizon and his passion for discovery drew him to the West in 1871. He settled at Fort Garry (today's Winnipeg), married and started raising a family of eight children.
Eight years later, wanderlust beckoned again and he resettled the family to farm near Fort Saskatchewan. Aboriginal unrest in the days before the Riel Rebellion forced the family into Edmonton in 1881 and they settled east of Fort Edmonton near present day McCauley Plaza -- just south of Jasper Avenue near 100th Street. McCauley opened a stable and, during his first year in Edmonton (population 263, according to a North West Mounted Police census), he also ran a cartridge business, butcher shop and operated a stage coach to St. Albert.
It didnt take McCauley long to understand that Edmonton desperately needed a school. He fought for publically funded education and was a driving force in a plebiscite that resulted in the establishment of a school district and gave the property owners power to run the school and control over the tax money.
Michael Kostek, the Edmonton Public School Boards archivist, calls McCauley, a restless, energetic man with a deep sense of civic commitment and a wry sense of humour. Kostek credits McCauley with being the catalyst for the erection of Edmontons 1881 Schoolhouse.
A year later, an incident occurred that was to become part of the McCauley legend. Concerned that claim jumpers were coming in and trying to take land from legitimate squatters, McCauley sent a warning to Ottawa and Regina (then head of the Northwest Territories government) that trouble was imminent.
When no response came, McCauley gathered some like-minded citizens and they formed the Protective Association. Their determination was tested by J.L. George, an American claim jumper who had put his shack on land already claimed by Richard Hardisty near the present day Hotel Macdonald.
Despite repeated warnings, George refused to budge and so one day the squad of about 40 vigilantes pushed his shack to the brink of the river valley. The story goes that George declined to come out despite McCauleys warnings but finally, with his home teetering on the lip of the valley, he did, and the shack went tumbling down the ravine - which came to be known as the "Vigilantes' Depository."
A few months later, the vigilantes repeated their actions when another newcomer tried to shoehorn in on a legitimate claim. The point was made: Legal survey or not, no claim jumpers would be tolerated in Edmonton.
For his unorthodox actions, the North West Mounted Police hauled some of the leaders, including McCauley, into custody for damaging property and he was eventually fined $40 and ordered to replace the lumber of the houses he had destroyed. Shortly thereafter, a Hudson's Bay Company surveyor arrived and laid out the townsite and the problem with claim jumpers was solved.
Despite his desire for fairness, McCauley, like most of the white settlers of the time, failed to recognize the jurisdiction of the First Nations peoples over the land. In fact, the European settlers who moved into the Edmonton area were only too happy to snatch the land the First Nations peoples had held in trust for generations.
In 1889, McCauley, Frank Oliver and John McDougall established the Board of Trade -- the first one west of Winnipeg. In 1892, when the Town of Edmonton held its first election, McCauley was elected mayor by acclamation.
He was barely into his first one-year term when word broke that a plan was underway to move the Dominion Land Office across the river to the rival town of Strathcona. A Dominion land agent was spotted removing records from the office and the alarm was raised, bringing hundreds of irate citizens down to the site.
The citizens unhitched the horses from the officers dray and yanked off its wheels, while Mayor McCauley bombarded Ottawa with telegrams demanding an explanation. The wagon - and the records - stayed right where they were until the Mayor convinced the federal government to leave the land office right where it was. He was to be re-elected as Mayor in 1893 and 1894.
McCauleys first wife died in 1896 and shortly after he remarried and was to father another four children. In all, he fathered a dozen children.
McCauley left Edmonton in 1901 to try ranching at Beaver Lake but returned in 1905 and was elected to represent the eight Vermilion constituency in the first provincial election. He gave up the position the following year to become the first warden of Alberta Penitentiary.
McCauley was also known as a sportsmen and apparently his favourite sport was curling. He was the founder of the Royal Curling Club and its president for many years. Theo Petsackou, who wrote a short biography of McCauley, says he and his friends would usually find a patch of smooth ice on the river, sweep off the snow, and curled with iron kettles weighted with sand.
In 1912, at the age of 62, McCauley left Edmonton for the Okanagan and settled at Penticton, where he became a prosperous apple farmer. He remained there for 13 years until his wanderlust struck again and, at the age of 75, he left the Okanagan for yet another new frontier -- the Peace country in northwestern Alberta. He homesteaded near Sexsmith until his death in October, 1930 at the age of 80.
For his service to the city, the community of McCauley, a school built in 1912 and an underground plaza near where he first lived in Edmonton bear his name. In 1988 the Edmonton Historical Board awarded Matthew McCauley its Recognition Award for his remarkable contribution to our city.
This article researched with the kind assistance of the staff at the City of Edmonton Archives and Edmonton Public School Board Archivist Michael Kostek.