Museum Musings: Lt. Col Alexander Sproat

Photo courtesy of the Bill Smiley Archive This group of buildings on river street west (circa 1890) includes one with signage indicating the extent of the Sproat family property holdings in Prince Albert

John Weichel, in his 2001 publication “Forgotten Lives”, noted that “One can only ask in dismay how Lt. Col. Alexander Sproat’s life and accomplishments, both in Southampton and later in Saskatchewan, have been so completely forgotten.”

I admit that, personally, when I read this quotation I could not have told you much about Alexander Sproat. I had obviously come across his name while researching various matters of local interest. When we were developing the 2022 Historical Society calendar, which features historic Prince Albert homes which have been demolished, I had found that the house featured for the month of July (and which had been known to me since childhood as the Kernaghan house) had originally been built for Lt. Col. Sproat and his family. I also knew that some of the floor boards which had been removed when the house was demolished in 1989 had ended up on the floor of a house in the 300 block of 20th Street West.

Otherwise, the name Sproat was, for me, simply a name from Prince Albert’s early history. Neither, it seemed, did it mean much to our City leaders. There are no streets or parks named after Sproat, nor is the name commemorated in any other manner. Who, then, was Alexander Sproat?

Alexander was born in 1834 near Milton, Upper Canada (now Ontario), a second son to his father, Adam Sproat. With the likelihood of his elder brother inheriting the family farm, Alexander completed his schooling locally, attended Knox College in Toronto, and then, at age 16, headed off to Kingston to attend university, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts at the age of nineteen.

From information provided by his great-nephew, Paul Sproat, Alexander Sproat moved to Southampton, Ontario the following year (1856), where he gained employment as a provincial surveyor. Weichel tells us that he laid out the Southampton cemetery, and he worked on engineer’s staff for the Grand Trunk Railroad. Then, somehow, Sproat ended up as an agent for the Commercial Bank of Canada. In 1861, he married Eliza McNabb, the daughter of Alexander McNabb, the local land agent and the agent for the Bank of Upper Canada (thus putting Eliza’s father and husband in competition with one another).

In 1867, Sproat was elected in North Bruce to sit in the House of Commons as part of the first Parliament of Canada. He won the seat by a narrow major, a mere ten votes. In the second election, held in 1872, Sproat lost his seat by thirteen votes.
The Sproat family arrived in Prince Albert in 1880, Alexander coming in March of that year, and his family following in August. In the interim, Sproat had managed to establish a home for his family on River Street. Sproat had been appointed by the federal government as the Registrar for the District of Prince Albert, a position which the McPhillips’ Directory indicates he had previously held in the community from which he came.

In the 1888 McPhillips’ Saskatchewan Directory, Alexander Sproat is listed as having a residence on River Street, and employed as the Registrar. His son, Adam (also known as Bruce), is listed as living on River Street (more than likely in the parental home) and as a clerk with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

In the same directory, under the heading “Some Old and New Settlers” Alexander is described as being “deservedly popular among all classes of citizens”. His “merit and long service as one of Her Majesty’s volunteers” entitles him to write “Lt.-Col.” before his name. Sproat is further described as taking a prominent part in very local movement for the advancement of the interests of the community. He had “always given liberally of his means in aid of every good cause without respect to religion or nationality”. One of the movements in which he participated was the establishment of the Anglican church’s Emmanuel College, even though Sproat himself was a strong Presbyterian.
Sproat’s community involvement also included the founding of the Curling Club of Saskatchewan, an organisation in which he served as its first president. He also organised and served as the first lodge master of the Loyal Orange Lodge, No. 1506. But his most significant volunteer work occurred at the time of the 1885 Resistance, when he took a prominent part in perfecting the defences of the town of Prince Albert.

On the night of April 26th, around midnight, couriers brought information to Prince Albert to advise that, due to the neglect of the federal government, Riel’s supporters had become involved in conflict with the federal forces. This after considerable correspondence had been forwarded to Ottawa indicating that the local people had serious concerns with the manner in which they were being treated by the federal government. Some of that correspondence had come from the pen of Alexander Sproat, that government’s appointee.

Having been a colonel of a volunteer company while living in Ontario, it was natural for Sproat to join with the community’s leaders in determining the safest refuge for the citizens. It was agreed that the church and manse belonging to the Presbyterian church, as the only two large brick structures in Prince Albert, would be the most appropriate. The women and children were moved there, and between midnight and nine o’clock the next morning a barricade of cordwood was erected to surround the two buildings.

According to a boy who later became an Anglican priest, the Reverend Archibald Sinclair, Sproat identified the outdoor skating rink as being a place where the “rebels” might take cover, so he sent men out to knock it down. Archibald also described how Sproat had been standing at the opening of the cordwood barricade, encouraging people to get inside the fortification as quickly as possible so that he could close the gates.

Sproat carried out the duties of swearing in the men of the Prince Albert Volunteers before they participated in the campaign. Included in those sworn in were his son, Adam (Bruce), his brother-in-law Alexander McNabb, a farmer from the Colleston district, and his best friend, Captain John Morton, a resident of Colleston. McNabb was wounded at Duck Lake, and Morton was killed.

Morton was shot during the fighting, and his body lay for two days on the battlefield. Sproat eventually recovered it, taking it home to prepare it for burial, a burial which occurred at St. Mary’s Anglican cemetery. Morton’s widow eventually had the body exhumed, and then reburied in the Presbyterian cemetery (now the South Hill Cemetery).

Sproat had managed to acquire considerable real estate in Prince Albert and area, and prior to 1890, he and his family had moved into a substantially sized brick house on the brow of the hill (originally located on the unit block of 18th Street East, but after the lot was sub-divided it became 54 – 19th Street East). Sproat resided there until his sudden death at the age of 56 on August 17th, 1890. He was buried from St. Paul’s Presbyterian church, and interred in the Presbyterian cemetery (the South Hill Cemetery). His casket was transported from the church to the cemetery on a gun carriage, and a three-volley military salute was fired. It was in this manner, the Prince Albert Times reported, that “Alexander Sproat was laid to rest, his grave by loving hands made beautiful with a profusion of flowers”.

Sproat’s wife, Eliza, left Prince Albert in the 1890s, moving to Winnipeg to live with her son Adam (Bruce), thereby ending the family’s presence in our city.