Updated: Oct 12
John Glenn (1833-1886)
b. Co. Mayo d. Calgary.
Prospector, trader, farmer, entrepreneur
A sense of fairness, as much as ambition, prompted John Glenn’s extensive travels in North America and continued when he found his final home near Calgary. Having left Ireland at sixteen, he was in Texas when the civil war began. He was conscripted to fight for the Confederate army. Opposed to slavery, he believed he was fighting on the wrong side, so he quickly deserted and enlisted in the Union Army. At the end of the war, Glenn became a prospector, becoming familiar with many of the watercourses of North America before reaching the North Saskatchewan River. His marriage to Métis woman Adélaïde Belcourt ended his wandering when they decided to move to the Calgary region in 1873, becoming some of the first settlers. By 1875, Adélaïde and John were established at the confluence of Fish Creek and the Bow River. Their homestead, with its distinctive Métis-style log cabin, was often a hospitable refuge for overnight travellers (including several trapped by the floods of 1884). Glenn also loved to welcome new settlers and give them a tour of the region so they could see its potential.
Like fellow-pioneers Samuel Livingston and Patrick Burns, Glenn found business opportunities beyond the reach of the railway and other Canadian institutions. (Surveyors for the proposed CPR line had been impressed to meet the self-sufficient Glenn travelling on the way to his next prospecting site.) When the North West Mounted Police arrived in the Northwest, Glenn was already there to sell them much needed supplies—at a price of his choosing—having established himself as a trader a few years before. When the NWMP established Fort Calgary, he was again ready to sell them supplies and help build the barracks.
But Glenn and his Irish compatriot Samuel Livingston were more interested in the region’s rich land and were determined to disprove the argument that it was good only for grazing. Glenn designed and built his own irrigation system, which supported a fertile and productive model farm that became a stop for visiting dignitaries. The system also provided water power for the woolen mill of his neighbor Samuel William Shaw. Other ways that Glenn’s efforts improved the wider community included his founding of the Calgary District Agricultural Society in 1884.
His untiring advocacy for farming and economic development in Calgary may have been influenced by Glenn’s first-hand knowledge of Irish inequality and unrest: in the 1870s and 80s, Irish farmers could be arbitrarily evicted from their land with no compensation for improvements, and those drawn to homestead in Western Canada sometimes experienced similar frustrations. In April 1885, 50 settlers, along with the Mayor of Calgary, met on the Glenn farm to protest the government’s disregard of homesteading and tenure rights of settlers and squatters. Both Glenn and Livingston noted that interminable waits for land patents, insecure tenure, and the threat of eviction discouraged settlers from investing money and effort into the kinds of improvements and innovations that would benefit the Calgary economy. At the meeting, the attendees formed the Alberta Settlers’ Rights Association. Among their formal resolutions was an appeal to the government to end delays in granting land title “to those peaceable settlers who by their assiduous compliance with the conditions of settlement are entitled to the same.” They also asked the government to honour the land grants made to “the [Métis] of the Northwest Territories [who] are entitled to the same rights and privileges as have been conceded to their brethren in Manitoba.”
Glenn’s life ended prematurely, due to severe injuries sustained in an accident in the fall of 1885. An 1886 tribute in the Calgary Herald recognized Glenn’s sense of fairness, generosity, and community spirit. He was a “first class” businessman who was “honourable in all his engagements,” as well as a “warm-hearted and good natured friend” to “Old Timers” and new settlers alike. He also had “great faith in the future of Calgary,” believing that its agricultural potential, coupled with “its enormous mineral resources, would one day raise it to one of the largest Cities in the West.”
Sheilagh S. Jameson, “Glenn, John,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 14, 2023.
“Meeting at John Glenn’s” Calgary Herald, 9 April 1885, p.4.
“The Floods,” Calgary Herald, 23 July 1884, p. 4.
“John Glenn,” Calgary Herald, 23 January 1886, p.2.