Henry Joseph Clarke

The Mystery of Manitoba's 1st Attorney General

By George Siamandas

© George Siamandas


On December 5 1873 Manitoba's first legislature burned down. A book written in 1923 suggests Attorney General Henry Joseph Clarke was responsible for the fire. Clarke served in the govt of 1871 to 1874 as Manitoba's 1st Attorney General.



Clarke was born July 7 1833 in Donegal Ireland, son of Francis Clarke. His parents immigrated to Montreal when he was 3, where Clarke received his education. Clarke became a criminal lawyer in 1855 and practised law till 1858. He then went to work as a journalist on the California Gold Rush. There he learned Spanish and moved to El Salvador where he became interested in Central American curios. Clarke returned to Montreal to work as defence counsel in the early 1860s.

He served as a captain of the Volunteer rifles during the Fenian raids of 1866.

In 1867 Clarke was named a QC and came out in Nov 1870 as a builder of Manitoba's first govt and served along with MA Girard, A Boyd and Thomas Howard. He came to Manitoba under the encouragement of George Etienne Cartier and Bishop Tache. Clarke was a Conservative, a Roman Catholic, and bilingual.

Clarke was elected by acclamation to the first Legislature representing St Charles. He was an eloquent speaker and led many of the debates giving the impression that he was the first premier.


For some reason Clarke frequently found himself in trouble. And was frequently under criticism. Lieut. Gov Archibald found him difficult and demanding. Archibald wrote to Macdonald that Clarke wanted to become head of all legal matters in Manitoba including controlling who became a lawyer and by wanting to establish a Supreme Court in Manitoba. Morris who succeeded Archibald as Lieut. Gov continued to find Clarke difficult, as he now wanted to be declared premier of Manitoba. Clarke was a further embarrassment to the govt by leaving his wife for a married woman.

Clarke became a spokesman for the Metis that did not support Riel. This put him in direct conflict with Joseph Royal and they appeared in court opposite one another as with Ambroise Lepine where Clarke acted for the crown and Royal for the defence.

Clarke left Manitoba in 1873 and went to California. Enroute, the Minneapolis Police Chief almost beat him to death because years earlier Clarke had imprisoned him for kidnapping Lord Gordon Gordon from Manitoba. Clarke returned in 1877 to practise law again.


Clarke defended a group of Metis in the Saskatchewan Rebellion of 1885. He was eloquent and described his defendants who were approximately 150 children that they were innocent and had been "merely creatures of circumstances" and "children of the plains."


Another point of debate is whether Clarke was the first premier. Early sources suggest he was but Manitoba scholars believe Boyd was the first.

Clarke has three streets named after him: Henry, Joseph and Clarke. He liked antiques and liked to live in hotels including the Clarendon Hotel. (Now A&B Sound). Clarke married but had none of his own children. He died Sept 13 1889 on a CPR train enroute to Medicine Hat. He was buried in Pembina North Dakota, but his wife later moved his grave to Seattle.


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