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Adamite Invasion

by Bill Barry
Bill Barry
Bill Barry, Saskatchewan place name expert

Constable McFarland of the Manitoba Police approached a group of a dozen strangers who had pitched a rather mangy camp near the village of Pierson, just across the Manitoba border east of Gainsborough. When he inquired where they were heading, several rifles were levelled on him and he was told he'd be shot if he came a step closer. McFarland sensibly retired and called on the Royal North West Mounted Police for reinforcements.

It was the American national holiday, 4 July 1908, and the group had come from south of the border. They were led by James Sharpe and his wife Melissa, both originally from Missouri but most recently farming in Oklahoma. James had been working his fields when a meteorite slammed to the earth nearby, terrifying him and prompting an instantaneous religious conversion. He and Melissa began to read the bible intently, sold their farm and gave the proceeds to the poor.

The Sharpes became roving hellfire and brimstone preachers. A fellow evangelist at Oklahoma City convinced them that they were the reincarnated Adam and Eve, and that their son Lee was Abel. Their behaviour became increasingly erratic, and both were committed to an asylum for a time.

Like most North Americans, the Sharpes had heard of - and been intrigued by - the migration of the Doukhobors from Russia to Canada nine years before they themselves set foot on Canadian soil. They were impressed by the Doukhobors simple yet deep faith, by the sect's desire to emulate the church as it existed at the time of Christ, by their rejection of temporal authority and allegiance only to God, etc.

They had even heard that Peter Verigin, the spiritual and temporal leader of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, was off in British Columbia buying land so that the Doukhobors could escape the prairies. When they had arrived in 1899, Interior minister Clifford Sifton had promised them exemption from several provisions of the Homestead Act. Frank Oliver of Edmonton, who took over the Interior portfolio in 1905, was not nearly so enamoured with the "men in sheepskin coats" as his predecessor had been, and began to enforce the Act. The requirement to swear an oath of allegiance to King Edward VII was anathema to the Community Doukhobors, and more than two thirds of them resolved to leave rather than comply.

James, meanwhile, had convinced himself and his followers that he was a second Christ, Elijah II, or "Adam God". He was further persuaded that he was exactly what the poor leaderless Doukhobors needed, a messiah, and led his small band through several states before crossing the border en route to the Kamsack district.

A pair of RNWMP constables approached the Sharpe's camp, were threatened as McFarland had been, and were told that the Adamites would never be taken alive. The press worked itself into a bit of a tizzy, headlines such as "Manitoba invaded by armed fanatics from Missouri!" appeared in prairie newspapers, and there was a good deal of anxiety in southwestern Manitoba-southeastern Saskatchewan.

Fortunately, the Mounties handled the matter with a good deal of sanity. They made the judgment that the Adamites were no threat to anyone if they were left alone so, while the authorities watched them closely, they were allowed to continue their journey.

Interestingly, Inspector Junget of the RNWMP and C. Wesley Speers, an immigration officer who had played a major role in settling the Doukhobors in Saskatchewan in 1899-1900, disguised themselves as travellers and mingled with the Adamites as they crossed the provincial boundary near Marchwell. Junget planned to arrest the whole lot of them at Langenburg, but someone in the community tipped off the Adamites, and Speers and Junget decided they couldn't effect the arrest without bloodshed and withdrew.

Eventually Sharpe and his motley crew reached the Doukhobor settlements, only to be roundly rebuffed by their inhabitants. James had miscalculated badly, the pacifist Doukhobors would have nothing to do with an armed group in their midst. Indeed, a pivotal event in the migration of the sect from Russia to Canada had been their Burning of the Arms in the Caucasus in 1895.

It couldn't have ended in any other way. The Adamites skulked off back to the United States via Wapella and Carlyle with James muttering darkly - and enviously - about the hold Peter Verigin had over the Doukhobors. After arriving at Kansas City, Kansas, in December 1908, they renewed their evangelism. A probation officer noted that several children in the group should have been in school, and a confrontation followed. Two policemen and a bystander were killed, along with one of the Adamites. James and Melissa Sharpe were eventually captured and spent 25 years in prison for second degree murder.

In the meantime the Community Doukhobors continued their preparations and more than 5,000 of them migrated to the Grand Forks area between 1908 and 1913. Verigin himself was killed in a violent explosion on a train on which he was a passenger in 1924 - a probable assassination that remains unsolved to this day.

- source: Gilbert Johnson writing in Saskatchewan History XXIII pp.70-74

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