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MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Lord Selkirk


THE name and titles of the Earl of Selkirk are firmly attached to a number of localities in the Canadian West: a town and county of Manitoba, a. range of mountains in British Columbia, a fort on the Yukon River, and an island in Lake Winnipeg, all bear the name of Selkirk; a part of the city of Winnipeg called Point Douglas, where originally stood Fort Douglas, preserves to this day the family name of the great colonizer. The ruins of a fort near the international boundary, known as Fort Daer, long remained to recall one of the titles of the noble house of Selkirk.

The man who thus impressed himself upon so vast a region was no common man, and the story of his life is worthy of a place in the treasure-house of Canadian and British worthies.

Thomas Douglas, fifth Earl of Selkirk, Baron Daer and Shortcleugh, was a scion of one of the oldest Scottish noble families. As the writer has said elsewhere, "The intrepidity of the Douglases, the perseverance of the ancient family of Marr, and the venturesomeness of the house of Angus, were all his inheritance by blood. Back nineteen generations, and not less than seven hundred years before his time, Theobald, the Fleming—the Selkirk ancestor—scorned the quieter pleasures of home, and went to seek his fortunes among the Saxon people of old Northumbria, bought himself a new home with the sword, and the lands of Douglas were granted him because he had won them honourably."

Time does not permit to tell the deeds of Theobald's great grandson, Sir William Douglas, the hardy man who joined the unlucky Wallace, and suffered death for it, and of Sir William's grraiidson, the grim Sir Archibald. James, the second earl of Douglas, who fell fighting against the Percy, was the brave hero of the battle of Otterburn. It was his dying boast that "few of his ancestors had died in chambers." Good Sir James Douglas lived in the days of the Bruce, distinguished himself at Bannockburn, and figured in the attempt to carry the heart of King Robert to Jerusalem. These might suffice for a group of ancestors of remarkable distinction, but there was also that other famous man, Archibald, "Bell the Cat," the Earl of Angus, whose courage and resource have become watchwords in history.

With such heroic blood in his veins our great colonizer was born, being the seventh son of Dunbar, fourth Earl of Selkirk. He was born in June, 1771, at St. Mary's Isle, the earl's seat at the mouth of the Dee in Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland. At the age of fifteen young Thomas Douglas went to the University of Edinburgh, and there pursued his studies till he was nineteen. His college days gave promise of an energy, resourcefulness, and ability which were to urge him to great achievements in his later days. With Walter Scott he was a member of "The Club," a small society of ardent literary spirits. The earl, young Thomas's father, was a broad-minded man, who showed favour to rising genius, and patronized Robert Burns. It was at St. Mary's Isle that Burns, on being entertained, extemporized the well-known "Selkirk Grace" found iii his poems.

On another occasion the poet Burns, a guest at Ayr of Dugald Stewart, the great metaphysician, there met Lord Daer, an older brother of Thomas Douglas, and was so captivated by him that he wrote a poem concerning him, in which he says:—

"Nae honest, worthy mail need care
To meet with noble, youthful Daer,
For he but meets a brother."

Amongst the companions of Thomas Douglas in the little club of nineteen in Edinburgh were men afterwards greatly distinguished: William Clerk, of Eldin, Sir A. Ferguson, Lord Abercromby, and David Douglas, afterwards Lord Reston.

At the close of his college career, the young nobleman, who had a great sympathy for the downtrodden and oppressed, found his way to France, and was disposed, like many British Liberals, to extend his approbation to the leaders of the French Revolution. It may be of interest to give here a letter written by him to his father, the Earl of Selkirk.

"DEAR FATHER,—We are all here very quiet, tho' your newspapers have probably by this time massacred half of Paris. The disturbance of which Daer gave you an account is completely settled. The measure M. de la Fayette took of breaking one of the mutinous companies of the Garde Soldee was indeed much criticized in the Groupes of the Palais Royal, but the ferment is blown over, and will probably be put out of their heads by the Avignon business. I was at the National Assembly the whole three days they discussed it (one of which they sat 12 hours). It is carried by a great majority that they are not to unite it at once to France as the Jacobins wished.

I have no more time as the post is just going.

"Yours,
"Thomas Douglas."

On his return from France young Thomas Douglas went, as seems to have been his custom during his college course, to spend his summer in the Highland straths and valleys. He had become extremely fond of the Highland people, and although a Southron learned the Gaelic language.

In 1797, on the death of his brother, Lord Daer, young Douglas, who was then the sole survivor of the family of seven sons, was made Baron Daer and Shorteleugh, and two years afterwards, on the death of his father, he became Earl of Selkirk. His youthful enthusiasm was now, at the age of twenty-eight, very great, and the wealth and influence placed at his disposal as a British earl turned his thoughts to benevolent and noble projects.

It was now the beginning of the nineteenth century, and all the accounts of that period agree in saying that there was great distress among the British people.

The sympathetic heart of the philanthropic young man had been touched by the sufferings of his Highland countrymen. The Napoleonic wars had been especially hard upon the Highlands, but an economic wrong also set on fire the Highland heart. Men can be found in Canada to-day whose indignation rises when the "Highland Clearances" of the early years of the nineteenth century are mentioned. The "Clearances" were the result of a policy adopted by the great landholders of the north of Scotland to diminish the large number of small crofts or holdings, and to make wide sheep runs for rental to a few proprietors, who with larger capital might better develop the resources of their estates. This policy could not fail to bear heavily upon the poor. The Highlander has a passionate attachment to his native hills, and his shielan, poor as it is, is his home. In the lament of the Highlanders, it was said in their Gaelic idiom that "a hundred smokes went up one chimney," meaning that only one house now stood where a hundred had formerly been seen.

The heart of the young earl was deeply touched, and he forthwith laid plans for a systematic emigration policy which should bring relief to his unfortunate countrymen, and to the suffering people of the neighbouring island of Ireland. Our next chapter will treat iii greater detail of the earl's schemes of emigration; suffice it now to say that these are embodied in his most elaborate work on emigration, [Observations on the Present State of the Highlands of Scotland, with a View of the Causes and Probable Consequences of Emigration. London, 1805.] to which we shall again refer.

There seems to have been a spirit of marvellous enterprise in Lord Selkirk which expressed itself in plans and projects of improvement, and in discussion of public affairs of the greatest moment. To a patriotic Briton the first decade of the nineteenth century gave abundant cause for anxiety. Napoleon, with "Europe-shadowing wings," threatened at any moment to swoop down on the British Isles. The attempt of the French fleet to land at Bantry Bay in Ireland in 1796 had been trifling enough, but now Napoleon's added allies made him far more formidable. Accordingly Lord Selkirk in his place in the House of Lords, in 1807, laid before his fellow-legislators a plan of defence for the empire. "Every young man," said he, "between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, throughout Great Britain, should be enrolled and completely trained to military discipline." His Lordship estimated that of the population of Great Britain and Ireland, then put down as about eleven million, upwards of six hundred thousand were between the ages named and eligible for this purpose. The training would proceed in succession. For three months officers would train one-fourth of those within their districts; and so on with the second quarter, till all would have secured twelve weeks drill, in the year. Once a year a general assemblage would take place at a fixed time, and the trained men be kept in form, by the drill required. With due regard to the interests of the agriculturists, the beginning of summer would be selected as the time of general assemblage.

This remarkable scheme was developed with a minuteness of detail and a clearness of statement quite wonderful in a man not trained to military affairs. It is a tribute to his acuteness, and to his grasp and foresight, that the main points of the plan he outlined are now in force throughout a great portion of Europe.

In the following year the earl developed his ideas on this subject in a brochure of some eighty pages, bearing the title, "On the Necessity of a more Effectual System of National Defence." In publishing this work Lord Selkirk had the assistance of his kinsman, Sir John Wedderburn, afterwards of the East India Service. It is interesting to note that in republishing this work more than fifty years afterwards, Sir John could do so, finding it strikingly applicable to the conditions then prevailing.

Sir John, in referring to the Earl of Selkirk, calls him "a remarkable man, who had the misfortune to live before his time." While this may refer to the trials which afterwards overtook Lord Selkirk, we question very much whether His Lordship's schemes were as chimerical and ill-considered as this statement would imply.

This period of Lord Selkirk's life was certainly one of great activity. After his publication of his scheme of defence, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, and it was perhaps this circumstance which stimulated his literary activity. In any event we are justified in attributing to him two anonymous works which anticipate his later acknowledged views as contained in his "Sketch of the British Fur Trade in 1806." In these two books, "Observations on a Proposal for forming a Society for the Civilization and Improvement of the North American Indians within the British Boundary" (1807), and "On the Civilization of the Indian in British America" (no date), the author advocates the establishment of schools in which young Indians might be instructed, not only in ordinary branches, but also in industrial pursuits. He would have had certain portions of the country set apart for the Indians alone, he would have had the "legislature applied to for an Act to authorize the governor of Canada to fix by proclamation the limits of the country reserved for the use of the Indian nations," and he would have secured the total suppression of the liquor traffic, whose ravages among the Indians he describes in startling colours.

\\Te read these details with surprise, for we see them all embodied in the Reserve System, the Industrial Schools, and the law making it illegal to give or sell strong drink to an Indian, in fact, in the main features of the policy carried out so successfully in Western Canada during the last twenty-five years of the nineteenth century. It is unjust to contend that the propounder of such practical ideas lived before his time.

In 1809 Lord Selkirk succeeded in gaining the attention of the public men of his time in a pamphlet published by him, entitled "Parliamentary Reform," which he addressed to the chairman of the committee at the "Crown and Anchor," presumably a Whig organization. The house of Selkirk was Whig, or Liberal, in its views. This may be seen by any one who reads the work mentioned on emigration. The expansive and altruistic spirit shown in the work was quite in harmony with the large-hearted and sympathetic views which we attribute to the writer. But as every student of political science knows, the excesses of the French Revolution, the rancour of political parties, and the evident discontent in the United States that followed the first generation of democratic rule, chilled the ardour of lovers of liberty in all lands about the beginning of the nineteenth century. Men like Coleridge and Wordsworth, who had looked to the French Revolution to break the chains of tyranny, not only in France but for the whole world, saw with dismay the terrorism of a mob replaced by a great military despotism, and they shuddered at and forsook principles they had formerly advocated.

So with Lord Selkirk. He states to the men of the "Crown and Anchor" that his father and brother had been zealous friends of a parliamentary reform, and that all his early impressions were in favour of such a measure. "he had thought," he says, "that if the representation were equalized, the right of suffrage extended, the duration of parliaments shortened, bribery could scarcely be applied with effect." "But," says he, "I have had an opportunity (in the French Revolution and in a visit to America) which my family never had of seeing the political application of those principles from which we expected consequences so beneficial. With grief and mortification I perceived that no such advantages had resulted as formerly I had been led to anticipate." Lord Selkirk accordingly refused to take part in the proposed agitation, and, indeed, went further and threw in his lot with the reactionary party.

We have thus sought to give a picture of the mental characteristics of this public-spirited philanthropist. He was mentally most acute and active, indeed his mind burned itself out iii activities and projects that to some seemed visionary. But lie was a man of deep thought and large heart. As we look upon the marble bust chiselled by Sir Francis Chantrey, the great English sculptor, now at St. Mary's Isle, we see the indications of intellectual fineness and keenness of mind, as well as of a generous and pitiful heart.

Author, patriot, colonizer, and philanthropist—his enthusiastic devotion to his projects possesses us, and we seem to see the "tall, spare man, full six feet high, with a pleasant countenance," as he came to Helmsdale to bid the Highland emigrants to his colony farewell; as he afterwards stood on the banks of the Red River and apportioned his colonists their lots; as lie dealt with the bands of Indians of the West, who sealed a perpetual covenant with him whom they named their "Silver Chief." We shall follow him with interest through the many phases of his eventful though somewhat sorrowful life.


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