Additional Info

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

Share

Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed. Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.

The Scot in British North America
Chapter III, Part A, The Rival Companies and Lord Selkirk


In the year 1811, the bitter struggle between the Hudson Bay Company on the one hand, and the North-West and X.Y. Companies on the other, was brought to a climax by an attempt to form the Red River settlement. Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk, obtained, in that year from the Hudson Bay Company, a grant of land extending from Lake Winnipeg to the height of land supposed to separate the waters running into the Hudson Bay from those of the Missouri and Mississippi. [See Ballantyne: Hudson’s Bay p. 99; Alexander Ross: The Red River Settlement, pp. 8, 9; and Jos. J. Hargrave, F.R.G.S.: Red River, p. 70. J.C. Hamilton: The Prairie Province, p. 194.] Of the troubles which ensued it is somewhat difficult to give an impartial account, the story of the skirmishing and bloodshed which ensued having been fully and rather acrimoniously narrated by those interested on both sides. As the belligerents were almost all of Scottish birth, it will be necessary to enter into the controversy at some length, but, so far as possible without bias, or prepossession. Certainly the perfervidum ingenium Scotorum, of which George Buchanan spoke, never glowed at a whiter heat than in these untoward events.

The central figure in this historical tableau is, of course, Lord Selkirk, and concerning his motives and course of action, an angry war of words has been waged even down to our own day. To his friends and partizans he appears as a disinterested, self-sacrificing patriot, having but one purpose in view—the elevation and advancement of his Highland fellow-countrymen; whilst his enemies are in the habit of portraying him as a crafty, self-seeking and unscrupulous adventurer. The North-Western episode in his career was the only stirring period in an otherwise uneventful life, too early brought to a close. The few facts recorded about him may be briefly given here. [See Morgan: Sketches of Celebrated Canadians and persons connected with Canada, p. 272.] Thomas Douglas, fifth Earl of Selkirk, Lieutenant of the Stewartry of Kircudbright, was the youngest of five sons—all of whom attained adult age—of Dunbar, the fourth Earl, who died in 1799. Thomas was born in 1774, and in 1807 married a Miss Colville—a lady who became the mother of one son and two daughters, and was with him during all his wanderings. That he was a man of great vigour of mind, and indomitable energy and perseverance, is clear both from his life and writings. He is stated to have been exceedingly gentle and affable in his manners, and whatever other virtues may be denied him, he certainly was not wanting in goodness of heart. In 1805, his Lordship’s attention had been called to the wretched condition of the Highlanders, and the result was a work which reached a second edition in the following year, entitled "Observations on the Present State of the Highlands." His active mind was at once set to work upon a scheme by which the pitiful, and almost degraded 1ot of the Gaelic race might be ameliorated; and he was soon convinced that the remedy he sought was to be found in emigration. He was a large shareholder in the Hudson Bay Company, and as many Highlanders had already been induced to enter its service, he conceived the idea of forming a Highland colony in some fertile district of the North-West. With him to form a plan was to take immediate steps toward its realization, and he therefore, after inquiry and deliberation, entered into negotiations with the Company for the purchase of the district he secured in 1811. "About this time," writes Mr. Hargrave, [Red River, pp. 72, 73.] a compulsory exodus of the inhabitants of the mountainous regions in the County of Sutherland was in progress. The history of the expulsion of a vast number of the poorer tenantry from the estates of the Duchess of Sutherland, in which they and their ancestors had vegetated in much idleness, semi-barbarism and contentment, from a traditionary era, to make way for the working of the sterner realities of the system of land management which prevails on great estates in this prosaic nineteenth century, is to this day fresh in the recollection of the remaining population of the extreme north of Scotland. The pain with which the homeless exiles saw the roofs which had sheltered them through life, removed from the bare walls of their deserted habitations by the merciless edict of irresistible power, has been retained in the memory of the peasants of the north, and doubtless, the adventures of many of the expatriated ones, after their entrance on the untried vicissitudes of life in other lands are known, and held in interest by the children of their kindred in the country whence they came.

It was from these evicted peasants, whose abodes in Sutherlandshire Lord Selkirk had visited, that he chiefly recruited what has been called "the first brigade" of his Red River colonists. In the autumn of 1811 they reached the shores of Hudson Bay, and wintered, in a season of exceptional severity, at Churchill, one of the Company’s posts on the western coast, in latitude 58°55" N. When the spring of 1812 opened, the emigrants proceeded inland to their destination on the Red River, where they arrived, after much suffering, only to be called on to face danger in another form. Lord Selkirk had taken the precaution to submit the validity of his title to the highest legal opinion in England, and it was pronounced unimpeachable by Sir Samuel Romilly, Scarlett, Holroyd, and other eminent counsel. [The opinion is given in full as Appendix A in the "Statement respecting the Earl of Selkirk’s Settlement upon the Red River, in North America," &c. London: John Murray, 1817. For the loan of this work and others, as well as some interesting MS. letters of Lord Selkirk and the Hudson Bay Macdonells, the writer has to express his thanks to Wm. J. Macdonell, Esq., French Consul at Toronto.] In accordance with his stipulations, his Lordship ultimately concluded a treaty with the Chief and warriors of the Chippeway or Saulteaux and Cree nations, by which the Indian claims upon the settlement were extinguished. [The full text will be found in Ross’s Red River Settlement, p. 10, and is noteworthy because it probably formed the model for the compacts entered into, of late years, with the Indians.] Mr. Ross states that the Saulteaux had no claim there at all, being aliens and intruders, since the Crees and Assiniboines "are and have been since the memory of man, the rightful owners and inhabitants of this part of the country." Lord Selkirk probably desired only to provide for the security of his colony, and was prepared to make terms with all Indian claimants; still, the jealousy of the Crees led to some disagreeable squabbles. The Highland settlers, with some few Norwegians and French, who drop out of the story thereafter, arrived at headquarters, the nucleus of the new settlement on the Red River near its junction with the Assiniboine, in the summer of 1812. This spot, which Lord Selkirk named Kildonan, in compliment to the Sutherlandshire colonists, stands on the fiftieth parallel of north latitude, and as will be seen immediately it at once became the centre of a deadly struggle between the rival companies.

That the North-West Company had valid grounds for suspecting mischief from the colonization of the Red River district seems clear. Their factors and servants met there face to face with those of the Hudson Bay Company, and the interests of Lord Selkirk and the latter were undeniably identical. It was therefore not unnatural that the Canadians should view with apprehension the establishment of a settlement, supplied with means of defence and claiming full control over a region stretching from Lakes Winnipegoos, Winnipeg, and the smaller chain to the eastward, far beyond what was afterwards settled to be the United States boundary line by the Convention of 1818. They were thus shut out from the great prairies of the west, and their hunters could only repair thither by sufferance. Instead of isolated posts, forts, or factories, they were threatened with an organized government, established, as they believed, for the sole purpose of ruining their trade in furs. The statement of Lord Selkirk that he had no end in view but the welfare of his countrymen and of the Indians, and the permanent foundation of a British Province over against the growing and aggressive Republic to the south, the North-West Company regarded as a blind to conceal the insidious purpose which really lay beneath. It was in vain that the Earl protested the purity of his motives, pointed out the fact that the buffalo and most of the fur-bearing animals had disappeared from the district, and displayed the preparations he had made for bona fide settlement. [Lord Selkirk, to his "Memorial to the Duke of Richmond, K.G., Governor General of Canada," &c., bearing date October 1818, says, - "By the terms of the conveyance, your memorialist was bound to settle a specified number of families on the tract of land conveyed to him; and your memorialist as well as all persons holding land under him were debarred from interfering in the trade. Notwithstanding this restriction, your memorialist was early apprized that any plan for settling the country would be opposed with the most determined hostility by the North-West Company of Montreal; and threats were held out by the principal partners of that association in London, that they would excite the native Indians to destroy the settlement." p. 3. For this "memorial," printed in Montreal (1819), the writer is also indebted to the kindness of Mr. W.J. Macdonell.] The North-West Company at once repudiated the authority of Lord Selkirk and his Governor, Miles Macdonell, formerly as Captain in the Queen’s Rangers, who came out in charge of "the first brigade" of Highlanders. They denied that the Hudson Bay Company had any jurisdiction in the Red River country, or that if they had, their jurisdiction could be delegated to any individual or corporation. As already mentioned, Lord Selkirk had taken care to fortify himself with legal advice; to use his own words in the "Memorial," he "had previously consulted several of the most eminent counsel in London, who concurred in opinion that the title was unquestionably valid; and he has good reason to believe that a similar opinion has been expressed to his Majesty’s Government by the Attorney and Solicitor-General of England." [It is proper to observe, however, that the opinion of counsel did not extend to the disputed questions of civil and criminal jurisdiction delegated to Lord Selkirk; still they are virtually covered by the right of the Company to appoint officers for the purpose, and Mr. Miles Macdonell received his appointment from the Hudson Bay authorities directly, and was therefore legally the Governor of Assiniboia. See the "statement" before quoted p. 2. Ross’s Red River Settlement, p. 25. Hargraves Red River, p. 74.] Acting on the assurances thus given of his authority, Lord Selkirk, in order to be on the safe side, named Mr. Miles Macdonell the Company’s Governor in the district as superintendent of the settlement. Obviously, therefore; whatever constituted governmental authority there was in Assinoboia vested in him, and commanded obedience until the Charter of the Hudson Bay Company was pronounced invalid by due process of law. Certainly the North-West Company had no claims to any jurisdiction, civil or criminal, either by charter or statute. It was simply a voluntary association of merchants—a co-partnership with nothing to back it but the capital, energy and enterprise of its members. [Sir Alexander Mackenzie, himself a North-Wester, frankly writes in his General Biography of the Fur Trade (p. xx.): - "It assumed the title of the North-West Company, and was no more than an association of commercial men, agreeing among themselves to carry on the fur trade, unconnected with any other business, though many of the partners engaged, had extensive concerns altogether foreign to it."] It would therefore seem to have been the duty of its proprietors and servants to bow at once to any regularly constituted executive which had a prima facia claim to authority under the crown.

But it was exactly here that the North-West Company was met with an embarrassing selection between two alternatives. If the civil and military authority of the Hudson Bay Company and its agents, and grantees were admitted even for a season, all the mischief they had to fear might be wrought. The great objection entertained by the Canadian fur-traders was not so much to the legal status of the colony as to its formation in any shape, particularly under the auspices of the Hudson Bay Company. According to the "Statement," published on Lord Selkirk’s side (pp. 7-10), the proprietory of the North-West Company protested against any attempt at colonization, first on the sentimental ground that the settlers would be placed "out of the reach of all those aids and comforts which are derived from civil society, and secondly, because colonization is at all times unfavourable to the fur-trade." The pamphlets published by the North-West Company appear to admit that this second objection was after all, the one which influenced them. In the "Narrative of Transactions in the Red River Country," written by Mr. Alexander Macdonell, and published in 1819, although reference is made to Lord Selkirk’s "real, though concealed purpose to transfer to himself, on the premeditated ruin of the North-West Company, the monopoly of their trade," stress is laid upon the incompatibility of agricultural settlement with fur-trading. Mr. Miles Macdonell’s descriptions of the sufferings of the party that landed at Churchill in 1811, are enlarged upon, and the hope expressed that people will, in future, be deterred "from completing the measure of human misery, by embarking in this wretched and hopeless (!) speculation of Lord Selkirk’s." But the only serious objection to the settlement is very plainly set forth in these words—where the writer is speaking of a Royal Proclamation of fifty years before—"a Proclamation issued under the full conviction of the evils which must always attend any attempt to reconcile the interests of the agriculturist with the feelings and jealousies of the Indian Hunters. These must retire from the country, which it is necessary should be occupied by the farmer; and it will be sufficient time (i.e. when Lord Selkirk’s title should be adjudicated upon) to entertain the question of policy. How far it may be desirable to force agricultural establishments in the Indian country, west of Lake Superior, when the wild, unproductive lands of Upper Canada, are cultivated and settled?" [Preface, pp. xxiii. Xix. This volume with other documents relating to these troubles as well as some valuable additional information in MSS., have been kindly lent to the writer by Messrs. Allan and Alexander Macdonell, Esqrs., near relatives of the North-West proprietor who wrote the "Narrative."] It is scarcely necessary to point out more directly the answers of the North-West proprietary; at worst they only did what the earlier monopoly strove earnestly to effect during the major part of the century—keep out the settler, retard the march of British civilization, and maintain, in all its primaeval wildness, their vast game-preserve in the North-West.

It must be remembered in justice to the North-West Company, that its trade had been built up in the face of determined opposition from the Hudson Bay Company, and that, at every step of their progress, the Montreal traders had been dogged and obstructed by the jealousy of their rivals. Although it was no doubt true, as Mr. Alexander Macdonell avers, that in 1809, all was peace at the points where the outposts of the companies met, there was far from being any cordial friendship, and there had previously been some seasons of bitter contention. Lord Selkirk’s advent did not altogether come like a peal of thunder from an azure sky. But it unquestionably gave definite point to the conflict, and brought the trade struggle to a rugged crisis. A glance at the map prefixed to the "Narrative" already quoted, will give some idea of the awkward and threatening predicament in which the proprietors of the North-West Company found themselves suddenly placed by the arrival of the settlers. Throughout the entire region conveyed to Lord Selkirk in the Hudson Bay territory, the Montreal association had established posts already upon every river and lake. Commencing at its N.W. angle in Lat. 52° N., and above it from Swan Lake to Red River, on the Swan, Qu’Appelle, Souris, and Assiniboine Rivers, they had a chain of not less than a dozen posts; there was Fort Dauphin, the old French station on the lake of that name; at the N.E. angle of the Selkirk tract, the Company had two forts on each side of Lake Winnipeg; the entire country from Fort William by the Rainy Lake and the Lake of the Woods was in its hands, and so was the whole course of the Red River from the frontier to its mouth. The Hudson Bay Company held only one fort of any importance, Fort Douglas, situated within a short distance of the North-West Company’s post of Fort Gibraltar, at the Forks, i.e. at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, where the city of Winnipeg now stands. In short, the whole region thus made over to an individual by a parchment deed had for more than a quarter of a century been the field in which the enterprise of the Scots of Montreal had been displayed and from which its reward had been garnered in; and, therefore, it was not at all astonishing that they should resent the intrusion of the strangers, and resolve to expel them, if possible, from a territory they had come to consider as their own, by possession and prescription. It was not in the nature of man, especially of that sturdy, energetic and. high-spirited type of humanity which had scoured the western wilds, with true Scottish enterprise to the Arctic and the Pacific, to submit to what they regarded, justly or unjustly, as a conspiracy against their rights and privileges.

On the other hand, there is not the slightest ground for crediting the allegations made in hot-blood against the honour and veracity of Lord Selkirk. Upon a calm review, of the story as told on each side, it seems impossible to hold the Earl guilty of any worse offence than that of too great eagerness in prematurely pressing forward an enterprise purely honest and philanthropic, so far as he was concerned. [See an admirable summing up of the case for and against his Lordship in Ross’s Red River Settlement, pp. 16-20.] His sympathy with the woes of the Highlanders was, beyond all question, deep, hearty and sincere, and it must have been no ordinary love of his fellows which induced him, to take his faithful and affectionate wife from the comforts of home civilization, and travel along with her to the far-distant prairies of the west, solely to be with his poorer countrymen to advise them, to stimulate, to admonish, and to encourage. All his writings, public and private, breathe the same spirit of broad humanity and brotherly kindness; and so far as appears, although he was too high-spirited to submit to insult, he was not implacable in his resentments. When his task was at length accomplished, he only retired, whilst yet in his prime, to yield up his life under a milder sky. He died at Pau, in the south of France, aged forty-six, in the year 1820. [In a letter, dated from Montreal, Dec. 1st, 1815, lent to the writer by Mr. W.J. Madconell, his Lordship gives ample proof both of his shrewd intelligence in choosing his settlers, and his willingness to share all their hardships and dangers. A sentence or two must suffice: - "I propose early next spring to go up with these people myself, which may serve as an answer to any one who apprehends danger from the Indians; I think these men will be satisfied when they know that they will be exposed to no danger, but such as I must share with them." MS. Letter addressed to Mr. Wm. Johnson Macdonell.] To this slight view of the Earl’s character, may be added the fact that, so early as 1803, his Lordship figured as a promoter of Highland colonization. In that year, "he carried over to Prince Edward Island an important colony of 800 Highlanders. He made the necessary arrangements with so much judgment that the settlers soon; became very prosperous, and with the friends who have since joined them, now (1840) amount to upwards of 4,000." [An Historical and Descriptive account of British America, by Hugh Murray, F.R.S.E. (American Edition, 1855), vol ii. p. 95.]

It is somewhat difficult to disentangle the truth from the contradictory accounts given by the rival interests of the struggle which ensued after the landing of Lord Selkirk’s settlers. It may be remarked here that most of the modern writers on Red River history take part with his Lordship, and therefore, it may be as well to give their version of the story first. Mr. Miles Macdonell, Governor of Assiniboia, arrived, as already stated, at the Forks, in 1812, with his "first brigade," and they were at once met by unmistakable signs of hostility. How far these menaces were carried, or who the parties were that threatened the settlers, is not very clear. Ballantyne states that the Indians were friendly; Hargrave alleges that they were hostile; and Ross seems to be of opinion that many of them were disguised servants of the North-West Company. [Ballantyne: Hudson’s Bay, p. 99. Hargrave: Red River, p. 74. Ross: Red River Settlement, p. 21. From the last-mentioned author the following may be quoted: "But a few hours had passed over their heads in the land of their adoption when an array of armed men, of grotesque mould, painted, disfigured, and dressed in the savage costume of the country, warned them that they were unwelcome visitors. These created warriors, for the most part, were employees of the North-West Company, and as their peremptory mandate to depart was soon aggravated by the fear of perishing, through want of food, it was resolved to seek refuge at Peebles, seventy miles distant, whither a straggling party, whom they first took to be Indians, promised to conduct them. Lord Selkirk, in his "Memorial" to the Duke of Richmond (p. 4) does not hesitate to affirm that these troubles were caused by the North-West Company, who succeeded in an attempt "to excite the jealousy of the Indians."] Well-nigh overcome with fatigue and starvation, they consented to accept their enemies as a convoy, and to remove to Pembina. Some, childish practical jokes were played upon them en route, but no real harm done, and they reached Pembina in safety. Here the new settlers lived in huts or tents during the winter, their food being the product of the chase. The Indians proved friendly, and when, in May 1813, the settlers again set out for the colony, they left their red friends with regret, convinced that they would not be hostile to white strangers, if left to themselves. In 1813, the Kildonan settlement contained one hundred persons. In June, 1814, fifty more arrived, and in the following September, they amounted to two hundred. From the commencement of the winter of 1814-15 the colony was unmolested; the Indians became friendly, but the Métis, Bois Brules, or French half-breeds, were sullen and disobliging. According to the "Statement" already quoted, attempts had been made during all this time "to instigate the natives against the settlers," but as that plan did not succeed, more incisive measures were adopted. The growth of the settlement, and the anticipated arrival of eighty or ninety additional emigrants from the Highlands precipitated matters. In the summer of 1814, an annual meeting was held of the North-West Company’s partners at Fort William, at which it was resolved to destroy the Selkirk settlement, Messrs. Duncan Cameron and Alexander Macdonell being specially detailed to put the scheme in execution. [The following letter, written by Mr. Alex. Macdonell to a gentleman in Montreal, is quoted in the "Statement" p. 11: - "You see myself and our mutual friend, Mr. Cameron, so far on our way to commence open hostilities against the enemy in Red River. Much is expected from us, if we believe some – perhaps too much. One thing is certain, that we will do our best to defend what we consider to be our rights in the interior. Something serious will undoubtedly take place. Nothing but the complete downfall of the colony will satisfy some, by fair or foul means – a most desirable end if it can be accomplished. So here is at them with all my heart and energy." Mr. Alex. Macdonell’s version of the whole affair will be given presently.] They arrived in due time at the Forks, and es tablished themselves at Fort Gibraltar, which was the North-West Company’s post there. Mr. Cameron is represented as the active spirit in the movement—as ingratiating himself with the Highlanders, talking Gaelic with them, and exciting their apprehensions by false stories of Indian hostility. He is also charged with calling himself a captain in the Voyageur Corps which had been disbanded two years before. The proposition was made on behalf of the North-West Company, to give the settlers a free passage to Canada (generally to Montreal), a twelvemonths’ provisions gratis for themselves and their families, an allotment of two hundred acres of land, and every other encouragement they could hope for. [Statement, p. 16. Lord Selkirk’s Memorial, p. 5.] This strategy proved, to a considerable extent, successful, but the colony still remained, although depleted in population. Lord Selkirk had provided some small pieces of artillery and other arms, in case of attack, and the first step was to obtain possession of these. Accordingly Mr. Cameron sent a peremptory missive ordering them as "Captain, Voyageur Corps," to be surrendered. [This missive, addressed to Mr. Archibald Macdonald, acting in the absence of Mr. Miles Macdonell, ran thus: "As your field-pieces have already been employed to disturb the peace of His Majesty’s loyal subjects in this quarter, and even to stop up the King’s highway, I have authorized the settlers to take possession of them, and to bring them over here, not with a view to make any hostile use of them, but merely to put them out of harm’s way. Therefore, I expect that you will not be so wanting to yourself as to attempt any unclean resistance, as no one wishes to do you or any of your people any harm." Statement, p. 19.] Failing this, an armed party, which had been lying in ambush, rushed into the Governor’s House, whilst the fortnightly allowance of provisions was being served out, seized the guns, and carried them off in triumph to the North-West depôt. This was the signal for open rupture between the settlers who had resolved to remain, and those who had closed with the offers of the North-West Company, and the latter went off with the Government muskets, the arms Lord Selkirk had provided, and his implements of husbandry At this time Mr. Miles Macdonell returned, and was met by a warrant issued on the information of one of the partners of the Company, Mr. Norman McLeod, charging him with feloniously taking a quantity of provisions, the Company’s property. The Governor refused to acknowledge its validity, and events began to assume a serious turn. Mr. Alexander Macdonell brought down a number of Cree Indians, and these, with the half-breeds and North-West servants, prepared an attack. Most of the settlers abandoned the colony and formed a camp down the river. On Sunday, June 11th (Statement, p. 25), muskets were served out of the stores to the Company’s servants, and soon after the force fired from a neighbburing wood, upon passers-by. The surrender of Mr. Miles Macdonell was demanded, and he, to save the effusion of blood, voluntarily surrendered, and was carried off to Montreal to be tried, although no trial ever took place. Finally, towards the end of June, 1815, the colony was completely broken up, and the remaining settlers escorted by friendly Indians to a trading-post of the Hudson Bay Company at the other end of Lake Winnipeg. On the following day the North-West Company’s servants "fired the houses, the mill and other buildings, and burned them to the ground." A large portion of the "Statement" is taken up with evidence that, although the Company attempted to throw the blame of this raid exclusively upon the Indians, it was planned, executed, and afterwards applauded, and its chief agents rewarded by them. To this statement of the Red River case may be added a few additional points urged by Mr. Ross. [Red River Settlement, pp. 24-29.] He alleges that the ire of the North-West Company was excited by a proclamation, issued by Governor Miles Macdonell in 1814, which forbade the appropriation of provisions of all sorts for any use but that of the colonists. This, it is urged, was necessary as a precaution against famine, and was provoked by the treatment the emigrants had received at Churchill. From that moment, pillage and violence were the order of the day on both sides; "provisions were taken and retaken," and affairs went from bad to worse, until the struggle culminated in the destruction of the infant colony after a series of encounters in which several persons were wounded, Mr. Warren killed, and Governor Macdonell made prisoner.

It is now time to turn to the other side of the story, as it is detailed by Mr. Alexander Macdonell in his "Narrative." He asserts that Lord Selkirk and his coadjutors were from the first hostile to the North-West company, and fellow conspirators, with the Hudson Bay Company against it. So far from its being true that he and his fellow-partners were unkind to the settlers, Mr. Macdonell says that he pitied the poor people who had passed such a severe season of cold and want, and supplied them with provisions from the stores. He declares that Mr. Miles Macdonell was not satisfied with what he saw at the Forks, and that he voluntarily made choice of Pembina as his head-quarters; that he assisted his namesake with advice as to the erection of buildings; and frequently supplied his people with provisions from the stores. He affirms further, that, so far from inciting the Indians, who were enraged at what they considered the intrusion of the settlers, he endeavoured to appease them. The movement to Pembina Mr. Macdonell represents as a necessity, however the colonists found it impossible to subsist at the Forks. He charges Mr. Miles Macdonell with trading, though one François Delorme, in peltries with the natives, "contrary to his own repeated and voluntary professions of not interfering with the Fur Trade. [To this the author adds: "I mention this circumstance, not because we had any right to object to Lord Selkirk’s agents carrying on the fur trade although they might have abstained from opposing us at the particular place and moment when we were straining every nerve to feed, protect and support the wretched emigrants who had been deluded by the falsehoods published in Great Britain, to leave their homes on this desperate undertaking, but because I have heard it stated that his Lordship views were completely and entirely unconnected with objects of trade; whereas they have always appeared to us in the country, from the measures adopted since his Lordship’s connection with the Hudson Bay Company, as the principal inducement that led to that connection. – Narrative, &c. pp. 11,12.]

Mr. Miles Macdonell is there accused of base ingratitude. So soon as the winter was at an end, the Governor is represented as trying to pick a quarrel with the company, because he knew they were embroiled with the Americans, and also because he thought he could now be independent of their assistance. After the removal from the Forks in May, both Mr. Alexander Macdonell and the Hon. William McGillivray continued to aid the colonists in every way. In 1814, news having arrived of the capture of the British fleet on Lake Erie in September of the previous year, Mr. Miles Macdonell, according to the "Narrative," aimed a deadly blow at the Company by the proclamation already mentioned. The traders were alarmed at the prospect of being cut off from Canada by the Americans, and this step on the part of the Governor increased their embarrassment. At the same time he is charged with seducing some of the North-West clicks, notably one Aulay McAulay, who told the men under him the Governor was appointed by a great lord, and that if he ordered it, the settlers had a right to demand the Company’s provisions. There were spies in every fort, and the Governor is charged with the design of seizing all the Company’s stores and provisions. He is charged further with planting his cannon on the river, with a view of intercepting and plundering two bateaux laden with provisions. Not content with that he obstructed the highroad, took as prisoners Canadian hunters and half-breeds quietly pursuing their ordinary avocations. And so on runs the "Narrative" of Mr. Alexander Macdonell over a long list of grievances and outrages it is not necessary to give in detail.

The dispersion of the Colony in 1815, the author of the brochure lays entirely at the door of the Governor. He affirms that on the 10th of June—and this was only the last of many similar unprovoked attacks—a party of Half-breeds returning to their camp were assailed wantonly by the colonists and Hudson Bay Company’s servants. They replied by firing a volley, and were only kept from perpetrating a general massacre, by Mr. Alexander Macdonell’s expostulations. He solemnly denies that either he or Mr. Donald Cameron had anything to do with the attack. He admits that some of Mr. Cameron’s men dug a closer ditch round the settlement; but that was only to protect those detailed to serve the warrant on Mr. Miles Macdonell, from the fire of the colonists. His conclusion, so far as the affair of 1815 is concerned, seems to be briefly condensed in one paragraph (p. 39):—"The burning of some buildings afterwards, and the dispersion of the few settlers who remained, were entirely the acts of the injured and irritated Half-breeds, who now considered the colony as hostile to their tranquillity."

To return now to the statement issued by the Selkirk party. So soon as quiet was restored, the settlers who had removed to Lake Winnipeg, with a dogged persistence characteristic of their race, made their way back to their lands and made preparations for re-establishing the colony. During the previous year vague rumours had reached Lord Selkirk of impending danger to the settlement from the Indians. He immediately set out to support the settlers by his presence, and had reached New York, when he received intelligence of "the dispersion of the colonists and the destruction of the settlement." On his Lordship’s arrival at Montreal, he ascertained that the Indians had not been at the bottom of the troubles; he found that those settlers who had confided in the promises of the North-West Company had been deceived; and learning that the other settlers had returned to Kildonan, he despatched a letter promising his presence and assistance. His messenger, however, was waylaid and robbed of his papers. The Earl’s next step was to endeavour to procure from Sir Gordon Drummond, the Administrator of the Government of Canada from 1811 to 1816, a small military force for the protection of the colony, but without success. In the spring of 1816, affairs having again assumed a threatening aspect, a second application was made with no better result. [A lengthy correspondence took place between the Earl and his Excellency which will be found in the Statement, pp. 53-57.] The Administrator appears to have thought, probably with justice, that there had been faults on both sides, and he was backed by Lord Bathurst, the Colonial Secretary, in refusing to interpose. Lord Selkirk protested that the outrages had not been "mutual," as had been alleged, "but all on one side," and urged upon the authorities the imminent danger there was of bloodshed; but in vain. Sir Gordon Drummond disbelieved the Earl’s version of the story, made light of his apprehensions, and plainly took the Company’s part. [In a letter to the Montreal partners, his Secretary, Col. Harvey was instructed to say that his queries had been "answered in such a way by Mr. McGillivrary in such a manner as would have removed from his Excellency’s mind all traces of any impression unfavourable to the honourable character, and liberal principles of the North-West Company, had any such impression existed," pp. 55,56. The Hon. Mr. MdGillivray was at this time a member of the Lower Canada Executive Council – a sworn adviser of Sir Gordon, and in his confidence.]

The indefatigable founder of Red River settlement being thus thrown upon his own resources, at once began to collect an efficient band of settlers, with a view, at the same time, "of materially adding to its strength and security," he en-listed in its service, and supplied with arms, about a hundred disbanded officers and soldiers who had served in the American war. He had only reached the Sault Ste. Marie with his men, when his advance party fell back with the intelligence that a massacre had taken place, and that the settlement was, for the second time, broken up. Under the protection of the Hudson Bay Company, the settlers had been brought back a distance of three hundred miles from the north end of Lake Winnipeg to Kildonan. At this juncture a fresh body of Highlanders arrived by way of Hudson Bay, and, as Mr. Ross remarks, [Red River Settlement, p. 32.] "gloomy and portentous was the prospect before them. The smoky ruins, the ashes scarcely yet cold, were all that remained to mark the progress of their unfortunate predecessors, and from the general appearance of things around them, they had but little reason to expect a better fate." The arrival of this new batch of immigrants, as well as the return of the old settlers, naturally re-kindled the strife of the former year. The colonists were allowed no rest; in place of quietly settling upon the lands allotted, they were harassed and driven to Pembina, to prairie lands on the Missouri, or to the shores of the great lakes. Still a remnant clung, with desperate pertinacity to the Red River, and it seemed necessary to take strong measures to dislodge them. If the "statement" is to be believed, the complicity of the North-West proprietors and servants in these untoward events is clear. [The following passage in a letter written by Mr. Alex. Macdonald from river Qu’Appelle to Mr. Duncan Cameron at the Forks in quoted; it bears date 13th of March, 1816: "I remark with pleasure the hostile proceedings of our neighbours, I say pleasure, because the more they do, the more justice we will have on our side. A storm is gathering in the North ready to burst on the rascals who deserve it; little do they know their situation. Last year was but a joke. The nation under their leaders are coming forward to clear their native soil of intruders and assassins. Glorious news from Athabasca," p. 71. The "glorious news" was an unfounded rumour that a band of Hudson Bay Company’s traders in Athabasca, had almost perished from starvation, and had been compelled to resort to cannibalism. p. 72.] In spite of all their protestations to the contrary, it is quite evident that all the dependents of this Company rejoiced at the assembling of the Bois Brules, and that some of them instigated it. One clerk, Cuthbert Grant, himself a Half-breed, wrote, "The Half-breeds of Fort des Prairies and English River are all to be here in the spring, it is to be hoped we shall come off with flying colours, and never see any of them again in the Colonizing way at Red River" (p. 73). The affidavits of Painbrun and Blondeau (Append. p. xxxiii. and xliv.), if they are not rank perjury, distinctly fasten the charge of collecting the Half-breeds upon Alexander Macdonell, Norman McLeod, Alexander Mackenzie, John Duncan Campbell, and John Macdonald of the North-West Company. The first named on the other hand, pronounces these affidavits absolutely false and accuses Lord Selkirk of being guiltyof subornation of perjury.

Governor Semple, of the Hudson Bay Company, arrived at Red River in the spring of 1816. In April, he sent Mr. Pambrun to the Hudson Bay post on the Qu’Appelle; when he arrived, he found the "Brulés" collected in force at the adjacent fort of the North-West Company. On the 12th of May, whilst proceeding down the river with a large quantity of furs and pemican, the property was seized and the crews made prisoners, as Pambrun affirms, by the order of Mr. Alex. .Macdonell—an order which he did not hesitate to avow. The same party, reinforced by others, in all about seventy, set out to attack Red River; and on the 20th of June a messenger came in from its leader, Cuthbert Grant, "who reported that his party had killed Governor Semple with five of his officers, and sixteen of his people; upon which Macdonell, Seraphim Lamar, and all the other office shouted with joy." [The writer of the "Statement" (p. 79) goes on to say: "Macdonell then went to the rest of the men who had remained with him, and announced to them the news in language (as sworn to by Mr. Pambrun) which we will not attempt to translate: "Sacre nom de Dieu! Bonnes nouvelles! Vingt-deux Anglois de tues!" – "Good news, twenty-two English killed."] The unfortunate Governor was on the point of returning from Red River to York Factory when he met his death. He had received information of the intended assault from two Cree Indians who had escaped from the attacking party, and took some precautions against a surprise. On the 19th of June, according to Mr. Pritchard, who escaped, tidings were brought of the approach of the half-breeds. The Governor presuming, naturally, that they were about to attack the settlement, said, "We must go out and meet these people; let twenty men follow me." Finding the half-breeds more numerous than he had supposed them to be, he ordered out a field-piece. The enemy on horseback, had their "faces painted in the most hideous manner, and in the dresses of Indian warriors, they came forward and surrounded us in the form of a half-moon." [Pritchard’s testimony in the "Statement," p. 82. 83.] Both parties were now on what was known as Frog Plain, between Fort Douglas and Kildonan. Governor Semple called out, "What do you want?" The answer was, "We want our fort!" to which the Governor rejoined, "Go to your fort." Both Boucher, the half-breed spokesman, and Mr. Semple were close together by this time, and Pritchard failed to catch what followed. The Governor, however, laid his hand on Boucher’s arm, and immediately shots were fired on both sides, though which began the murderous work seems indeterminable. "With the exception of myself," says Pritchard, "no quarter was given to any of us. The knife, axe or ball, put a period to the existence of the wounded; and on the bodies of the dead were practised all those horrible barbarities which characterize the inhuman heart of the savage. The amiable and mild Mr. Semple, lying on his side (his thigh was broken), and supporting his head upon his hand" (p. 84), asked Mr. Cuthbert Grant to try and get him to the fort, as he was not mortally wounded. The unfortunate gentleman was left in charge of a Canadian, who afterwards told how an Indian came up and shot the Governor through the breast. Out of a band of twenty-eight, twenty-one were killed and one wounded. It is unnecessary to attempt an analysis of the trials which subsequently took place at York, now Toronto, in October and November, 1818. Paul Brown and F. F. Boucher were indicted for murder, John Siveright, Alexander Mackenzie, Hugh McGillis, John Macdonald, John McLaughlin, and Simon Fraser as accessories, and, John Cooper and Hugh Bannerman for stealing field-pieces, the property of the Earl of Selkirk. All the prisoners were acquitted by the juries which tried their respective cases. Finally, at a Court of Oyer and Terminer held at Quebec, by Chief Justice Sewell, on the 26th October, 1819, appointed for the investigation of cases from the Indian Territories," Arch. McLeod, Simon Fraser, James Leith, Alex. Macdonell, Hugh McGillis, Arch. McLellan, and John Siveright, of the North-West Company, "who were under accusation by the Earl of Selkirk, as private prosecutor, for great crimes and offences" appeared and demanded a trial, "which they could not obtain because the private prosecutor was not ready." [Report of the Proceedings, &c., from minutes taken in Court. Montreal, 1819.]

Mr. Alexander Macdonell, in his Narrative, points triumphantly to the result of the York trials, and urges the prompt acquittal of all the prisoners as strong proof that the Company and its servants were not to blame. These proceedings were certainly conducted with great patience and the strictest regard to justice, and the juries could hardly have come to any other verdicts considering the mass of conflicting evidence laid before them. Only one thing seems certain, amidst a maze of bewildering uncertainty, and that is that the French half-breeds, at all events, had very little regard for the sanctity of an oath. There was a great deal of false swearing, doubtless, on both sides; and an impartial reader can hardly fail to come to the conclusion that both sides were grievously in the wrong from the first. A large number of exceedingly arbitrary acts are charged against Mr. Miles Macdonell and his party in the Narrative, and their mode of administering such governmental and judicial powers as they claimed to possess was, beyond question, harsh and arbitrary at times. Still the apology offered in the Preface of the Narrative is, to some extent, serviceable for the one party as well as the other. With regard to the closing scene, Mr. Alexander Macdonell stoutly denies the party encountered so unhappily by Governor Semple had any hostile design. He states Cuthbert Grant’s party of half-breeds were detailed by him to convey provisions to a point twelve miles or more below the Colony (p. 75). His instructions were to proceed down Red River to Passage, a place nine or ten miles above the settlement, to secrete the canoes, load the carts with the provisions, and proceed by land to their destination. They were to behave "in an orderly and peaceful manner, avoiding if possible, being discovered or seen by the Hudson Bay people and settlers; to keep at as great a distance as possible from Forts Gibraltar and Douglas; to avoid the settlement in like manner, and upon no account to molest any of the settlers" (p. 76). Mr Macdonell affirms, and points to the evidence on the trials in proof, that his injunctions were strictly obeyed by Grant and the party, and the detour they actually made is indicated on a map of the district. He maintains that the unhappy events of the 19th of June were occasioned by an unprovoked and unlooked for attack upon Cuthbert Grant and his people by Mr. Semple and his followers. He adds that "His Majesty’s Commissioner, who lately visited Red River, has ascertained by his inquiries and examinations, who were the aggressors and assailants on that deplorable occasion." [Mr. Alex. Macdonell, without directly noticing the charge advanced by Mr. Pambrun against himself personally (Statement, p. 79) quoted in a previous note, admits that an exclamation of surprise something like that alleged may have been uttered, but it must have been one of surprise, not of exultation (Narrative, p. 78). The "bonnes nouvelles," good news however, drop out; and singularly enough, Mr. Macdonell says nothing about the letters alleged to have been written before the conflict.] It would be useless as well as unprofitable, to attempt to reconcile these conflicting accounts or strike a balance between them. Mr. Ross states that, "in the country where the murders took place, there has never been a shadow of doubt, but rather a full and clear knowledge of the fact that the North-West Company did unquestionably fire the first shot, and almost all the shots that were fired," [Red River Settlement, pp. 36, 37.] but that is, after all, a question of comparatively little importance. Both parties were no doubt excited beyond control, and the fatal issue was not foreseen or even desired by either of them. Governor Semple’s advance, with so small a force, was certainly imprudent, although it serves to show that he never conceived the sanguinary design attributed to him. The North-West Company were unquestionably hostile to the colony, and that for reasons solid and substantial enough, apart from the notion that settlement was merely a mask to cover rivalry in the fur-trade. Colonization and the fur-trade, as the partner saw plainly, could not co-exist in the same region, and the North-Westers only inaugurated the policy afterwards adopted by the Hudson Bay Company all over the North-West. Moreover, some natural jealousy was excited at seeing an organized government, the title of which was disputed, set up under the auspices of the rival monopoly in territory which the North-West Company had hitherto regarded as peculiarly their own. It would appear that the rule of the first Governor was not of a mild and conciliating type, and that, on both sides, there was an amount of irritability and an uncomprising temper which boded ill for the peace and prosperity of the country. Causes of quarrel naturally arose day after day; charges and recriminations were exchanged; then followed arbitrary arrests, the seizure of property, and the obstruction of business and travel, until the climax was, reached in the lamentable catastrophe of June, 1816. It would not be just to scan too closely, or gauge by too rigid a standard the moral character of the agents in these turbulent scenes. Removed far from the comforts, as well as the discipline of civilized life, both the trader and the colonist are entitled to indulgent consideration. The toil, suffering and hardship which made their daily lot, were stern tutors in whose curriculum the milder arts of civilization found no place. In daily contact with savages, and the hardly less untrustworthy half-breeds, it was inevitable that they should be affected by the rough and unruly freedom of their environment. Between the parties, there was probably not much to choose; the burden of responsibility for the unhappy struggle of these early years can not be adjusted by the men of to-day, and they may be well content to forget the errors of those early pioneers in admiration for the invincible energy and perseverance which distinguished those hardy Scots on both sides, and secured for the Empire that broad and priceless Dominion which stretches from sea to sea.

It only remains to gather the threads of the narrative up to the final pacification. The commissioner whose report is appealed to so triumphantly by Mr. Alex. Macdonell, was the Hon. Wm. B. Coltman, who like Mr. McGillivray, the North-West partner, was a member of the Executive Council of Lower Canada. [Major Fletcher, Police Magistrate and Chairman of Quarter Sessions at Quebec, was also of the Commission; but he either did not go up to the North-West, or was a cipher. All the references in Lord Selkirk’s Memorial are to Coltman, and, as already seen, Mr. Alex. Macdonell speaks of "one Commissioner only."] A report from that source could be regarded as satisfactory by the colonists, and it is not surprising to find in the ‘Memorial’ by Lord Selkirk, some severe strictures upon "His Majesty’s Commissioner." He is charged with starting the theory that the acts of the half-breeds were only "venial irregularities," and not "robberies, felonies and murders, in the usual acceptation of these words." [Memorial, pp. 62-68.] It was not antecedently probable that a colleague of Mr. McGillivray who was himself concerned on one side should find sufficient evidence to lay blame upon the other side; but his reportis necessarily less satisfactory on that account, and by no means entitled to the weight Mr. Alex. Macdonell accords it.

Lord Selkirk had lost his "mercenaries" at the Sault Ste. Marie; but after sending a strong report of the massacre to Sir J. C. Sherbrooke, the Governor of Lower Canada, he at once made his way to Red River. A calm, comparativelv speaking, had succeeded the storm; but the affairs of the colony were in a deplorable condition. The immigrants had been almost constantly in a state of migration from the settlement to Pembina, to the Missouri, or to Norway House, and other forts or factories of the Hudson Bay Company and back again. His lordship, it seems, set himself to the task of restoring order. He called a meeting of the people, "on the west bank of Red River, some two miles below Fort Garry, and in consideration of the losses, hardships, and misfortunes they had from time to time suffered, he made them several concessions." Those who had lost all received fresh grants of land and immediate relief. Buildings were erected, including a mill, and an edifice which served the double purpose of church and school-house. Roads, bridges, &c., were settled, and seed-grain distributed to the necessitous. Having thus started the colony, which had cost him so much in means, as well as anxiety, once more on the path of progress, Lord Selkirk took his final leave of it, and retired as we have seen to die in a foreign land.

The settlers who had crops upon their land met with the bounteous return which nature yields in that fertile region; but, unfortunately, too little seed had been sown, and, as winter approached, rather than consume all, and ruin their prospects for the next year, many of the colonists again left for Pembina to live by the chase. There they suffered hardship in another shape, but they returned again to their old homes in the spring. The year 1818 was an unfortunate one, in all respects. "Food was scarce, their hitherto precarious dependence on fish, herbs and roots, became hopeless, for all those failed; and their misfortunes were crowned by an act of lawless violence on the part of the North-West people, who forcibly carried off Mr. Sutherland to Canada. [Ross, p. 47. Mr Sutherland had been ordained an Elder of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, and, in the absence of a settled pastor had been specially licensed to celebrate marriages, administer the sacraments and officiate at burials. His abduction, therefore, was not only an outrage, but a very serious deprivation to the colony.] Still agriculture began to progress henceforward. In July, 1818, however, just when the crops were ripening to the harvest, a c1oud of grasshoppers appeared from the west, darkening the air; in one night "crops, gardens, and every green herb in the settlement had perished with the exception of a few ears of barley, gleaned in the women’s aprons. This sudden and unexpected disaster was more than they could bear. The unfortunate emigrants, looking up towards heaven, wept." [Ibid. p. 48.] There was nothing for it but to return with heavy hearts to Pembina and pass the winter there as best they could. Early in the spring of 1819, the hardy and persevering Scots left their families behind and returned to sow their land. They had no seed save the scanty supply saved by the women. Again their hopes were blasted, this time by the swarms produced from the larva deposited in the previous year. By the latter end of June the country was covered with them, for, "they were produced in masses two, three, and, in some places near water, four inches deep; The water was poisoned with them. Along the river they were to be found in heaps, like sea-weeds, and might be shovelled with a spade. [Ibid. p. 49.]

Again the land was desolated, and the settlers were forced to return to the precarious life of Pembina. There they resolved to provide seed. Wheat in abundance at all events and men were dispatched to Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi to obtain it. They returned with 250 bushels, and, then, making their way back in flat-boats to the colony; the settlers finally found rest there in June, 1820. "From that day to this," writes Mr. Ross, in spite of the grasshoppers and other evils, Red River has not been without seed for grain. The troubles of the colonists were not yet over, but a sufficiently ample sketch of their trials and struggles has been given to enable us to judge what the Scot can do, and endure, and has effected in the heart of the American continent. Should any one be disposed to make light of the dogged perseverance, the exhaustless energy, the long-suffering patience and thrift of the Scot, one has only to refer him to the history of Red River settlement.

Meanwhile the fur companies went on in their ruinous career of competition and rivalry until they had between them almost ruined the trade, and brought the treasuries to bankruptcy. What with plots and counter-plots with the Indians, the stirring up of the half-breeds to rapine and insolence, and the constant overlapping of their operations, these corporations had made the fur trade so precarious, that it had ceased to be profitable. The Hudson Bay Company pointed to its charter, and stigmatized the North-Westers as poachers, or at least interlopers upon their domain. The Montreal Company on the other hand denied the validity of the Charter, and pleaded that so far it had been virtually voided by non-user. It may be observed that it had periodically been a matter of dispute whether the granting of such a charter came within the Royal Prerogative. The Company, at its inception, had evidently supposed that it required parliamentary sanction, since an Act, which was never renewed, had been passed, confirming Charles’ grant for seven years and no longer. In 1749, a bold attempt was made in the House of Commons to destroy the monopoly on the ground that the Company had failed to attempt the discovery of a North-West passage, but the motion did not prevail. [Hugh Murray: British America, Vol. III., p. 186.] Still the North-West Company had certainly a right to dispute the validity of so sweeping a grant, and the contest then began was continued down to the purchase of the Company’s exclusive rights in 1870. Meanwhile, everything was in a state of confusion and uncertainty, and both Companies were almost on the verge of bankruptcy, when, by a lucky inspiration, the plan of amalgamation was devised and put into execution in 1821.


Previous Page | Return to Index Page | Next Page