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The Selkirk Settlers in Real Life
Chapter III - Settling under Dificulties


As we closed our last chapter we saw a body of colonists leaving the north of Scotland in the early summer of 1815 to join the colony on the far Red River. However strenuous and difficult their life may have been, and however much the struggle to gain a livelihood was accentuated by the oppressive landlordism of the time, it requires no vivid imagination to see how sadly they took leave of their beloved strath. No people in the world are more strongly attached to their native land than the Scotch, and as their vessel, outward bound, carried these emigrants beyond sight of the heath-clad hills, many a group such as the painter of "Lochaber no more" furnishes us, might be seen on its deck with wistful eyes gazing back toward the coastline of dear old Scotland. But as the days wore on in that long voyage their expectation would turn also to the new land to which they were going. Some of their kindred had gone before them as if to prepare the way, and those coming now looked forward to finding their friends in free and happy homes in the colony on a new continent. With these friends they might well hope to find a cheerful resting-place, renewing old memories, until they, too, could have homes of their own in the free land of the West.

But alas! how cruelly disappointing to them would the scene of ruined homes and desolate hearthstones be, and how deadly a blow would be given to all their hopes when they would find their friends scattered whither not even the few remaining could tell! It is impossible to let the mind dwell upon scenes like these, and then on the ultimate triumph of these people, without thinking of the splendid valor of the Scottish blood and of the supreme faith in God which carried them through to the end. As they landed on the bleak shores of Hudsonís Bay and after a weary journey stood amidst the snow and ice of November on the spot where they had expected to find the homes of their friends; but where they found only a scene of desolation, the very north wind with freezing breath might seem to howl across the bleak plains the old question of infidelity, "Where is now thy God?" But these people had been from their childhood indoctrinated in a great creed whose central truth was the sovereignty of God, and in many a solitary place the wilderness heard from their hearts the old psalm of the fathers:

"Why art thou then cast down, my soul,
What should discourage thee?
And why with vexing thoughts art thou
Disquieted in me?
Still trust in God: for Him to praise
Good cause I yet shall have;
He of my countenance is the health,
My God who doth me save."

Lest it might be supposed that the sympathies of the present writer would lead him to picture too highly the struggles of the colonists, let us hear what Begg, a recent writer, in his "History of the North-West," says at this point: "Instead of finding a thriving settlement they found only ruins; but, worse than all, there was no food to feed them, and they had to continue their journey, in company with those who had returned from Jack River, in cold and snow to Pembina, 70 miles farther. Here they set to work to erect rude huts to shelter themselves, but in a month or so they had to leave these temporary houses and journey to the plains in the hope of securing food, there being a scarcity of provisions at Pembina, and no means of procuring any near that place. These unfortunate people had to journey a distance of 150 miles, and as they were ill-provided with suitable clothes to protect their persons from the cold they sufiŤred dreadfully. Meeting with a party of hunters they remained with them during the rest of the winter, performing such work as they were capable of doing, in return for which they were fed and sheltered till spring, when they returned to Pembina, and from thence descended the Red River to Fort Douglas. They then began to cultivate the soil, and everything seemed propitious to their becoming comfortably settled in their new home, when, on the 19th of. June, 1816, an event happened which once more brought desolation to the colony." That event was a collision between armed forces of the Hudsonís Bay and NorthWest companies at Seven Oaks, in Kildonan. The actual collision was partly the result of an accident, but it ended in the killing of Governor Semple, of the former company, and the killing or wounding of twenty-one out of twenty-seven men who accompanied him. This gave the North-West Company for a time the upper hand, and the colonists had to abandon their homes once more, and go out to Jack River, where they suffered great hardships during the winter. Next spring, however, the tables were turned, and the Hudsonís Bay Company got control, Lord Selkirk, on his way back from Montreal with his hired De Meuron soldiers, capturing Fort William and afterwards Fort Douglas from his rivals. Things had become so bad between these companies that the Imperial Government interfered by commissioners, and the settlers once more returned to their holdings. Law-suits innumerable ensued between the two companies until after the death of Lord Selkirk (who had always steadfastly opposed union), when a coalition was formed, the Hudsonís Bay Company ultimately absorbing the others and continuing unto this day. During all this fighting between the rival companies the colonists endured constant hardships, and experienced one set-back after another. The historian before quoted tells us that "in the winter of 1817 they were forced to go again to Pembina owing to scarcity of food, but on their return to the settlement in the spring managed to sow a considerable area of land with wheat, etc. The summer was favorable, and the fields soon assumed a promising appearance, but on the 18th of July, 1818, the sky suddenly became darkened by clouds of grasshoppers, and as they descended on the earth in dense swarms they destroyed every green thing before them. The settlers managed to save a little grain, but not a vegetable was left in the gardens." It seemed as if everything was going against them and once more they went for refuge to Pembina during the winter. In the spring of 1819 they returned and sowed again, but the young grasshoppers in swarms began to appear, and devoured everything on the fields and plains. Again they were forced to go to Pembina, and so continued the struggle, subsisting on the products of the chase, until three years afterwards, when they gained sufficient from their fields to keep them from fear of starvation. This was in 1822, or about ten years after the first of them had arrived in the country. Things went fairly well to the year 1826, when a winter of great severity and unusual depth of snow led to great distress in the country. The plain hunters, who depended nearly altogether on the buffalo for food supply, were the chief sufferers, for the storms drove the buffalo beyond reach and killed the horses of the hunters. The settlers did all they could to relieve their brethren on the plains, but in the spring they themselves suffered the severest loss in their history. The sudden thaw of the great snow and ice accumulation caused the Red River to overflow its banks and become a raging torrent of wide extent. The settlers barely escaped with their lives and some of their stock, but their houses and stables were swept away in total wreckage into Lake Winnipeg. Yet, when the flood went down, these undaunted men came back and began all over again; and though we have had floods and grasshoppers, and civil disturbances, since that time the colony was never again uprooted. When we read over this hurried history of disastrous years, we feel that the most sympathetic and vivid imagination cannot conceive the sufferings these settlers endured, and we know that those who passed through the experience found no language adequate to the task of describing it. In my fatherís closing years he was often visited by tourists from the Old Country, seeking information as to the early days, and I recall the attempts he made to depict the scenes, concerning which he could say, with the hero of Virgil, "Quorum magna pars fui." I can see him yet, a strongly-built, massive figure, in the old wooden chair, on the arm of which he brought down his hand now and again to give Celtic emphasis, to his words. I can hear the story flow on till he felt the inadequacy of language as recollections rushed upon him, and then he would stop short, saying, "Itís no use talking, gentlemen, I canít tell you half of it; but I will say one thing, and that is that no people in the world but the Scotch could have done it," and the last party of Englishmen that came to the old farm-house, seeing his earnestness, applauded him with unselfish enthusiasm. Whether my father was unduly partial to his own race or not may be a matter of opinion, but there can be no two opinions as to the difficulties these colonists triumphantly battled with, and if you seek their monument, look around you on the religious and educational as well as the material greatness of the North-West.


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