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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

British law disgraced—Governor Sherbrooke's distress—A Commission decided on—Few unbiassed Canadians—Colonel Coltman chosen —Over ice and snow—Alarming rumours—The Prince Regent's order—Coltman at Red River—The Earl submissive—The Commissioner's report admirable—The celebrated Reinhart case— Disturbing lawsuits—Justice perverted—A storehouse of facts— Sympathy of Sir Walter Scott—Lord Selkirk's death—Tomb at Orthes, in France.

The state of things in Rupert's Land in 1816 was a disgrace to British institutions. That subjects of the realm, divided into two parties, should be virtually carrying on war against each other on British soil, was simply intolerable. Not only was force being used, but warrants were being issued and the forms of law employed on both sides to carry out the selfish ends of each party. An impartial historian cannot but say that both parties were chargeable with grievous wrong.

Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, Governor-General of Canada, felt very keenly the shameful situation, and yet the difficulties of transport and the remote distance of the interior where the conflict was taking place made interference almost impossible. He was in constant communication with Lord Bathurst, the Imperial Colonial Secretary.

Governor Sherbrooke's difficulties were, however, more than those of distance. The influence of the North-West Company in Canada was supreme, and public sentiment simply reflected the views of the traders. The plan of sending a commission to the interior to stop hostilities and examine the conflicting statements which were constantly coming to the Governor, seemed the most feasible; but with his sense of British fair-play, Governor Sherbrooke knew he could find no one suitable to recommend.

At last, driven to take some action, Sir John named Mr. W. B. Coltman, a merchant of Quebec and a lieutenant-colonel in the Militia, a man accustomed to Government matters, and one who bore a good reputation for fairness and justice. With this Commissioner, who did not enter on his task with much alacrity, was associated Major Fletcher, a man of good legal qualifications.

The Commissioners were instructed to proceed immediately to the North-West. They were invested with the power of magistrates, and were authorized to make a thorough investigation into the troubles which were disturbing the country. "You are particularly," say the instructions, "to apply yourselves to mediate between the contending parties in the aforesaid territories ; to remove, as far as possible, all causes of dissension between them; to take all legal measures to prevent the recurrence of those violences which have already so unhappily disturbed the public peace; and generally to enforce and establish, within the territory where you shall be, the influence and authority of the laws."

Various accidents prevented the Commissioners from leaving for the Indian country as soon as had been expected. They did not reach York (Toronto) till November 23rd, and on their arriving on the shores of Lake Huron they found the lake frozen over and impassable. They could do nothing themselves other than return to York, but they succeeded in fitting out an expedition under North-Western auspices to find its way over the ice and snow to Fort William, carrying the revocation of all the commissions of magistrates west of Sault Ste. Marie and the news of the new appointments in their stead. Reports during the winter continued to be of a disquieting kind, and as the spring drew nigh, preparations were made for sending up the Commissioners with a small armed force.

The gravity of the situation may be judged from the steps taken by the Imperial Government and the instructions sent out by the authority of George, the Prince Regent, to Governor Sherbrooke to issue a proclamation in his name calling on all parties to desist from hostilities, and requiring all military officers or men employed by any of the parties to immediately retire from such service. All property, including forts or trading stations, was to be immediately restored to the rightful owners, and any impediment or blockade preventing transport to be at once removed.

It is worthy of note that the proclamation and instructions given had the desired effect. Coltman and his fellow Commissioner left in May for the field of their operations, accompanied by forty men of the 37th Regiment as a bodyguard. On arriving at Sault Ste. Marie, Commissioner Coltman, after waiting two or three weeks, hastened on to Fort William, leaving Fletcher and the troops to follow him. On July 2nd he wrote from the mouth of the River Winnipeg, stating that his presence had no doubt tended to preserve peace in the North-West, and that in two days ho would see Lord Selkirk in his own Fort Douglas at Red River.

Three days after the despatch of this letter, Commissioner Coltman arrived at Red River. He immediately grappled with the difficulties and met them with much success. The news of Lord Selkirk's actions had all arrived at Montreal through the North-West sources, so that both in Quebec and London a strong prejudice had sprung up against his Lordship. Colonel Coltman found, however, that Lord Selkirk had been much misrepresented. The illegal seizures he had made at Fort William were dictated only by prudence in dealing with what he considered a daring and treachorous enemy. He had submitted to the ordinance recalling magistrates' commissions immediately on receiving it. Colonel Coltman was so impressed with Lord Selkirk's reasonableness and good faith that ho recommended that the legal charges made against him should not be proceeded with.

Colonel Coltman then started on his return journey, and wrote that he had stopped at the mouth of the Winnipeg River for the purpose of investigating the conspiracy, in which he states ho fears the North-West Company had been implicated, to destroy the Selkirk settlement. The energetic Commissioner returned to Quebec in November of that year. Governor Sherbrooke had the satisfaction of reporting to Lord Bathurst the return of Mr. Coltman from his mission to the Indian territories, and "that the general result of his exertions bad been so far successful, that he had restored a degree of tranquillity there which promises to continue during the winter."

Colonel Coltman's report, of about one hundred folio pages, is an admirable one. His summary of the causes and events of the great struggle between the Companies is well arranged and clearly stated. The writer, in an earlier work, strongly took up Lord Selkirk's view of the case, and criticised Colt-man. Subsequent investigations and calmer reflection have led him to the conclusion that while Lord Selkirk was in the right and exhibited a high and noble character, yet the provoking circumstances came from both directions, and Colonel Coltman's account seems fairly impartial.

The cessation of hostilities brought about by the influence of Colonel Coltman did not, however, bring a state of peace. The conflict was transferred to the Courts of Lower and Upper Canada, these having been given power some time before by the Imperial Parliament to deal with cases in the Indian territories.

A cause célèbre was that of the trial of Charles Reinhart, an employe of the North-West Company, who had been a sergeant in the disbanded De Meuron Regiment. Having gone to the North-West, he was during the troubles given charge of a Hudson's Bay Company official named Owen Keveny, against whom it was urged that he had maltreated a servant of the North-West Company. In bringing Keveny down from Lake Winnipeg to Rat Portage, it was brought against Reinhart that at a place called the Falls of the River Winnipeg, he had brutally killed the prisoner under his charge. While Lord Selkirk was at Fort William, Reinhart arrived at that point and made a voluntary confession before his Lordship as a magistrate. This case was afterwards tried at Quebec and gave rise to an argument as to the jurisdiction of the Court, viz. whether the point where the murder occurred on the River Winnipeg was in Upper Canada, Lower Canada, or the Indian territories. Though Reinhart was found guilty, sentence was not carried out, probably on account of the uncertainty of jurisdiction. The Reinhart case became an important precedent in settling the boundary line of Upper Canada, and also in dealing with the troubles arising out of the Riel rebellion of 1869. In the year after Colonel Coltman's return, numerous cases were referred to the Courts, all these arising out of the violence at Red River. Colonel Coltman had bound Lord Selkirk, though only accused of an offence amounting to a misdemeanour, in the large sum of 6,000l. and under two sureties of 3,000l. each—in all 12,000l. Mr. Gale, Lord Selkirk's legal adviser, called attention to the illegality of this proceeding, but all to no effect.

After Lord Selkirk had settled up his affairs with his colonists, he journeyed south from the Red River to St. Louis in the Western States, and then went eastward to Albany in New York, whence he appeared in Sandwich in Upper Canada, the circuit town where information had been laid. Here he found four accusations made against him by the North-West Company. These were: (1) Having stolen eighty-three muskets at Fort William; (2) Having riotously entered Fort William, August 13th; (3) Assault and false imprisonment of Deputy-Sheriff Smith; (4) Resistance to legal warrant.

On these matters being taken up, the first charge was so contradictory that the magistrates dismissed it; but the other three could not be dealt with on account of the absence of witnesses, and so bail was accepted from Lord Selkirk of 350l. for his appearance. When Lord Selkirk presented himself at Montreal to answer to the charges for which Colonel Coltman's heavy bail had bound him, the Court admitted it had no jurisdiction, but with singular high-handedness bound Lord Selkirk to appear in Upper Canada under the same bail.

In Montreal in May, 1818, an action was brought before Chief Justice Monk and Justice Bowen against Colin Robertson and four others, charging them with riotously destroying Fort Gibraltar, the Nor'-Wester fort. A number of witnesses were called, including Miles Macdonell, John Pritchard, Auguste Cadot, and others. A verdict of not guilty was rendered.

In September of the same year a charge was laid against Lord Selkirk and others of a conspiracy to ruin the trade of the North-West Company. This was before the celebrated Chief Justice Powell. The grand jury refused to give the Chief Justice an answer in the case. The Court was summarily adjourned, and legislation was introduced at the next meeting of the Legislature of Upper Canada to remedy defects in the Act in order that the case might be tried. Afterward the cases were taken up in York, and Deputy-Sheriff Smith was given a verdict against Lord Selkirk for 500l., and McKenzie, a North-West partner, a verdict of 1,500l. for false imprisonment at Fort William. The general impression has always prevailed there that the whole procedure in these cases against Lord Selkirk was high-handed and unjust, though it is quite possible that Lord Selkirk had exceeded his powers in the troubled state of affairs at Fort William.

On his Lordship's side charges were also brought in October, 1818. In the full Court Chief Justice Powell and Justices Campbell and Boulter presided. The most notable of these cases was against Cuthbert Grant, Boucher, and sixteen others as either principals or accessories in the murder of Robert Semple on June 19th, 1816. A few days later, in the same month, a slightly different charge was brought against six of the North-West partners in connection with the murder of Governor Semple. Upwards of three hundred pages of evidence gave a minute and complete account of the affair of Seven Oaks and of the whole conflict as found in a volume of Canadian trials. In these two cases a verdict of not guilty was also rendered. Two other trials, one by Lord Selkirk's party against Paul I Brown for robbery of a blanket and a gun, and the other against John Cooper and Hugh Bannerman for stealing a cannon in a dwelling-house of Lord Selkirk, were also carried through, with in both cases a verdict of not guilty. The evidence in these cases was printed by both parties, with foot-notes, giving a colour to each side concerned of a more favourable kind.

So much for this most disheartening controversy. It would I be idle to say that Lord Selkirk was faultless; but as we dispassionately read the accounts of the trials, and consider that while Lord Selkirk was friendless in Canada, the North-West Company had enormous influence, we cannot resist the conclusion that advantage was taken of his Lordship, and that justice was not done. It is true that, in the majority of cases, the conclusion was reached that it was impossible to precisely place the blame on either side; but we cannot bo surprised that Lord Selkirk, harassed and discouraged by the difficulties of his colony and his treatment in the courts of Upper Canada and Lower Canada, should write as he did in October, 1818, to the Duke of Richmond, the new Governor-General of Canada:—

"To contend alone and unsupported, not only against a powerful association of individuals, but also against all those whose official duty it should have been to arrest them in the prosecution of their crimes, was at the best an arduous task ; and, however confident one might be of the intrinsic strength of his cause, it was impossible to feel a very sanguine expectation that this alone would be sufficient to bear him up against the swollen tide of corruption which threatened to overwhelm him. He knew that in persevering under existing circumstances he must necessarily submit to a heavy sacrifice of personal comfort, incur an expense of ruinous amount, and possibly render himself the object of harassing and relentless persecution."

Though Lord Selkirk crossed the Atlantic in 1818, yet the sounds of the judicial battle through which he had passed were still in his ears. In June his friend, Sir James Montgomery, brought the matter before the British House of Commons, moving for all the official papers in the case. The motion was carried, and the Blue Book containing this matter is a storehouse where we may find the chief facts of this long and heart-breaking struggle recorded.

In June, 1818, we find in a copy of a letter in the possession of the writer, written by Sir Walter Scott, a reference to the very poor health of his Lordship. Worn out and heart-broken by his trials, Lord Selkirk did not rally, but in the course of a few months died at Pau, in the South of France, April, 1820. His Countess and daughters had accompanied him to Montreal on his Canadian visit, and they were now with him to soothe his dying hours and to see him laid to rest in the Protestant cemetery of Orthes.

Though he was engaged in a difficult undertaking in seeking so early in the century to establish a colony on the Red River, and though it has been common to represent him as being half a century before his time, yet we cannot resist the conclusion that he was an honourable, patriotic, and far-seeing man, and that the burden of right in this grand conflict was on his side.

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