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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

Alexander Mackenzie's book—Lord Selkirk interested—Emigration a boon—Writes to Imperial Government—In 1802 looks to Lake Winnipeg—Benevolent project of trade—Compelled to choose Prince Edward Island—Opinions as to Hudson's Bay Company's charter — Nor' -Westers alarmed — Hudson's Bay Company's Stock—Purchases Assiniboia—Advertises the new colony—Religion no disqualification—Sends first colony—Troubles of the project—Arrive at York Factory—The winter—The mutiny— "Essence of Malt"—Journey inland—A second party—Third party under Archibald Macdonald—From Helmsdale—The number of colonists.

The publication of his work by Alexander Mackenzie, entitled, "Voyages from Montreal through the Continent of North America, &c.," awakened great interest in the British Isles. Among those who were much influenced by it was Thomas, Earl of Selkirk, a young Scottish nobleman of distinguished descent and disposition. The young Earl at once thought of the wide country described as a fitting home for the poor and unsuccessful British peasantry, who, as we learn from Wordsworth, were at this time in a most distressful state.

During his college days the Earl of Selkirk had often visited the Highland glens and crofts, and though himself a Southron, he was so interested in his picturesque countrymen that he learned the Gaelic language. Not only the sad condition of Scotland, but likewise the unsettled state of Ireland, appealed to his heart and his patriotic sympathies. He came to the conclusion that emigration was the remedy for the ills of Scotland and Ireland alike.

Accordingly we find the energetic Earl writing to Lord Pelham to interest the British Government in the matter. We have before us a letter with two memorials attached. This is dated April 4th, 1802, and was kindly supplied the writer by the Colonial Office. The proposals, after showing the desirability of relieving the congested and dissatisfied population already described, go on to speak of a suitable field for the settlement of the emigrants. And this we see is the region described by Alexander Mackenzie. Lord Selkirk says: "No large tract remains unoccupied on the sea-coast of British America except barren and frozen deserts. To find a sufficient extent of good soil in a temperate climate we must go far inland. This inconvenience is not, however, an insurmountable obstacle to the prosperity of a colony, and appears to be amply compensated by other advantages that are to be found in some remote parts of the British territory. At the western extremity of Canada, upon the waters which fall into Lake Winnipeg and which in the great river of Port Nelson discharge themselves into Hudson Bay, is a country which the Indian traders represent as fertile, and of a climate far more temperate than the shores of the Atlantic under the same parallel, and not more severe than that of Germany or Poland. Here, therefore, the colonists may, with a moderate exertion of industry, be certain of a comfortable subsistence, and they may also raise some valuable objects of exportation. . . To a colony in these territories the channel of trade must be the river of Port Nelson."

It is exceedingly interesting, in view of the part afterwards played by Lord Selkirk, to read the following statement: "The greatest impediment to a colony in this quarter seems to be the Hudson's Bay Company monopoly, which the possessors cannot be expected easily to relinquish. They may, however, be amply indemnified for its abolition without any burden, perhaps even with advantage to the revenue."

The letter then goes on to state the successful trade carried on by the Canadian traders, and gives a scheme by which both the Hudson's Bay Company and the North-West Company may receive profits greater than those then enjoyed, by a plan of issuing licences, and limiting traders to particular districts.

Further, the proposal declares: "If these indefatigable Canadians were allowed the free navigation of the Hudson Bay they might, without going so far from Port Nelson as they now go from Montreal, extend their traffic from sea to sea, through the whole northern part of America, and send home more than double the value that is now derived from that region."

The matter brought up in these proposals was referred to Lord Buckinghamshire, Colonial Secretary, but failed for the time being, not because of any unsuitableness of the country, but "because the prejudices of the British people were so strong against emigration." During the next year Lord Selkirk succeeded in organizing a Highland emigration of not less than 800 souls. Not long before the starting of the ships the British Government seems to have interfered to prevent this large number being led to the region of Lake Winnipeg, and compelled Lord Selkirk to choose the more accessible shore of Prince Edward Island. After settling his colonists on the island, Lord Selkirk visited Montreal, where he was well received by the magnates of the North-West Company, and where his interest in the far West was increased by witnessing, as Astor also did about the same time, the large returns obtained by the "lords of the lakes and forests."

Years went past, and Lord Selkirk, unable to obtain the assent of the British Government to his great scheme of colonizing the interior of North America, at length determined to obtain possession of the territory wanted for his plans through the agency of the Hudson's Bay Company. About the year 1810 he began to turn his attention in earnest to the matter.

With characteristic Scottish caution he submitted the charter of the Hudson's Bay Company to the highest legal authorities in London, including the names Romilly, Holroyd, Cruise, Scarlett, and John Bell. Their clear opinion was that the Hudson's Bay Company was legally able to sell its territory and to transfer the numerous rights bestowed by the charter. They say, "We are of opinion that the grant of the soil contained in the charter is good, and that it will include all the country, the waters of which run into Hudson Bay, as ascertained by geographical observation."

Lord Selkirk, now fully satisfied that the Hudson's Bay Company was a satisfactory instrument, proceeded to obtain control of the stock of the Company. The partners of the North-West Company learned of the steps being taken by Lord Selkirk and became greatly alarmed. They were of the opinion that the object of Lord Selkirk was to make use of his great emigration scheme to give supremacy to the Hudson's Bay Company over its rivals, and to injure the Nor'-Westers' fur trade. So far as can be seen, Lord Selkirk had no interest in the rivalry that had been going on between the Companies for more than a generation. His first aim was emigration, and this for the purpose of relieving the distress of many in the British Isles.

As showing the mind of Lord Selkirk in the matter we have before us a copy of his lordship's work on emigration published in 1805. This copy is a gift to the writer from Lady Isabella Hope, the late daughter of Lord Selkirk. In this octavo volume, upwards of 280 pages, the whole question of the state of the Highlands is ably described. Tracing the condition of the Highlanders from the Rebellion of 1745, and the necessity of emigration, Lord Selkirk refers to the demand for keeping up the Highland regiments as being less than formerly, and that the Highland proprietors had been opposed to emigration*.

His patriotism was also stirred in favour of preventing the flow of British subjects to the United States, and in his desire to see the British possessions, especially in America, filled up with loyal British subjects. Ho states that in his Prince Edward Island Company in 1803 he had succeeded in securing a number from the Isle of Skye, whose friends had largely gone to North Carolina, and that others of them were from Ross, Argyle, and Inverness, and that the friends of these had chiefly gone to the United States.

After going into some detail as to the management of his Prince Edward Island Highlanders, ho speaks of the success of his experiment, and gives us proof of his consuming interest in the progress and happiness of his poor fellow-countrymen. It is consequently almost beyond doubt the fact that it was his desire for carrying out his emigration scheme that led him to obtain control of the Hudson's Bay Company, and not the desire to introduce a colony to injure the North-West trade, as charged.

There can be no doubt of Lord Selkirk's thoroughly patriotic and lofty aims. In 1808 he published a brochure of some eighty pages on "A System of National Defence." In this he shows the value of a local militia and proposes a plan for the maintenance of a sufficient force to protect Great Britain from its active enemy, Napoleon. He maintains that a Volunteer force would not be permanent; and that under any semblance of peace that establishment must immediately fall to pieces. His only dependence for the safety of the country is in a local militia.

With his plan somewhat matured, he continued in 1810 to obtain possession of stock of the Company, and succeeded in having much of it in the hands of his friends. By May, 1811, he had with his friends acquired, it is said, not less than 35,000l. of the total stock, 105,000/. sterling. A general court of the proprietors was called for May 30th, and the proposition was made by Lord Selkirk to purchase a tract of land lying in the wide expanse of Rupert's Land and on the Red River of the North, to settle, within a limited time, a large colony on their lands and to assume the expense of transport, of outlay for the settlers, of government, of protection, and of quieting the Indian title to the lands. At the meeting there was represented about 45,000l. worth of stock, and the vote on being taken showed the representatives of nearly 30,000l. of the stock to be in favour of accepting Lord Selkirk's proposal. Among those who voted with the enterprising Earl were his kinsmen, Andrew Wedderburn, Esq. (having nearly 4,500l. stock), William Mainwaring, the Governor Joseph Berens, Deputy-Governor John Henry Pelly, and many other well-known proprietors.

The opposition was, however, by no means insignificant, William Thwaytes, representing nearly 10,000l., voted against the proposal, as did also Robert Whitehead, who held 3,000l. stock. The most violent opponents, however, were the Nor'-Westers who were in England at the time. Two of them had only purchased stock within forty-eight hours of the meeting. These were Alexander Mackenzie, John Inglis, and Edward Ellice, the three together representing less than 2,500l.

The projector of the colony having now beaten down all opposition, forthwith proceeded to carry out his great plan of colonization. His project has, of course, been greatly criticized. He has been called "a kind-hearted but visionary Scottish nobleman," and his relative, Sir James Wedderbum, spoke of him fifty years afterwards as "a remarkable man, who had the misfortune to live before his time." Certainly Lord Selkirk met with gigantic difficulties, but these were rather from the North-West Company than from any untime-liness in his emigration scheme.

Lord Selkirk soon issued the advertisement and prospectus of the new colony. He held forth the advantage to be derived from joining the colony. His policy was very comprehensive. He said: "The settlement is to be formed in a territory where religion is not the ground of any disqualification; an unreserved participation in every privilege will therefore be enjoyed by Protestant and Catholic without distinction."

The area of the new settlement was said to consist of 110,000 square miles on the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, and one of the most fertile districts of North America. The name Assiniboia was given it from the Assiniboine, and steps were taken immediately to organize a government for the embryo colony.

Active measures were then taken by the Earl of Selkirk to advance his scheme, and it was determined to send out the first colony immediately. Some years before, Lord Selkirk had carried on a correspondence with a U. E. Loyalist colonist, Miles Macdonell, formerly an officer of the King's Royal Regiment of New York, who had been given the rank of captain in the Canadian Militia. Macdonell's assistance was obtained in the new enterprise, and he was appointed by his lordship to superintend his colony at Red River.

Many incorrect statements have been made about the different bands of colonists which found their way to Red River. No loss than four parties arrived at Red River by way of York or Churchill Factories between the years 1811 and 1815. Facts connected with one of them have been naturally confused in the memories of the old settlers on Red River with what happened to other bands. In this way the author has found that representations made to him and embodied in his work on "Manitoba," published in 1882, were in several particulars incorrect. Fortunately in late years the letter-book of Captain Miles Macdonell was acquired from the Misses Macdonell of Brockville, and the voluminous correspondence of Lord Selkirk has been largely copied for the Archives at Ottawa. These letters enable us to give a clear and accurate account of the first band of colonists that found its way to the heart of the Continent and began the Red River settlement.

In the end of June, 1811, Captain Miles Macdonell found himself at Yarmouth, on the east coast of England, with a fleet of three vessels sent out by the Hudson's Bay Company for their regular trade and also to carry the first colonists. These vessels were the Prince of Wales, the Eddystone, and an old craft the Edward and Anne, with "old sail ropes, &c, and very badly manned." This extra vessel was evidently intended for the accommodation of the colonists. By the middle of July the little fleet had reached the Pentland Firth and were compelled to put into Stromness, when the Prince of Wales embarked a number of Orkneymen intended for the Company's service. The men of the Hudson's Bay Company at this time were largely drawn from the Orkney Islands.

Proceeding on their way the fleet made rendezvous at Stornoway, the chief town of Lewis, one of the Hebrides. Here had arrived a number of colonists or employes, some from Sligo, others from Glasgow, and others from different parts of the Highlands. Many influences were operating against the success of the colonizing expedition. It had the strenuous opposition of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, then in Britain, and the newspapers contained articles intended to discourage and dissuade people from embarking in the enterprise. Mr. Reid, collector of Customs at Stornoway, whose wife was an aunt of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, threw every impediment in the way of the project, and some of those engaged by Lord Selkirk were actually lured away by enlisting agents. A so-called "Captain " Mackenzie, denominated a "mean fellow," came alongside the Edward and Anne, which had some seventy-six men aboard—Glasgow men, Irish, "and a few from Orkney"— and claimed some of them as "deserters from Her Majesty's service." The demand was, however, resisted. It is no wonder that in his letter to Lord Selkirk Captain Macdonell writes, "All the men that we shall have are now embarked, but it has been an herculean task."

A prominent employ of the expedition, Mr. Moncrieff Blair, posing as a gentleman, deserted on July 25th, the day before the sailing of the vessels. A number of the deserters at Stornoway had left their effects on board, and these were disposed of by sale among the passengers. Among the officers was a Mr. Edwards, who acted as medical man of the expedition. He had his hands completely full during the voyage and returned to England with the ships. Another notable person on board was a Roman Catholic priest, known as Father Bourke. Captain Macdonell was himself a Roman Catholic, but he seems from the first to have had no confidence in the priest, who, he stated, had "come away without the leave of his bishop, who was at the time at Dublin." Father Bourke, we shall see, though carried safely to the shores of Hudson Bay, never reached the interior, but returned to Britain in the following year. After the usual incidents of "an uncommon share of boisterous, stormy, and cold weather" on the ocean, the ships entered Hudson Bay. Experiencing "a course of fine mild weather and moderate fair winds," on September 24th the fleet reached the harbour of York Factory, after a voyage of sixty-one days out from Stornoway, the Eddystonc, which was intended to go to Churchill, not having been able to reach that Factory, coming with the other vessels to York Factory.

The late arrival of the colony on the shores of Hudson Bay made it impossible to ascend the Nelson River and roach the interior during the season of 1811. Accordingly Captain Macdonell made preparations for wintering on the Bay. York Factory would not probably have afforded sufficient accommodation for the colonists, but in addition Captain Macdonell states in a letter to Lord Selkirk that "the factory is very ill constructed and not at all adapted for a cold country." In consequence of these considerations, Captain Macdonell at once undertook, during the fair weather of the season yet remaining, to build winter quarters on the north side of the river, at a distance of some miles from the Factory. No doubt matters of discipline entered into the plans of the leader of the colonists. In a short time very comfortable dwellings were erected, built of round logs, the front side high with a shade roof sloping to the rear a foot thick—and the group of huts was known as "Nelson encampment!"

The chief work during the earlier winter, which the captain laid on his two score men, was providing themselves with fuel, of which there was plenty, and obtaining food from the Factory, for which sledges drawn over the snow were utilized by the detachments sent on this service. The most serious difficulty was, however, a meeting, in which a dozen or more of the men became completely insubordinate, and refused to yield obedience either to Captain Macdonell or to Mr. W. H. Cook, the Governor of the Factory. Every effort was made to maintain discipline, but the men steadily held to their own way, lived apart from Macdonell, and drew their own provisions from the fort to their huts. This tended to make the winter somewhat long and disagreeable.

Captain Macdonell, being a Canadian, knew well the dangers of the dread disease of the scurvy attacking his inexperienced colonists. The men at the fort prophesied evil things in this respect for the "encampment." The captain took early steps to meet the disease, and his letters to Governor Cook always contain demands for "essence of malt," "crystallized salts of lemon," and other anti-scorbutics. Though some of his men were attacked, yet the sovereign remedy so often employed in the "lumber camps" of America, the Juice of the white spruce, was applied with almost magical effect. As the winter went on, plenty of venison was received, and the health of his wintering party was in the spring much better than could have been anticipated.

After the New Year had come, all thoughts were directed to preparations for the Journey of 700 miles or thereabouts to the interior. A number of boats were required for transportation of the colonists and their effects. Captain Macdonell insisted on his boats being made after a different style from the boats commonly used at that time by the Company. His model was the flat boat, which he had seen used in the Mohawk River in the State of New York, The workmanship displayed in the making of these boats very much dissatisfied Captain Macdonell, and he constantly complained of the indolence of the workmen. In consequence of this inefficiency the cost of the boats to Lord Selkirk was very great, and drew forth the objections of the leader of the colony.

Captain Macdonell had the active assistance of Mr. Cook, the officer in charge of York, and of Mr. Auld, the Commander of Churchill, the latter having come down to York to make arrangements for the inland journey of the colonists. By July 1st, 1812, the ice had moved from the river, and the ex-pedition started soon after on the Journey to Red River. The new settlers found the route a hard and trying one with its rapids and portages. The boats, too, were heavy, and the colonists inexperienced in managing them. It was well on toward autumn when the company, numbering about seventy, reached the Red River. No special preparation had been made for the colonists, and the winter would soon be upon them. Some of the parties were given shelter in the Company fort and buildings, others in the huts of the freed men, who were married to the Indian women, and settled in the neighbourhood of the Forks, while others still found refuge in the tents of the Indian encampment in the vicinity. Governor Macdonell soon selected Point Douglas as the future centre of the colony and what is now Kildonan as the settlement. On account of the want of food the settlers were taken sixty miles south to Pembina and there, by November, a post, called Fort Daer from one of Lord Selkirk's titles, was erected for the shelter of the people and for nearness to the buffalo herds. The Governor Joined the colony in a short time and retired with them early in 1813 to their settlement.

While Governor Macdonell was thus early engaged in making a beginning in the new colony, Lord Selkirk was seeking out more colonists, and sent out a small number to the New World by the Hudson's Bay Company ships. Before sailing from Stornoway the second party met with serious interruption from the collector of Customs, who, we have seen, was related to Sir Alexander Mackenzie. The number on board the ships was greater, it was claimed, than the "Dundas Act" permitted. Through the influence of Lord Selkirk the ships were allowed to proceed on their voyage. Prison fever, it is said, broke out on the voyage, so that a number died at sea, and others on the shore of Hudson Bay. A small number, not more than fifteen or twenty, reached Red River in the autumn of 1813.

During the previous winter Governor Macdonell had taken a number of the colonists to Pembina, a point sixty miles south of the Forks, where buffalo could be had, as has already been mentioned on the previous page. On returning, after the second winter, to the settlement, the colonists sowed a small quantity of wheat. They were not, however, at that time in possession of any horses or oxen and were consequently compelled to prepare the ground with the hoe.

Lord Selkirk had not been anxious in 1812 to send a large addition to his colony. In 1813 he made greater efforts, and in June sent out in the Prince of Wales, sailing from Orkney, a party under Mr. Archibald Macdonald, numbering some ninety-three persons. Mr. Macdonald has written an account of his voyage, and has given us a remarkably concise and clear pamphlet. Having spent the winter at Churchill, Macdonald started on April 14th with a considerable number of his party, and, coming by way of York Factory, reached Red River on June 22nd, when they were able to plant some thirty or forty bushels of potatoes. The settlers were in good spirits, having received plots of land to build houses for themselves. Governor Macdonell went northward to meet the remainder of Archibald Macdonald's party, and arrived with them late in the season.

On account of various misunderstandings between the colony and the North-West Company, which we shall relate more particularly in another chapter, 150 of the colonists were induced by a North-West officer, Duncan Cameron, to leave the country and go by a long canoe journey to Canada. The remainder, numbering about sixty persons, making up about thirteen families, were driven from the settlement, and found refuge at Norway House (Jack River) at the foot of Lake Winnipeg. An officer from Lord Selkirk, Colin Robertson, arrived in the colony to assist these settlers, but found them driven out. He followed them to Norway House, and with his twenty clerks and servants, conducted them back to Red River to their deserted homes.

While these disastrous proceedings were taking place on Red River, including the summons to Governor Macdonell to appear before the Courts of Lower Canada to answer certain charges made against him, Lord Selkirk was especially active in Great Britain, and gathered together the best band of settlers yet sent out. These were largely from the parish of Kildonan, in Sutherlandshire, Scotland. Governor Macdonell having gone east to Canada, the colony was to be placed under a new Governor, a military officer of some distinction, Robert Semple, who had travelled in different parts of the world. Governor Semple was in charge of this fourth party of colonists, who numbered about 100. With this party, hastening through his journey, Governor Semple reached his destination on Red River in the month of October, in the same year in which they had left the motherland.

Thus we have seen the arrival of those who were known as the Selkirk colonists. We recapitulate their numbers :—

In 1811, reaching Red River in 1812..... 70
In 1812, reaching Red River in 1813.....15 or 20
In 1813, reaching Red River in two parties in 1814 . . 93
In 1815, reaching Red River in the same year . . . 100
Making deduction of the Irish settlers there were of the Highland colonists about....... 270
Less those led by the North-West Company in 1814 to Canada........ 140
Permanent Highland settlers ...... 130

Of these but two remained on the banks of the Red River in 1897, George Bannerman and John Matheson, and they have both died since that time.

We shall follow the history of these colonists further; suffice it now to say that their settlement has proved the country to be one of great fertility and promise; and their early establishment no doubt prevented international complications with the United States that might have rendered the possession of Rupert's Land a matter of uncertainty to Great Britain.

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