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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

Nor'-Westers oppose the colony—Reason why—A considerable literature—Contentions of both parties—Both in fault—Miles Macdonell's mistake—Nor' -Wester arrogance—Duncan Cameron's ingenious plan—Stirring up the Chippewas—Nor'-Westers warn colonists to depart—McLeod's hitherto unpublished narrative—Vivid account of a brave defence—Chain shot from the blacksmith's smithy—Fort Douglas begun—Settlers driven out —Governor Semple arrives—Cameron last Governor of Fort Gibraltar—Cameron sent to Britain as a prisoner—Fort Gibraltar captured—Fort Gibraltar decreases, Fort Douglas increases— Free traders take to the plains—Indians favour the colonists.

To the most casual observer it must have been evident that the colony to be established by Lord Selkirk would be regarded with disfavour by the North-West Company officers. The strenuous opposition shown to it in Great Britain by Sir Alexander Mackenzie, and by all who were connected with him, showed quite clearly that it would receive little favour on the Red River.

First, it was a Hudson's Bay scheme, and would greatly advance the interests of the English trading Company. That Company would have at the very threshold of the fur country a depot, surrounded by traders and workmen, which would give them a great advantage over their rivals.

Secondly, civilization and its handmaid agriculture are incompatible with the fur trade. As the settler enters, the fur-bearing animals are exterminated. A sparsely settled, almost unoccupied country, is the only hope of preserving this trade.

Thirdly, the claim of the Hudson's Bay Company under its charter was that they had the sole right to pursue the fur trade in Rupert's Land. Their traditional policy on Hudson Bay had been to drive out private trade, and to preserve their monopoly.

Fourthly, the Nor'-Westers claimed to be the lineal successors of the French traders, who, under Verendrye, had opened up the region west of Lake Superior. They long after maintained that priority of discovery and earlier possession gave them the right to claim the region in dispute as belonging to the province of Quebec, and so as being a part of Canada.

The first and second parties of settlers were so small, and seemed so little able to cope with the difficulties of their situation, that no great amount of opposition was shown. They were made, it is true, the laughing-stock of the half-breeds and Indians, for these free children of the prairies regarded the use of the hoe or other agricultural implement as beneath them. The term "Pork-eaters," applied, as we have seen, to the voyageurs east of Fort William, was freely applied to these settlers, while the Indians used to call them the French name "jardinieres" or clod-hoppers.

A considerable literature is in existence dealing with the events of this period. It is somewhat difficult, in the conflict of opinion, to reach a basis of certainty as to the facts of this contest. The Indian country is proverbial for the prevalence of rumour and misrepresentation. Moreover, prejudice and self-interest were mingled with deep passion, so that the facts are very hard to obtain.

The upholders of the colony claim that no sooner had the settlers arrived than efforts were made to stir up the Indians against them ; that besides, the agents of the North-West Company had induced the Metis, or half-breeds, to disguise themselves as Indians, and that on their way to Pembina one man was robbed by these desperadoes of the gun which his father had carried at Culloden, a woman of her marriage ring, and others of various ornaments and valuable articles. There were, however, it is admitted, no specially hostile acts noticeable during the years 1812 and 1813.

The advocates of the North-West Company, on the other hand, blame the first aggression on Miles Macdonell. During the winter of 1813 and 1814 Governor Macdonell and his colonists wore occupying Fort Daer and Pembina. The supply of subsistence from the buffalo was short, food was difficult to obtain, the war with the United States was in progress and might cut off communication with Montreal, and moreover, a body of colonists was expected to arrive during the year from Great Britain. Accordingly, the Governor, on January 8th, 1814, issued a proclamation.

He claimed the territory as ceded to Lord Selkirk, and gave the description of the tract thus transferred. The proclamation then goes on to say: "And whereas the welfare of the families at present forming the settlements on the Red River within the said territory, with those on their way to it, passing the winter at York or Churchill Forts on Hudson Bay, as also those who are expected to arrive next autumn, renders it a necessary and indispensable part of my duty to provide for their support. The uncultivated state of the country, the ordinary resources derived from the buffalo, and other wild animals hunted within the territory, are not deemed more than adequate for the requisite supply; wherefore, it is hereby ordered that no persons trading in furs or provisions within the territory, for the Honourable the Hudson's Bay Company, the North-West Company, or any individual or unconnected traders whatever, shall take out any provisions, either of flesh, grain, or vegetables, procured or raised within the territory, by water or land-carriage for one twelvemonth from the date hereof ; save and except what may be judged necessary for the trading parties at the present time within the territory, to carry them to their respective destinations, and who may, on due application to me, obtain licence for the same. The provisions procured and raised as above, shall be taken for the use of the colony, and that no losses may accrue to the parties concerned, they will be paid for by British bills at the customary rates, &c."

The Nor'-Westers then recalled the ceremonies with which Governor Macdonell had signalized his entrance to the country: "When he arrived he gathered his company about him, made before it some impressive ceremonies, drawn from the conjuring book of his lordship, and read to it his commission of governor or representative of Lord Selkirk; afterwards a salute was fired from the Hudson's Bay Company fort, which proclaimed his taking possession of the neighbourhood."

The Governor, however, soon gave another example of his determination to assert his authority. It had been represented to him that the North-West Company officers had no intention of obeying the proclamation, and indeed were engaged in buying up all the available supplies to prevent his getting enough for his colonists- Convinced that his opponents were engaged in thwarting his designs, the Governor sent John Spencer to seize some of the stores which had been gathered in the North-West post at the mouth of the Souris River. Spencer was unwilling to go, unless very specific instructions were given him. The Governor had, by Lord Selkirk's influence in Canada, been appointed a magistrate, and he now issued a warrant authorizing Spencer to seize the provisions in this fort.

Spencer, provided with a double escort, proceeded to the fort at the Souris, and the Nor'-Westers made no other resistance than to retire within the stockade and shut the gate of the fort. Spencer ordered his men to force an entrance with their hatchets. Afterwards, opening the store-houses, they seized six hundred skins of dried meat (pemmican) and of grease, each weighing eighty-five pounds. This booty was removed into the Hudson's Bay Company fort (Brandon House) at that place.

We have now before us the first decided action that led to the serious disturbances that followed. The question arises, Was the Governor justified in the steps taken by him? No doubt, with the legal opinion which Lord Selkirk had obtained, he considered himself thoroughly justified. The necessities of his starving people and the plea of humanity were certainly strong motives urging him to action. No doubt these considerations seemed strong, but, on the other hand, he should have remembered that the idea of law in the fur traders' country was a new thing, that the Nor'-Westers, moreover, were not prepared to credit him with purity of motive, and that they had at their disposal a force of wild Bois Brules ready to follow the unbridled customs of the plains. Further, even in civilized communities laws of non-intercourse, embargo, and the like, are looked upon as arbitrary and of doubtful validity. All these things should have led the Governor, ill provided as he was with the force necessary for his defence, to hesitate before taking a course likely to be disagreeable to the Nor"-Westers, who would regard it as an assertion of the claim of superiority of the Hudson's Bay Company and of the consequent degradation of their Company, of which they were so proud.

In their writings the North-West Company take some credit for not precipitating a conflict, but state that they endured the indignity until their council at Fort William should take action in the following summer. At this council, which was interesting and full of strong feeling against their fur-trading rivals, the Nor'-Westers, under the presidency of the Hon. William McGillivray, took decided action.

In the trials that afterwards arose out of this unfortunate quarrel, John Pritchard, whose forty days' wanderings we have recorded, testified that one of the North-West agents, Mac-Kenzie, had given him the information that "the intention of the North-West Company was to seduce and inveigle away as many of the colonists and settlers at Red River as they could induce to join them ; and after they should thus have diminished their means of defence, to raise the Indians of Lac Rouge, Fond du Lac, and other places, to act and destroy the settlement; and that it was also their intention to bring the Governor, Miles Macdonell, down to Montreal as a prisoner, by way of degrading the authority under which the colony was established in the eyes of the natives of that country."

Simon McGillivray, a North-West Company partner, had two years before this written from London that "Lord Selkirk must be driven to abandon his project, for his success would strike at the very existence of our trade."

Two of the most daring partners of the North-West Company were put in charge of the plan of campaign agreed on at Fort William. These were Duncan Cameron and Alexander Macdonell. The latter wrote to a friend, from one of his resting-places on his journey, "Much is expected of us. . . . so here is at them with all my heart and energy." The two partners arrived at Fort Gibraltar, situated at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, toward the end of August. The senior partner, Macdonell, leaving Cameron at Fort Gibraltar, went westward to the Qu'Appelle River, to return in the spring and carry out the plan agreed on.

Cameron had been busy during the winter in dealing with the settlers, and let no opportunity slip of impressing them. Knowing the fondness of Highlanders for military display, he dressed himself in a bright red coat, wore a sword, and in writing to the settlers, which he often did, signed himself, "D. Cameron, Captain, Voyageur Corps, Commanding Officer, Red River." He also posted an order at the gate of his fort purporting to be his captain's commission. Some dispute has arisen as to the validity of this authority. There seems to have been some colour for the use of this title, under authority given for enlisting an irregular- corps in the upper lakes during the American War of 1812, but the legal opinion is that this had no validity in the Red River settlement.

Cameron, aiming at the destruction of the colony, began by ingratiating himself with a number of the leading settlers. Knowing the love of the Highlanders for their own language, Cameron spoke to them Gaelic in his most pleasing manner, entertained the leading colonists at his own table, and paid many attentions to their families. Promises were then made to a number of leaders to provide the people with homes in Upper Canada, to pay up wages due by the Hudson's Bay Company or Lord Selkirk, and to give a year's provisions free, provided the colony would leave the Rod River and accept the advantages offered in Canada. This plan succeeded remarkably well, and it is in sworn evidence that on three-quarters of the colony reaching Fort William, a settler, Campbell, received 100l., several others 20l., and so on.

Some of the best of the settlers, amounting to about one-quarter of the whole, refused all the advances of the subtle captain. Another method was taken with this class. The plan of frightening them away by the co-operation of the Cree Indians had failed, but the Bois Brules, or half-breeds, were a more pliant agency. These were to be employed. Cameron now (April, 1815) made a demand on Archibald Macdonald, Acting Governor, to hand over to the settlers the field pieces belonging to Lord Selkirk, on the ground that these had been used already to disturb the peace. This startling order was presented to the Governor by settler Campbell on the day on which the fortnightly issue of rations took place at the colony buildings. The settlers in favour of Cameron then broke open the store-house, and took nine pieces of ordnance and removed them to Fort Gibraltar. The Governor having arrested one of the settlers who had broken open the store-house, a number of the North-West Company clerks and servants, under orders from Cameron, broke into the Governor's house and rescued the prisoner.

About this time Miles Macdonell, the Governor, returned to the settlement. A warrant had been issued for his arrest by the Nor'-Westers, but he refused for the time to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the magistrates. Cameron now spread abroad the statement that if the settlers did not deliver up the Governor, they in turn would be attacked and driven from their homes. Certain colonists were now fired at by unseen assailants.

About the middle of May, the senior partner, Alexander Macdonell, arrived from Qu'Appelle, accompanied by a band of Cree Indians. The partners hoped through these to frighten the settlers who remained obdurate, but the Indians were too astute to be led into the quarrel, and assured Governor Miles Macdonell that they were resolved not to molest the newcomers.

An effort was also made to stir up the Chippewa Indians of Sand Lake, near the west of Lake Superior. The chief of the band declared to the Indian Department of Canada that he was offered a large reward if he would declare war against the Selkirk colonists. This the Chippewas refused to do.

Early in June the lawless spirit followed by the Nor'-Westers again showed itself. A party from Fort Gibraltar went down with loaded muskets, and from a wood near the Governor's residence fired upon some of the colony employes. Mr. White, the surgeon, was nearly hit, and a ball passed close by Mr. Burke, the storekeeper. General firing then began from the wood and was returned from the house, but four of the colony servants were wounded. This expedition was under Cameron, who congratulated his followers on the result.

The demand for the surrender of the Governor, in answer to the warrant issued, was then made, and at the persuasion of the other officers of the settlement, and to avoid the loss of life and the dangers threatened against the colonists, Governor Miles Macdonell surrendered himself and was taken to Montreal for trial, though no trial ever took place.

The double plan of coaxing away all the settlers who were open to such inducement, and of then forcibly driving away the residue from the settlement, seemed likely to succeed. One hundred and thirty-four of the colonists, induced by promises of free transport, two hundred acres of land in Upper Canada, as well as in some cases by substantial gifts, deserted the colony in June (1815), along with Cameron, and arrived at Fort William on their way down the lakes at the end of July. These settlers made their way in canoes along the desolate shores of Lake Superior and Georgian Bay, and arrived at Holland Landing, in Upper Canada, on September 5th. Many of them were given land in the township of West Guillimbury, near Newmarket, and many of their descendants are there to this day.

The Nor'-Westers now continued their persecution of the remnant of the settlers. They burnt some of their houses and used threats of the most extreme kind. On June 25th, 1815, the following document was served upon the disheartened colonists :—

"All settlers to retire immediately from the Red River, and no trace of a settlement to remain.

"Cuthbert Grant.
"Bostonnais pangman.
"William Shaw.
"Bonhomme Montour."

The conflict resulting at this time may be said to be the first battle of the war. A fiery Highland trader, John McLeod, was in charge of the Hudson's Bay Company house at this point, and we have his account of the attack and defence, somewhat bombastic it may be, but which, so far as known to the author, has never been published before.


"In 1814-15, being in charge of the whole Red River district, I spent the winter at the Forks, at the settlement there. On June 25th, 1815, while I was in charge, a sudden attack was made by an armed band of the N.-W. party under the leadership of Alexander Maedonell (Yellow Head) and Cuthbert Grant, on the settlement and Hudson's Bay Company fort at the Forks. They numbered about seventy or eighty, well armed and on horsebark. Having had some warning of it, I assumed command of both the colony and H. B. C. parties. Mustering with inferior numbers, and with only a few guns, we took a stand against them. Taking my place amongst the colonists, I fought with them. All fought bravely and kept up the fight as long as possible. Many all about me falling wounded ; one mortally. Only thirteen out of our band escaped unscathed.

"The brunt of the struggle was near the H. B. C. post, close to which was our blacksmith's smithy—a log building about ten feet by ten. Being hard pressed, I thought of trying the little cannon (a three or four-pounder) lying idle in the post where it could not well be used.

"One of the settlers (Hugh McLean) went with two of my men, with his cart to fetch it, with all the cart chains he could get and some powder. Finally, we got the whole to the blacksmithy, where, chopping up the chain into lengths for shot, we opened a fire of chain shot on the enemy which drove back the main body and scattered them, and saved the post from utter destruction and pillage. All the colonists 'houses were, however, destroyed by fire. Houseless, wounded, and in extreme distress, they took to the boats, and, saving what they could, started for Norway House (Jack's River), declaring they would never return.

"The enemy still prowled about, determined apparently to expel, dead or alive, all of our party. All of the H. B. Company's officers and men refused to remain, except the two brave fellows in the service, viz. Archibald Currie and James Mcintosh, who, with noble Hugh McLean, joined in holding the fort in the smithy. Governor Macdonell was a prisoner.

"In their first approach the enemy appeared determined more to frighten than to kill. Their demonstration in line of battle, mounted, and in full 'war paint' and equipment was formidable, but their fire, especially at first, was desultory. Our party, numbering only about half theirs, while preserving a general line of defence, exposed itself as little as possible, but returned the enemy's fire, sharply checking the attack, and our line was never broken by them. On the contrary, when the chain-firing began, the enemy retired out of range of our artillery, but at a flank movement reached the colony houses, where they quickly and resistlessly plied the work of destruction. To their credit be it said, they took no life or property.

"Of killed, on our side, there was only poor John Warren of H. B. C. service, a worthy brave gentleman, who, taking a leading part in the battle, too fearlessly exposed himself. Of the enemy, probably, the casualties were greater, for they presented a better target, and we certainly fired to kill. From the smithy we could and did protect the trade post, but could not the buildings of the colonists, which were along the bank of the Red River, while the post faced the Assiniboine more than the Red River. Fortunately for us in the 'fort' (the smithy) the short nights were never too dark for our watch and ward.

"The colonists were allowed to take what they could of what belonged to them, and that was but little, for as yet they had neither cow nor plough, only a horse or two. There were boats and other craft enough to take them all—colonists and H. B. C. people—away, and all, save my three companions already named and myself, took ship and fled. For many days after we were under siege, living under constant peril; but unconquerable in our bullet-proof log walls, and with our terrible cannon and chain shot.

"At length the enemy retired. The post was safe, with from 800l., to 1000l. sterling worth of attractive trade goods belonging to the Hudson's Bay Company untouched. I was glad of this, for it enabled me to secure the services of free men about the place—French Canadians and half-breeds not in the service of the N.-W. Company—to restore matters and prepare for the future.

"I felt that we had too much at stake in the country to give it up, and had every confidence in the resources of the H. B. Company and the Earl of Selkirk to hold their own and effectually repel any future attack from our opponents.

"I found the free men about the place willing to work for me; and at once hired a force of them for building and other works in reparation of damages and in new works. So soon as I got my post in good order, I turned to save the little but precious and promising crops of the colonists, whose return I anticipated, made fences where required, and in due time cut and stacked their hay, &c.

"That done I took upon me, without order or suggestion from any quarter, to build a house for the Governor and his staff of the Hudson's Bay Company at Red River. There was no such officer at that time, nor had there ever been, but I was aware that such an appointment was contemplated.

"I selected for this purpose what I considered a suitable site at a point or sharp bend in the Red River about two miles below the Assiniboine, on a slight rise on the south side of the point—since known as Point Douglas, the family name of the Earl of Selkirk. Possibly I so christened it—I forget.

"It was of two stories; with main timbers of oak; a good substantial house; with windows of parchment in default of glass." Here ends McLeod's diary.

The Indians of the vicinity showed the colonists much sympathy, but on June 27th, after the hostile encounter, some thirteen families, comprising from forty to sixty persons, pursued their sad Journey, piloted by friendly Indians, to the north end of Lake Winnipeg, where the Hudson's Bay Company post of Jack River afforded some shelter. McLeod and, as he tells us, three men only were left. These endeavoured to protect the settlers' growing crops, which this year showed great promise.

The expulsion may now be said to have been complete. The day after the departure of the expelled settlers, the colony dwellings, with the possible exception of the Governor's house, were all burnt to the ground. In July the desolate band reached Jack River House, their future being dark indeed. Deliverance was, however, coming from two directions. Colin Robertson, a Hudson's Bay Company officer, arrived from the East with twenty Canadians. On reaching the Red River settlement, he found the settlers all gone, but he followed them speedily to their rendezvous on Lake Winnipeg and returned with the refugees to their deserted homes on Red River. They were joined also by about ninety settlers from the Highlands of Scotland, who had come through to Red River in one season. The colony was now rising into promise again. A number of the demolished buildings were soon erected ; the colony took heart, and under the new Governor, Robert Semple, a British officer who had come with the last party of settlers, the prospects seemed to have improved. The Governor's dwelling was strengthened, other dwellings were erected beside it, and more necessity being now seen for defence, the whole assumed a more military aspect, and took the name, after Lord Selkirk's family name, Fort Douglas.

Though a fair crop had been reaped by the returned settlers from their fields, yet the large addition to their numbers made it necessary to remove to Fort Daer, where the buffalo were plentiful. This party was under the leadership of Sheriff Alexander Macdonell, though Governor Semple was also there. The autumn saw trouble at the Forks. The report of disturbances having taken place between the Nor'-Westers and Hudson's Bay Company employes at Qu'Appelle was heard, as well as renewed threats of disturbance in the colony. Colin Robertson in October, 1815, captured Fort Gibraltar, seized Duncan Cameron, and recovered the field-pieces and other property taken by the Nor'-Westers in the preceding months. Though the capture of Cameron and his fort thus took place, and the event was speedily followed by the reinstatement of the trader on his promise to keep the peace, yet the report of the seizure led to the greatest irritation in all parts of the country where the two Companies had posts. All through the winter, threatenings of violence filled the air. The Bois Brutes were arrogant, and, led by their faithful leader, Cuthbert Grant, looked upon themselves as the "New Nation."

Fort Douglas

Returning, after the New Year of 1816, from Fort Daer, Governor Semple saw the necessity for aggressive action. Fort Gibraltar was to become the rendezvous for a Bois Brules force of extermination from Qu'Appelle, Fort des Prairies (Portage la Prairie), and even from the Saskatchewan- To prevent this, Colin Robertson, under the Governor's direction, recaptured Fort Gibraltar and held Cameron as a prisoner. This event took place in March or April of 1816. The legality of this seizure was of course much discussed between the hostile parties.

It was deemed wise, however, to make a safe disposal of the prisoner Cameron. He was accordingly dispatched under the care of Colin Robertson, by way of Jack River, to York Factory, to stand his trial in England. Thus were reprisals made for the capture and removal of Miles Macdonell in the preceding year, both actions being of doubtful legality. On account of the failure of the Hudson's Bay Company ship to leave York Factory in that year, Cameron did not reach England for seventeen months, where he was immediately released.

The fall of Fort Gibraltar was soon to follow the deportation of its commandant. The matter of the dismantling of Fort Gibraltar was much discussed between Governor Semple and his lieutenant, Colin Robertson. The latter was opposed to the proposed destruction of the Nor'-Wester fort, knowing the excitement such a course would cause. However, after the departure of Robertson to Hudson Bay in charge of Cameron, the Governor carried out his purpose, and in the end of May, 1816, the buildings were pulled down. A force of some thirty men were employed, and, expecting as they did, a possible interruption from the West, the work was done in a week or a little more.

The materials were taken apart; the stockade was made into a raft, the remainder was piled upon it, and all was floated down Red River to the site of Fort Douglas. The material was then used for strengthening the fort and building new houses in it. Thus ended Fort Gibraltar. A considerable establishment it was in its time ; its name was undoubtedly a misnomer so far as strength was concerned; yet it points to its origination in troublous times.

The vigorous policy carried out in regard to Fort Gibraltar was likewise shown in the district south of the Forks. As we have seen, to the south, Fort Daer had been erected, and thither, winter by winter, the settlers had gone for subsistence. Here, too, was the Nor'-Wester fort of Pembina House. During the time when Governor Semple and Colin Robertson were maturing their plans, it was determined to seize Pembina. No sooner had the news of Cameron's seizure reached Fort Daer, than Sheriff Macdonell, who was in charge, organized an expedition, took Pembina House, and its officers and inhabitants. The prisoners were sent to Fort Douglas, and were liberated on pledges of good behaviour, and the military stores were also taken to Fort Douglas. The reasons given by the colony people for this course are "self-defence and the security of the lives of the settlers." About the end of April, the settlers returned from Fort Daer, and were placed on their respective lots along the Red River.

All events now plainly pointed to armed disturbances and bloodshed. The policy of Governor Semple was too vigorous when the inflammable elements in the country were borne in mind. There was in the country a class called "Free Canadians," i.e. those French Canadian trappers and traders not connected with either Company, who obtained a precarious living for themselves, their Indian wives, and half-breed children. These, fearing trouble, betook themselves to the plains. The Indians of the vicinity seemed to have gained a liking for the colonists and their leaders. When they heard the threatenings from the West, two of the chiefs came to Governor Semple and offered the assistance of their bands. This the Governor could not accept, whereat the chiefs gave voice to their sorrow and disappointment. Governor Semple seems to have disregarded all these omens of coming trouble, and to have acted almost without common prudence. No doubt, having but lately come to the country, he failed to understand the daring character of his opponents.

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