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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

The crisis reached—Consequences of Seven Oaks—The noble Earl— His generous spirit—His mistakes—Determined courage—Deserves the laurel crown—The first Governor—Macdonell's difficulties—His unwise step—A Captain in red—Cameron's adroitness —A wearisome imprisonment—Last governor of Fort Gibraltar— The Metis chief—Half-breed son of old Cuthbert—A daring hunter—Warden of the plains—Lord Selkirk's agent—A Red River patriarch—A faithful witness—The French bard—Western war songs—Pierriche Falcon.

The skirmish of Seven Oaks was the most notable event that ever occurred on the prairies of Rupert's Land or in the limits of the fur country. It was the crisis which indicated the determination of the Company, whose years were numbered by a century and a half, to hold its own in a great contest, and of the pluck of a British nobleman to show the "perfervidum in-genium Scotorum" and unflinchingly to meet either in arms or legal conflict the fur-trading oligarchy of that time in Canada. It represented, too, the fierce courage and desperate resource of the traders of the great Canadian Company, who, we have seen, were called by Washington Irving "the lords of the lakes and forests."

It was also the denouement which led the Old and the New Worlds' fur companies, despite the heat of passion and their warmth of sentiment, to make a peace which saved both from impending destruction.
It led, moreover, to the sealing up for half a century of Rupert's Land to all energetic projects and influx of population, and allowed Sir George Simpson to build up for the time being the empire of the buffalo, the beaver, and the fox, instead of developing a home of industry.

Lord Selkirk and Sir George Simpson

Crises such as this develop character and draw out the powers of men who would otherwise waste their sweetness on the desert air. The shock of meeting of two such great bodies as the Hudson's Bay Company and the North-West Company enabled men to show courage, loyalty, honest indignation, decision of character, shrewdness, diplomatic skill, and great endurance. These are the elements of human character. It is ever worth while to examine the motives, features of action, and ends aimed at by men under the trying circumstances of such a conflict. At the risk of some repetition we give sketches of the lives of several of the leading persons concerned,


Chief, certainly, of the actors who appeared on this stage was Lord Selkirk. Born to the best traditions of the Scottish nobility, Thomas Douglas belonged to the Angus-Selkirk family, which represented the Douglases of Border story, one of whom boasted that no ancestor of his had for ten generations died within chambers. Lord Daer, as his title then was, had studied at Edinburgh University, was an intimate friend of Sir Walter Scott, and though a Lowlander, had formed a great attachment for the Highlanders and had learned their language. He was, moreover, of most active mind, broad sympathies, and generous impulses. At the age of thirty years, having become Earl of Selkirk, he sought to take part in assisting the social condition of Britain, which was suffering greatly from the Napoleonic wars. He took a large colony of Highlanders to Prince Edward Island, acquired land in Upper Canada and also in New York State, and then, solely for the purpose of helping on his emigration project, entered on the gigantic undertaking of gaining control of the Hudson's Bay Company. In all these things he succeeded. We have seen the conflicts into which he was led and the manly way in which he conducted himself.

We do not say he made no mistakes. We frankly admit that he went beyond the ordinary powers of a magistrate's commission at Fort William. But we believe his aim was good. Ho was convinced that the Nor'-Westers had no legal right to the Hudson's Bay Company lands over which they traded. He believed them to be unscrupulous and dangerous, and his course was taken to meet the exigency of the case. It must be remembered his responsibility was a great one. His Highland and Irish colonists at Red River were helpless; he was their only defence; no British law was present at Red River to help them. They were regarded as intruders, as enemies of the fur trade, and he felt that loyalty and right compelled him to act as he did.

No doubt it seemed to the Canadian traders—who considered themselves as the successors of the French who, more than three-quarters of a century before, had established forts at what was called the post of the Western Sea—a high-handed and even foolhardy thing to bring his colony by way of Hudson Bay, and to plant them down at the forks on Red River, in a remote and probably unsuccessful colony. However, in the main the legal right was with his Lordship. The popular feeling in Canada toward Lord Selkirk was far from being a pure one, and a fair-minded person can hardly refrain from saying it was an interested and selfish one.

Certainly, as we see him, Lord Selkirk was a high-minded, generous, far-seeing, adventurous, courageous, and honourable man. We may admit that his opinion of the North-West Company opponents was a prejudiced and often unjust one. But we linger on the picture of his Lordship returning from Montreal with his Countess, their two young daughters, the one afterward Lady Isabella Hope, and the other Lady Katherine Wigram, with the young boy who grew up to be the last Earl of Selkirk; we think of him worried by the lawsuits and penalties of which we have spoken, going home to meet the British Government somewhat prejudiced against him as having been a personage in what they considered a dangerous émete: wo follow him passing over to France, attended by his family, and dying in a foreign land—and we are compelled to say, how often does the world persecute its benefactors and leave its greatest uncrowned. The Protestant cemetery at Orthes contains the bones of one who, under other circumstances, might have been crowned with laurel.


Engaged by Lord Selkirk to lead his first company and superintend the planting of his colony, Capt. Miles Macdonell found himself thrust into a position of danger and responsibility as local governor at Red River. He was a man with a considerable experience. Of Highland origin, he had with his father, John Macdonell, called "Scotas," from his residence in Scotland, settled in the valley of the Mohawk River, on the estates of Sir William Johnson, in New York State. The estates of Sir William were a hotbed of loyalism, and here was enlisted by his son, Sir John Johnson, under the authority of the British Government, at the time of the American Revolution, the well-known King's Royal Regiment of New York, familiarly known as the "Royal Greens." The older Macdonell was a captain in this regiment, and Miles, as a boy of fifteen, was commissioned as ensign. Afterward the young Macdonell returned to Scotland, where he married, and again came to Canada. Following a military career, he was engaged by Lord Selkirk shortly before the war of 1812 to lead his colony to the Red River. We have seen how faithfully, both at York Factory and the Red River, he served his Lordship. The chief point in dispute in connection with Governor Macdonell is whether the embargo against the export of supplies from Red River in 1814 was legal or not. If it was not, then on him rests much of the responsibility for the troubles which ensued. The seizure of pemmican, belonging to the North-West Company, at the mouth of the Souris River, seems to have been high-handed. Undoubtedly Miles Macdonell believed it to be necessary for the support of the settlers in the country. His life was one of constant worry after this event. Reprisals began between the parties. These at length ended in Miles Macdonell being seized by the North-West Company agents on June 22nd, 1815, and taken as a prisoner to Fort William, and thence to Montreal. Macdonell lived upon the Ottawa till the time of his death in 1828.

He was a man of good mind and seemingly honest intentions. His military education and experience probably gave him the habits of regularity and decision which led to the statement made of him by the Hon. William McGillivray, "that he conducted himself like a Turkish bashaw." The justification of Governor Macdonell seems to be that the Nor'-Westers had determined early in the history of the colony to destroy it, so that the charges made against the Governor wee merely an advantage taken of disputed points. Capt. Macdonell's management at York Factory was certainly judicious, and there seems but the one debatable point in his administration of Red River, and that was the proclamation of January 8th, 1814.


One of the most notable leaders on the Nor'-Wester side was Duncan Cameron, who has the distinction of being the last commanding officer of Fort Gibraltar. Like Miles Macdonell, Duncan Cameron was the son of a Highland U. E. Loyalist, who had been settled on the Hudson in New York State. He entered the North-West Company in 1785 and fourteen years after was in charge of Nepigon district, as we have seen. He gained much distinction for his company by his daring and skilful management of the plan to induce the Selkirk settlers to leave Red River and settle in Upper Canada. Coming from the meeting of the Nor'-Westes in Grand Portage, in 1814 Cameron took up his abode in Fort Gibraltar, and according to the story of his opponents did so with much pomp and circumstance. Miles Macdonell says:—"Mr. Duncan Cameron arrived at Red River, sporting a suit of military uniform, gave himself out as captain in his Majesty's service, and acting by the King's authority for Sir George Prevost." Every well-informed person looked upon this as a self-created appointment, at most a North-West trick ; but it had a very considerable effect upon the lower class of people.

In regard to this the writer in his work on "Manitoba," London, 1882, took up strong ground against Cameron. The calming influence of years, and the contention which has been advanced that there was some ground for Cameron claiming the commission in the "Voyageur Corps" which he formerly held, has led the writer to modify his opinion somewhat as to Cameron.

Cameron succeeded in leading away about three-quarters of the colony. This ho was appointed to do and he seems to have done it faithfully. The means by which ho appealed to the Highland colonists may have been less dignified than might have been desired, yet his warm Highland nature attracted his own countrymen in the settlement, and they probably needed little persuasion to escape from their hardships to what was to them the promised land of Upper Canada.

In the following year (1816), as already stated, Cameron was in command of Fort Gibraltar, and it was determined by Governor Semple to destroy the North-West fort and bring its material down the river to supplement the colony establishment, Fort Douglas. Before this was done the same treatment that was given to Governor Macdonell by the Nor'-Westers in arresting him was meted out to Cameron. He was seized by Colin Robertson and carried away to York Factory, to be taken as a prisoner to England. This high-handed proceeding was objectionable on several grounds. The Imperial Parliament had transferred the right of dealing with offences committed in Rupert's Land to the Courts of Canada, so that Robertson's action was clearly ultra vires. Moreover, if the Hudson's Bay Company under its charter exercised authority, it is questionable whether that gave the right to send a prisoner to Britain for trial, the more that no definite charge was laid against Cameron. Certainly Cameron had reason to complain of great injustice in this arrest. Taking him all in all, he was a hot, impulsive Highland leader of men, persuasive and adroit, and did not hesitate to adopt the means lying nearest to attain his purpose. The fact that from 1823 to 1828, after he had left the Company's service, he represented the County of Glengarry in the Upper Canadian Legislature, shows that those who knew him best had a favourable opinion about this last commander of Fort Gibraltar. Fort Gibraltar was never rebuilt, its place and almost its very site under the United Company being taken by the original Fort Garry. Sir Roderick Cameron, of New York, who has been connected with the Australian trade, was a son of Duncan Cameron.


The skirmish of Seven Oaks brought into view a fact that had hardly made itself known before, viz., that a new race, the Metis, or half-breed children of the fur traders and employes by Indian women, were becoming a guild or body able to exert its influence and beginning to realize its power.

Of this rising and somewhat dangerous body a young Scottish half-breed, Cuthbert Grant, had risen to sudden prominence as the leader. His father, of the same name, had been a famous North-West trader, and was looked upon as the special guardian of the Upper Assiniboine and Swan River district. He had died in 1799, but influential as he had been, the son became from circumstances much more so. The North-West Company knew that the Scottish courage and endurance would stand them in good stead, and his Indian blood would give him a great following in the country. Educated in Montreal, he was fitted to be the leader of his countrymen. His dash and enthusiasm were his leading characteristics. When the war party came down from Qu'Appelle and Portage La Prairie, young Cuthbert Grant was its natural leader. When the fight took place he was well to the front in the mélee, and it is generally argued that his influence was exerted toward saving the wounded and preventing acts of barbarity, such as savage races are prone to when the passions are aroused. On the night of June 19th, when the victory had come to his party, Cuthbert Grant took possession of Fort Douglas, and the night was one for revelry exceeding what his Highland forbears had ever seen, or equal to any exultation of the Red man in his hour of triumph.

In after years, when peace had been restored, Cuthbert Grant settled in the neighbourhood of White Horse Plains, a region twenty miles west of Red River on the Assiniboine, and here became an influential man. He was the leader of the hunt against the buffalo, on which every year the adventurous young men went to bring back their winter supply of food. In order that this might be properly managed, to protect life in a dangerous sport and to preserve the buffalo from wanton destruction, strict rules were agreed on and penalties attached to their breach. The officer appointed by the Council of Assiniboia to carry out these laws was called the "Warden of the Plains." This office Cuthbert Grant filled. Of the fifteen members of the Council of Assiniboia, Grant was one, and he largely reflected the opinion of the French half-breed population of the Red River settlement. He was the hero of the plain hunters, and the native bards never ceased to sing his praises. His case is a remarkable example of the power that native representatives obtain among mixed communities.


The name of John Pritchard carries us back on the Red River to the beginning of the century—to a time even before the coming of the Selkirk colony. His descendants to the fourth generation are still found in Manitoba and are well known. He was born in 1777 in a small village in Shropshire, England, and received his education in the famous Grammar School of Shrewsbury. Early in the century he emigrated to Montreal. At that time the ferment among the fur traders was great. The old North-West Company of Montreal had split into sections, and to the new Company, or X Y Company, young Pritchard was attached. We first hear of him at the mouth of the Souris River in 1805, and shortly after in charge of one of the forts at that point where the Souris River empties into the Assiniboine.

We have already given the incident of Pritchard being lost on the prairie for forty days. Pritchard does not seem to have taken kindly to the United North-West Company, for at the time of the Seven Oaks affair we find him as one of the garrison occupying Fort Douglas, although he represents himself as being a settler on the Red River.

After the skirmish of Seven Oaks Pritchard sought to escape with the other settlers to the north of Lake Winnipeg, but was made prisoner by the North-West Company's agents and taken to Fort William. Thence he went east to Montreal and gave evidence in connection with the trials arising out of the Red River troubles. Pritchard was a capable and ready man. His evidence is clear and well expressed. He had much facility in doing business, and had a smooth, diplomatic manner that stood him in good stead in troublous times.

Pritchard afterwards entered Lord Selkirk's service and as his agent went over to London. Returning to the Red River settlement, he married among the people of Kildonan, and lived not far from the Kildonan Church, on the east side of the river. A number of his letters have been printed, which show that he took a lively interest in the affairs of the settlement, especially in its religious concerns. It is not, then, remarkable that among his descendants there should be no less than seven clergymen of the Church of England. It is interesting to know that the Hudson's Bay Company voted him about 1833 a gratuity of 251. in consideration of valuable services rendered by him to education, and especially in the establishment of Sunday schools and day schools. This man, whose life was a chronicle of the history of the settlement, passed away in 1856 and was buried in St. John's Churchyard.


Among the wild rout of the Nor'-Westers at the skirmish of Seven Oaks was a young French half-breed, whose father was a French Canadian engaged in the fur trade, and his mother an Indian woman from the Missouri country. The young combatant had been born in 1793, at Elbow Fort, in the Swan River district. Taken as a child to Canada, young Pierre lived for a time at Laprairie, and at the age of fifteen returned with his father to the Red River, and with him engaged in the service of the North-West Company. What part Falcon took in the affair at Seven Oaks we are not told, except that he behaved bravely, and saw Governor Semple killed.

Pierre Falcon was, however, the bard or poet of his people. This characteristic of Falcon is quite remarkable, considered in connection with the time and circumstances. That a man who was unable to read or write should have been able to describe the striking events of his time in verso is certainly a notable thing. He never tires singing in different times and metres the valour of the Bois Brules at Seven Oaks.

"Voulez-vous écouter chanter
Une chanson do vérité?
Le dix-neuf Juin, la bande des Bois Brules
Sont arrivés comme des braves guerriers."

Then with French gaiety and verve he gives an account of the attack on the Orkneymen, as he calls them, and recites the Governor's action and his death. Falcon finishes up the chanson with a wild hurrah of triumph—

"Les Bois Brules jetaient des cris de joie."

The lively spirit of the rhymester broke out in song upon all the principal events which agitated the people of the settlement. Joseph Tasse, to whom we are chiefly indebted in this sketch, says of him, "all his compositions are not of the same interest, but they are sung by our voyageurs to the measured stroke of the oar, on the most distant rivers and lakes of the North-West. The echoes of the Assiniboine, the Mackenzie, and Hudson Bay will long repeat them."

The excitable spirit of the rhymer never left him. At the time of the Riel rebellion (1869-70) Falcon was still alive, and though between seventy and eighty years of age, he wished to march off with his gun to the fray, declaring that "while the enemy would be occupied in killing him his friends would be able to give hard and well-directed blows to the."

For about half a century he lived on the White Horse Plains, twenty miles or more up the Assiniboine from Winnipeg, and became an influential man in the neighbourhood. His mercurial disposition seems to have become more settled than in his fiery youth, for though unlettered, he was made a justice of the peace.

His verse-making was, of course, of a very simple and unfinished kind. One of his constant fashions was to end it with a declaration that it was made by Falcon, the singer of his people.

"Qui en a fait la chanson?
Un poète de canton;
Au bout de la chanson
Nous vous le nommerons.
Un jour étant à table,
A boire et à chanter,
A chanter tout au long
La nouvelle chanson.
Amis, buvons, trinquons,
Saluons la chanson
De Pierriche Falcon,
Ce faiseur de chanson."

The last line being often varied to

"Pierre Falcon, le bon garcon."

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