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Fraser's Scottish Annual
The Fifth Earl of Selkirk and His Canadian Settlements


ABOUT a mile to the south of the Scottish town of Kirkcudbright, where the Dee loses itself in the Solway, there is a tract of low wooded land, peninsular in shape but known as St. Mary's Isle, and in the centre of this once stood the seat of the Earls of Selkirk. These grounds skirted by the Dee and Solway, are of considerable extent, and, with their spreading woods, have much unassuming beauty. The Priory of St. Mary in the midst of this grove has been the nucleus of the Selkirk residence, which from time to time successive Earls had altered and enlarged. But a new mansion having been completed four years ago on the spot where this historic building stood, the preparations for the new had made it necessary to remove the old structure, which was done much to the regret of antiquarians.

In these quaint, though homelike, surroundings, Thomas Douglas the fifth Earl (born in 1774), passed his childhood. He was one of five sons, and in accordance with the usages of the time in Scotland, received a liberal education. Early in life he began work as a colony builder, his first attempt having been made in 1803, when he brought 800 Highlanders to Prince Edward Island, which number was subsequently increased to 4,000.

In the same year he settled a party of 111 persons near Bear Creek in Kent county, Ont. This settlement was managed for him by the Hon. Alex. Macdonell, the first sheriff of the Home District. It was called "Baldoon," and a post office in the township of East Dover still bears this name. A road, called "Baldoon Street," was cut out from the settlement to the site of the town of Chatham on the River Thames. In earlier years, when the forest covered it, that low-lying district was aguish and more sickly than now, so that a number of the settlers died the first season; and it suffered further loss at the hands of the invading U. S. troops during the war of 1812.

The beginnings of a third settlement were made in the tract of land that now forms the township of Moulton, Haldimand county, Ont., which came into the possession of Selkirk for £3,850. This settlement was managed by Mr. Douglas, but lying near the mouth of the Grand River, this township also has much low, marshy land, which was quite useless until recently drained.

The settlers for these miniature colonies, and in fact for the later Red River colony as well, were nearly all brought from Kildonan in Sutherlandshire, one of the so-called congested districts. It is doubted by some, however, whether there was any over-population; it is even asserted that the landlords, having control of all the natural resources, wanted to make way for sheep farms instead of small holdings. Be the cause what it may, it is certain that, in those days, the crofter inhabitants were compelled in such numbers to leave their native soil that the Scottish Highlands were almost depopulated.

Having the experience given by these earlier attempts at colony-making, Lord Selkirk published a "Treatise on Emigration," of some value in its day; also a pamphlet, "Observations on the Present State of the Highlands" (1805), of which a second edition was issued in 1806.

Besides the subject of immigration, his restless activity at this period found another outlet in the then absorbing theme of Great Britain's system for her own defence—a subject on which he addressed the House of Lords. But this question, as he viewed it, was but a part of his chosen subject of emigration. In connection with his public services it may also be stated that he occupied the position of Lord Lieutenant of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright.

Toward the latter end of 1807, he married Jean, daughter of James Wedderburn Colville of Ochiltree. Though but twelve years younger than himself, she survived him for more than fifty years, her death having occurred so late as 1871. Their children, who now lie in the family burying ground, were one son, Dunbar James (b. 1809),who succeeded to the title as the sixth Earl; and two daughters, viz., Isabella Helen (b. 1811), who became the wife of the Hon. Charles Hope; and Katherine Jean (b. 1817), who became the wife of Loftus T. Wigram, Esq. Another daughter was the wife of John Halkett. The widowed countess and three of the children are interred at Gaitway (pronounced "Gata "), a quiet resting place with neat headstones about a mile distant from the mansion. Here is to be seen an exception to the almost universal rule of placing graves to face the east, though exceptions to this rule in crowded parts of Great Britain occur more frequently than on this continent.

About the year 1809, Selkirk became impressed with the possibilities of the Red River for colonization purposes. As the Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, and the proprietor of a large part of its stock, he learned from the Highland employees of the Company of the fertility of that region, and in 1812 obtained a grant of land on the Red River. Accordingly, this, his next effort at colony making, was carried out a thousand miles farther west than any settlement formerly planted by himself, and indeed beyond any other frontier settlement of the day. It ought to be remembered by critics hostile to this experiment—sometimes called an erratic one—that at the time it was begun Bonaparte had not been crushed, and life in Europe was still insecure; nor had the outbreak of the war of 1812 taken place in America. Although in the recital of the familiar story of this Red River colony, there is much diversity, some versions not being always pleasing because not always correct, it is beyond our present purpose to give it more than a passing notice. The early social life of the settlement was recently described in the Rev. R. G. McBeth's interesting little book, "The Selkirk Settlers in Real Life." But Selkirk's own relationship with the affairs of the colony and his personal visit to it ought to be scanned, even briefly.

Fort Douglas (named after him) was built on the Red River by employees of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1812, a mile below Fort Garry of later times. Its builders were increased in numbers by the band of colonists whom Selkirk sent from Scotland in 1813 by way of Hudson's Bay. After having fever on board ship the latter wintered at York Factory, and arrived at Fort Douglas in 1814. The North-West Company's employees broke up this colony early in 1815, and some of the fugitives went to Jack River on Lake Winnipeg. The others, numbering about 134, were taken to Fort William by the North-West Company's employees, but about half of them soon returned to Hudson's Bay. The other half continued in their course, coming to the settled parts of Ontario, where, after a few years of wandering, during which time they saw service as farm laborers, they took up land grants in 1820 and made a settlement of their own in the township of West Gwillirnbury, Simcoe county. This made the third settlement in Ontario that grew out of his efforts at colonizing. The township of Aldborough in Elgin county also received fugitives, and it may be regarded as a fourth Ontario settlement.

Another band of colonists left Scotland for the Red River in 18 15. With the remnant from Jack River, they wintered at Pembina and descended next spring to Fort Douglas. But soon afterward—on June 19, i8i6,—came the fatal collision when Governor Semple of the Hudson's Bay Company and some others were killed. The colonists were again put to flight, and on this occasion, also, a few of them made their way to Ontario to join their kinsmen who had gone before. The greater part of the fugitives, however, again wintered at Jack River, but they soon returned to the site of the settlement and finally succeeded in founding a permanent colony on the Red River in spite of many subsequent difficulties.

Selkirk himself came to Canada in the autumn of 1815, and while at Montreal in the month of June following, the last collision took place, news of which he first heard at Sault Ste. Marie, on his way to the colony. With the De Meuron regiment he captured Fort William on August 13, and later, Rainy Lake House. By the spring of 1817, he recaptured Fort Douglas and re-established the colony. The troubles had now risen to such a height that the Imperial Government interfered and appointed commissioners to investigate matters. Several lawsuits ensued between the two rival companies, the chief of which was the Semple case at Toronto in 1818. Although the fusion of the two companies was often proposed during these troubles, Selkirk is represented as having always opposed their union.

He left Canada in 1818, health broken and impaired in fortune, but he had seen the Red River colony planted securely. He died in 1820 at Pau, in the south of France, whither he had gone for the benefit of his health, and was buried at Orthez (April 8). The union of the two fur companies took place in the year following his death. The present owner of the Selkirk estates, Capt. Hope, R. N., is a grandson of the colony-maker, the male line and the title having become extinct at the death of the sixth Earl in 1885, when the title was merged into that of the Duke of Hamilton.

Among geographical names that keep his memory fresh, there are the famous Selkirk range in British Columbia, Selkirk county in south-western Manitoba, a railway station in the same county, a town on the Red River in Lisgar county, and an island in Lake Winnipeg. Even in the new Klondike region, there is Fort Selkirk. In fact, his name has been given to a host of places throughout the new Canadian West. Fort Douglas bore the surname of Lord Selkirk's family, and is still represented by Douglas Point in Winnipeg. Fort Daer, built in the autumn of 1812 at Pembina by the Hudson's Bay Company, was named for Baron Daer, his title as the eldest son, but the fort and its name are long since obsolete. Selkirk, a post office in Haldimand county, Ont., reminds us of his land purchase there, and Selkirk Road in Queen's county, Prince Edward Island, of his earliest effort at colony making in that province.

The planting of the four settlements in Ontario as a result of his work, if not all under his auspices, gave an impetus to emigration from the Highlands of Scotland to this province, as it turned the attention of Scotsmen in this direction. And emigrants, apart from his auspices, flocked hither until a large infusion of Highlanders was added to the population of the province. As to his own colonists, notwithstanding their disasters, they always esteemed him for his efforts in their behalf. In his face, the features of which have been preserved by Canova's bust, we see that he was full of energy, and possessed many fine traits of character. And in spite of much hostile criticism, few names have become more widely or more favourably known than his in connection with the earliest development of the Dominion of Canada.

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