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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

Leader of the Bois Brules—A candid letter—Account of a prisoner— "Yellow Head"—Speech to the Indians—The chief knows nothing—On fleet Indian ponies—An eye-witness in Fort Douglas —A rash Governor—The massacre—"For God's sake save my life"—The Governor and twenty others slain—Colonists driven out—Eastern levy meets the settlers—Effects seized— Wild revelry—Chanson of Pierre Falcon.

The troubles between the Hudson's Bay and North-West Companies were evidently coming to a crisis. The Nor'-Westers laid their plans with skill, and determined to send one expedition from Fort William westward and another from Qu'Appelle eastward, and so crush out the opposition at Red River.

From the west the expedition was under Cuthbert Grant, and he, appealing to his fellow Metis, raised the standard of the Bois Brules and called his followers the "New Nation." Early in March the Bois Brules' leader wrote to Trader J. D. Cameron, detailing his plans and expectations. We quote from his letter: "I am now safe and sound, thank God, for I believe that it is more than Colin Robertson, or any of his suite, dare offer the least insult to any of the Bois Brules, although Robertson made use of some expressions which I hope he will swallow in the spring. He shall see that it is neither fifteen, thirty, nor fifty of his best horsemen that can make the Bois Brules bow to him. Our people at Fort Des Prairies and English River are all to be here in the spring. It is hoped that we shall come off with flying colours, and never to see any of them again in the colonizing way in Red River. . . . We are to remain at the Forks to pass the summer, for fear they should play us the same trick as last summer of coming back; but they shall receive a warm reception."

The details of this western expedition are well given by Lieutenant Pierre Chrysologue Pambrun, an officer of the Canadian Voltigeurs, a regiment which had distinguished itself in the late war against the United States. Pambrun had entered the service of the Hudson's Bay Company as a trader, and been sent to the Qu'Appelle district. Having gone west to Qu'Appelle, he left that western post with five boat loads of pemmican and furs to descend the Assiniboine River to the Forks. Early in May, near the Grand Rapids, Pambrun and his party touched the shore of the river, when they were immediately surrounded by a party of Bois Brules and their boats and cargoes were all seized by their assailants. The pemmican was landed and the boats taken across the river. The unfortunate Pambrun was for five days kept in durance vile by Cuthbert Grant and Peter Pangman, who headed the attacking party, and the prisoner was carried back to Qu'Appelle.

While Pambrun was here as prisoner, he was frequently told by Cuthbert Grant that the half-breeds were intending in the summer to destroy the Red River settlements; their leader often reminded the Bois Brules of this, and they frequently sang their war songs to waken ardour for the expeditions. Captors and prisoner shortly afterward left the western fort and went down the river to Grand Rapids. Here the captured pemmican was re-embarked and the journey was resumed. Near the forks of the Qu'Appelle River a band of Indians was encamped. The Indians were summoned to meet Commander Macdonell, who spoke to them in French, though Pangman interpreted.

"My Friends and Relations,—I address you bashfully, for I have not a pipe of tobacco to give you. All our goods have been taken by the English, but we are now upon a party to drive them away. Those people have been spoiling the fair lands which belonged to you and the Bois Brules, and to which they have no right. They have been driving away the buffalo. You will soon be poor and miserable if the English stay. But we will drive them away if the Indians do not, for the North-West Company and the Bois Brules are one. If you (speaking to the chief) and some of your young men will join I shall be glad."

The chief responded coldly and gave no assistance.

Next morning the Indians departed, and the party proceeded on their journey. Pambrun was at first left behind, but in the evening was given a spare horse and overtook Grant's cavalcade at the North-West Fort near Brandon House. At the North-West Fort Pambrun saw tobacco, carpenters' tools, a quantity of furs, and other things which had been seized in the Hudson's Bay Fort, Brandon House, and been brought over as booty to the Nor'-Westers.

Resuming their Journey the traders kept to their boats down the Assiniboine, while the Bois Brules went chiefly on horseback until they reached Portage La Prairie. Sixty miles had yet to be traversed before the Forks were reached. The Bois Brules now prepared their mounted force. Cuthbert Grant was Commander. Dressed in the picturesque garb of the country, the Metis now arrived with guns, pistols, lances, bows, and arrows. Pambrun remained behind with Alexander Macdonell, but was clearly led to believe that the mounted force would enter Fort Douglas and destroy the settlement. On their fleet Indian ponies these children of the prairie soon made their journey from Portage La Prairie to the Selkirk settlement.

We are indebted to the facile narrator, John Pritchard, for an account of their arrival and their attack. He states that in June, 1816, he was living at Red River, and quite looked for an attack from the western levy just described. Watch was constantly kept from the gu6rite of Fort Douglas for the approaching foe. The half-breeds turned aside from the Assiniboine some four miles up the River to a point a couple of miles below Fort Douglas. Governor Semple and his attendants followed them with the glass in their route across the plain. The Governor and about twenty others sallied out to meet the western party. On his way out he sent back for a piece of cannon, which was in the fort, to be brought. Soon after this the half-breeds approached Governor Semple's party in the form of a half moon. The Highland settlers had betaken themselves for protection to Fort Douglas, and in their Gaelic tongue made sad complaint.

A daring fellow named Boucher then came out of the ranks of his party, and, on horseback, approached Semple and his body-guard. He gesticulated wildly, and called out in broken English, "What do you want? What do you want?" Governor Semple answered, "What do you want?" To this Boucher replied, "We want our fort." The Governor said, "Well, go to your fort." Nothing more was said, but Governor Semple was seen to put his hand on Boucher's gun. At this juncture a shot was fired from some part of the line, and the firing became general. Many of the witnesses who saw the affair affirmed that the shot first fired was from the Bois Brules' line.

The attacking party were most deadly in their fire. Semple and his staff, as well as others of his party, fell to the number of twenty-two. The affair was most disastrous.

Pritchard says :—

"I did not see the Governor fall, though I saw his corpse the next day at the fort. When I saw Captain Rogers fall I expected to share his fate. As there was a French Canadian among those who surrounded me, and who had just made an end of my friend, I said, 'Lavigne, you are a Frenchman, you are a man, you are a Christian. For God's sake save my life; for God's sake try and save it. I give myself up ; I am your prisoner.'"

To the appeals of Pritchard Lavigne responded, and, placing himself before his friend, defended him from the infuriated half-breeds, who would have taken his life. One Primeau wished to shoot Pritchard, saying that the Englishman had formerly killed his brother. At length they decided to spare Pritchard's life, though they called him a petit chien, told him he had not long to live, and would be overtaken on their return. It transpired that Governor Semple was not killed by the first shot that disabled him, but had his thigh-bone broken. A kind French Canadian undertook to care for the Governor, but in the fury of the fight an Indian, who was the greatest rascal in the company, shot the wounded man in the breast, and thus killed him instantly.

Seven Oaks Monument

The Bois Brules, indeed, many of them, were disguised as Indians, and, painted as for the war dance, gave the war whoop, and made a hideous noise and shouting. When their victory was won they declared that their purpose was to weaken the colony and put an end to the Hudson's Bay Company opposition. Cuthbert Grant then proceeded to complete his work. He declared to Pritchard that "if Fort Douglas were not immediately given up with all the public property, instantly and without resistance, man, woman, and child would be put to death. He stated that the attack would be made upon it the same night, and if a single shot were fired, that would be the signal for the indiscriminate destruction of every soul."

This declaration of Cromwellian policy was very alarming. Pritchard believed it meant the killing of all the women and children. He remonstrated with the prairie leader, reminding him that the colonists were his father's relatives. Somewhat softened by this appeal, Grant consented to spare the lives of the settlers if all the arms and public property were given up and the colony deserted. An inventory of property was accordingly taken, and in the evening of the third day after the battle, the mournful company, for a second time, like Acadian refugees, left behind them homes and firesides and went into exile.

The Joyful news was sent west by the victorious Metis. Pambrun at Portage La Prairie received news from a messenger who had hastened away to report to Macdonell the result of the attack. Hearing the account given by the courier, the trader was full of glee. He announced in French to the people who were anxiously awaiting the news, "Sacré nom de Dieu, bonnes nouvelles, vingt-deux Anglais de tués." Those present, especially Lamarre, Macdonell, and Sieveright, gave vent to their feelings boisterously.
Many of the party mounted their Indian ponies and hastened to the place of conflict; others went by water down the Assiniboine. The commander sent word ahead that the colonists were to be detained till his arrival. Pambrun, being taken part of the way by water, was delayed, and so was too late in arriving to see the colonists. Cuthbert Grant and nearly fifty of the assailing party were in the fort.

Pambrun, having obtained permission to visit Seven Oaks, the scene of the conflict, was greatly distressed by the sight. The uncovered limbs of many of the dead were above ground, and the bodies were in a mangled condition. This unfortunate affair for many a day cast a reproach upon the Nor'-Westers, although the prevailing opinion was that Grant was a brave man and conducted himself well in the engagement.

We have now to enquire as to the movements of the expedition coming westward from Fort William. The route of upwards of four hundred miles was a difficult one. Accordingly, before they reached Red River, Fort Douglas was already in the hands of the Nor'-Westers. With the expedition from Fort William came a non-commissioned officer of the De Meuron regiment, one of the Swiss bodies of mercenaries disbanded after the war of 1812-15. This was Frederick Damien Huerter. His account is circumstantial and clear. He had, as leading a military life, entered the service of the Nor'-Westers, and coming west to Lake Superior, followed the leadership of the fur trader Alexander Norman McLeod and two of the officers of his old regiment, Lieutenants Missani and Brumby.

Arriving at Fort William, a short time was given for providing the party with arms and equipment, and soon the lonely voyageurs, on this occasion in a warlike spirit, were paddling themselves over the fur traders' route in five large north canoes.

On the approach to Rainy Lake Fort, as many of the. party as were soldiers dressed in full regimentals, in order to impress upon the Indians that they had the King's authority. Strong drink and tobacco were a sufficient inducement to about twenty of the Indians to join the expedition. On the day before the fight at Seven Oaks, the party had arrived at the fort known as Bas de la Riviere, near Lake Winnipeg. Guns and two small brass field-pieces, three pounders, were put in order, and the company crossed to the mouth of the Red River, ascended to Nettley Creek, and there bivouacked, forty miles from the scene of action and two days after the skirmish. They had expected here to meet the Qu'Appelle brigade of Cuthbert Grant. No doubt this was the original plan, but the rashness of the Governor and the hot blood of the Metis had brought on the engagement, with the result we have seen.
Knowing nothing of the fight, the party started to ascend the river, and soon met seven or eight boats, laden with colonists, under the command of the sheriff of the Red River settlement. McLeod then heard of the fight, ordered the settlers ashore, examined all the papers among their baggage, and took possession of all letters, account books, and documents whatsoever. Even Governor Semple's trunks, for which there were no keys, were broken open and examined. The colonists were then set free and proceeded on their sad journey, Charles Grant being detailed to seeing them safely away.

Huerter says:—

"On the 26th I went up the river to Fort Douglas. There were many of the partners of the North-West Company with us. At Fort Douglas the brigade was received with discharges of artillery and fire-arms. The fort was under Mr. Alexander Macdonell, and there was present a great gathering of Bois Brules, clerks, and interpreters, as well as partners of the Company. On our arrival Archibald Norman McLeod, our leader, took the management and direction of the fort, and all made whatever they chose of the property it contained. The Bois Brules were entirely under the orders and control of McLeod and the partners. McLeod occupied the apartments lately belonging to Governor Semple. After my arrival I saw all the Bois Brules assembled in a large outer room, which had served as a mess-room for the officers of the colony.

"I rode the same day to the field of 'Seven Oaks,' where Governor Semple and so many of his people had lost their lives, in company with a number of those who had been employed on that occasion—all on horseback. At this period, scarcely a week after June 19th, I saw a number of human bodies scattered about the plain, and nearly reduced to skeletons, there being then very little flesh adhering to the bones; and I was informed on the spot that many of the bodies had been partly devoured by dogs and wolves."

There was a scene of great rejoicing the same evening at the fort, the Bois Brules being painted and dancing naked, after the manner of savages, to the great amusement of their masters.

On June 29th most of the partners and the northern brigade set off for the rapids at the mouth of the Saskatchewan. The departure of the grand brigade was signalized by the discharge of artillery from Fort Douglas,
The Nor'-Westers were now in the ascendant. The Bois Brules were naturally in a state of exultation. Their wild Indian blood was at the boiling point. Fort Douglas had been seized without opposition, and for several days the most riotous scenes took place. Threats of violence were freely indulged in against the Hudson's Bay Company, Lord Selkirk, and the colonists. As Pritchard remarks, there was nothing now for the discouraged settlers but to betake themselves for the second time to the rendezvous at the north of Lake Winnipeg, and there await deliverance at the hands of their noble patron, Lord Selkirk. The exuberance of the French half-breeds found its way into verse. We give the chanson of Pierre Falcon and the translation of it:—

Chanson écrite par Pierre Falcon.

Voulez-vous écouter chanter une chanson de vérité.
Le dix-neuf de Juin les Bois Brules sont arrivés
Comme des braves guerriers,
Sont arrivés à la grenouillère.

Nous avons fait trois prisonniers
Des Orcanais? Ils sont ici pour piller notre pays,
Etant sur le point de débarquer.
Deux de nos gens se sont écriés,
"Voilà l'Anglais qui vient nous attaquer."
Tous aussitot nous sommes dévirés
Pour aller les rencontrer.

J'avons cerné la bande de grenadiers;
Ils sont immobiles?—Ils sont démentés?
J'avons agi comme des gens d'honneur,
Nous envoyames un ambassadeur.
"Gouverneur, voulez-vous arreter un petit moment,
Nous voulons vous parler."

Le gouverneur, qui est enrage,
Il dit à ses soldats, "Tirez."
Le premier coup l'Anglais le tire,
L'ambassadeur a presque manque d'etre tué,
Le gouverneur se croyant l'empereur,
Il agit avec rigueur,
Le gouverneur, se croyant l'empereur,
A son malheur agit avec trop de rigueur.

Ayant vu passé les Bois Brules, Il a parti pour nous épouvanter. Il s'est trompé; il s'est bien fait tuer Quantité de ses grenadiers.
J'avons tué presque toute son armée;
De la bande quatre de cinq se sont sauvés
Si vous aviez vu les Anglais
Et tous les Bois Brules après—
De butte en butte les Anglais culbutaient;
Les Bois Brules jetaient des cris de joie.

Qui en a composé la chanson?
C'est Pierre Falcon, le bon garcon.
Elle a été faite et composée
Sur la victoire qui nous avons gagnée.
Elle a été faite et composée.
Chantons la gloire de tous ces Bois Brules.

Song written by Pierre Falcon.

Come, listen to this song of truth,
A song of brave Bois Brules,
Who at Frog Plain took three captives,
Strangers come to rob our country.

Where dismounting there to rest us,
A cry is raised, "The English!
They are coming to attack us."
So we hasten forth to meet them.

I looked upon their army,
They are motionless and downcast;
So, as honour would incline us,
We desire with them to parley.

But their leader, moved with anger,
Gives the word to fire upon us;
And imperiously repeats it,
Bushing on to his destruction.

Having seen us pass his stronghold,
He has thought to strike with terror
The Bois Brules.— Ah! mistaken,
Many of his soldiers perish.

But a few escaped the slaughter,
Rushing from the field of battle;
Oh, to see the English fleeing!
Oh, the shouts of their pursuers!

Who has sung this song of triumph?
The good Pierre Falcon has composed it,
That his praise of these Bois Brules
Might be evermore recorded.

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