Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

The Earl in Montreal—Alarming news—Engages a body of Swiss—The De Meurons—Embark for the North-West—Kawtawabetay's story—Hears of Seven Oaks—Lake Superior—Lord Selkirk—A doughty Douglas—Seizes Fort William—Canoes upset and Nor'-Westers drowned—"A Banditti"—The Earl's blunder—A winter march—Fort Douglas recaptured—His Lordship soothes the settlers—An Indian Treaty—"The Silver Chief "—The Earl's note-book.

The sad story of the beleaguered and excited colonists reached the ears of Lord Selkirk through his agents. The trouble threatening his settlers determined the energetic founder to visit Canada for himself, and, if possible, the infant colony. Accordingly, late in the year 1815, in company with his family —consisting of the Countess, his son, and two daughters—he reached Montreal. The news of the first dispersion of the colonists, their flight to Norway House, and the further threatenings of the Bois Brules, arrived about the time of their coming to Now York. Lord Selkirk hastened on to Montreal, but it was too late in the season, being about the end of October, to penetrate to the interior.

He must winter in Montreal. He was here in the very midst of the enemy. With energy, characteristic of the man, he brought the matter of protection of his colony urgently before the Government of Lower Canada. In a British colony surely the rights of property of a British subject would be protected, and surely the safety of hundreds of loyal people could not be trifled with. As we shall see in a later chapter, the high-minded nobleman counted without his host; he had but to live a few years in the New World of that day to find how skilfully the forms of law can be adapted to carry out illegal objects and shield law-breakers.

As early as February of that year (1815), dreading the threatenings even then made by the North-West Company, he had represented to Lord Bathurst, the British Secretary of State, the urgent necessity of an armed force, not necessarily very numerous, being sent to the Red River settlement to maintain order in the colony. Now, after the outrageous proceedings of the summer of 1815 and the arrival of the dreary intelligence from Red River, Lord Selkirk again brings the matter before the authorities, this time before Sir Gordon Drummond, Governor of Lower Canada, and encloses a full account of the facts as to the expulsion of the settlers from their homes, and of the many acts of violence perpetrated at Red River.

Nothing being gained in this way, his Lordship determined to undertake an expedition himself, as soon as it could be organized, and carry assistance to his persecuted people, who, he knew, had been gathered together by Colin Robertson, and to whom he had sent as Governor, Mr. Semple, in whom he reposed great confidence. We have seen that during the winter of 1815-16, peace and a certain degree of confidence prevailed among the settlers, more than half of whom were spending their first winter in the country. Fort Douglas was regarded as strong enough to resist a considerable attack, and the presence of Governor Semple, a military officer, was thought a guarantee for the protection of the people. During the winter, however, Lord Selkirk learned enough to assure him that the danger was not over—that, indeed, a more determined attack than ever would be made as soon as the next season should open. He had been sworn in as a Justice of the Peace in Upper Canada and for the Indian territories ; he had obtained for his personal protection from the Governor the promise of a sergeant and six men of the British army stationed in Canada, but this was not sufficient.

He undertook a plan of placing upon his own land in the colony a number of persons as settlers who could be called upon in case of emergency, as had been the intention in the case of the Highland colonists, to whom muskets had been furnished. The close of the Napoleonic wars had left a large number of the soldiers engaged in these wars out of employment, the British Government having been compelled to reduce the size of the army. During the Napoleonic wars a number of soldiers of adventure from Switzerland and Italy, captured by Britain in Spain, entered her service and were useful troops. Two of these regiments, one named "De Meuron," and the other "Watteville," had been sent to Canada to assist in the war against the United States. This war being now over also, orders came to Sir Gordon Drummond to disband the two regiments in May, 1815. The former of the regiments was at the time stationed at Montreal, the latter at Kingston.

From these bodies of men Lord Selkirk undertook to provide his colony with settlers willing to defend it. The enemies of Lord Selkirk have been very free in their expression of opinion as to the worthlessness of these soldiers and their unfitness as settlers. It is worthy of notice, however, that the Nor'-Westers did not scruple to use Messrs. Missani and Brumby, as well as Reinhard and Huerter of the same corps, to carry out their own purposes. The following order, given by Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, effectually disposes of such a calumny:—

"Quebec, July 26th, 1816.

"In parting with the regiments 'De Meuron' and 'Watte-ville,' both of which corps his Excellency has had the good fortune of having under his command in other parts of the world, Sir John Sherbrooke desires Lieutenant-Colonel De Meuron and Lieutenant-Colonel May, and the officers and men of these corps will accept his congratulations on having, by their conduct in the Canadas, maintained the reputation which they have deservedly acquired by their former services. His Excellency can have no hesitation in saying that his Majesty's service in these provinces has derived important advantages during the late war from the steadiness, discipline, and efficiency of those corps.

"J. Harvey, Lieutenant-Colonel, D.A.G."

Testimony to the same effect is given by the officer in command of the garrison of Malta, on their leaving that island to come to Canada.

These men afforded the material for Lord Selkirk's purpose, viz. to till the soil and protect the colony. Like a wise man, however, he made character the ground of engagement in the case of all whom he took. To those who came to terms with him he agreed to give a sufficient portion of land, agricultural implements, and as wages for working the boats on the voyage eight dollars a month. It was further agreed that should any choose to leave Red River on reaching it, they should be taken back by his Lordship free of expense.

Early in June, 1816, four officers and about eighty men of the "De Meurons" left Montreal in Lord Selkirk's employ and proceeded westward to Kingston. Here twenty more of the "Watteville" regiment joined their company. Thence the expedition, made up by the addition of one hundred and thirty canoe-men, pushed on to York (Toronto), and from York northward to Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay. Across this Bay and Lake Huron they passed rapidly on to Sault Ste. Marie, Lord Selkirk leaving the expedition before reaching that place to go to Drummond's Isle, which was the last British garrison in Upper Canada, and at which point he was to receive the sergeant and six men granted for his personal protection by the Governor of Canada. At Drum-mond's Island a council was held with Kawtawabetay, an Ojibeway chief, by the Indian Department, Lieut.-Colonel Maule, of the 104th Regiment, presiding. Kawtawabetay there informed the council that in the spring of 1815 two North-West traders, McKenzie and Morrison, told him that they would give him and his people all the goods or merchandise and rum that they had at Fort William, Leach Lake, and Sand Lake, if he, the said Kawtawabetay, and his people would make and declare war against the settlers in Red River. On being asked by the chief whether this was at the request of the "great chiefs" at Montreal or Quebec, McKenzie and Morrison said it was solely from the North-West Company's agents, who wished the settlement destroyed, as it was an annoyance to them. The chief further stated that the last spring (1816), whilst at Fond Du Lac Superior, a Nor'-Wester agent (Grant) offered him two kegs of rum and two carrots of tobacco if he would send some of his young men in search of certain persons employed in taking despatches to the Red River, pillage these bearers of despatches of the letters and papers, and kill them should they make any resistance. The chief stated he had refused to have anything to do with those offers. On being asked in the council by Lord Selkirk, who was present, as to the feelings of the Indians towards the settlers at Red River, he said that at the commencement of the Red River settlement some of the Indians did not like it, but at present they are all glad of its being settled.

Lord Selkirk soon hastened on and overtook his expedition at Sault Ste. Marie, now consisting of two hundred and fifty men all told, and these being maintained at his private expense. They immediately proceeded westward, intending to go to the extreme point of Lake Superior, near where the town of Duluth now stands, and where the name Fond du Lac is still retained. The expedition would then have gone north-westward through what is now Minnesota to Red Lake, from which point a descent could have been made by boat, through Red Lake River and Red River to the very settlement itself. This route would have avoided the Nor'-Westers altogether.

Westward bound, the party had little more than left Sault Ste. Marie, during the last week of July, when they were met on Lake Superior by two canoes, in one of which was Miles Macdonell, former Governor of Red River, who brought the sad intelligence of the second destruction of the colony and of the murder of Governor Semple and his attendants. His Lordship was thrown into the deepest despair. The thought of his Governor killed, wholesale murder committed, the poor settlers led by him from the Highland homes, where life at least was safe, to endure such fear and privation, was indeed a sore trial. To any one less moved by the spirit of philanthropy, it must have been a serious disappointment, but to one feeling so thorough a sympathy for the suffering and who was himself the very soul of honour, it was a crushing blow.

He resolved to change his course and to go to Fort William, the headquarters of the Nor'-Wosters. He now determined to act in his office as magistrate, and sought to induce two gentlemen of Sault Ste. Marie, Messrs. Ermatinger and Askin, both magistrates, to accompany him in that capacity. They were unable to go. Compelled to proceed alone, he writes from Sault Ste. Marie, on July 29th, to Sir John Sherbrooke, and after speaking of his failure to induce the two gentlemen mentioned by him to go, says, "I am therefore reduced to the alternative of acting alone, or of allowing an audacious crime to pass unpunished. In these circumstances I cannot doubt that it is my duty to act, though I am not without apprehension that the law may be openly resisted by a set of people who have been accustomed to consider force as the only true criterion of right." One would have said, on looking at the matter dispassionately, that the Governor-General, with a military force so far west as Drummond Isle in Georgian Bay, would have taken immediate steps to bring to justice the offenders.

Governor Sherbrooke seems to have felt himself powerless, for he says in a despatch to Lord Bathurst, "I beg leave to call your Lordship's serious attention to the forcible and, I fear, too Just description given by the Earl of Selkirk of the state of the Red River territory. I leave to your Lordship to judge whether a banditti such as he describes will yield to the influence, or be intimidated by the menaces of distant authority." It may be well afterwards to contrast this statement of the Governor's with subsequent despatches. It must not be forgotten that while "the banditti" was pursuing its course of violence in the far-off territory, and, as has been stated, thoroughly under the direction and encouragement of the North-West Company partners, the leading members of this Company, who held, many of them, high places in society and in the Government in Montreal, were posing as the lovers of peace and order, and were lamenting over the excesses of the Indians and Bois Brules. By this course they were enabled to thwart any really effective measures towards restoring peace at the far-away "seat of war."

The action of the North-West Company may be judged from the following extracts from a letter of the Hon. John Richardson, one of the partners, and likewise a member of the executive council of Lower Canada, addressed to Governor Sherbrooke. He says on August 17th, 1816: "It is with much concern that I have to mention that blood has been shed at the Red River to an extent greatly to be deplored ; but it is consolatory to those interested in the North-West Company to find that none of their traders or people were concerned, or at the time within a hundred miles of the scene of contest." What a commentary on such a statement are the stories of Pambrun and Huerter, given in a previous chapter ! What a cold-blooded statement after all the plottings and schemes of the whole winter before the attack! What a heartless falsehood as regards the Indians, who, under so great temptations, refused to be partners in so bloody an enterprise!

The resolution of Lord Selkirk to go to Fort William in the capacity of a magistrate was one involving, as he well knew, many perils. He was not, however, the man to shrink from a daring enterprise having once undertaken it.

To Fort William, then, with the prospect of meeting several hundreds of the desperate men of the North-West Company, Lord Selkirk made his way. So confident was he in the rectitude of his purpose and in the justice of his cause, that he pushed forward, and without the slightest hesitation encamped upon the Kaministiquia, on the south side of the river, in sight of Fort William. The expedition arrived on August 12th. A demand was at once made on the officers of the North-West Company for the release of a number of persons who had been captured at Red River after the destruction of the colony and been brought to Fort William, The Nor'-Westers denied having arrested these persons, and to give colour to this assertion immediately sent them over to Lord Selkirk's encampment.

On the 13th and following days of the month of August, the depositions of a number of persons wore taken before his Lordship as a Justice of the peace. The depositions related to the guilt of the several Nor'-Wester partners, their destroying the settlement, entering and removing property from Fort Douglas, and the like; and wore made by Pambrun, Lavigne, Nolin, Blondoau, Brisbois, and others. It was made so clear to Lord Selkirk that the partners were guilty of inciting the attacks on the colony and of approving the outrages committed, that he determined to arrest a number of the leaders. This was done by regular process—by warrants served on Mr. McGillivray, Kenneth McKenzie, Simon Fraser, and others, but these prisoners were allowed to remain in Fort William.

In one case, that of a partner named John McDonald, resistance having been offered, the constables called for the aid of a party of the De Meurons, who had crossed over from the encampment with them in their boats. The leaving of the prisoners with their liberty in Fort William, however, gave the opportunity for conspiracy; and it was represented to Lord Selkirk that Fort William would be used for the purposes of resistance, and that the prisoners arrested would be released. The facts leading to this belief were that a canoe, laden with arms, had left the fort at night; that eight barrels of gunpowder had been secreted in a thicket, and that these had been taken from the magazine; while some forty stand of arms, fresh-loaded, had been found in a barn among some hay. These indications proved that an attempt was about to be made to resist the execution of the law, and accordingly the prisoners were placed in one building and closely guarded, while Lord Selkirk's encampment was removed across the river and pitched in front of the fort to prevent any surprise.

A further examination of the prisoners took place, and their criminality being so evident, they were sent to York, Upper Canada, Three canoes, well manned and containing the prisoners, left the fort on August 18th, under the charge of Lieutenant Fauche, one of the De Meuron officers. The journey down the lakes was marred by a most unfortunate accident. One of the canoes was upset some fifteen miles from Sault Ste. Marie. This was caused by the sudden rise in the wind. The affair was purely accidental, and there were drowned one of the prisoners, named McKenzie, a sergeant and a man of the De Meurons, and six Indians. The prisoners were taken to Montreal and admitted to bail. The course taken by Lord Selkirk at Fort William has been severely criticized, and became, indeed, the subject of subsequent legal proceedings. One of the Nor'-Wester apologists stated to Governor Sherbrooke "that the mode of proceeding under Lord Selkirk's orders resembled nothing British, and exceeded even the military despotism of the French in Holland."

No doubt it would have been better had Lord Selkirk obtained other magistrates to take part in the proceedings at Fort William, but we have seen he did try this and failed. Had it been possible to have had the arrests effected without the appearance of force made by the De Meurons, it would have been more agreeable to our ideas of ordinary legal proceedings; but it must be remembered he was dealing with those called by a high authority "a banditti." Could Fort William have been left in the hands of its possessors, it would have been better; but then there was clear evidence that the Nor'-Westers intended violence. To have left Fort William in their possession would have been suicidal. It would probably have been better that Lord Selkirk should not have stopped the canoes going into the interior with North-West merchandise, but to have allowed them to proceed was only to have assisted his enemies—the enemies, moreover, of law and order. Thousands of pounds' worth of his property stolen from Fort Douglas by the agents of the North-West Company, and the fullest evidence in the depositions made before him that this was in pursuance of a plan devised by the Company and deliberately carried out! Several hundreds of lawless voyageurs and unscrupulous partners ready to use violence in the wild region of Lake Superior, where, during fifty years preceding, they had committed numerous acts of bloodshed, and had never been called to account! The worrying reflection that homeless settlers and helpless women and children were crying, in some region then unknown to him, for his assistance, after their wanton dispersion by their enemies from their homes on the banks of Red River! All these things were sufficient to nerve to action one of far less generous impulses than Lord Selkirk.

Is it at all surprising that his Lordship did not act with all the calmness and scrupulous care of a judge on the bench, who, under favourable circumstances, feels himself strong in his consciousness of safety, supported by the myriad officers of the law, and surrounded by the insignia of Justice ? The justification of his course, even if it be interpreted adversely, is, that in a state of violence, to preserve the person is a preliminary to the settlement of other questions of personal right. One thing at least is to Lord Selkirk's credit, that, as soon as possible, he handed over the law-breakers to be dealt with by the Canadian Courts, where, however, unfortunately, another divinity presided than the blind goddess of Justice.

Let us now see where we are in our story. Lord Selkirk is at Fort William. The Nor'-Wester partners have been sent to the East. It is near the end of August, and the state of affairs at Fort William does not allow the founder to pass on to his colony for the winter. He is surrounded by his De Meuron settlers. During the months of autumn the expedition is engaged in laying in supplies for the approaching winter, and opening up roads toward the Red River country. The season was spent in the usual manner of the Lake Superior country, shut out from the rest of the world. The winter over, Lord Selkirk started on May 1st, 1817, for Red River, accompanied by his body-guard. The De Meurons had preceded him in the month of March, and, reaching the interior, restored order.

The colonizer arrived at his colony in the last week of June, and saw, for the first time, the land of his dreams for the preceding fifteen years. In order to restore peace, he endeavoured to carry out the terms of the proclamation issued by the Government of Canada, that all property taken during the troubles should be restored to its original owners. This restitution was made to a certain extent, though much that had been taken from Fort Douglas was never recovered. The settlers were brought back from their refuge at Norway House, and the settlement was again organized. The colonists long after related, with great satisfaction, how Lord Selkirk cheered them by his presence. After their return to their despoiled homesteads a gathering of the settlers took place, and a full consideration of all their affairs was had in their patron's presence.

This gathering was at the spot where the church and burying-ground of St. John's are now found. "Here." said his Lordship, pointing to lot number four, on which they stood, "here you shall build your church; and that lot," said he, pointing to lot number three across the little stream called Parsonage Creek, "is for the school." The people then reminded his Lordship that he had promised them a minister, who should follow them to their adopted country. This he at once acknowledged, saying, "Selkirk never forfeited his word;" while he promised to give the matter attention as soon as practicable. In addition, Lord Selkirk gave a document stating that, "in consideration of the hardships which the settlers had suffered, in consequence of the lawless conduct of the North-West Company, his intention was to grant gratuitously the twenty-four lots which had been occupied to those of the settlers who had made improvements on their lands before they were driven away from them in the previous year."

Before the dispersion of this public gathering of the people, the founder gave the name, at the request of the colonists, to their settlement. The name given by him to this first parish in Rupert's Land was that of Kildonan, from their old home in the valley of Helmsdale, in Sutherlandshire, Scotland. In more fully organizing the colony, his Lordship ordered a complete survey to be made of the land, and steps to be taken towards laying out roads, building bridges, erecting mills, &c.

It will be remembered, as already stated, that at the inception of the colony scheme, in 1811, the Nor'-Westers had threatened the hostility of the Indians. It may be mentioned as a strange fact that, to this day, it is a trick of the Bois Brules, taking their cue from the Nor'-Westers, when making any demand, to threaten the Government with the wrath of the Indians, over whom they profess to exercise a control. We have already seen that the Nor'-Westers' boast as to their influence over the Indians was empty. In the publications of the Nor'-Westers of 1816-20 a speech is sometimes set forth of an Indian chief, "Grandes Oreilles," breathing forth threatenings against the infant settlement. It is worthy of notice that even this resource is swept away by the author of the speech, a Nor'-Wester trader, confessing that he had manufactured the speech and "Grandes Oreilles" had never spoken it.

Within throe weeks of his arrival at Red River Lord Selkirk carried out his promise of making a treaty with the Indians. All the Indians were most willing to do this, as on many occasions during the troubles they had, by giving early information as to the movements of the Nor'-Westers, and by other means, shown their sympathy and feeling toward the settlers. The object of the treaty was simply to do what has since been done all over the north-west territories—to extinguish the Indian title. The treaty is signed alike by Ojibe-way, Cree, and Assiniboine chiefs, the last mentioned being a tribe generally considered to belong to the Sioux stock. Lord Selkirk afterwards made a treaty, on leaving the Red River, with the other Sioux nations inhabiting his territory. The chiefs were met at Red River by his Lordship, and those whose names are attached to the treaty are, giving their French names in some cases as shorter than the Indian, Le Sonent, Robe Noire, Peguis, L'Homme Noir, and Grandes Oreilles. His Lordship seems to have had a most conciliatory and attractive manner. It is worth while closing this chapter by giving extracts from the speeches of these Indian chiefs, taken down at the grand council at which Lord Selkirk smoked the pipe of peace with the assembled warriors.

Peguis, the Saulteaux chief, always the fast friend of the colonists, said, "When the English settlers first came here we received them with joy. It was not our fault if even the stumps of the brushwood were too rough for their feet; but misfortunes have since overtaken them. Evil-disposed men came here, calling themselves great chiefs, sent from our Great Father across the big lake, but we believe they were only traders, pretending to be great chiefs on purpose to deceive us. They misled the young men who are near us (a small party of Bois Brules encamped in the neighbourhood), and employed them to shed the blood of your children and to drive away the settlers from this river. We do not acknowledge these men as an independent tribe. They have sprung up here and there like mushrooms and we know them not.

"At the first arrival of the settlers we were frequently solicited by the North-West Company to frighten them away ; but we were pleased to see that our Great Father had sent some of his white children to live among us, and we refused to do or say anything against them. The traders even demanded our calumets, and desired to commit our sentiments to paper, that they might send to our Great Father ; but we refused to acknowledge the speeches which they wished to put into our mouths. We are informed that they have told a tale that it was the Indians who drove away and murdered the children of our Great Father, but it is a falsehood.

"As soon as I saw the mischief that happened I went to Lake Winnipeg with a few friends to wait for news from the English, but I could meet none. We have reasons to be friends of the colony. When there were only traders here we could not get a blanket, or a piece of cloth, without furs to give in exchange. Our country is now almost destitute of furs, so that we were often in want; from the people of the colony we get blankets and cloth for the meat we procure them. The country abounds with meat, which we can obtain, but to obtain furs is difficult."

Next, L'Homme Noir, a chief of the Asiniboines, who had come from a long distance, addressing Lord Selkirk, particularly declares, "we were often harassed with solicitations to assist the Bois Brules in what they have done against your children, but wo always refused. We are sure you must have had much trouble to come here. We have often been told you were our enemy ; but we have to-day the happiness to hear from your own mouth the words of a true friend. We receive the present you give us with great pleasure and thankfulness."

After this, Robe Noire, an Ojibeway chief, spoke in like terms; when the veritable Grandes Oreilles, to whose spurious war speech we have already referred, said as follows :—

"I am happy to see here our own father. Clouds have overwhelmed me. I was a long time in doubt and difficulty, but now I begin to see clearly.

"We have reason to be happy this day. We know the dangers you must have encountered to come so far. The truth you have spoken pleases us. We thank you for the present you give us. There seems an end to our distress, and it is you who have relieved us.

"When our young men are drunk they are mad; they know not what they say or what they do; but this must not be attended to; they mean no harm."

Long after, Selkirk was remembered and beloved by these Indian tribes, who spoke of him as the "Silver Chief."

So much for the founder's work in his colony in 1817. His affairs urgently required attention elsewhere. In the language of a writer of the period, "having thus restored order, infused confidence in the people, and given a certain aid to their activity, Lord Selkirk took his final leave of the colony." With a guide and a few attendants he journeyed southward, passing through the country of the warlike Sioux, with whom he made peace.

The writer had at one time in his possession a note-book with, in Lord Selkirk's writing, an itinerary of his journey from Red River Colony, in which familiar names, such as Riviere Sale, Riviere Aux Gratias, Pembina, and the like, appear with their distances in leagues. Among other memoranda is one, "lost on the Prairie," and the distance in leagues estimated as lost by the misadventure. Every traveller over the Manitoba prairie will take a feeling interest in that entry.

Passing through the Mississippi country, he seems to have proceeded eastward to Washington; he next appears in Albany, and hastens back to Upper Canada, without even visiting his family in Montreal, though he had been absent from them for upwards of a year. In Upper Canada his presence was urgently needed to meet the artful machinations of his enemies.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus