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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

Discontent on Red River—Queries to the Governor—A courageous Recorder—Free trade in furs held illegal—Imprisonment—New land deed—Enormous freights—Petty revenge—Turbulent pensioners—Heart-burnings—Heroic Isbister—Half-breed memorial —Mr. Beaver's letter—Hudson's Bay Company notified—Lord Elgin's reply—Voluminous correspondence—Company's full answer—Colonel Crofton's statement—Major Caldwell, a partisan —French petition—Nearly a thousand signatures—Love, a factor —The elder Riel—A court scene—Violence—"Vive la liberté"— The Recorder checked—A new judge—Unruly Corbett—The prison broken—Another rescue—A valiant doctor—A Red River Nestor.

The fuller organization of Assiniboia, after its purchase by the Hudson's Bay Company from the heirs of the Earl of Selkirk, encouraged the authorities at Red River to assert the rights which the Company had always claimed—viz. the monopoly of the fur trade in Rupert's Land and the imposition of heavy freights on imports and exports by way of Hudson Bay. The privilege of exporting tallow, the product of the buffalo, had been accorded on reasonable terms to a prominent resident of the Red River, named James Sinclair. The first venture, a small one, succeeded; but a second larger consignment was refused by the Company, and, after lying nearly two years at York Factory, the cargo was sold to the Company.

Twenty loading half-breeds then petitioned the Company to be allowed to export their tallow and to be given a reasonable freight charge. No answer was returned to this letter. The half-breeds were thus rising in intelligence and means; being frequently employed as middlemen in trafficking in furs, they learned something of the trade and traffic. The half-breed settlers of the Red River settlement have always claimed special privileges in Rupert's Land as being descended from the aboriginal owners. It was under such circumstances that Governor Christie, following, it is supposed, legal direction, in 1844 issued two proclamations, the first, requiring that each settler, before the Company would carry any goods for him, should be required to declare that he had not been engaged in the fur trade; the second, that the writer of every letter write his name on the outside of it, in order that, should he be suspected of dealing in furs, it might be opened and examined.

This was a direct issue, and they determined to bring the matter to a crisis. Twenty leading natives (half-breeds of Red River settlement), among them a number well known, such as James Sinclair, John Dease, John Vincent, William Bird, and Peter Garrioch, in 1845 approached Alexander Christie, Governor of the settlement, requesting answers to fourteen queries. These questions required satisfaction as to whether half-breeds could hunt, buy, sell, or traffic in furs, and also what were the restrictions in this matter upon Europeans, &c. A pacific and soothing reply was made by Governor Christie, but the Company soon began to take steps to repress the free trade in furs, and the Council of Rupert's Land passed certain regulations, among others one placing a duty of twenty per cent. upon imports, but exempting from their tax settlers who were free of the charge of trading in furs. This was a vexatious regulation and roused great opposition.

All these devices had a legal smack about them, and were no doubt the suggestions of Judge Thorn, the Recorder of Red River, a remarkable man, who, six years before this time, had come from Montreal to put legal matters in order in the Red River settlement. The Recorder entered con amove into the matter, and advised the assertion of claims that had fallen into disuse for many years among the different classes of residents in the settlement. The redoubtable Judge, who, it will be remembered, was said to have been at the elbow of Sir George Simpson in writing his "Journey Round the World," now evolved another tyrannical expedient.

A new land deed was devised, and whosoever wished to hold land in the settlement was compelled to sign it. This indenture provided that if the land-holder should invade any privileges of the Company and fail to contribute to the maintenance of clergy and schools, or omit to do his work upon the public roads, or carry on trade in skins, furs, peltry, or dressed leather, such offender should forfeit his lands.

This was certainly un-British and severe, and we may look upon it as the plan of the Judge, who failed to understand the spirit of his age, and would have readily fallen in with a system of feudal tenure. The writer in after years met this judge, then very old, in London, and found him a kindly man, though with Scottish determination, willing to follow out his opinions logically, however rash or out of place such a course might be. If the Hudson's Bay Company found itself in a sea of trouble, and hostile to public sentiment in the settlement, it had to blame its own creation, the valorous Recorder of Rod River.

The imposition of enormous freights, adopted at this time for carrying goods by way of York Factory to England, in order to check trade, was a part of the same policy of "Thorough" recommended by this legal adviser. Sinclair, already mentioned, became the "Village Hampden" in this crisis. Taking an active part in his opposition to this policy of restriction, he found that he was to be punished, by the "Company's Ship " from England to York Factory refusing to carry for him any freight. It was partly the Oregon question and partly the unsettled state of public opinion in Red River that led to a British regiment being for a time stationed at the Red River settlement. On the removal of these troops the pensioners, a turbulent band of old discharged soldiers, came from Britain and were settled upon the Assiniboine, above Fort Garry. A writer who knew them well ventures to suggest that they were of the same troublesome disposition as the former De Meurons of Lord Selkirk. Coming ostensibly to introduce peace they brought a sword. Sooner or later the discontent and irritation produced by Judge Thorn's inspiration was sure to reach its culmination, and this it did in the Sayer affair afterwards described.

The cause of the complaints from the Rod River settlement found a willing and powerful advocate in Mr. Alexander K. Isbister, a young London barrister, and afterwards a prominent educationalist. He was a native of Rupert's Land, and had a dash of Indian blood in his veins, and so took up the brief for his compatriots in a formidable series of documents. Mr. Isbister's advocacy gave standing and weight to the contention of the Red River half-breeds, and a brave and heroic fight was made, even though the point of view was at times quite unjust to the Company.

In 1847, Isbister, with five other half-breeds of Red River, forwarded, to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, a long and able memorial, setting forth the grievances of the petitioners. The document sets forth in short that the Company had "amassed a princely revenue" at the expense of the natives, allowed their wards to pass their lives in the darkest heathenism, broke their pledges to exclude strong drink from the Indian trade, were careless of the growing evil of want and suffering in the territory, paid little for the furs, and persecuted the natives by checking them in their barter of furs, and followed a short-sighted and pernicious policy.

This was assuredly a serious list of charges. Earl Grey in due time called on Isbister and his friends for a more specific statement of the grievances, and wrote to the Governor of Assiniboia, to the London Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, and to the Governor-General of Canada, Lord Elgin, asking their attention to the allegations of the petition.

Some two months after Lord Grey's letter was received, the Hudson's Bay Company Governor, Sir J. H. Pelly, submitted a long and minute answer to the various charges of the petitioners. As is usually the case, both parties had some advantages. As to the enormous profits, the Company were able to show that they had unfortunately not been able to make "more than the ordinary rate of mercantile profit." They replied as to the religious interests of the natives, that their sole objects, as stated in the Charter, were trade and the discovery of a North-West Passage, but that they had helped at a considerable annual expense the Church Missionary Society, Wesleyan Missionary Society, and a Roman Catholic Missionary Society. The Company gives a most indignant denial to the charge that they had resumed the trade in spirituous liquors with the Indians, though admitting in the neighbourhood of Red River the use of small quantities of strong drink in meeting the American traders.

This answer did not, however, quiet the storm. Isbister returned to the attack, giving the evidence of Mr. Alexander Simpson, a trader on the Pacific Coast, and the extensive and strong letter of the Rev. Herbert Beaver, the former chaplain of the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Vancouver. Isbister also raised the question of the validity of the Company's Charter. The Company again replied, and so the battle raged, reply and rejoinder, quotations and evidence ad libitum. Isbister may not have proved his case, but his championship won the approbation of many independent observers.

Lord Elgin, the efficient and popular Governor-General of Canada, gave such reply as he was able. He states that the distance of Red River was so great and the intercourse so little, that taking into account the peculiar jurisdiction of the Company, he found it difficult to obtain the information sought. As to the complaints about the religious neglect of the Indians, Lord Elgin states that disappointments in this matter occur in other quarters as well as in the Hudson's Bay Company territories, but declares that the result of his inquiries in the matter "is highly favourable to the Company, and that it has left in his mind the impression that the authority which they exercise over the vast and inhospitable region subject to their jurisdiction is on the whole very advantageous to the Indians."

Council or Hudson's Bay Company

Lord Elgin states that he is much indebted for his information to Colonel Crofton, the commander of the 6th Royal Regiment, which we have seen was stationed for a time at Red River. Colonel Crofton afterwards gave to the Colonial Secretary what one would say was rather an unjudicial reply. He said, "I unhesitatingly assert that the government of the Hudson's Bay Company is mild and protective, and admirably adapted, in my opinion, for the state of society existing in Rupert's Land, where Indians, half-breeds, or Europeans are happily governed, and live protected by laws which I know were mercifully and impartially administered by Mr. Thorn, the Recorder, and by the magistrates of the land." In regard to this opinion, while no doubt an honest expression of views, it is plain that Colonel Crofton did not understand the aspiration for self-government which prevails in Western communities. The reply of the Governor of Assiniboia, Major Caldwell, was likewise favourable to the Company. Alexander Ross, in his "Red River Settlement," criticizes the method taken by Major Caldwell to obtain information. According to Ross, the Governor sent around queries to a few select individuals, accepting no one "below what the Major considered a gentleman." This, the critic says, was the action of a man " who had never studied the art of governing a people." Ross, who did not admire the Company greatly, however, sums up the whole matter by saying, "The allegations of harsh conduct or maladministration preferred against the Hudson's Bay Company by Mr. Isbister and his party were in general totally unfounded and disproved," and therefore neither Major Caldwell's inquiries nor the inspiration of his genius were required.

Notwithstanding Major Caldwell's optimism and Lord Elgin's favourable reply, there was really a serious condition of affairs in Red River settlement. Along with the petition of Isbister and his five English half-breed compatriots, there was one far more formidable from the French half-breeds, who to the number of nine hundred and seventy-seven subscribed their names. Presented to Her Majesty the Queen, in most excellent terms, in the French language, their petition sought, decrying the monopoly as severe:—

1. That as good subjects they might be governed by the principles of the British Constitution;
2. That as British subjects they demanded their right to enjoy the liberty of commerce;
3. They requested the sale of lands to strangers, and that a portion of the proceeds should be applied to improve the means of transport.

French and English half-breeds were now united in a common purpose. A strange story is related as to the way in which the English-speaking half-breeds came to throw in their lot with their French fellow-countrymen. A Company officer had left his two daughters at Fort Garry to be educated. One of them was the object of the affection of a young Scotch half-breed, and at the same time of a young Highlander. The young lady is said to have preferred the Metis, but the stern parent favoured the Highlander, The Scotchman, fortified by the father's approval, proceeded to upbraid the Metis for his temerity in aspiring to the hand of one so high in society as the lady. As love ruined Troy, so it is said this affair joined French and English half-breeds in a union to defeat the Company.

The agitation went on, as Isbister and his friends corresponded with the people of Red River and succeeded so well in gaining the ear of the British Government. Among the French people one of the fiercest and most noisy leaders was Louis Riel, the revolutionary "miller of the Seine." This man, the father of the rebel chief of later years, was a French half-breed. A tribune of the people, he had a strong ascendency over the ignorant half-breeds. He was ready for any emergency.

It is often the case that some trifling incident serves to bring on a serious crisis in affairs. A French settler, named Guillaume Sayer, half-breed son of an old bourgeois in the North-West Company, had bought a quantity of goods, intending to go on a trading expedition to Lake Manitoba. The Company proceeded to arrest him, and, after a stiff resistance, he was overcome by force and imprisoned at Fort Garry.

As the day of trial drew near the excitement grew intense. Governor Caldwell was a well-known martinet; the Recorder was regarded as the originator of the policy of restriction. He was, moreover, believed to be a Francophobe, having written a famous series of newspaper communications in Montreal, known as the "Antigallic Letters." The day of trial had been fixed for Ascension Day, May 17th, and this was taken as a religious affront by the French. The Court was to meet in the morning.

On the day of the trial hundreds of French Metis, armed, came from all the settlements to St. Boniface Church, and, leaving their guns at the church door, entered for service. At the close they gathered together, and were addressed in a fiery oration by Riel. A French Canadian admirer, writing of the matter, says, "Louis Riel obtained a veritable triumph on that occasion, and long and loud the hurrahs were repeated by the echoes of the Red River."

Crossing by way of Point Douglas, the Metis surrounded the unguarded Court House at Fort Garry. The governor, judge, and magistrate arrived, and took their seats at eleven o'clock. A curious scene now ensued : the magistrates protested against the violence; Riel in loud tones declared that they would give the tribunal one hour, and that if justice were not done them, they would do it themselves. An altercation then took place between Judge Thorn and Riel, and with his loud declaration, "Et je declare que de ce moment Sayer est libre------" drowned by the shouts of the Metis, the trial was over. Sayer and his fellow-prisoners betook themselves to freedom, while the departing Metis cried out, "Le commerce est libre! le commerce est libre! Viva la liberty!" This crisis was a serious one. Judge Thorn, so instructed by Governor Simpson, never acted as Recorder again. The five years' struggle was over.

The movement for liberty continued to stimulate the people. Five years afterward the plan of the agitators was to obtain the intervention of Canada. Accordingly a petition, signed by Roderick Kennedy and five hundred and seventy-four others, was presented to the Legislative Assembly of Canada. The grievances of the people of Red River were recited. It was stated that application had been made to the Imperial Parliament without result, and this through "the chicanery of the Company and its false representations." In 1857 the Toronto Board of Trade petitioned the Canadian Assembly to open the Hudson's Bay Company territories to trade. Restlessness and uncertainty largely prevailed in Red River, though there were many of the colonists who paid little attention to what they considered the infatuated conduct of the agitators.

No truer test of the success of government can be found than the respect and obedience shown by the people for the law. Red River settlement, judged by this standard, had a woful record at this time. After the unfortunate Sayer affair, Recorder Thorn was superseded, and for a time (1855 to 1858) Judge Johnson, of Montreal, came to Fort Garry to administer justice and to act as Governor.

Judge Black, a capable trader who had received a legal training, was appointed to the office of Recorder, but soon found a case that tried his judicial ability and skill. A clergyman named Corbett, who had been bitterly hostile to the Company, testified to certain extreme statements against the Company in the great investigation of 1857. He then returned to his parish of Headingly in the settlement- A criminal charge was brought against him, for which he was found guilty in the courts and sentenced to six months' imprisonment. The opponents of the Company, seemingly without ground, but none the less fiercely, declared that the trial was a persecution by the Company and that Corbett was innocent. Strong in this belief, the mob surrounded the prison at Fort Garry, overawed the old French jailor, and, rescuing Corbett, took him home to his parish.

Among those who had been prominent in the rescue was James Stewart, long afterward a druggist and meteorological observer in Winnipeg. Stewart and some of his companions were arrested for jail-breaking and cast into prison. Some forty or fifty friends of Stewart threatened violence should he be kept a prisoner. The Governor, bishop, and three magistrates met to overawe the insurgents, but the determined rescuers tore up the pickets enclosing the prison yard, broke open the jail, and made the prisoner a free man.

Such insubordination and tumult marked the decline of the Company's power as a governing body. This lawlessness was no doubt stimulated by the establishment of a newspaper in 1859—The Nor'-Wester—which from the first was hostile to the Company. The system of government by the Council of Assiniboia had always been a vulnerable point in the management by the Company, and the newspaper constantly fanned the spirit of discontent. In the year 1868, when the Hudson. Bay Company regime was approaching its end, another violent and disturbing affair took place. This was the arrest of Dr. Schultz, a Canadian leader of great bodily strength and determination, who had thrown in his lot with the Red River people. As a result of a business dispute, Schultz was proceeded against in the Court, and an order issued for seizure of his goods. On his resisting the sheriff in the execution of his duty, he was, after a severe struggle, overpowered, taken captive, and confined in Fort Garry jail.

On the following day the wife of Dr. Schultz and some fifteen men forcibly entered the prison, overpowered the guards, and, breaking open his cell, rescued the redoubtable doctor. Hargrave says, "This done, the party adjourned along with him to his house, where report says, 'They made a night of it.'"

These events represented the decadence of the Company's rule; they indicated the rise of new forces that were to compel a change; and however harmful to those immediately involved they declared unmistakably that the old order changeth, giving place to new.

Typical of his times, there sat through the court scenes of these troublous days the old "clerk of court and council," William Robert Smith. With long grey beard he held his post, and was the genius of the place. He was the Nestor of Red River. A Bluecoat boy from London, he had come from school far back in 1813, to enter on the fur trade in Rupert's Land. At Oxford House, Ile à la Crosse, Little Slave Lake, and Norway House, he served eleven faithful years as a clerk, when he retired and became a settler of Red River. He was the first to settle near Lower Fort Garry, and named the spot "Little Britain," from one of his old London localities. Farming, teaching, catechizing for the church, acting precentor, a local encyclopaedia, and collector of Customs, he passed his versatile life, till, the year before the Sayer emeute, he became Clerk of Court, which place, with slight interruption, he held for twenty years. How remarkable to think of the man of all work, the Company's factotum, reaching in his experience from the beginning to well-nigh the ending of the Selkirk settlement! One who knew him says, "From his long residence in the settlement he has seen governors, Judges, bishops, and clergymen, not to mention such birds of passage as the Company's local officers, who come and go, himself remaining to record their doings to their successors."

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