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The Selkirk Settlers in Real Life
Chapter II - Genesis of the Selkirk Colony

WITH the main historical facts leading to the planting of a colony from the north of Scotland in the midst of the American continent, it is reasonable to assume that the most of our readers are fairly familiar, and it is not the purpose of these papers to go at length or in detail into such matters. But the drift of events may be noted in order that the actual situation of the colonists may be understood before we pass into the study of personal life and immediate sursoundings in their new home. "The Governor and Company of Adventurers trading into Hudsonís Bay," or, as they were better known, the Hudsonís Bay Company, had from about the year 1670 practically controlled the whole of America west of the great lakes. We are in the habit now of commiserating the French king who, adopting the sneer of Voltaire, spoke of the cession of Canada to England as the surrender of "a few hundred serpents of snow," but there have been a great many people besides Louis XV. who looked upon the territory which to-day furnishes the finest wheat in the world, exports the cattle from a thousand plains, and holds the richest mines yet discovered, as a region affording a sphere of operations only to the hunter and the trapper. But the Earl of Selkirk, who at the opening of this century practically controlled the Hudsonís Bay Company, though he doubtless saw in this great region the field for an immensely profitable fur trade, seems to have had a more prescient understanding of its future possibilities. Moreover, all we have heard of the man from those who knew him leads us to believe that he was actuated by higher than selfish motives for himself or his company, when, at great personal cost, he brought to the banks of the Red River the company of his fellow-countrymen known to history as the "Selkirk settlers." It is true that at the time there was keen and sometimes bloody rivalry between the Hudsonís Bay and the North-West companies for the trade of the region, and that the Earlís move in bringing out the first group of colonists as a base of supply in food and as laborers for his company might have been looked on as highly prudent and strategic; but in regard to the main body of the settlers, evidence is not lacking to show that the Earl, whose name was held in sacred memory by them, and who spent and was spent in efforts to establish them in a new land, was greatly impelled to this by seeing these unhappy people turned out of their homes in Scotland that their holdings might be turned into sheep tracts. The question, "Is not a man better than a sheep?" is supposed to admit of but one answer amongst the generality of mankind, but the landlord of that day and place had a different view, and hence the man had to give way and make room for the more profitable sheep. Back there first of all began the sufferings and privations of these people. Doubtless their life had been strenuous and struggling enough under a system of landlordism which we have never known on these free prairies; but up to that point it was the best they knew, and when the fiat went forth that they must vacate their homes and holdings, many a heart-rending scene can be imagined. I have often heard my father speak of the cruel evictions he witnessed as a boy, when whole families were turned out on the strath with their poor "gear" to witness the burning of their dearly beloved, if humble, cabin. To such a persecuted people Lord Selkirk came as a rescuing angel, and though, as we have said, he may have had some regard to the advantage of his company, and though some promises he made to the settlers he did not fulfil, owing to many entanglements in the conflicts for the fur trade, yet on the whole his treatment of the colonists and his efforts on their behalf were such that, when he returned with ruined health and shattered fortune to die in Scotland, in 1820, his loss was deeply mourned by the settlers, whose descendants have delighted in giving his name to points and places all over the West.

The work of bringing the colonists to the Red River by way of Hudsonís Bay was not the simple task it would be in this day of "ocean greyhounds," and even when they were landed on the shores of the bay it seemed as if their troubles were deepening darkly. Of the band of colonists that left Scotland in 1813, we are told in Beggís History, "that during the voyage fever broke out amongst the passengers, and when they arrived at their destination the party of Scotch emigrants were in a dreadful condition and utterly unfit to undertake the overland journey to Red River. Many of them died before and after landing, and the remainder were so worn out with sickness that they were obliged to remain at the bay for the whole of the following winter. From all accounts it would appear that these poor people were not properly cared for by the agents of Lord Selkirk, and that the food and shelter provided were totally inadequate for their comfort or protection during the severities of the weather. After spending a most miserable winter at Church Hill and York Factory, the survivors started in the summer of 1814 for Red River, arriving there early in the autumn. A few days after their arrival they were put in possession of land, but there were neither implements to till the soil nor a sufficiency of food to he had. Added to this, the settlement was on the eve of a series of disturbances which shortly afterwards resulted in the destruction of the colony by the servants of the North-West Company." The protectorate exercised over the settlers by the Hudsonís Bay Company naturally excited the enmity of their rivals, the North-West Company, against the unfortunate colonists. The following extract from a letter written by Mr. Alexander McDonnell, who was one of the leading spirits in the latter company at the time, will show the position of affairs.

Mr. McDonnell, writing to his brother-in-law, McGillivray, says: "Nothing but the complete downfall of the colony by fair means or foul will satisfy someóa most desirable object if it can be effected. So here is at them with all my heart and energy."

That the leading spirits of the North-West Company did go "at them with all their heart and energy" the immediate sequel proves, for in the next year they broke the colony up and scattered the settlers to the four winds. Some of the persecuted people entered the service of the Hudsonís Bay Company, some went out for the winter to Jack River on Lake Winnipeg, while a considerable number of families were deported by the North-West Company to eastern Canada, where their descendants are found to-day at many points. Almost coincident with this breaking up of the colony on the Red River, another party of emigrants (amongst whom was my father, then a lad of sixteen) left Scotland for this place, setting sail early in June, 1815, in pitiful (but to them, perhaps, blissful) ignorance of what had happened to their predecessors and of what awaited themselves on their arrival.

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