The Founding of the Selkirk Settlement at Red River
In 1802, after a tour of northern Scotland during “The Clearances”, lowlander Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, took up the plight of the dispossessed crofters. As an experienced farmer he envisioned agricultural colonies in British North America, and undertook to transplant groups of those highlanders who had lost their lands to sheep farmers. In 1803, he planted a colony in Prince Edward Island, and in 1804, he settled colonists in Baldoon, Upper Canada.
By 1811, he had embarked on his most ambitious venture; a colony in the western interior of Rupert’s Land, the domain of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Enlisting the support of his brothers-in-law, Andrew Colvile and John Halkett, he purchased enough stock in the Hudson’s Bay Company to negotiate a huge tract of land for his colony. On May 30, 1811, Selkirk was granted the territory of Assiniboia, an area of 116,000 square miles in the heart of the fur country. For the nominal sum of 10 shillings he agreed to recruit 200 servants annually for 10 years, and to develop an agricultural colony which would supply the H.B.C. fur traders in food.
The North West Company, also trading in furs in the interior, was opposed to an agricultural colony in Rupert’s Land, foreseeing that it “[w]ould strike at the very existence of (NWC) trade.” Selkirk was confident that Assiniboia was his to develop, since his claim stemmed from the H.B.C. charter of 1670 which gave the Company monopoly powers in Rupert’s Land.
He had already selected Miles Macdonell, a Loyalist Captain, as Governor of the settlement, and had extended his recruiting to include disadvantaged Irish would-be emigrants. Macdonell’s working party of men from Scotland and Ireland were sent out a year earlier to prepare the settlement for the arrival of the settlers. They sailed on July 26, 1811, in the Edward and Ann, from Stornoway, Scotland. The Edward and Ann was poorly manned and equipped, and there were a good many desertions, several of them promoted by adverse Nor’Wester publicity about Selkirk’s venture.
After a stormy passage lasting sixty-one days, the men landed at York Factory on September 24th, too late to make the inland voyage. They wintered twenty-three miles up the Nelson River, where illness and desertion thinned their ranks. Only twenty-one of the thirty-six men slated for Red River left with Macdonell in July, 1812. Three more deserted Oxford House, but here Macdonell acquired four men, including an Indian guide, Tipotem.
On August 30, 1812, they completed the lengthy 700 mile voyage to the site chosen for the colony, near the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Madonell took formal possession of Assiniboia on September 4th, 1812. On their camp site on the east side of the Red River (now St. Boniface), he read the deed of transfer in English and French, to a small group of H.B.C. traders, Indians and Metis. Three Nor’Westers, including his cousin Alexander Macdonell, were also present. Land for settlement was chosen on the west side of the Red River, north of the point now known as Point Douglas.
The first colonists, from Ireland and The Hebrides, left Sligo, Ireland, on June 24, 1812, aboard the Robert Taylor, under the leadership of Owen Keveny. They reached Fort Daer, 70 miles south of the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine, on October 27, 1812, where they spent their first winter. Here, where food, in the form of buffalo meat, was plentiful, they joined most of the working party who had arrived too late to plant crops. At the beginning of May they returned to Red River, to build homes and plant crops. The Settler’s 100 acre lots, which fronted on the Red River, ran from their headquarters at Colony Gardens some four miles north to Frog Plain and beyond.
Lord Selkirk was personally on hand at Stromness to cheer the second group of colonists who sailed aboard the Prince of Wales on June 28, 1813. Passage was refused to all but 100 of the 700 applicants who were eager to leave the highlands for new homes abroad. This group, chiefly from the parish of Kildonan and Helmsdale in Sutherlandshire, was forced into leaving the country by Highland ‘improvements’ (the Highland Clearances). Far from destitute, they offered to pay more rent for their lands than sheep farmers would pay, and as well to raise a regiment of 700 men. Unable to get a hearing, they chose exile to the Red River colony, and willingly paid Selkirk the passage money of 10 pounds per head for 100 acres of land at 5 shillings per acre, and one year’s free provisions.
This second group suffered a rough passage on an overcrowded ship. Typhus broke out, and two of the passengers, including the ship’s surgeon, Peter LaSerre, died aboard the ship. The Captain, panicking, set the party ashore at Fort Churchill on the Churchill River, instead of at York Factory, where accommodation and supplies awaited them. The settlers, weak from fever and short of clothing and medicine, built a camp up river at a fresh water creek, later named ‘Colony Creek’. Several more died here.
In early April, thirty-one men and twenty women led by Archibald McDonald set out from York Factory on snowshoes, a 150 mile trek, hauling supplies on rough sleds. They reached York Factory in three weeks, buoyed on by the skirl of Piper Robert Gunn’s bagpipes. Their journey to the settlement took from May 23 to June 22. The rest of the party arrived at Red River on August 25, 1814, more than a year after they had left Stromness.
Macdonell, anticipating their arrival, became concerned about the scarcity of food, and in January 1814, he placed an embargo on the export of pemmican from Assiniboia. Pemmican, made from buffalo meat, was the staple food of the fur trade, and the Red River region its source of supply. The Nor’Westers refused to obey the embargo and determined to be rid of the colony. In June 1815 they enticed 114 settlers (and 29 H.B.C. servants) to desert to Canada, and incited the Metis to harry the settlement. Macdonell surrendered to the Nor’Westers in exchange for a guarantee of safety for the remaining colonists. Those assurances proved meaningless. As the Canada-bound settlers embarked, the colony was attacked, buildings were burned and crops trampled.
The remaining settlers fled north to Jack River, near Norway House, under the friendly protection of Chief Peguis and his Saulteaux band. Early in August, they were rescued by Colin Robertson, Selkirk’s Hebridean recruiter, who was on his way west with a H.B.C. brigade. On returning to the colony site, they found that John McLeod of the H.B.C., with the help of settler Hugh McLean and two other H.B.C. men, had salvaged their crops and built Fort Douglas, the colony’s new headquarters.
The third party of 84 settlers, mainly from Kildonan, sailed on July 17, 1815, on the Hadlow and arrived at Red River on 3 November 1815 under the command of Robert Semple, the new governor of the colony.
About the same time Lord Selkirk, alerted to the settlement troubles, arrived in Montreal. News was brought to him by Jean Baptiste Lagimodiere, a H.B.C. servant, that the colony had been re-established by Robertson. Selkirk remained in Canada seeking government aid for the defence of Red River. Both the British and Canadian authorities blamed his colonization efforts for much of the conflict and Selkirk was unable to get government assistance. At length he recruited his own private army from disbanded Swiss regiments. Authorized by the Hudson’s Bay Company, Selkirk also negotiated in Canada with the North West Company. However the Nor’Westers refused to recognize the Hudson’s Bay Company’s charter rights and the discussions ended in December, 1815.
By Spring 1816, Nor’Westers and H.B.C. fur traders were at war, and the colony was in danger. On June 19th, under the orders of North West Company officials, Cuthbert Grant, the Metis Captain, rode north from the Assiniboine river in the direction of Fort Douglas. Accompanied by seventy of his men in full war paint, he was within a mile and a half from the Fort when he was sighted. Indians had warned Semple of the approaching Metis, but he refused help, choosing to negotiate and proceeded on foot with just over twenty volunteers for a parley.
Angry words were exchanged. A gun went off, reputedly by accident, and the fighting began. Hopelessly outnumbered, Semple and twenty of his men were savagely butchered in this battle known as Seven Oaks. While a few of the settlers, and Chief Peguis, with the permission of Cuthbert Grant, stayed to bury the dead, the rest fled once more to Jack River.
Miles Macdonell returned in advance of Selkirk. Moving on from Pembina, and with the aid of Peguis and his men, his troops retook Fort Douglas. The settlers returned.
In June 1817, Lord Selkirk reached the Forks with his group of disbanded deMeuron soldiers as settlers. He stayed four months, bolstering the courage of the colonists and organizing plans for the future of the settlement, which was to be called Kildonan. He granted lots gratuitously to twenty-three settlers who had made improvements on their lands before they were driven away by the Nor’Westers. The settlers were promised a Gaelic-speaking minister, and land was set aside for a church, a school, and an experimental farm. Selkirk also allotted 10,000 acres on the east bank of the Red River for a Catholic mission to serve the French and Metis population. He left the settlement on 4 September 1817, never to see it again.
En route to the colony, Selkirk had used his troops and his authority as a magistrate to seize Fort William and arrest Nor’Wester William McGillivray and his two companions, and to hold the Fort’s assets for eventual arbitration, as payment for his colony’s losses. On his return to the Canada’s he was drawn into a lengthy lawsuit brought against him by the North West Company. Exhausted, and losing the battle for his colony, he returned to England in November 1818 determined to continue his fight for ‘truth and injustice.’ But ill-health took him to the continent in September 1819, and on April 8, 1820, he died in Pau, France, of consumption.
In 1821 the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company amalgamated. For a few years after Selkirk’s death several groups recruited by him joined the settlement. And with the amalgamation there arrived a good many H.B.C. retirees who took up land north on the Red River. Selkirk’s settlement eventually grew into the city of Winnipeg: a fitting monument to an indomitable colonizer.
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