THE LORD SELKIRK ASSOCIATION
of RUPERT’S LAND
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.
In 1811 he embarked on his most ambitious venture — a colony in the western interior of Rupert’s Land, the domain of the Hudson’s Bay Company (H.B.C.). Enlisting the support of his brothers-in-law, Andrew Colvile and John Halkett, he purchased enough stock in the H.B.C. 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 for the Company annually for 10 years, and to develop an agricultural colony which would supply food for the fur trade posts. The colony would also serve as a place of permanent settlement for men who left the fur trade and wished to remain in the country rather than return to Britain.
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 at 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. Macdonell 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 Métis. 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 settlers’ 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.
The second group of colonists sailed aboard the Prince of Wales on June 28, 1813. 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 in Scotland, they chose emigration 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 supplies and accommodation 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 Churchill Fort 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 Métis 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 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, but had no success. However, in 1816 an order arrived from Britain for a reduction in military regiments in Canada. Selkirk was able to negotiate with some of the disbanded soldiers to accompany him to Red River and receive grants of land in the
colony. The majority who accepted the offer were from the de Meuron regiment, many of Swiss or German background. They set out from Montreal in 1816.
By spring 1816, Nor’Westers and H.B.C. fur traders were at war. In June, the colony was destroyed after a confrontation with the Métis at Seven Oaks and the death of Semple and twenty of his men. The settlers again fled north to Jack River, where most remained for the winter. They returned to Red River the following year, encouraged by Lord Selkirk’s presence in the country.
In June 1817, Lord Selkirk reached the Forks with his group of disbanded de Meuron 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 Métis 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 the North West Company’s Fort William on Lake Superior and to hold the Fort’s assets for eventual arbitration, as payment for his colony’s losses. On his return to the Canadas, he was drawn into a lengthy lawsuit brought against him by the Nor’Westers. Exhausted, and losing the battle for his colony, he returned to England in November 1818. Ill-health took him to the continent in September 1819, and in April 1820 he died of consumption in Pau, France.
Prior to Selkirk’s death, his agents had recruited close to 200 Swiss immigrants who arrived in the fall of 1821. Many of the young women were quickly wooed and won by the de Meurons. However, the Swiss experience at Red River was an unhappy one and they soon began moving south to the U.S. After the disastrous flood of 1826, they left en masse.
In 1821 the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company amalgamated. A few H.B.C. men had joined the colony in its first years, but this number increased greatly after the merger as there was then a surplus of men in the fur trade and many were released from their contracts. Between 1821 and 1826, over 70 men, many with First Nations wives and children, came to the settlement.
The Selkirk Settlement was the first major effort to establish a European agricultural settlement on the Canadian prairies. Prior to 1812, the Europeans who came to the area were almost exclusively men, and involved in exploration or the fur trade. The arrival of families intending to farm was a new development and history has proven Selkirk’s vision and choice of location to have been correct. In spite of all the hardships endured by the first settlers, the land proved well-suited to farming and the settlement eventually grew into the city of Winnipeg: a fitting monument to an indomitable colonizer.
Gray, J.M. Lord Selkirk of Red River. Toronto: Macmillan, 1963.
Prebble, John. The Highland Clearances. London: Martin, Secker and Warberg, 1963.
Selkirk, Thomas Douglas. The Collected writings of Lord Selkirk, 1810-1820. Edited and introduced by J.M. Bumsted. Winnipeg: Manitoba Record Society, 1988.
Bumsted, J.M. Lord Selkirk, A Life. Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press, 2008
Surnames of Selkirk Settlers
Is your family on this list?
Have we missed you?
Can you add your family?
Bayley, Dennis. A Londoner in Rupert’s Land; Thomas Bunn of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Chicester, England: Moore & Tillyer, 1969.
Bryce, George. John Black, the Apostle of the Red River, or, How the blue banner was unfurled on Manitoba prairies. Toronto: W. Bigges, 1898.
Bumsted, J.M. The People’s Clearance: a highland emigration to British North America, 1770-1815. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1982.
Craig, David. On the Crofters’ Trail. London: Jonathan Cape, 1990.
Gray, John Morgan. Lord Selkirk of Red River. Toronto: Macmillan, 1963.
Gunn, Donald. History of Manitoba, to 1835: By Donald Gunn, and from 1835, by Charles R. Tuttle. Ottawa: Printed by Maclean, Roger & Co., 1880.
Hargrave, Joseph James. Red River. Montreal: Lovell, 1871.
Healy, William J. Women of Red River. Winnipeg: Russell, Lang & Co., 1923.
Henderson, Anne Matheson. Kildonan on the Red. Winnipeg: The Lord Selkirk Association of Rupert’s Land, 1981.
MacGregor, James Grierson. Peter Fidler: Canada’s forgotten surveyor, 1769-1822. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1966.
Mackay, Douglas. The Honourable Company; a history of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Toronto: Musson, 1938.
MacLeod, Margaret (Arnett). Cuthbert Grant of Grantown: warden of the plains of Red River. Margaret Arnett Macleod and W.L. Morton, assisted by Alice R. Brown. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1974.
Martin, Chester. Lord Selkirk’s Work in Canada. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1916.
Ross, Alexander. The Red River Settlement: its rise, progress, and present state. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1856.
Selkirk, Thomas Douglas, Earl of. The Collected Writings of Lord Selkirk, 1810-1820, edited and introduced by J.M. Bumsted. Winnipeg: Manitoba Record Society, 1988.
Stubbs, Roy St. George. Four Recorders of Rupert’s Land. Winnipeg: Peguis Publishers, 1967.
Taylor, Rupert Leslie. The Native Link: tracing one’s roots to the fur trade. Victoria, B.C.: Pencrest Publications, 1984.
Thompson, Albert Edward. Chief Peguis and his Descendants. Winnipeg: Peguis Publishers, 1973.