“Lord Selkirk’s Settlement”: A brief history of the Red River district, Manitoba

The following is the introduction to my new novel, “The Wooden Box That Sings” (in progress). Watch at the end of this story to see my other adventures and how to order them.
Thomas Douglas, Fifth Earl of Selkirk

As it is known today, the Province of Manitoba is the gateway to the vast expanse of prairie land that lies between it and the Rocky Mountains. Moreover, it is arguably the birthplace of  Saskatchewan’s grain fields and Alberta’s ubiquitous cattle herds, for both spring from a few seeds and a pair of cattle that were sent to the so-called ‘Selkirk Settlement’ by the Scottish nobleman Thomas Douglas, fifth Earl of Selkirk.

It is also testimony to the indomitable spirit of the early settlers who endured killing frosts; devastating floods; swarms of locusts six inches deep, and being caught in the middle of an all-out, bloody war, between the Hudson’s Bay Company – of which Selkirk was an owner – and its rival the North West Company.

Selkirk was born in 1771, and after the unexpected deaths of his elder brothers, he succeeded to the title in 1797. As a young man, he had travelled extensively and had become interested in colonization as a means of helping his fellow countrymen who were being forced out of their homes in the Highlands. As early as 1802 there is a reference in one of his letters to Lake Winnipeg as a district suitable for an inland settlement, but no Government aid was forthcoming, and so it was not until after his marriage to Jean Wedderburn-Colville, in 1808, that he began to purchase Hudson’s Bay Company stock.

lord selkirk's grant
Selkirk’s grant – 116,000 square miles

The Colville family had for years been large stockholders, and it was through their interest and his own substantial holdings that he was able to obtain control of the Company, and in 1811 he arranged a grant of 116,000 square miles in the Red River district

This acquisition came at a time when the large landholders in Scotland were divesting their lands of tenants to make way for sheep, often employing cruel and callous means to do so, and by way of assisting these displaced persons, Selkirk offered to resettle them in Canada.

Although somewhat altruistic, it was by no means outright charity, for the settlers were expected to pay £10 sterling to cover transportation, entitlement to 100 acres at 5s an acre, and one year of provisions. Moreover, it was anticipated that the first Settlers arriving at Red River would find homes and farm buildings awaiting them, gardens and crops ready to harvest, and in the colony storehouses, food supplies, clothing and implements sufficient to tide them over until they could become self-sufficient. It was a good deal, and if it had worked the way it was planned, it would have almost certainly been a success.

The fly in the ointment was the North West Company, Hudson’s Bay Company’s chief rival for a lucrative fur trade that covered nearly half the continent. Unfortunately, Selkirk’s proposed settlement sat at the heart of one of the North West Company’s trade routes. To complicate matters even further, several of the North West’s directors also held large blocks of Hudson Bay stock and were in a position to cause much difficulty for the noble Lord and his visionary scheme. Consequently, when the advance workers reached their port of embarkation, there were delays caused by lack of ships, shortage of officers and sailors to crew the ships, last-minute desertions, and pettiness on the part of the customs officials.

Practically all these troubles could be traced back to the North West’s interference, either in London or at the Northern ports.

york boats - jeffriesAs it was, the ship didn’t set sail until July 26th with one hundred and twenty men on board, and with bad weather adding to the delay they didn’t arrive at York Factory on James Bay until September 24th, 1811. By this time, it was too late to make the trip south before freeze-up, and so they spent the winter hunting and building York Boats[1] for the trip inland. It was also discovered that several of the men were quarrelsome and unsuited for the purpose, so these were returned to Scotland in the spring, leaving only thirty-five to make the trip south.

Nevertheless, they set out in three boats and a canoe down the Hayes-Nelson River Route.  This route was four hundred miles long with an ascent of seven hundred feet. There were thirty-four portages varying in length from sixteen feet to one mile, over which cargoes and sometimes the boats themselves had to be carried.

HAYES-nelson river route
Hayes-Nelson river route from York Factory to Lake Winnipeg

For example: On leaving York Factory the route followed the Hayes River to the forks of the Shamattawa and Steel Rivers, up the Steel to the forks of the Hill River, up the Hill River and through Knee Lake and Oxford Lake, then by Franklin and Echemanis Rivers to the height of land at Painted Rock, a short portage over this into the West Echemanis River, through Hairy Lake and Blackwater Creek into the Nelson River and on into Playgreen Lake on which Norway House was situated.

From Norway House, it was another three hundred miles across Lake Winnipeg and up the Red River to the site of the settlement at “The Forks” – the informal name for the settlement at the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. If one can imagine covering this wilderness route in a forty-foot, York Boat, it will provide some idea of the conditions under which the settlers travelled to reach the Red River.

The second and third arrivals – 1812, and 1813-14 – were made up of families containing women and children. These years were particularly bad times for crofters in Scotland with one landholder discharging over one hundred tenants, and the Countess of Sutherland resorting to burning homes and the killing of cattle when the progress was not fast enough to suit her.

Learning of their plight Lord Selkirk determined to help as many as he could to immigrate to the Red River. Seven hundred and twelve applications were received, but due to the interference of the ‘Northwesters’ only about one hundred could be transported due to a shortage of ships – the Northwesters having leased all available ships in the area to block Selkirk’s plan. Nevertheless, the settlers set sail on June 27th in a ship that was badly crewed and beset by bad weather. Moreover, to add to their tribulations, ‘ship’s fever’ (typhus) broke out as well.

ships arriving in james bay
Ships arriving at York Factory, James Bay

The captain then landed them at Churchill—one hundred and forty miles from York Factory, where both accommodation and supplies awaited them. Nonetheless, they wintered at Churchill, and in the spring twenty-one men and twenty women set out on snowshoes for York Factory with a stalwart piper leading the way. They paused at York Factory for only a week before they set out inland to arrive at the Red River settlement on June 21st, 1814.

Having failed to discourage the incoming settlers, the North West Company then resorted to intimidation, including trying to persuade a band of Indians to attack and destroy the settlement. However, they relented when Governor Miles MacDonell agreed to surrender to exile in Montreal, which was done. In the meantime, however, the Northwesters attacked and destroyed the fledgling settlement, anyway.

Undeterred, the settlers rebuilt their houses under the protection of a Hudson Bay brigade that had been brought in from Montreal, and a new band of immigrants arrived from Scotland. Therefore, the settlement was rebuilt as Fort Douglas.

Equally determined, the Northwesters under Cuthbert Grant attacked Fort Douglas at a place known as “Seven Oaks,” and twenty settlers were slain in the resulting skirmish. This skirmish became known as the “Seven Oaks Massacre,” and once again the settlers were displaced.

Meanwhile, Selkirk had arrived in Canada, and while in Montreal he arranged for four officers and one hundred and forty other ranks of the recently disbanded De Meuron regiment to settle at Red River in return for military service when needed. Therefore, he was at Sault Ste Marie when he heard of the massacre. Outraged, he immediately set sail for Fort William (now Thunder Bay) where he attacked the North West Company’s headquarters, releasing a pair of his men in the process. A small expedition was then sent ahead to liberate the settlement, doing so without firing a shot.

Lord Selkirk reached the settlement in June 1817 and remained there until September arranging for such things as a Presbyterian Church and school to be built. In the meantime, he was served with a summons to appear in Montreal to answer to charges brought against him by the North West Company. For the next two years, therefore, he fought a losing battle in the Canadian courts that were stacked by the powerful friends of the Northwesters, and returned to Scotland in 1819 a very sick man. He subsequently died in the south of France in 1820.

Ironically, under pressure from the British Government the two competing ‘superpowers’ were persuaded to amalgamate, and did so in 1821. Thereafter, the settlers were able to develop their farms without fear of attack.

‘Fireaway’ being transported to the Red River Settlement by canoe

On the topic of farming, no farm would seem complete without livestock, but being an isolated settlement everything that wasn’t available locally had to be imported from the Old Country via York Factory and along the aforementioned Hayes-Nelson waterway. However, according to Grant MacEwan,[2] fortune smiled upon them when a yearling heifer and bull were discovered at Oxford House, about halfway to the settlement. Therefore the two young critters – appropriately named “Adam” and “Eve” – were bundled into separate canoes for the remainder of the trip; roughly 350 miles.

A mention need hardly be made of the dangers of transporting a young bull in a canoe, especially through fast water; however, Adam and Eve seemed to have been on their best bovine behaviour, and apparently learned to step in and out of the canoe with exercised care. They also grazed quietly while the men were carrying bales and boats over the numerous portages. Consequently, approximately thirty days later, Adam and Eve were grazing contentedly on the banks of the Selkirk Settlement.

Three more head were acquired after that, a bull and two cows, but the bull proved vicious and had to be slaughtered that fall. By this time the good cow Eve had a calf, and the settlement – and all of western Canada for that matter – could boast a beef population of six animals in 1813. Unfortunately, some of these were killed and eaten by marauding Indians, and the growing of grain was not experiencing any greater fortune. The first year, 1813, the wheat proved to be the wrong variety and did not mature. The next year’s planting was lost to frost, and the conflict with the Northwesters prevented harvesting for the next two years. In 1817 frost once again claimed the crop, and locusts attacked it for the two subsequent seasons.

Nonetheless, the hardy Scots – now Canadians – proved triumphant over men and nature, and we are the better for it.

[1] The York boat was a large rowboat (40’ long x 8’ wide) used by the Hudson’s Bay Company to carry furs and trade goods along inland waterways in Rupert’s Land, the watershed stretching from Hudson Bay to the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

[2] MacEwan, Grant, Blazing the Old Cattle Trail, Fifth House; Revised edition (2000

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