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The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk's Colonists
Chapter  2 A Scottish Duel


Inasmuch as this tale is chiefly one of Scottish and of Colonial life, the story of the movement from Old Kildonan, on the German Ocean, to New Kildonan, on the Western Prairies—we may be very sure, that it did not take place without irritation and opposition and conflict. The Scottish race, while possessing intense earnestness and energy, often gains its ends by the most thoroughgoing animosity. In this great emigration movement, there were great new world interests involved, and champions of the rival parties concerned were two stalwart chieftains, of Scotland's best blood, both with great powers of leadership and both backed up with abundant means and strongest influence. It was a duel—indeed a fight, as old Sir Walter Scott would say, "a l'outrance"—to the bitter end. That the struggle was between two chieftains—one a Lowlander, the other a Highlander, did not count for much, for the Lowlander spoke the Gaelic tongue—and he was championing the interest of Highland men.

The two men of mark were the Earl of Selkirk and Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Before showing the origin of the quarrel, it may be well to take a glance at each of the men.

Thomas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, was the youngest of seven sons, and was born in 1771. Though he belonged to one of the oldest noble families, of Scotland, yet when he went to Edinburgh, as a fellow student of Sir Walter Scott, Clerk of Eldon, and David Douglas, afterward Lord Reston, it was with a view of making his own way in the world, for there were older brothers between him and the Earldom. He was a young man of intense earnestness, capable of living in an atmosphere of enthusiasm—always rather given indeed to take up and advocate new schemes. There was in him the spirit of service of his Douglas ancestors, of being unwilling to "rust unburnished," and he was strong in will, "to strive, to seek, to find." This gave the young Douglas a seeming restlessness, and so he visited the Highlands and learned the Gaelic tongue. He went to France in the days of the French Revolution, and took great interest in the Jacobin dreams of progress. The minor title of the House of Selkirk was Daer, and so the young collegian saw one Daer depart, then another, until at last he held the title, becoming in 1799 Earl of Selkirk and was confirmed as the master of the beautiful St. Mary's Isle, near the mouth of the Dee, on Solway Frith. On his visits to the Highlands, it was not alone the Highland straths and mountains, nor the Highland Chieftain's absolute mastership of his clan, nor was it the picturesque dress—the "Garb of old Gaul"—which attracted him. The Earl of Selkirk has been charged by those who knew little of him with being a man of feudal instincts. His temper was the exact opposite of this. When he saw his Scottish fellow-countrymen being driven out of their homes in Sutherlandshire, and sent elsewhere to give way for sheep farmers, and forest runs, and deer stalking, it touched his heart, and his three Emigration Movements, the last culminating in the Kildonan Colonists, showed not only what title and means could do, but showed a kindly and compassionate heart beating under the starry badge of Earldom.

Rather it was the case that the fur trading oligarchy ensconced in the plains of the West, could not understand the heart of a philanthropist—of a man who could work for mere humanity. Up till a few years ago it was the fashion for even historians, being unable to understand his motive and disposition, to speak of him as a "kind hearted, but eccentric Scottish nobleman."

Lord Selkirk's active mind led him into various different spheres of human life. He visited France and studied the problem of the French Revolution, and while sympathizing with the struggle for liberty, was alienated as were Wordsworth and hundreds of other British writers and philanthropists, by the excesses of Robespierre and his French compatriots. When the Napoleonic wars were at their height, like a true patriot, Lord Selkirk wrote a small work on the "System of National Defence," anticipating the Volunteer System of the present day. But his keen mind sought lines of activity as well as of theory. Seeing his fellow-countrymen, as well as their Irish neighbors, in distress and also desiring to keep them under the British flag, he planned at his own expense to carry out the Colonists to America. Even before this effort, reading Alexander Mackenzie's great book of voyages detailing the discoveries of the Mackenzie River in its course to the Arctic Sea, and also the first crossing in northern latitudes of the mountains to the Pacific Ocean—he had applied (1802), to the Imperial Government, for permission to take a colony to the western extremity of Canada upon the waters which fall into Lake Winnipeg. This spot, "fertile and having a salubrious climate," he could reach by way of the Nelson River, running into Hudson Bay. The British Government refused him the permission necessary. Lord Selkirk's first visit to Canada was in the year 1803, in which his colony was placed in Prince Edward Island. Canada was a country very sparsely settled, but it was then turning its eyes toward Britain, with the hope of receiving more settlers, for it had just seen settled in Upper Canada a band of Glengarry Highlanders. Lord Selkirk visited Canada by way of New York. To a man of his imaginative disposition, the fur trade appealed irresistibly. The picturesque brigades of the voyageurs hieing away for the summer up the Ottawa toward the land of which Mackenzie had written, "the Nor'-Wester" garb of capote and moccassin and snowshoe, and the influence plainly given by this the only remunerative industry of Montreal, caught his fancy. Then as a British peer and a Scottish Nobleman, the fun-loving but hard-headed Scottish traders of Montreal took him to their hearts. He met them at their convivial gatherings, he heard the chanson sung by voyageurs, and the "habitant" caught his fancy. He was only a little past thirty, and that Canadian picture could never be effaced from his mind. In after days, these "Lords of the North" abused Lord Selkirk for spying out their trade, for catching the secrets of their business which were in the wind, and for making an undue use of what they had disclosed to him. In this there was nothing. His schemes were afire in his own mind long before, his Montreal experiences but fanned the flame, and led him to send a few Colonists to Upper Canada to the Settlement to Baldoon. This settlement was, however, of small account.

In 1808 though inactive he showed his bent by buying up Hudson's Bay Company stock. During this time projects in agriculture, the condition of the poor, the safety of the country, and the spread of civilization constantly occupied his active mind. The Napoleonic war cut off the vast cornfields of America from England, and as a great historian shows was followed by a terrible pauperization of the laboring classes.

There is no trace of a desire for aggrandizement, for engaging in the fur trade, or for going a-field on plans of speculation in the mind of Lord Selkirk. The feuds of the two branches of the Montreal Fur traders—the Old Northwest and the New Northwest—which were apparently healed in the year after the Colonization of Prince Edward Island, were not ended between the two factions of the united company led by McTavish—called the Premier—on the one hand and Sir Alexander Mackenzie on the other.

During these ten years of the century, the Hudson's Bay Company had also established rival posts all over the country. The competition at times reached bloodshed, and financial ruin was staring all branches of the fur trade in the face.

It was the depressed condition of the fur trade and the consequent drop in Hudson's Bay Company shares that appealed to Lord Selkirk, the man of many dreams and imaginations and he saw the opportunity of finding a home under the prairie skies for his hapless countrymen. It requires no detail here of how Lord Selkirk bought a controlling interest in the Hudson's Bay Company's stock, made out his plans of Emigration, and took steps to send out his hoped-for thousands or tens of thousands of Highland crofters, or Irish peasants, whoever they might be, if they sought freedom though bound up with hardship, hope instead of a pauper's grave, the prospect of independence of life and station in the new world instead of penury and misery under impossible conditions of life at home. Nor is it a matter of moment to us, how the struggle began until we have brought before our minds the stalwart figure of Sir Alexander Mackenzie—Lord Selkirk's great protagonist. Like many a distinguished man who has made his mark in the new world, and notably our great Lord Strathcona, who came as a mere lad to Canada, Alexander Mackenzie, a stripling of sixteen, arrived in Montreal to make his fortune. He was born as the Scottish people say of "kenn't" of "well-to-do" folk in Stornoway, in the Hebrides. He received a fair education and as a boy had a liking for the sea. Two partners, Gregory and McLeod, were fighting at Montreal in opposition to the dominant firm of McTavish and Frobisher. Young Alexander Mackenzie joined this opposition. So great was his aptitude, that boy as he was, he was despatched West to lead an expedition to Detroit. Soon he was pushed on to be a bourgeois, and was appointed at the age of twenty-two to go to the far West fur country of Athabasca, the vast Northern country which was to be the area of his discoveries and his fame. His energy and skill were amazing, although like many of his class, he had to battle against the envy of rivals. After completely planning his expedition, he made a dash for the Arctic Sea, by way of Mackenzie River, which he—first of white men—descended, and which bears his name. Finding his astronomical knowledge defective, he took a year off, and in his native land learned the use of the instruments needed in exploration. After his return he ascended the Peace River, crossed the Rocky Mountains, and on a rock on the shore of the Pacific Ocean in British Columbia, inscribed with vermillion and grease, in large letters, "Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the Twenty-second of July, One Thousand Seven Hundred and Ninety-three." That was his record as the first white man to cross North America, north of Mexico. A few years afterwards he received the honor of knighthood for his discoveries. He gained much distinction as a leader, though the great McTavish in his Company was never very friendly to him. At length he retired, became a representative in the legislature of Lower Canada, and was for a time a travelling companion of the Duke of Kent. With a desire for loftier station, he settled in his native land, married the beautiful and gifted daughter of the House of Seaforth, and from her enjoyed the property of Avoch, near Inverness.

Three years before the starting of Lord Selkirk's Colonists and before his marriage with Geddes Mackenzie, Sir Alexander took up his abode in Scotland. He was the guardian of the rights of the North-West Company and manfully he stood for them.

Mackenzie was startled when he heard in 1810 of Lord Selkirk's scheme to send his Colonists to Red River. This he thought to be a plan of the Hudson's Bay Company, to regain their failing prestige and to strike a blow at the Nor'-Wester trade. To the fur trader or the rancher, the incoming of the farmer is ever obnoxious. The beaver and the mink desert the streams whenever the plowshare disturbs the soil. The deer flee to their coverts, the wolf and the fox are exterminated, and even the muskrat has a troubled existence when the dog and cat, the domestic animals, make their appearance. The proposed settlement is to be opposed, and Lord Selkirk's plans thwarted at any cost. Lord Selkirk had in the eyes of the Nor'-Westers much presumption, indeed nothing less than to buy out the great Hudson's Bay Company, which for a century and a half had controlled nearly one-half of North America. The Nor'-Westers—Alexander Mackenzie, Inglis and Ellice—made sport of the thing as a dream. But the "eccentric Lord" was buying up stock and majorities rule in Companies as in the nation. Contempt and abuse gave place to settled anxiety and in desperation at last the trio of opponents, two days before the meeting, purchased £2,500 of stock, not enough to appreciably affect the vote, but enough to give them a footing in the Hudson's Bay Company, and to secure information of value to them.

The mill of destiny goes slowly round, and Lord Selkirk and his friends are triumphant. He purchases an enormous tract of land, 116,000 square miles, one-half in what is now the Province of Manitoba, the other at present included in the States of Minnesota and North Dakota, on the south side of the boundary line between Canada and the United States. The Nor'-Westers are frantic; but the fates are against them. The duel has begun! Who will win? Cunning and misrepresentation are to be employed to check the success of the Colony, and also local opposition on the other side of the Atlantic, should the scheme ever come to anything. At present their hope is that it may fall to pieces of its own weight.

Lord Selkirk's scheme is dazzling almost beyond belief. A territory is his, purchased out and out, from the Hudson's Bay Company, about four times the area of Scotland, his native land, and the greater part of it fertile, with the finest natural soil in the world, waiting for the farmer to give a return in a single year after his arrival. A territory, not possessed by a foreign people, but under the British flag! A country yet to be the home of millions! It is worth living to be able to plant such a tree, which will shelter and bless future generations of mankind. Financial loss he might have; but he would have fame as his reward.


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