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The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk's Colonists
Chapter 4 A Winter of Discontent

The Emigrant ship has landed its living freight at Fort Factory, upon the Coast of Hudson Bay—a shore unoccupied for hundreds of miles except by a few Hudson's Bay Company forts such as those at the mouth of the Nelson River, and of Fort Churchill, a hundred miles or more farther north. It was now the end of the season, and it will not do to trifle with the nip of cold "Boreas" on the shore of Hudson Bay. The icy winter is at hand, and all know that they will face such temperatures as they never had seen even among the stormy Hebrides, or in the Northward Orkneys. Lord Selkirk's dreams are now to be tested. Is the story of the Colony to be an epic or a drama?

It was by no means the first experiment of facing in an unprepared way the rigors of a North American winter.

In the fourth year of the Seventeenth Century De Monts, a French Colonizer, had a band of his countrymen on Douchet's Island, in the Ste. Croix River, on the borders of New Brunswick. Though fairly well provided in some ways yet the winter proved so trying that out of the number of less than eighty, nearly one-half died. The winter was so long, weary and deadly, that in the spring the survivors of the Colony were moved to Port Royal in Acadia and the Ste. Croix was given up. This was surely dramatic; this was tragic indeed. But in the fourth year of this Century, the Tercentenary of this event was celebrated in Annapolis and St. John, as the writer himself beheld, and the shouts and applause of gathered thousands made a great and patriotic epic.

Again four years after De Monts, when knowledge of climate and conditions had become known to the French pioneers, Samuel de Champlain wintered with his crew and a few settlers on the site of Old Quebec, on the St. Lawrence. Discontent and dissension led to rebellion, and blood was shed in the execution of the plotters. Hunger, suffering and the dreadful scurvy attacked the founder's party of less than thirty, of whom only ten survived, and yet in July of 1908, the writer witnessed the grand Tercentenary celebration of Champlain's settlement of Quebec, and with the presence of the Prince of Wales, General Roberts, the idol of the British Army, a joint fleet, of eleven English, French and American first-class Men-of War, with pageantry and music, the Epic of Champlain was sung at the foot of the great statue erected to his memory.

In the Twentieth year of the Seventeenth Century, a company of very sober folk, came to the shore of the Atlantic Ocean in a trifling little vessel the "Mayflower," and brought about one hundred Immigrants from the British Isles to Plymouth Rock to build up a refuge and a home. What a mighty song of patriotism will burst out when in a few years the United States hold their Tercentenary of the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers.

And so we see the first Selkirk Colonists landed on the Hudson Bay numbering at the outside seventy, a number not greatly different from the French and Pilgrim Fathers and called on to pass through similar trials in the severe winter of Hudson Bay. Their experience has been less tragic than that of the other parties spoken of, but in it the same elements of discomfort, dissension and disease certainly present themselves. However distressing their winter was, the dramatic conditions passed away, in a short time we shall be engaged in commemorating the patience and the heroism of these settlers, and in 1912 we shall sing a new song—the epic of the Lord Selkirk Colonists.

But to be true we must look more closely at the trials, and sufferings of the untried, and somewhat turbulent band, on their way to the Red River.

York Factory as being the port of entry for the southern prairie country was a place of some importance. As in the largest number of cases, other than a few huts for workmen, and a few Indian families, the Fort was the only centre of life in the whole region. Two rivers, the Nelson and the Hayes, enter the Hudson Bay at this point—the Nelson being the more northerly of the two. Between the two rivers is really a delta or low swampy tongue of land. On the Nelson's north bank, the land near the Bay is low, while inland there is a rising height. Five or six different sites of forts are pointed out at this point. These have been built on during the history of the Company, which dates back to 1670. In Lord Selkirk's time the factory was more than half a mile from the Bay and lay between the two rivers. Miles Macdonell states that it was on "low, miry ground without a ditch." The stagnant water by which the post was surrounded would be productive of much ill-health, were there a longer summer. The buildings of the Factory were also badly planned, and badly constructed, so that the Fort was unsuitable for quartering the Colonists. Besides this, Messrs. Cook and Auld, the former Governor of York Factory, and the latter chief officer of Fort Churchill, having the old Hudson's Bay Company's spirit of dislike of Colonists, decided that the new settlers, being an innovation and an evil, should have separate quarters built for them at a distance from the Fort.

Poor Colonists! Miles Macdonell is wearied with them in their complaining spirit, berates them for indolence, and finds fault with their awkwardness as workmen. To Macdonell, who was a Canadian, accustomed as a soldier and frontiersman to dealing with canoes, boats, and every means of land transport, the sturdy, steady going Orkneyman was slow and clumsy.

The inexperienced new settler thus gets rather brusque treatment from the Colonial, more a good deal than he deserves.

Accordingly it was decided to erect log dwellings for the workmen and the settlers on the higher ground north of the Nelson River. Several miles distant from the Factory itself, Spruce trees of considerable size grew along the river, and so all hands were put to work to have huts or shanties erected to protect the Colonists from the severe cold of winter, which would soon be upon them, although on October 5th Miles Macdonell wrote home to Lord Selkirk: "The weather has been mild and pleasant for some days past."

The erection of suitable houses, that is homely on the exterior, but warm in the coldest weather, was superintended by Miles Macdonell—himself a Colonial and one aware of the precautions needing to be taken.

Amid all the troubles and complaints of the winter there were none against the suitableness of the log dwellings which were erected on the chosen site to which was given the name, "Nelson Encampment." Winter, however, came in fiercely enough in November, although again on the 29th of November, Macdonell writes to Cook, Governor of the Factory: "A mild day enables us to send a boat across the Nelson with the Express." It was open water on the river.

Macdonell knew well that with the recent arrivals from the Old Land, one of the greatest dangers would be the weakening and dangerous disease of scurvy. He had sought for supplies of "Essence of Malt" and "Crystallized Salts of Lemon," and at the beginning of December as the people were living chiefly on salt provisions and a short allowance of oatmeal the scurvy made its appearance. Medical care was given by Mr. Edwards and the disease was at once met. However within a month one-third of the Immigrants were thus afflicted and the fear was that the malady would go through the whole Encampment. But the remedy that Champlain found so effective at Quebec—the juice of the Spruce tree, which grew in abundance around the Encampment—checked the disease, wherever the obstinacy of the settlers did not prevent its use, for says Macdonell, "It is not an easy matter to get the Orkneymen to drink it, particularly the old hands." A smouldering fire of discontent that had been detected on board the ship on crossing the ocean now broke out into a flame. The Irish and the Orkneymen could not agree. In February the vigilant leader Macdonell writes: "The Irish displayed their native propensity and prowess on the first night of the year, by unmercifully beating some Orkneymen. Too much strong drink was the chief incitement." This antipathy continued to be a difficulty even until the party arrived at Red River.

There are signs in his letters, of the constant strain on Miles Macdonell arising from the difficulties of his position and the waywardness of the Immigrants. At times he consults with the Hudson's Bay Company's officer, Mr. Hillier, and at others thus unbosoms himself to Messrs. Cook and Auld. "In this wild, desolate and (I may add) barren region, excluded at present from all communication with the civilized world, intelligence of a local kind can alone be expected. Could we join in the sentinel's cry of 'All is well,' although not affording great changes, it might yet be satisfactory in our isolated condition. We have as great variety as generally happens in this sublunary world, of which we here form a true epitome, being composed of men of all countries, religions and tongues."

Plainly Governor Macdonell feels his burdens! However, the culmination of this officer's troubles did not reach him until a serious rebellion occurred among his subjects—so mixed and various.

A workman—William Finlay—presumably an Orkneyman, who had been regularly employed by Miles Macdonell when the scurvy was bad in Mr. Hillier's camp, refused to obey the health regulations, his one objection being to drink this spruce decoction. He was immediately dropped from work. A few days afterward supposing the matter had blown over, Macdonell ordered him to work again. Finlay declined, whereupon, though under engagement he refused to further obey Macdonell. The Governor then brought him before Mr. Hillier, who like himself, had been made a magistrate. His breach of law in this, as in other matters being brought against Finlay he was sentenced to confinement. There being no prison at York Factory it seemed difficult to carry out the sentence by his being simply confined with his other companions in the men's quarters. Accordingly the Governor ordered a single log hut to be constructed, and this being done, in it the prisoner was confined. Not a day had entirely passed when a rebellion arose among some of his compatriots—the Scottish contingent from Orkney and Glasgow—and a band of thirteen of them surrounded the newly built hut, set it on fire and as it went up in smoke rescued the prisoner.

The men were arrested and were brought before Macdonell and Hillier, sitting as magistrates. This was about the end of February. The rebels, however, defied the authorities, departed carrying Finlay with them and getting possession of a house took it defiantly for their own use. During their remaining sojourn at York Factory they subsisted on provisions obtained at the Factory itself and carried by themselves from the post to the encampment. Governor Macdonell, meantime, decided to send these rebellious spirits home to Britain for punishment, and not allow them to go on to Red River.

The possession by the rioters of some five or six stand of firearms, was felt to be a menace to the peace of the encampment. An effort was made to obtain them by Macdonell, but "the insurgents," as they were called, secreted the arms and thus kept possession of them. In June on the rebels being very bold and being unable to get back across the Nelson River from the Factory for a number of days, they were forced by Mr. Auld, then at York Factory, to give up their arms and submit or else have their supplies from the Factory stopped. They were thus compelled to submit and on the receipt of a note from Mr. Auld to Macdonell, the latter wrote a joyful letter to Lord Selkirk to the effect that the insurgents had at length come to terms, acknowledged their guilt and thrown themselves upon the mercy of the Hudson's Bay Committee.

This surrender made it unnecessary to send the body of rioters back to England for trial.

During the months of later winter Governor Miles Macdonell was specially employed in building boats for the journey up to Red River. He introduced a style of boat used on the rivers of New York, his native State. These, however, he complains, were very badly constructed through the clumsiness and lack of skill of the Colonists and Company employees, whom he had ordered to build them.

Now on July fourth, 1812, Governor Macdonell, his Colonists, and the Hudson's Bay officials—Cook and Auld—are all gazing wistfully up the Nelson and Hayes Rivers, and we have the postscript to the last letter as found in Miles Macdonell letter book, sent to Lord Selkirk, reading, "Four Irishmen are to be sent home; Higgins and Hart, for the felonious attack on the Orkneymen; William Gray, non-effective, and Hugh Redden, who lost his arm by the bursting of a gun given him to fire off by Mr. Brown, one of the Glasgow clerks."

(Signed) H. MacD.

The expedition left York Factory for the interior on the 6th of July, 1812.

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