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The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk's Colonists
Chapter 6 Three Desperate Years

Pioneering to-day is not so serious a matter as it once was. To the frontiers' man now it involves little risk, and little thought, to dispose of his holding, and make a dash further West for two or three hundreds of miles across the plains. When he wishes more land for his growing sons, he "sells out," fits up his commodious covered wagon, called "the prairie schooner," and with implements, supplies, cattle and horses, starts on the Western "trail." His wife and children are in high spirits. When a running stream or spring is reached on the way he stops and camps. His journey taken when the weather is fine and when the mosquitoes are gone is a diversion. The writer has seen a family which went through this gypsy-like "moving" no less than four times. At length the settler finds his location, has it registered in the nearest Land Office and calls it his. With ready axes, the farmer and his sons cut down the logs which are to make their dwelling. The children explore the new farm lying covered with its velvet sod, as it has done for centuries; they gather its flowers, pluck its wild fruits, chase its wild ducks or grouse or gophers. Health and homely fare make life enjoyable. Subject to the incidents and interruptions of every day, which follow humanity, it seems to them a continual picnic.

But how different was the fate of the worn-out Selkirk Colonists. The memory of a wretched sea voyage, of a long and dreary winter at Nelson Encampment, and of a fifty-five days' journey of constant hardship along the fur traders' route were impressed upon their minds. The thought of fierce rivers and the dangers of portage and cascade still haunted them, and now everything on the banks of Red River was strange. On their arrival the flowers were blooming, but they were prairie flowers, and unknown to them. The small Colony houses which they were to occupy would be uncomfortable. The very sun in the sky seemed alien to them, for the Highland drizzle was seen no more. The days were bright, the weather warm, the nights cool, and there was an occasional August thunderstorm, or hailstorm which alarmed them. The traders, the Indians, the half-breed trappers, and runners were all new to them. Their Gaelic language, which they claimed as that of Eden, was of little value to them except where an occasional company-servant chanced to be a countryman of their own. They were without money, they were dependent upon Lord Selkirk's agents for shelter and rations. The land which they hoped to possess was there awaiting them, but they had no means for purchasing implements, nor were the farming requisites to be found in the country. Horses there were, but there were only two or three individual cattle within five hundred miles of them.

If they had sung on their sorrowful leaving, "Lochaber no more," the words were now turned by their depressed Highland natures into a wail, and they sang in the words of their old Psalms of "Rouse's" version:

By Babel's streams we sat and wept,
When Zion we thought on.

They thought of their crofts and clachans, where if the land was stingy, the gift of the sea was at hand to supply abundant food.

But this was no time for sighs or regrets.

The Hudson's Bay traders from Brandon House were waiting for expected goods, and Messrs. Hillier and Heney, who were the Hudson's Bay Company officers for the East Winnipeg District, had arduous duties ahead of them. But though the orders to prepare for the Colonists had been sent on in good time, there was not a single bag of pemmican or any other article of provision awaiting the hapless settlers. The few French people who were freemen, lived in what is now the St. Boniface side of the river, were only living from hand to mouth, and the Company's people were little better provided. The river was the only resource, and from the scarceness of hooks the supply of fish obtainable was rather scanty.

As the Colonists and their leader were strangers they desired leisure to select a suitable location for their buildings. For the time being their camp was at the Forks, on the east side of the river, a little north of the mouth of the Assiniboine.

The Governor, Miles Macdonell, on the 4th of September, summoned three of the North-West Company gentlemen, the free Canadians beside whom they were encamped, and a number of the Indians to a spectacle similar to that enacted by St. Lawson, at Sault Ste. Marie, nearly a hundred and fifty years before. The Nor'-Westers had not permitted their employees to cross the river. Facing, as he did, Fort Gibraltar, across the river, the Governor directed the patent of Lord Selkirk to his vast concession to be read, "delivering and seizin were formally taken," and Mr. Heney translated some part of the Patent into French for the information of the French Canadians. There was an officers' guard under arms; colors were flying and after the reading of the Patent all the artillery belonging to Lord Selkirk, as well as that of the Hudson's Bay Company, under Mr. Hillier, consisting of six swivel guns, were discharged in a grand salute.

At the close of the ceremony the gentlemen were invited to the Governor's tent, and a keg of spirits was turned out for the people.

Having made such disposition as we shall see of the people, Governor Macdonell went with a boat's crew down the river to make a choice of a place of settlement for the Colonists. A bull and cow and winter wheat had been brought with the party, and these were taken to a spot selected after a three days' thorough investigation of both banks of the river for some miles below the Forks. The place found most eligible was "an extensive point of land through which fire had run and destroyed the wood, there being only burnt wood and weeds left." This was afterwards called Point Douglas.

He had, as we shall see, dispatched the settlers to their wintering place up the Red River on the 6th of September, and set some half-dozen men, who were to stay at the Forks, to work clearing the ground for sowing winter wheat. An officer was left with the men to trade with Indians for fish and meat for the support of the workers.

The winter, which is sharp, crisp and decided in all of Rupert's Land, was approaching, so that their situation began to be desperate.

Governor Macdonell's chief care was for the safety and comfort during the winter of his helpless Colonists.

Sixty miles up the Red River from the Forks was a settlement of native people—chiefly French half-breeds—and to this place called Pembina came in the buffaloes, or if not they were easily reached from this settlement. But the poor Scottish settlers had no means of transport, and the way seemed long and desolate to them to venture upon, unaccompanied and unhelped. Governor Macdonell did his best for them, and succeeded in inducing the Saulteaux Indians, who seemed friendly, to guide and protect them as they sought Pembina for winter quarters.

The Indians had a few ponies and mounted on these they undertook to conduct the settlers to their destination. The caravan was grotesquely comical as it departed southward. The Indians upon their "Shaganappi ponies," as they are called, like mounted guards protecting the men, women and children of the Colony who trudged wearily on foot. The Indians were kind to their charge, but the Redman loves a joke, and often indulges in "horse-play." The demure Highlander looked unmoved upon the Indian pranks. The Indians also hold everything they possess on a loose tenure. The Highlander who was forced to surrender the gun, which his father had carried at the battle of Culloden, failed to see the humour of the affair, and the Highland woman who was compelled to give up her gold marriage ring, because some prairie brave wanted it, was unable to see the ethics of the Saulteaux guide who robbed her. The women became very weary of their journey, but their mounted guardians only laughed, because they were in the habit on their long marches of treating their own squaws in the same manner.

To Pembina at length they came—worn out, dusty and despondent. Here they erected tents or built huts. The settlers reached Pembina on the 11th of September, and Macdonell and an escort of three men, all on horseback, arrived on the 12th. Arrived at Pembina Macdonell examined the ground carefully, and selected the point on the south side of the Pembina River at its juncture with the Red River as a site for a fort. His men immediately camped here. Great quantities of buffalo meat were brought in by the French Canadians and Indians. Some of this was sent down to the Forks to the party which had remained to built a hut at that point for stores. At Pembina a storehouse was built immediately, and having given directions to erect several other buildings, the Governor returned by boat to the Forks. On the 27th of October Owen Keveny, in charge of the second detachment of Colonists, arrived with his party, largely of Irishmen. These men were taken on to Pembina. After great activity the buildings were ready by the 21st of November to house the whole of the two parties now united in one band of Colonists. The Governor and officers' quarters were finished on December 27th. Macdonell reports to Lord Selkirk that "as soon as the place at Pembina took some form and a decent flagstaff was erected on it, it was called Fort Daer." It is said that in most years the buffaloes were very numerous and so tame that they came to the Trader's Fort and rubbed their backs upon its stockaded enclosure. There was this year plenty of buffalo meat and the Scotch women soon learned to cook it into "Rubaboo," or "Rowschow," after the manner of the French half-breeds. Toward spring food was scarcer.

Schoolmaster, Naturalist and Legislator.
York Factory, 1813; Red River, 1823; Died at Little Britain, 1878.

In May the winterers of Pembina returned to their settlement at the Colony. They sought to begin the cultivation of their farms, but they were helpless. The tough prairie sod had to be broken up and worked over, but the only implement which the Colonist had to use was a simple hoe, the one harrow being incomplete. The crofters were poor farmers, for they were rather fishermen. But the fish in Red River were scarce in this year, so that even the fisher's art which they knew was of little avail to them. The summer of 1813 was thus what the old settlers would call an "Off-Year," for even the small fruits on the plains were far from abundant. These being scarce, the chief food of the settlers for all that summer through was the "Prairie turnip." This is a variety of the pea family, known as the Astragalus esculenta, which with its large taproot grows quite abundantly on the dry plains. An old-time trader, who was lost for forty days and only able to get the Prairie turnip, practically subsisted in this way. Along with this the settlers gathered quantities of a very succulent weed known as "fat-hen," and so were kept alive. The Colonists knowing now what the soil could produce obtained small quantities of grain and even with their defective means of cultivation, in the next year demonstrated the fertility of the soil of the country.

It was somewhat distressing to the Colonists again in 1813 to make the journey of sixty miles to Pembina, trudging along the prairie trail, but there was no other resource. The treatment of the Colonists by the "Nor'-Westers" had not thus far been unfriendly and the Canadian traders had even imported a few cattle, pigs, and poultry for the use of the settlers, and for these favors Governor Macdonell expressed his hearty thanks to the Montreal Company. The fatigues and mishaps of the journey to Pembina were, however, only the beginning of trouble for the winter. The reception by the French half-breed residents of Pembina was not now so friendly as that of the previous winter. At first the Nor'-Wester feeling had been one of contempt for the Colonists and pity for them in their hunger and miseries. The building of Fort Daer was an evidence of occupation that caused the jealous Canadian pioneers to pause. The reception of the second season was thus decidedly cool. The struggling settlers found before the winter was over that troubles come in troops. Very heavy snows fell in the winter of 1813-14. This brought two difficulties. It prevented the buffaloes coming freely from the open plains into the rivers and sheltered spots. The buffalo being a heavy animal is helpless in the snow. The other difficulty was that the settlers could not go on the chase with freedom. Unfortunately the Colonists were not able to use the snowshoe as could the lively Metis. The settlers well nigh perished in seeking the camp whither the native hunters had gone to follow the buffalo. Indeed the Colonists had the conviction that a plot to murder two of their most active leaders was laid by the French half-breeds whose sympathies were all with the "Nor'-Westers."

The climax of feeling was reached when Governor Macdonell, who was with the Colonists at Pembina, issued a most unwise proclamation, which to the Nor'-Westers seemed an illegality if not an impertinence. Dependent as the settlers were on the older Company for supplies and assistance this was nothing less than an act of madness.

By proclamation, on the 8th of January, 1814, Macdonell forbade any traders of "The Honorable Hudson's Bay Company, the North-West Company, or any individual or unconnected trader whatever to take out any provisions, either of flesh, grain or vegetables, from the country.

The embargo was complete.

In Governor Macdonell's defence it should be said that he offered to pay by British bills for all the provisions taken, at customary rates.

This assertion of sovereignty set on fire the Nor'-Westers and their sympathizers.

Not only was this extreme step taken, but John Spencer, a subordinate of Macdonell was sent west to Brandon House, found an entrance into the North-West Fort at the mouth of the Souris River and seizing some twenty-five tons of dry buffalo meat took it into his own fort.

It is quite true that Governor Macdonell expected new bands of Colonists and thus justified himself in his seizure. It is to the credit of the Nor'-Westers that they restrained themselves and avoided a general conflict, but evidently they only bided their time.

No breach of the peace occurred however, before the return of the Colonists from Pembina to the Colony Houses. The settlers occupied their homes in the best of spirits, and began to sow their wheat, but they were still greatly checked by the absence of the commonest implements of farm culture. Had Lord Selkirk known the true state of things on Red River, he would never have continued to send new bands of Colonists so imperfectly fitted for dealing with the cultivation of the soil.

The founder's mind had been fired, both by the opposition of Sir Alexander Mackenzie and by the successful arrival of his two bands of Colonists at the Red River, to make greater efforts than ever.

This he did by sending out a third party in all nearly a hundred strong, under the leadership of a very capable man—Archibald Macdonald. This band of settlers in 1813 were bound on the ship Prince of Wales for York Factory. A very serious attack of ship fever filled the whole ship's crew with alarm. Several well-known Colonists died. The Captain, alarmed, refused to go on to his destination, but ran the ship into Fort Churchill and there disembarked them. Further deaths took place at this point. In the spring there was no resource but to trudge over the rocky ledges and forbidding desolation of more than a hundred miles between the Fort Churchill and York Factory. Only the stronger men and women were selected for the journey. On the 6th of April, 1814, a party of twenty-one males and twenty females started on this now celebrated tramp. At first the party began to march in single file, but finding this inconvenient changed to six abreast. Unaccustomed to snowshoes and sleds the Colonists found the snowy walk very distressing. Three fell by the way and were carried on by the stronger men. The weather was very cold. A supply of partridges was given them on starting, and the party was met by hunters sent from York Factory to meet them, who brought two hundred partridges, killed by the way. York Factory was reached on the 13th of April. This band of Colonists were superior to any who had come in the former parties. Many of them, as we shall see, did not remain in the Colony. A list of this party may be found in the Appendix. After remaining a month at York Factory, on the 27th of May, this heroic band went on their way to Red River, and reached their destination in time to plant potatoes for themselves and others. Comrades left behind at Churchill found their way to Red River. Lots along Red River were now being taken up by the settlers, and here they sought to found homes under a northern sky. Old and new settlers were now hopeful, but their hopes of peace and happiness were soon to be dashed to pieces.

The arrival of the third year's Colonists provoked still greater opposition. Feeling had been gradually rising against the new settlers at every new arrival. The excellence of the later immigrants but led their opponents to be irritated.

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