The year 1815 was a year of world-wide
disaster. Napoleon's Europe-shadowing wings had for years been over that
continent and he like a ravenous bird had left marks of his ravages
among the most prominent European nations. The world had a breathing
spell for a short time with Napoleon a virtual prisoner in Elba, but now
in March of this year he broke from the perch where he had been tethered
and all Europe was again in terror. The nations were thunderstruck; the
alarm was deepened by the appearance of Olber's great comet, and in
their superstition the ignorant were panic-stricken, while the more
religious and informed saw in these terrible events the scenes pictured
in the Apocalypse and maintained that the battle of Armageddon was at
hand. The epoch-marking battle of Waterloo in June of this year was
sufficiently near the picture of blood painted in the Revelation to
satisfy the credulous.
But in a remote corner of Rupert's
the number of the combatants was small and the conditions exceedingly
primitive the comet was alarming enough. The action of Governor Miles
Macdonell in the beginning of 1814, in forbidding the export of food
from Rupert's Land and in interfering with the liberty of the traders,
Indians and half-breeds, who had regarded themselves as outside of law,
and as free as the wind of their wild prairies, produced an open and
out-spoken dissent from every class.
The Nor'-Westers took time to
consider the grave step of interrupting trade which Governor Miles
Macdonell had taken. Immediate action was impossible. It was four
hundred miles and more from the Colony to the great emporium of the fur
trade on Lake Superior. The annual gathering of the Nor'-Westers was
held at Grand Portage, the terminus of a road nine miles long, built to
avoid the rapids of the Pigeon River which flows into Lake Superior some
thirty or forty miles southwest of where Fort William now stands. This
concourse was a notable affair. From distant Athabasca, from the
Saskatchewan, from the Red River and from Lake Winnipeg, the traders
gathered in their gaily decked canoes, to meet the gentlemen from
Montreal, who came to count the gains of the year, and lay out plans for
the future. Indians gathered outside of
Grand Portage Fort. The Highland Chieftains were now transformed into
factors and traders, and for days they met in counsel together. Their
evenings were spent in the great dining room of the Fort in revelry.
Songs of the voyage were sung and as the excitement grew more intense
the partners would take seats on the floor of the room and each armed
with a sword or poker or pair of tongs unite in the paddle song of "A la
Claire Fontaine," and make merry till far on in the morning. The days
were laboriously given to business and accounts. When the great
MacTavish—the head of the Nor'-Westers—was there he was often opposed by
the younger men, yet he ended the strife with his tyrannical will and
silenced all opposition.
The Nor'-Westers at their meeting, July,
1814, under Honorable William McGillivray, after whom Fort William was
named, decided to oppose the Colony and sent two of their most
aggressive men to meet force with force, and to give Miles Macdonell,
the new Dictator, either by arms or by craft, the reward for his
tyranny, as they regarded it.
The whole body of the traders were
incensed against Lord Selkirk, for had not one of the chief Nor'-Wester
partners written two years before from London saying, "Lord Selkirk must
be driven to abandon his project, for
his success would strike at the very existence of our trade."
The two men chosen at the gathering
in Grand Portage were well fitted for their work. Most forward was
Alexander Macdonell. On his journey writing to a friend he said: "Much
is expected of us.... So here is at them with all my heart and energy."
But the master-mind was his companion Duncan Cameron who, as a leader,
stands out in the conflicts of the times as a determined man, of great
executive ability, but of fierce and over-bearing disposition. The Nor'-Westers,
having planned bloodshed, all agreed that Duncan Cameron was well
chosen. He had been a leading explorer and trader in the Lake Superior
district and knew the fur traders' route as few others did. His
well-nigh thirty years of service made him a man of outstanding
influence in the Company. Moreover, he could be bland and jovial. He had
the Celtic adroitness. He knew how to ingratiate himself with every
class and possessed all the devices of an envoy. His appearance and
dress at Red River were notable. Having had some rank as a U.E. Loyalist
leader in the war of 1812, he came to the Forks dressed in a scarlet
military coat with all the accoutrements of a Captain in the Army. He
even made display of his Captain's Commission by posting it at the gate
of Fort Gibraltar.
Of the Fort itself he took possession as Bourgeois or master and laid
his plans in August, 1814, for the destruction of the Selkirk Colony.
Cameron then began a systematic course of ingratiating himself with the
Colonists. Speaking, as he did the Gaelic language, he appealed with
much success to his countrymen. He represented himself as their friend
and stirred up the people of Red River against Selkirk tyranny. He
pictured to them their wrongs, the broken promises of the founder, and
the undesirability of remaining in the Colony. He brought the settlers
freely to his table, treating them openly to the beverage of their
native country, and completely captured the hearts of a number of them.
Those, friends of his, he made use of to carry out his deep plans. On
the very day of the issue of the rations, he induced some of the
Colonists to demand the nine small cannon in the Colony store houses.
The request was refused by Archibald Macdonald, the acting Governor. The
settlers then went forward, broke open the store houses and removed the
cannon. Macdonald now arrested the leading settler, who had taken the
field pieces, whereupon Cameron, like a small Napoleon, incited his
clerks and men, to invade the Governor's house and release the prisoner.
This was done, and now it may be said that war between the rival Companies
was declared. On the return of Miles Macdonald, Cameron ordered his
arrest. Macdonell refused to acknowledge the lawfulness of this action.
The oily Nor'-Wester Highlander then threatened the people that if the
Governor would not submit to the law, the whole body of settlers would
be dispossessed of their farms and driven away from the banks of Red
River. As if to make this threat seem more real, several loyal settlers
were fired at by unseen marksmen.
Once having begun, Cameron was not the man
to hesitate. Another Nor'-Wester plan was put into effect.
Cameron's comrade, Alexander Macdonell,
now arrived from the Western plains leading it was said, a band of Cree
Indians. The Crees are stubborn and determined warriors, but they are
also crafty. The proposal by Alexander Macdonell ("Yellow Head as he was
called" to distinguish him), was gravely considered by the Indians. The
Indians respect authority and in this case they were not very sure who
had the authority. The Indians declined the offer, and the report proved
The Nor'-Westers were, however,
strong in their influence over the Chippewas of Red Lake in Minnesota.
Similar propositions were made to the Sand Lake band of this tribe.
Though offered a large reward to go on this expedition against
the Selkirk settlers, the chief refused the bribe, and the tribe
declined to undertake the enterprise.
Cameron however, knew the importance of
keeping up the war-like spirit of his following, and early in June
himself took part in an attack upon the Colony houses. The affray took
place on the edge of the wood near the Governor's residence. Surgeon
White and Burke the store-keeper, narrowly escaped being killed by the
shots fired and four of the servants were actually wounded. Cameron like
a real operator effusively thanked his followers for their grand attack.
This state of constant hostility, ostensibly on account of the refusal
of Governor Macdonell to respect the legal summons served upon him, was
ended by the surrender of Miles Macdonell, who was taken as a prisoner
to Montreal, though he was never brought up for trial.
Thus far Cameron had succeeded in
his plans. He was an artful plotter. His capture of Miles Macdonell gave
him great prestige. Besides, he had roused feelings of serious
discontent in the minds of nearly all of the Selkirk Colonists. His
apparent sincerity and kindness to them had also won their hearts. He
was now to make the greatest move in the game. This was nothing less
than a tempting offer to transfer the whole of them to the fertile
Upper Canada. He provided all the means of transport, he promised them
free lands in the neighborhood of market towns—two hundred acres to each
family. Any wages due to them by Lord Selkirk he would pay and should
three-quarters of the Colony accept his offer they would have provisions
provided for a year free of cost. When the poor Colonists thought of the
bleak, uncultivated country in which they were, of the inevitable
hardships which lay before them, and saw the dangerous, unsettled state
of the Selkirk settlement, they could not well resist the offer.
Furthermore, the schemer did not stop here. As was afterward found out,
George Campbell, the arch-agitator and leader among the disaffected
settlers received a promise of £100, and others of £20 and the like.
Further to allay their fears it was urged that they were going where the
British flag was flying and where the truest loyalty prevailed. It was
pointed out that it had been to prevent any obstacles being raised
against their going, that the nine guns had been seized and were in the
custody of the Nor'-Westers. Accordingly full arrangements were made. A
supply of canoes was obtained and on the 15th of June, 1815, no less
than one hundred and forty of the two hundred Colonists on Red River
embarked and drifted down the river on their long canoe voyage of
more than a thousand miles. By the end of July they had gone over the
dangerous Fur traders' route and passing over four or five hundred miles
reached Fort William, near Lake Superior. But their journey was not
one-half over. Along the base of the rugged shores of Lake Superior,
through the St. Mary's River, down the foaming Sault and then along the
shores of Georgian Bay, they paddled their way to Penetanguishene. From
this point they crossed southward to Holland Landing, which is forty
miles north of Toronto, and arrived at their destination on the 5th of
It is hard to find a parallel for
such a journey. They were a large body, made up of men, women, and
children, continuously journeying for eighty-two days, through an
unsettled and barren country, running dangerous rapids, and exposed to
storms with a poorly organized commissariat, and under fear of pursuit
by the agents of Lord Selkirk, to whom many of them were personally
bound. In the township of West Gwillinbury, north of Toronto, near
London, and in the Talbot settlement, near St. Thomas—all in Upper
Canada—they received their lands. Half a century later, in one of the
townships north of Toronto, the writer had pointed out to him a man
named MacBeth weighing two hundred and fifty pounds, of whom it was
humourously told that he had been
carried all the way from Red River. The explanation of course was, that
he had been brought as an infant on this famous Hegira of the Selkirk
The finishing of Cameron's work on the Red
River, was handed over to Alexander Macdonell. The plan was nothing less
than that the settlers remaining should be driven by force from the
banks of Red River. The party led by Macdonell was made up of Bois-Brulés,
under dashing young Cuthbert Grant. On their agile ponies they appeared
like scourging Huns, to drive out the discouraged remnant of Colonists.
Each remaining settler was on the 25th of
June served with a notice signed by four Nor'-Westers, thus:
"All settlers to retire immediately from
Red River, and no trace of a settlement to remain." (Signed) Cuthbert
Two days after the notice was served
the beleaguered settlers, made up of some thirteen families—in all from
forty to sixty persons, who had remained true to Lord Selkirk and the
Colony—went forth from their homes as sadly as the Acadian refugees from
Grand Pré. They were allowed to take with them such belongings as they
had, and in boats and other craft went pensively down Red River with
Lake Winnipeg and Jack River in
view as their destination. The house of the Governor, the mill, and the
buildings which the settlers had begun to build upon their lots were all
set on fire and destroyed.
The U.E. Loyalists of Upper Canada and
Nova Scotia draw upon our sympathies in their sufferings of hunger and
hardship, but they afford no parallel to the discouragement, dangers,
and dismay of the Selkirk Colonists.
Alexander Macdonell's party of
seventy or eighty mounted men easily carried out this work of
destruction. There was one fly in the ointment for them. The small
Hudson's Bay House built by Fidler still remained. Here a daring Celt,
John McLeod, was in charge. Seeing the temper of Macdonell's levy McLeod
determined to fortify his rude castle. Beside the trading house of the
Hudson's Bay Company stood the blacksmith's shop. Hurriedly McLeod, with
a cart, carried thither the three-pounder cannon in his possession, then
cut up lengths of chain to be his shot and shell, used with care his
small supply of powder and with three or four men, his only garrison,
stood to his gun and awaited the attack of the Bois-Brulés. Being on
horseback his assailants could not long face his one piece of artillery.
It is not known to what extent the assailants suffered in the skirmish,
but John Warren, a gentleman of the Hudson's Bay Company, was killed
in the encounter. The siege of McLeod's improvised fort continued for
several days, but the defence was successful, and McLeod saved for the
Company £1,000 worth of goods.