Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk's Colonists
Chapter 8 No Surrender

The crisis has come. The Colony seems to be blotted out. The affair may appear small, being nothing more than the defence of the smithy, with one gun and the most primitive contrivances, yet as Mercutio says of his wound: "'Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door; but it is enough."

The plucky McLeod, with three men held his fort and though the dusky Bois-brulés on their prairie ponies for a time hovered about yet they did not dare to approach the spiteful little field piece. The Metis soon betook themselves westward to their own district of Qu'Appelle.

The danger being over for the present, John McLeod began to restore the Colony buildings and even to aim at greater things than had been before.

One of the most discouraging things in connection with the Selkirk Colony was the long sea voyage and the difficult land-journey necessary, not only to gain assistance, but even to receive information from the founder in Britain for the guidance of the officers in Red River settlement. This being the case McLeod could not wait for orders and so as being temporarily in charge of the Hudson's Bay Company district at Red River, he planned a fort and proceeded at once to build a portion of it. Fortunately across the Red River in what is now the town of St. Boniface, he found the freemen who were willing to help him. He immediately hired a number of these and began work on the new fort.

Somewhat lower down the Red River than the Colony gardens he selected a site on the river banks, now partially fallen in, where George Street at the present days ends. Here McLeod began to erect a Governor's House, having confidence that the founder would not desert his Colony. Along with this important project, expecting that the Colonists would return, he turned his men upon the fields of grain—small, but to them very precious. The yield in this year was good. He also erected new fences and cured for the settlers quantities of hay from the swamp lands.

McLeod states in his diary—of which a copy of the original is in the Provincial Library in Winnipeg—that Fort Douglas was on the south side of Point Douglas, so called from Lord Selkirk's family name, and which McLeod has some claim to have so christened.

Meanwhile the Colonists had taken their lonely way by boat or canoe, to the foot of Lake Winnipeg—not expecting a speedy delivery. They reached their rendezvous in July. Lord Selkirk knew in a general way that his Colony was in danger and so had given orders to his faithful officer—Colin Robertson, who had done yeoman service in collecting his first party in Scotland, but who was now in Canada—to engage a number of men and with them proceed to Red River settlement to help his Colonists. That the real state of things was not known to Robertson, or the founder, appears in the fact that Robertson coming from the East with twenty Canadians, passed up the Red River to the Forks to get the first news of the dispersing of the Colonists. With his usual dash their rescuer immediately followed the settlers to Jack River, found them very much discouraged but persuaded them to return again to the banks of the Red River. The work of rebuilding other houses which McLeod had not been able to overtake now went on, and there was the greatest anxiety to hear of Lord Selkirk's plans.

The Earl of Selkirk had not become in the slightest degree discouraged. Opposition and failure seemed but to inspire him the more. On the return of Miles Macdonell as a prisoner to Montreal in the hands of the Nor'- Wester emmissaries, the founder immediately sought for a competent successor to Macdonell, and determined to send out the best and strongest party of settlers that had yet been gathered.

He appointed, backed by all the influence of the Hudson's Bay Company, a retired officer, Captain Robert Semple. The new Governor was of American origin, born in Philadelphia, but had been in the British army. He was a distinctly high-class man, though Masson's estimate is probably true—"A man not very conciliatory, it is true, but intelligent, honorable and a man of integrity." He was an author of some note, but as it proved, too good or too inexperienced a man for the lawless region to which he was sent.

It would have been almost useless to despatch a new Governor to the Red River settlement unless there had also been obtained a number of settlers to fill the place of those so skillfully led away by Duncan Cameron. Lord Selkirk now secured the best band of Emigrants attainable. These were from a rural parish on the East Coast of Sutherlandshire in Scotland. They were from Helmsdale and from the parish of Kildonan and the noble founder afterwards conferred this name on their new parish on the banks of the Red River. The names of Matheson, Bannerman, Sutherland, Polson, Gunn and the like show the sturdy character of this band whose descendents are taking their full part in the affairs of the Province of Manitoba of to-day. Governor Semple accompanied this party of about one hundred settlers, and by way of the Hudson Bay route reached the Red River Settlement in the same year in which they started. They joined the restored settlers, whom Colin Robertson had placed upon their lands again. With Governor Semple's contingent came James Sutherland, an elder of the Church of Scotland, who was authorized to baptize and marry. He was the first ordained man who reached the Selkirk Colony. The influx of new and old settlers to the Colony, and the imperfect preparations made for their shelter and sustenance led to the whole Company betaking itself for the winter to Pembina, where at Fort Daer they might be within reach of the buffalo herds. Governor Semple accompanied the settlers to Pembina, though Alexander Macdonell had charge for the winter. In October of 1815, as the settlers were preparing for their winter quarters, the authorities of the Colony thought it right to seize Fort Gibraltar, and to retake the field pieces and other property of the Colony, which the "Nor'-Westers" had captured. This was done and Duncan Cameron who had returned was also taken prisoner. Cameron, on his promising to keep the peace was almost immediately restored to his liberty and to the command of his fort. The feeling, however, all over the country where there were rival Forts was not a happy one and gave anxiety to both parties as to the future. After New Year, 1816, Governor Semple returned from Pembina and counselled with Colin Robertson, as to the disturbed state of things. They came to the conclusion that the only safe course was to again capture Fort Gibraltar. This they did about April, 1816, and again held Cameron as a prisoner. Duncan Cameron was however a dangerous prisoner. His ingenuity, courage, and force of character were so great that at any time he might be the centre of a movement among the Metis. It was in consequence decided that Duncan Cameron should be taken as a captive to England by way of York Factory and be tried across seas. Colin Robertson was instructed to conduct him to York Factory. No doubt this was a reprisal for the arrest and banishment meted out to Miles Macdonell. Cameron was delayed at York Factory on his way to England for more than a year and after a short stay in Britain returned to Canada. He afterwards obtained damages of £3,000 for his illegal detention.

Fort Douglas 
From copy of a Pencil sketch made by Lord Selkirk and obtained by the author

But there was future trouble brewing all through the West.

The new Governor, however, unaware of the real state of matters in Rupert's Land and probably ignorant of the claim of Canada to the West, and of the force of a customary occupation of the land, procured with high-handed zeal a further reprisal. Before Colin Robertson had gone to conduct Cameron to York Factory the Governor and Robertson had discussed the advisability of dismantling Fort Gibraltar. To this course Robertson, knowing the irritation which this would cause to the Nor'-Westers strongly objected. For the time the proposal was dropped, but when Robertson had gone, then the Governor proceeded with a force of thirty men to pull down Gibraltar, which was done in a week. The stockade was taken down, carried to the Red River and made into a raft. Upon this was piled the material of the buildings, and the whole was floated to the site of Fort Douglas and used in erecting a new structure and fully completing the Fort which John McLeod had begun. The same aggressive course was pursued under orders from the Governor in regard to Pembina House which was captured, its occupants sent as prisoners to Fort Douglas, and its stores confiscated for the use of the Colony. The spirit shown by Governor Semple, it is suggested, had something of the same treatment as that given to the Colonists by the official classes in England against which Edmund Burke burst out with such vehemence in his great orations.

Governor Semple's course would not satisfy Colin Robertson nor would it have been approved by Lord Selkirk. The course was his own and fully did he afterwards pay the price for his aggressions.

The last acts of Governor Semple as the report of them was carried westward and repeated over the camp fires of the Nor'-Westers and their Bois-brulés horsemen and voyageurs caused the most violent excitement. The Metis claimed a right in the soil from their Indian mothers. The Indian title had never been extinguished and afterwards Lord Selkirk found it necessary to make a treaty and satisfy the Indian claim. The Nor'-Westers were also by a good number of years the first occupants of the Red River district. The Canadian discovery of the West by French traders, the daring occupation by Findlay, the Frobishers, Thompson, and Sir Alexander Mackenzie all from Montreal even to the Arctic and Pacific Oceans, seemed strong to Canadians as against the undefined and shadowy claim to the soil of Lord Selkirk and his officers.

Certain signs of coming trouble might have pressed themselves upon Governor Semple. He had eyes but he saw not.

The Indians, it is true, with their reverence for King George III., and showing their silver medals with the old King's face upon them, were disposed to take sides with the British Company. This may have confirmed Semple in the tyrannical course he had followed, but had he studied the action of the free traders it might have opened his eyes. Just as certain animals of the prairie exposed to enemies have an instinctive feeling of coming danger, so these denizens of the plains felt the approach of trouble, and with their wives and half-breed children betook themselves—bag and baggage—to the far Western plains where the buffalo runs, and remained there to let the storm blow past, to return to the "Forks" in more peaceful times.

Lord Selkirk, Lady Selkirk, with his Lordship's son and two daughters, were on the other hand drawing nearer to the scene of conflict, as they came to Montreal in the summer of 1815. In the spring Lord Selkirk started westward to see the vast estate which he possessed, but alas! only to see it in the throes of division, of excited passion and of bloody conflict, and to face one of the greatest catastrophes of new world Colonization.

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus