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The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk's Colonists
Chapter 9 Seven Oaks Massacre

Semple's course is on trial. Self-assertion and dictation bring their own penalty with them. That so experienced a leader as Colin Robertson, who had been in both Companies, who knew the native element, and was acquainted with the daring and recklessness of the Nor'-Wester leaders, hesitated about demolishing Fort Gibraltar should have given Governor Semple pause. Ignorance and inexperience sometimes give men rare courage. But while Semple was self-confident he could not be exonerated from paying the price of his rashness.

Undoubtedly the Governor knew that the "Nor'-Westers" after their aggressiveness during the year 1815 were planning an attack upon Fort Douglas and upon the Colonists. Letters intercepted by the Governor acquainted him with the fact that an expedition was coming from Fort William in the East to fall upon the devoted Colony; also a letter from Qu'Appelle written by Cuthbert Grant, the young Bois-brulés leader, to John Dugald Cameron, stated that the native horsemen were coming in the spring from the Saskatchewan forts to join those of Qu'Appelle, and says the writer, "It is hoped we shall come off with flying colors, and never to see any of them again in the Colonizing way in Red River."

The evidence in hand was clear enough to the Governor. He expected the attack, and as a soldier he took action from the military standpoint in destroying the enemy's base in levelling their Fort Gibraltar. But on the other hand there was no open war. The forms of law were being followed by the Nor'-Westers, whose officers were magistrates, and who held that by the authorization of the British Parliament the administration of justice in the Western Territories was given over to Canada. The decision afterwards given in the De Reinhard case in Quebec seems against this theory, but this was the popular opinion.

Thus it came about that among the Hudson's Bay Company fur traders, who were somewhat doubtful about Lord Selkirk's movement, and certainly among all the "Nor'-Westers," who included the French Canadian voyageur population, Governor Semple's action was looked upon as illegal and unjust in destroying Fort Gibraltar and appropriating its materials for building up the Colony Headquarters—Fort Douglas.

As the spring opened the wildest rumours of approaching conflict spread through the whole fifteen hundred miles of country from Fort William on Lake Superior, to the Prairie Fort, where Edmonton now stands on the North Saskatchewan. The excitement was especially high in the Qu'Appelle district, some three hundred miles west of Red River.

As the spring of 1815 opened, all eyes were looking to the action of the "New Nation" on the Qu'Appelle River as the Bois-brulés under Cuthbert Grant called themselves. As the whole of these events were afterwards investigated by the law courts of Upper Canada, there is substantial agreement about the facts. The first violence of the season is described by Lieutenant Pambrun, a most accurate writer. He had served in the war of 1812 and gained distinction. On entering the Hudson's Bay Company service he was sent to Qu'Appelle district. In order to supply food at Fort Douglas Pambrun started down the river to reach the Fort by descending the Assiniboine with five boat loads of pemmican and furs. At a landing place in the river Pambrun's convoy was surrounded and his goods seized by Cuthbert Grant, Pambrun himself being kept for five days as a prisoner. While in custody Pambrun saw every evidence of war-like intentions on the part of the half-breeds. Cuthbert Grant frequently announced their determination to destroy the Selkirk Settlement; in boastful language it was declared that the Bois-brulés would bow to no authority in Rupert's Land; in their gatherings they sang French war-songs to keep up the spirit of their corps. There was a ring of growing nationality in all their utterances.

A start was made late in May for the scene of action. Their prisoner Lieutenant Pambrun was taken with them and the captured pemmican was carried along as supplies for the journey.

On the way an episode of some moment occurred. On the river bank a band of Cree Indians was encamped.

Commander Macdonell addressed the redmen through an interpreter to incite them to action. A portion of his address was:

My Friends and Relations,—"I address you bashfully, for I have not a pipe of tobacco to give you.... The English have been spoiling the fair lands which belonged to you and the Bois-brulés and to which they have no right. They have been driving away the buffalo. You will soon be poor and miserable if the English stay. But we will drive them away, if the Indian does not, for the 'Nor'-West' Company and the Bois-brulés are one. If you (turning to the chief) and some of your young men will join I shall be glad."

But the taciturn Indian Chief coldly declined the polite proposal. As the party passed Brandon House Pambrun saw in the North-West Fort near by, tobacco, tools and furs, which had been captured by the Nor'-Westers from the Hudson's Bay Company fort. When Portage la Prairie was reached—about sixty miles from "The Forks"—the Bois-brulés cavalcade was organized.

The half-breeds were mounted on their prairie steeds and formed a company of sixty men under command of Cuthbert Grant. Dressed in their blue capotes and encircled by red sashes the men of this irregular cavalry had an imposing effect, especially as they were provided with every variety of arms from muskets and pistols down to bows and arrows. They were all expert riders and could equal in their feats on horseback the fabled Centaurs.

Down the Portage road which is a prolongation of the great business street of Winnipeg running to the West, they came. On the 19th of June, 1816, they had arrived within four miles of the Colony headquarters—Fort Douglas. Here at Boggy Creek, called also Cat-Fish Creek, a Council of War was held. Some importance has been attached to their action at this point, as showing their motive. That they did not intend to attack Fort Douglas has been maintained, else they would not have turned off the Portage Road and have crossed the prairie to the Northeast. There is nothing in this contention. The plan of campaign was that the Fort William expedition and they were to meet at some point on the banks of Red River, before they took further action. Showing how well both parties had timed their movements, at this very moment those coming from the East under Trader Alexander McLeod, had reached a small tributary of Red River some forty miles from Fort Douglas. That they at present wished to avoid Fort Douglas is certainly true. Governor Semple and his garrison were on the look-out, and the alarm being given, the party from the Fort sallied forth. Was it to parley? or to fight?

The events which followed are well told in the evidence given by Mr. John Pritchard, who afterwards acted as Lord Selkirk's secretary. Mr. Pritchard was the grandfather of the present Archbishop Matheson of Rupert's Land. His evidence has been in almost every respect corroborated by other eye-witnesses of this bloody event:

"On the evening of the 19th of June, 1816, I had been upstairs in my own room, in Fort Douglas, and about six o'clock I heard the boy at the watch house give the alarm that the Bois-brulés were coming. A few of us, among whom was Governor Semple—there were perhaps six altogether—looked through a spyglass, from a place that had been used as a stable, and we distinctly saw armed persons going along the plains. Shortly after, I heard the same boy call out, that the party on horseback were making to the settlers."

"About twenty of us, in obedience to the Governor," who said, 'We must go and see what these people are,' took our arms. He could only let about twenty go, at least he told about twenty to follow him, to come with him; there was, however, some confusion at the time, and I believe a few more than twenty accompanied us. Having proceeded about half a mile towards the settlement, we saw, behind a point of wood which goes down to the river, that the party increased very much. Mr. Semple, therefore, sent one of the people (Mr. Burke) to the Fort for a piece of cannon and as many men as Mr. Miles Macdonell could spare. Mr. Burke, however, not returning soon, Governor Semple said, 'Gentlemen, we had better go on, and we accordingly proceeded. We had not gone far before we saw the Bois-brulés returning towards us, and they divided into two parties, and surrounded us in the shape of a half-moon or half-circle. On our way, we met a number of the settlers crying, and speaking in the Gaelic language, which I do not understand, and they went on to the Fort. went on to the Fort.


RED RIVER SETTLEMENT Fac-simile of section of Map (1818).
A—Seven Oaks, where Semple fell.
B—Creek where Metis left Assiniboine.
C—Frog Plain (since Kildonan church).
E to F—De Meuron Settlers on Seine.
G—Half-breeds (St. Boniface of to-day).
H—Fort Douglas (1815).
I—Colony Gardens.
J—Fort Gibraltar (N.W. Co.)
K—Road followed by Metis.
L—Dry Cart trail west of Settlers' lots.

"The party on horseback had got pretty near to us, so that we could discover that they were painted and disguised in the most hideous manner; upon this, as they were retreating, a Frenchman named Boucher advanced, waving his hand, riding up to us, and calling out in broken English, 'What do you want? What do you want?' Governor Semple said. 'What do you want?' Mr. Burke not coming on with the cannon as soon as he was expected, the Governor directed the party to proceed onwards; we had not gone far before we saw the Bois-brulés returning upon us.

"Upon observing that they were so numerous, we had extended our line, and got more into the open plain; as they advanced, we retreated; but they divided themselves into two parties, and surrounded us again in the shape of a half-moon."

"Boucher then came out of the ranks of his party, and advanced towards us (he was on horseback), calling out in broken English, 'What do you want? What do you want?' Governor Semple answered, 'What do you want?' To which Boucher answered, 'We want our Fort.' The Governor said, 'Well, go to your Fort.' After that I did not hear anything that passed, as they were close together. I saw the Governor putting his hand on Boucher's gun. Expecting an attack to be made instantly, I had not been looking at Governor Semple and Boucher for some time; but just then I happened to turn my head that way, and immediately I heard a shot, and directly afterwards a general firing. I turned round upon hearing the shot, and saw Mr. Holte, one of our officers, struggling as if he were shot. He was on the ground. On their approach, as I have said, we had extended our line on the plain, by each taking a place at a greater distance from the other. This had been done by the Governor's orders, and we each took such places as best suited our individual safety.

"From not seeing the firing begin, I cannot say from whom it first came; but immediately upon hearing the first shot, I turned and saw Lieut. Holte struggling." (Several persons present at the affair, such as a blacksmith named Heden, and McKay, a settler, distinctly state that the first shot fired was from the Bois-brulés and that by it Lieut. Holte fell).

"As to our attacking our assailants, one of our people, Bruin, I believe, did propose that we should keep them off; and the Governor turned round and asked who could be such a rascal as to make such a proposition? and that he should hear no word of that kind again. The Governor was very much displeased indeed at the suggestion made. A fire was kept up for several minutes after the first shot, and I saw a number wounded; indeed, in a few minutes almost all our people were either killed or wounded. I saw Sinclair and Bruin fall, either wounded or killed; and a Mr. McLean, a little in front defending himself, but by a second shot I saw him fall.

"At this time I saw Captain Rodgers getting up again, but not observing any of our people standing, I called out to him, 'Rodgers, for God's sake give yourself up! Give yourself up!' Captain Rodgers ran toward them, calling out in English and in broken French, that he surrendered, and that he gave himself up, and praying them to save his life. Thomas McKay, a Bois-brulés, shot him through the head, and another Bois-brulés dashed upon him with a knife, using the most horrid imprecations to him. I did not see the Governor fall. I saw his corpse the next day at the Fort. When I saw Captain Rodgers fall, I expected to share his fate. As there was a French-Canadian among those who surrounded me, who had just made an end of my friend, I said, 'Lavigne, you are a Frenchman, you are a man, you are a Christian. For God's sake save my life! For God's sake try and save it! I give myself up; I am your prisoner.' McKay, who was among this party, and who knew me, said, 'You little toad, what do you do here?' He spoke in French, and called me 'un petit crapaud,' and asked what I did here! I fully expected then to lose my life. I again appealed to Lavigne, and he joined in entreating them to spare me. I told them over and over again that I was their prisoner, and I had something to tell them. They, however, seemed determined to take my life. They struck at me with their guns, and Lavigne caught some of the blows, and joined me in entreating for my safety. He told them of my kindness on different occasions. I remonstrated that I had thrown down my arms and was at their mercy. One Primeau wished to shoot me; he said I had formerly killed his brother. I begged him to recollect my former kindness to him at Qu'Appelle. At length they spared me, telling me I was a little dog, and had not long to live, and that he (Primeau) would find me when he came back.

"Then I went to Frog Plain (Kildonan), in charge of Boucher. In going to the plain I was again threatened by one of the party, and saved by Boucher, who conducted me safely to Frog Plain. I there saw Cuthbert Grant, who told me that they did not expect to have met us on the plain, but that their intention was to have surprised the Colony, and that they would have hunted the Colonists like buffaloes. He also told me they expected to have got round unperceived, and at night would have surrounded the Fort and have shot everyone who left it; but being seen, their scheme had been destroyed or frustrated. They were all painted and disfigured so that I did not know many. I should not have known that Cuthbert Grant was there, though I knew him well, had he not spoken to me."

"Grant told me that Governor Semple was not mortally wounded by the shot he received, but that his thigh was broken. He said that he spoke to the Governor after he was wounded, and had been asked by him to have him taken to the Fort, and as he was not mortally wounded he thought he might perhaps live. Grant said he could not take him himself as he had something else to do, but that he would send some person to convey him on whom he might depend, and that he left him in charge of a French-Canadian and went away; but that almost directly after he had left him, an Indian, who, he said, was the only rascal they had, came up and shot him in the breast, and killed him on the spot.

"The Bois-brulés, who very seldom paint or disguise themselves, were on this occasion painted as I have been accustomed to see the Indians at their war-dance; they were very much painted, and disguised in a hideous manner. They gave the war-whoop when they met Governor Semple and his party; they made a hideous noise and shouting. I know from Grant, as well as from other Bois-brulés, and other settlers, that some of the Colonists had been taken prisoners. Grant told me that they were taken to weaken the Colony, and prevent its being known that they were there—they having supposed that they had passed the Fort unobserved.

"Their intention clearly was to pass the Fort. I saw no carts, though I heard they had carts with them. I saw about five of the settlers prisoners in the camp at Frog Plain. Grant said to me further: 'You see we have had but one of our people killed, and how little quarter we have given you. Now, if Fort Douglas is not given up with all the public property instantly and without resistance, man, women and child will be put to death.' He said the attack would be made upon it that night, and if a single shot were fired, that would be a signal for the indiscriminate destruction of every soul. I was completely satisfied myself that the whole would be destroyed, and I besought Grant, whom I knew, to suggest or let them try and devise some means to save the women and children. I represented to him that they could have done no harm to anybody, whatever he or his party might think the men had. I entreated him to take compassion on them. I reminded him that they were his father's country-women and in his deceased father's name, I begged him to take pity and compassion on them and spare them.

At last he said, if all the arms and public property were given up, we should be allowed to go away. After inducing the Bois-brulés to allow me to go to Fort Douglas, I met our people; they were long unwilling to give up, but at last our Mr. Macdonell, who was now in charge consented. We went together to the Frog Plain, and an inventory of the property was taken when we had returned to the Fort. The Fort was delivered over to Cuthbert Grant, who gave receipts on each sheet of the inventory signed 'Cuthbert Grant, acting for the North-West Company.' I remained at Fort Douglas till the evening of the 22nd, when all proceeded down the river—the settlers, a second time on their journey into exile.

"The Colonists, it is true, had little now to leave. They were generally employed in agricultural pursuits, in attending to their farms, and the servants of the Hudson's Bay Company in their ordinary avocations. They lived in tents or in huts. In 1816 at Red River there was but one residence, the Governor's which was in Fort Douglas. The settlers had lived in houses previous to 1815, but in that year these had been burnt in the attack that had been made upon them. The settlers were employed during the day time on their land, and used to come up to the Fort to sleep in some of the buildings in the enclosure. All was now left behind. The Bois-brulés victory being now complete, the messenger was despatched Westward to tell the news far and near."

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