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
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
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
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
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).
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
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
"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 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."