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The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk's Colonists
Chapter 12 Soldiers and Swiss

Many Canadian Settlements have had a military origin. It was considered a wise, strategic move in the game of national defence when Colonel Butler and his Rangers, after the Treaty of Paris, were settled along the Niagara frontier, and when Captain Grass and other United Empire Loyalists took up their holdings at Kingston and other points on the boundary line along the St. Lawrence. The town of Perth was the headquarters of a military settlement in Central Canada. Traces of military occupation can still be found in such Highland districts of Canada as Pictou, Glengarry and Zorra, in which last named township the enthusiastic Celt in 1866 declared that perhaps the Fenians would take Canada, but they could never take Zorra. Numerous examples can be found all through Canada where there is an aroma of valor and patriotism surrounding the old army officer or the families of the veterans of the Napoleonic or Crimean wars.

The settlement of the De Meuron soldiers opposite Fort Douglas gave some promise of a military flavor to Selkirk Settlement. But as we shall see it was an ill-advised attempt at colonization. It was a mistake to settle some hundred or more single men as these soldiers were without a woman among them, as Lord Selkirk was compelled to do. To these soldier-colonists he gave lands along the small winding river now called the Seine, which empties into Red River opposite Point Douglas. Many of the De Meurons spoke German, and hence for several years the little stream on which they lived was called German Creek. The writings of the time are full of rather severe criticism of these bello-agricultural settlers. Of course no one expects an old soldier to be of much use to a new country. He is usually a lazy settler. His habits of life are formed in another mould from that of the farm. He is apt to despise the hoe and the harrow and many even of the half-pay officers who came to hew out a home in the Canadian forest, never learned to cut down a tree or to hold a plough, though it may be admitted that they lived a useful life in their sons and daughters, while the culture and decision of character of the old officer or sturdy veteran were an asset of great value to the locality in which he settled.

But the De Meurons were not only bachelors, but they came from the peasantry of Austria and Italy, they had not fought for home and country, and their life of mercenary soldiering had made them selfish and deceitful. A writer of the time speaks, and evidently with much prejudice, against the De Meurons. "They were," he says, "a medley of almost all nations—Germans, French, Italians, Swiss and others. They were bad farmers and withal very bad subjects; quarrelsome, slothful, famous bottle companions and ready for any enterprise however lawless and tyrannical." A few years later we find it stated that they made free with the cattle of their neighbors, and the chronicler does not hesitate to say that the herds of the De Meurons grew in number in exactly the same ratio as those of the Scottish settlers decreased.

Some four years after the settlement of the De Meurons a sunburst came upon them quite unexpectedly.

Lord Selkirk in the very last years of his life planned to bring a band of Protestant settlers from Switzerland. A Colonel May, late of another of the mercenary regiments, accepted the duty of going to Switzerland, issuing a very attractive invitation to settlers, and succeeded in shipping a considerable number of Swiss families to his so-called Red River paradise.

This band of Colonists, consisting as they did of "watch and clock-makers, pastry cooks and musicians," were quite unfit for the rough work of the Selkirk Colony. In 1821 they were brought by way of Hudson Bay, over the same rocky way as the earlier Colonists came. They were utterly poverty stricken, though honest, and well-behaved. Their only possession of value was a plenty of handsome daughters. The Swiss families on arrival were placed under tents nearby Fort Douglas. As soon as possible many of the Swiss settlers were placed alongside the De Meurons on German Creek. Good Mr. West, who had just been sent out as chaplain by the Hudson's Bay Company, in place of the minister of their own faith promised to the Scottish settlers, did a great stroke of work in marrying the young Swiss girls to the De Meuron bachelors of German Creek. The description of the way in which the De Meurons invited families having young women in them to the wifeless cabins is ludicrous. A modern "Sabine raid" was made upon the young damsels, who were actually carried away to the De Meuron homesteads. The Swiss families which had the misfortune to have no daughters in them were left to languish in their comfortless tents. The afflictions of the earlier Selkirk settlers were increased by the arrival of these settlers. With the Selkirk settlers in their first decade the first consideration was always food. Till that question is settled no Colony can advance. Probably the most alarming and hopeless feature of their new colonial life was the appearance of vast flights of locusts or grasshoppers, which devoured every blade of wheat and grass in the country. To those who have never seen this plague it is inconceivable. Some thirty-five years ago in Manitoba the writer witnessed the utter devastation of the country by these pests. Some thirteen years before the coming of the first Colonists this plague prevailed. About the end of July, 1818, these riders of the air made their attack. In this year the Selkirk Colonists were greatly discouraged by the capture and removal to Canada, by the Nor'-Westers, of Mr. James Sutherland, their spiritual guide. But their labors now seem likely to be rewarded by a good harvest. The oats and barley were in ear, when suddenly the invasion came. The vast clouds of grasshoppers sailing northward from the great Utah desert in the United States, alighted late in the afternoon of one day and in the morning fields of grain, gardens with their promise, and every herb in the Settlement were gone, and a waste like a blasted hearth remained behind. The event was more than a loss of their crops, it seemed a heaven-struck blow upon their community, and it is said they lifted up their eyes to heaven, weeping and despairing. The sole return of their labors for the season was a few ears of half-ripened barley which the women saved and carried home in their aprons. There was no help for it but to retire to Pembina, although there was less fear than formerly for as a writer of the day says: "The settlers had now become good hunters; they could kill the buffalo; walk on snowshoes; had trains of dogs trimmed with ribbons, bells and feathers, in true Indian style; and in other respects were making rapid steps in the arts of a savage life."

The complete loss of their crops left the settlers even without the seed-wheat necessary to sow their fields. The nearest point of supply of this necessity was an agricultural settlement in the State of Minnesota, upwards of five hundred miles away. Here was a mighty task—to undertake to cross the plains in winter and to bring back in time for the seeding time in spring the wheat which was necessary. But the Highlander is not to be deterred by rocky crag or dashing river, or heavy snow in his own land and he was ready to face this and more in the new world. And so a daring party went off on snowshoes, and taking three months for their trip, reached the land of plenty and secured some hundred bushels at the price of ten shillings a bushel.

The question now was how to transport the wheat through a trackless wilderness. Up the Mississippi River for hundreds of miles the flat boats constructed for the purpose were painfully propelled, and passing through the branch known as the Minnesota River the Stony Lake was reached. This lake is the source of the Minnesota and Red rivers, and being at high water in the spring it was possible to go through the narrow lake from one river to the other with the rough boats constructed. The Red River was reached by the fearless adventurers who brought the "corn out of Egypt." They did not, however, reach the Red River with their treasure till about the end of June, 1820, and while the wheat grew well it was sown too late to ripen well, although it gave the settlers grain enough to sow the fields of the coming year. This expedition cost Lord Selkirk upwards of a thousand pounds sterling. In the following year the grasshoppers again visited the Red River fields, but by a sudden movement which, by some of the good Colonists was interpreted to be a direct interference of Providence on their behalf, the swarms of intruders passed away never to appear again in the Red River for half a century.

The presence of the grasshoppers upon the Canadian prairies is one of interest. It is known that they appeared throughout the territory of Red River a dozen years or so before the coming of the Selkirk Colonists, also during the period we have been describing, and then not till the period from 1868 to 1875. During the latter half of this period the writer saw their devastations in Manitoba. The occurrence of the grasshopper at times in all agricultural districts in America is very different from the grasshopper or locust plague which we are describing. The red-legged Caloptenus or the Rocky Mountain locust are provided for lofty flight and pass in myriads over the prairies, lighting whenever a cloud obscures the sun. At one time the writer saw them in such hordes that they were found from Winnipeg to Edmonton, over a region about one thousand miles in breadth. In that year they devoured not only crops and garden products but almost completely ate up the grass on the prairie to such an extent as to make it useless for hay. In the year 1875 they appeared, in the main, for the last time in Manitoba, and in that year their disappearance was as sudden as in the former case of 1821. Under the wing upon the body of each grasshopper was to be found one or more scarlet red parasites which drew all the juices from the body of the insect and produced death. For a third of a century they have been almost unknown, and the area of cultivated ground in the States of North and South Dakota, where they may supply their hunger renders it likely that Manitoba will know them no more. It cannot be wondered at that such continuous disasters made the settler whether Scottish, De Meuron, or Swiss, extremely discontented. During the period of the scourge, the only resource was to winter at Pembina in reasonable distance from the buffalo-herds. In one of these years a number of the Selkirk Colonists did not return to their farms but emigrated to the United States. As we shall see in a few years after the grasshopper scourge the flood of the Red River took place, when the De Meurons and Swiss, with one or two exceptions, disappeared from the Colony and became citizens of the United States.

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