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 14 Satrap Rule

"Woe to the Nation," says a high authority, "whose King is a child," but far worse than even having a child-ruler is the fate of a Kingdom or Principality whose ruler is a hireling. The Roman Empire was ruled in the different provinces by selfish and dishonest adventurers, who tyrannized over the people, farmed out the revenues, bribed their favorites and defrauded their masters. Turkish Government or Persian Rule is to-day an organized system of extortion and oppression by unscrupulous Satraps. Lord Selkirk's two governors, Miles Macdonell and Robert Semple, had been removed, the former by capture, the latter by death. Alexander Macdonell in 1816 became acting governor and was confirmed in office for five or six years afterward. In his regime the Grasshoppers came and did their destructive work, but the French people nicknamed him "Governor Sauterelle," Grasshopper Governor, for, says the historian of this decade he was so called, "because he proved as great a destroyer within doors as the grasshoppers in the fields."

Lord Selkirk had been a most generous and sympathetic founder to his Scottish Colony. He was not only proprietor of the whole Red River Valley, but he felt himself responsible for the support and comfort of his Colonists. He had to begin with supplying food, clothing, implements, arms and ammunition to his settlers. He had erected buildings for shelter and a store house and fort for the protection of them and their goods. He had supplied, in a Colony shop, provisions and all requisites to be purchased by his settlers and on account of their poverty to be charged to their individual accounts.

George Simpson, who was the new Governor of the United Hudson's Bay Company, was for two years Macdonell's contemporary, and he in one of his letters says: "Macdonell is, I am concerned to say, extremely unpopular, despised and held in contempt by every person connected with the place, he is accused of partiality, dishonesty, untruth and drunkenness,—in short, by a disrespect of every moral and elevated feeling."

Alexander Ross says of him, "The officials he kept about him resembled the court of an Eastern Nabob, with its warriors, serfs, and varlets, and the names they bore were hardly less pompous, for here were secretaries, assistant secretaries, accountants, orderlies, grooms, cooks and butlers."

Satrap Macdonell held high revels in his time. "From the time the puncheons of rum reached the colony in the fall, till they were all drunk dry, nothing was to be seen or heard about Fort Douglas but balling, dancing, rioting and drunkenness in the barbarous sport of those disorderly times." Macdonell's method of reckoning accounts was unique. "In place of having recourse to the tedious process of pen and ink the heel of a bottle was filled with wheat and set on the cask. This contrivance was called the 'hour glass,' and for every flagon drawn off, a grain of wheat was taken out of the hour glass, and put aside till the bouse was over."

As was to be expected this disgraceful state of things led to grave frauds in the dealings with the Colonists, and when Halkett, one of Lord Selkirk's executors, arrived on Red River to investigate the complaints, a thorough system of "false entries, erroneous statements and over-charges" was found, and the discontent of the settlers was removed, though they were all heavily in debt to the Estate.

It had been the object of Lord Selkirk from the beginning of his enterprise to give employment to his needy Colonists. Various enterprises were begun with this end in view, but they were all mere bubbles which soon burst. John Pritchard, whom Lord Selkirk had taken as his secretary to London, was largely instrumental in floating the ill-starred scheme known as the "Buffalo Wool Company." Just as on the shores of the Mediterranean, shawls were made from the long wool of the goats, so it was thought that shawls could be made of the hair or wool of the buffalo. A voluminous correspondence given in many letters of Pritchard's to Lady Selkirk and other ladies of high station and to an English firm of manufacturers exploiting this project is before us. Sample squares of the cloth made of buffalo wool were distributed and in certain circles the novelty from the Red River was the "talk of the town," in London.

On the banks of Red River the scheme took like wild-fire. All Red River people were to make fortunes. There were to be high wages and work for everybody. Wages were increased, and men were receiving nearly four dollars a day. Money became plentiful and provisions became dear and also scarce. The employees, higher and lower, became intoxicated with their success, as they now also became really intoxicated and fell into reckless habits. The work was neglected, and the enterprize collapsed. This was the earliest boom on Red River banks. Failure was sure to follow so mad a scheme. The buffalo wool cloth which it cost some twelve dollars and a half to manufacture, partly in Red River Settlement and partly in England, was sold for little more than one dollar a yard. The £2,000 of capital was all swallowed up, £4,500 of debt to the Hudson's Bay Company was never paid, the scheme became a laughing stock in England, and failure and misery followed its collapse in the Colony.

At this time the French-Canadian settlement at Pembina was induced to remove to St. Boniface on the Red River, where they gathered around their new priest, Provencher, to whom they became much attached.

The Selkirk Trustees, in every way, continued ungrudgingly to advance the interests of the Colony, but their plans, though often mere theories failed more from extravagance and want of good men to execute them than from any other cause.

Believing that farming was the thing needing cultivation in a country with so rich a soil, the Colonizers began the Hayfield farm on the north bank of the Assiniboine River, near what is now the outskirts of the City of Winnipeg, a little above the present Agricultural College buildings. Beginning with an expensive salary for Manager Laidlaw, the promoters erected ample farm buildings, barns, yards and stables. Importations were made of well-bred cattle and horses. Several years of mismanagement and helplessness resulted from this trial of a model farm, and it was given up at a total loss to the proprietors of £3,500. The Assiniboine Wool Company was next started, but failed before the first payment of stock took place, without damage to anyone, so that, as was remarked, there was "much cry and little wool." The Flax and Hemp Company was the next unfortunate enterprise. This failed on account of there being no market, so that farmers never reaped the successful crops which they had grown. An expedition was made to Missouri, under Messrs. Burke and Campbell, to introduce sheep into the settlement. As the fifteen hundred sheep purchased had to be driven 1,500 miles to their destination on Red River, only two hundred and fifty of the whole flock survived. Failure after failure taking place did not prevent the formation of a Tallow Company, which resulted in the loss of £600 to £1,000, and a considerable sum was spent also in an abortive attempt to open up a road to Hudson's Bay, a scheme which Lord Selkirk's letters show, he had in view from the very beginning of the life of the Colony. The courage and generosity of the executors of Lord Selkirk shown to all these enterprises reflects the greatest credit upon them. True, the concession of so wide an area of fertile land was worth it, and the pledges made to the Selkirk settlers demanded it, but as in hundreds of other enterprises undertaken by British capitalists on the American continent, the choice of men foreign to the country and its conditions, the lack of conscience and economy on the part of the agents sent out, the dissension and jealousy aroused by every such attempt, as well as the absence of the means of transport by land and sea through the methods supplied by science to-day, resulted in a series of dismal failures, which placed an undeserved stigma upon the character of the soil, climate, and resources of Assiniboia. It took more than fifty years of subsequent effort to remove this impression.

These experiences took place under those governors who succeeded Alexander Macdonell—the Grasshopper Governor. The first of them was Captain Bulger, an unfortunate martinet, though a man of good conscience and high ideals. He had a most uncompromising manner. He quarreled with the Hudson's Bay Company officer at Fort Garry on the one hand, and with old Indian Chief Peguis on the other. A whole crop of suggestions made by the Captain on the improvement of the Colony remain in his "Red River Papers." Bulger's successor was Governor Pelly, a relative of the celebrated Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company. The new Governor lacked nerve and decision, and was quite unfitted for his position. His method of dealing with an Indian murderer was long repeated on Red River as a subject for humor, when he instructed the interpreter to announce to the criminal: "that he had manifested a disposition subversive of all order, and if he should not be punished in this world, he would be sure to be punished in the next." The hopelessness of carrying on the affairs of the Colony apart from those of the general affairs of the Hudson's Bay Company, was now seen, and on the suggestion of Governor Simpson, the management was placed in the hands of governors immediately responsible to the company. This change led to the appointment as Governor of Donald McKenzie. This old trader had taken part in the formation of the Astor Fur Company, and was in charge of one of the famous parties, which in 1811 crossed the continent, as described by Washington Irving. Ross Cox says of this beleaguered party: "Their concave cheeks, protuberant bones, and tattered garments indicated the dreadful extent of their privations. The old trader thus case-hardened faced bravely for eight years the worries of the Colony.

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.