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The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk's Colonists
Chapter 15 And the Flood Came

With fire and flood some of the greatest catastrophies of the world have been closely connected. The tradition of the Noachian deluge has been found among almost all peoples. Horace speaks of the mild little Tiber becoming so unruly that the fishes swam among the tops of the trees upon its banks. Tidal waves devastated the shores of England and France on several occasions. It is most natural that prairie rivers should exceed their banks and spread over wide areas of the land. Old Trader Nolin, one of the first on the prairies, states that a worse flood than that seen by the Selkirk Settlers took place fifty years before, and there were two other floods between these two. Each year, according to the tale of the old settlers, the rivers of the prairies have been becoming wider by denudation, so that each flood tends to be less. Several conditions seem to be necessary for a flood upon these prairie rivers. These are a very heavy snowfall during the prairie winter, a late spring in which the river ice retains its hold, and a sudden period in the springtime of very hot weather, these being modified as the years go on by the ever-widening river channel.

The winter of 1825-6 was one of the most terrific ever known in the history of the Selkirk Settlement. Just before Christmas the first woe occurred. The snow drove the herds of buffaloes far out upon the prairies from the river encampments and the wooded shelter. The horses in bands were scattered and lost, dying as they floundered in the deep snows. Even the hunters were cut off from one another, the hunters' families were driven hither and thither, and in many cases separated on the wide snowy plains. Sheriff Ross, who was a visitor from the Settlement to Pembina in the dreary winter there, describes the scene of horror. "Families here and families there despairing of life, huddled themselves together for warmth, and in too many cases, their shelter proved their grave. At first, the heat of their bodies melted the snow; they became wet, and being without food or fuel, the cold soon penetrated, and in several instances froze the whole into a body of solid ice. Some again, were found in a state of wild delirium, frantic, mad; while others were picked up, one here, and one there, overcome in their fruitless attempts to reach Pembina—some half-way, some more, some less; one woman was found with an infant on her back, within a quarter of a mile of Pembina. This poor creature must have travelled, at least, one hundred and twenty-five miles, in three days and nights, till she sunk at last in the too unequal struggle for life." Such scenes might be expected in the valleys of the Highlands of Scotland, or amid the heavy snows of New Brunswick or Quebec, but they were a surprise upon the open prairie. Some of the settlers had devoured their dogs, raw hides, leather and their very shoes. The loss of thirty-three lives cast a gloom over the whole settlement.

Anxiety had been aroused throughout the whole Colony. The St. Lawrence often overflows its banks at Montreal, the Grand River at Brantford and the Fraser at its delta, but the rarity of the Red River overflows led the people, after their winter disaster, to hope that they would escape a flood.

This was not to be.

As the Red River flows northward, the first thaw of spring is usually south of the American International Boundary line at the head waters of the river which divides Minnesota and Dakota. In these States the floods are always, in consequence, greater than they are in Manitoba. In this year the ice held very firm up to the end of April. On the second of May, the waters from above rose and lifted the ice which still held in a mass together some nine feet above the level of the day before. Indians and whites alike were alarmed. The water overflowed its banks, and still continued to rise at Fort Garry. The Governor and his family were driven to the upper story of their residence in the fort, with the water ten feet deep below that.

The whole river bank for miles was a scene of confusion and terror. Every home was an alarming scene as the flood reached it. The first thought was to save life. Amid the crying of children, the lowing of cattle and the howling of dogs, parents sought out all their children to see them safely removed. Parents and grown men and women fled in fright from their houses, and in many cases without any other garments than their working clothes. The only hope was to seek out somewhat higher spots more and more removed from the river. And with them went their cattle and horses.

To those in boats—the stronger and more venturesome men—the task now came of removing the wheat and oats, what little furniture they possessed and the necessary cooking utensils.

Blessed, on such occasions, are those who possess little for they shall have no loss.

As the waters rose, the lake became wider, and the wind blew the waves to a dangerous height. The ice broke up and the current increasing dashed this against the buildings, which at length gave way and all went floating down across the points—ice, log houses with dogs and cats frantic on their roofs. One eyewitness says: "The most singular spectacle was a house in flames, drifting along in the night, its one half immersed in water and the remainder furiously burning."

As the flood of waters widened into a great expanse it became plain that it would be some time,—if indeed less than several months,—before the waters would begin to abate, and in the absence of an Ararat on which to rest, the settlers occupied the rock-bared elevations, the highest Stony Mount, only eighty feet above the level, with the middle bluff, little Stony Mountain and Bird's Hill, east of the river. It is interesting to know that Silver Heights and the banks of the Sturgeon Creek near its mouth, were not submerged and at their various points the Colonists pitched their tents and sojourned.

In seventeen days from the first rise, the water reached its height, and hope began immediately to return. On the 22nd of May the waters commenced to assuage, and twenty days afterward the Settlers were able with difficulty to reach their homes again.

But every disaster has its side of advantage. During the escape of the Settlers to the heights, the De Meurons, losing all sense of restraint, stole the cattle of the Settlers and actually sold them meat from their own slaughtered cattle. So intense was the feeling of the Scottish Settlers against the De Meurons that the Selkirk Colonists chose another situation and moved to it

Now that the flood was over, the De Meurons and Swiss became more restless than ever. They decided to move to the United States. The Selkirk Colonists were glad to see them go, and furnished them, free of cost, sufficient supplies for their journey. They departed on the 24th of June, their band numbering 243, and the sturdy pioneers who held to their land shed no tears of sorrow at their going.

With remarkable courage and hope the Settlers returned after what was to some of them, their fourth Hegira, and immediately planted potatoes and small quantities of wheat and barley. This grew well and supplied food for them, and in the next two or three years no less than two hundred and four houses were built. The Settlement, now freed from dissension, had not gone through its fiery ordeal in vain. The news of a home for themselves and their dusky wives and half-breed children, had spread over the whole of Rupert's Land, and now began, what Lieutenant-Governor Archibald, the first Governor of Manitoba, afterward spoke of as the floating down the rivers with their wives and children of the Hudson's Bay Company officers and men to the paradise of Red River. The great majority of the employees of the Company were Orkneymen. They gradually took up the most of the Red River lots surveyed, lying below Kildonan, and forming the Parishes of St. Paul's and St. Andrew's on Red River, down to St. Peter's Indian Reserve and St. James' and Headingly up the Assiniboine. The French half-breeds who removed from Pembina and different parts of Rupert's Land, made the great French parishes of St. Boniface, St. Norbert, St. Vital on the Red River, with St. Charles, St. Francois Xavier and Baie St. Paul on the Assiniboine. And now of Scottish Settlers with French and English half-breeds, the population of Red River Settlement had reached the number of 1,500 souls.

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