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The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk's Colonists
Chapter 18 An Ogre of Justice

The wild life of the prairie or mountain cultivates a spirit of freedom. When individuals must become a law unto themselves, when the absence of steamers, railways, electric power, work-shops, and mills, throws men on their own resources, they find it irksome to obey the law. They regard its restrictions as tyrannical. The prairie horse becomes free. He must be caught with the lasso, he needs to be hobbled near the camp, it is necessary to curb him in his temper, but in his wild state he can provide for himself. He knows the best pasture and seeks it, he is acquainted with the water courses and finds them, he returns or not to his stable or covert at his own sweet will, he fights the wolf or the bear and protects the colts from the wild beasts.

As is the prairie steed, so to a large extent is his master. He is apt to despise civilization, prefers his buckskin coat and fringed leggings, and loves the moccasin rather than the stiff leather shoe.

With him the idea of sub-division of property is not developed. There are no local game laws. He shoots large or small game, moose or prairie chicken, whenever he can find them. He traps on whatever stream he chooses. His idea of personal property is very liberal. He is large-hearted and bountiful, divides his find of game with his neighbors, and his shanty has, as he says, "a latch hanging outside the door," for any wanderer or passing stranger.

This many-sided notion of freedom belongs to all primitive peoples and societies. Of the Red River Community the French half-breed was of the most unsubdued and restive type, for he followed the ways of the Indians, while the Selkirk Colonists and their descendants always professed to be farmers, and hunting was only their diversion. Moreover, being of Scottish blood, they had been taught to fear God and honor the King.

We have seen that Governor Simpson had a plan in his mind for gaining control and preserving order in his own kingdom. His idea of building fortified stone forts is chiefly seen in the cases of Upper and Lower Forts Garry. Fort Garry was, as we have seen, well on the way to completion by the time of the French outbreak in connection with Larocque. And Governor Christie was authorized to go on and construct a still more elaborate fort at the Forks to replace the wooden Fort Garry built shortly after the union of the Companies. Thus, a large Fort with numerous buildings, suitable for trade and residence, was begun in 1835, and around it a substantial stone wall was built. The dimensions from east to west were 280 feet, and from north to south 240 feet. The fort faced the Assiniboine River, and each of its corners showed a large and well-built bastion. The bastions were provided with port holes, and all about the structure suggested the possibility of an armed struggle. This was begun in the same year as the formation of the Council of Assiniboia, and was fairly advanced to completion by 1839. Laws for the government of the people, and the administration of justice were passed by the Council, in accordance with the opening address of Governor Simpson, when he said: "The time is at length arrived, when it becomes necessary to put the administration of justice on a more firm and regular footing than heretofore."

And now, in 1839, in this Arcadia of Red River there became evident the dreadful presence of the law in the person of Adam Thom, first Recorder of Rupert's Land, who, as compared with the humble incomes of the people of Red River, had the enormous salary of £700 a year bestowed upon him by the Hudson's Bay Company. The plan was a very real one in Governor Simpson's mind when he took a step so decided.

Recorder and Author.
Lived in Red River Settlement 1839-1854.

And the man who had been chosen for this post was no man of putty. He was a Scotchman of commanding presence, decided opinions and strong will. He was a man of rather aggressive and combative disposition. The writer met him in London long after he had retired—and this was some thirty years ago, and though the judge was then upwards of three score and ten, he was yet a man of force and decision. A graduate of Aberdeen University, Adam Thom had come to Montreal as a lawyer, and was for a time on Lord Durham's staff. He had taken high ground against Papineau's rebellion, and was known as one of the strongest newspaper controversialists of the time. He was a determined opponent of the French-Canadian rebellion, as he was of rebellion in any form whatever. Evidently, Governor Simpson chose a man "after his own heart" for the difficult task, of introducing law and order among the turbulent Nor'-Westers.

The arrival of the new Judge in the Red River Settlement gave rise to much comment. The spirit of discontent had strengthened, as we have seen among the Colonists and English-speaking half-breeds. The Hudson's Bay Company had now re-bought the land of Assiniboia from Lord Selkirk's heirs. Hitherto it was difficult to find out precisely who their oppressor was. Now, though Governor Simpson sought by diplomacy to evade the responsibility, yet the explanation given by the Colonists of the arrival of Recorder Thom, was that he had come to uphold the Company's pretensions and to restrict their liberties. According to Ross,the Colonists reasoned that "a man placed in Recorder Thom's position, liable to be turned out of office at the Company's pleasure, naturally provokes the doubt whether he could at all times be proof against the sin of partiality. Is it likely," they said, "that he could always take the impartial view of a case that might involve in its results his own interests or deprive him of his daily bread?"

Likewise, on the part of the French half-breeds, there was the same distrust in regard to the limiting of the privileges which they enjoyed, while along with this it had been noised about that during the Papineau trouble in Canada, the Judge was no favorite of the French. The French half-breeds, accordingly, became strongly prejudiced against the new Recorder.

In the year after the arrival of Recorder Thom, a most startling and mysterious event—which indeed has never been solved to the present day, happened in the case of Thomas Simpson, who it will be remembered had roused by his crushing blow on the head of Larocque, the rage of the whole French half-breed community. The case was that Thomas Simpson, with a party of natives, had been going southward through Minnesota, ahead of the main body of sojourners. In a state of frenzy he had shot two of his four companions. The other two returned to the main body, and got assistance. He was seen to be alive as they approached him, a shot was heard, and then shots were fired in his direction by those observing him. Whether he committed suicide or was killed by those approaching, some of whom were French, will never be known. The fact that he had quarreled with the French half-breeds, five years before this event, was used to throw suspicion. The body of Simpson was carried back to St. John's Cemetery in Winnipeg, and it is said was buried along the wall in token of the belief that he had committed suicide.

What the body of the people had feared in the tightening of the legal restrictions by the new laws and new officials, did actually take place. The French half-breeds were, as we have seen, chiefly given to hunting. In theory, the Hudson's Bay Company possessed all hunting rights under their charter. A French-Canadian, Larant, and another half-breed also, had the furs, which they had hunted for, forcibly taken from them by legal authority, while in a third case an offender against the game laws had been actually deported to York Factory. Alarm was now general among the French half-breeds. Hitherto the English half-breeds had been loyal to the Company. Alexander Ross gives an incident worth repeating as to how even the English half-breeds became rebellious. He says: "One of the Company's officers, residing at a distance, had placed two of his daughters at the boarding-school in the Settlement. An English half-breed, a comely well-behaved young man, of respectable connections, was paying his addresses to one of these young ladies, and had asked her in marriage. The young lady had another suitor in the person of a Scotch lad, but her affections were in favor of the former, while her guardian, the chief officer in Red River, preferred the latter. In his zeal to succeed in the choice he had made for the young lady, this gentleman sent for the half-breed and reprimanded him for aspiring to the hand of a lady, accustomed, as he expressed it, to the first society. The young man, without saying a word, put on his hat and walked out of the room; but being the leading man among his countrymen, the whole community took fire at the insult. 'This is the way,' said they, 'that we half-breeds are despised and treated.' From that time they clubbed together in high dudgeon and joined the French Malcontents against their rulers. The French half-breeds made a flag for use on the plains called 'The Papineau Standard.' It is plain that rightly or wrongly, Recorder Thom has a thorny path to tread."

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