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 20 Sayer and Liberty

Stone forts and ermined judges were not, to the mind of the unbridled and ungovernable Metis. True, the French mind has a love for show and circumstance and dignity of demeanor, but the conviction had taken hold of the people of Red River, and especially of the French half-breeds, that these meant curtailment of their freedom. They felt the dice were loaded against them.

But, now, in the year after Sinclair and his friends had shown such a firm front to Governor Christie, and when something like a feudal system was being introduced into the Red River Settlement, a new surprise came upon French and English alike. This was immediately after the terrible visitation of a plague, which had cut down one-sixteenth of the whole population. It was the arrival of a party of the Sixth Royal Regiment of Foot, along with artillery and engineers, amounting in all to five hundred souls. The breath of the people was taken away by this demonstration of force, and a chronicler of the time says: "From the moment they arrived the high tone of lawless defiance and internal disaffection raised by our people against the laws and the authorities of the place were reduced to silence." Colonel Crofton, in command of the troops, was appointed Governor of the Settlement, and he proved a wise and honorable administrator. The regiment gained golden opinions from the people, and as they spent during their short stay of two years, a sum of £15,000 in supplies, it was, indeed, a golden age for the hard-working Colonists. The leaving of the regiment was regretted by the Colony.

Having now entered on a career of government by force, it would not do to let it drop. Hence the authorities enlisted in Britain a number of old pensioners, and under command of Major Caldwell, who was also to act as Governor of the Settlement, sent out, in each of two successive years, some seventy of these discharged soldiers to act as guardians of the peace. It was pretty well agreed that these men, to whom were given holdings of small pieces of land to the west of Fort Garry, now in the St. James District of Winnipeg, were simply imitators in conduct and disposition of the De Meurons, who had so vexed the Colonists. Major Caldwell, too, by his lack of business habits and his selfishness, alienated all the leading men of the Colony, so that they refused to sit with him in Council. It was the common opinion that the turbulence and violence of the pensioners was so great that, as one of the Company said, "We have more trouble with the pensioners than with all the rest of the Settlement put together." The pensioners were certainly absolutely useless for the purpose for which they had been sent, that is to preserve order in the country. The Metis, at any rate, spoke of them with derision.

PLAN OF FORT GARRY and of the other forts of Winnipeg.
1, Fort Rouge; 2, Fort Douglas; 3, Fort Gibraltar; 4, Fidler's Fort; 5, First Fort Garry; 6, Fort Garry.

In the year following the removal of the troops the policy of preventing the French half-breeds from buying and selling furs with the Indians was being carried out by Judge Thom, the relentless ogre of the law. Four men of the Metis had been arrested; of these the leader was William Sayer. He was the half-breed son of an old French bourgeois of the Northwest Company. He had been liberated on bail, and was to come up for trial in May. The charge against him was of buying goods with which to go on a trading expedition to Lake Manitoba.

Possibly the case would be easily disposed of, and most likely dismissed with a trifling fine, although it was true that Sayer had made a stiff resistance on his being arrested. This violent resistance was but an example of the bitter and dangerous spirit that was developing among the Metis.

A brave and restless man was now growing to have a dominating influence over the French half-breeds. This was Louis Riel, a fierce and noisy revolutionist, ready for any extremity. He was a French half-breed, was owner of a small flour mill on the Seine River, and he was the father of the rebel chief of later years. The day fixed for the Sayer trial by the legal authorities was a most unfortunate one. It was on May 17th, which on that year was Ascension Day, a day of obligation among the Catholic people of the Settlement. It was noticeable that there was much ferment in the French parishes. Louis Riel, who was a violent, but effective speaker, of French, Irish and Indian descent, busied himself in stirring up resistance. The fact that it was a Church day for the Metis made it easy for them to gather together. This they did by hundreds in front of the St. Boniface Cathedral, where, piling up their guns, with which all the men were armed, at the Church door, they then entered and performed their sacred duties. At the close of the service, Riel, "the miller of the Seine," made a fiery oration, advocating the rescue of their compatriot Sayer, who was to be held for trial at the Court House. A French sympathizer said of this public meeting: "Louis Riel obtained a veritable triumph on that occasion, and long and loud the hurrahs were repeated by the echoes of the Red River."

And now, under Riel's direction, by a concerted action, movement of the whole body was made to cross the Red River and march to the Court House, which stood beside the wall of Fort Garry. To allow the five hundred men to cross easily, Point Douglas was selected, and here by ferry boats, said to have been provided by James Sinclair, the English half-breed leader of whom we have spoken, the party crossed, and worked up to the highest pitch of excitement, stalked up the mile or two to the Court House.

South portion with stone wall and bastions built in 1835.
North portion with wooden wall and stone north gate still standing, built in 1850.

Though somewhat anxious, the Governor and Court officials passed through the excited crowd which surrounded the Court House. It was expected that the Governor would order out a guard of pensioners to protect the Court, but he had dispensed with this, and so he, Recorder Thom, and the Magistrate, took their seats upon the elevated platform of Justice precisely at eleven o'clock. Sayer's case was called first, but he was held by the Metis outside of the Court room. Other unimportant business was then taken up until one o'clock. An Irish relative of old Andrew McDermott, named McLaughlin, attempted to interfere, but was instantly suppressed. The Court then sent a suggestion to the Metis that they should appoint a leader with a deputation to enter the Court room with Sayer and state their case. This proposal was accepted, and James Sinclair, the English half-breed leader, undertook the duty. Sayer was then brought in, guarded by twenty of his compatriots, fully armed, while fifty Metis guards stood at the gates of the Court House enclosure. An attempt was then made to select a jury, but it was fruitless. Sayer next confessed that he had traded for furs with an Indian. The Court then gave a verdict of guilty, whereupon Sayer proved that a Hudson's Bay officer named Harriott, had given him authority to trade. The other three cases against the Metis were not proceeded with, and Governor, Recorder, officials and spectators all left the Court room, the mob being of the impression that the prisoners had been acquitted, and that trading for furs was no longer illegal. Though this was not the decision yet the crowd so took it up, and made the welkin ring with shouts (Le Commerce est libre, vive la liberté) "Commerce is free, long live liberty."

The Metis then crossed the river to St. Boniface, and after much cheering, fired several salutes with their guns. It was their victory, but it was one in which the vast mass of the English-speaking rejoiced for the bands of tyranny were broken. Judge Thom, under instructions from Governor Simpson, never acted as Recorder again, but was simply Secretary of the Court, and another reigned in his stead. After this the Court was largely without authority, and as has been said the rescue of prisoners was not an infrequent occurrence in the future life of the Settlement.

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.

comments powered by Disqus