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 Story of Manitoba
Chapter XI An Empire Builder

The conditions, which prevailed over the great Canadian west at the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century, could not continue long. It was as vast, as fertile as beautiful then as it is now; yet, except for the trade in fur, its untold resources were wholly undeveloped. There were no towns, farms, roads, schools or churches. The country was as wild as when the white man first found it, except at a few points where the isolated posts of the fur companies showed that civilization had marked the region as her own. There was no settled population except a few factors and clerks in these scattered posts. There was a roving population of perhaps two thousand people, consisting of Orkney men, French; and Metis, who served the companies as boatmen, canoemen, and servants; a few hundred Metis roamed over the plains in pursuit of the buffalo; and some thousands of Indians, scarcely less civilized than the hunters, were spread over the great region. Law, order, and the refinements of civilized life were almost unknown. Bands of savages were always ready to take the warpath against the villages of hostile tribes, and between the adherents of the rival fur companies there was a strife almost as relentless as that which the Indians waged against their enemies.

The country--so vast in extent, so rich in resources—seemed weary of waiting for its future and to cry aloud for the new force necessary to its development. Its greatest need was a settled, agricultural population; for only in a settled population can law, order, and the refinements of social life be developed, and most of the industries have their ultimate roots in the soil. The drama of western history was ready for a new act, and the leading actor in it had made himself ready for his part.

At the mouth of the river Dee in Scotland there is a small and pretty island called St. Mary's Isle, which formed a part of the estate of the earls of Selkirk for many years. An old-fashioned family residence stood upon it, and in this house on June 5, 1771, Thomas Douglas, the seventh son of the fourth Earl of Selkirk, was born. "When this child came to man's estate, his ideals and his efforts gave a new direction to the history of the Canadian west, for he was the first colonizer of Manitoba, the first to bring to its rich lands the landless, poverty-stricken people of the Old World.

The Douglas family is one of the oldest, largest, and most influential families in Scotland, and members of it have been prominent in all departments of the country's life. The Earls of Douglas, Angus, and Morton belonged to it, also some of the Earls of Ormond and some of the Dukes of Hamilton. Several members of it were connected with the royal families of Scotland and England.

A Douglas was married to Margaret, daughter of King Robert II; another was married to a daughter of Robert III; and a third Archibald, Earl of Angus was married to Margaret, queen-dowager of James W and sister of Henry Mil of England. They left a daughter who was the mother of Lord Darnley and so grandmother of James I of England.

The Douglas family has rendered high service to the state. Two lord chancellors of Scotland have been Earls of Angus, an Earl of Douglas sat as a member of the Council of Regency on the death of James I, and the Earl of Morton was Regent of Scotland in the troublous time of Queen Mary. The Douglas family has also been prominent in war. Sir James Douglas, surnamed the Good, commanded a wing of the Scottish army at Bannockburn in 1314, and sixteen years later, while on his way to the Holy Land, met his death in Spa in, battling 'with the Saracens. His brother, Archibald, was killed at Halidon Hill in 1333, and a grandson of the latter fell at Otterburn in 1388. An Earl of Douglas fought at Shrewsbury in 1403 and afterwards entered the service of France where he so distinguished himself that he was made duke of Touraine. There were Douglases at Flodden in 1513, and two sons of "The Great Earl of Angus," sometimes called "Bell-the-Cat," were killed on that bloody field. In recent times many military and naval officers, bearing the Douglas name, have served the empire well. In literature, too, the Douglas name has been honored, for one of Scotland's earliest and greatest poets was Gavin Douglas, son of the fifth Earl of Angus. Many of the Douglases have been distinguished in the learned professions, and others have been noted in the field of scientific research.

The traditions of the Douglas family, tempered and refined by the centuries, could not fail to influence the character and ideals of the lad who was brought up in the Selkirk home on the little island of Kirkcudbright Bay. They all pointed to duty to the state in her councils or in her defense, to service on behalf of his less fortunate fellowmen, to earnest efforts in literature. "We may be sure that these impulses were strengthened by the influences of distinguished men whom he met in his father's house or who were his fellow-students and friends during his course in the University of Edinburgh. Among the latter were such men as Sir Walter Scott, Sir A. Ferguson. Lord Abercromby, and William Clark. The time in which he lived must have left a deep impress upon the thought and character of Thomas Douglas. Ilis youth was passed in a period of great intellectual and moral upheaval, the period marked by the French revolution. Men found themselves forced to abandon their old theories m regard to the structure of society and their old ethical standards and were receiving new conceptions of their relations to society and of their duties to each other.

In the case of young Douglas these new ideas found expression in a practical way, for during his residence in Edinburgh he took an active part in philanthropic efforts to better the condition of the poor in the city. Several of his vacations were spent in the Highlands, and the condition of the crofters there roused his keenest sympathy. He spent time, strength, and fortune freely to help them; and it is because his efforts in their behalf planted another outpost on the far frontier of the British Empire that Thomas Douglas must always be one of the leading figures in the story of Manitoba. At the present time very few men, who take the trouble to learn the actual facts, will contend that he was actuated by mercenary motives in the plans which he made for these poor people; and when the air has been fully cleared of all the old animosities, prejudices and misapprehensions, men will see in Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk, a philanthropist, a patriot, and one of Britain's empire-builders.

Up to the year 1745 the relation between a chief and his clansmen in the Scottish highlands was very like that between a lord and his vassals in the old feudal days; and the clansman, instead of paying his chief a fixed rental for the patch of land which he occupied, rendered him such service and gifts as custom or unwritten law required. But after the ill-starred attempt of the Stuarts to regain the throne of Britain had ended in utter failure at Culloden, laws were passed which completely changed the system of land tenure in the Highlands; and thereafter the chiefs were landlords, and the clansmen were ordinary tenants, who weft to pay a fixed rental for their little holdings. The new system was so foreign to their traditions and habits of life that many of the Highlanders left their crofts rather than adapt themselves to it and migrated to the towns or to foreign lands.

Even the clansmen who were willing to hold their lands by the new tenure were not always allowed to do so, for changes in economic conditions soon made it more profitable for many owners of estates in the Highlands to lease their lands in large areas to sheep-raisers than to rent them in small patches to crofters. So the latter were compelled to abandon the little farms and cottages which tbey and their ancestors had occupied for centuries; and as there was little work for them in the agricultural districts, they naturally drifted to the towns, seeking a livelihood in occupations for which they had had no training.

To make matters worse business was in an unwholesome condition owing to the long-continued Napoleonic wars. Some industries had been unduly stimulated, others had been hampered by lack of labor. In the last decade of the eighteenth century large numbers of laboring men had been withdrawn from ordinary occupations to till the ranks of Britain's armies, and in the first decade of the nineteenth century many discharged soldiers were coming home to swell the ranks of the unemployed.

Thus the hard conditions in the Highlands were aggravated by the conditions prevailing over other parts of Great Britain. As a result there was much distress in the north of Scotland. Perhaps none suffered more than the former tenants of the Duchess of Sutherland, and their circumstances seem to have made a special appeal to the generous instincts of young Douglas. Thus it happened that some of the influences which have determined the history of Manitoba have their sources in Scotland's northern shire.

In 1797 Thomas Douglas succeeded to the title Baron Daer and Shorteleugh. because all his elder brothers had died; and two years later the death of his father made him Earl of Selkirk. Young, dominated by high ideals, ambitious to be of service to the state, wealthy, and the head of an influential family, we may be sure that the young earl felt the responsibility which his wealth and influence entailed and that he pondered more earnestly than ever over plans for relieving the distress of his countrymen.

Sir Alexander Mackenzie published his "Voyages" in 1801, and this book, which tells m such a modest way of a great country and great deeds done in it, probably brought to the young earl the vision which remaining nineteen years of his life. He saw the western halt of British North America, vast, fertile, unoccupied; next he saw the poor people of Ins nativ, land settled in that new country, comfortable and prosperous; and then, looking forward through the years, he beheld it as one of the richest possesions of the empire On April 4, 1802, he wrote to the colonial secretary, outlining a scheme of emigration as a relief to the distress in the country and suggesting a suitable field for settlement. Among other things he said:

"No large tract remains unoccupied on the sea-coast of British America except barren and frozen deserts. To find a sufficient extent of soil in a temperate climate we must go far inland. This inconvenience is not, however, an n surmountable obstacle to the prosperity of a colony, and appears to be amply compensated by other advantages that are to be found in some remote parts of the British territory. At the western extremity of Canada, upon the waters which fall into Lake Winnipeg and, uniting in the great river of Port Nelson, discharge themselves into Hudson Bay, is a country which the Indian traders represent as fertile and of a climate far more temperate than the shores of the Atlantic under the same parallel, and not more severe than that of Germany or Poland. Here, therefore, the colonists may, with a moderate exertion of industry, be certain of a comfortable subsistence, and they may also raise some valuable objects of exportation."

Lord Selkirk saw some of the difficulties in the way of his scheme, but did not hesitate to speak of them. He says: "The greatest impediment to a colony in this quarter seems to be the Hudson's Bay Company monopoly, which the possessors cannot be expected easily to relinquish. They may, however, be amply indemnified for its abolition without any burden, perhaps even with advantage to the revenue. The earl also suggested that the trade of both the rival fur companies might be greatly increased, if individual agents were limited to fixed district, each being given a license for his district and no other; and he proposed that the North-West Company should be allowed free navigation on Hudson Bay, instead of being forced to transport all its goods, furs, and provision by the long, laborious, and expensive route of the Great Lakes. The earl believed the Nelson River to be the natural channel of trade for the district which he suggested for settlement.

But the government did not wish to encourage emigration, and the reply of the colonial secretary intimated that it could not favor Lord Selkirk's scheme "because the prejudices of the British people were so strong against emigration." Apparently, however, neither the government nor public opinion was so opposed to emigration to less remote parts of the empire; for in 1803 about 800 Scotch colonists sailed in three ships for Prince Edward Island and settled on a large tract of land which Lord Selkirk had purchased there. It became necessary for him to visit the settlement in the autumn, and when he had seen the colonists well started on the road to the success which they afterwards achieved, he went on to the United States.

The earl found many of his fellow countrymen in the United States, and his visit strengthened his conviction that some plan should be devised whereby emigration from his native land should be diverted to British colonies to aid in their development rather than that of a foreign country. This impression

was deepened when he went to Toronto and learned of the efforts which were being made there to settle Upper Canada, with United Empire Loyalists and disbanded soldiers. He started several colonies in Upper Canada and spent large sums of money in bringing out settlers, clearing land, and constructing roads; but the districts for his settlements were not wisely chosen, and so little success attended his efforts, although he continued them for several years

Lord Selkirk spent the winter of 1803-4 in Montreal, and there the larger vision came to him. Many of the wealthiest merchants of the city were partners of the North-West Company, and the earl was often entertained by them. Prom them and from other people interested in the fur trade he gained much information about the vastness of the Canadian hinterland, the character of its surface, soil, and climate, and the great quantity of furs to be obtained from. it. Of all the men whom Selkirk met in Montreal probably none influenced him so much as did Colin Robertson, a keen-minded, energetic Highlander, who had spent-several years in the Saskatchewan district as an agent of the North-West Company but who had withdrawn from the service owing to some disagreement with the leading directors. Did this man inherit from some Highland ancestor the gift of second sight which enabled him to foresee so clearly that the wild land which he knew and loved would soon become something far better than a hunting ground for fur traders and buffalo runners? "A great empire will be there some day," was his enthusiastic exclamation during one of his conversations with Lord Selkirk. And when his lordship, still brooding over the vision of a British settlement in that remote region, asked, ''"What part of the great Northwest do you think best for a colony, Mr. Robertson" the quick, decided answer was. "At the forks of the Red and the Assiniboine." The reply should be remembered, for history turned upon it. It should also be remembered that, when the. statement was made, neither of the fur companies had occupied that particular district and that a circle drawn with the forks as a centre and a radius of fifty miles would probably have inclosed none of their forts except the two at the mouth of the Red River. Neither company had a post on the spot where their long struggle was to culminate, neither had stationed an agent on the site of the future commercial metropolis of the country.

During his visit to Canada Lord Selkirk became acquainted with another man who has much to do with the story of Manitoba. This was Captain Miles Macdonell. He was born in Scotland, but his father had afterwards migrated to the United States, and there the son passed his youth. Both father and son had served in a regiment which had fought on the British side during the American Revolution; but when the war was over young Macdonell did not find the country a congenial place for Loyalists and so went back to his native land. He married there and a few years later came out to settle in Upper Canada. It seems more than probable that Captain Macdonell acted as an agent for Lord Selkirk.

Philanthropic schemes and imperial problems continued to occupy Lord Selkirk's attention during the years which followed his return to Scotland. In 1805 he published a pamphlet entitled "Observations on the Present State of the Highlands of Scotland and the Probable Consequences of Emigration A' "A Sketch of the Fur Trade," published anonymously the next year, is believed to be the earl's work, and shortly after two pamphlets, dealing with plans for civilizing the Indians of British America, were published, and these too, seem to have been written by him. In 1807 he submitted to the government a scheme of military defence very similar to that which ma*y European adopted since; and in the next year he published a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of a More Effective Scheme of National Defence in which his ideas were set forth in detail. This was very favorably received and led to Lord Selkirk's election as a fellow of the Royal Society.

England's long war against Napoleon went on year alter year, the condition of her working classes grew steadily worse. The population had increased rapidly, wages had fallen, and the price of food had risen. "Scarcity was powered by a terrible pauperization of the laboring classes. The amount ot the poor-rate rose fifty per cent; and with the increase of poverty followed its inevitable result, the increase of crime." In no part of Britain was the prevailing distress among the poor felt more severely than in. the Highlands, and by 1809 it was so acute that some measure for its relief seemed absolutely necessary. But just at that time the plans over which the Earl of Selkirk had pondered for seven years took definite shape. On November 21, 1807, he was married to Jean, the daughter of James Colville, a wealthy man and a large shareholder in the Hudson's Bay Company. The stock of the company was a most unprofitable one to hold just then, and this fact and the position of his father-in-law in the company had much to do in determining the earl's plans.

The Hudson's Bay Company had been almost ruined by its long struggle with the North-West Company. Its forts had been destroyed, its furs had been seized, its agents killed or driven away. It could not secure employees for its posts in Rupert's Land, it received small cargoes of new fur, and it could not sell the fur in its London warehouses. At one period in its early history it had paid a dividend of fifty per cent on its actual capital, and at a later date it had paid twenty-five per cent, on a capital watered to three times its original value; but its dividends shrank to five per cent, and in 1808 it could pay no dividend at all. In 1802 the company had borrowed £20,000 from the Bank of England at six per cent, and a few years later it found itself unable to make new loans because it could scarcely pay interest on the old ones. In 1809 it had petitioned the government for a temporary lowering of the duties on its furs and other favors which would afford some relief from the difficulties which beset it. but its requests were not granted. As a result of its unfortunate position, its stock, which once sold for £250 per share, would not bring more than £50 per share.

This was Lord Selkirk's opportunity, he, his father-in-law, and his other friends bought all the company's shares which could be obtained at this low price, and in a short time they held about one-third of its total stock. Sir Alexander Mackenzie and one or two other partners of the North-West Company held small amounts of the stock of the rival company, and as soon as they suspected Selkirk's plan, they began to buy more, but they had entered the field too late to secure any large amount of it. One of the first indications of Selkirk's influence in the management of the Hudson's Bay Company was the appointment of Colin Robertson as its advisor in London, and about the first advice Robertson gave the company was to relinquish its attempts to secure Orkneymen for its work ;n the distant interior and employ Frenchmen and Metis instead.

This would have been a great advantage to the Hudson's Bay Company in its competition with the Montreal company, but it was sis years before the suggestion was adopted.

Lord Selkirk's next step was to ask a number of able lawyers to investigate the validity of the title of the Hudson's Bay Company to the lands covered by its charter; and, having been advised by them that the title was absolutely valid, he offered to buy an immense tract of this land and to place settlers upon it. The offer was first submitted to the governing committee of the company on February 6, 1811, but the matter was of such importance that it was referred to a general meeting of the shareholders to be held May 30. At this meeting the earl's proposal was vigorously opposed by Sir Alexander Mackenzie and other North-Westers, as well as by a few of the shareholders who Lad no interest in the North-West Company; but, after a long discussion, the offer was accepted.

The area of the district purchased by the earl is estimated at 116,000 square miles, which is almost equal to the total area of Great Britain and Ireland. The region formed a great quadrilateral and included parts of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Dakota, and Minnesota. Its boundaries are thus described: ''Beginning on the western shores of Lake Winnipeg, at a point on 53° 30' north latitude, and thence running due west to Lake Winnipegosis. otherwise called Little Lake Winnipeg; thence in a southerly direction through the said lake so as to strike its western shore in latitude 52°; thence due west to the place where the parallel 52° intersects the western branch of the Red River, otherwise called the Assiniboine River: thence due south from that point of intersection to the heights of land which separate the waters running into Hudson Bay from those of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers; thence in an easterly direction along the height of land to the sources of the River Winnipeg, meaning by such last named river the principal branch of the waters which unite in the Lake Saginagas; thence along the main stream of those waters, and the middle of the several lakes through which they flow, to the mouth of the Winnipeg River; and thence in a northerly direction through the middle of Lake Winnipeg to the place of beginning, which territory is called Assiniboia.'' This makes it plain that the map submitted to the courts of Upper Canada by agents of the North-West Company a few years later are not correct in showing that Selkirk's purchase extended to Lake Superior. His lordship seems to have believed that the governing powers conferred on the Hudson's Bay Company by its charter were transferred to him so far as they applied to the land which he had purchased.

For this immense domain Lord Selkirk paid a very small sum. He was to place as many settlers upon it as possible, selling the land to them at a very low price, such settlers to pay for their passage when taken out in the company's ships. He also engaged to supply the company with at least two hundred servants each year for ten years and to give them free grants of land (one hundred acres each) at the end of their service, if they wished to remain in the country. These employees were to receive free transportation to Rupert's Land in the ships of the company. He also agreed to quiet the Indian title to the lands he had purchased and to provide the necessary protection for his colonists. This, in brief, was Lord Selkirk's scheme for relieving the distress of the Highlands and for settling the great prairies of western Canada.

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