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The Story of Manitoba
Chapter XVI Seven Oaks


In the Red River Settlement events had marched so rapidly that Lord Selkirk's well meant efforts could not avert disaster. Governor Semple returned from Fort Daer early in the year 1816, and about March left Fort Douglas again to inspect the trading posts of the Hudson's Bay Company in various parts of Assiniboia. Robertson was left in charge, and soon received information that the half-breeds and Indians of the Qu'Appelle district were being organized for a raid on the colony in the spring. He believed that the preparations were more general than the friendly Indians had reported, and he suspected that Duncan Cameron was taking an active part in them notwithstanding his promise to the contrary made in the preceding October. Most of the chirks and servants of the North-West Company in Fort Gibraltar had been sent down to the mouth of the Winnipeg River then, and so Cameron had few men in the fort with him. On the evening of March 17, Robertson, accompanied by Alexander McLean, John Bourke, Michael Heden, Martin Jordan, and several others, went to Fort Gibraltar and arrested Duncan Cameron and three clerks of the North-West Company. They were completely taken by surprise and could offer no resistance. Cameron was in the act of writing a letter to James Grant of Fond du Lac, which suggested that the Pillager Indians should raid the settlement.

The letters seized by Robertson then, others written by the North-Westers and intercepted by him, as well as evidence obtained by Lord Selkirk at Fort William later in the year, all show that the North-Westers were determined to destroy the settlement. Their plan was very similar to that which had been followed the year before, but it was more carefully arranged and provided for such a perfect co-ordination of all the forces available for the purpose that the colony could have no chance of escape. Most of the Indians were well disposed to the colonists; but where it was possible to stir the savages to hostility by telling them that the colonists would deprive them of their hunting grounds or by appealing to their desire of plunder, this was to be done. The Metis were to be imbued with the idea that they had been the first to occupy the country and were its true owners, while the whites, "les jardinieres" as they were contemptuously called, were interlopers. The notion was quickly adopted by the half-breeds, and they began at once to speak of themselves as the "New Nation;" and the conviction which lay behind this name was one of the causes of the unrest of the Metis which continued to show itself at intervals for seventy years. Alexander McDonell was to bring the "New Nation" down from Qu'Appelle; William Shaw was to induce their friends along the Saskatchewan to accompany them; Cuthbert Grant would reinforce the party, with those living at White Horse Plains; Bostonnais Pangman would bring a few from Pembina; and James Grant would send the Pilleurs from Minnesota, if necessary. Moreover the force thus raised was to be joined oi. the lower part of Red River by the North-West Company's brigade bound from Fort William to the far west. It was confidently expected that such a force would over awe the colonists and that they would submit at once.

On the 13th of March, 1816, Alexander McDonell wrote to a friend at Sault ste. Marie. "I am at my post at River Qu'Appelle, putting on airs with my sword and golden epaulets, directing and doing your business. Sir William Shaw is gathering together all the Bois-Brules (half-breeds) of the neighboring departments. He has sent orders to his friends in these quarters to hold themselves ready for the war-path. He has already collected all the Half-Breeds as far as Fort" La Prairie. God alone knows what the result is going to be."

On the same day he wrote to Duncan Cameron at Fort Gibraltar, "I received your letter from River Souris. I see with pleasure the hostile movements of our neighbors. A storm is brewing in the North; it is ready to burst on the heads of the miserable people who deserve it. They do not know of the precipice that yawns at their feet. What we did last year was mere child's play. The new nation is advancing under its. chiefs to clear out from their country the assassins that have no right thereto."

Other leaders of the movement against the colony were writing letters. On May 13, Cuthbert Grant wrote to Alexander Eraser, a half-breed clerk employed by the North-West Company, "1 take the liberty of sending you a few lines to give you news about our fellow-countrymen, the half-breeds of Fort la Prairie and of the Riviere aux Anglais. I am very pleased to tell you that the half-breeds are all agreed and ready to execute our order. They sent one of their number here to learn about the state of affairs and to know if it is necessary for them all to come. I sent them word to be all here about the middle of May. I recommend you to tell Bostonnais to keep all the half-breeds well together, as to those here I will answer for them all except Antoine Houle, whom I beat this morning and dismissed from the service.''

On the same day, Grant wrote to J. Dougald Cameron at Sault Ste. Marie, "The Bois-Brules of Fort la Prairie and of the Riviere aux Anglais will be here in the spring; and I hope that we will carry all with a high hand and that we will never again sec the people of the colony at Red River. The traders will also have to get out for having disobeyed our orders last spring. We will spend the summer at the Forks for fear they might play us the same game as last year and come back; but if they do they will be received in a proper manner."

Once more the unwise, if not illegal, actions of their opponents gave the North-Westers and the Metis the opportunity which they sought. As the half-breeds repeated in 1816 the plan of campaign adopted the year before, so Governor Semple and Colin Robertson repeated the unfortunate moves which Miles Macdonell had made in 1814. Food was scarce. Orders were sent to Fort Daer in March that the men there were to seize a supply of provisions stored in the North-West fort at Pembina. That fort was entered in the evening by A. McDonell, John 1'ritchard, John McLeod, and others; and Bostonnais Pangman, who was in charge, was made prisoner, together with Fraser, Hesse, Catonaba, and three half-breeds. The keys of the store were seized, and all the arms and ammunition found there were carried away. The prisoners were sent to Fort Douglas and seem to have been released soon after they arrived. The goods seized were forwarded to the fort a little later in consequence of a letter sent to Pritchard by Governor Semple, stating that the North-West Company had recently taken some of the property of the Hudson's Bay Company in the Peace River country and that they '' must try to have a few things to balance the account." John McLeod has left the following note 011 the affair at Pembina in his journal:

"On the 20th of that month (March) by the joint action of the colony and II. B. C'y authorities, the N. W. C'y establishment there (at Pembina), then under charge of Pangman with two clerks and about a dozen men, was captured without tiring a shot or injury to any man. 1 took part in it, and three days afterwards took the prisoners to the Forks, where it was understood that Mr. Robertson was to make a like capture, which on March 17 he did.

The capture of Fort Gibraltar has been mentioned, and we are told that Semple made an attempt to seize the North-West Company's fort 011 the Qu'Appelle River, but was foiled by Alexander McDonell. The North-Westers soon found an opportunity for retaliation, for early in May Governor Semple sent a clerk of the Hudson's Bay Company named Pambrun to bring to the Forks a quantity of provisions and furs stored in the company's own fort on the Qu'Appelle. Pambrun loaded five boats with six hundred bags of pemmican and twenty packages of furs and, with Mr. Sutherland, a clerk of the post, and twenty servants, started down the river. All went well until May 12, when they were near the mouth of the Souris. Here they were attacked by a party twice as large as their own, led by Cuthbert Grant, Roderick McKenzie, Pang-man, and Brisbois, and made prisoners. The furs and provisions were sent to the North-West fort near by, and Pambrun's men were allowed to go back to their own posts, but Pambrun himself was kept a prisoner.

John McLeod had orders to construct a new post at Neil Lake, subsequently called Oxford House, in the spring of 1816, and when he started north from Fort Douglas on May 18, Duncan Cameron was sent with him as a prisoner. He took Cameron as far as Norway House and then handed him over to some other agent of the company who conducted him to a port on the bay from which he was to be sent to England. On May 31, the furs taken from the North West- posts were sent to Hudson Bay in charge of James Sutherland.

The lack of harmony in the small fort on Point Douglas was as striking as the unanimity of the North-Westers and their allies, the Metis. Governor Semple and Colin Robertson could not agree. The latter wished to assemble the settlers around the fort so they could be protected by the guns which the half-breeds feared so much, but the governor did not think such a measure necessary. When Chief Peguis came up to warn him of the danger and to offer the services of his Indians in defence of the colony, Semple declined the offer. As. it seemed impossible to convince the governor of the imminence of the danger which threatened the colony, Robertson threw up his position; and on June 11 he started north for Hudson Bay, intending to return to England by the company's ship which was expected to arrive during the summer. Perhaps the quarrel with Robertson opened the governor's eyes to the gravity of the situation which he had to face and roused him to action, for the day before Robert-

son hoisted a pemmican bag on his canoe as a flag and started down the river, Semple gave orders that Fort Gibraltar should be dismantled. A gang or men was set to work upon it at once, and in a week the task was completed. The best of the timber in the buildings and the stockade was rafted down to Fort Douglas and used to enlarge the buildings and complete the defences there; the rest of the material in the North-West fort was burned, and scarcely any parts of it except the chimneys were left standing. The fort was never rebuilt, and its los-s proved a serious blow to the North-West Company.

But the North-Westers had not been idle while their fort was being demolished. In the latter part of May Alexander McDonell and his band of half-breeds left the post on the Qu'Appelle River and started eastward. An advance party of about twenty-live men was sent forward to seize the provisions in Brandon House, the Hudson's Bay Company's post near the mouth of the Souris. Cuthbert- Grant, Alexander Eraser, Louis Lecerte, Bonhomme Montour, Thomas McKay, and Antoine Houle are said to have been in this party. They reached the post on June 1 and captured it without difficulty. When the remainder of the party came down to Brandon House, the supplies which had been taken were loaded into canoes, and a part of the force was detailed to paddle them down the river to Portage la Prairie i the other part followed the trail along the stream on horseback. When Portage la Prairie was reached on June 15, the provisions were unloaded, and a portion was piled in the form of a barricade behind which two small cannon were mounted. McDonell's force now con sisted of about 125 men, and he divided it into five companies led by Grant, Lecerte, Houle, Eraser, and Lamarre. Other leading half-breeds in the party were Primeau, Bourassa, and McKay. McDonell himself stayed at Portage la Prairie with fifty men to guard the supplies; the others, mounting their ponies, went down the river under the command of Cuthbert Grant and reached White Ilorsc Plains on June 18. They had all donned the dress and war-paint of Indians, but there were only five or six Indians in the party.

We are told that Moustouche and Courte Oreille, two of the Indians who had started with the party, deserted and hurried forward to warn the white men in Fort Douglas. Perhaps they told Peguis of the approach of the hostile Metis, perhaps he received information about it before they came by some of the ingenious methods of conveying news which Indians use; be that as it may, the kindly chief sent a message to Madame Lajimoniere that death threatened the people m the fort and that she should leave it at once and come to him for protection. She understood, for years of life among the Indians of the plains had given her wisdom; so she took her four little ones, slipped quietly out of the fort, and made her way to the bank of the river where she found an old canoe She placed her children in it. and although it was upset in their haste, she res cued them, and all reached the eastern bank in safety. There a friendly Indian met them and took them to his tepee until the danger was past.

On June 19 Grant sent his men forward in two divisions, instructing them to keep some distance to the west of Fort Douglas. The first seems to have passed without attracting attention and to have halted in a small grove on the Frog Plain north of the settlement. A few of the settlers were made prisoners, and some horses were seized, but otherwise no depredations were committed. Grant did not think he had a sufficient force to compel the surrender of Fort Douglas, defended as it was by some thirty men and several pieces of artillery, and his immediate purpose was to effect a junction with the detachment coming from Port William. That would have given him about two hundred well armed men and several cannonóa force against which the fort could not be defended. Once more the blunders of their opponents gave the Metis an unexpected opportunity, and they were not slow to take advantage of it.

Some of the frightened colonists had left their farms and hurried into Fort Douglas with news of the arrival of the half-breeds. About five o'clock in the afternoon a man on the lookout in the fort saw what appeared to be a party of mounted Indians crossing the prairie some distance away. They were the second division of Cuthbert Grant's band. They had left the river trail three or four miles above the site of Fort Gibraltar and were heading for Frog Plain about the same distance below Fort Douglas on the Red River. The governor was notified, and he, in company with Captain Rogers and Mr. Bourke, went into the Avatch-house and observed the party for some time through a field-glass. They soon decided that the horsemen were not Indians but half-breeds.

"They are making for the settlers!' some one exclaimed.

"We must go out and meet these people," said the governor. "Let twenty men follow me."

The governor's staff gathered about himóDr. Wilkinson, Dr. White, Lieutenant Holte, and Captain Rogers; several clerks of the company joined them; other servants and several of the settlers were added to it later; and finally it numbered twenty-eight men. John Pritchard, once of the North-West fort on the Souris, went; so did Michael Ileden, the smith, and Alexander McLean, the-settler whom Duncan Cameron could not buy and whose hand was still crippled by the wound received in the skirmish with the half-breeds a year earlier. Duncan McDonald, wounded in the same skirmish, went too. The members of the party were warned not to go without weapons, and they picked up muskets, pistols and swords, although it is not certain that all the firearms were loaded. After they had gone down the road about a mile, Governor Semple noticed that the party of half-breeds was larger than he had supposed and that a few of the advance party were to be seen in the woods ahead. So he sent back an order that John Bourke, the store-keeper, and Allen McDonell, the sheriff, were to harness horses to one of the cannon and bring it out. The gun and the additional men did not arrive promptly, and Governor Semple, whose criminal lack of ordinary precaution seemed to court disaster, ordered his party to move forward again.

The Metis had halted some distance above Frog Plain, and when they saw the party from the fort advancing again, they came back to meet it. Mindful of the fighting tactics learned from their Indian ancestors, they extended their line about the governor 's party in the form of a half-circle as soon as it halted. Grant noticed that it was utterly unprepared to defend itself and sent a Canadian named Boucher forward to demand its surrender.

"What do you want?" asked Boucher, addressing the governor.

"What do you want yourselves?" asked the governor by way of reply.

"We want our fort," was the answer.

"Well, go to your fort.":

"You old scoundrel, you have destroyed it."

Indignant at being addressed thus, Governor Sernple put out his hand to seize Boucher's bridle or his gun; but the man slipped off his horse to the wound and the frightened animal dragged him back towards his own line. At once a shot was tired, from which side and whether by accident or design we cannot be certain. Two shots from the half-breed ranks followed in quick succession, one killing Lieutenant Holte, and the other breaking the governor's thigh. Raising himself on his arm. he shouted to his men,

"Do all you can to save yourselves."

Instead of scattering, they gathered about the governor, hoping to rescue him and the half-breeds poured a volley into the group with deadly effect. Twenty of the men fell in a few minutes, some killed outright, some merely wounded. The infuriated half-breeds fell upon the wounded with guns, clubs, and knives and soon put them to death. Many of the bodies were stripped, and some were mutilated.

Cuthbert Grant seems to have done his best to restrain the murderous fury of his followers. Governor Semple recognized him as he approached and asked if he were not Mr. Grant. On receiving an affirmative answer, the governor said,

"I am not mortally wounded, and if you will have me conveyed to the fort, I think I shall live."

Grant promised to do this and placed the wounded man in charge of a half-breed named Yasseur to be carried to Fort Douglas; but the half-breed robbed him of his watch, pistol, and sash, and a few minutes later a rascally Indian or half-breed called Deschamps came up and killed him. Dr. Wilkinson and Dr. White seem to have been killed outright; Captain Rogers fell wounded, but when he rose and went forward to surrender, he was shot dead by a half-breed named McKay. John Pritchard surrendered, but liis life would not have been spared, had it not been for the intercession of a Canadian named Lavigne whom the Metis had captured in Brandon House. Hugh McLean, who drove the team attached to the cannon, John Bourke, who was slightly wounded, and one or two more managed to escape and make their way back to the fort. In the confusion Michael Heden and D. McKay slipped down to the river, crossed it in a canoe, and recrossed to Fort Douglas after dark. Mr. Sutherland and Michael Kilkenny swam across the stream and escaped.

The Metis spent most of the night in an orgy to celebrate what they called their victory; and their poet, an ignorant versifier named Pierre Falcon, composed for them a song of triumph which has been preserved. A horseman was sent off to carry news of the fight to Alexander McDonell.

Inside Fort Douglas all was terror and confusion. Most of the officials, several of the company's clerks, and some of the settlers had been killed; several more were prisoners m the hands of the half-breeds; and Grant had threatened to kill all within the fort, unless it were given up. John Pritchard acted as intermediary between the Metis captain and the people within the fort. At first Sheriff McDonell, who had assumed the leadership of the colonists, refused to listen to any proposal for the surrender of the fort; but the people who were with him urged that no other course was open to him. and in the morning, after Pritchard had made his third visit, he agreed to the terms offered by Grant, The latter took possession of all the property of the Hudson's Bay Company found m the fort, an inventory of it being made. A copy of this inventory was given to Sheriff McDonell as a receipt, each sheet being signed: "Received on account of the North-West Company by me, Cuthbert. Grant, Clerk of the N-West Co. The people living in the fort as well as all the inhabitants of the settlement below, were ordered to be taken out of the country to Hudson Bay, but they might carry away as much of their movable property as they could.

On June 21 the despondent settlers and the clerks of the Hudson's Bay Company were placed in boats and sent down the river under a guard. Just before the lake was reached, they met the North-West brigade from Fort William in charge of Alexander Norman McLeod. It had been delayed two days and so did not meet the half-breeds at Frog Plain, as was expected. When McLeod heard of the skirmish, now known as the battle of Seven Oaks, the surrender of Fort Douglas, and the removal of all the people of the settlement, he was pleased to find that the result, for which they had made such careful and extensive preparation had been attained almost by accident. He detained the expelled people until their few belongings could be examined and took all documents which could possibly be used against the North-Westers or the Metis. He even ransacked the boxes containing Governor Semple's personal property, which was being forwarded to his relatives. After he had held the dejected party nearly two days, he allowed it to proceed down the river; but Sheriff Allen McDonell, John Pritchard, John Bourke, N. Corcoran, Michael Heden, and D. McKay were detained as prisoners, and after a time they were sent to Fort William.

In the meantime Cuthbert Grant and forty-five of his men had occupied Fort Douglas. In the skirmish at Seven Oaks only one of his men had been killed and one wounded. The mutilated bodies of their opponents lay where they had fallen, except such as were disturbed by wolves; but after the settlers had departed, the remains were buried by Peguis' friendly Indians. Accounts differ about the place of interment; but. it seems probable that it was on the edge of a little ravine close to Fort Douglas and that some of the bodies, including that of Governor Semple, were afterwards re-interred in St. John's churchyard.

When McLeod arrived at Fort Douglas, he rewarded the half-breeds as far as he could with the goods at his disposal and sent them back west well pleased. He put North-West clerks in charge of the store of the Hudson's Bay Company in Fort Douglas, and brought Alexander McDonell down to act as governor there. Then, taking his prisoners, he returned to Fort William, which he reached in July. In a few days he started for the west again, for it was necessary to meet the Athabasca brigade and warn the members that Lord Selkirk was on his way to Red River with a strong party and that they must intercept any one carrying messages between his lordship and persons in the west.

On August 10th McLeod met the brigade coming up the Winnipeg River. One of the North-West agents named McLellen reported that his party had met Owen Keveny, an officer of the Hudson's Bay Company, on Lac du Bonnet and that some of his attendants had complained of ill treatment at Keveny's hands. McLeod at once issued a warrant for the arrest of Keveny and sent six half-breeds to take him. He was robbed of his papers, placed in irons, and taken to McLeod's camp. McLeod ordered him to be sent up the river as a prisoner; but at McLellen's instigation, Reinhart and Mainville, two of the de Meuron ruffians in the service of the North-West Company, took the captive back a little way and killed him. Bishop Provencher tells us that when he came to Red River two years later, Keveny's skeleton was to be seen on the island where the murder took place.

The expelled settlers, hungry, weary, penniless, and hopeless, made their way to Jack River as best they could. They petitioned Mr. Bird, the factor of the Hudson's Bay Company who had charge of the post there, to send them home to Scotland. They were completely discouraged and wished to leave Rupert's Land forever. Mr. Bird pointed out that the company had no ship which could carry so many people and that it was not wise for them to go down to the bay, as ice might prevent any ship from reaching York or Churchill. As it turned out, none of the company's ships reached Britain from the bay that season, and neither Colin Robertson nor Duncan Cameron reached England. The former tramped through the woods to Montreal; the latter spent the fall and winter at Moose Fort. In spite of Mr. Bird's advice, a few of the colonists went on to York Factory and passed a hard winter there. The others remained at Jack River, and Mr. Bird supplied them with food and shelter, employing them as far as was possible in fishing and other occupations.

Lord Selkirk's colony had been destroyed a second time; and this time the destruction seemed so complete that the colonists themselves lost all hope for its future.


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