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The Father of St. Kilda
Chapter IX - End of the Charter


The year 1869 saw the end of my Company’s charter. This conclusion, as I have already indicated, had been in sight for some time, but, as usually happens, a single incident not specially startling in itself brought matters to a climax.

Early in the year two Red Lake Indians stopped at a tent inhabited by two women and four children of the Sioux tribe. They were hospitably received, and the household retired for the night without suspicion of harm. In the dead of night, however, the guests arose and murdered the whole family in cold blood, carrying off their scalps to exhibit in pride to their tribe. The affair attracted a great amount of attention, and confirmed the fast-growing opinion among the people that it was time some change was made in the method of government.

Meanwhile Messrs. Cartier and McDougall, two Canadian politicians, had been in England endeavouring to make some arrangement by which the territories hitherto under the control of my Company might become part of the Dominion of Canada. The Governor of Rupert’s Land had also gone on the same errand.

The general impression now, however, was that the Company had done its work. Certainly I know of my own knowledge that the difficulties of governing had during the last five years become altogether Insuperable. And whatever errors the Company may have committed during the two hundred years of its charter, no fair-minded person will deny the sincerity of its efforts for the good of the people. The natives of all tribes and dialects were kindly treated and kept in at least tolerable order. The Company sent the first white settlers to the country, and by these it was gradually developed. Notwithstanding the difficult climate and isolated position, routes were made by which its plentiful yield of furs could be exported, and thus the whole region was gradually opened up, with what result the world now knows. The Selkirk colony took root and grew under the Company’s protection, through it the gospel was preached among the savage tribes, and but for its long-continued sway the whole territory would as likely as not have fallen into the lap of the United States.

Indeed, I think I may claim that the Company has left a wonderful record behind it. This company of pioneers trading into Hudson’s Bay saw and survived the decline and fall of French, Spanish, Russian, Dutch, and Portuguese in the Western Hemisphere. Its chief officers, I am proud to say, have been nearly all Highlanders, and a hearty tribute must be paid to the courage and endurance and undaunted enterprise of the men who have gained for the Company its unique place in the annals of British commerce. Its methods had advantages over those pursued in India, won also by Scotsmen. Clive and those who followed him by the aid of disciplined soldiers scattered and controlled the natives. No such method obtained with us. The relations with the Indians were always friendly; moral strength, and not physical force, was their motto. Our contest was with the forces of Nature : immense distances; isolation; the cruel severity of Arctic blasts. Living was rough, and food sometimes scarce enough. Even for tobacco, no less indispensable than food, an unsatisfactory substitute had often to be found in birch bark or the insipid leaves of a shrub which only tantalised by provoking painful comparison. Often we were snowed up for months within the narrow limits of a fort, or set out to shoot big game with—shall I say ?— the frozen mercury extracted from the bulb of the thermometer. Yet, surviving all difficulties for two full centuries, my Company preserved its influence and power to the end, and during the last year of its existence had 160 forts and posts, 60 chief factors and chief traders, 160 clerks, and 1,500 inferior servants.

Some of the earlier rulers of the Company deserve to rank among the really great statesmen—a position unfortunately that history shall never give them, so little is the magnitude of their work guessed at. A few names have won the recognition they deserve for the singleness of purpose, the zeal, the far-sightedness with which they have devoted themselves to the cause of the settlers and the natives. Chief among these is Mr. D. A. Smith (now Lord Strathcona), who has honoured me by accepting the dedication of these fragmentary recollections. As financier, diplomatist, and statesman, he stands first among cur rulers. His unassuming manners won the affection of those about him, and his force and earnestness as a public speaker impressed those views upon his audience as effectively as any more pretentious eloquence. And perhaps I may be excused if in speaking of him I recall the soil from which I too spring. He is a Scot of the Scots, a true and admirable type of the old-fashioned, chivalrous Scottish gentleman.

The charter, however, was doomed, and the most honourable and third oldest corporation that the world has seen came to an end. That it had held out against forcible opposition from influential quarters may be easily seen from the following extracts. When Lord Palmerston in 1858 introduced the Bill for the transfer of the government of India from the East India Company to the Crown, he referred to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s territory, concerning which a Select Committee had the previous year drawn up a report in these terms: “One could easily imagine that a wilderness in the northern part of America where nothing lives except fur-bearing animals and a few wild Indians might be confided to a company whose chief function should be to strip the running animals of their furs and to keep the bipeds sober,” showing, of course, that in India the case was different. In the same session Mr. Gladstone spoke with greater directness and even greater severity. “ There is,” he said, “ a large portion of the surface of the earth with regard to the character of which we have been systematically kept in darkness, for those who had information to give have also had an interest directly opposed to imparting it. Now the truth is beyond question that a great part of this country is highly valuable for colonisation purposes, and it is impossible to state in too strong language the proposition that the Hudson’s Bay Company is by its very existence and its character the enemy of colonisation.” Apparently Lord Palmerston thought the matter of slight importance ; Mr. Gladstone thought it of much, and proved himself the more far-seeing of the two. Yet I am scarcely prepared to admit that he was altogether right, though perhaps his position became true as circumstances developed, and the lapse of the charter finally became inevitable.

There were troublous times in store for us, however, before matters were settled. On 23rd September I received a hurried summons to headquarters, where I was instructed to start at once for Point de Chene under sealed orders, and test the feeling of the French half-breed colony there. This I did, even changing my faith as soon as I reached my destination, and attending for the first time in my life the Roman Catholic church. There was little need for any such diplomatic perversion, however, for it was at once evident that the Company had ceased to be a power in the colony. The feeling of the people was not merely indifferent, but hostile, partly no doubt owing to the influence of the rush of strangers into the country, bringing with them the latest democratic ideas. I proceeded unmolested, however, to my further task of staking out land at the west end of the “Dawson Road,” and marking on the posts “H.B. Coy.’s Land Claims.” In the course of my journey I camped at St. Boniface, and there met Louis Riel. He was a fair type of his race, spare, with black hair and blue eyes, neither scrupulously clean nor well dressed. He spoke fluently in Cree, French, and English, the last with much of the accent of the others, and had a noble taste in Demerara rum.

The arrival of the Hon. Joseph Howe, a prominent member of the Canadian Parliament, caused indirectly some disaffection among the natives. A few Canadians who had entered the colony as surveyors gathered about him. calling themselves “the Canadian party,” and even after Mr. Howe had left Messrs. Snow and Mair, with the less enthusiastic Mr. J. S. Dennis, maintained the party, which we felt to be a somewhat dangerous combination. The natives had fancied the territory, including themselves, had been sold, and the more intelligent among them resented this as “worse than slavery.” Careful and generous treatment, however, helped to prevent any risk of insurrection.

Meanwhile a series of petitions were written to England and Canada asking for a change of government. Some pled for annexation to Canada, some to the United States, some to England. But before anything could be done the chartered rights of the Company had to be formally surrendered to the British Government, in compensation for which they were to receive £300,000 and one-twentieth of the land. Some people thought this sum enormous, though it was a mere fraction of what the land by-and-by sold for ; others declared that the Company had no legal right to either land or money, surely an absurd contention.

The day for the transfer was 1st December, 1869. Unfortunately, long before this date arrived Mr. McDougall, who had been conducting the negotiations in England, was appointed at Ottawa to be supreme ruler of the colony. The people opposed him, refused him entrance, and, instead of making a triumphant entry, he found himself ignored, slighted, and repulsed, while the Nor'-Wester poured forth daily streams of vituperation, all directed against my unfortunate Company.

Early in November, my friend Louis Riel made his appearance at Fort Garry with one hundred men. To the inquiry of Mr. Cowan, the superintendent, regarding the nature of their visit, they replied, “To protect the fort.” In vain did Mr. Cowan protest against being compelled to billet so many men inside the fort. Then followed public notices, proclamations, protests, from all quarters: Riel, Schultz, Snow, and Mair (the “friends of Canada”), and from McDougall, who by this time was in the United States. Meanwhile Riel had extended his guards to the town, patrolling its muddy streets, and by the 23rd the insurgents had grown so strong that they made Governor McTavish and Mr. Cowan prisoners in their own fort, and took possession of the Company’s books and papers in their charge. A Major Wallace, a Scotsman, arrived from Mr. McDougall, but was ignominiously stripped of his arms, and sent back to his master. The year ended with the issuing of proclamations, of very questionable authority, by J. S. Dennis, surveyor, who signed himself" Deputy Governor and Conservator of the Peace.” There can be no doubt that the conduct of affairs during these weeks was not such as to pacify the natives or to lead to an amicable settlement. The reason that prompted Mr. McDougall to approach the frontier when he did is a mystery. The move had a most irritating effect. And, as Governor, McTavish must surely have foreseen Riel’s movement, or at all events expected, as I certainly did, that the half-breeds would have recourse to arms. Why had he not in Fort Garry a force equal to any emergency ? In so acting he would not have been doing anything but what might have been done with the full approval of the Imperial and Canadian Governments, and he would have prevented the rumour, soon widespread in the country, that he was a consenting party to Riel’s attack. It was no doubt unreasonable to hold him responsible for events that had happened during his serious three months’ illness, but popular opinion is apt to be unreasonable, and in any case the captain of the ship is responsible for her course and her fate. Had it been possible to reconcile the English and French half-breeds, the influence of the “Canadian party” would have been done for, and that of itself would have been sufficient to secure peace. This party was eager for war, and Surveyor Dennis and his friends were busy drilling the Swampy Indians in the stone fort. After a few months, however, the drilling ceased, the French provisional flag appeared on the walls of Fort Garry, and our soi-disant “Deputy Governor,” after inditing a letter to Riel recommending speedy unconditional surrender, and expressing trust in that gentleman’s “honour”—of which he had, alas! none-—suddenly disappeared from view. Both he and Mr. McDougall, when all diplomatic ingenuity had failed, returned through deep snow to Ottawa. Riel and his comrade O’Donoghue pursued their schemes, and on their demand for the loan of a sum of money from Mr. McTavish being refused helped themselves by carrying off the safe, taking the keys from the accountant by force.

But salvation was at hand, though we knew it not, for in December 1 got an urgent letter bidding me send my two best dog teams, sledges, and drivers to the upper fort, that they might be sent with others to Georgetown to meet and escort to the colony Mr. D. A. Smith (already referred to), one of the Company’s own officers, who was coming as a special commissioner from the Government to restore peace in the country. He arrived on 27th December, two days after the other special commissioners from Ottawa, the Grand Vicar Thibault and Colonel de Salaberry. These gentlemen found us all in much excitement over the rumoured approach of ten thousand Sioux warriors, coming from the west to attack us. There was a saying, “ Scratch a Sioux Indian, and you discover what an American savage is,” so that our alarm was considerable. But, by the timely representations of a Scotch half-breed, they were induced to turn back, thus ending the last Indian scare under the Company’s government. This man was accused by the Americans of having made much profit out of these Sioux Indians by purchasing from them gold dust and other wealth, the booty of the families murdered in 1861-2.

There seemed little prospect of my idea of reconciling the Scotch and French half-breeds being carried ouc. The “Canadian party” was for the moment in high favour with the English section, and their influence continually widened the breach between the other two groups. Canada was discovering a new world, which would revolutionise its affairs, but this “ Canadian party ” was scarcely a wise or effective instrument in dealing with the situation. For they were masterful, if not abusive, and imagined to be belonging to a class that relieved them from the necessity of being just towards the natives, whom they took to be nothing!

1870

The first meeting of the commissioners, held at Fort Garry under Riel’s presidency, was attended by many of our ablest men, of all shades of opinion. Happily the questions at issue stood apart from those of ordinary politics, and one could not but feel that, whatever the actual result of the conference might be, its influence would go towards uniting the sympathies of the colonists with the Canadians, and help to produce a spirit of cordial co-operation in the task of developing the practically unlimited possibilities of the country. The conference was watched with interest and sympathy both in Ottawa and in London. “Let there only be an indication on both sides that a genuine effort is being made to come to a good understanding,” said a prominent colonist to me, “and all will end well.” The nomination of three such men as the Grand Vicar, Colonel de Salaberry, and Mr. D. A. Smith, as representatives of Canada, was in itself a proof that the Government appreciated the importance of the situation. Each and all of the parties were agreed that Mr. D. A. Smith’s tone throughout was friendly, calm, and dispassionate. His effort to secure the fullest measure of friendly intercourse between the natives and Canada, subject only to the claims of Imperial authority, was a statesmanlike action the more surprising in a man who had spent most of his life isolated among the dreary rocks of Labrador. His masterly grasp of the situation was shown most completely at the mass meeting at Fort Gariy in January, when he had the opportunity of expounding his views and plans. It was a critical moment, and when he rose to unfold his commission from Sir John Young before Riel, O’Donoghue, and other insurrectionales, most of us expected to see h:m arrested, or even shot. Indeed, he was virtually a prisoner, and Riel himself had kept a sharp eye on all his correspondence. But his marvellous coolness and self-possession impressed the hot-headed natives and convinced them that their interests would be safe with Canada. As his last resort, Riel charged him with being a Company man. It was true, but Mr. Smith at once offered to sever his connection with the Company if that would tend to a peaceful settlement of the vexed questions. But Riel, tactless and uncultured, had lost his influence, and Mr. Smith was master of the situation. He bore the chief part in the discussion regarding the Bill of Rights which was to be sent to Canada, and his coolness and Scotch sagacity alone prevented the collapse of the negotiations. At one stage O’Donoghue said to a supporter, “This man Smith knows too much for us. We must get rid of him, or the North-West cannot be either an independent republic or even a part of the United States. He is a friend of the halfbreeds, and will be able to persuade them that union with Canada is to their interest,” of which indeed he did persuade them very justly. I told a friend then he deserved a peerage and would win it some day, as he will.

It was understood that a very special desire had been expressed at Ottawa that Mr. Smith should take part in the commission, as he was known to be an expert in the subjects likely to be most prominent, as well as to be very thoroughly acquainted with the character of the natives. But, do what he might, the “Canadian party” gave trouble, and January ended in wrangling, petitioning, free fighting, and Heaven knows what. Riel incurred the hatred of the “party” by persistently shutting them out from his counsels ; and their intrigues, under the leadership of the untiring Dr. Schultz, became every day more daring and dangerous. Riel knew his rival’s past history among us, and how by sheer physical bulk and some shrewdness he had bullied the Company and its law-courts for some eight years. So, rightly or wrongly, he and his “party” had him taken prisoner and lodged within the walls of Fort Garry, but in vain, for during the night he climbed the wall, and was again at large, saving Riel’s credit for the time, for it was reported that that unscrupulous leader intended to have his blood. Being at liberty, he at once set about inciting the people to violence, and was so far successful, that even from the far-off portage La Prairie recruits crowded to his rendezvous in Kildonan church. But shrewdly foreseeing consequences, he refused to accept the responsibility of controlling these misguided people who had gathered at his call—a heterogeneous collection of Canadians, Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Dutch, Germans, English, and Scotch, and their halt-breeds, as well as representatives of three distinct Indian races: Crees, Salteaux, and Ojibways. Thus, leaderlcss, purposeless, shelterless (the thermometer stood at 550 below zero), the warlike camp, under the iniluence of intense frost and intenser fear, disappeared with extraordinary rapidity, vanishing in every direction except that which led to Riel’s quarters in Fort Garry, eight miles off. They had one very ancient piece of artillery with them, which they left behind them ingloriously in their flight. Many of these brave soldiers scarcely stopped running till they had put the whole length of Lake Winnipeg, some three hundred miles, between them and their foe. Dr. Schultz himself cast not a glance over his shoulder till he was safe i.i Ottawa. And all this although Louis Riel had never moved from Fort Garry! The casualties at this extraordinary battle that never was fought were two in number, a couple of youths, Parisien and Sutherland, being killed. Bui for their deaths the whole thing would have been merely ludicrous.

It had a serious sequel, however, for Riel secured as prisoners some eighty of Schultz’s soldiers and kept them in durance vile under daily threats of death. Schultz having escaped, he looked for a scapegoat to take his place. One day, in some mood of folly—to regard the matter merely as a piece of policy—he took his revenge on the “Canadian party” by ordering out one Thomas Scott, a fine looking young Scotch-Canadian, and having him taken outside the fort, blindfolded, and shot down in cold blood by six bullets without even the apology for a trial. It was a huge blunder. The colony was aghast. Riel had reached the highest point, and his rash, inhuman act paved the way for his descent. His subsequent relations with his soldiers were those of the tyrant shorn of power. They undertook to do whatever he told them ; he told them to do whatever they liked.

To strengthen his hands to some extent, he started a newspaper called The New Nation, but it was only too clear that his fighting powers were at an end. lie was a superstitious man, and declared that his luck left him when he shot Scott. Certainly it was then that his star began to pale. He was a man of strange and contradictory impulses ; and, free from the ordinary restraints of society, he found in his own nature neither ballast nor control. He was utterly unstable ; the mortal enemy of the morning might be the trusted ally of the night. Scheme after scheme formed itself in his restless brain, each in turn pressed with enthusiasm, each in turn rejected with disdain. Much drinking and smoking had irreparably injured a temperament naturally highly nervous, and these habits grew upon him till he could not !ive without them. His moods became more and more capricious and uncertain, his passion more violent and unreasonable, his impulses more sudden and inconsistent. The last scene In the vivid drama of his connection with us soon came. In May Lieutenant W. F. Butler arrived, having made, by Colonel Wolseley’s orders, a flank movement through the States. In his honour the Salteaux gave a big “powwow,” the chief men present being Musk-koo-ann-ee, Namba or Sturgeon, Red Deer, Big Apron, Grey Eyes, Long Claws, and Big Bird. A few days later the gallant captain was furnished by us with men, provision*, and a large canoe, and started on his journey down the Red River, across Lake Winnipeg, and up the Rainy River to meet and report to the commander of the Red River expeditionary force. This force entered Fort Garry on the 24th without opposition. Riel retreated to St. Boniface and thence to the United States. His soldiers and supporters vanished like snow in June, after having with their chief “enjoyed” in our fort nearly a year ol continuous debauch. This was Riel’s final exit from the stage of the Company’s affairs. He appeared again years after in the midst of another political crisis, but I relate only what I myself was concerned in. After enjoying the Company’s hospitality for a short time, Colonel Wolseley retraced his steps with his battalion of the 60th Rifles, leaving two battalions of Canadian Volunteers, one in each of our forts, to protect us alike from Riel and from Indian scares.

Now arrived Mr. Archibald, the newly appointed Governor. Coming as he did at the right time, and suitably preceded or escorted by military force, he received a hearty welcome, very different from the reception accorded to Mr, McDougall. He and his friend Mr. Dennis showed a lack of tact and of diplomacy in attempting to claim a position which would obviously be denied or grudged by the people. They should have seen that such an action would merely intensify ill-feeling, and that the crisis was emphatically one of those when nothing but an exhibition of Imperial military force can preserve peace. The so-called “Canadian parly” was by this time so weakened in numbers as to be powerless. Happily the time has long come when there :s the fullest sympathy in Canada with Imperial policy and aims. It is unfair to blame my Company for the disturbances. The land had ceased to be theirs since the transfer, and their control was consequently weakened, and nominally, indeed, at an end. The mistake, it has always seemed to me, lay with the authorities at Ottawa in neglecting to consult the people who were to be affected by the change. It was precisely here that Mr. D. A. Smith showed the wisdom and grasp of affairs which ia reality saved the situation and brought the matter to a satisfactory issue.

Early in the year, in fact on 17th May, my friend Governor McTavish had left the colony for ever, broken down in health, and worn beyond recognition by the troubles he had encountered. He was emphatically a man sans peur et sans reproche, a man whose name was accepted everywhere as a synonym for disinterested integrity.

He died immediately on his arrival in Liverpool, to the sorrow of all who had known or served under him. Adieu; William the 'Just!'


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