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MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Lord Selkirk


IN the very year that Wordsworth penned his sonnet of lament for England, and gave forth his cry for help for the British people, Lord Selkirk was deep in contemplation as to how he might relieve their necessities. To him emigration seemed the remedy. He had just read Sir Alexander Mackenzie's journal, and had heard of the district of Red River as being fertile and affording room for a large population. The plan flashed into his mind of being the leader in a pioneer movement of settlement for Rupert's Land which would relieve the distress of crofter, farm labourer, and operative alike, and restore the equilibrium disturbed by war and other disasters.

Accordingly His Lordship, on April 4th, 1802, sent to Lord Pelham, home secretary, a letter and memorial. This has never been published, but through the kindness of the Earl of Kimberley when he was colonial secretary some years ago, a copy was furnished to the writer.

In these documents Lord Selkirk says: "No tract of land remains unoccupied on the sea-coast of British America, except barren and frozen deserts. To find a sufficient extent of good soil in a temperate climate we must go far inland. This inconvenience is not, however, an insurmountable 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 British territory. At the western extremity of Canada, upon the waters which fall into Lake Winnipeg, and, uniting with 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 and 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. . . . Some of the British traders have extended their discoveries into a climate which appears well adapted even for the vine, the successful cultivation of which would save immense sums that go every year from this kingdom into the hands of its enemies. To a colony in these territories the channel of trade must be the river of Port Nelson."

Here is the genesis of Lord Selkirk's emigration movement almost a decade before he organized his expedition to enter upon the land to be reached by way of Nelson River. Lord Buckinghamshire, the colonial secretary, did not favour the scheme, "the prejudices of the British people were so strong against emigration." This is not to be wondered at. Britain was engaged in a great war in which her very existence was at stake. Surely it would be folly to weaken her supply of men. Lord Selkirk, in his book published three years after this letter, combats the arguments against emigration. He especially falls foul of the Highland Society, which had strenuously opposed the removal of the Highlanders from their lands to the New World.

Lord Selkirk was, however, impressed with the thought of relieving suffering, and, in 1803, had organized and carried out his first emigration party. Forbidden by the British government to begin a colony six hundred miles inland from Hudson Bay, on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, he was compelled to content himself with a strip of land on the coast of Prince Edward Island, on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which could be reached by ship.

In his work on emigration a good account is given of this colony. The unoccupied land extended, on the east coast of Prince Edward Island, for some thirty miles. "Separated by an arm of the sea from any other settlement," he says, "the ernigrants were placed in circumstances scarcely more favourable than if the island had been completely desert."

Lord Selkirk had intended himself to precede the colonists, and to oversee the preparations made for their reception. This he was unable to do. Eight hundred persons, the greater proportion of whom were from the Isle of Skye, and a number from each of the shires of Ross, Argyle, and Inverness, with a few from the Island of Uist, made up this pioneer party. They sailed from the British Isles in three ships, and arrived respectively on the 7th, 9th, and 27th August, 1803. On Lord Selkirk's reaching Charlottetown, the capital of the island, he found that the third ship had just arrived, and that the settlers had debarked from the other vessels in the district selected for them.

The selected region had been cleared by the French, who had been driven out in the year before the taking of Quebec, and in the lapse of forty years thickets of young trees had grown up, interspered with grassy glades. This afforded a suitable region for encampment and settlement. The settlers had, in the openings, built for each family a hut of poles, which they had covered over with spruce branches, and in these they were fairly comfortable. The camp had a strange appearance; confused heaps of baggage were everywhere piled up beside the huts; the fires built at night in the open spaces gave a weird appearance to the scene. Lord Selkirk had his tent pitched at the end of the camp, and all seemed to feel that the happy days of clanship were back again, and that the "Clearances" were a thing of the past.

The usual difficulties were experienced. The land was not well surveyed, each family was impatient, and indeed somewhat jealous as to the spot which should be assigned to it. Certain measurements were absolutely necessary. This took time. Discontent began to arise. Visitors came from the English settlements of the island and started doubts by their advice, and at one time the settlement was nearly broken up. Food rose in price to a high figure, and flour had to be brought from Nova Scotia. Scarcity of food, exposure, and a new climate brought their inevitable consequences, and a contagious fever broke out among the settlers. Fortunately Lord Selkirk had brought with him a competent and clever physician, and through his exertions very few fatal cases occurred.

At the end of three or four weeks from the time of Lord Selkirk's arrival all the allocations had been made, and the land sold at a moderate price óless than one half the price current on the island; the fever had begun to abate; and provisions became more plentiful by their importation from abroad by Lord Selkirk's agent. The narrator says: "From the moment the settlers were fixed in their respective allotments of land they were enabled to proceed without interruption in their work."

The zeal of the settlers is recorded to have been remarkable. A father and three sons occupied one lot; the father, sixty years of age, insisted on being an axeman; the sons had no resource but to hide the, axe, and the aged woodman spared the tree for the best of reasons. An elderly widow and her two sons had taken a claim; the young men being absent from home, the octogenarian matron seized the axe and undertook to fell a tree; the return of her sons stopped her well-meant efforts in time to prevent the tumbling monarch of the forest from crushing to the earth their humble dwelling.

The settlement continued to thrive; the people gained courage; they began to love their new home, and two years after their arrival Lord Selkirk says, speaking of the general improvement, "One of very moderate property, who had a small possession in the Isle of Skye, traces his lineage to a family which had once possessed an estate in Ross-shire, but had lost it in the turbulence of the feudal times. He has given to his new property the name of the ancient seat of his family, has selected a situation with more taste than might have been expected from a mere peasant; and to render the house of Auchtertyre worthy of its name, is doing more than would otherwise have been expected from a man of his station.,"

Thus the colony prospered. Probably not less than four thousand people on the island trace their origin to the three shiploads of 1803, while many in different parts of the Canadian West call themselves Lord Selkirk's islanders.

As soon as Lord Selkirk had seen his colonists fairly settled, he visited the United States and Canada. His active mind was taken up with the problems he saw being worked out in the New World, and his patriotic feeling was roused in favour of the British dependency of Canada. In the United States he found numbers of "families from Scotland and Wales in New England and in the state of New York," who were willing to remove to Canada if favourable terms could be obtained.

Becoming acquainted with the leading men in Montreal and Toronto, Lord Selkirk, with surprising alertness and courage, undertook several large schemes of emigration and development. He purchased a tract of land in the townships of Dover and Chatham, in the western part of Upper Canada near Lake St. Clair. Some twenty families of his Highland colonists from Prince Edward Island were, under the management of Alexander Macdonell, Sheriff of the Home District, placed on these lands and the name of one of his properties, Baldoon, was given to the settlement. A road, known as Baldoon Street, was cut through to the town of Chatham on the river Thames. Baldoon being situated in a swampy district, did not thrive; the settlers suffered from the fever and ague prevalent in the locality, and afterwards in the War of 1812 had various losses.

From a bundle of papers found in the archives of the Selkirk family, which the writer had the opportunity of perusing, a glimpse of the Earl of Selkirk's energy and determination may be seen. Observing the obstacles to settlement and improvement arising; from the want of communication through the country, Lord Selkirk, in 1804, proposed to the government of Upper Canada the building of a main highway from Amherstburg to York (Toronto), a distance of nearly three hundred miles. The cost of this was estimated at £40,000 sterling, and as the province was poor and weak the earl offered Governor Hunter to provide the money required and to accept payment in wild lands on each side of the road when constructed. To those who were familiar with the fearful roads of the western peninsula of Upper Canada even fifty years after this date, the proposal of Lord Selkirk will appear to have been one of great value. The executive council, however, over-estimating the value of the lands, regarded Lord Selkirk's terms as too high and rejected them.

Writing from London, England, in 1805,. the Earl of Selkirk proposed to take and settle one of the Indian townships lying near the mouth of the Grand River in Upper Canada. The township of Moulton, valued at between £3,000 and £4,000, seems to have been in the hands of the Earl of Selkirk for a time, but like Baldoon, it was marshy, and so proved unsuitable for immediate settlement, though in later times, after drainage, it proved to be a valuable township.

Undoubtedly Lord Selkirk's experiments in emigration were bravely undertaken, and showed evidence of organizing ability, but they proved unremunerative, as almost all early movements of the kind have done. To-day thriving communities represent the Prince Edward Island, Baldoon and Moulton settlements. They were the first attempts of one who was yet to take a much higher and wider flight. They but served to make definite and absorbing an ambition which was to become the dominating passion of his life.

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