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

MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Lord Selkirk


LORD SELKIRK'S first visit to Montreal in 1803 was a notable event. As already mentioned, having seen his body of Scottish emigrants settled in Prince Edward Island he crossed to the United States to examine the problem of settlement in the republic. Here he was distressed to see his countrymen living under a foreign flag, and absorbing the spirit hostile to the mother country so largely prevailing at that time among the first generation of Americans. The thought came to his mind of endeavouring to counterwork this loss to the empire. He was, as we have seen, a man not easily overcome by difficulties, and he bethought himself of the plan already described of founding settlements in Upper Canada and inducing British subjects in the United States to come to these. Some of the Baldoon settlers were actually of this class.

Montreal was at this time the centre of commercial life for Canada. The open mind of the imaginative earl was greatly impressed by what he saw there. He saw his own countrymen, the McTavishes, Mackenzies, McGillivrays, Camerons, and the rest, the magnates of the fur trade and leaders in the public life of Lower Canada. He saw at Ste. Anne and Lachine the arrival and departure of the voyageurs in their canoes, going and coming over a route hundreds of miles long to Grand Portage, the depot on Lake Superior, and this but the introduction to a course thousands of miles further inland to far distant Athabaska. There was a sense of mystery connected with the many Indian tribes of which he heard, and a romantic inspiration in the conception of the rapids and waterfalls and portages of the little-known journey, and in the spectacle of a few hundreds of white men governing a region without law or military force, or even a respectable show of numbers at any one point. All this appealed strongly to the mind of a man of Selkirk's temperament. The impression made upon him was similar to that expressed by Washington Irving in the opening chapter of "Astoria," in which that writer speaks in his now well-known phrase of the "Lords of the North."

The reception given the noble earl by the successful traders of Montreal was distinctly cordial and enthusiastic. His rank, his open-mindedness, and his successful achievement in settling his and their countrymen in Prince Edward Island were well known to them. Masson says of his arrival: "Lord Selkirk was received with open arms in Montreal. His reputation had preceded him, and all regarded it as an honour to be allowed to entertain him. The bourgeois of the North-West Company, who held the highest place in the English society of Montreal, and among whom the Scottish element predominated, were the first to offer him the abundant hospitality for which they were distinguished."

The embodiment of the fur traders' pride and position was the Beaver Club of Montreal. It had been founded some twenty years before Lord Selkirk's visit with less than twenty members, and could only receive new members from officers who had endured the hardships of the interior of the fur traders' country. The appointments of their club house were notable. On their tables silver and glassware, of a kind unknown elsewhere in Canada, shone with resplendent light at their feasts. Each member on such occasions wore an elaborate gold medal bearing the motto, "Fortitude in distress." Bear, beaver, pemmican, and venison were served in the fashion of the Posts, song and dance gave entertainment during the evening, and when wine brought exhilaration in the early morning hours, partners, factors, and traders, in the sight of all the servants or voyageurs who happened to gain admittance, engaged in the "grand voyage" which consisted in all seating themselves in a row on the rich carpet, each armed with tongs, poker, sword, or walking stick to serve as paddle, and in boisterous manner singing a voyageur's song, "Malbrouck " or "A la Claire Fontaine," while they paddled as regularly as the excited state of their nerves would allow.

Some parts of the proceedings did not meet the taste of the philosophic and high-minded earl, but the motto "in vino veritas" came to his mind, and he was given a great opportunity of learning the spirit, objects, and even details of the fur trade which he could have obtained in no other way.

It is stated by Masson that several of the bourgeois were suspicious while others were surprised at the persistence with which Lord Selkirk pursued his researches and investigations into the affairs of the fur trade. It has often been stated by the advocates of the case of the Nor'-Westers in the subsequent troubles of the fur trade, that Lord Selkirk played an unworthy part in obtaining detailed information about the fur trade, which he used to the disadvantage of the Montreal company in after years. It has even been said that Lord Selkirk returned to England completely decided to take advantage of the information that he had thus obtained.

We can see no ground for believing this to have been the case. Lord Selkirk's attention arose from the same disposition that led him to interest himself in the poor of his own country and of Ireland; in the question of repatriation from the United States; in the condition of the Indians; and in the defence of Britain from the dangers of a Napoleonic invasion. Minds such as that of Lord Selkirk require material for constant thought, and find satisfaction in discussing such problems and planning useful enterprises. The enthusiasms of such men have often been of the greatest value to the world.

The disproof of this slur thrown upon the honour of Lord Selkirk, that he took advantage of the hospitality of the Nor'-Westers to obtain private information to be used in injuring their company, is seen in the fact that there is no evidence that for the following seven years the subject of gaining a hold of any portion of the fur traders' country for the purposes of colonization occupied his mind. Even if the subject were before his mind in those years, it seems very unlikely that he planned any scheme which would not allow the Nor'-Westers freedom of the vast territory which was sufficient for all their purposes.
As we have seen, philanthropic problems as to agriculture, the condition of the poor, the safety of the country, and the spread of civilization occupied his mind during these seven years. Lord Selkirk's work on emigration, consisting of well-nigh three hundred pages, discusses the state of the Highlands and the benefit of emigration to the colonies, but gives no hint that at that time he saw in the fur traders' land a field for emigration, or that envious thoughts had any place in his mind. He was in no way interested in the Hudson's Bay Company, and had no hostility to the Nor'-Westers.

By the year 1810 a plan had matured in the mind of the Earl of Selkirk to help the poor in his native land and to carry out a project magnificent in its proportions and sufficient, if successfully executed, to relieve the widespread distress. This we may call the founding of a great colony in the interior of Rupert's Land—in other words the dream of a New World empire.

It is not necessary to suppose that any interest in the fur trade, for or against either of the companies, had anything to do with this great project. It was simply a comprehensive philanthropic scheme on the part of Lord Selkirk to relieve distress in his native land. In it was involved the ambition to succeed in so vast an enterprise.

As to the state of England in the first decade of the nineteenth century there can be no two opinions. A great English historian has said: "During the fifteen years which preceded Waterloo, the number of the population rose from ten to thirteen millions, and this rapid increase kept down the rate of wages, which would naturally have advanced in a corresponding degree with the increase in the national wealth. Even manufactures, though destined in the long run to benefit the labouring classes, seemed at first rather to depress them. While labour was thus thrown out of its older grooves, and the rate of wages kept down at an artificially low figure by the rapid increase of population, the rise in the price of wheat, which brought wealth to the landowner and the farmer, brought famine and death to the poor, for England was cut off by the Napoleonic war from the vast cornfields of the continent of America. Scarcity was followed by a terrible pauperization of the labouring classes. The amount of the poor rate rose fifty per cent.; and with the increase of poverty followed its inevitable result, the increase of crime."

It was in 1809 that the state of despair reached its worst, and the kind-hearted and ingenious-minded earl was impelled to action. He began to consider how, even though he should involve himself and his estate in heavy financial obligations, he might assist his Highland fellow-countrymen, whose traditions and associations he admired. Judged by the hard canons of finance we can see that he was projecting a very unlikely and doubtful enterprise; but to the earl with his deep sympathy and somewhat too vivid imagination it seemed feasible. Whatever the leading motive which dictated his course, it was certainly neither a partizan nor a sordid one.

With the remarkable caution that was united with his spirit of enterprise, he sought to know the legal basis on which the Hudson's Bay Company founded its title. In view of the importance which afterwards became attached to the legal question involved, it may be well to give the opinion of five distinguished English lawyers to whom the question was submitted.

"We are of opinion that the grant of the soil contained in the Charter (H. B. Co.'s Charter, of 1670) is good, and that it will include all the country, the waters of which run into Hudson Bay, as ascertained by geographical observations.

"We are of opinion that an individual, holding from the Hudson's Bay Company a lease, or grant in fee simple of any part of their territory, will be entitled to all the ordinary rights of landed property in England, and will be entitled to prevent other persons from occupying any part of the lands, from cutting down timber, and fishing in the adjoining waters (being such as a private right of fishing may subsist in), and may (if he can peaceably or otherwise by due course of law) dispossess them of any buildings which they have recently erected within the limits of their property.

"We are of opinion that the grant of the civil and criminal jurisdiction is valid, but it is not granted to the company, but to the government and council at their respective establishments; but we cannot recommend it to be exercised so as to affect the lives or limbs of criminals. It is to be exercised by the governor and council as judges, who are to proceed according to the law of England.

"The company may appoint a sheriff to execute judgments, and to do his duty as in England.

"'We are of opinion that the sheriff, in case of resistance to his authority, may collect the population to his assistance, and may put arms into the hands of his servants for defence against attack, and to assist in enforcing the judgments of the court; but such powers cannot be exercised with too much circumspection.

"We are of opinion that all persons will be subject to the jurisdiction of the court who reside, or are found within the territories over which it extends.

"We do not think the Canada Jurisdiction Act (43. Geo. III.) gives jurisdiction within the territories of the Hudson's Bay Company, the same being within the ,jurisdiction of their own governors and councils.

"We are of opinion that the governor (in Hudson Bay) might, under the authority of the company, appoint constables and other officers for the preservation of the peace, and that the officers so appointed would have the same duties and privileges as the same officers in England, so far as these duties and privileges may be applicable to their situation in the territories of the company.


"Samuel Romilly
"G.S. Holroyd
"W.M. Cruise
"J. Scarlett
"John Bell

The report of these prominent lawyers gave Lord Selkirk his warrant for proceeding with his scheme. This was nothing else than obtaining, by purchase of its stock, a controlling interest in the Hudson's Bay Company. In the year 1810 he and his friends succeeded in purchasing a large quantity of the stock of the Hudson's Bay Company, and by May, 1811, they owned £35,000 out of a total of £105,000.

The general court of the proprietors was called together for a meeting on May 30th, and the decision arrived at was of momentous interest not only to Lord Selkirk, but to the North-West Company, to the Hudson's Bay Company, and to British interests in the whole fur country of Rupert's Land, the Indian territories, and even in Canada. About £45,000 worth of stock was represented at the meeting. Nearly £80,000 of this amount was in the hands of Lord Selkirk and his friends. Such well-known Hudson's Bay Company names as Wedderburn, Mainwaring, Berens, and Pelly are chronicled in the minutes as on Lord Selkirk's side, while of the opponents Thwaytes and Whitehead owned £13,000, while three Nor'-Westers, who had purchased their stock within forty-eight hours of the time of the meeting, opposed the majority. These were Alexander Mackenzie, John Inglis, and Edward Ellice, and they together held £2,500 of stock.

The proposition Lord Selkirk made to the company was a great and important one. It was for the purchase of a tract of land in Rupert's Land lying east and west of the Red River of the North, and it involved the obligation on the part of the earl to settle, within a limited time, a large colony on the lands acquired, and the assumption of the expense of transport, of outlay for the settlers, of government, of protection, and of quieting the Indian title to the lands.

The die was now cast. A territory consisting of some one hundred and ten thousand square miles, a region larger than Manitoba, was possessed by one man. He was a determined enthusiast who would imperil his estates and all his means for the furtherance of his project. He would beat down opposition, whether from the British government, the jealousy of the fur-trading section of the Hudson's Bay Company, or the bitter animosity of the North-West Company which considered the scheme one deliberately aimed at its influence, if not at its very existence.

Return to Book Contents 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.