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MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Lord Selkirk


THE outlook was dark for the band of colonists on the banks of the Red River. Milton and Cheadle, fifty years afterwards in starting on their journey westward across the plains from Red River complained that their chief difficulty was want of food. No field of grain had ever been sown on the fertile banks of the Red River when the colonists arrived. Game and fish were the only natural sources of the food supply. The shelter was insufficient, and the winter, with its low temperatures, was coming upon the unready settlers. Miles Macdonell, the governor as he was called, had tried to provide something for his dependents. Certain supplies of potatoes, barley, oats and garden seeds, were bought from the North- West Company, and these had been imported from Canada at a large expense. A few farm animals had also been brought to Red River to begin the operations of the infant settlement.

As the winter progressed supplies began to fail, and Governor Macdonell sought other means of support. The banks of the Red River, in what is now Manitoba, are much more wooded than the territory on the south side of. the American boundary line, in what is now Dakota. Lying lower, as it does, Manitoba has a large expanse of meadowland, and not the high plains which are found in Dakota. The herds of buffalo are fond of the elevated plateaux, and accordingly did not approach within sixty or seventy miles of the infant settlement. Governor Macdonell led his settlers up the banks of the Red River to a point where he selected a site for an encampment at Pembina, as the Nor'Western fort was called. The herds of buffalo here were so tame that they came to rub themselves against the stockades of the fort. Though unaccustomed to the chase the new settlers obtained sufficient food for sustenance, and were thus able to pass their first winter.

The forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, where now stands the city of Winnipeg, was the centre about which the new settlers gathered. Though now considered the chief centre of the West it was not so before the beginning of the nineteenth century. Important forts near where the towns of Portage la Prairie and Brandon now stand had, at the end of the eighteenth century, been the centres of trade. Fort Gibraltar, the first fort erected at the Forks, with the exception of a temporary French post in 1738, was begun only in 1804 by a bourgeois of the North-West Company. An encampment of the Hudson's Bay Company seems to have been established shortly before the arrival of the colonists, but now a number of buildings were erected a mile north of Fort Gibraltar at a point ever since known as Colony Gardens.

While these trying experiences were overtaking the forlorn and inexperienced company of settlers, Lord Selkirk was seeking additional colonists to swell the numbers of his Red River establishment. The opposition of the Nor'-Wester agents in Britain was very damaging to him. Any reports of the sufferings of the first band of emigrants which may have reached the motherland were sure to be given currency.

Small though the number on the second voyage may have been, yet even these were seriously delayed at Stornoway, their place of embarkation, by the collector of customs, who, it will be remembered, was a relative of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Objection was raised that the number being carried by the Hudson's Bay Company ships was in contravention to the Dundas Act. Through Lord Selkirk's interference, however, the ships were permitted to sail.

As if to fill their cup of trouble ship-fever broke out upon the voyage, so that a number of the passengers and crew died at sea, and others on the shore of Hudson Bay. A small number—not more than fifteen or twenty colonists—were ready to undertake the toilsome route from York Factory to Red River, and they were fortunate in being able to make the journey from Stornoway to Red River in one season, viz., that of 1813.

At Red River the little band, with marvellous pluck, made the most of its hard lot. Inured to the life of the country by their winter experience at Pembina the settlers returned to the settlement. The summer supply of food was even more difficult to obtain than that of the winter. The fish in the Red River were few in 1813; and edible roots and berries were scarcer than usual. The chief dependence of the settlers was on the starchy taproot of a plant growing on the plains, said by some to have been of the parsnip family, but probably the root of the prairie turnip of the pea family. The succulent leaves of a plant of the goosefoot family were boiled as pottage, and assisted in saving the settlers from starvation.

Though unprovided with agricultural implements, so great was the zeal of the new comers that with the help of the hoe they sowed a small quantity of wheat, which they had obtained from the fort at the foot of Winnipeg River on Lake Winnipeg. They were surprised to see their small sowing return them, in the finest wheat, nearly one hundred fold. The great yield gave them hope of the goodly land to which they had come, though their small patches of grain were preserved with great difficulty from blackbirds and pigeons, which, in myriads, sought to take toll of the strangers who had come to rob them of their solitudes.

To the difficulties of Governor Macdonell were now added the additional party, small though it was, to be provided for and introduced to the hardships of an unknown and most trying life. The supply of food for the second winter was no more abundant than for the first, and the number of colonists was now approaching one hundred. The experience of the first winter had shown that a removal to Pembina was the only way of gaining an adequate means of supply. Accordingly the whole band wended their way southward to their winter quarters.

On their first arrival the Nor'_Westers had shown them no great opposition, thinking probably that the settlers would retire from the country when they found their hardships insupportable. The arrival of the second band, small though it was, began to show the Nor'-Westers that the colonizer was determined, and was not to be thwarted. No doubt this feeling of antagonism was increased by the action of Governor Macdonell, who issued a proclamation and built a fort, during his second winter in the neighbourhood of Pembina, to which he gave the name Fort Daer, from one of the family titles of Lord Selkirk.

Accordingly the colonists in their second winter sojourn at Pembina experienced a complete change in the attitude of the French half-breeds, who resided about them. In the former year, in their inexperience, the French natives had helped them greatly, but now things were changed. The half-breeds were evidently instructed by their masters, the Nor'-West traders, to lend no assistance to the needy strangers. The snow was deep, and the colonists found it difficult to pursue the buffalo, and were often in great straits for food. Plots were sprung upon them, which made them afraid to go far from their place of abode, and provisions purchased by them were obtained at a very high price. When spring came the discouraged settlers returned in a destitute condition to their holdings near the Forks. A writer of the country describes them as "having had to barter away their clothing for food, many of them frostbitten, half-naked, and so discouraged, that they resolved never to return to Pembina again under any circumstances."

Notwithstanding the serious obstacles which met the hundred colonists on Red River, the noble founder continued his efforts to add new members to his colony. No doubt the remoteness of his colony, and the impossibility of obtaining frequent information from it, hid from Lord Selkirk the serious condition of things on the Red River.

In 1813 he succeeded in despatching the largest number of settlers he had yet sent, and these reached Churchill by the Prince of Finales which started on her voyage from the Orkneys. Mr. Archibald Macdonald, who was in charge of this party while on its way to the interior, has left us a clear and interesting pamphlet as to their ,journey. The party was ninety-three strong. At Churchill, according to reports, they suffered much, as a severe fever had raged among them on the sea voyage, and they were in a very unfit state to endure the severity of winter in so high a latitude.

About the middle of the following April Macdonald led a portion of his party---those strongest and most fit for the journey—by way of York Factory and up the Nelson River to the rendezvous on Red River. Arriving at their destination before the end of June, they were able to plant a considerable quantity of potatoes.

The possession of houses—though of a very humble kind—and the subdivision of the land produced a happier state of mind among the colonists. The second part of Macdonald's party arrived later in the season, Governor Macdonell having gone north to meet them.

On account of causes afterwards to be explained, some one hundred and fifty of the colonists, prejudiced by their difficulties and also led by strong inducements offered them by the Nor'-Westers, left Red River and by a long canoe journey down the fur traders' route reached the shores of Georgian Bay in Upper Canada and were given lands and assistance in the western part of that province. About one quarter of the colonists decided to remain in Red River Settlement, but these were threatened by the half-breeds and fled northwards to Jack River, since known as Norway House, near the north end of Lake Winnipeg.

In these unfortunate circumstances Governor Macdonell was served with a summons to answer certain charges preferred against him before the courts of Lover Canada, and went east compelled to leave his hapless colonists without leadership or guidance.

Hunger, cold, enmity, persecution, threats, and actual personal violence, added to the homesickness and state of doubt incident to a new settler's life, made the condition of the Selkirk settlers at the end of 1814 in their refuge at Jack River a most pitiable one. But Lord Selkirk was a determined and brave man, and with true Scottish pluck he made arrangements for sending out another party, the best and strongest yet, to make good the loss by desertion, and to strengthen and defend the remnant now in a place of refuge. Governor Macdonell having been removed by legal process, his place had to be filled, and the colonizer obtained a military officer of high standing in the British army, who had been a notable traveller and author. This was Robert Semple, thereafter known as Governor Semple.

With a party of one hundred Highlanders, mostly from the parish of Kildonan, near Helmsdale, in Sutherlandshire, Scotland, the new governor hastened on his way, and made the whole journey from Britain to Red River in the one season of 1815, reaching his destination in October of that year.

On arriving at the settlement Governor Semple found the faithful remnant, which had fled to Jack River, again upon their lands, led by Colin Robertson, a Hudson's Bay Company officer who had been sent to their assistance and who had been successful in inducing them to return to their deserted homesteads.

Such was the occupation of the Red River district by its first settlers. Nearly three hundred had been sent out by His Lordship. One half of these had gone to Upper Canada, and formed successful settlements in the township of Gwillimbury, south of Lake Simcoe, and in the district south of London in Upper Canada.

Other disasters followed the settlement, as we shall see in another chapter, but the foundation was laid and a control assumed which no doubt preserved the country for the British Crown. The Selkirk settlers were a barrier to all the machinations of the worst elements of the United States frontier who sought to foment disturbances between the two countries. Moreover, the Selkirk settlement became a nucleus around which gathered the retired traders of the Hudson's Bay Company with their wives and children, many of these, having Indian blood. Thus was formed one of the most unique communities that the ethnologist can investigate.

Education and religion did not leave the infant settlement long neglected. A Scottish elder, empowered by the Church of Scotland to marry and baptize, accompanied the party brought out by Governor Semple. The Roman Catholic Church sent out two devoted priests a few years later, and shortly after these came a clergyman from England to represent the Church Missionary Society.

From being a number of scattered and discouraged settlers the community grew to have an individuality, very marked in speech, customs, manners, and ideals. No doubt from its remoteness and want of energy it had peculiarities which might not draw forth unbounded admiration, but on the whole it was a staid, moral, loyal community. As we shall see, two years after the arrival of his last party, Lord Selkirk visited the settlement in the time of its greatest distress.

The chief service rendered to the empire by the Red River Settlement was that it became the predecessor of the Manitoba of to-day—of Manitoba with its sturdiness, energy, and enterprise, qualities which are making it an influential member of the sisterhood of provinces in the Canadian dominion.

Scotch Grove Pioneers
The story of those hardy Scotchmen, who made an overland journey from the Red River of the North to Jones County, Iowa, in 1837 and formed the settlement now known as, Scotch Grove. Compiled at the time of the Centennial Celebration of Scotch Grove, August 14 and 15, 1937 by Josephine Sutherland (pdf)

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