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MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Lord Selkirk


THE opposition shown by Sir Alexander Mackenzie and his Nor'-Wester friends in Britain to Lord Selkirk's scheme, first in opposing it in the Court of Adventurers of Hudson Bay and again in endeavouring to lead aside colonists who had accepted Lord Selkirk's terms, was but a presage of the attitude of the Canadian traders to the new settlers. True, on the arrival of the colonists, a position of hostility was not definitely taken by the Nor'-Westers, probably because the scheme was so chimerical to them that they believed it would fail by its own defects. However, the feeling of enmity early showed itself.

The half-breeds, bois-brules, or Metis, as they are in different accounts called, were chiefly allied to the Canadian traders, and they were inspired with the thought that this settlement meant an invasion of their territory and was an infringement of the Indian title, in which through their mothers they had an interest.

The Indians were much interested and even diverted by the newcomers. The thought of a people not living by the chase, but hoping to gain a livelihood by cultivating the soil seemed to them unique, and lacked the romance of their wild and venturesome life. Observing the futile efforts of the colonists to turn up the earth with no implement more effective than the ordinary hoe and thus to attempt to grow wheat and oats, the Indians were quick to take up the words by which the French-Canadian half-breeds designated the colonists, jardiniers or gardeners, and mangeurs de lard—pork eaters—the one nickname signifying something like rustic or clodhopper to us, the other greenhorn or bungler.

It is worthy of note that even on the part of the Hudson's Bay Company's traders in the country there was some feeling of jealousy towards the colonists. Lord Selkirk had but lately bought stock in the company and was regarded as an interloper, and the "old hands" in the country were averse, to the new plans proposed.

As already mentioned, the arrival of a second and then other contingents, sent out through the energy of the founder, aroused on all hands a feeling of alarm, and though the acres of Rupert's Land were wide, yet it must be confessed that new settlers were very far from being acceptable, much less popular, to the aborigines and mixed races among whom they came.

The new colonists being so ill-provided with the necessaries of life, and the bareness of the country making it impossible to give them subsistence, rendered the situation most difficult, and indeed alarming. The founder's money was available for purchasing supplies, but there was no store of supplies for purchase. The long and dreary winter on the Great Lake so mournfully described in the sombre poem "Hiawatha," became more serious still on the borders of Lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba.

The instinct of self-preservation is one of the most imperious known to us. And so it carne that during the second winter spent at Pembina by Miles Macdonell and his hungry followers, when buffloes were scarce, the snow deep, and the attitude of the half-breeds so distinctly hostile, the governor bethought himself of some device by which he might secure a more certain means of support for his discouraged colonists. On reading over his instructions, based on the legal opinion given on a former page of the right of Lord Selkirk to exercise important powers in the country, Governor Macdonell determined to take an effective step towards utilizing the resources of the country. So in the very heart of the bitter and discouraging winter, the governor issued a proclamation, dated January 8th, 1814, in which the preamble runs: "Whereas the Right Honourable Thomas, Earl of Selkirk, is anxious to provide for the families at present forming settlements, etc.,  all traders and others within the territory of the Hudson's Bay Company are forbidden to take provisions from the territory without permission in the form of a governor's license."

Now this proclamation played a great part in the events of the subsequent three years, not only in Red River Settlement but also throughout Rupert's Land.

No doubt under the legal opinion in his hands the founder and his deputy were justified in taking the step they did. At the same time it has been generally considered all imprudent and unfortunate act. The Nor'-Westers were the direct successors by blood, by colonial connection and sympathy, of the old French voyagers who, three-quarters of a century before, had first explored Lake Winnipeg, the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, and the Saskatchewan up to the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. The native people were born in the land which their Indian ancestors claimed. The North-West Company had been in the district concerned a generation before the Hudson's Bay Company. Taking all these things into account, the proclamation was deemed a high-handed act which really dispossessed the people, and struck a blow at the high-spirited North-West Company, which in local resources was much the strongest force in the country. Moreover, the law of embargo is ever unpopular and distasteful, even when the legal authority to issue it may be undoubted.

It is quite true that the proclamation made provision for no monetary loss on the part of any one whose goods might be seized for the use of the colony. The document declared: "The provisions procured and raised as above shall be taken for the use of the colony; and that no loss may accrue to the parties concerned, they will be paid for by British bills at the customary rates."

A chorus of dissents and angry threats greeted the ill-starred proclamation. The half-breeds, most of whom were trappers and accustomed to the free life of the plains, were especially thrown into a ferment. That what they considered a handful of foreigners should arrogantly curtail their natural rights was a thing not to be borne. Their loud protestations reached the ears of the governor, and their threats not only to disregard the proclamation but even to meet it with armed resistance roused the unfortunate governor to further action. The calm judgment of later times looks at the small force at the disposal of Governor Macdonell, and though not giving him credit for much wisdom or caution, admires his pluck and decision.

His next step was to direct his subordinate, Sheriff John Spencer, to proceed to Brandon House, a Hudson's Bay Company's fort one hundred miles or more west of the Red River, and situated on the bank of the Assiniboine, and to seize provisions which had been collected at Souris River, the North-West depot near the company's fort. Spencer seems to have had a more vivid sense of the danger than his superior officer, and would not go unless the governor would give him detailed instructions as to how lie should proceed, and would guarantee him against any subsequent damages. Governor Macdonell was something of a martinet and did not hesitate a moment in authorizing extreme steps to be taken.

Spencer executed his mission promptly and efficiently. No armed resistance was offered by the North-West Company's fort, and he seized six hundred bags of pemmican (dried buffalo meat), each weighing eighty-five pounds. The prize was placed under the care of the master of Brandon House, near by.

West and east alike were now aflame. The Nor'-Westers did not take immediate action. Knowing that their annual gathering would take place in early summer at Fort William, they held back until proper plans could be laid for vindicating themselves, and making their reprisals with due certainty. Simon McGillivray, one of the great Montreal chiefs of the North-West Company, had declared his dictum two years before this time: "Lord Selkirk must be driven to abandon his project, for his success would strike at the very existence of our trade."

The council at Fort William represented the full energy of the North-West Company, and their leaders were astute, determined, and ingenious men. They sent two of their most energetic traders, Duncan Cameron and Alexander Macdonell—the one representing a conciliatory if somewhat deceptive policy, the other being the apostle of force and violence if necessary. Their choice showed the shrewd insight of the North-West Company's officers.

Duncan Cameron immediately began, on his return to Fort Gibraltar, his plan of oily persuasion. Being a Highlander and speaking Gaelic, which gave him instant entrance to the hearts of the colonists, he paid special attention to the leaders of the people by inviting them to the fort and entertaining them with true Highland hospitality. He further assumed an authority and state that impressed the simple-minded people with the glamour which the idea of chieftainship has for the Highland mind. He had been a member of a border corps of volunteers in Canada in 1812, and now had himself styled "Captain Commanding, etc." The accuracy of this title has been questioned. He certainly was dressed in a flaring red uniform which somewhat supported his claim. During the winter following the meeting of the partners at Fort William, Cameron organized his plan. He succeeded in gaining the allegiance of three-quarters of the Selkirk colonists, and awaited the opening of spring to carry out his full scheme.

The absence of Governor Macdonell at Pembina gave the Nor'-Westers an opportunity of advancing their interests at the Forks. Finding that a minority of the colonists were loyal to Lord Selkirk and their engagements, threats of violence were resorted to, and demand was made upon Archibald Macdonald, who had charge of the company's stores as vice-governor, to hand over the field-pieces belonging to the colony. On this being resisted, the settlers who were prepared to follow Cameron broke open the storehouses and removed nine guns to Fort Gibraltar.

Governor Macdonell soon after returned, and having been served with a notice to surrender to the authorities represented by the Nor'-Westers, refused to acknowledge it. In June, a fortnight after the arrival of Alexander Macdonell, who represented the policy of violence of the North-West traders, a body of armed men proceeded from Fort Gibraltar and fired upon a number of the employes of the colony. In order to avoid further irritation and prevent possible bloodshed, Governor Miles Macdonell agreed to recognize the warrant issued for his arrest and proceeded under arrest, to Montreal, but was never brought to trial.

Cameron was now ready to carry out his promise to the settlers who were disloyal to the colony; and in June with the deserters departed on his long journey to Upper Canada. Iii order to coerce the remainder, a notice, signed by Cuthbert Grant, the young leader of the half-breeds, and three others, was served upon the colonists: "All settlers to retire immediately from the Red River, and no trace of a settlement to remain." Naturally unwilling to give up their holdings and to return to the inhospitable shores of Lake Winnipeg, the settlers did not acquiesce.

At this time a fiery Highlander, seemingly able to cope with either Cameron or Macdonell, was in charge of the Hudson's Bay Company's affairs at the Forks. This was John McLeod. He gathered the colonists together into the group of buildings called the Colony Houses, and made his blacksmith shop, a small erection of logs, into a temporary fort. He took a small three or four pounder which was lying in the fort and brought it to the smithy. Bringing along a supply of powder, and cutting up a number of chains into short pieces the plucky Highlander awaited the assault.

It was on the very day of the serving of the order to the colonists to depart that a great demonstration of hostility was made by Alexander Macdonell and Cuthbert Grant, followed by some seventy or eighty armed men. In the fashion of the country they drew themselves up on their Indian ponies in battle array. The colonists and their leader stood their ground, and opened fire upon the attacking party with their chain shot, and scattered them.

McLeod in his journal states that, "All the colonists' houses were, however, destroyed by fire. Houseless, wounded, and in extreme distress, they took to the boats, and saving what they could, started for Norway House (Jack River), declaring they would never return."

After the departure of the colonists the assailants for several days kept up attacks on McLeod and his Hudson's Bay Company servants, but at length retired, leaving the store of £800 to £1000 worth of valuable goods in the hands of their rightful owners. McLeod and three men repaired his buildings, and took steps to save the crops left behind by the refugee settlers.

He also in the last words of his diary makes an important announcement. "'That done I took upon me, without order or suggestion from any quarter, to build a house for the governor and his staff of the Hudson's Bay Company at Red River. 'There was no such officer at that time, nor had there ever been, but I was aware that such an appointment was contemplated.

"I selected for this purpose what I considered a suitable site at a point or sharp bend in the Red River about two miles below the Assiniboine, on a slight rise on the south side of the point—since known as Point Douglas, the family name of the Earl of Selkirk. Possibly I so christened it—I forget."

Diplomacy and force combined seemed to have triumphed as embodied in the persons of Cameron and Macdonell. The order, "No trace of a settlement to remain," seems to have been a prophecy now fulfilled. Dark indeed looked the future for the two score colonists left crouching on the rocky shore at Jack River.

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