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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

Chiefly Scottish and French settlers—Many hardships—Grasshoppers — Yellow Head — "Gouverneur Sauterelle" — Swiss settlers—Remarkable parchment—Captain Bulger, a military governor—Indian troubles—Donald Mackenzie, a fur trader, governor—Many projects fail—The flood—Plenty follows—Social condition—Lower Fort built—Upper Fort Garry—Council of Assiniboia—The settlement organized—Duncan Finlayson governor—English farmers—Governor Christie—Serious epidemic— A regiment of regulars—The unfortunate major—The people restless.

The cessation of hostilities between the rival Companies afforded an opportunity to Lord Selkirk's settlement to proceed with its development. To the scared and harassed settlers it gave the prospects of peace under their Governor, Alexander Macdonell, who had been in the fur trade, but took charge of the settlement after the departure of Miles Macdonell. The state of affairs was far from promising. The population of Scottish and Irish settlers was less than two hundred. There were a hundred or thereabout of De Meurons, brought up by Lord Selkirk, and a number of French voyageurs, free traders or "freemen" as opposed to engages, and those who, with their half-breed families, had begun to assemble about the forks and to take up holdings for themselves. For the last mentioned, the hunt, fishing, and the fur trade afforded a living; but as to the settlers and De Meurons, Providence seemed to favour them but little more than the hostile Nor'-Westers had done.

The settlers were chiefly men who were unacquainted with farming, and they had few implements, no cattle or horses, and the hoe and spade were their only means of fitting the soil for the small quantity of grain supplied them for sowing. Other means of employment or livelihood there were none. In 1818 the crops of the settlers were devoured by an incursion of locusts. On several occasions clouds of these destructive insects have visited Red River, and their ravages are not only serious, but they paralyze all effort on the part of the husbandmen. The description given by the prophet Joel was precisely reproduced on the banks of the Red River, "the land is as the Garden of Eden before them, and behind them is a desolate wilderness; yea, and nothing shall escape them." There was no resource for the settlers but to betake themselves to Pembina to seek the buffalo. In the next year they sowed their scanty seed, but the young "grass-hoppers," as they were called, rose from the eggs deposited in the previous year, and while the wheat was in the blade, cleared it from the fields more thoroughly than any reaper could have done. This scourge continued till the spring of 1821, when the locusts disappeared suddenly, and the crop of that year was a bountiful one.

During these years the colony was understood to be under the personal ownership of Lord Selkirk. He regarded himself as responsible, as lord paramount of the district, for the safety and support of the colonists. In the first year of the settlement he had sent out supplies of food, clothing, implements, arms, and ammunition; a store-house had been erected ; and this continued during these years to be supplied with what was needed. It was the Governor's duty to regulate the distribution of these stores and to keep account of them as advances to the several settlers, and of the interest charged upon such advances. Whilst the store was a boon, even a necessity, to the settlers, it was also an instrument of oppression. Alexander Macdonell was called "Gouverneur Sauterelle" ("Grasshopper Governor"), the significant statement being made by Ross "that he was so nicknamed because he proved as great a destroyer within doors as the grasshoppers in the fields." He seems, moreover, to have been an extravagant official, being surrounded by a coterie of kindred spirits, who lived in "one prolonged scene of debauchery."

With the departure of the grasshoppers from the country departed also the unpopular and unfaithful Governor. It was only on the visit of Mr. Halkett, one of Lord Selkirk's executors, that Macdonell's course of "false entries, erroneous statements, and over-charges" was discovered, and the accounts of the settlers adjusted to give them their rights. The disgraceful reign of Governor Macdonell was brought to a close none too soon.

During the period of Governor Macdonell's rule a number of important events had taken place. The union of the two rival Companies was accomplished. Clergy, both Roman Catholic and of the Church of England, had arrived in the colony. A farm had been begun by the Colony officers on the banks of the Assiniboine, and the name of Hayfield Farm was borne by it. Perhaps the most notable event was the arrival at Red River of a number of Swiss settlers. These were brought out by Colonel May, late of the De Watteville regiment. A native of Berne, he had come to Canada, but not to Red River.

The Swiss were in many ways an element of interest. Crossing the ocean by Hudson's Bay Company's ships they arrived at York Factory in August, 1821, and were borne in the Company's York boats to their destination. Gathered, as they had been, from the towns and villages of Switzerland, and being chiefly "watch and clock makers, pastry cooks, and musicians," they were ill-suited for such a new settlement as that of Red River, where they must become agriculturists. They seem to have been honest and orderly people, though very poor.

It will be remembered that the De Meurons had come as soldiers; they were chiefly, therefore, unmarried men. The arrival of the Swiss, with their handsome sons and daughters, produced a flutter of excitement in the wifeless De Meuron cabins along Gorman Creek. The result is described in the words of a most trustworthy eye-witness of what took place: "No sooner had the Swiss emigrants arrived than many of the Germans, who had come to the settlement a few years ago from Canada and had houses, presented themselves in search of a wife, and having fixed their attachment with acceptance, they received those families in which was their choice into their habitations. Those who had no daughters to afford this introduction were obliged to pitch their tents along the banks of the river and outside the stockades of the fort, till they removed to Pembina in the better prospects of provisions for the winter." The whole affair was a repetition of the old Sabine story.

In connection with these De Meurons and Swiss, it may be interesting to mention a remarkable parchment agreement which the writer has perused. It is eleven feet long, and one and a half feet wide, containing the signatures of forty-nine settlers, of which twenty-five are those of De Meurons or Swiss, the remainder being of Highlanders and Norwegians. Among these names are Bender, Lubrevo, Quiluby, Bendowitz, Kralic, Wassloisky, Joli, Jankosky, Wachter, Lassota, Laidece, Warcklur, Krusel, Jolicoeur, Maquet, and Lalonde.

This agreement binds the Earl of Selkirk or his agents not to engage in the sale of spirituous liquors or the fur trade, but to provide facilities for transport of goods from and into the country, and at moderate rates. The settlers are bound to keep up roads, to support a clergyman, and to provide for defence. The document is not only a curiosity, but historically valuable. There is no date upon it, but the date is fixed by the signatures, viz. "for the Buffalo Wool Company, John Pritchard." That Company, we know, began, and as we shall see afterwards, failed in the years 1821 and 1822. This, accordingly, is the date of the document marking the era of the fusion of the Hudson's Bay Company and the Nor'-Westers.

The De Meurons and Swiss never took kindly to Red River. So early as 1822, after wintering at Pembina, a number of them, instead of turning their faces toward Fort Garry, went up the Red River into Minnesota, and took up farms where St. Paul now stands, on the Mississippi. They were the first settlers there. Among their names are those of Garvas, Pierrie, Louis Massey, and that of Perry, men who became very rich in herds in the early days of Minnesota.

On the removal of Governor Macdonell, Captain A. Bulger was, in June, 1822, installed as Governor of Assiniboia. His rule only lasted one year and proved troublous, though he was a high-minded and capable official. There lies before the writer, "Papers Referring to Red River," consisting chiefly of a long letter published by the Captain in India, written in 1822 to Andrew Colville, one of the executors of Lord Selkirk.

One of his chief troubles was the opposition given him by the Hudson's Bay Company officer Clarke, who was in charge of their establishment at the Forks. Every effort was put forth by Clarke to make Bulger's position uncomfortable, and the opposition drove the Captain away.

Bulger also had a worrying experience with Peguis, the chief of the Indians on the Lower Red River. Though Peguis and the other chiefs had made a treaty with Lord Selkirk and ceded certain lands to his Lordship, they now, with the fickleness of children, repented of their bargain and sought additional payment for the concession. Bulger's military manner, however, overcame the chief, and twenty-five lashes administered to an Indian who had attempted violence had a sobering effect upon the Red man.

Governor Bulger expresses himself very freely on the character of the De Meuron settlers. He says: "It is quite absurd to suppose they will ever prove peaceable and industrious settlers. The only charm that Red River possesses in their eyes, and, I may say, in the eyes of almost all the settlers, is the colony stores. Their demands are insatiable, and when refused, their insolence extreme. United as they are among themselves, and ferocious in their dispositions, nothing can be done against them." It is but fair, however, to state that the Captain had a low opinion both of the Hudson's Bay Company's officers and of the French Canadian freemen.

Governor Bulger, on retiring, made the following suggestions, which show the evils which he thought needed a remedy, viz. "to got courts and magistrates nominated by the King; to get a company of troops sent out to support the magistrates and keep the natives in order; to circulate money; to find a market for the surplus grain; to let it be determined whether the council at York Factory are justified in preventing the settlers from buying moose or deer skin for clothing and provisions." The Governor's closing words are, "if these things cannot be done, it is my sincere advice to you to spend no more of Lord Selkirk's money upon Red River."

Governor Bulger was succeeded by Robert Pelly, who was the brother of Sir J. H. Pelly, the Governor of the Company in London- It seems to have been about this time that the executors of Lord Selkirk, while not divesting themselves of their Red River possessions, yet in order to avoid the unseemly conflicts seen in Bulger's time, entrusted the administration of their affairs to the Company's officers at Red River. We have seen in a former chapter the appointment of the committee to manage these Red River affairs at Norway House council.

After two years Pelly retired, and Donald McKenzie, a fur trader who had taken part in the stirring events of Astoria, to which we have referred, became Governor.

The discontent of the settlers, and the wish to advance the colony, led the Company for a number of years after the union of the Companies to try various projects for the development of the colony. Though the recital of these gives a melancholy picture of failure, yet it shows a heartiness and willingness on the part of the Company to do the best for the settlers, albeit there was in every case bad management.

Immediately after the union of the two fur Companies in 1821, a company to manufacture cloth from buffalo wool was started. This, of course, was a mad scheme, but there was a clamour that work should be found for the hungry immigrants. The Company began operations, and every one was to become rich. $10,000 of money raised in shares was deposited in the Hudson's Bay Company's hands as the bankers of the "Buffalo Wool Company," machinery was obtained, and the people largely gave up agriculture to engage in killing buffalo and collecting buffalo skins. Trade was to be the philosopher's stone. In 1822 the bubble burst. It cost $12.50 to manufacture a yard of buffalo wool cloth on Red River, and the cloth only sold for $1-10 a yard in London. The Hudson's Bay Company advanced $12,500 beyond the amount deposited, and a few years afterwards was under the necessity of forgiving the debt. The Hudson's Bay Company had thus its lesson in encouraging the settlers.

The money distributed to the settlers through this Company, however, bought cattle for them, several hundred cattle having been brought from Illinois that year. A model farm for the benefit of the settlers was next undertaken. Buildings, implements, and also a mansion, costing $3,000, for the manager, were provided. A few years of mismanagement and extravagance brought this experiment to an end also, and the founders were $10,000 out of pocket. Such was another scheme to encourage the settlers.

Driven to another effort by the discontent of the people, Governor Simpson tried another model farm. At a fine spot on the Assiniboine, farm dwellings, barns, yards, and stables were erected and fields enclosed, well-bred cattle were imported, also horses. The farm was well stocked with implements. Mismanagement, however, again brought its usual result, and after six years the trial was given up, there having been a loss to the Company of $17,500.

Nothing daunted, the Red River settlers started the "Assiniboine Wool Company," but as it fell through upon the first demand for payment of the stock, it hurt nobody, and ended, according to the proverb, with "much cry and little wool."

Another enterprise was next begun by Governor Simpson, "The Flax and Hemp Company," but though the farmers grew a plentiful quantity of these, the undertaking failed, and the crop rotted on the fields. A more likely scheme for the encouragement of the settlers was now set on foot by the Governor, viz. a new sheep speculation. Sheep were purchased in Missouri, and after a journey of nearly fifteen hundred miles, only two hundred and fifty sheep out of the original fourteen hundred survived the hardships of the way.

A tallow company is said to have swallowed up from $3,000 to $5,000 for the Hudson's Bay Company, and a good deal of money was spent in opening up a road to Hudson Bay. Thus was enterprise after enterprise undertaken by the Company, largely for the good of the settlers. If ever an honest effort was made to advance an isolated and difficult colony, it was in these schemes begun by the Hudson's Bay Company here.

The most startling event during the rule of Governor Mackenzie was the Red River flood in 1826. The winter of this year had been severe, and a great snowfall gave promise of a wet and dangerous spring. The snow had largely cleared away, when, early in the month of May, the waters began rising with surprising rapidity. The banks of the rivers were soon unable to contain the floods, and once on the prairie level the waters spread for miles east and west in a great lake. The water rose several feet in the houses of the settlers. When the wind blew the waves dashed over the roofs. Buildings were undermined and some were floated away. The settlers were compelled to leave their homes, and took flight to the heights of Stony Mountain, Little Mountain, Bird's Hill, and other elevations. For weeks the flood continued, but at last, on its receding, the homeless settlers returned to their battered and damaged houses, much disheartened. The crops, however, were sown, though late, and a fair harvest was gathered in that unpromising year.

The flood was the last straw that broke the back of the endurance of De Meurons and Swiss colonists. They almost all withdrew from the country and became settlers in Minnesota and other States of the American Union. Either from pride or real dislike, the Selkirk settlers declared that they were well rid of these discontented and turbulent foreigners.

The year of the flood seems to have introduced an era of plenty, for the people rebuilt their houses, cultivated their fields, received full returns for their labour, and were enabled to pay off their debts and improve their buildings. During Governor McKenzie's regime at the time of the flood, the population of the Red River settlement had reached fifteen hundred.

After this, though the colony lost by desertions, as we have seen, yet it continued to gain by the addition of retiring Hudson's Bay Company officers and servants, who took up land as allowed by the Company in strips along the river after the Lower Canadian fashion, for which they paid small sums. There were in many cases no deeds, simply the registration of the name in the Company's register. A man sold his lot for a horse, and it was a matter of chance whether the registration of the change in the lot took place or not. This was certainly a mode of transferring land free enough to suit an English Radical or even Henry George. The land reached as far out from the river as could be seen by looking under a horse, say two miles, and back of this was the limitless prairie, which became a species of common where all could cut hay and where herds could run unconfined. Wood, water, and hay were the necessaries of a Red River settler's life ; to cut poplar rails for his fences in spring and burn the dried rails in the following winter was quite the authorized thing. There was no inducement to grow surplus grain, as each settler could only get a market for eight bushels of wheat from the Hudson's Bay Company. It could not be exported. Pemmican from the plains was easy to get; the habits of the people were simple ; their wants were few ; and while the condition of Red River settlement was far from being that of an Arcadia, want was absent and the people were becoming satisfied.

To Governor McKenzie, who ruled well for eight years, credit is due largely for the peace and progress of the period. Alexander Ross, who came from the Rocky Mountains to Red River in 1825, is the chronicler of this period, and it is with amusement we read his gleeful account of the erection of the first stone building, small though it was, on the banks of Red River. Lime had been burnt from the limestone, found abundantly along the lower part of the Red River, during the time of Governor Bulger. It was in 1830 that the Hudson's Bay Company built a small powder magazine of stone, near Fort Garry. This was the beginning of solid architecture in the settlement.

In the following year the Hudson's Bay Company, evidently encouraged by the thrift and contentment of the people, began the erection of a very notable and important group of buildings some nineteen miles down the river from the forks. This was called Lower Fort Garry. It was built on the solid rock, and was, and is to this day, surrounded by a massive stone wall. Various reasons have been advanced for the building of this, the first permanent fort so far from the old centre of trade, and of the old associations at the "forks." Some have said it was done to place it among the English people, as the French settlers were becoming turbulent; some that it was at the head of navigation from Lake Winnipeg, being north of the St. Andrew's rapids; and some maintained that the site was chosen as having been far above the high water during the year of flood, when Fort Douglas and Upper Fort Garry had been surrounded. The motive will probably never be known ; but for a time it was the residence of the Governor of Rupert's Land when he was in the country, and was the seat of government. Four years afterwards, when Alexander Christie had replaced Mr. Donald McKenzie as local governor, Fort Garry or Upper Fort Garry was begun in 1835 at the forks, but on higher ground than the original Fort Garry of 1821, which had been erected after the union of the Companies.

This fort continued the centre of business, government, education, and public affairs for more than three decades and was the nucleus of the City of Winnipeg. Sold in the year 1882, the fort was demolished, and the front gate, now owned by the city, is all that remains of this historic group of buildings. The destruction of the fort was an act of vandalism, reflecting on the sordid man who purchased it from the Hudson's Bay Company.

In Governor Christie's time the necessity was recognized of having a form of government somewhat less patriarchal than the individual rule of the local governor had been. Accordingly, the Council of Assiniboia was appointed by the Hudson's Bay Company, the president being Sir George Simpson, the Governor of Rupert's Land, and with him fourteen councillors. It may be of interest to give the names of the members of this first Council. Besides the president there were: Alexander Christie, Governor of the Colony ; Rev. D. T. Jones, Chaplain H. B. C.; Right Rev. Bishop Provencher; Rev. William Cochrane, Assistant Chaplain; James Bird, formerly Chief Factor, H. B. C.; James Sutherland, Esq.; W. H. Cook, Esq.; John Pritchard, Esq.; Robert Logan, Esq.; Sheriff Alex. Ross; John McCallum, Coroner; John Bunn, Medical Adviser; Cuthbert Grant, Esq., Warden of the Plains; Andrew McDermott, Merchant.

It is generally conceded, however, that the Council did not satisfy the public aspirations. The president and councillors were all declared either sinecurists or paid servants of the Company. The mass of the people complained at not being represented. It was, however, a step very much in advance of what had been, although there was a suspicion in the public mind that it had something of the form of popular government without the substance.

At the first meeting of the Council a number of measures were passed. To preserve order a volunteer corps of sixty men was organized, with a small annual allowance per man. Of this body, Sheriff Ross was commander. The settlement was divided into four districts, over each of which a Justice of the Peace was appointed, who held quarterly courts in their several jurisdictions. At this court small actions only were tried, and the presiding magistrate was allowed to refer any case of exceptional difficulty to the court of Governor and Council. This higher court sat quarterly also. In larger civil cases and in criminal cases the law required a jury to be called. A jail and court-house were erected outside the walls of Fort Garry. To meet the expense involved under the new institutions a tax of 7½ per cent. duty was levied on imports and a like duty on exports. The Hudson's Bay Company also agreed to contribute three hundred pounds a year in aid of public works throughout the settlement.

The year 1839 was notable in the history of the colony. A new Governor, Duncan Finlayson, was appointed, and steps were taken also to improve the judicial system which had been introduced. An appointment was made of the first recorder for Red River settlement. The new appointee was a young Scottish lawyer from Montreal, named Adam Thorn. He had been a journalist in Montreal, was of an ardent and somewhat aggressive disposition, but was a man of ability and broad reading. Judge Thorn was, however, a Company officer, and as such there was an antecedent suspicion of him in the public mind. It was pointed out that he was not independent, receiving his appointment and his salary of seven hundred pounds from the Company. In Montreal he had been known as a determined loyalist in the late Papineau rebellion, and the French people regarded him as hostile to their race.

The population of the settlement continued to increase. In the last year of Governor Finlayson's rule, twenty families of Lincolnshire farmers and labourers came to the country to assist with their knowledge of agriculture. After five years' rule Governor Finlayson retired from office, and was succeeded for a short time by his old predecessor, Mr. Alexander Christie.

A serious epidemic visited the Red River in the year 1846. Ross describes it in the following graphic way: "In January the influenza raged, and in May the measles broke out; but neither of these visitations proved fatal. At length in June a bloody flux began its ravages first among the Indians, and others among the whites ; like the great cry in Egypt, 'There was not a house where there was not one dead.' On Red River there was not a smiling face on 'a summer's day.' From June 18th to August 2nd, the deaths averaged seven a day, or three Hundred and twenty-one in all, being one out of every sixteen of our population. Of these one-sixth were Indians, two-thirds half-breeds, and the remainder white. On one occasion thirteen burials were proceeding at once."

During this year also the Oregon question, with which we shall afterwards deal, threatened war between Great Britain and the United States. The policy of the British Government is, on the first appearance of trouble, to prepare for hostilities. Accordingly the 6th Royal Regiment of Foot, with sappers and artillery, in all five hundred strong, was hurried out under Colonel Crofton to defend the colony. Colonel Crofton took the place of Alexander Christie as Governor. The addition of this body of military to the colony gave picturesqueness to the hitherto monotonous life of Red River. A market for produce and the circulation of a large sum of money marked their stay on Red River. The turbulent spirits who had made much trouble were now silenced, or betook themselves to a safe place across the boundary line.

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