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The Prairie Provinces
Chapter VII. The Rivalry of the Fur Companies


The union of the Montreal traders had been brought about in 1784 under the name of the North-West Company.

The new company offered a successful opposition to the Hudson’s Bay Company, not only in fur trading, but also in the exploration of the West. Yet the union had a few determined opponents, who succeeded in organizing a small company, which, from the mark upon its goods, came to be called the “X Y.” This new organization built a trading-post within a mile of the North-West Company’s station at Grand Portage. Later both concerns moved their headquarters to the

Kaministiquia. In 1801, Alexander Mackenzie, who had never been able to get on with Simon McTavish, the ruling partner in the older company, threw in his for tunes with the smaller body, which was in consequence known as “Sir Alexander Mackenzie and

Company.” And now a period of the keenest rivalry sot in. Fortunately for the interests of the trade and the welfare of the Indians, the man who had been the cause of the friction died, in 1804. With the removal of Simon McTavisli steps were at once taken to unite the “North-West” and the “X Y” Companies, under the name of the former.

With the union began a period of great activity both in trade and exploration. To this period belong the journeys of Simon Fraser and David Thompson. The united strength of the late rivals made possible the establishment of a great trading-post at the mouth of the Kaministiquia, to which was given the name of Fort William, in honor of one of the partners, William McGillivary. The transportation of goods from the East was made easy by the use of a vessel on the route from Lake Erie to Sault Ste. Marie, and of n schooner on Lake Superior, running between the St. Mary River and Fort William. The Red River country was occupied in earnest, and at the junction of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers was built Fort Gibraltar, probably the first building erected upon the site of the present capital of Manitoba.

Meanwhile, the attention of Great Britain had been drawn to Western Canada by the publication of a book describing the travels of Mackenzie. Among those who became interested in this remarkable book was the Earl of Selkirk, who saw in the Red River district a favorable field for colonization. Selkirk had early manifested a sympathetic interest in the peasantry of both Scotland and Ireland, and had already, in 1803, brought out eight hundred settlers to Prince Edward Island. The success of his first venture encouraged him to attempt the planting of a colony in the very heart of Canada. Knowing that any scheme of colonization would meet with the strong opposition of the fur companies, he adopted the plan of gaining a grant of land from the Hudson’s Bay Company. The area secured consisted of about one hundred and ten thousand square miles on the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. This district was to be called Assiniboia. In 1811, the first group of settlers, seventy in number, sailed for the new land and arrived safely at York Factory. The winter was spent in building boats and making other preparations for the long journey inland. Early in July the party left York Factory, and by way of the Nelson River and Lake Winnipeg reached, in the autumn the scene of their new life.

Despite the difficulties of the journey and the hardships endured in the early years of settlement, three more bands of colonists reached the Red River between 1812 and 1814, the total number of arrivals being about two hundred and seventy. The governor of the colony was. Miles Macdonald, a captain of the Canadian militia.

As was expected, Selkirk’s colonization scheme met with the bitter opposition of the North-West Company. This opposition had begun in England, where Alexander Mackenzie, having acquired stock in the Hudson’s Bay Company, opposed the grant of land to Selkirk, and later did all in his power to discourage colonists from coming out. The Nor’-Westers saw in the whole plan merely a device of the Hudson’s Bay Company to ruin their trade. They, moreover, questioned the claim of the Company to the Red River district, urging that they themselves had entered into the country immediately after the withdrawal of the French traders who discovered it. It was natural, therefore, that the anger of the Nor’-Westers should hurry on a struggle between the two companies.

The years 1812 and 1813 passed without any serious trouble. The winters were spent by the colonists at Pembina, a famous buffalo ground, where Fort Daer was erected. In order to provide for the support of his growing colony, Miles Macdonald in 1814 issued a proclamation forbidding traders to take any provisions out of the country during the year. Learning that the officers of the North-West Company had no intention of obeying this proclamation, the governor ordered the seizure of their stores from a fort on the Souris River. Indignant at this high-handed action on the part of their rivals, the partners of the North-West Company met at Fort William, and decided upon a course of action which boded ill for the young colony. Two partners, Duncan Cameron and Alexander Macdonald, were sent to Fort 0-ihraltar to break up the settlement.

Their object was accomplished, partly by persuasion, partly by force. Under promises of land in Upper Canada and the payment of wages due from the Hudson’s Bay Company, over a hundred of the settlers were enticed into deserting their homes. Failing to bribe the remainder, the Nor’-Westers had recourse to violence. Macdonald was arrested and sent to Montreal for trial, while the wretched settlers were driven to their boats, in which they escaped to a place of refuge at Jack’s River (Norway House), on Lake Winnipeg.

Deliverance was near at hand. Colin Robertson, an officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company, arrived from the East. On learning what had happened, lie at once proceeded to Jack’s River and brought back the refugees. These, while returning, were joined by a party of ninety new colonists, who had been sent out under Robert Semple, a newly appointed governor. Fort Douglas, two miles below the Forks, had already been begun, and was now completed. I11 1815, Robertson captured Fort Gibraltar, which, however, he soon restored to its owners. The following year, Governor Semple, feeling that some decisive action must be taken, again seized Fort Gibraltar and despatched Cameron to England by way of York Factory. Despite the opposition of Robertson, Fort Gibraltar was torn down and tlie material used to strengthen Fort Douglas. Semple’s actions were unwise and a crisis was fast approaching.

The Nor’-Westers were making careful preparation for striking an effective blow at the Red River colony. Two expeditions were to be sent against it, one from Fort William, the other from Fort Qu’-Appelle. The half-breeds from Qu’Appelle, under their leader,

Cuthbert Grant, killed Governor Sem-p1e and twenty of his men in a skirmish at Seven Oaks, near Fort Douglas, and captured the fort. The only place of refuge open to the expelled settlers was Norway House.

Not long, however, was the outrage at Seven Oaks to remain unavenged. A report of his colonists sufferings had reached Lord Selkirk in the year before the crisis, and he had determined to visit Canada. Confirmation of the bad news, which he received on his arrival in Montreal, made him eager to bear aid to the colony on the Red River. He straightway made application to the Government of Lower Canada for protection against the lawlessness of the Nor’-Westers. Failing to secure this, he determined to take action himself. He enlisted as new colonists some ninety men of the de Meuron and Watteville regiments, which had just been disbanded at the close of the war with the United States. In June, 1816, the expedition set out from Montreal for York (Toronto), and from that point marched north to the Georgian Bay. Thence Sault Ste. Marie was reached by water. It was the intention of Selkirk to proceed to the extreme end of Lake Superior, where Duluth now stands, and thereby avoid Fort William ; but the receipt of news of the light at Seven Oaks and of the second breaking up of the colony, led him to alter his course and make for the headquarters of the Nor’-Westers. Arriving in August at the mouth of the Kaministiquia, lie pitched his camp opposite the fort and at once demanded the release of the prisoners taken at Fort Douglas. This demand was instantly complied with, and the Earl then determined to arrest certain of the partners who had been guilty of causing the attack upon the Red River colony. Acting in the capacity of a magistrate, he sent these down to York, Upper Canada, for trial. By the time affairs were settled at Fort William it was too late to proceed to the Red, but early in the following spring the journey was completed.

Immediately upon his arrival at Fort Douglas, Lord Selkirk began his work of restoration. The unfortunate refugees were again brought back from Norway House and restored to their lands. In order to secure the future safety of the colony, a treaty was made with the Indians. This was signed by Ojibiway, Cree, and Assiniboine chiefs. To the restored settlement was given the historic name of Kildonan. His mission fulfilled, Selkirk returned by way of Pembina to Upper Canada, where he was called upon to defend himself against several charges of false arrest brought forward by some partners of the North-West Company. On these charges the Earl was found guilty, owing probably to the influence exerted by the Nor’-Westers even in the Canadian courts of law. Deeply disappointed, Lord Selkirk left Canada in 1818, never to return.

Just as the death of Simon McTavish had made possible the union of the North-West and “XY” Companies, so now the removal of Lord Selkirk caused much of the ill will existing between the Hudson’s Bay and North-West Companies to disappear. In 1821, these latter companies united under the name of the older organization. The first governor was a young Scotchman named George Simpson, who, during a short service in the English company in the Athabaska district, had given evidence of remarkable executive ability and strength of character. Norway House became the centre of trade for the united company.


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