Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine


Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Prairie Provinces
Chapter IX. The Red River Settlement


The discontinuance of hostilities after the disaster at Seven Oaks afforded the settlement on the Red River an opportunity to develop, but development was very slow. The population of the colony at this time consisted of two hundred Scotch and Irish settlers, about the same number of the de Meurons regiment, together with such French traders and half breeds as had found their way to the Forks. For a few years disaster followed disaster, until the very existence of the settlement was threatened. In 1818, an incursion of grasshoppers completely destroyed the crops, and the unfortunate farmers were forced to resort to Pembina in search of the buffalo, as they had done in the early winters. It was not until three years later that the destructive invaders took their de parture and the settlers beheld in a rich harvest the tardy reward of their toil.

In 1821, the population of the colony was increased by the arrival of a party of Swiss, who came in by the York Factory route. These immigrants, though clever watch and clock makers and musicians, were poor farmers, and unfortunately agriculture was the only occupation open to them. The new arrivals, as well as the de Meurons, did not make successful settlers; and it required only another disaster, which befell them five years later, to drive most of them from the Red. In the spring of 1826, the rivers, by reason of a heavy fall of snow in the previous winter, overflowed their banks, and the water swept over the fields of the colony, forcing the owners to betake themselves to Stony Mountain, Bird’s Hill, and other elevations. The unfortunate colonists returned after the water had subsided, only to find that their houses and stables had been swept away by the Hood. This experience was too much for the Swiss and de Meurons, who left the Red and moved south into Minnesota. The population of the colony was at this time about fifteen hundred.

After the flood, the young colony entered upon a period of comparative prosperity. It had passed, between 1814 and 1826, through hardships which we, in this age of plenty and ease, find it hard to realize. It is equally difficult for us to imagine the single and uneventful life of the colonists during the next twenty-five years.

Farming was almost the sole industry, buffalo-hunting, except in times of distress, being left to the half-breeds and Indians.

The farms almost all faced the river, having a frontage of ten chains and a depth of two miles. In some eases these narrow strips were subdivided among several sons in a family, each on front. It is little wonder that people from the East spoke of the inhabitants of the colony as “farming-on lanes.” Absurd as this division of the land appeared, it carried with it many advantages. As a well was a rare luxury, the river was the only unfailing source of water supply. The Red, too, furnished much more tempting fishing than it does to-day. Perhaps the greatest gain from the narrowness of the land holdings was the compactness of the settlement, which added to the safety of the settlers in time of danger, and tended to promote the social, educational, and religious life of the community.

As might be supposed, the farming in the .early years was very primitive. The implements were of the crudest kind, the spade and the hoe being the only available instruments for planting and sowing.

The grain was cut with sickle or cradle and threshed by means of flails. The “quern” was used in crushing the grain into flour. This machine consisted of two flat stones, between which the grain was ground to a flour—not always white, as we are told. But changes took place even in this out-of-the-way settlement. The hoe gave i>lace to the wooden plough, the sickle and cradle to a crude reaper. The flails were forgotten in the use of the two-horse treadmill. It was not long before the Hudson’s Bay Company had a windmill erected at Fort Douglas, and a clever settler, imitating this, built several throughout the community.

A like simplicity marked the government of the colony. After the death of Lord Selkirk, his heirs became the nominal rulers of the settlement, but in reality its management rested with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The local governor of the Company, therefore, represented British law in the country. It was not long before a change was necessary, and a council of English- and French-speaking settlers was appointed, under the title of the Council of Assiniboia. Unfortunately, this body, being appointed by the Company, was not representative of the mass of the people, a circumstance which later on caused trouble.

The commerce of the settlement was carried on under the greatest difficulties of transportation. There were two routes by which goods were brought in. One of these, of course, began at York Factory. From this point, the huge York boats, each manned by a dozen men, made their wearisome way up the Nelson River and down Lake Winnipeg. The other route lay through through United States territory. From St. Paul or St. Cloud, in Minnesota, merchandise was carried to the colony in primitive carts. The latter route was often rendered dangerous by the attacks of unfriendly Indians.

The Hudson’s Bay Company, to which the executors of Lord Selkirk had sold out their interest in the Red River lands, determined to enforce its monopoly of trade by suppressing all free-traders. The Council of Rupert’s Land, therefore, imposed a duty of twenty per cent, on all imports, exempting from taxation those settlers satisfaction was given to the petitioners, and the agitation in the colony went on until finally a trifling-incident precipitated a crisis. A French trader, named Sayer, who had bought some goods with the intention of making a trading venture on Lake Manitoba, was arrested by the Company and imprisoned in Fort Garry. On the morning of the day fixed for Sayer’s trial, several hundred armed French Metis, under the leadership of Louis Riel, whose son some years later disturbed the peace of the colony, crossed the river from St. Boniface and surrounded the court house. Despite the protest of the magistrates, the prisoner was seized and carried off by his compatriots, amid shouts of “Le commerce est libre!” “Le commerce est libre!” “Vive la liberte!”

In 1857, a clergyman named Corbett, settled at Headingly, was imprisoned for having made extravagant statements against the Company. A mob, believing that Corbett was innocent, broke into the jail and liberated him. One James Stewart, who with several companions had taken part in this episode and had been arrested on the charge of jail-breaking, was in turn set free by his friends. Such incidents as_ these indicated the weakness of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s administration of the Red River colony, and also the growing determination of the colonists to enjoy freedom of trade. It was evident that the time had come for the North-West to be withdrawn from the control of a fur company.

The opportunity came at last. Rupert’s Land was secured to the Hudson’s Bay Company by charter, while all territory outside of that limit was held merely by a license, which had been renewed every twenty-one years. A few years before 1859, when the license would expire, the directors made application for a renewal. In this step they now met with strong and effective opposition on the part of the Canadian Parliament. A representative of Canada, Chief Justice Draper, before a committee of the British House of Commons, urged that the natural western boundary of Canada was the Rocky Mountains, and that Canadian settlements should be extended into the North-West. The committee recommended that the petition of the Canadian Government should bo granted. It was not, however, until 1869, two years after confederation, that the transfer of the Hudson Bay territory to the Crown was arranged, the actual change not taking place until the middle of the next year. The Company was to surrender its rights in Rupert’s Land, receiving in exchange the sum of £300,000. The Company was allowed to select a block of laud near each of its posts, and was further granted one-twentieth of the area within the “Fertile Belt,” that part of Rupert’s Land lying south of the north branch of the Saskatchewan River and west of Lake Winnipeg.


Return to Book Index 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.

comments powered by Disqus