Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine


Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

History of Saskatchewan and The Old North West
Chapter VIII - The First Settlement Colony in the Canadian West


Early Saskatchewan Settlements Offshoots from the Red River Colony—Selkirk's Motives, Philanthropic and Commercial— Transfer of Assininoia from II. B. Company to Selkirk, 1811— Miles Macdonell Brings First Immigrants—Founding of Fort Douglas—Sale of Food Stuffs to Fur Traders Forbidden—Resentment of North West Company and Arrest of Milks Macdonell—Colony Deserted; but Later Re-established—Hardships of Early Settlers—North West Company's Plot to Annihilate the Colony—Massacre, at Seven Oaks, 1816—Selkirk to the Rescue—The Grasshopper Plague—Effect of the Union of Hudson's Bay and North West Companies, 1821—Storms and Floods of 1826, and Subsequent Years—Departure of the DeMeuron Mercenaries and of the Swiss Colonists—Selkirk's Executors Surrender the Colony—Claims of Retired Servants of Hudson's Bay Company—Council of Assininoia—Agitation for Free Trade—James Sinclair and the Saver Trial—Newspapers and Postal Service—Exploration of the Farther West —Approaching Collapse of Hudson's Bay Regime.

The first settlements in the present Province of Saskatchewan were primarily offshoots from the Red River Colony, established by Thomas, fifth Earl of Selkirk, in the year 1S12. Already this remarkable philanthropist and adventurer had been engaged in colony building, having established settlements in Prince Edward Island and in West Central Ontario. Strange to relate, it was through Sir Alexander Mackenzie's reports of the far West that Selkirk was led to bring thither the
 first serious tillers of the soil to appear on the British prairies—an enterprise resisted by Sir Alexander Mackenzie and his Montreal colleagues with unrelenting severity.

The motives of Lord Selkirk have frequently been severely questioned. Since he was only human, they were probably mixed, hut the researches of each succeeding decade tend to corroborate the views now held by most historians that the visionary Earl was genuinely concerned for the betterment of the peasantry of the British Isles, and was chiefly intent upon demonstrating that on the untilled fields of British America numberless multitudes might find refuge from the hopeless prospect confronting them in the old lands.

At the same time there is no doubt that the Earl's colonizing scheme was intended lo bring advantages to the Hudson's Bay Company in its struggle with Canadian rivals. The bitter competition of recent years bad seriously shaken the ancient Company. Its shares, which at one time had been rated at double their par value had fallen in 1809 to fifty per centum.

In order to gain control of the Company's policy. Selkirk purchased forty per centum of the Companys' shares, and a considerable portion of the remainder he controlled through friends. On May it. t8ti. he secured from the Company the transfer to him of 16.493 square miles, including the southern portion of the present Province of Manitoba and a large part of south eastern Saskatchewan.1 His enemies maintain that the Earl's real motive was his desire to plant in the country a large group of dependents

who would be virtually game-keepers to the Hudson's Bay Company, employed to cut off the communications of the Montreal merchants trading in the interior. It is undeniable that the scheme was grossly mismanaged if indeed the Earl's purpose was to establish a prosperous agricultural colony. On the other hand, if the undertaking had for its object active resistance to the North West Company, a fatal blunder was committed in so locating the settlement that no line of communication could in actual practice be kept open between it and the Company's base "on the shores of Hudson's Bay.

Our chief present interest is with events rather than motives. Selkirk-scattered broadcast a glowing prospectus for the encouragement of prospective emigrants, and a considerable number assembled at Stornoway, where they were taken in charge by Captain Miles Macdonell, acting under Selkirk's instructions. Long delays occurred through the open opposition or secret intrigues of representatives of the Montreal traders, but on July 26, 1811, the first party at length set sail, arriving at York Factory two months later. Captain Macdonell had with him ninety laborers and fifteen other emigrants, including the Reverend Mr. Bonrke, who, however, never went into the interior. In November, Macdonell moved his proteges fifty miles up the Nelson River to winter. Severe hardships were experienced and Macdonell's difficulties were complicated by considerable insubordination among his followers. However, gloomy as was the truth regarding this memorable winter, there is good reason to believe that the facts were not as bad as they have commonly been represented. Much of the information bearing 011 the matter has come to the modern historian through the distorting medium of accounts written by the North West Company's employees and partisans.

In July, Macdonell and his party set out for the Red River, which they reached in August. It was an ill omen that they were there met by employees of the North West Company disguised as Indians, who warned them not to attempt a permanent settlement. However, by 1813 a considerable number of buildings bad been erected, including a post named Fort Douglas. This same year brought a party of Irish immigrants and numerous evicted tenants of the Duchess of Sutherland.

Early in January, 1814, Miles Macdonell, the Governor of the Colony, issued a proclamation that was fraught with serious consequences:

"Whereas the Right Honourable Thomas, Earl of Selkirk, is anxious to provide for the families at present forming settlements 011 his lands at Red River, with those on the way to it, passing the winter at York and Churchill Forts, in Hudson Bay, as also those who are expected to arrive next autumn, this render's it a necessary and indispensable part of my duty to provide for their support. In the yet uncultivated state of the country, the ordinary resources derived from the buffalo and other wild animals within the territory, are not deemed more than adequate for the requisite supply. Wherefore it is hereby ordered that no person trading furs or provisions within the territory for the Honourable Hudson's Bay Company, or the North West Company, or any individual, or unconnected traders or persons whatever, shall take any provisions, either of flesh, fish, grain or vegetables, procured or raised within the said territory, by water or land carriage, for one twelve-month from the date hereof; save and except what may be judged necessary for the trading parties at this present time within the territory, to carry them to their respective destinations; and who may, on due application to me, obtain a license for the same.

'The provisions procured and raised as above shall be taken for the use "of the colony; and that 110 loss may accrue to the parties concerned, they will be paid for by British bills at the customary rates. And be it hereby further known, that whosoever shall be detected in attempting to convey out, or shall aid and assist in carrying out, any provisions prohibited as above, either by water or land, shall be taken into custody, and prosecuted, as the laws in such cases direct, and the provisions so taken, as well as any goods and chattels, of whatsoever nature, which may be taken along with them, and also the craft, carriages, and cattle, instrumental in conveying away the same to any part but to the settlement on Red River, shall be forfeited."

While it may be that the precarious condition of the colony at this time rendered some such measure necessary, and while, in the proclamation,. Macdonell makes no distinction between the traders of the Hudson's Bay Company and those operating from Montreal, it is, of course, evident that the regulations would press most severely upon the North West Company; and that great organization defiantly resolved to up-root the colony. A party was sent by it to effect Macdonell's arrest. A melee occurred in which one man was killed and, to prevent further bloodshed, the Governor surrendered and was taken to Montreal. There he was kept for a couple of years, though he was never brought to trial.

When Captain Miles Macdonell left, the infant colony passed under the charge of James Sutherland, who was forced to sign an agreement with the halfbreeds controlled by the North West Company in accordance with which the settlement was to be vacated.

About this same time another party, ignorant of the disasters that had befallen their predecessors, left Scotland to join Selkirk's pioneers. They embarked in June and reached the banks of the Red River in November, finding the colon}' deserted. Their own supplies were practically exhausted and, there being no others to be had, the unfortunate immigrants were compelled to undertake an additional march of seventy miles through the snow to Pembina, whither most of their predecessors had retreated. Even there famine still faced them, and most of their numbers were obliged to join the Indians and Metis buffalo hunters on the prairie, and to remain with them

through the winter. In the following year, however, the settlers returned to the Red River and made a good start. Colin Robertson assumed charge of Fort Douglas and, on March 17, be seized and destroyed Fort Gibraltar, belonging to the North West Company, and captured Duncan Cameron, who had effected the arrest of Miles Macdonell. Selkirk secured the assistance of a considerable number of French Canadians and his agents were sufficiently strengthened to carry out the wholesale confiscation of property belonging to the North West Company, which was equally violent and unscrupulous in its own policy.

A definite plot was now hatched by the Canadian traders to raise such a force of halfbreeds and Indians in the interior as would annihilate the Red River Colony. This scheme was entrusted largely to the representative of the Xorth West Company at Fort QuAppelle, Alexander Macdonell.

In a letter dated March 13, 1810, which Colin Robertson intercepted, Alexander Macdonell wrote that "a storm was brewing in the North" and "ready to burst on the heads of the miserable people." What the North West Company had done last year would be in comparison, lie said, "mere child's play." he also spoke of "glorious news from Athabasca," to-wit: the death by starvation of eighteen employees of the Hudson's Ray Company. Robertson realized the dangers of the situation, but he was unable to convince the newly appointed Governor-in-Chief of the Hudson's Hay Company, Robert Semple. Accordingly, Robertson washed his hands of the whole matter, and retired to York Factory, leaving Semple in charge at Fort Douglas.

On June 19, 1 Si6, Governor Semple saw upon the prairie a party of seventy horsemen. The partisans of the North West Company have persistently endeavored to prove that the intentions of this cavalcade were entirely peaceable and that they were simply making a detour around Fort Douglas to join a party of their friends who were arriving from the Fast. There is probably some truth in this, but an examination of the available evidence makes it very evident that they intended when the junction was effected, assaulting Fort Douglas in force. Governor Semple, with foolhardy rashness, went out with twenty men to meet them. Ari altercation ensued, whereupon be and his adherents were massacred, only on escaping. This occurred at a spot known as Seven Oaks. The North Westers then advanced upon the colony and under the threats of assassination compelled the hapless immigrants again to desert the settlement. Many were taken East, to Canada. Others retired to Jack River at the north end of Lake Winnipeg.

The story of Selkirk's operations in the following year we cannot here review in detail, lie organized a military force, consisting chiefly of French soldiers-of-fortune, captured Fort William, the headquarters of the Canadian traders, and recovered Fort Douglas. Imperial Commissioners now interfered in the interests of peace, and the scene of warfare was transferred to the law courts, where the representatives of the two companies became engaged in an intricate series of interminable law suits.

A considerable number of the settlers had returned to the Red River, but in the winter of 1817 impending famine forced them to retire once more to Pembina. They must have been made of heroic stuff, for in 1818. they returned to cultivate their deserted farms. New disasters awaited them. On July 18, 1818, a stupendous cloud of grasshoppers settled upon the colony. The invaluable gardens were totally destroyed and once again the settlers found a winter refuge in Pembina. The struggle with the grasshoppers lasted three years.

Meantime, in 1S20. Lord Selkirk and Sir Alexander Mackenzie both died, and in the following year the Hudson's Hay Company and the North West Company were fused. This last event, while immensely beneficial in many respects, was not. without its disadvantages to the colony. The union naturally rendered more economical the administration of the fur trade; this meant that a considerable number of halfbreeds formerly employed by one or the other of the companies were left without any adequate means of support. For a long time many members of this class lived in great poverty.

Under the deed of 1811, creating the colony of Assiniboia, it was expressly stated thai one-tenth of the vast area included in the Selkirk grant, was to be reserved for retired servants of the Hudson's l!ay Company, and "for no other use, intent or purpose whatsoever." The size of the estates to be granted these retired servants was dependent upon rank. The master of a trading post was entitled to 1,000 acres, and even an ordinary laborer who had served the company only three years was entitled to 200 acres. These provisions were not faithfully observed, however. Many retired servants were not given deeds to any land, and many that did receive land grants had to be content with farms much smaller than those to which they felt themselves in law and right entitled.

"At the end of two or three weeks the insects went off to die elsewhere, but before taking their departure they left their eggs in (lie ground, and the next vear those eggs produced millions of fresh grasshoppers that ate all the vegetation until the end of July. When they had their wings these rose in clouds so thick that they completely hid the rays of the sun-so much so that those who watched their departure could look at the orb of day without winking an eyelid.

'That year 'there was no harvest of any kind. In the spring of 1820 each one hastened to sow whatever quantity of grain he had in reserve, for they always were careful to put a little aside each year. The season was favorable, everything grew splendidiv, hope for the future caused the miseries of the past to be forgotten, when, on the 26th of July another cloud of grasshoppers came down. This time llic poor settlers became entirely discouraged: everything was as completely destroyed as if fire had swept the entire country, hut still more discouraging were the quantities of eggs that the insects had left in the earth. In 1821 everything in the form of verdure was eaten, and the soil of the fields and of the prairies was left as black as the .lust on the highway. The grasshoppers penetrated everywhere and ate everything—clothes, leather, etc, etc.; nothing could be left within reach of them."

However, upon the whole, the Red River settlement prospered until the winter and spring of 1826. An unexpected snowfall of unprecedented depth occurred in this year, for which the numerous hunters upon the plains were quite unprepared. In spite of relief parties sent out from the colonv, many of he hunters perished from cold or exhaustion. Most of their horses were lost and the buffalo herd was driven beyond reach. The cold of this winter was terrific, and it is said that the ice on the river measured nearly six feet m thickness. At all events, when the enormous mass of snow melted in the spring. The river was still impeded with ice, and a disastrous flood occurred The river rose some fifteen feet above its usual level and practically the whole settlement was under water. After eighteen days the flood began to recede, but it was the middle of June, almost four weeks later, before the settlers were able to return to where their homes had stood. Similar floods had been recorded in 1776, 1790 and ,809. Others occurred in 1852 !860 and later, but the disaster of 3826 probably caused more distress than did any of the others, though only one life was lost.

The philosophic Scotchmen of Red River found it possible to discover redeeming features even in this disaster. It resulted in the emigration of the disbanded soldiery that Selkirk had brought to the colony—a class of men with whom the typical Selkirker could have little in common. More unfortunately the Swiss artisan settlers, the first of whom had arrived in 1821, also departed with them, settling in Minnesota, where St. Paul now stands. A process of natural selection was at work which was to result in the permanent settlement of the shores of the Red River by men who could not be dismayed, and therefore could not fail.

As years passed by, Lord Selkirk's executors became more and more weary of their duties in connection with the guardianship of his colony. Accordingly, in 1834, it was transferred to the Hudson's Pay Company under a secret arrangement. Though Selkirk is alleged to have spent about £200,000 upon the settlement, his executors were content to accept in 183^ in full quittance of their claims, the sum of £84,111. There is, in many quarters, a strong conviction that the terms of the agreement were contrary to the spirit of Selkirk's will and distinctly to the disadvantage of the immigrants and halfbreeds.

As so many of those affected in this matter are now prominent citizens in the province of Saskatchewan, it seems necessary to explain their oft-repeated protests against this surrender and the consequences it entailed. Jly such well informed authorities as Rev. James Taylor, sometime Principal of Emmanuel College, who for a generation has battled unwearrelly for the rights of the retired traders and servants, it is even questioned whether any bona fide surrender of the Selkirk estate ever occurred. However, even if the district of Assiniboia as originally confined had been reconvined to the Hudson's Pay Company, it is argued that such reconveyance manifestly could not effect the previously established rights and interests of retired servants. Selkirk's will could involve only nine-tenths of the district originally surrendered by the Hudson's Pay Company. That meant that a vast area of land remained the property of, or was held in trust for.-the servants of the company and their descendants. Mr. Taylor declares that Sir George Simpson for the last thirty-seven years of his life was simply the attorney for the executors. I11 course of time important documents were mislaid or concealed and the legal rights of the retired servants became more and more obscure. Accordingly, the feeling spread that the great company was deliberately intent upon robbing its retired servants and their descendants of their lawful rights. To this topic it will be necessary to recur in future pages of our history.

The Governors of Assiniboia—appointed by Selkirk, his executors or their attorneys—had usually associated with them a few persons known as their council, though, as a matter of fact, its powers and functions had been almost purely formal. In 1832 the minutes of the council indicated considerable legislative activity, but in earlier days any real functions which it exercised had been judicial, and this primary characteristic of the council disappeared but gradually. In 1835, however, a distinct step in advance was taken. The Council of Assiniboia, as then constituted under Sir George Simpson, acting executor under Selkirk's will, and Alexander Christie, Governor of Assiniboia, consisted of these two officials and thirteen other prominent citizens.

For the next five years the chief topic of public interest in Rupert's Land was the persistent agitation for the abrogation of the Hudson's Bay Company's monopolies. The company constituted the sole purchaser in the market of the settlement, it controlled all imports and exports: it alone could legally engage directly or indirectly in the fur trade; and 110 opportunity seemed to be neglected of enforcing the company's charter rights in all their obnoxious details. In 1844 Governor McTavish went so. far as to command all persons importing goods from England to leave their business correspondence open for his inspection.

Among the most spirited opponents of the company's monopoly was James Sinclair. He belonged to a family long and honorably associated with the service of the great company and this saved him from personal prosecution, though the Hudson's II ay Company refused to bring out goods from England in his name. However, in spite of the company's protests he embarked independently upon the traffic in peltries and, having collected a considerable quantify of furs, offered them for purchase by the company's agent at Fort Garry. Under the circumstances that official thought fit to refuse them. Sinclair then took his furs east via the United States and presently appeared with them in London. Rather than have a competitor arise in the open market, the company now paid him handsomely for Ills peltries, and he returned to the Red River to further prosecute his audacious enterprise. Presently the company undertook to take a test case before its courts, and in 1849 William Saver, another free trader of less prominent social position, was prosecuted. James Sinclair acted as Saver's counsel. The trial, however, was hut a farce. Saver made no attempt to deny his participation in the fur trade; but as Louis Riel, Sr.. with four hundred armed halfbreeds. all ardent free traders, was present to see that no ill befell Saver, he was released. This broke up the monopoly. Henceforth the company made practically no attempt to enforce its right to the exclusive trade in furs. However, Sinclair was manifestly a dangerous man from their standpoint. To get him out of the settlement, the company, with the financial co-operation of the British Government, employed him to conduct overland parties of settlers destined for Oregon, where the company still drove an extensive trade.

In J859 the first newspaper was established in Rupert's Land, the Nor' Wester, by Messrs. Buckingham and Caldwell, in opposition to the Hudson's Bay Company. This was the beginning of the end of the old regime. The great company was essentially feudal in character and when confronted by the persistent impertinences of a popular press it became manifestly an anachronism whose despotic authority must presently be laughed out of existence. Prior to 1850 there had been postal service but twice a year via York Factory in the summer, and overland via Canada in the winter. This was then replaced in 1855 by a monthly service and by 1862 the settlement was in weekly communication with Pembina.

In the great West beyond Fort Garry the chief trading forts were the neuclei of tiny villages, but otherwise there was no settlement further West than Portage la Prairie. However, through the activities of the fur traders and of other explorers, the country was gradually becoming better known. In 1845 Kane, the Canadian painter, had undertaken his remarkable journey of four years' duration through the West. The record he has left of it in his journal and pictures is of permanent interest and value. In 1859 gold was discovered in the bed of the Saskatchewan River, and greatly quickened popular interest in the unknown land. Little came of this discovery, but it-kept the eyes of enterprising men upon the West for a number of years.

Between 1857 and i860 Captain Palliser conducted important exploratory investigations under instructions from the Imperial Government. His operations covered a vast territory from Lake Superior to British Columbia. In 1857 he travelled up the Assiniboina to Fort Ellis, thence via the Qu'Appelle, to the "Elbow" of the Saskatchewan, from which point his party proceeded to Fort Carlton, where it took up its winter quarters. The report of this expedition was presented to the Imperial Parliament in 1863. Copies of it are now rare, but they deserve careful examination by those seriously interested in the history of exploration.

Valuable services were also performed by private parties. In 1865 Viscount Milton and Doctor Cheadle published the account of "a rather remarkable journey begun in 1864, which carried them across America from Quebec to Victoria. Their purpose was to discover the most direct land route through British territory to the regions of the far West, and to call attention to the remarkable opportunities for colonization presented by North West Canada. The travellers reached Victoria in September, 1863. In 1862 the country was also visited by the Earl of Dunmore and a party of other distinguished Englishmen whose writing aroused much interest. Probably the most important publicity work done in the interest of immigration and industrial development was that performed by James W. Taylor, the American agent at Fort Garry.

In 1867 there occurred an event memorable in the commercial history of the North West; this was the attempt successfully made by Alexander Begg, the historian, and N. E. Sanford, of Hamilton, subsequently Senator, to establish regular trade between Canada and the Red River settlement.

Meantime, the rule of the great company was tottering to its fall. To the agitation which terminated in the surrender of its territorial rights, and to the prolonged disorders which culminated in the disturbances of 1870, separate chapters must be devoted.


Return to our History of Saskatchewan 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