Métis Nation History

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When Sir Alexander MacKenzie, the discoverer, went home to retire on an estate in Scotland, he found the young nobleman and philanthropist, Lord Selkirk, keenly interested in accounts of vast, new, unpeopled lands, which lay beyond the Great Lakes. A change in the system of farming, which dispossessed small farmers to turn the tenantries into sheep runs, had caused terrible poverty in Scotland at this period. Here in Scotland were people starving for want of land. There in America were lands idle for lack of people. Selkirk had already sent out some colonists to the Lake St. Clair region of Ontario and to Prince Edward Island, but what he heard from MacKenzie turned his attention to the new empire of the prairie. Then in Montreal, where he had been dined and wined by the Northwest Company's "Beaver Club," he had heard still more of this vast new land, of its wealth of furs, of its untimbered fields, where man had but to put in the plowshare to sow his crop. The one great obstruction to settlement there would be the claims of the Hudson's Bay Company to exclusive monopoly of the country; but as Selkirk listened to the descriptions of the Red River Valley given by Colin Robertson, who had been dismissed by the Nor'westers, he thought he saw a way of overcoming all difficulties which the fur traders could put in the way of settlement.

Owing to competition Hudson's Bay stock had fallen from two hundred and fifty to fifty pounds sterling a share.... On returning to Scotland Lord Selkirk had begun buying up Hudson's Bay stock in the market

What of the Nor'westers while these projects went forward? Writes MacGillivray from London, where he has been stirring up enmity to Selkirk's project, "Selkirk must be driven to abandon his project at any cost, for his colony would prove utterly destructive of our fur trade." How he purposed doing this will be seen. Writes Selkirk to the governor of his colony, Miles MacDonell: "The Northwest Company must be compelled to quit my lands. If they refuse, they must be treated as poachers." Selkirk believed that the Hudson's Bay Company charter to the Great Northwest was legal and valid. He believed that the vast territory granted to him was legally his own as much as his parks in Scotland. He believed that he possessed the same right to expel intruders on this territory as to drive poachers from his own Scotch parks. It was the spirit of feudalism. As for the Nor'westers, let us look at their rights. They disputed that the charter of the Hudson's Bay Company applied beyond the bounds of Hudson Bay. Even if it did so apply, they pointed out that by the terms of the charter it applied only to lands not possessed by any other Christian power; and who would dispute that French fur traders and Nor'westers, as their successors, had ascended the streams of the interior long before the Hudson's Bay men? It was the spirit of democracy. It needed no prophet to foresee when these two sets of claims came together there would be a violent clash.

The Selkirk settlers ... the white-faced newcomers, ...men who have crossed the Great Waters "to dig gardens and work land." The barracks knocked up hastily is known after Selkirk's family name as Fort Douglas; but the store of deer meat has been exhausted, and the colonists are on the verge of a second winter. They at once join the Plain Rangers, or Bois Brulés (Burnt Wood Runners), half-breed descendants of French and Nor'west fur traders, who have become retainers of the Montreal Company. With them the Selkirk settlers proceed south to Pembina and the Boundary to hunt buffalo. No instructions had yet come to Red River of the Northwest Company's hostility to the colony, and the lonely Scotch clerks of Fort Gibraltar were glad to welcome men who spoke their own Highland tongue. Volumes might be written of this, the colonists' first year in their Promised Land: how the rude Plain Rangers conveyed them to the buffalo hunt in their {387} creaking Red River carts,—carts made entirely of wood, hub, tire, axle, and all, or else on loaned ponies; how when storm came the white settlers were welcomed to the huts and skin tents of the French half-breeds, given food and buffalo blankets; how many a young Highlander came to grief in the wild stampede of his first buffalo hunt; how when the hunters returned to Fort Gibraltar (Winnipeg), on Red River, with store enough of pemmican for all the fur posts of the Nor'westers, many a wild happy winter night was passed dancing mad Indian jigs to the piping of the Highland piper and the crazy scraping of some Frenchman's fiddle; how when morning came, in a gray dawn of smoking frost mist, a long line of the colonists could be seen winding along the ice of Red River home to Fort Douglas, Piper Green or Hector McLean leading the way, still prancing and blowing a proud national air; how when spring opened, ten-acre plots were assigned to each settler, close to the fort at what were known as the Colony Buildings, and one hundred-acre farms farther down the river. All this and more are part of the story of the coming of the first colonists to the Great Northwest. The very autumn that the first settlers had reached Red River in 1812 more colonists had arrived on the boats at {388} Hudson Bay. These did not reach Red River till October of 1812 and the spring of 1813. By 1813, and on till 1817, more colonists yearly came. The story of each year, with its plot and counterplot, I have told elsewhere. Spite of Nor'westers' threats, spite of the fact there would be no market for the colonists when they had succeeded in transforming wilderness prairie into farms, Selkirk's mad dream of empire seemed to be succeeding.

The cardinal mistake in the contest between Hudson's Bay Company and Nor'westers, between feudalism and democracy, was now committed by the governor of the colony, Miles MacDonell. The year 1813 had proved poor for the buffalo hunters. Large numbers of colonists were coming, and provisions were likely to be scarce. ... Selkirk had ordered him to expel the Nor'westers from his lands, and if the violent contest had not begun in this way, it was bound to come in another. What MacDonell did was issue a proclamation in January of 1814, forbidding taking provisions from Selkirk's territory of Assiniboia. ...Writes Peter Fidler, one of the Hudson's Bay factors, "If MacDonell only perseveres, he will starve the Nor westers out." ....Robert Semple is appointed governor of the colony on Red River, with instructions to resist the aggressions of the Nor'westers even to the point of "a shock that may be felt from Montreal to Athabasca." Selkirk himself comes to Canada to interview the Governor General about military forces to protect his colony.

By the spring of 1816 the tables have been turned with a vengeance. Cameron, the Nor'wester, has been seized and sent to Hudson Bay to be expelled from the country. Fort Gibraltar has been pulled down and the timbers used to strengthen Fort Douglas, whose pointed cannon command all passage up and down Red River. It was hardly to be supposed that the haughty Nor'westers would submit to expulsion without a blow. From Athabasca, from New Caledonia, from Qu'Appelle … they rally their doughtiest fighters under Cuthbert Grant, the half-breed Plain Ranger. From Montreal and Fort William come spurring the leading partners, with one hundred and seventy French-Canadian bullies, and a brass cannon concealed under oilcloth in a long boat. ...

"Listen, white men! Beware! Beware!" the Cree chief Peguis warns Governor Semple. What means the spectacle of white brothers, who preach peace, preparing for war over a few beaver pelts? Chief Peguis cannot understand, except this is the way of white men.

And now, unluckily for Governor Semple, he quarrels with his adviser, Colin Robertson. Robertson, from his early training in Northwest ranks, reads the signs, and is for striking a blow before the enemy can strike him. Semple is still talking peace. Robertson leaves Red River in disgust, and departs for Hudson Bay to take ship for England. The Plain Rangers, it may be explained, have uttered the wild threat that if they "can catch Robertson," they will avenge the destruction of Fort Gibraltar "by skinning him alive and feeding him to the dogs." Also it is well known, Nor'westers of Qu'Appelle have muttered angry prophecies about "the ground being drenched with the blood of the colonists."

Still Semple talks peace, which is a good thing in its place; but this is n't the place.

"My Governor! My Governor!" pleads an old hunter of the Hudson's Bay with Semple; "are you not afraid? The half-breeds are gathering to kill you!"

Semple laughs. Pshaw! He has law on his side. Law! What is law? The old hunter of the lawless wilds does n't know that word. That word does n't come as far west as the Pays d'en Haut.

It is sunset of June 18, 1816. Old chief Peguis comes again to the Hudson's Bay fort on Red River.

"Governor of the gard'ners!" he solemnly warns; "governor of the land workers and gard'ners, listen!…" Not much does he add, after the fashion of his race. Only this, "Let me bring my warriors to protect you!"

Semple laughs at such fears.

It is sunset of June 19. A soft west wind has set the prairie grass rippling like a green sea between the fort and the sun hanging low at the western sky line. A boy on the lookout above one of the bastion towers of Fort Douglas suddenly shouts, "The half-breeds are coming!"

Semple ascends the tower and looks through a field glass. There is a line of sixty or seventy horsemen, all armed, not coming to the fort, but moving diagonally across from the Assiniboine to the Red towards the colony. And then, north {394} towards the colony, is wildest clamor,—people in ox carts, people on horseback, people on foot, stampeding for the shelter of the fort. And up to this moment absolutely nothing has occurred to create this terror.

"Let twenty men follow me," orders Semple; and he marches out, followed by twenty-seven armed men.

As they wade through the waist-high hay fields they meet the fleeing colonists.

"Keep your back to the river!" shouts one colonist, convoying his family. "They are painted, Governor! Don't let them surround you."

Semple sends back to the fort for a cannon to be trundled out.

Young Lieutenant Holte's gun goes off by mistake. Semple turns on him with fury and bids him have a care: there is to be no firing.

The half-breeds have turned from their trail and are coming forward at a gallop.

"There 's Grant, the Plain Ranger, Governor! Let me shoot him," pleads one Hudson's Bay man.

"God have mercy on our souls!" mutters one of the colonists, counting the foe; "but we are all dead men."

All the world knows the rest. At a knoll where grew some trees, a spot now known in Winnipeg on North Main Street as Seven Oaks, Grant, the Ranger, sent a half-breed, Boucher, forward to parley.

"What do you want?" demands Semple.

"We want our fort!"

"Go to your fort, then!"

"Rascal! You have destroyed our fort!"

"Dare you to speak so to me? Arrest him!"

Boucher slips from his saddle. The Plain Rangers think he has been shot. Instantaneously from both sides crashes musketry fire. Semple falls with a broken thigh. Before Grant can control his murderous crew or obtain aid for the wounded governor, a scamp of a half-breed has slashed the fallen man to death. Two or three Hudson's Bay men escape through the long grass and swim across Red River. Two or three more save themselves by instant surrender. For the rest of the twenty-seven, they lie where they have fallen. They are stripped, mutilated, cut to pieces. Only one Nor'wester is killed, only one wounded.

Later, in order to save the lives of the settlers, Fort Douglas is surrendered. For a second time the colonists are dispersed. Before going down Red River in flatboats two of the Hudson's Bay people go out with Chief Peguis by night and bury the dead; but they have no time to dig deep graves, and a few days later the wolves have ripped up the bodies.

Near Lake Winnipeg the fleeing colonists meet the Northwest partners with their one hundred and seventy men. No need to announce what the spectacle of the terrified colonists means. A wild whoop rends the air. "Thank Providence it was all over before we came," writes one devout Nor'wester; "for we intended to storm the fort." Both crews pause. The Nor'westers interrogate the settlers. Semple's private papers are seized. Also, two Hudson's Bay men who took part in the Seven Oaks fight are arrested, to be carried on down to Northwest headquarters on Lake Superior. Then the settlers go on to Lake Winnipeg.

...The Nor'westers capitulate without a stroke. Then as justice of the peace, my Lord Selkirk arrests all the partners but one and sends them east to stand trial for the massacre of Seven Oaks. ... Before midwinter of 1817 has passed, the De Meuron soldiers have crossed Minnesota and gone down Red River to Fort Douglas. One stormy night they scale the wall and bundle the Northwest usurpers out, bag and baggage.

July of 1817 comes Selkirk himself to the Promised Land. ... He greets his colonists in the open one sunny August day, speaking personally to each and deeding over to them land free of all charge. "This land I give for your church," he said, standing on the ground which the cathedral now occupies. "That plot shall be for your school," pointing across the gully; "and in memory of your native land, let the parish be called Kildonan."

Of the trials and counter trials between the two companies, there is not space to tell here. Selkirk was forced to pay heavy damages for his course at Fort William, but the courts of Eastern Canada record not a single conviction against the Nor'westers for the massacre of Seven Oaks. Selkirk retired shattered in health to Europe, where he died in 1820. The same year passed away Alexander MacKenzie, his old-time rival.

The truth is, each company had gone too far and was on the verge of ruin... Meanwhile the Hudson's Bay Company is defeated at Seven Oaks and victorious at Fort William. The Nor'westers at Athabasca were keen to keep the frightened Indians of the north ignorant that Selkirk had triumphed at Fort William, but the news traveled over the two thousand miles of prairie in that strange hunter fashion known as "moccasin telegram," and the story is told how the captured Hudson's Bay officers let the secret out for the benefit of the Indians now afraid to carry their hunt to a Hudson's Bay man.

Revels and all-night carousals marked the winter with the triumphant Nor'westers of Athabasca Lake. Often, when wild drinking songs were ringing in the Nor'westers' dining hall, the Hudson's Bay men would be brought in to furnish a butt for their merciless victors. One night, when the hall was full of Indians, one of the Northwest bullies began to brawl out a song in celebration of the Seven Oaks affair.

"The H.B.C. came up a hill, and up a hill they came, The H.B.C. came up the hill, but down they went again."

Tired of their rude horseplay, one of the Hudson's Bay officers spoke up: "Y' hae niver asked me for a song. I hae a varse o' me ain compaesin."

Then to the utter amaze of the drunken listeners and astonishment of the Indians, the game old officer trolled off this stave:

"But Selkirk brave went up a hill, and to Fort William came! When in he popped and out from thence could not be driven again."

The thunderstruck Nor'wester leaped to his feet with a yell: "A hundred guineas for the name of the men who brought that news here."

"A hundred guineas for twa lines of me ain compaesin! Extravagant, sir," returns the canny Scot.

In 1820 the union of the companies put an end to the ruinous and criminal struggle. George Simpson, afterwards knighted; who has been sent to look over matters in Athabasca, is appointed governor, and Nicholas Garry, one of the London directors, comes out to appoint the officers of the united companies to their new districts. The scene is one for artist brush,—the last meeting of the partners at Fort William, Hudson's Bay men and Nor'westers, such deadly enemies they would not speak, sitting in the great dining hall, glowering at each other across tables: George Simpson at one end of the tables, pompously dressed in ruffles and satin coat and silk breeches, vainly endeavoring to keep up suave conversation; Nicholas Garry at the other end of the table, also very pompous and smooth, but with a look on his face as if he were sitting above a powder mine, the Highland pipers dressed in tartans, standing at each end of the hall, filling the room with the drone and the skurl of the bagpipes.

Presently come American settlers and missionaries over the mountains. The American government delays settling that treaty of joint occupancy, for the more American settlers that come, the stronger will be the American claim to the territory. McLoughlin helps the settlers who would have starved without his aid, and McLoughlin receives such sharp censure from his company for this that he resigns. When the American settlers set up a provisional government, the foolish cry is raised, "54, 40 or fight," which means the Americans claim all the way up to Alaska, and for this there is no warrant either through their own occupation or discovery. The boundary is compromised by the Treaty of Oregon in 1846 at the 49th parallel.

When settlers come, fur-bearing animals leave. Long ago the Hudson's Bay Company had foreseen the end and moved the capital of its Pacific Empire up to Victoria. A string of fur posts extends up Fraser River to New Caledonia.

Note; Seven Oaks 1816, Red River Rebellion 1869, Riel, NorthWest Resistance 1885.

--Canada: the Empire of the North, by Agnes C. Laut (Primary source documents / Timeline)

Métis Nation History

Commemorating 2010 Year of the Métis Nation Anniversary

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