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SEVEN OAKS

In the meantime, far removed from the Red River, other events bearing upon this story were happening. The Earl of Selkirk had had many troubles, and early in 1815 he was again filled with anxiety by news received in Scotland concerning the imperilled condition of Assiniboia. In consequence of these evil tidings he was led to petition Lord Bathurst, secretary for War and the Colonies in the administration of Lord Liverpool, and to ask that some protection should be afforded his colonists, who were loyal subjects of the crown. Lord Bathurst acted promptly. He wrote in March to Sir Gordon Drummond, administrator of the government of Canada, saying that Lord Selkirk's request should be granted and that action should be taken in Canada to protect the colony. But Sir Gordon Drummond, after looking into the matter, decided not to grant the protection which Selkirk desired. He had reasons, which he sent to the British minister.

By this time the affairs of his colony had come to such a sorry pass that Lord Selkirk felt it necessary to travel to America. Accordingly, in the autumn of 1815, he embarked for New York, accompanied by Lady Selkirk and his three children, Dunbar, Isabella, and Katherine. Arriving on November 15, he heard for the first time of the overthrow of his colony through the machinations of Duncan Cameron and Alexander Macdonell. At once he hastened to Montreal, where he received from eye-witnesses a more detailed version of the occurrence. Many of the settlers brought to the east were indignant at the treatment they had received at the hands of the Nor'westers and were prepared to testify against them. In view of this, Lord Selkirk applied to magistrates at York (Toronto) and Montreal, desiring that affidavits should be taken from certain of the settlers with respect to their experiences on the Red River. In this way he hoped to accumulate a mass of evidence which should strengthen his plea for military assistance from the Canadian government. Among those whom Selkirk met in Montreal was Miles Macdonell. The former governor of Assiniboia was then awaiting trial on charges brought against him by officers of the North-West Company. He was never tried, however, for the charges were dropped later on.

In November Lord Selkirk saw Sir Gordon Drummond and urged that help be sent to Assiniboia. From this time until the expiration of Drummond's term of office (May 1816) a correspondence on this question was kept up between the two men. No steps, however, were taken by Drummond to accede to Selkirk's wishes, nor did he inform Selkirk officially why his requests were denied. During the winter news of the restoration of the colony was brought to Selkirk by a French Canadian named Laguimonière, who had travelled two thousand miles on foot with the information. On receipt of this news Selkirk became even more urgent in his appeals for armed assistance. 'If, however, your Excellency,' he wrote to Drummond on April 23, 'persevere in your intention to do nothing till you receive further instructions, there is a probability almost amounting to a certainty that another season must be lost before the requisite force can be sent up—during another year the settlers must remain exposed to attack, and there is every reason to expect that in consequence of this delay many lives may be lost.'

Lord Selkirk wished to send a message of encouragement to his people in the colony. Laguimonière, the wonderful Canadian wood-runner, would carry it. He wrote a number of letters, telling of his arrival in Canada, giving assurance of his deep concern for the settlement's welfare, and promising to come to the aid of the colonists as soon as the rivers were free of ice, with whatever force he could muster. Bearing these letters, the messenger set out on his journey over the wild spaces between Montreal and the Red River. In some way his mission became known to the Nor'westers at Fort William, for on June 3 Archibald Norman M'Leod, a partner of the North-West Company, issued an order that Selkirk's courier should be intercepted. Near Fond du Lac, at the western end of Lake Superior, Laguimonière was waylaid and robbed. The letters which he carried were taken to Fort William, where several of them were found later.

As we have seen in the last chapter, it was in this same month that Alexander Macdonell, at Portage la Prairie, was organizing his half-breeds for a raid on Fort Douglas. His brigade, as finally made up, consisted of about seventy Bois Brûlés, Canadians, and Indians, all well armed and mounted. As soon as these troopers were ready to advance, Macdonell surrendered the leadership to Cuthbert Grant, deeming it wise not to take part in the raid himself. The marauders then marched out in the direction of the settlement.

The settlers in the meantime were not wholly oblivious of the danger threatening them. There was a general feeling of insecurity in the colony, and a regular watch had been instituted at Fort Douglas to guard against a surprise attack. Governor Semple, however, did not seem to take a very serious view of the situation. He was about to depart to York Factory on business. But a rough awakening came. On June 17 two Cree Indians arrived at Fort Douglas with the alarming tidings that in two days an attack would be made upon the settlement.

About five o'clock in the afternoon of June 19, a boy who was stationed in the {96} watch-house of the fort cried out that he saw a party of half-breeds approaching. Thereupon Governor Semple hurried to the watch-house and scanned the plains through a glass. He saw a troop of horsemen moving towards the Red River—evidently heading for a point some distance to the north of Fort Douglas.

'We must go out to meet these people,' said Governor Semple: 'let twenty men follow me.'

There was a prompt response to the call, and Semple led his volunteers out of the fort and towards the advancing horsemen. He had not gone far when he met a number of colonists, running towards Fort Douglas and shouting in wild excitement:

'The half-breeds! the half-breeds!'

Governor Semple now sent John Bourke back to Fort Douglas for one of the guns, and instructed him to bring up whatever men could be spared from among those garrisoning the fort. The advance party halted to wait until these should arrive; but at length Semple grew impatient and ordered his men to advance without them. The Nor'westers had concealed themselves behind a clump of trees. As Semple approached they galloped out, extended their line into a half-moon formation, and bore down to meet him. They were dressed as Indian warriors and painted in hideous fashion. The force was well equipped with guns, knives, bows and arrows, and spears.

A solitary horseman emerged from the hostile squadron and rode towards Governor Semple. This was François Boucher, a French-Canadian clerk in the employ of the North-West Company, son of a tavern-keeper in Montreal. Ostensibly his object was to parley with the governor. Boucher waved his hand, shouting aloud:

'What do you want?'

Semple took his reply from the French Canadian's mouth. 'What do you want?' he questioned in plainer English.

'We want our fort,' said Boucher.

'Go to your fort,' answered Semple.

'Why did you destroy our fort, you d—d rascal?' exclaimed the French Canadian.

The two were now at close quarters, and Governor Semple had seized the bridle of Boucher's horse.

'Scoundrel, do you tell me so?' he said.

Pritchard says that the governor grasped Boucher's gun, no doubt expecting an attack upon his person. The French Canadian leapt {98} from his horse, and at this instant a shot rang out from the column of the Nor'westers. Lieutenant Holt, a clerk in the colony's service, fell struggling upon the ground. Boucher ran in the direction of his own party, and soon there was the sound of another musket. This time Governor Semple was struck in the thigh. He called at once to his men:

'Do what you can to take care of yourselves.'

The band ignored this behest, and gathered round him to ascertain the extent of his injury. The Nor'westers now began to bring the two ends of their column together, and soon Semple's party was surrounded. The fact that their foe was now helpless did not keep the Nor'westers from pouring in a destructive fire. Most of Semple's men fell at the first volley. The few left standing pulled off their hats and begged for mercy. A certain Captain Rogers hastened towards the line of the Nor'westers and threw up his hands. He was followed by John Pritchard. One of the Bois Brûlés shot Rogers in the head and another rushed on him and stabbed him with a knife. Luckily Pritchard was confronted by a French Canadian, named Augustin Lavigne, whom he had formerly known and who now protected him from butchery.

The wounded governor lay stretched upon the ground. Supporting his head with his hand, he addressed Cuthbert Grant:

'I am not mortally wounded,' he said, 'and if you could get me conveyed to the fort, I think I should live.'

Grant promised to comply with the request. He left the governor in charge of one of his men and went away, but during his absence an Indian approached and shot Semple to death.

Meanwhile John Bourke had gone back for a field-piece and for reinforcements. Bourke reached the fort, but after he had placed the small cannon in a cart he was permitted by those in the fort to take only one man away with him. He and his companion began to drag the cart down the road. Suddenly they were startled by the sound of the musketry fire in the distance which had struck down Semple's party. Fearing lest they might lose the gun, the pair turned back towards the fort. On their way they were met by ten men from Fort Douglas, hurrying to the scene of the conflict. Bourke told his comrade to take the field-piece inside the fort, and himself joined the rescue party. But they were too late: when they arrived at the scene of the struggle they could effect nothing.

'Give up your arms,' was the command of the Nor'westers.

The eleven men, seeing that resistance on their part would be useless, took to their heels. The Nor'westers fired; one of the fleeing men was killed and John Bourke was severely wounded. For the numbers engaged the carnage was terrible. Of the party which had left Fort Douglas with Governor Semple there were but six survivors. Michael Heden and Daniel M'Kay had run to the riverside during the mêlée. They succeeded in getting across in a canoe and arrived at Fort Douglas the same night. Michael Kilkenny and George Sutherland escaped by swimming the river. In addition to John Pritchard, another prisoner, Anthony Macdonell, had been spared. The total number of the dead was twenty-three. Among the slain were Rogers, the governor's secretary, Doctor Wilkinson, Alexander M'Lean, the most enterprising settler in the colony, and Surgeon James White. The Irish colonists suffered severely in proportion to their number: they lost seven in all. The Nor'westers had one man killed and one wounded. This sanguinary encounter, which took place beside the highway leading along the Red River to Frog Plain, is known as the massacre of Seven Oaks.

There was much disappointment among the Nor'westers when they learned that Colin Robertson was not in the colony. Cuthbert Grant vowed that Robertson would have been scalped had he been captured. 'They would have cut his body into small bits,' said Pritchard, 'and boiled it afterwards for the dogs.' Pritchard himself was carried as a prisoner to Frog Plain, where the Nor'westers made their encampment. A savage spirit had been aroused. Pritchard found that even yet the lust for blood had not been sated, and that it would be necessary to plead for the wives and children of the colonists. He remonstrated with Cuthbert Grant and urged him not to forget that the women of the settlement were of his dead father's people. At length the half-breed leader softened, and agreed that Pritchard should act as a mediator. Grant was willing that the settlers should go in peace, if the public property of the colony were given up. Pritchard made three trips between Grant's headquarters and the fort before an agreement was reached. 'On my arrival at the fort,' he said, 'what a scene of distress presented itself! The widows, children and relations of the slain, in horrors of despair, were lamenting the dead, and were trembling for the safety of the survivors.'

On the morning of June 20 Cuthbert Grant himself, with over a score of his followers, went to Fort Douglas. It was then agreed that the settlers should abandon their homes and that the fort should be evacuated. An inventory was made of the goods of the colony, and the terms of surrender were signed by Cuthbert Grant as a clerk and representative of the North-West Company. Contrary to Grant's promises, the private effects of the colonists were overhauled and looted. Michael Heden records that even his clothes and blankets were stolen.

On the evening of the same day a messenger presented himself at Portage la Prairie bringing Alexander Macdonell an account of the massacre. Pierre Pambrun declares that Macdonell and others who were with him became hilarious with joy. 'Good news,' shouted Macdonell in French, as he conveyed the tidings to his associates.

Again disaster had overtaken Lord Selkirk's plans. The second desolation of his colony and expulsion of his colonists occurred on June 22, 1816. The evicted people set out in canoes down the Red River. Michael Heden and John Bourke both declared that the number of those who embarked was approximately two hundred. This total would appear, however, to be much too large, unless additions had been made to the colony of which we have no documentary evidence. Some French-Canadian families had settled at 'the Forks,' it is true, but these were not numerous enough to bring the population of the settlement to two hundred persons, leaving uncounted the number who had lately perished.

On June 24, as the exiles were proceeding down the river, they met nine or ten canoes and one bateau. In these were almost a hundred armed Nor'westers under the command of Archibald Norman M'Leod of Fort William. M'Leod's purpose was apparently to assist in the extermination of the colony. His first question of the party travelling northward was 'whether that rascal and scoundrel Robertson was in the boats.' When he was told of the calamity which had befallen Governor Semple and his band, he ordered all the exiles ashore. By virtue of his office as a magistrate for the Indian Territories he wished to examine them

He searched the baggage belonging to the evicted settlers and scrutinized their books and papers. 'Those who play at bowls,' remarked 'Justice' M'Leod, 'must expect to meet with rubbers.' Pritchard was told to write his version of the recent transactions at 'the Forks,' and did so; but his account did not please M'Leod. 'You have drawn up a pretty paper,' he grumbled; 'you had better take care of yourself, or you will get into a scrape.'

Michael Heden also was examined as to his knowledge of the matter. When M'Leod heard the answers of Heden he was even more wrathful.

'They are all lies,' he declared with emphasis.

The result of M'Leod's judicial procedure was that five of the party were detained and placed under arrest. The others were allowed to proceed on their way. John Bourke was charged with felony, and Michael Heden and Patrick Corcoran were served with subpoenas to give evidence for the crown against him, on September 1, at Montreal. John Pritchard and Daniel M'Kay were among the five detained, presumably as crown witnesses. After some delay—M'Leod had to visit Fort Douglas and the neighbourhood—the prisoners were sent on the long journey to Fort William on Lake Superior. Bourke was at once stripped of his valuables and placed in irons, regardless of the fact that his wound was causing him intense suffering. During the whole of the journey he was compelled to lie manacled on a pile of baggage in one of the canoes.

Fort Douglas on the Red River was still standing, but the character of its occupants had changed radically. At first Cuthbert Grant took command, but he soon made way for Alexander Macdonell, who reached Fort Douglas shortly after the affair at Seven Oaks. When Archibald Norman M'Leod appeared, he was the senior officer in authority, and he took up his residence in the apartments of the late Governor Semple. One day M'Leod and some followers rode over to an encampment of Crees and Saulteaux near the ruins of Fort Gibraltar. Here M'Leod collected and harangued the Indians. He upbraided them for their failure to interfere when Duncan Cameron had been forcibly removed to Hudson Bay, and he spoke harshly of their sympathy for the colonists when the Nor'westers had found it necessary to drive them away. Peguis, chief of the Saulteaux and the leading figure in the Indian camp, listened attentively, but remained stolidly taciturn. On the evening of the same day the Nor'westers returned to Fort Douglas and indulged in some of their wildest revelries. The Bois Brûlés stripped themselves naked and celebrated their recent triumph in a wild and savage orgy, while their more staid companions looked on with approval.

According to the testimony of Augustin Lavigne, M'Leod during his stay at Fort Douglas publicly made the following promise to an assembly of Bois Brûlés: 'My kinsmen, my comrades, who have helped us in the time of need; I have brought clothing for you I expected to have found about forty of you here with Mr Macdonell, but there are more of you. I have forty suits of clothing. Those who are most in need of them may have these, and on the arrival of the canoes in autumn, the rest of you shall be clothed likewise.'

[1] For the details of the tragedy which now occurred we are chiefly indebted to the accounts of John Pritchard, a former Nor'wester, who had settled with his family at the Red River, of Michael Heden, a blacksmith connected with the settlement, and of John Bourke, the colony store-keeper.

[2] Some of the dead were afterwards taken from the field of Seven Oaks to Fort Douglas by Cree and Saulteaux Indians. These received decent burial, but the others, lying uninterred as they had fallen, became a prey to the wild beasts of the prairie.

[3] An act of the Imperial parliament of 1803 had transferred jurisdiction in the case of offences committed in the Indian Territories from Great Britain to Canada, and had allowed the Canadian authorities to appoint magistrates for these rather undefined regions. M'Leod was one of these magistrates.

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

-- The Red River Colony, by Louis Aubrey Wood (Primary source documents / Timeline)



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