by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
On the orders of United States Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun, an invasion of Canada was launched in 1823, the first since the War of 1812. While successive invasions of Canada had been repulsed during the war waged between 1812 and 1814, the 1823 invasion by American troops ended with the successful U.S. occupation of what had been previously believed to be Canadian soil. At the time, the colonies and territories north of the U.S. border — including Rupert’s Land where the Red River Settlement was located — were informally known as British North America, which only became the official designation in 1839.
Calhoun in April 1823 signed the orders sending an expedition headed by Major Stephen H. Long westward under the banner of the Stars and Stripes. On August 8 at noon, the American flag was hoisted near Pembina in what would later become the state of North Dakota, although at the time the community was within Minnesota Territory.
According to William H. Keating, a member of the American expedition: “A national salute was fired ... and a proclamation made by Major Long, the ‘by virtue of the authority vested in him by the President of the United States,’ the country situated upon Red River, above that point, was declared to be comprehended within the authority of the United States.”
The ceremony took place beside an oak post that showed that the territory to the north belonged to Great Britain and the territory to the south was that of the U.S.
All the inhabitants in the vicinity, who were primarily Métis, were gathered to witness the ceremony.
“They appeared well satisfied on hearing that the whole of the settlement of Pembina, with the exception of a single loghouse, standing near the left bank of the river, would be included in the territory of the United States,” wrote Keating in his account, Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of St. Peter’s River, Lake Winnepeek, Lake of the Woods, &c.
The validity of this statement is arguable, since the inhabitants had for years believed they were within the territory ruled by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). If anything, they were probably bemused by the ceremony in the midst of the prairie that switched their allegiance from Britain to the U.S. In reality, the Métis had no concept of a borderline separating one nation from another and travelled at will to whatever side of a border the buffalo roamed. Whomever said they commanded authority on whatever side of the border had little relevance to the Métis. Their only real concern would have been the presence of the Sioux, who were their traditional enemies and also laid claim to the land south of the new border, threatening to bar their way to the buffalo hunting grounds.
“While fixing the posts, the colonists requested that they might be shown how the line would run; when this was done, the first observation they made was, that all the buffalo would be on the other side of the line (south); this remark shows the great interest they take in this animal ...”
The land that Pembina occupied had long been a part of the territory ceded to Hudson’s Bay Company. On May 2, 1670, King Charles II granted a charter incorporating the “Company of Adventurers of England Trading into the Hudson’s Bay.” According to the terms of the company charter, all the land with water draining into Hudson Bay was to be under the authority of the HBC. The vast tract of land ceded to the company also included a chunk of territory in what would become North Dakota and Minnesota in the United States.
When Lord Selkirk received his 300,000-square-kilometre land grant from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1811, it included territory south of today’s U.S.-Canada border. Although part of the HBC’s original charter, the legality of ceding the land to the south was not within the authority of the Company, as the 1783 Treaty of Paris, signed between the U.S. and Britain to end the American Revolution, established the border between British North America and the U.S. along a line running from Lake Superior along the waterways to Lake of the Woods, across the lake to the northwesternmost point of land, then due west to the Mississippi River.
What the American negotiators, Ben Franklin and John Jay, along with their British counterparts, didn’t realize is that the Mississippi is south of Lake of the Woods and not to the west. By this quirk of misinformation, the Northwest Angle of Minnesota was born to forever jut out into what should have been Canadian territory.
The 1814 Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, attempted to resolve the issue of the border between British North America and the U.S. Article 7 of the treaty asked for the appointment of two commissioners to determine the “intent” of the Treaty of Paris in establishing the border. Unfortunately, the operative word is “intent,” so the original mistake was deemed appropriate and accepted. While the Northwest Angle would remain an anomaly, the 49th Parallel was to be the westward international border.
Both the Montréal-based North West Company (Nor’Westers) and the HBC built posts opposite to each other where the Pembina River meets the Red River. The HBC established Fort Daer on the east bank of the Red, while the Nor’Westers established Pembina Post on the north bank of the Pembina.
Rather than the Red River Settlement, Pembina was the preferred location for a Roman Catholic settlement. “No one is in a hurry to come live at The Forks to die of starvation,” said Bishop Joseph-Norbert Provencher.
Since its foundation in 1812, the colony at Red River had a precarious existence. The settlers had to periodically flee to Pembina to escape Nor’Wester attacks, early frosts killed crops and there was always the threat of floods (the worst flood recorded in the history of the settlement occurred in 1826, and nearly contributed to the demise of Lord Selkirk’s colony at Red River).
Despite being charged by church authorities in Québec to establish his
mission at the Red River Settlement, Bishop Provencher began a mission at Pembina in 1818, which over the next four years began to grow in importance, attracting 500 residents. At the mission, a church, a school and a presbytery were built.
With the death of Lord Selkirk, the destiny of the Red River Settlement was in the hands of John Halkett, Selkirk’s brother-in-law, who toured the colony in 1822.
He observed the lack of progress on the St. Boniface mission, and became concerned that the Pembina mission would gain prominence at the expense of the Red River Settlement. And Halkett had another valid reason to call for the abandonment of Pembina and renewed emphasis being placed on the Red River Settlement.
According to Keating, observations made by HBC astronomers “led them to suspect that” Pembina “was south of the boundary line ...”
When the Long expedition made their own observations to determine the border, Keating wrote, “we are happy to state, that it coincides very well with approximate observations taken by Mr. (Peter) Fidler, who was
employed as surveyor to the Hudson’s Bay Company.”
Since it had been decided that Pembina lay to the south of the 49th Parallel, Halkett’s other fear was that
American fur traders would use the community as a base of operations to the detriment of the HBC’s monopoly. It was a well-founded fear as American fur traders did set up shop in Pembina with the goal of trading for furs trapped on the other side of the border.
Halkett wrote the Bishop of Québec, demanding that the Pembina mission be abandoned. He also left a letter for Provencher that reproached him for promoting Pembina and not completing the St. Boniface mission.
The winter of 1822-23 was the last time that the Roman Catholic missionaries stayed at Pembina. In the spring, they moved north to the Red River Settlement and urged Métis families to
At the same time, Fort Daer was abandoned by the HBC.
In 1823, Keating said the settlement at Pembina had been reduced to 350 residents, residing in 60 log houses or cabins. Most of the remaining residents were Métis, although there was also a smattering of Swiss (former soldiers brought to Red River in 1817 to protect the colony from the Nor’Westers) and Scots originally from the Red River
To further assert American authority in the region, Secretary of War Calhoun sent the party under Long to explore the territory. Writing about the expedition, Keating said that there was a need to “obtain correct information concerning the country which lies on the St. Peter and the Red River to the 49th parallel, as well as to ascertain the nature of the country our, as yet unsurveyed, northern boundary.”
The orders issued to Long, dated April 25, 1823, stated: “The route of the expedition will be as follows — commencing at Philadelphia, thence proceeding to Wheeling in Virginia, thence to Chicago via Fort Wayne, thence to Fort Armstrong on Dubuque’s Lead Mines, thence up the Mississippi to Fort St. Anthony, thence to the source of the St. Peter’s River, thence to the point of intersection between Red River and the forty-ninth degree of north latitude, thence along the northern boundary of the United States to Lake Superior, and thence homeward by the Lakes.”
The members of the expedition were charged to make a general survey and map the country along the route described, as well as “examine and describe its productions, animal, vegetable, and mineral” and “to inquire into the character, customs, &c, of the Indian tribes inhabiting the same.”
Essentially, it was an expedition similar in its goals to the westward trek undertaken in 1804-06 by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, when they were charged by the U.S. government to explore the new territory acquired from France through the Louisiana Purchase.
When investigating the customs of the land, Keating noted that the Métis of Pembina were primarily buffalo hunters. And with the exception of the Scot settlers, little agriculture was practiced in the vicinity of Pembina.
An early industry at Pembina, according to Keating, was the collection of salt from springs on “Big and Little Saline Rivers (today’s North and South forks of Two River in Minnesota) ... where the salt is found in white efflorescences.” The price for salt was $4 to $6 per barrel, with a barrel weighing 80 pounds.
One enterprising resident was said to have earned $500 in one winter selling the salt he collected.
The military-lead scientific expedition included Keating, a mineralogist and geologist, Thomas Say, “the
father of descriptive entomology in America,” and Samuel Seymour, a landscape artist. The war department sent James Edward Colhoun, a topographer and astronomer, to join the expedition in Ohio. Beside Major Long, Corporal McPhail and privates Newman and Levine formed the military contingent, who were augmented by other soldiers once they reached Minnesota Territory.
Perhaps the most significant scientific discovery made by the expedition was Keatings observation that a massive prehistoric lake, formed by meltwater from the retreat of the Laurentide ice sheet, had once filled the area stretching across Manitoba to North Dakota and Minnesota.
Keating’s observations were confirmed 10 years later when Louis Agassiz began his studies of glaciers in the Alps, which established the existence of previous Ice Ages and explained the presence of Keating’s massive lake. The name “Lake Agassiz,” given to Keating’s discovery, was chosen in 1879 by Warren Upham, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Clearly, they were ordered only to follow the U.S.-Canada border, but the expedition did exceed its instructions and headed north to the Red River Settlement and Lake Winnipeg before proceeding east to Lake of the Woods and then Lake Superior.
The change made by the expedition was based on the difficulty of traversing the route ordered by the secretary of war rather than a desire to mount an invasion. They were warned at Pembina that journeying along the border was impractical, since the route was “covered with small lagoons and marshes, which rendered it impenetrable for horses ...
“Several routes were suggested; that by Lake Winnepeek (Winnipeg) appeared the best, and was adopted.”
The route selected had been previously used by the Nor’Westers (then merged into the HBC), and was still occasionally used by HBC men.
Since birch-bark canoes were needed to travel the water route, the expedition sold its horses. They hired several men “accustomed to this kind of navigation” at Pembina. But the canoes were to be purchased and additional men were to be hired at Fort Douglas, where better terms could be obtained.
Major Long took the land route to Red River, while the remainder of the group “availed themselves of Mr. Nolan’s polite offer to take passage in a barge which he was sending down the river with a load of provisions.” Keating described Nolan as the “principal inhabitant” of Pembina.
Long left for Red River on August 9 and arrived the next day. At The Forks, he was received by Donald Mackenzie, the HBC chief factor. After explaining the circumstances of being induced to travel through the HBC’s territory, Mackenzie agreed to assist the expedition.
In addition, Long presented a letter from Stratford Canning, the British envoy in Washington, dated May 1, 1823, to Mackenzie, which explained that the expedition may occasionally be forced to travel through British “ports and settlements along the frontier.” As such, the American government had requested that “the civilities of His Majesty’s officers and subjects in the North-west Territory” be accorded the party. Canning’s letter asked that the American request be followed “with attention and good offices suitable to the friendly relations subsisting between the two countries.”
(Next week: part 2)