Where the Churchill River spills into Hudson Bay, a special ceremony was held marking the 200th anniversary of the abandonment of the third party of Selkirk Settlers to face the elements of a cruel Arctic winter. Mark Ingebrigtson, Rob Bruce-Brown and piper Joshua Krozhan, along with a small contingent of Parks Canada and Manitoba Hydro staff, last week re-enacted the trek begun on August 19, 1813, from the shore of Hudson Bay to the inland marsh where the abandoned settlers were forced to spend the winter of 1813-14.
The hardships the third party endured have become the stuff of folklore. For those familiar with the history of the settlers who reached the Red River Colony founded by Lord Selkirk, it’s a tale of triumph in the face of extreme adversity. But what the third party overcame at Hudson Bay is just part of their story of hardship, which actually begins in their homeland of Scotland, County of Sutherland, Strath of Kildonan. It was at this time that those who would make up the third party made the life-changing decision to leave for the New World. It was a change forced upon them rather than of their own choosing — the result of the highland clearances then underway to replace people with sheep. By the end of the 18th century, wool prices had soared and the landowners who rented land to tenant farmers wanted to make way for money-making livestock rather than continue to house money-losing farmers.
Two such landowners were Elizabeth Sutherland, the Countess of Sutherland, and her husband, George Leveson-Gower, who upon their marriage became the Duke of Sutherland. After a visit to her holiday residence at Dunrobin Castle, they decided upon a plan to evict the tenants eking out a meager existence on their land. In January 1813, the Kildonan tenants offered a list of proposals to resist the evictions, including an agreement to a rent increase in order to remain on the land they tilled. Two riots broke out, but the tenants’ were unsuccessful in swaying the countess to their cause. An appeal to the British Parliament also failed.
The first evictions in Kildonan occurred on May 15, 1813, the day when the tenants’ leases expired. It was at this time that Thomas Douglas, Lord Selkirk, offered those evicted passage to the New World and an opportunity to begin a new life along the banks of Red River in what would later become the province of Manitoba. At total of 500 signed up with Lord Selkirk, but this was whittled down to family groups of about 100 people able to fill the hold of the Hudson’s Bay Company ship, Prince of Wales, at Stromness in the Orkney Islands. The settlers left for York Factory on June 28, 1913.
George Bryce wrote in his book, The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk’s Colonists (1909), that the settlers were led by “a very capable man — Archibald Macdonald,” who was a protege of Lord Selkirk. Actually, the settlers were first led by Dr. Peter Laserre, who died during the passage, necessitating the change in leadership.
The passage to York Factory was marred by the death of several would-be colonists of “ship fever” — typhus.
“They had escaped from beggary on shore only to perish at sea and to be consigned to a watery grave” (The Red River Colony: A Chronicle of the Beginnings of Manitoba, by Louis Aubrey Wood, 1915).
“The outbreak “filled the ship’s crew with alarm,”wrote Bryce. “The Captain (Turner), alarmed, refused to go to his destination, but ran the ship into Fort Churchill and there disembarked them.” Fort Churchill was 160 kilometres north of York factory, their intended destination. William Auld, the “inland trader” at York Factory, heard of Turner’s inhumane treatment of the settlers, and set for Fort Churchill in an open boat. Upon reaching the fort before the captain’s departure, he ordered Turner to re-embark the settlers and their belongings, which was done at a leisurely pace. When loaded and supposedly heading for deep water, Turner allowed the ship to run aground, which meant the ship had to be unloaded to be refloated. With this delay, Turner argued that he could not reach London before the onset of winter if he took the settlers to York Factory. Auld had no other choice but to agree and the settlers were once again marooned.
Once abandoned, the settlers had no choice but to wait out the winter along the Churchill River, but even the local HBC officials feared their presence and prevented them from entering the Company’s fort to have a better chance at battling the ravages of a northern winter. Shortly after their arrival, the settlers journeyed several kilometres inland to what is today known as Harriet Creek (originally named Colony Creek in their honour), where they built make-shift cabins and scoured the land for food.
“Fortunately partridge (ptarmigan) were numerous in the neighbourhood of their encampment, and. as the uneventful months dragged by, the settlers had an unstinted supply of food” (Wood).
Six more deaths occurred while they waited out the winter.
“In the spring their was no resource but to trudge over the rocky ledges and forbidding desolation of more than 100 miles between the Fort Churchill and York Factory,” wrote Bryce. “On the 6th of April, 1814, a party of twenty-one males and twenty females started on this celebrated tramp (over the still snow-covered rough terrain). At first the party began to march in single file, but finding this inconvenient changed to six abreast. Unaccustomed to snowshoes and sleds the Colonists found the snowy walk very distressing. Three fell by the way and were carried on by the stronger men.”
The strangest aspect of this arduous trek was the presence of a kilted bagpiper to keep up flagging spirits. “Up through the scrubby pine and over the mantle of snow rang the skirl of the undefeated,” wrote Wood, “and as they heard the gathering song of Bonnie Dundee ..., they pressed forward with unfaltering steps.”
Undaunted by the still bitterly cold weather and snow, the advance party reached York Factory on April 13. After a month at York Factory, they departed for the Red River, reaching The Forks on June 21. Those who were left behind also made their way to the settlement in August.
By all accounts, the settlers from Kildonan were a hardy bunch well-versed in husbandry. They planted potatoes upon their arrival and eventually harvested a plentiful crop.
According to Wood, “The thrifty Sutherlanders might have saved the tottering colony,” had not Governor Miles Macdonnell issued his ill-advised Pemmican Proclamation, initiating a war with the Nor’Westers (the Battle of Seven Oaks was the most disastrous) that almost proved fatal to the settlement.
Many of the third party would eventually leave the fledgling colony, but others, with names such as Gunn, Matheson, Sutherland and McKay, persevered and helped found the city of Winnipeg.