by Bruce Cherney (part 3)
What was finally said between Assiniboia Governor Robert Semple and North West Company (NWC) servant François Firmin Boucher, precipitating the Battle of Seven Oaks, depends upon the varied testimony of those present, but the following exchange of words and the resulting actions is reputed to have occurred, according to later court testimony as well as subsequent written accounts.
“Why did you destroy our fort (Fort Gibraltar), you rascal?” asked Boucher.
“You scoundrel, do you dare to tell me so,” Semple replied.
Infuriated, Semple grasped the reins of Boucher’s horse, calling out for his men to arrest the horseman. Semple then apparently put his hand on Boucher’s gun. Michael Heden said Boucher then slipped off his horse and ran back to his companions.
If not for Semple’s rash actions, the disaster that followed may have been averted. But he had not kept his head when approached by Boucher, and what ensued can be directly attributed to his failure to grasp the perilous situation that confronted those under his command. As a result of Semple’s disastrous encounter with Boucher, any opportunity to negotiate with Cuthbert Grant, the leader of the Métis and Nor’Wester party, had been irreparably lost.
A shot rang out and Ener Holte (also spelled Halte) fell, according to Michael Heden, and then arose a general exchange of fire.
Who fired first? It was said Holte had fired off his gun before the melee, although well before the settlers had marched into musket range of the horsemen.
Michel Martin, a French-Canadian (Canadien) Nor’Wester present during the battle, said the settlers fired once and then again and again before there was widespread gunfire from both sides.
Martin claimed he heard a shot from a second musket ring out and then Boucher fell. “I thought he had been killed. At the third gun all the guns fired; after the volley I heard that one of our people was killed. I did not see him then, but afterwards I saw his body. It was Batoche, a Half-breed (the only man among Grant’s party that was killed).”
Another witness said he clearly heard Semple give the command to fire.
Semple was wounded when a bullet shattered his thigh during the first major exchange of gunfire. It was said by some of the witnesses that the shot that wounded Semple had come from Grant’s gun. John Pritchard, the sole survivor of the battle from among the men led by Semple, said Grant later admitted he had fired the shot that wounded the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC)-appointed governor.
Grant came to Semple’s side after the governor was wounded. “Are you Mr. Grant?” asked Semple.
After Grant nodded in the affirmative, Semple said, “I’m badly wounded, but if you convey me to the fort, I think I will live.”
Grant turned toward his horse to carry out the request, but while he was distracted an aboriginal in the Nor”Wester party, said in later testimony to be named Son of the Crow, was alleged to have stepped forward and shot Semple in the breast.
“In a few minutes almost all our people were either killed or wounded,” said Pritchard. “Captain (John) Rogers, having fallen, rose up again and came towards me, when. not seeing one of our party who was not either killed, or disabled, I called out to him, ‘For God’s sake give yourself up.”
Rogers struggled to his feet and raised his hands to signal his surrender. “A half-breed (later testimony related him to be Thomas McKay) shot him through the head, and another cut open his belly with a knife, with the most horrid imprecautions.”
Pritchard was able to surrender with the help of the French-Canadian Boucher Lavigne, and was the last man standing among the settlers at the battle site — a few had fled to the safety of the fort after the firing commenced.
“With the exception of myself, no quarter was given to any of us,” said Pritchard. “The knife, axe, or ball, put a period to the existence of the wounded; and on the bodies of the dead were practised all those horrible barbarities which characterise the inhuman heart of the savage.”
As an Englishman, Pritchard may have seen these as barbaric acts, but they were the customs of no-holds-barred plains combat between traditional and bitter enemies, including the bloody engagements involving the Cree, allied with the Ojibway and the Métis, against the Sioux. The plains and forests of the West, untainted by the niceties of so-called European civilization — which also included warfare involving regimentally-disciplined combatants standing shoulder-to-shoulder in opposing ranks, firing close-range musket volleys at each other that resulted in slaughter on a massive scale — were not places for the faint of heart. The West could be a cruel and harsh place where survival depended entirely upon bending to the rules imposed by the environment on its inhabitants.
And just as in Europe, protecting or coveting economic enterprises often led to deadly conflict. The only real difference was that in the West economic interests at the time revolved around the buffalo hunt and the fur trade.
Some later testimony would attribute all the mutilations to the handful of aboriginals riding with Grant or to three Canadiens employed by the NWC, a father and his two sons. Who was really involved is unlikely to ever be determined. It appears that the accusations depended entirely upon the individual prejudices or biases of those who later related the story.
With the 15-minute battle over, Grant told Pritchard to convey the message that the colonists were to abandon their fort and head to Jack River. The distraught settlers left promising never to return.
But they did return after Miles Macdonell led a small military party, which included Captain D’Orseene (D’Orsonny) and 20 troops hired by Lord Selkirk, to Red River. On January 10, 1817, he recaptured Fort Douglas without a shot being fired. Macdonell sent word to the settlers taking refuge at Jack River that Lord Selkirk and 140 troops and four officers from the retired de Wattville and de Meurons regiments were on their way west to ensure the safety of the settlers.
In June 1817, Lord Selkirk reached the colony, granting land to 24 who made improvements on their farms prior to the Battle of Seven Oaks and suffered the greatest during the “private” war with the Nor’Westers, while other settlers received land at five shillings an acre, the cost of which was to be paid in crops to the HBC.
The presence of the de Wattville and de Meurons (the latter were the majority of those hired) veterans, who received their own land grant at Red River as part of their payment for protecting the settlers, was sufficient to discourage further attacks on the settlement by the Nor’Westers.
Lord Selkirk also had the good sense to sign a treaty with the aboriginal people residing in the immediate area of the Red River Settlement, which was an acknowledgement of their presence and by extension “ownership” of the land. The treaty signed personally by Lord Selkirk and chiefs of the Ojibway (Peguis), Assiniboine and Cree, provided for an annual “quit rent” payment in return for the land along the Red and Assiniboine rivers to a “breadth of two English miles back from the banks of said rivers.”
Addressing Selkirk, Chief Peguis said: “When the English first came here we received them in joy.” He told Selkirk the Métis had been misled by the Nor’Westers, who ”employed them to shed the blood of your children and to drive away the settlers from the river.”
The Ojibway chief emphasized: “We do not acknowledge these men (Métis) as an independent tribe. They have sprung up here and there like mushrooms and we know them not.”
Peguis said the Nor’Westers had tried to gain the confidence of his people, and when this wasn’t achieved, they attempted to slander aboriginals in the region, “but we refused to acknowledge the speeches which they tried to put into our mouths.” The Nor’Westers spread the rumour that it was Peguis' people who “drove away and murdered the children of our Great Father, but it was a falsehood.”
L’Homme Noir (Black Man), a chief of the Assiniboine, gave Selkirk the same message about the Nor’Westers.
The treaty guaranteed the continued friendship between the various native groups and the settlers, which further assured their protection against incursions by the Nor’Westers.
Both the NWC and the HBC laid numerous charges against their opponents in the aftermath of the Battle of Seven Oaks, although the Nor’Westers and Métis who killed Governor Semple and 20 HBC servants and settlers, and stood trial for their actions in Eastern Canada, were acquitted by juries.
Grant was acquitted in Montréal for his role in the Battle of Seven Oaks, but was indicted in Toronto for the murder of Semple. He jumped bail and when his co-accused were acquitted (Paul Brown and Michel Martin), the case against Grant was conveniently forgotten. In fact, Grant was later employed by the HBC, which gave him the title “Warden of the Plains” and an annual salary of £200, as well as a large land grant at White Horse Plains where he established the settlement Grantown, now St. François-Xavier.
Lord Selkirk was arrested for seizing Fort William from the NWC while on the way with his newly-hired troops to relieve Red River. He was tried in a Montréal court in 1818, found guilty and paid a £500 fine.
Meanwhile, a Royal Proclamation was issued by the Prince Regent, later George IV, in Québec, ordering all persons in the northwest to desist from hostile actions, and that all officers and men formerly in His Majesty’s service, including the de Meurons and de Wattville veterans of the War of 1812, were to leave the service of the HBC and the NWC. It was further ordered that all companies were free to trade in the northwest.
William Williams, who succeeded Semple as governor of Assiniboia, denounced the proclamation as “all damned nonsense,” and promised to drive all Nor’Westers “out of the country or die in the attempt.”
Both the HBC and NWC ignored the Royal Proclamation and continued their battle for control of the fur trade in the northwest, although the conflict then moved from Red River to the Athabaska District.
It was only when the two companies were merged on March 26, 1821, under the banner of the HBC, which was later sanctioned by the British Parliament, that the Red River Settlement could finally believe “true” peace existed. The merger itself was made possible with the death of Lord Selkirk in 1820, whose health had been adversely affected by the strain of coming to the aid of the settlers and his legal difficulties in Canada. For the Nor’Westers, their animosity toward Selkirk, heightened by his seizure of Fort William, had been the chief obstacle preventing them from coming to an agreement with the HBC.
Canadians William Bachelor Coltman and Major John Fletcher were charged by the Imperial government to investigate the troubles in Assiniboia. They were also to mediate between the NWC and HBC “to remove, as far as possible, all causes of dissension between them.” Their dispatch from the British colonial secretary, Lord Bathurst, also empowered them to arrest Selkirk, which was accomplished, resulting in his trial in Montréal.
To reinforce their authority, they were given commissions of lieutenant-colonel and major, respectively, in the Indian Department. The choice of Coltman, who had legal training and a reputation for honesty and common sense, pleased both sides (Canadian Encyclopedia).
Fletcher and Coltman both went to Fort William in 1817, but only Coltman actually travelled to Red River in order to interview witnesses.
In 1818, Coltman released a 100-page handwritten report which spread the blame for the conflict among both groups, which was a conclusion that satisfied neither the HBC or the Nor’Westers. In fact, his conciliatory report did little to stem the violence to the west of Red River.
Coltman concluded that the first shot during the Battle of Seven Oaks was fired by the Selkirk Settlers (also later admitted by Heden), and that their high rate of death was a result of standing packed together as well as being unfamiliar with frontier warfare and the use of firearms.
Later accounts of the battle assigned it greater significance than it arguably warranted. When a ceremony was held at the monument commemorating the battle, the Saturday Free Press on June 24, 1922, claimed: “It marked a turning point in the history of Canada, in relation to the development of the western prairies, and the expansion of British influence from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans. The Battle of Seven Oaks, if not by its proportions, at least by its circumstances awakened the British and Canadian governments alike to the conditions in the new outpost of the empire and led to action which eventually brought Assiniboia under government administration and, finally, in 1870, after another affray, into the new confederation, the Dominion of Canada.”
Indeed, the British and Canadian governments took notice, but this wasn’t so much a turning point as the great disgust felt about the lawlessness that existed in Rupert’s Land, due to the absence of a governing body able to enforce a “Pax Britannia.”
When the two fur trading companies merged, the British government made a point of only allowing the HBC’s a “Royal Licence” for 21 years, as opposed to the charter given into perpetuity by Charles II in 1670. In effect, the government told the HBC, “Behave, keep the peace, or your licence won’t be renewed in 1842.”
An outcome of the merger was the creation of an HBC-appointed governing body, the Council of Assiniboia, to oversee the every day affairs of the region, including Red River, as well as a legal system to stamp out lawlessness and enforce the Company’s trade monopoly. The monopoly effectively ended when an HBC-appointed judge was intimidated by an unruly mob to the point that he wisely released Pierre-Guillaume Sayer, who was accused of infringing upon the HBC’s licence. Red River then echoed with the cry, “Le commerce est libre!”(“It’s free trade!”)
The Morning Telegram on December 15, 1906, compared the Battle of Seven Oaks to other turning points in history such as the Battle of Culloden, the French Revolution, the 1837-38 rebellion in Canada, and the American Civil War.
While these claims are hard to justify, the newspaper was correct in stating that the battle “was the climax of a war of trade and vindictive rivalry that extended from Lake Superior to the Pacific coast and as far north as the Arctic circle, between two great fur trading companies ...”
More speculative is the claim by the newspaper: “If it were not for the culmination of the hostile rivalry of the fur-trading companies, it is reasonable to believe that the Selkirk settlement in the parish of Kildonan, the mother settlement in western Canada, would have ceased to exist, the settlers scattered and agriculture delayed for an indefinite number of years.”
But as earlier argued, the existence of the settlement had been assured by 1817, while the merger only reinforced this state of affairs.
A major reason for the “culmination” of the conflict, through a merger between the two companies, was the economic losses sustained by the HBC and NWC. While the HBC had deeper pockets as a result of having better access to credit in London, the financial position of the Nor’Westers , whose shareholders were based in Eastern Canada, was nearing the breaking point. In the end, both companies also became weary of the great strain imposed by the conflict upon their respective employees.
Essentially, the “private” war (a term used by Coltman) created plenty of unhappy shareholders in both companies, who wanted the conflict resolved so that they could again get down to the business of making money.
It can be argued that if Semple had been more patient and had waited for the arrival of Selkirk and his private army — or at least Macdonell with his 20 professional soldiers — while safely ensconced behind the protective walls of Fort Douglas (the advice of Colin Robertson not followed), and reinforced by the 70 warriors offered by Chief Peguis (refused by Semple), the tragedy of the Battle of Seven Oaks might have been averted.
But, it is also possible that Grant, after receiving his own Nor’Wester reinforcements, could have laid siege to the fort and secured its capture. Yet, the feisty McLeod, with just three men, held off a strong attacking force in 1815 using a single cannon which was fired from the far-from-formidable walls of a blacksmith shop.
By the time the Métis under Grant appeared at Frog Plain on June 19, 1816, Fort Douglas’ walls had been reinforced and Semple had two artillery pieces to train on any would-be attackers. A sketch attributed to Lord Selkirk and dated 1817 shows Fort Douglas’ walls, although made of wooden logs, as presenting to anyone contemplating a siege, a strong frontier bastion that would be extremely difficult to overcome without the aid of artillery pieces. But in 1816, the HBC possessed the only two cannon in the area and they were protecting Fort Douglas.
What was specifically mentioned by all subsequent witnesses to the battle was that Semple had acted too recklessly by abandoning the protection of the fort. Leading his party outside its walls, in effect, challenged the Nor’Westers and Métis to mortal combat and they were quite willing to oblige.