I’ve often tried to imagine the first impressions the Selkirk Settlers had 200 years ago of the land they were about to call home. As they approached Hudson Strait, did they marvel at the massive sheets of ice threatening to surround their tiny vessel or rage against the lord who had sent them to their apparent doom? When they reached York Factory along the rocky shore of Hudson Bay did they wonder why they had been abandoned in a God-forsaken land? Did they wonder what further tragedies awaited them after they journeyed inland to their new settlement?
Then again, they had little choice but take a stoic stance, since they were condemned to starve in their homeland due to losing their tenant farms during the clearances, when sheep, not men, women nor children, were considered an economic asset. During the clearances, one sheep displaced 100 tenant farmers on a landlord’s estate.
The most amazing thing of all is that they didn’t give up, despite having to overcome seemingly insurmountable adversities threw continually in their path. It is their perseverance that is their most admirable quality.
In 1811, Lord Selkirk asked Miles Macdonell to take charge of a party of Scottish and Irish workmen who were to prepare the Red River townsite for the arrival of the first settlers in the coming year. Unfortunately, the workers arrived at York factory too late in the year to proceed inland. In fact, they were camped on a barren spit of land some 40 kilometres up the Nelson River. As a result of quarrels during the winter, the need to send troublemakers home and many enlisting in the fur trade, the original party of 120 men bound for Red River had been whittled down to just 35.
When they came to The Forks, the men first camped on the east shore of the Red River, near where St. Boniface Hospital now stands, although the settlement was to be built across the river at today’s Point Douglas. Since they hadn’t arrived until late August, the workmen had little time to prepare the site for the settlers, nor had promised supplies from the Hudson’s Bay Company been stockpiled. If the accommodations had been built and supplies arrived, the settlers may have had a more favourable first impression of their new colony. Instead, they arrived at The Forks on October 27, 1812, and with the shortage of supplies and the onset of winter, they were forced to flee to Pembina on the American side of today’s Manitoba-North Dakota border. It was the first of a succession of occasions that they became refuges in the New World.
A party of settlers left Scotland in 1813 and reached Red River in 1814 and the final group arrived in Red River in 1815 under the command of new settlement governor, Robert Semple. The 1813-14 group endured a winter at Churchill, where they built cabins and did their best to prepare for the “big chill” of a northern winter. In the spring, 20 men and 21 women left the camp at what they named Colony Creek for York Factory, with a piper in their ranks to keep up the spirits of the weary travellers. From York Factory, the men and women left inland on May 23 and arrived at The Forks on June 21, 1814.The rest of the party arrived in August.
During the two years leading up to the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816, the settlers were continually harassed by the Métis employees of the North West Company (Nor’Westers). Homes were burnt and crops and livestock were destroyed, forcing the settlers to flee to either Fort Daer at Pembina or an HBC post at Jack River at the northwest end of Lake Winnipeg. The Métis considered the settlers a threat to the fur trade and their nomadic lifestyle, which was a fear played upon by the Nor’Westers.
“You must assist me in driving away the colony,” wrote Duncan Cameron, who along with Alexander Macdonell was in charge of the Red River district of the North West Company. “If they are not drove away, the consequence will be that they will prevent you from hunting. They will starve your families, and they will put their feet in the neck of those that attempt to resist them. You can easily see how they mean to finish by what they have begun already.”
The beginning mentioned was the ill-advised Pemmican Proclamation by Macdonell, which he used to seize large quantities of the food stuff from the Nor’Westers and their Métis allies.
Cameron was also not adverse to using more subtle arts of persuasion to bring the colony to an end. He wined and dined heads of families at Fort Gibraltar, the Nor’Wester post at The Forks. His actions swayed 133 men. women and children to flee the Red River for Canada. After their departure, 13 families, made up of 60 people, were the last settlers left at Red River, who then had to once again flee to Jack River.
When Colin Robertson took over the de facto leadership of the colony, he found that “young John MacLeod” along with three companions had held off a Nor’Wester attack at Fort Douglas by barricading themselves in the fort’s blacksmith shop and firing a cannon at the attackers. The blacksmith shop, according to Robinson, was the only building remaining in the immediate vicinity. Robertson then captured three leading Nor’Westers and pillaged Fort Gibraltar “for the security of the peoples’ lives.
When Semple and 84 other settlers arrived in 1815, the spirits of the refuges were buoyed and they joined the others in a return to Red River, but the majority were then sent to Pembina for their safety. By June the following year, all the settlers were again at Red River.
In the late afternoon of June 19, 1816, Cuthbert Grant’s Métis party was sighted from the tower at Fort Douglas. Governor Semple (Robertson was gone) gathered together a number of HBC men and a few settlers and marched out to confront Grant and his men. Who fired the first shot is still a matter of historical speculation, but when the battle of Seven Oaks was over, Governor Semple and 20 of his party lay dead on the plain. Once again, the surviving settlers fled to Jack River.
It was only with the arrival of Macdonell and 20 des Meurons and de Wattville soldiers hired by Lord Selkirk that Fort Douglas was recaptured without a shot being fired. The settlers then returned from Jack River. Since they were under the protection of the troops, the settlers no longer had to fear harassment by the Nor’Westers and their Métis allies — they were finally safe to carry on the business of establishing their settlement.
It’s hard to imagine how they survived the harsh conditions, the constant early threat of starvation and attacks by hostile forces. Yet, these settlers did persevere and did establish the colony that eventually became Winnipeg.