Agnes Christina Laut.

The conquest of the great Northwest: being the story of the ..., Volumes 1-2 online

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exclusive rights to trade, exclusive rights to property,
power to levy war? That was what the charter set

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forth. Did the Company' possess the rights set
forth by the charter? Yes or no — did they?^^

The highest legal authorities answered unequivo-
cally — Yes: the Company possessed the rights.

It was perfectly natural that legal minds trained
in a country, where feudalism is revered next to God,
should pronounce the chartered rights of the Hudson's
Bay Company valid.

One fact was ignored — the rights given by the
charter applied only to regions not possessed by any
other Christian subject. Before the Hudson's Bay
Company had ascended the Saskatchewan, French
traders had gone west as far as the Rockies, south
as far as the Missouri, and when French power fell,
the Nor'Westers as successors to the French had
pushed across the Rockies to the Pacific, north as
far as the Arctic, south as far as the Snake.

It was perfectly natural that the Nor'Westers
should regard the rights of first possession as stronger
than any English charter.

Which was right, Nor'Wester, or Hudson's Bay?
Little gain to answer that burning question at this
late day! From their own view, each was right;
and to-day looking back, every person's verdict will
be given just and in exact proportion as feudalism or
democracy is regarded as the highest tribunal.

All unconscious of the part he was acting in des-

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The Conquest of the Great Northwest

tiny, thinking only of the fearful needs of Earth's
Dispossessed, dreaming only of his beloved colony,
Lord Selkirk was pushing feudalism to its supreme
test in the New World. Of the nobility, Selkirk
was a part of feudalism. He believed the powers
conferred by the charter were right in the highest
sense of the word, valid in the eyes of the law; and
no premonition warned that he was to fall a noble
sacrifice to his own beliefs. Where would the
world's progress be if the onward movements of
the race could be stopped by a victim more or less?
Selkirk saw only People Dispossessed in Scotland,
Lands Unpeopled in America! The difficulties that
lay between, that were to baffle and beat and send
him heartbroken to an early grave — Selkirk did not

The rights of the Company had been pronounced
valid. On February 6, 1811, Lord Selkirk laid his
scheme before the Governing Committee. The
plan was of such a revolutionary nature, the Com-
mittee begs to lay the matter before a General Court
of all shareholders. After various adjourned meet-
ings the General Court meets on May 30, 181 1. A
pin fall could have been heard in the Board Room
as the shareholders mustered. Governor William
Mainwaring is in the chair. My Lord Selkirk is

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present. So are all his friends. So are six Nor*-
Westers black with anger, among them Sir Alex-
ander MacKenzie, and Edward Ellice, son of the
Montreal merchant. Their anger grows deeper
when they leam that two of the six Nor'Westers
cannot vote because the ink is not yet dry with which
they purchased their Hudson's Bay stock; for share-
holders must have held stock six months before they
may vote.

In brief, Lord Selkirk's scheme is that the Com-
pany grant him a region for colonizing on Red River,
in area now known to have been larger than the
British Isles, and to have extended south of modem
Manitoba to include half Minnesota. In return.
Lord Selkirk binds himself to supply the Hudson's
Bay Company with two hundred servants a year for
ten years — whether over and above that colony or
out of that colony is not stated. Their wages are
to be paid by the Company. Selkirk guarantees
that the colony shall not interfere with the Hudson's
Bay fur trade. Other details are given — how the
colonists are to reach their country, how much' they
are to be charged for passage, how much for duty.
The main point is my Lord Selkirk owning ;£4o,ooo
out of ;,£io5,ooo capital and controlling another
;,£2o,ooo through his friends — ^asks for an enormous
grant of land larger than the modem province of

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Manitoba — ^the very region that Colin Robertson
had described to him as a seat of empire — ^the stamp-
ing ground of the great fur traders.

Promptly, the Nor'Westers present rise and lay
on the table a protest against the grant. The pro-
test sets forth that Lord Selkirk is giving no ade-
quate returns for such an enormous gift — which
was very true and might have been added of the
entire territory granted the Hudson's Bay Company
by Charles II. If it was to the interests of the Hud-
son's Bay Company to sell such valuable territory,
it should have been done by public sale. Then
there are no penalties attached to compel Selkirk
to form a settlement. Also, the grant gives to the
Earl of Selkirk without any adequate return "an
immensely valuable landed estate." And, "in event
of settlement, colonization is at all times unfavor-
able to the fur trade." Other reasons the memori-
alists give, but the main one is the reason they do
not give— that if Selkirk owns the central region of
the fur country, he may exclude the Nor'Westers.

The protest is tabled and ignored. Sir Alexander
MacKenzie is so angry he cannot speak. This does
not mean the grand monopoly of the fur trade which
he had planned. It means the smashing of the fur
trade forever. EUice, son of the Montreal poten-
tate, sees the wealth of that city crumbling to ruins

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for the sake of a blind enthusiast's philanthropic
scheme.

Some one asks what the Hudson's Bay Company
is to receive for their gift in perpetuity to the Earl.

Two hundred servants a year for ten years!

But — interjects a Nor'Wester — Selkirk doesn't pay
those servants. That comes out of the Company.

To that, the Company, l^eing Selkirk himself, has
no answer.

What will Selkirk, himself, make out of this grant?
Then Alexander MacKenzie tells of agents going the
rounds of Scotland to gather subscribers at £100
a piece to a joint stock land company of 200 shares.
This land company is to send people out to Red
River, either as servants to the Hudson's Bay Com-
pany, which is to pay them ;,£20 a year in addition to
a free grant of one himdred acres, or as bona fide
settlers Who purchase the land outright at a few
pence an acre. The servants will be sent out on
free passage. The settlers must pay £10 ship money.
It needed no prophet to foretell fortune to the share-
holders of the land company by the time settlers
enough had come out to increase the value of the
grant. This and more, the six Nor'Westers argue
at the General Court of the Hudson's Bay Com-
pany in the hot debate over Selkirk's scheme. To
the Nor'Westers, Selkirk, the dreamer, with his

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The Concpiest of the Great Northwest

head in the clouds and his vision set on help to the
needy and his feet treading roughshod over the
privileges of fur traders — to the Nor'Westers this
Selkirk is nothing but a land speculator, a stock
jobber, gambling for winnings.

But the chairman, Governor Mainwaring, calls
the debaters to order. The Selkirk scheme is put to
the vote. To a man the Hudson's Bay Company
shareholders declare for it. To a man there vote
against it all those Nor'Westers who have bought
Hudson's Bay stock, except the two whose purchase
was made but a week before: ;,£29,937 of stock for
Selkirk, ;i£i4,823 against him. By a scratch of the
pen he has received an empire larger than the
British Isles. Selkirk believed that he was lord of
this soil as truly as he was proprietor of his Scottish
estates, where men were arrested as poachers when
they hunted.

" The North-West Company must be compelled to
quit my lands y^^ he wrote on March 31, 1816, *^ espe-
cially my post at the forks. As it will be necessary
to use force, I am anocious this should be. done under
legal warrant.^' \

" You must give them (the Northwest Company)
solemn waming,^^ he writes his agent, ^^that the
land belongs to the Hudson^ s Bay Company. After
this warning, they should not be allowed to cut any

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timber either for building or fuel. What they have
cut should be openly and forcibly seized and their
buildings destroyed. They should be treated as
poachers. We are so fully advised of the unimpeach-
able validity of these rights of property^ there can be
no scruple in enforcing them when you have the
physical means.^^

It was the tragic mistake of a magnificent life
that Selkirk attempted to graft the feudalism of an
old order on the growing democracy of a New World.
That his conduct was inspired by the loftiest motives
only renders the mistake doubly tragic. Odd trick of
destiny! The man who sought to build up a feudal
system in the Northwest, was the man who forever
destroyed the foundations of feudalism in America.

Let us follow his colonists. Long before the vote
had granted Selkirk an empire, Scotland was being
scoured for settlers and servants by Colin Robertson.
The new colony must have a forceful, aggressive
leader on the field. For Governor, Selkirk chose a
forest ranger of the Ottawa, who had been an officer
in the Revolutionary War of America — Captain Miles
MacDonell of the riotous clan, that had waged such
murderous warfare for the Nor'Westers in Albany
Department. This was fighting fire with fire, with
a vengeance — a MacDonell against a MacDonell.

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The Conquest of the Great Northwest

It was the end of June, in 1811, before the Hud-
son's Bay ships sheered out from the Thames on
their annual voyage. Of the three vessels — The
Prince 0} Wales, The Edward and Anne, The Eddy-
stone — destined to convey the colonists to the Great
Northwest — The Eddystone was the ship which the
Nor'Westers had formerly sent to the bay. Furious
gales drove the ships into Yarmouth for shelter, and
while he waited, Miles MacDonell spent the time
buying up field pieces and brass cannon for the
colony. "/ have learned" he writes to Selkirk,
"//krf Sir Aleocander MacKenzie has pledged himself
so opposed to this project that he will try every means
in his power to thwart it." He might have added
that Simon McGillivray, the Nor'Wester, was busy
in London in the same sinister conspiracy. Writes
McGillivray to his Montreal partners from London
on June i, 1811, that he and EUice ^^will leave no
means untried to thwart Selkirk* s schemes, and being
stockholders of the Hudson^ s Bay Company we can
annoy him and learn his measures in time to guard
against them"

Soon enough MacDonell learned what form the
sinister plot was to take. Colonists enlisted were
waiting at Stornoway in the Hebrides. In all were
one hundred and twenty-five people, seventy settlers,
fifty-nine clerks and laborers, made up of High-

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landers, Orkneymen, Irish farmers and some Glasgow
men. MacDonell was a Catholic. So were many
of the Highlanders; and Father Bourke, the Irish
priest, comes as chaplain.

The first sign of the Nor'Westers* unseen hand
was the circulation of a malicious pamphlet called
"The Highlander" among the gathered colonists,
describing the country as a Polar region infested
with hostile Indians. To counteract the spreading
panic, MacDonell ordered all the servants paid in
advance. Then, while baggage was being put
aboard, the men were allured on shore to spend their
wages on a night's spree. MacDonell called on the
captain of a man-of-war acting as convoy to seize the
servants bodily, but five had escaped.

Next came the customs officer, a relative of Sir
Alexander MacKenzie's, called Reid, a dissipated
old man, creating bedlam and endless delay exam-
ining the colonists' baggage. MacDonell saw clearly
that if he was to have any colonists left he must put
to sea that very night; but out rows another sham
officer of the law, a Captain MacKenzie, to bawl
out the Emigration Act from his boat alongside
"to know if every man was going of his own free
will." Exasperated beyond patience, some of the
colonists answered by heaving a nine-pound cannon
ball into the captain's rowboat. It knocked a hole

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The Corupiest of the Great Northwest

through the bottom, and compelled MacKenzie to
swim ashore. Back came another rowboat with
challenge to a duel for this insult; but the baggage
was all on board. By the grace of Heaven, a wind
sprang up. At ii P. M. on the 25th of July, the
three Hudson's Bay ships spread their sails to the
wind and left in such haste they forgot their convoy,
forgot two passengers on land whom Robertson
rowed out like mad and put on board, forgot to fire
farewell salutes to the harbor master; in fact, sailed
with such speed that one colonist, who had lost his
courage and wanted to desert, had to spring over-
board and swim ashore. Such was the departure
of the first colonists for the Great Northwest.

The passage was the longest ever experienced by
the Company's ships. Sixty-one days it took for
these Pilgrims of the Plains to cross the ocean.
Storm succeeded storm. The old fur freighters
wallowed in the waves like water-logged tubs, strain-
ing to the pounding seas as if the timbers would part,
sails flapping to the wind tattered and rotten as the
ensigns of pirates. MacDonell was furious that the
colonists should have been risked on such old hulks,
and recommended the dismissal of all three captains
— Hanwell, Ramsey and Turner; but these mariners
of the North probably knew their business when
they lowered sails and lay rolling to the sea. In vain

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MacDonell tried to break the monotony of the long
voyage, by auctioning the baggage of the deserters,
by games and martial drill. One Walker stood for-
ward and told him to his face that *'they had not
come to fight as soldiers for the Hudson's Bay Com-
pany: they had come as free settlers"; besides, he
spread the' report that the country did not belong
to the Hudson's Bay anyway; the country had been
found by the French and belonged to the Nor'-
Westers. MacDonell probably guessed the rest —
the fellow had been primed.

On September the 6th, the ships entered the
straits. There was not much ice, but it was high,
"like icebergs," MacDonell reported. On Septem-
ber 24th, after a calm passage across the bay, the
colonists anchored off York and landed on the point
between Hayes and Nelson Rivers. Snow was fall-
ing. The thermometer registered eight degrees
below z6ro. No preparations had been made to
house the people at the fort. It was impossible to
proceed inland, and in the ships' cargoes were pro-
visions for less than three months. Having spent
two months on the sea, the colonists were still a year
away from their Promised Land.

Nelson and Hayes Rivers — ^it will be remembered
— ^flow into Hudson Bay with a long, low point of
wooded marsh between. York was on Hayes River

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The Conquest of the Great Northwest

to the south. It was thought better hunting would
be found away from the fort on Nelson River to the
north. Hither MacDonell sent his colonists on
October 7th, crossing the frozen marsh himself two
days later, when he was overtaken by a blinding
blizzard and wandered for three hours. On the
north side of the river, just opposite that island,
where Ben Gillam and Radisson had played their
game of bravado, were camped the colonists in tents
of leather and sheeting. The high cliff of the river
bank sheltered them from the bitter north wind.
Housed under thin canvas with biting frost and a
howling storm that tore at the tent flaps Uke a thing
of prey, the puny fire in mid-tent sending out poor
warmth against such cold — this was a poor home-
coming for people dreaming of a Promised Land;
but the ships had left for England. There was no
turning back. The door that had opened to new
opportunity had closed against retreat. Cold or
storm, hungry or houseless, type of Pioneers the
world over, the colonists must face the future and
goon.

By the end of October, MacDonell had his people
housed in log cabins under shelter of the river cliff.
Moss and clay thatched the roofs. Rough hewn
timbers floored the cabins and berths like a ship's
were placed in tiers around the four walls. Bedding

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consisted of buflFalo skins and a gray blanket. Indian
hunters sold MacDonell meat enough to supply the
colonists for the winter; and in spring the people
witnessed that wonderful traverse of the caribou —
three thousand in a herd — moving eastward for the
summer. Meat diet and the depression of home-
sickness brought the scourge of all winter camps —
scurvy; but MacDonell plied the homely remedy
of spruce beer and lost not a man from the disease.
Winter was passed deer hunting to lay up stock
of provisions for the inland journey. All would
have gone well had it not been for the traitors in
camp, with minds poisoned by Northwest Company
spies. On Christmas day, MacDonell gave his men a
feast and on New Year's day the chief factor of
York, Mr. Cook, sent across the usual treat. Irish
rowdies celebrated the night by trying to break the
heads of the Glasgow clerks. Then the discontent
instilled by Nor'West agents began to work. If this
country did not belong to the Hudson's Bay, why
should these men obey MacDonell? On February
1 2th, one put the matter to the test by flatly refusing
to work. MacDonell ordered the fellow confined in
a hut. Fourteen of the Glasgow clerks broke into
the hut, released the rebel, set fire to the cabin and
spent the night in a riotous dance round the blaze.
When MacDonell haled the offenders before Mr.

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» II ■ -

Hillier, a justice of the peace, they contemptuously
walked out of the extemporized court. The Gov-
ernor called on Mr. Auld of Churchill for advice,
and learned from him that by a recent parliamentary
act known as 43rd Geo. Ill, all legal disputes of the
Indian country could be tried only in Canada. "//
that is 5(?," writes the distracted MacDonell, seeing
at a glance all the train of ills that were to come
when Hudson's Bay matters were to be tried in Ca-
nadian courts made up of Northwest partners, ^^then
adieu to all redress for usj my lord.^^

But Auld and Cook, the two factors, knew a trick
to bring mutineers to time. They cut ofif all sup-
plies. The men might as well have been marooned
on a desert island. By the time boats were ready to
be launched in June, the rebels were on their knees
with contrition. Wisely, MacDonell did not take
such unruly spirits along as colonists. He left them
at the forts as clerks.

Spring came at last, tardy and cold with bluster-
ing winds that jammed the ice at the river mouths
and flooded the flats with seas of floating floes. Day
after day, week after week, all the month of May,
until the 21st of June, the ice float swept past end-
lessly on the swollen flood. MacDonell ordered the
cabins evacuated and baggage taken to Hayes River
round the submerged marsh. At York, four large

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boats — twenty-eight feet long and flat-bottomed
— were in readiness to convey the people. While
the colonists camped, there came sweeping down the
Hayes on June the 29th, in light birch canoes, the
spring fur brigade of Saskatchewan, led by Bird and
Howse. All rivers were reported free of ice. Mac-
Donell marshaled his colonists to return with the
brigade.

Father Burke, who was to drum up more colonists
at home, the chief factors Auld and Cook, and the
Company men w^^tched the launching of the boats
the first week of July. Baggage stored, all hands
aboard, all craft afloat — the head steersman gives
the signal by dipping his pole. The priest waves a
God-speed. The colonists signal back their farewell
— farewell to the despair of the long winter, farewell
to the lonely bay, farewell to the desolate little fort
on the verge of this forsaken world! Come what
may, they are forward bound, to the New Life in
their Promised Land.

If we could all of us see the places along the trail
to a Promised Land, few would set out on the quest.
The trail that the colonists followed was the path
inland that Kelsey had traversed with the Indians a
century before, and Hendry gone up in 1754, and
Cocking in 1772, up Hayes River to Lake Winnipeg.
While the fur brigade made the portages easily with

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their light cariRes, the colonists were hampered by
their heavy boats, which had to be rolled along
logs where they could not be tracked up rapids. In-
stead of three weeks to go from York to Lake
Winnipeg, it took two months. The end of August,
1812, saw their boats heading up Red River for the
Forks, now known as Winnipeg. Instead of rocks
and endless cataracts and swamp woods, there opened
to view the rolling prairie, russet and mellow in the
August sunlight with the leather tepee of wandering
Cree dotting the river banks, and where the Assini-
boine flowed in from the west — the palisades of the
Nor'Westers' fort. MacDonell did not ascend as
high as the rival fort. He landed his colonists at
that bend in Red River, two miles north of the
Assiniboine, where he built his cabins, afterward
named Douglas in honor of Selkirk. Painted In-
dians rode across the prairie to gaze at the spectacle
of these "land workers" come not to hunt but to till
the soil. No hostility was evinced by the Nor'-
Westers, for word of the Northwest Company's policy
had not yet come from London to the annual meet-
ing of winterers at Fort William. The Highlanders
were delighted to find Scotchmen at Fort Gibraltar
who spoke Gaelic like themselves, and the Nor'-
Westers willingly sold provisions to help the settlers.
In accordance with Selkirk's instructions, Mac-

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Donell laid out farm plots of ten acres near the fort,
and farm plots of one hundred acres farther down
the river at what is now known in memory of the
settlers' Scottish home as Kildonan. The farm lots
were small so that the colonists could be together
in case of danger. The houses of this community
were known as the Colony Buildings in distinction
from the fort. It was too late to do any farming, so
the people spent the winter of 1813 buflfalo hunting
westward of Pembina.

Meanwhile, Selkirk and Robertson had not been
idle. The summer that Miles MacDonell had led
his colonists to Red River, twenty more families had
arrived on the bay. They had been brought by Sel-
kirk's Irish agent, Owen Keveny. The same plot-
ting and counter-plotting of an enemy with unseen
motives marked their passage out as had harassed
MacDonell. Barely were the ships at sea when
mutineers set the passengers all agog planning to
murder officers, seize the ships and cruise the world
as pirates; but the colonists betrayed the treachery
to the captain. Armed men were placed at the
hatches, and the swivel guns wheeled to sweep the
decks from stem to stem. The conspirator that
first thrust his head above decks received a swashing
blow that cut his arm clean from his shoulder, and
the plot dissolved in sheer fright. Keveny now

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The Conquest of the Great Northwest

ruled with iron hand. Offenders were compelled
to run the gauntlet between men lined up on each
side armed with stout sticks; and the trickery — if
trickery it were by Nor'West spies — to demoralize
the colonists ceased for that passage.

Father Burke, waiting to return by these ships,
welcomed the colonists ashore at York, and before
he sailed for Ireland performed the first formal mar-
riage ceremony in the Northwest. The Catholic
priest married two Scotch Presbyterians — ^an inci-
dent typical to all time of that strange New World
power, which forever breaks down Old World bar-
riers. The colonists were so few this year, that the
majority could be housed in the fort. Some eight
or ten risked winter travel and set out for Red River,
which they reached in October; but the trip inland so
late was perilous. Three men had camped to fish with



Online LibraryAgnes Christina LautThe conquest of the great Northwest: being the story of the ..., Volumes 1-2 → online text (page 34 of 50)