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Colin Robertson, The Avenger

Three years of self-sacrificing effort seemed to have been wasted. The colony of Assiniboia was no more; its site was free to wandering redskins and greedy traders. Yet, at the very time when the colonists were being dispersed, succor was not far off. Lord Selkirk had received alarming news some time before, and at his solicitation Colin Robertson had hired a band of voyageurs, and was speeding forward with them to defend the settlement. Since 1811, when we saw him recruiting settlers for Lord Selkirk in Scotland, Colin Robertson had been in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company. Having been a servant of the Nor'westers he knew the value of Canadian canoe men in the fur trade, and, on his advice, the Hudson's Bay Company now imitated its rival by employing voyageurs. In temperament Colin was dour but audacious, a common type among the men of the Outer Hebrides, and he had a grievance to avenge. He was sprung from the Robertson clan, which did not easily forget or forgive. He still remembered his quarrel with Crooked-armed Macdonald on the Saskatchewan. In his mind was the goading thought that he was a cast-off servant of the North- West Company; and he yearned for the day when he might exact retribution for his injuries, some of them real, some fancied.

It thus happened that before the final crisis came help was well on the way. When the party of rescuers arrived, the charred and deserted dwellings of Colony Gardens told their wordless story. They had come too late. It is quite possible that the newcomers had met by the way the throng of settlers who were bound for Canada, or at least had heard of their departure from the Red River. It is less likely that before arriving they had learned of the destruction of the settlement. A portion of the colonists still remained in the country, and Colin Robertson thought that he might yet save the situation. He had done all that Lord Selkirk had instructed him to do, and he now took further action on his own initiative. At his command the sun-tanned voyageurs descended to the river bank and launched their light canoes on the current. Down-stream and northward along Lake Winnipeg, the party travelled, until they reached the exiles' place of refuge on the Jack River.

Robertson's resolute demeanor inspired the settlers with new courage, and they decided to go back with him and rebuild their homes. Before the summer was spent they were once more on the Red River. To their surprise the plots of ground which they had sown along the banks had suffered less than they had expected. During their absence John M'Leod had watchfully husbanded the precious crops, and from the land he so carefully tended fifteen hundred bushels of wheat were realized the first 'bumper ' crop garnered within the borders of what are now the prairie provinces of Canada. M'Leod had built fences, had cut and stacked the matured hay, and had even engaged men to erect new buildings and to repair some of those which had escaped utter destruction. Near the spot where the colonists had landed in 1812 he had selected an appropriate site and had begun to erect a large domicile for the governor. 'It was of two stories,' wrote M'Leod in his diary, 'with main timbers of oak; a good substantial house.'

John M'Leod was a man of faith. He expected that Lord Selkirk's colony would soon be again firmly on its feet, and he was not to be disappointed. A fourth contingent of settlers arrived during the month of October 1815, having left Scotland in the spring. This band comprised upwards of ninety persons, nearly all natives of Kildonan. These were the most energetic body of settlers so far enlisted by the Earl of Selkirk. They experienced, of course, great disappointment on their arrival. Instead of finding a flourishing settlement, they saw the ruins of the habitations of their predecessors, and found that many friends whom they hoped would greet them had been enticed or driven away.

Along with these colonists came an important dignitary sent out by the Hudson's Bay Company. The 'Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay' were now alarmed regarding the outlook for furs in the interior, and the general court of their stockholders had taken a new and important step. It was decided to appoint a resident governor-in-chief, with power not merely over the colony of Assiniboia, but overall the company's trading-posts as well. The man chosen to fill this office was Robert Semple, a British army captain on the retired list. He was a man of upright character and bull-dog courage, but he lacked the patience and diplomacy necessary for the problem with which he had to deal. Another to arrive with the contingent was Elder James Sutherland, who had been authorized by the Church of Scotland to baptize and to perform the marriage ceremony.

The occupants of Fort Gibraltar viewed the replanting of the settlement with baleful resentment. Their ranks were augmented during the autumn by a wayfarer from the east who hung up his musket at the fort and assumed control. This was none other than Duncan Cameron, returned from Canada, with the plaudits of some of his fellow-partners still ringing in his ears. To Colin Robertson the presence of Cameron at Fort Gibraltar was not of happy augury for the settlers' welfare. Robertson decided on prompt and radical action. In a word, he determined to take the Nor'westers' post by surprise. His raid was successful. The field-pieces and the property of the colonists which had been carried away in June were recovered. Cameron himself was made a prisoner. But he was not held long. The man was a born actor and a smooth talker. In all seeming humility he now made specious promises of future good behavior, and was allowed to return to his fort.

The houses of the colonists were ranged in succession along the Red River until they reached an elevated spot called Frog Plain. Some of the houses appear to have been situated on Frog Plain as well. Along the river, running north and south, was a road worn smooth by constant traffic. The spacious residence for the governor reared by John M'Leod, and the other buildings grouped about it, were surrounded by a strong palisade. To the whole the name of Fort Douglas was now given. In spite, however, of their seeming prosperity, the settlers found it necessary to migrate for the winter to the basin of the Pembina in order to obtain food. But again they found that the buffalo were many miles from Fort Daer, and the insufficiently clad winterers suffered greatly. They were dis-turbed, too, by frequent rumors of coming danger. The 'New Nation,' as the half-breeds chose to call themselves, were gathering, it was said, from every quarter, and with the breaking up of winter would descend like a scourge upon the colony.

The trouble brewing for the settlement was freely discussed among the Nor'westers. About the middle of March 1816 Alexander Macdonell sent a note to Duncan Cameron from Fort Qu'Appelle.' A storm is gathering in the north' declared Macdonell, 'ready to burst on the rascals who deserve it; little do they know their situation. Last year was but a joke. The New Nation under their leaders are coming forward to clear their native soil of intruders and assassins.' A few words written at the same time by Cuthbert Grant show how the plans of the Bois Brls were maturing. 'The Half-breeds of Fort des Prairies and English River are all to be here in the spring,' he asserted; 'it is to be hoped we shall come off with flying colours.'

Early in 18 16 Governor Semple, who had been at Fort Daer, returned to Fort Douglas. Apparently he entertained no wholesome fears of the impending danger, for, instead of trying to conciliate his opponents, he embittered them by new acts of aggression. In April, for the second time, Colin Robertson, acting on the governor's instructions, captured Fort Gibraltar. Again was Duncan Cameron taken prisoner, and this time he was held. It was decided that he should be carried to England for trial. In charge of Colin Robertson, Cameron was sent by canoe to York Factory. But no vessel of the Hudson's Bay Company was leaving for England during the summer of 1816, and the prisoner was detained until the following year. When at length he was brought to trial, it was found impossible to convict him of any crime, and he was dis-charged. Subsequently Cameron entered a suit against Lord Selkirk for illegal detention, asking damages, and the court awarded him 3000.

Shortly after Colin Robertson had departed with his prisoner, Governor Semple decided to dismantle Fort Gibraltar, and towards the end of May thirty men were sent to work to tear it down. Its encircling rampart was borne to the river and formed into a raft. Upon this the salvage of the demolished fort - a great mass of structural material was driven down-stream to Fort Douglas and there utilized.

The tempest which Alexander Macdonell had presaged burst upon the colony soon after this demolition of Fort Gibraltar. The incidents leading up to an outbreak of hostilities have been narrated by Pierre Pambrun, a French Canadian. In April Pambrun had been commissioned by Governor Semple to go to the Hudson's Bay fort on the Qu'Appelle River. Hard by this was the Nor'westers trading-post, called Fort Qu'Appelle. Pambrun remarks upon the great number of half-breeds who had gathered at the North-West Company's depot. Many of them had come from a great distance. Some were from the upper Saskatchewan; others were from Cumberland House, situated near the mouth of the same river. Pambrun says that during the first days of May he went eastward along with George Sutherland, a factor of the Hudson's Bay Company on the Qu'Appelle, and a number of Sutherland's men. The party journeyed in five boats, and had with them twenty-two bales of furs and six hundred bags of pemmican. On May 12 they were attacked on their way down the river by an armed force of forty-nine Nor'westers, under the leadership of Cuthbert Grant and Peter Pangman. All were made prisoners and conducted back to Fort Qu'Appelle, where they were told by Alexander Macdonell that the seizure had been made because of Colin Robertson's descent upon Fort Gibraltar. After five days' imprisonment George Sutherland and the servants of the Hudson's Bay Company were released. This did not mean, however, any approach of peace. Pierre Pambrun was still held in custody. Before the close of May Macdonell caused the furs and provisions which his men had purloined from Suther-land's party to be placed in boats, and he began to move down the Qu'Appelle, taking Pambrun with him. A band of Bois Brls on their horses kept pace with the boats. At the confluence of the Qu'Appelle and the Assiniboine Macdonell made a speech to a body of Saulteaux, and endeavored to induce some of them to join his expedition to the Red River. The Hudson's Bay post of Brandon House, farther along the Assiniboine, was captured by Cuthbert Grant, with about twenty-five men under his command, and stripped of all its stores. Then the combined force of half-breeds, French Canadians, and Indians, in round numbers amounting to one hundred and twenty men, advanced to Portage la Prairie. They reached this point on or about June 16, and proceeded to make it a stronghold. They arranged bales of pemmican to form a rude fortification and planted two brass swivel-guns for defense. They were preparing for war, for the Nor'westers had now resolved finally to uproot Lord Selkirk's colony from the banks of the Red River.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

The Red River Colony, A Chronicle of the Beginnings of Manitoba, By Louis Aubrey Wood, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company 1915

 

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