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Purse Strings Loosen

Traffic in furs was hazardous, but it brought great returns. The peltry of the north, no less than the gold and silver of the south, gave impetus to the efforts of those who first settled the western hemisphere. In expectation of ample profits, the fur ship threaded its way through the ice-pack of the northern seas, and the trader sent his canoes by tortuous stream and toilsome portage. In the early days of the eighteenth century sixteen beaver skins could be obtained from the Indians for a single musket, and ten skins for a blanket. Profits were great, and with the margin of gain so enormous, jealousies and quarrels without number were certain to arise between rival fur traders.

The right to the fur trade in America had been granted, given away, as the English of the time thought, by the hand of Charles II of England. In prodigal fashion Charles conceded, in 1670, a charter, which conveyed


Joseph Frobisher
A Partner In The North-West Company
From the John Russ Robertson Collection, Toronto Public Library
 

extensive lands, with the privileges of monopoly, to the 'Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay.' But if the courtiers of the Merry Monarch had any notion that he could thus exclude all others from the field, their dream was an empty one. England had an active rival in France, and French traders penetrated into the region granted to the Hudson's Bay Company. Towards the close of the seventeenth century Le Moyne d' Iberville was making conquests on Hudson Bay for the French king, and Greysolon Du Lhut was carrying on successful trading operations in the vicinity of Lakes Nipigon and Superior. Even after the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) had given the Hudson Bay territories to the English, the French-Canadian explorer La Verendrye entered the forbidden lands, and penetrated to the more remote west. A new situation arose after the British conquest of Canada during the Seven Years' War. Plucky independent traders, mostly of Scottish birth, now began to follow the watercourses which led from the rapids of Lachine on the St Lawrence to the country beyond Lake Superior. These men treated with disdain the royal charter of the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1783 a group of them united to form the North- West Company, with headquarters at Montreal. The organization grew in strength and became the most power-ful antagonist of the older company, and the open feud between the two spread through the wide region from the Great Lakes to the slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

The Nor'westers, as the partners and servants of the North-West Company were called, were bold competitors. Their enthusiasm for the conflict was all the more eager because their trade was regarded as illicit by their rivals. There was singleness of purpose in their ranks; almost every man in the service had been tried and proved. All the Montreal partners of the company had taken the long trip to the Grand Portage, a transit station at the mouth of the Pigeon River, on the western shore of Lake Superior. Other partners had wintered on the frozen plains or in the thick of the forest, tracking the yellow-grey badger, the pine-marten, and the greedy wolverine. The guides employed by the company knew every mile of the rivers, and they rarely mistook the most elusive trail. Its interpreters could converse with the red men like natives. . Even the clerks who looked after the office routine of the company labored with zest, for, if they were faithful and attentive in their work, the time would come when they, too, would be elected as partners in the great concern. The canoe men were mainly French Canadian coureurs de bois, gay voyageurs on lake and stream. In the veins of many of them flowed the blood of Cree or Iroquois. Though half barbarous in their mode of life, they had their own devotions. At the first halting-place on their westward journey, above Lachine, they were accustomed to enter a little chapel which stood on the bank of the Ottawa. Here they prayed reverently that 'the good Saint Anne,' the friend of all canoe men, would guard them on their way to the Grand Portage. Then they dropped an offering at Saint Anne's shrine, and pointed their craft against the current. These rovers of the wilderness were buoyant of heart, and they lightened the weary hours of their six weeks' journey with blithe songs of love and the river. When the snow fell and ice closed the river, they would tie their 'husky ' dogs to sledges and travel over the desolate wastes, carrying furs and provisions. It was a very different company that traded into Hudson Bay. The Hudson's Bay Company was launched on its career in a princely manner, and had tried to cling fast to its time-worn traditions. The bundles of uncured skins were received from the red men by its servants with pomp and dignity. At first the Indians had to bring their 'catch ' to the shores of Hudson Bay itself, and here they were made to feel that it was a privilege to be allowed to trade with the company. Some-times they were permitted to pass in their wares only through a window in the outer part of the fort. A beaver skin was the regular standard of value, and in return for their skins the savages received all manner of gaudy trinkets and also useful merchandise, chiefly knives, hatchets, guns, ammunition, and blankets. But before the end of the eighteenth century the activity of the Nor'westers had forced the Hudson's Bay Company out of its aristocratic slothfulness. The savages were now sought out in their prairie homes, and the company began to set up trading-posts in the interior, all the way from Rainy Lake to Edmonton House on the North Saskatchewan.

Such was the situation of affairs in the fur-bearing country when the Earl of Selkirk had his vision of a rich prairie home for the desolate Highlanders. Though he had not himself visited the Far West, he had some conception of the probable outcome of the fierce rivalry between the two great fur companies in North America. He foresaw that, sooner or later, if his scheme of planting a colony in the interior was to prosper, he must ally him-self with one or the other of these two factions of traders.

We may gain a knowledge of Lord Selkirk's ideas at this time from his own writings and public utterances. In 1 805 he issued a work on the Highlands of Scotland, which Sir Walter Scott praised for its ' precision and accuracy,' and which expressed the significant sentiment that the government should adopt a policy that would keep the Highlanders within the British Empire. In 1806, when he had been chosen as one of the sixteen representative peers from Scotland, he delivered a speech in the House of Lords upon the subject of national defense, and his views were after-wards stated more fully in a book. With telling logic he argued for the need of a local militia, rather than a volunteer force, as the best protection for England in a moment of peril. The tenor of this and Selkirk's other writings would indicate the staunchness of his patriotism. In his efforts at colonization his desire was to keep Britain's sons from emigrating to an alien shore.

'Now, it is our duty to befriend this people,' he affirmed, in writing of the Highlanders. 'Let us direct their emigration; let them be led abroad to new possessions.' Selkirk states plainly his reason. 'Give them homes under our own flag,' is his entreaty, 'and they will strengthen the empire.'

In 1807 Selkirk was chosen as lord-lieutenant of the stewartry of Kirkcudbright, and in the same year took place his marriage with Jean Wedderburn-Colvile, the only daughter of James Wedderburn-Colvile of Ochiltree. One year later he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, a distinction conferred only upon intellectual workers whose labours have increased the world's stock of knowledge.

After some shrewd thinking Lord Selkirk decided to throw in his lot with the Hudson's Bay Company. Why he did this will subsequently appear. At first, one might have judged the step unwise. The financiers of London believed that the company was drifting into deep water. When the books were made up for 1808, there were no funds avail-able for dividends, and bankruptcy seemed inevitable. Anyone who owned a share of Hudson's Bay stock found that it had not earned him a sixpence during that year. The company's business was being cut down by the operations of its aggressive rival. The chief cause, however, of the company's financial plight was not the trade war in America, but the European war, which had dealt a heavy blow to British commerce. Napoleon had found himself unable to land his army in England, but he had other means of striking. In 1806 he issued the famous Berlin Decree, declaring that no other country should trade with his greatest enemy. Dealers had been wont to come every year to London from Germany, France, and Russia, in order to purchase the fine skins which the Hudson's Bay Company could supply. Now that this trade was lost to the company, the profits dis-appeared. For three seasons bale after bale of unsold peltry had been stacked to the rafters of the London warehouse.

The Earl of Selkirk was a practical man; and, seeing the plight of the Hudson's Bay Company, he was tempted to take advantage of the situation to further his plans of emigration. Like a genuine lord of Galloway, however, he proceeded with extreme caution. His initial move was to get the best possible legal advice regarding the validity of the company's royal charter. Five of the foremost lawyers in the land were asked for their opinion upon this matter. Chief of those who were approached was Sir Samuel Romilly, the friend of Bentham and of Mirabeau. The other four were George Holroyd and James Scarlet, both distinguished pleaders, and William Cruise and John Bell. The finding of these lawyers put the question out of doubt. The charter, they said, was flawless. Of all the lands which were drained by the many rivers running into Hudson Bay, the company was the sole proprietor. Within these limits it could appoint sheriffs and bring law-breakers to trial. Besides, there was no-thing to prevent it from granting to any one in fee-simple tracts of land in its vast domain. Having satisfied himself that the charter of 1670 was legally unassailable, the earl was now ready for his subsequent line of action. He had resolved to get a foothold in the company itself. To affect this object he brought his own capital into play, and sought at the same time the aid of his wife's relatives, the Wedderburn-Colviles, and of other personal friends. Shares in the company had depreciated in value, and the owners, in many cases, were jubilant at the chance of getting them off their hands. Selkirk and his friends did not stop buying until they had acquired about one-third of the company's total stock.

In the meantime the Nor'westers scented trouble ahead. As soon as Lord Selkirk had /completed his purchase of Hudson's Bay /stock, he began to make overtures to the company's shareholders to be allowed to plant a colony in the territories assigned to I them by their royal charter. To the Nor'westers this proposition was anathema. They; argued that if a permanent settlement was i established in the fur country, the fur-bearing I animals would be driven out, and their trade ruined. Their alarm grew apace. In May 1811 a general court of the Hudson's Bay Company, which had been adjourned, was on the point of reassembling. The London agents of the North-West Company decided to act at once. Forty-eight hours before the general court opened three of their number bought up a quantity of Hudson's Bay stock. One of these purchasers was the redoubtable explorer. Sir Alexander Mackenzie.

Straightway there ensued one of the liveliest sessions that ever occurred in a general court of the Hudson's Bay Company. The Nor'westers, who now had a right to voice their opinions, fumed and haggled. Other share holders flared into vigorous protest as the Earl of Selkirk's plan was disclosed. In the midst of the clash of interests, however, the earl's following stated his proposal succinctly. They said that Selkirk wished to secure a tract of fertile territory within the borders of Rupert's Land, for purposes of colonization. Preferably, this should lie in the region of the Red River, which ran northward towards Hudson Bay. At his own expense Selkirk would people this tract within a given period, foster the early efforts of its settlers, and appease the claims of the Indian tribes that inhabited the territory. He promised, moreover, to help to supply the Hudson's Bay Company with laborers for its work. " Had Lord Selkirk been present to view the animated throng of merchant adventurers, he would have foreseen his victory. In his first tilt with the Nor'westers he was to be successful. The opposition was strong, but it wore down before the onslaught of his friends. Then came the show of hands. There was no uncertainty about the vote: two-thirds of the court had pledged themselves in favor of Lord Selkirk's proposal.

By the terms of the grant which the general court made to Selkirk, he was to receive 116,000 square miles of virgin soil in the locality which he had selected. The boundaries of this immense area were carefully fixed. Roughly speaking, it extended from Big Island, in Lake Winnipeg, to the parting of the Red River from the head-waters of the Mississippi in the south, and from beyond the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in the west to the shores of the Lake of the Woods, and at one point almost to Lake Superior, in the east. If a map is consulted, it will be seen that one-half of the grant lay in what is now the province of Manitoba, the other half in the present states of Minnesota and North Dakota.1

A great variety of opinions were expressed in London upon the subject of this grant. Some wiseacres said that the earl's proposal was as extravagant as it was visionary. One of Selkirk's acquaintances met him strolling along Pall Mall, and brought him up short on the street with the query: 'If you are bent on doing something futile, why do you not sow tares at home in order to reap wheat, or plough the desert of Sahara, which is nearer? '

The extensive tract which the Hudson's Bay Company had bestowed upon Lord Selkirk for the nominal sum of ten shillings had made him the greatest individual land-owner in Christendom. His new possession was quite as large as the province of Egypt in the days of Caesar Augustus. But in some other respects Lord Selkirk's heritage was much greater. The province of Egypt, the granary of Rome, was fertile only along the banks of the Nile. More than three-fourths of Lord Selkirk's domain, on the other hand, was highly fertile soil.

Footnotes:

1. It will be understood that the boundary-line between British and American territory in the North-West was not yet established. What afterwards became United States soil v/as at this time claimed by the Hudson's Bay Company under its charter.


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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