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Stornoway and Beyond
On June 13, 181 1, the deed was given to Selkirk of
his wide possessions with the seal and signature of the Hudson's Bay
Company, attached by Alexander Lean, the secretary. Before this,
however, Selkirk had become deeply engrossed in the details of his
enterprise. No time was to be lost, for unless all should be in
readiness before the Hudson's Bay vessels set out to sea on their
summer voyage, the proposed expedition of colonists must be
postponed for another year.
Selkirk issued without delay a pamphlet, setting forth the
advantages of the prospective colony. Land was to be given away
free, or sold for a nominal sum. To the poor, trans-port would cost
nothing; others would have to pay according to their means. No one
would be debarred on account of his religious belief; all creeds
were to be treated alike. The seat of the colony was to be called
Assiniboia, after a tribe of the Sioux nation, the Assiniboines,
buffalo hunters on the Great Plains.
Wherever this pamphlet was read by men dissatisfied with their lot
in the Old World, it aroused hope. With his usual good judgment,
Selkirk had engaged several men whose training fitted them for the
work of inducing landless men to emigrate. One of these was Captain
Miles Macdonell, lately summoned by Lord Selkirk from his home in
Canada. Macdonell had been reared in the Mohawk valley, had served
in the ranks of the Royal Greens during the War of the Revolution,
and had survived many a hard fight on the New York frontier. After
the war, like most of his regiment, he had gone as a Loyalist to the
county of Glengarry, on the Ottawa. It so chanced that the Earl of
Selkirk while in Canada had met Macdonell, then a captain of the
Royal Canadian Volunteers, and had been impressed by his courage and
energy. In consequence, Selkirk now invited him to be the first
governor of Assiniboia. Macdonell accepted the appointment; and
promptly upon his arrival in Britain he went to the west coast of
Ireland to win recruits for the settlement. Owing to the straitened
circumstances of the Irish peasantry, the tide of emigration from
Ireland was already running high, and Lord Selkirk thought that
Captain Macdonell, who was a Roman Catholic, might influence some of
his co-religionists to go to Assiniboia.
Another agent upon whom Selkirk felt that he could rely was Colin
Robertson, a native of the island of Lewis, in the Hebrides. To this
island he was now dispatched, with instructions to visit other
sections of the Highlands as well. Robertson had formerly held a
post under the North-West Company in the Saskatchewan valley. There
he had quarreled with a surly-natured trader known as Crooked-armed
Macdonald, with the result that Robertson had been dismissed by the
Nor'westers and had come back to Scotland in an angry mood.
A third place of muster for the colony was the city of Glasgow.
There the Earl of Selkirk's representative was Captain Roderick
McDonald. Many Highlanders had gone to Glasgow, that busy hive of
industry, in search of work. To the clerks in the shops and to the
laborers in the yards or at the loom, McDonald described the glories
of Assiniboia. Many were impressed by his words, but objected to the
low wages offered for their services. M'Donald compromised, and
by-offering a higher wage induced a number to enlist. But the
recruits from Glasgow turned out to be a shiftless lot and a
constant source of annoyance to Selkirk's officers.
While this work was being done the Nor'westers in London were
burning with wrath at their inability to hinder Lord Selkirk's
project. Their hostility, we have seen, arose from their belief,
which was quite correct, that a colony would interfere with their
trading operations. In the hope that the enterprise might yet be
stopped, they circulated in the Highlands various rumors against it.
An anonymous attack, clearly from a Nor'wester source, appeared in
the columns of the Inverness Journal. The author of this diatribe
pictured the rigors of Assiniboia in terrible colors. Selkirk's
agents were characterized as a brood of dissemblers. With respect to
the earl himself words were not minced. His philanthropy was all
assumed; he was only biding his time in order to make large profits
out of his colonization scheme.
Notwithstanding this campaign of slander, groups of would-be
settlers came straggling along from various places to the port of
rendezvous, Stornoway, the capital of the Hebrides. When all had
gathered, these people who had answered the call to a new heritage
beyond the seas proved to be a motley-throng. Some were stalwart men
in the prime of life, men who looked forward to homes of their own
on a distant shore; others, with youth on their side, were eager for
the trail of the flying moose or the sight of a painted redskin; a
few were women, steeled to bravery through fires of want and sorrow.
Too many were wastrels, cutting adrift from a blighted past. A
goodly number were mal-contents, wondering whether to go or stay.
The leading vessel of the Hudson's Bay fleet in the year 1811 was
the commodore's ship, the Prince of Wales. At her moorings in the
Thames another ship, the Eddystone lay ready for the long passage to
the Great Bay. Besides these, a shaky old hulk, the Edward and Ann,
was put into commission for the use of Lord Selkirk's settlers. Her
grey sails were mottled with age and her rigging was loose and worn.
Sixteen men and boys made up her crew, a number by no means
sufficient for a boat of her size. It seemed almost criminal to send
such an ill-manned craft out on the tempestuous North Atlantic.
However, the three ships sailed from the Thames and steered up the
east coast of England. Opposite Yarmouth a gale rose and forced them
into a sheltering harbor. It was the middle of July before they
rounded the north shore of Scotland. At Stromness in the Orkneys the
Prince of Wales took on board a small body of emigrants and a number
of the company's servants who were waiting there.
At length the tiny fleet reached the bustling harbor-town of
Stornoway; and here Miles Macdonell faced a task of no little
difficulty. Counting the Orkneymen just arrived, there were one
hundred and twenty-five in his party. The atmosphere seemed full of
un-rest, and the cause was not far to seek. The Nor'westers were at
work, and their agents were sowing discontent among the emigrants.
Even Collector Reed, the government official in charge of the
customs, was acting as the tool of the Nor'westers. It was Reed's
duty, of course, to hasten the departure of the expedition; but
instead of doing this he put every possible obstacle in the way.
Moreover, he mingled with the emigrants, urging them to forsake the
venture while there was yet time.
Another partisan of the North- West Company also appeared on the
scene. This was an army officer named Captain Mackenzie, who
pretended to be gathering recruits for the army. He had succeeded,
it appears, in getting some of Selkirk's men to take the king's
shilling, and now was trying to lead these men away from the ships
as 'deserters from His Majesty's service.' One day this
trouble-maker brought his dinghy alongside one of the vessels. A
sailor on deck, who saw Captain Mackenzie in the boat and was eager
for a lark, picked up a nine-pound shot, poised it carefully, and
let it fall. There was a splintering thud. Captain Mackenzie
suddenly remembered how dry it was on shore, and put off for land as
fast as oars would hurry him. Next day he sent a pompous challenge
to the commander of the vessel. It was, of course, ignored.
In spite of obstacles, little by little the arrangements for the
ocean voyage were being completed. There were many irritating
de-lays. Disputes about wages broke out afresh when inequalities
were discovered. There was much wrangling among the emigrants as to
their quarters on the uninviting Edward and Ann. At the last moment
a number of the party took fear and decided to stay at home.
Some left the ship in unceremonious fashion, even forgetting their
effects. These were subsequently sold among the passengers. 'One
man,' wrote Captain Macdonell, 'jumped into the sea and swam for it
until he was picked up.' It may be believed that the governor of
Assiniboia heaved a thankful sigh when the ships were ready to hoist
their sails. 'It has been a herculean task,' ran the text of his
parting message to the Earl of Selkirk.
On July 26 a favorable breeze bore the vessels out to sea. There
were now one hundred and five in the party, seventy of whom had professed an
intention to till the soil. The remainder had been indentured as servants of the
Hudson's Bay Company. Seventy-six of the total number was quartered on board the
Edward and Ann. As the vessels swept seaward many eyes were fastened sadly on
the receding shore. The white house's of Stornoway loomed up distinctly across
the dark waters of the bay. The hill which rose gloomily in the background was
treeless and inky black. On the clean shingle lay the cod and herring, piled
loose to catch the sun's warm rays. The settlers remembered that they were
perhaps scanning for the last time the rugged outline of that heather-clad
landscape, and their hearts grew sick within them. Foreland after foreland came
into view and disappeared. At length the ships were skirting the Butt of Lewis
with its wave-worn clefts and caverns. Then all sight of land vanished, and they
were steering their course into the northern main. A man-of-war had been sent as
a convoy to the vessels, for the quick-sailing frigates of France had been
harrying British shipping, and the mercantile marine needed protection. After
standing guard to a point four hundred miles off the Irish coast, the
ship-of-the-line turned back, and the three vessels held their way alone in a
turbulent sea. Two of them beat stoutly against the gale, but the Edward and Ann
hove to for a time, her timbers creaking and her bowsprit catching the water as
she rose and fell with the waves. And so they put out into the wide and wild
Atlantic, these poor, homeless, storm-tossed exiles, who were to add a new
chapter to Great Britain's colonial history.
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
Chronicles of Canada