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Begining of Strife

Stormy days were coming. Once Governor Macdonell had published his edict, he did not hesitate to enforce its terms. Information had been received at Colony Gardens that the Nor'westers had stored a quantity of pro-visions in their trading-post at the mouth of the Souris, a large southern tributary of the Assiniboine. It was clear that, in defiance of Macdonell's decree, they meant to send food supplies out of Assiniboia to support their trading-posts elsewhere. The fort at Souris was in close proximity to Brandon House on the Assiniboine, a post founded by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1794. Macdonell decided on strong action. His secretary, John Spencer, was ordered to go to the Souris in the capacity of a sheriff, accompanied by a strong guard and carrying a warrant in his pocket. When Spencer drew near the stockades of the Nor'westers' fort and found the gate closed against him, he commanded his men to batter it in with their hatchets. They obeyed with alacrity, and having filed inside the fort, took charge of the contents of the storehouse. Six hundred bags of pemmican were seized and carried to Brandon House. Already there was a state of war in Assiniboia.

The territory which comprised the colony was of great value economically to the North-West Company. The food supplies which supported its traders in the far interior were largely drawn from this area. In the eyes of the Nor'westers, Sheriff John Spencer had performed an act of pure brigandage at their Souris post. Still, they were in no hurry to execute a counter-move. In order to make no mistake they thought it best to restrain themselves until their partners should hold their summer meeting at Fort William1, on Lake Superior.

The partners of the North-West Company met at Fort William in the month of July 18 14. Their fond hope had been that Lord Selkirk's colony would languish and die. Instead, it was flourishing and waxing aggressive. The governor of Assiniboia had published an edict which he seemed determined) to enforce, to the ruin of the business of the! North-West Company. The grizzled partners, as they rubbed elbows in secret conclave, decided that something must be done to crush this troublesome settlement. Whether or not they formed any definite plan cannot be ascertained. It is scarcely believable that at this meeting was plotted the opposition to Lord Selkirk's enterprise which was to begin with deceit and perfidy and to culminate in bloodshed. Among the Nor'westers were men of great worth and integrity. There were, however, others in their ranks who proved base and irresponsible. During this conference at Fort William a bitter animosity was expressed against Lord Selkirk and the company which had endorsed his colonizing project. It was the Nor'westers' misfortune and fault that some of their number were prepared to vent this outspoken enmity in deeds of criminal violence.

Two 'wintering partners' of the North-West Company, men who remained in the interior during the winter, appear to have been entrusted by their fellows with the task of dealing with the settlers on the Red River. Both these men, Duncan Cameron and Alexander Macdonell, had a wide experience of the prairie country. Of the pair, Cameron was unquestionably the more resourceful. In view of the fact that later in life he became a trusted representative of the county of Glengarry in the legislature of Upper Canada, there has been a tendency to gloss over some of his misdemeanors when he was still a trader in furs. But he was a sinister character. His principal aim, on going to the Red River, was to pay lavish court to the settlers in order to deceive them. He was a born actor, and could assume at will the gravest or the gayest of demeanors or any disposition he chose to put on.
Alexander Macdonell, the other emissary of the Nor'westers, was of an inferior type. He was crafty enough never to burn his own fingers. Macdonell had some influence over the Indians of the Qu'Appelle district and of the more distant west. His immediate proposal was to attract a band of redskins to the neighborhood of Colony Gardens with the avowed intention of creating a panic among the settlers.

Shortly after the July meeting at Fort William these two men started on their mission for the Red River. On August 5, while at a stopping-point by the way, Alexander Macdonell dated a letter to a friend in Montreal. The tenor of this letter would indicate that only a portion of the Nor'westers was ready to adopt extreme measures against the settlement. 'Something serious will undoubtedly take place,' was Macdonell's callous admission. 'Nothing but the complete down-fall of the colony,' he continued, 'will satisfy some, by fair or foul means, a most desirable object if it can be accomplished. So here is at them with all my heart and energy.'

Towards the end of August the twain arrived at Fort Gibraltar, where they parted company. Alexander Macdonell proceeded to his winter quarters at Fort Qu'Appelle, on the river of the same name which empties into the upper Assiniboine. Duncan Cameron made his appearance with considerable pomp and circumstance at Fort Gibraltar. The settlers soon knew him as ' Captain ' Duncan Cameron, of the Voyageur Corps, a battalion which had ranged the border during the recent war with the United States. Cameron decked himself in a crimson uniform. He had a sword by his side and the outward bearing of a gallant officer. Lest there should be any want of belief on the part of the colonists, he caused his credentials to be tacked up on the gateway of Fort Gibraltar. There, in legible scrawl, was an order appointing him as captain and Alexander Macdonell as lieutenant in the Voyageur Corps. The sight of a soldier sent a thrill through the breasts of the Highlanders and the fight-loving Irish. Cameron had in fact once belonged to the Voyageurs, and no one at Colony Gardens yet knew that the corps had been disbanded the year before. At a later date Lord Selkirk took pains to prove that Cameron had been guilty of rank imposture.

To pose in the guise of a captain of militia was not Duncan Cameron's only role. Having impressed his martial importance upon all, he next went among the settlers as a comrade. He could chat at ease in Gaelic, and this won the confidence of the Highlanders. Some of the colonists were invited to his table. These he treated with studied kindness, and he furnished them with such an abundance of good food that they felt disgust for the scant and humble fare allowed them at the settlement. At the same time Cameron began to A make bold insinuations in his conversation. He had, he said, heard news from the interior that a body of Indians would raid them in the spring. He harped upon the deplorable state in which the settlers were living; out of fellow-feeling for them, he said, he would gladly act as their deliverer. Why did they not throw themselves upon the mercies of the North-West Company? In their unhappy condition, abandoned, as he hinted, by Lord Selkirk to their own resources, there was but one thing or them to do. They must leave the Red River far behind, and he would guarantee that the Nor'westers would assist them.

As a result of Cameron's intrigues, signs of wavering allegiance were soon in evidence. One of the settlers in particular, George Campbell, became a traitor in the camp. Campbell had negotiated with Lord Selkirk personally during Selkirk's visit to Sutherland-shire. Now he complained vigorously of his treatment since leaving Scotland, and was in favor of accepting the terms which Cameron, as a partner in the North-West Company, offered. As many colonists as desired it, said Cameron, would be transported by the Nor'westers free of charge to Montreal or other parts of Canada. A year's provisions would be supplied to them, and each colonist would be granted two hundred acres of fertile land. Tempting bribes of money were offered some of them as a bait. An influential Highlander, Alexander M'Lean, was promised two hundred pounds from Cameron's own pocket, on condition that he would take his family away. Several letters which were penned by the sham officer during the winter of 1815 can still be read. 'I am glad,' he wrote to a couple of settlers in February, 'that the eyes of some of you are getting open at last . . . and that you now see your past follies in obeying the unlawful orders of a plunderer, and I may say, of a highway robber, for what took place here last spring can be called nothing else but manifest robbery.'

As yet Duncan Cameron had refrained from the use of force, but as winter wore on towards spring he saw that, to complete his work, force would be necessary. The pro-portion of settlers remaining loyal to Lord Selkirk was by no means insignificant, and Cameron feared the pieces of artillery at Colony Gardens. He decided on a bold effort to get these field-pieces into his possession. Early in April he made a startling move. Miles Macdonell was away at Fort Daer, and Archibald Macdonald, the deputy-governor of the colony, was in charge. To him Cameron sent a peremptory demand in writing for the field-pieces, that they might be 'out of harm's way.'

This missive was first given into the hands of the traitor George Campbell, who read it to the settlers on Sunday after church. Next day, while rations were being distributed, it was delivered to the deputy-governor in the colony storehouse. About one o'clock on the same afternoon, George Campbell and a few kindred spirits broke into the building where the field-pieces were stored, took the guns outside, and placed them on horse-sledges for the purpose of drawing them away. At this juncture a musket was fired as a signal, and Duncan Cameron with some Bois Brűlés stole from a clump of trees. 'Well done, my hearty fellows,' Cameron exclaimed, as he came hurrying up. The guns were borne away and lodged within the precincts of Fort Gibraltar, and a number of the colonists now took sides openly with Duncan Cameron and the Nor'westers.

Meanwhile Cameron's colleague, Alexander Macdonell, was not succeeding in his efforts to incite the Indians about Fort Qu'Appelle against the colony. He found that the In-dians did not lust for the blood of the settlers; and when he appeared at Fort Gibraltar, in May, he had with him only a handful of Plain Crees. These redskins lingered about the fort for a time, being well supplied with liquor to make them pot-valiant. During their stay a number of horses belonging to the settlers were wounded by arrows, but it is doubtful if the perpetrators of these outrages were Indians. The chief of the Crees finally visited Governor Miles Macdonell, and convinced him that his warriors intended the colonists no ill. Before the Indians departed they sent to Colony Gardens a pipe of peace, the red man's token of friendship.

An equally futile attempt was made about the same time by two traders of the North-West Company to persuade Katawabetay, chief of the Chippewas, to lead a band of his tribesmen against the settlement. Katawabetay was at Sand Lake, just west of Lake Superior, when his parley with the Nor'westers took place. The two traders promised to give Katawabetay and his warriors all the merchandise and rum in three of the company's posts, if they would raise the hatchet and descend upon the Red River settlers. The cautious chief wished to know whether this was the desire of the military authorities. The traders had to confess that it was merely a wish of the North-West Company, Katawabetay then demurred, saying that, before be-ginning hostilities, he must speak about the matter to one of the provincial military leaders on St Joseph's Island, at the head of Lake Huron.

Finding it impossible to get the Indians to raid the settlement, Cameron now adopted other methods. His party had been increasing in numbers day by day. Joined by the deserters from the colony, the Nor'westers pitched their camp a short distance down the river from Fort Gibraltar. At this point guns were mounted, and at Fort Gibraltar Cameron's men were being drilled. On June II a chosen company, furnished with loaded muskets and ammunition, were marched to-wards Governor Macdonell's house, where they concealed themselves behind some trees. James White, the surgeon of the colony, was seen walking close to the house. A puff of grey smoke came from the Nor'westers' cover. The shot went wide. Then John Bourke, the store-keeper, heard a bullet whiz by his head, and narrowly escaped death. The colonists at once seized their arms and answered the Nor'westers' fire. In the exchange of volleys, however, they were at a disadvantage, as their adversaries remained hidden from view. When the Nor'westers decamped, four persons on the colonists' side had been wounded. f-^ Apparently there was no longer security for life or property among those still adhering to Lord Selkirk's cause at Colony Gardens. Duncan Cameron, employing a subterfuge, now said that his main object was to capture Governor Macdonell. If this were accomplished he would leave the settlers unmolested. In order to safeguard the colony Macdonell voluntarily surrendered himself to the Nor'westers. Cameron was jubilant. With the loyal settlers worsted and almost defenseless, and the governor of Assiniboia his prisoner, he could dictate his own terms. He issued an explicit command that the settlers must vacate the Red River without delay. A majority of the settlers decided to obey, and their exodus began under Cameron's guidance. About one hundred and forty, inclusive of women and children, stepped into the canoes of the North- West Company to be borne away to Canada. Miles Macdonell was taken to Montreal under arrest.

The forty or fifty colonists who still clung to their homes at Colony Gardens were left to be dealt with by Alexander Macdonell, who was nothing loath to finish Cameron's work of destruction. Once more muskets were brought into play; horses and cattle belonging to the settlers were spirited away; and several of the colonists were placed under arrest on trumped-up charges. These dastardly tactics were followed by an organized attempt to raid the settlement. On June 25 a troop of Bois Brűlés gathered on horseback, armed to the teeth and led by Alexander Macdonell and a half-breed named Cuthbert Grant. The settlers, though mustering barely one-half the strength of the raiders, resolved to make a stand, and placed them-selves under the command of John M'Leod, a trader in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company. The Bois Brűlés bore down upon the settlement in menacing array. The colonists took what shelter they could find and prepared for battle. Fighting coolly, they made their shots tell. The advancing column hesitated and halted in dismay at the courage of the defenders. Then John M'Leod remembered a cannon which was rusting un-used at the small post which the Hudson's Bay Company had on the river. Hugh M'Lean and two others were ordered to haul this to the blacksmith's shanty. The three men soon found the cannon, and set it up in the smithy. For shot, cart chains were chopped into sections; and the Bois Brűlés were treated to a raking volley of 'chain shot.' This was something they had not looked for; their courage failed them, and they galloped out of range.

But the remnant of Lord Selkirk's settlers who had dared to linger on the Red River were at the end of their resources. Taking counsel together, they resolved to quit the colony. They launched their boats on the river, and followed the canoe route which led to Hudson Bay. They were accompanied by a band of Indians of the Saulteaux tribe as far as the entrance to Lake Winnipeg. From there a short journey placed them outside the boundaries of Assiniboia. When they arrived at the northern end of Lake Winnipeg they found a temporary refuge, in the vicinity of Norway House, on the Jack River.

Alexander Macdonell and his Bois Brűlés were now free utterly to blot out Colony Gardens. They visited every part of the settlement and set fire to everything. Not a single house was left standing. Cabins, store-, houses, the colony's grinding mill - all were ' reduced to a mass of ruins. Cameron's duplicity had been crowned with success; Alexander Macdonell's armed marauders had finished the task; Lord Selkirk's colony of farmers-in-the-making was scattered far and wide. Nevertheless, the Nor'westers were not undisputed masters of the situation. In the Hudson's Bay smithy, but ten feet square, four men continued the struggle. John M'Leod, James M'Intosh, and Archibald Currie, of the Hudson's Bay Company, de-fended their trading-post, with the assistance of 'noble Hugh M'Lean,' the only settler remaining on the Red River banks. By day and by night these men were forced to keep watch and ward. Whenever the Bois Brűlés drew near, the ' chain shot ' drove them hurriedly to cover. At length the enemy withdrew, and M'Leod and his comrades walked out to survey the scene of desolation.


1. After it had been discovered that the Grand Portage was situated partly on land awarded by treaty to the United States, the Nor'westers, in 1803, had erected a new factory thirty or forty miles farther north where the Kaministikwia river enters Thunder Bay. This post became their chief fur emporium west of Montreal, and was given the name Fort William as a tribute to William M'Gillivray, one of the leading partners in the company.

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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