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Lord Selkirk's Journey

We left Lord Selkirk at Montreal. Several days before the massacre of Seven Oaks he had completed the preparations for his journey to the west, and was hastening for-ward in the hope of arriving at the Red River in time to save his colony. He had secured his own appointment as justice of the peace for Upper Canada and the Indian Territories, and also the promise of a bodyguard of one non-commissioned officer and six men for his personal defense. This much he had obtained from the Canadian authorities. They remained unwilling, however, to send armed aid to Assiniboia. This want Lord Selkirk was himself supplying, for he was bringing with him a fresh contingent of settlers of a class hitherto unknown among his colonists. These new settlers were trained soldiers, disciplined and tried in active service on many a battle-field.

The close of the War of 1812 by the Treaty of Ghent, signed on December 24, 1814, had left in Canada several battalions of regular soldiers under colors. In the early summer of 1816 orders were issued that the De Meuron regiment, in barracks at Montreal, and the Watteville regiment, stationed at Kingston, should be honorably disbanded. These regiments were composed of Swiss, Italian, and other mercenaries who had fought for Great Britain in her struggle with Napoleon. In 1809 the De Meuron regiment had been sent from Gibraltar to the island of Malta. In 1813 it had been transported to Canada with the reputation of being 'as fine and well-appointed a regiment as any in his Majesty's service.' It consisted of more than a thousand men, with seventy-five officers. The Watteville regiment, a force equally large, had landed at Quebec on June 10, 1813. Its ensign indicated that it had been in the campaigns waged against France in the Spanish peninsula and had served under Sir John Stuart in southern Italy.

About two hundred of the disbanded De Meurons desired to remain in Canada, and Selkirk at once sought to interest them in his western enterprise. Four officers, Captains Matt hey and D'Orsonnens and Lieutenants Graffenreid and Fauche and about eighty of the rank and file were willing to enlist. It was agreed that they should receive allotments of land in Assiniboia on the terms granted to the settlers who had formerly gone from Scotland and Ireland. They were to be supplied with the necessary agricultural implements, and each was to be given a musket for hunting or for defense. Their wages were to be eight dollars a month for manning the boats which should take them to their destination. In case the settlement should not be to their liking, Lord Selkirk pledged himself to transport them to Europe free of cost, by way of either Montreal or Hudson Bay.

On June 4 the contingent of men and officers began their journey from Montreal up the St Lawrence. At Kingston a halt was made while Captain Matthey, acting for the Earl of Selkirk, enlisted twenty more veterans of the Watteville regiment. It is stated that an officer and several privates from another disbanded regiment, the Glengarry Fencibles, were also engaged as settlers, but it is not clear at what point they joined the party. When all was ready for the long journey, the combined forces skirted the northern shore of Lake Ontario from Kingston, until they reached York, the capital of Upper Canada. Thence their route lay to Georgian Bay by way of Lake Simcoe and the Severn.

Lord Selkirk left Montreal on June 16, following in the wake of his new won colonists, and overtook them at the entrance into Georgian Bay. Apparently he went over the same route, for he crossed Lake Simcoe. Information is lacking as to his companions. Miles Macdonell could not have been with him, for Macdonell had been sent forward earlier with a small body of men in light canoes that he might reach the settlement in advance of Lord Selkirk. One hundred and twenty Canadian voyageurs had been recently engaged to go to Assiniboia in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company. Possibly these canoe men accompanied Selkirk on the first stages of his journey.

On Drummond Island, at the head of Lake Huron, was situated the most westerly military station maintained by the government of Upper Canada. Here Lord Selkirk halted and allowed his company to go on in advance into the straits of St Mary. At the military post at Drummond Island he was furnished with the promised escort of six men under a non-commissioned officer of the 37th regiment. On July 22 he was present at a council held on the island by the Indian authorities stationed there. One of the principal figures at this council was Katawabetay, chief of the Chippewas, from Sand Lake. On being questioned, Katawabetay told of his refusal the year before to join the Nor'westers in an attack on the Red River Colony; he also declared that an attempt had been made during the previous spring by a trader named Grant to have some of his young Chippewas waylay Lord Selkirk's messenger, Laguimoniére, near Fond du Lac. Grant had offered Katawabetay two kegs of rum and some tobacco, but the bribe was refused. The Ottawa Indians, not the Chippewas, had waylaid the messenger. This trader Grant had told Katawabetay that he was going to the Red River 'to fight the settlers.1

Lord Selkirk put a question to Katawabetay.

'Are the Indians about the Red River, or that part of the country you come from,' asked the earl through an interpreter, 'pleased or displeased at the people settling at the Red River? '

'At the commencement of the settlement at Red River, some of the Indians did not like it,' answered the chief, 'but at present they are all glad of its being settled.'

Meanwhile the party which had gone on in advance had entered the St Mary's river, connecting Lakes Huron and Superior, had crossed the half-mile portage of the Sault Rapids, and had pitched their camp some distance farther up-stream. Before the end of July Lord Selkirk was again among them. He gave the order to advance, and the boats were launched. But, only a few miles out from Sault Ste Marie, there suddenly appeared two canoes, in one of which was Miles Macdonell. For the first time Lord Selkirk now learned of the disaster which had befallen the colony in the month of June. Macdonell had gone as far as the mouth of the Winnipeg before he learned the news. Now he was able to tell Lord Selkirk of the massacre of Semple and his men, of the eviction of the settlers, and of the forcible detention of those sent by M'Leod to the Nor'westers' trading-post at Fort William.

Selkirk had entertained the hope of averting a calamity at the settlement by bringing in enough retired soldiers to preserve order. But this hope was now utterly blasted. He might, however, use the resources of the law against the traders at Fort William, and this he decided to attempt. He was, however, in a peculiar position. He had, it is true, been created a justice of the peace, but it would seem hardly proper for him to try law-breakers who were attacking his own personal interests. Accordingly, before finally setting out for Fort William, he begged Magistrate John Askin, of Drummond Island, and Magistrate Ermatinger, of Sault Ste Marie, to accompany him. But neither of these men could leave his duties. When Selkirk thus failed to secure disinterested judges, he determined to act under the authority with which he had been vested. In a letter, dated July 29, to Sir John Sherbrooke, the recently appointed governor of Canada, he referred with some uneasiness to the position in which he found himself. 'I am therefore reduced to the alternative of acting alone,' he wrote, 'or of allowing an audacious crime to pass unpunished. In these circumstances, I can-not doubt that it is my duty to act, though I am not without apprehension that the law may be openly resisted by a set of men who have been accustomed to consider force as the only criterion of right.'

Selkirk advanced to Fort William. There is no record of his journey across the deep sounds and along the rock-girt shores of Lake Superior. His contingent was divided into two sections, possibly as soon as it emerged from the St Mary's river and entered White-fish Bay. Selkirk himself sped forward with the less cumbersome craft, while the soldier-settlers advanced more leisurely in their bateaux. Early in August the vanguard came within sight of the islands that bar the approach to Thunder Bay. Then, as their canoes slipped through the dark waters, they were soon abeam of that majestic headland. Thunder Cape, 'the aged Cape of Storms.' Inside the bay they saw that long, low island known as the Sleeping Giant. A portion of the voyageurs, led by a Canadian named Chatelain, disembarked upon an island about seven miles from Fort William. Selkirk, with the rest of the advance party, went on. Skirting the settlement at Fort William, they ascended the river Kaministikwia for about half a mile, and on the opposite bank from the fort, at a spot since known as Point De Meuron, they erected their temporary habitations.

Fort William was the Mecca of the traders and voyageurs who served the North- West Company. It was the divisional point and the warehousing centre of sixty trading-posts. No less than five thousand persons were engaged in the trade which centered at Fort William. During the season from May to September the traffic carried on at the fort was of the most active character. A flotilla of boats and canoes would arrive from Lachine with multifarious articles of commerce for inland barter. These boats would then set out on their homeward journey laden with peltry gathered from far and near. Every season two or three of the principal partners of the company arrived at the fort from Montreal. They were 'hyperborean nabobs, who travelled with whatever luxury wealth could afford them on the express service by lake and stream.

Fort Williams


1. The trader was probably Charles Grant, a clerk in the North-West Company's fort at Fond du Lac, and not Cuthbert Grant, the leader at Seven Oaks.

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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