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The Pipe of Peace

'The parish shall be Kildonan.'

As Lord Selkirk spoke, he was standing in what is to-day the northern part of the city of Winnipeg. A large gathering of settlers listened to his words. The refugees of the year before, who were encamped on the Jack River, had returned to their homes, and now, in instituting a parish for them and creating the first local division in Assiniboia, Lord Selkirk was giving it a name reminiscent of the vales of Sutherlandshire. 'Here you shall build your church,' continued his lordship. The Earl of Selkirk's religion was deep-seated, and he was resolved to make adequate pro-vision for public worship. 'And that lot,' he said, indicating a piece of ground across a rivulet known as Parsonage Creek, 'is for a school.' For his time he held what was advanced radical doctrine in regard to education, for he believed that there should be a common school in every parish. Selkirk's genial presence and his magnanimity of character quickly banished any prejudices which the colonists had formed against him. In view of the hardships they had endured, he divided among them, free of all dues, some additional land. To the dis-charged soldiers he gave land on both sides of the river. They were to live not far re-moved from Fort Douglas, in order that they might give speedy aid in case of trouble. The settlers were enjoined to open roads, construct bridges, and build flour-mills at convenient places.

Meanwhile, the disturbances in the fur country were being considered in the mother-land. When news of the Seven Oaks affair and of other acts of violence reached Great Britain, Lord Bathurst thought that the home government should take action. He sent an official note to Sir John Sherbrooke, the governor of Canada, instructing him to deal with the situation. Sherbrooke was to see that the forts, buildings, and property involved in the unhappy conflict should be restored to their rightful owners, and that illegal restrictions on trade should be removed. When Sherbrooke received this dispatch, in February 1817, he selected two military officers, Lieutenant Colonel Coltman and Major Fletcher, to go to the Indian Territories in order to arbitrate upon the questions causing dissension. The two commissioners left Montreal in May, escorted by forty men of the 37th regiment. From Sault Ste Marie, Coltman journeyed on ahead, and arrived at 'the Forks ' on July 5. In Montreal he had formed the opinion that Lord Selkirk was a domineering autocrat. Now, however, he concluded after inquiry that Selkirk was neither irrational nor self-seeking, and advised that the accusations against him should not be brought into the courts. At the same time he bound Selkirk under bail of 10,000 to appear in Canada for trial. When Coltman returned to Lower Canada in the autumn of 1 8 17, Sherbrooke was able to write the Colonial Office that 'a degree of tranquility ' had been restored to the Indian Territories.

While in the west Lord Selkirk had gained the respect of the Indians, and in token of their admiration they gave him the unusual name of the 'Silver Chief.' Selkirk was anxious to extinguish the ancient title which the Indians had to the lands of Assiniboia, in order to prevent future disputes. To affect this he brought together at Fort Douglas a body of chiefs who represented the Cree and Saulteaux nations. The Indian chiefs made eloquent speeches. They said that they were willing to surrender their claim to a strip on either side of the Red River up-stream from its mouth as far as the Red Lake river (now Grand Forks, North Dakota), and on either side of the Assiniboine as far as its junction with the Muskrat. Selkirk's desire was to obtain as much on each bank of these streams for the length agreed upon as could be seen under a horse's belly towards the horizon, or approximately two miles, and the Indians agreed. At three places at Fort Douglas, Fort Daer, and the confluence of the Red and Red Lake rivers, Selkirk wished to secure about six miles on each side of the Red River, and to this the chiefs agreed. In the end, on July i8, 1817, Selkirk concluded a treaty, after distributing presents. It was the first treaty made by a subject of Great Britain with the tribes of Rupert's Land. In signing it the several chiefs drew odd pictures of animals on a rough map of the territory in question. These animals were their respective totems and were placed opposite the regions over which they claimed authority. It was stipulated that one hundred pounds of good tobacco should be given annually to each nation.

Having finished his work, Lord Selkirk bade the colony adieu and journeyed south-ward. He made his way through the un-organized territories which had belonged to the United States since the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and at length reached the town of St Louis on the Mississippi. Thence he proceeded to the New England States, and by way of Albany reached the province of Upper Canada. Here he found that the agents of the North- West Company had been busy with plans to attack him in the courts. There were four charges against him, and he was ordered to appear at Sandwich, a judicial centre on the Detroit. The accusations related to his procedure at Fort William. Selkirk travelled to Sandwich. One of the charges was quickly dismissed. The other three were held over, pending the arrival of witnesses, and he was released on bail to the amount of 350.

In May 1818 Colin Robertson and several others were charged at Montreal with the willful destruction of Fort Gibraltar, but the jury would not convict the accused upon the evidence presented. In September, at the judicial sessions at Sandwich, Lord Selkirk was again faced with charges. A legal celebrity of the day, Chief Justice Dummer Powell, presided. The grand jury complained that John Beverley Robinson, the attorney-general of the province, was interfering with their deliberations, and they refused to make a presentment. Chief Justice Powell waited two days for their answer, and as it was not forthcoming he adjourned the case. The actions were afterwards taken to York and were tried there. For some reason the leaders of the political faction known in the annals of Upper Canada as the Family Compact were not friendly to Lord Selkirk; the Rev. John Strachan, the father-confessor of this group of politicians, was an open opponent. As a result of the trials Selkirk was mulcted in damages to the extent of 2000.

The courts of Lower Canada alone were empowered to deal with offences in the Indian Territories. The governor-general of Canada could, however, transfer the trial of such cases to Upper Canada, if he saw fit. This had been done in the case of the charges against Selkirk, and Sir John Sherbrooke, after consulting with the home authorities, decided to refer Selkirk's charges against the Nor'westers, in connection with the events of 18 15 and 1816 on the Red River, to the court of the King's Bench at its autumn sitting in York. Beginning in October 1818, there were successive trials of persons accused by Lord Selkirk of various crimes. The cases were heard by Chief Justice Powell, assisted by Judges Boulton and Campbell. The evidence in regard to the massacre at Seven Oaks was full of interest. A passage from the speech of one of the counsel for the defense shows the ideas then current in Canada as to the value of the prairie country. Sherwood, one of the counsel, emphatically declared that Robert Semple was not a governor; he was an emperor. 'Yes, gentlemen,' reiterated Sherwood, his voice rising, 'I repeat, an emperor, a bashaw in that land of milk and honey, where nothing, not even a blade of corn, will ripen.' The result of the trials was disheartening to Selkirk. Of the various prisoners who were accused not one was found guilty.

Lord Selkirk did not attend the trials of the Nor'westers at York, and seems to have returned to Britain with his wife and children before the end of the year 1818. He was ill and in a most melancholy state of mind.
Unquestionably, he had not secured a full measure of justice in the courts of Canada. A man strong in health might have borne his misfortunes more lightly. As it was, Selkirk let his wrongs prey upon his spirit. On March 19, 1819, he addressed a letter to Lord Liverpool, asking that the Privy Council should intervene in order to correct the erroneous findings of the Canadian courts. Sir James Montgomery, Selkirk's brother-in-law, moved in the House of Commons, on June 24, that all official correspondence touching Selkirk's affairs should be produced. The result was the publication of a large blue-book. An effort was made to induce Sir Walter Scott to use his literary talents on his friend's behalf. But at the time Scott was prostrate with illness and unable to help the friend of his youth.

Meanwhile, Lord Selkirk's attachment for his colony on the Red River had not undergone any change. One of the last acts of his life was to seek settlers in Switzerland, and a considerable number of Swiss families were persuaded to migrate to Assiniboia. But the heads of these families were not fitted for pioneer life on the prairie. For the most part they were poor musicians, pastry-cooks, clockmakers, and the like, who knew nothing of husbandry. Their chief contribution to the colony was a number of buxom, red-cheeked daughters, whose arrival in 1821 created a joyful commotion among the military bachelors at the settlement. The fair newcomers were quickly wooed and won by the men who had served in Napoleon's wars, and numerous marriages followed.

Selkirk's continued ill -health caused him to seek the temperate climate of the south of France, and there he died on April 8, 1820, at Pau, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. His body was taken to Orthez, a small town some twenty-five miles away, and buried there in the Protestant cemetery. The length of two countries separates Lord Selkirk's place of burial from his place of birth. He has a monument in Scotland and a monument in France, but his most enduring monument is the great Canadian West of which he was the true founder. His only son, Dunbar James Douglas, inherited the title, and when he died in 1885 the line of Selkirk became extinct. Long before this the Selkirk family had broken the tie with the Canadian West. In 1836 their rights in the country of Assiniboia, in so far as it lay in British territory, were purchased by the Hudson's Bay Company for the sum of 84,000.

The character of the fifth Earl of Selkirk has been alike lauded and vilified. Shortly after his death the Gentleman's Magazine commended his benefactions to the poor and his kindness as a landlord. 'To the counsels of an enlightened philosophy and an immovable firmness of purpose declared the writer, 'he added the most complete habits of business and a perfect knowledge of affairs. Sir Walter Scott wrote of Selkirk with abundant fervor. 'I never knew in my life,' said the Wizard of the North, 'a man of a more generous and disinterested disposition, or one whose talents and perseverance were better qualified to bring great and national schemes to conclusion.' History has proved that Lord Selkirk was a man of dreams; it is false to say, however, that his were fruitless visions. Time has fully justified his colonizing activity in relation to settlement on the Red River. He was firmly convinced of what few in his day believed, that the soil of the prairie was fruitful and would give bread to the sower. His worst fault was his partisanship. In his eyes the Hudson's Bay Company was endowed with all the virtues; and he never properly analyzed the motives or recognized the achievements of its great rival. Had he but ordered his representatives in Assiniboia to meet the Nor'westers half-way, distress and hardship might have been lessened, and violence might very probably have been entirely avoided.

The presence of Lord Selkirk on the Red River had led to renewed energy on the part of the colonists. They began to till the land, and in 1818 the grain and vegetable crops promised an abundant yield. In July, how-ever, when the time of harvest was approaching, the settlers experienced a calamity that brought poverty for the present and despair for the future. The sky was suddenly darkened by a great cloud of locusts, which had come from their breeding-places in the far south-west. During a single night, 'crops, gardens, and every green herb in the settlement had perished, with the exception of a few ears of barley gleaned in the women's aprons.' In the following year the plague reappeared; the insects came again, covering the ground so thickly that they 'might be shoveled with a spade.' The stock of seed-grain was now almost exhausted, and the colonists resolved to send an expedition to the Mississippi for a fresh supply. Two hundred and fifty bushels of grain were secured at Lord Selkirk's expense, and brought back on flat-boats to the colony. Never since that time has there been a serious lack of seed on the Red River.

The year 1821 brings us to a milestone in  the history of the Canadian West, and at this point our story terminates. After Lord Selkirk's death the two great fur -trading companies realized the folly of continuing their disastrous rivalry, and made preparations to bury their differences. Neither company had been making satisfactory profits. In Great Britain especially, where only the echoes of the struggle had been heard, was there an increasing desire that the two companies should unite. One of the foremost partners of the North-West Company was Edward Ellice, a native of Aberdeenshire, and member of the House of Commons for Coventry. Ellice championed the party among the Nor'westers who were in favor of union, and the two M'Gillivrays, Simon and William, earnestly seconded his efforts. Terms acceptable to both companies were at length agreed upon. On March 26, 1821, a formal document, called a 'deed-poll,' outlining the basis of union, was signed by the two parties in London. In 1822 Edward Ellice introduced a bill in parliament making the union of the companies legal. The name of the North-West Company was dropped; the new corporation was to be known as the Hudson's Bay Company. Thus passed away forever the singular partnership of the North-West Company which had made Montreal a market for furs and had built up Fort William in the depths of the forest. No longer did two rival trading posts stand by lake or stream. No longer did two rival camp-fires light up blazed tree-trunk or grass-strewn prairie by the long and sinuous trail. From Labrador to Vancouver, and from the Arctic to the southern confines of the Canadian West and farther, the British flag, with H. B. C. on its folds, was to wave over every trading post. Midway between the Atlantic and the Pacific a little hamlet was to struggle into life, to struggle feebly for many years a mere adjunct of a fur-trading post; but at length it was to come into its own, and Winnipeg, the proudest city of the plains, was in time to rear its palaces on the spot where for long years the Red River Colony battled for existence against human enemies and the obstacles of nature.

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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