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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


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