THE SELKIRK COLONY AND THE RIVAL FUR TRADERS
What was the Selkirk Colony, and how did it happen that this party of Swiss had come so far to join it?
When Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk, one of the famous Douglas family of the Scottish border, planned the settlement on the Red River of the North, his purpose was to find homes and livelihood for the poverty-stricken Scotch Highlanders. Hundreds of those unfortunate people had been turned out of their homes through changes in the system of management of the great landed estates in Scotland, and there was little opportunity in the old country for them to make a living. Though a Lowlander himself, Lord Selkirk had often visited the Highland glens. He knew the people, and had learned their native Gaelic language. He sympathized with them in their misfortunes. Seeking for some way to help them, he realized that their only chance for prosperity and success lay in emigration to a country where land was cheap and plentiful. He had heard of the rich soil of the Red River valley, and decided that was the place to plant his colony.
The lower Red River valley was included in the vast domain of the Hudson Bay Company. The charter from King Charles II of England issued in 1670 had given to Prince Rupert and the “Company of Adventurers of England, trading into Hudson Bay”—“the whole trade of all those seas, streights, and bays, rivers, lakes, creeks, and sounds,—that lie within the entrance of the streights commonly called Hudson’s Streights, together with all the lands, countries, and territories upon the coasts and confines of the seas, streights, bays, lakes, rivers, creeks, and sounds aforesaid, which are not now actually possessed by any of our subjects, or by the subjects of any other Christian prince or State.” Not only did the royal charter grant the “Adventurers” the trade of that vast region,—which, in the widest interpretation of the terms, included a quarter or a third of the whole of North America,—but it conferred upon the Company the right to hold the land “in free and common socage” which means absolute proprietorship. Whether King Charles really had the right to give away this vast territory to anyone may be questioned, but the Hudson Bay Company claimed proprietorship under the charter.
The Red River empties into Lake Winnipeg, and the northern end of the lake drains into the Nelson River which flows to Hudson Bay. Accordingly the valley of the Red was included in the territory claimed by the Company. However, before the time of this story, the purchase from France by the United States of a vast extent of country west of the Mississippi River,—the Louisiana Purchase—and the boundary treaties with the British government, gave the greater part of the Red River to the United States. Only the stretch from what is now the northern limit of Minnesota and North Dakota to Lake Winnipeg remained in English possession. It was to this lower part of the valley that Lord Selkirk wished to take his colonists. He knew well enough that the Hudson Bay Company would not be inclined to part with any of its domain for such a purpose, but he had set his heart upon planting his colony in that particular spot.
Accordingly he laid his plans to get possession of the required land. Quietly, by buying shares himself and persuading his friends to buy also, he obtained control over a majority of the stock of the great trading company. Then he offered to purchase a wide strip of land on the Red and Assiniboine rivers. As he controlled the majority of votes in the Company, he got what he wanted, about one hundred and sixteen square miles, of which he became absolute proprietor.
The first settlers he sent over were of course Scotch Highlanders, with a few Irish. They arrived at Fort York in the autumn of 1811, too late to go to the Red River that year. The next summer they reached their new home on the Red, and were followed within three years by other parties, numbering in all a little more than two hundred, most of them Scotch.
The troubles of the settlers were many and discouraging. Had the Earl of Selkirk been a more practical man he would scarcely have undertaken to plant a farming colony in the midst of a wilderness, hundreds of miles from any other settlement, and without communication with the civilized world except by canoe and rowboat over long and difficult river trails. Not all of the colonists’ troubles were due to natural conditions however.
The Hudson Bay Company had a strong trading rival in the Northwest Fur Company. The latter was a Canadian organization with headquarters at Montreal, while the Hudson Bay Company was strictly English, its chief offices in London. The Northwest men had established trading posts along the Great Lakes and far to the west and north beyond Lake Superior. They had penetrated farther and farther into the country claimed by the Hudson Bay Company. The Hudson Bay men themselves had done almost nothing to develop trade in the interior, until the Canadian traders began to go among the Indians and secure furs that might otherwise have been brought to the posts on the Bay. Awakening to the realization that the Northwest Company was actually taking away the trade, the Hudson Bay men also sought the interior. In this way began a race and a fight for the furs that grew hotter and fiercer with each year. Everywhere on the principal lakes and streams of the west and northwest, rival posts were established, sometimes within a few hundred rods of each other.
The rivalry between the fur traders was approaching its height when Lord Selkirk founded his colony. From the first, the Northwest Company opposed the scheme. The fur trader never likes to see the country from which the pelts come opened up to settlement. He knows that as the land is settled the wild animals disappear. Moreover Lord Selkirk was now the controlling power in the Hudson Bay Company, and the Northwesters suspected him of some deep laid plan to interfere with and ruin their trade. Several years before, they had established a post called Fort Gibraltar at the junction of the Red and the Assiniboine, and their route to the rich fur districts of the west lay up the latter river. They believed that the settlement was merely a scheme to cut off their trade. So they looked with unfriendly eyes upon the colony, and even persuaded a considerable number of the colonists to leave and settle on lands farther east in Canada. Most of the Northwest traders were of Scotch blood, many of them of Highland descent, and doubtless they honestly thought that their countrymen would find better homes elsewhere. The chance that the Red River settlement would ever succeed seemed, to practical-minded men, very slender indeed.
The ill feeling between the two great trading companies and between the Northwest Company and the Selkirk settlement grew stronger and bitterer as time went on. Mistakes and high handed acts on both sides, in a land where there was no law, led at last to open conflict. In 1815 the colonists were driven from their homes and obliged to flee to the shelter of a Hudson Bay post at the northern end of Lake Winnipeg. The Hudson Bay men made reprisals by capturing the Northwesters’ posts and interrupting their trade. The settlers were rallied and taken back to their homes, only to face a worse disaster the next year. An open fight between the men of Governor Semple of the colony and a party of half-breeds in the employ of the Northwest Company resulted in the killing of the Governor and his twenty followers, and the capture of their stronghold, Fort Douglas.
Lord Selkirk was in America at the time seeking from the Canadian government some means