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Colonists came …

Eventually, colonists came. It was inevitable. Generations of refugees and other immigrants found a home north of the 49th parallel which would become, for the most part, the border dividing the United States and Canada. Much of the Earl of Selkirk‘s Assiniboia,[1] as the Red River Colony was named, would be North Dakota and spill somewhat beyond. It was the land of the Métis


Colonists on the Red River in North America (1822) by Peter Rindisbacher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Assiniboia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(Please click on the map to enlarge it.)


Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk (Photo credit: The Canadian Encyclopedia)

The Red River Settlement (1811 – 1815)

  • Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk
  • crofters
  • Assiniboia (the current Manitoba and North Dakota)
  • Miles Macdonell
  • the Hudson’s Bay Company

When he unexpectedly inherited his family’s wealth, Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk was motivated to find land for crofters. (See Highland Clearances, Wikipedia.) The “crofters” were being displaced by their landlords and many had nowhere to go. The Earl of Selkirk settled some crofters in Belfast, Prince Edward Island (1803) and others in Baldoon, Upper Canada (Ontario).

However, in 1811, he was granted 300,000 km(116,000 square miles) of arable land by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and founded the Red River Colony. In fact, the Earl of Selkirk and members of his family had bought enough shares in the Hudson’s Bay Company to control it. The colony would be called Assiniboia.

Miles Macdonell

Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk, appointed Miles Macdonell as governor of Assiniboia and the latter established his base at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, the current downtown Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The first group of displaced crofters and some Irish immigrants travelled by way of the Hudson Bay and wintered at York Factory. They arrived in Assiniboia on 29 August 1812, escorted by its governor Miles Macdonell. A second group arrived in October and further groups followed every year until 1815.

Fur-trading country

  • The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC)
  • The North West Company (NWC)
  • The Métis

Not only had these settlers been sent to an area of Canada where winters were long and extremely harsh, which threatened their survival, but the Red River was home to Métis, many of whom were in the employ of North West Company or related to employees of the Montreal-based North West Company. The North West Company, established in 1779, was a rival to the Hudson’s Bay Company, established in 1670. But, as noted above and more importantly, the Red River had already been colonized by Métis: people of European origin, Frenchmen mainly, but also Scots and others, who had married Amerindians.

Many Métis originated from Lower Canada (Quebec), so the division of land along the Red River mirrored that of New France, down to the relatively narrow strips of land abutting the Red River. The “Red” constituted the Métis’ and other voyageurs‘ “highway.” One travelled by canoe, when the weather permitted, or toboggan, when the River was frozen.

Métis and Settlers

In short, it would be difficult for the inhabitants of the Red River to accept newcomers. Unknowingly, at that point in history, the Métis had developed a sense of community. In fact, the situation of the Canadien voyageurs resembled that of Jacques Cartier’s men dying of scurvy and saved by Amerindians. French settlers may not have survived without the assistance of Amerindians.

Similarly, voyageurs needed the skills Amerindians had developed. They also needed the food they prepared as well as their guidance in an unchartered territory. Moreover, fur-trading posts being a long distance away from the shores of the St. Lawrence River and other “homes,” voyageurs needed wives. A nation grew: the Métis nation.

Therefore, reticent Métis enticed many colonists back to Canada by promising better land. (See The Red River Colony, The Canadian Encyclopedia.) There were, no doubt, other shenanigans, a word the origin of which has yet to be determined, but which seems an Amerindian word.

The Pemmican Proclamation

At any rate, fearing a lack of food for the settlers, governor Macdonell forbade the exportation of pemmican out of Assiniboia. Amerindians and Métis prepared pemmican for the voyageurs. This is how voyageurs were fed. When he issued the Pemmican Proclamation, on 8 January 1814, Miles Macdonell acted recklessly.

The Pemmican Proclamation was not viewed by Nor’Westers as an unwise decision on the part of the rather “belligerent” Miles Macdonell. (See Miles Macdonell, The Canadian Encyclopedia.) It was viewed instead as a low blow dealt by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which does not appear to be the case.



Peter Rindisbacher’s Swiss family was recruited by an agent of the Earl of Selkirk. Peter specialized in watercolours and his subject matter was Assiniboia. Later, he and his family moved to St. Louis. To my knowledge, we have few if any other sources of images from the Selkirk Settlement other than Rindisbacher’s art. Born in 1806, Peter died in 1834, at the age of 28.

Running of buffalo banned

Governor Macdonell then made matters worse by forbidding not only the exportation of pemmican out of Assiniboia, but also the running of buffalo with horses, a manner used by Amerindians to hunt buffalos. Buffalo meat was sustenance. How would voyageurs and other citizens of the established Red River area feed themselves and survive?

From Rivalry to Enmity: Macdonell arrested

Miles Macdonell had therefore transformed a rivalry between competing fur-trading companies into enmity. Nor’Westers feared the HBC was attempting to penetrate the Athabascan country to the north. Moreover, the HBC captured Fort Gilbratar (NWC) and the North West Company retaliated by taking Fort Brandon, led by Métis Cuthbert Grant.


Métis Leader Cuthbert Grant (The Canadian Encyclopedia)

Amerindians and Métis

By extension, Macdonell had also pitted the Métis nation against the immigrants. Intercepting “brigades” of canoes filled with provisions wasn’t an acceptable way of feeding impoverished crofters. In the end, in June 1815, Governor Macdonell had to surrender to NWC (North West Company) representatives, standing accused of “illegally confiscating pemmican.” He was sent to Montreal to be tried. (See the Pemmican Proclamation, The Canadian Encyclopedia.) However, there would be no trial and, according to Wikipedia, Miles Macdonell had resigned.

The Battle of Seven Oaks

Seven Oaks, 19 June 1816, is viewed as an incident, but there was some provocation. However, to be cautious, I will use the word “incident” because the clash at Seven Oaks seems unpremeditated. Nor’Westers, escorted by Cuthbert Grant, were retrieving pemmican stolen by HBC men to sell it to Nor’Westers, their customers. But accounts differ. The Métis may have been on their way to escort a “brigade” of canoes transporting pemmican. I have just, 30 May, added a quotation. It seems that when the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) took Fort Gilbratar (NWC), they exposed canoe brigades containing provisions.[2] 

Be that as it may, the Métis accidentally crossed paths with Governor Robert Semple  and settlers. Governor Semple was Miles Macdonell’s replacement and appointed by the Earl of Selkirk. Semple had left Fort Douglas where he was secure. In the battle that ensued, he and twenty of his men were killed. There were two Métis casualty.

The Earl of Selkirk’s Response

Some colonists left and a few settled in Saskatchewan. However, others settled in the current Manitoba. On 13 August, 1816, when Lord Selkirk heard of the incident at Seven Oaks, he seized Fort William and them recaptured Fort Douglas on 10 January 1817. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia,

“[w]hen Selkirk finally arrived that July, he distributed land and restored the settlers’ confidence, promising them schools and clergymen. Roman Catholic priests arrived in 1818, but not until 1820 did a Protestant missionary come, and John West was Anglican rather than a Gaelic-speaking Presbyterian, a source of grievance to the Scots settlers for years.” (See The Red River Colony, The Canadian Encyclopedia.)

That is another story.


The Aboriginal peoples of Canada are still protected by the Royal Proclamation of 1763. It was reaffirmed under Section 35 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, included in the Canada Act of 1982. (See Indigenous Foundations, University of British Columbia [UBC].) They are also protected by the Numbered Treaties, a series of eleven treaties signed after Confederation, from 1871 to 1921, by the Aboriginal peoples in Canada and the reigning British monarch, the Crown.

At the moment, the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, has a federated First Nations University. Programs such as Indigenous Foundations at the University of British Columbia also provide an examination of Canada’s varied past. I have noticed moreover that many aboriginals are moving to cities.

But let us return to the Earl of Selkirk.

After he seized Fort William, a trading post belonging to the North West Company, Lord Selkirk had to appear in court in Montreal to defend himself. He had acted hastily. In 1821, a year after the Earl’s death, at Pau, France, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company were merged. The rivalry subsided.

As for the Métis, the Red River Settlement allowed them to realize they had become a nation.


With kindest regards.

[1] “Assiniboia”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 26 May. 2015

[2] “In the spring of 1816, the HBC officers and men seized and destroyed the Nor’Westers’ Fort Gilbratar at the forks, thus exposing the latter’s canoe brigades, just as the pemmican supplies were being moved down the Assiniboine to meet the Nor’Westers returning from the annual council at Fort William. The HBC’s Fort Douglas thus dominated the Red and denied passage both to the Nor’Westers and the provision boats of their Métis allies.” (Seven Oaks Incident, The Canadian Encyclopedia.)

© Jean-Marc Philippe Duval, studio Spinner, Nancy – SACEM, Paris.


Peter Rindisbacher (artnet.com)

© Micheline Walker
29 May 2015