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Fort Williams

At this time Fort William had the pro-portions of a good-sized village. Its structures were of wood and were of all shapes and sizes. One commodious building near the centre of the fort, fronted by a wide verandah, immediately caught the eye of the visitor. It contained a council hall, the mercantile parliament-chamber of the Nor'westers. Under the same roof was a great banqueting-hall, in which two hundred persons could be seated. In this hall were wont to gather the notables of the North-West Company, and any guests who were fortunate enough to gain admission. Here, in the heart of the wilderness, there was no stint of food when the long tables were spread. Chefs brought from Montreal prepared savory viands; the brimming bowl was emptied and too often replenished; and the songs of this deep-throated race of merchantmen pealed to the rafters until revelry almost ended in riot. At one end of the room stood the bust of Simon M'Tavish, placed so that his gaze seemed to rest upon the proprietors and servants of the company he had called into being. About the walls hung numerous portraits - one of the reigning monarch, George III, another of the Prince Regent, a third of Admiral Lord Nelson. Here, too, was a painting of the famous battle of the Nile, and a wonderful map of the fur-bearing country, the work of the intrepid explorer David Thompson.

The unexpected appearance of Lord Selkirk in the vicinity of Fort William found the Nor'westers off their guard and created a great sensation. It was a matter of common know-ledge among the Nor'westers that Selkirk was on his way to the Red River with a squad of armed men, but they understood that he would follow the route leading past their fort at Fond du Lac. There is evidence to show that a plot to compass Selkirk's death or seizure had been mooted some weeks before. John Bourke, on the road to Fort William as a prisoner, had overheard a conversation between Alexander Macdonell and several other partners of the North- West Company. This conversation had occurred at night, not far from Rainy Lake. According to the story, Bourke was lying on the ground, seemingly asleep, when the partners, standing by a camp-fire, fell to discussing their recent coup at 'the Forks.' Their talk drifted to the subject of Lord Selkirk's proposed visit to Assiniboia, and Macdonell assured the others


Simon M'tavish, Founder Of The North-West Company
From a water-color drawing in M'Gill University Library

that the North-West Company had nothing to fear from Selkirk, and that if extreme measures were necessary Selkirk should be quietly assassinated. 'The half-breeds,' he declared, 'will take him while he is asleep, 'early in the morning.' Macdonell went so far as to mention the name of a Bois Brule who would be willing to bring Lord Selkirk down with his musket, if necessary.

Bourke told to his fellow-prisoners, Patrick Corcoran and Michael Heden, what he had overheard. It thus happened that when Heden now learned that the founder of Assiniboia was actually camping on the Kaministikwia, he became alarmed for his safety. Though a prisoner, he seems to have had some liberty of movement. At any rate, he was able to slip off alone and to launch a small boat. Once afloat, he rowed to the island where Chatelain and his voyageurs had halted on the way to Fort William. The water was boisterous, and Heden had great difficulty in piloting his craft. He gained the island, however, and told Chatelain of his fear that Lord Selkirk might come to harm. Heden returned to the fort, and was there taken to task and roughly handled for his temerity in going to see one of Lord Selkirk's servants.

On August 12 the second section of the contingent arrived with the experienced campaigners. From the moment they raised their tents Lord Selkirk began to show a bold front against the Nor'westers. Captain D'Orsonnens was entrusted on the day of his arrival with a letter from Selkirk to William M'Gillivray, the most prominent partner at Fort William. In this M'Gillivray was asked his reason for holding in custody various persons whose names were given, and was requested to grant their immediate release. M'Gillivray was surprisingly conciliatory. He permitted several of the persons named in the letter to proceed at once to Selkirk's camp, and assured Lord Selkirk that they had never been prisoners. John Bourke and Michael Heden he still retained, because their presence v/as demanded in the courts at Montreal.

Acting as a justice of the peace, Selkirk now held a court in which he heard evidence from those whom M'Gillivray had surrendered. Before the day was over he had secured sufficient information, as he thought, to justify legal action against certain of the partners at Fort William. He decided to arrest William M'Gillivray first, and sent two men as constables with a warrant against M'Gillivray. On the afternoon of August 13 these officers went down the river to the fort. Along with them went a guard of nine men fully armed. While the guard remained posted without, the constables entered the fort. They found M'Gillivray in his room writing a letter. He read the warrant which they thrust into his hand, and then without comment said that he was prepared to go with them. His only desire was that two partners, Kenneth M'Kenzie and Dr John M'Loughlin, might accompany him to furnish bail. The con-stables acceded to this request, and the three Nor'westers got into a canoe and were paddled to Point De Meuron.

The officers conducted their prisoners to the Earl of Selkirk's tent. When Selkirk learned that the two other partners of the North- West Company were also in his power, he resolved upon an imprudent act, one which can scarcely be defended. Not only did he refuse his prisoner bail; he framed indictments against M'Kenzie and M'Loughlin and ordered the constables to take them in charge. A short examination of William M'Gillivray convinced Lord Selkirk that he would not be going beyond his powers were he to apprehend the remaining partners who were at Fort William. To accomplish this he drew up the necessary papers, and then sent the same constables to make the arrests. Twenty-five De Meuron soldiers under Captain D'Orsonnens and Lieutenant Fauche were detailed as an escort.

When the constables strode up the river bank to the fort to perform their official duty, they found a great throng of Canadians, half-breeds, and Indians gathered about the entrance. D'Orsonnens and the bulk of the escort remained behind on the river within easy call. Near the gateway the officers saw two of the partners whom they were instructed to apprehend, and immediately served them with warrants. A third partner, John M'Donald, made a sturdy show of resistance. He de-claimed against the validity of the warrant, and protested that no stranger dare enter the fort until William M'Gillivray was set free. A scramble followed. Some of the Nor'westers tried to close the gate, while the con-stables struggled to make their way inside. When one of the constables shouted lustily for aid, the bugle blew at the boats. This was by prearrangement the signal to Captain Matthey at Point De Meuron that the con-stables had met with opposition. The signal.


William M'Gillivray, A Partner In The North-West Company
From a photograph in M 'Gill University Library

however, proved unnecessary. In spite of the angry crowd at the entrance, Selkirk's men pushed open the gate of the fort. They seized M'Donald, who struggled fiercely, and bore him away towards the boats. The soldiers marched up from the boats, and, in a moment, Fort William was in their pos-session. Before further help arrived, in response to the bugle-call, the struggle was over. Six partners of the North-West Company were taken to the boats and carried to Lord Selkirk's encampment. These were John M'Donald, Daniel M'Kenzie, Allan M'Donald, Hugh M'Gillis, Alexander M'Kenzie, and Simon Fraser, the last named being the noted explorer. Captain D'Orsonnens stationed a guard within the fort, and him-self remained behind to search the papers of those who had been arrested.

By the time Lord Selkirk had finished the examination of his fresh group of prisoners the hour was late. He did not wish to keep any of the partners in confinement, and so he arranged that they should go back to their quarters at the fort for the night. The prisoners promised that they would behave in seemly fashion, and do nothing of a hostile nature. There is evidence to show that before morning many papers were burned in the mess-room kitchen at the fort. Word was also brought to Lord Selkirk that a quantity of firearms and ammunition had been re-moved from Fort William during the night. In consequence of this information he issued another warrant, authorizing a 'search for arms.' When the search was made fifty or more guns and fowling-pieces were found hidden among some hay in a barn. Eight "barrels of gunpowder were also found lying in a swampy place not far from the fort, and the manner in which the grass was trampled down indicated that the barrels had been deposited there very recently. When Selkirk learned of this attempt to remove arms and ammunition, he felt justified in adopting stringent measures. He ordered what was practically an occupation of Fort William. Most of the Canadians, Bois Brűlés, and Indians in the service of the North-West Company were commanded to leave the fort and to cross to the other side of the river. Their canoes were confiscated. The nine partners were held as prisoners and closely watched. Selkirk's force abandoned Point De Meuron and erected their tents on ground near Fort William. The hearing was continued, and it was finally decided that the accused should be committed for trial at York and conducted thither under a strong guard.

Selkirk had not exceeded his authority as a justice of the peace in holding the investigations and in sending the partners for trial to the judicial headquarters of the province. But he had also seized the property of the North- West Company and driven its servants from their fort, and this was straining his legal powers. The task of taking the nine partners to York was entrusted to Lieutenant Fauche. Three canoes were provisioned for the journey. Indians regularly employed by the North-West Company were engaged as canoe men and guides. On August 18 the party set out from Fort William. At first the journey went tranquilly enough. On the eighth day, about one o'clock in the afternoon, the party drew up their canoes on Isle au Parisien, in Whitefish Bay, to take dinner. A heavy westerly breeze sprang up, but they were on the leeward side of the island and did not notice its full strength. Lieutenant Fauche had misgivings, however, and before he would resume the journey he consulted his prisoner, William M'Gillivray, who was an expert canoe man. M'Gillivray was confident that the 'traverse ' to Sault Ste Marie could be made in safety if the Indian guides exercised great caution. The guides, on the other hand, objected to leaving the island. Their advice was not heeded, and the three canoes put out. Very soon they were running before a squall and shipping water. The first canoe turned its prow in the direction of Isle aux Erables, lying to the left, and the other two followed this example. Near Isle aux Erables there were some shoals destined now to cause tragic disaster. In attempting to pass these shoals the leading canoe was capsized. The others, so heavily laden that they could do nothing to rescue their companions, paddled hurriedly to shore, unloaded part of their cargoes, and then hastened to the spot where their comrades were struggling in the stormy waters. But it was too late. In spite of the most heroic efforts nine of the twenty-one persons belonging to the wrecked canoe were drowned. Kenneth M'Kenzie, of the North-West Company, was one of those who perished; six of the others were Indians; the remaining two were discharged soldiers. Another canoe was procured at Sault Ste Marie. The party continued its journey and reached York on September 3. Fauche at once sought the attorney-general, in order to take proper legal steps, but found that he was absent. The prisoners meanwhile applied for a writ of habeas corpus, and Fauche was instructed to take them to Montreal. This was to take them to the home of the Nor'westers, where they would be supported by powerful influences. On September 10, when the partners arrived in Montreal, they were at once ad-mitted to bail.

Meanwhile, Lord Selkirk continued to exercise full sway over Fort William and its environs. He had himself no misgivings whatever with regard to the legality of his treatment of the Nor'westers. In his view he had taken possession of a place which had served, to quote his own words, 'the last of any in the British dominions, as an asylum for banditti and murderers, and the receptacle for their plunder.' During the ensuing winter he sent out expeditions to capture the posts belonging to the North-West Company at Michipicoten, Rainy Lake, and Fond du Lac. In March he commissioned a part of his fol-lowers to advance into the territory of Assiniboia to restore order. The veterans whom he sent artfully arranged their journey so that they should approach 'the Forks' from the south. The Nor'westers in Fort Douglas were wholly unaware that a foe was advancing against them. On a blustering night, amid storm and darkness, Selkirk's men crept up to the walls, carrying ladders. In a trice they had scaled the ramparts, and the fort was in their possession.

On the first day of May 1817 Lord Selkirk himself went forward to the west from Fort William, taking with him the bodyguard which he had procured at Drummond Island. He followed the fur traders 'route up the Kaministikwia to Dog Lake, thence, by way of the waters which connect with Rainy Lake, on to the Lake of the Woods, and down the rushing Winnipeg. After a journey of seven weeks he emerged from the forest-clad wilderness and saw for the first time the little row of farms which the toil of his long-suffering colonists had brought into being on the open plains.


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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