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Red River and Pembina

Scarcely had the settlers taken stock of their surroundings on the Red River when they were chilled to the marrow with a sudden terror. Towards them came racing on horse-back a formidable-looking troop, decked out in all the accoutrements of the Indian,, spreading feather, dangling tomahawk, and a thick coat of war-paint. To the newcomers it was a never-to-be-forgotten spectacle. But when the riders came within close range, shouting and gesticulating, it was seen that they wore borrowed apparel, and that their speech was a medley of French and Indian dialects. They were a troop of Bois Brűlés, Metis, or half-breeds of French and Indian blood, aping for the time the manners of their mothers' people. Their object was to tell Lord Selkirk's party that settlers were not wanted on the Red River; that it was the country of the fur traders, and that settlers must go farther afield.

This was surely an inhospitable reception, after a long and fatiguing journey. Plainly the Nor'westers were at it again, trying now to frighten the colonists away, as they had tried before to keep them from coming. These mounted half-breeds were a deputation from Fort Gibraltar, the Nor'westers' nearest trading-post, which stood two miles higher up at 'the Forks,' where the Red River is joined by the Assiniboine.

Nevertheless, Governor Macdonell, having planned as dignified a ceremony as the circum-stances would allow, sent to the Nor'westers at Fort Gibraltar an invitation to be present at the official inauguration of Lord Selkirk's colony. At the appointed hour, on September 4, several traders from the fort, together with a few French Canadians and Indians, put in an appearance. In the presence of this odd company Governor Macdonell read the Earl of Selkirk's patent to Assiniboia. About him was drawn up a guard of honor, and overhead the British ensign fluttered in the breeze. Six small swivel-guns, which had been brought with the colonists, belched forth a salute to mark the occasion. The Nor'westers were visibly impressed by this show of authority and power. In pretended friendship they entered Governor Macdonell's tent and accepted his hospitality before departing. At variance with the scowls of trapper and trader towards the settlers was the attitude of the full-blooded Indians who were camping along the Red River. From the outset these red-skins were friendly, and their conduct was soon to stand the settlers in good stead.

The provisions brought from Hudson Bay were fast diminishing and would soon be at an end. True, the Nor'westers offered for sale supplies of oats, barley, poultry, and the like, but their prices were high and the settlers had not the means of purchase. But there was other food. Myriads of buffalo roamed over the Great Plains. Herds of these animals often darkened the horizon like a slowly moving cloud. In summer they might be seen crop-ping the prairie grass, or plunging and rolling about in muddy 'wallows.' In winter they moved to higher levels, where lay less snow to be removed from the dried grass which they devoured. At that season those who needed to hunt the buffalo for food must follow them wherever they went. This was now the plight of the settlers: winter was coming on and food was already scarce. The settlers must seek out the winter haunts of the buffalo.

The Indians were of great service, for they offered to act as guides.

A party to hunt the buffalo was organized. Like a train of pilgrims, the majority of the colonists now set out afoot. Their dark-skinned escort, mounted on wiry ponies, bent their course in a southerly direction. The redskins eyed with amusement the queer-clad strangers whom they were guiding. These were ignorant of the ways of the wild prairie country and badly equipped to face its difficulties. Sometimes the Indians indulged in horse-play, and a few of them were unable to keep their hands off the settlers' possessions. One Highlander lost an ancient musket which he treasured. A wedding ring was taken by an Indian guide from the hand of one of the women. Five days of straggling march brought the party to a wide plateau where the Indians said that the buffalo were accustomed to pasture. Here the party halted, at the junction of the Red and Pembina rivers, and awaited the arrival of Captain Macdonell, who came up next day on horseback with three others of his party.

Temporary tents and cabins were erected, and steps were taken to provide more commodious shelters. But this second winter threatened to be almost as uncomfortable as the first had been on Hudson Bay. Captain Macdonell selected a suitable place south of the Pembina River, and on this site a store-house and other buildings were put up. The end of the year saw a neat little encampment, surrounded by palisades, where before had been nothing but unbroken prairie. As a finishing touch, a flagstaff was raised within the stockade, and in honor of one of Lord Selkirk's titles the name Fort Daer was given to the whole. In the meantime a body of seventeen Irishmen, led by Owen Keveny, had arrived from the old country, having accomplished the feat of making their way across the ocean to Hudson Bay and up to the settlement during the single season of 1812. This additional force was housed at once in Fort Daer along with the rest. Until spring opened, buffalo meat was to be had in plenty, the Indians bringing in quantities of it for a slight reward. So unconscious were the buffalo of danger that they came up to the very palisades, giving the settlers an excellent view of their drab-brown backs and fluffy, curling manes.

On the departure of the herds in the spring-time there was no reason why the colonists should remain any


Hunting the Buffalo
From a painting by George Catlin
 

longer at Fort Daer. Accordingly the entire band plodded wearily back to the ground which they had vacated above 'the Forks ' on the Red River. As the season of 1813 advanced, more solid structures were erected on this site, and the place became known as Colony Gardens. An attempt was now made to prepare the soil and to sow some seed, but it was a difficult task, as the only agricultural implement possessed by the settlers was the hoe. They next turned to the river in search of food, only to find it almost empty of fish. Even the bushes, upon which clusters of wild berries ought to have been found, were practically devoid of fruit. Nature seemed to have veiled her countenance from the hapless settlers, and to be mocking their most steadfast efforts. In their dire need they were driven to use weeds for food. An indigenous plant called the prairie apple grew in abundance, and the leaves of a species of the goosefoot family were found to be nourishing.

With the coming of autumn 1813 the experiences of the previous year were repeated. Once more they went over the dreary road to Fort Daer. Then followed the most cruel winter that the settlers had yet endured. The snow fell thickly and lay in heavy drifts, and the buffalo with animal foresight had wandered to other fields. The Nor'westers sold the colonists a few provisions, but were egging on their allies, the Bois Brűles, who occupied a small post in the vicinity of the Pembina, to annoy them whenever possible. It required courage of the highest order on the part of the colonists to battle through the winter. They were in extreme poverty, and in many cases their frost-bitten, starved bodies were wrapped only in rags before spring came. Those who still had their plaids, or other presentable garments, were prepared to part with them for a morsel of food. With the coming of spring once more, the party travelled north-ward to 'the Forks ' of the Red River, re-solved never again to set foot within the gates of Fort Daer.

Meanwhile, some news of the desperate state of affairs on the Red River had reached the Earl of Selkirk in Scotland. So many were the discouragements that one might for-give him if at this juncture he had flung his colonizing scheme to the winds as a lost venture. The lord of St Mary's Isle did not, however, abandon hope; he was a persistent man and not easily turned aside from his purpose. Now he went in person to the straths and glens of Sutherlandshire to recruit more settlers. For several years the crofters in this section of the Highlands had been ejected in ruthless fashion from their holdings. Those who aimed to 'quench the smoke of cottage fires' had sent a regiment of soldiers into this shire to cow the Highlanders into submission. Lord Selkirk came at a critical moment and extended a helping hand to the outcasts. A large company agreed to join the colony of Assiniboia, and under Selkirk's own superintendence they were equipped for the jour-ney. As the sad-eyed exiles were about to leave the port of Helmsdale, the earl passed among them, dispensing words of comfort and of cheer.

This contingent numbered ninety-seven per-sons. The vessel carrying them from Helms-dale reached the Prince of Wales of the Hudson's Bay Company, on which they embarked, at Stromness in the Orkneys. The parish of Kildonan, in Sutherlandshire, had the largest representation among these emigrants. Names commonly met with on the ship's register were Gunn, Matheson, MacBeth, Sutherland, and Bannerman.

After the Prince of Wales had put to sea, fever broke out on board, and the contagion quickly spread among the passengers. Many of them died. They had escaped from beggary on shore only to perish at sea and to be consigned to a watery grave. The vessel reached Hudson Bay in good time, but for some un-known reason the captain put into Churchill, over a hundred miles north of York Factory. This meant that the newcomers must camp on the Churchill for the winter; there was nothing else to be done. Fortunately partridge were numerous in the neighborhood of their encampment, and, as the uneventful months dragged by, the settlers had an unstinted supply of fresh food. In April 1814 forty-one members of the party, about half of whom were women, undertook to walk over the snow to York Factory. The men drew the sledges on which their provisions were loaded and went in advance, clearing the way for the women. In the midst of the company strode a solemn-visaged piper. At one moment, as a dirge wailed forth, the spirits of the people drooped and they felt themselves beaten and forsaken. But anon the music changed. Up through the scrubby pine and over the mantle of snow rang the skirl of the undefeated; and as they heard the gathering song of Bonnie Dundee or the summons to fight for Royal Charlie, they pressed forward with unfaltering steps.

This advance party came to York Factory, and, continuing the journey, reached Colony Gardens without misadventure early in the summer. They were better husbandmen than their predecessors, and they quickly addressed themselves to the cultivation of the soil. Thirty or forty bushels of potatoes were planted in the black loam of the prairie. These yielded a substantial increase. The thrifty Sutherlanders might have saved the tottering colony, had not Governor Macdonell committed an act which, however legally right, was nothing less than foolhardy in the circumstances, and which brought disaster in its train.

In his administration of the affairs of the colony Macdonell had shown good executive ability and a willingness to endure every trial that his followers endured. Towards the Nor'westers, however, he was inclined to be stubborn and arrogant. He was convinced that he must adopt stringent measures against them. He determined to assert his authority as governor of the colony under Lord Selkirk's patent. Undoubtedly Macdonell had reason to be indignant at the unfriendly attitude of the fur traders; yet, so far, this had merely taken the form of petty annoyance, and might have been met by good nature and diplomacy.

In January 1814 Governor Macdonell issued a proclamation pronouncing it unlawful for any person who dealt in furs to remove from the colony of Assiniboia supplies of flesh, fish, grain, or vegetable. Punishment would be meted out to those who offended against this official order. The aim of Macdonell was to keep a supply of food in the colony for the support of the new settlers. He was, however, offering a challenge to the fur traders, for his policy meant in effect that these had no right in Assiniboia that it was to be kept for the use of settlers alone. Such a mandate could not fail to rouse intense hostility among the traders, whose doctrine was the very opposite. The Nor'westers were quick to seize the occasion to strike at the struggling colony.


Red River Colony


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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