Introduction: Reflections on the Battle of Seven Oaks
by Robert Coutts
The Forks and the Battle of Seven Oaks in Manitoba History
The above lines, the translated first stanza of a song penned in 1816 by the Metis bard Pierre Falcon entitled “Chanson de la Grenouillere”, describe the violent events that occurred at Seven Oaks (la Grenouillere) 178 years ago in 1816. The “Battle of Seven Oaks”, as it is commonly known in English, has enjoyed an honoured, if controversial, place in the historiography of Western Canada. As a seminal event in the settlement history of the West, Seven Oaks has traditionally represented for Metis peoples the coalescence of strong nationalist sentiments, the origins of which can be traced to the early days of the fur trade. For traditional Anglo-historians in the West, on the other hand, the battle represented the violent struggle of European settlers against the “forces of barbarism”; a civilization versus savagery model that both telescoped and defined colonial relations in the era of European expansion and consolidation. The historiography of a more recent era, however, has tended to be less inflamed, usually choosing to view the battle in tragic terms as either the resistance of a marginalized people against economic domination, or more frequently as the inevitable outcome of a commercial war in the West among rival fur trading concerns. Despite this changing historiography, The Battle of Seven Oaks still manages to invoke passions on both sides, bespeaking not only the significance of the event in the history of Western Canada, but the impact, felt to this day, of colonial policies and practices from almost two centuries ago.
The papers in this section were first given at a symposium entitled “The Battle of The Seven Oaks: Historical Perspectives” held at St. John’s College, University of Manitoba on 22 October, 1991. The symposium was held to mark both the 175th anniversary of the battle and the centennial of the erection of a Seven Oaks plaque which commemorated the event, the first historical marker ever erected in the West. Contributions to the symposium and to this volume came from a number of people whose interest, both scholarly and non-scholarly, lay in the field of Metis history and politics, as well as in the history of the fur trade and early settlement periods. They range from an examination of the actual events at Seven Oaks and its historiography, to discussions of the larger political and social setting of the Selkirk settlement and the historic and contemporary role of Metis politics and nationalism in Western Canada. Given, for the most part, as verbal presentations at the 1991 symposium, the papers in this volume have been revised by the authors for publication. By and large each, I believe, accurately reflects the comments made by contributors at the symposium.
A summary of the events of 19 June 1816, as well as a brief narrative on what led up to these events, might prove useful for readers.
One must look for the roots of the conflict at Seven Oaks to the introduction of the fur trade into the economic and social life of the Aboriginal peoples who inhabited the western parklands and prairies, as well as to the competing economies of European and Euro-Canadian traders in the region. First established at posts along Hudson and James Bays in the 17th century, the Hudson’s Bay Company had moved inland by late in the next century, meeting head-on its commercial rivals—initially independent traders and later the North West Company—that operated from the St. Lawrence basin. By late in the 18th century competing posts dotted the lakes and rivers of the West from Lake Superior to the Athabaska country as traders vied for the rich pelts of the beaver, muskrat, fox and marten that were supplied by the Cree, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Ojibwa and Dene peoples of the region. The intermarriage of French Canadian traders and First Nations peoples resulted in a new race of Metis peoples in the West who gained their livelihood from the fur trade as traders, interpreters, boatmen, cart drivers and provisioners. The Metis developed their own social and cultural identity and their own customs and traditions, and in the process laid the groundwork for a new national and political identity. As Fred Shore explains elsewhere in this volume: “The template upon which they built their world involved the presence of the horse and buffalo in an area where distance to fur sources combined with rampant competition to provide an economic basis for an enterprising people”.
By the early years of the 19th century the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers had begun to play an important role in the intricate and extensive provisioning network of the North West Company, a role that was central to the development of a Metis economy in the West. With the establishment of Fort Gibraltar at the Forks in 1810, the North West Company enjoyed a significant advantage over their rivals in the control of the pemmican trade of the Red River and Assiniboine valleys. Cognizant of this, the Hudson’s Bay Company determined that a presence at the Forks was required. The ambitious settlement scheme of Thomas Douglas, the Fifth Earl of Selkirk, a major shareholder in the HBC, was viewed by that company as having a number of advantages. A colony at the Forks would help combat Nor’Wester influence in the lower Red River district, disrupt the Canadians’ critical supply line to the interior, provide a home for retiring HBC servants, and ultimately fulfil the role as supplier of agricultural foodstuffs to the fur trade.
When the first party of Selkirk’s Scottish settlers arrived at the Forks in 1812 they met no opposition from the Metis inhabitants of the district. However, the story of the first years of the settlement, which is related in greater detail in the papers contained in this volume, was marked by increasing friction with the North West Company and its Metis employees, and let ultimately to the pemmican embargo of 1814, the burning of the Selkirk settlers’ crops and homes in the summer of 1815, the sacking of Brandon House by the North West Company, and the destruction of Fort Gibraltar by Colin Robertson of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1816. The stage was now set for the events at Seven Oaks, and within the context of an intense competition for furs, as well as the gathering storm over commercial control of the Red River district, the battle was, as Gerald Friesen argues, not an unexpected aberration, but a predictable flare-up in an intense conflict between a fur trade empire under challenge and its lightly regarded opponent. 
A summary of the known facts relating to the Battle of Seven Oaks can be quickly stated. On the 19th of June 1816 a large party of Metis freighters under the leadership of Cuthbert Grant, a North West Company clerk and trader in the Qu’Appelle district, was in the process of moving a supply of pemmican from the upper Assiniboine to Nor’Wester canoe brigades on Lake Winnipeg. Hoping to avoid the Forks, which was now controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company, Grant’s party left the Assiniboine in the vicinity of what is now Omand’s Creek and moved overland, coming within a mile and a half of Fort Douglas, the colony fort located approximately a mile north of the river junction. Spotted by the inhabitants of the post, a small group of settlers under the command of the colony governor, Robert Semple, moved out to meet Grant’s party, intercepting them near a shady grove of trees known locally as La Grenouillere (Frog Plain), or Seven Oaks, some distance north of the Forks. A verbal confrontation between the hostile parties led to a general exchange of gunfire (which side fired the first shot has been the subject of much debate since the Coltman inquiry of 1818) and resulted in the death of twenty-one settlers and one Metis. Grant then seized Fort Douglas while the surviving colonists embarked for York Factory.
In 1817 Lord Selkirk, who had arrived in Canada the year before, set out for the West with a ragtag army of disbanded Demeuron soldiers. Selkirk’s private army managed to capture the North West Company depot at Fort William and later recaptured Fort Douglas. The Selkirk Settlers, who had been encamped near Lake Winnipeg, were persuaded to return to the settlement and the colony was re-established on the banks of the Red River. The merger of the two competing fur trade companies four years later in 1821 put an end to the open hostilities between the Metis and the HBC sponsored settlement on Red River. Retrenchment under Northern Department governor George Simpson resulted in the cutting of almost twothirds of the fur trade workforce and many were “retired” to Red River where they took up new lives as farmers, provisioners and boatmen for the Hudson’s Bay Company. By the late 1820s Red River had been transformed into a largely native settlement and it would remain so until the arrival of the Canadians and other immigrants after 1870.
The papers in this volume examine not only the roots and events of the conflict at Seven Oaks, but the battle’s role in the historiography of Western Canada and the development of Metis nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Joe Martin’s paper “Conflict at Red River: Collision at Seven Oaks” examines the events of the conflict and portrays Seven Oaks as a massacre, the roots of which, Martin argues, lay in the often violent world of fur trade life in the 18th and 19th century. Lyle Dick’s thoughtful and wellresearched paper entitled “Historical Writing on ‘Seven Oaks’: The Assertion of Anglo-Canadian Cultural Dominance in the West,” reviews over a century and a half of writing on Seven Oaks and concludes that most of the Anglo-Canadian versions of the event represent the creation of a romantic mythology intended to establish and perpetuate the self-image of a dominant prairie AngloCanadian society. Contextual background for Seven Oaks and the establishment of the Selkirk colony at Red River is explored by Jack Bumsted in his paper “Lord Selkirk and his Agents”. Focussing on Selkirk’s three settlements in North America; at Red River, Prince Edward Island and Baldoon in Upper Canada, Bumsted traces the careers of eighteen of the earl’s deputies, six of whom were at various times in charge of affairs at Red River, and concludes that poor management on the part of both Selkirk and many of his agents doomed his settlement ventures to failure. Fred Shore’s “The Origins of Metis Nationalism and the Pemmican Wars, 1780-1821”, traces the origins ofthe Battle of Seven Oaks to the differing relationships of the competing fur trade companies with the indigenous peoples of the West. The concept of Metis nationhood, Shore argues, had been germinating prior to Seven Oaks and the Pemmican Wars, but it was these events which “successfully stimulated [the Metis] to realize their potential and to accept the title and practice of nationhood”. The idea of Metis nationalism is further explored by Yvon Dumont, formerly the President of the Manitoba Metis Federation and now the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba, in his contribution “Metis Nationalism: Then and Now.” Dumont argues that the views and interpretations of Metis people have played little or no part in the formulation of a Canadian historical identity and that much of the traditional writing on Metis peoples is not only biased, but racist. Dumont calls for new national histories that incorporate the views of Metis peoples and scholars; national histories that hopefully, will lead to a reformulation of the Canadian identity. The final contribution, by Jennifer S. H. Brown, provides a commentary on the symposium and offers some observations about the Battle of Seven Oaks as an historical “event”. Brown describes the battle according to what Fogelson would call an “epitomizing event”, and views Seven Oaks as carrying “extra burdens of meaning” and symbolic significance. She also poses a number of questions in regard to the events at Seven Oaks—questions which, for the most part, await further research and study.
The papers in this volume provoked a lively discussion among audience members when they were first presented at the 1991 symposium. It is hoped that their publication here will continue this debate and discussion and provide the reader with a new and challenging look at a seminal event on the history of Western Canada.
Page revised: 18 December 2011