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Conflict at Red River: Collision at Seven Oaks

by Joe Martin

The Forks and the Battle of Seven Oaks in Manitoba History
Edited by Robert Coutts and Richard Stuart
Manitoba Historical Society, 1994. ISBN 0-921950-12-8

When I was in Dr. W. L. Morton’s historical methodology course at St. John’s College at the University of Manitoba, I was taught that we had to answer six questions: Who?, What?, Where?, When?, Why?, and How? Here are the questions and my answers:

What happened? Twenty-two people were killed. Where? Seven Oaks in the Red River country which, of course, was well known at that time and is now the eastern part of West Kildonan in the City of Winnipeg. When? 19 June 1816. Who was killed? Twenty-one Hudson’s Bay Company employees and settlers led by the Governor Robert Semple, and one Metis. Why did it happen? That is the subject I will be discussing in this paper. How did it happen? In a brief skirmish, or whatever the reader wishes to call it, between two opposing groups. At the end of this paper, I am going to ask the reader to look at a variety of dictionary definitions, and come to their own conclusion of what occurred on that fateful day.

Why Did the Conflict Occur?

There was, in the latter part of the eighteenth century and the early part of the nineteenth century, a commercial struggle for control of the fur trade. By 1816 there were only two companies engaged in this struggle; the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company, although prior to that there had been a number of commercial rivals. On top of this commercial rivalry there was a clash between two opposing ways of life—that of the itinerant fur trader and the permanent settler. Why the skirmish? This rivalry held the potential for violence and set the context for the events at Seven Oaks. The skirmish occurred because of human behaviour patterns, specifically those of Governor Robert Semple.

Miles Macdonell, the first governor of Red River
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The Players

A description of a few of the key players is instructive. Thomas Douglas, the fifth Earl of Selkirk, is very well known. The first Hudson’s Bay Governor was Miles Macdonell. Colin Robertson played a key role on behalf of the Bay, even though he was an exNor’wester. Robert Semple became Governor of the colony in late 1815, and is the one to whom I attribute ultimate responsibility for the day. Alexander Macdonell was a North West Company Governor in this period and was first cousin to Miles. Duncan Cameron was a very tough leader and was also a North West Company Governor. Peguis was Chief of the Saulteaux (Ojibwa) tribe that had recently arrived at the Forks. Cuthbert Grant, “Captain General of the Half Breeds”, and Francois Boucher, a Metis messenger, were other key players. It was the meeting between Boucher and Semple that resulted in the violence at Seven Oaks.

Cuthbert Grant
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Background to the Conflict

In 1804 there was a merger of the North West Company and the XY Company in Montreal. The XY Company had been put together by earlier mergers of a number of smaller companies. The result of the amalgamation was a new company operating out of Montreal with an economic transcontinental trading system.

Competition from Montreal was having its impact on the Hudson’s Bay Company that had traditionally traded into the Red River from the Bay. In 1800, the Hudson’s Bay Company had to cut its dividends, which had been running for most of the latter part of the last century at 8%, to 4%, and in 1809 dividends were suspended entirely.

In the commercial world every challenge requires a response. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s response to deteriorating financial performance was:

  1. Better supervision of the trade. (I know this sounds like a management consultant’s recommendation of the early 1990s, but why the company would not have had better supervision of the trade up to then is not clear.)
  2. Their employees, who they called servants, were to be given more interest in increasing return. The North West Company was a partnership, while the Hudson’s Bay Company was a limited company. A partnership is required to distribute all of its profits annually so capital was not accumulated. There was, however, excellent cash flow and, to use a modem term, their employees were highly “incentivized” to do well. The Hudson’s Bay people were not. They were employees who received wages from the company but were not encouraged to take risks, which, in the struggle for control of the fur trade, involved physical risk.
  3. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s major response, which lead eventually to what happened in 1816, was colonization, i.e., the decision to plant a permanent settlement in the Red River country. That was a major decision which had been historically opposed, not only by the North West Company, but also by the Hudson’s Bay Company at both the level of its London Committee and by its field personnel.

The Colony

In 1811, Thomas Douglas, the Fifth Earl of Selkirk, was granted 116,000 square miles covering parts of three provinces and two American states. Douglas had already planted two settlements in what is now Eastern Canada; one in Prince Edward Island and one in Ontario. He was concerned with the plight of the Scottish farmers who had been cleared off their lands in the old country. He was a philanthropist and was able to convince the London Committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who had been historically opposed to settlement, that the establishment of Red River would give them a cheap source of food supply. In any survey of business today the number one issue is cost and cost was also a major issue 175 years ago. The company had huge supply lines and obtaining food was a real cost item. Furthermore, transporting food means you are not transporting something else, either trade goods or furs. The Nor’westers were concerned that settlement would make good the Hudson’s Bay Company’s land claim, which they considered suspect. The Nor’westers considered this a diabolical plot to destroy both the fur trade and the North West Company.

The First Settlers

In July 1811, 36 immigrants left Stornoway under Governor Miles Macdonell. The crossing took 60 days. They arrived so late in the season they were not able to come down from the Bay to the Red River. It wasn’t until 30 August 1812, that the first advance party arrived at Red River. By this time the party of settlers had dwindled to 18. One hundred and twenty more settlers arrived in October, plus women and children, and wintered at Pembina. In the winter of 1812-13 there was no real indication of the problems that would follow because good relations were established with the North West Company. The process was helped by the fact that the two governors were cousins. Good relations were also established with the freemen, the people who had been in the trade either with the Hudson’s Bay Company or the North West Company, and now had left their employers and were trading independently, as well as with the Metis and the Saulteaux Indians.

In the summer of 1813 the first seeding occurred and was followed by two unfortunate events. The crops failed and the third party of immigrants did not arrive. In 1814, things got worse. On 8 January, the Governor imposed an embargo on the export of pemmican from Assiniboia for one year. His concern was that he knew new settlers were coming and he wanted to have enough food to provide for them. The North West Company, however, saw the embargo in a very different light. They viewed it as an attempt to destroy their trade. Each perception was understandable. In June, the third party of 83 settlers arrived with 15 more in the Fall. In July, Macdonell declared a proclamation against the hunting of buffalo on horseback near the settlement. That decision was supported by both the Indians and the North West Company, but not by the Metis who considered it a challenge to their way of life. Later, the North West Company used the proclamation, which they originally supported, to stir up the Metis against the settlement. At this time, too, Duncan Cameron took over from Alexander Macdonell as North West Company Governor. Cameron was not nearly as amenable to getting along with the colony as Alexander Macdonell had been. He was a very tough individual who clearly had the intention to get rid of the Red River Settlement.

Robert Semple, no date
Source: Archives of Manitoba

1815

By this time the Hudson’s Bay Company was becoming concerned and applied to the Colonial Secretary for the protection of a small military force. Their request was rejected. Concurrently the Nor’wester Council resolved to stamp out the colony. One of the steps in the process was the harassment of the settlers and Miles Macdonell was arrested. A large proportion of the colony, one hundred and forty settlers, left in North West canoes, including Macdonell as a prisoner. (Among the departing settlers were some of the Bannermans, the ancestors of John Diefenbaker.) Chief Peguis, head of the Saulteaux, was a good friend of the settlement. He encouraged the settlers to go north to Lake Winnipeg for their own safety, which they did. In their absence all of their buildings, except the blacksmith shop, were burned by the Nor’westers. Then Colin Robertson, an ex Nor’wester who knew the unlawful ways of the NWC, arrived to lead the Hudson’s Bay Company personnel. Robertson was the type of person who would fight fire with fire. In the late summer he convinced the colonists to return. They gathered the harvest and began the rebuilding process. In October, Robertson seized Duncan Cameron and Fort Gibraltar just to show he could do it. Later he released them.

In November, 84 more settlers arrived as did Governor Robert Semple.

A later redraft of Peter Fidler’s 1816 map of the Red River settlement showing the river lot survey and the approximate location of the Battle of Seven Oaks.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

1816

In the winter of 1815-16 there were rumours all up and down the Assiniboia trading system of the destruction of the settlement and Semple went out to try and take the pulse of the land. Robertson became very edgy and marched into Fort Gibraltar, arrested Cameron, seized the mail and found some incriminating documentation. Retaliation followed quickly. Alexander Macdonell and his men seized a Hudson’s Bay Company brigade and its fur, and raided Brandon House. Meanwhile, Colin Robertson and Semple were having their problems. The two could not get along and Robertson left. His departure was a crucial turning point and his last piece of advice was to destroy Fort Gibraltar and that was done. Now Semple was clearly in control of the colony, although he was without the presence of experienced trader like Robertson.

Skirmish at Seven Oaks

On 16 June 1816, three days before the event, Alexander Macdonell was at Portage La Prairie, 45 miles west of the Forks. There he ordered Cuthbert Grant to take provisions to the Nor’westers on Lake Winnipeg. To do so Grant and his party would have to travel overland because the Hudson’s Bay Company controlled the forks of the River so that the Nor’westers could no longer move their supplies from the Assiniboine to the Red River and on to Lake Winnipeg. On 18 June, Grant left Portage La Prairie with50 men and boys, a canoe and two carts. The next day he arrived at Catfish Creek, now called Omand’s Creek, three miles from the forks. He hid the canoe, transferred the pemmican and supplies to the two carts and set off in two groups in a northeasterly direction across the prairie. As Grant’s party moved across the plain, they travelled closer to the forks than they had anticipated and were spotted by the lookout at Fort Douglas. Through his spyglass Semple saw a body of armed men riding across the plain. The Metis, not sure whether they had been seen, captured three settlers in the fields so that the settlers could not go back and give warning to the Fort.

At this point in time Semple made the first of three key errors. He left the fort on foot with a party of 28 men but without the three pounder, which by the standards of that day would have been considered heavy artillery. He did this deliberately as his people asked him if he wanted to take it and he said no because they were going out to talk. Three quarters of a mile from the fort he spotted the Metis behind a clump of woods. He then realized that there were more Metis than he had thought so he sent John Bourke back to get the field piece.

His second error was his impatience. It would take a long time to get the three pounder, especially since it had to be pulled by an ox, so he continued to advance. The two groups then approached one another.

There were twice as many Metis as settlers. The Metis were mounted and were a disciplined group. (Every piece I have ever read by travelling British military officers compliments the Metis as a superb group of disciplined fighting people.) They were in a half moon circle. The colonists ended up moving forward in a straggly line and were on foot. The Metis were used to hunting buffalo, while the settlers were used to farming, although some of them may well have fought in the Napoleonic wars.

The Catalyst

At this point Grant sent Boucher out to meet with the settlers. As he rode out, Boucher shouted to Semple:

“What do you want?”

Semple replied: “What do YOU want?”

Boucher: “We want our fort.”

Semple: “Go to your fort.”

Boucher: “Why did you destroy our Fort, you damned rascal?”

Now occurred the third and final error by Semple. He grabbed the bridle of Boucher’s horse. My personal interpretation of the events was that he made the fundamental error of a British Imperialist dealing with a native, the error of arrogance. That arrogance had traditionally served the British Empire well as only six thousand people ruled the Indian sub-continent. However, if one looks at most of the history of the British Empire their great victories were won when the British had firepower and the people they were dealing with did not. That was not the case at Seven Oaks. Semple grabbed the bridle of Boucher’s horse and all hell broke loose. Boucher slid from his horse and a general discharge of arms followed. At the first volley a number of settlers were hit and went down. The disciplined Metis moved in to close the semi-circle and the settlers clustered around their leader. After the second volley more people fell and it was starting to look like shooting fish in a barrel. Semple was down. He spoke to Grant personally and said that if he got medical attention, he could be saved. Grant committed to do that, but he was called away to do something else and Semple was shot in the head. A number of other people who had begged for mercy were shot in the head and some very awful things were done to the settlers in the process of killing them.

If the reader would like more detail on these events there was something similar to a Royal Commission Report on Seven Oaks called the Coltman Report which spells out the details. The settlers felt the Report was biased toward the Nor’westers but it does not spare much detail of the horrors that took place.

Aftermath

The aftermath of all these events was that Cuthbert Grant occupied Fort Douglas and there no further killings or murders. One can imagine what the women and children at the fort were thinking after what had taken place out on the plains. Grant cleverly exploited their fears to get them to surrender the fort and to leave the next day.

Five years later, the two warring companies merged. Being sensible businessmen, they saw that competition made little sense. In addition, there was considerable government pressure for a merger as they did not like people being killed. In the merger Cuthbert Grant was one of two Nor’westers excluded from a position. Needless to say Grant was not too happy with that. Then an incredible man, George Simpson the overseas governor of the HBC, arrived on the scene in 1822.

Simpson began the process of winning Grant over to the Hudson’s Bay Company, recognizing that Grant was a man of talent. For Simpson, 21 of his people had been killed but he considered it simply “an affair of business”. Within less than ten years of the killing at Seven Oaks, Grant established Grantown along the Assiniboine River. Its role was to protect the tiny settlement, primarily against the American Sioux who were a feared force on the plains. The irony is that within less than a decade of nearly destroying the settlement, Grant had become its protector.

From Massacre to Battle to Incident

For nearly 150 years the killings which took place at Seven Oaks on 19 June 1816, were described as a massacre. When I was a student in the 1950s the term had changed to “battle”, which is the term I used when I spoke to the Manitoba Historical Society on the 150th anniversary of the infamous event. [1] The term currently in use (see the Encyclopedia Canadiana) is “incident”. Which of these terms, “massacre”, “battle” or “incident”, is correct?

The attached appendix defines the three words using the Webster Dictionary as a source. It also sets out three contemporary terms; “riot”, “affair” and “slaughter”. Finally, three other terms from the 1950s; “conflict”, “collision” and “skirmish”, are defined.

Conclusion

The reader is invited to draw their own conclusions as to the appropriate term(s) to describe what happened at Seven Oaks on 19 June 1816. My own conclusion, after many years of reflection, is that what occurred at Seven Oaks has to be placed in context. The context is that there had been conflict, sometimes violent conflict, in the Red River country among rival fur traders for over 60 years. This conflict had intensified in the period between 1812 and 1816, as the normal tension between settlers and traders was added to the historic tension between rival fur traders. Against this background a skirmish occurred, which quickly deteriorated into a massacre. This was not a “battle”, nor was it an “incident”. To describe what occurred as an “incident” is to trivialize the deaths of 22 people beyond comprehension, people who would otherwise have made an important contribution to the settlement of the Canadian prairies.

Sir George Simpson, HBC overseas governor
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives

Note

1. When I spoke to the Manitoba Historical Society twenty-five years ago the term “battle” was used. I vividly remember giving the lecture at the annual meeting of the Society, recognizing that there were a lot of sensitivities in the room, and being as careful as I’ve ever been in a public address. I thought I’d done a marvellous job of being absolutely neutral. I received very good, polite applause but at the end of the evening Anne Henderson, President of the Lord Selkirk Society, came up to me, eyes blazing, and said: “How could you Joe?” I said: “How could I what ...?” She said: “You know it wasn’t a battle ... you know it was a massacre ... how could you have called it a battle?”

Appendix

Alternative Definitions:

massacre

The indiscriminate, merciless killing of a number of human beings.

battle

A fight, especially a large scale engagement, between armed forces on land, sea or in the air.

incident

Something that happens as a result of something more important, a minor event.

riot

A wild, violent public disturbance by a number of persons assembled together.

affair

A thing to do, business.

slaughter

The killing of people in larger numbers, as in battle.

conflict

A fight; battle; struggle.

collision

A sudden violent contact between moving bodies.

skirmish

A brief fight or encounter carried on between small groups, usually part of a battle in war.

Page revised: 6 October 2011

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