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The Sacking of Peter Fidler’s Brandon House, 1816

by C. Stuart Houston and Mary I. Houston
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Manitoba History, Number 16, Autumn 1988

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The two main fur companies in the North West were virtually at war with one another for seven years before their merger in 1821. The smaller Hudson’s Bay Company had the benefit of a legitimate charter to trade first in the entire area draining into Hudson Bay. The employees were predominantly Orkneymen, literate, conservative and law-abiding. The Northwest Company had the advantage of larger numbers. Fewer of their employees were literate but they were adventuresome, sometimes reckless men. [1]

The advent of Lord Selkirk’s 116,000 square-mile Red River Settlement in 1811-12 had the support of the Hudson’s Bay Company but was actively and increasingly opposed by the North West Company. The settlers felt they had first call on any buffalo killed within Selkirk’s land grant. The “Pemmican War” of 1814 began when Sheriff Spencer, accompanied by Mr. Howse of the HBC Brandon House across the river, broke into the North West House, La Souris, on the Assiniboine River, and took four hundred bags of pemmican. Further pemmican, needed as food on their journey to Montreal, was seized from the North West fur trade brigades when they passed through the settlement center at The Forks, where the Assiniboine joined the Red River. Determined to force the abandonment of the Red River Colony, the North West people in turn arrested Howse for burglary and took Sheriff Spencer as a prisoner with them to Montreal. In 1815 Governor Miles Macdonell surrendered and one hundred forty of the settlers left for Upper Canada. After their crops were trodden and their buildings burned, all but three of the remaining sixty settlers retreated to Norway House. This was not the end of the Red River Colony, for Colin Robertson of the HBC came from Montreal with one hundred voyageurs, retrieved the sixty settlers, and reestablished them at The Forks, augmented by the arrival of another eighty settlers from Britain. Two of the cannons, seized by the NWC, were recovered. [2]

For a brief period, the momentum was with the HBC, who in 1816 rashly seized and captured the NWC post at Pembina, and later the NWC Fort Gibraltar at The Forks. This continuing conflict eventually led to the massacre of Hudson’s Bay Company Governor Semple and twenty of his men at Seven Oaks on 19 June 1816. [3]

Two other scrimmages between the two companies which led up to the events at Seven Oaks are recorded in Peter Fidler’s Brandon House Journal for 1815-1816 in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. [4] Peter Fidler, a remarkably capable map maker, explorer and fur trader, was then in charge of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Brandon House, seventeen miles down river from the present site of Brandon. [5]

Among Fidler’s many accomplishments are several of interest to naturalists. His journal from Cumberland House in 1797 provided the first unmistakable description of the Channel Catfish in the northwest. [6] When rediscovered recently, [7] this corroborated the published 1820s specimen collected there by Dr. John Richardson, [8] the locality of which had been doubted by ichthyologists for over 150 years because there were no modern records northwest of Winnipeg. [9] In the winter of 1820 Fidler provided the first accurate description of the 9- or 10-year cycle of the Snowshoe Hare and the Lynx, occurring synchronously with each other. [10]

Fidler’s journal, which begins on 16 July 1815, first tells of the annual trip by canoe from Jack River (Norway House) to York Factory on Hudson Bay. Fidler arrived there on 25 August, three days before the Hudson’s Bay Company’s supply ship, the Prince of Wales, brought both Robert Semple, the new “Governor General of all the Hudson’s Bay Company Territories,” and the fifth annual contingent of Selkirk settlers bound for the Red River. [11] Some of the Hudson’s Bay Company men quickly took advantage of the arrival of European women. George Ross married one of them on 30 August and another was married the next day.

Robert Semple, “requiring the exertions of a man of Abilities and Experience,” appointed Peter Fidler on 5 September to convey the Red River settlers inland without delay. [12] It was Semple’s initial plan to winter at Hudson House, on the Saskatchewan River southwest of present Prince Albert, “as being the most central place we have for the Northern & Southern places.” Semple’s plans changed when, on 31 October at the southern end of Lake Winnipeg, he learned of recent strife between the two fur companies. Colin Robertson “had made Mr. Duncan Cameron the NW proprietor at the Forks prisoner with Seraphim La Mar & kept them 3 or 4 days.”

Four days later, Semple and Fidler reached the Forks, at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. They were followed by the Selkirk settlers the next day. Here they learned that Hudson’s Bay Company houses at Riviere Qu’Appelle had recently been “burnt down” by the opposition company. The new Selkirk settlers received even more threatening news. “Mr. Fraser a ½ breed with orders to our people to immediately desist from building, but for them all to retire to Brandon House, or if they all did not leave the place in 24 Hours the Canadians would blow them to pieces ...”

Largely because of the threatened hostilities, on 7 November two boat-loads of Selkirk Settlers were sent south to Fort Daer on the Red River at the present site of Pembina, immediately south of the 49th parallel. (Fort Daer, built in 1812 by the first group of Red River settlers, had been named for Lord Selkirk, Baron Daer.) The next day there were “still 24 Colonists left here of all ages who could not be persuaded to embark.” Another marriage in November united Michael Boyle, boat builder, to a Miss Kennedy.

Governor Semple, because of the various threats, changed his plans and decided to spend the winter at the Forks. On 28 November he appointed Fidler to “go and remain at Brandon House.”

When Fidler arrived at Brandon House on 9 December, the men located there were: Peter Fidler; James Inkster, cooper; Thomas Fidler, writer; Thomas Favel, interpreter; John Lyons, hunter; Robert Clouston, blacksmith; James Anderson, tailor; James Moore; John Flett; Dan Donovan; Harry Gear; Rod Cunningham; Angus McIver; and John Kipling, Senior.

The Indians were a constant threat. On 26 January 1816 Jack Favel and Tom Kipling arrived at Brandon House from Fort Daer, “11 days on their journey not knowing the straight road.” They brought letters from Messrs McLeod, Pritchard and St. Germain [presumably Pierre Lemaire St. Germain from Montreal, perhaps the only member of the St. Germain clan at that time able to write],

relating a shocking massacre of 31 Bungies [Saulteaux Indians] out of 34 within 15 miles of Turtle River, by a large party of the Sioux Indians ... The Bungies being killed early in the morning of the 20th December last, those 3 who escaped turned back two Days after to the Tents & found their murdered & scalped country people except 2 or 3 women who it is supposed the Sioux had taken away alive [—] many of their country people they found half roasted and several had their limbs cut off, and some with knives still sticking in their throats.

However, provisions were plentiful that winter; between 15 February and 18 March Fidler’s men and the Indians trading at Brandon House collected 28,828 pounds of meat.

Affairs between the two companies were heating up. On 23 March, Fidler learned that

Mr Robertson & 12 men had on the 17th inst about 8 PM entered into the Canadian House at the Forks [Fort Gibraltar] and made all Prisoners, viz. Duncan Cameron, Serephim La Mar & the Canadian Master who then happened to be there from Winnipeg river ... There were about 14 Canadians at the time at the NW House—a letter was sent by Mr Robertson to Cameron & whilst the NW men unlocked the Gates & opened them, our men rushed in with charged bayonets and on Tuesday the 19th about noon the Canadian Northern Express arrived there and Mr Robertson seized it & I believe opened many letters it contained & read some of them were full of the NW intentions of Destroying the Colony this spring, aided by the half breeds ...

The Hudson’s Bay men, although outnumbered, seemed to believe that offense was the best defense. On 27 March Anthony McDonald arrived at Brandon House from Fort Daer and related that on 19 March “Messrs McDonell, Pritchard, White & McLeod had made prisoner in the Canadian House there of [Peter] Bostonais Pangman, the Master.”

Events at Brandon House took an ominous turn on 4 May when Bostonais and two men on horseback arrived at the North West Company trading post, La Souris, across the Assiniboine from Brandon House. Fidler noted the bad news in his journal: “Bostonais...was lately a prisoner at the Forks. I suppose he is liberated on parole. This man has great influence with the half breeds.” Two days later Bostonais, Moostoose & Boudrais’ sonwent on horseback to Riviere Qu’Appelle.

On 11 May at 5:00 a.m., “a Batteaux of ours with 3 men, 51 Bags Pemmican, 40 Packs Buffalo robes, arrived from Charlton House.” This boat had left the Hudson’s Bay Company post of Carlton on the Upper Assiniboine River near present Pelly on 29 April. [The better known Carlton House was on the North Saskatchean River]. It brought a letter from James Sutherland, written from near the junction of the Qu’Appelle with the Assiniboine, as follows:

8 o’clock AM, when we were attacked by about 50 Canadians & half breeds; this is the narrowest part of the river ... Two boats that was ahead of mine was disarmed & the men made prisoners ... when I landed there was upwards of 30 Guns pointed at me ... This has solely occurred through Mr Robertson having liberated Bostonais who arrived the night previous to the attack.

The Hudson’s Bay men taken prisoner were Brian Gilligan, Thomas McDermid, Patrick Maroney, Michael Kilkenny, George McKenzie, John Forbes, Hugh Fraser, Donald McKay, James Bruin, Thomas Kirkness, William Duncan, John Flett, Duncan McDonald, Angus McIver, Dan Donovan, Nick Kilbride, Andrew Sinclair, James Sandison, Martin Jourdan, Alexander McDonell, and Robert Sutherland, who had been in charge of Fort Qu’Appelle. [13]

On 21 May, “Mr Sutherland sent Mr. Finlayson over to the French House to ask liberty to go down to the Forks and after long hesitation they said those from Qu’Appelle might go, but to take no property from this belonging to this House.”

Real trouble for Fidler began at “112 past noon” on 1 June when “about 48 Half Breeds, Canadians, Freemen & Indians came all riding on horseback with their Flag flying blue about 4 feet square & a figure of 8 horizontally in the middle.” They turned and rode full speed into the yard.

Cuthbert Grant
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Cuthbert Grant then came up to me in the yard & demanded of me to deliver to him all the keys of our Stores, Warehouses, &c. I of course would not deliver them up. They then rushed into the House and broke open the warehouse Door first, plundered the Warehouse of every article it contained, tore up part of the cellar floor, & cut out the parchment windows, without saying for what this was done or by whose authority. Alexr McDonell, Seraphim, Bostonais & Allan McDonell were at their House looking on the whole time. They then broke open the Store Door & Barn Door & carried away almost everything there except the Pack of Furs & some empty kegs. They also plundered every person in the house of part of their private property & took away every horse belonging to the Company & European Servants. Those horses that Jno Lyons, T. Favill & Hal Bird [? - both names nearly illegible] had they let alone; all these men were armed with a Gun each, a pike at the end of a pole, some bows & arrows, swords &c.

There were only 3 European servants here which could make no effectual resistance & our half breeds would not lift a Gun, since last spring when at the Forks, the NW in the name of their half breeds wrote them a letter saying that if they lifted arms against them, they would massacre the whole of them. Thomas McKay was the principal person in breaking open our warehouse Door & Fraser the Barn Door. They also broke into the Smiths shop, and took away most of the articles it contained, and searched private room & bed places in the Houses & James Inkster has lost private property to above 40 sterling value in England & all the others considerable—myself was the next sufferer to a large amount. They carried on this plunder till 3 P.M. when they all went across the River to the NW Ho taking all the property in our Boat, and whey they got across they began again their Indian war whoop & war songs to a Drum one of them beat, and fired off many of their Guns, the few Indians tenting at our House durst not offer any resistance to the NW Banditti, some of the Indians not only shed tears but cryed bitterly aloud to see us plundered of our property & otherwise ill treated by the NW Co people—during the time they were plundering the Houses some of the NW Party forced over to their House Thomas Fidler & Papin the Smith, the latter they shut up alone in their Ice House & tyed his hands to make him tell where we had hidden our ammunition, Tobacco & as they were as Cuthbert Grant informed me told by Mr Jno Rd McKay at Riviere Qu’Appelle that 2 men had gone down with Mr Sutherland to fetch up to that place a Keg of rum, a roll of Tobacco & 1 Keg of Powder besides Ball; and finding little of these articles in their first Plunder, they knew we must then have hidden it—which we did immediately on hearing from Riviere Qu’Appelle of the Provisions being all seized.

Thomas Fidler they knocked about in McDonells room & in his presence, and told him that if he did not inform where the above things were hidden they would murder him, at last he was obliged to tell them to save his life where one roll Tobacco was hid and the same large band came over again, with the most horrid threats many of them being now almost quite drunk, to render them desperate & told us that if we did not immediately discover where the Goods were hid they would murder us & Burn down all the Houses.—James Inkster was also very badly used by them, till he was at last obliged to tell them where the things were hidden to save his life.—they also used me very ill and threatened to tye me to the Gates & keep me there two days if I would not tell but they could not induce me to inform them. In their search for the Roll of Tobacco, they found the other one which happened to be laid up near it, so that they got everything we had laid up & now are without a single load of ammunition or pipe of Tobacco or anything else either to pro-cure provisions or trade anything from the Natives.—This 2d visit they also carried away a deal more private property, and some of them was for setting fire to the Houses, particularly Primo, so that we all put out the little we had left & remained on the Plains amongst the Crees & Stone Indians who very much felt for our distress & afterward erected shelter to keep us from the Weather & to remain out in the Plains till the NW hired Banditti go away, as we feared they might burn us in the Houses in the Night.—They took away the Selkirk boat & oars we had remaining to carry down our Furs & Provisions; they also took away our small crossing Boat & scarcely left us an ax to cut wood with.—They found several Indian Tents in our store which they cut to pieces. They came over the 2d time at 6 1/2 PM and left it again at 7 1/2 PM carrying away with them the Keys of our last Gates. They forced Thomas Fidler over to the NW Ho & Made him sign a paper not to bear arms against the NW Co when they left us the first time the Banditti forced over to their House every person except myself, saying McDonell wanted them—they remained at the NW Ho about 1 hr & no one speaking to them they all returned here.—Bostonais told that it was Mr. Robertson’s fault that they had plundered our Houses—for taking their Fort at the Forks.—3 Canadian [NW Co] Batteaux arrived from Riviere Qu’Appelle, water shoal & they are all deeply laden that much of the Property will he damaged, the Batteaux always almost touching the Ground & making them leaky.

On Sunday 2 June:

... Several of the Canadians & half Breeds visited our House twice this day—& carried away my Thermometers ... we keep the Gates shut & fast to keep out the Indian children; The Banditti most part of last night was drumming and singing. There were only 5 Indians along with the Canadian Servants when they plundered our House, but they behaved much better than the rest of the Band taking nothing but merely lookers on. They have not left us a scrap of Dry provisions or Fat here, everything is carried off, this day they broke one of the Glass windows.—Mr [Pierre Chrysologue] Pambrun [HB Co] arrived last night at dusk & [they] marched him into the French House, between two rows of armed men, and some of them, he said, kicked him as he passed them. This day he was allowed to come over to see us guarded by Thomas McKay. He says that James Bird Junr got his liberty to return back to our House above after keeping him some time. Mr Pambrun has a very bad leg a deep foul ulcer & increasing fast & we have no medicine.—he says that a great deal of Pemmican is spoiled & some thrown away by being constantly wet coming down. dressed his leg the best we could.

On 3 June, Fidler wrote a letter to Governor Semple to tell him:

what had happened here & the probable intentions of the NW with respect to the Forks & gave to the Indian who lately brought me letters from the Forks.—& he concealed it, and will remain at the NW House some days, to avoid suspicion—& then carry it down. Mr. Fraser and a large party of NW Co men came over—he told me to carry away all our Furs & insisted on my giving him a copy of the contents of the several Packages by McDonells orders which I gave him and they took them all away & broke many 10 gallon kegs from England & took away all the Iron hoops, & in the afternoon old DeChamps broke open our Hay yard door & carried away our hay. Several others followed his example—he & his 2 sons are the most violent of the whole.—They hoisted our Flag at the Canadian House & the half breed one over it, singing Indian Songs, drumming & Dancing which is enough to vex anyone to see such things, but we cannot help our selves. I believe & what I learn from Mr. Pambrun that the 1/2 breeds are nearly master of McDonell—or at least he is obliged to wink at their proceedings not to make them leave him till his intended plans are put into execution or done but the person who assembles them is surely accountable for their conduct.

Heavy Thunder, Lightning & rain on Saturday night, we are all living out in the Plain along with the Indians. Furnished the Indians with 3 pairs of shoes who carries my letter to the Governor. The NW pulled down one stockade of our garden.

On 4 June, the Canadians carried away more hay and:

leave the Garden gates always open. The half Breeds dancing in 2 Tents made into one on our side of the river close to our House. The old Cooper Alard from Fort Dauphin is also a very conspicuous character & does much mischief as well as the DeChamps & Cottona Bellgard son Serephin & 7 men crossed the river & went up it in search of a man they sent for a horse 7 miles off 3 days ago,—which was left there [?] & they could not find him—we afterwards learnt that our Indians tenting at our House had killed him several more of the Banditti within our House this day.

On 5 June:

The tube of my large 3 1/2 foot Achromatic Telescope was taken away by the Banditti 1st Inst & this day I got it from a Stone Indian. Mr Pambrun came over on a visit guarded as usual his leg is in a very bad state. Wrote a few lines to Mr Robertson open for medicines to be fetched up by a Canadian as Alex McDonell will not allow him to go down to the Surgeon [Dr E James White]—he says the NW has sent to Mannitobaw [Lake] for a Keg of Rum to treat the 1/2 breeds with, they were obliged to employ these Ignorant people to do their dirty work as the Canadian Servant very few would do what they wished them. The High Spirits taken from us was 2 gallons belonging The Co & 2 gallons to John Lyons. They soon finished it on Saturday night—McDonell told Mr Pambrun that he had seen nothing belonging to us as yet but that all was put securely by & would be returned when matters were made up at the Forks.—he desired Mr Pambrun yesterday to take a walk with Fraser, but he soon returned & found McDonell giving away our Tobacco by fathoms to his people, tho’ just before he told Mr Pambrun everything would be returned, but I am certain that the greater part of the smaller articles will never be returned as those who took them will keep them.—Several more Canadians & half breeds in our Houses climbing over the stockades & always doing some injury to the Buildings every time they come.

The Canadians are pitching & repairing the Batteaux & Canoes—16 Batteaux—4 canoes & the Selkirk Boat, our small one we have not seen these 2 days[.] we suppose they have put her adrift ... Several 1/2 breeds over here Singing, Dancing & Drumming all day and till late last night—a very disagreeable sight ... The Canadians pulled down about 30 yards of our garden fence & carried away & put into the Bottom of their Batteaux and loaded them ready to start.

On 7 June ... Alexr McDonell sent for all the Indians tenting at our House and gave them about 112 yard of Tobacco each & nothing more and a very severe speech all against the English delivered by Bostonais & at 4 112 PM he want away by land ...

On Saturday 8 June, in the afternoon Fidler and his men moved back into Brandon House,—“most of the windows broken or cut to pieces and nothing left to repair them again—everything having been carried off by the NWC.” One week later, on 15 June, he departed for the Red River Colony. His journal for this period is not extant, but he must have travelled slowly, and arrived at the colony after it had been deserted for the second time. A few weeks later he was helping the fleeing settlers at Norway House.

In spite of his gruelling experiences at Brandon House, Peter Fidler continued his mapping and exploring activities. In 1817 he surveyed river lots for the Red River colony, in its third resurgence, with Lord Selkirk himself present. In 1818 Fidler journeyed from Red River to Marten’s Fall on the Albany River, making astronomical, geographical and mineralogical observations enroute. He was again in charge of Brandon House in 1818-19, and then took charge of Fort Dauphin in September 1819. At this quiet post, off the beaten track, he spent his last three years, until he died at on 17 December 1822, prematurely old at age 53 years. [14]

Acknowledgements

The Hudson’s Bay Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba, kindly gave permission to publish this material. Mrs. Shirlee Anne Smith and Michael Moosberger checked the typescript against the original journal and Mrs. Smith offered helpful criticism of an earlier draft.

Notes

1. C. S. Houston, To the Arctic by Canoe, 1819-21, the Journal and Paintings of Robert Hood (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1974), pp. xxiv-xxv.

2. J. M. Gray, Lord Selkirk of Red River (London: MacMillan, 1963), pp. 67-148.

3. A. S. Morton, A History of the Canadian West to 1870-71 (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1939), pp. 576-577.

4. H.B.C.A., B.22/a/19. Brandon House, Assiniboine River, Lat. 49°, 42’, 1815-1816, by Peter Fidler.

5. J. G. McGregor, Peter Fidler: Canada’s Forgotten Surveyor, 1769-1822 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1966).

6. H.B.C.A., B.49/a/28, Cumberland House, 1797-98, by Peter Fidler, fo.6d,7.

7. F. M. Atton, “Early records of the Channel Catfish, Ictalurus punctatus, in Cumberland Lake, Saskatchewan,” Canadian Field-Naturalist (October-December 1965), 538-540.

8. John Richardson, Fauna Boreali-Americana, of the Zoology of the Northern Parts of British America. Part Third, the Fish (London: Richard Bentley, 1835), pp. 135-136.

9. W. B. Scott and E. J. Crossman, Freshwater Fishes of Canada (Ottawa: Fisheries Research Board, Bulletin 184, 1979), pp. 604-610.

10. L. B. Keith, Wildlife’s Ten-year Cycle (Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1963), p. 6.

11. A. Cooke and C. Holland, The Exploration of Northern Canada, 500 to 1920, a Chronology (Toronto: Arctic History Press, 1978), p. 136; J. M. Gray, Lord Selkirk of Red River (London: Macmillan, 1963), p. 111.

12. Letter from Robert Semple to Peter Fidler, York Factory, 5th September 1815, in B.22/1/19.

13. Letter from James Sutherland, Riviere Qu’Appelle [undated], in B.22/1/19.

14. MacGregor, Peter Fidler, pp. 216-255.

Page revised: 23 May 2011

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