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Manitoba History: Review: J. M. Bumsted, Lord Selkirk: A Life

by Shirlee Anne Smith
Former Keeper, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives

Number 61, Fall 2009

Professor Bumsted is a prolific and diverse writer having edited or written more than thirty books, including The Collected Writings of Lord Selkirk 1799-1809 and The Collected Writings of Lord Selkirk 1810-1820, Volumes VII and IX of The Manitoba Record Society Series. His biography of Lord Selkirk is unprecedented in its detail. He has a passion for setting the scene and including all the external detail, so that the reader feels part of what is being written. This book has a wide screen: while ostensibly a biography of Selkirk, it also includes fascinating details on people and events in Scotland, the fur trade, emigration, and travels in the New England States and British North America.

Thomas Douglas, born in 1771 in Kircudbright, Scotland, was not brought up as the legal heir of the earldom, but owing to the death of older brothers he became the Fifth Earl of Selkirk in 1799. Here was no effete nobleman, having spent time a few years after 1797 managing the family estates. His interest in emigration and the welfare of the poor would later lead him to his various emigration endeavours.

Lord Selkirk established three settlements in British North America: Prince Edward Island in 1803, Baldoon in Upper Canada the following year, and the Red River Settlement in 1812. The first two were failures owing mainly to incompetent agents, and Selkirk not being on site to oversee their development. The Red River Settlement had a difficult birth and was to provide the greatest challenge for Selkirk. The North West Company, opposed to the settlement from the beginning, stated unequivocally that “Colonisation is at all times unfavourable to the Fur Trade.” [1] The most memorable event of Selkirk’s Colony at Red River was The Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816 between the Métis and the settlers. In this controversial affair the author adheres to the post-1960 historiography; i.e. that the event was not premeditated by either the Métis, under the direction of NWC employee Cuthbert Grant, or the settlers and that “The preponderance of testimony is that the first shot was fired by a settler.” [2] At this distance, it is doubtful that what happened at Seven Oaks will ever be precisely known.

Following the Battle, the North West Company took control of the Settlement, and the settlers were dispersed. It is a strange oversight that the author makes no reference to the dispersed colonists, some of whom “huddled around Norway House…enduring a severe and hungry winter and recovering slowly from the shock of Seven Oaks.” [3]

Professor Bumsted devotes three chapters to detailing the legal issues that occurred after the Battle of Seven Oaks. The charges and counter charges between Selkirk and the North West Company have always been difficult to follow, and Professor Bumsted’s explanations are a welcome account. The author has a penchant for clearly relating both sides of a story. Yet, at times, he seems curiously reluctant to be overtly critical of the North West Company. He states that the NWC seemed to have much easier access to the ear of the Colonial Office than the officials of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State for War and Colonies, Sir John Sherbrooke, Governor-General for Canada and others were involved. The author notes that this “ease of access may simply have reflected the willingness of the NWC people to meet personally and informally with the Colonial Office people. … In any event, some sort of special relationship obviously did exist among Goulburn [Henry Goulburn, the Under-Secretary], Bathurst and the Nor’westers.” [4] Other historians have been more explicit about the reason for this ease of access stating that Goulburn kept the North West Company officials informed and accepted their views. The succinct comment of John Galbraith, the well-known Professor of Imperial History, was that Goulburn’s “partiality toward the Nor’Westers was notorious.” [5] The HBC Committee (directors) were well aware of the undue influence of Goulburn and Bathurst. After nearly 150 years of existence they were not neophytes in dealing with the politicians of Whitehall.

One of the most interesting chapters is “Touring North America” about Selkirk’s 1803 visits to parts of the New England States, Upper and Lower Canada, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. Selkirk had an inquiring mind. His diary is a succession of minute details of his views on American democracy, the price of building a house, and problems with the French speaking population in Lower Canada, on which he states that “even in private society … the English & Canadians draw asunder.” [6] What is remarkable is the stamina that Selkirk displayed. He was never in robust health with frequent bouts of illness, but it is difficult to determine if this was tuberculosis, the cause of his death in 1820.

The author states that Selkirk`s principal personality traits were impetuosity, obstinacy, and often brilliant improvisation. He was also not lacking in courage. As Commander-in-Chief he captured Fort William in 1816, the inland headquarters of the NWC. This was to be the turning event in the wars of the fur trade.

Selkirk’s Red River Settlement—now Winnipeg—is his legacy. The city has played an important role in the commercial and cultural life of this country. The author is to be commended for this comprehensive biography.

Notes

1. J. M. Bumsted, Lord Selkirk: A Life, University of Manitoba Press, 2008, p. 201.

2. Ibid., p. 307.

3. Lord John Gray, Selkirk of Red River, The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, Toronto, 1963, p. 191.

4. J. M. Bumsted, op. cit., p. 336.

5. John Galbraith, The Hudson’s Bay Company as an Imperial Factor 1821-1869, University of Toronto Press, 1957, p. 7.

6. J. M. Bumsted, op. cit., p. 123.

Page revised: 13 May 2016

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