Excerpts from the Journal of Colin Robertson
Edited by Alice E. Brown
Manitoba Pageant, September 1962, Volume 8, Number 1
In 1815 Colin Robertson had undertaken to get an effective trading expedition into the Athabasca country for the Hudson’s Bay Company, to compete with the North West Company which was well established there. He had left Montreal in the spring and was journeying westward for this purpose by the canoe route from Montreal, and had reached a point about mid-way between Fort William and Rainy Lake when he heard of the destruction of Lord Selkirk’s Colony.
For some of the events that concerned the settlement in the year that followed we can let Robertson tell the story through excerpts from his Journal.
Wednesday, 5 July 1815 - ... This morning about 10 o’clock I met one of the N.W. canoes from the north - wished to speak to them but the fellows would not stop. At 12 o’clock came up with Paul, a guide belonging to that concern, with four canoes. He informed me that in the light canoe that passed us was Mr. James Keith from the Columbia, who had informed him that the Colony was destroyed and that Captain McDonell was taken prisoner by the North West Company, and all the colonists were on their way to Fort William. So these scoundrels have effected their darling purpose! Mr. McDonell, the Captain’s son [who was travelling with Robertson] is much concerned at this event. Endeavoured to console this youth by doubting the truth of what we heard, but he replied, “It’s too true Mr. R my father has and always will be unfortunate.” ...
Saturday, 8 July, Lac du Bois - ... About noon I met Captain McDonell accompanied by about a dozen of the North West Company’s partners as a guard, for they were determined this unfortunate gentleman should not escape ...
Robertson decided to hurry on ahead with a few men to make a side-trip to Red River while the main body of his brigade under Clarke, Decoigne and Logan would follow the route originally planned and continue on down Lake Winnipeg to its northern end.
Friday, 14 July, Red River - Left our encampment at midnight and arrived here this morning. At the entrance of Red River I found a large band of Indians encamped. Peegues [Peguis] was their chief. He made me a long speech, principally relating to the late transactions at this place. He found much fault with the N.W.Co. and seemed anxious that I should attempt to re-establish the Colony. About 11 o’clock a.m. I arrived at Frog Plain where a number of Matives and freemen were encamped. I went on shore and walked up to the Fort over the ruins of several of the houses that had been burnt by the white savages. A Blacksmith’s shop was all that remained of the Colony [and it] was occupied by Mr. McLeod of the H.B.Co. as a store, which was supposed to be a great favour conferred on the Company by our amiable opponents. I found here seven bags of pemmican, which I immediately sent off to the bottom of the River under the charge of Lagomineer [Lagimodiere] and some other Freemen ...
Robertson left the Forks before daybreak on the morning of July 15, and pressed as rapidly as possible for a reunion with his brigade and a meeting with the loyal settlers. He arrived at “Winipic Settlement” on Sunday, July 23.
Monday, 24 July, Winipic Settlement - I am now anxious about the brigade - if they have suffered much for want of provisions.
This day I have been negotiating between the Colonists and the Council. I have recommended their returning to Red River under Messrs. White and McDonell, which they have refused. They want a gentleman of experience ... At all events something must be done to prevent the Colonists going home this year or the Colony is completely ruined.
Mr. Clarke arrived on July 29 with one canoe and the brigade consisting of 18 canoes arrived two days later, with Mr. Logan in charge. The next few days were employed in arranging their goods and repairing their canoes before setting off for Athabasca. For a time Robertson was in doubt as to the proper course to pursue, for obviously his original orders could not cover all the eventualities of troubled times in so vast a country. Mr. Thomas informed him on August 1 that Messrs. White and McDonell had resigned the charge of the Colonists. By August 5, the last of the canoes were departing for their assigned outposts, and Robertson received a letter from Governor Thomas asking him to take charge of the Colony until Lord Selkirk’s pleasure was known. This he agreed to do.
Saturday, 5 August, Winipic Settlement - ... About noon I assembled all the Colonial Servants and Settlers and informed them of my intention to leave here on the 8th Inst. for Red River, and such of them as were inclined to accompany me to prepare for their departure on that day. I told them that I would not permit a Colonist or Servant to visit any of the N.W.Co’s establishments on Red River, and if they found this injunction hard to mention it here, as I was determined not to allow any intercourse whatever with that association. To this they all agreed.
Sunday, 6 August, Winipic Settlement - ... Sent off a canoe for Red River under the charge of my Interpreter Monsr. Nolin, but I will overtake him before he reaches that place as his cance is small.
Monday, 7 August, Winipic Settlement - ... The only families that accompany me are Mr. and Mrs. McLean and four children, Mr. and Mrs. Pritchard and one child, Pat McNulty, his wife and two children, Widow McLean, Mrs. Jourdan and Miss Kennedy. The Servants that go with me to Red River are A. McLean, Duncan McNaughton, Samuel Lamont, Michl. Kilbride, Pat Clahby, Pat Corrigan, Jno Fowler, Norwegians Neils Muller, Peter Dhat, Peter Isaacson and twelve Canadians. My officers are Messrs. St. Germain, Pambrun and Holt, with two Indian Interpreters. With this Corps I take my departure tomorrow, in the hopes of re-establishing the Colony at Red River.
Tuesday, 8 August, Lake Winipic - Left Winipic House with 3 boats and 35 men, women and children about noon. [As it is recorded that 60 fled north in June it seems that some 25 of them either returned to the old country or remained to work at Hudson Bay.]
Saturday, 19 August, Point Douglas - Left our encampment at daybreak - arrived at the Frog Plain about 9 o’clock a.m. where all the Freemen and Halfbreeds were encamped. There were twelve lodges, and I counted about thirty men. They were rather astonished to see me. Old Deschamp looked very much embarrassed and asked if I was going to pass the winter. I told him that I was come to engage Canadians for Athabasca and that I intended to give very high wages for experienced Interpreters. I told them to come up to Mr. McLeod’s house, that I had good news to communicate. They immediately brought two horses, one for Monsr. Pambrun and one for myself. We rode to McLeod’s in about half an hour. The freemen and half-breeds arrived in about ten minutes after us when I went out and received them. My five Canadians who I had in my Canoe came up while I was talking to these Gentry - when some of the Freemen recognized cousins and half-cousins among my men I ordered a Gall of rum among them and a foot of tobacco each, and amused them with a long story until Mr. McLean’s boat hove in sight. They appeared rather astonished when I informed them that it was Mr. McLean come to pass the winter with me. One Mative observed, “I hope you will forget what passed.” ...
Saturday, 26 August, Fort Douglas - I forgot to mention that we began to cut down the crops yesterday ...
Saturday, 2 September, Fort Douglas - Mr. Pritchard, Delorme and four men left here this morning for Fort Daer, to procure provisions ...
Sunday, 3 September, Fort Douglas - Arranged with Lagomonier who has a few excellent horses to cart home the grain and hay. This is really a hard circumstance considering the number of horses that belonged to the Colony last year. His Lordship will require to estimate his damages pretty high for his losses have been great. Sent the only two work horses to Fort Daer to assist Mr. Pritchard in getting provisions to the Fort.
Thursday, 12 October, Fort Douglas - Sent Patrick Quinn with two carts to Lac Plat for a quantity of Wild Fowl which Baptiste our hunter has killed there. Nolin arrived this morning with the provisions of Peegues band consisting of wild rice, dried meat and a few dried sturgeon. Nolin says that the chief and his band will be here tomorrow. He thinks there will be 70 men. I laid aside a few articles intended as presents for them. Gave Nolin a copy of the speech that he is to deliver to the Indians. The presents are as follows: 30 small striped blankets, 42 quarts spirits, 40 lbs. gun powder, 40 lbs. ball, 45 flints, 42 lbs. tobacco, 10 yards cloth.
Friday, 13 October, Fort Douglas - Peegues arrived this morning with his Band consisting of 65 men. When they doubled Point Douglas and were in sight of the Fort they fired a volley which we returned by a three pounder. We then hoisted our flag. Peeguis immediately returned the compliment by mounting his Colours at the end of his canoe, and then the whole Squadron came in sight consisting of nearly 150 canoes, including those of the women and children. It had a wild but grand appearance - their bodies painted in various colours - their heads decorated, some with branches and others with feathers. Every time we fired the cannon the woods re-echoed with that wild whoop of joy, which they gave to denote the satisfaction they received. When they came in front of the fort the women and children paddled past the men’s canoes to a spot where I had fixed upon for their encampment, where they mounted their lodges. The men accompanied by their chief, as soon as the families had passed debarked under a volley from my men. They then entered the hall with three hearty cheers from our people. The room was rather small but they managed to seat themselves in tolerable good order. I then ordered the large Peace Callimate to be lighted and after taking two or three whiffs out of it, I presented it to Peeguis who after smoking about a minute passed it to the next in respectability to himself, and in this manner it went round the band. During this ceremony not a single word or even a whisper was heard. When the Callimate was returned to me my Interpreter delivered them a speech ...
Saturday, 14 October, Fort Douglas - An express arrived this evening from Qu’Appelle with accounts that Mr. McDonell had attacked our provision post there with the intent of driving McKay from that quarter. Called a Council of my officers consisting of Messrs. McLean, Stett, and Bourke, and told them that I intended to strike a blow at Gibraltar, and to prepare themselves for the event. I then showed them McKay’s letter. These gentlemen informed me that I had only to command them - nothing can be done tonight. The Indians are all intoxicated. I have only twenty men here, but if I allow McDonell a footing my men will get dispirited, and our new friends will abandon us. My situation is very awkward.
Sunday, 15 October, Fort Douglas - This morning when I was sitting at breakfast planning in my mind how I should take possession of Gibraltar my servant informed me that Messrs. McLean and Bourke were bringing Cameron and Seraphin prisoners to the Fort. I was rather surprised when I found this to be the case, which placed me in a very critical situation, as I was afraid the alarm was given at Gibraltar. Cameron immediately began with his usual phrases of British liberty and free-born Englishmen, he then asked me what I intended to do with him. I answered that he must in the first place deliver up all the arms he had belonging to the Colony, before I could hear any proposition regarding his liberty. To this he agreed, when I ordered twenty men under the command of Mr. McLean to take Mr. Seraphin to Gibraltar and there receive all the arms belonging to the Colony, but I gave Mr. McLean secret instructions that the moment the gates were opened to take possession of Gibraltar and hold the same until I gave him further orders. This he accomplished in a masterly manner. As soon as the Indians learned what was going on they took up arms and came to our assistance. Another proof of the attachment of these Indians to the Colony is that a number were present at the seizure of Cameron, and although that person was nearly an hour a prisoner at Fort Douglas, Hess who was in charge of Gibraltar was a perfect stranger to what had happened until Mr. McLean informed him after the seizing of the Fort. I then sent over Cameron with an escort to Gibraltar where he is to be prisoner all night. I have ordered Messrs. McLean and Bourke to pay every attention to the prisoners and respect to be paid to private property. I mean to give Cameron his liberty tomorrow as I have not the means to send him off. Another thing, I am not inclined to carry things too far until I hear from York. I shall lower his consequence a little. This is necessary for the safety of the Colony. He shall send an express immediately off to Qu’Appelle to put a stop to hostilities there. I will remove all the arms in his Fort to this place until tranquility is established in that quarter. These are points I will insist upon.
Monday, 16 October, Fort Douglas - Sent a boat with five men to Gibraltar to bring down Cameron, Seraphin and Hess, with all the arms and ammunition at that place. They arrived about 9 o’clock a.m. when Cameron began ardently to solicit for his liberty. Really the Heros of last spring cut a pitiful appearance. I was as much ashamed of their meanness in adversity as [I was] shocked at their former arrogance in prosperity. Having called in a number of the Colonists I thus addressed the prisoners: “Gentlemen, the cruelty with which you exercised the power that intrigue and force placed in your hands last spring deserves a greater punishment than I am willing to inflict. I gave you to understand on my arrival in this country that I was prepared whether for Peace or War. You seem from your conduct at Qu’Appelle to have preferred the latter, which has placed you in your present situation. But to see what effect a generous action will have on you, you shall be released and put in possession of your Fort on the following mild conditions: First, that an Express be sent to Qu’Appelle to put a stop to the violent measures of your Mr. McDonell, and that you will not either directly or indirectly attempt to seduce any Emigrants that the Earl of Selkirk has, or will in future send to this country.” These points being agreed to, I took Cameron back and placed him in his post. When I took my leave of them I observed, “Gentlemen, you know me of old! Should you fail in any of the points you have agreed to, rest assured that I will always have it in my power to remedy the Evil.”
Tuesday, 17 October, Fort Douglas - Late last night Mr. St. Germaine arrived from Jack River, brought me a letter from Mr. Bird mentioning the arrival of eighty Colonists and Robert Semple, Esquire, Governor-in-Chief of the Hudson’s Bay Company Territories, with a controlling power over the Colony. It is astonishing that no instruction have been sent me by this Gentleman from the Governor. Do they mean to take us by surprise with such a number of families? ... sent off Jean Baptiste Lagmonier and one of the Company’s Canadian servants with the Montreal Packet. They left this place about 4 o’clock p.m. for Fort Daer. They have an Indian Guide ...
Friday, 3 November, Fort Douglas - Rode down this morning as far as the Frog Plain, where I met Governor Semple accompanied by Messrs. Sutherland and Fidler. After passing a few compliments I requested him to take my horse. I mounted that of my servant and we rode up to Fort Douglas together. When we came in sight of that establishment the colors were hoisted. On our arrival Mr. McLean, who had called out the men, fired a volley as the Governor entered the hall. In about an hour after his arrival the officers waited on him to congratulate him on his arrival in Red River. In the evening I ordered the men an extra glass of Grog. The Governor was charmed with the appearance of the Country. This evening Dr. White arrived. He left the Settlers one point beyond the Image Plain. Dr. W. returned to the Settlers.
Saturday, 4 November, Fort Douglas - This afternoon arrived Messrs. McDonell and White with the Emigrants from England. These Gentlemen had under their charge, including colonists and servants 120 souls ...
Monday, 6 November, Fort Douglas - The settlers employed this day in thrashing out Wheat and Barley for their passage to Fort Daer, as they have ate up the little dried provisions I had here. It was very cold last night. I’m afraid they will be taken by the Ice. These people will be hard upon the grain and I am anxious to preserve a sufficient quantity for seed ...
As we look back on the records of the Settlement’s early years, we notice that the Settlers were comparatively well fed and comfortable in the winter of 1815-16, when we compare their lot with that of previous years, and with winters still to come.
In December Semple left for a tour of inspection in the interior, and stayed some time at Brandon House and at Qu’Appelle. Towards the end of January Cameron asked permission to visit Fort Qu’Appelle. This was granted, and he did not return to Fort Gibraltar until March 7. During these winter months an uneasy quiet prevailed at Red River.
Tuesday, 11 March 1816 - ... In the evening I sent my servant over to Cameron to play the discontented. Cameron received him kindly and solicited the man to call tomorrow ...
Wednesday, 12 March 1816 - ... My servant went over to Gibraltar this evening. Had a long confab with Cameron. He has offered him a free passage to Montreal. Tomorrow night he will write out particulars. . . I am no longer in doubt regarding the real views of our opponents. Wrote Governor Semple on this subject. One of the men from Brandon being indisposed will prevent the packet leaving here until tomorrow. What will be the consequence of taking Gibraltar? Was I to pass the summer here I would not hestitate one moment for the papers it contains and the Express that is about to arrive, will I am certain bring justification in abundance. I am now anxious to have the Governor’s opinion.
Sunday, 17 March - ... As soon as I arrived at Fort Douglas I sent for Messrs. McLean, Holt and Bourke and informed them that I intended to take Cameron’s Fort this evening, for he was assembling men and officers from all quarters, as well as collecting provisions, and other circumstances convinced me that these people were determined to disturb the peace of the Settlement. I also told these Gentlemen that I had written Governor Semple on the subject, but from the hostile conduct of the N.W.Co. I thought it would be imprudent to wait for an answer. My officers approved of my plan (Mr. Wilkinson excepted). I then assembled all my men, say fourteen - eleven of whom volunteered to accompany me. At half past six I had them under arms, and just as I was marching off Mr. Wilkinson threw himself into the ranks. When I got about half way to Gibraltar I halted my men, and communicated to Messrs. McLean and Bourke the plan of attack - that I should lead the Canadians and enter Cameron’s Hall, that Mr. McLean should attack the men’s house on the right, and Mr. Bourke that on the left. As we approached the dogs gave the alarm. I then quickened my pace and ordered Mr. McLean to follow. I came up to the small wicket in the large gate just as the guard was attempting to shut it. This I forced. My faithful servant followed me, and in five minutes the fort was ours. The enemy were taken so completely by surprise that they had not time to fly to their arms; and to our astonishment we found their numbers nearly doubled ours. The cool determined courage displayed by both officers and men was truly pleasingin particular Mr. McLean who took possession of the men’s house.
Tuesday, 19 March - Monsr. Nolan arrived this morning. About 2 o’clock a.m. the Express from the Northward was seized by the Sentry at Gibraltar and brought over to this place by Messrs. Sivewright and Bourke. I then asked Mr. S. to detach the packet and show me Alexander McDonell of Qu’Appelle’s letter to Duncan Cameron, which, I observed would regulate my conduct with regard to the other letters. Mr. Sivewright, after looking over the seals and address handed me one sealed with the figure of an anchor, which I believed was from Mr. McDonell. This I opened. It contained this noted expression. “There is a storm gathering in the North over the rascals (meaning the Colony). Little do they know the situation they are placed in. Last spring will be a joke to what this will be etc ...” Now Mr. Sivewright what think you of this language. I must know how and in what manner this “storm” is to attack this unfortunate Settlement ... [This first letter having proved to be of such a threatening and incriminating nature Robertson proceeded to examine the contents of the packet.] ...
Saturday, 23 March - About two o’clock this morning Black McKay in two days from Fort Daer - He informs me that Messrs Pambrun and McLeod are coming behind with fourteen men, and with Messrs. Fraser, Hess and Bostonois as prisoners. In the evening the prisoners arrived. Mr. McDonell writes me that in consequence of having taken possession of Fort Gibraltar he thought the step he had taken necessary to follow up the blow. Had Alexander McDonell of Qu’Appelle been taken it would have been attended with good consequences, but I wish to separate the half-breeds from the North West Co. I am afraid this will unite them. I gave my word to Bostonois that he had nothing to fear, yet I must approve of what McDonell has done. I am placed in a very awkward situation.
Thursday, 28 March - Arrived this evening at Fort Douglas, Governor Semple in four days from Brandon House. He left Mr. Rogers at the portage on his way to this place. Waited on the Governor. This Gentleman approves of every thing I have done. The intercepted letters he thinks of the highest importance. The Governor pays me a visit tomorrow.
At this point the forces of the settlement were in a strong position, and their leaders were in agreement. Governor Robert Semple was a brave man, but he lacked the experience to deal with this unique situation in a strange, harsh land. Because he was unsure of himself he listened to conflicting advice, and finally, by what appeared to be weakness and vacillation he drove Colin Robertson out of the settlement in frustration and despair.
In May the Hudson’s Bay Company’s pemmican barges were seized at Qu’Appelle. Robertson urged that a force be sent to effect their recapture, but Semple hesitated, and then decided to wait for the enemy at the Settlement. By the first of June Brandon House on the Assiniboine was pillaged - still there was no attempt at retaliation. All spring Robertson urged the Governor not to allow the settlers to disperse to their river lots, but to live in an entrenched position within the fort and cultivate the land in its immediate vicinity. This too Semple refused to do, though Robertson told him that the Nor’Westers could not afford to remain at the Settlement long enough to beseige the fort successfully. To add to his distress Robertson felt that he was threatened and insulted by Bourke, and that Semple failed to support him.
Finally Robertson refused to be held responsible for the coming disaster and prepared to leave the settlement. His last advice was to dismantle Fort Gibraltar to strengthen Fort Douglas and to concentrate the Colony’s forces inside their Fort. Part of this advice was taken. Gibraltar was demolished in four days and the timbers passed down the river to Fort Douglas.
Red River, Tuesday, 11 June 1816 - ... (Robertson was about to embark and some of the settlers were determined to leave with him) ... I then sent for the Widow McLean and her three sons who were sitting on the beach determined to embark with me. When they came up the Governor appeared very much affected. He promised to do everything in his power for them. Then the three sons went to the water side and brought up their baggage. I then went and wrote a few lines to Mr. Pambrun. When this was finished I walked to the Platform where the Governor was standing to bid him farewell. He held my hand and appeared very much afflicted, “Don’t leave me Mr. Robertson. I entreat you on Lork Selkirk’s account not to leave the settlement at this juncture. Take my advice and think seriously what you are about to do.” I was so overcome that I could make no answer, but went with a quick step and threw myself into my boat that was waiting for me ...
Reflection Bay, Red River, 12 June, Wednesday - Left my encampment early this morning my spirits much depressed ... Shall I return and be obliged to bear fresh indignities from these inexperienced men? Will Governor Semple follow my advice, or will he be governed by the bravados of his officers? Will my presence unite or disunite - this is the point. Were they unaminous and prudent they have nothing to fear. The N.W.Co. will never attack them in their Fort, but the contempt with which they treat the enemy is what alarms me the most. After taking all these things into consideration I ordered my men to turn back, and arrived here late in the evening ...
Reflection Bay, Thursday, 13 June - Sent off my servant and Jordan this morning at Daybreak, with a note to Governor Semple, offering my services to defend the Colony should they be required. The men have gone by land. I presume they will return tonight or early tomorrow morning. Ordered my men to haul up the boat and arrange arms and prepare to leave this tomorrow morning for Fort Douglas. They seemed all willing to return with me. It is astonishing how much attached these people are to the Colony. We had frequent showers of rain in the course of the day, and were very much tormented with moschettos.
Friday, 14 June, Red River - My servant and Jordan arrived this afternoon with a letter from Governor Semple, thanking me for the offer of my services, but could see no public good that could result from my presence. From this letter he appears to be full of confidencerather too much so! I must confess that I feel grieved and disappointed at the answer. How could I ever dream of such an answer after what passed between us the day we parted. This adds one more to the many proofs that this Gentleman is governed by the opinion of others.
Page revised: 23 May 2011