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Memorable Manitobans: Thomas Douglas, Fifth Earl of Selkirk [Lord Selkirk] (1771-1820)

Click to enlargePhilanthropist.

Born at St. Mary’s Isle, Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland on 20 June 1771, the seventh and youngest son of Dunbar Douglas, fourth Earl of Selkirk. In 1807 he married Jean Wedderburn-Colvile, and had three children. He was educated at Edinburgh University. In 1799 he succeeded to the earldom of Selkirk, his six brothers having died previously. He became interested in the plight of the Scottish crofters and in 1803 established a colony in Prince Edward Island, and a second colony at Baldoon, near Lake St. Clair in Upper Canada. With a view to establishing a settlement in the Red River valley he and his brother-in-law, Andrew Wedderburn-Colvile, acquired a controlling interest in the Hudson’s Bay Company.

In 1811 he received from the Company a grant of 116,000 square miles in the Red River valley for purposes of colonization. That year the first party of settlers under Miles Macdonell was sent out via Hudson Bay. The second party followed in 1812. The Selkirk grant was opposed by the North West Company, who saw the settlement as a threat to the fur trade. Open hostility began in 1814, when Macdonell issued a proclamation forbidding the export of pemmican from the territory. The Nor’westers relied on the pemmican supply to feed the fur traders throughout the northwest. They retaliated by issuing a warrant for the arrest of Macdonell. In addition the settlers were raided, crops were trampled and buildings burned. Macdonell submitted to arrest and was taken to Fort William for trial. Meanwhile, one hundred and forty settlers were persuaded to desert the colony for Upper Canada and the remaining sixty-odd retreated to Lake Winnipeg. They returned when HBC reinforcements for the Athabaska region came west, and were augmented by a third party of settlers who arrived in November 1815, with the new Governor, Robert Semple.

On 19 June 1816, Semple and twenty of his men were killed by a Nor-wester party at Seven Oaks. Lord Selkirk was now on his way to the Settlement with a hundred Swiss soldiers from the disbanded De Meuron regiment. Appointed a Justice of the Peace in Montreal, he seized the North West Company post at Fort William, confiscated firearms, and arrested the Nor’westers. In June 1817 Selkirk reached his Colony where he met the settlers and made plans for the development of the area. He returned east in October to face charges for acts of injustice and oppression brought against him by the North West Company. The legal proceedings were long and costly. Selkirk lost his case in 1818. He returned to England in failing health and died in Pau, France on 8 April 1820.

Author of:

  • Observations on the present state of the high­lands of Scotland (London, 1805)
  • A sketch of the British fur trade in NorthAmerica, with observations relative to the North West Company of Montreal (London, 1816; New York, 1818)
  • A letter to the Earl of Liverpool... on the subject of the Red River Settlement in North America (privately printed, London, 1819)
  • Two anonymous pamphlets on The civilisation of the Indians of British North America (London, 1807) have also been attributed to him.
  • His diary covering the years 1803­04 has been edited by Patrick C. T. White for the Champlain Society (Toronto, 1958)

He is commemorated, among other places, by Douglas Avenue, Point Douglas Avenue, and Selkirk Avenue, as well as Lord Selkirk School, in Winnipeg. A commemorative plaque was erected by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

See also:

Lord Selkirk’s Deed from the Hudson’s Bay Company by James Taylor
MHS Transactions, Series 1, No. 36, April 1889

Lord Selkirk by Elisabeth Henderson
Manitoba Pageant, April 1956

Lord Selkirk Settlers by William L. Morton
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 7, Number 3, April 1962

The Lord Selkirk Association of Rupert’s Land by Anne Matheson Henderson
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 7, Number 3, April 1962

The Lord Selkirk Settlement at Red River, Part 1 by Anne Matheson Henderson
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 13, Number 1, Autumn 1967

The Lord Selkirk Settlement at Red River, Part 2 by Anne Matheson Henderson
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 13, Number 2, Winter 1968

The Lord Selkirk Settlement at Red River, Part 3 by Anne Matheson Henderson
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 13, Number 3, Spring 1968

Document - Lord Selkirk’s Treaty with the Indians, July 18, 1817
Manitoba Pageant,Volume 21, Number 2, Winter 1976

Victimizing His Lordship: Lord Selkirk and the Upper Canadian Courts by F. L. Barron
Manitoba History, Number 7, Spring 1984

Remembering Lady Selkirk by Hubert G. Mayes
Manitoba History, Number 13, Spring 1987

Lady Selkirk and the Fur Trade by Sian Bumsted
Manitoba History, Number 38, Autumn/Winter 1999-2000

Lord Selkirk of Red River by John Morgan Gray (1963)

The Papers of Lord Selkirk, edited by J. M. Bumsted, 2 volumes (1984, 1988).

Thomas Douglas, Dictionary of Canadian Biography V, 264-69.

Thomas Douglas - Person of National Historic Significance

Lord Selkirk and his Agents by J. M. Bumsted
The Forks and the Battle of Seven Oaks in Manitoba History

Sources:

Pioneers and Early Citizens of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Manitoba Library Association, 1971.

This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 6 October 2011

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