Manitoba Historical Society
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The Old Settlers of Red River

by George Bryce, LL.D.

MHS Transactions, Series 1, No. 19
Read 26 November 1885

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The following paper on “The Old Settlers of Red River” was read by Rev. Prof. Bryce before the Historical Society, on Thursday evening:

On the banks of the Red River of the North for well nigh sixty years there existed the Selkirk Settlement. Fort Garry, so well known, was its centre for nearly fifty years of that period. The fur trader on the Mackenzie River looked to it as his probable haven of rest when he should have finished his days of active service and have retired; the half-breed hunter of the plains thought of it as the paradise to which he might make his annual visit, or the place where he might at last settle, while the Kildonan settler boasted that there was no place like his ‘oasis’ in the Northwest wilderness, and that the traveller who had tasted the magical waters of Red River would always return to them again. The Canadian youth read in his school-book of a far distant outpost, Fort Garry, and chilled by the very sound of the name, whispering “cold as Siberia,” passed on to the next subject. The Canadian statesman dreamt of a Canada from ocean to ocean, but as he thought of the thousand miles of impassable rocks and morasses between him and the fur traders he could only shudder and say ‘Perhaps sometime!’ while the secretary of the Hudson’s Bay Company House in Montreal or London with darkest secrecy folded together his epistles, addressed them “via Pembina,” and then slipt quietly away to his suburban residence, knowing that he had the key in his pocket to unlock the door to half a continent, around which was built an impenetrable Chinese wall.

Early Records

Prof. Keating, one of Major Long’s exploring party which passed through Red River Settlement in 1823, gives us some account of it. Alexander Ross, the old sheriff of Assiniboia, wrote in 1852 a minute and excellent, though some tell us a somewhat partial history of the settlement, where he dwelt so long. In 1858 appeared the work of E. D. Neill, the historian of Minnesota, in which is a good account of the Red River people-those Gibeonites of the interior-as they appeared on their freighting journeys to St. Paul. Mr. Neill seems disposed largely to adopt Ross’s standpoint. In the same year Miss Tucker (A. L. O. E.) gave an interesting and useful account of the planting of the Church of England missions in Red River, in her little volume “The Rainbow of the North.” Those intrepid travellers, Lord Milton and Dr. Cheadle, published in 1865 a most graphic and timely sketch of their “Northwest passage by land,” not omitting the Red River Settlement. Subsequent writers have not failed to avail themselves of the collected materials of these distinguished visitors. So, too, should be mentioned “Red River” by Mr. J. J. Hargrave (1871.) from the Hudson’s Bay Company standpoint.

My work this evening is somewhat different from that aimed at by these authors. I desire to give a more complete account of the settlers, and to some extent their personal history, which those writers were not in some cases able to do, and in other cases were not disposed to do. While referring you for the fullest account extant of Lord Selkirk’s life to Manitoba; “its infancy, growth, and present condition”, a few words must be said of

The Founder

of the Red River settlement. It was as early as 1802 that the Earl of Selkirk, a man of philanthropic and liberal views, stirred by the accounts given by Sir Alexander Mackenzie, (1801), and other traders to the Indian Country, wrote to the British Government of the day, in a letter, of which we have in the Historical Society, a copy obtained from the British Archives for the purpose of relieving Irish distress and Highland misery, a colony on Red River. It was not till 1811 that Lord Selkirk succeeded in obtaining, by purchase from the Hudson’s Bay Company, of which in the meantime he had become a member, the district of Assiniboia on Red River, comprising 116,000 square miles. By way of Hudson Bay was the route chosen; and in the letters of the founder occur the words-words of still unfulfilled, but no doubt true prophecy: “To a colony in these territories the channel of trade must be the river of Port Nelson.”

The Highlanders

At this time (1811) there were sad times in the Highlands of Scotland. Cottars and crofters were being driven from their small holdings by the Duchess of Sutherland and others, to make way for large sheep farms. Strong men stood sullenly by, women wept and wrung their hands, and children clung to their distressed parents as they saw their cabins burnt before their eyes. The “Highland clearances” have left a stain on the escutcheons of more than one nobleman. Lord Selkirk, whose estates were in the south of Scotland, and who had no special connection with the Celts, nevertheless took pity on the helpless Highland exiles. Ships were prepared, and the following are the numbers of highland colonists sent out in the respective years:

In 1811, reaching Red River in 1812, there were


In 1812, reaching Red River in 1813, there were (a part Highland)

15 or 20

In 1813, reaching Red River in 1814, there were


In 1815, reaching Red River the same year, there were


Total Selkirk Highland colonists about


The names of these settlers were those well known amongst us, as Sutherland, McKay, McLeod, McPherson, Matheson, Macdonald, Livingstone, Polson, McBeath, Bannerman and Gunn. There are other names found among those early comers which have disappeared, and to which we shall afterwards refer. It will be noticed that at the end of 1814 the colony amounted to 180 or 200 persons. These were under Governor Miles Macdonell, late a captain of the Queen’s Rangers, who was also Hudson’s Bay Company Governor. The connection of the Selkirk colonists with the Hudson’s Bay Company was regarded as a menace by the

Rival Fur Traders

the Northwest Company. The two companies had their rival posts side by side at many points throughout the Territories. The Nor’wester fort standing immediately at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers was called Fort Gibraltar. The fort occupied by the colony was at the foot of Common street in this city, and was called Fort Douglas. It is of no consequence to our present object to determine who opened hostilities or who was to blame in the contest of the companies. Strife prevailed, and through this the colonists suffered. In 1814 arrived on the scene a jauntily dressed officer of the Nor’west Company brandishing a sword and signing himself captain—one Duncan Cameron. This man was a clever, diplomatic, and rather unscrupulous instrument of his company, and coming to command Fort Gibraltar, cultivated the colonists, spoke Gaelic to and entertained them with much hospitality, and ended by inducing about one hundred and fifty of the two hundred of them to desert Red River and go with him to Upper Canada. Among those who went were not only persons bearing the names already mentioned, but others named McKinnon, Cooper, Smith, McLean, McEachern and Campbell, who have left no representatives on Red River. By a long and wearisome journey to Fort William, and then in small boats along Lakes Superior and Huron, they reached Penetanguishene and found new homes near Toronto, London and elsewhere. To the faithful half hundred who remained true to their pledges all honor is due. Of those early colonists one name especially occurs to me—that of Donald Gunn, a native of Caithnesshire. He came out with the party of 1813 in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and after spending several years on the bay married and settled down in the parish of St. Andrew’s. He was a schoolmaster for a time, was a great reader, took much interest in the collections for the Smithsonian Institution—a society to which this society is largely indebted—was a collector of statistics and meteorological data. During last summer a professor in Boston who was on the astronomical expedition to the Saskatchewan between 1860 and 70, asked me with much interest of “old Donald Gunn,” so familiar a figure in former days in Little Britain. His large family still remain among us.

The Irish

To many it is known that the Lord Selkirk colonists were chiefly Highlanders; few are acquainted with the fact that there was among them a fair sprinkling of Irish people. In the first ship load to York factory, that of 1811, besides the 70 Highlanders, there were some 20 Irish colonists and employes. In the next company, that of 1812, most of those sent out were skilled workmen to erect buildings and help the settlers—of the 15 or 20 so sent a considerable part were Irish. In the first ship of 1811 was an Irish lad, who never deserted his adopted country and lived and died in our midst. This was Andrew McDermott. He married in the country and lived on the banks of Red River for 69 years. He was a successful trader, and accumulated a large amount of wealth. His large family, in many branches, live amongst us at this day. Many a new settler got a helping hand from him, and he was a perfect mine of information about the country—its climate, its settlers, and its resources. His stout, well known figure still lingers in the minds of many of us. In the party of 1812-13 there came to the country also a young Irish clerk, John P. Bourke. He was an intelligent and useful officer of the colony. He married a native who had Scotch and Dakota blood, and his descendants are well known as the Bourke family; one of them was a few years ago member in the Legislative Assembly for St. James. Belonging to this Irish immigration were the following, most of whom left Red River under the guidance of Mr. Duncan Cameron, viz.: Patrick Corcoran, Patrick McNolty and wife, Michael Heden, a blacksmith, who, in troublous times, assumed command of the artillery in the colonists’ hands as gunner, James Toomey, Hugh Swords, Martin Jordan, Michael Kilkenny, Michael Kilbride, one Kerrigan, Joseph Kenny, and Capt. Macdonnell’s body servant, James Flynn. All these represented the Green Isle and seemed to have taken their full share in the lively antagonisms of the rival companies.

The de Meurons

The arrival of the third party of Highlanders in 1815 reinforced the remnant who had resisted Cameron’s seductive proposals. The colony again rose to three-fourths its original strength. In 1816 the Nor’Westers adopted more extreme measures still to destroy the colony. An attack was made upon the settlers on 19th June, and the new Governor, Robert Semple, was killed, with a number of his attendants, at a spot a little off Main street north, beyond the city limits. Lord Selkirk on the receipt of the news of the colony in 1815 had come to Montreal, and was proceeding up the lakes to assist his colony in 1816 when the news reached him on the way of the skirmish of “Seven Oaks” and the death of the Governor. He was at the very time bringing with him as settlers, a number of disbanded soldiers, who have usually been known as the “De Meurons.” The regiments to which these men belonged were part of the body of German Mercenaries which had been raised during the Napoleonic wars. The name of Col. De Mouton, one of the principal officers was given to the whole. These new settlers were not only Germans, but had among them a number of Swiss and Piedmontese. In 1813 the De Meurons had been lying at Malta, and sailed thence to Canada to take part in the war against the United States. The war of 1812-15 having been ended, in May 1816 orders came for the reduction of the force, and on 4 June 1816 Lord Selkirk engaged four officers and eighty men of the de Meuron regiment in Montreal and hastened in boats up the St. Lawrence. At Kingston twenty more men, these of the regiment De Watteville, a body in similar circumstances with the De Meurons was engaged. The four officers were Captains D’Orsonnens and Matthey, and Lieutenants Fauche and Graffenreith. The men were promised certain wages well as land grants at Red River. In the autumn of 1816 the party arrived at Fort William, which they seized, and the camping place on Thunder Bay is still called Point De Meuron. Employed during the winter in opening out for a distance a military road, the party under command of Capt. D’Orsonnens, in early spring pushed on by way of the north-west angle of the Lake of the Woods, surprised the Nor’westers, and retook Fort Douglas from them. Lord Selkirk arrived at the Red River in the last week of June 1817. In accordance with his agreement he settled all the De Meurons who wished to remain—a considerable number-along the banks of the little river, the Seine, which empties into Red River opposite Point Douglas. This stream has among the old settlers always been known as German Creek in consequence. Being mostly Roman Catholics they were the first settlers among whom the priests Provencher and Dumoulin took up their abode on their arrival in 1818. From the nationality of the De Meurons the first Roman Catholic parish formed in the country was called St. Boniface, from Winifred, or Boniface, the German apostle and patron saint. The name of the first parish is now, by legislative enactment, the name of Winnipeg’s chief suburb and the Roman Catholic Bishopric in 1851 was given the same name Some severe things have been said of the character of the De Meuron settlers They have been charged with turbulence, insobriety, and with having had predatory inclinations towards their neighbors’ cattle. They almost all left the country after the disastrous year of 1826, for the United States. No doubt like all bodies of men they had good and bad among them, but the fact of their having been disbanded mercenaries would not incline us to expect a very high morality of them.

The Swiss

In the same year (1820) in which Lord Selkirk went to France, to find, in the little town of Pau, his death and burial place, a former officer of the De Watteville regiment—Col. May—a native of the Swiss Capital of Berne, went as an agent of Lord Selkirk to Switzerland. He had been in Canada, but not at Red River, and accordingly his representations among the Swiss Cantons were tow much of the kind circulated by Government emigration agents still. He succeeded in inducing a considerable number of Swiss families to seek the Red River settlement. Crossing the ocean by Hudson’s Bay ships they arrived at York Factory, in August 1821, and were borne in Hudson’s Bay Company York boats to their destination. Gathered, as they had been, from the towns and villages of Switzerland, arid being chiefly “watch and clock makers, pastry cooks and musicians,” they were ill-suited for such a new settlement as that of Red River, where they must become agriculturists. They seem to have been honest and orderly people, though very poor. It will be remembered that the DeMeuruns had come as soldiers; they were chiefly, therefore, unmarried men. The arrival of the Swiss, with their handsome sons and daughters, produced a flutter of excitement in the wifeless DeMeuron cabins along German creek. The result I describe in the words of a most trustworthy eye witness of what took place: “No sooner had the Swiss emigrants arrived than many of the Germans, who had came to the settlement a few years ago from Canada, and had houses, presented them - selves in search of a wife, and, having fixed their attachment with acceptance, they received those families, in which was their choice, into their habitations. Those who had no daughters to afford this introduction, were obliged to pitch their tent, along the banks of the river, and outside the stockades of the fort, till they removed to Pembina in the better prospects of provisions for the winter.” The whole affair was a repetition of the old Sabine Story. In connection with these De Meurons and Swiss, I am glad to call your attention to a very

Remarkable Parchment

agreement, in the hands of the Historical Society, which is eleven feet long and one and a half feet wide, containing the signatures of forty-nine settlers, of which twenty-five are those of De Meurons or Swiss, the remainder being of Highlanders and Norwegians. Among these names are Bender, Lubrevo, Quiluby, Bendowitz, Kralic, Wassloisky, Rhe, Jankosky, Wachter, Lassota, Laidece, Warcklur, Krusel, Johcoeur, Maquet, and Lelonde. This agreement binds the Earl of Selkirk or his agents not to engage in the sale of spirituous liquors or the fur trade, but to provide facilities for transport of goods from and into the country, and at moderate rates. The settlers are bound to keep up roads, to support a clergyman, and to provide for defence. The document is not only a curiosity, but historically valuable. There is no date upon it, but I have been able to fix its date. One of the entries among the signatures is “For the Buffalo Wool Company, John Pritchard.” That company we know began, and as we shall afterwards see, failed in the years 1821 and 1822. This, accordingly, is the date of the document marking the era of the fusion of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Nor’Westers and after the arrival of the Swiss. The De Meurons and Swiss never took kindly to Red River. So early as 1822, after wintering at Pembina a number of them, instead of turning their faces toward Fort Garry, went up the Red River into Minnesota and took up farms where St. Paul now stands can the Mississippi. They were the first settlers there. Among their names are those of Garvas, Pierrie, Louis Massey and that of Perry, who became very rich in herds in the early days of Minnesota. It was the flood of 1826 on the Red River when Highlanders, De Meurons, Swiss and French all had to flee to Sturgeon Creek, Stony Mountain and Bird’s Hill for safety, and when, to use the words of Horace, “the fishes built their nests on the tree tops,” that caused the great number of the Swiss arid De Meurons to emigrate, who were seemingly unmindful that the Missouri and Mississippi can overflow as well as the Red River or St. Lawrence. In that memorable departure, in which it is said the other settlers were willing, like the Egyptians of old, to give their choicest possessions in order that they might be rid of those removing, there were two hundred and forty-three De Meurons, Swiss and others who journeyed southward.

“Old Time Booms”

Before giving an account (if the native elements of the population which sprang out of the fur trade it may be well to refer to certain movements growing out of the coming of the old world immigrants. It was not in 1881 for the first time that a “boom” was seen on the Red River. The Hudson’s Bay Company has been much blamed for not opening up the country and encouraging enterprise. We shall see this to have been an opinion unjust to them. Immediately after the union of the two fur companies in 1821 a company to manufacture cloth from buffalo wool was started. This, of course, was a mad scheme, but there was a clamor that work should be found for the hungry immigrants. The Company began operations and every one was to have become rich. $10,000 of money raised in shares was deposited in the Hudson’s Bay Company hands as the bankers of the “Buffalo Wool Company”, machinery was obtained, and the people largely gave up agriculture to engage in killing buffalo and collecting buffalo skins. Trade was to be the philosopher’s stone. In 1822 the bubble burst. It cost $12.50 to manufacture a yard of buffalo wool cloth on Red River, and the cloth only sold for $1.10 a yard in London. The Hudson’s Bay Company advanced $12,500 beyond the amount deposited, and a few years after was under the necessity of forgiving the debt. The Hudson’s Bay Company had thus its first lesson in encouraging the settlers. The money distributed to the settlers through the bankrupt company bought cattle for the settlers however, several hundred cattle having been driven through from Illinois that ,year. Lord Selkirk next undertook a Model Farm for the benefit of the settlers. Buildings, implements, and also a mansion, to cost $3,000, for the manager, were provided. A few years of mismanagement and extravagance brought this experiment to an end also, and the noble founder was $10,000 out of pocket. Such was another scheme to encourage the settlers. Driven to another experiment by the discontent of the people, Governor Simpson tried another Model Farm. At a fine spot on the Assiniboine, farm dwellings, barns, ,yards, and stables were erected and fields enclosed, well bred cattle were imported, also horses. The farm was well stocked with implements. Mismanagement, however, again brought its usual result, and after six years the trial was given up, there having been a loss to the Company of $17,500. Nothing daunted the Red River settlers started the “Assiniboine Wool Company,” but as it fell through upon the first demand for payment on the stock, it hurt nobody, and ended according to the proverb with “much cry and little wool.” Another enterprise was next begun by Governor Simpson, “The Flax & Hemp Company,” but though the farmers grew a plentiful quantity of these, the undertaking failed and the crop rotted on the fields. A more likely scheme for the encouragement of the settlers was now set on foot by the Governor, viz.: a new sheep speculation. Sheep were purchased in Missouri, and after a journey of nearly fifteen hundred miles, only two hundred and fifty sheep out of the original fourteen hundred survived the hardships of the way. A tallow company is said to have swallowed up from $3,000 to $5,000 for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and a good deal of money was spent in opening up a road to Hudson’s Bay. Thus was enterprise after enterprise undertaken by the company, largely for the good of the settlers. If ever an honest effort was made to boom an isolated and difficult colony it was by the Hudson’s Bay Company here. I have not been slow elsewhere to point out the part taken by the company in the later years of the colony to keep the country closed, but it is fair to say that having spent so much fruitlessly for the colony, it was not strange that the conclusion should have been reached that the conditions were against the colony.

Outstanding Men

During these early days some names deserve notice. Sir George Simpson, the Governor, was a potentate in Rupert’s Land. From 1821 to 1860 he kept his position with a strong hand. He was the soul of energy. He made, for some forty times, the canoe journey from Montreal to Red River, traveled in 1841-2 overland across America and through Siberia, and returned by way of Britain to Canada, having begirt the earth. His book was published five years after, but the work of another hand than his own is evident in its arrangement and preparation. Sir George seems to have been at once an autocrat and a shrewd concilator of the people. In 1835, the year in which Lord Selkirk’s estate on Red River was sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company, a nominated council called the Council of Assiniboia was formed and the Governor became the president. Sir George’s visits to Red River were awaited with the greatest interest, and every settler who had a grievance, however small, aired it to the Governor. This active and busy man was knighted for his successful services to the country, lived latterly near Montreal, and passed away in 1860. Another early settler worthy of notice was John Pritchard. First an English clerk in the Nor’ West Company, then a Red River settler, then a manager for Lord Selkirk, then agent for the Buffalo Wool Company, this busy man did much for the colony, and his numerous descendants are among us till this day. The name of Alexander Ross is also worthy of notice. A young Scotchman, he had entered the service of the Astor Fur Company in 1811, and went out by way of Cape Horn to the mouth of the Columbia River. After a time, having left the Astor service, the young fur trader, having married a chief’s daughter among the Okanagan Indians, crossed with his young wife the Rocky Mountains and settled on Red River in 1824 or ’25. Colony Gardens, at the foot of Rupert street, mark his dwelling. He was for years the sheriff of Assiniboia, took an active part in the colony affairs, published several very readable books, and was an influential man among the Kildonan people. Most of his sons and daughters have died, but many of the next generation remain. Ross, Alexander, James, William, Jemima, Louisa, and other streets in this city are called after himself and family.

The Bois-Brules

Parkman, in his account of Pontiac’s conspiracy, has well shown the facility with which the French voyageurs and Indian peoples coalesced. Though a poor colonist, the French Canadian is unequalled as a voyageur and pioneer runner. When he settles down on some remote lake or untenanted river with his Indian wife he is at home. Here he rears in contentment his “dusky race.” The French half-breed, called also Metis, and formerly Bois-brule, is an athletic, rather good looking, lively, excitable, easy-going being. Fond of a fast pony, fond of merry making, free hearted, open handed, yet indolent and improvident, he is a marked feature of border life. Being excitable he can be roused to acts of revenge, of bravery and daring. The McGillivrays, Grants, McLeods, and Mackays, who had French, Scotch and Indian blood were especially determined. The Metis, if a friend, is true and cannot in too many ways oblige you. The offspring of the Montreal traders with their Indian spouses so early as 1816 numbered several hundreds, and possessed a considerable esprit-du-corps. They looked upon themselves as a separate people, and headed by their Scoto-French half-breed leader, Cuthbert Grant, called themselves the New Nation. Having tasted blood in the death of Governor Semple they were turbulent ever after. Living the life of buffalo hunters they preserved their warlike tastes. Largely increased in numbers in 1849 they committed the grave offence of rising, taking the law into their own hands, defying all authority, and rescuing a French half-breed prisoner named Sayer. This was in the time of Recorder Thom. Adam Thom, the judge, deserves a word of notice. A native of Scotland, of large frame, great intelligence, and strong will; he had had experience as a journalist in Montreal. Sent up to establish law an order, he certainly did his best and should have had a proper force to support him. True, exception has been taken to his decisions, but where is the judge who escapes that? The old gentleman still lives, upwards of 80 years of age, in London, and has seen strange things among the Metis since his departure in 1854. Among the leaders in this affair—and I am not now pronouncing on the merits of the Sayer case—was one of the ominous name of Riel, the miller of the Seine, the father of the late unfortunate prisoner. The older Riel was an agitator of the first water. Going on with the Metis it needs not that I should recite to you the doings in the rebellion of 1869-70, it was simply the out-break of the “Seven-oaks” and “Sayer” affair again. A too generous Government overlooked the serious nature of those events. It was reserved for what we trust may be the last manifestation of this unruly spirit existent for three quarters of a century to show itself on the banks of the Saskatchewan in 1885. Louis Riel was undoubtedly the embodiment of the spirit of unrest and insubordination in his race. Tribes and peoples do at times find their personification in one of their number. Ambitious, vain, capable of inspiring confidence, in the breasts of the ignorant, yet violent, vacillating, and vindictive the rebel chieftain has died for the turbulence of the Bois-brules, ever their feature for the last seventy years,

English Half-Breeds

As different as is the patient roadster from the wild mustang is the English speaking half-breed from the Metis. I have lived many years acquainted with this people and have found them intelligent, and in many things much beyond their opportunities. So early as 1775 the traveller, Alexander Henry, found Orkney employes in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Cumberland House. The Orkney Islands furnished so many useful men to the company that in 1816, when the Bois-brules came to attack the colony, though the colonists were mostly Highlanders they were called “Les Orcanais.” Since 1821 the same supply of employes to the company has continued and increased with occasionally an admixture of Caithnessshiremen and other Highlanders. Accordingly the Englishspeaking half-breeds are really of Scotch descent, almost entirely. From Hudson Bay to distant Yukon, the steady going Orkney men have come with their Indian wives and half-breed children and made the Red River their home. I have but to mention such well-known and respectable names as Inkster, Fobis, Setter, Harper, Mowat, Omand, Flett, Linklater, Tait, Spence, Monkman and others to show how valuable an element of our population the English half-breeds have been, though, of course, we have those bearing these names as well who are of pure Orkney blood. I select two specially outstanding names. Alexander Kennedy Isbister was born in the year 1822 at Cumberland House, the son of a Hudson’s Bay Company officer whose family afterwards came to Red River. In 1842 he left his native land for England, and there, his education completed, became a barrister and leading educationist. His love for his native country was such that he fought the battle for the opening up of the Red River settlement. His name will ever be remembered on Red River. His generous gift of $83,000 to Manitoba University with his library, will preserve his name from generation to generation. One other name I mention here. It is that of the Hon. John Norquay, who has, with the competition of so Many energetic and competent newcomers held for years the place of Premier of Manitoba.

Hudson’s Bay Company Officers

No element, however, did so much for Red River of old as the intelligent and high-spirited officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, of whom many settled in the country. There was among them also a strong Highland and Orkney strain. In few countries is the speech of the people generally so correct as it wag in the Red River settlement. This undoubtedly arose from the influence of the educated Hudson’s Bay Company officers. At their distant posts on the long nights they read useful books and kept their journals. Numbers of them collected specimens of natural history, Indian curiosities, took meteorological observations and the like. Though all may not have been the pink of perfection, yet very few bodies of men retained as a w hole so upright a character as these. I have but to mention such names as Pruden, Bird, Bunn, Stewart, Lillie, Campbell, Christie, Kennedy, Heron, Ross, Murray, Mackenzie, Hardistv, Graham, McTavish, Bannatyne, Cowan, Rowand, Sinclair, Sutherland, Finlayson, Smith, Balsillie, and Hargrave and others, who have settled on the Red River to command, I know, your assent to my assertion.

The Pensioners

Most portions of the New World have grown from additions from the military, who have for some reason or other come to them. So it was in Red River settlement. In 1846 the 6th regiment of foot, some three hundred and fifty strong, was sent out by way of Hudson’s Bay under Col Crofton in connection with the Oregon question, then disturbing the relations of Great Britain and the United States. Few of the regiment remained in the country. The troublous state of affairs in Recorder Thom’s time induced the company to send out a number of pensioners and settlers who should be settled near the fort, and be useful in time of emergency as police. It was in 1848 that Col. Caldwell, with fifty-six non-commissioned officers, and men of whom forty-two were married and had families, came out by way of Hudson’s Bay, each man being promised twenty acres of land, and each sergeant forty. Such names as Mulligan, Rickards and others well-known, belong to this period. It was after their arrival that the Sayer emeute took place.

The Census

The nucleus of 150 Kildonan settlers in 1816 had with it a few Metis already settled down, but there was a need for a settlement for the midst of the vast fur territories. The Nor’West Company ever opposed to settlement, we learn from Harmon’s book, had a scheme on foot at this time to establish a native settlement on Rainy River and had the money subscribed for an educational institution there. A settlement once established on Red River many flocked to it. Thus it was that in ten years after the death of Governor Semple there were of Highlanders, De Meurons, Swiss, French voyageurs, Metis and Orkney half-breeds not less than fifteen hundred settlers. It was certainly a motley throng. The Rev. Mr. West, the first missionary, tells us that he distributed copies of the Bible in English, Gaelic. German, Danish, Italian, and French, and they were all gratefully received in this polyglot community. Though the colony lost by desertions as we have seen, yet it continued to gain by the addition of retiring Hudson’s Bay Company officers and servants, who took up land as allowed by the company in strips along the river after the Lower Canadian fashion for which they paid small sums. There were in many cases no deeds, simply the registration of the name in the company’s register. A man sold his lot for a horse and it was a matter of chance whether the registration of the change in the lot took place or not. This was certainly a mode of transferring land free enough to suit an English radical or even Henry George. The land reached as far out from the river as could be seen by looking under a horse, say two miles, and back of this was the limitless prairie which became a species (if common where all could cut hay, and where herds could run unconfined. Wood, water and hay were the three r’s of a Red River settler’s life; to cut poplar rails for his fences in spring and burn the dried rails in the following winter was quite the authorized thing. There was no inducement to grow surplus grain, as each settler could only get a market for eight bushels of wheat from the Hudson’s Bay Company. It could not be exported. Pemican from the plains was easy to get; the habits of the people were simple; their wants were few, and while the picture was hardly Arcadian, yet the new order of things has borne pretty severely upon many, so that they feel as did the kindly old lady, the occupant of colony gardens till two years ago, that they were “shut in” by so many people coming to the country. The census of the whole settlement gave in 1849, 5291, and in 1856, 6,523. The population by natural increase and by additions from the Territories, United States and Canada had in 1871, when the Dominion census was taken, reached to about 2,000 whites, 5,000 English half breeds, and 5,000 Metis.

The Parishes

No municipal government was ever provided for the people of Red Ricer, though extensive petitions were for warded to Britain for changes to be made in the government of the country. The Assiniboia Council, however, passed certain ordinances, appointed road overseers, and from a slight tariff of 4 per cent on imports enough was raised to carry on public affairs. The local sub divisions of Assiniboia were largely national and religious: French and Roman Catholics taking up a certain portion of river bank, Church of England half-breeds another, Scottish settlers and Presbyterians another. This was d one sometimes by the will of the H.B. Company and sometimes without it. The first parish was Kildonan, so set apart and named by Lord Selkirk on his visit in 1817; the De Meuron and Swiss settlement (1817-23) on the Seine, was the next resulting in the parish of St. Boniface.

The neighborhood of Fort Daer, where Pembina now stands, was always a famous resort for the Red River settlers, on ac count of the open plains supplying buffalo, The agents of Lord Selkirk endeavored to induce a number of the French half-breeds and settlers to leave Pembina and settle near Ft. Garry. In this they largely succeeded, although a number of half breeds remained there. At St. Jose, a village in the deep cut of the Pembina River through the Pembina Mountains, 50 miles west of Red River, was a Metis village in 1862 numbering several hundred souls. On this partial consolidation of the Red River settlements the most roving of the Boisbruies settled under the leadership of Cuthbert Grant on the Assiniboine, which many of the Metis have always called the St. Charles, it having been so named by Verandrye. This settlement was twenty miles from Red River, at White Horse Plains, in what is now St. Francois Xavier Parish. The first Protestant church in the country was at St. John’s, which was originally intended largely for the Kildonan settlers. On its ceasing to be their church the present Kildonan church was built at what was known as the Gronouilliere, or Frog Plain, in 1854 St.John’s was afterwards known as the upper church. In 1824 the church on Image Plain became the nucleus of what is now known as St. Paul’s Parish. In 1831 Rev. William Cochrane erected the church at the Rapids, thus beginning St. Andrew’s Parish. This church was known as the “Lower Church,” after which time St. Paul’s Parish church was called the “Middle Church.” It was in 1836 that this zealous missionary built a church for the Indians at what is now St. Peter’s, and did a good work among the poor Aborigines. This same indefatigable worker, in the face of opposition from the H. B. Company, established in 1857, outside of the Assiniboine settlement, the church which was the nucleus of Portage la Prairie, and round it gathered Indians and half-breeds. These are the nuclei of the old settlements; from them, as room was needed, overflows took place and new parishes were formed till at the time of the transfer to Canada in 1871, the settlement extended without serious interuption from Fort Garry down Red River for say forty miles : up Red River for perhaps twenty or thirty, and up the Assiniboine for about sixty miles : there were outlying settlements of Metis of importance at St. Agathe, Pembina, Pointe de Chenesthirty miles up the Seine to the east of Winnipeg, and on Lake Manitoba at St. Laurent. At the time of the transfer there were reckoned twelve French and twelve English parishes.

Notables of Red River

I have already noted some of those closely identified with the life and progress of Red River Settlement. Sketches might be written of the Governors of Red River Settlement or Assiniboia : of Alexander McDonell the “grasshopper” Governor: of Governor Christie, who in 1835 built the new Fort Garry : of Governor Finlayson in 1844 the “peoples’ governor”: of the military Governor Caldwell and his pensioners: and of Governor McTavish who was governor of both Assiniboia and Ruperts Land, whose delicate health amidst the troublous times of Riel’s first rebellion made him an object of sympathy as he let fall from his hand the wand of office, with which departed the rule of the Hudson’s Bay Company as a governing body. Or I might speak of early missionaries who have done much for the Red River Settlement. To the priest of 1818 who became the beloved and amiable Bishop Provencher, (1844-1853) or to his worthy successor in office, June 1853 till now, Archbishop Tache, to Archdeacon Cochrane, who has been justly styled the founder of the Church of England in Rupert’s Land; to the Venerable Archdeacon Cowley; or to Bishop Anderson, 1849-1864; or to Bishop Machray from 1865 to the present, all of whom have been self denying and useful men; or to that man of apostolic zeal, Rev. John Black, 1851-1882, the founder of Presbyterianism on Red River. I might mention settlers such as Logan, Fonseca, Barber, Schultz, and others, who arrived at various times at Red River and whose names are found marking the streets of our city, but time forbids me to say more.


The old Red River life has gone never to return; a new Kildonan has spread itself out into Springfield, Sunnyside, Millbrook, Grassmore, Brant, Argyle, and elsewhere; a Boisbrule overflow has taken place to St. Albert, Batoche, Qu’Appelle, and to many a lonely lake and river in our North-west plains; the English halfbreed has hurried west to Edmonton, Prince Albert, and Battleford, to find a home like that on his old Red River. It will never be quite appreciated by those from abroad of later years what the Red River settlement did for us who succeed it. It marked the slow but sure process of an influence of Christianization and civilization of many of our Indians; it gave the introduction from a barbarous and wandering life to habits of order and settled work; it furnished a valuable pioneering and trading agency for the fur trade, for surveying our plains, and for our Canadian exploration; it gave us the nucleus of our present educational and religious organizations; it made the H. B. Co. not only a trading company, but a company helping forward in different lines the improvement of the Indians, and made them the friends of education and religion, and if I read the story of its history aright it saved to Britain and Canada, the vast Northwest which would otherwise not unlikely have met the fate of Oregon.

Page revised: 25 February 2014

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