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The Crucial Decade: Red River at the Outbreak of the American Civil War

by Alan Artibise

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 23, 1966-67 season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The small struggling colony of Red River at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red rivers could have altered the political destiny of half this continent and almost did. By 1857 a marked change of direction in the life of the colony was discernible as Red River had begun to move toward new goals. A series of events between 1857 and 1870 within and outside the colony threatened to result in the loss of this British territory to the American republic. The English-speaking settlers in the colony, faced with this possibility, were forced for the first time to think seriously of their future.

The pioneer settlement at Red River, founded in 1811 by Lord Selkirk, had developed haltingly under the Hudson's Bay Company. The reason was that the Company had been more interested in its peltry than in developing a prosperous community. [1] Until the late 1850s the colony remained almost completely isolated, its only connection with the outside world the arduous water route to Hudson Bay. By 1857 this isolation was ending and the concept of Rupert's Land [2] as a fur trader's preserve was being challenged and overthrown. It was clear that the commercial monopoly and political authority of the Hudson's Bay Company were soon to end. [3]

The Red River way of life had been unstable and provisional, as could be expected in its particular environment; and the people of the colony readily realized this fact. Of all its inhabitants, only the Métis were sufficiently content to think their way of life since 1811 could last forever. [4] Everyone else recognized with good reason that the fur trade regime would soon give way to a new state of affairs. What sharpened this expectation was the fact that the Hudson's Bay Company license was to expire, unless renewed, in May, 1859. And it appeared as if the charter would not be renewed. In Britain, free trade supporters were gaining momentum in Parliament and the whole principle of charters was under attack. More important was the fact that the company was rapidly losing control over the area. The Sayer Trial of 1849 had made it clear that the company could not effectively use its authority as the government of Rupert's Land to uphold its monopoly of all the trade in the region. [5] When the company had tried to prevent colonists from setting up private trade in furs, it failed; and its strongest efforts to end such trade only advertised its weakness. [6] Smuggling became a common occurrence in the Upper Red River Valley despite the fact that it broke Hudson's Bay Company laws. The reality was that few persons on either side of the forty-ninth parallel recognized the right of the chartered company to make or enforce legislation of any kind. [7]

The attitude of the Hudson's Bay Company itself added to this feeling of approaching change. The officers in the service of the company had a pessimistic outlook for the future. A letter from the officer in charge of Norway House to the governor of the company clearly reveals this:

We can no longer hide ourselves from the fact that free trade nations and the course of events are making such rapid progress, that the day is certainly not far distant, when ours, the last important British monopoly, will necessarily be swept away like all others, by the force of public opinion, or by the still more undesirable but inevitable course of violence and misrule within the country itself ... [8]

It seems that the company in general was inclined to the same opinion for when the Secretary of State for the colonies, Sir Edward Bullwer Lytton, had offered to extend the charter for two years the company refused, giving the following reason for doing so:

That the acceptance on their part of the license for any period of shorter duration than that which had been usually granted since the passing of the Act of 1st and 2nd Geo. 4th, cap. 66, would in their opinion only further increase the inconveniences already experienced. Far from strengthening, it would paralyze their authority, even within their own territory, from the impression it would create of the approaching termination of authority. [9]

This attitude, combined with the growing incompetence of company officials, made it generally accepted in the colony that the rule of the Governor and Council of Assiniboia must be replaced by a new form of government.

The possibilities were three. A Crown colony could be created as the Select Committee of 1857 recommended for Vancouver Isle, and as had been done for that colony in 1858. [10] Secondly, there was the possibility that Rupert's Land might be united with Canada as urged by the Toronto Globe, [11] and as the Select Committee of 1857 had advised. Finally, the pull of natural forces might be allowed to work itself out and Rupert's Land could come under American sovereignty as a new territory. If British sentiment and Imperial prestige could be set aside, this last possibility seemed to offer the most attractive future for the colonists at Red River. [12] The reasons were several.

The long delay, after it had been made clear in 1857 that Red River could not much longer pursue the fur trade and river-lot farming in isolation, created a political vacuum in the settlement. That vacuum was filled by some consideration of annexation to the United States, and fed by the fully established and rapidly growing trade with St. Paul. By 1860 business relations were almost exclusively with the United States and the only regular mail communication the people of Red River had with the outside world had been established in 1853, with connections through the American Republic. [13] Moreover, the S.S. Anson Northup, the only steamboat on the Red River in 1859, originated in the interior of Minnesota. [14] With such economic ties as these, eventual annexation to the United States appeared natural. Such a union would, if was felt, lead to speedy organization as a territory and an early beginning of railway construction. Most important of all, it would end the monopoly of the Hudson's Bay Company and abolish four percent custom duties at Pembina. [15]

The people of Red River readily accepted these material advantages, but these alone would not bring union. However, there did exist in the colony an "American Party," closely allied with the St. Paul merchants, which continually brought these and other advantages to the attention of the people. The party had originated early in 1860 when the German-American George Emmerling set up a hotel in the colony that soon became the rallying point of this group. [16] This American Party despised the so-called despotic rule of the Hudson's Bay Company and hoped to see the colony at Red River, as well as the rest of Rupert's Land, absorbed into the great republic from whence they came. Their sentiments found considerable support in Minnesota, largely due to the work of James Wickes Taylor who had been commissioned by the United States Treasury Department in 1859 to report on a route via the Red River colony and the Saskatchewan Valley to the gold-fields of British Columbia. [17] Taylor sincerely believed that annexation of Rupert's Land was inevitable and mutually beneficial, and he did a fine job of persuading the Minnesota Legislature of his view. Minnesota celebrated its attainment of statehood in 1858 by passing a resolution in favor of annexation of Rupert's Land. [18]

To the thoughtful observer, these combined developments seemed to be serving warning that the future of Rupert's Land would be an American one. The Red River Valley was a natural unit and the imaginary boundary line no real barrier. Nature had wedded St. Paul and the colony at Red River in both an economic and geographic union, and if the pull of these natural forces were left unchallenged a political union of the two settlements was not unlikely. Such a possibility was even more accentuated by the fact that the interest of Canada West in the colony at Red River was checked by a thousand miles of barren wilderness and by French-Canadian hostility to western expansion.

Nevertheless, as a balance to this southern pull, there was a similar movement in the colony toward union with Canada. Annexation by Canada, although not indicated by contemporary commercial realities, was strongly suggested by long historical connection and common political allegiance. [19] Canadians had first explored and traded in Rupert's Land, and a large number of its people in 1860 were of Canadian descent. Also, two developments, one within the colony and one outside it, were to reinforce this allegiance to Canada and ultimately lead to union. These events were the formation of the "Canadian Party" and its effective mouthpiece the Nor'Wester, and the outbreak of the American Civil War.

The Canadians who had arrived in the wake of the Palliser and Dawson-Hind expeditions of 1857 and 1858 [20] had come to share in the development of a new Canadian frontier. They had stout patriotic hopes of adding this region of the Upper Red River Valley to Canada. In 1860 Henry McKenney and his half-brother John Schultz had come to the colony and soon had formed a "Canadian Party". [21] Like its counterpart the American Party, it denied the validity of the Hudson's Bay Company charter. However, unlike that party, it was strongly opposed to the idea of eventual American annexation of the colony. Instead, the Canadian Party hoped for annexation to Canada and for that purpose, in 1859 it appealed to the Province of Canada for action to check this southern trend. [22] But, despite these pleas for aid, the party enjoyed little success and its influence might well have been no greater than that of the American Party had not two men from Canada, William Coldwell and William Buckingham, arrived in the autumn of 1859. [23] These two newcomers established the first newspaper of the settlement, the Nor'Wester. It was the existence of this newspaper, circulated not only in the colony at Red River but in Canada as well, that ensured the influence of the Canadian Party on subsequent events. [24]

The view of this paper throughout its course [25] was, that whether part of the Dominion or a Crown colony, the people of the Red River settlement would enjoy representative and responsible government. It agitated continually against Company rule claiming that the Council of Assiniboia was the tool of the Hudson's Bay Company. The Council was, it declared, hopelessly inefficient and the editors called for an immediate end to the pernicious system.

We maintain that this settlement has become too populous and, in every respect, too important to be ruled by a council nominated by a few fur-merchants some thousand (sic) of miles away. Is not a community of 8,000 or 10,000 orderly, intelligent and well-to-do inhabitants, as they are, deserving of self-government, and able to work it satisfactorily? What can prevent the settlement around Fort Garry from becoming the political and commercial centre of a great and prosperous people? The printing press will hasten the change ... [26]

The new paper began to urge that the rule of the Hudson's Bay Company be immediately ended and Rupert's Land annexed to Canada. With such views the paper aroused in the people of the colony the aspiration for responsible and representative government, and led them to believe that it could be best accomplished by annexation to Canada. [27] To understand why the editors of the Nor'Wester were so proCanadian, one need but glance at their previous employment before coming to the colony of Red River. Both Coldwell and Buckingham had previously worked on George Brown's Toronto Globe. During their service on this paper it is not unlikely that they were influenced by Brown's views on the Hudson's Bay Company and the future of Rupert's Land. Brown had clearly stated in the Globe that he not only felt the people of Red River had a government that was out of date, but he also urged immediate steps to save the situation. "The North-West must and shall be ours," he vigorously proclaimed. [28] It is no surprise then that the Nor'Wester also urged annexation to Canada and that it ran frequent excerpts from the pages of the Globe dealing with the future of Rupert's Land. The Nor'Wester was really nothing more than an eager offshoot of George Brown's paper. [29]

Immediately prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War we have seen that the people of the Red River were divided into two distinct parties; an American one that advocated annexation to the United States, and a Canadian one, strongly backed by the Nor'Wester, calling for annexation to Canada. There was also a third less influential group advocating for Red River the status of a Crown colony. It is reasonable to assume that this form of government best suited the needs of the colony at Red River and the general circumstances of the time. [30] A Governor and a Council, to be made representative in due course, would have served all political needs well enough for some years. The shattered monopoly of the Hudson's Bay Company could have been decently ended and removed. The Indian and Métis title to the land might have been equitably extinguished and those suspicious, but essentially docile people reconciled to the new government and the coming of settlement. Finally, Rupert's Land so organized, might have been represented at the Quebec Conference of 1864, as some in Red River wished, and have taken part in planning the federation of British North America. [31] However, supporters of this solution to the problems of Fort Garry, backed by Governor Head of the Hudson's Bay Company, were soon discouraged. The Colonial Office of the Imperial government declined to undertake responsibility for ending the Company's regime and setting up a crown colony. The colonial secretary hoped that Canada would assume the burden of government between Lake Superior and the Rockies, and contented himself with acting as mediator between the Company and the ambitious colony. [32]

It was for this reason that the Nor'Wester, which had supported the Crown colony proposal for a short time, turned all its energies to advocating annexation to Canada. Its editors saw that their opponents, the American Party, had a strong argument. "We are by no means surprised that the Red River people should be somewhat Americanized, for many travel to prosperous St. Paul and the impression is at once created that the form of government must be excellent under which exists so much progress and prosperity ..." [33] Having realized this, the editors urged the British Crown to do something about the situation " ... before we make short work of our destinies and vote annexation to Minnesota or Dakota." [34] The Nor'Wester was not the only one to note the strength of the north-south pull. The Governor-General of Canada, Sir Edmund Head, [35] admitted in 1860 that unless the system of government was changed the people may themselves form a provisional government and request annexation to the United States. [36] Furthermore, the swelling tide of American settlers and traders moving into the territory, and the breakdown of the government of Rupert's Land, made the Hudson's Bay Company anxious to dispose of its land before the United States took it with no acknowledgement of their ownership. [37]

The prospect of incorporation into Canada, or of any change whatsoever in the government of the colony, alarmed many in the Red River District. A primary concern for their disquiet was the land question. Some of them, particularly the Métis or French halfbreeds, were squatters who had not bothered to obtain title to the land they occupied in the easy-going days of company rule. They feared a new government would dispossess them, and that the newcomers to the settlements, both American and Canadian alike, were forerunners of this impending change. [38] The prospect of the old order, based on the fur trade and subsistence agriculture, coming to an end filled the Métis with foreboding. They supported neither Canadian nor American Party and thus represented yet another element in the already divided colony.

American annexationists saw in this uncertainty over the future of Rupert's Land an opportunity to take advantage of the situation. Before they could exploit it, however, there occurred a development that changed the whole situation. That development was the outbreak of the American Civil War.

It was the frequently expressed hope of flourishing Minnesota that today's provinces of Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan might be attached to the American orbit; first economically and then politically. It was upon this annexation sentiment that the Civil War had its most obvious effect. By the outset of the war, the Americans had succeeded in establishing economic bonds with Red River; in 1861 the American Secretary of State, W. H. Seward, a Republican expansionist, had praised the people of Red River for conquering their wilderness, for by so doing they were creating an excellent state for the American Union. [39] The people of Minnesota were intoxicated by this vision and it appeared that as long as the growing trade continued [40] their dream would ultimately become a reality. The American Civil War brought an end to this dream. The reasons were several.

The outbreak of the war ended, at least for a time, the steady flow of Americans across the border and by so doing slowed down considerably the "Americanization" of Red River. Moreover, although the merchants of St. Paul could still dream of a potential empire to the north, the Eastern interests that must provide the capital, the railways, and the forts that would have been the prerequisites to eventual annexation, turned to financing the war itself. Thirdly, the looming threat of the powerful wartime armies of the United States made both the Canadian and British governments extremely anxious. They began to think much more seriously of their hope of acquiring Rupert's Land for Canada and of providing it with proper communications. Attention was turned from the idea of a merely regional settlement to a transcontinental one, to westward expansion as a part of British North American federation. Finally, and most important, the American Civil War, by eliminating one attractive solution to the problems of the colony, that of annexation to the United States, seemed to clear the way considerably for the idea of union with Canada. A study of the colony's attitude toward the Civil War convinces one of the truth of this impression.

The Red River view of the Civil War is difficult to discern accurately for one must rely almost exclusively on the colony's only newspaper, the Nor'Wester. [41] This journal did, however, take a keen interest in the American Civil War for it was strongly felt, both in Red River and in the Province of Canada, that this conflict would have a profound effect on the future of Rupert's Land. In Canada, the war served as a reminder to Macdonald and Cartier of the political vacuum that existed in Red River. [42] They realized, as did the people of Red River, that if the South won its independence the North might seek compensation in Canada. And the menace would be no less if the North won. In that case, the war would have destroyed the slave-holding interest which thus far opposed the spread of the republic into free territory. Either way, the expansion that was expected at the close of hostilities would affect particularly the settlement at Red River, for its neighbour, Minnesota, was the most acquisitive state in the union. [43]

Despite this fear of the consequences of the war, the Nor'Wester was extremely pro-Union. The reason was that there was a similarity of social structure on both sides of the border that led to a similarity of outlook. A pioneer outpost such as Red River, composed largely of independent farmers and traders, had little reason to sympathize with the slavery of the south. It is not unlikely that the sentiments of the people of Red River were further aroused on the side of the North by numerous articles in the Nor'Wester. The editors had strong feelings regarding slavery and their experience on the Globe had probably added to this view. George Brown's Toronto Globe was outspoken in support of the North and denunciation of the South. [44] The Nor'Wester seems merely to have been a reflection of this attitude for in its editorials appeared violent denunciations of the South, [45] as well as numerous reprints from the Globe itself. Although the paper usually reported only factual news of happenings in the United States, its northern sentiments often flared up:

They who defy the legally constituted authority, who have stolen property and fired at the flag of the union, are before God and man responsible for whatever bloodshed may result from their wicked rebellion ... [46]
and ...
The Southern leaders are anxious for peace. We hope they will be much more humbled before peace is achieved. [47]

Thus it is clear where the sentiments of the Nor'Wester, and in all probability the people of Red River, lay in regard to the American conflict.

It should not be inferred, however, that the people of Red River, that is all but the members of the American Party, were too prone to trust their neighbour or admire all that was done by the North. In fact, the general opinion of the American national character was far from flattering. James Ross, co-editor of the Nor'Wester from 1860 to 1864, was an active member of the Canadian Party and violently opposed any support of the movement towards annexation to the United States. He pointed out to the people of Red River that the carnage of Civil War was what America offered. [48] He felt it was his task to convince the people of Red River of the desirability of union with Canada, not only as a solution to the problems of the colony, but to keep them from such a fate as Americans were enduring. In this task he was aided by his very opponents, the American Party. Their propaganda and political intrigue, rather than gathering support, created an atmosphere of hostility and discredited the American nation in general. [49] There was widespread opinion in the colony that politics in the United States was synonymous with corruption and public affairs in general were in the hands of a baser element. In view of these alleged facts the majority of the people at Red River would find it hard to accept the idea of union with the states to the south. It is true that material gains such a union would bring were not easily ignored. However, it is quite apparent that the idea of American union was never more than economic in appeal. This, in itself, was not enough to warrant the entry of the settlement into the American Republic.

The close of the American Civil War placed a further inhibition upon any who still desired union with the United States. This was the enormous debt incurred by the American government. Since the American Party harped on the single string of economic progress, the Canadian Party could meet them on the same theme by showing that if annexation came the taxes required to retire this debt would far outweigh the gains of increased trade and wider markets. [50] And the matter of bearing the expense of government was an important one to the people of the colony. [51] Nevertheless, it would be unjust to suggest that material consideration preserved Red River's ties with Canada. Setting aside any historical and political connections, the future course of Red River was essentially a problem of alternatives.

By 1860 it was an accepted fact that the Hudson's Bay Company could no longer govern the colony effectively and, moreover, the people sincerely wanted a larger voice in government. The most popular solution, one that would mean an elective legislature and responsible government, was the creation of a Crown Colony. But the unwillingness of the Imperial Colonial Office to undertake such a responsibility had made the inhabitants look elsewhere for a solution to their problems. Thus the settlement had become divided into two other groups; one advocating union with Canada, the other union with the United States. The events between 1860 and 1865 effectively eliminated this latter solution, leaving only one alternative-union with Canada. Many problems had first to be solved before this was to become a reality, but Confederation in 1867 put the Canadian Party of the settlement in the forefront and made it a certainty that Red River would become a part of the Dominion of Canada. [52] A seemingly simple process of elimination had left this as the only attractive solution to the problem of Red River. The story of resistance that accompanied Manitoba's entry into confederation was a result of the failure of the Imperial Government and Canada to consult the people of Red River about the terms and date of transfer, not out of hostility to the idea of union itself. [53] The Manitoba Act of July 15, 1870, was readily accepted by the people of Red River when its terms were finally laid before them.


1. D. F. Warner, "Drang Nach Norden.", M.V.H.R. Volume XXXIX, No. 4., (March 1953), page 694.

2. To avoid confusion between the American meaning of "Northwest" and the Canadian "North-West" I call the area "Rupert's Land". At fullest extent Rupert's Land stretched from the divide of the Rockies, across British North America to Hudson Bay, and to the coast of Labrador. The boundaries between Rupert's Land the the Province of Canada were not yet fixed in 1857.

3. E. E. Rich, Hudson's Bay Company, 1670-1870, Volume 111, (1821-1870), (Toronto, 1960), Chapters 30 and 31. Also see J. S. Galbraith, The Hudson's Bay Company as an Imperial Factor, (Toronto 1957), pages 338-354.

4. Attitudes of the Métis towards this change can be found in Joseph K. Howard, Strange Empire, (New York, 1952) pages 46-84.

5. W. L. Morton, "Changes in Red River, 1857-59", Beaver, Hudson's Bay House, Outfits 293, (autumn 1962), pages 47-61.

6. Warner, op. cit., page 695.

7. Howard, op. cit., page 57.

8. J. S. Galbraith, The Hudson's Bay Company as an Imperial Factor, 1821-1869, (Toronto 1957), page 331.

9. Alexander Begg, History of the North-West, Volume I, (Toronto 1894), pages 322-323.

10. Edgar McInnis, Canada: A Social and Political History, (Toronto 1964), page 270.

11. For George Brown's ideas on the future of Rupert's Land see J. M. S. Careless, Brown of the Globe, Volumes I and II, (Toronto, 1959).

12. W. L. Morton, Manitoba, A History, op. cit., page 106.

13. R. W. Winks, Canada and the United States, The Civil War Years, (Baltimore 1960), page 167. For a more detailed account of trade between Red River and St. Paul see H. C. Klassen, "The Red River Settlement and the St. Paul Route, 1859-1870", M.A. Thesis, University of Manitoba, 1963.

14. Winks, op. cit., page 165.

15. W. L. Morton, Manitoba, A History, op. cit., page 106.

16. A. S. Morton, A History of Canada West to 1870-71, (Toronto 1939), page 854.

17. W. G. Hardy, From Sea Unto Sea, 1850-1910, (New York 1960), page 126.

18. McInnis, op. cit., page 269.

19. W. L. Morton, Manitoba, A History, op. cit., page 106.

20. An excellent description of the work of these expeditions is found in C. E. Pressell, The Red River Country, Hudson's Bay and the North-West, (Montreal 1870), Chapter XV.

21. A. S. Morton, op. cit., page 855.

22. Ibid., page 855.

23. W. L. Morton, "The West and Confederation, 1857-1871", Canadian Historical Booklet No. 9, (Ottawa 1965), page 15.

24. A. S. Morton, op. cit., page 856.

25. The first issue of the paper came out on December 28, 1859. It was thereafter published every two weeks until late in 1869 when Mr. Brown, then its sole editor, left the colony.

26. Nor'Wester, I (1), December 28, 1859.

27. Nor'Wester, Supplement 7 and 14, 1860.

28. For a clear understanding of George Brown's views on Rupert's Land, see J. M. S. Careless, Brown of the Globe, Volume I, pages 227-231. For the connection between the Globe and the Nor'Wester see Volume II of the same work, especially pages 1-36.

29. W. L. Morton, The Kingdom of Canada, (Toronto 1963), page 311.

30. W. L. Morton, Manitoba, A History, op. cit., page 108.

31. Ibid., page 109.

32. D. F. Warner, The Idea of Contential Union, (Kentucky 1960), page 102.

33. Nor'Wester, III, July 29, 1862.

34. Nor'Wester, II, October 1, 1861.

35. He became Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company on June 15, 1863. Head was a strong supporter of the idea of a Crown Colony status for all Rupert's Land.

36. Winks, op. cit., page 168.

37. Warner, op. cit., page 103.

38. Ibid., page 104.

39. Winks, op. cit., page 170.

40. For some idea of this growing volume of trade between Red River and St. Paul see J. K. Howard, Strange Empire. He states that in 1859 only 600 carts travelled between the two settlements while in 1869 there were over 2500. See also Easterbrook and Aitken. Economic History of Canada, pages 339-348.

41. One must be careful to remember that the Nor'Wester does not necessarily represent the views of the majority of the people in Red River. However, little else can be used since the numerous books and articles written on this period in the history of Red River seem to ignore completely the effects of the American Civil War.

42. Winks, op. cit., page 167.

43. A. G. Gluek, Jr., "The Riel Rebellion and Canadian-American Relations", C. H. R., Volume XXXVI, page 200.

44. G. Macdonald, Canadian Public Opinion on the American Civil War, (New York 1926), page 88.

45. See, for example, Nor'Wester December 17, 1860 and February 1, 1861.

46. Nor'Wester, II, June 15, 1861.

47. Ibid., II, August 15, 1861.

48. See the Nor'Wester, III, July 29, 1869.

49. F. Landon, "Canadian Opinion of Southern Secession", C. H. R., Volume I, No. 3, (September 1920), page 257.

50. Warner, op. cit., page 93.

51. A. S. Morton, op. cit., 862.

52. Aid, page 863.

53. W. L. Morton, "The West and Confederation, 1857-1871", op. cit.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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