Lord Selkirk and his Agents*

by J. M. Bumsted

The Forks and the Battle of Seven Oaks in Manitoba History
Edited by Robert Coutts and Richard Stuart
Manitoba Historical Society, 1994. ISBN 0-921950-12-8

When Robert Semple was killed at Seven Oaks on the Red River in June 1816, he was not the first deputy of Lord Selkirk to die in the Earl’s North American service. While Semple’s was the first death by violence amongst Selkirk’s agents, it would not be the last. Between 1803 and 1820, Lord Selkirk employed more than twenty men as deputies of various sorts in the three settlements he established in North America at Prince Edward Island, Baldoon, and Red River. A list of major agents includes:

Prince Edward Island:
James Williams (fl. 1803-1815)
Angus MacAulay (1759-1827)
Charles Stewart (1759-1813)
Basil Hall (1788-1844)
Captain John MacDonald of Tracadie (1742-1810)
William Johnstone (1779-1828)
Thomas Halliday (d. 1821)
Samuel Prescott Fairbanks (1795-1828)

Upper Canada (Baldoon):
William Burn (1758-1804)
Alexander McDonell (Collachie, 1762-1842)
Dr. John Sims (fl. 1806-09)
Thomas Clark (d. 1835)

Red River:
Miles McDonell (1767-1828)
Owen Keveny (d. 1816)
Colin Robertson (1783-1842)
Robert Semple (1777-1816)
Archibald McDonald (1790-1853)
Alexander Macdonell (1774-ca. 1828)

Although only three of these men died in his employment, almost without exception their service was unsatisfactory and terminated prematurely.

Because so few Canadians appreciate that Selkirk founded three settlements scattered across nearly 2,500 miles of what is now Canada, the tale of Selkirk’s agents has never been put together into a coherent whole. With the exceptions of Halliday, Hall (who appears in the British Dictionary of National Biography), and Sims, for example, all the men listed above appear in The Dictionary of Canadian Biography, either because of careers apart from Selkirk (eight individuals) or because of their Selkirk connection (seven individuals). Fourteen of the eighteen listed above were Scottish-born, eight of them in the Highlands, although the list includes one American (Semple), one Irishman (Keveny), and one Nova Scotian (Fairbanks). Selkirk was obviously partial to the MacDonald clan, with two MacDonalds and three Macdonells among his American agents, and several more (including John MacDonald of Dalilia, his principal emigration recruiting co-ordinator) employed in the British Isles. Many of the Macdonalds were Roman Catholics, and at least three of Selkirk’s subordinates (McDonell of Collachie, Miles McDonell, and MacDonald of Tracadie) were of that religious persuasion.

Archibald McDonald, Selkirk’s agent at Red River during the re-establishment of the colony after the Battle of Seven Oaks

Between 1803 and 1815,when all three of his settlements were established and struggled for survival, Lord Selkirk was present on the North American side of the Atlantic for only sixteen months—from August 1803 to December 1804—spending most of that time travelling and sightseeing in the United States. He made only two brief visits among his Prince Edward Island settlers, spent no more than two weeks at Baldoon, implementation of his complex emigration and settlement schemes, designed both to accomplish public good and to develop North American estates, Selkirk was forced to rely almost totally upon his employees.

Like most British landed aristocrats, Selkirk was accustomed to employing others to manage his affairs. Estate managers, factors, stewards, and various sorts of “men of business”, including lawyers, were ubiquitous across the nation, constituting by the eighteenth century what amounted to a distinct and numerous profession which had expanded as far north as the outer Hebrides of Highland Scotland. Earlier generations had often employed kinfolk or those bound to the employer by non-economic ties, such as feudalism or the clan system of the Highlands. By the eighteenth century, however, such connections were declining, replaced by a strictly monetary relationship of employer and employee. While such mangers were hardly perfect—and as the Highland lairds could testify they became more problematic the more distance their operations enjoyed from their employers—an aristocrat like Lord Selkirk could anticipate certain standards of loyalty and probity from his British deputies which he did not seem able to replicate in their North American counterparts.

A view of the Red River Settlement in 1817, thought to be from a sketch by Lord Selkirk.
Source: National Archives of Canada

To some extent the problem with American agents was hardly confined to the nineteenth century, as generations of absentee investors in colonial ventures could testify. Nor was it less than general in Selkirk’s own period. Selkirk himself on more than one occasion referred to the “malignant effect of the American climate” on his subordinates. In a 1795 letter to Colonel Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres, Captain John MacDonald of Tracadie on the Island of St. John analyzed the situation of North American agents well. Both DesBarres and MacDonald had spent long periods of absence from their New World estates, leaving them in charge of trusted women—in the former’s case a mistress, in the latter’s a sister. DeBarres had commissioned MacDonald, now returned from Britain to British North America, to investigate the state of his holdings and to become his agent. MacDonald refused to act in any longterm capacity, insisting instead that the proprietor should manage his own holdings. Only the proprietor could undertake the complex decisions to be made in any extensive operation, MacDonald argued, adding that “it is a delicate Matter, for an Agent to yield up upon his own mere Judgment material points of another man’s property.” Moreover, competent and dependable agents were difficult to obtain. “Tell me if you Know a Proprietor living in England,” wrote MacDonald,

that has ever been able to hold an Estate in America. I will even venture to say that an American living always here, holding an estate in England, would lose it at the hands of Anyone Steward in five hundred. When one succeeds to or Acquires an Estate, he takes up a trade—the trade of a Land Lord, or manager, of that Estate, which if he does not attend to regularly will be sure to fail; for it is a very minute trade requiring intimate Acquaintance with the Subject, renewed occasionally as former Circumstances alter or new ones occur. He must watch the Conduct of everyone connected with it. He must be employed constantly on contriving. If this is the case with respect to Estates in Settled regular Countries, how much the more so in America, where the Estates are in a Manner in the State of Creation, and where the preying upon one another is reduced to a sort of legal System, & where Circumstances vary every day? It is true a good Agent may do it all. At the same time, how many do you know capable of so acting & susceptible of the trust?

MacDonald would later take his own advice, refusing to become the chief Island agent of Lord Selkirk in 1803 and rejecting an offer of the post in Red River which Miles MacDonell would subsequently accept.

But if the problem with North American agents was chronic, it was certainly exacerbated by particular problems created by Selkirk himself. Perhaps the most important factor was the sheer scale and ambitiousness of Selkirk’s operations. A typical Selkirk project stretched over long distances with an extremely tight time-frame, which meant that Selkirk’s deputies were constantly being forced to deal with unavoidable mishaps and cumulative if unwritten alterations in their original instructions. None of Selkirk’s three settlement schemes bore much resemblance in the execution of his original intentions. In some cases he was personally able to effect a necessary modification, as in the case of changing the destination of hundreds of Highlanders recruited in 1802-1803 from Upper Canada to Prince Edward Island or shifting Highlanders recruited for a Canadian regiment to becoming Red River settlers, but even in these instances he left the working out of the details to his subordinates. As Angus MacAulay trenchantly put it in 1819, “no man ever covered a retreat with more address than I did [his] Lordship’s in 1803 from Scotland.

Selkirk’s deputies were typically forced to deal with events which had been totally unanticipated and for which consultation with him was impossible. Not only did Selkirk initially fail to recognize that the swampy property he chose for settlement in Upper Canada, while well located in most respects, was malarial and would produce an epidemic among his settlers, but he was equally unable to appreciate that those who survived the epidemic would refuse, despite his orders, to move to higher ground. In Red River, the unexpected problems faced by Miles McDonell reached legendary proportions, including failures to recognize in advance the extent of the hostility of the North West Company or of the local mixed-blood inhabitants.

The complexity of Selkirk’s schemes meant that his North American subordinates were constantly improvising in the face of impending disaster, as yet another brilliantly conceived paper strategy fell apart through unavoidable real circumstances. But complexity also meant that his delegates were subject to many internal confusions of role and function, as well as being forced to deal continually with external misconceptions and criticisms.

To tum to the latter situation first, in all three settlements Selkirk created expectations which could quickly tum to fear and hostility on the part of those outside his operations. On Prince Edward Island, criticism of Selkirk and his projects came chiefly from the faction in political opposition, although many of his settlers were unhappy that he had not kept all his promises. What saved Selkirk on the Island was the fact that his settlement there had been a fall-back operation, and he did not really intend to create a major landed estate there. In Upper Canada, however, the government and its officials were from the first inherently hostile to the institution of a major absentee landholder into the colony.

The situation in Red River was clearly the worst, in respect complex intentions. Here Selkirk inextricably connected his settlement with the fur-trade rivalry by accepting a grant from the Hudson’s Bay Company and by running the foundations of his colony in tandem with a new policy of business competition against the North West Company. No amount of attempted clarification ever succeeded in distinguishing the two matters, in the eyes of the North West Company or of either Canadian or Colonial Office officials. Indeed, Selkirk and the Hudson’s Bay Company often confused the two themselves, and an army of bookkeepers were unable to separate at the time of his death Selkirk’s expenditures for the Company from those for his settlement.

If outsiders were confounded by the overlapping of Selkirk’s various enterprises and projects, his deputies themselves were often resentful about chains of command, constantly jousting with each other at the margins of authority. William Burn, who had recruited labourers for a proposed sheep farm in Upper Canada which he was expected to manage, was quite upset in 1804 when Selkirk suddenly appeared at the farm with “2 Gentlemen or sumthing like Gentlemen”, one of whom was appointed Upper Canadian agent and Burn’s superior. That agent, Alexander McDonell of Collachie, had scarcely a good word for Burn (who died of a local fever in September 1804) or his successor, Dr. John Sims, who saw the settlement through several malarial attacks until his dismissal in 1809. In Red River, Miles McDonell fought constantly with William Hillier, his autonomous counterpart in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and with his second in command, Owen Keveny, who accused Miles of “treatment which has given him disgust.” Lord Selkirk was forced to write to McDonell complaining that Keveny had been so “completely thrown aside & employed to no useful purpose.” Miles also at least initially resented Archibald McDonald, who had assisted with recruiting in Scotland and came out to Red River as a sort of Selkirk protege, having been sent for medical training in London by the earl. During the spring of 1816 Robert Semple—”Mr. Simple” as Colin Robertson always referred to him in correspondence—was constantly at loggerheads with Robertson, who was a freelance agent for both Selkirk and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Robertson departed Red River in disgust on 11 June 1816, convinced that the colony was doomed under Semple’s leadership.

Internal dissension among Selkirk’s deputies was kept down at Baldoon by the failure of Alexander McDonell to honour his commitment to his employer to reside there. Petty squabbling among those employed by Selkirk as his representatives at Red River was endemic, and certainly helped contribute to the military weaknesses of the settlement which ended so disastrously at Seven Oaks. In the case of the conflict between Colin Robertson and Robert Semple, the disagreement was at root not petty at all, but over major strategic issues. Robertson wanted to take aggressively what he saw as the inevitable battle with the Metis to them outside the colony, while Semple preferred to adopt a more measured defensive position. But while both Baldoon and Red River witnessed constant dissension among Selkirk’s deputies, the worst situation occurred on Prince Edward Island.

On the island, there had been trouble from the outset between Angus MacAulay and Selkirk, particularly over the honouring of Selkirk’s pledges to his Highland settlers. MacAulay had recruited the Highlanders to go to Upper Canada, and while some of the new arrivals were sent on to Baldoon in 1804—many to die of malaria—most of the recruits brought to the Island by Selkirk in 1803 were settled under quite different terms than those which had been originally promised. From Selkirk’s perspective, the refusal of the British government to accept his Upper Canadian plans necessitates a complete reconceptualization, which understandably meant that old commitments would be replaced by new ones. The way in which MacAulay’s unhappiness chiefly expressed itself was in opposition to James Williams, who had been selected by Selkirk as his principal agent in Prince Edward Island. In a series of confrontations between Williams and the settlers over the winter of 18031804 MacAulay took the emigrants’ part, a position he would continue to maintain throughout his lifetime. The battle between Williams and MacAulay would become part of the political fabric of the entire Island. Williams became a member of the so-called “cabal”, which governed the island against the policies of the lieutenant-governor and his supporters, known as the “Loyal Electors”, of which MacAulay was a member. Williams and MacAulay headed rival groups of Highlanders to the polls in several elections, and competed with each other for the political allegiance of Selkirk’s settlers. MacAulay complained that Williams used his power as agent to invoke loyalty, while Williams protested that MacAulay used the accumulated grievances against Selkirk to incite the populace to turbulence.

Part of the problem on Prince Edward Island (as elsewhere) revolved around the fact that Selkirk had considerable personal charismatic qualities that were undelegatable, although his elite status could be assumed by others in local situations. In all three settlements and in the recruiting that preceded them, Selkirk’s presence was a powerful factor, described in almost mythical proportions by eye-witnesses. He was, of course, an Earl, even if only one of the Scottish variety. He was also tall and striking in appearance, with his red hair and aristocratic features, and was very glib and credible in conversations with ordinary folk, often conducted in a serviceable Gaelic that must have surprised his auditors. According to Angus MacAulay’s analysis, Selkirk’s success in attracting and leading his settlers was a direct result of his assumption of the role of surrogate Highland chieftain, and MacAulay claimed disappointment that the Earl never seemed to appreciate the obligations to people that he had thus assumed -or the importance of choosing Highlanders to deputize for him. It was certainly true that many of Selkirk’s chief agents, including Williams, Semple, and the two McDonells, were not themselves Highlanders, although the latter two had been born in Scotland north of the Highland fault and claimed Highland background. Both McDonells, however, had lived most of their lives in North America, and completely failed to achieve any sympathy or empathy with the ordinary Highlander. Their problems were doubtless exacerbated by their mistaken belief that they did understand Highlanders. In any event, although Selkirk’s agents could hardly take over his charisma, they inevitably became important men in their communities through assumption of his status and financial backing. As important men they soon began to ignore the interests of the employer upon whom their position ultimately depended. Both Williams in Prince Edward Island and Alexander MacDonell became members of the ruling elites of their respective colonies, partly because of their business relationship with Selkirk.

Although Selkirk obviously had bad judgment in picking his subordinates, to a great extent this characteristic was shared with his employees and constituted a sort of vicious circle. The Ear l’s American schemes were typically so patently farfetched and impossible of execution that most men with any common sense would have refused to have anything to do with them. We do know that Thomas Clark and John MacDonald of Tracadie rejected overtures from Selkirk in the early years of the century to become principal agents in Upper Canada and Price Edward Island respectively, although both did serve in caretaker capacities later on after the principal damage had been done. We do not know how many others similarly spurned the Earl’s service. Those who accepted his offers were as capable of self-delusion as Selkirk himself, which did not bode well for their administrative success. For his part, Selkirk did not listen either to criticism or realistic appraisals of situations, understandably preferring subordinates who did not challenge his views. These weaknesses were a built-in recipe for disaster with is deputies, particularly given their need for independent action.

If Thomas Clark and MacDonald of Tracadie were the most sensible of Selkirk’s American agents, Alexander McDonell (Collachie) was probably the most honourable. For McDonell, like most members of his class, honour was a matter of considerable importance. While he never understood ordinary Highlanders, he lived his life according to his mother’s early injunction “never to forget that all the blood in his veins was of a Highland gentleman. As an agent, McDonell was a walking disaster. He failed to keep his promise to reside near Baldoon, and devoted increasing amounts of his time to politics in York, losing control of expenditures in the process. The total cost of his administration to Selkirk is incalculable, but somewhere in excess of 10,000 pounds sterling. Nevertheless, McDonell did obey Selkirk’s summons to come to England to report on his accounts, leaving Upper Canada on 29 June 1811. While the Earl was not happy with the expense, he did at least obtain a personal explanation of the accounts in a series of face-to-face meetings with his Upper Canadian subordinate.

Unlike Alexander McDonell, James Williams never explained his accounts in person, and easily qualifies as Selkirk’s most dishonourable agent. Selkirk by 1806 became alarmed at Williams’ failure to report at all on his stewardship, and sent a series of temporary agents, including his nephew Basil Hall, to the Island to investigate. They found no evidence of fraudulence, and Selkirk gave Williams another chance. By 1809 the Earl was writing to MacDonald of Tracadie that he could not continue to leave a man in charge who neglected to make reports and disobeyed positive orders to present his accounts. At this point there was considerable evidence available to Selkirk that Williams had arranged bad contracts with unscrupulous timber merchants. Williams was also the talk of the island for living at Pinette with a woman not his wife, a situation finally reported to Selkirk by Thomas Halliday in1815. One earlier letter to Selkirk from Williams, excusing a failure to come home with his accounts because of medical problems, describes symptoms suspiciously like venereal disease. Selkirk eventually went to court in an attempt to recover the estate papers from Williams, but he disappeared off the island before the case could be completed. Williams left Selkirk’s Prince Edward Island property in a complete shambles from which it did not recover until long after the Earl’s death, when another agent, the young ship owner Samuel Cunard, would begin to make it pay.

The most mysterious of Selkirk’s American agents was undoubtedly the stonemason Thomas Halliday, who was engaged by one of Selkirk’s Scottish “men of business” in 1809 “to go to Prince Edwards Island and to Carry a young girl with me to the name of Mary Cowchren,” bringing her up as he did his own children. In return for this service Halliday was supposed to get one hundred acres of land and Mary another hundred acres from Selkirk’s island estates. Mary was redheaded, and the Halliday family (as well as others, including James Williams) always believed that she was the illegitimate daughter of Selkirk himself. When she died in 1859, the tombstone erected by her daughter described her as “Mary Douglas, only daughter of Lord Selkirk.” If Mary were an illegitimate child fathered by Selkirk before his marriage, sending her to an Island full of his settlers was hardly much of a coverup. It seems unlikely that Selkirk would have taken an ill-educated stonemason—whom he had never met—into his confidence if he was burying dark secrets, and Halliday’s suspicions were probably unfounded, particularly given the relative shabbiness of the treatment afforded the girl.

The obvious candidate for Selkirk’s most pathetic agent is William Burn, one of the three North American deputies who died in Selkirk’s service. No one could ever describe the imperious Owen Keveny, murdered in 1816 on the Winnipeg River, or the equally imperious Robert Semple, as pathetic. Burn had not been eager to depart for North America, however, being under considerable pressure from a Miss Bacon not to go. But he agreed in 1802 to spend one winter in America to “set things a going”. In the spring of 1803, he received a letter from Miss Bacon announcing that she would not join him as she had promised, family circumstances making “it necessary she should remain near them.” He thereafter plunged into his work and into heavy drinking to solace himself. A handful of men under Burn’s command at Baldoon consumed eight barrels of whisky containing thirty-nine gallons each between July 1804 and his death in mid-September of that year. Alexander McDonell blamed Burn’s demise on “the effects of excessive temperance” as well as on “the prevailing fever”. His books were found in utter disarray, and Selkirk was never able to determine from them whether an aged mother in Scotland was entitled to back pay.

While almost all of Selkirk’s subordinates in North America were disasters, probably no other failure was quite as critical as that of Miles McDonell. As incapable of keeping a set of books up-to-date as others of Selkirk’s deputies, Miles did manage to maintain a lengthy and useful journal of this activities. Even that account only demonstrated his incompetence, as he lurched from one major misjudgment to another and completely failed to construct any infrastructure at Red River. In fairness to Miles, the task that Selkirk set him—to nurture in total isolation a colony that would be perceived as hostile to the interests of both the North West Companyand the resident mixed bloods—was probably impossible. But Miles made nothing but mistakes. Thereafter he appears to have lost his nerve and his self-confidence. On 14 July of that year he wrote Selkirk, requesting “your Lordship be not prevented by any delicacy to send a suitable person to take my place, as I find myself unequal to the task of reconciling so many different interests.” A few weeks later he suffered a nervous breakdown at York Factory, from which he had not fully recovered when he surrendered himself and his settlement to the North West Company in 1815 without a fight.

Although he was replaced as governor by Robert Semple in 1816, Miles operated as Selkirk’s right-hand man in the capture of Fort William on 13 August of that year, and appears to have been at least partly responsible for the worst mistake of judgement Selkirk ever himself made. Miles was one of the loudest voices urging Selkirk to made an arrangement with the drunkard Daniel McKenzie, by which McKenzie transferred all the North West Company assets at Fort William to Selkirk in return for an estate in Scotland. This deal was so dubious, both in law and practice, that was thereafter difficult for Selkirk to withstand public scrutiny as a man of honour interested only in colonization. The Earl himself recognized the McKenzie deal was “ill-judged conduct” that compromised his position, and always dated his later troubles from this action. Miles McDonell had much to answer for as far as Selkirk was concerned.

Although Selkirk was often highly critical of his subordinates, we ought not to conclude that they did not more than occasionally respond in kind. Most complaints about their employer were probably not made to his face or in direct correspondence with him, and only occasionally can be documented. The most outspoken of Selkirk’s agents was undoubtedly Angus MacAulay, who argued vehemently with the Earl in 1803 and 1804, certainly making a considerable impression upon a man who was not accustomed to such confrontations. In 1810 Selkirk wrote to John MacDonald of Tracadie that MacAulay was

... a character who cannot be unknown to you, tho you have probably not had the misfortune to know him as well as I do. His abilities are unquestionably great & he is also a man of great plausibility; but I have too certain experience, that reliance can be placed on anything he says: I have also seen in his conduct symptoms of a temper so diabolical, that in justice to human nature I can only describe them to a touch of mental derangement—which may perhaps account equally for his violence & his own inconsistency.

MacAulay was hardly inconsistent in his belief that Selkirk had taken advantage of his settlers, however, and he was not afraid to say so publicly. The vehemence of Selkirk’s critique of MacAulay was equalled only by MacAulay’s of him.

In 1814 MacAulay penned a lengthy letter to Selkirk, an epistle which was hardly submissive but certainly revealing. He described the officials of the Prince Edward Island government as hoodwinking Selkirk and his settlers indiscriminately, preying “equally like Peacham in Beggar’s Opera upon the absent proprietors & industrious inhabitants.” He offered to extricate Selkirk and the Island from the “old system ruinous to both”. Selkirk did not answer this letter, and on 20 November 1819—while the Earl was dying in, the south of France unbeknownst to MacAulay—the good doctor published an open letter to Selkirk in the Prince Edward Island Gazette prompted by the Earl’s advertised attempts to liquidate his Island holdings. This piece began by quoting Sully—“no man is a Hero to his valet de chambre”—and continued its attack unremittingly. MacAulay referred scathingly to “his Lordship’s affability with a liquid smile” and his preference for “shuffling convenience than the confidence reposed in his promises”, concluding with a sneering comment upon “the ingenuity of the noble Earl at Chess”. These final remarks might well serve as a partial valedictory upon Selkirk’s North American ventures, in which the Earl and his subordinates found nothing but grief.


* Originally published in The Beaver, June/July 1992 and reprinted with permission.

Page revised: 6 October 2011