Manitoba History: Lady Selkirk and the Fur Trade

by Sian Bumsted
St. John’s Ravenscourt School, Winnipeg

Number 38, Autumn / Winter 1999-2000

This article was published originally in Manitoba History 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.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 following essay was the winner of the Manitoba Historical Society’s 1998 Edward C. Shaw “Young Historian” Award.

For many years, Lord Selkirk has been a heavily-researched historical figure. Historians and archivists have studied the Selkirk Papers to gain an understanding of the workings of Selkirk’s relationship with the Hudson’s Bay Company and various other facets of his complex life. Upon first glance, his wife Lady Selkirk—simply seems to be a typical dutiful spouse of the time. [1] She was a wife who was left by herself in Montreal for long periods, while her husband led soldiers in various parts of what is now Manitoba and then while he traveled to court appearances in Upper and Lower Canada dealing with the consequences. However, what is less obvious is that while her husband was away, for several years Lady Selkirk virtually ran the North American operations of the Hudson’s Bay Company. She was responsible for many of the command decisions in the conflict between the HBC and the North West Company. While her active involvement in the fur trade has been overlooked, it is important to recognize that Lady Selkirk played an incredibly vital role in the events in which her husband was involved. She was left by herself in conditions very different from those with which she had grown up in Scotland. She had children to raise, a company—to run, and a colonial officials to placate. Lady Selkirk did without much credit what many women throughout history were called upon to do when their husbands were called away. She held the fort.

Lady Selkirk; Jean Wedderburn-Colvile, no date.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Jean Wedderburn was born in Edinburgh in 1786 into an upper-class Scottish family. Her father was an Edinburgh advocate, related to Alexander Wedderburn, First Baron Loughborough, who was Lord Chancellor of England at the end of the 18th century. Her brother Alexander became solicitor-general of Scotland, and another of her brothers Andrew became an important sugar merchant and collaborator with Lord Selkirk in the HBC. The Wedderburn family held substantial property in the West Indies. [2] Jean received the type of education which many females of her class enjoyed, although it is not known whether she was educated at home or in one of the growing number of lady’s academies in Edinburgh. In any event, she learned to play the harp and piano, she probably took some art lessons, and she worked on her French, which would subsequently serve her well in Lower Canada, particularly with the Roman Catholic bishop. She also developed at some point a very graceful letter-writing style.

The young Miss Wedderburn was in London in the autumn of 1807, visiting with her best friend Louisa, Lady Auckland. She probably first met Thomas Douglas, Fifth Earl of Selkirk, at a party or ball at Lord and Lady Auckland’s house. Selkirk was thirty-six and one of London’s most eligible bachelors. He was an active member of the House of Lords and the last male in his line. Jean was twenty-one. Surviving portraits indicate that she was quite beautiful. While the two quickly fell in love, [3] there were dynastic considerations as well. Selkirk needed an heir. The happy couple were married in November 1807 at Inveresk, in Scotland, with the Aucklands responsible for the wedding arrangements. [4] The heir—Dunbar James, Lord Daer—was born on 22 April 1809. The relationship of Lord and Lady Selkirk appears to have been a loving one, although he was often ill and frequently away from home. Like most wives, Jean could be quite critical of her husband. She found him exasperating, extremely naive and impractical.

Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk, no date.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Lady Selkirk provided important personal and business links for her husband. Her brother, Andrew Wedderburn Colvile, entered the HBC in collaboration with Lord Selkirk, and headed the firm for many years. Her cousin, John Wedderburn Halkett, married Selkirk’s sister Lady Katherine Douglas in 1815. Halkett was also active in the HBC and between 1815 and 1820 wrote a number of works defending Selkirk’s conduct in North America. [5] Halkett and Colvile were two of the executors of Lord Selkirk’s estate after his death, and they administered the Red River Colony for the Selkirk family until its sale to the HBC in 1835. It is likely that the two men consulted closely with lady Selkirk in this administration, although this cannot be proved.

Throughout most of their marriage, Lady Selkirk appears as a shadowy figure at best. This is not necessarily because of her behavior, but because of the sources available about her. [6] The extensive family papers kept at St. Mary’s Isle in Kirkcudbright were destroyed in a fire in 1940. Before the fire, some of the papers had been transcribed in two separate operations. Around 1900 the Public Archives of Canada copied papers of “particular interest to Canada” from the Selkirk family monument room at St. Mary’s Isle. These copies form the basis of the “Selkirk Papers” held by the National Archives of Canada. Subsequently, the heir to the papers, Sir James Hope Dunbar, had many of what were felt to be the historically important papers to the fur trade copied in co-operation with the HBC. These transcripts are an addendum, volume A27, to the Selkirk Papers at the NAC. It is perhaps worth noting that most of the most revealing surviving letters from Lady Selkirk are in A27 rather in the NAC transcripts. No doubt, the Archives did not find them worthy of copying.

A number of early historians, including George Bryce, Chester Martin, and John Perry Pritchett, had access to the family papers at St. Mary’s Isle before they were destroyed. Unfortunately, none of these male historians paid very much attention to Lady Selkirk as a person in her own right, although Chester Martin did quote extensively from a number of letters of Lady Selkirk no longer available. [7] One letter quoted by Martin, written by Lady Selkirk to her sister-in-law Lady Katherine Douglas, suggests that she kept the remainder of the family constantly informed of the activities of her husband. If there were substantial amounts of her papers—and there may well have been—they have not been preserved. The bulk of the large number of surviving letters written by and to Lady Selkirk were transcribed because of their interest for Lord Selkirk’s ventures in Red River and the fur trade rather than because of anybody’s interest in Lady Selkirk.

Because of the loss of the extensive family papers, most of what we can now find out about the Selkirks relates to Red River and the fur trade. Other matters—especially their day-to-day domestic and family life—remain largely undocumented. Occasionally other collections of papers do offer some brief glimpses into the Selkirk family’s private affairs. These glimpses suggest that Lady Selkirk had long been entrusted with delicate business when her husband was away. In 1812, while Selkirk was in Ireland, his young nephew William Hall suffered a nervous breakdown in London. The Hall family in Scotland—Lady Hall was Selkirk’s sister —expected Selkirk to do something. Lady Selkirk stepped into the breech, and arranged with a Dr. Marcet for treatment and care of William. [8] Not only was Selkirk often away from home, but he was frequently ill, apparently suffering from the early stages of tuberculosis. During periods of “indifferent health,” Lady Selkirk usually acted as his private secretary, a role she continued until his death.

In 1815, Lord Selkirk was finally able to travel to North America to take personal control of his affairs there. He was accompanied by his family. Lady Selkirk brought her harp and pianoforte. If she had intended to sit quietly at home with her music, however, she was in for a rude awakening. In June of 1816, Lord Selkirk departed from Lake Ontario at the head of a large party of mercenary soldiers recruited as settlers, leaving behind a pregnant Lady Selkirk. He was headed for his settlement at Red River. As is well known, on his way west Selkirk learned of the battle of Seven Oaks. He turned his mercenaries to Fort William, occupied the place, and arrested all the Nor’west partners he found there. Over the next eighteen months, Selkirk would operate beyond the boundaries of the law as he fought desperately to save his settlement and find justice for those killed at Seven Oaks. In the process he would upset governments in Canada and in Great Britain.

For her part, Lady Selkirk was forced to take positive action, since she was on the spot in Montreal, the centre of the fur trade. She corresponded with her husband regularly. She advised him, lectured him, admonished him, and informed him of what others were saying and doing. She dealt with his legal advisors, James Stuart and Samuel Gale, consulting and giving ideas herself. She charmed rough fur traders like Colin Robertson and sophisticated Montreal merchants like Alexander Garden. She provided her brother in London with information on developments in the fur trade, and saw that his instructions were executed in Montreal. She represented Selkirk to colonial officials in Lower Canada. Many of the documents from this period later transcribed were originally copied in Lady Selkirk’s hand. In the beginning, Lady Selkirk had wanted to make peace with the Nor’westers, chiefly because of the expense of maintaining the conflict. As late as the end of 1816 she wrote her husband, “I acknowledge I cannot swallow the exchange of St. Mary’s Isle for your kingdom on Red River.” [9] What would become of Daer, she asked at that time. But the more involved she became, the more militant her attitude became. By Selkirk’s death she was, if anything, less willing to compromise than her husband.

Three clusters of events illustrate the part she played in the years in Montreal, and the development of her attitudes. The first cluster of events came shortly after Selkirk had left for the west in 1816, and before news of the occupation of Fort William had reached Lower Canada. From his departure, Lady Selkirk was concerned about the failure of the colonial governments to act to end the conflict in Red River. As she wrote on 16 August to the governor of Lower Canada, Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, she feared that without government interference, there would be a continuation of violence. [10] Sherbrooke replied that he deplored the violence, but could do nothing to prevent it. [11] Without success, Lady Selkirk advocated the dispatch of a commission “to enquire into the nature and causes of these atrocities.” [12] As she reported to her brother in London, however, she decided upon receipt of Sherbrooke’s refusals to act to meet with him personally. She immediately boarded a steamboat from Montreal for Quebec City, bringing her children with her. Upon her arrival in the capital, she requested a private interview with the governor, which he granted. Although he still refused to act, she was invited to dinner with Sherbrooke and his wife. Lady Selkirk quickly established a friendship with Lady Sherbrooke which would last throughout their lives. In 1818 she used her friendship with Lady Sherbrooke to obtain advance information on the Coltman report on the fur trade war. On this earlier occasion, the Sherbrookes accompanied Lady Selkirk back to Montreal on the steamboat, and she reported triumphantly to her brother, “The first tidings received by the North West of my journey, was seeing me land and walk up from the shore on the Governor’s arm.” [13] Since the Nor’westers were convinced that they alone had the ear of the government, this scene was of considerable symbolic importance. Perhaps more importantly, Sherbrooke subsequently acted on Lady Selkirk’s suggestion and appointed the commission headed by William Coltman to investigate the events in the west. She declined an invitation to spend the winter of 1816-17 with the Sherbrookes in Quebec, but established an acquaintance with Coltman.

The second cluster of events came in the spring of 1817. The colonial secretary had ordered the arrest of Selkirk for resisting a warrant at Fort William in the autumn of 1816. A “bitter dose,” Lady Selkirk called this order in a letter to Colvile. [14] To her husband she sent advice on strategy. “Be the most dutiful obedient subject to the laws however unjust,” she wrote, “but be sure to give all the stage effect possible to the submission,” adding “one upright mind is more than a match for all the villains in the North West Company.” In a postscript she editorialized, “Let us but have the right on our side, and we shall prove that we are all British subjects.” [15] At the same time, Lady Selkirk was active in preparing the canoe brigades of 1817 which would reinforce the HBC and the settlement. To John Halkett she wrote, “I think we are all agreed that although we must weigh well whether the gain is worth the expense, yet if we are to be poor for three generations we must absolutely fight this out.” [16] She was personally responsible for recruiting forty-seven more DeMeuron mercenaries for service at Red River, writing her brother “It is bad to go on, but worse to go back, that is all I can say.” The expedition of 1817 was “my throw,” she wrote. She also persuaded Samuel Gale—“my champion”—to accompany the Coltman commission west to safeguard Selkirk’s interests. [17] Gale was clearly infatuated with Lady Selkirk, and he wrote her a wonderful series of letters of his adventures in the interior.

Selkirk family crest.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The third cluster of events occurred in the late autumn of 1817, when commissioner William Coltman had returned to Montreal from Red River to write his report on events in the west. One of the first people he visited was Lady Selkirk. By this time, she was convinced from the information she had received from Samuel Gale that Coltman had a “North West bias.” Nevertheless, she entertained him in the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Garden, writing her brother, “I could not receive the man cordially as a friend yet I wished to be perfectly civil and good-humored, composed and cool, and verily the last two were hard tasks,” [18] She had trouble keeping a straight face when Coltman told her that he had seen very little of Samuel Gale, for Gale’s letters had reported their confrontation at great length. The Gardens were more upset than she was, she reported. “I played music to them to drive the big man out of my head and lay the evil spirit.”

Lord Daer; James Dunbar, the 6th Earl of Selkirk no date.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Coltman returned to visit Lady Selkirk on a number of subsequent occasions, and she argued with him over matters such as the independence of the “freemen” at Red River who had been involved in Seven Oaks. Coltman insisted that they were independent of the Nor’westers, while Lady Selkirk maintained that they were “slaves” of the company. She pointed out that when both sides had been forced to make restitution of property taken from the other, all the restitution was made by Selkirk. Although she was convinced that Coltman’s report would not take Selkirk’s side, she recognized the importance of his support for the plan of sending Catholic clergymen to Red River. It was not enough to get the Catholic bishop on side, which she had done in a series of personal visits. “It is hard if the plan should fail ... for want of a little suavity,” she wrote her brother, “so I suppose I must try my skill on Mr. Coltman.” [19] Not surprisingly, Coltman personally led the subscription fund for the scheme. Lady Selkirk was fully conscious of the value of her feminine wiles. She subsequently commented to her brother that she was tired of the petticoats she had worn for eighteen months, “which you must acknowledge however I only put on in my husband’s absence.” [20]

Lady Selkirk continued to supervise both her husband’s affairs and those of the HBC in 1818, when he had spend most of his time in the courts or traveling to them. But by this time he was clearly not well. She remained in Montreal to look after the legal business after his departure for England in late 1818, although she must have known that he was going home to die. She finally returned to England herself in the summer of 1819, almost immediately heading with Lord Selkirk and the younger children for the Mediterranean, where doctors hoped that the climate the would help Lord Selkirk’s illness. She acted as his secretary over the last months.

Lady Selkirk’s interests in the fur trade and Red River did not end with the death of her husband. One of her last documented services to the settlement came between 1824 and 1826, when she applied her energies to the needs of the Buffalo Wool Company. [21] That company had been set up in Red River in 1820 with the approval of her brother Andrew Colvile in an attempt to provide an exportable commodity for the settlement. The initial idea of shearing the hair of the buffalo, sending it to Britain, and weaving it into a unique cloth was probably Lord Selkirk’s. It came from the same mind that had developed the “reindeer express” to provide transportation between the forks and York Factory. There was no problem obtaining the hair. A single buffalo hide produced two to three pounds of quality hair for weaving, as well as three or four more pounds of hair that could be used to make blankets and to stuff mattresses. Three hundred pounds of fine hair—the company preferred to call it “wool—was sent to Britain in 1821. The wool was not a great success. It provided the weavers with too many problems, including a resistance to weaving because of it’s curliness and a fierce objection to dyeing, which meant it came only in very dark brown. Andrew Colvile reported in 1824 that the wool was probably useable only in the settlement. [22]

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

Opening a correspondence with one of the leading Scottish woolen manufacturers, Wellstood and Ogilvie, Lady Selkirk badgered the firm and others into various experiments at making the buffalo wool useable. [23] Surely fashion-conscious women would want shawls and garments made of this exotic material, argued Lady Selkirk. It was discovered after much trial and error that the wool could be mixed with silk and made considerably more manageable. Unfortunately, it proved utterly impossible to recolour the wool. Bleaching it had absolutely no effect, and unless it could be bleached it could not be turned into another colour. Woven buffalo wool remained basically dark brown bordering on black. A stocking manufacturer reported that the wool made up into “beautiful” ladies’ stockings, but these did not appeal in the marketplace because although warm, they were very itchy wear. In the end, even when mixed with silk, there proved to be only a limited market for expensive funeral shawls and warm stockings which were of rough and scratchy finish. [24] Lady Selkirk herself wore them in public, but was unable to start a trend. Nevertheless, she had demonstrated her continued commitment to Red River. She probably made other efforts of a similar kind that have gone unrecorded.

The evidence of the Selkirk Papers demonstrate that Lady Selkirk was in fact a driving force behind the running of the Hudson’s Bay Company in North America during the years 1816-1819. Various letters and documents show that she made many decisions in reference to business her husband had to leave in her care when he was called away. Lady Selkirk probably did much more than what was expected of wives at the time. However, it is important to remember that Lady Selkirk was not the only woman ever left in this situation. Over the centuries, many wives have been left in the position of having to take over for an absent husband, bringing up their families and looking after whatever business their husbands were involved in. The simple fact is that such behavior has often been overlooked. We must recognize the contribution that these women have made to history. As a role model, Lady Selkirk was more than just a pretty face or a dutiful wife.


1. Lord. Selkirk’s biographer, John Morgan Gray, writes on introducing Jean that “She was first and always a good wife to a man whose interests were m public affairs...’ Lord Selkirk of Red River (Toronto, Macmillan, 1963), p.53.

2. Alan L. Karras, Scottish Migrants in Jamaica and the Chesapeake, 1740-1800 (Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 1992), 142-3.

3. Lady Selkirk to Andrew Colvile, 24 August 1816, Selkirk Papers A27, p.311.

4. Edinburgh Weekly Journal, 29 November 1807.

5. “John Halkett,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, VIII (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1985), 351-2.

6. The discussion which follows is based on an interview with J. M. Bumsted, 14 January 1999.

7. See, for example, Chester Martin, Lord Selkirk’s Work in Canada (Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1915), 90-1.

8. Marcet Papers, Small Collections, National Library of Scotland 3649. I am indebted to J. M. Bumsted for this reference.

9. Lady Selkirk to Selkirk, “Hogmanay,” 1816, Selkirk Papers A27, 390A-390L.

10. Lady Selkirk to Sherbrooke, 16 August 1816, Selkirk Papers A27, 311B-C.

11. Sherbrooke to Lady Selkirk, 19 August 1816, Selkirk Papers, A27, 311E-F.

12. Lady Selkirk to Sherbrooke, 21 August 1816, Selkirk Papers, A27, 311F-G.

13. Lady Selkirk to Andrew Colvile, 24 August and 5 September 1816, Selkirk Papers, A27, 311H-L.

14. Lady Selkirk to Andrew Colvile, 6 May 1817, Selkirk Papers, A27, 398J-M.

15. Lady Selkirk to Selkirk, 6 May 1817, Selkirk Papers, A27, 398M1-4.

16. Lady Selkirk to John Halkett, 12 June 1817, quoted in Martin, Lord Selkirk’s Work, p. 142.

17. Lady Selkirk to Andrew Colvile, 19 June 1817, Selkirk Papers, A27, 414-17.

18. Lady Selkirk to Colvile, 19 November 1817, A27, 660-667.

19. Lady Selkirk to Colvile, 18 December 181, A27,677-80.

20. Lady Selkirk to Colvile, 21 December 1817, A27, 681-85.

21. A detailed discussion of this venture and Lady Selkirk’s involvement is in Grant MacEwan’s Cornerstone Colony: Selkirk’s Contribution to the Canadian West (Saskatoon, Western Producer Prairie Books, 1977), 175- 79.

22. Andrew Colvile to John Pritchard, 11 March 1824, Selkirk Papers, 8160-61.

23. Selkirk Papers, 8189-8199.

24. James Ogilvie to Lady Selkirk, 21 October 1826, Selkirk Papers, 8389-90.

Page revised: 13 October 2012