Lord Selkirk Settlers

by William L. Morton

Manitoba Pageant, April 1962, Volume 7, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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There were many kinds of people in the Red River colony. Some were French Canadians from what is now the Province of Quebec, who came and settled in St. Boniface. Others were French, Scots or Orkney servants and officers of the fur companies who chose to stay in the country after their service had ended. They usually did so because they had Indian wives and half breed children. There were many of these children; those who spoke French were called Metis, those who spoke English half-breeds.

Selkirk's Settlers, however, were quite distinct from all these. They were people he helped to come to Red River. They came as farmers and took no part in the fur trade. They came as families, like the French Canadian colonists, and did not marry with the Indians. They remained on the river lots Selkirk gave them, and lived to themselves, without becoming a half breed community, or taking part in the fur trade of the buffalo hunt, or going in the boat brigades. That is, as a rule they did; the young men sometimes did go hunting or "tripping", as it was called when one went in a boat or cart brigade.

We have a fairly accurate idea of how many of Selkirk's Settlers came to Red River, and from where. In 1811 Lord Selkirk sent thirty-six Scots and Irish workmen under Miles Macdonell to prepare for the coming of the real colonists. In 1812 one hundred and twenty men came from Ireland and the Hebrides, with an unknown number of women and children. In 1813 came - they did not reach Red River until 1814 - eighty-three Scots from the Highland parish of Kildonan. In 1814 only fifteen were sent out from Scotland. In 1815 eighty-four came from Scotland, but that year saw one hundred and thirty-three leave for Canada, lured away by the Nor'Westers. Thereafter no more settlers came from Scotland or Ireland.

How many, then, remained after the loss to Canada? When Nicholas Garry, who gave his name to the forts, visited Red River in 1821, he found two hundred and twenty-one Scots in the colony. These were the survivors in Red River of Lord Selkirk's settlers, with their children born in the new home. Their names tell us that some of them were Irish, but in the main they were Scots from the mainland or the isles. They were the kernel of the colony, and the Selkirk Settlers were to stay in Red River through all the troubles ahead.

Selkirk did bring other settlers. Some were his de Meuron soldiers, who came with him to Red River in 1817 to restore peace after the fur trade war. There were sixty-five of them in 1821, settled near St. Boniface. In 1821 a party of Swiss colonists also arrived, to the number of about one hundred and seventy. But these and the de Meurons, with a very few exceptions, left after the great flood of 1826. The colony became a colony of Selkirk Settlers, half-breeds, French Canadians and Metis, a strange mixture of French and Scottish, Indian and European, which developed its own way of life and even a language of its own, the bungee. But the Kildonan Scots and other Selkirk Settlers, whose coming we commemorate this year, kept their own character and Scots way of life amid all the strangeness of life in Red River.

Photos: Types of Lord Selkirk's settlers in 1822 - Swiss colonists from the Canton of Berne - German colonists from the disbanded de Meurons Regiment - A Scottish Highland colonist and a colonist from French Canada. Courtesy of Provincial Archives. Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk.

Page revised: 1 July 2009