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Red River 200









Red River 200 - Celebrating 200 Years of Farming Experience

This year, 2012, marks the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the Selkirk Settlers in Manitoba from Scotland in 1812 and the 200th anniversary of agriculture in Manitoba.

On 7 October 1812, near what is now the Disraeli Bridge in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Miles Macdonell, the Governor of Assiniboia, helped to plant the bushel and a half of wheat that he had brought from Scotland.

This event was the beginning of one of the most important movements in Canadian history and the establishment of the farming system of the Prairie Provinces, with the wealth and opportunities that it offered to hundreds of thousands of immigrants.

The Selkirk Settlers were the first individuals to establish permanent residence along the Red River in what has grown to become the City of Winnipeg.

Their arrival and settlement began the shift in western Canada from a hunter-gathering economy to a farming-based community as the settlers were able to cultivate the land and establish a home base. This made it possible for dense settlement by immigrants from eastern Canada and Europe.

In October 1987, a plaque was erected in Joseph Zuken Heritage Park by the Lord Selkirk Association of Rupertsland. It commemorates the earliest planting in the Selkirk Settlement, established by Thomas Douglas, Fifth Earl of Selkirk, on 7 October 1812.

Events and activities will take place throughout the year commemorating the dedication and perseverance by the Selkirk Settlers to cultivate the land and make this location their home.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Lord Selkirk, what did he do, and why?

Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, was a Scottish nobleman who saw the suffering of the Highland Scottish farming families, and wanted to assist them to emigrate to the British parts of North America. Using his personal fortune, he made three attempts at establishing a colony – first in Prince Edward Island (fairly successful), then at Baldoon in what is now southwest Ontario, Canada (unsuccessful, the land being mostly a malarial swamp). Finally, in 1811, he purchased a large tract of land called Assiniboia from the Hudson’s Bay Company, including the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, and brought Scots families out to settle in 1812 and later.

Where are the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers?

The Forks are located today within the City of Winnipeg, in the Canadian province of Manitoba.

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See also Historic Sites of Manitoba: Forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers (Winnipeg)

Who were the Selkirk Settlers, where did they come from, and why did they come here?

Most of the Selkirk Settler families came from the north of Scotland, from Kildonan valley of Sutherlandshire. They were tenant farmers there, who were being displaced by their landlord, the Countess of Sutherland, in favour of sheep farming. Thus deprived of their livelihood, they were in desperate economic circumstances. When they were offered a chance at a new life in a new place, they seized the opportunity.

Why is the date 1812 chosen for the Bicentenary?

The formal transfer of the tract of Assiniboia in London took place in May/June 1811, and an advance party of workers was sent out via Hudson Bay, commanded by Miles Macdonell. They did not reach Red River till the end of August 1812, and the formal ceremony of taking possession was on 4 September 1812. This is the key date. The actual settlers came out in four groups in 1812, 1813, 1814, and 1815. First Nations representatives (Chief Peguis and others) did not sign a document, indicating their acceptance of the land transfer, till 1817.

Who lived here already when the Settlers arrived, and how did they respond?

There were two important groups of people already living in the area around the Forks. First Nations peoples had frequented the Forks for many centuries, as archaeological discoveries and native traditions tell us. In the years just before 1812, Ojibwe hunters from northwest Ontario had been moving into southern Manitoba, gradually displacing the earlier Assiniboine/Dakotah and Cree natives. The native leaders whom the Settlers met, such as Chief Peguis, were Ojibwe. Also living in the Red River were a French-speaking population of retired fur trade voyageurs from Quebec, and children of those men with native wives, the Métis. There was a strong community of Métis living at Pembina, some 60 miles south of the Forks. They made their living from buffalo hunting. A second buffalo-hunting Métis community settled at St Francois Xavier, 20 miles up the Assiniboine, a little later.

The fur traders. How did they respond to the Settlers?

Two rival fur trading companies were trading throughout western Canada in 1812, theNorth West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company. The HBC supported the Settlement, though their presence in southern Manitoba was weak, and they were easily bullied by their rivals. This Company probably encouraged Lord Selkirk’s scheme because they thought it would cause problems for the North West Company. The NWC tried hard to discourage the Settlement, partly because the region included in Lord Selkirk’s purchase was a major source of pemmican. This Company intimidated the Settlers and their leaders in every way they could, made it easy for the Settlers to leave, and encouraged the local Métis to be hostile.

What is pemmican?

Pemmican is a high-calorie, concentrated, portable food that has been described as the fuel on which the fur trade canoe brigades ran. To make pemmican, buffalo meat was cut in thin strips, dried in the sun, and pounded into a powder. This was packed into bags made of buffalo hide, and melted buffalo fat was then poured in, filling the bag. Sometimes berries were added for flavour. After cooling, the bag was sewn shut. The resulting substance, if kept dry, remained edible for many months. It was stockpiled at fur trade depots like Fort Alexander and Cumberland House, for the use of the long-distance canoe brigades.

Where did the Settlers establish their farms?

The farm lots were long and narrow, each with a river frontage of about 400 feet (six surveyor’s chains), and all on the west side of the Red River. They extended about two miles into the prairie. The lots began at a line just south of the present Bannerman Avenue, and then were laid out, side by side, north to the place where the old Kildonan stone church was later built, and then beyond to the present boundary of the City of Winnipeg. The lines of the streets in this part of Winnipeg, running slightly north of west, preserve the layout of the lots as they were surveyed by Peter Fidler, the Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor, in 1817. In this part of Winnipeg, the names of some modern streets, such as Bannerman, Polson, and Matheson, preserve the names of some of the settlers.

What happened to the Settlers when they came here? What was their life like?

When the first party of actual settlers arrived at the Forks, in October 1812, they found that the advance party had done very little to prepare for them, and the whole colony went to Pembina for the winter, where they were supported by the Métis buffalo hunting community. Some progress in establishing farms was made in 1813, and a second group of settlers arrived, but again the winter was spent at Pembina. In 1814, the colony began to be self-sufficient, but Miles Macdonell issued a proclamation, forbidding the export of foodstuffs from the colony, and because this included pemmican, the North West Company regarded this as an attack on their business. The next year, 1815, the Company terrorized the colonists, persuaded many of them to leave for Upper Canada (the present southern Ontario), and chased the rest away to Jack River, at the north end of Lake Winnipeg, burning their farm buildings. Miles Macdonell, now a prisoner, and about 110 colonists went to Upper Canada in North West Company canoes. It appeared that Lord Selkirks’ colony had been destroyed.

At Jack River, a Hudson’s Bay Company trader, Colin Robertson, persuaded the remaining colonists to return to Red River, where they were soon joined by one more party of new colonists. After an uneasy winter, the North West Company again stirred up the local Métis to complete the destruction of the colony.

What happened to the Settlers who did not stay, but went elsewhere?

The North West Company provided canoe transportation for a number of settlers to Upper Canada (southern Ontario) in 1815, and many of those settled in the frontier districts there. After Seven Oaks, a number of Settlers went to York Factory and left on an HBC ship, which was caught in the ice, wintered in James Bay, and then proceeded to England in 1817. Much later, in the early 1830s, another group of Settlers, unhappy with the restrictions on their lives imposed by the HBC, went to the United States and settled in Iowa.

What happened at the Battle of Seven Oaks?

On 19 June 1816, a brigade carrying pemmican for the North West Company, under the command of a young Métis clerk, Cuthbert Grant, was passing overland behind the settlement. Robert Semple, the new Governor of the colony, accompanied by some colonists and Hudson’s Bay servants, went out to confront them at a place called Seven Oaks. Everyone on both sides had a gun, and once the first shot was fired, the superior marksmanship of Grant’s horsemen had its inevitable effect. Within a few minutes, Semple and 20 of his companions lay dead or dying. In later life, Cuthbert Grant admitted that he would have gone on to overrun the rest of the colony, and kill more people. But the Ojibwe leader Chief Peguis, who had already shown himself a friend to the colonists, stepped in, prevented further bloodshed, and saw to it that the bodies were buried in a common grave. Later, it is believed that the bodies were reburied in the St John’s Cathedral cemetery. A monument on the site of the Battle of Seven Oaks was erected by the Manitoba Historical Society in 1891.

What happened to the Selkirk Settlement after Seven Oaks?

The bloodshed at Seven Oaks shocked people all over the Northwest. Lord Selkirk had already decided to bring mercenaries up to Red River to protect his colony. He was able to hire a number of soldiers in Canada, mainly drawn from two mercenary regiments that had fought on the British side during the War of 1812. These were the Des Meurons Regiment (mostly Swiss) and the De Watteville Regiment (French-organized, but containing many Poles). News of the battle reached Selkirk at Sault Ste. Marie, as he came up in canoes via the Great Lakes. He pressed on to Fort William, the North West Company’s great depot, captured it, arrested several of the partners, and found in their documents much evidence that the Company had planned the destruction of his colony. Selkirk and his soldiers wintered at the Fort, and in the spring continued on to Red River. There, he met the settlers, assuring them that they were safe now. Some of his mercenaries were settled on farm lots. Selkirk was a handsome man of sincerity and charm, and the few weeks he spent at Red River were remembered by the settlers for the rest of their lives.

The settlers still had much to contend with – cold winters, unsuccessful crops, grasshoppers, and in 1826 a catastrophic flood. A sudden, late breakup of the Red River brought huge chunks of ice down upon the settlement’s houses, sweeping everything away. But the houses were quickly rebuilt, and life went on. No more new settlers came direct from Scotland after 1815, but the colony was a centre to which fur traders could retire, and occasional settlers could come from Canada. The Hudson’s Bay Company provided basic government services, including a system of land titles, and some resources for religion and education. More and more people joined the settlement over the next fifty years, and by 1870, when Manitoba joined Confederation, about 12,000 people were living around the Forks, in what was soon to become the booming city of Winnipeg.

Why is the Selkirk Settlement important, and why should we be marking the Bicentenary?

There are two reasons why the Selkirk Settlement at Red River was so important. First, by planting here a colony of British subjects, Lord Selkirk made it unlikely that the expansionist United States would simply continue north and west, and annex all of what is now western Canada. Second, the Settlement began the shift of western Canada from a hunter-gathering to a farm economy, based on grain growing, which can support a large population. After Confederation, this made it possible for dense settlement by immigrants from eastern Canada and Europe. Thus the Settlement was the beginning of one of the most important movements in Canadian history and the establishment of the farming system of the Prairie Provinces, with the wealth and opportunities that it offered to hundreds of thousands of immigrants.

Page revised: 25 April 2015

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