Scotlands History\|Scots and Canada

Red River Colony

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At the start of the 19th century, Thomas Douglas, Lord Selkirk, founded the Scots settlement of Red River in Canada.

Thomas Douglas, Lord Selkirk, was a wealthy Scots philanthropist who devoted most of his life and his fortune to trying to help dispossessed Highlanders. He bought land in  Upper Canada and Prince Edward Island, and paid to transport Scots to the Canadian frontier to found new settlements.

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The Selkirk Settlers - An t-Eilean

Lord Selkirk used his influence as the majority shareholder of the Hudson’s Bay Company to gain a land grant of 300,000 square kilometres (120,000 square miles) of land on Red River, in the Assiniboine region of central Canada. Lord Selkirk agreed that he would provide settlers and militia for the region over the next decade. Lord Selkirk's new lands at Red River were almost four times larger than the whole of Scotland.

In 1811, a hundred Scots emigrants set sail for Hudson’s Bay under the leadership of Miles MacDonnell. MacDonnell had been contracted by Lord Selkirk to recruit Highlanders for his new settlement on Red River. MacDonnell was a disgruntled former military man who cut corners and booked passage on a decrepit ship.

The two-month voyage was a disaster. The passengers lived in cramped conditions and had to survive on mouldy grain and poor rations. They arrived in Canada too late to make the 60-day trek inland to Red River before winter and were forced to camp near York Factory. The Scots barely survived the harsh winter. By spring, only 22 men were healthy enough to make the 1300-mile trek to Red River.

Rising conflict

The Nor’Wester fur traders saw the Red River settlement as a Hudson's Bay Company threat to their trading routes. Many trappers were opposed to any settlement in the interior, fearing damage to the fur trade. The fur trade needed the land to stay wild; the natural habitat of the beaver was a wilderness free from people. Settlers brought farming, crops and livestock. They brought civilisation, laws and lawmen.

The new Red River settlers were met with hostility. Nor'Westers refused to trade with the Scots settlers, and they used their influence over the local Métis (French-speaking descendants of Europeans and First Nations people) to isolate them.

MacDonnell called himself the Governor of the Red River Colony. He lorded it over the settlers and wanted to govern the North West Company forts on Lord Selkirk's lands.

At the time, the fur trading posts were supplied with 'pemmican' by the Métis. The Métis hunted buffalo and made pemmican, a combination of dried buffalo meat and berries held together with fat, which was the main food source of mid-west fur traders.

MacDonnell saw the trade in pemmican between the Métis and the North West Company traders as poaching on Selkirk lands. In 1814, MacDonnell outlawed the trade and confiscated pemmican stocks. When his edicts were ignored MacDonnell sent eviction notices to the trading posts.

The North West Company sent a Scots fur trader named Duncan Cameron out to Red River to deal with the problem. Cameron tried to convince the settlers to relocate but most refused. He then began to incite the nearby Métis, telling them that the settlers would rob them of their way of life. The Métis began a string of guerrilla attacks on the Red River colony. Decorated with war paint and carrying tomahawks, they terrorized the Scots settlers. Livestock was killed, houses were burned and crops were destroyed.

The Métis attacked Hudson's Bay Company forts and robbed fur traders. Métis leader Cuthbert Grant and 60 of his men massacred a group of 25 Hudson's Bay Company employees at a place called Seven Oaks.

The Hudson's Bay Company pressured Lord Selkirk to provide some militia support to bring peace to the area. Lord Selkirk led a group of 100 militia, including Swiss mercenaries, out to Red River and began to restore order. Several of the Nor’Westers and a number of Métis were arrested and sent back east to face trial.

The Red River settlers were finally left to farm in peace. The Scots immigrants and the Métis learned to live alongside each other.

The crippling cost of legal fees from the trials that followed the Red River and Seven Oaks incidents nearly bankrupted the North West Company. Lord Selkirk's health failed and the Red River Colony cost him a fortune. The North West Company was eventually absorbed into the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821.

Photograph credits

The images used above are licensed under Creative Commons on Flickr by Manitoba Historical Maps.

Other images are licensed through Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society (cart train and Métis with Red River carts) and Royal Society of Canada (Assiniboia map).