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2019

Manitoba History No. 89
Manitoba
History

No. 89

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War Memorials in Manitoba
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This Old Elevator
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Abandoned Manitoba
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Commentary

by Jennifer S. H. Brown

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

I appreciate the invitation to comment upon these stimulating presentations. Itwas suggested that I also summarize the talks, but since all the speakers spoke effectively for themselves I will not attempt any repeat performance of their good works. They made their points much better than I could.

I want to thank the presenters who got papers to me in advance; it was helpful to have them to work with as I thought about the topic of our discussions. I find that what I want to say relates mainly to the question of the event itself—Seven Oaks: What do we call it? We have a problem of naming, defining, and categorizing this momentous day in the history of Rupert’s Land.

I was interested to see that Joe Martin didn’t include in his list of words for Seven Oaks the term, “event,” which I think is a useful term. Several people these days are writing about the doing of history, particularly of ethnohistory and Native history; and some of these authors make a useful set of distinctions. They contrast “events” with “non-events” in history; they allow for other things in between, which they call “happenings.” I’m referring particularly to the work of Marshall Sahlins in his book, Islands of History. He makes a helpful distinction between events and happenings in that book. [1] A happening he says, is simply an occurrence, and may soon be forgotten. But if it’s remembered, it begins to acquire added meanings, it becomes interpreted and becomes part of history. I suppose we could say of this meeting today that it’s a happening; we’ll see if it becomes an event. We may hope so, but we don’t know yet.

An event, then, is a happening that becomes “historical,” and it also takes on significance in the larger symbolic systems or cultures in which it is remembered. That is, it receives significance which is projected in the context of some larger cultural scheme. Sahlins makes a further point: “an event is a happening interpreted and interpretations vary.” [2] Diverse symbolic meanings and values become attached to events. A metaphor came to my mind as I thought about this. We could think about the Seven Oaks event as a comet with a long tail. It goes streaking by and we get very impressed with the tail, although we may not see much of the comet itself. And of course there are fallouts from comets; there are meteor showers, sparks in the night.

Major events, like comets, also return to our consciousness at regular intervals. We have cultural conventions about anniversaries. Why do we feel so compelled to mark anniversaries, 25 years, 50, 100, 150, even 175? (that’s one of the more esoteric ones, but once someone mentioned it for Seven Oaks, we had to do something about it). Whatever the reason, our conventions about anniversaries have consequences; they mean that our histories are in fact cyclical (like those of many peoples who used to be considered “primitive”), as well as linear. We keep coming back to such things as the 175th anniversary of Seven Oaks.

But more than that, Seven Oaks has become an epitomizing event in our historical narratives of Western Canada. Raymond Fogelson talks about epitomizing events as “narratives that condense, encapsulate, and dramatize longer-term historical processes.” [3] That is, epitomizing events carry extra burdens of meaning; they carry extra symbolic significance. Seven Oaks is certainly in that class. If one looks, for example, not only at Lyle Dick’s very interesting paper itself, but at the bibliography of versions he’s collected of the Battle of Seven Oaks, it’s amazing how many there are and how many emplotments of this event there have been. It’s as if the noise of the event itself and these writings about it have drowned out other long-term historical processes that were also at work (what Fogelson would call the nonevents). Every version of what happened at Seven Oaks is rolled into a good story, a kind of morality tale, with different valences depending on who is the teller and who is the audience. And as usual, when an event is produced and reproduced like this, it is loaded with dualism; there’s usually a good side and a bad side, heroes and villains, but always a side is taken.

We know by now, I hope, that there is no Historian’s Heaven. [4] We shall never know exactly what happened at Seven Oaks. But we doubtless shall carry on like Penelope, the wife of Ulysses, weaving and unweaving and reweaving the text of Seven Oaks. In the process, perhaps we can learn to be more cautious than we used to be. We can stand back from such an event, put it its place, see it from different angles, from a greater distance -and sometimes a little more distance is a good idea. We can be cautious about the power of this event.

Again, I find myself with an astronomical metaphor. An event of this sort is like a small black hole in the star chart of history. It sucks everything into it; it has a great gravitational force which distorts our view of the past. It deceives us in a sense; it diverts us from everything around it, from the temporal processes that were more invisible and ongoing, and even from the spatial setting in which it took place. If you doubt this, with due respect to my Parks Canada colleagues, go along to our new national park at the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers and look at a certain interpretive panel which commemorates Seven Oaks. The phrasing of this panel is interesting. The large print, which is what most people read, exclaims, “Violence at the Forks”; but if you get to the smaller print, it explains that there was a battle in 1816 which occurred eight kilometres distant. Welt on a good day if the wind was right you probably could have heard the shots, but “Violence at the Forks”? There is a sense in which the Forks too has become a black hole with its own gravitational force, sucking history and events into it from a large area and across a large span of time as well. Suddenly, everything happened at the Forks.

The violence of Seven Oaks also tends to get projected from the event onto everything around it, and not just the Forks. Mr. Martin has left us; if he were still here, we could ask his views on the following point. As you may know, he initially wrote on Seven Oaks in the Transactions of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba in 1966 and presented a narrative of the event in that piece. I don’t know how he would respond to that text today, but I wanted to read its final paragraph to you because it exemplifies how violence spreads out from this event and colours everything, how it hides the subtleties and obscures our understandings. Martin wrote here that Governor Semple was described by one person as “not a man likely to act in a violent or illegal manner”; but went on to add, “perhaps Semple was not a violent man, when writing for the Edinburgh Review, but he was far from Edinburgh, he was living in a violent land where violent deeds were committed every day in man’s struggle against the elements and his fellow man. The legality of the situation was not important at Red River as it was in Montreal or London, here was only the law of the prairie and the northland in the struggle for furs and control of the hinterland.” In this account the violence of one incident colours or even contaminates our whole view of the surrounding period, and of Rupert’s Land itself as a lawless, violent place.

What Joe Martin was doing in 1966, of course, was commemorating what Sahlins called “evenemential history”: history based on a string of events constructed into a narrative, with all the pitfalls that entails. I’d like, however, to return with Raymond Fogelson again to the importance of non-events. Numerous processes were occurring not only around Seven Oaks in 1816 but in distant places, on a larger scale. In the longer term they had an influence on what happened at Seven Oaks. Fred Shore’s analysis today brought to our attention, for example, a number of ongoing processes in the fur trade: the dynamics of fur trade marriages and the demographic developments related to them. These factors contributed to the pressures that surfaced at Seven Oaks. In the same vein, Tim Ball at the University of Winnipeg would remind us that 1816 was the year of no summer and climatic stresses in that period certainly merit attention. Other longer-term factors also need to be looked at. For example, the Nor’westers’ long transportation routes to Athabasca, developed over three decades, were provisioned by the pemmican supplies that were so much at issue in Red River. The longer aims of Lord Selkirk himself are important, and Jack Bumsted has in a masterful way called our attention to some of the general patterns, for better or for worse, of Selkirk’s career.

A couple of other factors didn’t get brought in very much today. It would be interesting to look in more depth at the intersections of the Metis themselves with democratic and revolutionary movements, whether in the United States or in France. The evidence here seems only circumstantial, and it’s very hard to prove connections. But the European and American political upheavals of the preceding generation were certainly not unknown news, or new news to the Metis. Did these political developments have an influence? As for Cuthbert Grant himself, we don’t know very much about him. We know that he had experience in Eastern Canada; he had experience in Scotland. In a way he reminds me very much of Louis Riel, going off as a young man for some length of time to other worlds and developing a breadth of perspective and a comparative base to draw on that most people did not have. When he came back, like Riel, what ideas and influences did he bring into that experience at Red River, at Seven Oaks? He didn’t write about them; he didn’t write about anything the way that Riel did, so we don’t know very much, but again, it’s something to be asked. Grant himself deserves more attention.

As for the idea of a Metis nation, the concept of nations and nationhood was a growing and flourishing idea in Europe at the time; I’m reminded of Eric J. Hobsbawm’s book, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 [5] on the relative recency of that concept in Europe in the early 1800s. Perhaps this factor too needs to be given more weight.

Red River’s first governor, Miles Macdonell, and his doings deserve more credit or blame in the whole affair. One of his actions especially needs attention as a prelude to Seven Oaks. Apparently on 4 September 1812, Miles Macdonell took formal possession of the area (and this event really did happen at the Forks). He held a public reading of the Hudson’s Bay Company land grant deeded to the Earl of Selkirk. There is no sign that the terms of that agreement were negotiated with either Indians or Metis. So one can imagine Metis patience being justifiably strained and one wonders about Cuthbert Grant being aware of parallel problems in Eastern Canada, and in the United States as well, where agricultural settlers had long been expanding and taking over Native lands.

Some other voices need to be heard from in assessing Seven Oaks, and they didn’t speak much today. Mr. Martin did mention Chief Peguis briefly in his presentation, but we should pay much more serious attention to Indian views and perceptions. Peguis and his band have tended to get rather simplistically heroized as the friends of the Selkirk settlers. It’s interesting to try to read between the lines in A. E. Thompson’s little book, Chief Peguis and His Descendants, written by a great-grandson of Peguis. The book gives us a rather intriguing account of his ancestor and Seven Oaks. Now this is a multi-layered text, written more than a century and a half after Seven Oaks, and difficult to deal with as a historical document. But nonetheless, Thompson’s description of Peguis is interesting. When this massacre occurred (and Thompson did refer to it as a massacre), “Chief Peguis, who was camped with his warriors across the Red River, watched the battle, and he held those in check who might have joined the fight. “ [6] I have to wonder just what was going on. Why did Peguis hold in check “those who might have joined the fight”?

And, you ask, “On which side would Peguis have sent his men?” Peguis was a friend to the Selkirk settlers and the Hudson’s Bay Company; but among the Metis there was at least one Indian, and possibly more, which might have at least deterred him from intervening. The event also happened so fast that there was probably no use in rushing across the river. At another level, Peguis may have said of both sides, a plague on both their houses, this is not an Ojibwa fight. There are ambiguities and questions about the whole event that need more attention. One thing that is really lacking is a developed Indian perspective or a sense of what such a perspective might have been. To what extent did the Hon. William B. Coltman really talk with any of the Indians while interviewing witnesses of Seven Oaks?

What happened after the tragedy? Thompson gives a vivid account: “Peguis and his men gathered the mutilated bodies that had been left to the wolves at Seven Oaks and buried them in a little grove of trees close to the Fort. Governor Semple and the company doctor were laid in rough boxes; the others were wrapped in Indian blankets. Eye witnesses reported that Peguis stood at the burial with tears running down his cheeks, these white men were his friends.” [7]

Thompson also told of another event that happened at dusk on the day of the battle. Chief Peguis went to Fort Douglas and approached Madame Marie-Anne (Gaboury) Lagimodiere, “the wife of the buffalo hunter,” as Thompson described her, who had taken refuge with her children in the fort. Peguis said to her, ‘French woman hear me, the Metis will take this fort in the morning, leave this place tonight and I will save you and your children, come to my tent on the other side of the river where you will be safe.’ After dark, Madame Lagimodiere hurried her family out of the fort and down to the river where Peguis and two women waited in a canoe. Marie-Anne had been so alarmed by the day’s senseless killings that she fainted as she stepped into the light craft and all were thrown into the water. Many hands reached out in the darkness and the little French Canadian family was saved.”

Again, what’s going on here? There are many threads and we can’t quite follow them all. This woman might be supposed to be closer to the Metis; she was the grandmother of Louis Riel, and the wife of a francophone buffalo hunter, but she was in this bad situation and Peguis came along and saved her. You can say if you like, it’s all made up; but oral histories usually do have at least grains of truth. There are several different levels here and they are all the more complex because we don’t have adequately developed or documented Native perspectives on the whole question.

Lyle Dick has given us a rich and detailed portrait of Anglo-Canadian historiography of the event. I would like to see us place this historiography in a broader perspective as well. Consider, for example, Francis Parkman, Louis Henry Morgan, and broader nineteenth-century European and North American thought patterns which helped to frame what Bryce and Stanley and Morton and other later writers wrote and thought. There is a still broader framework that we could look atin order to situate their writings on the subject.

As for the event at Seven Oaks itself, to move towards a conclusion: We can’t hope to know much more than we do. We can hope, I suppose, to find Peguis’ burials, but they may be long destroyed or completely decayed. We could pursue all the individuals connected with Seven Oaks in much more detail, the ones who were directly involved. A close study of Peguis’ band members and the other individuals who actually witnessed that encounter, among the Metis and fo,r that matter on the Hudson’s Bay side, might reveal some rather complex cross-cutting social ties that would lend a different dimension to the whole situation. As I asked before, how many Indians were in Cuthbert Grant’s group? What were their ties with the Saulteaux? What was happening in Peguis’ mind as he watched? Perhaps the asking of some new questions would help us understand from this distance a little more deeply than historians have in the past. We could empathize, too, more deeply with the fundamental Metis outrage over new intrusions into Red River around this time.

The Metis, or course, would not have known about the disappearance of the Roanoke Colony in Virginia, presumably occasioned by Native people more than two centuries earlier. They wouldn’t have known about the still earlier disappearance of Columbus’ first garrison in the Caribbean. But I wonder if Cuthbert Grant and his men, like some other Native people who confronted invaders, might have imagined that with one bold stroke once begun, they could stop the Red River Colony in its tracks. From their perspective why might they not have thought this for a few brief moments? There was surely a sense in which Seven Oaks, whatever we call it, was a spontaneous effort at a definitive political and military action, once the first shot was fired.

My thanks to all the speakers for a thought-provoking and challenging set of presentations. Now, what shall be said of Seven Oaks when the 200th anniversary rolls around?

Notes

1. Sahlins, Islands of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

2. Ibid., 153.

3. Fogelson, “The Ethnohistory of Events and Nonevents”, Ethnohistory 36 [1989], 133-147), 143.

4. See Michael Dorris, “Indians on the Shelf,” in Calvin Martin, ed., The American Indian and the Problem of History, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 104, for a good discussion of the pitfalls of supposing that we can ever fully know what “really” happened.

5. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

6. A. E. Thompson, Chief Peguis and His Descendants, Winnipeg, Peguis Publishers, 1973, p. 11.

7. Ibid., 12-13.

A contemporary, and somewhat embellished, painting depicting the Battle of Seven Oaks, from the interpretive panel entitled “Violence at the Forks” located at the Forks National Historic Site.
Source: Parks Canada

Page revised: 6 October 2011

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