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Historical Writing on “Seven Oaks”: The Assertion of Anglo-Canadian Cultural Dominance in the West

by Lyle Dick

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

In his paper “Conflict at Red River: Collision at Seven Oaks”, contained in this volume, Joe Martin offers an opinion on the terms employed by contemporary historians to describe the events that occurred at Seven Oaks. Mr. Martin concludes that the use of the words “battle”, and more particularly, “incident”, to describe what happened at La Grenouillere in June of 1816, serve only to “trivialize the deaths of twenty-two people beyond comprehension” (p. 63). In debating the dictionary definitions of the term “incident”, which I employ in this paper, I consulted Webster’ New International Dictionary (1971 edition) to see what alternative definitions of the term might apply to Seven Oaks, as I am choosing to deal with it. I’ll give just a few of these:

1. “Occurring merely by chance or without intention or calculation”;

2. “An uncommon happening”;

3. “ A military situation marked by fighting without formally declared war”;

4. “Something arising or resulting from something else of greater or principal importance”;

5. “A happening or related group of happenings subordinate to a main narrow plot. e.g. “The Melodrama and the Romance must be made up of swift successions of startling incidents”.

Unveiling the monument at Seven Oaks, 19 June 1891
Source: Archives of Manitoba

And in particular it is this latter definition which I would commend to the reader. In my own view, historical “incidents” tend to be structured in our imaginations according to plots which may already have been written for us, in the form of traditional narratives, and according to conventional wisdom. In this regard, historical events often assume a far greater significance retrospectively, many years after the incident in question, than at the time of occurrence. Which is not to say that for the actual participants in the battle, especially the ones who were left on the field, the incident of Seven Oaks would not have been of more than “incidental” interest.

In 1891, the Manitoba Historical Society published a pamphlet to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Seven Oaks incident, a violent clash in 1816 between a group of Hudson’s Bay Company officers and Selkirk Settlers and a party of Metis traders from Red River and the upper Assiniboine. Its text included excerpts from accounts of the battle by two prominent Manitoba historians of the period: George Bryce, an academic, and Charles N. Bell, an amateur. The combination of these excerpts had a retrospective historiographical significance: it was the last time that two competing interpretations of Seven Oaks appeared under one cover, the last time that one version was not rewritten, overwritten, or erased by its rival.

The pamphlet’s publication simultaneously marked the eclipse of one tradition of English language writing, on Seven Oaks, and the inauguration of another. The outgoing tradition, represented in Bell’s text, comprised a series of writings on the event by amateurs with ties to old Red River or witnesses with grass-roots knowledge of the event. The ascendant tradition, represented by Bryce’s version and his academic successors in the West, drew instead from treatments earlier advanced by Lord Selkirk, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and their sympathizers, and now promoted to orthodoxy by the newly-dominant Anglo-Canadian immigrant group in the West. Yet Bryce’s and Bell’s texts contrasted in more than their interpretive conclusions. They differed sharply in techniques of collection, evaluation and presentation of empirical evidence, in the handling of contradictory or contentious materiat even in the definition of what constitutes appropriate historical evidence. Their differences in methodology, interpretation, and form, bear upon larger issues than the reconstruction of the Seven Oaks incident and go to the root of historymaking in Western Canada. They chart a trajectory from the raw pluralistic origins of prairie historiography in the early nineteenth-century controversies over Seven Oaks to the polished hierarchies of twentieth-century history writing. An intensive investigation of writing on this single event reveals much about the historiographical process in Western Canada and about the role of history in the construction of cultural traditions.

Such a reconsideration also occasions a re-examination of the respective roles of amateurs and professionals in Canadian Prairie historiography. In The Writing of Canadian History, Carl Berger argues that serious written history only began with the creation of an academic discipline. Nineteenth-century “clergymen, lawyers and journalists” wrote history “to amuse themselves, to commemorate the eminent, to strengthen patriotism or to draw morals from the past”; twentieth-century professionals practiced the “critical study of the Canadian past.” For Berger, these developments represent “a decisive change in the nature of historical study.” The intellectual historians, A. B. McKillop and M. Brook Taylor have advanced similar arguments. None of these writers devote much attention to the actual writing of history: methods of research, forms of argument, or structures of historical representation. There is no substantive discussion of how these new twentieth-century professionals improved the techniques of the nineteenthcentury amateurs.

An historiographical reconsideration of the Seven Oaks incident presents a rare opportunity to test Berger’s thesis. With the exception of Bryce’s early writings, all of the texts on the battle written before the 1890s were prepared by amateurs, while the English-language texts of historiographical significance thereafter were by professionals. The presence of both oral tradition and amateur texts outside the mainstream historiography facilitates an interrogation of long-standing notions about the boundaries of legitimate historical discourse in Canada.

The approach followed in the paper will not be a standard survey of the historiographical literature, culminating in an improved, factual reconstruction of the event. Rather, I propose to deconstruct the various reconstructions of Seven Oaks by drawing on basic methods from literary and linguistic criticism and focusing on the relationships between “story” and “discourse,” two narrative functions integral to any historical reconstruction. For the present purpose, “story” is defined as a sequence of events to which historians refer in constructing their narratives, while “discourse” or plot, is a particular version of the referred-to events. As a number of contemporary theorists have argued, all forms of historical narrative constitute a content independent of the facts they subsume.

Beyond the relationships of facts and interpretive strategies, it is important to recognize the inherently allegorical character of historical discourse, which inevitably generates meanings on both literal and metaphorical levels. This paper will consider the extent to which the discourse at Seven Oaks could be explained by the concept of “master narrative,” or overarching cultural allegory reflecting an entire tradition of writing on the event.

To set the stage for the post-1870 historiography of Seven Oaks, the paper analyses the respective approaches of five amateur historians of the fur trade or Red River eras. The most comprehensive and detailed analysis ever prepared on the incident was the report of William Bachelor Coltman, the principal commissioner appointed by Governor Sherbrooke to investigate Seven Oaks and other violent episodes associated with the fur companies’ rivalry. Coltman’s approach to the collection, adduction, and examination of evidence reflected his experience as a Justice of The Peace, as did the form of his report, which resembles a legal treatise. Yet this report is also a serious work of critical history.

Among other issues, Coltman examined the critical questions of who fired the first shot; whether the battle was a premeditated massacre; whether the wounded were finished off; and the bodies mutilated, plundered and left on field to be devoured by wild animals. Based on the examination of numerous sworn testimonies, he concluded that the Hudson’s Bay Company side fired the first shot and that the battle was an accidental confrontation. He found that several of the wounded were finished off, but was careful to distinguish between the actions of particular individuals and the conduct of the overall group. For example, he noted that one French Canadian trader and his three Metis sons were the persons responsible for finishing off of the wounded, as well as most of the reported acts of mutilation and plundering of the bodies. Finally, Coltman rejected the allegations that the bodies were left on the field for the scavenging animals. His rules of evidence and process of historical analysis established a standard against which the subsequent historiography of the event might fairly be measured.

The indigenous historiography of Seven Oaks in Western Canada begins with Pierre Falcon’s “Chanson dela Grenouillere”, essentially an eyewitness account composed on the night of the battle. While several of its details conform to evidence reported in Coltman’s report, the song has never been taken seriously as historical evidence since the Red River era. Nor were other versions by the Red River historians Donald Gunn and J. J. Hargrave given the status of legitimate versions in the period after 1870. The only writer of the Red River era to be given credence in subsequent historiography was Alexander Ross, whose accusations of a deliberate Metis massacre at Seven Oaks found a receptive audience among the post-1870 historians.

After Canada acquired Rupert’s Land in 1870, the region’s historiography was essentially rewritten by academics from the newly-dominate Anglo-Canadian immigrant group of the West. While the Anglo-Canadians quickly established their economic, social and political dominance in the cities and countryside, they lacked the cultural traditions that could justify their assumption of power. In this regard, their writers, and particularly their historians played a key role in constructing the required traditions, and Seven Oaks figured prominently in their work.

In constructing a historical role for his ethnic group and class, no other historian matched the contribution of George Bryce. In representing the battle as a “massacre,” Bryce incorporated all the allocations of Metis savagery which had been rejected by Coltman and called into question by the Red River historians. These include a revival of the allegations that the Metis fired the first shot, and as a group participated in a vicious slaughter, mutilations and plunder of the bodies. The narrative function of these characterisations was revealed in the conclusions to Mr. Bryce’s books, when the collective hero, for whom the Selkirk settlers were earlier stand-ins, was revealed as the AngloCanadian group to which the author belonged.

Bryce’s partisan approach was implicitly challenged by only one other contemporary, the amateur historian Charles Napier Bell, who presented his readers with the contrary testimonies of eyewitnesses from both sides of the conflict. Thereafter, alternative prospectives on Seven Oaks survived only in the French language, in twentieth-century works by Louis-Arthur Prud’homme and Auguste-Henri de Tremaudan. Within the new Anglo-Canadian tradition, these works, as well as Bell’s pluralistic account, were quickly forgotten, while Bryce’s representation of a massacre was endorsed and reproduced by numerous professional and popular historians and novelists of his own period and since.

In most of these accounts the preferred genre has been the romance, essentially a construction of the region’s history as a struggle between forces of light and darkness. In adhering to the form, the Anglo-Canadian writers invoked only partisan testimonies favouring the Selkirk side, used passive constructions to avoid dealing with the crucial issue of who fired the first shot, and exaggerated the alleged mutilations, plunder and other allegations of savagery by the Metis. In each case, evidence and footnotes were invoked only to the extent that they lend credibility to the author’s representations, while contrary evidence was ignored.

While there was a high degree of consistency in the writing on Seven Oaks by Anglo-Canadian writers between 1870 and 1970, there were important differences. Texts by writers such as Bryce, Chester Martin, and George Stanley presented the Metis in terms of both positive and negative stereotypes as a combination of Wild Man and Noble Savage. In the work of W. L. Morton, however, the Metis were presented in almost uniformly negative terms.

Why Morton resorted to such hyperbole in his characterisation of the Metis and their alleged role at Seven Oaks, might well have had less to do with the Metis than with a perceived decline in the position of his ethnic group and profession in the twentieth-century. Clearly uneasy with the increasingly multicultural composition of the province after 1900, Morton wistfully recalled the leading role of the university in Bryce’s day, just as he nostalgically looked back to the privileged role of Ross and other retired fur traders, men of “prestige and means” and “the natural aristocracy of the primitive community of Red River” in their own era.

In 1943 Morton stated that historians had neglected the role of producing myths to counter the decadence of the age. His own narrativization of the Seven Oaks approached the mythical in his book Manitoba: A History, a romantic epic in which the role attributed to the Metis functioned to set off the text’s implied hero, an Anglo-Canadian aristocracy for the West.

Morton’s account of Seven Oaks and Cuthbert Grant of Grantown was apparently the last detailed reconstruction of the event by a Manitoba born Anglo-Canadian, or in academic discourse generally. Its status as the last archivally based version has ensured the continuation of aspects of the Anglo-Canadian tradition virtually up to the present. Morton’s interpretation of a “massacre” survives in Frits Pannekoek’s recently published study on the origins of the Red River resistance, and a current francophone history of St. Boniface also relies on Marcel Giraud and Morton as sources on Seven Oaks. In varying degrees, the Anglo-Canadian version is in evidence in current survey textbooks in Canadian history.

Some regional histories of the fur trade or Western Canada have been more discriminating, but they too reveal the influence of the tradition. For example, in his book on the Western Canadian fur trade, Daniel Frances reproduced the passive equivocation, (“ A shot was fired”) as did Gerald Friesen in his textbook on prairie history. In chiding other writers for their use of the term “massacre,” Friesen has been more judicious than most. Friesen’s and Francis’s treatments do not consciously conform to the master narrative, but as syntheses of secondary materials, these versions are unavoidably dependent on the existing literature.

Today, exaggerated accounts of Metis savagery persist only in popular works by authors such as George Woodcock or Peter C. Newman, or in fictional accounts, as in a particularly lurid version in a recent romance novel, Alf Silver’s Red River Story. Writing on Seven Oaks appears to have come full circle. Anglo-Canadian academics seized control of the incident’s historiography from Red River amateurs in the period between 1870 and 1970 but, in the last twenty years amateurs have returned to the fore. Where the nineteenth-century writers exemplified vernacular, or grass-roots approaches to history writing, however, the more recent amateur historians fall into the category of popular writing, essentially comprising the popular reproduction of conventional wisdom. In stretching the gulf between story and discourse to absurd lengths, the popular historians have only extended a process of textual reification, pioneered by the Anglo-Canadian academics and entrenched in the discursive tradition of a hundred years’ duration.

The voluminous literature on the Seven Oaks incident illuminates far more than the event of Seven Oaks and broadly bears on the practice of historical writing as it evolved in Western Canada. In different but complimentary ways, each of the nineteenth century amateur texts on Seven Oaks, apart from Ross, contributed suggestive models as to how history writing within the region might otherwise have developed. Coltman contributed the judicial techniques of comprehensive compilation and review of all the available evidence and subjection of the data to rigorous standards of court room examination. Falcon’s “Chanson de la Grenouillere” constituted both an eyewitness account and the folk memory of one of the groups participating in the event. Gunn and Hargrave acknowledge the existence of more than one viewpoint on the event while C. N. Bell took the remarkably progressive step of letting eyewitness representatives from both sides of the conflict speak for themselves. In the twentieth century, they were joined by Louis-Arthur Prud’homme and Auguste-Henride Tremaudan, who preserved the memory of alternative perspectives on Seven Oaks in the French language.

Yet, the amateur historical writings were virtually without impact on the post-Confederation historiography of the battle. In the 100 years between 1870 and 1970, writing on Seven Oaks was dominated by professionals who proceeded to rewrite its history to reflect the ideological imperatives of their ethnic group, the newly dominant Anglo-Canadians on the prairies. With the passage of time, the new tradition of writing became entrenched as “truth”, while the more realistic Red River amateur accounts passed into oblivion. The problem was that the academics’ forms of writing owed more to the structures of the fictional genre than to scientific analysis, while their contents were based less on empirical research than on discursive tradition.

The Anglo-Canadian discourse on Seven Oaks might best be understood by referring to the concept of master narrative, an overriding interpretive paradigm informing an entire body of writing. After 1870 the master narrative of progress was dominant in the Anglo-Canadian erasure of Metis traditions and rewriting of the historiography of the battle, as attested to by the works of Bryce, Martin, and a host of other historians and novelists. In these works, the year 1870 simultaneously heralded the end of a long period of stagnation for Red River, its rescue through Canada’s acquisition of the region, and the introduction of an integrated national market economy. But as a society of newcomers, prairie Anglo-Canadians needed to establish cultural traditions to justify their assumption of dominance in the region. A key element in their programme consisted in the Canadians’ adoption of the Selkirk settlers as imagined ancestors in the West. Whatever shortcomings they might have perceived in them, these Scots were the only full-blooded European Anglophone settlers from the early nineteen century available for the purpose. Selkirk’s claim to the occupation of western lands therefore needed to be valorized, and rivals discredited. The narrativization of Seven Oaks as a flash point in the imagined struggle of civilization versus savagery was essential to promoting the legitimacy of these adopted ancestors, In the context of the new master narrative of progress, however, it was important that the Metis assumed broader allegorical roles. This was so because the Anglo-Canadians were essentially in competition with the Metis for lands to which this western Aboriginal group held a prior claim, a fact which the resistances of1869-70 and 1885 had made all too clear. The Metis needed to be seen as violent, volatile, easily led astray, and lacking in judgement in short, as the antithesis of qualities considered essential to the development of a stable free market economy in the West. Seven Oaks provided a convenient vehicle for the presentation of alleged Metis weakness of character, implicitly justifying the dispossession of the their lands. The preoccupation with this event probably has as much to do with the construction of Euro-Canadian identities as it did with the discrediting of the Metis. The representation of the savage Metis “Other” was integral to the implication of the kind of morality tale in which the chain of stereotype characteristics of the Metis functioned to set off all the attributes valued by the new capitalist order in the West.

Alexander Ross
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The discourse on Seven Oaks also raises some questions regarding the master narrative of the Canadian historical profession, that the professionalization of the discipline around 1900 enabled critical methods to supersede the partisanship of nineteenth century amateurs. With specific reference to Western Canada, the intellectual historian Doug Owram has correctly identified Bryce with a major historiographical shift, focusing on the rehabilitation of the role of the Selkirk settlers. Yet this shift was not rooted in “a sense of alienation from the East,” so much as it reflected the demonstrable need of an immigrant group aspiring to pre-eminence in the West to establish a blood line of secession. This study of Seven Oaks also challenges Owram’s conclusion that the “major proponents of this increasingly romantic view of life in Red River were those older settlers who had actually experienced life in the settlement before 1870 and their descendants,” as opposed to Bryce and his successors. The historiography of Seven Oaks suggests that it was actually the other way around. The romance form was essential to the Anglo-Canadians’ construction of a history favourable to their claims to dominance, and survivors of old Red River acquired a romantic sensibility from newcomers such as Bryce, rather than vice versa.

What we witness in most of the Anglo-Canadians versions, then, is less a reconstruction of the Seven Oaks incident than the construction, through historical discourse, of the self-image of prairie Anglo-Canadian society. Bryce and his successors brought about the transformation of Seven Oaks historiography from Red River realism to Anglo-Canadian romance, while Morton presided over its final elevation to the realm of myth. As current writing on the event suggests, when the weight of discourse compresses its sedimentary layers into an ideological bedrock, such myths have been stubbornly resistant to revision.


This paper is an abridged version of the article “The Seven Oaks Incident and the Construction of a Historical Tradition, 1816 to 1970,” published in the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association/Revue de la Societe historique du Canada, New Series, No. 2 (1991), pp. 91-113, and appears in this collection with the permission of the Canadian Historical Association. Readers seeking the detailed arguments and documentation are encouraged to read the longer version. The critical comments and editorial advice of Ron Frohwerk, John Thompson, and Jennifer Brown are acknowledged with gratitude.

Page revised: 6 October 2011

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