Manitoba History: The Quest for a Usable Founder: Lord Selkirk and Manitoba Historians, 1856-1923
by J. M. Bumsted
As the founder of the Red River colony, the Earl of Selkirk has always enjoyed a prominent place in the early history of the province of Manitoba. Nevertheless, the perception by historians of the province of Selkirk’s role in its beginnings has altered greatly over the years since the Earl first planned and settled Red River, Fluctuations in Selkirk’s historical fortunes were particularly evident during the later years of the nineteenth century, although by the beginning of the twentieth century he had achieved a firm and illustrious position bordering on the legendary.
The difficulties which Selkirk had to overcome on his way to lionization were many. In the first place, in the contemporary controversy between the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company for control of the western fur trade, Selkirk had not emerged with his reputation unscathed.  The Norwester pamphleteers and polemicists writing between 1814 and 1820 had succeeded in casting serious doubts upon his motives and interests in founding Red River, and the Parliamentary Blue Book of 1819 (which included a lengthy report on the Red River hostilities by W. B. Coltman condemning both parties but viewing Selkirk as the aggressor) was decidedly ambivalent, partly because the extensive documentation reprinted therein was confined exclusively to Red River and made no effort to view Selkirk’s activities in any larger context.  Not surprisingly, the legacy of the public controversy before 1820 remained strong throughout the nineteenth century, and most historians who bothered to do any research wound up repeating the basic arguments of Selkirk’s critics. Moreover, there were among surviving Selkirk settlers (especially those who had come to Red River before 1815) many who remembered their suffering and felt ill-used by the Earl.
But leavening forces were at work upon the initial focus on the fur trade rivalry and the resultant bias of the contemporary documentation for the Red River troubles. More than one historian of Manitoba sought to capture Selkirk for his own thematic purposes, a tendency which increasingly gained strength at the end of the century, as Manitoba moved away from its fur trading origins and acquired a pretension to civilization and Euro-Canadian culture.  While Selkirk was an ambivalent figure at best in the context of the history of the fur trade, he was clearly a visionary hero from the perspective of the subsequent development of the province, emphasizing, as he did, settlement and the introduction of European institutions to replace the “barbarism” of the Canadian fur traders. Historians who sought to emphasize the progression from an uncouth Red River to a flourishing (and civilized) Manitoba found themselves far more sympathetic to Selkirk’s position in the controversies of his own lifetime, and by the early decades of the twentieth century he was firmly established among the province’s pantheon of heroes. The story of the gradual lionization of Selkirk is a complex one, which tells us a good deal about the changing perceptions of Manitoba by its own historians.
The first serious historical work dealing with Red Riverindeed, the first work on the history of the Canadian Westwas The Red River Settlement: Its Rise, Progress, and Present State, with Some Account of the Native Races and its General History to the Present Day, published in London in 1856 by the Scots-born Alexander Ross.  Although very nearly a contemporary of Selkirk, Ross had not been one of the early settlers of Red River. Emigrating to Canada in 1805, he had in 1810 joined John Jacob Astor in the well-known Astoria venture on the Pacific Coast, marrying an Okanagan Indian woman and eventually retiring to Red River with his family in 1825. A staunch adherent of the Church of Scotland, Ross was largely responsible for bringing the first Presbyterian clergyman to Red River in 1851, thus fulfilling an ambition which Selkirk himself had not brought to fruition.  Not surprisingly, Ross’s history was preoccupied with Scottish settlers, the history of the Kirk, and the place of the mixed breeds (among whom were his own children) in the development of the colony.
In his account of the early days Ross gave no indication of any research among the documents. Instead, he was content to present Selkirk as the man whose vision had been to create more or less the sort of settlement which Red River represented in the 1850s. Selkirk. Ross insisted in the opening pages of his book,
The primary object of the founder, said Ross, was “the spread of the Gospel and the evangelization of the heathen,” an interpretation whichas George Bryce later dryly observedwas totally unsubstantiated by any evidence. Ross did list the “several speculative opinions that have been formed by different parties on the subject” of the motivations for establishing Red River, including the attempt to ruin the North West Company trade. He rejected these explanations in favour of a “real object,” the “pious and philanthropic desire of introducing civilization into this wilderness,” which was the “laudable and charitable” goal of a “man of a great mind and a good heart.” For Ross, Selkirk’s motives went well beyond land speculation or even the relief of excess population in Britain, emphasizing that “we and many others here are of opinion, that Lord Selkirk’s object was the good of the natives, and theirs alone.”  Presented without supporting documentation (which Ross would not have found in material readily available to him), his position was idiosyncratic rather than influential. It was clear that for Ross Red River had been intended as a settlement of Indians and mixed-bloods, and Selkirk’s memory was being invoked in favour of the “country-born” against the European outsider. Nevertheless, Ross plainly exemplified one of the main threads of Selkirk scholarship among later Manitoba historians: the search for a usable Selkirk whose intentions were in harmony with the present aspirations of the province.
Nearly a generation passed (during which the Riel rebellion had occurred and Manitoba had become a province) before another full-scale history of Manitoba was published. Joseph James Hargrave’s Red River appeared in 1871, but it devoted very little attention to Selkirk and focussed instead upon more recent events. In 1880, however, the History of Manitoba, written by the late Donald Gunn with the assistance of Charles Tuttle for the period after 1835, was published in Ottawa. Like Ross, Gunn was Scots-born, coming to the territory in 1813 in company with the settlers recruited by Selkirk in Kildonan. Serving with the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1813 to 1823, Gunn had retired to Red River and had served for many years as judge of the court of petty sessions, ultimately becoming a member of the Legislative Council of Manitoba from 1871 to 1876.  Not strictly speaking a “Selkirk settler” Gunn nevertheless had thrown inhis lot with the early arrivals, and he tended to look backward rather than forward. An eye-witness for at least a small part of the Selkirk enterprise, Gunn eagerly collected local folklore from other participants. His interpretation of Selkirk was decidedly unfavourable. By far the most detailed to appear in print since the days of the 1814-20 controversy over Red River, Gunn’s account of the origins of the colony was controlled by two principal factors. One was a definite sympathy for the fur trade and the North West Company’s position in the early days of the colony, a tendency in part a result of Gunn’s sources (he obviously did research extensively in the printed controversy) but partly because of his own unsatisfactory relationship with the Hudson’s Bay Company This leaning toward Selkirk’s opponents and critics was reinforced by a second factor, a transparent identification with the Highlander as victim of the interests of his superiors, whether Highland or Lowland laird. To some extent Gunn may have been in this regard affected by a familiarity with the literature then gaining currency concerning the Highland Clearances as much as by his own personal experiences, although he never made specific reference to any of this material.  In any case, Gunn’s lengthy account of the sufferings of the early days of Red River fit very nicely into the growing wave of criticism of Scottish landowners and the prevalent semi-romantic account of the exploited innocence of Highland emigrants to British North America. From this perspective. Selkirk was more than merely an opponent of the North West Company: he was another of the aristocratic exploiters of the poor.
On the surface, Gunn’s scholarship seemed impressive. He returned to the material of the contemporary controversy selecting those incidents for his narrative least favourable to Selkirk. Despite his obvious familiarity with the published Red River documentation, however, Gunn made no effort to learn anything more about the remainder of the Earl’s life and career. He began his discussion of the origins of Red River by emphasizing Selkirk’s extensive “land and colonization speculations in British America,” and he did not attempt to explain or understand Selkirk’s motivations in these activities. He repeated at some length the earlier assertions of Selkirk’s Norwester opponents that on his visit to Montreal in 1803-04, the Earl had betrayed his hosts. Having been munificently entertained by the fur magnates and having collected much information on the state of the fur trade, Selkirk had found “awakened the spirit of self-interest, which has subsequently been so apparent.”  Like Selkirk’s fur-trading enemies, Gunn reprinted Selkirk’s initial overly enthusiastic draft prospectus for his new colonywhich was never circulated publicly, except by the oppositionas though it had served as a widespread and misleading advertisement for Red River. Moreover, Gunn emphasized that the North West Company traders had been extremely generous and helpful to the settlers during the early years of travail, before aggression on the part of Miles Macdonell and the Hudson’s Bay Company had forced a violent confrontation.
Gunn then turned to his own connection with Selkirk as part of the 1813 emigration from Kildonan. Writing as both participant and eye-witness (the “we” makes its first appearance in the narrative on page 91, and it must have been difficult for his readers to distinguish where, in his account, Gunn was not his own chief witness), Gunn described the 1813 departure in which the Kildonan settlers went out on board the Prince of Wales, whose over crowded and ill ventilated hold,” never “intended for the transport of any great number of people,” soon witnessed a major epidemic of typhus fever.  What the fever did not accomplish, Gunn implied, was achieved by the cold at Fort Churchill during the winter of 1813-14. Nevertheless the surviving settlers persevered. Gunn’s obvious admiration for the bravery and endurance of the emigrants was matched only by his dislike of the colony’s founder. Throughout his narrative of the experiences of the settlers and the first years of the colony, Gunn introduced a running critique of Selkirk. The Earl was attacked for misleading the Kildonan emigrants into thinking that supplies were as easily obtainable in Red River as in Scotland, for example, and Gunn queried why the emphasis had been placed upon guns and defense instead of upon agricultural implements and farming. Providing far more detail than had hitherto been available to any reader not familiar with the earlier printed controversy, Gunn constructed a narrative favourable to the North West Company and highly sympathetic to the suffering of the settlers, while simultaneously condemning Selkirk as aggressive, self-interested, and basically dishonest.
Much the same tone was adopted by John Macoun in his Manitoba and the Great North-West, (1882). Although a certain ambivalence crept into Macoun’s overall assessment, probably as a result of the implications of his subtitle, “The Field for Investment; the Home of the Emigrant, Being a Full and Complete History of the Country.” Like Gunn, Macoun began with Selkirk’s visit to Montreal, and he saw the grant of Assiniboia as a result of the Earl’s blatant manipulation of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Macoun frankly confessed that he found the North West Company’s claims to the territory, based upon occupancy, wholly convincing. The emphasis of Miles Macdonell upon military training in the days before the issuance of the Pemmican Proclamation, was given a sinister overtone, and while Macoun reprinted John Pritchard’s pro-Semple account of the Seven Oaks incident, he immediately followed it with the North West Company’s “version,” which he insisted “is corroborated in almost every particular by the settlers who were in the colony at the time.”  Selkirk’s recruitment of the de Meuron soldiers under the guise of settlers was the key act of aggression for Macoun. So far as the narrative of the history of early Red River was concerned, he showed little sympathy for either Selkirk or the Hudson’s Bay Company.
When Macoun came to sum up his chapter on early Red River, however, he found it difficult to maintain the persistently hostile tone of his running account of events. He concluded,
But Macoun was not satisfied to stop with this obvious echo of the Coltman report. He then added one final sentence: “Lord Selkirk, who was not a fur-trader, wished to settle the country and encourage agriculture, while the North-West Company desired to preserve the fur-trade.”  This point, as much as the sympathy for the North West Company displayed in the narrative, was clearly one which Macoun would have liked to elaborate. But he was, in a sense, the victim of his sources, which deal almost exclusively with the struggle for the fur trade in the West. Some new perspective on Selkirk was obviously necessary if he were to be viewed as the forward-looking founder of a settled agricultural province. Manitoba and the Great North-West was a transitional work in terms of the Selkirk legend, pointing toward an interpretation but lacking the material to substantiate it. So long as the picture of Selkirk remained entirely within the context of the fur-trade rivalry, it was unlikely that he could receive a sympathetic hearing, even from those careful scholars who turned to the available source material.
Fortunately for Selkirk’s future reputation, that new perspective was at hand. The years between the appearance of Gunn’s account and Macoun’s history were employed by another Manitoban to uncover new material on the Earl’s life and career. In 1880 the Reverend George Bryce, Presbyterian Clergyman and the founder of Manitoba College, departed for Britain to undertake research for his book Manitoba: Its Infancy, Growth, and Present Condition, published in London in 1882. Bryce was the first Canadian scholar to employ the massive archives of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and he was readily granted permission by the Selkirk family to use Selkirk’s own extensive papers at St. Mary’s Isle in Kirkcudbright. The Earl’s daughter Lady Isabella even labouriously copied by hand a sketch of Red River in 1817 from Selkirk’s sketch book, which appeared in Bryce’s book.  Whatever Bryce’s initial intention for his work, it turned out to be essentially a revisionist biography of Selkirk, and all the arguments and evidence which Bryce later included in a series of historical works on the early Northwestincluding a separate biography of Selkirk and a part of a volume devoted to the Earl’s career in “The Makers of Canada” seriesare to be found in this 1882 production.  Bryce requested the 6th Earl of Selkirk to read and criticize his manuscript. although to his credit he refused to make any alterations on points of interpretation.
Bryce’s initial chapter in Manitoba: Its Infancy, Growth, and Present Conditionentitled “A Good Man and a Noble Work”set the tone for the volume. In this chapter Bryce came squarely to grips with Selkirk’s motives in planting the Red River colony. He rehearsed the previous historiography. The Norwesters had accused Selkirk of being little more than a land-grabbing speculator. Alexander Ross had argued that Christianization of the Indians was the aim. “A late writer” presumably Gunn, had insisted that Selkirk had imported hardy Scots as “servile tools in carrying arbitrary measures for the destruction of the North-West Company.”  An historian of Minnesota had advanced the view that Selkirk sought to colonize “British emigrants in these distant British possessions, and thus check the disposition to settle in the United States.”  Bryce rejected all these explanations as “insufficient” and offered his own:
For George Bryce, Selkirk ranked with Lord Baltimore and William Penn as a visionary founder of a great colony, and the Manitoba minister’s enthusiasm for his subject was infectious. Had Bryce stopped here, of course, merely asserting an alternative explanation, his work might have had little impact. But using the Selkirk papers and the Company archives, Bryce set out systematically to present a more rounded Selkirk, one whose life had not been spent solely in opposing the interests of the North West Company on the banks of the Red River.
In the opening pages of his book, Bryce dealt with the background of the Selkirk family in Scotland, with the plight of the Highlander and the problem of emigration, and with Selkirk’s early efforts at North American settlement in Prince Edward Island and Upper Canada. Although he greatly over-simplified, he made plain that Selkirk was a product of an intellectual and moral tradition in Scotland, a friend of Scott and Burns, and that Red River was a logical extension of his philanthropic efforts in the east. When Bryce turned to Red River itself, he was firmly on the side of the Hudson’s Bay Company, agriculture, settlement, and the introduction of European civilization on the prairies. He tended to accept uncritically Selkirk’s side in the earlier public controversy with the North West Company, but at the same time was the first writer since the Earl’s death to give that point of view a full hearing. Despite his undoubted weaknesses, Bryce wasas L.H. Thomas has pointed outthe West’s first “academic” historianand his impact on the future provincial image of the founder was profound, in the first instance because he had done his homework.  It did not hurt. of course, that the documentable Selkirk which Bryce was able to resurrect fit well with the trends and aspirations of a rapidly expanding Manitoba. The fur trade was truly finished, and Selkirk had pointed to the future rather than attempting to maintain the dead weight of the past.
When Robert B. Hill came a few years later to produce his Manitoba: History of its Early Settlement, Development and Resources (Toronto, 1890), it was to Bryce that he turned for an interpretation of Selkirk. For Hill, Selkirk was “a young man of philanthropic disposition, whose heart had been touched by the sufferings of his countrymen throughout the Highlands of Scotland, seeing no remedy for this evil but emigration.”  When Hill came to the Kildonan incident, he wrote that the Kildonan folk were Selkirk’s
Admitting that the timing of the Pemmican Proclamation was suitable to Selkirk’s interests, Hill nevertheless argued that Miles Macdonell was entirely justified by the potential shortage of food in issuing it Unlike Macoun, Hill reprinted John Pritchard’s account of Seven Oaks as a narrative “accepted as trustworthy by both parties.” 
The old image of Selkirk did not die without a final gasp, within the pages of Alexander Begg’s three-volume History of the North-West, published in 1894. Although Begg had not arrived in Red River until 1867, his sympathies remained with the fur trade rather than the agrarians, and he resolutely refused to honour Selkirk. His account of the early days of the settlement rested squarely upon the Coltman report and the Parliamentary Blue Book of 1819: Begg gave no indication that he had ever glanced at George Bryce’s work. Thus the old version of the Earl, concentrating exclusively upon his activities in Red River and critical of his policy there for its aggressiveness, still had an adherent. Since Begg’s approach was an exclusively narrative one, he was able to avoid any general discussion of Selkirk’s overall aims and intentions. But the facts selected and the tone in which they were presented were clearly hostile, nonetheless, Begg’s book marked the end of an era, however, both for Manitoba historiography and the Selkirk evaluation as well.
After Begg, provincial historians waxed more eloquent about Selkirk’s role in the early development of Manitoba, and even found new contributions to be praised. Abbé George Dugas, for example, devoted a good deal of attention to the Earl in his L’Ouest Canadien: Sa Decouverte par le Sieur de la Verendrye, Son Exploitation par les Compagnies de Traiteurs jusqu’d I’annee 1822 (Montreal, 1896, English translation, 1905). Dugas had been a missionary priest in Manitoba from 1866 to 1888, and wrote several biographical studies of Bishop Provencher before turning to a larger subject.  Much of his account of early Red River was revisionist devoted to countering the bias of English-speaking historians with their emphasis upon the Scottish settlers. For Dugas, nevertheless. Selkirk was “une des figures les plus remarquables de nos annales canadiennes par le role qu’il a joue dans la fondation de la Riviere Rouge,” and his special claim to veneration was as “le premier et le plus grand benefacteur” of the Catholic mission there.  Dugas, moreover, had no time for the North West Company, which sought “a tenir le pays de la Riviere Rouge dans la sauvagerie, et ce fut justement le moyen qu’elle mit en jeu dans ce but, qui ouvrit la porte a la vraie civilisation.”  The abbé was even willing to go so far as to defend Selkirk’s supposed prospectus, on the grounds that it said no more than could be found in all the publicity pamphlets about Manitoba produced at the end of the nineteenth century. The present clearly justified the past.
Yet another Manitoba clergyman, the Reverend R. G. MacBeth, pastor of the Augustine Church in Winnipeg, outdid Dugas a year later in his The Selkirk Settlers in Real Life. MacBeth’s father, then sixteen years of age, had emigrated from Scotland to Red River in 1815. While earlier histories, written from the settlers’ perspective, especially that of Gunn, had been highly critical of Selkirk, Macbeth’s was not, although he was cognizant of the reasons for the previous hostility. He suggested some of his assumptions when he wrote, “the Earl of Selkirk, who at the opening of this century practically controlled the Hudson’s Bay Company, though he doubtless saw in this great region the field for an immensely profitable fur trade, seems to have had a more prescient understanding of its future possibilities.”  MacBeth went on to insist that the Earl’s name was “held in sacred memory” by the main body of settlers, adding that he had come as a “rescuing angel” to a persecuted people. He reached the high point of his fulsome panegyric when he commented,
MacBeth managed to explain away any ill treatment of the settlers by blaming it on Selkirk’s agents, particularly Miles Macdonell, and on the hostility of the North West Company.
By the time F. H. Schofield came to prepare The Story of Manitoba, a three-volume work appearing in 1913 and obviously intended as a sort of centennial offering, all the ingredients for turning Selkirk into the visionary founder of the new Manitoba were firmly in place. Schofield took his information (and even his illustrations) from Bryce, but added a new explicitness to the melding of past and present. His chapter on Selkirk was entitled “An Empire-Builder” and introduced into Selkirk lore an anecdote of a meeting in Montreal in 1803 between Selkirk and Colin Robertson, who advised the Earl to plant his proposed Northwest colony at the forks of the Red and the Assiniboine.  Whatever the truth or provenance of the story, which probably was a garbled version of later meetings between ‘the two men, it effectually silenced any criticism of Selkirk’s behaviour with the fur trade magnates; after all, Selkirk was at the time planning the foundation of Winnipeg. As early as 1801, wrote Schofield, Selkirk”saw the western half of British North America, vast, fertile, unoccupied; next he saw the poor people of his native land settled in that new country, comfortable and prosperous; and then, looking forward through the years, he beheld it as one of the richest possessions of the empire.”  The founder, therefore, had not only foreseen Manitoba’s ultimate development, but even the stages through which it would pass. Schofield returned to this theme when he concluded his account of the arrival of the first party of settlers in 1812: “The Red River Settlement was founded, and a new page in the history of the west was turned. Thenceforward it was to be an agricultural country, not a mere hunting ground; farmers rather than trappers and fur traders were to determine its destiny.” 
The publication in 1916 of Lord Selkirk’s Work in Canada by Professor Chester Martin of the University of Manitoba, although a judicious and scholarly account based upon research the author had conducted while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, did little to stem the tide of Manitoba enthusiasm for its founder. In his preface, Martin insisted that Selkirk’s life deserved to be “redeemed from unattractiveness”he meant within the scholarly communityalthough the Earl was not “among the first men of his age.” Martin then summed up his own approach to Selkirk very neatly:
Martin’s essentially sympathetic account did help rehabilitate Selkirk among the academic community, although more Manitobans undoubtedly read and understood the flurry of books on Selkirk and related topics produced by George Bryce between 1900 and 1912. 
Certainly by the time of the appearance in 1923 of Reverend A. C. Garrioch’s First Furrows: A History of the Early Settlement of the Red River Country, Including that of Portage la Prairie, the place of Selkirk in the hearts and minds of Manitobans was secure. Garrioch introduced Selkirk with the simple and undefended proposition that it was “so much easier at this distance of time to correctly appraise the rancour and prejudice to which his undertakings were exposed in his own day and for a considerable time afterwards.” He then encapsulated his view of the man:
With this final statement, Garrioch had bridged the time gap in a rather interesting and imaginative way. Little more needed to be said. The process of lionization was now complete.
As Red River had turned into Manitoba and altered from a fur trading colony of mixed-breeds to a booming agricultural and commercial province, progressingas its historians increasingly came to see itfrom “sauvagerie” to civilization, so too had the perceptions of its founder altered. In the context of the fur trade, Selkirk tended to be an enemy. He had contributed to the violent confrontations of the fur traders and the settlers he sent to Red River, and perhaps equally important (as Chester Martin suggested) he had opposed the resolution of that conflict through merger of its antagonists. But as the colony prospered and expanded beyond Selkirk’s wildest ambitions for it, he became not only a fulfilled visionary but a link with a religious, moral, and essentially philanthropic European past. Provincial historians did not have to shade the evidence overmuch to come out with this sort of Selkirk, once George Bryce had shown the way; evidence less needed to be invented than selected and heightened. As any Manitoba historian could have put it by the first years of the twentieth century, the history of the province had vindicated the life and suffering of its founder.
2. Great Britain: Colonial Office, Papers relating to the Red River Settlement: viz: return to an address from the honourable House of Commons to His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, dated 24th June 1819; for copies of Extracts of the official communications ... between the secretary of state and the provincial government of Upper or Lower Canada, relative to the destruction to the settlement on the Red River (London, 1819).
3. I am in part indebted for this general perspective to a paper given to the Winnipeg History Club by Professor G. Friesen on the early years of the Manitoba Historic and Scientific Society.
4. L. G. Thomas discusses Ross’s claim to be “the Canadian Herodotus”; see his “Historiography of the Fur Trade Era,” in Richard Allen ed., A Region of the Mind: Interpreting the Western Canadian Plains (Regina 1973), 74-75.
9. See, for example the writings by Gunn’s Canadian-based contemporary Donald McLeod (1779-1879), especially History of the Destitution in Sutherlandshire (Edinburgh, 1841) and Gloomy Memories in the Highlands of Scotland (Glasgow).
15. George Bryce, The Life of Lord Selkirk, Coloniser of Western Canada (Toronto, ); Mackenzie, Selkirk, Simpson (Toronto, 1910); Lord Selkirk’s Colonists: The Romantic Settlement of the Pioneers of Manitoba (Toronto, ).
16. Bryce, Manitoba, p. 9.
28. Schofield, The Story of Manitoba, p. 99.
32. In addition to the works noted in footnote 15 above, see also Bryce’s A History of Manitoba: Its Resources and People (Toronto. 1906), and The Remarkable History of the Hudson’s Bay Company (Toronto, 1900).
33. Garrioch, First Furrows, 20-21.
Page revised: 23 April 2010