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Governor Miles Macdonell Writes to Bishop Plessis of Quebec, 1816

by Cornelius J. Jaenan

Manitoba Pageant, April 1963, Volume 8, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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A great deal of history can be learned from reading the letters of of men and women who played an important part in the politics, business, education and religion of a period. The following letter from the Governor at Red River Colony to the Catholic Bishop of Quebec gives us some very interesting details about the small settlement at the Forks. The letter opens with a reference to the Nor'Westers' attack on the colony on June 11, 1815. Some of you may recall that Governor Miles Macdonell surrendered to the men of the North West Company and he was taken off to Montreal. Here is his own account when he had arrived unharmed in the East:

Montreal, 4th Apl 1816 My Lord,

I have the agreable (sic) intelligence to communicate to your Lordship that Providence has watched over the safety of an infant colony on Red R., which is yet in existence, notwithstanding the unparallelled barbarities practiced (sic) to effect its annihilation. The arrival home of one of the Honble Hudson's Bay company's ships & of his Majesty's convoy Frigate, brought us in London the accounts of the safety of the settlers for whose fate I was so anxious last fall, who had fled towards Hudson's Bay to save their lives with the colonial stores & property from the N.W.Co. their having returned back to the settlement reinforced by the emigrants sent out last year, and some men who had gone from here along with Mr. Robertson. On reaching this place I found an express had arrived two days before me, direct from Red R., giving the most flattering ac-counts of the crops which were supposed to have been destroyed, their having secured about fifteen hundred bushels of wheat & provisions of all kinds being in great abundance, their superiority over the enemy who appears to be weaker this year in that quarter than our people.

The Earl of Selkirk intends going this summer to Red R. to see the foundation of his colony laid on a permanent basis; with authority civil & military from the Crown & a force sufficient, I trust, to put down all opposition to his just rights.

Do you know that "unparallelled barbarities" were practised against Red River Colony by the Nor'Westers in 1815? And why? Why would the settlers run away towards Hudson's Bay, rather than south-wards up the Red River or westwards up the Assiniboine River? Miles Macdonell mentions two groups which reinforced the settlers - emigrants and some people who had gone out with Robertson. Some of you may recall that a new contingent of settlers had arrived from the British Isles with a new governor, Robert Semple. Some of you may also remember that Colin Robertson had gone west too with the idea of cutting off the Nor'Westers' trade in what is now northern Alberta. It is by reading letters such as Macdonell's that historians can check the events which took place in the past and arrange them in their correct order, and figure out causes for and results of certain happenings.

We must remember that Miles Macdonell is writing to the Catholic Bishop. Naturally we would expect some mention of religion in his letter. Indeed, the rest of his letter is taken up with the role of the Catholics at Red River Colony - a part of our history about which very little has been written to date. But let us let the former Governor continue his letter ...

You know, Monseigneur, that there can be no stability in the government of States or kingdoms unless religion is made the corner stone. The leading motive of my first undertaking the management of that arduous tho laudable enterprise was to have made the catholic religion the prevailing faith of the establishment, should Divine Providence think me a worthy instrument to forward the design. The Earl of Selkirk's liberal mind readily acquiesced in bringing out along with me the first year a priest from Ireland. Your Lordship already knows the unfortunate result of that first attempt.

Probably all of you knew that Lord Selkirk wanted to provide a new home in the Colony for poor Scots. They were by no means the only under-privileged class in the British Isles at that time. A few of you know that Roman Catholics could not vote or hold public office at this time in the British Isles. Selkirk therefore does seem to possess a very "liberal mind", as Macdonell writes, in welcoming this class to the colony too. We read that a priest did come to Red River but that Macdonell's dream evaporated. His letter gives us no more information except that Bishop Plessis knows what happened. How did he find out? We start to read other letters to the Bishop of Quebec and we soon learn from them that the abbot Charles Bourke came to Red River with the first contingent of settlers in 1811. It seems that he spent most of his time at the Forks collecting stones which he thought were precious. In any case he soon returned to Ireland, which he had left in the first place without proper permission from his superior, the Bishop of Killala. And that was the end of that episode.

Were there any Catholics among the Red River colonists? Were there any other Catholics in the West at that time? We will let Miles Macdonell tell us, just as he told Bishop Plessis 147 years ago:

Our spiritual wants increase with our members: we have many Catholics from Scotland and Ireland, & besides those Canadians already with us, we are to have a vast accession from here. There are hundreds of free Canadians wandering over the colony who have families with Indian women, all of whom are in the most deplorable state for want of spiritual aid. A vast religious harvest might also be made among the natives round us, whose language is that of the Algonquins of this country, and who are very tractable & well-disposed considering the corruption of morals introduced among them by opposition traders in the free indulgence of spirituous liquors & other corruptive habits.

I have learnt with great pleasure that you are sending two missionaries this year as far as Lac a la pluie (Rainy Lake). I shall be happy to afford a passage from here in my canoe to one of these gentlemen as far as Red R., which is only six days journey farther, & should he remain permanently with us, the concern shall furnish him a suitable conveyance once a year to meet his fellow labourer in Christian Vineyard at La pluie (Rainy Lake).

See how much interesting information we get from a few lines written nearly a century and half ago. We are given information about the state of the halfbreeds in the Colony, about projected emigration from Canada, about the Indians, about the liquor traffic, and we even learn that it took six days to paddle from the Colony to Rainy Lake via the Red River, Lake Winnipeg, Winnipeg River and the Lake of the Woods system.

But let us allow him to finish his long letter now.

Your Lordship's zeal for the propogation of the Catholic Faith will, I doubt not, afford every facility in your power to extend the blessings of religion to an infant colony. The very liberal mind & philanthropic views of the Earl of Selkirk merit the cooperation of the chief pastor of the Catholic Church of British North America to carry the standard of Christ to that part of it which is yet in a state of barbarous idolatry.

I have the honor to be, Monseigneur, your most obedient & most humble servant.

Miles Macdonell at Dillans.

There is no doubt that Miles Macdonell was a devout Catholic. But the closing paragraph of his letter tells us much more. It seems that Lord Selkirk wanted a missionary stationed at Red River, but the North West Company people wanted the Bishop to send the missionary only as far as Fort William, their base, instead. Why did Lord Selkirk want a Catholic missionary in the colony? Well, we know that a lot of the Canadiens in the West worked for the North West Company. They were also Catholics. If they had a priest to minister to their needs at Red River, supported in part by the Hudson's Bay Company, as Macdonell suggested in his letter, would it be possible to win them over to the Hudson's Bay Company or at least make them feel less hostile and aggressive?

We have more evidence (history is like detective work, isn't it?) from a petition sent in 1817 by some residents at Red River to Bishop Plessis asking him to send them priests. In speaking of the needs of the halfbreeds the petition said:

That the children of Christians born in this country and commonly known by the name of Metis, or bois brines, number only three or four hundred men in an area of several hundred leagues. That these Metis are nearly all well disposed and of a gentle and peacable character, and would not have taken part in the unhappy events of last year if they had not been influenced by their superiors. But, having been informed by ill-disposed persons that they were the absolute masters of the land, and that it was their duty to expel the people usually known as English (i.e. H.B. Company agents); and having received promises to be sustained and rewarded, they believed that by expulsion they were doing a glorious and meritorious act.

Isn't it clear from this part of the petition that the Nor'Westers were trying to stir up the halfbreeds against the Hudson's Bay Company agents and the settlers, and were trying to set French-speaking people against English-speaking people? Selkirk, like the men who sent this petition, hoped that the coming of some priests would help control the halfbreeds and restore good relations in the colony. Perhaps you are surprised to know that there were French-speaking settlers at Red River in 1817 who could draft such a petition ... In that case you would be most interested to see at the bottom of the petition that fifteen men signed with big X's (witnessed by others) and that seven wrote their names in full.

Did you think so much information could come from a letter? Remember that Macdonell was writing to Bishop Plessis and he could never have known that we would be reading his letter today. He did not write in order to give us information, nevertheless this is exactly what he has done.

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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