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Miles MacDonell to Lord Selkirk 1811

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1967, Volume 13, Number 1

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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From the Selkirk Papers.

York Factory, Hudsons Bay
October 1st, 1811

My Lord,

I had the honor to address your Lordship from Stornaway on the 25th & a few hurried lines on the morning of the 26 July, & had a letter written to put on board the Convoy, but she parted with us (2nd Augt in Lat: 59 ° 5ON Long: 17° 46' W) when it blew hard on our Ship being far from her, had not an opportunity of sending our Letters.

Mr. Moncrieffe Blair went on shore the morning of the 25th August on pretence of some business, where he thought proper to remain. The first knowledge I had of it was from Collector Reid when he came in the afternoon to be present at the mustering of the people; he asked me for Blairs Baggage offering his own security for advances made & damages that might accrue. In consequence of the bustle occasioned by the disagreeable affair of that evening, the collector went on shore without the Baggage & sent no person for it before our sailing next morning. Had Mr. Blair made application to me at any time, before or after embarking I should have allowed him to depart with all his effects, but I did not expect that a gentleman who came well recommended as he was, could think of taking himself off by stealth. His conduct on shore did not prepossess me in his favour; he was rather inclined to intemperance, as were some others of the engaged writers, his associates, who were ready to catch at every discontent among the men as applying to themselves. His Luggage shall be sent back by the return of the ship. I am sorry for the inconvenience which the want of it may occasion to him in the meantime, altho it is entirely through his own bad management.

Mrs. Reid wife of the Collector at Stornoway is aunt to Sir A. McK - & recalled [sic] Captain McKenzie is married to a daughter of the collector; these with their adherents, are in a united opposition to Mr. Robertson, and perhaps influenced in some degree from London, to act as they did. I did not know of this connection when at Stonoway, but it may serve to account in some respect for the indecent conduct of that party. If an idea could have been formed that such a low trick was to be played, it might have easily been prevented: - the Edwd & Ann after receiving the passengers on board, should have shifted from where she was (being the innermost ship) to outside of the convoy, & the convoys boat would pick up all stragglers. There is now no remedy but to be guarded at all points in future. The greater part of the Runaways might have been recovered had we remained in harbour only till 12 o'clock that day; but Capt. Hanwell's hurry & impatience drove us out so early in the morning, altho the wind was contrary. It was with great exertion that Mr. Robertson overtook the hindmost ship to embark two young men who had been engaged for the Cos service, a considerable distance out. Not one of the young men who came from Glasgow engaged as Writers, brought a matress or Blanket - they say they were told by Captain Roderick that everything should be furnished to them at Stornoway. Such articles were not to be had there. The stores from Ireland came into play, great part of which have been consumed on the passage for the use of the Writers &c an account of which expenditure I enclose.

Miles MacDonell (1769-1828)
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Personalities - Macdonell, Miles 1, N16074,
from original at the Toronto City Hall.

I forward a General Return of the number of men, effective & non effective according to the Lists which have reached me; by this your Lordship will see our strength at one view, & deficiency from non appearance & Desertion. Our total numbers on board all the ships amount only to 90 labourers & 15 writers including Mr. Barker, making a grand total of 105, exclusive of us who embarked at Gravesend. The Irish band were not more troublesome than the others, the people from Glasgow were at first the most turbulent & dissatisfied. The Orkney men being accustomed to it, think nothing of a voyage to Hudsons Bay but as they formerly when going out, fared the same as the ships company they were displeased on account of the provisions & served to increase the discontent of the others.

In Hudson Straits on the 12th September the shifting of some part of the goods & passengers took place in the different ships, much against inclination of Capt. Hanwell, who in that movement saw the loss of his command, as afterwards each ship was to make the best of its way to its destined port. The desertion from the Edward & Ann took place at Stornoway after the general distribution had been made, & each ship had received the number of men alloted to her: - it was my intention to replace in part this disertion by taking a few from the two other ships, that each might bear its share of the loss. But the commodore would not part with any of the men the Cos Agent had put on board his ship, being 22 men all from Orkney, & besides these, took two more from the Eddystone without my knowledge after I had left her. This proceeding surprised me, not expecting that he had any control or direction, as to the destination of the people. I took with me eight men from the Eddystone to the Edwd & Ann; with this augmentation she had 53 men, labourers and artificers collectively. Thirty of these I expect to have for the settlement & from the remainder Mr. Hilliers party may be formed. Not conceiving it to be the intention of the Co that all the Clerks or writers were for one part of the country I permitted these to volunteer into the Prince of Wales for the service of the Southern Factories, and two others to go in the Eddystone to Churchill & desired the Captains to Mess them in their respective Cabins.

The passage has been of uncommon length, and for a Summer one very boisterous. On the morning of the 6th Septr we discovered land (Battons Islands) & were from that day to the 15th in getting through the straits. After entering the Straits saw daily a number of detached lumps of Ice called by the seamen Islands - of these some were small & others appeared to be the size of two or three acres in circumference & about 150 feet high. As we kept at a great distance from land in obedience to the signals of our Commodore, saw nothing of the natives which was a great disappointment. The country on both sides of the straits appeared to be high naked rocks, and with the exception of a little snow or Ice, which I imagine they are never entirely clear of, are not unlike the West Coast of Sutherlandshire & part of Rosshire. At the upper part of the Straits we met a quantity of flat Ice; it gave us no interruption, but that of laying to, the whole of one night, with a fair wind. On the ocean we had an uncommon share of boisterous stormy and cold weather - but since entering H Bay have experienced a course of fine mild weather and moderate fair winds. We arrived here on the 24th September after a passage of 61 days from Stornoway - the longest ever known & the latest to H Bay.

Of all the occurrences which have opposed themselves this year against our undertakings, the late arrival here of the vessels is the worse in its consequences. Notwithstanding the late sailing from England the ships might have arrived earlier were each one to make the best of its way after the Convoy left them; & should there be a necessity afterwards to join for shifting cargo &c, a general rendezvous might be made in Hudsons Straits. I am convinced the Eddystone altho a dull sailor & the Edward & Ann would have made the voyage in a much shorter time were they not fettered by obeying the commodores signals - Capt. Hanwell is a timid overcautious seaman, above taking advice, self sufficient & stubborn. The day after the shifting took place the other two ships were far ahead of his, and shortly afterwards lost sight of him by superious manoeuvring. I hope he may make good his voyage. Our two ships kept together till we were about a hundred miles to the westward of Mansfield Island. The commodore kept us for fifteen days together about the Longitude of Cape Farewell, in Latitude 57 degrees North, during which time, with the winds we had, might have gained considerable distance to the Northward - he could not think himself safe within a less distance than two degrees of Latitude of the Cape. The Company in my opinion would profit by allowing him to retire, were they to give him a pension. Captain Ramsay from unwieldiness and ill health is likewise unfit for any service. It is certainly not pleasant to discard old servants - but were they permitted to retire with a gratuity, it could not be deemed a hardship; & that mode would be preferable to having such persons sailing in the ships as Supernumaries.

I am surprised the Co never directed a survey to be made of the coast on each side the Straits. From the appearance of the Country there must be many harbours and Inlets capable of receiving Vessels in case of an accident from ice, want of water &c &c. We were often in doubt ourselves for the accomplishment of our voyage, and had we been under the necessity of putting back, must have suffered for want of water. Two of the ships without any additional expense, might execute this survey on the voyage out, with only the detention of a few days. One to take the North and the other the South shore should such a survey be directed to be made. Mr. Benjamin Bell, first Mate of the Eddystone, would be a very proper person to be employed: he is a courageous able & good seaman; has a good knowledge of Navigation Astronomy &c &c & is a Draftsman. I should like to see him promoted to the Command of a ship, & feel a conviction that the Cos service would benefit by his abilities & good conduct. The Edward & Ann was very ill fitted out for a Northern voyage - old sails, ropes &c &c and very weakly manned: - her crew consisted of only 16 persons including the Captain, Mates and three small boys - the passengers were of great assistance; without them I do not know how she would have done. I am surprised the Coy would charter and send her off in that state. The Compys own ships have more men than is required. The Prince Wales 32 & the Eddystone 28 including all hands. I am informed that 20 effective seamen would be a good sufficient crew for any of the ships. The wages & expenses of the overplus of hands would be a considerable saving.

Mr. Edwards had much professional practice on the voyage: he attended the ships company - several of the passengers were ill, & some writers were ill in Consequence of imprudence on shore - a quantity of our medicines has been already expended - one writer Mr. Stevens I believe is to be sent back, on account of venereal complaint.

The effects left by the Deserters from us at Stornoway were sold, by Vendue among the passengers; they amounted to £27 & are charged to the accts of the different purchasers.

None of the young men made any progress in learning the Gaelic or Irish languages on the voyage. I had some Drills of the people with Armes. The weather was generally so very boisterous that we had but few days a person could stand steady on Deck, there never was a more awkward squad. Not a man or even Officer of the party knew to put a gun to his eye or even fired a shot.

I am not fully satisfied with the Revd Charles Bourke, & could wish to know what character he bore in his own Country. Your Lordship might get every information concerning him from the Bishop of Killala (the Diocese he is from) thro Mr. Edward at Maynuth. Mr. B tells me that he came away without the leave of his Bishop who was at Dublin at the time. A report must be made of him to the Bishop of Quebec, as now belonging to that Diocese. He is very zealous for the increase of our Colony, assures me that he can get thousands to come out from the Country of Mayo; has written very encouraging letters to his own relations there - & wrote letters for almost every one of his flock to their friends in the same encouraging strain. He wishes to become a shareholder in the concern. He is related to Mr. Edward at Sligo.

I found every facility & readiness both from Mr. Auld & Mr. Cook the Governor of this place, consistent with their duty to the affairs of the Company, to meet your Lordships views to forward the Colony. They as well as a great number of the Cos officers and other servants in the Country, feel an interest in its success & look towards it as a future asylum for themselves & their numerous offspring. I am informed that many of the Cos servants & others from the N W Co who have served them their time out & have families with Indian women, will be inclined to join us as soon as they see a settlement begun on a permanent footing. Many of these are worth money & can afford to pay well for land. Your Lordship will please send me your Instructions concerning such people.

The Eddystone has now come here with all her passengers & cargo, without being able to get to Churchill: - this affords an additional supply of men not wanted by the Co. I am therefore allowed to augment my number to 35 labourers & artificers. I have taken all of Captain Rodericks men, the Lewis men and a portion of Irish; the rest of my list will be filled up by a selection from the Orkneys. There are besides a number of Orkneymen here going home who have served out their time. I expect to be able to prevail on some of these to remain for one or two years more; their service as experienced men will be important to assist in ascending the waters next spring.

Mr. Auld previous to my arrival had sent orders to the different Posts in the Red River Country, to procure & save as much provisions as possible for the use of the ensuing year - & says that even had this not been done there could be no apprehension of any want of Buffaloe meat from the vast abundance in the Country. This being the case, I think accommodation may be provided for 50 passengers to be sent out next year for the settlement, among whom there may be eight Families.

Boats for this number will be ready here for taking them up on arriving. Each Boat would require to have in it two expert men accustomed to rapids & poling some such can be procured in the Orkneys who have been formerly in the Cos service, by making early application; & they ought to be engaged under a penalty that they are fit for the service which they undertake. This Factory can furnish some men of this description as soon as their people come down with the Furs, which is always before the arrival of the ships.

Tents made of Imitation sheeting will be required to protect the people from flies, rain &c in ascending the waters - they will serve parties for different successive years & may afterwards be of use in the settlement for Straw Beds, Bags &c &c. Even the Cos men have Tents, & families cannot surely dispense with them. Leather of Old Tents can be furnished here for covering the goods in the Boats, instead of Oil cloths which would be too expensive. The Boats used for going inland here carry 30 pieces of 90 lb weight each & are navigated by 5 men. Our Boats are entirely disapproved of, altho far lighter and easier constructed than those commonly used here. I will not give up the utility of flat bottoms for shallow river navigation & rapids whatever may be their opinion, & shall prove them to be of use next spring by going up in them. The people have never seen any thing used in other parts of America. My axes & some other tools The Military Tent with Ridge Poles to Contain 6 persons are objects of great wonder, & condemned without mercy. I am sorry to find Holtzapfels (?) Axes very badly tempered. The edge of the first one tried broke in a soft Poplar Stick - they are too hard, but I am in hopes the Blacksmith here may soften them. They do not understand in England the tempering of edged tools to stand Cold Countries.

I have written to the Agents at Stornoway, Glasgow, & Sligo; & two Highland lads from Stornoway engaged as writers have written to their friends there, - expressive of the good treatment of the passengers; this will serve to contradict false reports that may & of course will be disseminated by evil minded & prejudiced persons.

An extraordinary Inundation occurred this spring on the south, or Pembina branch of the Red River, which overflowed its banks the extent of four miles on each side into the country, while the northern branch was not more swollen than usual. This flood was occasioned by the melting of the snow which fell last winter uncommonly great towards the source of that river. Such a circumstance has not been known before in the memory of the oldest Indian, and perhaps may never happen again.

One of our young writers mentioned above from Stornoway, John McLeod, I am inclined to take on the R R S establishment were it not for the unwillingness of incurring expenses on account of the connection to be formed with that part; he is well known there, is clever, & his statements will have weight.

The river Nelson is little known & the accounts given of it are very contradictory. Mr. Fidler came down it & reports the navigation to be very practicable, and the distance by it to lake Winipie shorter & fewer carrying places, than by the common route. Your Lordship will have an opportunity of seeing Fidler, as he is going home this year on account of the death of some of his relations.

All accounts agree in one circumstance, that it is a month later before it is clear of ice than Hays river. It is 15 miles wide at its mouth, & shoal. Mr. Auld intends going up it next summer to lake Winipie, & will make a minute survey. I should like to accompany him, but must be along with my people on the route - as it would not be prudent to venture with them to an unknown road, by which we might be detained & lose the season.

Mr. Hillier & myself will take the soundings of the mouth of the Nelson next spring as far up as Seal Island. The water is too high to do it at present, & besides there is not time to be spared for it.

At this late Season the men cannot be employed to serve the Company in any respect. Every possible exertion & dispatch is required to get them and ourselves under cover in such situations where fresh meat can be procured throughout the winter, as none of us can be accommodated at the Factory. I am to cross immediately with all my officers and people to the north side of the Nelson in the vicinity of Seal Island where Deer are said to abound. Mr. Hillier with a party is to be my neighbour. I expect to bring many a Caber Feigh to the ground this winter with your Lordships Rifle.

Last winter was the severest ever known in those parts, game disappeared & many of the improvident natives perished thro cold & want. The Thermometer was at 49'F degrees below O. It is well that it is past, & it is to be hoped this may be a mild one. We have had the therm. already at 8 & 9 Degrees below 0 two succeeding nights, & we have now snow on the ground. It is high time for those who are without houses to begin building. I hope that none of our Ossiniboia people shall ever be so late again as to be under the necessity of Wintering at this place. The Cross accidents of this year could not have been forseen. The late sailing of the ships can be guarded against in future. Wintering here, altho attended with heavy expense & loss of time, will give our people the advantage of acquiring some experience & practice in useful labour. I was aware of considerable difficulties in prosecuting this scheme, which a desire to forward your Lordships views led me to undertake. The troubles attendant on it have already exceeded my expectation. I feel a confidence however, that we shall be able to surmount every difficulty, & altho much retarded in the progress hitherto, the object is very attainable and your Lordship need not be under any apprehension for us.

With high respect I have the honor to be
My Lord

Your Lordships most obedient
& most Humble Servant

(signed) Miles Macdonell

P. S.

The Boats that take us up next summer & those for the people who follow us the same season, may be sent down the following year in time to bring up settlers when they arrive provided that I have men with me acquainted with rapids. The sooner a Vessel can be built on Lake Winipie the better as then the boats need not proceed farther up than the entrance of it. The lake is reported to be very shoal, particularly near the shores where boats are accustomed to go. But even should that be found to be the case flat bottomed vessels of the Petty Yauger (?) kind used in America with lieboards might be made to answer the navigation; & such craft could perhaps get up to the forks of the Red River. This Factory is very ill constructed & not at all adapted for a cold country, either for convenience or use. But as I imagine the main object of the Co is the procuring of Furs, any other arrangements here are to them immaterial. The greatest unanimity appears to subsist between the Chiefs Auld & Cook. I have been remiss in not replying to your Lordships inquiries respecting Mayr McDonald last winter in London originally from South Uist (?), but am not certain if his name is Alexander. (H)e had served two or three years in Canada in the 60th Regt & went from there to the West Indies - he has sold out of the Army or gone on Half Pay - has a general acquaintance with living characters - is in infirm health, & has been long from the Highlands.

M. McD.

Mem: of Articles to be sent to R R S -

The Arms left in Store with Bullet moulds complete 2 - 3 Pounder Brass Field Pieces - Genl Pattersons Construction - 3 feet long & weighing lCwt 2grs & 19lbs -

Carriages, Ramrods, Sponges &c for Ditto Complete - only the dimensions of the wheels & bulky part of the carriages need be sent 1 Quern for grinding grain - if approved of.

Hamilton Moores Complete Navigator

A Quadrant, Sextant -

Encyclopoedia Brittannica - Bound Complete for M. McD. It may be sent out next year or the year following as may be found convenient.

Arrowsmiths Map of North America

A British Union Flag

1 Quart - apple seeds.

M. McD.

Right Honble
The Earl of Selkirk

Page revised: 1 May 2012

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