Historic Bas de la Rivière, Part 2

by Norman J. Williamson

Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1978, Volume 23, Number 2

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Editor's Note: Continued from Autumn 1977 issue.

We know from Laidlaw's report of 1817 that the Nor' Westers' farm contained crops of wheat, barley, peas, oats, and potatoes. By 1821, the stock consisted of hogs, horses and cattle. The hay for the stock was meadow hay cut and cocked by the men and women in early August.

The garden produced pumpkins, carrots, turnips, and onions lifted by the end of September. A great deal of potatoes were produced. In 1822, the new tenants left 815 kegs, a keg being an approximate seventy pound measure.

In September the roof thatching was replaced with fresh marsh grass. September was also the month for buying wild rice. When the water levels were right this crop was a staple. However as it was easily destroyed by high or low water it was unstable. A crop failure is recorded as early as 1735.

As the big game had been long exhausted in the region fresh meat was not a staple at Bas de la Riviere. One must also remember that the pemmican was used for the brigades. Therefore, the winter staple was the white fish; all else was supplementary.

The white fish spawn in October on the sand and gravel bottom of Traverse Bay. Other fish also gather to feed on the roe. Taken in nets, the white fish were pierced with the point of a knife about two inches above the tail and strung ten at a time on a willow stick. These sticks of fish were then racked in the shade. The slime dripped off and they kept well as long as the weather kept cool until they froze (Masson 1960 p. 298).

As soon as there was enough snow the men began to cut wood and haul it in on sleds. It was critical that this supply be secured early because they might weaken in January if the diet became poor.

Some years a good supply of snared rabbits added fresh protein to the diet of fish.

January, February and March were the starvation months at Bas de la Riviere. In a particularly bad year it could begin in December. The area was notorious for it lacked a stable, immediate source of food. In La Verendrye's time it slowed expansion (Morton 1957 p. 25). It made the XY Co. abandon its post in 1800 (HBCA B4a 1800) and drove Thomas Vincent of the HBCo to call Bas de la Riviere "this accursed miserable place" (HBCA B4a 1800).

A typical cause of starvation was the loss of the white fish catch to warm weather in November of 1799. By January of 1800 the English Company servants were starving. In desperation, Vincent asked Red River for help. However, the buffalo were out on the plains because of the mild weather and everyone, as far west as Brandon House, was short of food. During such times the journals were preoccupied with the obtaining of food. Some of the entries are painful in their simplicity: three fish from four nets, one fish, country provisions finished, only flour, very desperate here. (HBCA B4a 1797-99).

It was the spring spawning run of the pike (Jackfish) in Catfish Creek that broke the hold of starvation at Bas de la Riviere. By the time the sturgeon appeared in May, food was usually plentiful again.

With the arrival of spring the Nor' Westers planted their crops and gardens and prepared the depot for the Pemmican brigades from the Red and Assiniboine.

In 1808, Alexander Henry was master of the Red River brigade. He had built a large boat to carry the pemmican. He left his post on June 1 with the long boat: 282 bags pem., 1 bag potatoes, 42 kegs grease and I cow. (bags = 90 lbs Kegs 70 lbs and a cow averages 400 lbs meat). Not including fur, men, women, gear and the potatoes the long boat carried 30,000 lbs buffalo provisions. In the brigade were also one Lake Winnipeg canoe: 21 bags pem., 1 bag potatoes, 3 kegs grease and one buffalo. A canoe: 9 Taureaux (bag), 3 kegs grease, 2 bags potatoes, 2 buffalo and 4 bales meat. A third canoe 22 kegs grease, 1 bag potatoes, 1 buffalo, 10 bags potatoes. A small canoe: 10 kegs grease, 1 bag potatoes, I cow. He was also carrying 42 kegs of sugar (Maple) (Coues 1965 pp. 441-46).

With the arrival of the pemmican brigades like Henry's the depot was ready for the major fur brigades from Athabaska and the Saskatchewan.

On June 1, 1804, Alexander Henry described in his diary the sight of two brigades coming into Bas de la Riviere "Early our brigades arrived. The 18 crafts abreast, all singing and keeping time with their paddles and oars; the canoes being heavy loaded and having only three men apiece, made it easy to keep in chorus with the boats." (Coues 1965 p. 246).

Like all the other wintering partners, the master of the post at Bas de la Riviere went down to the summer meeting with the Montreal partners or their agents at Grand Portage and later Fort William. It was. then that the annual meeting of the North West Company was held.

At least twice the fate of the Bas de la Riviere establishment went before the meeting, in 1808 as a trading post and in 1813 as a depot.

During the 1808 meeting, the lack of returns from the Lac Ouinipique department was discussed and the number of posts was cut by half. Skabitchewine, River Casse, Riviere au toute, Les Dalles, and Bas de la Riviere remained.

The Selkirk Period

In 1810, in an attempt to reduce the growing tension and the cost of the cut-throat competition, the Nor' Westers approached the English Company with a proposal to negotiate a division of the trade. As part of the proposal the Winnipeg River would remain in the control of the Nor' Westers. The English Company refused to negotiate.

The following year Selkirk obtained his grant which included the south bank of the Winnipeg River at Bas de la Riviere, and, therefore, the Nor' Westers establishment located there.

Meanwhile, the English Company had chosen to concentrate the battle for the trade in the area they call the East Winnipeg district. This area included Bas de la Riviere. Because of the vital nature of the route and the nature of the terrain it was the region in which the Nor' Westers were most vulnerable.

In June of 1812 William Hillier, an army officer hired by the English company for the purpose, led his men called the Irish out of York Factory. He and his band of "laborers" were to be used in direct opposition to the Nor' Westers in the East Winnipeg district. Elsewhere the servants of the English Company were to avoid any provocation of the Nor' Westers (Rich, 1960, Vol. II, p. 303). It must be pointed out that the Nor' Westers were not above intimidating the servants of the English Company. It is not a matter of saints and sinners.

When Hillier reached Bas de la Riviere, he found that no provisions had been made for them; so he was forced to move his men on to Red River.

At this point in history, the War of 1812 took place and Nor' Wester McLellan was forced to draw men from the interior posts to form a guard to protect the Montreal bound brigades from American attack.

By the time the Irish arrived in the Winnipeg East district during the 1812-13 season, Hillier had given up on them and left. They were now in the charge of James Sutherland (Rich, 1960, Vol. II, p. 315). He found their efficiency as shock troops was drastically reduced by their tendency to question orders.

In the meantime, the first of Selkirk's farmers had arrived at Red River and were soon caught up in the old problem of provisions. La Souris, one of the major sources of the Bas de la Riviere Pemmican supply, was within the Selkirk grant. Therefore, when Miles MacDonell, Selkirk's governor, imposed his 1814 embargo on the export of provisions a confrontation was inevitable.

The Nor' Wester at La Souris ignored the embargo and in May sent his pemmican brigade for Bas de la Riviere down river. On the twenty-seventh, MacDonell seized 96 bags of Pemmican from the Nor' Westers brigade. William M'Gillivray and A. N. McLeod were now justified in their opinion that the Selkirk Settlement was a deliberate threat to the life line of the North West Company trade.

However, as Qu'Appelle was outside the grant, the brigade from that post passed through with its pemmican and there was enough for the fur brigades to get down to Fort William. From Fort William the furs left in forty-seven large canoes, with an escort of three hundred well armed men. Between the Americans and Miles MacDonell, the Nor' Westers' temper was growing into a dangerous mood.

On October 21, 1814, Miles MacDonell acted in a way that could only be considered as a direct challenge by the Nor' Westers when he served eviction notices on their establishments within the Selkirk Grant. These establishments included the two major sources of pemmican at Pembina and La Souris and, of course, the supply depot at Bas de la Riviere.

The Nor' Westers reacted. By June 1815, there were some one hundred and thirty-four of Selkirk's farmers at Bas de la Riviere waiting for safe passage to Canada (Halkett, 1817, p. 29). The governor himself surrendered on June 30 and was taken, a prisoner, to Bas de la Riviere and the colony at Red River was abandoned.

Most of the guns sent to the colony by Selkirk had been captured by Cuthbert Grant and Duncan Cameron and transported to Bas de la Riviere.

While at Bas de la Riviere, MacDonell managed to write at least two letters to Selkirk. In one he noted that Selkirk considered constructing forts on the Winnipeg River to protect the colony. In the second, dated July 2, MacDonell suggested that the taking of Bas de la Riviere and the other posts in the area would destroy the North West Company (Miles MacDonell - Lord Selkirk, July 2, 1815, Selkirk Papers Vol. V, M. Series, Vol. 737).

During the 1815-16 season, Colin Robertson regained power for Selkirk at Red River. Therefore, in the second week of May, 1816, when the Qu'Appelle pemmican brigade started for Bas de la Riviere the forks were in the hands of the Selkirk-HBCo under the leadership of Governor Semple who was Governor-in-chief of the English Company's territories, posts, and departments.

As the guns of Fort Douglas would come to bear on both the Assiniboine and Red River brigades the Nor' Westers decided to starve Fort Douglas out (Halkett, 1817, p. liv). For McGillivray believed that the English intended to stop the brigades that spring. (Payette, 1964, pp. 462-63).

When the Qu'Appelle brigade reached Portage la Prairie, the bulk of the pemmican was cached and the brigade under Cuthbert Grant continued by horse. In the meantime, M'Gillivray and McLeod were recruiting men at Rainy Lake.

When Grant's column reached the forks, they swung north, intending to strike the Red River below Fort Douglas cutting it off from the other English Company posts. The pemmican for Bas de la Riviere was to be moved by cart behind this blockade (Halkett, 1816, p. xcvii).

However, on June 19 the governor-in-chief Semple chose to challenge the blockade forcing Grant's hand.

The McLeod party had by this time reached Bas de la Riviere where they were armed with captured Selkirk muskets. McLeod also armed a bateaux with two brass cannons and then his brigade left for Red River. At Riviere des Morts (Netley Creek), they came upon the farmers fleeing from Red River and they learned of the fall of Fort Douglas.

The prisoners taken at Red River were sent to Bas de la Riviere with Charles D. Reinhard, an ex-sergeant of the reduced De Meuron regiment. McLeod's armed brigade then made its way up Lake Winnipeg to escort the Athabaska fur brigade past the English to Bas de la Riviere.

In the meantime, McLellan, a Nor' Wester, arrived at Bas de la Riviere with fifteen of Grant's Metis. He instructed Reinhard to "mette le fort en etate de defense" (Halkett, 1817, pp. lxx-lxxii) as he expected the English or Robertson to counter attack by trying to take Bas de la Riviere, the Nor' Westers' bastion in the interior.

Exactly how Reinhard fortified the establishment is not recorded. He had two brass and one iron cannon, two rampart guns and fifty muskets. How-ever, a photograph taken from the air shows interesting possibilities.

While Reinhard was strengthening the defences at Bas de la Riviere, one of Selkirk's men Keveny was barging Selkirk cattle down the Albany. Because of the way he treated them, his crew deserted him when he reached Lac Du Bonnet, and complained to the Nor' Westers.

As part of their claim to the interior, both the Selkirk-HBCo and the Nor' Westers had been assuming civil authority. Now the Nor' Westers issued a warrant and Keveny was brought under arrest to Bas de la Riviere where, of course, he saw the fortifications. McLellan now had twenty men on guard duty at the fort. (Selkirk Papers, Vol. VII, M Series, Vol. 739).

Then on August 12, Selkirk and his army of one hundred and fifty "soldier-settlers" reached and soon captured Fort William. Selkirk tried to take all the Nor' Westers prisoner but a light canoe manned by two of them escaped into the interior.

Meanwhile at Bas de la Riviere, not being aware of the fall of Fort William, they sent Keveny under guard to Fort William. When Keveny's guard met Alexander Macdonell, he changed the men in charge of the escort. Next they were stopped by a second party who told them Fort William had fallen. This was probably Stuart and Thompson, the Nor' Westers who had escaped from Selkirk. (Halkett, 1817, pp. Ixxxvi-lxxxvii). The light canoe continued on its way. Then when the escort got into difficulties with Keveny they marooned him and continued back to Bas de la Riviere.

At Bas de la Riviere, Stuart informed the Nor' Westers of the fall of Fort William. A council was called and McLellan proposed that an advance be made against Selkirk's force. However, the horsemen of the plains chose to "defende leurs terres de la Riviere Rouge" (Halkett, 1817, p. lxxiv).

With the majority of the force on its way to Red River, McLellan decided to take a scouting party out to see how far Selkirk's soldiers had penetrated. Grant, Cadot, and Reinhard went with him. They found Keveny alive and McLellan ordered him executed. Reinhard complied.

When the scouting party reached Rainy Lake without encountering any of Selkirk's men, they left Reinhard as a watch at the establishment there and the rest returned to Bas de la Riviere and Red River.

When Selkirk did not move out of his captured fort, the Metis grew restless; for they had to make the fall hunt or perish. Thus, by October 8th, McLellan who was at Red River wrote to John Crebassa in charge of Bas de la Riviere that the Metis had moved to Qu'Appelle and that if Selkirk's army arrived he would have to "scamper" (Selkirk Papers, Vol. 22, p. 8597).

In the meantime, Selkirk did make a move, sending his commanding officer D'Orsonnes, a former officer in the De Meurons, into the interior where he made contact with the former De Meuron sergeant Reinhard at Rainy Lake. D'Orsonnes told the ex-sergeant that the government considered the Nor' Westers to be rebels. Reinhard believed him and surrendered to Selkirk's mercenary. The Nor' Westers' watch was gone.

By October 28th, Reinhard was at Fort William and all his knowledge of the Nor' Westers' defences was available to Selkirk.

With the way open D'Orsonnes continued through the early winter into the interior reaching Lake of the Woods. Then moving overland to the upper Red River, he took Fort Daer in the last days of 1816.

Meanwhile McLellan, wintering at Fort Douglas, had run low on provisions. On Jan. 2, he sent a man to John Crebassa for supplies asking for two hundred pounds of flour, one hundred pounds of wild rice, and one hundred pounds of white fish. (Selkirk Papers, Vol. 22, p. 8599). On the 10th the mercenaries took Fort Douglas. The next day McLellan's unsuspecting men, Joseph La Framboise and Jean Baptiste Desroche, arrived from Bas de la Riviere with the provisions and were captured. (Selkirk Papers, Vol. 47, p. 12781).

As the Fort at Red River could not be held by a major force without provisions, a party was sent against the Bas de la Riviere supply depot. Led by Laidlaw they arrived at mid-day taking the Nor' Westers by surprise as they did not know Fort Douglas had fallen. The Nor' Westers' fort at Bas de la Riviere was occupied by Selkirk's people who stated that it was his legitimate property as it was on his grant. Derroches was forced by threats to tell D'Orsonnes where the Nor' Westers had hidden the provisions (Selkirk Papers, Coltman's Rept. 1818, p. 433-34). Then Laidlaw wrote an accounting of the supplies including the following farm produce: forty-one and a half bu. wheat, fifty-five bu. barley, thirty-four bu. peas, twenty-five bu. unthreshed oats, and two hundred fifty to three hundred bu. potatoes (Selkirk Papers, Vol. 14, p. 4572).

At Bas de la Riviere, Crebassa and Frances Viger were placed under arrest. D'Orsonnes then put the fort in a state of defence again to protect Selkirk's entry into his Colony (Selkirk Papers, Coltmans Rept. 1818, p. 437). Kipling was then put in charge of the occupation force and the rest returned to Fort Douglas (Selkirk Papers, Vol. 47, pp. 12786-87).

For the rest of the winter, the Nor' Westers' provisions at Bas de la Riviere fed Selkirk's army at Fort Douglas. Then on May 20 D'Orsonnes arrived at Bas de la Riviere with two boats and stripped the remaining supplies from the post.

In time, Selkirk returned to Canada to defend his actions in the West. Bas de la Riviere like Fort William returned to the Nor' Westers.

The hostilities continued and during May and June of 1820, the Nor' Westers gathered at Bas de la Riviere. McTavish, Leith, McKenzie Sr., McDonald, Campbell, Grant and Simon McGillivray were all there. Then a party of sixty armed men left for Grand Rapids to obstruct the English Company's brigades from the interior. (Rich, 1938, pp. 215-16). But it was the last gasp of the fur war. Whatever Selkirk's real intentions were, he and his mercenaries had been storm troopers for the English Company for they had weakened the Nor' Westers to the point of no return.

In 1821, Thomas McMurry was the last Nor' Wester in charge of the North West Company post at Bas de la Riviere.

The Years of the Monopoly

In 1821, for the first time in its existence, the Hudson's Bay Company's dream of a monopolistic control of the fur trade was a reality, almost.

In its "planned economy," as set down in the company's standing rules and regulations, the English Company fired men and cut wages in the North West. These free men (non-company servants) began to establish settlements. In 1822, Roderick McKenzie Jr. recorded that there were already five families of free men in the settlement across the river at Bas de la Riviere, and that Bruce Collen and his wife were clearing another site for a house (HBCA B4a 1822). It was in these settlements that the resistance to the company monopoly was to grow.

Back in 1821, Nicholas Garry was the first of the English officials to arrive at Bas de la Riviere. He suggested that the expense of keeping the fifty women and children who had lived under the protection of the Nor' Westers be eliminated.

The man chosen to implement the planned economy was George Simpson. His servants called him "the little Emperor." He had salutes fired on his departure or return to the post, because it had a good effect and "it added to his dignity in the eyes of his subordinates" (Morton, 1944, p. 89). Simpson made his first tour of inspection in the winter of 1821-22 apparently visiting Bas de la Riviere early in 1822.

The post at Bas de la Riviere, called Fort Alexander, was now but a trading post in the Winnipeg district. However, for a time the express canoes carrying the Montreal packet and the occasional traveller stopped at the post for provisions. By 1859 the steamboat Anson Northup was on the Red River. It was only twelve days travel from Red River to Montreal via the riverboat and the American Burbanks stage line (Tache, 1870, p. 40). No longer was there any reason to travel the dangerous water of the Winnipeg River.

History had one more adventure in store for the River and Bas de la Riviere. The freemen rankled under the restrictions against free trade. In 1849 their articulate voice was the priest Belcourt. When it became clear to Simpson that the priest was becoming a bother, he found an astute way of getting rid of him. He went to the church. If Provencher would silence his rogue priest, the Company would let the church have a permanent mission at Moose Factory (Rich, 1960, Vol. III, p. 548).

But the seeds were sown and the freemen would not be silenced. By 1869 they knew they had a right to be heard. The Canadian Government gave Donald Smith a commission to go west and inform the people that their opinion of the government was erroneous.

While he was in the West, Smith moved the Company headquarters from Red River to Bas de la Riviere where he had a thirty foot watch tower built and there he awaited the arrival of the Imperial forces under Wolseley. In the meantime the company, on July 15, 1870, demanded security against the raids of the provisional government.

On August 18, Wolseley reached Bas de la Riviere. He was a bit late, having gotten lost on the Lake of the Woods. Luckily Victoria's Imperial forces happened upon an old Indian who led them to Rat Portage and set them on their dutiful way (Huyshe, 1871, p. 169).

The fact that they got down the Winnipeg River at all was due to the church. Six large Hudson Bay Company boats were purchased by a subscription led by Bishop Macrae and Archdeacon McLean. The boats were accompanied by Rev. Gardiner, a large subscriber (Huyshe, 1871, p. 155). However, when the boats reached the Imperial Army at Islington the officers still weren't happy; so Butler had to be sent down again to bring up guides from Fort Alexander. Luckily the provisional government had no hostile intentions.

Finally by the 20th, all the regulars were camped at Bas de la Riviere near the wooden pier across from Fort Alexander, some four hundred of them (Butler, n.d. p. 186). No one was quite sure where the Canadians were.

On the 21st, Wolseley wrote to his wife telling her that Smith was going to name the fort at Bas de la Riviere Fort Louisa in her honour (Arthur, 1922, p. 5). Then having given up on the Canadians he and Smith left for Red River where Smith was made governor. The last fling of glory for Bas de la Riviere had ended.

Page revised: 23 May 2011