Some Red River Settlement History
by Charles N. Bell, F.R.G.S.
MHS Transactions, Series 1, No. 29
During a visit to Ottawa last year I spent some time in the Archives Department searching among the files of correspondence obtained by the Canadian Government from the Imperial authorities, for information relating to the history of the Red River settlement, With the kind assistance of Mr. D. Brymner, the archivist, I succeeded in finding the original correspondence, or part of it at any rate, that passed between the Hudson's Bay company and the British Government, resulting in the dispatch of regular troops to Fort Garry in 1857.
The Hudson's Bay company, at that date, governed the inhabitants of the Red River settlement, and claimed, over a vast extent of country, the privilege of exclusive trade, etc.; but Canada contested the right of the company to these privileges, and was moving to gain possession of the Northwest, having sent representatives to London for that purpose, and to press on the Imperial Government the claims of Canada, as against those of the Company. The occasion was opportune, as the license for the exclusive trading privileges for 20 years in what was termed the Indian Territory, granted by the Imperial authorities to the company in 1838, was about expiring.
On the 5th February, 1857, the British House of Commons ordered "That a, select committee be appointed to consider the state of those British possessions en North America which are under the administration of the Hudson's Bay company, or over which they possess a License of Trade."
The committee included amongst its members such prominent persons as Mr. Gladstone, Mr. Labouchere, Lord John Russell and Lord Stanley.
As the meetings of this committee were held at a date when some of the correspondence which I have obtained was being carried on, it is thus possible, and very interesting, to compare the different views advanced by interested persons as to why troops ought to have been sent, and why they were sent, to the Red River settlement.
British troops had already been stationed at Fort Garry from 1846 to 1848 on account of public demonstrations against the administration of justice by the council of Assiniboia, and of the trouble brewing at the time of the Oregon Treaty. A body of pensioners succeeded the regular troops in 1843.
As will be seen by the evidence presented later on, the people of Assiniboia were very much discontented, and anxious to attach the colony to Canada.
This was the state of affairs at the date when the following letter was written: [EXTRACT of a letter from Sir George Simpson to the secretary of the Hudson's Bay Company, London Eng., dated at Lachine, 20th October, 1856.]
We see by this letter that Sir George Simpson took the ground that British interests in general were threatened by the presence of American troops at the international line; but we will, see further on that while he advanced this view, he at the same time held others in reserve, to use when the occasion offered.
This letter, addressed to the secretary of the Hudson's Bay Company, in London, was forwarded to Mr. Labouchere, then Colonial Secretary.
Next in order is the following extract from a letter of John Swanson, to the secretary of the H. B. Co. at London, dated Fort Garry, 6th Oct., 1856, which was forwarded by John Shepherd, Governor of the company, to the Rt. Hon. H. Labouchere on the 27th Nov., 1856:
Following is the notice referred to in Mr. Swanson's letter.
That a number of traders and others in Minnesota were anxious that the United States should obtain possession of the Hudson Bay Territories, is well known, and this proclamation may have been issued with the idea that the people of the settlement would agitate for annexation if they found them, themselves cut off from access to the buffalo country, stretching across the line towards the Missouri, which was a locality annually resorted to by the Red River settlers to procure skins and provisions.
A petition had already gone from some of the inhabitants of Assiniboia to the American Government, as is seen by the recorded evidence of Mr. Isbister before the House of Commons committee in London, on March 5th, 1357, in these questions and answers:
Sir George Simpson probably had this petition in his mind's eye when advising the quartering of British troops at Fort Garry. The complaints of the people of Assiniboia were embodied in various petitions to the Governments of the United States, Great Britain and Canada. The general form of the petition sent to the Legislative Assembly of Canada, dated in April, 1857, was as follows:
After reciting dissatisfaction with the rule of the Hudson's Bay Co.; the trouble of procuring deeds for their lands except on such terms as would by their construction reduce them to a state of absolute slavery; the search of their houses for furs by armed police; the breaking open of their trunks by armed constables when on their annual commercial journeys into Minnesota; all furs being confiscated; the interference with persons of aboriginal descent to an extent endangering the peace of the settlement; the people having no voice in the selection of the members of the Legislature; the exclusive system of the company which prevented the inhabitants from devoting their energies to tilling the soil, and other industrial pursuits, the petition closes in these words:
Sir George Simpson seems to have had at an early date, a dread of a clashing of the interests of the inhabitants with those of the company, for the Hon. Donald Gunn informs us, in his History of Manitoba, with a knowledge of the facts, he being a resident of the settlement at the time, that Sir George had erected, in 1831-33, the atone walls of Lower Fort Garry as a refuge, in case of an outbreak among the French Métis. It is noticeable that while the French in 1849 assumed a threatening attitude during the Sayer trial and secured his liberation, thus virtually breaking up the monopoly of exclusive trade in furs of the company, that the agitation about 1857 was raised principally by the English-speaking portion of the community.
Next in order in the correspondence, we have what is evidently the answer to a letter of enquiry regarding the nature of the encroachments on the American frontier, which drew forth such a proclamation from the officer commanding the American troops at Pembina.
Extract from a letter from Sir George Simpson to J. Savile Lumley, Esq., dated Lachine, 1st Nov. 1856:
The American traders complained that the British hunters crossed the international line and carried back with them the produce of their hunts, while the Hudson's Bay Co. secured the fur and provisions, because the traders were not allowed to come in from the American aide to barter. In other words the company had entrance to an extensive fur country in the United States, without giving in exchange to the Americans the privilege of trading on British soil.
Then comes the following correspondence:
War Department, 12th Dec. 1856, from Lord Panmure, secretary, for information of Secretary Labouchere.
Lord Panmure had great reluctance in sending troops to isolated posts like Red river, and he suggests that further particulars be obtained from sir George Simpson as to cause of movement of United States troops.
War Department, 6th March, 1857. Lord Panmure to Sir Wm. Eyre, Canada, acknowledging receipt of report on state of affairs at Red river, and "the application which has been made by the Hudson's Bay company my for a detachment of troops to be again stationed at Fort Garry."
So anxious was the Hudson's Bay Co. to have troops sent to Fort Garry that their governor in London offered, on behalf of the company, to pay for their transport both ways, and maintenance, "on account of the existing state of affairs at Fort Garry and its neighborhood."
The American troops having departed from Pembina, after a stay of a month, it could no longer be advanced that "British interests at largo" were imperilled by their presence, but it seems that other agencies were supposed to be at work, imperiling the company's interests, for we find from other sources that the Canadian Government had dispatched an exploring expedition to the Red River settlement that year.
The war department still hesitated about granting the troops, and it is evident that the general commanding in Canada objected to such a disposal of his force, but the following correspondence shows that his objections were overruled.
HORSE GUARDS, 3rd Apri1, 1857.
His Royal Highness decides to send 120 men of the Royal Canadian Rifle, and regrets that the garrison will have to be withdrawn from St. John's.
He recommends that the regiment be increased to eight companies or eight hundred rank and file.
The troops were sent, going by the Great Britain, a sailing vessel, from Canada to York Factory, (where, on the 25th September, 1857, they presented an address to the ship captain for his attention to there wants, and skill in navigation) and thence in open boats to Fort Garry, where they remained for four years, returning, to Quebec in 1861. Notwithstanding the fears of His Royal Highness the commander in chief, "that the rigorous and severe climate would injure the health o£ the men," the death roll of the regiment showed no great additions, as may easily he imagined by the present inhabitants of the country.
In the light of the fact that the Canadian Government fitted out exploring parties under S. J. Dawson and Prof. H. Y. Hind in 1857, to examine the country between Lake Superior and the Red River, so that a report would be available on the character of the country, with the state and condition of the Red River settlement lands and people, it is new highly amusing and interesting to read the reasons given by a prominent shareholder of the company to why troops were required at Fort Garry that year.
In the report from the select committee of the British House of Commons on the Hudson's Bay Co. in l857, is the following answer given by the Rt. Hon. E. Ellice, M.P., a large shareholder in the company and who was formerly a shareholder in the old Northwest Co., which, mainly through his efforts, was consolidated with the H.B.Co., in 1820-1821. The answer was given in reply to whether a military force would be required at Red River, in the event of a Crown colony being, established there. "There has been a military force once or twice sent there at the desire of the Hudson's Bay Co., and latterly they have applied to the Government again. They were threatened with the invasion from Canada of some gentlemen coming in to look after the fur trade. They thought that might excite some disturbances among the half-breeds, and that it might easily extend across the line. There was further danger from disputes and threatened hostilities between the Americans and Indians. It would not be very desirable to leave that part of Her Majesty's dominions without protection under such circumstances. They have therefore lately applied to the Government to send out some troops, which the Government pay, and the H. B. Co. feed."
On the same day (June 23rd, 1857), when asked if the troops then going to the Red River were to be utilized for the preservation of peace, he answered - "Yee, to prevent any alarm about the half-breeds; there have been disturbances in the adjoining territory between the Americans and the Indians; there have been such disturbances in Minnesota; the country has been threatened with war there lately, and we were alarmed that it might extend; the Indians when once engaged, get to war with one another, and they are not even scrupulous as to whom they attack, and it was supposed to be better to be in a state of preparation against any emergency."
Again he answered in reply to the question: "When the Queen's troops were stationed there in the first instance (1846) were not they sent there for the purpose of in some degree allaying the disturbance or excitement which prevailed in the colony in consequence of tire half-breeds entering into trade in furs?"-"No, I think not especially for that; whenever any excitement takes place, immediately upon that frontier, it extends beyond it ; some gentlemen are going in from Canada now, I believe, to endeavor to re open the trade in furs; the first means which they will have recourse to in order to promote that trade will be to get some of those half-breeds with them; the half-breeds will again enlist some of the Indiana; that may lead to disturbances upon the frontier which it is very desirable to have security against."
During 1857-58, when the Canadian exploring parties were working in the Northwest, an expedition under Captain Palliser was sent out by the Imperial Government to explore the country as far west as the Rocky Mountains, and as well, to ascertain the character of the passes through the mountains to British Columbia, and an exhaustive report was presented to the Royal Geographical Society in 1858 by Sir Bulwer Lytton, Colonial Secretary, who was very anxious to have this country opened up to settlers, either under the care of the Canadian Government, or as a Crown Colony, self contained.
Neither of the reports made by these exploring parties refer to any disturbances in the Red River country, but the Canadian report deals extensively with the discontent prevailing amongst the inhabitants of the settlement, on account of the management of public affairs by the Hudson's Bay Co. Both parties received every assistance from the Company in the prosecution of their work.
That the Canadian people had formed an idea as to the Company's object in desiring to have Imperial troops in the Red River settlement, is seen by the evidence given by Mr. McD. Dawson before a committee of the Legislative Assembly of Canada, on the 8th of June, 1857. He said that the troops about to be sent to Red River should not "carry with them the erroneous views which of late years have been with some success imposed upon the public by the assiduous promulgation of the company, or they may unfortunately be placed in a position of antagonism to the civil power. Better that military rule prevailed entirely, for then the officers would know their duties and their responsibilities. If they go under the impression that they are to be subject to the supposed civil officers of a self constituted government which has no legal existence, they may find themselves called upon to enforce behests which are not law, which are infractions of law; they may be called upon to subdue resistance to illegal acts, to which resistance is a duty and a right; and if for acting on these behests they are ultimately brought before the courts of justice, they will find that they have acted under those whose orders will be treated as a nullity, whose civil offices will be held a mockery. This has been so before; it may be so again, if due precaution be not observed."
He then referred to the case of Lord Selkirk, who applied, in 1816, to the commander the forces in Canada for a military guard for his personal protection against assassination while journeying from Lake Superior to Red River. The commander in-chief granted a guard of an officer and 12 soldiers, under the express condition that they were in no way to engage in any disputes between Lord Selkirk and his people, and the employee of the Northwest company, with whom Lord Selkirk was at variance. And yet these soldiers became parties to grave offences by being led with Selkirk and his corps of disbanded soldiers from the same regiment to make arrests of people in the service of the Northwest company.
This was a specimen of the feeling that had been aroused in Canada over the negotiations between that Government and the home authorities.
The troops having spent one winter at Fort Garry, we learn in the next letter on file in the Archives Department, the opinion held by the commanding officer, as to the utility of their being stationed there, and the purposes for which the company desired them to be used, while willing to be at the great expense of supplying them with food, and providing for their transport, free of cost, to the Imperial Government.
FORT GARRY, 14th March, 1858.
Major Seton to officer commanding Royal Canadian rifles, Toronto, writes that he should now officially write what he has already privately done.
This letter was sent to Horse Guards and War Office.
This epistle from Major Seton was the basis of the remaining letters, which were the last I could find in the archives bearing directly on the subject.
It would seem that the Imperial Government, to some extent, at least, held the views advanced by Mr. Dawson in July, 1857, by the caution given to "the Governor and Council of the Hudson's Bay company as to the necessity of using great discretion in calling on the military for their assistance, and confining such application to oases of actual disturbance of the peace."
While agreeing with Col. Storks, Mr. Merivale, under date of 6th March, 1853, states that it would be unfair to the Hudson's Bay company to withdraw the troops, and calls attention to a request of Sir George Simpson that troops were required on ac count of "disturbance and discontent" and the "stirring up of the people of the Red River settlement in opposition to the civic authorities." "The assent of Lord Panmure to the measure was therefore given with full knowledge of the particular service which was likely to be required o€ the detachment." He also says that "as the future government of Red River is a subject of correspondence between H. M. Government and that of Canada he desires no change, but will, however, caution the governor and committee of the Hudson's Bay Company as to the necessity of using great discretion in calling on the military for their assistance, and confining such application to cases of I actual disturbance of the peace."
Extract from letter of Sir Geo. Simpson to Win. G. Smith, secretary Hudson's Bay company:
It is worth noting that while Sir George: Simpson, in 1856, appeared to be so fearful of the presence of United States troops at the frontier (though on two occasions, prior to that date, British troops had been stationed on this aide of the international line) nine years later, his successor, Governor Dallas, on receiving a written request from Major Hatch, dated at Pembina, March 4th, 1364, asking for permission to cross the line with his troops, to attack the refugee Sioux Indians, then camped at Poplar Point, sixty miles north of the line, answered immediately, giving full and free permission for the United States soldiers to act on British soil, stipulating only that blood should not be shed in the houses or enclosures of the settlers if the Sioux took refuge in those places, I mention this fact more particularly because it has been denied by some persons that such permission was ever granted. My authority is a copy of each letter, which I possess.
In conclusion, I draw to your notice the reasons given by different persons regarding the necessity for the presence of troops at Fort Garry, On various occasions we find that it was because "United States troops were stationed at the frontier," "discontent and disturbance at Red river," "the stirring up of the people in opposition to the civil authorities," "persons from Canada were mischievously employed at Red River inciting resistance to the established rule of the territories." "Necessity for the protection of the lives and property of the company's servants and the settlers," "an invasion from Canada of fur traders," "disputes between the Americans and Indians," and "disturbances arising out of the infringements of the company's monopoly."
A review of the correspondence, and the evidence given before the select committee in London, together with an acquaintance of the steps taken by the Canadian government, impresses me with the idea, that Sir George Simpson fearing an influx of settlers from Canada following the exploring parties sent out, and of an immigration from Minnesota, seized on the pretext that a small reconnoitering party of American troops had, for the first time, visited the frontier, made a requisition for British troops to support the rule of the Council of Assiniboia (which was the creation of the company) against all comers.
As negotiations were pending between the Imperial Government and that of Canada regarding the future possession and government of the country west of Lake Superior, the company found considerable difficulty in inducing the Imperial authorities to send out the troops to Fort Garry; but at last the application was so cleverly made, with references to American designs and the likelihood of an Indian war with a general massacre of the white population, together with an offer to provide transport and sustenance for the force, free of all coat to the Government, they consented, and the troops went out.
The population of Assiniboia had got beyond the control of the company, and the presence of troops was necessary to keep them within bounds until the company, if finally compelled to hand over the country to Canada, could attain a substantial award for their claimed rights under the charter of 1670.
A perusal of the documents published in connection with the transfer, and Ontario boundary disputes, will, I think, convince people that the company saw that the "day and hour had arrived" when they must give up possession, at least of the best agricultural districts, of the Northwest, and it had become after 1857 simply a question with them of securing a good bargain. No person can blame the Governor and council for doing the best possible in the interests of the shareholders.
There is no doubt but that there was a strong feeling among some of the Red river settlers, in favor of annexation to the United States, as being their only hope of escaping from the rule of the company, as witness the petition of 1864 mentioned above.
Later, in 1861, at the time of the Trent affair, when a war seemed possible, and even probable, between Great Britain and the United States, it is within my own knowledge, from official documentary evidence, that a proposal was made to the American Government, by a then prominent citizen of St. Paul, Minn., to send, in the event of war, a force of 1,000 Minnesota troops to Fort Garry, to secure possession to the whole of British North America west of Lake Superior to the Rocky Mountains which, of course, under the circumstances, would have been a perfectly legitimate act. Accompanying this proposal was a detailed statement concerning the route to be taken by the troops, with a full description of the country and its population, re sources and future prospects, while the indifference of the British authorities to the complaints of the Assiniboia settlers was dwelt on as a reason why the inhabitants, "French, American and Metis," would welcome annexation.
Influential men in Minnesota were fully of the opinion that a change was about to occur in the Governmental system of Assiniboia. They knew it was to be either for Canada or the United States, and they hoped it was for the latter, and were fully prepared to take advantage of any opportunity occurring to seize on what is now the Canadian Northwest.
The Hudson's Bay Company, as a fur trading corporation, had made a fatal error in first placing settlers on the Red river, and after the retirement of Lord Selkirk, they endeavored to isolate the settlement as far as was possible, but the flood of emigration into Minnesota from 1850 to 1870 rendered this impossible, even without the action taken by the Canadian Government in seeking to obtain possession of the country. The settlers, virtually without a market, contrasted their position with that of their follows who had abandoned the colony and gone to Canada, and with the new settlers in Minnesota; so that only time was necessary to ripen a movement that would end all control held over them by a close corporation like the Hudson's Bay company.
Page revised: 22 May 2010