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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian:Immigration Records by Patricia McGregor, PLCGS. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk is perhaps best known for his settlement at Red River. However his involvement in Canadian settlement began earlier and further to the east. Indeed he had thought a great deal about settlement in British North America.
- Selkirk’s “observations of emigration patterns had already confirmed what he knew of deep-grained Highland tendencies to follow where friends and especially kinsmen had gone before them. To deflect a tide of emigration was like turning a stampede of cattle; a success might indefinitely command the flow in a new direction.” (Gray p.19)
In 1803, Selkirk was awarded lands in Prince Edward Island and Upper Canada. Three shiploads of settlers left in July of that year headed for PEI with Selkirk on board. Most of the settlers came from Skye and Uist. The three ships were called The Dykes, The Polly and The Oughton. Once the colony was launched he planned to journey to Upper Canada via Halifax and Boston to learn more about general conditions, immigrant prospects and problems.
- “The copious notes he put together—on road making and farming, on crop yields, on markets and prices, and on individual experiences—were the memoranda of a practical colonizer and the foundations of a philosophy on emigration.” (Gray 1963, 26)
In Upper Canada he had been awarded a grant of 1200 acres. He was to receive a further 200 acres for every family he settled, with 50 of that 200 going to the settler. The land he chose was in the Dover and Chatham townships near Lake St. Clair (southwestern Ontario). He called the settlement Baldoon after his father’s estate in Scotland.
Although the settlement started off well, heavy fall rains impeded work, ruined crops and flooded fields. After malaria occurred two years in a row, killing a large number of the settlers, Selkirk ordered Baldoon closed and looked to move the survivors to a healthier location up the River Thames. He also applied for a grant of 300,000 acres in New Brunswick but that request was turned down. Nor would the government of Upper Canada support him in a large scale colonizing venture.
Red River Settlement Map
Friesen, Gerald. The Canadian Prairies, A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984, between pp. 90 and 91.
Selkirk was involved in the Hudson’s Bay Company and had an interest in the Red River area. In 1809 there was a small settlement of freemen there—Canadians who after some service in the fur trade decided to remain in the area. Many of them had married Indian women and they survived through hunting and the planting of a few crops.
By 1810 the Hudson’s Bay Company had agreed to the establishment of a company colony at the forks of the Red River. However many of the Nor’Westers felt that settlement was bad for business. Nonetheless in 1810 Selkirk was invited to submit a proposal for settlement on a land grant five times the size of Scotland. For his part, Selkirk was to supply the company with 200 servants a year and develop an agricultural colony.
As part of the agreement colonists were forbidden to trade in furs or distil alcohol except for personal use.
As a means of attracting potential settlers, Selkirk established emigration agents in the Hebrides, Glasgow and Ireland. The plan was to send an advance party in 1811 to prepare crops and buildings for the first group of settlers scheduled to arrive in 1812.
Unfortunately for Selkirk those opposed to the settlement had spread information about the hardships of life in Assiniboia and there was great difficulty attracting volunteer colonists to make the journey. Two ships, the Edward and the Ann with a number of Orkneymen, Glaswegians and Highlanders set sail as an advance party. Some were to help Selkirk with preparations for the colonists while others would man the fur trade posts to give a show of strength to the North West Company.
Selkirk, remembering the Baldoon experience, insisted that the settlement be dry and clear of woods, yet near enough for access to wood for fuel and building supplies. The first settlement was named Point Douglas and it lay across the main trade route of the North West Company. In retrospect it is not much wonder that the Nor’Westers saw this colony as a threat to their livelihood. In the words of one author, they felt they, “had to destroy the colony or be destroyed” (Gray 1963, 75). A major contributor to the problems with this settlement was probably Selkirk’s ignorance about the environment into which he was sending his people. This was a land he knew only from fur traders’ accounts. He did not understand the concerns of the Nor’Westers and the Indians and was ignorant of the problems of law enforcement (or lack thereof).
- “Selkirk was possessed by his dreams and armed against anything that might challenge its reality. He had only to pour in sturdy settlers to a land of unquestioned fertility and the thing was done, the demonstration completed, and the whole thing made strong beyond the capacity of hostile natives or rival traders to budge it. Given that strong core, it could grow to any size, more unshakeable with every increase.” (Gray 1963, 86)
Life in the settlement was not easy. Apart from the problems with the fur traders unwilling to share the land and the hostilities of Indians incited by the Nor’Westers, the winters were hard, food was scarce and amenities almost non-existent. In spite of all the hardships more settlers continued to arrive in 1813 and 1814. While Selkirk was arranging for still more settlers to go out in 1815, some had already started to leave—many for Upper Canada where they had heard that there was free land available and life was easier. Even with only about 60 settlers left, the Nor’Westers campaign of terror continued. Those remaining finally gave up and hastily retreated as their crops were stampeded and their buildings set on fire.
However all was not lost. Another party arrived later to find the trampled crops had survived and had begun to flourish. Three men had remained and had saved the blacksmith shop and some stores. After the attackers left, they commenced rebuilding and encouraged those settlers who had fled to return.
Selkirk, on his way back to the settlement from England heard news of the destruction of the colony, gaining more details upon his arrival in Montreal in the late fall of 1815. At this time negotiations began in earnest to resolve the hostilities between the two companies (Hudson’s Bay and the North West Company) and the concept of amalgamation became a subject of discussion. But a solution was not achieved overnight and in fact, Selkirk did not live to see it.
Selkirk began making preparations for a large expedition to Red River in the spring of 1816 and tried to find military support for it—eventually working out a plan for about 90 men from the disbanded de Meuron Regiment to accompany him. These de Meurons were mostly Swiss and German mercenaries who were interested in settling in the new world. The men who agreed to go were to be paid for the westward journey and once there would have the choice of land or free passage to Europe.
Troubles at the settlement continued as the battles for control of the area continued. But by now the settlement was established and the resolve of the colonists to remain was apparent. Selkirk died in 1820 before the final amalgamation of the two companies. He left an estate heavily in debt and a settlement unfinished, but:
- “He had founded a city and staked out a province, the hinge on which Canada would one day swing open. This had not been mere chance, for he had always believed—when to others it was a foolish vision—that the prairies could provide food for millions. And he had seen his settlement as the bastion against American encroachment which it later became—Canada’s most tangible claim to the prairies it had long neglected.” (Gray 1963, 343)
The Lord Selkirk Fonds (R9790-0-8-E, formerly MG19-E1) can be accessed through <a href=selected=1.1">Library and Archives Canada</a> Enter the record number in the Search box and then click on the title ‘Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk Fonds’ to view the notes.
Regular censuses were taken of the Red River settlement from 1831 to 1846 and include “the Lower Settlement, Grantown, Saulteaux village and Swampy (Cree) village of the Red River settlement, District of Assiniboia. The returns list heads of families, as well as information on the age, religion and origin of the population, property, livestock and land cultivated.” These records are available through Library and Archives Canada on microfilm C-2170. A digitized image is available at the following <a href= LAC website page: </a>Census
The Manitoba Archives website <a href=Recorders of Community</a>: the Archival Legacy of the Red River Settlement Churches 1818-1870, uses photos, drawings, letters maps and stories to describe the church’s role in the settlement
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course <a href="http://www.genealogicalstudies.com/eng/courses.asp?courseID=314">Canadian: Immigration Records</a> offered by <a href="http://www.genealogicalstudies.com">The National Institute for Genealogical Studies</a>. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at <a href="mailto:email@example.com">firstname.lastname@example.org</a>
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