NEWLY discovered letters that help chronicle the life of a Scottish settlement in 19th century Canada have been released to mark the territory’s 200th anniversary.
Founded in 1812 by the Earl of Selkirk for those displaced during the Highland Clearances, the Red River settlement in Manitoba grew to become the city of Winnipeg.
Documents found within the past two weeks in archives held by the National Records of Scotland (NRS) shed new light on what life was like for the settlers and provide a first-hand account of the Battle of Seven Oaks, which took place between rival fur trading companies.
One of the letters is a refusal by Lord Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty, to provide a naval escort for the settlers as they crossed the Atlantic in 1812.
The document is part of a collection of papers bought from the Melville family for £1.35 million this year after being on loan to the NRS since 1951.
The other letter, part of the Dalhousie collection acquired for the nation at the cost of £1.6m in 2007, is an account of the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816, which took place between Lord Selkirk’s Hudson Bay Company and its rival, the North West Company.
Among those fighting against Selkirk were the Metis, an aboriginal people referred to in the letter as “half breeds”, a term now considered offensive.
George MacKenzie, keeper of the Records of Scotland, said: “These letters confirm the importance of the Dalhousie and Melville archives to the national collections, and to the history of the Scottish influence on Canada and the wider world.
“The account of events at Red River in 1816, written by one of Selkirk’s enemies, contains fascinating details and shows how records can connect us directly to the controversies and emotions of the past. It is also remarkable because many of those involved in this story of Canada’s modern development were Scots.”
Mounted copies of the letters are being presented to the lieutenant governor of Manitoba by former MSP James Douglas-Hamilton, the Baron Selkirk of Douglas, who is currently visiting Canada to participate in the 200th anniversary celebrations.
Culture secretary Fiona Hyslop said: “For generations Scots have ventured to Canada’s shores, playing an enormous part in building and making Canada what it is today. The settlement at Red River shaped the history of both our nations and its bicentenary is a significant milestone in our shared culture and heritage.”
Professor Harry Duckworth, a past president of the Manitoba Historical Society and one of the organisers of the bicentenary events, said: “These documents have an important role to play in deepening our understanding of that time.”
‘Four officers and 19 men were dead on the spot’
Accounts of this Catastrophe having reached Ld. Selkirk on his way to the red river, accompanied by about 150 Soldiers who had lately been disbanded from the Regt. De Meuron, all well armed, & having 10 or 12 pieces of Cannon; it was thought by Mr. McGillivray (who was then in latter end of July at our Depot called Fort William at the West end of Lake Superior) that his Lordship intended to build and fortify a Port likewise on the borders of Lake Superior; but instead of this, his L dship on arrival at Fort William sent a person with a Warrant from himself as a Magistrate for the Indian Territory, who apprehended Mr. McGillivray in the Fort, with all such Partners then in the Fort as might be useful in carrying on the business.
Mr. McG. & these Gentlemen having quietly submitted to legal proceedings, tho’ put in force for selfish purposes, Lord Selkirk with his foreign Soldiers took possession of the Depot of Fort William, & in a couple of days sent down Mr. McG. & the other Gentlemen as Prisoners, likewise all the other partners & Clerks there, as Witnesses, and by means of those forces his Ld.ship has retained possession of the Depot, containing furs, which he wd. not permit to be removed, to the amount of £50,000 Sterg. likewise Goods & Provisions to the amount of £60,000 more, turning all those of our Servants & Clerks out of doors who would not enter his service, in short acting as if the whole place & property were his own, tho’ it is situated 800 miles from the nearest limits of the Hudson’s Bay territory.
Mr. McG. & those who came down with him, have been bailed over to March next, when they are to be tried “for aiding & abetting the Indians & half breeds” who in their own defence killed several people, more than a thousand miles from where those Gent. were at the time this unfortunate rencontre took place.
A petition has been presented to the Govr. General praying redress &ca either thro’ him or thro’ the Govr. in Upper Canada. Something is ordered by Sir John in the premises, what it is I know not, but on the faith of it, a party of our people have lately proceeded to the falls of St. Marys, there to wait orders from York the capital of Upper Canada.
I have now given you a sketch of the occurrence of last Summer. It is impossible for me to guess how this serious matter will terminate. We have every reason to expect legal redress, which is all we want; had we not acted on this principle His Lordship & his foreign Robbers would have been ill off ere now.
• By Angus Shaw, one of the Proprietors in N. West Co. to James Fraser Esqr. at Halifax.
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