Listen to the Podcast

Podcast Episode 24 – Red River Downfall

Today’s episode is about the Selkirk Settlers -A group of Scottish Highlanders who arrived at the fork of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers in Manitoba, led by Lord Selkirk and his promises of abundant fertile farming land. Though promises were not kept, food was scarce and climate unbearable. As tension between rival trading companies escalate, and battles commence, keep listening to find out how these settlers escaped the Red River Settlement and ended up in the Talbot Settlement. 

Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, was born June 20th 1771 in St. Mary’s Isle, Scotland. He passed away from consumption April 8th, 1820 in Pau, France, trying to reach better climate. He was the youngest son in a large family. In 1799, he unexpectedly succeeded to the Scottish earldom when his father passed away. All his elder brothers had passed away, therefore giving him the title of Earl. Lord Selkirk believed that the Highland people’s troubles could be alleviated by moving away from Scotland. He decided to sponsor displaced Highlanders and set out to settle them in North America. Though Selkirk was very motivated by personal gain. In 1803, Selkirk travelled to Canada to establish a settlement of 800 Highlanders on Prince Edward Island. In the year 1806 he was elected as 1 of 16 other Scottish peers to the House of Lords. By 1807, he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Kirkcudbright. More than less successful in politics and public life, Selkirk decided to focus on his emigration of Highlanders. In 1810-1811, Selkirk, convincing his family as well, invested in Hudson’s Bay Company subsequently gaining control of the company. He received a large land grant of 300,000 square km in Assiniboia (now Manitoba), land which would become Red River Settlement. By the summer of 1811 Selkirk brought in Irish and Scotch colonists who reached the destination by 1812. In the years after, more colonists would follow. 

Before the settlement, the intersection of Red River and Assiniboine River was a rendezvous location for fur traders, previous to that Assiniboine or Nakoda people-controlled access to the rivers. The area was also home to Ojibwe peoples, Cree traders, and Metis buffalo hunters. Not one of the peoples in the area previous to Selkirks settlers were consulted about the Lords plans on settling Scottish immigrants at the forks. 

The North West and Hudson’s Bay Company’s play very integral roles in this story. Let’s take a quick look into both of these companies. The North West Company was founded in 1779 and was a major fur trading company from the late 1700s to early 1800s. The NWC was managed mainly by Scottish Highlanders who had migrated to Montreal in the 1760s or who immigrated as loyalists escaping from the American Revolution. At the time, the company had critical provisioning routes that went through the settlement of Red River. The Hudson’s Bay Company was formed May 2nd, 1670 in England. Their objective was to discover a passage way through to the Pacific and to inhabit lands near the Hudson’s Bay. Land was granted to the company though the lines were never fully defined. It is understood that today those lands were from Labrador to the Rocky Mountains, and Red River to Chesterfield beside the Bay. The land that the company occupied became known as Rupert’s Land after Prince Rupert, cousin to King Charles II. During the first 200 years the company was involved in fur trade. For years the NWC and HBC had been involved in a resentful rivalry. That came to an end in 1821 when British Government brought a union under the name and charter on the HBC.  

 The area of the Red River Settlement was populated by the HBC, NWC, Metis, and the Settlers of Selkirk. The fur traders and natives depended heavily on the use of pemmican to survive during their trips. Not only was food scarce from the traders but now they had hundreds of Scottish settlers trying to build agriculture in lands in which the job was nearly impossible. Pemmican is a dried meat traditionally made from bison. Caribou, moose, or venison would have been used as well depending on what they were able to catch. The meat is pounded into a powder and mixed with an equal amount of animal fat. Saskatoon berries, currants, cherries, or any dried fruit, were added to the dried meat. Pemmican was extremely dense and could be stored easily, therefore it was used as provisions for fur traders, especially in the winter when food was scarce in the prairies. Not only was the food easily stored and shipped but it was very high in protein and energy. This meant that every person in the area depended heavily on it to survive. 

By the winter of 1812 and 1813, the Red River settlers began to starve. Moving south to the intersection of Pembina and Red River, where the source for buffalo was greater and the climate favorable. Because of the scarcity of food, now the settlers relied heavily on the pemmican given to them from the Metis and NWC. To assure food would be in supply, the Governor of the Red River settlement issued a pemmican proclamation which prohibited the exportation of the dried meat and other provisions out of the colony. Since the Hudson’s Bay Company worked closely with Lord Selkirk, their rivals the Nor-Westers and Metis, who provided the NWC with pemmican, saw this manifesto as a scheme to control all food stuffs and choke out the NW. The company used the pemmican as a vital source of nourishment for their voyageurs travelling on boat brigades outside of the territory. The governor’s plan however did not work as by 1815-16 pemmican was in short supply for everyone, the Selkirks settlers being a big reason for this. 

 History states that rivals to the Hudson’s Bay Company, the North West Company, induced colonists to desert in 1815. The Hudson’s Bay Company restored the settlement but the Nor Westers broke up the colony again during the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816. The Battle of Seven Oaks took place June 19 1816. Caused by the Pemmican Proclamation issued by Miles Macdonell the Governor of Red River, as well as the disputes between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company. A group of 60 Metis and first nations men were delivering pemmican to the NWC’s canoe brigades on Lake Winnipeg. At Seven Oaks, the men were met by the Governor of HBC, Robert Semple and approx. 28 men who were employees and officers of the company. The confrontation resulted in hand-to-hand combat and gunfire, leaving Semple and 20 men dead for the HBCs side, and 1 dead 1 injured on the Metis side. Lord Selkirk arrived in Canada to supervise in person. On his way in 1816, Selkirk along with disbanded Swiss soldiers learned of the death of Gov. Robert Semple and the colonists at Seven Oaks. He quickly overtook the NWC’s depot at Fort WIlliam. Afterwards the colony survived without attacks from the Nor Westers. The Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company later merged in 1821. In historical documentation of firsthand accounts that we have at Backus-Page House Museum, some occurrences history states, show conflicting information.  

The account you are about to hear is that of Donald Gunn, son of Angus Gunn known as the “ringleader among the deserters of the Red River Settlement” Here are some things to note before we begin; Caithness is in extreme northern Scotland. On the back of page 1 it says “Lord of the North Agnes Laut”.  And last but not least, Kildman is a parish in Scotland. 

Well known in Elgin County is the little village of Wallacetown, in pioneer days a commercial centre, but the iron horse has shied clear of its environs and now it is merely a small residential centre, with but me relic of former days, one yearly excitement, what the Elgin people call “The World’s Fair” a favourite resort in the whole country from early days. Here, with his daughter, Donald A Gunn is spending his declining years. Now in his eighty-sixth year, the physical strength of manhood’s prime is no longer his, but his mind is still active, and he has reached the time when memory is fond of leaping back over a chasm of years and telling the tales of long ago. 

Born in Elgin County, he knows of the time when the settlers one first rang through the grand primeval forests of Southwestern Ontario, but it was not of that we talked the four hours I spent with him, but of the tales of his father and grandfather a story of 1813, that shifts it’s scenes from the barren county of Sutherlandshire, Scotland to the bleak shores of Hudson Bay, thence in the forks of the Red River and Assiniboine, the site of the Canadian Kildman, near Winnipeg, and has its final setting on the shores of Lake Erie. Through all the scenes Donald’s Gunn’s father and mother, grandfather and grandmother, relatives and early neighbours in Elgin passed unscathed and he tells the story as he got it from them in childhood as they sat and related their experiences before the blazing logs in the pioneer fireplace in Elgin. 

(Begg and Bryce historians of the heart) 

Ninety –three is the number given by Bryce as belonging to the emeigration. 

“Donald all these he from Kildman?” I asked Donald Gunn 

“I think not,” he said. “Kildman was but a parish; besides there were Irish and Argyle men in board I know.” 

“Why did these people leave?” was my next query “Was it at the time of the Highland Evictions when ‘one hundred smokes went up one chimney?” 

“No” is the reply very emphatically; “it was the next year the English shepherds came and the crofters were driven to the north to the shires of Caithness.   

Western historians have given the impression that the emigration of 1813 was on that account but Donald Gunn says there was a later expedition from Kildman (likely that of 1815) composed of people driven out by the Highland Evictions, some of whom later on found their way to the shores of Lake Erie, among them that Macbeths ancestors of the London Macbeths, a different race of Macbeths from those who came out in 1813. The Dukes of Sutherland were never well bred gentlemen, Donald Gunn asserts, always absentee landlords away home in England, serving Scotland only in hunting expeditions. 

“The people of Kildman were an honourable clan, never a law court was needed among them, nor for forty years after they settled in Elgin”, says Donald Gunn. My grandfather Donald Gunn was seventy six when he left Scotland. He had nine children. One, Benjamin, started a little before the others, going out in the employ of the Hudson Bay Company in one of their ships. It outstripped the colonist ship on the voyage to Hudson Bay, and Benjamin Gunn passed on to his port and his family never saw him again for fourteen years. Another Aleck, had enlisted as a soldier when seventeen, and was present at the taking of the Cape of Good Hope. They came for the eldest son William, to enlist, and the law at the time was that if the eldest was able and refused when asked, his people would be put off the estate. William refused to go, saying that perhaps the sooner they left the estate the better. Just then a younger boy, Aleck, stepped in and offered to go, and his offer being accepted the lad of seventeen went off to the war. 

Such is Donald Gunn’s pathetic string of those days. On top of centuries of oppression the last straws were being laid and the burden could not be much longer borne. 

It was to these people that Lord Selkirk and his agents came with stories of a better land, where landlords held no sway. Small wonder that he found them ready listeners, less marvel that much as they loved the Highland glens of their forefathers, they prepared to embark in what looked like a wild adventure. So they set out from their own seaport Dornoch. 

“Western historians say they set out from Stornoway,” I said to Donald Gunn at this point. 

‘Well, now” was the quick reply, “what would they be doing away off at Stornoway.  The ships came for them at Dornoch. 

Among the Kildman people who embarked were Donald Gunn, aged seventy-six, his wife and seven children, one of them Angus Gunn (of whom we will talk hereafter), being twenty-four years old and married.  Then there were Matthewsons, Macbeths, Bannermans, Sutherlands and others. 

The vessel set sail June 5 and was stalled at Fort Churchill Hudson Bay, in August, after a voyage of ten weeks or three months. The emigrant ship had a convoy with it that kept darting hither and thither for the sea was infested with pirates. 

Their story here is a sad one. Western historians say that fever broke out on the ship during the voyage, but the Elgin people relate that in the middle of Hudson Bay the ship became very ice-bound. While there the Eskimos came along in their little boats with oil for shipment back to Scotland. This oil smelled very badly and afterwards the sailors and passengers went down with a force. There was no fever before this. Among those of the passengers who died was Catherine Gunn. On the sands of Fort Churchill she lies buried. The sailors who took the fever and were not expected in recover were laid on the rocks in the hot sun at the Fort to die, the flies swarming think upon them. Small wonder that passing through such scenes as this the settler’s faith in Lord Selkirk dropped below zero. History has vindicated Lord Selkirk’s good intentions and given him for credit for a wonderful work, but some of the struggles through which our settlers passed would indicate that the agents were ill-chosen, or there was gross miscalculation as to the difficulties of the undertaking. 

Their ship the Prince of Wales was escorted by the HMS Erebus. The Erebus was sailing behind with their belongings and suppose to arrive the next day. But the ship mysteriously disappeared in the night. Gunn finds very little sense in that and questioned the story of it sinking. An interesting fact is that the Prince of Wales vessel was involved in the tragic expedition of Sir Franklins voyage to the Arctic. 

The HMS Erebus and its sister ship Terror embarked on their journey to find the “open polar sea” which was a theoretical shortcut through the Arctic to the Pacific Ocean. The vessels set out from England in May of 1845, with 129 men on board to explore the uncharted territory. Supplies, enough food for 3 years, and explorers were split up between the two boats, with the thought of knowing one ship could get stuck easily. Sir John Franklin aged 59, and Francis Crozier aged 51, were captains of the HMS Erebus and Terror. On one of Franklin’s previous voyages to Northern Canada he returned with only 9 of the 20 men on board. Rumors from the survivors swirled telling of murder and cannibalism. The trip was doomed from the start. As it was discovered that the tin’s on board weren’t properly sealed and leaked lead over the rations. When nobody had heard of the expedition for about 2 years, the government put out a reward to anyone who could find the crew for 20,000 pounds. Many ships sailing in search of HMS Erebus and Terror became lodged in the ice as well. Though luckily for these men they were able to survive and reach safety. In the following years, explorers, traders, and Inuit peoples found bodies frozen into the ice. Telling stories of Europeans who were cold, starved, and resorted to cannibalism to try to survive. Captain Dannet of the Prince of Wales, was the last to see the Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin. On the 26th of July 1845, the ship was at 74°48′N 66°13′W what’s now Lancaster Sound, Baffin Bay, and saw HMS Erebus and Terror lodged in an iceberg. A few years later on the 12th of June 1849, the Prince of Wales sank in Davis Strait after being crushed by ice. Fortunately, the crew took to boats and survived later reaching the Orkney Islands. 

At Fort Churchill, the thermometer rating 55o below zero. Angus Gunn’s – child was born afterward – McIntyre, mother of Mrs. A.M. McIntyre, banker, Dutton.   

(Winter Journey Fort Churchill to Fort York journey) 

Bryce says in his history that about the middle of April the strongest of the party set out for the Red River where they arrived near the end of June and were able to plant a few potatoes. 

“How could they go before the snow went?” said Donald Gunn when I read that to him. “They went together when the snow was gone.” 

However, our party of men, women and children arrived safely at Red River, where further hardships awaited them. It is said that the way they lived for weeks on catfish, without any salt, until at last one of the children remarked it was like eating wool. 

(History of Hudson Bay Company and the Nor Westers) 

Such was the state of affairs when our party arrived at the Red River in 1814. Immediately on their arrival our colonists were put into possession of land, one hundred acres for each family, western historians say, but Donald Gunn shook his head at this statement and said he did not think it was that much. The farms were narrow, reaching along the river front and extending back a mile or so. The lots were at first ten chains wide; then, later on, the Hudson Bay Company changed them to eight chains, then six, making them at least two miles long instead of one mile. 

None of the promises Lord Selkirk had made to them had been kept. There were no implements to till the soil, nor was there a sufficiency of food to be had, but they struggled bravely on until the spring of 1815. 

(Plot of Northwest Company to break up the Selkirk Colony) 

And now we come again to the part where Elgin people have more to say than western historians and do not always agree with them. 

The story of the Elgin people is as follows:  The Kildman people became disheartened and dissatisfied and made up their mind to leave. 

“Was it the Nor Westers put it into their heads to go to Lake Erie?” I asked Donald Gunn. 

“No”, he said “they heard of the place and of Colonel Talbot’s Settlement away back in Scotland.” 

The Hudson Bay Company had opposed their leaving and the Nor Westers helped them out. For the safety of those who were leaving, the young men went into the Hudson Bay Fort and threw all their guns into the river. The late Angus C Gunn of Dunwich also died in Elgin, December 29, 1879, went into the fort to throw the guns into the river and followed by a half-breed with a gun to shoot. Angus Gunn who was strong as he was brave pulled the gun out of the half-breeds hand, threw it into the river, and pitched him out the window.  The settlers had their boats on the river with all their little effects-beforehand. The Nor Westers guarded them out of danger and some French traders accompanied them as far as Fort William. 

So they set sail in the bark canoes by lake and river by way of Lake Of the Woods.  The journey as far as Fort William with six weeks or more and a halt was made there for a rest of two or three days. Angus Gunn made money by cutting hay for a British half-pay officer. 

(Route – Lake Superior, Georgian Bay, Lake Simcoe) 

Many of the settlers decided to locate in the township of Gwillimbury. Some of the Gunns went on to Toronto. 

At Little York, as it was called then, they came up for examination for the high-handed doings on the Red River, word having been sent on before. A military officer, who happened to be there from Red River, was asked what kind of people they were, and he replied that they were honest, brave people and you could trust your life with them. 

In 1817, after working around Little York for two years, the Gunns came to the shores of Lake Erie and the township of Dunwich. 

Probably about the year 1826, Benjamin Gunn came down from Red River.  The descendants of the Red River colonists are now very numerous. I made an attempt with Donald Gunn to count them but got hopelessly mixed, and gave up the attempt when the count got too numerous. They are, and will maybe proud of their ancestry. 

These settlers travelled great distances in extremely harsh conditions, all to finally find a land to call their home. Many Selkirk settlers have since abandoned the Talbot Settlement and the efforts to trace the descendants have been unsuccessful.” 

Many of the Selkirk settlers had active roles in the community, especially what became known as Coyne’s Corners. In a memorandum book of Colonel Talbot’s, James Coyne cites the names Bannerman, Gunn, and Matheson listed with a footnote suggesting that they are most likely the first applicants for land on the Talbot Road West. The Gunn family and their descendants have been integral parts of their community for countless years. Angus Gunn played an important role in the beginning of a school, which was located on multiple sites: George Gunn’s farm, and property owned by Henry Coyne. Angus was also appointed to a committee by the government to examine teachers. In the small town of Wallacetown in which Backus-Page House is just South of, a little road sits. That road is Gunn Street, named for the family that helped build the community since their arrival in 1817. We hope you enjoyed tune in next time for another episode in our series Life in the Talbot Settlement.