Robert Mackenzie.

America. A history



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The Hudson Bay Company entered with vigour upon this inviting field. They established a fort near the coast, and made it known among the Indians that they were prepared to trade. With as little delay as possible they pushed their settlement far into the interior. Scattered at great intervals across the continent arose the little trading-stations. They were composed of a few wooden huts, with a strong surrounding palisade or wall; with well-barred gates; with loop-holes, from which, in case of need, the uncertain clients of the Company could be controlled by musketry. These posts were ordinarily established near rivers, accessible to the savages by canoe or by sledge. Their loneliness was extreme. For hundreds of miles on every side stretched the dense forest or the boundless prairie, untrodden by man. At fixed seasons – once or twice in the year – the natives appeared, bearing the spoils of the chase – skins, oil, the tusk of the walrus, feathers, dried fish. Ordinarily the entire tribe come on this great mission. They encamp before the fort. An officer goes forth, and the gate is jealously barred behind him. Gifts are exchanged and speeches effusively affectionate and confiding. Within the fort are stores filled with wares, which the Company has brought from afar, – blankets, beads, scalping-knives, fish-hooks, muskets, ammunition, tea, sugar, red and yellow paints for purposes of personal adornment. These strange traders enter in groups of three or four, for they cannot be trusted in larger numbers. They deposit the articles which they offer; the Company’s servants put a value upon these, and hand over an equivalent, according to the choice of their customer. Money, until lately, would have been worthless to the Indian, and none was offered. At one time spirits were supplied, with frightful results in uproar and violence; but this evil practice has been discontinued or carefully restricted. When the negotiation is concluded, the Indians withdraw and resume their wanderings.

The Company supplied such government as the unpeopled continent required. They had many rivals in the lucrative commerce which they carried on, and it was often needful for them to defend by arms their coveted monopoly. The French strove during many years to drive out the English and possess the fur trade. French ships of war appeared in the bay; French soldiers attacked the posts of the Company. Scarcely had those angry debates been silenced by the victory of Wolfe, when a yet more formidable competition arose. 1784 A.D. Some enterprising Canadians founded a rival Company, and traded so prosperously that in a few years they had established numerous stations, and possessed themselves of much of the trade which had hitherto been enjoyed by the older Company. Perpetual strife raged between the servants of the rival institutions. Battles were fought; much blood was shed; the revenues of the Hudson Bay Company decayed; its rich dividends wholly ceased. 1816 A.D. At length a union of the Companies closed these wasteful feuds, and restored the almost forgotten era of prosperity.

For a century and a half from the formation of the Company there was no attempt to colonize the vast region over which its dominion extended.

The Englishmen and Scotchmen who occupied the trading-stations were the only civilized inhabitants of the North-West. The stations were in number about one hundred; the entire white population did not exceed one or two thousand. There were stations on the Mackenzie River, within the Arctic circle, where the cold was so intense that hatchets of ordinary temper shivered like glass at the first blow. There were stations on the Labrador coast, and twenty-five hundred miles away from these there were stations on the Pacific. The Company did not desire to carry civilization into this wilderness. The interests of the fur trade are not promoted by civilization. That industry cannot live within sound of the settler’s axe, or where the yellow corn waves in the soft winds of autumn. It prospers only where the silence of the forest is unbroken; where the fertile glebe lies undisturbed by the plough. The Company gave no encouragement to the coming in of human beings, in presence of whom the more profitable occupancy of beaver and bison and silver fox must cease. At length, and for the only time, the traditional policy was departed from. 1812 A.D. While the struggle with the rival Company still raged, Lord Selkirk, who was then chairman of the Hudson Bay Company, bethought him of sending out a number of Scotch Highlanders to found a permanent settlement, and thus give preponderance to the interests of which he was the guardian. At that time the Duke of Sutherland was in process of removing small farmers from his estates in Sutherlandshire, in order that he might give effect to modern ideas on the subject of sheep-farming. Lord Selkirk collected a band of these dispossessed Highlanders, and settled them in the solitudes of the Winnipeg valley. The point which he selected was near the confluence of the Red River and the Assiniboine, and forty miles from the lake into which these rivers fall. It was many hundred miles from a human habitation; this lonely colony was the only seat of population on all the northern portion of a vast continent. But the soil possessed remarkable fertility; and the Scotchmen were robust and industrious. Gradually they were joined by other adventurers to whom the severity of the climate was without terrors. Ejected Highland crofters, soldiers disbanded after Waterloo, sought in little groups this remote and dimly-known region. The retired servants of the Company came to spend the evening of their days in the settlement. A line of block houses and of cultivated farms stretched for many miles up the valleys of the Assiniboine and Red River. A cluster of wooden huts received the name of Winnipeg, and started upon its career as a prairie town at a rate of progress so leisurely that in 1871 it held no more than four hundred inhabitants. Fort Garry, the chief seat of the Company’s authority, added to the dignity of the colony, which soon became the recognized metropolis of all the north-western region. Its growth has not been rapid, but it has been steady; and the population, if we accept the mean of very diverse estimates, is probably now about fifteen thousand souls. These are largely Scotch; but there are also French and Indians, and there has been a copious admixture of the European and native races. There are Scotch half-breeds and French half-breeds, in whom the aspect and the qualities of both races are combined, and many of whom are not inferior in intelligence and education to their European parentage.

In course of years political government by trading companies became utterly discredited in England. The government of the East India Company had long been regarded with disapproval; after the great mutiny of 1857 occurred, it was felt to be intolerable. No voice of authority was raised in favour of its longer continuance, and the political functions of the Company were extinguished as inconsistent with the general welfare. The Hudson Bay Company was not more fortunate in its rule than the great sister Company had been. Latterly it had failed to maintain order among the scanty population over which it presided. Occasionally, when its officers pronounced an unacceptable sentence, the friends of the offender forced the prison-doors, and set the prisoner free. The Company was willing to be relieved from the burden of an authority which it was no longer able to exercise. The new Dominion of Canada desired to add to its possessions the vast domain of the Hudson Bay Company. 1869 A.D. A transfer which was sought for on both sides was not difficult to arrange. The Company received the sum of ?300,000 and certain portions of land around its trading-stations. All besides passed into the hands of the Canadian Government.

The authorities who negotiated this transaction seem to have thought mainly of the land, and very little of the people who dwelt upon it. The people now claimed to express themselves, and they did so by methods which were rude and inconvenient. The French and French half-breed population refused to concur in a transfer which they regarded as injurious to their rights. They were sensitive on the subject of their title to the properties which they occupied; and with reason, for many of them had no claim excepting that which occupancy may be supposed to confer. It was rumoured among them that their new rulers intended to eject them from their holdings; and the entrance upon the scene of various surveying-parties was accepted as evidence of this purpose. 1869 A.D. The excited people took up arms, and formed a provisional government. Their leader in the rebellion by which they hoped to throw off the authority of Canada and Great Britain, and establish themselves as an independent nation, was Louis Riel, an ambitious but reckless young French Canadian. Riel became President of the new Republic, and gathered an armed force of six hundred men to uphold the national dignity. He turned back at the frontier the newly-appointed Governor; he seized Fort Garry, in which were ample stores of arms and provisions; he imprisoned all who offered active opposition to his rule. The distant Canadian Government looked on at first as amused with this diminutive rebellion. They did not think of employing force to restore order; they sought the desired end by persuasion. The Roman Catholic archbishop of the district was then in Rome, occupied in solving the problem of papal infallibility. He was invited to desist from the absorbing pursuit; to return to the Red River and incline his erring flock to thoughts of peace. He made the sacrifice; he left Rome, and arrived in Canada. But while he was still toiling homewards across the snowy wilderness, events occurred which fatally complicated the position and rendered an amicable solution impossible.

A party of loyal inhabitants made a hasty and ill-prepared rising against the authority of the provisional government. They were easily beaten back by the superior forces under Riel’s command, and some of them were taken prisoners. Among these was a Canadian named Scott, who had distinguished himself by his obstinate hostility to the rule of the usurpers. Riel determined to overawe his enemies, and compel the adherence of his friends by an act of conspicuous and unpardonable severity. March, 1870 A.D. Poor Scott was subjected to the trial of a mock tribunal, whose judgment sent him to death. An hour later he was led forth beyond the gate of the fort. Kneeling, with bandaged eyes, among the snow, he was shot by a firing-party of intoxicated half-breeds almost before he had time to realize the cruel fate which had befallen him.

This shameful murder invested the Red River rebellion with a gravity of aspect which it had not hitherto worn. There arose in Canada a vehement demand that the criminals should be punished and the royal authority restored. The despatch of a military force sufficiently strong to overbear the resistance of the insurgent Frenchmen was at once resolved upon.

Unusual difficulty attended this enterprise. Fort Garry was twelve hundred miles distant from Toronto. One-half of this distance could be accomplished easily by railway and by steam-boat; but beyond the northern extremity of Lake Superior there were six hundred miles of dense and pathless forest traversed by a chain of rivers and of lakes. On these waters, broken by dangerous rapids and impassable falls, no vessel but the light birch canoe of the Indian had ever floated. By this seemingly impracticable route it was now proposed that an army carrying with it the elaborate equipment of modern war should make its way to the valley of the Winnipeg.

Happily there was at that time in Canada an officer endowed with rare power in the department of military organization. To this officer, now well known as Sir Garnet Wolseley, was intrusted the task of preparing and commanding the expedition. No laurels were gained by the forces which Colonel Wolseley led out into the wilderness; for the enemy did not abide their coming, and their modest achievements were unnoticed amid the absorbing interest with which men watched the tremendous occurrences of the war then raging between Germany and France. Nevertheless the Red River expedition claims an eminent place in the record of military transactions. It is probably the solitary example of an army advancing by a lengthened and almost impracticable route, accomplishing its task, and returning home without the loss of a single life either in battle or by disease. And the wise forethought which provided so effectively for all the exigencies of that unknown journey is more admirable than the generalship which has sufficed to gain bloody victories in many of our recent wars.

May 21, 1870 A.D. In little more than two months from the commission of the crime which it went to avenge, the army set forth. It was composed of twelve hundred fighting men, of whom two-thirds were Canadian volunteers, and the remainder British regulars. Two hundred boats, a few pieces of light artillery, and provisions for sixty days, formed part of its equipment. The expedition passed easily along Lake Huron and Lake Superior, and disembarked in Thunder Bay. From this point to the little Lake Shebandowan was a distance of fifty miles. There was a half-formed road for part of the way, and a river scarcely navigable. So toilsome was this stage of the journey that six weeks passed before those fifty miles were traversed. At length the boats floated on the tranquil waters of Lake Shebandowan. In an evening of rare loveliness the fleet moved from the place of embarkation, and the forest rung to the rejoicing cheers of the rowers.

Thus far the troops had been toiling up steep ascents. Now they had reached the high land forming the water-shed, from which some streams depart for Hudson Bay, others for Lake Superior and the St. Lawrence. For many days their route led them along a chain of small lakes, on which they rowed easily and pleasantly. But at the transition from lake to lake, there ordinarily presented itself a portage – a name of fear to the soldiers. At the portage all disembarked. The innumerable barrels which held their supplies, the artillery, the ammunition, the boats themselves, were taken on shore, and carried on men’s shoulders or dragged across the land which divided them from the next lake. Forty-seven times during the progress to Lake Winnipeg was this heavy labour undergone. But in the face of all difficulties the progress was rapid. The health of the men was perfect, their spirits were high, and their carrying power so increased by exercise that they were soon able to carry double the load which they could have faced at the outset. No spirituous liquors were served out, and perfect order reigned in the camp. The heat was often oppressive; the attacks of mosquitoes and similar insects were intolerable. But the forethought of the general had provided for each man a veil which protected his face, and each boat carried a jar of mosquito oil to fortify the hands. In the early days of August the boats passed along Rainy Lake, a beautiful sheet of water fifty miles in length, and entered the river of the same name. Rainy River is a noble stream, eighty miles in length, and three to four hundred yards in width. The scenery through which it flows is of great beauty. Oak-trees of large growth, open glades stretching far into the forest, luxuriant grass, flowers in endless variety and rich profusion, all suggested to the men the parks which surround great houses in England. Helped by the current, Rainy River was traversed at the rate of five or six miles an hour, and the expedition reached the Lake of the Woods. Issuing thence, it entered the Winnipeg River.

Here the difficulties of the expedition thickened. The Winnipeg is a magnificent stream, one hundred and sixty-three miles in length – broad and deep, flowing with a rapid current, often between lofty cliffs of granite. In its course, however, there are numerous falls in which boats cannot live. Twenty-five times the stores were unshipped, and the boats drawn on shore. Frequent rapids occurred, down which the boats were guided, not without danger, by the skilful hands of the Indian boatmen. No loss was sustained, and after five days of this toilsome and exciting work the boats entered Lake Winnipeg. For one day they steered across the south-eastern portion of the lake; for one day more they held their course up Red River. They left their boats at two miles’ distance from Fort Garry, and under rain falling in torrents, and by roads ankle-deep with tenacious mud, they advanced to seek the enemy.

Colonel Wolseley had used precautions to prevent any knowledge of his approach from being carried to the fort. He was unable to learn what Riel intended to do, and the men marched forward in the eager hope that the enemy would abide their coming. As they neared the fort, the gates were seen to be shut, and cannon looked out from the bastions and over the gateways. But on a closer view it was noticed that no men were beside the guns, and the hopes of the assailants fell. A moment later, and the fort was known to be abandoned; men were seen at a little distance in rapid flight. Riel, it appeared, had meditated resistance, if he could induce his followers to fight. He had been able to build some hope, too, upon the six hundred miles of almost impassable country which lay between him and Lake Superior. Aug. 24, 1870 A.D. Soothing his anxieties by this dream, the President of the Red River Republic breakfasted tranquilly on this closing day of his career. But just as his repast was ended there were seen from the windows of the fort, at a distance of a few hundred yards, and marching with swift step towards him, the twelve hundred men who had come so far to accomplish his overthrow. The blood of Scott was upon his guilty hands. The wretched man saddled a horse and galloped for life; and the victors did not seek to interrupt his flight. The Red River rebellion was suppressed, and British authority was restored in the valley of the Winnipeg.

Until very recently the vast wheat-field of the North-West was almost worthless to man; even now its development has only begun. It is difficult to over-estimate the influence on the future course of human affairs which this lonely and inaccessible region is destined to exert. In the valleys of Lake Winnipeg and its tributary streams two hundred million acres of land, unsurpassed in fertility, wait the coming of the husbandman. Its average production of wheat may be stated at thirty bushels per acre – more than double that of the valley of the Mississippi, and rather more than can be gained from the soil of England by careful and expensive cultivation.2121
  With careful husbandry much better results are obtained. A yield of forty to fifty bushels is common, and a prize was recently awarded to a farmer whose land yielded one hundred and five bushels!


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Great Britain imports annually one hundred million bushels of wheat – scarcely more than one-sixtieth part of the production of the Winnipeg valley were its enormous capability fully drawn out. The soil is of surpassing richness, and yields its ample fruits so easily that in an ordinary season the cost of producing a quarter of wheat is on an average no more than thirteen shillings. Port Nelson on the Hudson Bay – the natural shipping point of all this region – is eighty miles nearer than New York is to Liverpool and the markets of England.

The valley of the Winnipeg has been hitherto practically inaccessible. The Red River expedition spent three months on the journey. Many of the settlers had required even longer time to reach the secluded paradise which they sought. To a vast majority of the British people the existence of this territory is still unknown. The boats of the Hudson Bay Company formed its only medium of communication with the outside world. Until the Winnipeg valley has been opened by railway or by steam-boat, it must remain valueless for any better use than as a preserve for the wild creatures which yield fur, and as a home for the Indians who pursue them.

But the needful facility of transport is now being gained; the distance which has shut out the human family from this splendid domain is now in course of being abridged. Winnipeg, now grown into a town of about twelve thousand inhabitants, and rapidly increasing, has a direct railway connection with St. Paul, the chief city of Minnesota. The Northern Pacific – a line whose progress was delayed for years by financial disaster – is now advancing westward from its starting-point on Lake Superior, and will soon be opened through to the western ocean. The Canadian Pacific, largely subsidized by Government, is pushing its way westward towards Columbia and the ocean. The obstacles to navigation in the Nelson river have been carefully examined with a view to their removal, so that vessels of large size may pass from Lake Winnipeg to Europe.



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