Saturday, May 10, 2008

Minnesota Statehood: Pembina's Role (Part I)

American Progress, by John Gast (1872)In that flourishing era in Minnesota's history between territorial status and statehood, Pembina played a leading role. Though separated from the southern part of the territory by a vast stretch of grassland, the little settlement was always of significance, for it was the natural gateway for all traffic between Rupert's Land and the United States. Through it passed countless travellers: British army officers en route to Fort Garry, Sisters of Charity going to Red River, American scientists seeking such things as a favourable site to observe an eclipse, explorers on their way to the Arctic, a host of English gentlemen bound for sport and adventure, and always the itinerant traders of St. Paul and the Red River Settlement. Pembina was a busy place; and since it was the gateway to the British Northwest, might not its proprietors also hold the "key" to the whole region?

During Minnesota's territorial days there was a keen interest in the commerce and lands of the Hudson's Bay Company and much of it revolved around the trading post and half-breed colony at Pembina. The trader, of course, was Kittson, but the moving spirit behind the colony itself was Father Belcourt, who had returned to the Northwest in 1848 in order to establish a chain of missionary stations below the 49th parallel. He planned to continue his efforts to transform the semi-nomadic, buffalo-hunting Métis into settled, agrarian folk. He hoped to attract them from both sides of the line to his missions and eventually to convert missions and Métis into colonies.

Belcourt selected Pembina as the centre of his missionary complex, a site that in 1849 was neither crowded nor charming. According to his tally, Pembina had a population of about 1,000; but if his census was not exaggerated, it was certainly misleading. In the eyes of one detached observer, Pembina did not even possess "...a collecion of huts, with the appearance of a village...," merely a few rustic dwellings scattered whimsically along the river banks, and the lodges and shanties of Pembina's floating population, the half-breeds and the Indians. With the exception of Kittson, his handful of assistants, and Belcourt, these nomads made up the colony's entire population. With the cluster of log huts at the forks, Kittson had the most prepossessing Demesne. Belcourt resided farther upstream in a comfortable two-storey house, flanked by a crude chapel and several outbuildings. To the south of these solitary evidences of civilization, there was nothing for hundreds of miles - "No houses, no cattle, no sheep, all wild as nature made it." (Speech given by Charles Cavilier, 10 Dec 1891, to a gathering of old settlers at Grand Forks. Cavilier was describing his impressions of Pembina when he first arrived there as its customs collector in 1851, Cavilier Papers...)

Despite Pembina's unpromising appearance, Father Belcourt predicted a great future for it. All that was needed to make it flourish was Washington's "Green thumb"; and, to secure the support of the federal government, the priest composed a most alluring prospectus. In it he claimed that since Pembina was the ancestral home of the Métis it would inevitably entice them away from Rupert's Land, charms: rich and arable land; a gateway to the buffalo grounds; salt springs, wood lots , and probably coal and iron too; thick grasslands ideal for cattle ranching; and a mild and salubrious climate. If the United States would only re-draw the 49th parallel to make it "incontestably American," keep out the British and their whisky, open up and sell the land, establish governmental institutions, and provide military protection, then Pembina's destiny would undoubtedly he assured. "Before three years shall have elapsed," the priest concluded, "if the Government of the United States...will extend its protecting hand to us, more than four thousand souls will soon embrace and enjoy the sweets of liberty..."

In his pursuit of federal aid, Belcourt was supported by many prominent Minnesotans. They favoured his design because it seemingly served so may of their territory's geopolitical interests. One of them suggested that, in the event of conflict with Britain, Belcourt's half-breeds "would form an invaluable defence to that exposed frontier..." Should war occur - asserted another - "a force would ever be found ready and sufficiently strong to carry the stars and stripes to York Factory and supplant the cross of St. George between the 49th parrallel and Hudson's [sic] Bay." And a third asked whether, without war's excuse, the people of Pembina "and the region they live in, [did not] present a case similar to that of Oregon Territory, in which the free gift of a quarter section of land to each person would be a judicious policy...?" These were heady speculations and the three men who made them (Henry H. Sibley, Henry M. Rice, and Alexander Ramsey) were destined to lead Minnesota through her territorial days, into statehood, and far beyond.

From: MINNESOTA and the Manifest Destiny of the CANADIAN NORTHWEST, by Alvin C. Gluek, Jr.