Friday, July 25, 2008

Refuge: Pembina & the Selkirk Settlers

The winter had been unusually severe, having begun earlier and continued later than usual. The snows averaged three feet deep, and in the woods, from four to five feet. The cold was intense, being often 45° below zero; the ice measured five feet seven inches in thickness. Not-withstanding all this, the colonists felt no dread till the spring was far advanced, when the flow of water, from the melting of the accumulated snow, became really alarming. On the 2nd of May, the day before the ice started, the water rose nine feet perpendicular in the twenty-four hours! Such a rise had never before been noticed in Red River. Even the Indians were startled, and as they stared with a bewildering gaze, put their hands to their mouths, exclaiming, "Yea ho! yea ho!" an expression of surprise, "What does this mean? What does this mean?"

From The Red River Settlement, by Alexander Ross (1856) - [Note: I highly recommend anyone reading this to click on the link here to this excerpt - it makes extremely fascinating reading...]
Lest it might be supposed that the sympathies of the present writer would lead him to picture too highly the struggles of the colonists, let us hear what Begg, a recent writer, in his "History of the North-West," says at this point: "Instead of finding a thriving settlement they found only ruins; but, worse than all, there was no food to feed them, and they had to continue their journey, in company with those who had returned from Jack River, in cold and snow to Pembina, 70 miles farther. Here they set to work to erect rude huts to shelter themselves, but in a month or so they had to leave these temporary houses and journey to the plains in the hope of securing food, there being a scarcity of provisions at Pembina, and no means of procuring any near that place. These unfortunate people had to journey a distance of 150 miles, and as they were ill-provided with suitable clothes to protect their persons from the cold they suffered dreadfully. Meeting with a party of hunters they remained with them during the rest of the winter, performing such work as they were capable of doing, in return for which they were fed and sheltered till spring, when they returned to Pembina, and from thence descended the Red River to Fort Douglas. They then began to cultivate the soil, and everything seemed propitious to their becoming comfortably settled in their new home, when, on the 19th of. June, 1816, an event happened which once more brought desolation to the colony."

That event was a collision between armed forces of the Hudson’s Bay and NorthWest companies at Seven Oaks, in Kildonan. The actual collision was partly the result of an accident, but it ended in the killing of Governor Semple, of the former company, and the killing or wounding of twenty-one out of twenty-seven men who accompanied him. This gave the North-West Company for a time the upper hand, and the colonists had to abandon their homes once more, and go out to Jack River, where they suffered great hardships during the winter. Next spring, however, the tables were turned, and the Hudson’s Bay Company got control, Lord Selkirk, on his way back from Montreal with his hired De Meuron soldiers, capturing Fort William and afterwards Fort Douglas from his rivals. Things had become so bad between these companies that the Imperial Government interfered by commissioners, and the settlers once more returned to their holdings. Law-suits innumerable ensued between the two companies until after the death of Lord Selkirk (who had always steadfastly opposed union), when a coalition was formed, the Hudson’s Bay Company ultimately absorbing the others and continuing unto this day. During all this fighting between the rival companies the colonists endured constant hardships, and experienced one set-back after another.

The historian before quoted tells us that "in the winter of 1817 they were forced to go again to Pembina owing to scarcity of food, but on their return to the settlement in the spring managed to sow a considerable area of land with wheat, etc. The summer was favorable, and the fields soon assumed a promising appearance, but on the 18th of July, 1818, the sky suddenly became darkened by clouds of grasshoppers, and as they descended on the earth in dense swarms they destroyed every green thing before them. The settlers managed to save a little grain, but not a vegetable was left in the gardens." It seemed as if everything was going against them and once more they went for refuge to Pembina during the winter. In the spring of 1819 they returned and sowed again, but the young grasshoppers in swarms began to appear, and devoured everything on the fields and plains. Again they were forced to go to Pembina, and so continued the struggle, subsisting on the products of the chase, until three years afterwards, when they gained sufficient from their fields to keep them from fear of starvation. This was in 1822, or about ten years after the first of them had arrived in the country. Things went fairly well to the year 1826, when a winter of great severity and unusual depth of snow led to great distress in the country. The plain hunters, who depended nearly altogether on the buffalo for food supply, were the chief sufferers, for the storms drove the buffalo beyond reach and killed the horses of the hunters. The settlers did all they could to relieve their brethren on the plains, but in the spring they themselves suffered the severest loss in their history. The sudden thaw of the great snow and ice accumulation caused the Red River to overflow its banks and become a raging torrent of wide extent. The settlers barely escaped with their lives and some of their stock, but their houses and stables were swept away in total wreckage into Lake Winnipeg. Yet, when the flood went down, these undaunted men came back and began all over again; and though we have had floods and grasshoppers, and civil disturbances, since that time the colony was never again uprooted. When we read over this hurried history of disastrous years, we feel that the most sympathetic and vivid imagination cannot conceive the sufferings these settlers endured, and we know that those who passed through the experience found no language adequate to the task of describing it. In my father’s closing years he was often visited by tourists from the Old Country, seeking information as to the early days, and I recall the attempts he made to depict the scenes, concerning which he could say, with the hero of Virgil, "Quorum magna pars fui." I can see him yet, a strongly-built, massive figure, in the old wooden chair, on the arm of which he brought down his hand now and again to give Celtic emphasis, to his words. I can hear the story flow on till he felt the inadequacy of language as recollections rushed upon him, and then he would stop short, saying, "It’s no use talking, gentlemen, I can’t tell you half of it; but I will say one thing, and that is that no people in the world but the Scotch could have done it," and the last party of Englishmen that came to the old farm-house, seeing his earnestness, applauded him with unselfish enthusiasm. Whether my father was unduly partial to his own race or not may be a matter of opinion, but there can be no two opinions as to the difficulties these colonists triumphantly battled with, and if you seek their monument, look around you on the religious and educational as well as the material greatness of the North-West.

From The Selkirk Settlers in Real Life, by Rev. R.C. MacBeth, M.A.