Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

Red River Settlement

For two years the war of 1812, as it was called, went on. From beginning to end it was a wicked, useless war, thrust upon an unwilling people. And when at last peace came, neither side seemed to have gained anything. The boundary lines were hardly changed, and in the treaty of peace, the pretended causes of the war were not even mentioned.

But Canada did really gain something. The population of Canada was now very mixed. There were French Canadians, United Empire Loyalists, English, Scottish and Irish settlers, and they had often been jealous of each other, and had misunderstood each other. Now that a common danger had drawn them together, they had all joined in fighting for their country, and Canada had shown, as she has shown ever since, that she was "for the Empire." Strange to say, too, when the heat of battle was past, the bitterness which had been between America and Canada began to pass away, for each nation had learned to respect his neighbour beyond the frontier.

But while the war was going on, a struggle of another kind was taking place in the Great North-West.

You remember how the Hudson Bay Company had been founded, and how, in spite of fearful difficulties it had grown and prospered. Soon after the Conquest (that is the conquest of Canada from the French), another fur company was formed called the North-West Company, and later still there was a third called the X.Y. Company. Soon all these three companies began to quarrel, and whenever their men or officers met, there was sure to be fighting. They stole each other's furs whenever they could, and often the skins passed through the hands of all three before reaching the market.

Things were in this state when a Scottish nobleman, the Earl of Selkirk, began to take a great interest in the fur trade and in the Hudson Bay Company. From the Company he got a grant of a large piece of land near Lake Winnipeg, and began to form a settlement there.

Lord Selkirk brought his settlers from the Highlands of Scotland. They were men and women used to a rough climate and a hard life. But hard as their life had been, they came to a much harder. On the way out they suffered from fever and hunger on board ship. When they arrived they had to pass a winter on the icy shores of Hudson Bay in clothes warm enough perhaps for Scotland, but not half warm enough for the icy north.

At last, however, the bitter cold winter passed, spring came, and the settlers journeyed to Red River, where they were to build their new homes, and begin life afresh.

But the Nor'-Westers were the sworn enemies of the Hudson Bay Company, they were the enemies too of these new settlers. They wanted to keep the North-West to themselves, and they vowed to root out these "gardeners" and shepherds who came to turn their hunting-grounds into wheat-field and pasture. Besides the Nor'-Westers, Lord Selkirk had another enemy in the Métis or Bois-Brulés. These were a race half French, half Indian, the children of the roving Coureurs de Bois. They loved the wild wastes and solitudes. Their home was the rolling prairie, their roof the sky. They wanted no towns and churches, no herds and wheat-fields, and as more and more land was settled by farmers, as trees were felled, and the earth furrowed by the plough, the Métis retreated to the wilds. Now they gladly joined the Nor'-Westers in ousting the new comers, who wanted to turn yet more of their beloved wilderness into ploughed land.

So scarcely had the Scottish settlers arrived when there swooped down upon them an armed company of Nor'-West men, fierce in Indian war-paint, and very terrible to the eyes of these simple Highlanders.

The Nor'-Westers succeeded in what they had set out to do. The little band of settlers were so terrified that they fled for refuge to the Hudson Bay Company's fort at Pembina, leaving all their scanty wealth in the hands of the enemy.

But Highlanders are not easily beaten. They bided their time, and the next year they returned to Red River, built their houses, ploughed and sowed their land, and settled down in peace.

But the peace was not for long. Once again the Nor'-Westers swooped down upon the new colonists. Again, they were scattered, and, where their homes had been, lay a heap of black and smoking ruins.

But the struggle was not over. More men came from Scotland, many of the scattered colonists returned, and once more Red River rose from its ashes.

Then followed months of hardship and struggle, a fight with cold and hunger, with difficulties and dangers of all kinds. Even to these sturdy Highlanders, bred to hardship and toil, the life proved too dreadful. Many of them gave up the struggle, and fought their way back through wilderness and forest to Canada, or died on the way. Others, false to their friends, took the easier way, and joined their enemies, the Nor'-Westers.

But the Nor'-Westers were not content. They had sworn the utter destruction of the colony, and they meant to keep their word. So one June day, three hundred half-breeds, fearfully bedaubed with paint, gay in savage splendour, rode down upon the settlement. The governor and about thirty men went out to meet them. They were quickly surrounded, and he and about twenty of his men were shot dead.

Those who were left fled back to the fort, where soon all was terror and confusion. Children cried out in fear, women wept for their dead, or, stricken and white, awaited they knew not what fate.

Two days later, robbed of all they possessed, the remaining colonists left their homes to the flames and the destroyer, and wandered forth again houseless and penniless.

But while the Nor'-Westers drank and sang, and rejoiced at the utter downfall of Red River, Lord Selkirk was on his way to avenge his people. With about a hundred men he arrived at Fort William, the chief post of the Nor'-Westers. Forcing the gate he took possession of the town, and the murderers were soon made prisoner and sent to Montreal to be tried.

Again the colonists returned to their ruined, forsaken homes, but the summer was gone, and the harvest poor. Famine stared them in the face, and after fearful sufferings and long endurance, they once more took refuge at Pembina.

In the spring, however, they came back again. This time all seemed to go well. In peace the fields were ploughed and sown. In peace the corn sprang up, grew and ripened. Then one summer afternoon the sky was darkened. The air was filled with the hum and buzz of insects, and a flight of locusts settled on the land.

They covered the trees and the fields, they swarmed in the houses. At night the earth was smiling and green. In the morning it was a grey wilderness.

Once again ruin and famine stared the settlers in the face. The onslaught of wild half-breeds had been easier to bear than this. They at least could be fought. But against this new enemy the stoutest arm, the bravest heart, was helpless. Stricken with despair, many a strong man bowed his head and sobbed as if his heart would break.

Once more, with weary feet, the colonists trudged the well-known way to Pembina, there to spend the winter on the charity of the Hudson Bay Company.

The next year it was found to be useless to plough or sow, for the locusts still swarmed everywhere, killing each green blade as it sprang to life, and poisoning both air and water with their dying millions. But the colonists lit great fires which attracted the locusts; they fell into the fires in thousands, and at last the plague was burned out. The land was sown once more, and after eight years of struggle and disaster Red River Settlement began to prosper. Then tired of fighting, the Hudson Bay Company and the North-West Company joined together and shared the fur trade between them. So there was peace.

But the struggles of the Red River colonists were by no means over. For many a year their life was full of hardship, but bit by bit they won success. And to-day the great corn prairies of Manitoba stretch mile upon mile. The golden grain ripens in the summer sun, falls beneath the sharp knives of the reaping-machine, and is carried far and wide to give food to the world and bring wealth to Canada. And we look back, and remember with pride, the Scotsman who first saw that these lands were good for corn-growing, and the brave colonists who would not be beaten, and who returned again and yet again with unconquered courage, until at last they won the battle against misfortune.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Story of Laura Secord  |  Next: Louis Riel
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.