Red River Colony

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The Red River Colony (or Selkirk Settlement) was a colonization project set up in 1811 by Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, on 300,000 square kilometres (120,000 sq mi) of land granted to him by the Hudson's Bay Company, under what is referred to as the Selkirk Concession. Changes during the development of Canada in the 19th century led to the colony's forming the basis of what is today Manitoba, although much of its original territory is now part of the United States.

The Selkirk Concession, also known as Selkirk's Grant, included the portions of Rupert's Land, or the watershed of Hudson Bay, bounded on the north by the line of 52° N latitude roughly from the Assiniboine River east to Lake Winnipegosis, then by the line of 52° 30′ N latitude from Lake Winnipegosis to Lake Winnipeg, and then by the Winnipeg River, Lake of the Woods and Rainy River; on the west roughly by the current boundary between Saskatchewan and Manitoba; and on the south by the (mostly very slight) rise of land marking the extent of the watershed. This covered portions of present-day southern Manitoba, northern Minnesota, and eastern North Dakota, in addition to small parts of eastern Saskatchewan, northwestern Ontario, and northeastern South Dakota.[1][2]

Early history[edit]


Selkirk had become interested in the concept of settling the area after reading Alexander Mackenzie's 1801 book on his adventures in what is today the west of Canada. At the time, social upheaval in Scotland due to the introduction of sheep farming and the ensuing Highland and Lowland Clearances had left a number of Scots destitute. Selkirk was interested in giving them a chance at a better life in a new colony,[3] that he called Assiniboia.[4] He purchased a controlling interest in the Hudson's Bay Company and set up the land grant. His idea was to gain control of the area to take control of the West from the company's rival, the Montreal-based North West Company. Métis trappers that supplied the North West's fur traders principally hunted bison around the Red River watershed.

The early development of Selkirk’s Red River colony suffered from various setbacks. The settlers were supposed to arrive in 1813, but due to a fever outbreak on their ship, they did not arrive until June 21, 1814.[5] With an HBC colony located in the region, the Nor'Westers lost access to these vital supplies and cut off from areas further west.[4] Several other considerations by the Company led to Selkirk's plan being approved. Besides offering an area for employees to settle with their native wives, it was to create provisions for company stations.[6] Supplies of "produce, such as flour, beef, pork and butter..." would be affordable to manufacture in this colony, and would reduce the costly shipments from Britain.[6]

In July 1811 Miles Macdonell started a voyage from Yarmouth to York Factory, as instructed by Selkirk. Upon reaching the HBC station, he led 36 men, primarily Irish and Scottish, for the Red River. Before the party completed their trek on 30 August 1812, half of the laborers had deserted.[7] As the planting season was over before the completion of Fort Douglas, the laborers hastily set about hunting bison for food.[7]

Pemmican War[edit]

When farming started in the spring of 1813, the results were less than expected. Despite being warned by Selkirk not to anger the Nor'Westers,[7] on 8 January 1814 Macdonell issued the Pemmican Proclamation, which outlawed the export of pemmican from the colony. This may have been to ensure food for the colony, or a business move to cut off the Nor'Westers. Either way, the move touched off the Pemmican War. The Nor'Westers, who relied on pemmican supplied to them by local Métis, were so upset that they destroyed Fort Douglas and burned down all the buildings around it. The fort was later rebuilt and relations settled down for a time.[8]

Selkirk heard of the problems and sent out a new governor, Robert Semple, to take over. When he read a proclamation ordering the fighting to stop, the Battle of Seven Oaks broke out, Fort Douglas was destroyed for a second time, and the settlers were forced off their land. Selkirk then sent in a force of about 100 soldiers from the British Regiment de Meuron to enforce the peace and eventually become settlers themselves, while also capturing the Northwest outpost at Fort William. There, Selkirk arrested numerous significant managers of the North West Company, including Chief Director William McGillivray. The actions left Selkirk almost bankrupt. When Selkirk arrived at Red River in 1817, the stability of the colony dramatically improved following the removal of all Indigenous claims to the land. Selkirk achieved this by signing a treaty between the Red River colonists and the local Cree, Assiniboine and Ojibwa.[9] The Treaty of 1818 set the boundary between the United States and British North America along the 49th parallel of north latitude from the Lake of the Woods to the "Stony Mountains" (now known as the Rocky Mountains). Thus, the southern portion of Selkirk's grant went to the United States. In the 1840s and 1850s, the Red River metis challenged Indian hegemony and probably became the most important processors of pemmican for the Hudson's Bay Company trade. By the 1860s, both Indians and metis were travelling father and farther west in search of buffalo herds and were coming into conflict over this once infinite resource. By the end of the 1870s, the herds had disappeared forever. The Indians were on reserves, the metis in disarray, the whites in control.[10]


The Hudson's Bay Company and their rivals, the North West Company were forced to merge in 1821 by the British government. With the end of fur trade inspired conflicts on the plains, the Red River settlement was able to grow. The agricultural products, primarily wheat, began to rise in yearly yields. Flour production rose from over 20,000 pounds annually from 1823 to 1829 to over 30,000 pounds in the early 1830s.[4] The supply of flour reached over 50,000 pounds by the mid-1830s, rapidly deflating the price the HBC paid the farmers for the product. Numbering over 1,000 by 1827, the farmers began to complain about the deflating rates they received and lack of markets to sell their goods to.[4]

In 1841 James Sinclair guided 200 settlers from the Red River Colony west in an attempt to retain the Columbia District for Britain. The party crossed the Rockies into the Columbia Valley, near present day Radium Hot Springs, British Columbia; then traveled south. Despite such efforts, Britain eventually ceded all claim to land south of the 49th parallel of latitude west of the Rockies to the United States as resolution to the Oregon boundary dispute.

Red River cart train

By the 1850s, the Hudson's Bay Company lost interest in paying for the settlement, and by the 1860s, the Métis outnumbered the Scots. This led to a second period of unrest in 1869 and 1870 called the Red River Rebellion, which led to the creation of Manitoba.[11]

Red River Rebellion[edit]

US expansionists became heavily interested in the economic potential Red River land possessed. The ideal soil, climate and socio-economic potential of the area convinced Americans that they needed to make this land American territory.[12] The result ended up being an annexation proposal of Red River in 1870, in order to convert it into land that Americans could use for economic purposes. Due to Louis Riel's Red River rebellion, the American annexationists hoped to take advantage of the disruption caused by these political conflicts and present themselves in the forefront as the ideal leaders of the Red River land. The annexation was led by Minnesota senator Alexander Ramsay, and was backed by Zachariah Chandler and Jacob M. Howard- who were both senators of Michigan and represented Detroit merchants. They all shared the same economic vision for the annexation: Ramsay believed Red River served as an important commercial adjunct for his state while Chandler and Howard believed that annexing Red River would benefit their Great Lakes Trade.[13] Americans hoped to completely colonize the land as their own, and tried to assert their dominance by removing other Colonizer influence from Red River. A notable example would be James W. Taylor: he was an American special agent and Winnipeg consul who used his political power to shape the destiny of the valley, as well as attempting to remove the British influence on the valley.[14] The Canadian government, however, did not allow these expansionists to succeed.

The proposal was met with a lot of resistance from the Red River people as they were given the chance to address their grievances about the potential loss of land and becoming part of an American expansion and colonization through a proclamation by the Governor General of the dominion. American annexationists tried to depict themselves as favorable figures in the eyes of the Canadians by associating themselves with the political schemes of Louis Riel. Riel was the leader of the Red River rebellion, which was a conflict started by the Metis because Canada was attempting to claim possession of Rupert's Land without any concern for the Metis demands.[15] However, the American annexationists' main intentions of supporting Riel and this rebellion was to misguide him in favor of the annexation.[16] Their greatest propaganda tool was the New Nation newspaper which elicited rhetoric that advocated for the annexation because it embodied the popular Manifest Destiny ideology. They also wrote anonymous letters that supported Louis Riel, but at the same time, denounced Canadians. This was meant to help the annexation cause because their support of Louis Riel's rebellion would encourage resistance the power of the political government, and be in favor of independence- then ultimately America would assert themselves as the new leaders and Red River would become American land.[17] They ultimately wanted to create an allegiance between the Canadians and the United States because they hoped that this alliance would ease the transformation of Red River into American territory.

However, this aggressive propaganda ultimately backfired upon the annexation proposal. It created even more hostility towards the annexation party, and the United States. This great emphasis of materialism never seemed appealing to the Red River people. The Americans became too acquisitive because they were eager to create a political union. This ultimately caused the annexation of the North West to fail, despite it being almost being within reach.[16]

This political chaos, in a sense, became pivotal for Red River because it allowed for the success of the Metis in their rebellion. The Canadian government were forced to develop the negotiations that allowed for the Metis demands were legally entrenched in the Manitoba Act that eventually led to the creation of province of Manitoba.[15] The political disputes put the Metis on a platform to voice their disapproval of Americans ignoring their concerns over these land disputes.

Governors of the Red River Colony[edit]

Term Governor
August 1812 – June 1815 Miles MacDonell
June 1815 – June 1816 Robert Semple
August 1816 – June 1822 Alexander MacDonell
June 1822 – June 1823 Andrew Bulger
June 1823 – June 1825 Robert Parker Pelly
June 1825 – June 1833 Donald McKenzie
June 1833 – June 1839 Alexander Christie
June 1839 – June 1844 Duncan Finlayson
June 1844 – June 1846 Alexander Christie
June 1846 – June 1847 John Folliott Crofton
June 1847 – June 1848 J. Griffiths
June 1848 – June 1855 William Bletterman Caldwell
June 1855 – September 1859 Francis Godschall Johnson
September 1859 – July 1870 William Mactavish


See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Canadian Encyclopedia
  2. ^ Morris, Alexander (1880) The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories Including the Negotiations on Which They Were Based, and Other Information Relating Thereto, Chapter I
  3. ^ Newman, Peter Charles. Merchant princes. Toronto: Viking. 1991, p. 39.
  4. ^ a b c d Gibson, James R. Farming the Frontier, The Agricultural Opening of the Oregon Country, 1786-1846. Vancouver, B.C.: University of British Columbia Press. 1985, pp. 10-13.
  5. ^ Carter, George. "Lord Selkirk and the Red River Colony" Montana:The Magazine of Western History, 1968 Vol. 18 No. 1 pp. 60-69.
  6. ^ a b Ross, Alexander The Red River Settlement. London: Smith, Elder and Co. 1856, pp. 16-18.
  7. ^ a b c Carter, George E. Lord Selkirk and the Red River Colony. Montana: The Magazine of Western History 18, No. 1 (1968), pp. 60-69.
  8. ^ R. Douglas Francis, Richard Jones, and Donald B. Smith. "Origins: Canadian History to Confederation", 4th ed. (Toronto:Harcourt Canada ltd., 2000), at pp. 434–5.
  9. ^ Friesen, Gerald (2010). The Canadian Prairies: A History. Canada: University of Toronto Press. p. 80. ISBN 0-8020-6648-8. 
  10. ^ Friesen, Gerald (2010). The Canadian Prairies: A History. Canada: University of Toronto Press. p. 92. ISBN 978-0-8020-6648-0. 
  11. ^ Hargrave, Joseph James (1871). Red River. Montreal: Printed for the author by John Lovell. p. 506. 
  12. ^ Warner, F. Donald. "Drang Nach Norden: The United States and the Riel Rebellion." The Mississippi Valley Historical Review,Vol. 39, No. 4 (Mar., 1953), pg 693.
  13. ^ Warner, F. Donald. "Drang Nach Norden: The United States and the Riel Rebellion." The Mississippi Valley Historical Review,Vol. 39, No. 4 (Mar., 1953), pg 696.
  14. ^ Lee Nute, Grace. "New Light on Red River Valley History." Minnesota History Bulletin,Vol. 5, No. 8 (Nov., 1924), pg 568.
  15. ^ a b "Louis Riel and the Dispersion of the American Metis." Thomas Flanagan. Minnesota Historical Society. pg. 179.
  16. ^ a b "The Riel Rebellion and Canadian American Relations." Canadian Historical Review. Volume 36(3). 2008.
  17. ^ "The Riel Rebellion and Canadian American Relations." Canadian Historical Review. Volume 36(3). 2008. pg. 205.
  18. ^ Governors of the Red River Settlement, Manitoba Historical Society

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 49°00′00″N 97°14′15″W / 49.00000°N 97.23750°W / 49.00000; -97.23750