Ryan Taylor Lord Selkirk's contribution to Canada
Early Manitoba


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By Ryan Taylor

When Canadians think of the heroes of early settlement Lord Selkirk probably doesn't come to mind. There are Champlain and Cartier, John Graves Simcoe and even George Vancouver, but somehow the founder of the Red River Settlement has not had the same impact.

That may change with Lucille Campey's new account of his life and work, The Silver Chief (Natural Heritage/Natural History, $34.95). Campey's background in Scottish emigration history makes her a natural for describing Red River's origins.

Thomas Douglas was the seventh son of the 4th Earl of Selkirk. It was unlikely he would inherit the title and his large family (he also had six sisters) considered him a poor prospect for anything useful. His brothers were military men who met with accident or disease, however, and on his father's death in 1799 he inherited the title and riches of the Douglas family. He was in a position to do what he wanted, and he proceeded to make his mark in an unexpected way.

His interests were in establishing Scottish colonists in British Canada. He began at Belfast, on the southern shore of Prince Edward Island in 1803, with families from Skye, Ross and Inverness. With this success under his belt, he moved on to Upper Canada, establishing Baldoon in what is now Frontenac County, near Kingston.

The land was regarded as remote and far from choice, and the first fifteen families were delayed at the Selkirk estates in Kirkcudbrightshire but eventually they found themselves in the Canadian wilderness. Low-lying land, bad weather, wolves and the settlers' lack of preparedness took their toll, and an American invasion during the War of 1812 was the final straw. The Baldoon settlers moved to higher ground and Selkirk sold his wet lands.

By then, he had moved his attentions to the Red River. Much of his interest was economic, working with the Hudson's Bay Company (a sometimes reluctant partner) to supply workers for the fur trade. More workers meant that agricultural settlers were also needed, to supply food and services for the growing population.

A surprising number of the early Red River settlers were Irish; Canadians usually think of the Red River colony as exclusively Scots. The Selkirk recruiters often brought the early immigrants in batches from particular places. In 1811 a mixed group had numbers from Orkney and Ross, and in 1812, there were shiploads from Mull and from Sligo.

The severe weather, both winter and summer, were a far cry from the soft, wet climate of western Scotland, and the settlers had to be hardy to succeed. Unlike the cliche of moviedom, the local Saulteaux people, headed by their great chief, Peguis, were helpful to the new arrivals.

Campey's way of telling these tales of early Canada draws the reader along. It is a story with an interesting message-not merely the usual narrative of tough people in a new and unforgiving country. Selkirk himself had to deal with plenty of politics and enmity on the part of other entrpreneurs and the Hudson's Bay Company to accomplish his ends. In some ways he was no hero himself, but in historical terms, his founding of modern Manitoba deserves great credit.

Campey includes lists of the earliest settlers in Belfast, Baldoon and Red River, with names of ships, dates of arrival and locations, and origins in Britain. This book makes a fine companion to her earlier work, A Very Fine Class of Immigrants (2001), about early PEI. Both works occupy the interesting territory where traditional history and genealogy meet.

The Silver Chief can be found in bookshops everywhere or obtained directly from the publisher at info@naturalheritagebooks.com.

Posted September 5, 2003
Column copyright © 2003 Ryan Taylor

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