“Was it Selkirk’s Folly?”
by George Siamandas
On April 8, 1820, the man for whom a School Division, a school, a ship, and a town were named, passed away. His name was Thomas Douglas but we know him better as Lord Selkirk. He was born a nobleman in Scotland in 1771, and he became at age 28, the fifth Earl of Selkirk in 1799. Selkirk had studied law and humanities at the University of Edinburgh, and was a fellow student of Sir Walter Scott.
Selkirk travelled in Europe and became concerned with the displacement of farmers in Scotland and Ireland who were being uprooted by sheepherders. Selkirk felt that emigration was the answer and in 1803 he arranged for a first group of settlers to colonize Prince Edward Island. Lord Selkirk became a celebrity after publishing a book about his travels in the United States and in Europe, and, in 1806, Selkirk took a seat in the House of Lords. He became a man known for his liberal views on issues like abolition of slavery and parliamentary reform.
Through marriage and his own investment, Selkirk became a shareholder in the Hudson Bay Co. In 1811 he hatched a plan to create a new settlement in Red River as a home for retiring fur traders and as a food production centre for the area that had to import much of the food from England. It was a controversial proposal and in England members of the North West Company tried to discourage prospective settlers by warning them of the cruel prairie winters, a the long dangerous journey to get there, and the threat of violence and even scalpings by the Indians. In 1812 the British crown granted Selkirk 185,000 square kilometres of land around what would later become the lower third of Manitoba. It included some of North Dakota and Minnessota. The land was five times the size of Scotland.
THE SELKIRK SETTLERS FACE DIFFICULTIES AT RED RIVER
The Red River Settlement came to be known as Selkirk’s Folly. The settlers faced floods, locusts, crop failures and troubles with members of the rival North West Company. Just as had been predicted. Insensitive attitudes towards the Metis and Indians resulted in Miles MacDonnell banning the trade of pemmican disrupting the fur trade. The Metis retaliated with burning and pillaging and the Selkirk settlers fled to an area called Jack River at the north end of Lake Winnipeg. Selkirk was not able to visit Red River till 1816 and only for 13 weeks.
The Massacre at Seven Oaks made the Selkirk settlers very uneasy and fearful of the Northwest Company and their Metis friends and the settlers moved away to Jack River. Selkirk then took matters into his own hands and he tried and imprisoned staff of the Northwest Company, and he seized Fort William and “purchased” its assets. Years of legal problems caused Selkirk’s spirit and his health to deteriorate. He died in April 1820 just before his 49 birthday in the south of France.
In 1821 a peace was reached between the Northwest Company and the HBC. Visitors to Red River in the 1820s are reported to have found the community “drab” and the leading men “lacking in energy and foresight.” Natural disasters continued for the Selkirk settlers in the mid 1820s. A heavy snowfall and blizzard in 1825 killed 33 settlers. By spring of 1826, severe flooding began. Rain falling as the Red River rushed north swept away 47 dwellings and one house caught fire and was seen half burning as it floated down the river. Farm animals were swept away. Settlers were taken to high ground at Stony Mountain and Birds Hill. All of the area in what would later become Winnipeg was under water. After the water receded Fort Garry lay heavily damaged.
Later that summer of 1826, half the colony (250) left for Mississippi and other regions to the south. Many of these had been the Swiss de Meurons mercenaries Selkirk had brought to Red River in 1816. Governor George Simpson said that this was the “extinguisher to the hope of the colony ever retaining the name of Red River.” But things got better in Red River. By 1926, 100 years after Selkirk’s death, Selkirk’s folly had become the largest Prairie City in Canada with a population of 250,000.