Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Selkirk Settlers in Real Life
Chapter VIII - Civil and Commercial Life

To write a chapter on the civil and commercial life of the old settlers would be easy if it could be made purely anecdotal; but if we are to make it more historical, the task is not so simple. For it must be remembered that the science and art of statecraft had made but little progress on the banks of the Red River, and that laws and the administration of them were primitive enough in those early days. So far as civil government was concerned, as soon as they had secured dominance over all rivals, the Hudsonís Bay Company was the local representative and embodiment of British law in the colony. The local governor of that company, assisted by a council of representative men from the English and French speaking residents (the full title of

the conclave being "The Council of Assiniboia"), enacted such laws as the circumstances demanded, and cases left unprovided for in these local enactments were covered by the common law as embodied in British jurisprudence. The criminal law, of course, was that of England, and in all respects as soon as sufficient machinery was available, the practice and procedure would be that of the courts in the old land. Most of the real property laws were of local enactment to suit the peculiar circumstances. A great deal of the legislation reads strangely enough now, as it was specially applicable to the surroundings of the time. For instance, when horses by the hundred were feeding on the prairie, it was quite a common thing for any one to catch one and ride him or drive him till he found his own, or till he reached his destination, if not too far away. At first, on the principle of mutual helpfulness, this practice was little resented by the owner unless the horse was abused; but when the practice became too general, and as some not of the colonist class began to have altogether too loose an idea about meum and tuum in the horse line, stringent laws were enacted.

For a time it was a settled decision of the courts that the owner of a horse, finding him in the hands of another, could not only have such a one proceeded against, but could seize and hold the saddle or harness, etc., that was upon the horse at the time. The administration of law, when once a real system of administration was established, rested with a judge or recorder, assisted frequently by associated magistrates, and sometimes these magistrates (appointed from amongst the settlers) held court themselves. Serious offences were not frequent, and those that did come before the magistrates were disposed of in a summary way. In the quarrels that sometimes broke out I have seen my father, who was one of the magistrates, holding court in the house, and when he concluded that the parties were about equally to blame, he compelled them to advance from the sides of the room to the centre and shake hands in the presence of the court, as a declaration of their intention to live peaceably from that time forward.

I suppose that any breach of the peace afterwards would have been looked on as contempt of court and punished accordingly; hence the people who had a high veneration for authority generally kept the compact. In cases where threats had been made one against the other, the general practice was to cause the offender "to bind himself over to keep the peace," on the severest pains and penalties if he broke it. I remember the case of a merchant in whose employ, while on a freighting trip to St. Cloud, a young half-breed died of fever. The father of the lad held that the merchant was responsible for the death, and after partaking freely of stimulant visited the merchantís store with a hay-fork, determined to put the slayer of his son to death. The merchant felt decidedly uncomfortable at being hunted around the country by a half-drunken man with a weapon of that kind, and escaping through the back door fled to my fatherís house and invoked the protection of law against the man-slayer. Not long afterwards the half-breed arrived on horseback with his hay-fork. He was given a bed in the kitchen, while the merchant passed a perhaps somewhat anxious night in another part of the house; but in the morning, when the half-breed was sober, court was held, and after being shown how groundless his view was, he was bound over to keep the peace under severe penalties, and that settled it. Nowadays, or then, if enforced strictly, the criminal law would not deal so gently with a man who was disposed to prowl after innocent parties with murderous intent and a fork; but a wholesome dread of the court, if any breach of the law were committed, made the plan effective. Cases did sometimes occur in which the officers of the law found themselves comparatively helpless against crowds, but these were of rare occurrence and were mostly the result of some combination for popular rights, as, for instance, where it was demanded that trade be free to all, instead of being monopolized by companies.

When we turn to the commercial life of the settlers an equally primitive state of things meets us. For many years, of course, the Hudsonís Bay Company controlled the trade of the region, they alone having the right to traffic in furs, skins, etc., and they also supplying the settlers with such articles as they needed, in return for such produce as they could raise. So far as their treatment of the settlers in this regard is concerned and we may say in all other waysónothing could have been fairer or more liberal. Instead of taking a great quantity of produce from one, and none from another, the company apportioned out what they needed amongst the settlers, and thus gave all a fighting chance for life. The prices paid for produce were good, as high as eight shillings a bushel being sometimes paid for wheat. In regard to the fur and other trade all efforts to preserve a monopoly proved unavailing, and after several hard-fought legal cases, and after several popular demonstrations against monopoly, the principle of trade free to all was generally admitted and acted upon. Importations of goods were made chiefly from England via the Hudsonís Bay, thence by water to the colony, and from the United States by means of cart trains. Goods from England were landed

at York Factory, and were brought thence by row-boats, manned by from eight to fourteen men, who sat on benches and pulled with great long oars, more like beams than modern sculls. No one who knew anything about the extreme toil of that weary life can fail in seeing the marvellous beauty of Whittierís "Red River Voyageur," and feeling how true it is to real life. We can see the bent form, the bronzed face and calloused hand of the boatman as we read the lines:

"Drearily blows the north-wind
From the land of ice and snow;
The eyes that look are weary,
And heavy the hands that row."

We can see the tired face light up as he hears the sound of the bell from the cathedral opposite the fort to which he is coming:

"The voyageur smiles as he listens
To the sound that grows apace,
Well he knows the vesper ringing
Of the bells of St. Boniface.

The bells of the Roman mission,
That call from their turrets twain
To the boatman on the river,
To the hunter on the plain."

And we can all, amidst the tug and strain of life, join in the noble allegory at the close:

"Even so in our mortal journey
The bitter north winds blow,
And thus upon lifeís Red River
Our hearth as oarsmen row,

"And when the Angel of Shadow
Rests his feet on wave and shore,
And our eyes grow dim with watching,
And our hearts faint at the oar,

"Happy is he who heareth
The signal of his release,
In the bells of the Holy City,
The chimes of eternal peace."

Not all the voyageurs could have understood the lofty strain of the poet, though they all knew the toil of the life and the joy of arriving home. Burly and able-bodied fellows were these oarsmen of the half-blood, capable of enduring almost any amount of labor and fatigue. Lighthearted and playful as kittens were they also, and at night, despite the labors of the day, they often indulged in their wild dances by the weird camp-fires along the shore to the music of the ever-ready violin. Before they started for York, and after they came back, these boatmen had special festivities. My father had a considerable number of boats on the line, and amongst the scenes of childhood photographed on my mind I can see the huge campfires on the river bank, and I can hear the wild shouts of these semi-savage men as they celebrated their outgoing or their incoming.

The other outlet for the development of commercial enterprise amongst these early settlers was trade with the United States to the south. Either to bring goods for themselves or for the Hudsonís Bay Company, or other merchants, the settlers went every summer with trains of oxen and carts to St. Paul or St. Cloud, Minnesota, and at so much a hundred-weight freighted the merchandise thence to Fort Qarry. It was a long and toilsome trip, and at times when the warlike Sioux, red-handed from Minnesota massacres, were hanging on their trail, it was a dangerous one as well. At such times only the fact of their being well armed and strong in numbers, prevented the extinction of the freighters at the hands of the Indians. Commerce of the kind described called for more physical endurance and skill in crossing swamps and rivers than for the keen, aggressive education now required, and hence many who had but little learning in letters came to considerable wealth and prominence as freighters. Many of the half-blood were amongst the latter, and out of their prominence as freighters, together with their dearth of education, some amusing incidents took place. On one occasion a number of these freighters were staying (as the wealthier of them did) at a first-class hotel in St. Paul, and of course availed themselves of all the advantages of the reading-room, etc. One of them, quite a well-to-do man, but unable to read, was not to be outdone in the presence of strangers, and following the example of others picked up a newspaper, but unfortunately got it upside down. With the paper in this position his eye caught the advertisement of some steamship company, and of course got the cut of the vessel inverted. Here was something he thought he was quite safe in discussing, for he made sure he could understand a picture, and so he held it up and boldly announced to those around him that the column contained the account of "a dreadful shipwreck." The rest may be imagined.

Another, who kept a kind of refitting emporium on the way, was accustomed, in the absence of ability to read or write, to keep his accounts in a book by rough pictures, drawing a horse, or harness, or cart-axle, etc., as required by the transaction, and also some distinctive feature of the man to whom he sold them. On one occasion he was closing accounts with a settler after the seasonís work, and gave a cheese amongst the things he had furnished to the settler. The settler denied having received a cheese, but the "merchant" produced his book showing the drawing. The settler still denied, but looking up some memoranda he had kept, told the "merchant" that he had not received a cheese, but had purchased a grindstone with which he was not charged. The "merchant" at once remembered the transaction, and coolly remarked that he had intended the drawing for a grindstone, but "had forgotten to put the hole in it." The delightfully accommodating procedure that could change a cheese into a grindstone by the addition of a pencil-mark is worthy of a destructive Biblical critic who can make a Hebrew letter mean anything his hypothesis demands by changing its vowel point.

And thus in a primitive manner of civil and commercial life did the early settlers live, near the spot where the "bullís-eye" city of Canada now stands, with all the equipment of civic organization, and with such a trade as belongs to a place midway along the greatest railway on the round globe.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus