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The Selkirk Settlers in Real Life

IN common with others who have been interested in, and connected with, the development of the territories formerly under the administration of the Hudson Bay Company, I heard with much pleasure of the intention of my friend, the Rev. R. G. MacBeth, M. A., to place on record an account of the genesis and development of the Selkirk Settlement in the Red River Valley. The longer such a work is postponed the more difficult must it be to carry out, and it would be a thousand pities if a description of the pioneer attempts at colonization in the great North-West were not given to the world. This is neither the time nor the place to enter upon a discussion of the motives which influenced Lord Selkirk in his enterprise. He may have been somewhat in advance of the times in which he lived, but he had the courage of his convictions, and his efforts deserve the fullest recognition from those who believe in the great future in store for Western Canada.

Looking back to the period when the movement was initiated, it is not surprising, in view of the then comparative inaccessibility of the country, or of the inexperience of the settlers of the climatic and other conditions then obtaining, and of other circumstances, that for many years the progress of the Settlement was retarded. There can be no doubt, however, that its gradual development had an important bearing, both directly and indirectly, on the events which led to the surrender of the Charter. of the Hudson Bay Company, and to the acquisition of Rupert’s Land by Canada, through the Imperial Government.

It has been the custom to describe the Hudson Bay Company as an opponent of individual settlement and of colonization. To enter into a controversy on this point is not my purpose, but it may be proper to state that the condition of affairs at the time in question in the country between Lake Superior and the Rocky Mountains, does not appear to have been sufficiently appreciated. Owing to the difficulties of access and egress, colonization in what is now Manitoba and the North-West Territories could not have taken place successfully to any extent. Of necessity, also, the importation of the commodities required in connection with its agricultural development would have been exceptionally expensive, while, on the other hand, the cost of transportation of its possible exports must have been so great as to render competition with countries more favorably situated at the moment, difficult, if not impossible. The justice of these contentions will be at once realized, when it is remembered that the Red River Valley was situated in the centre of the continent, one thousand miles away in any direction from settled districts. Events, however, were shaping themselves all the time, in no uncertain way, and when the proper moment arrived, the great North-West was thrown open to settlement, railway communication became assured, and the country has since progressed, in view of all the circumstances, in a remarkable manner, Personally, it is my opinion, that the acquisition and development of the Hudson Bay Territory was impossible prior to the confederation of the Dominion. No less a body than united Canada could have acquired and administered so large a domain, or have undertaken the construction of railways, without which its development could only have been slow and uncertain. It was not till 1878, eight years after the transfer, that Winnipeg first received railway communication through the United States. Three or four more years elapsed before the completion of the line to Lake Superior, and it was only late in 1885— sixteen years after the Hudson Bay Company relinquished their Charter—that the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed from ocean to ocean, and Manitoba and the North-West Territories were placed in direct and regular railway communication with the different parts of the Dominion. There is no question, also, that the policy of the Hudson Bay Company in regard to the Indians, and the intercourse which the aborigines, had been accustomed to with its officers, made the transfer infinitely easier than would have otherwise been possible. In fact, it may be said that the Hudson Bay Company, while conserving its own interests, as long as was desirable, yet prepared the way for the Dominion, and for the colonization and settlement which is now taking place.

The record of the real life of the Selkirk settlers will be especially interesting to the inhabitants of the various Provinces of the Dominion, to the early settlers in Manitoba and the North-West, and to those millions who are destined to follow them in the future, and establish for themselves happy and comfortable homes on the grand western prairies. Many of the original Selkirk settlers and their descendants have been personally and intimately known to me, including one of the most respected of the pioneers, the father of Mr. MacBeth; and I have always respected and admired their sterling qualities of head and heart. I know how they have worked and how they have lived, and, in my judgment, Manitoba owes more to their efforts and to their example than is generally admitted, or can well be conceived by the present generation of Canadians. One illustration of their simple character and honesty occurs to me at the moment of writing. Nothing further was required of them, in connection with the transfer of land, than a personal appearance before the Registrar, and an oral intimation of the transaction to be effected. No deeds or documents were completed in such cases, and no conveyance of the kind was ever questioned. Lord Selkirk is represented to have said that in the Red River Valley alone there is room for many millions of people. More modern authorities claim that the prairies are destined to provide homes for as many millions as now inhabit the United States. The extension of the railways in the different parts of the country is opening up yearly more extended fields for settlement, is providing the facilities for placing families all over the country, and for marketing the produce they will be enabled to raise. All these results may be traced to the Selkirk Settlement, and to the Hudson Bay Company, and they will tend to give additional interest to the entertaining and instructive volume Mr. MacBeth has written, for which I venture to predict a wide circulation.




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