Prelude to the Battle of Seven Oaks — a “private” war imperils Red River

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
Who fired the first shot and why?
An investigation by a Canadian, who was heralded as an impartial observer in the conflict, felt he had the definitive answer to the question. During the trials that followed the Battle of Seven Oaks, the testimony in reply to the question  depended entirely upon an individual’s alliance. Some admitted to not knowing who fired the first shot due to the “fog of war,” while others were quite content to point the finger at their respective opponents.
What is known for certain is that on the early evening of June 19, 1816, a relatively brief battle was fought between Red River colonists and a Nor’Wester party predominately comprised of Métis, which resulted in the death of Robert Semple, the Hudson’s Bay Company-appointed governor of the settlement, and 20 of his followers, as well as one Métis combatant.
The Battle of Seven Oaks nearly dealt a death blow to the fledgling settlement established along the banks of the Red River by Lord Selkirk. But, the battle was just one, although the most deadly, of many hostile incidents that afflicted the colony following the arrival of the first groups of settlers in 1812.
In 1811, Thomas Douglas, Lord Selkirk, after purchasing a significant amount of HBC stock, persuaded the Company’s committee of directors to cede him 116,000 acres of land to start an agricultural community in what is now primarily southern Manitoba. The committee recognized such a settlement might become an asset to their fur trading by supplying food to their posts as well as providing a potential labour force. At the very least, the directors felt the settlement would give the HBC a permanent presence in its territory that would help stave off the inroads made into the region by the Montréal-based North-West Company (NWC), whose members were commonly referred to as Nor’Westers.
Agriculture was important since the HBC at the time relied solely upon pemmican to feeds its workers, and this supply was firmly in the hands of Métis serving with the NWC. While the Métis roamed the prairies landscape, they believed themselves to be unfettered entrepreneurs whose only real alliance was to the nation they believed they were creating in the West. In this capacity, they could either serve the Nor’Westers or the HBC based solely upon who offered the best price for the goods they produce, including pemmican.
Writer Marcel Girard in his two-volume book, The Métis in the Canadian West, said this new class of “freemen” were a link between white and aboriginals. “Nearer to the Indian than to the employee in the post, more intimately associated with his nomadic ways, the freeman is himself absorbed irrevocably into the country ... surviving by his own resources, independent of the trading companies, he was attached not only by the modalities of his existence, but also the Métis family he had created, by the blood of relationships that united him with native tribes, and finally the nature of the country whose majestic spaces or wooded horizons he had come to love.”
The Métis particularly believed their semi-nomadic lifestyle, linked to the annual buffalo hunts, was threatened by any permanent settlement established by outsiders in what they felt was their territory. In addition, another source of food would severely diminish their economic status on the plains. Accordingly, the Métis were willing participants in the effort to oust the Selkirk Settlers, creating havoc whenever possible.
During the two years leading up to the Battle of Seven Oaks, the Métis raided the colony, forcing its settlers to continually seek shelter at HBC strongholds to the north at Jack River at the northwest end of Lake Winnipeg (a HBC post would later be built at nearby present-day Norway House) and to the south in Pembina in what is now North Dakota, where Fort Daer was specifically built for them. Homes were burnt and crops and livestock were destroyed by the Métis, although until 1816 deaths from their guerrilla attacks were rare (one attack did result in the wounding of three settlers). The Métis simply wanted the settlers to know they weren’t welcome.
For their part, the Nor’Westers also felt the settlers were a handicap to their fur trading and actively encouraged the Métis to terrorize the colonists and starve them into submission. If these tactics didn’t work, the Nor’Westers were quite willing to bribe the settlers to abandon the Red River region.
Ironically, Nor’Westers such as Sir Alexander Mackenzie, John Englis and Edward Ellice held HBC stock. Mackenzie advised his partners to purchase a controlling interest in the HBC, thereby preventing the formation of a colony at Red River. But the Nor’Westers decided to follow the course set by Simon McGillivray, who believed in confronting the HBC and limiting its interests to the Hudson’s Bay Region, while ensuring the Nor’Westers would control the extensive inland territory accessible by the  Athabaska, Saskatchewan and Red rivers. 
On the other hand, Selkirk believed the HBC, through its charter signed by Charles II, had legal control of the entire northwest territory (Rupert’s Land), which to his thinking meant there was no legitimate reason for him, as the chief stockholder in the HBC, to share the vast territory with others.
The duplicity the Nor’Westers and Métis expected from the HBC was confirmed on January 8, 1814, when District Governor Miles Macdonell issued his infamous and ill-advised Pemmican Proclamation, which called for the Nor’Westers to vacate all their posts on the Selkirk land grant — referred to as Assiniboia — and prohibited the export of pemmican or other food stuffs from the district. Macdonell’s proclamation may have been intended to avert settler starvation, but ended up creating a regional “private” war, which is often referred to as the Pemmican War. His actions were contrary to Selkirk’s earlier instructions not to antagonize the Nor’Westers. 
Up until this point, the settlers had more to fear from adverse weather conditions in the colony than from the Métis or Nor’Westers, who believed bitter cold, waist-high snow and poor crops would defeat the settlers rather than direct confrontation. 
The Nor’Westers actually helped the first Selkirk Settlers survive their first winter. A group of Scots and Irish workers, hired to construct accommodations and prepare the settlement in anticipation of the coming of the first group of colonists, arrived at Point Douglas on August 30, 1812, which was too late to plant crops. Since winter was soon to arrive, the advance party abandoned the settlement to over-winter in Pembina. The 120 settlers (with an unknown number of children) arrived at Point Douglas on October 12, 1812, and with the advance party in the south were also forced to travel to Pembina. Buffalo meat and supplies provided by the Nor’Westers allowed the settlers to survive the long, cold winter at Pembina. 
Another advantage to the settlers was the presence of French-Canadian Jean-Baptiste Laimodière, who became their full-time buffalo hunter during their first two winters in the New World, providing them with a steady supply of meat to stave off hunger. 
Another proclamation issued by Macdonell on July 21, 1814, forbade hunting buffalo near the settlement from horseback, which further antagonized the Métis plains hunters. In another proclamation, dated October 21, 1914, Macdonell ordered that the Nor’Westers quit their posts in the Assiniboia District, which included Red River, within six months.
“Macdonell is now determined not only to seize our pemmican but to drive us out of the Assiniboia district and consequently out of the north west,” commented Nor’Wester Duncan Cameron. “Hostilities will no doubt begin early spring.”
The Pemmican Proclamation was enforced with the seizure of large quantities of pemmican from the Métis and Nor’Westers. Macdonell placed armed men along the banks of the Assiniboine River to intercept pemmican shipments. So-called “smugglers” had a cargo of 96 bags (each bag weighed 90 pounds, or 40.82 kilograms) of pemmican awaiting pick up which was found and seized by Macdonell’s men. A few days later a party of armed men led by colony Sheriff John Spencer set out for the NWC’s Fort Souris along the Assiniboine. They broke into the fort and carried off 476 bags of pemmican, 93 kegs of grease and 865 pounds (392.357 kilograms) of dried meat. 
Since pemmican was the easily transported food that fed canoe paddlers who freighted their furs, the seizures were a serious blow to the NWC’s ability to conduct business in the West.
John Duncan Campbell, chief trader for the NWC, saw the proclamation as an open invitation to bribe the colonists to leave the settlement. If results weren’t achieved in this endeavour, he further believed he was given a free hand to harass the settlers into departing.
In March 1815, Campbell wrote to a French-Canadian Nor’Wester: “I wish that some of your Pilleurs who are fond of mischief and plunder would come and pay a hostile visit to these sons of gunpowder and riot, they might make a very good booty if they went cunningly to work.”
Cuthbert Grant, a leader of the Métis and a key figure at the Battle of Seven Oaks, wrote to Nor’Wester Campbell on March 13, 1816, that he was game for harassing the settlers, “and never to see any of them again in the colonizing way in Red River ... We are all to remain at The Forks (the Nor’Westers erected Fort Gibraltar in 1810 near where Upper Fort Garry would later be built) to pass the summer, for fear they should play us the same trick as last summer of coming back, but they shall receive a warm reception. I am loath to enter into any particulars, as I am well assure that you will receive more satisfactory information ...”
Duncan Cameron and Alexander Macdonell were put in charge of the Red River department of the NWC, which was established to confront the colony. Cameron dressed in a military uniform and insisted he was “chief of this Country.”
"You must assist me in driving away the colony,” Cameron wrote the Métis. “If they are not drove away, the consequence will be that they will prevent you from hunting. They will starve your families, and they will put their feet in the neck of those that attempt to resist them. You can easily see how they mean to finish by what they have begun already.”
While residing in Fort Gibraltar, Cameron used his persuasive powers in 1815 to convince settlers to abandon the colony. 
In his Narrative Respecting the Destruction of of the Earl of Selkirk’s Settlement upon Red River in the Year 1815 (published in London in 1816), Archibald McDonald, an HBC official at Red River, wrote that Cameron “did every thing in his power to gain influence over the settlers; and his attempts became gradually but too successful.”
McDonald related how Cameron wined and dined heads of families at Fort Gibraltar. His ability to speak Gaelic was of particular advantage in his dealings with the settlers from Scotland and Ireland. 
He “obtained complete influence over a considerable proportion of the settlers, who, in the course of the winter, laid aside, and even burnt some of the ploughs, harrows, and other implements of husbandry which they had been cheerfully employed in making.”
Through the intervention of Cameron, McDonald noted that some settlers became “riotous.” A party of disaffected settlers with help from Cameron’s men broke into a warehouse and “robbed it of its artillery,” farm implements belonging to Lord Selkirk, and 25 muskets and bayonets. 
The Nor’Wester Macdonell’s and Cuthbert Grant led a party that burned homes and trampled crops. McDonald wrote that the raiders had “carried away with them the cows belonging to the Settlement, and killed and cut up the bull in the presence of Mr. Alexander M(a)cdonell himself.” 
In the aftermath of the attack, Cameron had bagpipes played to stimulate sentiment in the colonists for their homeland. His actions swayed 133 men, women and children to depart by canoe for Canada. 
His next act was to arrest the HBC’s Macdonell, who was later sent to Montréal to stand trial and languished in a jail for three years. Macdonell voluntarily surrendered to Cameron in June 1815 in return for the promise that the Nor’Westers would leave the remaining settlers alone. Thirteen families, made up of only 60 people, were the last settlers left at Red River. 
Following negotiations between the Nor’Westers and two Ojibway chiefs, according to McDonald, the settlers were allowed to gather their scant belongings and proceed to Jack River under the protection of warriors sent by Chief Peguis.
The colonists during this time of woe had one champion —  Colin Robertson — a former employee of the Nor’Westers who transferred his alliance to the HBC and rallied their flagging spirits. It was Robertson who convinced those at Jack River to return and persist in their efforts to establish a settlement at Red River. 
Lord Selkirk  changed the policy of the HBC in the northwest by hiring experienced Canadians, such as Robertson and “Fighting” John Clarke, to counter the threat posed by the Nor’Westers. Until then, those primarily hired by the HBC were Orkneymen from the Old World. For the first time, the HBC would have former Nor’Westers among its ranks who were skilled in the ways of survival in a region where law-and-order did not exist and “might was right.” 
When Clarke was sent to the Athabaska District to set up a chain of HBC posts, he vowed to send every “Nor’Wester out a prisoner to the Bay.” It was an empty promise as the Nor’Westers, who were the real strength in the region, instead made him a prisoner, while many of his men either perished from starvation or were forcibly pressed into service with the NWC.
When Robertson returned on July 14, 1815, to the settlement, he was undoubtedly surprised to find that “Young John MacLeod,” the Company man in charge when the Nor’Westers attacked, along with three companions still living entrenched at Colony Fort, which was renamed Fort Douglas after Lord Selkirk when rebuilt under the direction of Robertson. Apparently, they were able to hold off the marauders by barricading themselves in the colony’s blacksmith shop and keeping their attackers at bay by firing a cannon with shot made from cut chain. The blacksmith shop at Fort Douglas was the only building in the immediate vicinity that remained standing, according to Robertson.
Once the Nor’Westers were thwarted, MacLeod and his friends kept themselves busy by salvaging what crops remained after the attack and cutting timber for new buildings in anticipation of the return of the settlers. 
Robertson took over as leader of the settlement until a new governor arrived. One of his first actions was to seize Fort Gibraltar, taking three prominent Nor’Westers as prisoners.
Robertson related in an October 16, 1815, journal entry that he told prisoners Cameron (who was actually captured twice — once while out for a walk on the plain and finally at the fort), Seraphin and Hess: “Gentlemen, the cruelty with which you exercised the power that intrigue and force placed in your hands last spring deserves a greater punishment than I am willing to inflict. I gave you to understand on my arrival in this country that I was prepared whether for peace or war.”
After capturing Campbell, Robertson persuaded the Nor’Westers — who were in no position to refuse — to cease operations against the colonists.
John Pritchard, a former Nor’Wester who also went over to the HBC, Pierre Chryologne Pambrun, an HBC employee, and Frederick Damien Heurter, another Nor’Wester defector, co-wrote an account of the troubles in Red River. They related that Robertson emptied Fort Gibraltar of all provisions, guns and ammunition, which was confirmed by Robertson in his own journal. According to the co-writers, Robertson said he had taken these steps for “the security of the people’s lives.”
“I will remove all the arms in his fort (Cameron) to this place (Fort Douglas) until tranquility is established in that quarter,” was Robertson’s October 15, 1815, journal entry .
His actions gave the settler a renewed hope of success. During this period of optimism, Robert Semple, who was to be the new governor, arrived at Red River on November 3 with 84 more settlers (Robertson wrote in his journal that the entire party, including HBC servants, numbered “120 souls”).
With Semple’s arrival, the majority of settlers were sent to Pembina for their own safety. In the colony, only a few of the younger men remained behind to cut timber for buildings and prepare for seeding. By June the following spring, all the settlers were back at Red River.
Robertson and Semple had differing about how the settlement should be run. Semple was concerned about the provisioning of the settlement, while Robertson wanted to blockade the Red River and prevent the resupplying of the Nor’Westers by the Métis. With rumours circulating of more conflict to come, Robertson recommended a pre-emptive strike against the Nor’Westers that was vetoed by Semple. Ironically, when Robertson left the settlement, the governor would see the wisdom of the suggestion and launch his own pre-emptive strike against the Nor’Westers. 
Robertson’s advice was in keeping with what he had told Lord Selkirk in Montréal. He related to Selkirk it was essential to fight fire with fire (Selkirk Papers) when dealing with the Nor’Westers. 
As a result of Robertson’s advice, his instructions in a March 31, 1816, letter to Red River was to compel the North West Company “to quit my lands, especially my posts at The Forks. You must give them solemn warning that the land belongs to the Hudson’s Bay Company. They should be treated as poachers.”
Robertson was convinced his recommendations to Semple were fully justified and when they went unheeded, left Red River for York Factory with Cameron as his prisoner (Cameron was taken to England and later given compensation for false arrest), despite the pleas from Semple not to abandon the settlement.
“Left my encampment early this morning (June 12) this morning my spirits much depressed ... Shall I return and be obliged to bear fresh indignities from these inexperienced men?”
While at aptly-named Reflection Bay, Robertson had a change of heart and sent two men to Red River, “offering my services to defend the Colony should they be required.”
A June 13 letter from Semple, who apparently had his own change of heart, informed Robertson that his services were not needed. “I must confess that I feel grieved and disappointed at the answer ... This adds one more to the many proofs that this Gentleman is governed by the opinion of others.”
(Next week: part 2)