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A new land and a new life

Hardy settlers found place on the Prairies

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This year marks the 200th anniversary of the arrival of a group of dispossessed but tenacious Scottish and Irish colonists.

These hardy souls were the first wave of settlers under the leadership of Thomas Douglas, the fifth Earl of Selkirk, to settle a vast area in Rupert's Land along the Red River, the place that would eventually become home to the city of Winnipeg.

But those early settlers, indomitable as they were, could not have survived without the enormous assistance provided by Chief Peguis, of the Red River Saulteaux. He was a man of great compassion for those less fortunate, which is how he saw the Selkirk settlers when they arrived, says historian Donna G. Sutherland.

"They were poor of clothes, food, skills and knowledge, lost in a land and among a collection of people they knew nothing about," Sutherland wrote in her book Peguis, A Nobel Friend.

"He and his band hunted for the early settlers, protected them from those who wished them harm and led them south to Pembina to overwinter, which probably saved their lives. He played many roles in our province's early history, but among them all, his biggest responsibility was not to fur traders or their companies, not to Lord Selkirk and his settlers, and not to Christian missionaries, but to his own people."

What was it that drove the settlers to seek a new land and endure such harsh experiences in the first place?

During the late 18th and 19th centuries, multitudes of Scots were cleared off their rented land and burned out of their homes to make way for sheep. Some Scots were sold into slavery, and many were forced abroad.

Scottish landowners wanted to increase their farm profitability, a widespread movement that later became known as The Clearances. One estimate puts the number of people displaced by The Clearances at half a million between 1783 and 1881.

"Crossing the Atlantic to a far unknown land, they saw the last of Scotland with straining eyes, as its coast sank beneath the horizon," notes the 1923 book, Women of Red River.

"The bleak cliffs of Hudson Strait were the next land they were to see; and when at last the voyage was ended, and they landed on the shore of the Bay, it was to find that a long journey through the wilderness had still to be made. At the Red River, before they could establish themselves in new homes, they endured several years of privations and calamities."

In the summer of 1812, the second party of Selkirk settlers -- the first was an earlier work party -- arrived at York Factory at the mouth of the Hayes River on Hudson Bay.

"In that party, as it was listed by Owen Keveny, who was in charge as the representative of Lord Selkirk, there were 18 women 'above 15,' one girl, and 11 children 'under eight,' " reports Women of Red River.

There was ship fever on board "and while the ship was labouring through a furious storm in the Bay two days before she came to anchor," a child was born, a girl to a Mrs. McLean.

It was late October that year when the women and children of the second party of Selkirk settlers arrived at the fork of the Red and the Assiniboine rivers.

While they were making the journey from York Factory to the Red River via sturdy York boats, a third party had already landed on the shore of Hudson Bay, after a voyage on which there had been deaths from ship fever.

"Most of the survivors were so weak that the journey of 700 miles to the Red River could not be undertaken that fall," according to the Women of Red River.

"Rough log cabins had to be made with axe and spade for a winter camp near the mouth of the Churchill River."

Selkirk established the settlement at Red River for a variety of reasons, "partly to provide a British presence in the west; partly to establish the fact that it was possible to have an agricultural settlement here and partly to control the fur trade," said historian Jack Bumsted, a retired University of Manitoba history professor.

Despite many hardships, including the massive flood of 1826, the conflict between the two giants of the fur trade, North West Company and Hudson's Bay Company, and plagues of crop-eating locusts, the Red River Settlement survived. The foundation had been laid for a new and better life.

mzeilig@mymts.net

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2012 A10

History

Updated on Saturday, September 1, 2012 at 11:46 AM CDT: adds fact box

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