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Shedding light on Canadian history

Letters in Scottish archives discuss settlers, battle

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The Scottish archives has uncovered two letters shedding light on the Selkirk settlers' journey to Canada and the Battle of Seven Oaks.

"These (documents) possibly throw further light on the settlement and on the background to it," George MacKenzie, registrar general and keeper of the records for the National Records of Scotland, said Tuesday.

The rediscovered letters' significance and connection to the Selkirk settlers' bicentenary only surfaced a few weeks ago, MacKenzie said.

"What you're getting is a direct connection to the past in a way that, really, no object can connect you," he said. "You're right into the minds of people here."

Copies of the letters will be presented to the Manitoba's Lt.-Gov. Philip Lee by the current Lord Selkirk, the Rt. Hon. James Douglas-Hamilton, sometime this week in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Selkirk settlers' arrival in Manitoba.

The first letter is a draft written by Lord Melville, who commanded the Royal Navy, turning down Lord Selkirk's request for a naval escort to protect the settlers' journey to Canada. The 1812 letter is written days after the United States declared war on Britain, and there were concerns about the British navy kidnapping people to serve in the unpopular job.

"The danger is not just making that voyage and setting up, you've got the potential that your own navy might intercept you," said MacKenzie.

The letter, although denying protection, shows Lord Selkirk was important enough to be granted a response, said Jack Bumsted, author of Lord Selkirk: A Life.

"Selkirk has enough clout for them to say 'no,' " said Bumsted. "He's important enough that (Lord Melville) writes to say what is not happening."

Melville writes, "Be assured that no Officer will impress a Landsman if he is satisfied that he is really not a seafaring man," stating the settlers were not the type of people the navy was looking for.

The second letter recounts one version of the 1816 Battle of Seven Oaks, between the Hudson's Bay Co. and the Northwest Company, written by Angus Shaw, a manager of the Northwest Company.

"It was basically getting their version of the story out as fast as possible," said Harry Duckworth, past president of the Manitoba Historical Society. "The version (Lord) Selkirk encouraged was that it had been the Northwest Company all the time that had been provoking things, picking fights."

The 1816 letter was addressed to a Halifax merchant, with Shaw outlining it was the colony governor and the Hudson's Bay Co. that provoked the fight, and accusing Lord Selkirk of not allowing the Northwest Company to ship their furs to Montreal.

Even though none of the information is groundbreaking, Duckworth said the letters provide a new angle of events.

"It's always exciting when you get new documents, even when it's about a well-known incident. It's a slightly different take," he said.

jennifer.ford@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 5, 2012 A5

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