Tag Archives: Nor’westers

They had Witnesses To Prove It

English: Fort Astoria, 1813

English: Fort Astoria, 1813 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If a British naval captain had not been so wide awake, to put it politely, Canada might now own what is American territory as far south as Portland, Oregon.  The Columbia River would be the “St. Lawrence of the West.”

Fort Astoria, near the mouth of the Columbia River, had been established by John Jacob Astor in 1811.  The fort’s only link with the outside world was a ship which visited the fort while on trading trips to Vancouver Island and dropped necessary supplies.  Unfortunately the captain was a rough character, and on one occasion struck an Indian chief who came on board to trade.   The next day members of the tribe came on board, ostensibly to trade, drew their knives and killed the captain and most of the crew.  The ship’s clerk, mortally wounded, crawled down to where the ammunition was stored, and set off a blast that killed the Indians and sent the ship to the bottom.

As a result, the people at Fort Astoria were isolated and without supplies.  They were starving when a party of Nor’Westers appeared, after travelling David Thompson’s route down the Columbia, and they were glad to sell the post to the North West Company.  They would be assured of supplies, and protection from any British naval unit that might appear.

In the meantime, such a unit had been sent to capture Fort Astoria.  It was H.M.S. Raccoon under the command of Captain William Black.  After sailing all the way from Britain he was greatly disappointed to find that Fort Astoria was already British territory, through purchase by the North West Company and not through a brilliant naval action of his own.  So Captain Black put on a show.  On December 12, 1813, he hauled down the British flag and raised it again, while the Americans and Indians watched the performance.

When the War of 1812 ended, it was agreed that all territory taken by military action would be returned.  Britain claimed Fort Astoria because it had been purchased from the Astor Company.  “Oh no,” said the Americans.  “The fort was taken by military action by the captain of H.M.S. Raccoon.”  They had witnesses to prove it, and their case held good.  The fort was returned to the States on October 6, 1818, and Canada lost the territory from the British Columbia border to Portland, Oregon.

If you would like to read more about Fort Astoria, I would suggest the Great Battles of the war of 1812 – there’s a great timeline there.


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Pushing His Luck …

The Red River drainage basin, with the Souris ...

The Red River drainage basin, with the Souris River highlighted (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lord Selkirk’s decision to colonize the area near the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers was not received warmly by either the North West Company or the Hudson’s Bay Company.  Both Companies hunted and traded in the Assiniboia region.  They feared that a farming settlement would surely interfere with their business.

Friction between the settlers and fur traders soon erupted.  Miles Macdonnell, appointed Governor of Assiniboia by Selkirk, was angry to see the Nor’Westers transporting bales of pemmican through his territory while many of his own settlers were starving.

Pemmican was made by pounding strips of dried buffalo meat into powder.  Wild berries and melted buffalo fat were then mixed with the powder and compressed into bales weighing as much as ninety pounds.  Pemmican was the most important food on the Prairies at that time.

In January, 1814, Macdonnell posted his “Pemmican Proclamation,” forbidding the export of food supplies from Assiniboia.  From the standpoint of the colony, his decision was beneficial, but how were the Métis and the trading companies to survive without their supplies?

Macdonnell was still not satisfied.  He sent an armed party to Souris, a North West Company trading post on the Assiniboine River.  There, they confiscated about 6000 bales of pemmican.  Macdonnell was “pushing his luck.”  He boasted that he would “crush all the Nor’Westers on the river, should they be so handy as to resist my authority.”

The partners of the North West Company, meeting at Fort William, decided to destroy the Selkirk at Fort William.  A temporary compromise was reached on June 28, 1814, but Miles Macdonnell was nevertheless terribly shaken by the enmity he had aroused.  Even the Hudson’s Bay Company men turned against him.  Macdonnell,  a discouraged, beaten man, wrote to Selkirk and asked to be relieved of his command.

Macdonnell spent his later years at his farm in Upper Canada.  He died at the home of his brother in Point Fortune, Lower Canada, on June 28, 1828.

To read more about today’s post, I have a few notable sites for you to visit. There is the Lord Selkirk Association of Rupert Land, and the Electric Canadian .com, and the Roots Web. The always dependable Canadian Encyclopedia. And lastly, if you have the time a 272-page document, I really do recommend the The Assiniboine Basin by Martin Kavanagh.


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Weakened by consumption, he returned to England

English: Landing of the Selkirk Settlers, Red ...

Landing of the Selkirk Settlers, Red River, 1812, J.E. Schaflein, HBCA, PAM P-388 (N11312), HBC’s 1924 calendar illustration, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


In 1811, Lord Selkirk bought a controlling interest in the Hudson’s Bay Company so that he could set up a settlement at Red River, now Manitoba. At that time there was great rivalry between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company of Montreal.  the Nor’Westers, as they were called, were bitterly opposed to agricultural settlers going into the West because it might spoil the hunting and trapping for furs.

The first Selkirk settlers arrived at Fort Douglas, now Winnipeg, in August 1812.  The Nor’Westers disputed the legality of the sale of the area to Lord Selkirk and trouble began when they saw the new arrivals ploughing the land and building a storehouse for wheat.  When Miles Macdonnell, the leader of the settlers, ordered the Nor’Westers to give up their posts on the Red River, they reacted by destroying the houses and crops of the new settlers and driving many of them out of the country.  Others were induced to go to Upper Canada where the Northwest Company offered them land.

There were many skirmishes between the Selkirk settlers and the Nor’Westers.  The worst took place on June 19, 1816,  after Governor Semple of the Hudson”s Bay Company had sent a fearless officer, Colin Robertson, to arrest Nor’Wester Duncan Cameron for having burned a Selkirk village.

On June 19, a force of 70 armed Nor’Westers and Métis approached Fort Douglas.  Governor Semple went out with thirty men and demanded to know what they planned to do.  Angry words led to shots being fired, and in a few minutes Semple and most of his followers had been killed.  Six managed to get aback to Fort Douglas to tell the story.  The encounter took place near a group of seven oak trees, and is known in history as “The Battle of Seven Oaks.”

Once  more the Selkirk settlers were driven from their homes and lands.  When Lord Selkirk heard the news he seized the Northwest Company’s trading post at Fort William, and a number of its more important officers.  For this action Lord Selkirk was compelled to go on trial in Upper Canada, and fined £2,000 (pounds)!   By this time, he was in poor health, and went to the south of France where he died.

Okay, so those are the basic details. Want to learn more about the Battle (or incident) of Seven Oaks? I can start your journey with a few places to go to. There’s Canada in the Making from; then there’s the Canadian Encyclopedia, and the CBC Learning site. Another good place to go to is The Kid’s Site of Canadian Settlement (it’s written for kids, but I enjoy such passages). Then go on to Red River Selkirk Settlement (it’s written for teachers), and then the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.


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Pacific or Arctic?

Approximate extent of the Mackenzie River wate...

Approximate extent of the Mackenzie River watershed Longest river in Canada, the Mackenzie River. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Alexander Mackenzie began his exploration of the Mackenzie River on June 3, 1789, four years before becoming the first man to cross the North American continent.

Mackenzie came to Canada from Scotland when he was fifteen to become a clerk for the Northwest Company in Montreal.  he became a minor partner and was sent to take charge of a trading post at Detroit.  However, the Nor’westers needed young, rugged men in the north, and Mackenzie was sent to build a post on Lake Athabaska in 1785.  He named it Fort Chipewyan.

Mackenzie soon became familiar with the surrounding territory, even Great Slave Lake, larger than Lake Ontario.  There was a giant river running north from Great Slave Lake and Mackenzie wanted to know where it went: to the Pacific, or the Arctic?

He set out in a canoe with a German, four French-Canadian voyageurs and two of their wives.  The women’s skills were essential on a long trip such as Mackenzie planned.  The expedition paddled the 230 miles to Great Slave Lake, where they had to wait for two weeks because it was still frozen.  By July 1, they were able to continue down the river which was, at times, six miles wide.  After they had gone 500 miles, they met some Indians who tried to stop them from going farther.  The Indians told such tales about the horrors of the river, and the evil spirits, that the German and the voyageurs were ready to turn back, but not Mackenzie.

By July 12, they had reached the river mouth.  It was dreary and disappointing.  The great river divided into narrow channels and flowed through marshy land into the Arctic Sea. Mackenzie spent three days there under the midnight sun, and then burned back.  Two months later he reached Fort Chipewyan.

It seems incredible that Mackenzie and his companions could have covered such a distance by canoe in such a short time, especially as they had to paddle back against the current.  From Great Slave Lake, the Mackenzie River is 1,200 miles long.  The distance to and from Lake Athabaska, where Fort Chipewyan is located, must also be added.

If you would like to read some more about this, I can suggest a few places. To start, I recommend, and then Beyond the Map, and The Alexander Mackenzie Voyageur Route. Another interesting site is at Mackenzie River Bicentennial Dollar.


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