The Selkirk Settlers
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The Selkirk Settlers

In 1800, the prairies were a vast wilderness, sparsely settled by native bands, a handful of fur traders and their mixed blood children, known as the Mtis.
After a two-month trip across the ocean and 50 days rowing upstream from Hudson Bay, the first European farmers in the west arrived at Red River in 1812. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
After a two-month trip across the ocean and 50 days rowing upstream from Hudson Bay, the first European farmers in the west arrived at Red River in 1812. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
But change was coming and soon the first European farmers would arrive in the west.

Thomas Douglas, the fifth earl of Selkirk, was an intelligent, quietly ambitious man with a progressive native. In 1792, he had toured the Scottish Highlands and he had been moved by the plight of tenant farmers, who were being crowded out to make room for sheep.

For the next two decades, Selkirk pursued his idea of founding a colony for the poor and dispossessed. Although Selkirk was a humanitarian, he also realized a colony would offer him some political prominence and maybe significant profit.

Inspired by the journeys of Alexander Mackenzie, Selkirk choose the stark plains around the Red River for his colony. The land was controlled by the Hudson's Bay Company so Selkirk began to buy stock in the company and persuaded members of his family to do the same.
The Saulteaux natives helped the Red River settlers survive their first, inter in Canada. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
The Saulteaux natives helped the Red River settlers survive their first, inter in Canada. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
The Napoleonic Wars had disrupted the market for furs and HBC stock had plummeted from 250 pounds a share to sixty pounds, making it affordable. Selkirk and his circle came to control almost a third of the company's shares, giving him considerable influence which he used to push his settlement plan.

But Selkirk's plan had many opponents. Alexander Mackenzie attacked the idea of settlement as preposterous. As someone who knew the area, he said, it was never intended for man, but for raw nature. Even Selkirk's friends were skeptical, "By God, sir, if you are bent on doing something futile," one asked, "why do you not... plough the desert of the Sahara, which is so much nearer?"

Fur trading companies were among the most vocal opponents.
Red River settlement
Red River settlement
A settlement at Red River could prove to be the beginning of the slow, inexorable civilizing of the west, crowding out the fur trade.

Despite strident opposition, Selkirk persuaded the Hudson's Bay Company to sell him 116,000 square miles - five times the area of Scotland - for ten shillings.

He had the land; now he needed settlers. Selkirk wrote an "Advertisement and Prospectus" that described Red River in the flattering terms of someone who hadn't yet visited it. Selkirk had the document distributed throughout Scotland.

Bishop John Strachan of York labelled the advertisement "one of the most gross impositions that ever was attempted on the British public, and must be attended with the most baneful consequences to all those unfortunate men, who, deluded by the false promises held out to them, shall leave their homes for such a dreary wilderness." Strachan had never been to Red River either, but both men were partly right about the territory.
Red River was hostile, flood-prone and barren for most of the year. It was also a huge blank canvas on which oppressed Highlanders could create a new life for themselves and it had wonderfully fertile soil, if a desperately short growing season.

Despite the extraordinary hardships in the Highlands, it wasn't easy to recruit settlers. The North West Company placed stories in Scottish newspapers warning of savage attacks from the local Indians.

Nevertheless, the first group came over 1812.
After a two-month trip across the ocean, then 50 days rowing upstream from Hudson Bay, the settlers arrived at Red River to discover their promised settlement was not ready.

Despite the horrid warning by the North West Company, the local natives welcomed the first settlers, leading them to their camp for the winter. The following spring their Red River settlement was ready.

The first European farmers on the Canadian prairies started to build a new life in a new land.

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