On a warm summer’s afternoon in 1816 fifteen men and horses struggled through swampy fields where the Canadian city of Winnipeg now stands. As the sun sank the marshes nudged them dangerously close to the stockaded wooden fort they were hoping to avoid. Fort Douglas belonged to the fur trading Hudson Bay Company, but these men were allied to the rival North West Company.
In 1670 Charles II gave the HBC, which now trades as ‘The Bay’, a monopoly on trade across a vast territory stretching from the Rockies through Northern Quebec. They established trading posts along the shores of Hudson Bay and waited for Aboriginal people to sell the produce of their traps. Furs from the interior were traded several times before they arrived at HBC forts, each band demanding its own mark-up. Native traders bargained for cloth; guns and gun powder; metal items like pots and axes; and decorative items like beads.
Trade was cemented through relationships. Native women were critical elements of the trade in early centuries, enabling traders to survive Arctic conditions and ensuring good deals for their relations. While some encounters between traders and Native women were brief, others could last a lifetime. Generations of children from these ‘country marriages’ eventually formed a new ethnic group: the Métis. Most Métis lived in the Red River area near Fort Douglas. They farmed and hunted buffalo, processing meat and hide to supply the fur trade. Many Métis worked for and married into the HBC, but others allied themselves with the rival Nor’Westers.
Although the HBC technically had a monopoly, from the 1730s independent French Canadian traders had established forts in the interior, siphoning off furs before they reached the coastal British posts. French competition was replaced after 1759 by an aggressive and flexible rival operated by Highland Scots: the North West Company. Tensions built towards violence in the early nineteenth century. Fur-bearing animals had been almost exterminated by hunting and the HBC tried to regain the initiative by building a fort on a key NWC trading route. In 1812 an additional provocation was the arrival of immigrants at Fort Douglas intending to farm at Red River. Many of these immigrants were from Kildonan. Clearly neither the British government nor the HBC saw the Métis or Natives to have any right to the land on which they lived and worked. Although the settlement would threaten the Métis ability to provide the North West Company with supplies, threatening both company and the economic basis of the Métis, no treaties were agreed and local communities were not consulted.
For the next few years the region was plagued with recurrent violence. It was therefore wise that the leader of the Nor’Westers that afternoon tried to circumvent Fort Douglas undetected. Cuthbert Grant, the Métis son of a trader from Strathspey, was a ‘stout, powerful fellow of great nerve’. His men were spotted by some Saulteaux sympathetic to the HBC who alerted the governor of the fort. Robert Semple was a veteran of the American Revolution who, despite the delicacy of local politics, decided to ride out with twenty men to assert his authority. One of these was a young man named Sutherland from Clyne parish. Despite being founded as an English company, by 1816 62% of HBC employees were Scottish. 41 individuals were Highlanders. Sutherland and his comrades followed Semple out beyond the wooden stockades, unaware that the fifteen Métis were merely an advance party. Fifty more followed them. Local farmers, perhaps Kildonan men, alerted Semple who sent for a three pound field piece. Too impatient to wait for its arrival, the governor plunged on and the two bands met at Seven Oaks.
Fort Douglas (1817) from the pencil sketch by Lord Selkirk.
Reproduced in George Bryce, Lord Selkirk’s Colonists (Toronto: Musson, 1909), 112.
The parties spread out, eyeing each other warily andready for trouble. Grant sent a messenger demanding that Semple’s men surrender or be fired upon. Irritated, Semple grabbed at the aide’s reins and gun. The aide slipped from his horse and ran for cover. An HBC man accidently fired his gun. Grant’s men ducked behind their horses and began a heavy volley. Semple’s men returned musket shots. One of Grant’s bullets broke Semple’s thigh, rendering him helpless to the Métis who would soon kill him. After their volley, the Métis threw themselves on the ground to reload. Unfamiliar with this French-Canadian style of fighting, Semple’s men cheered, but the Métis jumped up and charged. Some of the HBC men fled but others, including the young Clyne man, fought viciously. After fifteen minutes one of Grant’s men and twenty of Semple’s were dead. The wounded were killed and many of the bodies mutilated. It wasn’t until four years later that Alexander Sutherland was given absolute notification that his son was ‘among the unfortunate party that were murdered at the Red River’. Seven Oaks has been called a battle and it has been called a massacre. However you describe it, this fifteen minute incident had a deep impact on the Canadian North West. It changed the fortunes of the colony of Scots; the fate of the rival fur trade companies; and it helped precipitate the rise of the Métis nation. And in the middle of it all was the young fur trader from Clyne.
Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1987)
D.T.Lahey, George Simpson: Blaze of Glory (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2011)
Arthur J. Ray, I have lived here since the world began: An illustrated history of Canada’s native people (Toronto: Lester Publishing, 1996, 2005)
Suzanne Rigg, Men of Spirit and Enterprise: Scots and Orkneymen in the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1780-1821 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2011)
Cuthbert Grant Jnr, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online: