Red River colony


The Red River colony, established by Thomas Douglas, Lord Selkirk, in 1812, was the first farming settlement in western British North America. Though a collective failure economically and politically, it demonstrated that individuals could successfully farm the western prairies, laying the foundation for the settlement of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Selkirk, a philanthropist who had established smaller settlements on Prince Edward Island and at Baldoon, Ontario, acquired controlling interest of the Hudson’s Bay Company between 1808 and 1812 with an eye toward settling Scottish crofters (tenant farmers with very small holdings) who had been driven from their Highland farms. In 1811, he purchased 116,000 square miles of Rupert’s Land from the company, extending from Lake Winnipeg in the north to the headwaters of the Red River in the south. In return for this immense tract, almost as large as Britain and Ireland combined, Selkirk was responsible for providing 200 company men with a 200-acre pension when they retired. Crofters were required to pay 10 pounds each for transportation and a year’s supplies, with a grant of 100 acres of land at five shillings per acre to each head of household.
Such bounty seemed too good to be true, and it was. The transplanted Scots were under constant threat from the Sioux and the Métis (Canadians of native and mostly French parentage), who in 1817 proclaimed the region as their own “nation.” The newcomers had no proper tools for farming the tough prairie sod, and when they did manage to raise crops or cattle, ferocious winters, wolves, grasshoppers, blackbirds, and floods were there to steal the fruits of their labor. The placement of 270 Scots in the Red River settlement (1812–16) also led to violent opposition from the North West Fur Company, whose trade routes were infringed. A protracted legal struggle cost Selkirk much of his fortune. In addition, the colony was poorly governed; Selkirk himself only visited once, in 1817. Not surprisingly, the Red River settlement grew slowly.
In 1821 the population was a little more than 400. More than half were Scots, but there was a significant number of Irish and smaller numbers of French Canadians and Swiss. As the population grew, the character of the colony changed dramatically. By the mid-1820s, most of the original settlers had died or departed for the United States or Upper Canada. By the 1830s, the population was composed almost entirely of Métis. When they rebelled against intrusion by the Canadian government in 1869–70, there were 5,754 of mixed Native American–French descent and 4,083 of mixed Native American–British descent. From this conflict emerged the province of Manitoba and parts of the Northwest Territories.

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