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Cornerstone Colony

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Cornerstone Colony - Selkirk\'s Contribution to the Canadian West. A book written by Grant MacEwan and dedicated to the memory of a great historian and gentleman, one to whom the author has a hugh debt of personal gratitude, Arthur Silver Morton of Saskatchewan. Cornerstone Colony
Selkirk's Contribution to the Canadian West
Copyright 1977 Western Producer Prairie Books
Cover designed by Warren Clark
218 pages,
ISBN 0-919306-80-2.

Red River, At Last

Leaving long and sometimes rambunctious Lake Winnipeg and entering Red River, the Selkirk workers knew they were only a day or two away from the halt which could be their destination. It was enough to awaken new interest in the surroundings. The river water was not the color of blood as opponents had alleged and killer Indians were not lurking in the shadows. Pelican Ripple or St. Andrew's Rapids, of which warnings had been sounded, was no more than a minor disturbance compared with wild water encountered in the North. The whole countryside, in late-August dress, appeared warm and friendly and lovely. Straggler buffalo cows with fat calves carrying tinges of yellow in their baby hair grazed peacefully on the west side and Nature was in undisputed possession.

The Selkirk instructions to consider a location bordering River Dauphin as a site for settlement had not been overlooked but they ceased to weigh heavily on Miles Macdonell's mind, partly because an examination of that area would have taken additional days of valuable time, partly because the opinions of men who knew the country favored the Red River. William Auld admitted that Dauphin River at the west side of Lake Winnipegosis would present fewer dangers from attack by Indians and forces from the United States but Red River would be closer to buffalo herds and more productive. Auld was right and Macdonell did not argue.

It was on August 30 that the twenty-three tired boatmen arrived where the Assiniboine River joins the Red - fifty-five days of heavy paddling, portaging and tracking from York Factory - and Miles Macdonell made a hurried survey to determine a location for a temporary campsite. On the north side of the mouth of the Assiniboine, partly hidden in trees, was the North West Company's Fort Gibraltar, looking much like other utilitarian trading posts, low and drab and sprawling, with a sturdy stockade constructed to discourage angry Indians. Macdonell directed his men to pull to the opposite side and there unload the much-traveled bull and heifer, and pitch the tents.

Macdonell, in the meantime, chose to cross to the west side to test the North West Company temper with a visit at Gibraltar. He was well aware of the fulminations from Company officials, leaving no doubt about their dislike for the Selkirk plan, but a visit would give the resident partners a chance to declare their enmity or accept a neighbor without prejudice. Besides, he had a brother, John Macdonell, and a cousin, Alexander Macdonell, in the North West Company service, which seemed like the best of reasons for a display of friendly interest. Macdonell was received hospitably and went again the next evening for a few convivial hours, each time returning to sleep in his own tent pitched where St. Boniface Cathedral stood in later years.

But the Gibraltar sincerity was brought into question a couple of days after arrival when a band of mounted Métis, feathered and painted as if for war, visited Macdonell's camp and, between war whoops, blatantly informed him that the valley belonged to the halfbreeds and the fur traders. All others would do well to depart. Settlers, above all, would not be welcomed. It was rather obvious that the visit, like the "Highlander" letter appearing in the Inverness Journal in the previous year, was inspired by men of the North West Company.

It wasn't easy to explain to the halfbreed visitors that Lord Selkirk was the new proprietor and his representatives had legal rights and would be staying. It would be still more difficult to convince the North Westers, however friendly they might appear at the outset, and Macdonell was conscious of the need for a public declaration of the Earl's proprietorship and his own authority as the appointed Governor of Assiniboia. Not that he could expect many guests and spectators beyond his own men, but an invitation would be extended to all the residents at Fort Gibraltar. On September 3, Macdonell went riding with Mr. Wills and sixteen others from Gibraltar and after some friendly horse races, he extended the invitation to all to attend on the east side of the river next day at 12 o'clock.

Macdonell was determined to make the ceremony as impressive as possible. He wanted to think that the New World had witnessed nothing like this. Promptly at the hour appointed, the firing of a gun signaled the beginning of the ceremony and a flag was raised. A few freemen and Indians motivated by curiosity were present and "three of the N.W. Co. gentlemen attended but they did not allow their people to cross."

Having had the benefit of some training from their leader, Macdonell's men furnished him with an Officer's Guard of Honor, under arms, colors flying. Then at the proper moment, while the few guests stood in awe, Macdonell advanced and faced Fort Gibraltar to read the patent conveying the land of Assiniboia to Lord Selkirk and then the companion document giving Macdonell the authority to take possession in the Earl's name. In case there were freemen or others whose only language was French, Mr. Heney of the Hudson's Bay Company was present to interpret the message. As Macdonell reported the proceedings to Lord Selkirk, as soon as the reading of the formal instruments was completed, "all our artillery along with Mr. Hillier's consisting of six swivels were discharged" and three cheers given. For whom the cheers is not clear. Finally, to justify the high hopes of the visitors, "the gentlemen met at my tent and a keg of spirits was turned out for the people."

It was like an Official Opening and men who were not inspired by the formalities and sound of gunfire were moved by the tapping of the keg. Even any who might be annoyed by the prospect of settlement were not too angry to take a drink of Hudson's Bay Company rum. Red River was enjoying a transient peace such as it would not experience again for many years.

Now, as Macdonell realized, he had to begin without delay to give body and shape to the new settlement. Whether he was aware of all the implications or not, the decisions demanding his immediate attention would leave their mark most vividly upon the history of a city, a province and a country. And to magnifL the urgency of decision, the next wave of immigrants - genuine settlers with families - might be amving before the onset of winter. The necessity of erecting shelters and finding food for his workmen would have been burden enough but the presence of women and children would multiply the responsibility.

In view of instructions sent by Lord Selkirk and William Auld to Company posts on the Red and Assiniboine, Macdonell had reason to expect some preparations for his party, some shelters and certainly a supply of provisions like pemmican. The harsh fact was, however, that at the beginning of September, there was simply no provision for either food or shelter. Writing to Selkirk he said, with a hint of anger, that "notwithstanding all the orders the Company posts in this quarter might have had to provide for our arrival, there was not one bag of pemmican or any other article of provisions reserved for us."

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