Chief Peguis and the Selkirk settlers: 200 years of reverence

2017 marks the 200th anniversary since the signing of the Selkirk Treaty between Chief Peguis and Lord Selkirk. Even after two centuries, Chief Peguis is still held in the highest esteem by the descendants of Manitoba’s first homesteaders.

How miserable does life have to be to drive people to a wilderness that is 5,633 kilometres away from home and filled with unknown dangers? For the people who became the Selkirk settlers anything was better than what they were suffering.

Homes on narrow river lots along the Red River in 1822 by Peter Rindisbacher with Fort Douglas in the background.

Perhaps that is, in part, what drove Lord Selkirk’s settlers and the people of Chief Peguis together here on the banks of the Red River. They were both emigrants, looking to make a new life away from a place of strife and upheaval, but the Plains Ojibwa were a strong, resilient people who, in spite of their prowess in war, believed in helping others.

The settlers from Scotland, on the other hand, had been worn down through a long period of displacement. After a religious war, the Jacobite Rising, ended in 1746, Highlanders had to surrender their swords. They were forbidden to wear the kilt or their clan tartans. Their language was discouraged. In 1762, Admiral John Ross started clearing his land of tenants to make way for herds of sheep. During the period from 1783 to 1821, it is estimated that 500,000 Scottish Highlanders were displaced from the homes they had occupied for over 1,000 years, their landlords sometimes burning them out and tearing down their dwellings. By the early 1800s, the activities had escalated. Those who could, emigrated, but many could not afford the price of a steerage ticket.

Around 1774, Peguis, who would grow up to be a remarkable man, was born in Sault Ste. Marie. When he was nine, his family moved to Red Lake, Minnesota where they lived for a number of years. The boy would grow to become a natural leader and when he was only 18, he was already a chief.

In 1792, Peguis led a group of about 200 people westward to Netley Creek near Lake Winnipeg. There were still bison, hunting and trapping were good and the people could grow their gardens of corn, squash and pumpkins on the rich shores of the lake and the Red River. They could trade the pelts for European goods from the North West Company. Peguis established good relationships with the neighbouring Cree and Assiniboine First Nations and over the following two decades the community prospered.

Enter Thomas Douglas, Fifth Earl of Selkirk, the last remaining and a younger son in a family of seven boys. The Earl grew up without the pressures of succession hanging over his head and became something of a philanthropist who took an interest in the plight of the displaced Scottish farmers. He used his fortune to settle some of them in the eastern part of Canada, and then set his sights on the Red River Valley. With his brother-in-law, he gained a controlling interest in the Hudson’s Bay Company, enabling him to secure 116,000 square miles of the territory for his colony.

The rival North West Company, supported by the Métis and the local indigenous people who trapped for them, was active in the area, and none were happy about the competition from the Hudson’s Bay Company or with the idea of sharing the bounties of the land with settlers.

Nevertheless, on Sept. 24, 1811, Selkirk’s first contingent of 22 men, who were sent out to prepare the colony for the first settlers, landed at York Factory on Hudson Bay. Led by Miles MacDonnell, they set out the following spring to make the long and arduous journey through the muskeg, arriving at the Red River Colony in August 1812. It was already too late to prepare homes let alone plant a crop for the settlers who arrived two months later on Oct. 27. After a rough voyage followed by an even rougher trek south, these settlers were tired, sick and disheartened.

Without the help and support of Peguis and his people, they would have died. Peguis continued this support over the next two years, but food was scarce, partly thanks to the North West Company which hoarded the available bison meat and pemmican.

Miles MacDonnell, the first governor of the colony, eventually issued an edict forbidding the export of pemmican from the colony, an act that sparked anger among the Métis and the North West Company traders. This was one of the factors that led to the Battle of Seven Oaks in June 1816 and the massacre of  Governor Robert Semple and 20 of his men at Frog Plain (in the present day Kildonan area). Peguis helped the survivors from this battle to shelter at Jack River near Norway House, where they had spent a previous winter under the chief’s watchful eye to get away from the disputes with the North West Company.

Finally, in June of 1817, Lord Selkirk brought a small group of soldiers to help restore order at Fort Douglas.  Lord Selkirk and Chief Peguis negotiated the first treaty in Western Canada; Peguis brokered much of the deal, bringing in other chiefs. The Selkirk Treaty was signed by Pequis, Matchie Whewab (Le Sonnant), Mechkaddewkonaie (La Robe Noire), Kayajeskebino (L’Homme Noir) and Ouckidoat (Le Premier). The land was apportioned and a promised gift of one hundred pounds of sacred tobacco to be delivered to each chief every year sealed the deal. The treaty was signed on July 18, 1817.

Chief Peguis continued to be a friend to the settlers. He converted to Christianity and took the name William King, giving the surname Prince to his four sons. He lived to be 90 years old, passing away in 1864.

Lord Selkirk died three years later in England.

This summer, James Alexander Douglas Hamilton, 11th Earl of Selkirk, again returned to Manitoba to honour the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the  Selkirk Treaty.

A committee co-chaired by John D. Perrin, representing the settlers, and William Shead, a descendant of and representing Chief Peguis, has been working on the commissioning of a statue honouring Chief Peguis and the treaty to be erected on the grounds of the Manitoba legislature.

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