DOUGLAS, THOMAS (EARL OF SELKIRK) (1771-1820)
Thomas Douglas, Fifth Earl of Selkirk, organized the first European settlement colony in the Northern Great Plains. He was born at St. Mary's Isle, Scotland, on June 20, 1771, the youngest son in a large family. In 1806 he was elected to the House of Lords, but his main interest lay in settlement schemes. In Observations on the Present State of the Highlands of Scotland (1805) Selkirk proposed government-sponsored emigration as a solution to poverty and potential rebellion incited by "progressive" land use. Unable to secure official support, he pursued private projects in Upper Canada. Selkirk intended to help Highlanders who had been displaced by large-scale sheep farming to preserve their language, cultural identity, and allegiance to the crown by relocating them within the British Empire. In 1811 Selkirk acquired Assiniboia from the Hudson's Bay Company, a land grant for peasants dispossessed of their homes during the Highland clearances. Selkirk's grant encompassed 116,000 square miles of present-day Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan, North Dakota, and Minnesota–an area five times the size of Scotland.
Inspired by Sir Alexander McKenzie's glowing description in Voyages from Montreal (1801), Selkirk focused his efforts on the rich agricultural potential of the Red River Valley, which fell within the chartered land of the Hudson's Bay Company. Selkirk gained influence in the company through marriage and major stock purchase. With the company experiencing financial difficulties, caused in part by their rivalry with the North West Company, Selkirk successfully argued in favor of an agricultural settlement. The Red River Valley offered abundant natural resources, was an ideal staging ground for fur-rich western regions, and settlement would interfere with the North West Company's trade. Recruited in the Highlands, settlers first arrived at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers (present-day Winnipeg) via Hudson's Bay in 1812. Despite extreme hardship in an isolated, harsh environment, and Selkirk's failure to obtain military protection, the population of the Red River Settlement grew to several hundred by 1816. With aid from local Saulteaux and Metis, settlers wintered at the buffalo feeding grounds near the confluence of the Red and Pembina Rivers, where they constructed Fort Daer, the first European settlement in present-day North Dakota.
In 1815 Selkirk arrived in North America to attend to court proceedings in the escalating dispute over jurisdiction between the Hudson's Bay and North West Companies. Before these issues could be resolved legally, the trade feud became violent. In the Seven Oaks Massacre on June 19, 1816, Métis (debatably armed and encouraged by Nor'westers) burned houses and crops, killing twenty-one settlers and dispersing the colony. Selkirk spent the summer of 1817 at Red River Settlement negotiating a treaty with the Indians and trying to secure the colonists' title to the land, before returning to Montreal. That year colonists returned, greatly encouraged by Selkirk's visit to the Red River.
Having taken direct charge in the offensive against the North West Company, Selkirk overstepped his authority and became deeply entangled in an exchange of charges and countercharges that would absorb his intellectual and financial resources for the brief remainder of his life. Weakened by consumption, he returned to England in 1818. He traveled to France seeking better health but died there in 1820. The following year the trading companies merged. Although the colony continued to face environmental hardships, it slowly grew. In the late 1830s Selkirk's Settlement began to thrive when an overland route tied the settlement to the growing outpost of St. Paul on the Mississippi River.
Marianne Stølen University of Washington
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