Colonial Intelligence York, (U.C.) Nov, 4.
Lord Selkirk vs. North West Company.
On Friday, the 30th of October, the Court of Oyer and Terminer proceeded to try the gentlemen accused as necessaries to the murder of Robert Semple, Esq. and others at Red River, on the 19th of June, 1816 and the trial was rendered extremely interesting by the disclousure which took place of many extraordinary circumstances connected with the Hudson’s Bya and North West Companies, which for some time past has excited so much of the public attention in this Province. The gentlemen tried on this occasion were, Messrs. Alexander Mackenzie, Hugh M’Gillis, Simon Fraser, John Macdonald, and John M’Laughlin } accused as accessories after the fact. and Mr John Severlight, accused as an accessory before and after the fact.
It appeared in evidence that the North West Company had been upwards of thirty years in possession of trading posts called forts at different points on the Red River in the Indian Territories, and it is well known that for a century before the North West Company, the Canadian for traders had been in the constant practise of resorting to that country which was visited for the first time by traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company about twenty-five years ago. It was put in evidence that for many years afterwards both companies carried on their trade to Red River without interference in each others pursuits, and without any disturbance in the country ; and it was explained that the principal object of the trade being to collect provisions, (enlisting chiefly of the dried flesh of the buffalo, which abound in the plains) and the country producing abundance for the supply of both parties, the same causes of dissention did not exist as at trading stations where the fine furs are obtained in small quantities, and where rival traders would at all times be likely to dispute about the divisions of them. The Red River country therefore remained quiet and undisturbed until the arrival of the Earl of Selkirk’s Colonists and Servants, and the attempts made by their leaders to prevent the usual supplies of provisions from being obtained by the traders.
The proclamation of Miles Macdonnell the soi-disant Governor of Ossinibour, prohibiting the exportation of provisions from Red River, was the first document produced for the defence at the recent trials. It was proved that, under this assumed authority, several acts of violence were committed by Mr Macdonnell and his followers. Trading posts and buildings were forcibly entered, depots of provisions seized, the river (the only outlet from the country) blockaded by batteries mounted with cannon, and the trade of the North West Company wholly interdicted, before any acts of retaliation were attempted on their part, and even before they took any precautions for their own defence or for ensuring the safety of their provisions, on which depended the existence of their trade, and the lives of their people.
Mutual and continual acts of aggression and retaliation appeared to have exasperated the minds of both parties, and to have rendered them so suspicious of the designs of each other as to be always on their guard and prepared for defence. In short it appeared in evidence that the country remained in a state of private war, which at length ended in the battle of the loch of Jane, 1816. The particulars of this unfortunate affray were fully investigated in the trial of Bouche and Brown for murder, as principals. The statements on both sides are already before the public, and the acquittal of the prisoners shows sufficiently that the jury considered Mr Semple and his party to have been the assailants. On the trial of the alleged accessories the cirumstances which led to the meeting of the hostile parties were made out in the evidence to the following effect, viz : –
In March, 1816, Mr Colin Robertson, with an armed party, acting under the orders of Governor Semple, who had succeeded Governor Miles Macdonnell at Red River, captured by surprise the North West trading post at the forks of the river, called Fort Gibraltar, and took possession of all the stores and provisions. In the latter part of the following month of May, Governor Semple caused the buildings (which were of wood) to be taken to pieces, and the materials were floated fown the river in rafts, to be used in constructing his new fort, which he called Fort Douglas and where, (following the examples of his predecessors) he mounted cannon to command the passage of the river, built an armed schooner, or gun-boat, to complete the blockage, and effectually to intercept the provisions and trade of the North West Company. Mr. Alexander Macdonnell, a partner of the North West Company, who had charge of their provisions at Riviere Qui Appele, one of the branches of the Red River, became alarmed at these measures of hostility, and assembled as many people as he could (half breeds and others) for the protection of the property under his care, with which, at the usual time, he proceeded down the river till he arrived within sixty miles of Governor Semple’s fort. He then landed his provisions, made dispositions to defend them, if attacked, and sent a party of his people, with a temporary supply to meet the canoes from below, apprise them of the blockages, and concert with them the means of eluding or removing it. This party, under the direction of Cuthbert Grant (a half breed, and a clerk of the N. West Company) was ordered to land above Fort Douglas in order to keep out of the reach of the cannon, and to carry these provisions in carts, at as great a distance as possible from the fort, so as to avoid being seen.– This it was fully proved they did ; but a swamp in the rear of the fort compelled them to pass within about two miles of it, and being deserted and pursued from then, the conflict ensued in which Mr Semple, and most of his party, were killed.
It was further made out in evidence that in the Spring of the year 1816, the agent of the North West Company at Montreal were still in need of more than the usual supply of provisions from the Red River, because there had not yet been time to replace the vessels on the lakes, and the other means of transport which the Americans had destroyed during the war, nor to replenish their stores at Fort William, with the usual quantity of provisions from Canada. Having also heard of the seizure of one of their posts at Red River in the fall of the year 1815, and apprehending further aggressions in the spring, Mr M’Leod, one of the agents, with all the partners and clerks who could be spared from Montreal, proceeded up the country early in the Spring, and on arriving at Fort William, received intelligence of the capture of Fort Gibraltar and the blockade of Red River, towards which place he immediately proceeded with as many of the partners, clerks, and servants of the Company as he could collect by the way, in order to rescue the intercepted provisions, in the defence of which, or in their own defence, if fired on by Semple’s blockading battery, it was their avowed purpose to use force if necessary, but it was distinctly proved that their intentions and orders issued to their cannonmen, were, to pass Fort Douglas singing, and to proceed up the river for their provisions, without landing or molesting any one unless they should be attacked.–They arrived at Red River three days after the battle, and Mr M’Leod, who was a Magistrate, being of opinion that Mr Semple’s party had been the assailants, and that the half breeds had only acted in self defence, did not adopt any measures against them, (the half breeds) but, on the contrary, expressed approbation for their having defended their provisions, and gave them the supplies of clothing, &c. usually given to all the servants of the North West Company, while, at the same time, he arrest some of the survivors of Mr Semple’s party, and served subpoenas upon others to give evidence of these transactions in the Courts of Lower Canada. This was the whole of the evidence, and the only circumstances which appeared relative to the prisoners, were that Mr Sevewright (the alleged accessory before the fact) was with Mr Alexander Macdonnell when he sent off Grant and his party to escort the provisions past Fort Douglas, and that the alleged accessaries after the fact arrived at Red River with Mr M’Leod, after the battle was over, and appeared to consider it, as it is now found to have been, an affray in which the unsuccessful party were to blame, and in which the successful party were not murderers –The Judge who presided at the trial, declared in his charge to the jury that there was not a scintilla of evidence ” against any one of these gentlemen,” and the jury accordinagly returned a verdict of Not Guilty.
It will be recollected that these gentlemen were arrested by the Earl of Selkirk, at Fort William, in Aug 1815, on the charges of High Treason and Conspiracy, as well as Murder–and that the buildings and property of the North West Company at that place were forcibly seized and subsequently retained by an armed force under his Lordship’s command. The North West Company represented at the time that these accusations were merely a pretext set up to palliate the preconcerted plunder of their property, and destruction of their trade, while, on the part of Lord Selkirk, it was alleged that the crimes committed by the partners of the North West Company were so atrocious, as to justify his Lordship’s proceedings against them ; and for some time the public opinion remained in suspense as to the real merits of the case. So far as regarded the seizure of property and the interruption of trade, the point was decided by the Prince Regent’s Proclamation of the 3rd of May, 1817, in consequence of which the North West Company recovered possession of their property, and re-established their trade ; but that proclamation left the rights of parties, and the crimes alleged against the individuals, to be investigated and decided upon by the law – and until such investigation could take place, much uncertainty necessarily prevailed from the contradictory statements and affidavits which had been laid before the public.
The recent trials at York however decided the point as to the alleged murders, and the charge of High Treason has never been followed up, nor ever mentioned, since it served the desired purpose, by figuring in Lord Selkirk’s Warrant as a pretext for seizing and examining the books and private papers of of the North West Company.
Citation: Aberdeen Journal (Aberdeen, United Kingdom), 20 January 1819, available at the Scissors and Paste Database, http://www.scissorsandpaste.net/135.