The Red River Colony

Strategically located at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, the Red River Colony dated from a large land grant by the Hudson's Bay Company to the earl of Selkirk in 1812. (Selkirk's family had gained control of the company in 1811.) Establishing a base at the centre of what is now downtown Winnipeg, Selkird sent out a small number of Scots settlers who, with much difficulty, began eking out a living producing grain and vegetable crops in the new colony (which Selkirk called Assiniboia) . Food supplies remained precarious, however, and conflict soon developed between the colony's administrators and the rival Montreal-based North West Company fur traders who had long relied on provisions from the area to support their long-distance trade routes into the the northwestern interior. In the course of the ensuing contest for control, the main settlement at Red River was destroyed and the inhabitants dispersed (1815), but within a few years Selkirk rebuilt and repopulated it, this time recruiting disbanded members of a regiment of Swiss mercenaries (the de Meurons) who had served with British forces in central Canada during the War of 1812.

In 1821 when the Hudson's Bay Company absorbed the North West Company  the old conflicts which had hindered the colony's development disappeared, but other difficulties arose. Not the least of these were natural: adapting European-style farming to the short growing season of the region proved difficult and the uncertainties facing grain growers were exacerbated by attacks of locusts and difficult-to-control plant diseases; in 1826 the settlement was washed away in the first of what were to become routine, but seemingly always unanticipated, Red River floods.

Perhaps even more threatening to the colony's future by the middle of the 19th Century were the cultural conflicts built into its heritage. The Presbyterian Scots settlers had little in common with the substantial and growing Metis population made up of French-speaking Roman Catholics, many of the former fur trade employees who settled in the area on their retirement (or dismissal due to downsizing by the Hudson's Bay Company after 1821) or even the English-speaking, usually Protestant "half breeds" (aka "mixed-blood" or "country-born") offspring of Indian-Scots unions. As the Hudson's Bay Company lost interest in subsidizing immigration from Scotland, and despite some additional European immigration (from Switzerland, for example) the Metis population of Red River came to outnumber the Europeans there. By the 1860s the stage was set for a more serious clash of interests in the region between what was by then a largely French-speaking, Roman Catholic community and another wave of newcomers to the west from central Canada.

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