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The Pemmican War
Canada is not known for being a nation where war is a big part of our history. Canada has had its part in various wars, including the First and Second World War, but wars on our own soil have been incredibly rare.
There was the War of 1812, the Red River and 1885 Rebellions and of course, the Pemmican War.
Of all the wars we learn about in school, the Pemmican War is typically not one of them. So, what was it?
In this episode of Penny Sized History, I am taking a look at the war fought between two fur trading companies that would result in several deaths and the demise of an entire company.
It all began thanks to Thomas Douglas, the Fifth Earl of Selkirk, who was attempting to get his fellow Scotsmen and women to settle in North America. He would found two colonies. One was located on Prince Edward Island, and another was in Ontario.
He was hoping to found a third, and looked to the land owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company. In order to buy the land, Selkirk began to buy shares in the HBC in 1808 so he could purchase the land he wanted. The plan worked and in 1811, Selkirk purchased 116,000 square miles of land in the Red River area.
The next equation that would lead to war was the establishment of the North West Company, which competed directly with the Hudson’s Bay Company. I did a history of the North West Company a few weeks ago and you can learn all about it there.
This is where the pemmican comes in. Unlike the Hudson’s Bay Company, which imported its provisions from England thanks to its Royal Charter. Pemmican was a dried buffalo meat pounded into a powder and melted with buffalo fat in leather bags. It was vital to the fur trade and to the North West Company. The NWC had to trade for its pemmican from outposts in the Red River District, and then transport it to their depot at Lake Winnipeg where it was distributed throughout the area to forts and traders. The majority of the pemmican was purchased from local Métis.
Needless to say, the Red River pemmican was vital to the North West Company and without it, the company could not feed its employees. William McGillivray, chief partner in the North West Company, said in court that the company could not function without it.
This brings us to the Pemmican Proclamation.
In the new colony created by Selkirk, provisions were scarce and it was decided that provisions like pemmican could not leave the district. As a result, Governor Macdonell issued the Pemmican Proclamation on Jan. 8, 1814. This move was protested by both the HBC and NWC. Since Lord Selkirk was the majority shareholder in the HBC, he was able to deal with that company’s complaints through official channels.
The North West Company decided to ignore the proclamation and Governor Macdonell was obliged to enforce it as a result.
Macdonell responded through blockades, which only raised tensions and resistance from the North West Company.
Métis leader and clerk with the North West Company, Cuthbert Grant, established a Métis camp only a few kilometres from the HBC headquarters at Point Douglas. He established the camp there to cover the departure of 42 colonists travelling for Canada in NWC canoes. Eventually, Grant and his men would begin to harass Selkirk’s settlers to the area and occasionally gunfire would ring out between he two sides.
In one encounter at Fort Douglas on June 10, 1815, one of Governor Macdonell’s men was killed when a cannon exploded.
In June of 1815, Macdonell would surrender to North West Company representatives, who sent him to Montreal to be tried for illegally confiscating pemmican. Not surprisingly, he never faced the charges in court.
In March of 1816, the HBC seized and destroyed Fort Gibraltar at the Forks. The fort had been built in 1810 and the goal of this destruction was to prevent the NWC from shipping pemmican from the Forks to brigades coming from Fort William.
Tensions continued to rise and would erupt in the Battle of the Seven Oaks on June 19, 1816.
This battle would be the culmination of the Pemmican War and the anger between the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company.
In this battle, a part of 60 Métis and First Nations men under Cuthbert Grant was heading west of the Forks to deliver pemmican to the NWC canoes on Lake Winnipeg. At Seven Oaks, HBC Governor Robert Semple and 28 of his men, mostly HBC officers and employees, stopped them.
Gunfire and hand-to-hand combat soon erupted and 20 HBC party members were dead, as well as Semple himself. On the NWC side of things, only 16-year-old Joseph Letendre was killed.
Grant was able to seize Fort Douglas. The Selkirk settlers and HBC staff would leave for Norway House.
The British government quickly called a special inquiry and a commissioner found that the first shot was fired at Francois Boucher from Semple’s side. The second shot was at an Indigenous man in Grant’s party. At that point, both sides fired at each other at will. In all, the battle lasted only 15 minutes. It was also concluded that before the battle, neither party was looking for a fight.
Grant was charged for his part in the battle but all charges were dismissed. The commissioner stated in his report that the pemmican policy was a dangerous policy.
On Aug. 12, 1816, Selkirk and 90 soldiers arrived and captured North West Company’s headquarters at Fort William. The men there were arrested on charges of murder and tried in York in 1818 where they were acquitted.
The damage was done for the North West Company, and its operations were severely impaired by the actions of Selkirk.
Five years after the Battle of the Seven Oaks, the company would merge with the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Today, the Battle of Seven Oaks and the Pemmican War is remembered as one of the first times the Métis people asserted themselves as a new nation with the rights to trade as they wish.
The merging of the two fur trading companies after the war resulted in the closing of half of all the fur trade posts, which had a devastating impact on the Métis and Indigenous people, many of whom were employed with the companies.
Information for this piece comes from Wikipedia, the Canadian Encyclopedia