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The Selkirk Settlers

Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk was a Scottish nobleman and a Hudson’s Bay Company stockholder. He is most known for his involvement with the Red River Settlement, but was also instrumental in the Peguis-Selkirk Treaty. The Peguis-Selkirk Treaty, formed between local Indigenous groups and Lord Selkirk has come to be known as a complex, problematic, and highly debated document.  

Black and white portrait of Thomas Douglas in 1771
Thomas Douglas 5th Earl of Selkirk, 1771-1820, The Library and Archives Canada

After Thomas Douglas’ four elder brothers passed away, he inherited the title ‘5th Earl of Selkirk’ and the wealth that followed. In the early 1800s, Selkirk used this new wealth to invest in HBC stocks. With his stake in the HBC, he established two colonies in Ontario and Prince Edward Island to relocate Scottish farmers, evicted from their homes during the Highland Clearances. In 1811, Selkirk persuaded the company to give him a 116 000 square mile block of land in southern Manitoba, which he named Assiniboia. The land would later become known as the Grant of Assiniboia, or the Selkirk Grant. Selkirk used this land to establish a third colony for the displaced settlers. However, this land was already home to many Nations: the Assiniboine, Nehiyawak (Cree), Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe or Saulteaux), and Métis.

Quickly contentions rose as Indigenous leaders objected to the fact that an outsider had suddenly claimed the land as his own. The unrest at the settlement, particularly with the Métis caused Selkirk to visit the region in 1817 to attempt to resolve it. The conflict spurred Selkirk to negotiate a land sharing ‘treaty’ with Chief Peguis and four other chiefs – L’homme Noir, La Robe Noire, Le Sonnant, and Le Premier.

Black and white picture of Chief Peguis
Chief Peguis, Date Unknown, Selkirk Enterprise Centennial Edition, 1982

While Indigenous peoples had sovereign right to the land, the HBC perceived their right to assign land to various individuals through the Royal Charter of 1670. Having gained the land from the HBC, Selkirk felt he had authority of the land. However, he also had to follow the principles of the Royal Proclamation of 1763. The Proclamation stated that all the land west of the Appalachian range was Indigenous land, and wherever the land was occupied by Indigenous people, they were deemed to possess it. The only way land could be given up was by way of a treaty between the Indigenous people and the Crown. This meant that in order for Selkirk’s settlers to remain on the land he had to create a treaty with the Indigenous population.

The Terms of the Treaty

The Peguis-Selkirk Treaty negotiations included several of Selkirk’s agents, Commissioner Coltman, four Saulteaux chiefs, one Cree chief, and many witnesses. On July 18, 1817, the five Indigenous leaders signed the Indenture, a written document describing the Peguis-Selkirk Treaty.  

Handwritten Peguis-Selkirk treaty in 1817
Peguis-Selkirk Treaty, 1817, Province of Manitoba

For the settler, the deal meant they could use the land in exchange for ‘quit-rent,’ a term used to describe the relationship between a tenant farmer and the governing lord. The farmer would pay fixed rent each year in exchange for tenancy on the land. Selkirk proposed an annual payment of gifts, such as tobacco, in exchange for peace and a hunting ban around the settlement.

For Indigenous peoples, land was used for subsistence; “therefore, Selkirk’s ‘claim’ would last as long as the crops were in the ground,” Hasselstrom, 53. In other words, the settler’s claim would dissolve the moment they stopped farming the land. The Treaty “created a reservation for the settlers, all the rest of the territory was still to be deemed the land of the Chief’s that signed the Treaty.” – Bill Shead.

Signing the Treaty

The complexity of the Treaty didn’t stop there. Indigenous peoples had a political structure of their own, which included land agreements with different bands. For example, the Cree had rights to the Red River land, but allowed the Saulteaux to occupy it. Within this structure, Cree chief, Le Sonnant signed the Treaty, but his signature alone did not secure overall Cree approval. 

 

Black and white portrait of Le-Sonnant-Kahkewistahaw in 1886
Le Sonnant, Kahkewistahaw, at Center, c1886, University of Saskatchewan Library Archives and Special Collections

Selkirk knew that one Cree signature did not count for the rest of the Cree people, so he arranged to have the Treaty, “completed on the part of the Crees.” Selkirk assigned his agents to obtain more signatures, but they were never able to do so.

Without the signatures, Selkirk knew that the Treaty was incomplete. When he left Red River in 1817, he said according to Chief Peguis, “At present we cannot conclude the arrangement, for I have nothing to pay you with. Let us leave the matter as it stands. I will come back, and then we will close the negotiations. I am in a hurry and cannot remain longer, but I will be sure to return.” But Selkirk died in 1820 and would never return to the Red River region.  

Forgetting the Terms

After the treaty was signed little else was recorded. Selkirk didn’t include information about the Indenture in his 1818 memorial, and Coltman didn’t describe it in his official report, or any correspondence published afterwards.  

After Selkirk’s death in 1820, the HBC experienced a high turnover of Colony officials and a significant loss of institutional memory. For example, Selkirk’s agents all described the Treaty differently. One account by agent Peter Fidler commented that the Saulteaux had “sold the land to Lord Selkirk” in exchange for annual tobacco.

In contrast, Chief Peguis said, “no final bargain was made; but that it was simply a loan… I say positively the lands were never sold.”

Over time, the land granted to Selkirk would be sold back to the HBC, and the HBC would use the Indenture as proof that Selkirk had secured ownership of the land.

Witnessing the Treaty

There were more Indigenous than settler witnesses of the Treaty, and later very few settlers who participated in the debates about the legitimacy of the treaty. However, one witness, Andrew McDermot, remained vocal in his account of the negotiations. Unfortunately, the HBC would use his words to support their perceived rights in the Treaty, despite the glaring inaccuracies of his account. 

In contrast, all of the Indigenous witness statements were reliable. Relatives and successors of the signatories also left witness statements which all gave the same report: Selkirk had not permanently bought the land.

The Land at St. Peters

The Indigenous signatories did not include the land at St. Peters, the Forks, and Portage la Prairie in the areas allocated for settler use in the Treaty. Instead, these locations were called reserves.

Written map of the Peguis-Selkirk treaty in 1817
Peguis-Selkirk Treaty Map, 1817, Province of Manitoba

With the HBC’s interpretation of the Indenture, they assumed that these lands were included. Aware of this problematic assumption, McDermot offered the explanation that Selkirk had verbally agreed, after the Indenture was signed, to grant these areas back to the Indigenous people as “Indigenous camping grounds.” Chief Peguis strongly contradicted this account, and no one has been able to confirm McDermot’s claim since.  

“Settlers came to view the land retained by an Indigenous population within a colonization zone as land that had been allocated to the Indigenous population by the settler’s own government.” – Nathan Hasselstrom, 134.

What Comes After

Due to a variety of reasons, the Indenture is not an accurate record of what the Peguis-Selkirk Treaty truly meant. Riddled with misunderstanding, miscommunication, and misconduct, the events that surround the Indenture create a problematic document. The Indenture was later used to support the conclusion that the land had been permanently sold. However, in contrast, Indigenous accounts consistently state the exact opposite: the land was never sold.

Peguis-Selkirk Treaty Collection

The Selkirk Museum makes every attempt to ensure the accuracy of the content that is shared. The Selkirk Museum acknowledges the lived experiences of others and the responsibility we have to care for and tell their stories.

The Selkirk Museum has ongoing discussions with Indigenous Elders, leaders, and communities, as well as with employees, contractors, volunteers, and community organizations with the goal of strengthening existing relationships, creating new partnerships, and informing inclusive Museum content. If you can contribute to this goal, please contact [email protected].

Sources

Barkwell, Lawrence. “The Nehiyaw Pwat (Iron Alliance) Encounters with the Dakota.” Metis Museum, February 4, 2019.

Bumsted, J. M. “Red River Colony.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, August 6, 2013.

Bumsted, J. M. “Red River Colony.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, August 6, 2013.

Eeles, Katrina. Bill Shead Oral History Interview. Personal, April 25, 2023.

Gaudry, Adam. “The Selkirk Treaty, 1817.” Library and Archives Canada Blog, August 2, 2017.

Hall, Anthony J. “Royal Proclamation of 1763.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, February 7, 2006.

Hasselstrom, Nathan. “An Exploration of the Selkirk Treaty,” 2019.

Matthews, Maureen. “A History of Relations Between Selkirk Settlers and Indigenous Residents at Red River.” Peguis Selkirk, July 4, 2017.

“Selkirk Treaty and Map.” Government of Manitoba. Accessed March 20, 2023.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. “Highland Clearances.” Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., January 23, 2023.

“The Royal Charter.” HBC Heritage. Accessed March 20, 2023.