Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Douglas, Thomas (1771-1820)
DOUGLAS, THOMAS, fifth Earl of Selkirk, Baron Daer and Shortcleuch, in the Scotch peerage (1771–1820), was the seventh and youngest son of Dunbar (Hamilton) Douglas, the fourth earl. He was born at the family seat, St. Mary's Isle, Kirkcudbrightshire, on 20 June 1771, and was educated at Edinburgh University, his name frequently appearing upon the class-books of the professors between 1786 and 1790. Here he formed one of the original nineteen members of ‘The Club,’ a society for the discussion of social and political questions. Another original member was (Sir) Walter Scott, one of Douglas's closest friends.
At this time the highlands of Scotland were in a critical state. The country was fast becoming pastoral, and the peasantry were often evicted wholesale and compulsorily emigrated. Douglas, although unconnected with the highlands by birth or property, undertook an extensive tour through that wild region in 1792, prompted ‘by a warm interest in the fate of the natives.’ It convinced him that emigration from the highlands was unavoidable, and he saw the need of some controlling hand to direct it as far as possible towards the British colonies. The Napoleonic wars, however, for a time prevented him from proposing any definite plan. On 24 May 1799 his father died, and he succeeded to the earldom of Selkirk. His six elder brothers had all died before that date, the last in 1797, when he assumed the title of Lord Daer and Shortcleuch.
During this delay he was evidently devising plans. Before 1802 his attention had been drawn to the advantages offered to colonists by the fertile valley of the Red River (now Manitoba) in the Hudson's Bay Company's territories. On 4 April in that year he memorialised Lord Pelham, then home secretary, upon the subject. The government of the time declined to take the matter up, but offered the earl ‘every reasonable encouragement’ if he would himself carry out his proposals. Official advice led him to relinquish his intended inland situation for a maritime one, and the island of St. John (now Prince Edward's Island) was selected. A considerable grant of crown lands having been secured, eight hundred selected emigrants were got together. These arrived during August 1803, and the earl himself soon after. Many difficulties were at first encountered, but in the following month Selkirk was able to leave on a lengthy tour through the United States and Canada. At the end of the following September (1804) the earl revisited his colony, which he found in a most satisfactory condition. To-day the descendants of Selkirk's settlers are among the most prosperous inhabitants of the island.
During the time Selkirk thus spent in the New World he corresponded frequently with the government of Upper Canada (now Ontario) as to the settlement of that province. He had already been connected with the establishment of a colony (still known as Baldoon, after one of his ancestral estates) in Kent county, and in August 1803 he offered to construct a good wagon road from Baldoon to York (now Toronto) at an expense of over 20,000l. In return he asked certain of the vacant crown lands lying on each side of his proposed road. The proposal was, however, declined, though such roads were then very badly needed, and the colonial government was too poor to construct them. Again, in 1805, Selkirk offered to colonise one of the Mohawk townships on the Grand River. This time his plans were accepted by government, but the unsettled state of Europe at the time prevented their being carried out. In the same year was published his ‘Observations on the Present State of the Highlands of Scotland, with a View of the Causes and Probable Consequences of Emigration’ (2nd edit. in 1806), a strikingly clear, well-written work. It was admittedly written partially in self-defence, and ‘in consequence of some calumnious reports that had been circulated’ as to his object in promoting colonisation. Scott declares (Waverley, chap. lxxii.) that he had traced ‘the political and economical effects of the changes’ Scotland was then undergoing ‘with great precision and accuracy.’
In 1806, and again in 1807, Selkirk was chosen one of the sixteen representative Scotch peers. Thereafter he frequently took part in the debates in the House of Lords. On 10 Aug. in the latter year he delivered a ‘Speech on the Defence of the Country,’ which was immediately after published in pamphlet form (2nd edit. in same year). On 28 March 1807 he was appointed lord-lieutenant of the stewartry of Kirkcudbright, and on 24 Nov. following he married, at Inveresk, Jean, only daughter of James Wedderburn-Colvile of Ochiltree and Crombie, who survived him many years. In July 1808 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. About the same time he published a volume ‘On the Necessity of a more Effectual System of National Defence.’ This, like the speech on the same subject, excited much interest at the time. So lately as 1860 Sir John Wedderburn considered the remarks in the volume of 1808 so valuable that he actually republished it. Early in 1809 Selkirk published a ‘Letter on the subject of Parliamentary Reform’ (2nd edit. in the same year; 3rd, Manchester, 1816). His experience of politics in America had induced him to leave the reform party to which his family had belonged.
During all this time Selkirk still cherished his original idea of colonising the Red River valley. It now, it seems, appeared to him that his scheme could be most easily carried out through or in conjunction with the Hudson's Bay Company. The charter granted to this corporation by Charles II in 1670 was an endless and almost a boundless one. Although its legality was disputed, the company still maintained its claim. About 1810 the stock was much depressed in value, and Selkirk gradually acquired an amount of it sufficiently large to give him practically the control of the directorate. At a general court of the company held in May 1811 he applied for a huge tract of land, covering forty-five millions of acres, in the Red River valley, and comprising large portions of what are now Manitoba and Minnesota. The partisans of the North-west Fur Company were at once in arms. They had long traded without molestation in the territories claimed by the Hudson's Bay Company, and entirely disputed the power of that body to make the grant in question. A contest began which lasted during the ten following years, and was furiously carried on, in this country by the pen, but in British North America by the weapons of war. In all the events connected with this contest Selkirk took a leading part.
In the autumn of 1811 a party of well-selected, and mostly unmarried, pioneers, collected in the highlands by the earl's agents, and chiefly consisting of ‘colony servants,’ who were to receive a hundred acres of land after working three years, set sail from Stornoway under Miles MacDonell, who had received appointments both from the company and Selkirk. After a winter spent amid much misery at York Factory on Hudson's Bay, the party arrived at the colony in the following autumn, about the same time as another party which had sailed from Scotland in the spring of the year. The colonists, about a hundred in number, again spent a most miserable winter (1812–13), provisions being very scarce. They built and lived in Forts Douglas and Daer, both so named after Selkirk. Their lot from first to last was misery and destitution. Selkirk's foresight was rendered useless by the fraud or apathy of his own servants and friends, accidents by sea and land, and the open hostilities of the North-west Company. Matters were brought to a crisis on 8 Jan. 1814, when MacDonell issued a proclamation, claiming the soil as the property of Selkirk, declaring himself the legally appointed governor thereof, and ordering that, on account of the necessities of the settlers, no provisions were to be removed from the colony for any purpose whatever for one year thereafter. The North-west Company regarded this as a declaration of war and refused compliance. The ‘governor’ then issued warrants authorising the seizure of any provisions in course of removal, and sent a ‘sheriff’ to see them carried out. A party, furnished with a warrant and armed with some small cannon, sent out by Selkirk with the first party for the defence of the colony against the Americans, next broke into a fort of the North-west Company and seized a large quantity of provisions. MacDonell undoubtedly believed himself fully and legally authorised to commit these acts. The North-west party actively retaliated. During the summer of 1814, therefore, though some progress was made with agricultural pursuits, the colony was in an exceedingly disturbed condition. Both parties habitually moved fully armed and in bands. On 22 June there arrived about a hundred more settlers, who had been sent out by Selkirk in the previous year. In the winter of 1814–15 provisions again became extremely scarce. Misery alienated some of the colonists, who were induced by threats to desert to the other side. In the following summer the friction between the two parties became still more excessive. MacDonell, on behalf of ‘their landlord, the Earl of Selkirk,’ gave the North-west Company's agents notice to quit their posts on Red River within six months. They retaliated by sending an armed force, which seized the cannon belonging to the colony. On 10 June matters reached a climax. A party of the half-breed allies of the North-west Company concealed themselves in a wood near Fort Douglas and opened fire. A general engagement ensued, which lasted some time. None of the assailants were hurt, but of the defenders four were wounded and one afterwards died. Shortly after MacDonell, hoping to secure the safety of the settlers, voluntarily surrendered himself to the North-west agent. The settlers, however, were thereupon peremptorily ordered to depart. After another attack upon their fort they did so. Seventy went up Lake Winnipeg to Jack River (now Norway) House, a post of the Hudson's Bay Company; the rest, who had joined the North-westers, were sent down to Toronto, where they were relieved at the public expense. Thus the colony was for a time destroyed. At Norway House, however, the retreating settlers met a party under one Colin Robertson, who had been sent by Selkirk to assist the colony. Under his guidance they returned to their lands on 19 Aug., only to find their buildings had been burned and their crops destroyed. In the following October there arrived at the settlement the largest party ever sent thither, numbering about a hundred and fifty persons. They had been despatched from the highlands by Selkirk in the preceding spring, under Robert Semple, a gentleman who had been appointed by the Hudson's Bay Company as supreme governor of their vast territories. Thus was the colony re-established, to the extreme disgust of the North-west party. The winter was again spent amid much misery. On 17 March following (1816) Governor Semple seized the fort of the North-west Company, made its commandant prisoner, and soon after had the building pulled down. Other posts on Red River were similarly treated. The North-westers attempted to retaliate by seizing outlying posts of the Hudson's Bay Company. This brought matters again to a climax. The agents of the North-west Company had for some reason collected a large band, consisting of their own servants, half-breeds, and Indians. The band approached Fort Douglas on 19 June. Governor Semple, fearing an attack, went with twenty-seven attendants to meet them. A fight ensued, and the governor and twenty of his men were killed. There is no question that the North-west party commenced the attack, and must take the blame. The settlers, being again ordered to depart, made their way once more to Jack River House, and the colony was thus a second time broken up.
Early in 1815 Selkirk had applied for military protection to his colony. This being refused, he determined to go personally to its aid. Late in that year, therefore, accompanied by his family, he arrived in New York, where he heard of the first overthrow of his colony. The winter was spent at Montreal, it being impossible to reach the colony before the spring. There the earl was joined by Captain Miles MacDonell, now liberated, and the time was spent in collecting legal evidence against the North-west Company. It was probably at Montreal that Selkirk largely wrote his ‘Sketch of the British Fur Trade in North America,’ which was published in 1816. In it he gives an account of the causes of hostility between the two great fur companies. An application was again made to the then governor-general of the Canadas for an armed force to be sent to the colony, Selkirk agreeing to defray all expenses. This was refused, but the earl was appointed a justice of the peace, and a small personal escort was granted him. At this juncture, the war with America being over, several regiments were being disbanded. The earl thereupon engaged some hundred and twenty of these disbanded soldiers to accompany him to Red River. After restoring order the members of the force were either to accept lands in the colony or be brought back at his lordship's expense. Early in June (1816), as soon as the waterways were open, the force, with Selkirk at its head, started by the canoe route up the Great Lakes. Scarcely had it passed Sault Ste.-Marie when news was received of the second overthrow of the colony. The earl at once changed his route, and made direct for Fort William, on the north shore of Lake Superior, the chief post of the North-west Company, which he seized with all its inmates on 13 Aug. All the stores were appropriated and the chief inmates sent to Canada as prisoners, some being accidentally drowned by the way. The earl and his force spent the whole of the ensuing winter (1816–17) at the fort. In the following June the expeditionary force reached the colony; Fort Douglas was retaken, the settlers were reinstated, and order was restored. On 18 June the earl concluded a treaty with the Indians, agreeing to give them an annuity of several hundred pounds of tobacco not to molest the settlers. The settlement he called Kildonan, a name it still retains. This done, he returned to Upper Canada overland, viâ Detroit, to answer various charges that had been made against him of having conspired with others to ruin the trade of the North-west Company. Many delays and irregularities attended the trials, which did not take place until the close of 1818. In the end Selkirk was fined 2,000l., a result not surprising, as the legal luminaries of the province were nearly all closely connected by family with the partners in the North-west Company. The trials, in fact, were little more than a farce. The earl returned to England in the latter part of 1818, utterly broken in health. On 19 March following he published a lengthy letter to the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, complaining of the scandalous miscarriage of justice in the Canadian law courts, and asking for a thorough inquiry thereinto before the privy council. On 24 June Sir James Montgomery, Selkirk's brother-in-law, moved in the House of Commons for copies of any correspondence that had taken place, and a bulky blue-book was soon after issued. Sir Walter Scott, too, was asked to aid with his pen Selkirk's cause, but the state of his health prevented him so doing. Shortly after, completely worn out by his troubles and vexations, Selkirk retired to the south of France, but, in spite of the devoted attentions of his wife, he died at Pau on 8 April 1820, and was buried in the protestant cemetery at that place. Although his actions have been most unsparingly denounced, there can be no question that in all he did his motives were wholly philanthropic. Selkirk's settlement is now represented by the flourishing province of Manitoba, in which his name is highly revered and his memory perpetuated by the town and county of Selkirk, both so called after him. Sir John Wedderburn has well and truly said of him that he was ‘a remarkable man who had the misfortune to live before his time.’ Sir Walter Scott, too, writing of him, says: ‘I never knew in all my life a man of more generous and disinterested disposition.’ In the year after his death the two fur companies agreed to amalgamate. It was then to the interest of both to forget the past; hence the undeserved oblivion into which Selkirk's name has largely fallen. He also wrote (vide Gent. Mag. xc. 469) a pamphlet on the ‘Scottish Peerage,’ and Bryce, his chief biographer, attributes to him (Manitoba, p. 138) two anonymous pamphlets, published about 1807, on the ‘Civilisation of the Indians of British North America.’[Lockhart's Life of Scott; Bryce's Manitoba, &c. (portrait and facsimile autograph), 1882; various Peerages; Hansard's Parliamentary Debates; Gent. Mag. xc. 469 (obituary notice); A Narrative of Occurrences, &c., in North America, 1817; Statement respecting the Earl of Selkirk's Settlement, 1817; numerous blue-books and other publications relating to the contest on the Red River, 1812–21.]