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5th Earl of Selkirk

5th Earl of Selkirk

Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk (1771-1820), was a Scottish colonizer in Canada. Concerned about the depressed state of the Highlands of Scotland and Ireland, he devoted much of his fortune, and his health, to establishing new communities in North America.

Thomas Douglas was born in Kirkcudbrightshire on June 20, 1771, the seventh son of the 4th Earl of Selkirk. With little prospect of family support, he went to the University of Edinburgh to study law and there developed an interest in social and political affairs. In 1792, a tour of the Highlands convinced him that the lot of its people could never be improved and their only hope lay in emigration.

The breakdown of the clan system and the conversion of large areas of the Highlands into sheep walks had reduced the crofters to a life of marginal existence. Douglas was even more shocked by the condition of the Irish peasantry. His concern led to the passion of his life, the colonization of these people in North America, where their economic prospects would be improved and the British Empire strengthened. He was able to do something about it when the last of his brothers died in 1797, and he succeeded to the family estate 2 years later.

Selkirk besieged the Colonial Office with his emigration schemes and was finally granted permission in 1803 to undertake his first ventures. Lands in Prince Edward Island and in Upper Canada were granted, and his first two colonies were planted. Selkirk spent most of 1803 and 1804 in British North America supervising his experiments. The former colony prospered, but the second, at Baldoon, was less successful and collapsed.

Settlement of the Red River

Selkirk returned to England in 1804 and then devoted several years to politics as a Whig. He was married in 1807 to Jean Wedderburn-Colville, whose family was involved in the Hudson's Bay Company. The following year Selkirk began to acquire stock in the company. His old interest in colonization rekindled. His attention shifted westward to the Red River valley, and he began to plan the migration for which he is best remembered. In 1811 he received from the company a grant of 116,000 square miles in what is now Manitoba, Minnesota, and North Dakota. In July the first of a stream of Selkirk settlers set out for their new home.

They had to contend not only with natural hazards but also with the hostility of the North West Company, which felt settlement threatened the fur trade, a business that Selkirk "hated from the bottom of his heart." In 1815, and again the following year, the colony was attacked by the traders, with considerable loss of life on the second occasion. Selkirk arrived at Red River in 1817 and began the task of reconstruction, establishing a school and a church. His arrest of some of the traders resulted in a drawn-out trial which eventually exonerated the Nor'westers.

Selkirk returned home in 1818. He died at Pau, France, on April 8, 1820. His humanitarian impulse had broken his health and consumed his fortune, but it left a warm and cherished memory in the Canadian west.

Further Reading

The best and probably definitive study of Selkirk is John M. Gray, Lord Selkirk of Red River (1963). Older but still useful are George Bryce, Mackenzie, Selkirk, Simpson (1905) and The Life of Lord Selkirk: Coloniser of Western Canada (1912), and Chester Martin, Lord Selkirk's Work in Canada (1916).

Additional Sources

MacEwan, Grant, Cornerstone colony: Selkirk's contribution to the Canadian West, Saskatoon, Sask.: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1977. □

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