Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk

Last updated

The Earl of Selkirk

Thomas Douglas 5th Earl of Selkirk.jpg
Lord Lieutenant of Kirkcudbright
In office
Preceded by The 7th Earl of Galloway
Succeeded by The 8th Earl of Galloway
Personal details
Born(1771-06-20)20 June 1771
St Mary's Isle, Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland
Died8 April 1820(1820-04-08) (aged 48)
Pau, France
Resting place Orthez, France
Parents Dunbar Douglas, 4th Earl of Selkirk, Helen Hamilton

Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk FRS FRSE (20 June 1771 – 8 April 1820) was a Scottish peer. He was noteworthy as a Scottish philanthropist who sponsored immigrant settlements in Canada at the Red River Colony.


Early background

He was born at St Mary's Isle, Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland, the seventh son of Dunbar Douglas, 4th Earl of Selkirk, and his wife Helen Hamilton (1738–1802), granddaughter of Thomas Hamilton, 6th Earl of Haddington. His brother was Basil William Douglas, Lord Daer.

His early education was at the Palgrave Academy, Suffolk. [1] As he had not expected to inherit the family estate, he went to the University of Edinburgh to study to become a lawyer. While there, he noticed poor Scottish crofters who were being displaced by their landlords. Seeing their plight, he investigated ways he could help them find new land in the then British colonies. In 1794, on the death of his brother Basil, Thomas became Lord Daer. After his father's death in 1799, Douglas, the last surviving son (two brothers died in infancy, two died of tuberculosis and two died of yellow fever), became the 5th Earl of Selkirk.

In 1798 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh his proposers being Dugald Stewart, Andrew Coventry, and John Playfair.

Involvement in Canada

When Thomas unexpectedly inherited the Selkirk title and estates in 1799, he used his money and political connections to purchase land and settle poor Scottish farmers in Belfast, Prince Edward Island, in 1803 and Baldoon, Upper Canada in 1804. (See Highland Clearances for more on the emigration of poor Scots.) In 1804, he was in Halifax and became a member of the North British Society. [2] He travelled extensively in North America, and his approach and work gained him some fame; in 1807 he was named Lord-Lieutenant of Kirkcudbright, Scotland, and in 1808 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. [3]

Landing of the Selkirk Settlers, Red River, 1812 Landing of the Selkirk Settlers Red River 1812.jpg
Landing of the Selkirk Settlers, Red River, 1812

In order to continue his work re-settling Scottish farmers, Selkirk asked the British government for a land grant in the Red River Valley, a part of Rupert's Land. [4] The government refused, as the Hudson's Bay Company (H.B.C.) had been granted a fur trading monopoly on that land. However, Selkirk was very determined, and together with Sir Alexander Mackenzie bought enough shares in H.B.C. to let them gain control of the land. This position of power, along with his marriage connections (his wife Jean was the sister of Andrew Wedderburn, a member of the H.B.C. governing committee) allowed him to acquire a land grant called Assiniboia to serve as an agricultural settlement for the company. As part of the agreement for the land grant, Selkirk agreed to supply the Hudson's Bay Company with 200 men each year. He also agreed that the settlers would not be allowed to participate in the fur trade. [5]

As part owner of H.B.C., Selkirk also wanted to stop the North West Company (N.W.C.) from competing with H.B.C. for furs in the region. By placing the Red River Colony astride the trade routes used by the N.W.C. coureurs des bois, Selkirk could cut off the easy flow of furs. However, the local Métis people who already inhabited the area had long-standing ties with the N.W.C. and refused to accept Selkirk's control over the area, which was contrary to the Royal Proclamation of 1763.

The first colonization attempt started in 1812, consisting of 128 men led by the new governor, Miles Macdonell. Arriving late in the season they had just arrived and built homes when the winter cut off any hope of planting, and the colony became reliant on the support of the Métis. Even with a full growing season the next year, the colony never thrived. Because of a shortage of food in 1814, Macdonell issued the Pemmican Proclamation, prohibiting the export of food from the entire area. The Métis, who made a living selling pemmican to the N.W.C. traders, responded by arresting Macdonell and burning the settlement.

Robert Semple was appointed as governor of the Red River Colony. By 1816, the violence intensified between the Métis and the newcomers, which resulted in the Battle of Seven Oaks, causing the deaths of 21 of Lord Selkirk's men, including the newly appointed governor, and one Métis. [6] N.W.C. partners were accused of having aided the Métis attackers. All were exonerated at trial, and again when re-tried under Selkirk's instigation, which back-fired when they successfully counter-sued Selkirk. [7] [8]

Selkirk and his men responded to the Battle of Seven Oaks by seizing the trading post at Fort William that belonged to the North West Company. In the aftermath, Selkirk was ordered to appear in court in Montreal and was charged with four separate offences, all of which related to the alleged unlawful occupation of Fort William. [9] Selkirk reportedly spent most of his acquired fortune defending himself (unsuccessfully) in court, shortly before his death in 1820 at Pau, France. [10] The two companies were merged in 1821.


Selkirk's colonizing ambitions have been memorialized in the names of the City of Selkirk and the Village of East Selkirk, as well as the Winnipeg neighborhood of Point Douglas, the city's Fort Douglas Park on Waterfront Drive (where Fort Douglas once stood) and Winnipeg's Selkirk Avenue. The City of Selkirk is served by the Lord Selkirk Regional Comprehensive Secondary School, which is administered by the Lord Selkirk School Division. The Lord Selkirk Highway runs from the international boundary between Manitoba and North Dakota, where it connects with Interstate Highway 29 in the United States, to the city of Winnipeg. Mount Selkirk and the Selkirk Mountains were also named in his honor.

The Métis peoples cite Lord Selkirk's intrusion as the period of time their identity as a people came into existence. The Métis existed prior to the confrontations with Lord Selkirk's men but their armed resistance to foreign encroachment became a rallying point for their shared identity. A flag and a national anthem were born during this period in time. [11] A Manitoba Historical Plaque was erected in Winnipeg, Manitoba by the province to commemorate Lord Selkirk's role in Manitoba's heritage. [12]

Selkirk and John Paul Jones

At the age of seven, Thomas was almost kidnapped by John Paul Jones, commander of an American ship. Peter C. Newman tells the story as follows in his history The Empire of the Bay. [13]

In 1778, John Paul Jones, in the sloop Ranger, was cruising between Scotland and Ireland looking for prizes. Benjamin Franklin had suggested that he might capture a British nobleman to exchange for American prisoners. Having been born near the Selkirk estates, Jones selected the elder Lord Selkirk.

At the last moment, Jones decided not to go himself, but to assign the duty to two lieutenants and a boatload of sailors. As the Americans approached the Selkirk mansion, a governess saw them coming and removed young Thomas to safety. The Americans knocked on the front door and were greeted by the butler. Lady Selkirk came from the breakfast room to see what the fuss was about. She invited the American officers into the drawing room, told the butler to make tea and to find some whisky for the sailors who were waiting outside. When they explained that they had come to kidnap her husband, Lady Selkirk replied that unfortunately Lord Selkirk was not at home. When Lieutenant Wallingford suggested that instead, they might take the young gentleman they saw on the way to the house, Lady Selkirk replied that they would have to kill her first. After more discussion, Lady Selkirk suggested that, so that their mission would not be a complete failure, they might steal the family silver. The officers allowed as how that might be the best solution, so Lady Selkirk ordered the butler to provide the American gentlemen with what they needed. He filled a sack half full of coal, filled the top half with silverware and presented it to the officers. After drinking a toast to Lady Selkirk, they returned to their ship and presented their captain with his sack full of coal and silverware.

Jones wrote Lady Selkirk a flowery letter of apology, proposing himself to buy back the booty from the Navy and return it to the Selkirks. Lord Selkirk wrote back that he could not possibly countenance the return of his silver without the consent of the Continental Congress. The objects, which became the subject of protracted legal negotiations, were returned seven years later.

Marriage and family

Lord Selkirk married Jean Wedderburn-Colville, sister to James Wedderburn and Andrew Colville, in 1807, and fathered:


On his death, his heir and successor Dunbar was only 10 years old and thus Selkirk's estates were put into a trust and managed by four executors named in his will. The Board of Trustees consisted of Andrew Colville (Colvile) of Achiltrie and Crommie, John Hallbrith (Halkett) of Waring, Adam Maitland of Dundrennan, and Sir James Montgomery, 2nd Baronet.


See also

Further reading

Related Research Articles

Red River Colony British colony located in present-day Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Canada (1811-70)

The Red River Colony was a colonization project set up in 1811 by Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, on 300,000 square kilometres (120,000 sq mi) of land. This land was granted to him by the Hudson's Bay Company, which is referred to as the Selkirk Concession, which included the portions of Rupert's Land, or the watershed of Hudson Bay, bounded on the north by the line of 52° N latitude roughly from the Assiniboine River east to Lake Winnipegosis. It then formed a line of 52° 30′ N latitude from Lake Winnipegosis to Lake Winnipeg, and by the Winnipeg River, Lake of the Woods and Rainy River.

Battle of Seven Oaks 1816 battle of the Pemmican War

The Battle of Seven Oaks was a violent confrontation in the Pemmican War between the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) and the North West Company (NWC), rivals in the fur trade, that took place on 19 June 1816, the climax of a long dispute in western Canada. The Métis people fought for the North West Company, and they called it "the Victory of Frog Plain".

Pemmican Proclamation

In January 1814 Governor Miles MacDonell, appointed by Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk issued to the inhabitants of the Red River area a proclamation which became known as the Pemmican Proclamation. The proclamation was issued in attempt to stop the Métis people from exporting pemmican out of the Red River district. Cuthbert Grant, leader of the Métis, disregarded MacDonell's proclamation and continued the exportation of pemmican to the North West Company. The proclamation overall, became one of many areas of conflict between the Métis and the Red River settlers. Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk had sought interest in the Red River District, with the help of the Hudson's Bay Company as early as 1807. However, it was not until 1810 that the Hudson's Bay Company asked Lord Selkirk for his plans on settling in the interior of Canada.

Robert Semple was Governor of the territories owned by the Hudson's Bay Company from autumn 1815 until his death.

Miles MacDonell was the first governor of the Red River Colony, a 19th-century Scottish settlement located in present-day Manitoba and North Dakota.

Fort Douglas (Canada) Human settlement in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Fort Douglas was the Selkirk Settlement fort and the first fort associated with the Hudson's Bay Company near the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in today's city of Winnipeg. Named for Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, founder of the Selkirk Settlement, the fort was built by Scottish and Irish settlers beginning in 1813. Completed in 1815, it was in the immediate vicinity of the North West Company establishment, Fort Gibraltar.

Métis flag

The Métis flag was first used by Métis resistance fighters in Rupert's Land before the 1816 Battle of Seven Oaks. According to only one contemporary account, the flag was "said to be" a gift from the North West Company in 1815, but no other surviving accounts confirm this. Both the red and blue versions of the flag have been used to represent the political and military force of the Métis since that time. The Métis flag predates the Flag of Canada by at least 150 years, and is the oldest patriotic flag that is indigenous to Canada.

Andrew Colvile was a Scottish businessman, notable as the governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, a huge organisation set up for the North American fur trade but also instrumental in the early history of Canada. He was also chairman of the West India Docks.

Duncan Cameron was a Canadian fur trader and political figure in Upper Canada.

Fort Gibraltar

Fort Gibraltar was founded in 1809 by Alexander Macdonell of Greenfield of the North West Company in present-day Manitoba, Canada. It was located at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in or near the area now known as The Forks in the city of Winnipeg. Fort Gibraltar was renamed Fort Garry after the merger of North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821, and became Upper Fort Garry in 1835.

Selkirk Concession 1812 land grant issued by the Hudsons Bay Company

The Selkirk Concession was a land grant issued by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) to Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, in 1812. The Hudson's Bay Company held a commercial monopoly in Rupert's Land, consisting of the entire Hudson Bay drainage basin. The Selkirk Concession, also known as Selkirk's Grant, included a large section of the southwest area of Rupert's Land, bounded: on the north by the line of 52° N latitude roughly from the Assiniboine River east to Lake Winnipegosis, then by the line of 52° 30′ N latitude from Lake Winnipegosis to Lake Winnipeg; on the east by the Winnipeg River, Lake of the Woods and Rainy River; on the west roughly by the current boundary between modern Saskatchewan and Manitoba; and on the south by the rise of land marking the extent of the Hudson Bay watershed. This covered portions of present-day southern Manitoba, northern Minnesota and eastern North Dakota, in addition to small parts of eastern Saskatchewan, northwestern Ontario and northeastern South Dakota.

History of Manitoba History of Canadian province of Manitoba

The history of Manitoba covers the period from the arrival of Paleo-Indians thousands of years ago to the present day. When European fur traders first travelled to the area present-day Manitoba, they developed trade networks with several First Nations. European fur traders in the area during the late-17th century, with the French under Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye set up several trading post forts. In 1670, Britain declared sovereignty over the watershed of Hudson's Bay, known as Rupert's Land; with the Hudson's Bay Company granted a commercial monopoly over the territory.

Red River Trails Network of trails connecting the Red River Colony and Fort Garry in British North America

The Red River Trails were a network of ox cart routes connecting the Red River Colony and Fort Garry in British North America with the head of navigation on the Mississippi River in the United States. These trade routes ran from the location of present-day Winnipeg in the Canadian province of Manitoba across the Canada–United States border, and thence by a variety of routes through what is now the eastern part of North Dakota and western and central Minnesota to Mendota and Saint Paul, Minnesota on the Mississippi.

Dunbar Douglas, 6th Earl of Selkirk

Dunbar James Douglas, 6th Earl of Selkirk FRS was a Scottish peer.

Cathedral of St. John (Winnipeg) Church in Manitoba, Canada

St. John's Cathedral is an Anglican cathedral in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, which is the cathedral church of the Diocese of Rupert's Land. It is located in the Luxton neighbourhood of north-end Winnipeg on Anderson Avenue near Main Street and the Red River. St. John's Cathedral marks the birthplace of the Anglican Church in western Canada.

Alexander Macdonell of Greenfield was a Canadian businessman and politician. He was the fourth son of Alexander Macdonell of Greenfield and Janet Macdonell of Aberchalder. He was also the cousin and brother-in-law of Miles MacDonell, the first governor of the Red River Colony.

Archibald McDonald

Archibald McDonald was Chief Trader for the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Langley, Fort Nisqually and Fort Colvile and one-time deputy governor of the Red River Colony.

Dunbar Hamilton Douglas, 4th Earl of Selkirk FRSE was a Scottish peer.

Pemmican War Conflict between the Hudsons Bay Company and North West Company from 1812 to 1821

The Pemmican War was a series of armed confrontations during the North American fur trade between the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) and the North West Company (NWC) in the years following the establishment of the Red River Colony in 1812 by Lord Selkirk. It ended in 1821 when the NWC merged with the HBC.

William Bachelor Coltman was a politician, active in the early 19th century. He was born in Great Britain, and traveled to Canada in 1799. He worked as a merchant in Quebec City, and purchased a schooner, and entered into a partnership with his brother John, and two merchants in Yorkshire, in 1807. In 1808 he acquired a contract to supply flour to the Army, in Canada.


  1. Douglas, Thomas (1984). Bumsted, J. M. (ed.). The Collected Writings of Lord Selkirk 1799–1809; Volume I in the Writings and Papers of Thomas Douglas, Fifth Earl of Selkirk (PDF). Winnipeg: Manitoba Record Society. p. 7. ISBN   0-96921011-6.
  2. Annals: North British Society
  3. Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN   0-902-198-84-X.
  4. Stephen, Leslie, ed. (1888). "Douglas, Thomas (1771–1820)"  . Dictionary of National Biography . 15. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  5. Carter, George E. (Winter 1968). "Lord Selkirk and the Red River Colony". Montana: The Magazine of Western History. Vol. 18 no. 1. pp. 60–69. JSTOR   4517222.
  6. Francis, R. Douglas; Jones, Richard; Smith, Donald B. (2000). Origins: Canadian History to Confederation (4th ed.). Toronto: Harcourt Canada. pp. 434–5. ISBN   978-0-17644-243-9.
  7. Grant, Cuthbert National Historic Person . Directory of Federal Heritage Designations. Parks Canada . Retrieved 9 January 2015.
  8. Woodcock, George (1985). "Grant, Cuthbert". In Halpenny, Francess G (ed.). Dictionary of Canadian Biography . VIII (1851–1860) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press. Retrieved 12 January 2014.
  9. Bryce, George (1912). Life of Lord Selkirk. Toronto: The Musson Book Company. p.  81.
  10. Henderson, Anne Matheson (1968). "The Lord Selkirk Settlement at Red River, Part 2". Manitoba Pageant. Manitoba Historical Society. 13 (2).
  11. Chartrand, Larry (2004). The Definition of Métis Peoples in Section 35(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982. University of Ottawa – Common Law Section. SSRN   2323669 .
  12. Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk. Manitoba Heritage Council Commemorative Plaques. 1958.
  13. Newman, Peter C. (2000). The Empire of the Bay: The Company of Adventurers that Seized a Continent. Penguin. p. 383. ISBN   978-0-14029-987-8.
Honorary titles
Preceded by
The 7th Earl of Galloway
Lord Lieutenant of Kirkcudbright
Succeeded by
The 8th Earl of Galloway
Peerage of Scotland
Preceded by
Dunbar Douglas
Douglas hamiltonCoA.png
Earl of Selkirk

Succeeded by
Dunbar James Douglas