First Peoples

43. Assiniboia, Capital of the Pacific Northwest

The Northwest…

A Little Bit of the Far Northwest: The Bearpaw Battlefield on a Rainy June Day

Here ended the independence of the Nimiípu’u in 1871 after using the remoteness of Montana (maintained up to that point by the Nimiípu’u enemies, the Pikani) as an escape route to Canada.

.. that territory south and west of the Great Lakes and by 1830 stretching as far as the wall of the Rockies…

For political reasons, US American maps ignore the equal claim of both the English colonies in the south and the English Imperium in Montreal to the North, and cut the region off according to contemporary borders. Note that the extension of Rupert’s Land south of that border is the southern half of Asiniboia. That’s a second omission to the map, which is an American elementary school resource.

…had two European capitals:

The Capitals of the Northwest

Montreal, the former French capital, and St. Louis, the former French and Spanish Capital.

Both were controlled by distant Imperial powers, London and Washington. The Pacific Northwest, on the other hand …

The Coiumbia Gorge, Looking East to Bastion Rock

,.. had 3 European capitals, linked to 3 Imperial powers…

… London, Washington and a Scottish Aristocrat, Lord Selkirk. Here he is:

Thomas_Douglas_5th_Earl_of_Selkirk aka Lord Lieutenant of Kirkcudbright.

He was a lord who never expected to become one, but after 4 older brothers died, he was left. And today’s Prince Harry Sussex worries, quite publicly, about being 5th in line to the throne!

Trained as a lawyer in Edinburgh, Lord Sussex became, like Harry, a bit of a roque aristocrat. While Harry seems to be intent on crashing his family and replacing the British aristocracy with the American film or media star version, which really isn’t all that different, Lord Sussex witnessed the misery of Scottish farm people thrown out of their farms in the Highlands to create landed estates (such as his own) able to support an industrialized empire rather than subsistence life, Importantly, the right of Scots to settle freely on public land was a legacy of Scots clan life. It was, in other words, tribal.

Scots Tribal Tattoos

Traditions change, mind you. By the time we get to the twentieth century, we get this kind of thing:

Still Tribal After All These Years

The growing imperial ambitions of Great Britain dealt with that neatly and a life of people living independently on the land became a land of over-taxed tenants, a feudal system which soon became a recipe for starvation and forced emigration. An urban working class was born, or, rather, created as an industrial image of feudal might.

A Cleared and Abandoned Croft House on Skye

People were concentrated, and cut apart from the land, which was separated from their inheritance. In fact, they had no inheritance other than whatever place they could claim in the street.

46 Saltmarket, Edinburgh, 1868-1871

Photograph: Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal. Photographer Thomas Annan

Lord Selkirk was troubled by this kind of stuff, all within a culture which saw the Highlanders as tribal people, little different than Native Americans. That had a long history, as Colin G. Galloway documents in his White People, Indians and Highlanders…

As Galloway puts it:

In the 1730s the trustees of Georgia colony recruited Highlanders from the north of Scotland to serve as farmer-soldiers on the frontier against the Spaniards and Indians in Florida. When war broke out between Britain and Spain, General James Oglethorpe raised a corps of Highland Rangers to fight alongside his English colonists and his Creek, Yuchee, and Chickasaw allies. The Highlanders spoke Gaelic, wore kilts, and wielded broadswords. Oglethorpe described his force as “White people[,] Indians and highlanders.”‘

That was before Lord Selkirk took up the cause. Now comes the important bit:

He offered no explanation for his comment; pairing American Indians and Celtic Highlanders together as nonwhites made sense to eighteenth-century Englishmen, as it did to many Scottish Lowlanders.

Calloway leaves out that the “Whites” involved were other displaced people, bonded servants and their descendants, who, as Nancy Isenberg writes in her book White Trash, were more oppressed, less free and more poorly handled than Black slaves.


We are going to meet this group soon as they battle for identity in the Columbia District. As V.S. Naipaul wrote in his book A Turn in the South

A travel documentary considering the U.S. as a Caribbean plantation state.

… this is a group of people, who he calls by their contemporary term, rednecks, whose fierce and often brutal struggle for independence was useful in the process of creating an Empire in North America by illegally extending its boundaries, which the state could then claim in the name of protecting them as citizens, who were then cast away as soon as the state was solidified. You can see this process working out in Old Oregon here: In the end, they were never integrated with the state, or as we see it going on these days, they are still angry, still separate from the government…

… and they want in.

They are also still tribal.

Or, as Calloway puts it:

This book examines the common ground that Highlanders and Indians shared as tribal peoples living on the edges of an English-speaking Atlantic world, describes their experiences as colonialism and capitalism changed their environments, and explores their interactions in a new American milieu.

What’s more, Calloway tracks their efforts to gain elite White status:

It considers the ways in which colonialism reconstructed histories and images of Highlanders and Indians, histories and memories of oppression and resistance shaped identities in Britain and America, and Highlanders shed their “nonwhite” status in part by empire-building in North America. Though ultimately divergent, the historical experiences of Highland Scots and American Indians are initially com-parative and often connective.

We will soon be tracking these efforts in the Columbia District and Cascadia as a whole. For the moment, though, let’s follow Lord Selkirk as he enters the fray and creates an agricultural Utopia in the so-called wilderness:

Well, not quite a Utopia, but an argument for preventing the growth of the United States, to whit:

Not only does the system, in Selkirk’s mind, transform the rebelliousness of the Highlanders (their homes, had after all, been taken from them) into a bulwark against American rednecks but ensures the wealth of Great Britain by stripping it of people who consume as many resources as they produce and thus do not allow landowners the freedom to raise capital, such as, presumably, the capital raised to found the Hudson Bay Company.

These people are “excess” to the desire to create a tradable surplus from the land. The solution was to gather them together where they could form a tight-knit community, out of their own traditions, which they could expand through their native gregariousness and industry, in an area with excess land, or at least with land not currently being farmed. Tribal or Indigenous land, presumably, did not count, as it did not generate capital through rents, the foundation of Lord Selkirk’s personal finances in his day. The result was Assiniboia, an experimental enclave carved out of Hudson Bay Company (and Cree) lands, where this could be tried. For maps of Assiniboia, please look at post 42 in this series, here: For now, other beginnings:

We have a royal emissary, reading a proclamation (which everyone already knew), or perhaps reading a map to see where he is, his Highland men with rolled up shirt-sleeves, ready to get down to it, a couple of Indigenous men with a cannon, a couple of Hudson Bay Company men, drawing their claim to the land on a royal charter of their own, and their métis workers, themselves a mixture of Highland Scots, French Canadians, and Indigenous peoples.

The image can be read either as a great coming together of 3 great powers or the transfer of power and ownership to new group of men (with royal support), OR a transfer of power from Indigenous land-use, HBC accommodations to it, to settled life and its resulting excess (and taxable) produce. Settlement, in other words, by an industrious, tribal people from Britain would, presumably, stop US expansion. Ironies abound. Here are a few:

  • It was Indigenous allies that won the War of 1812 for the British in Canada, or so the British say, which might explain the field piece in the image above, but the peace treaty that followed gave all Indigenous land south of the Great Lakes to the USA, so not really a victory. You can read how that went down for Old Oregon and the Columbia District here:
  • “Tribal” Scots settled by Selkirk ran up against nativized Scots working for the HBC and the Northwest Company, many of whom had native wives or were the children of native mothers. Presumably Selkirk’s idea of building a compact, isolated community was meant to prevent that kind of thing.
  • In US Territory to the South, various tracts of land, reservations, were set aside for the métis and called “Half Breed Tracts.” They were all overrun by settlers and miners, all protected by the military, with the people they were meant to subdue militarily moving on and increasing pressure on Old Oregon. Largely, the pressure was to either become White or become Indigenous. Both cases were called “freedom.” We’ll get to that a bit later.
  • The French had traditionally claimed the area covered by Assiniboia, not the HBC, and it remained contested between English and French traders, boatmen and Couriers de Bois from Quebec working for the HBC, and the same general bunch working for the Northwest Company. They were going to have a private war here shortly after the formation of Assiniboia, which ended with their forced merger in 1821, lest they destroy the fur trade, and Britain’s mercantile claim to the northern half of North America, through the antics of such brutal men as Sam Black and Peter Scene Ogden. Here’s a little of that history:
  • The HBC was under the mandate not to settle the lands over which it had a trade monopoly, yet the arguments were compelling. The grain produced in the settlement would make the HBC more profitable by reducing import crops, while contributing a steady stream of Scots workers to the Company. What happened, though, was general agricultural failure, with the only Scots who really took to it behind métis retired HBC men. They were supposed to go home, but they wanted to stay instead, and became a new people. It was all rather as Selkirk had hoped, except that they weren’t Scottish anymore. They were a new Indigenous race, the métis.
  • The whole experiment culminated in the Northwest Rebellion and the hanging of its leader Louis Riel in 1885 (whose life was spent on both sides of the future Canada-US border, as were those of many of his men) and the incorporation of Assiniboia, now called Manitoba and stretching to the north and west, into Canada.

Louis Riel (Creased and Showing HisFists) and his Men.

Along the way, though, the HBC did manage to create an agricultural society in Assiniboia, although not a Scots one per se, and built a school there, a church headquarters, and other forms of colonial management in line with its soft power approach (well, except for Ogden and Black and their lot. Assiniboia soon became the HBC’s working downtown, with all the land from Lake Superior to the Pacific being its suburbs. In my next posts, I will show how the tensions of Assiniboia, and its culture, were recreated throughout the Columbia District, how it was used as a tool of cultural control in a manner befitting Lord Selkirk’s aristocratic intentions, and how all that fed into the dispossession of people and open war, on the very principles Lord Selkirk had set up, but all turned inside out by American promises of individual freedom.


See you soon in the burbs of Assiniboia!

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