July 5th

A coincidence is a remarkable occurrence of events without an obvious causal connection. We rarely take note of these occurrences, but yesterday one such event stopped me and …. got me thinking.

On my desk was a blank piece of paper on which I had written COLUMN followed by the date July 5th. I set the paper aside and continued editing the twelfth episode of my podcast. I was examining materials from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) Archives, specifically the personal journals of Colin Robertson to find out more about the man who showed my great-great-great-great grandmother Nahoway a remarkable kindness, a kindness that kept this man linked to her family tree for generations to come. I opened my notes from Robertson’s journals and at the top of the current page was the date – July 5th, 1815. I glanced over at the note paper for my column – July 5th, 2023. A coincidence?

On August 23, 1816, Nahoway’s ten-year-old daughter died just eleven days after Nahoway gave birth to her youngest child. She was overcome with grief. Colin Robertson was passing through with a group of HBC servants and stopped at Oxford House. He wrote the following in his journal on August 24th – “Arrived at Oxford House at 9AM yesterday. Mrs. Sinclair’s child died of an inflammation in the throat, and she sent to know if I would be kind enough to read a funeral service over the corpse. I agreed, but my associates started some objections on the score that the child had not been baptized. The poor woman did not understand these nice points in theology, but she loved her child, and she thought the service was a sufficient passport to heaven for the innocent object of her affections. I thought so too and took the prayer book and read the service. The silent thanks of an affectionate parent removed all the scruples, which my colleagues with their overflown zeal endeavoured to impress on my mind.” I wanted to know more about this man who ignored the man-made trappings of religion to comfort a grieving mother.

Colin Robertson was employed by the North West Company (NWC) from 1803 to 1809, a company he quickly came to despise, despite receiving a glowing letter of commendation at his return to England. Robertson then signed on with the HBC in 1814, arriving at Quebec on September 27th, 1814, after a difficult passage of 87 days aboard the Carax, he details in his journal. Robertson’s task was to recruit men in Quebec for the Red River Colony. The NWC made this difficult. Robertson wrote extensively of the NWC’s tactics to ensure the failure of the Red River Colony. The HBC reported to a board of directors, whereas the NWC was a few wealthy men wanting to make money quickly, regardless of the cost and damage to others, explained Robertson.

Nine canoes set off from Quebec on May 4, six more set off on May 14, followed by Robertson on May 27, 1815. He describes the journey in detail. Meanwhile 114 settlers and 29 HBC servants broke their contract with Lord Selkirk and abandoned the Red River Colony, bound for Quebec on the urging of the NWC. The NWC fuelled the unrest of the Metis, telling them they were to become slaves of the colony. The NWC used the Metis to bring the colony to ruin, Robertson wrote.

On July 5, 1815, Robertson and company were paddling Lac La Pluie (Rainy Lake), entering the La Pluie River (Rainy River), passing the old NWC’s Fort Saint Pierre and on past the Fort Lac La Pluie further west. Fort Lac La Pluie was a depot rather than a trading post. Trade had moved west to the Athabasca region. The distance between Montreal and Athabasca was too great to travel in one season. Boats loaded with trading goods departed Montreal in early May after the ice was out and canoes loaded with furs headed east from the Athabasca. Fort Lac La Pluie became the place for the exchange, also providing food for the voyageurs. Robertson recorded – “The Northwest Company has an excellent farm here, with about 10 head of horned cattle and six horses. The soil is excellent and susceptible of the highest cultivation. They have a small grist mill about a mile from the Fort. I am informed they raise as much wheat here as supplies their partners in Athabasca with flour. The Athabasca canoes come no farther than this place.”

Robertson and his men headed down the Rainy River a few miles to set up camp for the night at the first access they found on the river. My childhood farm with its frontage on the river was the only farm that provided level access to the river within that range from the Fort, whereas the banks along the river between our farm and the Fort were steep and mostly inaccessible. It is likely they set up their encampment for the night of July 6th on the land that would become my home 140 years later. Robertson’s account of the Seven Oaks Massacre on the Red River Colony on June 19, 1816, differs significantly from the historic record.

To honour Robertson’s kindness, Nahoway named her youngest son Colin Robertson Sinclair. Robertson’s first name was carried on through subsequent generations, landing on my maternal grandfather, Walter Colin Young Sutherland in 1886. Today, July 5th, is my mother’s birthday.