Tags: Red River Settlement; 1826 flood at Red River; religion at the Red River; Alexander Ross’ belief in superiority of farmers vs. hunter-gatherers
In the summer of 1826 Ross was finally reunited with his wife and younger children at the Red River Settlement. Most of the family would spend the remainder of their lives there. Although Ross published four books about the fur trade, he wrote relatively little about his personal life. He did, however, make his views on many topics abundantly clear. His intention when writing his book about the Red River Settlement is summed up in its lengthy title — The Red River Settlement: Its Rise, Progress, and Present State with Some Account of the Native Races and Its General History to the Present Day.
Sketch of Fort Garry from Ross’ book.
We learn from his books that Ross had a strong religious faith and waged a 30-year campaign to obtain a Presbyterian clergyman for the Red River. In his account of the history of the Red River Settlement, he listed what he considered the principal conditions under which both the settlers in general and his family personally had come “to seek a home in the wilderness”:
- They should have a clergyman of their own denomination. Ross believed the majority of the settlers were Presbyterians; therefore that meant a Presbyterian minister.
- Each family should receive 100 acres of land for a payment of five shillings per acre, payable in produce.
- They should have a market for all their excess produce.
- They should enjoy all the privileges of British subjects. [p. 30]
Ross appears to have been more religious than many of his contemporaries, judging by comments scattered throughout his writings. For instance, when describing all the trials the settlers faced due to attacks by the North West Company and the natural disasters such as floods and grasshoppers, Ross wrote that:
None has been so severely felt, nor so deeply regretted, as the want of their spiritual pastor. That source of consolation temporal or spiritual, which alone sweetens life here, and cherishes hope in the hereafter, being denied them, has embittered every other calamity. [p. 52]
Ross was particularly upset that the first non-Catholic missionary sent out was an Anglican rather than a Presbyterian. The accuracy of his descriptions of the work and character of the first two Anglican clergymen sent to the Red River seem questionable. For example he states that there were not a dozen Anglicans at the Red River at the time. Although the majority of settlers may have been Presbyterians, many of the HBC employees were in fact Anglicans.
Anglican Clergyman’s House
by Peter Rindisbacher, 1822
(Library and Archives Canada, in public domain)
Most people of British and Protestant background at the Red River felt themselves superior to First Nations, French and Métis people. Ross’ feelings appear to have been particularly strong. Also, in common with most people of British background at that time, he believed that farmers were definitely superior to hunter-gatherers. He said of the latter that they:
had long since lost all relish for habits of industry, and the pursuits of civilized life… While the old men thus saunter about in idleness, the young are not slow to follow the example thus set before them...[both boys and girls] are alike permitted to grow up in ignorance and thoughtless levity – a perfect model of savage life and manners, taught them by their wandering and degenerate parents. Such habits…will exert a baneful influence over European children who mix among them…Curiosity soon leads a civilized boy to handle the bow…but it is…almost a hopeless task…to accustom the children of the wilderness to the use of the hoe, the spade or the plough even after they have been made to taste the fruits arising from industry. [pp. 79-80]
Along the Red River near Fort Douglas
by Peter Rindisbacher, 1822
(Collections Canada, in public domain)
Ross’ views make one wonder if he was unduly severe in his treatment of both his First Nations wife and his mixed-race children. It is known that Mrs. Ross, at least in her later years, rarely ever went out in public except to church.
Shortly after Ross and his family settled at the Red River, one of the greatest disasters yet to befall the settlement – the flood of 1826 — took place. Ross had his boat drawn up to the door of his house, ready for immediate evacuation, when they were faced with a sudden rush of water. Ross went to lock the door of a store room a few yards from the house. By the time he returned, the water inside the house was knee deep and flowing so strongly that he could not close the door. The family pushed off in their boat and headed towards a neighbour’s barn. There, joined by 50 other people, they spent a miserable night. Next morning they were forced to leave the barn by the still-rising waters. They erected a stage, some four or five feet high, on the plains where they spent the next two days before being forced to take to their boat again and move on in the night, due to the wind blowing a gale and the water still rising. They reached Sturgeon Creek on the Assiniboine River where they remained “in peace and quietness” until the water began to fall. Ross harshly criticized the behaviour of some of his neighbours. He accused the de Meurons (retired Swiss military men brought to the settlement by Selkirk) of feeding the other settlers with their (the settlers) own beef and charging them 3 d. per pound for it. [pp. 104-106]
Following the flood, Ross said that a total of 243 people decided to leave the settlement. They included – to Ross’ joy — the de Meurons and “other restless souls”. The Scotch settlers remained, and started their farms afresh for the fourth time since they had arrived at the Red River in 1812. “The dross had been purged away from our community, so that we were now one people in thought, word, and deed,” according to Ross. [p. 109]
Despite Ross’ poor opinion of hunter-gatherers, he went along on the buffalo hunt as an observer one year. My next post will describe his experiences on the hunt.
Note: the page numbers within this post are from Ross’ book The Red River Settlement: Its Rise, Progress, and Present State with Some Account of the Native Races and Its General History to the Present Day.
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