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Norwegians in the Selkirk Settlement
By Paul Knaplund (Volume VI: Page 1)

Few settlers faced more trying hardships or met with more disasters than did those whom Lord Selkirk brought to the forks of the Red River in the years 1812-15. Supplies for the settlement, seed grain, and animals for breeding had to be brought great distances. Once a year the Hudson's Bay Company's ships from Great Britain arrived at York Factory on Hudson Bay, and thence supplies traveled more than seven hundred miles by rivers, portages, and lakes to the Red River. There were two alternative sources: by an even more toilsome route from distant Canada; or from the nearest settlements in the United States. Nature itself proved hostile to the colonists: during the first twenty years of the existence of the settlement early frosts, disastrous floods, and devastating invasions of locusts threatened to blot it out.

Still more disheartening to the early immigrants was the hostility which they encountered from men of their own race. Though the colony was founded under the ægis of the Hudson's Bay Company, then controlled by Lord Selkirk, the servants of this company in America opposed the new venture. Not infrequently the settlers were thwarted by officers of the Hudson's Bay Company, and at the same time the colonists were exposed to the full fury of the hatred that the rival trading concern, the Northwest Company, harbored for the Hudson's Bay Company and all its schemes. So intense was this hatred that the Selkirk settlement was twice wiped out by the Northwesters. In June, 1815, the first governor of the colony, Captain Miles Macdonald, was forced to surrender himself to the Northwesters. Nearly all buildings were burned down and the settlers were dispersed. Reinforced by new arrivals from Europe, some of the colonists returned in the autumn, only to be overwhelmed by a greater disaster in the following year, when Governor Semple of the Hudson's Bay Company and twenty men of the settlement were killed in the battle, or rather massacre, of Seven Oaks, on June 19, 1816. The perpetrators of this outrage were half-breeds, incited, and promised great rewards for their foul deed, by officers in the service of the Northwest Company. {1} The first man killed at Seven Oaks was a Norwegian, "Lieutenant" Holte, who, as the leader of a small band of Norwegians, had arrived at York Factory in September, 1814. {2} To one man of Holte's group, Peter Dahl, belongs the distinction of being the first Norwegian farmer in the Red River Valley, and a successful one.

With the coming of Holte and his compatriots hangs a tale. At the time when Lord Selkirk gained a controlling interest in the Hudson's Bay Company and decided to found a settlement in its territory, the company was fast losing ground to the Northwesters. As an aid both to the company and to the settlement, Selkirk determined to build winter roads connecting York Factory with the interior. Most of the servants in the lower ranks of the Hudson's Bay Company were recruited in the Orkney Islands, but at this time the Orkneymen as a group seem to have been deficient both in courage and in physical strength. Selkirk wanted men inured to the rigors of a northern climate, who had had experience as woodsmen, fishermen, and farmers, and who, above all, were strong, resourceful, and amenable to discipline. He was looking, not merely for road builders, but for handy men who might invigorate the service of the company and effect improvements in the ways and methods of living at trading posts and settlements. Such men, he believed, might be obtained in Norway and Sweden. Late in January or early in February, 1814, the directors of the Hudson's Bay Company voted to hire Norwegian and Swedish laborers for service in North America. {3} The result of this decision was that thirteen or fifteen Norwegians were recruited, {4} probably from men who had been interned or imprisoned during the war. Their leader was a "Mr. Holte," variously described as lieutenant in the Norwegian navy, as lieutenant in the Swedish or Danish navy, and as lieutenant in the Norwegian-Swedish army. The last is of course wholly legendary, for the simple reason that no Norwegian-Swedish army existed; {5} it is indeed doubtful whether he was a lieutenant in either branch of the service of any of the northern nations. Lord Selkirk addressed him and mentioned him simply as "Mr. Holte." Probably he was an adventurer who had acquired a fair mastery of the English language and was ready to serve almost anyone anywhere. Though several of Holte's companions at the Red River called him Swedish, the evidences found in the Selkirk Papers seem to prove rather conclusively that he was a Norwegian.

Holte and his men were engaged for special work under the direct supervision and authority of Lord Selkirk, who expected Holte to report to him the progress of his undertakings. The little band sailed from Yarmouth on June 10, 1814, on the Hudson's Bay Company's ship the "Prince of Wales." Several of them seem to have been in poor health; Dr. James White, sent out with this ship as a surgeon for the Red River settlement, wrote to Lord Selkirk from Stromness in the Orkneys on June 15, 1814: "two Norwegians viz: -- Rasmussen and Michaelson are not yet completely cured, but Mr. Stainsby [probably the ship's surgeon] has no hesitation in taking them: -- If there is the least chance of Mr. Predersen's [Pedersen] by the time we reach Hudson's Straits, I have no doubt but I shall be able to pursuade the Surgeon to take him out." {7}

The ship, which carried a considerable number of settlers for the Red River, arrived at York Factory on September 3, 1814. When the passengers disembarked, some of the Norwegians were sent to Moose Factory at Moose River, James' Bay, while the rest accompanied Holte to the spot where the Jack River emptied into the northern end of Lake Winnipeg. Here they spent the winter clearing land and building a station that was later known as Norway House. {8} Colin Robertson, a Scotsman in the service of Lord Selkirk, who in 1815 and succeeding years played an important role in affairs at the Red River, arrived at this place in the spring of 1815, and he noted in his journal July 21, 1815, that Holte and his Norwegians had cleared about one acre of land and had built two small huts at "the Winnipec Settlements." {9} It was at this point that Robertson met the fugitives of 1815 from the Red River settlement, and from hence he set out, August 8, 1815, as the leader of settlers and others bound for the Red River, to reap the abandoned fields and rebuild the houses. With him went Holte, Peter Dahl, Peter Isaacson, and Nils Muller. {10} These Norwegians then spent their second winter in America at Fort Douglas, the Hudson's Bay Company's stronghold at the Red River settlement. Close by was Fort Gibraltar, belonging to the Northwest Company. There soon developed a state of war which finally resulted in the capture and razing of Fort Gibraltar. Shortly after Colin Robertson had left for York Factory, with the commander of the enemy's fort, Duncan Cameron, as prisoner, the battle of Seven Oaks took place. {11}

During these turbulent months Holte and his three companions bore their share of trials and hardships. Governor Semple described them as "the finest fellows in the world," and Robertson spoke of them as "industrious, well disposed men, and well calculated for the new country, being in general good axmen." {12} Neither Semple nor Robertson, however, had a very high opinion of Holte. The former found him personally brave but unfit to command even his own few men. {13} In the spring of 1816 Holte and Robertson quarreled violently, but this may have been the fault of the latter, who was a hot-tempered and impetuous, though able man. {14} When disagreements developed between Robertson and Semple, Holte sided with the governor. As has been noted, Holte was the first man killed on the fateful June 19, 1816, and he found an unmarked grave somewhere at the forks of the Red River.

No other Norwegian is mentioned in connection with the Seven Oaks episode. Dahl, Isaacson, and Muller may have been at the fort; they may have been at another post. Most of the men who had crossed the Atlantic with Holte two years earlier disappear from view. Two members of the band, however, Peter Dahl and Peter Isaacson, remained at the Red River, and fragments of the history of their later life may be gleaned from the census reports of the colony.

Isaacson was the older man. The census of 1851 gives his age as fifty-one, and we are told that he then possessed "2 oxen, 2 cows, and 1 pig." Three years later he is credited with owning "2 oxen, 1 bull, 2 cows, and 2 calves," but later reports contain no reference to his possessing any worldly goods. He owned no land, apparently never married, and lived most of the time with Peter Dahl. {15} He was still living in 1846. The year of his death is unknown. (16} He achieved neither goods nor fame.

Peter Dahl did not reach a position of leadership in the settlement, but he became far more prosperous than the average Red River settler, and he left numerous descendants. He secured land, possibly from Lord Selkirk during his visit to the settlement in 1817. In the land register of the Hudson's Bay Company Dahl is credited with owning lots 186 and 606, but we have no means of ascertaining their acreage. {17} The census reports of the Selkirk settlement disclose much, however, concerning Dahl's material progress. The report of 1831 states his age as forty-two, "born in Norway, Protestant." He then had three sons and two daughters under sixteen years of age, and he possessed "1 house, 1 barn, 1 mare, 5 bulls, 7 cows, 5 calves, 2 pigs, 1 plough, 1 cart, 1 boat, 1 canoe, and 7 acres of cultivated land." The census taken three years later introduces an element of confusion as regards the age of Peter Dahl -- now given as forty-one -- but it is evident that the man mentioned is the same. He was utilizing the opportunities afforded by the new country. He now possessed two houses, two stables, one barn, two mares, five oxen, sixteen cows, seven calves, three pigs, one plough, one harrow, one cart, and twelve acres of cultivated land. {18}

All subsequent reports reveal steady economic progress on his part. In 1838 one son and one daughter were above sixteen; two sons and one daughter were under that age. He owned one house, three stables, one barn, three horses, four mares, eleven oxen, fifteen cows, fourteen calves, three pigs, twenty-four sheep, one plough, one harrow, three carts, one canoe, and twenty acres of cultivated land. The census of 1846 discloses the following facts about Dahl. The family then consisted of two sons above sixteen and one daughter above fifteen. One son, Alexander, was then married and had his own house; no trace has been found of the older daughter. Peter Dahl's property included one house, five stables, one barn, two horses, six mares, ten oxen, one bull, nine cows, two calves, six pigs, sixty sheep, one plough, two harrows, seven carts, two boats, and forty-five acres of cultivated land. {19}

Though these figures seem bare, they tell a story. Throughout this period Peter Dahl had more land under cultivation and owned more livestock than most of the farmers at the Red River. In 1846 the population of the colony was about five thousand souls, of which approximately one-third were whites. The settler was rare who had more than twenty acres of cultivated land. Only one had more land under cultivation than Dahl had, and the average for all the settlers was below ten acres. {20} The reasons for this lack of progress at the settlement are fairly obvious. Apart from the discouragement attendant upon early disasters, and the hardships and expense connected with the bringing in of breeding animals and grain for seed from Missouri, Illinois, or Prairie du Chien, the settler always faced the temptation of giving up his constant and toilsome work on the farm for the thrills of the buffalo hunt. The pemmican produced from the buffalo always had a ready market, {21} while that for beef, wool, and tallow was very limited, even after the settlement began to trade with St. Paul, 530 miles distant. {22} The success, or rather survival, of Selkirk's colony was due, in the main, to the tenacity of the Scots, who comprised a majority among the early settlers. It is clear that Peter Dahl possessed in full measure the qualities of mind and body that made for success on the frontier, and that he more than held his own in competition with the canny Scots.

The name and national origin of Mrs. Peter Dahl are not disclosed by the census reports. She was white and probably Scottish. Practically all of Dahl's Protestant neighbors came from Scotland, and one of his sons received a typically Scottish name, Alexander. Incidentally, Alexander is the only one of the five children whose fortune can be traced in the census reports of the Red River settlement and the province of Manitoba. His brothers and sisters may have died early or may have followed the example of many of the younger generation in the colony and gone to the United States. Alexander may not have been the oldest of Dahl's three sons. {23} In 1846 his age is given as twenty-three; he was then married and had a daughter "under 15." He is listed as owning one house, one barn, two horses, two mares, four oxen, five cows, two calves, six pigs, and twelve sheep, but having no land under cultivation. The Hudson's Bay Company's records show that later he owned lots 186 and 606, which had belonged to his father, and, in addition, lot 591. The first census for the province of Manitoba, that for 1870, discloses much information concerning him. He was then forty-seven years of age. His wife, Elizabeth, was born in the Northwest and was the daughter of John Vincent. Since her age is given as only thirty-four, she must have been his second wife. The family consisted of the following: William, nineteen; Charlotte, seventeen; Thomas, thirteen; Donald M., five; and Alexander J., one. An older son, John, age twenty-three, was married to Elizabeth A., daughter of Robert Cummings. Both Alexander Dahl and his married son lived in the parish of St. Paul. {24}

In the parish of St. Clement is found an Alexander Dahl, age twenty-six; his wife Lotie, age twenty, was the daughter of Magnus Briston; and they had a daughter, Nancy, age two. This Alexander Dahl was born in the settlement and was the son of Alexander Dahl. This raises a problem. Alexander Dahl, senior, had only a daughter in 1846, twenty-four years earlier; and he had also another son named Alexander. The difficulty is not so serious as it may seem. Both in Scotland and in Norway one might have found, a hundred years ago and less, two brothers with the same baptismal name. The problem raised by the age of Alexander Dahl, the second, still remains. Two solutions seem equally probable -- either that he was an illegitimate son, or that a mistake has crept into the census report of 1846. Alexander Dahl, the first, may have been credited with a daughter instead of a son. The land records show that an Alexander Dahl, evidently the second, had been granted lot 185 by the Hudson's Bay Company. {25}

There must be many people living in Manitoba and elsewhere who can trace their ancestry back to Peter Dahl. This venturesome man was the only one of Lord Selkirk's Norwegians to become a land-owning farmer at the forks of the Red River; he was the first one of that nationality to live in the valley where so many sons and daughters of Norway have since built their homes; and let it be said in his memory that, judged by material standards, he was an intrepid pioneer worthy of being remembered in the annals of the Norwegians in America. {26}


<1> A good account of the early history of the Selkirk settlement may be found in Chester Martin, Lord Selkirk's Work in Canada (Oxford Historical and Literary Studies, vol. 7-- Oxford, 1916).

<2> Martin, Selkirk's Work in Canada, 111.

<3> This decision seems to have been taken shortly before February 6, 1814; Selkirk to Alexander McDonald, February 6, 1814, Selkirk Papers, vol. 79, p. 131, in the Public Archives of Canada at Ottawa.

<4> Hjalmar R. Holand says, on the strength of information secured from Mr. J. Chadwick Brooks, that only nine were recruited; see "Norway House i Canadas skoger," in Nordmands-Forbundet, 22:378 (Oslo, November, 1929). On the other hand, the number usually given in the Selkirk Papers is thirteen or fifteen, and Alexander Christie, when at Moose Factory, St. James' Bay, in 1814, reported that eight Norwegians had been allotted to his station and had spent the winter there. At this time several Norwegians were stationed with Holte at Jack River. That all the men were Norwegians seems certain. They are so described in the Selkirk Papers. See also Alexander Ross, Letters of a Pioneer, 12 (Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba, Transactions, no. 63- Winnipeg, 1903).

<5> Andrew Amos, Report of Trials in the Courts of Canada, Relative to the Destruction of the Earl of Selkirk's Settlement on the Red River, with Observations, 64, 84 (London, 1820); Narrative of John Pritchard et al. Respecting the Aggressions of the Northwest Company, 29 (London, 1819); British Parliamentary Papers, July 12, 1819, p. 88, 186; Holand, in Nordmands-Forbundet, 22:37. A search of the Norwegian naval register for the early years of the nineteenth century has failed to disclose any Lieutenant Holte.

<6> O. Holte to John Pritchard, April 14, 1816, in Amos, Trials in the Courts of Canada, 93; Selkirk to Even Holte, Selkirk Papers, vol. 76, p. 90; British Parliamentary Papers, 198. Lord Selkirk addressed him as "Even" Holte; the letter cited is signed "O. Holte "; and Mr. Holand calls him "Einar" Holte.

<7> Selkirk to Miles McDonell, May 28, 1814, Selkirk Papers, p. 1130, and vol. 76, p. 90; Dr. White to Selkirk, June 15, 1814, Selkirk Papers, 1148. Mr. Holand gives the following names: Einar Holte, Peder Dahl, Nils Hansen, Peter Isansen, Peter Michaelson, Nils Muller, Hans Rasmussen, Ole Olsen Roost, and Johan Frederik Svendsen. In addition to the Predersen or Pedersen mentioned by Dr. White as belonging to the group at first, Lord Selkirk, in the letter to Miles McDonell cited above, mentions a Weden [?] who with Holte could translate into English directions for building Swedish stoves. Though it is not expressly stated, the context seems to imply that Weden was a member of Holte's party.

<8> Selkirk Papers, p. 1384; report of Governor Thomas Thomas to the Hudson's Bay Company, September 15, 1815, Selkirk Papers, p. 1435. A description of Norway House in 1841 is to be found in R. M. Ballantyne, Hudson's Bay: or Every-day Life in the Wilds of America, during Six Years Residence in the Territories of the Hon. Hudson's Bay Company, 82-84, 111, 112 (London, 1859).

<9> Selkirk Papers, vol. 65, p. 20.

<10> Selkirk Papers, vol. 65, p. 36.

<11> Martin, Selkirk's Work in Canada, 107, 111.

<12> Semple to Selkirk, December 10, 1815, Selkirk Papers, vol. 70, p. 76; Journal, January 27, 1816, Selkirk Papers, vol. 65, p. 141.

<13> Selkirk Papers, vol. 70, p. 76.

<14> Robertson complained that Holte fraternized with the servants of the Northwest Company, and that because of his dislike of Indians he was unfit for the service of the Hudson's Bay Company; Journal, May 5, 1816, Selkirk Papers, vol 65, p. 187. John Pritchard, who was with Holte at Fort Douglas and saw him fall on June 19, 1816, described him as "a fair and upright man." See Amos, Trials in the Courts of Canada, 240.

<15> Census reports for the Red River settlement, 1851, 1834, 1838, 1846, in the Public Archives of Canada, M. series, vol. 399. Several of the colonists farmed without securing actual grants of land. See Report on the Exploration of the Country between Lake Superior and the Red River Settlement, 345 (Toronto, 1858). Isaacson is of course easily identified as the "Peter Isansen (Isaksen?)" mentioned by Mr. Holand.

<16> Professor Hind, who was one of the leaders of the expedition from Canada to the Red River in 1857, wrote, "I had a long conversation with the single Norwegian who now remains at Red River; he is a very old man, between 90 and 100 years; he came to Rupert's Land more than 40 years ago, and he describes Red River as being 'a very good country for a poor man.'" See Exploration of the Country, 804. The description "a very old man" fits Peter Isaacson better than it does Peter Dahl, who was the younger by about ten years. In the autumn of 1857, when this conversation took place, Peter Isaacson would have been about eighty-seven years old.

<17> Archer Martin, The Hudson's Bay Company's Land Tenures and the Occupation of Assiniboia by Lord Selkirk's Settlers, with a List of Grantees under the Earl and the Company, 21-64, 141 (London, 1898). There was no uniformity in the size of the lots.

<18> Public Archives of Canada, M. series, vol. 399. In all the census reports for the Red River settlement, Dahl is spelled "Dahal," but they all contain the entry, "born in Norway, Protestant." In the Manitoba census of 1870 the correct spelling is used. There can be no doubt that "Peter Dahal" is the Peter Dahl who came to the Red River with Holte in the autumn of 1815.

<19> Public Archives of Canada, M. series, vol. 399. The number of carts indicates that Peter Dahl, or his sons, participated in the trips to St. Paul.

<20> Public Archives of Canada, M. series, vol. 399.

<21> Pemmican was "dried buffalo meat, pounded and mixed with various other ingredients, and packed in bags of skins which were then filled with fat." See Martin, Selkirk's Work in Canada, 25n. For conditions in the settlement in 1857 see Exploration of the Country, 142-144.

<22> The trips to St. Paul were made in caravans, using the famous Red River carts. In 1857 it took Professor Hind forty days to travel from Fort Garry on the Red River to St. Paul. By canoe the distance from Fort Garry to Lake Superior was 647 miles. See Exploration of the Country, 61, 86, 146.

<23> Exploration of the Country, 304, 305. The son who was "above 16" in 1838 would have been at least twenty-four in 1846, when Alexander Dahl's age is given as twenty-three.

<24> Public Archives of Canada, M. series, vol. 899; Martin, Land Tenures, 141; report of the Manitoba census of 1870, in the Public Archives of Canada.

<25>Reports of the Manitoba census of 1870; Martin, Land Tenures, 141.

<26> The Manitoba census of 1870 contains information about two other Norwegian families. In the parish of St. Andrew, "Henry Erasmussen, age 40, born in Norway, son of Bastian Erasmussen." His wife, Jane, age thirty-one, was born in the Northwest, the daughter of Abraham Stead. They had five children -- Marid, eleven; Sophia J., nine; Jamaima, six; Henry, four; and Sarah E., one. The children were born in Manitoba. Erasmussen had been granted lot 540 by the Hudson's Bay Company. In the parish of St. Pierre we find Alphonse Christianson, "age 45, born in Norway, son of Aleph [?] Christianson." His wife, Elsie, age twenty-one, was "born in Norway, daughter of Peter Gilliamson [?]" Their children, Peter, age eight, Christine, six, and Clara, three, had been born in Norway.

The report of the Canadian exploring expedition to the Red River in 1857 states (p. 303) that according to the 1843 census there were three Norwegian families at the Red River.

This census report has not been available to the writer, but the reports of the thirties and of 1846 mention only Peter Isaacson and Peter Dahl as born in Norway. However, there was one Peter Erasmus, born in Denmark, who had several children and owned land in the settlement. It is possible that he had been reported in 1845 as a Norwegian. It would of course be tempting to identify him as the Rasmussen who was sick aboard the "Prince of Wales" in June, 1814 (see above), but the man with Holte was named Hans, not Peter, Rasmussen. See Holand in Nordmands-Forbundet, 22: 378. He may have been one of the group, although he was younger than the rest, his age being given as thirty-eight in 1834. However, four census reports state that he was born in Denmark and this evidence must be considered conclusive. In 1870, Olaff Olsen, age thirty-four, son of Olaff Olsen, gave Denmark as his native land. His wife, Martha, daughter of John Johnston, was born in Manitoba. They had two children, Elvire, four, and John, two. The land records show that he held lot 1369 from the Hudson's Bay Company.

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