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Battle of Seven Oaks

This story was initially published in 2004

On June 19, 1816, Métis pemmican traders clashed with settlers from the Red River Settlement in the Battle of Seven Oaks or the Battle of "la grenouillère." This battle was the result of growing hostility between Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and Northwest Company (NWC) fur traders that lasted for four decades until the union of the companies in 1821.

Thomas Douglas, the Fifth Earl of Selkirk (1771-1820)
© Library and Archives of Canada/C-001346

By 1811, the aggressive western expansion of the NWC forced the HBC to abandon their traditional positions along Hudson’s Bay and move inland. The HBC wished to develop an agricultural settlement to support their men trading goods and furs on the rivers of the northwest. One HBC shareholder, the Scottish Earl of Selkirk, quickly put forward his plan for a settlement in the Red River area. Selkirk had become interested in colonization while travelling as a young man, and thought the Red River area would be an ideal location for Scottish immigrants to settle. The HBC claimed to own the territory and granted Selkirk 187,600 square kilometres for settlement – an area five times the size of Scotland! This area became the Red River Settlement.

In the spring of 1814, fearing starvation in the colony, the HBC banned the export of pemmican (dried meat, usually bison) from Red River. The decree threatened the livelihood of Métis hunters, who were the main suppliers of pemmican. This pushed the Métis to join with the NWC, who also disliked the HBC because their rivalry threatened their trade routes in the rich Athabasca country to the north.

Battle of Seven Oaks, 1816
© Original painting by Charles W. Jeffreys.  Reproduced with permission of the Hudson Bay Company Archives Documentary Art, P-378 (N87-8)

In 1816, a group of Métis, led by Cuthbert Grant, were travelling to Seven Oaks to trade pemmican when they were intercepted by a group of Red River Settlers. A skirmish erupted, resulting in the death of 20 Red River Settlers. Afterwards, Grant and several of his companions surrendered to HBC officials and were charged with murder. The charges, however, were dropped and they were set free. A Canadian commission investigated the incident and found both parties to be of equal blame and condemned their actions.

As an important conflict between two different ways of life (Métis and the Red River Settlers) in the settlement of the Canadian west, the Battle of Seven Oaks was designated a national historic site in 1920. Thomas Douglas (5th Earl of Selkirk) and Cuthbert Grant were designated national historic persons in 1943 and 1972 respectively.

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