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Battle of Seven Oaks: the Metis Victory but Loss

HIST 3319-001
Professor Jarett Henderson
Term Paper
4 December 2013

Devon Donahue-Reid
4 December 2013
The Battle of Seven Oaks
Words have a strong effect on the way in which we as historians understand the events
which have happened. From the title to the description of an event, the written legal
documents, newspaper articles and oral histories all use language which can easily change the
historical construction of the event and how historians analyze the event. On 19 June 1816 at
Seven Oaks, modern-day Manitoba, led by Cuthbert Grant a group of mostly Mtis men who
had seized a supply of pemmican with the intention of selling it to the North West Company
encountered a group of men from Hudsons Bay Company led by Governor Semple and a fight
ensued. Twenty-one of the HBC men did not survive the battle including Semple, meanwhile
only one Mtis man suffered a fatality. In newspaper articles about the event, the formal
investigation reported by Royal Commissioner William Coltman, and the histories written about
this event, it has been titled a massacre, a battle and an incident; each of these titles hold a
different meaning and demonstrate a different understanding to what actually happened and
the meaning of the event. This paper will discuss the implication of the use of each title and
how describing the event as a massacre, battle or incident has affected the historical
construction of Seven Oaks. This paper uses Seven Oaks to discuss the meaning of the words
used to describe events and importance for historians to think critically about the ways the
events are categorized and recounted.
Switch to Slide on Miles MacDonell

Two years prior to the Battle of Seven Oaks, the first governor of Red River, Miles
MacDonnell issued the Pemmican Proclamation. This document caused much disturbance to
the Metis people who saw this document as a declaration of war . By restricting the export of
pemmican to those given permit by the governor, the HBC was able to hold a monopoly over
the food supply the traders of the NWC needed and greatly impacted the livelihood of the
Metis. As Ellice Edward writes of Lord Selkirk who had established Red River Colony in 1811, I
asserted at the outset, that Lord Selkirkhis pretended governorsagents, and people, were
on all occasions the aggressors against the N. W. Company. . . [MacDonell] basely attacked his
benefactors by proclamation, by capture of their forts1.
Switch Slide
W. B. Coltman, The Special Commissioner leading the investigation of the Incident at
Seven Oaks, explains through great deal and the testimonies of the witnesses that what
happened at Seven Oaks was not meant to be violent. While a group of Metis men, led by
Cuthbert Grant and on behalf of the NWC, had approached Fort Douglas, they had only wanted
to take the Fort and the Governor Semple prisoner. Governor Semple knew this due to being
tipped off days earlier. Governor Semple was also warned that the HBC would have little
chance on the Plains against the half-breeds by both Francois Eno dit De Lorme and John

Ellice, Edward. The Communication of Mercator, upon the contest between the Earl of Selkirk
and the Hudsons Bay Company, on one side, and the North West Company on the other.
Montreal: Wm. Gray, 1817.
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Pritchard saying fifty half-breeds in the plains would kill two hundred English men2. Once
Semple knew of the Metis attack and rumours spread, a couple of Indians and colonists came
separately to Semple and offered their assistance to the HBC in approaching the Metis from the
NWC. Semple refused them twice and when he saw the NWC Metis men approach he gathered
twenty men. As Coltman describes many other wished to go, but were not allowed3. When
the HBC men approached the NWC men, a shot broke out which through his investigation
Coltman found that the shot came from one of Semples men . In the battle, there were twentyone HBC fatalities and only one Metis/NWC fatality. In the aftermath of the incident, it was
written in newspapers and documents as a massacre.

Switch Slides
Oxford Dictionary defines a Massacre as The indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of
people . . . Carnage, butchery, slaughter in numbers; an instant of this. The re-telling of the
story of this event ignored blatant evidence and facts from the investigation and eye witness
testimonies to create the illusions of carnage, butchery or slaughter in numbers. The story told
of the incident by historians and newspapers described the Metis as savages, mutilating the
bodies of the Semple and his men. The Metis were told to have mutilated the dead bodies of
the dead soldiers, while being accused in other reports of leaving the bodies of the HBC men
out on the field to be picked apart by birds and animals. This was also proven to be false as it
was determined by both the Selkirk and Metis sides that the bodies were duly buried. Also,

2
3

W. B. Coltman,
W. B. Coltman.
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many journalists and (in later times, historians) ignored all events leading up to this conflict at

Seven Oaks such as the Pemmican Proclamation or the hostilities between the HBC and NWC .
The NWC refused to admit any part of the incident, saying the Metis acted alone, according
to historian Gerhard Ens. This had major implications as the Metis were intrinsically intertwined
with the NWC through the unions of European fur-traders and their Native brides, creating the
Metis peoples. Historian W. L. Morton writes the metis, or mixed bloods, came to make up a
large part of the work force [of the NWC] and were a striking example of the Indianization of
the European in the fur trade. They were in their own personsnot always happilythe very
realization of that union of the primitive and the sophisticated that was the fur trade as
practiced by the North West Company4. Through Coltmans investigation, the Metis were
exonerated however they felt the consequences of the event described as a massacre . The
Metis were treated as though they were savages, craving blood in their actions, not justice. The
confusion of who fired the first shot and whether or not the HBC knew of the Metis travels to
Fort Douglas contributed to the HBC and newspapers like the Montreal Gazette and the London
Times recounting of the incident as a massacre.
Many historians of the mid-19th century used the massacre to stereotype the Metis
and Indians as excessively violent and villains in the process of colonizing the West. As
Canadian Historian Lyle Dick explains, historians and Red River Settlers have accused the Metis
of firing the first shot although W. B. Coltman determined through at least two eye witnesses
4

W. L. Morton, The North West Company: Pedlars Extraordinary, Minnesota History 40 no. 4
(Winter 1996): 160. J Stor.
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that someone from the HBC fired first. Historian Alexander Ross wrote about the Battle of
Seven Oaks in 1856. Ross completely disregarded the evidence given by W. B. Coltmans report.
Ross argued that there has never been in a shadow of doubt . . . that the North West Company
did unquestionably fire the first shot, and almost all the shots that were fired. Even a century
later, George E. Carter wrote in 1968 the Metis were blood thirsty barbarians. Carter however also
names Seven Oaks as a so-called Massacre or [a] victorydepending on whose account one is
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reading

. Carter falls into the same historical discourse of understanding the event as a

massacre when he writes that Semple was lured from the colony and met a force of halfbreeds, dressed as Indians6. In more recent years, historian Lyle Dick claims that by leaving
out the particularly useful and relatively unbiased investigation performed by William Coltman
that amateur and academic historians from 1870-1970 portrayed the Mtis at fault to
demonstrate their savagery and brutality. Coltmans investigation did not argue the fault of
HBC and Lord Semple in the Seven Oaks Incident but rather showed that the shots fired first
were on Lord Semples side which erupted the violent massacre. In doing so these historians
were able to persuade audiences that Lord Selkirk and HBCs settlement of Red River was
motivated by the pious and philanthropic desire of introducing civilization to the wilderness 7.
The Mtis were seen as backward to this colonial process to spread civilization to the West.

George E. Carter, Lord Selkirk and the Red River Colony, The Magazine of Western History 18
no. 1 (Winter 1968): 60. J Stor.

Ibid, 64.
Ross, The Red River Settlement, 18 as qtd in Lyle Dick, The Seven Oaks Incident and the
Construction of a Historical Tradition, 1816 to 1970, Journal of the Canadian Historical
Association 2 no. 1 (1991):100.

Another historian from modern times, Gerherd Ens claims that the HBC sympathizers were not
alone in their claims that the Mtis were at fault. Ens argues that NWC encouraged the Mtis to
raze the Red River Settlement8. Moreover, Ens argues that while NWC claimed the Mtis as a
separate race from the Indians and from the settlers, that the NWCs actions and relations to
Metis people helped to identify them as a people. Even the Mtis flag which emerged in 1812
was designed and given to the Mtis by the NWC9.
Switch Slides
I am sure everyone has heard Sir Winston Churchills famous quotation that History is
written by the Victors. Oxford Dictionary defines a victory as the position or state of having
overcome an enemy or adversary in combat, battle, or war; supremacy or superiority achieved
as the result of armed conflict.The Metis were the definite victors of this event and within
themselves, treated it as such. Chanson de la Grenouillere was a song written by Pierre
Falcon about the Metis celebration of their victory at Seven Oaks. Thanks goodness for me,
historian Gerhard Ens translated this long song from the French it was originally written into
English.
Switch Slides
This song demonstrates the Metis perspective of the battle. In Metis circles, the battle
was called the Victory of Frog Plains. I find it slightly ironic that the victors of this battle did not
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Gerhard Ens, The Battle of Seven Oaks and the Articulation of a Mtis National Tradition,
1811-1849, In Contours of a People: Mtis Family, Mobility, and History, edited by
Nicole St-Onge, Carolyn Podruchny and Brenda MacDougall, 93-119, Norman: University
of Oklahoma Press, 2012. 103.

Ibid, 104.
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even have their choice in even naming the place of the incident. In this song, the Metis claim
the Governor was the instigator of the actions: There are English coming to attack us!, We
sent an ambassador to them. / Governor! Stop for a moment! / We wish to talk to you, But
the governor was enraged and / Told his soldiers to fire! / The English nearly killed our
ambassador. These statements all show the Metis warned the governor. He tried to frighten
us. / He was wrong to attempt to frighten us. / He was killed 10. This stanza shows the strength
the Metis had in the battle compared to that of Governor Semple. In the Metis perspective,
when Semple threatened them, the Metis confronted them and stood their ground and became
victorious. There is no shame in the event. There is no evidence of guilt. This song is about a
battle victory of their people. It has identity and pride swelling from each verse. While the
English settler populations saw this as proof of Metis brutality and savagery, this event gave the
Metis the feeling of legitimacy as a nation and as a show of their willingness to stand their
ground. This song was later used for buffalo hunts and voyageur brigades and during the Red
River Rebellion to gather Metis together and keep spirits up. While the Victory of Frog Plain, or
Seven Oaks and this song written by Pierre Falcon brought the Metis together and gave them a
sense of unity and pride, the sentiments of the people of Red River employed by the HBC led to
harsh prejudices against the Metis which only increased hostilities. The Battle of Seven Oaks
helped to identify that the Metis were a coherent group with particular goals, values and
economy, and these were in conflict with agricultural settlement. If Seven Oaks was the first

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Ibid, 107-108.
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battle in their fight to preserve the Metis way of life, the last was fought seventy years later
under Louis Riel which many of you know as the Red River Rebellion.
Switch Slides
Understanding this, I argue that the definition of a victory refutes this event being a real
victory. While the definition states that a victory is he position or state of having overcome an
enemy or adversary in combat, battle, or war, the Metis did not gain supremacy or superiority
as the result of armed conflict. Although the Metis had won this battle which was fought
against the injustices they were facing due to their being half-breedsnot belonging to the
Indian nations nor the settler populationsthey still became the subjects of harsh criticism for
their actions. The Metis did not kill Lord Semple and his men for thrill nor for thirst of blood .
They attempted to warn the governor and wished to stand their ground underneath the
leadership of Cuthbert ground. Through their overwhelming victory however, the Metis were
subjected to prejudice and accused of savage behavior. While the HBC, Lord Selkirk, Miles
MacDonell and Lord Semple instigated the issues between the companies perhaps due to a lack
of food or the competition, the Metis were seen at fault for the incident by historians who
omitted important primary sources. Although the Metis were exonerated of their charges, they
were still under the punishment of historians and settlers for their role in Lord Semple and his
mens demise at the Battle of Seven Oaks.
Switch Slides
I call this event at Seven Oaks a Battle because of its definition: A hostile engagement or
encounter between opposing forces on land or sea; a combat, a fight. While the Lord Semple

and the HBC suffered a devastating loss, there was indeed a hostile engagement between
opposing forces. The Metis only wanted the ability for prosperity and to feed their starving
fathers, brothers and comrades in the NWC which was limited by the legislation put in place by
Miles MacDonell. This incident was not a Massacre as Lord Semple was warned about the
superior abilities of the Metis and that a violent encounter would most likely end badly. Which
it did. This event was not indiscriminate. It was a reaction. MacDonell had ensured hostilities
with the Metis through the Pemmican Proclamation and this encounter only became violent
when a shot rang out from one of Semples men. The Metis had already announced they
viewed the Proclamation as a declaration of war from the HBC. And Semple had many warnings
prior to meeting Cuthbert Grant and his men outside of Fort Douglas. Also interesting is that
while the technical victors of the Battle would be the Metis, as I argued earlier, the Metis did
not gain supremacy or superiority as a result of the conflict.
The importance of the Battle of Seven Oaks and any even we as historians write about is
the way in which we re-create how the history is thought of. While the title of the event may
seem like a small formality, it has the effect of changing the way in which we understand how it
happened. It is from learning about the Battle of Seven Oaks that I truly understood the extent
to which words and our re-telling of events truly prove that history is constantly changing.
Thank you.

Bibliography
Primary Sources:
Ellice, Edward. The Communication of Mercator, upon the contest between the Earl of Selkirk
and the Hudsons Bay Company, on one side, and the North West Company on the other .
Montreal: Wm. Gray, 1817.
Halkett, John. Statement respecting the Earl of Selkirks settlement of Kildonan upon the Red
River in North America: Its destruction in the years 1815 and 1816 and the massacre of
Governor Semple and his Party. London: John Burtell, 1817.
Hudsons Bay Company. Notices on the Claims of the Hudsons Bay Company and the Conduct of
its Adversaries. Montreal: Edward Grey, 1817.
Secondary Sources:
Bryce, George. The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirks Colonists, The Pioneers of Manitoba.
Toronto: Musson Book Company, 1909. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17358/17358h/17358-h.htm.
Bumstead, J. M.. Lord Selkirk, A Life. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2008.
Carlos, Ann M. and Elizabeth Hoffman. The North American Fur Trade: Bargaining to a Joint
Profit Maximum under Incomplete Information, 1804-1821. The Journal of Economic
History 46 no. 4 (December 1986): 967-986. J Stor.

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Carter, George E.. Lord Selkirk and the Red River Colony. The Magazine of Western History 18
no. 1 (Winter 1968): 60-69. J Stor.
Dick, Lyle. The Seven Oaks Incident and the Construction of a Historical Tradition, 1816 to
1970. Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 2 no. 1 (1991): 91-113. Erudit.
Ens, Gerhard J.. The Battle of Seven Oaks and the Articulation of a Metis National Tradition,
1811-1849. In Contours of a People: Metis Family, Mobility, and History, edited by
Nicole St-Onge, Carolyn Podruchny and Brenda MacDougall, 93-119. Norman: University
of Oklahoma Press, 2012.
Morton, W. L .. The North West Company: Pedlars Extraordinary. Minnesota History 40 no. 4
(Winter 1996): 157-165. J Stor.

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Appendix I
Chanson de la Grenouillre Translation

Will you come and listen to a song of truth!


On June 19th the Bois-brls arrived
Like brave warriors
At Frog Plain.
We took three prisoners, Orkneymen
Who had come to pillage our country.
Standing on the ridge
Two of our comrades cried out.
There are English who come to attack us!
At once we turned to meet them.
We surrounded the group of grenadiers.
They stood still! They were baffled!
Acting as men of honor
We sent an ambassador to them.
Governor! Stop for a moment!
We wish to talk to you.
But the governor was enraged and
Told his soldiers to fire!
The English nearly killed our ambassador.

Acted harshly.
The Governor, thinking himself superior to us,
To his misfortune acted harshly.
Having seen the Bois-brls
He tried to frighten us.
He was wrong to attempt to frighten us.
He was killed
Along with many of his grenadiers.

We have killed most of his army.


Only four or five of his group were saved.
If you had seen the English
And all the Bois-brls afterwards!
Exposed, the English fell.
The Bois-brls uttered shouts of joy.
Who composed this song?
It is Pierre Falcon! A good lad!
It was composed
About the victory we have won!
It was composed
and sung to the glory of all those Bois-brls!

The Governor, thinking himself to be superior


to us,

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