As soon as I heard that the Earl of Selkirk was commencing
a settlement on Red River, I determined to warn the Public of the deception,
and of the great misery which emigrants must experience in such a distant
and inhospitable region.
Strachan, 1816, commenting on the Earl of Selkirk’s settlement at Red
River (present-day Winnipeg)
Until the late nineteenth century, the vast lands of western Canada
were part of Rupert’s Land, the enormous fur-trading territory administered
by the Hudson’s Bay Company. For two centuries, from its establishment
in 1670 until its transfer to the Dominion of Canada in 1870, Rupert’s
Land was a region largely devoid of any Euro-Canadian presence. First
Nations communities had inhabited the land for millennia, but only
a scattering of Euro-Canadian trappers, traders, missionaries, and
adventurers had established themselves in the region. Rupert’s Land
was viewed by many Canadians as a howling wilderness, unfit for agricultural
development and unsuited to civilization. It was thought best left
as the homeland of First Nations and the heartland of the fur trade.
the 1850s, however, the vision of Rupert’s Land began to shift dramatically.
Concerns about American expansion north, fears of dwindling farmland
in central and eastern British North America, and a more aggressive,
colonial spirit inspired Canadian expansionists to look west with new
eyes. Two scientific expeditions in the late 1850s – the Palliser Expedition
and the Youle Hind Expedition– confirmed expansionists in their belief
that the west was not only suitable for agriculture, but a region of
almost unparalleled abundance awaiting exploitation. Expansionism gathered
momentum over the 1850s and 60s and culminated in the Dominion of Canada’s
purchase of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1870. The
acquisition marked a seminal moment in the transformation of western
Canada from a “Great Lone Land” inhabited by First Nations and fur
traders to a Euro-Canadian agricultural frontier.
Last reviewed/revised: May 7, 2012