By Beth Greenhorn
In the spring of 2016, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) digitized A General Statement and Report relative to the Disturbances in the Indian Territories of British North America, more commonly known as “the Coltman Report.” Its digitization was in support of the 200th-anniversary events commemorating the Battle of Seven Oaks, organized by the Manitoba Métis Federation in June 2016.
As part of our support, LAC launched a crowdsourcing transcription tool and chose the Coltman Report as the first document to be transcribed.
Events leading to the Battle of Seven Oaks on June 19, 1816
Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, or Lord Selkirk, was a Scottish peer who was granted a huge parcel of land by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The land, referred to as the Selkirk Concession, included portions of Rupert’s Land, or the watershed of Hudson Bay. It covered sections of present-day Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. Its settlement was at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers in the Red River Valley.
Lord Selkirk’s plan was to bring Scottish settlers to farm in the area. Their arrival threatened the Métis, who felt that settlement would have a negative impact on their way of life. Although the Métis occupied this area, they held no “legal title” and feared losing their lands and livelihoods.
Many Métis were working for the North West Company (NWC) and the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). A number were employed to supply pemmican to the fur trade. In 1814, as a result of food shortages in the Red River District, the governor of the new Red River Colony, Miles MacDonell, issued the ‘’Pemmican Proclamation’’ to the inhabitants of the area.
The proclamation declared that no one should “take out any provisions, either flesh, dried meat, grain, or vegetable.” It was the governor’s attempt to guarantee adequate food supplies for the HBC and to stop the Métis people from exporting pemmican out of the district. The HBC wanted to prevent the Métis from selling pemmican to its rival, the NWC. The settlers tried to block the Métis pemmican export business because they wanted the pemmican for themselves.
The proclamation had an enormous impact on Métis livelihoods. They saw it as a ploy to monopolize the fur trade as it prohibited them from selling their pemmican to the fur brigades. Led by Cuthbert Grant, the Métis ignored the new law, which further fueled the conflict between the Métis and the settlers.
The Battle of Seven Oaks and emergence of the Métis Nation
The dispute over the pemmican supply culminated with the Battle of Seven Oaks (also known as “The Battle of Frog Plain”). It took place on June 19, 1816, along the Red River just north of the HBC’s Fort Douglas. It was a quick but fierce battle that left 21 HBC employees and settlers dead. There was one Métis fatality.
The battle is commemorated with a monument at the battle site in Winnipeg, at the intersection of Main Street and Rupert’s Land Boulevard.
Following the Battle of Seven Oaks, William Coltman was commissioned by the governor in Lower Canada (now the province of Quebec) to investigate. After taking depositions from the Métis and the settlers, Coltman sympathized in his report with the NWC’s position while condemning the use of violence on both sides. He determined that the Métis did not fire the first shot, but had reacted in self-defense. On pages 193 and 194 of the report, Coltman concluded that:
Such is the evidence by which the fact of the first shot being fired by the Colonists stands supported; of [19 June 1816] those present, five Witnesses speaks [sic] positively to its being so, and not one except Hayden states the contrary even on belief, and all others who have spoken to the question, concur in stating that such was the general report; whilst the opposite statement of Hayden remains unsupported by a single evidence either direct or indirect. (Page 193 and Page 194)
The battle marked the emergence of a new nation—the Métis Nation. It was also the first time that the Métis flew their blue infinity flag, which helped shape their sense of identity. Today, the Coltman Report provides one of the best sources on the fur-trade war and is a key document in the history of the Métis Nation.
Transcription tool a success
The transcription of this 521-page handwritten report was a resounding success. The transcription tool was announced on June 16, 2016, and thanks to an enthusiastic public, the entire report was transcribed within less than a month. In addition to the transcription, every page has tags related to the individuals, dates, locations and specific events recorded during Coltman’s investigation. A PDF of Coltman’s report is available in the database and is fully searchable. Each entry is accompanied by a link to the corresponding digitized page from the report.
LAC owns the only copy of this report. Prior to digitization and transcription, researchers had to arrange a visit to the Gatineau Preservation Centre with an archivist to consult the report. Travel to LAC is not an option for many researchers. Consequently, some historians have perpetuated information found in many secondary sources that described the confrontation as a massacre initiated by the Métis. Through digitization, and with the help from the public to transcribe this important document, historical inaccuracies have been corrected.
Beth Greenhorn is Project Manager in the Online Content and Exhibitions Division at Library and Archives Canada.