Earl of Selkirk


Prince Edward Island, Canada

Red River Valley of the North

Canada, Minnesota & North Dakota

Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk
B: 20 Jun 1771
D: 08 Apr 1820, at Pau, France, age 48, buried there.
M: 24 Nov 1807, Joan Wedderburn-Colville of Inveresk

7th and youngest but only surviving son and heir, born June 20, 1771; styled LORD DAER from 1797 till 1799; traveled extensively in North America and in the Highlands of Scotland; visited Canada in 1803 and founded a settlement on Prince Edward Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and another called Baldoon in Upper Canada. Returned to England in December, 1804. Rep. Peer from 1806-18, being a Whig in Politics; Lord Lieutenant of the Stewartry of Kircudbright from 1807 until his death; F.R.S. July 7, 1808.

In 1811, having received a large grant of land from the Hudson Bay Company, he founded another settlement on the Red River where the city of Winnipeg now stands. He revisited Canada in 1815 and stayed there for 4 years, traveling extensively. On his return, much broken in health, he went to Pau in France. He married November 24, 1807 at Inveresk, Joan, daughter of James Wedderburn-Colville of Inveresk, by Isabella, daughter of Andrew Blackburn. He died on April 8, 1820 at Pau, aged 48, and was buried there. His will was probated in 1820. His widow died June 10, 1871 at St. Mary's Isle, aged 85.

Though heir~apparent to a princely fortune, he had never listened to the syren voice, nor tasted the intoxicating cup, of Pleasure.... His zeal and fidelity in the discharge of every public duty secured the esteem and approbation of all. (Gentleman's Magazine, 1795, Part I, pg. 436)

His only son and heir, Dunbar James Douglas, was born April 22, 1809 in London. Upon his death in his 76th year in 1885, the title became dormant and his estates devolved on his elder sister, Isabella Helen, date of birth unspecified. The estates in 1883 comprised 22,264 acres with an annual income of £21,473, and a personal fortune approximating £515,000.The Earldom of Selkirk commenced with its granting to the first Earl, William Douglas afterwards William Hamilton on August 4, 1646.

Source: THE COMPLETE PEERAGE, Vol. XI, pp. 619-20.

Thomas Douglas, Lord Selkirk by William N. McDonald III, FSA (Scot)

Winnipeg and the vast wheat fields of Manitoba are a tribute to this remarkable Scot who led Scottish pioneers into the Red River area of Canada.

Reprinted from July/August 1980 issue of "The Highlander" Magazine

Selkirk place names dot the Canadian West climaxing with the Selkirk Range of the Rocky Mountains. They commemorate Thomas Douglas, the fifth Earl of Selkirk who lost a fortune in his effort to provide fertile farms beyond Lake Superior for Highland families who had lost everything in the Clearances. Lord Selkirk and family experienced two exclusive worlds: the best of Edinburgh and London at the turn of the 18th century and the worst Canadian frontier when it was the pawn of fur traders. The fifth Earl died without knowing that he would be remembered as the founder of Winnipeg and the Province of Manitoba whose grain has fed the world.

Thomas Douglas was the sixth son of a family whose exploits color Scottish history. He showed such promise as a boy that he was given a university education graduating in the same class at the University of Edinburgh as Sir Walter Scott with whom he shared convivial college clubs and escapades. As the youngest son he was fortunate to get the Grand Tour of Europe where he was cordially received in intellectual circles. Afterwards he ran a farm on his father's holdings tilling the land himself with interest. It was this experience with a trip through northwest Scotland which gave him an insight into the suffering of Highlanders wrenched from the lands long worked by their families to make room for more profitable sheep. The Clearances with a later tour of British America (Canada) created a consuming interest which first led to his settlement of Highlanders on Prince Edward Island in 1811.

During this formative period, one after another of his five older brothers died of fever or fighting in far parts of the world. At 28, Thomas Douglas succeeded to the title and responsibility of the lands and fortune of the great house of Douglas. This could have been the limit of his interests and efforts. Instead, the British government in London beckoned so that he ran for one of the Scottish seats in parliament and won handily. For the next eight years, when Great Britain was preoccupied with the forays of Napoleon in Europe, his capacities were increasingly recognized with more important government positions. At the same time he became increasingly involved in the development of central Canada through the Hudson's Bay Company.

Marries well - when Lord Selkirk was 36 he married a well-born girl of Edinburgh who as his countess became an invaluable asset not only in glittering London circles but on the frontier of British America. There were three children including the first born son and heir with one daughter born in pioneer Quebec when her father was so out of touch in the Canadian Wilderness that the latest news on arrival was three months old.

When he married, Lord Selkirk was on the verge of becoming an important figure in the British government.

His concern about his settlements of Highlanders in British America prevented him from pursuing this goal.

Only his wife understood and backed his dreams which became nightmares about peopling Central Canada.

Lord Selkirk was too intellectual and well born to fit comfortably into the group of swashbuckling backers of British American development who made fortunes on large profits from the fur trade. For over a century the Hudson's Bay Company had provided whatever law and order existed in the Canadian wilderness with officials scattered over vast, unexplored areas. Their headquarters at York Factory on Hudson's Bay, reached by sailing ships in the summer, was half way across the continent. Fur shipments to Great Britain thus eliminated the arduous canoe passage through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River required by the rival North West Company fur traders. Officials of North West could not see further than profits from pelts and were prepared to fight by fair means or foul any effort to create thriving farm settlements out of Wilderness required by fur bearing animals.

Hudson's Bay Control

Lord Selkirk's investments in the Hudson's Bay Company with those of members of his family and friends eventually became a controlling interest, paving the way for settlements of High landers and new types of wealth. It was with alarm that London backers of the North West Company discovered that Hudson's Bay Company had granted 116 square miles of land on the Red River which flows across the present border of Minnesota into Lake Winnipeg. There was consternation when they learned that he proposed to settle this fertile territory with displaced Scots. To them, this meant the end of the fur trade and free passage to promising lands further west.

Selkirk had such designs in London without considering this reaction in Britain much less of North West's potent leaders in Canada who felt that their depended on keeping the Red River Valley wild. Selkirk was so set upon its glowing prospects that he brushed aside discouraging talk. Finally Scottish newspaper headlines began to scream with it. So the hopes of Highland families wishing to become Selkirk's settlers were systematically dashed. The bloodcurdling experiences of those who dared the crossing and settlement will be told in the next issue of the Highlander

Such emigration was difficult at best without natural disasters and the 18 month communication gap of news between a ship's Scottish departure and final arrival at Red River. So it was impossible for Lord Selkirk to make appropriate plans for the next season, considering the calamities of the first. Added to these were the man-made calamities carefully engineered by the North West Company.


Between 1813 and 1816 when the worst had happened, Lord Selkirk had heard enough appalling details to determine that his presence was required at Red River and that he must take matters into his own hands. By a stroke of fate, his party of canoes arrived soon after the Governor of Hudson's Bay Company with more than 20 of his men had been massacred by a small army of half-breeds living in the Red River area who had been inflamed against the settlers by North West agents.

The Governor and his men at York Factory on Hudson's Bay had marched the 400 miles to protect the Highlanders from the normally peaceful "metis" (half-breeds). This large community had accumulated over the years as a result of the French and English traders' need for women, albeit Indian. The all powerful Governor had not taken the threats seriously and left the Red River stockade with 26 men to reason with them. They were only a short distance away from the fort's protection. Vastly outnumbered, the Governor and all but three men were not only killed but mutilated within sight of the three wounded who witnessed from the bushes and later testified in Court.

Lord Selkirk's arrival when upheaval reigned spoke louder than the many delayed letters. Taking charge of the situation with an orderly mind, he systematically collected evidence, restored order and dealt with the half-breeds. These actions were held against him during the highly inflamed court proceedings two years later in York (now Toronto). Lord Selkirk was treated as the guilty party.

Arrest Warrants

During the intervening months, Lord Selkirk remained at the settlement fending off warrants for his arrest and demands for bail in large amounts. He could well have escaped the searing experience of the law courts by slipping over the border into the United States and sailing back to London from New York. In spite of the poisonous atmosphere awaiting him, he made the journey to what is now Toronto through the United States to avoid the real possibility of assassination. Down the Mississippi, up the Ohio, by stage to Washington and thence by water to New York and up the Hudson River to Albany, westward over New York State by stage and finally to York (Toronto) over Lake Ontario.

Awaiting his arrival was his wife, the Countess Jean, and his three children. She had left soon after his departure expecting a baby which arrived in Quebec. Encouraging letters had been sent to Red River in spite of the 12 week delays in receiving an answer. Their letters are part of the Canadian Archives in Ottawa and all of them end with the code "0 0 L" which may have meant "Only One Love"

In spite of every effort and the legal help at his command, evidence had been so falsified that Lord Selkirk did not prevail. He returned with his family to London a broken man. He had given his all to the settlement of the Canadian mid-west and the welfare of his Highlanders. As all the world knows, the Selkirk settlers did prevail to which Winnipeg surrounded by the vast wheat fields of Manitoba testify.

To people living on the Douglas lands near Scotland's southern border, the fifth Earl is considered the great Earl.

No one remembers the North West Company. The court proceedings which finished Lord Selkirk also finished the North West Company which was absorbed by the Hudson's Bay Company.

copyright ©1996 Jeffrey H. Douglas. All rights reserved.

Prince Edward Island Properties

By 1803:

Lot 56 - was part of Selkirk's holdings

Lot 57 - was part of Selkirk's holdings

By 1806:

Lot 10 - was sold or transferred to Earl of Selkirk

Lot 12 - Lord of Selkirk held half of lot 12

Lot 31 - was sold by Drummond to the Earl of Selkirk

Lot 53 - the western 1/3 of lot 53 was part of the Selkirk holdings

Lot 60 - was possibly sold or transferred to Selkirk

Lot 62 - was possibly sold or transferred to Selkirk

The "Polly" arrived from the Isle of Skye on Sunday, August 7, 1803. It was the first of Lord Selkirk's three vessels to arrive on Prince Edward Island. Two days later, the "Dykes" arrived with her passengers and Lord Selkirk aboard. The "Oughton" arrived on August 27th almost a month later, carrying 40 or 50 families from Uist. The Polly had 250 full passengers and nearly 400 souls who were pioneers from Hebrides and / or Isle of Skye.

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