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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 4

A Brief History of Lower Fort Garry

by Dale Miquelon

The Gentle Occupation

Simpson had meanwhile procured a new constitution for Red River. Major Caldwell, Commander of the Chelsea Pensioners, was made Governor of Assiniboia and the civil government of the colony was separated from the management of the Company. Intended to mollify the settlers, the new measure merely served to weaken Company authority. Chief Factor Christie could no longer exercise the direct legal pressures against free traders that he had as governor, and he determined to attack the growing menace through a new medium, the courts. On Ascension Day, 17 May 1849, Guillaume Sayer came to trial for trading in furs. His was a test case. A fair conclusion was reached when the jury found Sayer guilty but recommended mercy. The armed gathering that awaited the verdict outside accepted this decision as the de facto liberation of the trade. The cry of "Le commerce est libre!" passing from mouth to mouth ended forever the old fur-trade monopoly.

Denied means of coercion and no longer in control of the government of Assiniboia, the Hudson's Bay Company sought to restore its crumbling authority in Red River by means of influence and diplomacy. It was decided that a governor of Rupert's Land should reside in the colony. Eden Colvile, son of a deputy governor of the Company and a Lower Canadian businessman himself, was named associate governor on 3 January 1849.1 He would live in the colony while Simpson remained at Lachine. His task had been made doubly difficult by the bumbling Governor Caldwell, who had managed to divide the colony over, of all things, his handling in the courts of an illicit love affair.2

Governor and Mrs. Colvile landed at Lower Fort Garry, their new home, on 11 August 1850,3 just in time to save the colony from open violence. They carried out their mission with great tact, and the colony seems to have been delighted with them.

For a time Colvile presided over both the Court and Council of Assiniboia, but was ordered by the Company to drop these positions to maintain the separation of political and company affairs. At the same time, the London Council reduced Adam Thom to the position of clerk of the court. Later improvements in government included Thom's complete removal from office and the admission of a Métis to the Council in 1853, and the appointment of a bilingual recorder, F.G. Johnson in 1855. From then until 1869, the government of the colony remained relatively stable.4

While living at the fort, the Colviles were visited by John Rae, the Arctic explorer who was returning from his third expedition, his second Franklin Relief Expedition. He remained in Red River for 18 days, and worked on the journal of his celebrated voyage.5

The Colviles left Lower Fort Garry in the fall of 1853. During their occupation, the Stone Fort once again had assumed the role of a gracious residence for which in part it was originally intended. Many improvements were made. During the great flood of 1852, when the fort was a refuge to many distinguished colonists, Bishop Anderson visited the place and was pleased with what he found. "The Fort has been improved with much taste by Governor and Mrs. Colvile, and it began to wear much more of an English aspect: the annuals were above ground, and the lawn smooth and green."6

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