Douglas Thomas (1771–1820) businessman, philanthropist

2011-02-10 13:02:42

Thomas Douglas, fifth earl of Selkirk, was a Whig politician and philanthropist who was deeply concerned for the welfare of Scottish crofters (tenant farmers with very small holdings) being driven from the Highlands during the clearances—the removal of former tenant farmers by legislatively “enclosing” communal lands—after 1750. He founded a prosperous settlement of 800 Highlanders on Prince Edward Island in 1803 and a less successful settlement of 15 families at Baldoon, Upper Canada, in 1804. After acquiring a controlling interest in the Hudson’s Bay Company between 1808 and 1812, Lord Selkirk convinced the governing committee to sell him 116,000 square miles of Rupert’s Land, extending from Lake Winnipeg in the north to the headwaters of the Red River in the south. In one of the great land deals of all time, Selkirk purchased a tract of land almost as large as Britain and Ireland combined for the cost of 10 shillings, financial provisions for 200 company men, and a promise to settle 1,000 people within 10 years. The settlement of 270 Scots in the Red River colony (1812–1816) led to vigorous opposition from the North West Fur Company and eventually to bloodshed, when company troops drove colonists from Fort Douglas and Fort Daer in 1815 and 1816. Selkirk personally led an attack on the North West Fur Company’s chief post of Fort William, reestablishing his settlement as Kildonan (1817). A protracted legal struggle cost much of his fortune. His projects nevertheless laid the foundations of Winnipeg and Manitoba. Selkirk wrote two major works, Observations on the Present State of the Highlands of Scotland (1805) and A Sketch of the British Fur Trade in North America (1816). He returned to Scotland in 1818.