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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published September 15 2012

Eriksmoen: Dakota Territory legislator became Winnipeg businessman

The first Dakota Territory legislator from what is now North Dakota was later arrested in Canada for trying to persuade the leader of “the North West Territories” (now Manitoba) to secede from Canada and have that land annexed by the U.S.

When those efforts failed, Hugh Donaldson became one of Winnipeg’s leading businessmen, making – and losing – a fortune in real estate.

With the election of President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, Donaldson was replaced as postmaster of Pembina in 1861. He was not out of work for long. In 1861, Norman Kittson, forwarding agent for the Hudson Bay Co., appointed Donaldson to oversee his fur trading enterprise in Pembina.

In the meantime, the Civil War had begun. At the same time, the U.S. government failed to pay the Sioux Indians in Minnesota for the land they ceded to the country through treaties. As a result, most Indians were going hungry, and with the cold season approaching, some Sioux decided to take matters into their own hands.

Beginning in August 1862, war parties started attacking settlements in Minnesota. Later that year, the Indians also harassed travelers along the trade route between St. Paul and Pembina. Settlers and Hudson Bay employees began taking refuge at Pembina and at Fort Abercrombie, south of present-day Fargo.

When the Indians launched several attacks against Fort Abercrombie, action was taken to protect the people at Pembina.

In July, Maj. E.A.C. Hatch formed a cavalry battalion of Minnesota volunteers to protect Pembina, and Donaldson was commissioned as captain and assigned commander of Company D.

When hostilities subsided, Donaldson was mustered out of Hatch’s forces on Nov. 19, 1864, and resumed his duties with Hudson Bay.

Late in 1864, Kittson dispatched Donaldson to Fort Garry, the administrative center of the Hudson Bay Co. At the time, the company was the largest landowner in the world, possessing 15 percent of the land in North America.

The territory that HBC controlled was called “Rupert’s Land.” For many decades, the company controlled the majority of the fur trade market, but by 1864, the fur trade industry had begun to decline and “the company evolved into a mercantile business selling vital goods to settlers.”

Donaldson decided to capitalize on this thriving new market and purchased a stationery store at the corner of Portage and Main.

In 1869, the Hudson Bay Co. sold Rupert’s Land to the Dominion of Canada, and William McDougall was appointed governor. The Métis inhabitants opposed McDougall, and turned to Louis Riel to represent their interests.

Riel asked that the transfer of sovereignty be postponed, and he created a provisional government. He refused to negotiate with McDougall and “undertook to negotiate directly with the Canadian government to establish Assiniboia as a province.”

When Canada refused to negotiate with Riel, he seized Fort Garry and took steps to broaden his base by calling on English-speaking inhabitants to join his government.

In early January 1870, Riel learned that a large band of Sioux were planning to attack Fort Garry. After a meeting with the citizens of the community, he formed a military company and placed it under Donaldson’s command.

Some American businessmen and officials saw this as an opportunity. Executives of the Northern Pacific and the Lake Superior and Mississippi railroads met with government officials to see what could be done to persuade Riel to have this newly proposed province annexed to the U.S.

They sent Donaldson and American vice-consul Henry M. Robinson to meet with Riel in March 1870 concerning this proposal. Donaldson’s earlier talks with Riel led him to believe that the Métis leader would be receptive.

Since Riel was still attempting to negotiate with the Canadian government, he had Donaldson and Robinson arrested, but after a couple of days, they were released.

On May 12, the Canadian government passed the Manitoba Act, creating the province of Manitoba. On June 24, Riel’s provisional government of Assiniboia ratified the act, and on Aug. 23, he vacated Fort Garry.

In 1875, Riel was exiled from Canada, and when he returned in 1885, he was tried for “high treason,” convicted and executed.

Realizing that Fort Garry/Winnipeg would not become a part of the United States, Donaldson settled in to make the best of his situation. In 1872, he “started a first class circulating library” and, the next year, became one of the founders of the Manitoba Board of Trade.

In March 1873, he made his brother James N. Donaldson a business partner as he geared up for expanded sales. The brothers hoped to have a lucrative business during the Christmas season, but those plans were dashed when the boat bringing their goods up the Red River became locked in by the winter ice, and delivery was not made until after the holidays.

On Feb. 15, 1874, the city of Winnipeg was incorporated, and Donaldson became involved in civic matters and turned over the running of the business to James.

With the rapid growth of the new city, Hugh Donaldson focused his attention on real estate, buying and selling choice properties. “During the boom in Winnipeg in the early ’80s, he amassed a large fortune, but in the decline of values a few years later his money was swept away.”

In 1903, Hugh Donaldson moved back to Whitby, Ontario, the town where he grew up, and died there on May 13, 1904.


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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.