KEVENY, OWEN, HBC employee; murdered 11 Sept. 1816 on the Winnipeg River (Ont./Man.).
Owen Keveny, from Sligo (Republic of Ireland), was employed by Lord Selkirk [Douglas] to recruit colonists in the west of Ireland and was chosen to lead a second party to the Red River settlement (Winnipeg) in 1812. Selkirk described him as a man “of a good family” and with four years’ experience in a counting-house where he had given ample proof of “steadiness, activity and integrity.” He was to stay in the settlement as Governor Miles Macdonell*’s second in command as long as Macdonell felt he was required.
On the 61-day trip to York Factory (Man.), Keveny gained a reputation as a harsh disciplinarian. Some of the settlers charged that they were “treated unlike men and with Tyranny.” Keveny defended his harsh actions as necessary in the handling of agitators on board, whose actions he considered “more heinous than insubordination.” The party of approximately 70 reached York in August 1812 and proceeded inland, reaching the settlement in late October. The winter was spent at Fort Daer (Pembina, N.Dak.), where some provisions were available. Food was scarce, nevertheless, and Keveny travelled to Brandon House (Man.) in the spring of 1813 to procure pemmican. Macdonell found him “distant & reserved” and reported to Selkirk that he was “extremely unpopular among the people on account of his discipline.”
Though he showed zeal and interest in the affairs of the settlement, Keveny was determined to return home. He felt that Selkirk did not approve of his disciplinary methods and he had met at Macdonell’s hands, he said, “treatment which has given him disgust.” Macdonell indicated there was no further need for his services. Selkirk, however, reprimanded the governor, expressing dismay that a man of such ability had been “so completely thrown aside & employed to no useful purpose.”
Keveny left Red River on 2 June 1813 and after a three-week journey arrived at York. There he spent the summer overseeing the dispatch of supplies to Red River and making arrangements for the third party of settlers. In September he travelled to Churchill (Man.) where the group, led by Archibald McDonald*, had been landed; he then returned to Britain on the HBC ship Prince of Wales. Early in 1815 he requested Selkirk to obtain an appointment for him in the company’s service. The same year he was sent to Moose Factory (Ont.) as an accountant. When he heard that the Red River settlement had been dispersed and Macdonell taken prisoner by Nor’ Westers in June 1815, he volunteered to take a party of men to restore order and “to make a stand there,” believing that if Selkirk provided the means he could “bid defiance to the united efforts of the incendiaries who had so lately humbled” the settlement.
With his party, some of whom intended to settle at Red River, Keveny set out from Fort Albany (Ont.) in the summer of 1816. According to one witness, his harsh treatment led to desertions throughout the journey and some of the group on hearing of the killing of Governor Robert Semple at Seven Oaks (Winnipeg) in June did not want to continue. On 16 August at Bas-de-la-Rivière (Fort Alexander, Man.), Keveny was arrested under a warrant issued by Nor’Wester Archibald Norman McLeod*, a magistrate in the Indian Territory. The next day he was sent under guard towards Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.), but on the upper Winnipeg River the party turned back after hearing that Lord Selkirk had seized the fort. Quarrels among them and Keveny’s own illness led them to abandon him on an island in the river. He was recaptured above The Dalles (Ont.) by another party of Nor’Westers under Archibald McLellan and shortly after, on 11 September, was murdered by a Métis named Mainville and Charles de Reinhard, formerly sergeant of De Meuron’s Regiment but then an employee of the North West Company. The action seems to have been instigated by McLellan in some way. Reinhard confessed to the crime, was tried and found guilty in Lower Canada, and was sentenced to be hanged. Of the 150 charges laid against the Nor’Westers in connection with the Red River affair, his case was the only one that resulted in a guilty verdict but, because of disputes over the exact location of the crime and the jurisdiction of the Canadian courts, the sentence was never executed.
The murder of Keveny, and of Robert Semple and about 20 men in 1816, was a tragic climax to the struggle for control of the western fur trade in which the Métis people had been used by Nor’ Westers against the Red River settlement and the Hudson’s Bay Company. The violence of that struggle was a factor contributing to the amalgamation of the two companies in 1821.
PAC, MG 19, E1, ser.1, 1: 460–67, 477–501; 2: 698–702, 712–34, 764–94, 812–24, 836–42; 3: 1006–52, 1456; 5: 1985–92; 6: 2189–94; 7: 2678–84, 2886; 8: 3199–202; 36: 13816; 41: 15879–85; 52: 20126–27 (transcripts). [Colin Robertson], Colin Robertson’s correspondence book, September 1817 to September 1822, ed. E. E. Rich with R. H. Fleming (London, 1939; repr. Nendeln, Liechtenstein, 1968), 8, 225–28. [George Simpson], Journal of occurrences in the Athabasca Department by George Simpson 1820 and 1821, and report, ed. E. E. Rich, intro. C. [B.] Martin (London, 1938; repr. Nendeln, 1968), 213n., 444. M. A. MacLeod and W. L. Morton, Cuthbert Grant of Grantown, warden of the plains of Red River (Toronto, 1963), 54–55, 68. C. [B.] Martin, Lord Selkirk’s work in Canada (Toronto, 1916), 51, 56, 59–61, 128–29, 155. J. P. Pritchett, The Red River valley, 1811–1849: a regional study (New Haven, Conn., 1942), 93–99, 107, 123–24, 126, 192, 194, 212.