A delegation brought Louis RIEL back from exile in the US and on July 8 he held his first public meeting in Canada since 1870, urging all dissatisfied people in the North-West to unite and press their case on Ottawa. The white settlers also had grievances. Those who had settled along the Saskatchewan River in anticipation of the railway were disturbed that the CPR had chosen a more southerly route. John A. Macdonald's Conservative government failed to address the grievances of all 3 groups.
In the fall of 1884 Riel prepared a petition and urged the Métis, English half-breeds and white settlers to sign it. At St Laurent [Sask] on 8 March 1885 a meeting passed a 10-point "Revolutionary Bill of Rights" which asserted Métis rights of possession to their farms and made other demands. On March 18 and 19, the Métis formed a provisional government and an armed force at Batoche, with Riel president and Gabriel DUMONT military commander. Prisoners were taken in the Batoche area and, in anticipation of a police advance, Métis forces occupied the community of DUCK LAKE, midway between Batoche and Fort Carlton. In the morning of March 26, the NWMP, augmented by citizen volunteers to a total strength of 100, moved towards Duck Lake under Superintendent Lief CROZIER. A large Métis and Indian force met them on the Carlton Trail near the village. A parlay ended in confusion and the police and volunteers fired at their enemy hidden in a large hollow north of the road and in a cabin to the south. The battle ended shortly after with the police and volunteers retreating to Fort Carlton. Nine volunteers and 3 police were killed. Five Métis and one Indian died. Riel persuaded the rebel soldiers not to pursue the retreating force and the Métis returned to Batoche. The police evacuated Fort Carlton and retired to Prince Albert.
The Ottawa government's reaction was astonishingly swift, considering that the CPR north of Lake Superior was not completed. There were only a few hundred full-time soldiers in Canada but militia mobilization began March 25, the day before the Duck Lake battle. CPR manager William VAN HORNE quickly arranged for Canadian troops to be transported across the gaps, enabling them to reach Qu'Appelle by April 10. In less than a month, almost 3000 troops had been transported west; most were Ontario militia units but the force included 2 Québec battalions and one from Nova Scotia. From the West came about 1700 of the eventual total of just over 5000 that Major-General Frederick MIDDLETON commanded.
The rebel victory at Duck Lake encouraged a large contingent of Cree to move on Battleford from reserves to the west. Residents of the area flocked to the safety of Fort Battleford. On March 30, Assiniboines south of Battleford killed 2 whites and joined the Cree forces. Terrified settlers huddled in Fort Battleford for almost a month as the Cree and Assiniboine organized a huge war camp to the west.
Big Bear had been the last plains chief to take treaty, and in 1885 he was still resisting taking a reserve, still agitating for a better deal. As a result, his band included some of the more militant Plains Cree. The government took a hard line with Big Bear's band, cutting off rations to force them to settle. By the spring of 1885, it was almost inevitable that Big Bear's band at Frog Lake, north of modern-day Lloydminster, would clash violently with the government. On the night of April 1, warriors of Big Bear's band took prisoner several whites and Métis. Shortly after church on Sunday, April 2, war chief Wandering Spirit shot and killed Sub-Indian Agent Thomas Quinn. Chief Big Bear tried to stop the violence but the warriors took their own initiative from their war chief and killed 2 priests, the government farming instructor, an independent trader, a miller and 3 other men. Several people were spared, including the widows of 2 of the dead men.
General Middleton's original plan was simple. He wanted to march all his troops north from the railhead at Qu'Appelle to Batoche. But the killings at Frog Lake and the "siege" of Battleford forced him to send a large group under Lieutenant-Colonel William OTTER north from a second railhead at Swift Current to relieve Battleford. Pressure from Alberta led to the creation of a third column at Calgary under Major-General Thomas Bland STRANGE.
On April 14, the Frog Lake Cree besieged Fort Pitt, on the North Saskatchewan River just east of the modern Alberta-Saskatchewan border. On April 15, after a policeman died in a small skirmish, the Cree allowed the NWMP detachment to flee downriver.
Middleton set off on the 50 km march to Batoche from Clarke's Crossing on the South Saskatchewan River on April 23. About 900 men, including 2 artillery batteries, were split into 2 groups, one for each side of the river. The Métis were determined to fight but differed about where to make a stand. Riel wanted to concentrate all efforts on defending Batoche; Dumont favoured a more forward position. Dumont won the argument and on April 12, with about 150 Métis and Indians, prepared an ambush at Tourond's Coulee, which the government soldiers would know as Fish Creek, 20 km south of Batoche on the east side of the South Saskatchewan. As Middleton's scouts approached the coulee early on April 24, the rebels opened fire. Until mid-afternoon, Middleton's soldiers tried unsuccessfully to drive Dumont's men from the ravine and suffered heavy casualties, 6 killed and 49 wounded. The rebels had only 4 killed. It took most of the day for Middleton to get the troops from the west bank across the river on a makeshift ferry and they arrived too late to take part in the fighting. At the end of the day, both commanders decided to pull back. The Métis had held their ground and Middleton's advance was stopped.
On May 1, Colonel Otter moved west from Battleford with 300 men and early on May 2 they confronted the Cree and Assiniboine force just west of CUT KNIFE CREEK, 40 km from Battleford. The Indians had enormous advantages of terrain, virtually surrounding Otter's force on an inclined, triangular plain. Cree war chief Fine Day deployed his soldiers highly successfully in wooded ravines. After about 6 hours of fighting, Otter retreated. Casualties would have been very high as the militia recrossed the creek had not Chief POUNDMAKER persuaded the Indians not to pursue the soldiers. Eight of Otter's force died; 5 or 6 Indians were killed. Otter's foray against the Indians violated the spirit of General Middleton's orders and the setback prompted Middleton to wait 2 weeks for reinforcements before resuming his march toward Batoche. On the morning of May 9, his forces attacked the carefully constructed defences at the southern end of the Batoche settlement. The steamer Northcote, transformed into a gunboat, attempted to attack the village from the river, but the Métis lowered the ferry cable, incapacitating the boat. After a brief, intense conflict in the morning, the cautious Middleton kept the attackers at a discreet distance from the enemy positions. In the afternoon, after failing to make headway against the entrenched enemy, the troops built a fortified camp just south of Batoche.
The next 2 days, May 10 and 11, were essentially repeats of the first. The troops marched out in the morning, attacked the Métis lines with little success and retired to their camp at night. On May 12, Middleton tried a co-ordinated action from the east and south but the southern group failed to hear a signal gun and did not attack. In the afternoon, apparently without specific orders, 2 impetuous colonels led several militia units in a charge. The rebels, weary and short of ammunition, were overrun. Eight of Middleton's force died during the Battle of Batoche. The general later reported that 51 rebels were killed, but that number seems high. Riel surrendered on May 15; Dumont fled to Montana.
During the Battle of Batoche, General Strange was resting his Alberta Field Force at Edmonton after a hard march from Calgary. The column left Edmonton on May 14 and on May 28 they caught up to the Frog Lake Indians, dug in at the top of a steep hill near a prominent landmark known as FRENCHMAN'S BUTTE, 18 km northwest of Fort Pitt. Direct advance against the entrenched Indians would have been very difficult and Strange's scouts found no practical way around the Cree positions. They fired at each other from long range for several hours before both sides retreated.
The last shots of the rebellion were fired on June 3 at Loon Lake, 40 km north of Frenchman Butte, where a few mounted men under NWMP Superintendant Sam STEELE skirmished with the retreating Frog Lake Cree. None of Steele's men was killed but 4 Indians died, including a prominent Woods Cree chief.
Chief Poundmaker and the Battleford area Indians had surrendered to General Middleton on May 26 at Battleford. At the end of May, Big Bear was the only important rebel still at large. General Middleton's pursuit of Big Bear was so cumbersome that the soldiers never did find him. The Frog Lake Indians released their white prisoners on June 21 and Big Bear surrendered to the Mounted Police on July 2 at Fort Carlton. Before the first of August, almost all of the militia were home.
The rebellion had not been a concerted effort by all groups in the North-West. Even most Métis communities stayed out of the fighting. The people of the South Branch communities, centered at Batoche, had been the principal combatants. The Plains Cree of Big Bear's band had participated, but the neighbouring Woods Cree had not. Some Cree from the Batoche area fought with the Métis, as did Dakota from a reserve from south of present-day Saskatoon. The Blackfoot had remained neutral, the Blood refusing to abandon their traditional animosity towards the Cree. Almost every white settler had rallied to the government cause, despite the fact that their vocal agitation before the shooting started had helped to create the environment that had made the rebellion possible.
As the soldiers left the West, Louis Riel's trial for high treason began at Regina. Riel demanded a political trial. His lawyers failed in their attempt to convince the jury that Riel's religious and political delusions made him unaware of the nature of his acts, largely because Riel was so eloquent in his address to the jury on July 31. The law provided no alternative to the death penalty, and on September 18 Riel was sentenced to be hanged.
The government arrested many people on the lesser charge of treason-felony. W.H. JACKSON, Riel's personal secretary, was acquitted by reason of insanity. Most of the provisional government council pleaded guilty and received sentences ranging from conditional discharges to 7 years in penitentiary. Chiefs Poundmaker and Big Bear were tried and sentenced to 3 years in jail. Several other Indians from Batoche, Frog Lake and Battleford were sentenced to various terms after treason-felony convictions. Dakota chief White Cap was the only major native political leader acquitted of treason-felony. Eleven Indians were convicted of murder as a result of the Frog Lake "massacre" and other killings carried out during the rebellion.
Riel's execution was postponed 3 times: twice to allow appeals to higher courts, then for a fuller medical examination of his alleged insanity. The appeals failed and the medical commission report was ambiguous. The federal government could have commuted the death sentence and the decision to "let the law take its course" was purely political. Riel was hanged at Regina 16 November 1885.
French Canadians supported the campaign to suppress the rebellion, but there was widespread outrage in Québec over Riel's execution that did not abate over time. Wilfrid Laurier's passionate denunciation of the government's action was a major step forward in his career. On November 27, 6 Cree and 2 Assiniboine warriors, including Frog Lake war chief Wandering Spirit, were hanged at Battleford. Three other convicted murderers had their sentences commuted. All the rebels sentenced to jail were released early. Gabriel Dumont, among others, eventually returned from the US under the terms of a general amnesty.
The rebellion had profound effects on western Canada. It was the climax of the federal government's efforts to control the native and settler population of the West. Indians who had thought themselves oppressed after the treaties of the 1870s became subjugated, administered people. The most vocal members of the Métis leadership had either fled to Montana or were in jail. It took native peoples of western Canada many decades to recover politically and emotionally from the defeat of 1885.
Author BOB BEAL and ROD MACLEOD
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge
The website for the Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge, which features Canada's largest essay writing competition for Aboriginal youth (ages 14-29) and a companion program for those who prefer to work through painting, drawing and photography. See their guidelines, teacher resources, profiles of winners, and more. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
This Riel Business
View a documentary short based on "Tales from a Prairie Drifter," a stage comedy about the Northwest Rebellion performed by the Globe Theatre in Regina. From the National Film Board of Canada.
Watch the Heritage Minute about legendary Métis leader Louis Riel from the Historica-Dominion Institute. See also related online learning resources.
Fort Battleford National Historic Site
This Parks Canada site commemorates the 1876 North West Mounted Police headquarters in Battleford, Saskatchewan. Includes detailed notes about Big Bear, Poundmaker, the Cree, Sir Frederick Dobson Middleton, North-West Rebellion, the Battle of Cut Knife, and related topics.
Carlton Trail - First Western Highway
Check out the colourful history of the Carlton Trail, the first highway west of Winnipeg. A Manitoba Historical Society website.
Batoche National Historic Site of Canada
This Parks Canada website offers a brief review of the historic Battle of Batoche, last battlefield in the Northwest Rebellion of 1885.
A biography of Louis Riel from the “Canadian Confederation” website. Includes photographs and other archival resources. From Library and Archives Canada.
How the Northwest Rebellion spurred the development of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Features photos and other archival material. From Library and Archives Canada.
The Northwest Resistance of 1885
An online exhibit that features photographs and biographies of key participants of the Northwest Resistance of 1885. From the Special Collections Department of the University of Saskatchewan Libraries and the University of Saskatchewan Archives.
An extensive biography of Edgar Dewdney, civil engineer, contractor, politician, office holder, and lieutenant governor. Provides details about his involvement with Indian and Métis communities in the North-West Territories, the settlement of the West, the construction of the transcontinental railway, and related events. From the “Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.”
National Inventory of Canadian Military Memorials
A searchable database of over 5,100 Canadian military memorials. Provides photographs, descriptions, and the wording displayed on plaques. Also a glossary of related terms. A website from the Directorate of History and Heritage.
North West Rebellion Memorial
A photo of Toronto's North West Rebellion Memorial, designed by Walter S. Allward (1876-1955) and constructed in 1895. From the Directorate of History and Heritage website.
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Transcript of "Inspector Dickens Journal" Fort Pitt, 1885.
A typed copy of "Inspector Francis Dickens's North West Mounted Police journal" from Fort Pitt in 1885 (more likely the Fort Pitt NWMP Post Journal). Recounts the events of the Resistance, the skirmish and subsequent abandonment of Fort Pitt by Dickens who was in command of the installation when hostilities broke out. From the University of Saskatchewan Library.
Medical Services in the North-West Rebellion of 1885
See a 1949 article about the mobilization of medical support services for troops involved in th 1885 North-West Rebellion. An archived article from the Canadian Medical Association Journal at the website for the US National Library of Medicine.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...