ABOUT THE NORTH WEST REBELLION OF 1885

and the

1880's CANADIAN NORTH WEST TERRITORIES

In 1885, the present-day Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as much of modern Manitoba, were part of the North West Territories. (See Map below.) Most of the area now included in these three modern "prairie provinces" then comprised the Districts of Athabasca, Assiniboia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. The vast North West Territories had been acquired from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1870 by the young Dominion of Canada (which had been created as a "Confederation" in 1867 from various British North American Colonies.) The Province of Manitoba (original size shown on the map below) was formed at the time the new lands came into the Dominion, and the colony of British Columbia had joined the Confederation as a Province in 1871 on the promise that a trans-continental railway would be constructed, linking it with the Eastern Provinces. (Map of Canada, 1873) In 1885 settlement was still sparse in the Territories, and the Canadian Pacific Railway was not quite complete.

The North West Mounted Police had been formed in 1873 and sent west in 1874 to establish and maintain "British-style law and order" in this Canadian "Wild West", as settlement and development began in earnest. However, in addition to the Native populations in the North West, there already existed sizeable and long-standing communities of Metis (mixed-blood descendants of the early French and Scottish fur traders.) Their petitions for recognition of their land-holdings and institutions, made progressively more urgent by the swelling influx of newcomers from the East, were not expeditiously dealt with by the Dominion Government. In early 1885, the frustration finally flared into armed rebellion led by the well-educated and charismatic Louis Riel, who also made persuasive invitations to the Indian tribes to join in a general uprising (messages to them began with greetings the likes of: "Dear Cousins...").

MAP OF THE NORTH WEST, 1885:

MAP OF NWT, 1880's

ABOVE: The original Province of Manitoba and the Districts of Alberta, Assiniboia and Saskatchewan in the Canadian North West Territories, as they were in the 1880's
(Saskatchewan River system highlighted in blue, Canadian Pacific Railway in red and present-day boundaries of the Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan -
formed in 1905 - in green. Routes of the three military columns are shown in magenta.)
VIEW FULL-SIZE MAP

A "Revolutionary Bill of Rights" was adopted by the Rebels on March 8, 1885, and on March 18 and 19 a Metis Provisional Government was formally established at Batoche, District of Saskatchewan. A number of persons not sympathetic to the cause were taken prisoner, and the village of Duck Lake, located midway between Batoche and the closest NWMP Post at Fort Carlton, was occupied by armed Metis. On March 26, an advancing 100-man force of Police and civilian volunteers was stopped on the trail near that village by the Metis. The ensuing parley ended in gunfire, and nine volunteers and three policemen were left dead in the snow when the survivors fell back on Fort Carlton. That Post was later abandoned by the NWMP detachment, which evacuated to the town of Prince Albert. The bloody Indian Wars of the American West were a recent memory, and it was greatly feared that the whole Canadian North West would "go up in flames". The panic was particularly acute among the white settlers in the sparsely populated Territories: the local authorities reacted with proclamations (see image below) and frantic pleas for immediate assistance were directed to the national government in Ottawa.

Crozier's

In contrast with the government inactivity which had been a primary cause of the unrest, the Federal authorities reacted rapidly to these startling developments: an order mobilizing the Militia (since Canada really had no standing Army) had already been issued just the day before the occurance of the "Duck Lake Massacre" (as that skirmish was dubbed.) Within a month almost 3000 troops had been assembled and rushed out west on the nearly completed Canadian Pacific Railway, under the command of Major General Sir Frederick Dobson Middleton ("General Officer Commanding the Canadian Militia"). In addition, about 1700 settlers in the North West Territories flocked to the colours, for voluntary service in various Active Service and Home Guard units.

In due course, three separate columns of troops converged on the main area of unrest, centered at Batoche on the South Saskatchewan River. Various engagements with the Rebels took place during the Campaign. After the Battle of Fish Creek on April 24 (in fact, a well planned Metis ambush), the main force under Middleton arrived at Batoche on May 9 and almost immediately exchanged fire with the outlying defenders. The withering fire of the Metis concentrated on the exposed Canadian militiamen was on the verge of sending them fleeing in panic, but they held in a camp fortified with wagons and supplies {the "Zareba".) The three-day "Battle of Batoche" (actually, more like a standoff - interspersed with a number of skirmishes - between the government troops, dug in on the heights above the settlement, and the Metis, who were well entrenched in the woods and among the buildings) finally culminated on May 12 in a spontaneous bayonet charge (see image below) by the frustrated militia troops, despite orders to remain in their positions under cover. The gallant but badly outnumbered Metis, poorly armed and already short of ammunition, were overrun.

PICTURE OF ATTACK ON METIS AT BATOCHE

The other main theater of military operations was to the northwest of Batoche, in the area of Fort Battleford and the town of Battleford. A column commanded by Lt-Col. William Otter made a forced march of 160 miles north from Swift Current in six days and on April 24 relieved Battleford, which had been under seige by marauding Cree Indians led by Chief Poundmaker. A few days later, Otter's force marched west up the Battle River in pursuit of the Crees, but retreated to Battleford following the inconclusive Battle of Cutknife Hill on May 2nd; Poundmaker refused to let his warriors follow, which might have resulted in a rout, or even an outright massacre. He later said "When my people and the whites met in battle, I saved the Queen's men." After Batoche, Middleton moved north to Prince Albert, then west up the North Saskatchewan River where he accepted the peaceful surrender of Poundmaker near Battleford. The relatively small Alberta Field Force under General T. B. Strange moved down the North Saskatchewan River from Edmonton to confront the rebellious Crees of Chief Big Bear's band in another inconclusive engagement at Frenchman's Butte on May 28. The final hostilities of the Rebellion occurred at Loon Lake on June 3, when a unit of mounted volunteers under the command of NWMP Supt. Sam Steele engaged in a skirmish with retreating Cree Indians of the Frog Lake band. For another month troops scoured the muskeg forests with little success: the Cree simply released their prisoners and dispersed. Big Bear finally surrendered himself on July 2.

Except for these "mopping up" operations, the Rebellion was effectively over after the Battle of Batoche, which ended only 47 days after the very first hostile engagement at Duck Lake. Although the inexperience and excessive caution of the Militia Officers and Troops had resulted in some rather embarrassing setbacks, the zeal and enthusiasm of the Metis fighters was simply no match, ultimately, for the superior manpower and armament of the Government forces (including artillery (below,) two Gatling Guns(below) and the use of at least six river steamboats requisitioned from the Winnipeg and Western Transportation Company (a Hudson's Bay Company subsidiary) and the North Western Coal and Navigation Company.

ARTILLERY AT FISH CREEK

The Gatling Guns used with such debatable results by the Government forces during the engagements at Fish Creek, Cutknife Hill and Batoche were actually being tried out "on approval" by the Dominion Government. The operator of the gun with Middleton's column was an agent of the Gatling Gun Company of Hartford, Conn. - Captain A.L. Howard of the Connecticut National Guard (below). The Metis referred to the Gatling Gun as le rababou ("the noisemaker"), claiming that it made a lot of noise but did little real damage. Riel's "General", Gabriel Dumont, who escaped to Montana following the collapse of the rebellion and subsequently performed in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, related in his memoirs that he once met and conversed with Howard in New York. Dumont candidly told Howard that, as one of the best Metis marksmen he had assigned himself the task of crawling forward in the brush for the express purpose of killing the Gatling gunner, but had not been able to get a clear shot at him!

CAPT. HOWARD & GATLING GUN

Riel had been captured on May 15 and soon thereafter was transported south to Regina, then the Capital of the North West Territories (and now of the Province of Saskatchewan), where he stood trial for High Treason in the heat of a prairie summer. He vehemently spoke against the defense of insanity put forward by his lawyers, but was convicted by a jury of six white settlers. (The law originally specified "half-size" panels of jurors in the North West Territories, in view of the sparsity of the population. Interestingly, this provision was not changed until long after the Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were formed in 1905. For example, in the Court House in Medicine Hat - completed in 1919 - you can readily see where the original six-seat jury box has been expanded to accomodate twelve chairs, something which was not done until a renovation during the 1960's.) The Riel Jury asked that a recommendation of clemency be forwarded to the government, which was in fact done, though the Trial Judge had no legal alternative but to impose the obligatory penalty of execution by hanging.

I have performed in the role of the presiding Judge, Hugh Richardson, in "The Trial of Louis Riel", a play based on the transcripts of the original proceedings, and will probably never forget the chilling words that begin and end his final pronouncement: "Louis Riel, you have been found guilty of the most pernicious crime a man can commit; you have been found guilty of High Treason. For what you did, your remarks form no excuse whatever, and the law requires you to answer for it. It is true that the jury has asked that your case be given merciful consideration. But I can hold out no hope that the hand of clemency will be opened to you. .................. It is now my painful duty to pass sentence upon you - and that is, that you be taken to the Police Guardroom where you were last incarcerated, and that you be kept there until the 18th of September next, and that you then be taken to the place appointed for your execution, and there be hanged by the neck until you are dead. And may God have mercy on your soul."

THE CAPTURE OF LOUIS RIEL

ABOVE: THE CAPTURE OF LOUIS RIEL

The Rebel Leader is brought into General Middleton's camp on May 15, 1885, by two troopers of Boulton's Mounted Infantry (an irregular unit of prairie horsemen very similar to the Rocky Mountain Rangers in dress, arms and equipment,) who were attached to Middleton's Column. The drawing is admittedly somewhat lacking in detail, but assuming that the artist was reasonably accurate in his depiction of the rifles carried by the Scouts, the one on the right would appear to be armed with a musket-stocked Winchester Model 1876 of the Militia/NWMP pattern, while the other appears to have a half-stocked, civilian-type lever-action, which would be his own personal property. This picture was among several which appeared in a report published on June 27, 1885, in The Illustrated London News.

Appeals filed against Riel's conviction were very quickly disposed of by today's standards. The Dominion Government decided to "let the law take its course" and refused to extend the clemency recommended by the Jury. The postponed execution (which many sympathizers - then and now - view as "official murder") was carried out in Regina on November 16, 1885, less than 8 months after the first shots were fired at Duck Lake. Over a century later, motions have been made in the House of Commons to enact a Parliamentary Pardon for Riel but, to date, no such Pardon has resulted.

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