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The Prairie Provinces
Chapter XIII. The Saskatchewan Rebellion


From the time of the Red River Rebellion settlers came rapidly into the Territories, and being satisfied with the country had taken up land and made homes for themselves and their families. But, as in Manitoba, the Territories were to experience an unfortunate check to their peaceful progress.

The rapid immigration taking place into the country and the changes it necessarily brought about had their effect upon the half-breeds, who, as before stated, had left the Red River and joined their near relatives, the Crees, on the Saskatchewan. They began to feel the hated civilization creeping in upon them once more and only wanted an excuse to break out, as they had previously done, in open rebellion. It required only the presence of Louis Riel to fan their smouldering discontent into a flame of rebellion. Having completed his term of outlawry, he returned in the summer of 1884 from Montana, where he had been quietly teaching school. Riel was at first moderate, striving to secure recognition of the half-breed claims by political agitation. Their first claim was that they should be placed on the same footing as the Manitoba half-breeds, who were receiving grants of two hundred and forty acres. They demanded also that they should be granted patents, or title deeds, of the lands upon which they had settled. They further protested against the form of Dominion land-surveying, as interfering with their system of long narrow farms facing the river.

Riel’s moderation was short-lived, for the intense vanity which had led him to excess in 1870 again overcame his judgment. He had made Batoelie, the centre of the Metis settlements, his headquarters. Had he confined his intrigues to the half-breeds, the danger would not have been great; but the real peril lay in the attitude of the Indians, of whom there were about thirty-five thousand in Manitoba and the Territories. Of these, the Crees and Ojibiways were regarded as friendly, but Riel’s in fluence with the more warlike Blaekfeet was to be feared, and with the latter he began to tamper. Big Bear, who had but recently signed a treaty with the government and was settled in a reserve upon the North Saskatchewan, became Riel’s agent among the Indians. Another chief, Poundmaker, although he subjected one Canadian column to defeat, afterwards maintained that he would have taken no part in the rising had he not been first attacked.

On March 18th, Riel arrested the few whites at Batoche, who were all loyal, and organized a council of his own followers. The conduct of military affairs he entrusted to Gabriel Dumont, a brave and skilful leader. The scene of the outbreak was the angle between the north and south branches of the Saskatchewan. The two streams for about one hundred miles run almost parallel. On the north branch about thirty miles west of the Forks was located the town of Prince Albert, and fifty miles farther up the river, Carlton, the post of the Mounted Police. Opposite Carlton and situated on the south branch was Batoche, and between the two places Duck Lake, a settlement composed of a few log houses. This settlement, since it contained valuable stores of provisions and ammunition, was the first object of Dumont’s attack. It happened that Major Crozier, in charge of the post at Carlton, sent a detachment of police and volunteers to secure the stores at Duck Lake, just after Dumont had occupied the place. Here the first encounter took place, in which the police were forced to retreat, after sustaining a loss of twelve killed and seven wounded.

The effects of the fight at Duck Lake were very decided. The white settlers were fully aroused to a sense of their danger. Many of the Indians, who had been holding aloof, were called out by the temporary success of the rebels. But if Kiel was victorious for a season, his very victory, summoning as it did volunteers from every part of the Dominion, was to prove his undoing. First, the 90tli Rifles and part of the Winnipeg Field Battery were hurried to the scene of the rebellion. Within four days contingents left Quebec, Montreal,

Kingston, and Toronto, the whole force under the leadership of General Middleton, the commander-in-cliief of the Canadian militia. By the 9th of April, C Company Regulars, the Royal Grenadiers, the Queen’s Own Rifles, the Governor General’s Foot Guards, and the Governor General’s Body Guards reached Qu’Appelle, where they were awaited by the Winnipeg troops. This became the base of operations.

In the valley of the North Saskatchewan there were three points which were especially exposed to danger. Prince Albert was likely to be the object of an attack by the half-breeds from Batoche. The town was garrisoned by a force of Mounted Police and volunteers, but the defences were useless. Battleford was threatened by Stony and Cree Indians, although their chief, Poundmaker, remained peaceably on his reserve, thirty miles distant. Battleford was composed of two parts, the old town situated upon the low ground south of Battle River; the new town, including the fort, occupying the elevation next to the Saskatchewan.

The Indians plundered and burned the old town, and shut off all communication with the fort by cutting the telegraph wires. The third point exposed was Fort Pitt, between Battleford and Edmonton.

Beyond Fort Pitt lay the reserve of Big Bear, and beyond this again the settlement of Frog Lake, among the Moose Hills. This was the scene of the saddest incident of the war. On April 2nd, a band of Big Bear’s followers entered the village, disarmed the settlers on some crafty pretext, and then deliberately shot them down. Two brave priests, Father Fafard and Father Marcliand, were killed in an effort to avert the tragedy. Through the humanity of some friendly Cree Indians and half-breeds, who gave up their horses, the lives of the women were spared. The murderous savages next proceeded to an attack upon Fort Pitt, which, lying low in a meadow by the river, with no adequate ramparts, seemed incapable of defence. The small garrison of twenty-three men, commanded by Francis Dickens, a son

of the great novelist, refused to surrender to Big Bear’s three hundred warriors. However, after successfully repelling one attack, Dickens saw that the position was untenable, and, making his way out of the fort, escaped down the river.

As there were three places at which the settlers were in imminent danger, it was necessary to send out from Qu’Appelle three relief columns. The western column, under General Strange, made up of about six hundred men, was to advance against Big Bear. From Calgary the route lay north to Edmonton. The middle column, of about the same strength, was commanded by Col. Otter, whose commission was to relieve Battleford. The main or eastern division, of which Gen. Middleton retained command, had for its task the relief of Prince Albert, and the crushing of the rising at its heart, Batoche. The supplies of this force, together with a Gatling gun in charge of Captain Howard, were sent under protection of the Midlanders to Swift Current, from which point they were to be conveyed by the steamer Northcote down the Saskatchewan to Clark’s Crossing. A trying march of two hundred miles, over the Touchwood Hills and through Salt Plain, brought Middleton’s force to Clark’s Crossing, but the Northcott delayed by shoals, was nowhere in sight. Without delaying, Gen. Middleton moved forward his men in two divisions, one on each side of the river; and, on April 24th, he came upon the rebels in the ravine of Fish Creek. The Canadian troops were eager for the tight, C Company leading, followed closely by the 90th of Winnipeg. After a stubborn resistance, during which they inflicted heavy loss upon the loyal troops, the rebels withdrew. Surprised at the bravery and skill of the half-breeds, Gen. Middleton decided to delay his advance upon Batoche until the arrival of the Northcote and the Midlanders.

Meanwhile, Otter’s task of relieving Battleford was, at the conclusion of a march from Swift Current to the North Saskatchewan, successfully accomplished. Unfortunately, it was deemed necessary to send an expedition against Poundmaker, although the Indians who had been doing most damage in the neighborhood were not of his following. On the way to the reserve the troops entered, on the 2nd of May, a deep ravine, through which flows the Cut-Knife Creek. Crossing the stream, they began the ascent of Cut-Knife Hill, when suddenly the front rank was met by a withering rifle fire from the surrounding bushes. Great as was the surprise, Otter’s men took to cover and returned the fire like veterans. The position was, however, untenable, and retreat was the only course open. All the credit of the engagement rested with Poundmaker, who had defended his wigwams with the skill of a veteran, and now permitted his enemies to withdraw unmolested, when he might have entirely destroyed them.

Exactly a week later began the three days’ fight at Batoche’s Ferry, which practically closed the rebellion. The Northcote, which had reached Clark’s Crossing, was sent down the river to attack the enemy in the rear. The steamer’s whistle was the signal for a general advance. Suddenly the rebels, rising from the ground, staggered the advancing column with a deadly fire, the whole surface of the land had been furrowed with rifle-pits. It was only the promptness and bravery of Howard, who hurried forward his Gatling gun and trained it upon the trenches of the enemy, that averted a disaster. The volunteers, recovering, returned the fire, availing themselves of such cover as could be found.

For two days they kept up the fight, and were with difficulty restrained from charging the pits. On the third day, however, as the fire of the enemy slackened, they became so impatient of restraint that their officers were forced to let them charge. With a shout the troops rushed into the trenches, the dashing

Midlanders foremost, and close behind them the Royal Grenadiers and the 90th. The pits were cleared and the rebels driven back through the village. The battle was won and the rebellion crushed. A few days later Riel was captured.

General Strange, meanwhile, had quieted the Indians about Edmonton. In a skirmish on May 27th Big Bear gained some advantage, but within a week he was defeated by a force under Major Steele.

Early in July, all the troops were ready to return to the East. Riel’s trial which took place at Regina caused great excitement throughout Canada, and in spite of the plea of insanity the death sentence was passed.

On the 16th of November he was executed, and eleven days later eight Indians who had figured in the Frog Lake massacre also paid the death penalty.

If the rebellion checked for a time the prosperity of the West and disturbed the peace of Canada, it produced important results, some of which were beneficial to the Territories and to the whole Dominion. The claims of the half-breeds were satisfied in the prompt granting of patents. The rising had drawn attention to the North-West, and the result was that the volume of immigration quickly increased. In this respect the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885 was an important factor. The most important effect of the rebellion, however, was the fostering of a feeling of unity throughout the Dominion. Brave volunteers from every province had fought side by side, and common danger and common loss helped to make real our confederation.


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