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History of Saskatchewan and The Old North West
Chapter XXIV - The Battle of Cut Knife Creek


Middleton's Comment on Otter's Reconnaissance—Poundmaker's Attitude—His Visit to Battleford—Otter's Sortie—Battle of Cut Knife Creek—Retreat—Why Permitted by Poundmaker —Casualties—Conflicting Opinions Regarding Otter's Conduct.

While Middleton's column was recuperating after the Battle of Fish Creek, the General received the news of an encounter between Lieutenant-Colonel Otter and Poundmaker about thirty-eight miles west of Battleford. "The movement which led to the engagement," says Middleton, "was made without my orders, though Lieutenant-Colonel Otter had the approval of Lieutenant-Governor Dewdney,1 to whom, however, he should not have applied on such a purely military matter." The foregoing written criticism is currently believed to be considerably milder than were, the General's verbal comments on this unlucky affair.

Let us first consider the events leading up to it. It was known that the rebels had been for some time endeavouring to induce Poundmaker and his Crees to cooperate with them. Their representatives were in his camp, and evidently came determined to bring him into sympathy with the movement. They were attended by the Slonies, whom they brought over to Poundmaker's camp, where the Slonies pitched a "soldiers' tent." Pound-maker's influence, such as it was, seems always to have been exercised in the interests of peace and humanity, but he was apparently now thwarted. He was, indeed, a prisoner in his own camp, and attempted three times to escape from it and was brought back. Poundmaker might well have been in fear of his life. In order to commit the Indians, the Halfbreeds seem to have absented themselves at the last; but were represented by Chicucin. There was only one of Poundmaker's men at the meeting, the rest being Stonies. An incriminating letter was dictated by the Council.

It is to be remembered that an Indian chief, however influential, is not like the commander of a disciplined force. The influence he has is just such as his character and oratorical ability may give him, and enables him to lead men only where their inclinations jump. He has no court of justice or means of punishment.

Shortly afterwards Poundmaker went to Battleford. The Indians were armed, but there was, of course, nothing unusual in this, and there is nothing to show that Poundmaker organized a body to come with him. Apparently he went to ask for tea and tobacco, and found out what had happened at Duck Lake. At Battleford, however, they found the south part of the village deserted, and in all directions there were goods and all manner of things to arouse the cupidity of the natives. What was to be expected then happened, and the houses were looted, though, as has already been stated, there is nothing to prove that this violence was pre-considered. Indeed, at Poundmaker's trial, one of the witnesses declared that Pound-maker did what he could to prevent harm being done. Whether Pound-maker himself came into possession of any of the stolen goods or not, it is impossible to say, as the evidence at the trial was conflicting. The next morning the Indians disappeared, returning to their reserve at Cut Knife. The Stonies came in, and the Halfbreeds with them, and thenceforth Poundmaker was helpless, whatever his wishes may have been.

When Poundmaker's party went to Battleford, Poundmaker asked Peter Ballantyne where the agent was who wished to interview him. That official, however, had crossed the river to the north side from fear of the Halfbreeds from Duck Lake. Poundmaker said he was very sorry that the agent had withdrawn, as it would place him (Poundmaker) in a very bad light. The Battleford people had withdrawn to the barracks, which, with the police, they had fortified.

Colonel Otter mistrusted Poundmaker's intentions, believing that he was merely waiting to make a junction with Big Bear's band. Consequently, although the unfortunate chief had, doubtless with the utmost difficulty, succeeded in corralling his unruly followers upon their reservation nearly forty miles from where they could do any further harm. Colonel Otter marched forth against him on the night of May 1st with about three hundred and twenty-five men, two seven-pounders and a Gatling gun. In his official report he describes this movement as an armed reconnaissance.

His force was conveyed in a train of forty-eight wagons. After a six hours' march, Otter halted for the moon to rise, then pressed forward again, reaching the Indian encampment about daybreak. It was necessary to ford Cut Knife Creek, which was deep and muddy enough to make the manoeuvre awkward. The advanced guard had crossed and were approaching Poundmaker's came when they were sighted. The Indian, who apparently first saw them, galloped about the camp in a circle and this signal was immediately followed by thc appearance of some thirty braves. Orders had been given that the troops were not to fire unless fired upon, but in his evidence at Poundmaker's trial, Scout Charles Ross, of the Mounted Police, was unable to say which side really commenced the engagement However, someone shouted, "Yes, the Indians have started. We have the privilege to shoot," and presently the firing was general and continued.

The main body of troops was still at the ford when the police scouts galloped back with the cry, "The Nichies are on us." The troops dashed up Cut Knife Hill, as also did the Indians on thc other side, but the Mounted Police won the race for this position. The Indians then moved down out of sight into the numerous gullies to the right and left of the hill. Otter's forces were thus so placed as to be obliged to fight in the open against an invisible enemy raking both flanks. Some of the Government force rushed forward to storm the enemy's camp, which had been left almost defenceless. One of Poundmaker's lieutenants, Piacutch, later admitted that if Otter's forces had followed up this movement instead of remaining cooped up on the hill, the camp would have been captured, and the Indians would have been compelled, if they desired to defend it, to come out into the open. "If the police had stayed on their horses," said Piacutch, "they could have got through to thc camp, for the Indians could only have fired one shot as they passed."

However, by a most unfortunate blunder, the advanced guard was recalled, and the police retreated to the hill, driving the enemy out of the valley to the rear, which the attacking party had just crossed.

For five hours or more the police and volunteers lay in skirmishing order among the hills in the blazing sun, exposed to a hail of bullets from every side, and rarely seeing an enemy. The guns had been promptly brought into action, but were practically useless. "The Gatling," says Howard A. Kennedy, who participated in this battle, "sprayed the prairie with a vast quantity of lead, with a noise that gave the Indians a bit of a scare at first; but they soon got used to that. A gatling may be all very well when your enemy stands in front of it in a crowd, but that is not the Indians' way. They had a wholesome respect for the seven-pounders, which was more than the gunners had, for the wooden trails were rotten and gave way under thc recoil, so that one of the guns fell to the ground after every shot and the other had to be tied to the carriage with a rope."

Though Otter's force had planned to take the Indians by surprise, it itself was so surprised by the suddenness of the onset that, again to quote Kennedy's narrative, "Scarcely a man had a biscuit in his pocket or a drop of water in his can when he sprang from his wagon and flung himself down in the firing line. Exhausted by the all-night ride and the hunger and thirst and heat of the day, many a man went to sleep under fire, while a comrade kept up the fight—to take a nap in his turn later on. It was weary as well as bloody work. But at last, after having charged the Indians out of the flanking coulees and the valley in our rear, we took advantage of the lull to saddle up and go back the way we had come. The Indians, when driven out of the coulees, had fallen back, discouraged by the white man's bravery, and prepared to defend their camp, which in fact our men were eager to attack. Great was their surprise and joy when they found we were actually in full retreat, and they poured down the hillside after us like a swarm of angry ants before half of us had crossed the creek. Now, however, they were in the open, and a well-planted shell from our rope-swarthed seven-pounder—its companion has been put to bed in a wagon—with the cool musketry of our rear guard, held the pursuers in check till the last of our wagons had struggled through the creek."

There was plenty of mismanagement in connection with this disastrous engagement, but the coolness and courage of the entrapped police and volunteers merits all praise. A detachment of the Queen's Own Rifles were the last to cross the stream, and their method of doing so shows that at all events their retreat was far from being a rout. The banks were very muddy, and across the creek lay a fallen tree. Rather than wade through the miry stream the volunteers coolly retired over this natural bridge.

Nevertheless, the Indians might easily have turned the defeat into a terrible disaster if they had pursued the retreating forces, and caught them in the woods. "This the young men wanted to do," says Piacutch, "but Poundmaker held them back out of pity." Another Indian informant, in describing this incident, declared that Poundmaker brandished his whip and threatened to flog any Indian who dared go after the white men. "If you shed any more blood, the Great Spirit will punish us for it," cried the victorious savage.

Otter's slain were as follows: Corporal Sleigh, of the N. W. M. P.; Corporal Lowry, of the N. W. M. P.; Trumpeter Bourke, of the N. W. M. P.; Bugler Foulkes, of C Company, Infantry School Corps; Private Rogers, of the Ottawa Sharpshooters; Private Osgood,0 of the Ottawa Sharpshooters; Private Dobbs, Battleford Rifles; Teamster Charles Winder.

In addition to these the wounded numbered fourteen.

Father Morice states 011 the authority of A. H. Byoness, O. M. I., a missionary among these. Indians, that only five of Poundmaker's braves were killed during this action.

In the retreat the wounded suffered dreadfully in the jolting wagons, and the men chafed bitterly under their sense of defeat as they rode into Battleford at 11 o'clock that night. In the preceding thirty hours they had ridden about eighty miles and fought a six-hour fight.

After this engagement, Poundmaker could not longer resist the war spirit of his elated braves, and his tribe was henceforth definitely to be reckoned among the number of rebels.

Various writers have attempted to justify Otter's attack on Pound-maker, among them Major Boulton:

"While Colonel Otter apparently acted upon his own responsibility in making this attack upon Poundmaker, the circumstances by which he was surrounded must be taken into consideration. On his arrival at Battleford he found that several murders had been committed, settlers' property had been destroyed, and their owners were obliged to flee to Battleford for safety. A portion of Battleford itself was also burned and pillaged. These doings, no doubt, led him to attempt to inflict some punishment upon Pound-maker's Indians. Moreover, an amalgamation between Big Bear's band (which had so recently captured Fort Pitt and Poundmaker was to be feared, and Colonel Otter deemed it advisable for the safety of the country to inflict a blow on Poundmaker before this junction was effected. The reports that Pig Pear's runners brought ba ck to their chief about the lighting that had taken place, and the loss the Indians had suffered at Cut Knife, no doubt, led Pig Dear and his tribe to feel that they were safer in the neighbourhood of Fort Pitt, and no junction was afterwards attempted. On the whole, then, it must be said that this attack was well timed and pluckily executed."

Treating of the same incident, Alexander Begg, in his history of the North West (Vol. 3, page 216), expresses the following views:

"The only advantage gained by this reconnaissance was that the Indians were forced to declare themselves, and as they proved to be on the side of war, the military authorities knew what to expect of them, and were less liable to be surprised by an attack. Poundmaker previous to the Cut Knife fight, though he had abstained from attacking Battleford and there was some doubt about his ultimate intentions, had committed several depredations on settlers in the neighbourhood. His Indians had killed Bernard Tremont, a stock raiser: James Payne, farm instructor on the Stoney reserve, and Mr. Smart, a trader, besides pillaging and destroying property and stealing cattle. Colonel Otter was justified, therefore, in making the attack which he did, but after the Cut Knife affair he remained on the defensive at Battleford, until joined by General Middleton on May twenty-fifth. There is no doubt that the Indians lost heavily, and this must have had the effect of deterring them from further hostilities."

The comments of Wilbur F, Bryant, in his "The Blood of Abel" seem to me much fairer and more reasonable than these examples of special pleading. Says he:

"The assault on Cut Knife Hill does not reflect especial glory on the attacking forces. The gallantry of the Mounted Police and Poundmaker's magnanimity at the close of the action are its distinguishing features. In all. the fighting lasted seven hours, the honours remaining with the Indians, whose cover gave them an overwhelming advantage over their foes. Poundmaker, who had only 250 poorly armed warriors, showed his generalship in the skilful disposition of his men, and that he succeeded in saving his wigwams from destruction against so superior a body must be placed to his credit. After the last shot had been fired, and Colonel Otter had given the signal to retire, Poundmaker made no attempt to follow up his victory. His braves rested on their rifles, and through the thick screen of bushes watched the soldiers fall back across the creek. Had any spirit of revenge actuated the old chief, there is little doubt but that his warriors might have cut the flying column to pieces, and the inglorious retreat would have been turned to a terrible disaster."

One more opinion may be quoted. This is that of Captain G. Mercer Adam:

"From a military point of view it was doubtless necessary to overawe Poundmaker by a display of our strength 011 the field, and, if possible, to hem in the insurrection.

"Moreover, there were scores to he settled with his hand for their plundering and intimidation in the region, for the murder of Payne and Applegarth, the local farm instructors, and for the shooting of at least two of the settlers. There was also the need of keeping Poundmaker from joining Riel and his Halfbreeds, and of giving aid to Pig Pear and his bands in the west. But whatever justification there was for sallying out with an armed force against the Indians, we could have wished that Colonel Otter had met Poundmaker anywhere but on his own reserves and surrounded by the teepees of his women and children."

It is a fact worthy of mention that Cut Knife Creek and Hill were so named because at the same place, many years before, Poundmaker and his Crees had repulsed the attack of Cut Knife, a great Sarcee warrior.

The following passage is borrowed from the diary of one of the volunteers:

"In the early dawn we reach Poundmaker's Reservation. Here there are a few houses but 110 one is visible and we hurry on. About half-past four we come to a wide open plain and find that here there has evidently been a very large camp.. The marks of numerous tepees and fires can be plainly seen and it is evident that the camp has been but lately vacated. We halt at this camp for some time while the scouts search some clumps of bush that are nearby. In front of the camp and quite close to it is a large creek and rising from it. On the far side, are high hills intersected with numerous ravines. After a short delay the scouts return and by this time it is quite light. We can see far away on the distant hills a herd of cattle grazing and one or two mounted men riding about. Here evidently are our friends. As they are at least two miles away, it is decided to cross the creek, climb the hill, have breakfast and rest the horses before pushing on.

"The stream proves to he rather hard to cross. After crossing it we have some five hundred yards of scrubby, marshy lands to go through and then we begin to climb the hill. The scouts are quietly riding near the guns. The men have dismounted and are walking by twos and threes along the trail, when suddenly, just as the scouts reach the top of the first sleep ascent. I hear a rattle ahead and then, in a minute or two. see the police and some artillery lying down firing briskly over the crest of the hill and the guns and gatlings also working for all they are worth. At the same time bullets begin to fly around us and puffs of smoke floating from the bushes on right and left show us where they come from. Evidently we are in a trap."


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