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History of Saskatchewan and The Old North West
Chapter XXVII - The Work of the Alberta Field Force, and the Close of the Campaign


Organization of Alberta Field Force Under Strange—Measures for the Security of Settlers in Alberta—Missionaries as Peacemakers—Strange's Northern March—Skirmishes Near Fort Pitt—A Dangerous Situation—Battle of French man's Butte; an Unconscious Victory—Middleton's Criticism and Dispatches—Steele's Pursuit of Big Bear—Skirmish at Loon Lake—Shortage of Ammunition—Pursuit Continued Among Unexplored Morasses—The Silent March—Conduct of French Volunteers—Moral Importance of Closing Phase of Campaign—Death of Colonel Williams—Middleton's Farewell to North West Field Force—Cost of the Rebellion.

It is now necessary for us to turn back in our story to recount the doings of the Alberta Field Force, under General Strange, a veteran of the Indian mutiny.

On April 16th, the day of Middleton's arrival at Clarke's Crossing, the 65th Battalion of Mounted Royal Rifles, under Lieutenant-Colonels Ouimet and Hughes, arrived at Calgary from Montreal. Strange's column also included the Winnipeg Light Infantry, under Lieutenant-Colonel W. O. Smith, the 9th Battalion, under Lieutenant-Colonel Aymot, a detachment of the Mounted Police with a nine-pounder from Fort McLeod, under the command of Inspector Perry (subsequently Commissioner), another detachment of Police Scouts under Major Steele, and still another company of Scouts commanded by Major Hatton. Altogether, Strange's forces amounted to about nine hundred.

Preparations for the defence of the South Country were seriously hampered by the fact that the settlers (owing to the protection hitherto enjoyed at the hands of the Mounted Police) were almost entirely without arms. Moreover, the cowboys, who themselves were but partially armed, could not be withdrawn from the cattle districts among the Indian reserves, without placing at the mercy of the Indian raiders valuable supplies of horses and cattle. Home guards and local patrols were, however, organized.

General Strange's orders, from General Middleton, as we have seen, were to overawe and restrain the Indians of Alberta and Southern Athabasca, to protect the various settlements along the railway and elsewhere, to march north to Edmonton and move thence down along the Saskatchewan and make a juncture with Middleton himself. Strange left Amyot's battalions as a garrison at Calgary, and provided for the protection of McLeod and the railway lying to the east of Calgary, stationed a company at Gleichen to guard the railway and northern trails, and to keep watch over the Blackfeet; and then marched his remaining troops in three columns to Edmonton.1 The advance force, under Strange's personal command, moved north on April 20th. In addition to Steele's sixty scouts and policemen, Strange had only one hundred and fifty infantry to guard his long line of one hundred and seventy-five wagons, which were sometimes unavoidably extended from a distance of one and a half miles to two miles. The teamsters were unarmed, there being no weapons available for them. That the convoy reached its destination in safety was due, says General Strange, largely to the careful scouting done by Major Steele's force. This column entered Edmonton on May 1st.

Inspector Perry was in command of the second column from Calgary, which marched out on April 23d. He found the Red Deer River impassable. The column under General Strange had forded it twenty-four hours before with ease, but owing to the very heavy rains it had risen rapidly and was now fully two hundred and fifty yards wide. A raft was constructed, but owing to an accident it was carried some three miles down the river before a landing was effected. Here there was a cut bank thirty feet high, up which Perry's gun, carriage and ammunition had to be hauled. A ferryboat was then constructed which proved of great assistance to the column following. On arriving at Edmonton, Perry turned his contingent over to General Strange.

In advance of Strange's contingent went the heroic missionary, Father Lacombe, who, unaccompanied and despite the difficulties of travel at that season of the year, visited all the Indian reserves as a peacemaker, and succeeded in persuading the Alberta Indians to maintain strict neutrality and remain quietly upon their reservations. In these measures he was vigorously supported by the famous Blackfoot chief. Crowfoot, and excellent service was also rendered by the Rev. John McDougall, who had great influence, especially among the Stoneys. Moreover, Lieutenant-

1 Before the arrival of Strange's troops, Superintendent Cotton of Fort MacLeod offered to make a prompt movement on Edmonton and Fort Pitt. In reply to this offer. Major General Strange wrote Superintendent Cotton as follows:

"Your valuable services, knowledge of the district, and influence with the Indians, render it important that you remain where you are. I must therefore order you to do so. I can understand your desire to go to what you consider the front, but the front may at any time become the rear, and visa versa."

Governor Dewdney was communicating with the Indians through Father Scollen.

It is impossible here to relate in detail the valuable work performed by various police officers in the south country, and throughout what is now Alberta, but mention must be made of Superintendent Mclllree, who was stationed near the Cypress Hills, of Superintendent Cotton, west of McLeod, of Captain C. F. Denny, author of "The Riders of the Plains"— who performed services of special value among the Blackfeet, Piegans, Sarcees, Stoneys and Floods—and of Inspector Griesbach, of Fort McLeod. Minor depredations had been committed in many places by the Indians between Calgary and Edmonton, but happily for Canada, the Blackfeet, Piegans, Bloods, Sarcees and Assiniboines and other warlike tribes of the Far West, decided in favour of peace.

Having placed a small garrison at Red Deer, and having rendered Edmonton capable of defence, Strange, on May 14th, with his depleted forces, pushed on to Victoria on the North Saskatchewan, and thence toward Fort Pitt, in the vicinity of which Big Bear's band was lingering. On May 24th, the day of Middleton's arrival at Battleford, Strange passed Frog Lake, where the bodies of the victims of the massacre were given honorable, if hasty, burial. Then the pursuit of Big Bear's followers began in earnest. On reaching Fort Pitt, Strange sent out in every direction scouts, including the Rev. John McDougall and the Rev. Canon MacKay.

It may be remarked that there were five of the MacKay brothers engaged in the suppression of the rebellion—Thomas, a prominent member of early Territorial Councils and Assemblies; Joseph, of the R. X. W. M. P.; James, the well-known lawyer and member of Parliament; John and George, the missionary clergymen. All of them were men famous for endurance, courage and skill with the rifle. "One of them, George, a canon of the Anglican Church, accompanied our column as chaplain," says the Presbyterian clergyman, Mr. MacBeth, who was a member Of Strange's Winnipeg force, "and I can vouch for it that he could fight as well as pray."

Major Steele, with his scouts operating on the east or north side of the river, were fired upon when about ten miles distant from Fort Pitt. Two Indians were slain in this encounter. Meanwhile, Perry was reconnoitering south of the river. Steele presently reported that his scouts had come upon one hundred and eighty-seven lodges. Leaving a company of the 65th to fortify and protect what remained of Fort Pitt, Strange, with one hundred and ninety-seven infantry, twenty-seven cavalry and one gun, hastened to Major Steele on the 27th. Together they advanced four and a half miles, and, coming upon the Indians, they drove them from their position and followed them up until darkness, approached. The 65th were hurrying after them, but Strange and Steele could not wait for these reinforcements. Strange's forces were obliged to bivouac that night under arms and without tents or camp-fires. His columns at this time were really in a most hazardous position, as is indicated by the following extract from MacBeth's interesting reminiscences:

"Humanly speaking, I have never been able to make out why the enemy, who were in force outnumbering us by three to one, did not make short work of us in the darkness. The clearing in which we were encamped was small and surrounded by dense forest, the wagons were in zareba form, with all the men and horses inside, and the night was intensely dark. The Indians must have been already in panic, or, with their knowledge of the situation, they might have rushed in, stampeded the horses, and in the confusion done serious execution."

At dawn on the 28th, Strange moved forward, finding numerous traces of recent trails. About 7:30 he overtook the enemy, whom he found occupying an impregnable position in the forks of a creek. The front and flanks of their position extended about three miles, and were covered by a muskeg. Strange deployed his little force, dismounted his men, and sent Major Steele forward on the left to turn the enemy's flank, if possible. Meanwhile, a general fire was opened all along the front. The forces under Strange's command had been so depleted that they were now, as we have seen, considerably outnumbered by the bands they were pursuing, and his staff pointed out that any attempt at an actual assault upon the enemy, who were concealed in rifle pits over the crest of the hill beyond the marsh (Frenchman's Butte), would be exceedingly hazardous. Accordingly, after engaging the enemy for some time, he recalled Major Steele, judging it advisable to return to more open ground. This decision rested partly upon the observations of Major Hatton, who could see that the Indians were moving out towards the right, and believed that an attempt was being made to turn Strange's right flank. Accordingly, Strange fell back six miles and encamped, subsequently returning to Fort Pitt. During the four hours' engagement he had but three men wounded and none killed.

It afterwards proved that Strange's operations had been much more successful than he or his men supposed at the time. He was unfortunately deprived of the services of Major Perry, who was, as we have seen, absent on a reconnoitering expedition, and would otherwise have been in charge of his gun. Consequently, it was not at first worked to the best possible advantage and its shots went too high.. This was noticed by Lieutenant Strange, the General's son, who accordingly instructed the gunners to fire lower. The next shot took effect in one of the pits, and did considerable execution. The Indians, owing to the favorable wind, had heard Lieutenant Strange's orders, and their prompt and sanguinary result caused a general panic and retreat, though the Government forces were unaware of the fact. The movement, which had been mistaken for an intended attack upon the right flank, had been, in point of fact, the beginning of a general rout. The Indians scattered, permitting the escape of eleven prisoners, and fell back on Leaver River, some eighty miles distant.

"It was a pity," says General Middleton, "that General Strange had not waited for my arrival, when a more decisive blow might have been struck." This implied criticism is scarcely fair, as Middleton had left Strange entirely in the dark as to his wishes or intentions, and indeed, had not communicated with him since May 1st.

Moreover, General Strange had notified the Commander-in-chief of his intention of moving eastward with a view to attacks being made upon the Indians from both directions, and he believed the proposal had been approved. Strange now sent two plucky volunteers, Sergeant Borrowdale and Scout Scott, down the Saskatchewan by canoe, through the Indian country. General Middleton sent them back with a letter to Big Bear demanding his immediate surrender, and on the 30th Middleton left Battleford with all his force, in three steamers, with the exception of the mounted men, who came by the trail along the south bank.

Meantime, General Strange had sent Major Steele with cavalry to follow the trail of Big Bear's band, and moved his own forces to Frog Lake. Major Dale, on the 2d. brought into camp the Rev. Air. Quinney, Mrs. Quinney, Alessrs. Cameron, Ilalpin and Dufresne, and five Halfbreed families, who had been prisoners with the Indians. Air. MacKay, of the Hudson's Bay Company, with ten mounted men, also recovered Mrs. Gowanlock, Mrs. Delaney and other prisoners, and brought back to Fort Pitt, in addition to these, thirty-six members of Big Bear's band as prisoners.

On June 4th word had been received that Major Steele had overtaken' some of the fleeing Indians, with whom he had had a successful skirmish at Loon Lake.

Before the battle. Steele was just ready to offer terms of surrender.

Major Steele is confident that if the government instead of sending up large detachments of outside forces had simply sent in an abundance of arms and ammunition and placed the suppression in the hands of the police and western volunteers, it would have been brought about much more efficiently. His own men, for example, were, after the battle of Loon Lake, reduced to fifteen rounds of ammunition. Their supplies had been held up at Winnipeg by a customs officer.

In the pursuit of P>ig Dear's band through the Loon Lake country, the Canadians were hampered by the presence of bodies of water not marked upon their maps. Nevertheless, Steele is quite convinced that if he bad been given a freer hand and if he had had an adequate supply of ammunition he could easily have secured the whole band of fugitives.

On receipt of Steele's dispatch, on June 4th, Middleton attempted to follow him up, but the country through which the Indians were moving was characterized by such a maze of all but impassable morasses that on the 5th he sent back the infantry. On the same day Steele joined him. Forces under Colonel Otter from Battleford, and Colonel Irvine from Prince Albert, were scattered north of the Saskatchewan to prevent the retreat of the Indians, and General Strange moved northward into the Beaver River country, where his plucky force acquitted itself with a distinction worthy of greater recognition than it received in some high official quarters. Says MacBeth:

"It was decided to make what became known in the rebellion annals as 'The Silent March.' and so, leaving our wagon train, the horses being completely tired out, we started marching again about eight o'clock in the evening. For quite a distance our way was through water, knee deep, and through this swamp I remember how the Frenchmen of the 65th, almost shoeless and half clad as they were, more than once helped the horses on Perry's gun, next to which they were marching. It was night when we struck the heavy and practically trackless forest, for there was scarcely any trail to be found. The darkness grew denser as we advanced, and the great trees above us shut out the sky. Sometimes in rank and sometimes in Indian file we kept on marching in dead silence, with our arms ready for instant use, until about two o'clock in the morning when a halt was ordered, and by little twig fires—larger were not allowed—we tried to dry our wet and well-nigh frozen garments.

"As the day began to dawn we moved on again, and by sunrise arrived at a point near the Heaver River, where the Indians had been seen, but found they had vanished. Evidences of their recent presence, however, were at hand, for we found about one hundred bags of flour cached in the woods. This was a 'windfall,' as by this time bread was little more than a distant memory, and even 'hard tack' was scarce enough to be appreciated."

On June 6th Strange camped near Beaver River when an episode occurred which illustrated the spirit of his men. "My infantry," he says, "were dead beat from marching in rain and awful mud. The 65th, who had borne the brunt of the marching for five hundred miles, having been in the first advance, had tramped the soles off their boots. Some were literally bare foot, others with muddy, blood stained rags tied around their feet. Their commanding officer told me the men could march no more and wanted to know when they would be allowed to go home. I outwardly thanked that officer for his information and rode up at once to the battalion. They certainly presented a pitiable spectacle in their tattered uniforms. The misery of their march through swamp and forest had been added to by the mosquitoes and horse flies, which were almost unbearable. Addressing the battalion in French, as was my habit, I said, 'Mes enfants, votre commandant m'a dit que vous demandez quand vous pouvez retourner cliez vous. Mais je 11'ai qn'une, reponse—e'est celle-la de votre ancienne chanson.

'Malbrook sen va-t-en guerre.

Ne sait quand reviendra.'

It had the desired effect. The weary little French Canadians shouted, "Huorra pour le General! En Avant! Toujours en avant! and they stepped out to the refrain of their ancestors."

By the 8th of June Middleton found himself and his troops floundering through such a network of muskegs that though it was evident he was close on the trail of Big Bear, he did not feel justified in attempting to pursue the fugitives any further. With Batoche captured, Riel and Pound-maker prisoners. Big Bear powerless and a fugitive, and almost all the prisoners who had been in the hands of the rebels again at liberty, the General felt that his work was nearly done and commenced his arrangements for breaking up the forces.

However, in fairness to Strange and his officers, especially Steele and Colonel Osborne Smith of the Winnipeg Light Infantry, the importance of the last phase of the campaign must not be minimized. It was essential that the Indians should know that if they violated the Queen's peace they could find no place of refuge, however remote. These men taught them that lesson, and the task kept them engaged weeks after most of the other members of Middleton's forces felt that for them the war was over. One hundred picked men of the Winnipeg Light Infantry were detached from Strange's force at Reaver River to cross that stream and strike northward to a chain of lakes where some of Big Bear's band had, as the issue proved, withdrawn. MacEclh hints that the picking consisted largely of selecting those who had some remnants of boots left, and whose uniforms could be counted on as likely to hold together a little while longer. On June 20th scouts from Smith's little column found the portion of the Indian band that held Mr. McLean and other prisoners, and on the 23rd the Indians, in response to a summons, sent them all to Fort Pitt safe and sound. They were met on the way by Major Bedson with a detachment of the 90th. Accordingly, Smith's adventurous One Hundred returned to the brigade, and on July 2nd Big Bear made his way to Carlton and surrendered.

The general rejoicings over the successful issue of the three months' campaign was tempered by the universal regret caused by the ultimate death of Lieutenant Colonel Williams. M. P., commander of the Midlanders, who died on board the steamer from the effects of exposure.

Apart from the losses sustained by the Halfbreeds and rebels, the rebellion cost Canada the lives of thirty-nine citizen soldiers, and almost one hundred and fifteen others had been wounded. In the general order with which Middleton took leave of his forces, be expressed himself as follows:

"In thus completing the breaking up of the North West Field Force, which has been under the immediate control of Major General Middleton during the late campaign, he cannot let the officers and men comprising it separate without expressing his great satisfaction with them. During the whole time he has not had to assemble one court martial; and, in fact, there has been an almost total absence of crime. The troops have had great hardships to undergo and real difficulties to overcome, and have borne and met them like men, with ready cheerfulness and without complaint. They, as untried volunteer soldiers, have had to move in a country where an extraordinary scare existed, and against an enemy with whom it was openly prophesied they would be unable to cope, unless with great superiority o'f numbers. The scare they disregarded, as shown by the fact that during the whole three months "not more than two or three false alarms took place in camp, and the prophesy they falsified by beating back the enemy with a fighting force equal, if not superior, to them in numbers.

Each regiment, corps, or arm of the service has vied one against the other— and each has equally well done its duty; not forgetting the transport service, which, under its able officers, has so well aided our movements; the medical department, which has been so efficiently directed, and the chaplains, who have so carefully and assiduously ministered to our spiritual comforts.

"The Major General, in taking farewell of his old comrades, begs to wish them all happiness and success in their several walks of life, and to sincerely thank them, one and all, for having, by their gallantry, good conduct, and hard work, enabled him to carry to a successful conclusion what will probably be his last campaign."

All Canada was justly proud of the courage and good conduct of her citizen soldiery; nevertheless, the pride of the thoughtful was tempered by the recollection that Duck Lake was a decisive victory for the rebels; that at Fish Creek a handful of men checked the advance of an army and inflicted losses double those they sustained; that at Cut Knife Creek, Pound-maker drove back the attacking force, which indeed owed its escape to his magnanimity; that on the evening of the first day's fight at Batoche a dispatch seems to have been sent calling for reinforcements from the East; that on the second and third day of the siege Middleton failed to regain ground occupied on the first day; that at Frenchman's Butte thc victorious force retired from the field ignorant of its victory; and that it cost Canada the death of some thirty-nine brave soldiers, the maiming of approximately three times that number, and the expenditure of about $100,000 for every Indian or Halfbreed killed in action, to crush a rising caused by the maladministration of officials who escaped unpunished.

Such is the story of the Saskatchewan Rebellion of 1885. It has been necessary to omit many episodes and much detail of a most interesting character, but so far as it goes, the foregoing account may be accepted as fair and authentic. I have been hampered greatly by thc gross inaccuracy of many of the official reports and some or other features of every previous extended account of the rising with which I am familiar. Public opinion apparently demanded a certain style of report at the time and the demand created the supply. After the lapse of a generation, however, it is time for a simple statement of facts, and such I have labored earnestly to give, without favor or prejudice. Some episodes I have deliberately omitted, however, because not essential to an understanding of events, and because the reverse of creditable to officials who used the distresses of their country to selfish pecuniary advantage. Names of many of these contemptible parasites are well known, but no good purpose would be served by their publication at this date, to the humiliation of innocent relatives. Let their names pass into merciful oblivion.

Mr. Thompson, in answer to Mr. Blake, stated from his seat in the House of Commons in 1886 that the total number of Halfbreeds committed for trial in connection with the North West Rebellion was forty-six, Indians eighty-one and whites two. Eighteen of the Halfbreeds were accused of treason felony, one for high treason and one for murder. Eleven were discharged on their own recognizance, four received sentences, eight were discharged to appear again when called for; one, Adolph Nolin, was set at liberty on order of General Middleton, and two others, who were held for trial, were discharged on the proceedings being discontinued on the direction of the Minister of Justice. Four others were also released. Of the Indians, forty-four were convicted of various crimes, nearly all treason-felony; one was for manslaughter, three for arson, five for horse stealing, one for cow stealing, one for breaking goal; the others were convicted of treason-felony. Ten were discharged on promising to come up for trial when required. In the case of one charged with treason-felony no evidence was elicited and he was dismissed; three were convicted. The remainder of the Indians charged with various crimes were set at liberty. Two who were charged with stealing were also released. Of the whites, two were held for trial. One, W. H. Jackson, accused of treason-felony, was acquitted on the grounds of insanity; the other, T. Scott, accused of the same offense, was also acquitted.


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