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North-West Resistance

Transport train en route from Swift Current to Saskatchewan Landing with supplies for General Middleton and Lt. Col. Otter. Photo donated by Reg. No. 4072, ex-S/Sargeant White.
RCMP Museum, Regina 34.25.III

The Cree uprisings of 1884 and 1885, and the Métis Resistance of 1885, plunged the Saskatchewan District of the North-West Territories into turmoil, ending in armed conflict and open rebellion against the Dominion government. These two separate events have been combined in the history of Canada, where they have come to be known as the North-West Resistance of 1885 (also referred to as the North-West Rebellion, the 1885 Rebellion, and the Riel Rebellion). This clash of cultures was a significant Milestone in the development of the West, having a profound impact on each of the three major ethnic groups living in central Saskatchewan at that time. For the Métis, whose resistance against the government culminated in the Battle of Batoche, it marked the end of their independence as a nation. It also has become, in recent times, a symbol of their struggle to be recognized as a distinct people. For the aboriginal First Nations, principally the Cree of the Treaty 6 region, the uprising of 1885 was the outcome of frustrations over the breaking of treaty agreements made in good faith with the Canadian government. With their defeat, the bands of the Cree First Nation in the Saskatchewan District were relegated to reserves and their nomadic way of life ended, never again to be revived. For the European community, primarily Canadian and British, the North-West Rebellion marked the end of any significant settlement in the Saskatchewan District for well over a decade. Henceforth, immigration into the Territories was to occur primarily along the railway line in the districts of Assiniboia and Alberta, to the south.

Troop movement and battles, 1885 Resistance.
Canadian Plains Research Center Mapping Division

Of those significant military engagements of the Rebellion which took place between Canadian forces and the Métis, led by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, only the initial skirmish at Duck Lake involved the North-West Mounted Police. This encounter became the only clear Métis victory. Elements of the North-West Field Force of the Canadian Militia, led by General Frederick Middleton, took part in the other two battles, Fish Creek and Batoche. The only decisive victory for government forces was at the Battle of Batoche. Of the engagements in which bands of the Cree First Nation took part, the Frog Lake “Massacre” did not involve opposing forces. At Fort Pitt, a victory for the Cree, the North-West Mounted Police were involved. The Canadian militia of Lieutenant Colonel W.D. Otter’s Battleford Column was defeated at Cut Knife Hill, while the troops of the Alberta Field Force, including Steele’s Scouts, took part in the skirmishes at Frenchman’s Butte and Steele Narrows. The outcome of both these engagements was inconclusive.

The Métis Resistance. After migrating from Manitoba to new communities along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River, following the Red River Uprising of 1870, the Métis found that once again they faced the same problems as they had in the old Red River settlement. Among other things, they feared the loss of their land as they watched surveyors imposing upon their long narrow river lots the Canadian township system which divided the land into squares. In June 1884 a delegation of Métis, led by Gabriel Dumont, traveled to Montana to persuade their former leader, Louis Riel, to return to the Saskatchewan District to help them present their grievances to the Canadian government. During the summer of 1884 and the spring of the following year, angry meetings were held throughout the District, both in Métis and White communities, where the settlers also voiced their grievances against the Canadian government. The unrest in Saskatchewan culminated in the creation by Riel on March 18, 1885, of a provisional government, centred in the community of Batoche.

The first shots of the resistance were fired on March 26, 1885, in a field near the small community of Duck Lake, when a force of about 100 North-West Mounted Police and volunteers from Prince Albert, under the command of Inspector Lief Crozier, clashed with a Métis force led by Gabriel Dumont. When the smoke cleared, twelve policemen and volunteers as well as five Métis, including Isidore Dumont, Gabriel’s brother, lay dead, and the Métis in the District of Saskatchewan were in open rebellion. In response to the clash at Duck Lake, a column of Mounted Police was hastily dispatched northward from Regina to garrison the town of Prince Albert.

The Métis army was structured as it had been since the days of the buffalo hunt: the captains of the hunt were in charge of ten soldiers each, and the most important of the captains assumed command of the whole force; the army was governed by rules laid down for each man to follow. As the first shots of the uprising were being fired, the commander of the Canadian militia, British general Sir Frederick Middleton, was on his way to the West to take command of the North-West Field Force, which was hurriedly being assembled in Manitoba and in eastern Canada. Military District 10, which was headquartered in Winnipeg, had responsibility for all military activity in Manitoba and the North-West Territories. The first of its units to be mobilized for the field force was the 90th Rifles of Winnipeg. On March 23, 1885, General Middleton and the advance party of 100 riflemen of the 90th left Winnipeg by train, bound for Qu’Appelle Station (then called Troy) in the District of Assiniboia, North-West Territories. It was there that Middleton first heard news of the Duck Lake encounter.

On April 6, Middleton and his small force of westerners, now augmented by more infantry, artillery and cavalry from Winnipeg, and by Boulton’s Scouts from Russell, Manitoba, set out from the small town of Fort Qu’Appelle on a 200-mile journey northward to Batoche. The troops covered 20 miles a day, reaching the Humboldt telegraph station in a five-day march. On April 17 the column stopped at Clarke’s Crossing, on the South Saskatchewan River, to wait for the troops that had been sent from eastern Canada to catch up with them. There, Middleton split his force, now some 900 strong, into two groups and continued his advance northward along both banks of the river. On April 24, his troops experienced their first taste of battle: at Fish Creek, the Canadian militia suffered a severe setback at the hands of Gabriel Dumont’s sharpshooters. After the check at Fish Creek, an even more cautious General Middleton continued his advance to the Métis headquarters of Batoche. There, he began a four-day siege in which the Hudson’s Bay Company paddle wheeler Northcote, complete with one of his two Gatling guns and a seven-pound cannon, was employed against the Métis defenders. On May 12, 1885, the badly outnumbered Métis were finally overcome by Middleton’s troops after a short, sharp battle. A few days later, Louis Riel surrendered and Gabriel Dumont escaped to Montana. Louis Riel was brought to Regina, where he was tried for treason before Judge Hugh Richardson. He was found guilty on August 1, 1885, and on November 16 he was hanged at the Mounted Police barracks in Regina. His body was then taken to Winnipeg for burial.

The Cree Uprising. A few days before General Middleton entrained for the North-West Territories from Winnipeg, the Cree band at Frog Lake, in the eastern part of the District of Saskatchewan (now part of the province of Alberta), under their chief Big Bear, rose in revolt to protest against the Canadian government’s withholding of provisions. On April 1, 1885, the band killed nine people, and others were taken captive. The band then moved on to threaten Fort Pitt. The small, outnumbered garrison of Mounted Police under the command of Inspector Francis Dickens, son of the novelist Charles Dickens, was forced to abandon the post, leaving the civilians to be taken hostage. The police withdrew down the North Saskatchewan River to the town of Battleford. The revolt of Big Bear’s band raised fears of a larger Indian uprising among Canadian settlers in the western Saskatchewan and Alberta districts of the Territories. Battleford itself had come under siege from another Cree band under Chief Poundmaker, whose followers began to loot and burn some of the houses, including that of Hugh Richardson, the judge who later tried Louis Riel.

To counter the threat of a general Indian uprising, two more columns of the North-West Field Force were dispatched northward from the Canadian Pacific Railway. One of the columns, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Otter, an officer of the Queen’s Own Rifles, set out from Swift Current to relieve Battleford. The Battleford Column reached the town on April 23, 1885, after a hard five-day march of 160 miles. Otter, having augmented his column with men from the Battleford Infantry Company, decided to set out after Poundmaker’s Cree, who had withdrawn from the town. The two forces met at Cut Knife Hill on May 2; after an inconclusive seven-hour battle in which the Cree outmaneuvered the Canadians, Otter withdrew from the field. The battle could have easily ended in a rout for the Canadians if the troops had not retired in good order and if Poundmaker had not refrained from seriously pursuing them. Otter marched back to Battleford; there he was joined by Middleton’s forces, who had pushed on to the town after their victory at Batoche. Poundmaker surrendered to Middleton in Battleford on May 25.

The third column of Canadian militia, the Alberta Field Force, set out from Calgary, District of Alberta, under the command of Major General Thomas Bland Strange, a retired British artillery officer who had moved to the West. Strange’s column included among others Steele’s Scouts, a unit composed of North-West Mounted Police. The column marched north to Edmonton, then eastward along the North Saskatchewan River to Fort Pitt, in pursuit of Big Bear’s band. Big Bear had remained in the Frog Lake area and had intended to join Poundmaker. On May 28, the forces of Strange and Big Bear clashed at Frenchman’s Butte, where the Cree again gained the upper hand over the Canadians. However, Middleton had joined Strange from Battleford, thereby strengthening his force. Big Bear retreated northward across the Beaver River and into the forest wilderness, followed by the militia led by Steele’s Scouts. After a brief encounter at Rat Foot Creek, now Steele Narrows, near Loon Lake, Big Bear’s followers began to slip away from him. As he was making for Lac des Iles, on the Waterhen River, Big Bear’s hostages were set free near the present-day community of Goodsoil. Finally, he was forced to surrender to the police at Fort Carlton, 100 miles away. With Big Bear’s surrender on July 2, 1885, armed resistance ceased in the District of Saskatchewan, thereby ending the last military conflict on Canadian soil. In the aftermath of the Cree uprisings, both Big Bear and Poundmaker were given prison sentences, and eight of their followers were hanged at Battleford.

Stewart Mein

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Further Reading

Beal, B., and R. Macleod. 1984. Prairie Fire: The 1885 North-West Rebellion. Edmonton: Hurtig.
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