At the onset of the North-West Resistance in 1885, the Canadian government reacted to the news of the fighting at Duck Lake (March 26, 1885) and the Frog Lake Massacre (April 2, 1885) by sending a force of militia under the command of Major-General Frederick Middleton to the North-West Territories. The task of the North-West Field Force was to restore order by extinguishing the growing resistance of the Métis and the Cree to government policies for the region. Upon reaching the Territories, the Force was divided into three columns, each of which was to march north from starting points along the newly constructed prairie section of the Canadian Pacific Railway. On April 6, 1885, the main column of the force, under direct command of General Middleton and led by Boulton’s Scouts, left Qu’Appelle to began its march north towards the headquarters of Louis Riel’s Métis provisional government at Batoche, over 200 miles away. On the morning of April 25, Middleton’s column reached the area of Fish Creek, a small stream flowing at right angles into the South Saskatchewan River. As Middleton’s column approached, his scouts found farmhouses that had been raided, and evidence of a recent Métis encampment.
The Métis chose to face Middleton’s troops at a heavily wooded coulee where the trail crossed Fish Creek, known to the Métis as Tourond’s Crossing. They hid themselves and their horses in the bushes and, when Middleton’s scouts approached, the Métis who were in the coulee opened fire. Rather than pursuing the Métis forces into the coulee, the scouts dismounted and returned fire. When the main body of Middleton’s force arrived, they took up positions on the bluffs on the west side above the coulee and engaged the Métis from distances of 50 to100 yards across the creek. When the militia attacked, they moved forward in the open, at the top of the coulee, where they became easy targets; many of them were killed. The Métis were on the east side of the coulee, using the natural brush cover by the stream and up on the eastern plateau. The west plateau is slightly higher than the east plateau, and Middleton’s gunners had a difficult time depressing their guns low enough so that they could fire into the lower banks of the coulee. The Métis started brush fires in order to create panic and screen their attempts to outflank Middleton.
Meanwhile, the part of Middleton’s force which was on the opposite bank of the South Saskatchewan River crossed the river on a barge. Now Middleton had fresh troops; but seeing that he was taking too many casualties, he did not renew the attack. A drizzle that had begun in the morning had, late in the afternoon, turned to sleet as Middleton’s cold, wet soldiers withdrew from the battle. The Métis and Indians began to slip away from the coulee, returning to their homes to prepare to defend them against the coming assault by Middleton’s forces. Finally, there were only about 47 Métis left in the coulee, facing over 400 militia. After six and a half hours, the battle drew to a close with the withdrawal of all the Métis to Batoche. Middleton’s forces had suffered 10 deaths and 40 wounded. The Métis casualties were four dead and one wounded; they also lost over 50 horses.
After the skirmish at Fish Creek, Middleton consolidated his column on the east side of the South Saskatchewan River. As his untried soldiers had performed poorly in their first encounter with the enemy, he delayed continuing his advance in order to train his troops for the main assault on Batoche. After waiting for two weeks, Middleton resumed his march to Batoche on May 8, 1885. The battle of Fish Creek was also significant in that it was the first time that war photography was practiced in Canada, the first photos being taken by Captain James Peters of Middleton’s artillery. On the whole, Middleton tolerated the war correspondents and photographers accompanying his campaign; but when they reported the defeat and the retreat of his force at Fish Creek, his relationship with the press began to deteriorate. Subsequently Middleton, during the initial stages of the fighting at Batoche, did not allow any news reports to be dispatched until the fighting had ceased.