The Northwest Rebellion – An Excerpt from Cecil Denny’s 1905 ‘Riders of the Plains’
The following is an excerpt from The Riders of the Plains: A Reminiscence of the Early and Exciting Days in the North West (1905), by Cecil Edward Denny. This work is in the public domain.
Continued from Chapter XXIX – Treaty Indians Making Progress.
THE NORTHWEST REBELLION
IT IS NOT MY INTENTION to write a history of the outbreak among the halfbreeds and Indians in the Northwest during the year 1885, the subject has been written on hundreds of times already, and little is left to record. I will only give a short outline of the beginning of the trouble in the vicinity of Battleford in the spring of that year, and the part taken in it by the Mounted Police. Much was said derogatory to this force after the rebellion was put down, not one word of which was true, as their efficiency and conduct during the time of this uprising, (in which they took the most active and arduous part) was exemplary.
As I have shown in previous chapters, for some years past matters had been going on badly among the Indians. What with cutting down the rations and settlers coming into the country, and bad advice given them by the hundreds of dissatisfied halfbreeds who principally lived near and in the Crees residing on, or off, their reservations in that section, to come sooner or later, and did arrive in 1885. Many halfbreeds who were in the Red River rebellion under Riel, lived in the north, and their old leader who had only a year or two previously been pardoned and allowed to return to Canada by the Dominion government, had rejoined them and was again the leader in a revolt, comprising nearly all the Crees residing on, or off, their reservations in that section. The Blackfeet and other plain Indian tribes, who heretofore had always been at war with the Crees, and had more than held their own against them, keeping them from the plains altogether, had at the instance of the whites made peace with their old enemies and perfectly well knew what was about to take place in the north, but although much pressed by the Crees had not yet made up their minds to join them, having still a deep rooted enmity towards those northern tribes.
The Blackfeet in the spring of 1885 were far from being settled, and a very little would have caused them also to break out, in which case a clean sweep would have been made of the thousands of head of stock on the plains, and the unprotected settlements would have been wiped out. The expense and loss of life to subdue the plain Indians had they followed those of the north, would have far exceeded that incurred (great as it was) to suppress the rebellion that did occur, and great anxiety was shown by the Canadian government and also in all western settlements as to the action the plain Indians would take.
In the north during the previous year many meetings were held by Riel, his audiences being half breeds and Indians who had, or fancied they had, grievances. These meetings were reported by Superintendent Crozier in command of the police at Battleford, who states, “I have already reported that I believe the Indians sympathise with the half breeds, nor could anything else be expected, being close blood relations and speaking the same language, what may be the result of this half breed agitation, or what result it may have on the Indians, of course I cannot foretell.” In August 1884, Sergeant Brooks at Prince Albert, reported a meeting held by Riel together with Big Bear, and again a meeting held by Indians at Duck Lake. Sergeant Keenan at Duck Lake, again reported in August and September, meetings held by Riel and other dissatisfied half breeds and Indians, and Sergeant Keenan stated that at a meeting held September 1st, at which Riel, Jackson, Scott, and Isbister, three of Riel’s strongest supporters, were present, speeches were made condemning the government, and Jackson stated that the country belonged to the Indians and not to the Dominion of Canada. These reports were all forwarded by the Commissioner to Ottawa, together with many from the superintendent in command in the north, showing that he looked upon matters as serious, but still the government until an actual outbreak took place, seemed to give no credence to them, either through ignorance or incapacity of their officials, such as was shown the year previous in dealing with the Indians in the west.
The number of police stationed in the north, and divided up between Battleford, Carleton, Prince Albert and Fort Pitt, in the spring of 1885, was only 200 of all ranks, and they were continually on the watch for what was going on, reporting the same. Superintendent Gagnon reported in December 1884 that the half breeds had held a large meeting at Batoche, and forwarded petitions to Ottawa, and that they were trying to induce Riel to remain among them, offering him a well furnished house to live in.
Superintendent Crozier reported in January 1885 that Little Pine, the Cree chief, had held a large meeting at Duck Lake, and that this chief had tried to induce a number of Blackfeet to join him and move northward in the spring. Matters went on about the same until towards the end of February (in fact quieting down if anything) when Riel caused a report to be circulated that he had been required by the government to leave the country, at the same time getting up a meeting himself to discuss the question, at which meeting he was pressed to remain.
Reports then came thick and fast of the uneasiness of both Indians and half breeds, of their intention to prevent supplies coming into the country, and March 13, Superintendent Crozier telegraphed the commissioner at Regina:
“Half breed rebellion liable to break out any moment. Troops must be largely reinforced. If half breeds rise, Indians will join them.”
This message was sent to Ottawa at once, together with the recommendation of an increase of force being sent at once.
The commissioner left Regina Mar. 18th with all the men he could muster, consisting of four officers and eighty-six N.C. officers and men. Word was received by him March 19th that the half breeds had seized the Indian department stories at the South branch of the Saskatchewan, and held the Indian agent, Mr. Lash, prisoner, also committing other depredations.
No time was lost by the commissioner and party on the road, forty-three miles being the first day’s journey and the rest of the days in proportion. The time taken to reach Prince Albert was seven days from Regina, the distance being about 290 miles, and this in the coldest weather, through deep snow, so the hardships were very great.
On the road a second telegram was received form Superintendent Crozier, as follows:
“Beardy’s Indians joined the rebels this afternoon. The wire is cut, the rebels are assembled on south side of river. Prisoners are held in Roman Catholic church about a quarter of a mile up stream from crossing. All of One Arrow’s band of Crees joined them this afternoon. Many of Beardy’s also joined them. The remainder of Beardy’s will probably follow tomorrow. The number of rebels assembled this afternoon is estimated at from 200 to 400 men. They rapidly increase in numbers. My impression is that many Indian bands will rise. The plan at present is to seize any troops coming into the country at the South Branch, then march on Carleton, then on Prince Albert.”
At Prince Albert the commissioner raised volunteers and with his additional force of twenty five men proceeded towards Carelton, the scene of operations, where Superintendent Crozier had his head quarters.
March 26, when within nine mines of Carleton, the following despatch was received from Superintendent Gagnon:
“Superintendent Crozier with 100 men started on Duck Lake road to help one of our Sergeants and a small party in difficulties at Mitchell’s store. I have seventy men and can hold out against odds. Do not expect Crozier to push on further than Duck lake. All is quiet here.”
When the commissioner’s party were close to Carleton another despatch was received to the effect that Major Crozier had come into collision with the rebels, and had lost some men killed, and was retreating on Carleton.
And when the commissioner and party arrived Superintendent Crozier and party, with the killed and wounded, had just got in, together with the party of volunteers he had with him.
Superintendent Crozier had that morning despatched Sergeant Stewart and seventeen men with P. McKay of Prince Albert as guide, to bring in some police provisions and ammunition that were at the store of a trader named Mitchell at Duck Lake. They were met near that place by a large number of armed half breeds and Indians, who behaved in a very overbearing manner, demanding the surrender of the party or they would fire into the. This was refused, and Mr. McKay informed the rebels that their fire would be returned should they commence. The police pluckily held them off, retiring towards Carleton, to which place a man had been sent to notify Sergeant Crozier, who with all the men he could spare, about 100 civilians and volunteers included, at once went out to the scene of action, meeting the other party on their way in. He then proceeded towards Duck Lake to get the stores that the first party failed to secure. They met the half breeds and Indians at about the same place that they were first seen, but their force was much augmented, and they had sheltered themselves behind strong natural cover. Superintendent Crozier posted his men to the best advantage but was much outnumbered. The principal cover being the sleighs, and the snow being deep and crusted, quick movements were impossible. Superintendent Crozier states as follows: “I consider that the line extended to our right prevented the revels surrounding us. There we sustained the heaviest loss, because concealed from view to the right of the road, on which we approached, were two houses in which were posted a large number of rebels, and from whence they poured upon us a fierce fire. From this point they tried to gain and were working upon our right rear, the deep crusted snow however impeded their movements, thereby preventing them from accomplishing their purpose before the termination of the engagement.
“The engagement last about thirty minutes, and though the rebels were on their own ground, entrenched in ambush with the advantage of a commanding position, ready and waiting for us, we drove back their right, and had we been opposed by them on our right on anything like an equality, we could have done the same on their left, but there we had to contend against the enemy in houses and in ambush. The right of my line did prevent the enemy gaining our rear’ they attempted it at the cost of their lives, and they could do no more. Both the police and volunteers who composed by little escort behaved superbly. Their bravery and coolness under a murderous fire was simply astonishing.
“The enemy were in ambush, behind splendid cover, while we were exposed, yet not a man shirked or even faltered until the order was given to retire, and then they moved off quietly.”
Nine of the Prince Albert volunteers were killed in this first engagement, and five badly wounded, while three police were killed and six wounded. Superintendent Crozier states of the loss to the volunteers, as follows: “The Prince Albert volunteers lost more heavily than the police, because several of them happened to be extended on the right of our line where they were more exposed to the fire of the enemy in ambush and in the houses.
“The gun did good service and no men could have worked better than the gunners did that day under conditions that would have tried soldiers, however well disciplined. I did not think when the line extended, there was a house on our right, and that the enemy were ambushed about it in large numbers, so that I did not purposely expose one part of the line to fire more than another. The sleighs I threw out for no other purpose than for cover, and they were taken advantage of as such, by the volunteers and police indiscriminately, and if unkind or unfeeling remarks have been made, it was not by any of those who fought so gallantly together and received, without flinching, as hot a fire as men were ever exposed to. The strongest feeling of friendship exists between the Prince Albert volunteers and the Mounted Police, because all who were present that day, knew that no man shirked his duty, or shrank from danger, but that each unflinchingly and bravely took his chances and did his work. Though unsuccessful in getting possession of the stores, I considered that one consequence of my action was to force the rebels to give up for the time the attack on Ft. Carleton, which they had meditated and would otherwise have made on the night of March 26, and prevented the bloodshed that must have occurred.
“Before concluding the report, I may repeat that it was the rebels who attacked me and began the action. They had their disposition most skillfully made and nearly succeeded in cutting off my command, which they would have done but for the steady valour and good discipline of the men under me, on which I justly relied before setting out.”
I have mentioned this engagement with different extracts from police reports, as it was the first that occurred in the rebellion of 1885, it was also as far as severity goes, much the hottest engagement that occurred through the whole summer, taking into consideration the few engagements and the great odds to contend with. The police, in whatever action they were in, either acting alone or in conjunction with the militia, showed the same courage throughout, doing in fact most of the hard work, such as scouting, etc. As I have before mentioned, jealously was shown towards them, but not for one moment could a word be said against their efficiency and pluck. The commissioner mentioned the work done by the scouts as follows in one of his reports: “The importance of the work done by my scouts could not, I think, have been surpassed. These men, all perfectly familiar with the country, were kept constantly employed form the outset under the direction of a man (Mr. McKay) well qualified for such work. My scouts at all times labored incessantly, cheerfully and efficiently. Perhaps the most important part of the work done by the scouts was the driving back of the men employed on similar duty by Riel who, on various occasions, tried to scout right into Prince Albert. Ditch and Armstrong, two of the three men who captured Riel, were police scouts who had been sent by me with despatches to General Middleton. The whole country around Prince Albert was thoroughly scouted.”
Previous to March 26, Riel and his followers had robbed, plundered, and terrorized the settlers and the country. They had robbed many government and other stories, captured government agents and others, and had armed parties patrolling the country with orders to kill all who would not surrender. They had also encouraged the Indians to rise, and in spite of all proclamations and warnings had at last begun the threatened outbreak by attacking a government party under Superintendent Crozier, and killing and wounding a large number.
The force of half breeds and Indians at Duck Lake were about 400 armed men, the odds being too great for such a small force as were with Superintendent Crozier, to resist, and had not exceptional bravery been displayed they must surely have been annihilated. The total strength of the force at Carleton, both police and volunteers, was only 225 officers, non commissioned officers and men, and of these many were wounded. On the militia arriving in the Northwest in the following April under command of Major General Middleton, the police were put under his orders, and by that time the rebellion had assumed serious proportions, having extended to all the different Cree tribes in the north, and nearly all the half breeds were in rebellion. Strictures were passed on the police commissioner for not attacking the combined force of half breeds and Indians at Batoche (where General Middleton’s forces had an encounter with them) conjointly with that officer, but it was by a direct order from General Middleton that he did not do so, although both he and the police under him were only too anxious to try conclusions with the rebels.
General Middleton had under him at this Batoche fight about 1,200 men, while the whole police force with volunteers in that district, as before stated, was only 225 men all told, and as Lieutenant Colonel Irvine, the police commissioner, stated in his report after many unjust reflections had been thrown upon himself and those under him, it was indeed fortunate for us (the Northwest Mounted Police) that the development of these great territories is so closely and honorably interwoven with the history of the corps.
Continued in Chapter 31: Indians of the South Kept Quiet.