Part 2: Details of what occurred during the Northwest Rebellion
copyright©1999 Brian M. Brown
latest revisions: Jan.22/00 and July 27/01.
Web published: January 1, 1999 at
transfered to http://www.alittlehistory.com Jan. 10/01.
Fort Battleford's Town is Ransacked (March 30):
On March 26, 1885 the Metis fought a group of police and volunteers at the Battle of Duck Lake. Now that the Rebellion had started, many Natives across the Northwest became excited and restless.
The people in the town of Battleford and surrounding area feared the worst, so they all moved into the nearby fort for protection. The fort was now overflowing with more than 400 people. The town was left deserted.
Poundmaker took his followers to Battleford in hopes of getting food. But the Indian agent refused to come out of the fort.
Now, Poundmaker could not stop his young warriors from going into the deserted town and plundering it. They loaded provisions into carts and took them to their camp.
Frog Lake Massacre (April 2, 1885):
In the spring of 1885, not much had changed for Big Bear's band. Many of his braves were still irritated and restless. When the braves heard the news that the Metis had defeated the police in a battle at Duck Lake, the Warrior lodge, led by Wandering Spirit, took control of the camp.
The Cree warriors went into the White settlement of Frog Lake where they plundered the contents of a store, borrowed some government horses, and began taking prisoners. They told their White prisoners that they wanted to take them to their camp, to protect them from the Metis. Then, the Crees looted another store where they found some alcohol. They began drinking and became more irrational.
It wasn't long before Wandering Spirit tried to order Quinn to go to the Cree camp. Quinn, an arrogant, harsh, unfair, and stubborn Indian agent refused to go. Wandering Spirit tried again. Quinn still refused to obey. The sometimes hot tempered and irrational Wandering Spirit then shot Quinn.
Soon more shots rang out. Big Bear rushed from a house yelling, "Stop, stop!" But it was too late. The braves shot nine White people, including two priests. Three White people, including two women were taken prisoner.
In order to protect the women from their captor's, one Metis bought one woman for two horses. Another Metis wanted to buy the other woman, but he only had one horse. He was able to borrow a second horse and use it to purchase the second White woman. Both Metis then were able to keep the White prisoners safe from harm. The male White prisoner had worked for the Hudson's Bay Company and had done many favors for the Crees during the past year, so his life was also spared.
Later, a Metis and a few helpers got Big Bear's permission to move some of the bodies into the church basement. He later reported the experience: "We were covered in blood in no time...." He described how the bullets had ripped the skull of the priest open, and then continued, "When we lifted him his head fell back and his brains ran into one of my boots. That little picture stuck in my mind for a long time."
[I concede that my decision to include the contents of the previous paragraph is questionable. But although none of this will inspire a young reader to become a rocket scientist, maybe a few will consider becoming a brain surgeon.]
The White people across the plains heard what was happening. They feared for their own lives because it looked like all the Natives might join together in a huge war.
But, when the government sent out fresh flour, beef, tea, and tobacco many of the natives lost their desire to fight.
This is an 1885 map of the Northwest.
The Burning of Fort Pitt (April 14):
The warriors decided to attack Fort Pitt, the closest fort to Frog Lake.
Meanwhile, the 67 people in Fort Pitt realized they couldn't escape because they didn't have enough horses or wagons to get away. They were extremely vulnerable. The fort had been built for trading, so it did not have a palisade. It was made up of six buildings and a fence on one side to contain livestock. This offered very little protection.
The fort included 23 police and 44 others which included traders and some families. The police were the ones the Natives hated, because they had become the symbol of the government who had starved and mistreated the Natives for years. They all worked to prepare the fort for an attack.
Wandering Spirit and his warriors journeyed to Fort Pitt. About 250 warriors made their appearance on the ridge north of Fort Pitt. Then they set up camp, and soon were joined by Big Bear and the rest of their band.
A Hudson Bay trader left the Fort and went to the Cree camp to talk to them. The warriors told him that they had forty gallons of coal oil to burn the fort down. Big Bear argued that they should save the traders and families. Many were long time friends and some were relatives. Wandering Spirit threatened that they were going to kill the people in the fort, but also told the Hudson Bay trader that ". . . we want you to get your wife and children out of the way of danger."
Big Bear helped them come to an agreement. He then dictated a message which was sent to the police sergeant in charge of the Fort. It stated in part:
. . . I want you all to get off without bloodshed. We had a talk, I and my men, before we left our camp, and we thought the way we are doing now the best - that is, to let you off if you would go. So try and get away before the afternoon, as the young men are wild and hard to keep in hand.
The police were allowed to get away. They used a boat to float down the river to Battleford. The other 44 in the fort gave themselves up. They walked up the hill and were taken in by the Cree families where they were kept safe as prisoners.
Meanwhile, the warriors took what they wanted from the fort and burnt it.
The Battle of Cut Knife Hill (May 2):
Immediately after the Frog Lake massacre and the Metis battle at Duck Lake, the government formed an army and it headed west. Colonel Otter's troops got off the train at Swift Current and marched across the prairie to Battleford.
Otter got permission to attack and then left Battleford at dusk. He had 350 men, 48 wagons, two field guns, and a rapid-firing Gatling gun.
The soldiers marched all night and came to Cut Knife hill in the early morning. Poundmaker's sleeping camp was just over the ridge at the top of the hill. An old man from the camp happened to be out for his usual early morning ride, and he is the one who heard the wagons crossing the stones in the creek at the bottom of the hill. He woke Poundmaker's camp and the fighting began.
Otter had his field guns fire at the Cree camp. Women and children in the camp began to flee. A small group of Stoney warriors feared that someone in the camp would be hit. They immediately made a brave charge in an effort to either silence the guns or distract them. The Stonies jumped up and threw their blankets in the air, to the right and left, and fell to the ground and fired.
The troops were surprised by the charge and fell back. But soon they forced the Stonies back into a ravine. In this early fighting, one of the troops died and three were wounded. Two Natives died. During the fighting it was found that the Gatling gun only had a short range. It was not very effective.
As the soldiers got organized, they formed lines facing the two sides and the volunteers covered the rear. In the center of the field was a small depression where they were able to keep their wagons and horses.
This is Cut Knife Hill. The creek is along the bottom and the light gray area
is open grassland where the soldiers were.
The Cree attacked from the bushes.
It is believed that the War Chief in Poundmaker's camp, Fine Day, directed his braves from the top of a nearby hill where he was able to see the entire battle. The Cree would attack in small groups and then withdraw and attack from another area. This confused the soldiers. They were not sure where the Cree were, so could not attack; and they were not even sure how many Cree they were fighting. At any one time, there were only about fifty Natives fighting the troops. The rest were in the back protecting the women and children.
The troops were surrounded by Fine Day's warriors. It crossed the minds of many that only nine years before, in the United States, Custer had been surrounded and his entire regiment wiped out by Natives.
By 11 A.M. Otter began to organize a withdrawal. They withdrew by filing through a gully and crossing the creek. At this time, they were very vulnerable and could have suffered enormous casualties.
Some Cree mounted their horses and were ready to attack. But, Poundmaker rode between them and the troops. Poundmaker told them that to defend their women and children was okay, but to go on the attack was not. They still respected Poundmaker so they did not attack.
So after seven hours of fighting, it was all over. The troops marched back to Battleford.
A Lieutenant later wrote that there was a new respect for the Natives: "They fought in a way that surprised the police, who have been accustomed to look upon them as arrant cowards. They are the beau ideal of skirmishers, expose themselves but little and move with marvelous quickness."
Eight soldiers had been killed and about fourteen were wounded. One newspaper reporter wrote that the soldiers had counted twenty-six Native bodies on the field. Most of the soldiers thought that at least one hundred Natives had died.
But the farm instructor who was living in the Native camp at this time wrote that six Natives were killed and three wounded.
* * * *
Further to the east, at Batoche the Metis faced about 800 soldiers. Some of the 275 men which were on the Metis side were Natives. But most of the Natives in the Northwest had decided not to join in. So the Natives who did fight with the Metis were mainly from a nearby reserve, a reserve that was led by Chief One Arrow in times of peace.
Fine Day was still in charge of Poundmaker's camp, so he led them towards Batoche. But, many of the Cree were reluctant to join the Metis, so they found ways to delay their progress.
First, a Cree fell from his horse and appeared so badly injured that they did not want to move him. A bit later, a pregnant woman appeared to go into labor, so there was another delay. A bit later, a child got lost and this required a time consuming search.
The following evening, the warriors came across an unguarded supply train of 20 wagons and which was headed for Battleford. They quickly captured the drivers and took the supplies.
When the Assiniboines got the drivers as prisoners, they began yelling and became more excited and dangerous. Poundmaker rode into the milling group and demanded, "Do not lay a hand on one of these men." When the Assiniboines became quiet, Poundmaker promised the prisoners they would be kept safe as long as they did not try to escape.
When the Cree heard that the Metis had been defeated, they stopped heading for Batoche. Poundmaker watched as a letter was prepared and then sent to Middleton. It asking about peace terms and told Middleton where they were camped. Middleton responded with a letter demanding that Poundmaker give himself up at Battleford on May 26th.
* * * *
Most of what follows in this box was taken from Norma Sluman's book Poundmaker. As you read this, keep in mind that although Sluman researched a lot of original documents (which I have not had time to verify), she admits that her book is dramatized. So although what she states is consistent with the characters involved, it may not be totally accurate.
On May 26, the Cree loaded all their guns into two wagons and then quietly went into Fort Battleford. A huge crowd of settlers, townspeople, police, and soldiers had gathered and watched as the Cree entered the fort. They were greeted with formal hand-shaking.
Middleton came out and Poundmaker offered to shake hands. But, Middleton refused and turned to the side and said, "Tell him I don't shake hands with rebels." Middleton was an army General, so he was not the most diplomatic White man to deal with.
As Poundmaker sat down, in the background, Grass Woman called out, "Will you let him insult you so - that fat - "
Poundmaker turned and shot back, "Stop that."
It looked like Middelton was waiting for Poundmaker to speak, so he rose and began. Poundmaker said that the Natives had fought only when their homes were attacked, that the killing and stealing was done by individuals for their own reasons, that food was taken only so they could keep alive, and that they had treated the prisoners well.
Middleton responded, "Is it customary for your people to go around pilfering like rats?"
Poundmaker: "It is hard to say who pillaged and burned stores and houses."
Middleton: "Do you deny that you fought the troops?"
Poundmaker: " . . . We fought the troops when we ourselves were attacked."
Middleton: "Why did you promise Riel two hundred men?"
Poundmaker: "I made no such promise. If I had I would have sent them."
Middleton: "You are a liar."
Poundmaker: " . . . . I never promised. My answer to Riel was that I did not want to go."
Middleton: "You told Riel you would join him, then like a squaw you were afraid."
Poundmaker: "I am sorry, but I know in my heart the kind of man I am."
Middleton: "Then why did you attack at Cut Knife?"
Poundmaker looked around before he replied: "We were sleeping quietly when they fired on my camp. I'm sorry to have to say so much. I thought when the message came from you we were going to make peace so I tried hard to come on time. We gave ourselves up entirely and gave up all the guns that we had. If I saw anything wrong in the things we have done, we would not have come."
Others spoke up. Then, one of the old Cree women cried out, "You must extend mercy to our starving people!"
Middleton responded: "We do not listen to women."
Poundmaker stood up and said, "Then why do you obey the Queen?" In the tense crowd there was a gasp, then a little laughter.
Middleton became angry and directed some of what he said to the crowd:The Indians, even Poundmaker here who has been so well treated, rose and robbed because they thought the Whites were in difficulty. All around, you attacked stores and killed men and women . . . . and if they had beaten us, they would have gone on plundering and would have committed more murders . . . . Now when they find the head rebel Riel and the half-breeds beaten, they come in because they are afraid and tell all sorts of lies and beg for peace.
In spite of feeling deeply hurt, Poundmaker maintained self control. He knew that this was not the time to argue. Soon, Middleton finished and then read out four names. The four natives came forward and sat beside Poundmaker.
Then, another came forward and said, "I am the man who shot Payne. Cut me to pieces if you wish. But consider my children."
Then another came forward and said, "I shot Tremont while he was greasing his wagon. Take me." Handcuffs were put on the seven and they were taken to the guard room.
A priest that knew Poundmaker was allowed into the guard room to talk to him. Poundmaker complained that he had been called a pilfering rat, a murderer, a liar, and a coward. He now felt shamed and insulted, and it had been done in front of his people.
The Battle of Frenchman Butte (May 28):
Meanwhile, a force marched north from Calgary to face Big Bear's band. They weren't dressed like troops, so when reports got to Wandering Spirit, he guessed that they were allies coming from the United States. But soon Wandering Spirit got reports that troops were coming from both the east and west. As he faced reality, he became subdued and depressed.
At this time, Wandering Spirit visited some White prisoners. He asked them, "What would your God do to a man who had done what I did?" A woman hesitated, then said that that person would be punished for his sins. They noticed that Wandering Spirit's hair was quickly turning gray.
As the soldiers came to a coulee near Frenchman Butte, in the distance they spotted some rifle pits on a ridge which overlooked the trail. From the opposite side of the coulee, they opened fire with a cannon. The Cree began firing back. The cannon soon found the range. That morning, three Cree were wounded and one was killed.
The soldiers went into the wide coulee and tried to attack, but struggled to advance through a marshy area. Beyond the marsh, there was no cover, so it was too dangerous to advance. The few that did found themselves to be easy targets for the Cree who were hidden above in rifle pits. Three soldiers were wounded.
Some of the troops tried circling to the left, but Wandering Spirit and a few warriers were able to follow them. They fired at the troops off and on, so the troops got the impression that the battle line extended further than they were willing to go. Part of the problem was that there was a lot of bush in the area which was too dense for the horses to go through.
After about three hours of fighting, the soldiers decided that it would be safest to withdraw. There was a report of firing at their horses and wagons behind them and they feared running out of supplies. Meanwhile, the Cree withdrew and headed north.
The Battle at Loon Lake (June 3):
The Cree headed through rugged country. It was difficult, and the prisoners were starving. One prisoner reported that her mother became hysterical and insisted that she would not walk another step. She said that "There were murmurs among the Indians, yes, they all agreed, matters had gone too far. Every effort was made for Mother's care. Indians began running to us with little gifts of food, some flour, dried meat, and tea. We rested and ate while the Indians themselves were starving. . . ."
When the Cree reached Loon Lake, they stopped to rest. An eight year old White boy later reported that he heard one of the Chiefs, Little Poplar, outline his plans:
After resting in the wilderness, Little Poplar said the Indians would emerge and capture Battleford and Prince Albert, killing all the Whites. After that, they would take a steam paddle-wheeler down the river and across the big lake to Winnipeg. Here they would join the Metis and kill all the Whites. Then they would take a train to Montreal, kill all the Whites there and, finally, take a big boat to England and kill everybody there.
Obviously, Little Poplar did not have as much understanding of the White man's world as Big Bear and a few of the other chiefs.
The next morning, 47 White troops, known as Steele's Scouts caught up to the Natives. At ten o'clock in the morning, they attacked. One group of Steele's Scouts went through the Cree camp, hoping to set the White captives free, and the other group cleared the Cree off a nearby hill. There was fierce fighting. A bit later, from another hill, Wandering Spirit encouraged his warriors to attack. But many of the Natives had little impact on the fighting because they were short of amunition and were firing stones. The fighting gradually died down as the Natives retreated into the safety of the bush.
Earlier, many of the Natives and their captors had already crossed a ford on Loone Lake. Others, including a White prisoner were able to cross during the battle. The Natives on the far side of the ford fired at Steele's Scouts. But they were too far away to have much imact. This was the last battle in the Rebellion.
It has been recorded that five Cree were killed. But the one group of Steele's Scouts claimed they killed five and the other group claimed an additional seven. While none of Steele's Scouts died, seven of them were wounded bad enough so they needed medical attention. As well, during the turmoil, for various reasons, three Natives were murdered.
The Natives moved further through the bush. One of the prisoners described seeing Wandering Spirit at this time. She reported that:
We saw, coming down the south hill, Wandering Spirit, a sad and dejected figure. His hair when we first knew him was jet black; but now it was almost white. [He was about 40 at the time.]
A little later, the Cree found out from their scouts that the White soldiers were coming from all directions. The Cree let their prisoners loose. Some of the Cree circled back to Fort Pitt where they gave themselves up. Wandering Spirit had joined this group because he had also decided to give himself up. A few of the others headed to safety in the United States.
Big Bear was able to elude the soldiers. He traveled for a hundred miles with his twelve year old son and a councillor. It was July 2nd when he entered a camp near Fort Carlton looking for food. The police were called and he was taken prisoner.
Eleven Natives were tried for murder. Eight of them, including Wandering Spirit were hung.
Chiefs Poundmaker, One Arrow, and Big Bear were all put on trial.
Even though One Arrow was an old man, it was believed he was at Batoche, so he was put on trial. A long and complex set of charges were read to the court. One Arrow's translator struggled. He then informed One Arrow that he was accused of "knocking off the Queen’s bonnet and stabbing her in the behind with a sword."
But, it appears the translator had made an honest mistake. The record shows that what was read included the word bayonets, and then it continued with the statement that One Arrow " did levy and make war against our said Lady the Queen.... her Crown and dignity."
[Here are the exact words of the charge; they will
help you understand why the translator got it wrong.]
It read that One Arrow:together with divers other evil-disposed persons to the said Alexander David Stewart unknown, armed and arrayed in a warlike manner, that is to say with guns, rifles, pistols, bayonets and other weapons, being then wickedly and feloniously assembled and gathered together against our said Lady the Queen, most wickedly and feloniously did levy and make war against our said Lady the Queen . . . and against the peace of our said Lady the Queen, her Crown and dignity.
The jury returned a guilty verdict. The judge then said he had to punish One Arrow to "make the other Indians of the country know what would become of them if they follow your bad example." He then sentenced One Arrow to three years in jail.
* * * *
At Poundmaker's trial, the key evidence was a letter which called for war and was sent to Louis Riel. Poundmaker had been there when the letter was written and it appeared that he had allowed his name to be signed on it along with a number of others. This was the main reason why Poundmaker was convicted.
When Poundmaker was sentenced to three years in penitentiary, he stated, "I would rather prefer to be hung than to be in that place."
* * * *
At Big Bear's trial, they had a number of witnesses who were supportive of Big Bear. They had been there and had been prisoners of Big Bear's band. All of their evidence was going to be supportive of Big Bear, so the lawyer decided not to call all of the witnesses because he did not want to bore the jury. In his view, the evidence showed the government ought to be thanking Big Bear for his efforts during the rebellion.
Although Big Bear had always called for peace, he had been present when the killing happened. Although he did not have control over his braves when the warrior lodge took over, the White people could not believe he was innocent. The jury was confused over how to apply the law, but still, it only took them fifteen minutes to find Big Bear guilty.
Just before sentencing, Big Bear made a two hour speech. One newspaper reporter recorded parts and called it an eloquent address. This is a small part of it:
Your Lordship, I am Big Bear, Chief of the Crees. The North West was mine. It belonged to me and to my tribe. For many, many moons I ruled it well. . . .
I am old; my face is ugly; my heart is on the ground. In future this land will be ruled by White men with handsome faces. . . .
When White men were few in this land, I gave them my hand in friendship. No man can ever be witness to any act of violence by Big Bear to any White man. Never did I take the White man's horse. Never did I order any one of my people to one act of violence against the White man. . . .
I ask for pardon and help for my tribe. They are hiding in the hills and trees now afraid to come to White man's government. When the cold moon comes the old and feeble ones, who have done no wrong, will perish. Game is scarce. . . .
Because I am Big Bear, Chief of the Crees. Because I have always been a friend of the White man. Because I have always tried to do good for my tribe. I plead with you now; send help and pardon to my people.
Unfortunately, another newspaper reporter wrote that Big Bear's long speech was "more or less laughable."
Father Andre wrote a letter to the Archbishop which criticized the Regina juries. It stated, "The jurymen are all Protestants, enemies of the Metis and the Indians, against whom they maintain bitter prejudices."
All three chiefs had been sentenced to three years in prison.
When Poundmaker was taken to the prison near Winnipeg, crowds gathered to see him pass by. He was lucky because his looks and his humble pride had impressed the White public and the press. When in prison, the visitors who came only wanted to see Poundmaker. Poundmaker spent some of his time working in the garden.
When Poundmaker became sick, there was a lot of sympathy for him, and petitions were sent to Ottawa. He had a cough and was not eating properly. At this time, there was a lot of unrest on the reserves and some feared that more fighting would break out if Poundmaker died in prison.
After six months, Poundmaker was released from prison. The Warden at the penitentiary gave him a new gold watch when he left. Poundmaker was placed on a train headed west so he could return to his reserve. When he arrived in Regina a number of White men were waiting to greet him.
After Poundmaker got back to his reserve, he still had a cough and he remained thin and weak. Although he was not healthy, he was anxious to travel to see Crowfoot, his adopted father, and to get his advice. He soon went into Battleford to get a permit which would allow him to travel off his reserve.
Poundmaker did complete his journey, and although he was very tired, he talked to Crowfoot. After a rest, Poundmaker wanted to speak to all the Blackfoot. When he spoke to them, he felt weak and struggled to breathe. He had a pain in his chest, but tried to keep talking. Then, he had a lung hemorrhage and died. Poundmaker was 44 years old.
* * * *
One Arrow, a feeble old man spent some of his time working in the shoemaker's shop. But after a number of months, he became sick. After seven months in jail he was released, and soon after that he died.
* * * *
That summer, thirty-one of the forty-five rebels were released under the Prime Minister's general amnesty even though some had been sentenced for up to ten years.
Meanwhile, Big Bear was ignored by everyone, so he remained in jail. Big Bear spent some of his time working in the carpentry shop.
When Big Bear pleaded to be set free, the Saskatchewan Herald reported that Big Bear had always refused to move when he was asked to, so now that he was in prison, he should be made to not move. In the fall, Big Bear was refused parole.
In January he was admitted to prison hospital after becoming sick and having fainting spells. Since the White people did not want to have him die in prison, he was soon released.
They put him on the train to Regina and when he arrived, he had to wait so he could catch a ride on a wagon with a shipment of freight that was heading north. It took a month from when he was released before he was unloaded at the Little Pine reserve. Here, his daughter, Earth Woman, made a place for him.
Later, when Big Bear had a visitor, he just sat there, a tired and broken old man. His wife and most of his family had deserted him. Finally he said, "... My heart is broken. All I can think of is my past deeds and the misfortunes which have happened to me. I have had a hard time. My sons have gone to the States. I am alone."
Big Bear had failed in his efforts to save his people and had been rejected by his wife, most of his family, his band, and by society. He was no longer a chief, did not have a reserve, and his band and family was now scattered across the North-West and Montana.
He had to spend his last few months on Poundmaker's reserve where he died in his sleep in January of 1888, at the age of 62.
Unfortunately, I have not had time to research original documents. This account therefore relies on my judgment and the accuracy of the authors of the books in this bibliography.
Barnett, Donald C. Poundmaker. (The Canadians series),Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, Don Mills, 1976.
Beal, Bob, and Rod Macleod. Prairie Fire. Hurtig Publishers Ltd., Edmonton, 1984.
Brown, Wayne F. Steele's Scouts: Samuel Benfield Steele and the North-West Rebellion. Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd., Surrey, 2001.
Dempsey, Hugh A. Big Bear. The end of freedom. Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., Vancouver, 1984.
Fryer, Harold. Frog Lake Massacre. (Frontier Books) Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd., Surrey, 1984.
Miller, J.R. Big Bear (Mistahimusqua). E C W Press, Toronto, 1996.
Sluman, Norma. Poundmaker. McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, Toronto, 1967.
Tanner, Ogden. The Canadians. Time-Life Books Inc., Alexandria, Virginia, 1977.
Weibe, Rudy and Beal, Bob, ed.. War in the West. Voices of the 1885 Rebellion. McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1985.
Web site by: The Northwest Rebellion Digitization Team, Poundmaker. Big Bear. University of Saskatchewan.
Photographs originate with Glenbow-Alberta Institute (Poundmaker: use authorized 1/12/99)and National Archives of Canada (Big Bear: authorization pending).
back to Part 1 of Poundmaker, Big Bear, and the 1885 Rebellion.
Questions? Suggestions? Comments.
Since January 10, 2001 .