Wresting the West from Riel

CHARLES MAIR September 1 1923

Wresting the West from Riel

CHARLES MAIR September 1 1923

Wresting the West from Riel


How many Canadians who know the name of Charles Mair realize that he is still lining—not merely an historical figure!

Charles Mair reached the Red River Settlement in 1868, one year after Confederation, to was the first permanent and practical step of the first Dominion Government to connect the East with the West and to eneourage immigration.

He was one of the little band of loyal Canadians who oppesd Riel in the first Red River rebellioni in 1869, and was imprisoned for weeks in Fort Garry. He had a mirceaulous eseape from Fort Garry prison, and thenee over the great, snowbound wilderness to Eastern Canda.

He wrote the first Utters describing the Red iter Settlement, to the Montreal Gazette and tronío Globe in 1868 and 1S69. He predicted * extinction of the buffalo. He is the author of Tecumseh, a drama of the il. which, in Canadian literature, as yet has it a rirai. He is the first great Canadian poet the nature school, his volume, “Dreamland’” •.ring been published i« 1S6S. He is now eighty-four years of age, residing Calgary, Alberta, and is planning to write his emoirs, which will be an immensely valuable storieal record of those early days.

L'OR many days I had been travelling by * stage, team and democrat along the road that led to the River Settlement. Eagerly I had been scanning the road, hoping that each cloud of dust discerned in the level distance ahead would be the surveyor’s party that had preceded me from Ottawa.

It was in the fall of 1868 and this advance party had been commissioned by Canada’s first government to survey and map out a road, which would be the first link to connect the East with what was then the great unknown West. It was to be the first “Immigrant” road, built from the little village of

Point du Chene, thirty miles east of Winnipeg, to the Lake of the Woods, thence connecting by Rainy River and a chain of lakes and rivers with the famous Dawson road, built from Lake Shebandewan to Lake Superior.

The only signs of life along the trail were the trains of Red River cart? that, filled with supplies, creaked and jolted on to St. Paul from the little village of Winnipeg.

I was eager to overtake the party ahead, because it was imperative that work on the road should be started at once, for that was one of the means of livelihood for a starving community.

A singular number of misfortunes seemed to have descended upon that little band of inhabitants in that primitive settlement of Red River.

The grasshoppers had eaten every blade of their crop the previous summer. They were as flakes of snow in the air and on the ground. Every green thing begot by man’s toil disappeared before them.

The buffalo didn’t range north of the Missouri, and the fishery was, if not a complete, at least a partial failure.

Thus the main sources of livelihood had been snatched from the people. These misfortunes added to the fact that the settlement was cut off from the nearest railway by a wilderness of hundreds of miles, meant that help was needed and needed at once.

That wa3 the condition of the Red River settlement in the fall of ’88, one year after the great birthday of Canada —one year after Confederation.

Taking Over the H. B. Co.

/^\NE of the first act3 of the new Dominion Government was to make plans for taking over Prince Rupert’s land from the Hudson’3 Bay Company. It was the Hon. Wm. McDougall, member for North Lanark, that farvisioned statesman, who had had this provision of transference set forth in the British North America Act. It was he, in company with Sir George Cartier, who had gone to England to negotiate for the transfer—for there was much opposition from the Hudson’s Bay Company, both in the North West Territories and in England, and at one time it looked 23 though the whole matter would be thrown into litigation.

Very little was known of the Red River Settlement at that time. It was a vast, uncultivated solitude roamed over by Indian, fur trader and bison, and known only to a few explorers, missionaries and English sportsmen.

To the Canadian farmers generally it was a sealed book, yet one they were eager to open, if only satisfied as to its

value, for, strange to say, many eastern business men talked slightingly of the country and discouraged emigration, even after Manitoba became a province.

It was essential that this prejudice should be dispelled and the country be made known by everyone who could use a pen. So it was arranged that I should contrib-

ute a series of letters to the Canadian Press, written not from hearsay, but from actual knowledge, and that these should be published in the best available channels at the time—the Toronto Globe and the Montreal Gazette.

I was undecided at first, but the appointment was so earnestly concurred in, especially by my fellow members of the “Canada First Association,” that I accepted it.

Thus I found myself those crisp fall days of ’68, speeding on to the great unknown West.

On arriving at Fort Abercrombie, a United States Military post some three hundred miles south of Winnipeg, great was my delight to find that the road party was there.

Thence we travelled on the Red River trail, along the Upper Red River, arriving in Winnipeg in November in a blinding snow storm. At that time Winnipeg was a little village about half a mile from Fort Garry. Main Street was but a great muddy cart track following the Red River.

Immediately we engaged two hundred men and began operations at Pointe du Chene, where the prairie ended and the forest began, and where there was a small French half-breed settlement and a few French-Canadians engaged in farming.

At this time the buffalo had retreated southward and were threatened with speedy extinction. Formerly they were inconceivably numerous. In 1868 James McKay, the well-known Red River half-breed trader and hunter, told me that some ten years before he had travelled with ponies for twenty days through a continuous herd, and on all sides, as far as he could see, the prairies were black with animals. As Summer advanced the Saskatchewan herds moved north and, as winter came, left the prairie.

Ten Thousand Animals Mired

XTOTHING could stop the migratory progress of the -*■ ' herd. By night as well as by day it swept onward in living torrents, which no obstacles could turn from their paths. In crossing the precipitous banks of the two Saskatchewans, there were often scenes of frightful destruction, the rear hordes pushing the vanguard over with irresistible force. Myriads perished by falling through the rotten ice, and Sir George Simpson mentions having seen 10,000 animals mired at a single ford. In the spring migration, the bulls and cows formed into files, the cows taking the leads, and all went south, invariably following the old paths, multitudes of which are worn deep into the soil by centuries of use.

It was not, in fact, until the construction of the first

Pacific Railway that a serious inroad was made on their numbers. The building of the railway and the subsequent extension of the Northern Pacific line rang the death-knell of the buffalo.

Immense numbers, it is true, had been annually slaughtered in the great plain hunt of River half which

organized in the early part of the nineteenth century and continued in full force down to about 1869, after which began to languish.

In due time the pot hunting gave way to hide hunting, which was found to be more profitable, and then the

havoc became truly stupendous. It is estimated that in three years nearly six million animals were destroyed. One Winter a man could go along Frenchman River for fifty miles by simply jumping from one carcass to another.

Considering facts of this kind, it is not surprising that some small herds in government parks now represent the great myriads which, a little more than half a century ago, blackened the plains as a thunder cloud darkens the sky.

Indeed, there is perhaps no fact in the natural history of America which brings such reproach on civilized man as the reckless and almost total destruction of the bison!

Riel Trouble Brewing

ALL the winter of ’68 we worked upon the - immigrant road, and in 1869 Hon. W. McDougall and Sir George E. Cartier, Dominion Government commissioners, were successful in their negotiations with the Hudson’s Bay Company, and in 1869 that Company relinquished its charter in consideration of receiving a cash indemnity of £300,000 sterling, one-twentieth of the lands as surveyed and reservations around each of its principal posts.

It was then that trouble began to brew. At that time there were from some 10,000 to 12,000 inhabitants in the Red River colony (apart from Indians), a large proportion of

them being English and French half-breeds.

In transferring the government of the country from the Hudson’s Bay Company, these people were never consulted and not even notified that such a change was in contemplation. This was taken as a slight, and the French half-breeds became fearful of their rights, for under the old Hudson’s Bay surveys the settlers held leaseholds from the company for their long, narrow farms, two miles in length, each with its river frontage.

There was at that time living in the settlement a young French half-breed named Louis Riel, of considerable natural talent as an orator and with a fairly liberal education for one in his station. Bishop Tache had sent him to Montreal to be educated for the priesthood, but he had not gone on with it. He was a born agitator, and he made most of the golden opportunity of the fear of the half breeds.

Speaking of the Canadian Government he said: “They have ignored our aspirations and our existence as a people. Forgetting the rights of nations and our rights as British subjects, they seek to impose a new government upon us without consulting us.”

With a simple, ignorant people it was but a short step from mere excitement to open, armed rebellion.

Riel and his insurgents resented the road building. They claimed that the Canadian Government had no right to make surveys through the territory without the permission of the people themselves.

At this time, too, a great happiness had come into my life. I had met a very beautiful young woman, Elizabeth Louise MacKenney, from Ontario, who was visiting an uncle and aunt, Dr. and Mrs. Schultz. In September, 1869, we were married and left Red River on our wedding trip to go to St. Paul, to meet Hon. Wm. McDougall, who was appointed the first lieutenant-governor of the North West Territories. We planned to return with him and his party.

Thus in the Fall of 1869 began my second journey to Red River. On October 30 we reached Pembina and proceeded to the Hudson’s Bay post, just across the international boundary. There Mr. McDougall received an insolent letter from Riel, forbidding him to enter the country. He paid no attention to this, and the party remained at the Hudson’s Bay post until the arrival of some thirty half-breeds under command of Ambrose Lepine, Riel’s so-called adjutant, who ordered the governor’s party off.

Unfortunately, the transfer of the Hudson’s Bay

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Company had been postponed without Mr. McDougall’s knowledge, and great trouble ensued in consequence. He, in conjunction with his friends, proceeded to establish his authority, but later he was driven across the line. On December 18 he returned to Ottawa.

However, if the governor’s party was not allowed to go on, both Mrs. Mair

and I determined to proceed. Lepine allowed us to pass, but we were stopped at St. Norbert, where we were taken prisoners, but after four days were released.

Fort Garry in Grip of Rebels

ARRIVING at Fort Garry, we found ■ it in possession of the rebels. In a very short time the rebellion took aggressive shape, and the seventy loyal Canadians who had collected in Dr. Schultz’s home were surrounded by Riel and his men and, provisions giving out, were forced to surrender.

We were then imprisoned in Fort Garry, and during the weeks that followed, although within the same walls, we were only allowed to see each other twice.

My wife had tried to leave the fort but was brought back.

On the last occasion I told her that Riel had intimated to me that I was to be shot, and I suggested that she should also make another effort to get away from Fort Garry, for in the event of my success in escaping she would likely be held as a hostage.

After that, she was allowed to leave the fort, and took shelter with intimate friends, the Drever family, prominent loyalists, during the rebellion.

Very brutally, a few evenings before, Riel had ordered me out from my cell and told me that I was to be shot. Immediately on my return I called some of my fellow prisoners together, and told them that this murder would not be the only one, and we decided, if possible, to escape.

At first, all of us had been confined to Fort Garry, but owing to lack of accommodation a considerable number had been removed to the old Assiniboine gaol and courthouse, which consisted of eight cells, four on each side, lit by narrow lancet windows, each with an iron bar in the centre.

I occupied the first cell to the left in company with Lewis Archibald, a relative of the first governor of Manitoba, a Mr. Miller from B.C. and the unfortunate Thomas Scott.

The cell immediately opposite was occupied by Peter McArthur and three others and, as this cell faced the eastern stockade in which a post was missing— leaving a gap through which a man could pass—it was decided to make the escape through it.

A file had been smuggled in to us and Mr. McArthur had secretly cut his bar from its holdings, so that it could be taken out when required. Even then the opening was so narrow that probably one prisoner would have to remain, as those who escaped had to be shoved through by main force, and lit on their heads on the snow outside—some without their coats.

The night chosen was a dark and bitterly cold one in January, 1870, and the time chosen was the changing of the guards at midnight. Those who had been on sentry-go were warming themselves at the guard-room stove, while the relief was reluctantly dressing to go out, and this psychological moment was taken advantage of by the prisoners.

The court-room, which was used by the rebels as their guard-room, was in the southend, while the cells were in the north and, fortunately, the windows were obscured by a thick frost.

One by one into that bitter night we were thrust through the little opening. Each prisoner on getting out of the stockade took the direction that pleased himself, several heading for the woods on the Assiniboine River. Very soon, however, owing to the excitement and noise which arose in the prison, the guards got wind of the escape, and the building, being situated close to the north-west angle of the fort, Riel’s whole force was soon in pursuit. The poor fellows blundering in the dark were nearly all recaptured and brought back to Fort Garry, most of them badly frost-bitten, and there subjected to the cruelest abuse.

I was the third to get out. Without coat or cap, after an instant’s reflection,

I started down what is now Main Street, leading down from the fort to the little village of Winnipeg. My objective point was the house of a loyalist friend, William Drever—a venture which, seemingly reckless, was greatly favored by the bitterly cold and dark night, which

combined to keep Riel’s guards in the little village under shelter.

A Narrow Escape

HERE I was supplied by Mr. Drever with a half-breed capote-cap and mittens and, after a very brief interview with my wife, who had been allowed to remain at the home of Mr. Drever’s father, I set off at once—for the lights were now dancing around Fort Garry— in that intensely cold night for the loyal settlement of Portage la Prairie.

En route I met Lepine and a band of rebels, who shouted after me “Arret.” But I went on pretending not to hear and, fortunately, they did not stop me, supposing me to be a half-breed going to trade at Lane’s post.

At Portage la Prairie, in conjunction with the people of High Bluff and Poplar Point, secret meetings were held, and a force organized with Major Boulton, an old officer of the 100th regiment, in command, to take Fort Garry by surprise, release the prisoners, who were now being badly treated, and restore the Queen’s authority. Our party, which was well-armed and equipped with ladders and torches, would in all likelihood have captured the fort without much bloodshed, as all within it were celebrating Riel’s election as “President,” and nearly all were drunk.

This well-considered scheme, however, was frustrated by one of the most sudden and frightful blizzards of that Winter and, stumbling upon Headingly mission church, the party was held there for three or four days.

Riel Surrenders Prisoners

BUT this determined party of British, natives and Canadians had not come so far for nothing, and emissaries were despatched in the storm—two or three intrepid men, including Murdoch MacLeod, now of Edmonton—to visit the parishes below Fort Garry, and sound the people there as to their intentions. A messenger returned with the word that the people of these parishes would join the Portage men in a demand for relief of the prisoners, failing which they would unite in an attack upon the fort.

Instantly the whole party got under way and, marching past Fort Garry during the night, reached Kildonan in the morning, and were joined by 700 well-armed loyalists with a cannon. Headed by Dr. Schultz, a peremptory demand was made upon Riel for the release of the prisoners, which was acceded to with very little delay, for Riel was now thoroughly alarmed and his men reported to be insubordinate.

The “Portage party,” as it was called, and many others now decided upon attacking the fort, and thus restore British authority and the rule of the British flag.

There was a difference of opinion, however, with regard to this; particularly in Kildonan, where the whole force was quartered. Just at this juncture the capture of the spy, Parisien, who, in endeavoring to escape, murdered young Sutherland of that parish, brought matters to a crisis, so that by nightfall, through the entreaty, largely of terrified women, the whole Red River force disbanded, leaving the Portage party alone and more than sixty miles from home. These found their way to Redwood, the residence of Wm. Inkster, now Drewery’s brewery, at dusk, and were joined there shortly afterwards by a Mr. Setter, a brother-in-law of the late Premier Norquay, a Mr. Ogletree of the Portage, Win. B. Hall, a Mr. McDonald of Headingly, and myself.

We found on arrival at Redwood that the party had been negotiating through a man of doubtful sympathies known as “Flatboat McLane,” for an unmolested passage by Fort Garry to the portage. He reported that this had been promised by Riel. Rightly mistrusting any such promise, I urged the party—of wfiom Thomas Scott was one—to strike out at once and follow us. They were too weary, however, and said that they would first have a nap and then follow our trail.

Setter, Ogletree, Hall, McDonald and I then left and struck several miles out on the prairie north of the fort; each in turn breaking the path, for we had no snow shoes. Setter and I separated from the others at St. James, the other three following the river. After a narrow escape while in hiding at Headingly

where we procured snow-shoes, we struck ten miles back on the prairie, reaching the portage in safety.

While there I obtained the fastest team possible and sent for my wife in Winnipeg. Disguised as a man in a halfbreed capote, cap and sash, she ran the gauntlet of Riel’s guards, and joined me later at the portage.

The party at Redwood, however, instead of waking at midnight, slept until morning, and following our broken trail were intercepted by an armed band, headed by the Fenian O’Donohue, who said they had been sent out to ask them to come over to the fort for a quiet talk and hospitality.

This base deceit unfortunately prevailed and upon entering the fort, the whole party was, of course, immediately disarmed and imprisoned. Boulton was condemned to death and reprieved; and then Scott was condemned to death and shot by a firing party, but not immediately killed. He lay for hours in a bastion of the fort, suffering mortal agony and imploring them to put him to death. This brutal and barbarous murder is an indelible stain upon the character of Riel and his associates, which—fifteen years later—cost Riel his life.

As soon as we arrived at the portage I determined to go back to Canada as speedily as possible. So taking Setter with me, we started with two guides and a couple of dog trains. We crossed the Assiniboine, and thence traversed the great plains of Dakota to Fort Abercrombie, the whole country being a howling wilderness. Our pemmican gave out, except a meagre portion reserved for the dogs, and our party subsisted for several days upon a little flour, which, mixed with snow, was converted into a paste over the fire. We had nothing to smoke but oak bark, which in a pinch was a very good substitute for tobacco.

This treasure trove we found at the headwaters of Turtle River, which we struck and followed down, not knowing its name until we reached its junction with the Red River.

En route we had overtaken Dr. Lynch and William Drever, they having come up the Red River trail, and we all went on together.

A singular coincidence was the arrival of Dr. Schultz at St. Paul, not long after our arrival there, he having escaped on snow-shoes by Rainy River and Duluth. We must have been at one time 700 or 800 miles apart, both parties travelling on snowshoes and arriving almost at the same time. We all went on to Toronto together.

In Toronto it was found that the whole province of Ontario was deeply moved by the rebel outrages at Red River and the death of Scott. Dr. Schultz and I addressed immense audiences in that city and elsewhere in the province. Excitement and indignation swelled into a furore, and wrought in such salient shape throughout the country that an expedition was decided upon by the Dominion Government. This, of course, was the expedition so successfully led by Wolseley, which brought relief to the oppressed loyalists of Red River.