THE RIDDLE OF LOUIS RIEL
A MACLEAN'S FLASHBACK IN TWO PARTS
In four days’ fighting one thousand of the Queen’s men defeated the two hundred rebels entrenched at Batoche, Sask., and ended Canada’s last major insurrection. Seventy years later its controversial leader is still flailed as a traitor and hailed as a patriot
W. O. MITCHELL
ON THE NIGHT of March 29, 1885, the sleeping citizens of Toronto and other Eastern towns and cities were awakened by the shrill high bugle call of assembly announcing that out in the Saskatchewan north, which they knew only as a land of buffalo, Indians, halfbreeds. Mounted Police and gophers, a forty-year-old métis by the name of Louis Riel had led his followers in an armed insurrection near Duck Lake. The Mounted Police forces of Superintendent Crozier had been almost wiped out. Louis Riel, Red River boy, ex-member of parliament, once president for a few months of the Red River settlement, executioner of Thomas Scott, and onetime Montana schoolteacher, was at war with the Dominion of Canada.
To his people, the descendants of the fur traders and the buffalo hunters, in whose veins coursed the wild blood of the Sioux and the Cree and the Blackfoot, he had been the founder fifteen years before of the new province of Manitoba. To Sir John A. Macdonald and his followers he was a
political thorn and an annoying conscience, which had forced the Dominion government after years of hopeless petitioning to pay attention to the grievances of métis and white settlers in the northwest.
Now the métis had an answer to their “bill of rights” asking for provincial status, title to their land, a fair deal for the Indians: five thousand men under General Frederick Middleton, leaving for the northwest to “protect the lives and honor of women who had been exposed to the savage lawlessness of the Indians of the plains.”
In the shoes and stockings they had worn as salesmen, clerks, students, factory workers, teachers, piano tuners, waiters, carpenters, farmers, they marched across the ice at the head of Lake Superior.
Riel’s new antagonist and head of the newly formed Canadian militia was a walrus-mustached man in his sixties, educated in Royal Military College, Sandhurst, who had fought against the Maoris in New Zealand, marched to the relief of
Lucknow, served in Burma, and had almost won a Victoria Cross. General Middleton, who was stolidly stubborn and inclined to ignore the advice of others, alienated many officers in his northwest forces and, soon after going west, adopted a supercilious attitude toward the country
His first move toward restoring order in the northwest was to abolish drinking by his soldiers. “Let them drink hot tea,” he said.
His activities were well reported; with him traveled reporters from the Montreal Star, the Toronto Mail and Globe, the Winnipeg Free Press, Sun, and Times, and Massey’s Trip Hammer magazine. The St. Paul Pioneer Press was represented by a writer. The London Standard had sent G. A. Hent.y, whose boys’ books were the forerunners of those by Horatio Alger Jr.
The war to follow saw the use of a new weapon: the Gatling gun. It was accompanied by a representative of an American armament firm interested in giving it an authentic tryout.
Kiel and his council had their headquarters at Batoche, where they were kept well informed of the movements of Middleton and his army. The métis, quite aware of the gravity of their situation, prepared to defend themselves, a little puzzled all the same that the government \Vhich had refused for fifteen years to hear their grievances or to spend a moderate amount of money to come to their aid had now put out a great deal of money to come to tight them. Kiel’s forces numbered about three hundred and fifty, two hundred of thém adequately armed.
When Gabriel Dumont, Kiel’s military commander, realized Middleton’s army was moving slowly and ponderously toward them on foot, he
was jubilant. “Why, we’ll handle them just the way we do the buffalo,” he said. But the idea of mounted métis stampeding the Canadian soldiers, riding through them and picking them off one by one, was repugnant to Riel. Dumont argued: harass them during the night, avoid them but tire them, make prairie warfare, fall back always; demoralize the soldiers by keeping them from advancing in daylight and keeping them from sleep at night. But Riel had heard terrible news: there were Canadien troops in Middleton’s army. He would not allow the Indian warfare Dumont asked for, especially against their own kind.
“You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs,” said Dumont. “If you’d let me do
it my way, I’d begin by blowing up the railroads, then I’d attack the troops and never let them rest. We’re on our home ground but we’re so poorly armed that we ought to use every way we can.” Dumont was positive that in three days he could send Middleton back completely beaten. Riel won out; Middleton was permitted to get all the way to Fish Creek, eighteen miles from Batoche, without a shot being tired.
On the morning of April ‘24 reveille sounded just before daylight in Middleton’s camp; coyotes put noses to the sky and answered the buglers; the men stirred, breakfasted, struck tents, and loaded up for the march. Sixteen mounted scouts went ahead in skirmish Continued on page 41
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The Riddle of Louis Riel
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order. They came to a house with all its windows smashed, had just left the house when a volley of shots struck the trees in front of them. At the command, “Left wheel, gallop,” they charged down upon thirty mounted métis in the shelter of a bluff. The rebelsbolted for a ravine a hundred and fifty yirds distant, throwing themselves from their horses still rolling in a gallop The scouts dismounted, extended in skirmishing order and lay down.
“Fbe away, boys!” an officer yelled, “and lie close; never mind if you don’t see anything, fire!”
The Battle of Fish Creek had begun.
Dovn in the ravine the métis would pop up, take a snap shot, then blink from áght. Capt. H. G. Wise, who was sent back to hurry up the main force, had his horse shot from under him. Capt. Langford called out, “Major, I’m lit!” Two more troopers were wounded. Then Trooper D’Arcy Baker cried out, “Oh, Major, I’m hit!” as he received his death-wound bullet crashing imo his chest.
In 1he clear still morning the white puffs of smoke blossomed and hung before the brush that hid the métis. Riderless horses were scattered over the open ground, some struggling in death agony The wounded scouts did their best to crawl to the rear under the zip and ping of métis bullets whining overhead. With the main body came the roar of the cannon and the scream of bursting shells. A brave, brilliant in war paint, came out and danced in full view on the bank of the ravine; his dance ended in death with the whine of a bullet from Sgt. Stewart’s rifle.
With a force dwindling from one hundred and fifty to forty-seven through desertion the métis held at bay an army of one thousand from seventwenty in the morning to eight in the evening. Four had been killed, two wounded. Middleton’s losses had been ten killed, fifty wounded. On hearing this tally Dumont said: “Why, I think I’ve seen more than that dead in a prairie fire.” Dumont attributed the victory to Riel, who had stayed in Batoche, praying fervently with his arms out to form a cross. There was no doubt in the hearts of his métis followers that the Lord had heard.
A Gatling for the Church
For two weeks General Middleton waited after the Battle of Fish Creek until the steamer Northcote would arrive with supplies and Capt. Howard with his Gatling. The general explained the delay by ¡jointing out the necessity of getting his wounded to Saskatoon; actually after what had happened at Fish Creek he was not anxious to close with the métis until he had more reinforcements and the Gatling which he felt would give him an advantage he badly needed.
With his four cannon, his Gatling and nine hundred and seventeen soldiers Middleton marched on Batoche. Each man had started the day with a free cigar sent from a Montreal firm. A mile from the village the machine gun opened up on an unoccupied house, the river valley filled with smoke so that the soldiers were unable to see and the métis were warned of their approach. As they advanced the Gatling set fire to two more empty houses, then turned on a church a short distance above Batoche. From a house nearby three people came out waving a white handkerchief to inform the general that there was nobody there but two priests and a few women and children. The
general shook them kindly by the hand and continued his advance.
Dumont was ready. This prairie military genius who had spent his life as leader of the buffalo hunt, waging countless wars upon Indian enemies, had constructed rifle pits with ramparts of stone and poplar branches, stretching in a curve before the village. Outnumbered five to one the métis stopped Middleton’s army in their tracks and held them near the church. The first day’s skirmishing, which had begun at 9 a.m., ended at 7 p.m. The Gatling had fired three thousand rounds and wounded no one. The métis had killed two and wounded ten; Middleton’s army-—no score.
That night the elated métis knelt with Riel in prayer and thanked the Lord for the victory He had given them. Dumont and a picked group were not with the praying ones; in drizzling rain they kept up a long-range fire on the soldiers until darkness.
The second day of the Battle of Batoche, Sunday, May 10, began with cannon fire on the métis rifle pits. Howard cranked bullets from the Gatling for half an hour while Dumont and his men withheld their fire to save on their short supply of cartridges, only firing when Middleton’s men tried to rush them. From time to time they raised dummies which Howard riddled with bullets, astonished that the product he was testing for his armament firm was not more effective against human flesh.
At dusk the men were astounded to be assembled for church parade. Drawn up in lines, backs to the enemy, they were asked to raise their voices above the métis rifle shots in Rock of Ages. Patiently they listened to the minister, only turning away occasionally to take a snap shot at the sharpshooters. The sermon went doggedly on while men dropped occasionally with a bullet in the leg or shoulder. As the sermon ended the minister asked the men to sing Onward Christian Soldiers.
“To hell with Onward Christian Soldiers,” sang out an officer. “To the rifle pits, boys!”
The métis held Middleton’s army at bay until the fourth day when Middleton made his inevitable head-on charge and routed them by force of numbers. For the first time during the engagement the métis suffered losses: twelve dead, plus a little girl and a baby killed by the Gatling; three had been wounded. In half an hour Batoche had fallen.
To a Cell in Regina
After the charge, a short distance away in a bluff where they had fled, Riel and Dumont and a few men stood by their horses.
“What are we going to do?” Riel said. “We’re beaten.”
“You ought to have known that when we first took up arms we were beaten,” Dumont said. “There’s nothing left to do but die.” He proceeded to make two trips into Batoche, now held by the enemy, for blankets and dried meat and flour for the women and children, who had fled with the beaten métis.
To André Nault, Riel said: “Cousin, you ought to leave and try to make it across the border, but I’m going to give myself up. It’s me they want and when my enemies have me, they’ll be happy. Then my people will be unmolested and they’ll have justice. Let’s say good-by, Cousin.”
On May 15, Riel walked quietly up to three of Middleton’s scouts in a bluff not far from the village. The Saskatchewan Insurrection was virtually over.
On May 26, Riel’s Indian ally, Chief
Poundmaker, bright with paint, surrendered. He had saved the force of Middleton’s deputy, Col. Otter, from massacre by holding his eager warriors in check with a whip at the Battle of Cut Knife Creek. Two days later General Strange, another deputy, routed Big Bear—whose men were responsible for the Frog Lake massacre—with cannon fire at Frenchman’s Butte. Big Bear surrendered in July. The insurrection had cost twenty million dollars and the lives of thirty-nine soldiers and thirty métis.
Riel was sent by steamboat to Regina, placed in a cell in the Mounted Police barracks to await his trial. He was charged with being a “false traitor” and accused of full responsibility for the uprising.
The return of the troops to the east was a stirring event. Toronto spared nothing in its welcome: flags and
streamers whipped in the breeze; pictures of Middleton and his officers stared down from many places; spruce and cedar boughs grew from store fronts, window sills, lampposts, awnings and soldiers’ rifle barrels. One newspaper headline read: TORONTO WELCOMES HER BRONZED HEROES WITH HEARTY RINGING CHEERS AND SCATTERS FRESH FLOWERS BENEATH THEIR TIRED AND DUSTY FEET.
With uniforms faded and patched and dusty the troops marched down King Street past boys perched on lampposts and chimney tops. As they passed guns were fired, hand bells, horns and gongs sounded; the chimes of St. James Cathedral rang out. They handed out uniform buttons and cartridges to the women who broke into their lines; they autographed hardtack for souvenirs.
Four Gophers for Mother
Excited faces stared down at them. Ladies fainted; men of the 'Toronto Field Battery rode their horses at a gallop against the pressing crowd to keep the street clear. At the City Hall six hundred school children dressed in pure white welcomed them. All over the city, for ten cents, a new song could be bought: The Charge At Batoche, with music by Professor Barton Browne. BRAVE HEARTS, screamed one banner. HURRAH FOR CAPTAIN HOWARD AND THE GATLING CUN.
With them the men brought home their own souvenirs: bows and arrows, moccasins, Indian axes, feather headdresses, buffalo guns, several Indian tepees, two Indian ponies, a wild mallard duck, a pair of magpies, a Red River cart, a buffalo bull calf, and four gophers.
While the rejoicing was going on in the east the cause of the celebration was in his Regina cell, the light of day filtering through a grated window. In the solid square door was a peephole for the guard. Riel slept on a shelf like bed beside which stood a small table with a bottle of holy water and a piece of rock from the fountain of Notre Dame de Lourdes. Riel’s sister, Henriette -a nun—had sent it to him.
Soon after he arrived he asked Capt. Young, the officer in charge of his guard, if he might have some paper. Young brought him ten cents’ worth of notepaper and fifty cents’ worth of foolscap on which to write to his friends, his mother, his other relatives. Outside his cell the guards could hear the incessant scratch and whisper of his pen over foolscap. The sound stopped only for him to kneel by his bed and pray with a small statue of St. Joseph, the patron saint of the métis, clenched in his hand.
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His friends had not forgotten him. In Quebec a fund was raised for his defense; Charles Fitzpatrick and F. S. Lemieux were sent out as his counsel. Tried by an English jury in a countrystill upset by the loss of life and property and by the Indian depredations of the Saskatchewan trouble, the outcome of Riel’s trial was almost a foregone conclusion. Unsuccessful efforts were made to have him tried before the Supreme Court and in Lower Canada. A jury of six returned a verdic.t of guilty with a recommendation of mercy.
Before he was sentenced Riel made an impassioned and moving oration beginning with a prayer for himself, the magistrate, the jury and all others concerned in the trial.
Riel returned to his cell to hope, to write, and to pray. Father A. André, missionary to the northern métis, called on him daily. For one hour each afternoon two constables armed with loaded Winchesters took him out into the courtyard for exercise. Louis could walk by taking up the iron ball fastened by a chain to his ankles.
His prayers were for a reprieve. In the world outside petitions for pardon were presented to the Canadian government from England, France, Ireland, and the United States. Papers in the east changed front from time to time, swayed by the ebb and flow of popular feeling. Riel’s execution was demanded not so much for his doings at Batoche but for the death of Thomas Scott for which he had been pardoned and which had taken place fifteen years before. This aspect of the case was publicly defended in parliament by the minister of justice.
His incarceration had begun to tell on him. There was the continual worry about his wife, Marguerite, his daughter and his infant son, whom André Nault had taken to his mother’s house in St. Vital after the fall of Batoche. Marguerite was expecting another child. In August he received word that a baby son had been born to her. The child lived only two hours.
From his cell Riel wrote to a friend: “The sadness I feel in having my baby son taken away from me without being able to kiss him and cover him with tenderness, goes to the depth of my soul. At the same time, I thank God for having kept him alive for a few hours - long enough to be baptized . . .”
On Sept. 18 he wrote to his sister, Henriette, telling her he had been reprieved to Oct. 16. It was perhaps his last coherent bit of writing. His old hallucinations were returning.
Prayers in the Night
His cell was unheated and he was permitted to come out and sit next to the potbellied stove in the corridor for warmth. The chill off, he would retur-n to write and pray. His pen scribbled out the incoherent plans of Louis “David’’ Riel for slicing up the world politically. When he had divided up North America, Europe, South America to suit himself, he turned to the days of the week, working out more details in an earlier plan he had for substituting Christian names for the pagan Norse titles.
Out of the dark corner of his cell one afternoon a man seemed to appear before him. Riel recognized him instantly, for it was only fitting that the man who had plagued him all his life would visit him here. Sir John A. Macdonald had come to see him.
“The door is open to the south.” Sir John said to him. Then he pronounced Riel’s name the English way: “Real.”
Louis corrected him. so Sir John said I it again for him properly. “Riel,
Riel,” the Prime Minister rolled it around on his tongue. “What a glorious name. It rings like a silver bell.”
But Sir John, his bottle of wine in his hand, had dwindled and vanished back into the cell shadows, and Riel had more important work to do. All the planets of the universe, every one, were badly in need of renaming.
A further respite was granted the demented man till Nov. 10 while an appeal was heard before the privy council in England. It was dismissed and the execution set for Nov. 16. The British government was unalterably opposed to the execution being carried out. Queen Victoria had taken a personal interest in the hero of the métis, and she did not find hanging for a political crime pleasing. She caused dispatches to be sent to Governor-General Lord Lansdowne in favor of executive clemency. There was natural hesitanee at British interference in an affair which threatened to split the dominion racially and religiously.
The night before Nov. 16 Father André stayed with Riel in his cell, praying most of the night. “Do not fear,” Louis said, “I will not shame my friends or rejoice my enemies by dying like a coward. For fifteen years they have pursued me with their hatred and never yet have they made me flinch; today still less when they are léading me to the scaffold: and I am infinitely grateful to them for delivering me from this harsh captivity which is weighing on me . . . the thought of passing my life in an insane asylum or in a penitentiary, mingling with all the scum of society and obliged to submit to all insults, fills me with horror. I thank God for having spared me this trial and I accept death with joy and gratitude.”
A Crucifix and a Candle
Realization that his time had come had shocked Riel back to sanity. During the long hours of the night he wrote a letter to his mother; this had to serve as a letter to his wife as well, since she wqs illiterate:
“It is now two o’clock in the morning of this day, the last I am to pass upon this earth and Father André has told me to hold myself in readiness for the great event. I have listened to him and intend to do everything according to his desires and recommendations.
“God is holding me in His hand to keep me in peace and quietness, as oil is held in a vial, so none can disturb. 1 am doing what I can to be ready.”
Father André asked Riel not to make a speech from the gallows; it was a difficult promise he asked of the man whose sense of the dramatic had spell bound thousands in his lifetime. Finally, as the darkness of night was thinning in the small barred window of the cell, Riel agreed not to speak. He would instead bellow like a buffalo bull. Father André talked him out of this supreme gesture of defiance and victory which would have been fitting for the hero and martyr and descendant of the buffalo hunters of the plains.
As the daylight brightened relentlessly in the cell window they celebrated Mass. Another spiritual adviser, Father McWilliams, came in at seven
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o’clock, followed soon by the deputy sheriff, who stood awkwardly in the doorway. He remained there, silent, dread ini to make his announcement.
Riel vent to him. “Mr. Gibson,” he said quietly, “you want me. I am ready.”
Pale, the drops of perspiration quite visible on his forehead, dressed in a loose flannel shirt and grey tweed pants, Riel followed the deputy. The ten Mounted Police who had been on guard all night fell in line and the procession grew with the addition of Col. A.G. Irvine, Commissioner of the Mounted Police, Dr. Jukes, the medical officer, and four newspaper correspondents. Silently they marched to a room above the guardroom, where Riel said “Courage, mon Père," to Father André.
The hangman waited for them at the gallows where Riel and the two priests knelt. The correspondents and the deputy sheriff took off their hats. Holding a crucifix in one hand and a candle in the other Riel made his responses in a firm clear voice.
“Are you at peace with all men?” said Facher André.
“Do you forgive your enemies?” “Yes”
"Alois, allez au ciel."
The hangman had finished tying Kiel’s hands behind him. They stepped through the window that served as an entrance to the gallows. Riel got to the drop.
While the hangman tied his ankles and slipped the noose around his neck Riel said good-by to Dr. Jukes and t hanked him for his kindness. He asked Father André to thank Madame Forget for the crucifix she had lent him.
The hangman slipped the white cap over bis head. It muffled Riel’s voice as he began the Lord’s Prayer in unison with Father André and Father McWilliams.
C ur Father Who art in Heaven
Hallowed be Thy Name
Thy Kingdom come
Thy will be done on earth
As it. is in Heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our . . .
As he dropped, his knees pulled up convulsively to his body two times, then he hung gently swinging and trembling, facing north where few] English were, life ebbing from the fainting pulse for two minutes, while the doctor held a wrist in one hand, consulting his fat gold watch.
Outside the gallows stood most of the jury which had found Riel guilty and recommended mercy. Troopers lounged on the verandah of Col. Irvine’s house. Most of the crowd were annoyed that t hey had not been allowed inside to see the hanging. The thunk of the falling trap quenched all conversation. In the complete silence that followed the sound one of the men on the porch t urned to another.
“Well, the goddam son-of-a-bitch is gone for good.”
“Yeh,” agreed the other, “he’s gone for good this time.”
After his body had been cut down it was placed in a roughly constructed, black-painted casket built of inch tongue and groove boards, lined with unbleached cotton, scalloped and decorated with holes picked out in triangles and crosses.
There was a rumor through Regina that the body had been mutilated. Exhumed, the mutilation proved to consist of the clipping off of a brown lock of hair and the removal of his left moccasin. Father McWilliams was the culprit.
Riel’s body was sent to Winnipeg in a freight car, spirited at night under a guard of métis mourners to his mother’s house in St, Vital. He was buried out-
side St. Boniface Cathedral, where he had gone to school as a boy.
The Province of Quebec bought a rust-colored stone monument engraved: Riel, 16 November, 1885.
Some years later after Riel had been hanged Chief Justice Fitzpatrick, who had been one of Riel’s lawyers, attended a bar convention in London. He went for an evening’s relaxation to see the Barnum and Bailey Circus. The posters had announced that the climax of the greatest show on earth would be a re-enactment of the Northwest Rebellion.
When the clowns and lion tamers, the bareback riders and the high-wire daredevils, had finished, the ring master announced the greatest spectacle ever to be presented to the eyes of man. A log fort stood in the main ring. Into the tent rode a whooping band of Indians brilliant with ochre and carmine paint, feathered with war bonnets, firing blank cartridges.
They left the log fort in flames, then galloped after their eagle-feathered leader out of the ring and over the sawdust past the reserved seat section.
The Indian chief pulled his horse up
on its haunches before Chief Justice Fitzpatrick who stared in astonishment.
The Indian chief raised his hand in salute and hoarsely cried “Dumont,” before he swept out of the tent,
Fitzpatrick went out to the quarters of the circus entertainers to find that the man leading the Indians in a mock Northwest Rebellion was truly Gabriel Dumont, Riel’s military leader, who had fled after the fall of Batoche to Montana and safety—wanted in Canada, dead or alive, for his part in the Great Saskatchewan Insurrection of