Battle of Batoche
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- North-West Rebellion
- Louis Riel
- Gabriel Dumont
- William McDougall
"Fire, in the name of the Father! Fire, in the name of the Son! Fire, in the name of the Holy Ghost!"
Louis Riel, armed with a crucifix, led his followers in the Northwest Rebellion, which culminated with
the Battle of Batoche from May 9-12, 1885. Fewer than 300 Métis and First Nations people led by Riel
and Gabriel Dumont faced the 800-strong North West Field Force, commanded by Major-General
Disaffection in Saskatchewan was growing, largely because of long-distance government. Prairie
land was regulated by the Department of the Interior, whose ineffective officials were ensconced in
Ottawa and Winnipeg. Saskatchewan was unrepresented in Ottawa.
Among indigenous people and Métis, resentment grew as their way of life succumbed to white
settlement. The repeating rifle, wielded by whites and natives alike, had decimated the buffalo herds.
The Métis role as carriers and freighters for the Hudson Bay Company was superseded by
steamboats and further threatened by the advancing railroad.
The Capture of Batoche, lithograph by Sergeant Grundy (courtesy Library and Archives
The Métis did not take well to agriculture. Their appeal to Ottawa for help in adjusting to farming was
ignored. At the Batoche settlement, surveyors prepared for new white settlement by dividing the
Métis' land, just as they had done at Red River 15 years earlier. The Plains Indians, not understanding
white laws and language, accepted treaties without realizing they were relinquishing their lands.
White settlers were angered by what they considered unfair treatment by the federal government,
especially its decision to construct the railroad 100 miles south of the original route. Many settlers
bought land close to the proposed line between Winnipeg and Edmonton. But in 1882 the CPR
changed its plan, running the line through Regina and Calgary.
The Métis and English-speaking First Nations united to plead with Riel in 1884 to return to Canada
from the US, where he had been banished for his role in the Red River Rebellion and execution of
Thomas Scott. Whites welcomed him too. The federal government ignored Riel's main weapon, a
petition. In January 1885, Riel, declaring himself a "Prophet of the New World," proposed armed
On March 19, Riel, with armed followers, occupied Batoche's church, formed a provisional
government naming himself president and Dumont military commander, and demanded the
surrender of Fort Carlton. The Métis took prisoners in Batoche and occupied nearby Duck Lake.
Riel believed that this blackmail, so effective in Manitoba, would work again. But Sir John A.
Macdonald would have none of it. The nearly-completed railroad gave him a reason not to capitulate
this time. In 1870, Riel had been the master of Manitoba and Macdonald had had no choice but to
negotiate. But in 1885 the railroad facilitated military defence. Macdonald had troops unloading at
Qu'Appelle eleven days after the first shots were fired at the North West Mounted Police at Duck
Lake on March 26.
Riel led his rebels along the Saskatchewan River, defeating white settlers and increasing his troops
as he went. Their progress was aided by military commanders' poor decisions, the small size of Frog
Lake's police garrison and the advice of a Hudson's Bay Company agent who disastrously persuaded
the civilians to offer no resistance and trust the mercy of the First Nations.
Dumont led his warriors in guerilla warfare, using their mobility and knowledge of the terrain to
advantage. Dumont would have preferred to engage Middleton's forces elsewhere, but Riel, believing
God sided with the Métis, chose to make a stand at Batoche.
The Métis and their allies, despite smaller numbers, offered remarkable resistance to the militia.
Middleton initially planned a combined water-and-land attack. His plan was scuttled when the Métis
disabled the riverboat Northcote by lowering a ferry cable across the river, taking down the boat's
smokestacks. For three days the fighting consisted of volleys and sniping, but Middleton had the
advantage of numbers, better artillery and a Gatling gun. He hesitated, unwilling to throw his men into
harm's way and essentially waited until the enemy ran out of ammunition.
On May 12, Middleton planned to draw the Métis toward a small force while assaulting with the
majority from the north. The officer commanding the larger force was to launch his attack when he
heard Middleton's guns. The strong wind prevented him from hearing them. Middleton, miffed,
stomped off to camp for lunch, unaware that the manoeuvre had worked despite being delayed. In
minutes, the fight was over. The Métis retreated. On May 15, Riel surrendered, but Dumont and a few
others escaped to the US.
The government had to decide what charges to press against Riel. While his followers had
committed murder, Riel had not. He had raised an insurrection, and ultimately was charged with
treason under an archaic 1352 statute. Riel was convicted and sentenced to death, even though the
jury recommended mercy. He was hanged on November 16, 1885, at Regina.
Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is the associate editor of The Canadian Encyclopedia.
North-West Rebellion, 1885, culmination of the discontent of the MÉTIS, Indians and white settlers which
had had not abated since the RED RIVER REBELLION of 1869-70. The Plains Indians - CREE, BLACKFOOT,
BLOOD, PEIGAN, Saulteaux - had been reduced to near starvation by the virtual disappearance of the
buffalo. In 1880 Cree chief BIG BEAR worked for an Indian confederacy and found an ally in CROWFOOT,
leading chief of the Blackfoot. A series of confrontations between destitute Indians and Indian Department
employees over rations threatened to break into open violence. The Métis had found transition from
hunting to farming difficult and by 1884 had grown desperate that their rights would ever be recognized.
A delegation brought Louis RIEL back from exile in the US and on July 8 he held his first public meeting in
Canada since 1870, urging all dissatisfied people in the North-West to unite and press their case on
Ottawa. The white settlers also had grievances. Those who had settled along the Saskatchewan River in
anticipation of the railway were disturbed that the CPR had chosen a more southerly route. John A.
Macdonald's Conservative government failed to address the grievances of all 3 groups.
In the fall of 1884 Riel prepared a petition and urged the Métis, English half-breeds and white settlers to
sign it. At St Laurent [Sask] on 8 March 1885 a meeting passed a 10-point "Revolutionary Bill of Rights"
which asserted Métis rights of possession to their farms and made other demands. On March 18 and 19,
the Métis formed a provisional government and an armed force at Batoche, with Riel president and
Gabriel DUMONT military commander. Prisoners were taken in the Batoche area and, in anticipation of a
police advance, Métis forces occupied the community of DUCK LAKE, midway between Batoche and Fort
Carlton. In the morning of March 26, the NWMP, augmented by citizen volunteers to a total strength of 100,
moved towards Duck Lake under Superintendent Lief CROZIER. A large Métis and Indian force met them
on the Carlton Trail near the village. A parlay ended in confusion and the police and volunteers fired at
their enemy hidden in a large hollow north of the road and in a cabin to the south. The battle ended shortly
after with the police and volunteers retreating to Fort Carlton. Nine volunteers and 3 police were killed.
Five Métis and one Indian died. Riel persuaded the rebel soldiers not to pursue the retreating force and
the Métis returned to Batoche. The police evacuated Fort Carlton and retired to Prince Albert.
Gabriel Dumont was a man of great chivalry and military skill, superbly adapted to the presettlement prairie
life (courtesy Glenbow Archives).
The Ottawa government's reaction was astonishingly swift, considering that the CPR north of Lake
Superior was not completed. There were only a few hundred full-time soldiers in Canada but militia
mobilization began March 25, the day before the Duck Lake battle. CPR manager William VAN HORNE
quickly arranged for Canadian troops to be transported across the gaps, enabling them to reach
Qu'Appelle by April 10. In less than a month, almost 3000 troops had been transported west; most were
Ontario militia units but the force included 2 Québec battalions and one from Nova Scotia. From the West
came about 1700 of the eventual total of just over 5000 that Major-General Frederick MIDDLETON
The rebel victory at Duck Lake encouraged a large contingent of Cree to move on Battleford from
reserves to the west. Residents of the area flocked to the safety of Fort Battleford. On March 30,
Assiniboines south of Battleford killed 2 whites and joined the Cree forces. Terrified settlers huddled in
Fort Battleford for almost a month as the Cree and Assiniboine organized a huge war camp to the west.
Big Bear had been the last plains chief to take treaty, and in 1885 he was still resisting taking a reserve,
still agitating for a better deal. As a result, his band included some of the more militant Plains Cree. The
government took a hard line with Big Bear's band, cutting off rations to force them to settle. By the spring
of 1885, it was almost inevitable that Big Bear's band at Frog Lake, north of modern-day Lloydminster,
would clash violently with the government. On the night of April 1, warriors of Big Bear's band took
prisoner several whites and Métis. Shortly after church on Sunday, April 2, war chief Wandering Spirit shot
and killed Sub-Indian Agent Thomas Quinn. Chief Big Bear tried to stop the violence but the warriors took
their own initiative from their war chief and killed 2 priests, the government farming instructor, an
independent trader, a miller and 3 other men. Several people were spared, including the widows of 2 of
the dead men.
Battle of Fish Creek
At Fish Creek the column of some 800 men led by General Middleton encountered about 150 Métis and
Native allies on 24 April 1885. Unnerved by his losses, Middleton withdrew. Dumont retreated in the
opposite direction (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-1728).
General Middleton's original plan was simple. He wanted to march all his troops north from the railhead at
Qu'Appelle to Batoche. But the killings at Frog Lake and the "siege" of Battleford forced him to send a
large group under Lieutenant-Colonel William OTTER north from a second railhead at Swift Current to
relieve Battleford. Pressure from Alberta led to the creation of a third column at Calgary under
Major-General Thomas Bland STRANGE.
On April 14, the Frog Lake Cree besieged Fort Pitt, on the North Saskatchewan River just east of the
modern Alberta-Saskatchewan border. On April 15, after a policeman died in a small skirmish, the Cree
allowed the NWMP detachment to flee downriver.
Middleton set off on the 50 km march to Batoche from Clarke's Crossing on the South Saskatchewan River
on April 23. About 900 men, including 2 artillery batteries, were split into 2 groups, one for each side of the
river. The Métis were determined to fight but differed about where to make a stand. Riel wanted to
concentrate all efforts on defending Batoche; Dumont favoured a more forward position. Dumont won the
argument and on April 12, with about 150 Métis and Indians, prepared an ambush at Tourond's Coulee,
which the government soldiers would know as Fish Creek, 20 km south of Batoche on the east side of the
South Saskatchewan. As Middleton's scouts approached the coulee early on April 24, the rebels opened
fire. Until mid-afternoon, Middleton's soldiers tried unsuccessfully to drive Dumont's men from the ravine
and suffered heavy casualties, 6 killed and 49 wounded. The rebels had only 4 killed. It took most of the
day for Middleton to get the troops from the west bank across the river on a makeshift ferry and they
arrived too late to take part in the fighting. At the end of the day, both commanders decided to pull back.
The Métis had held their ground and Middleton's advance was stopped.
On May 1, Colonel Otter moved west from Battleford with 300 men and early on May 2 they confronted the
Cree and Assiniboine force just west of CUT KNIFE CREEK, 40 km from Battleford. The Indians had
enormous advantages of terrain, virtually surrounding Otter's force on an inclined, triangular plain. Cree
war chief Fine Day deployed his soldiers highly successfully in wooded ravines. After about 6 hours of
fighting, Otter retreated. Casualties would have been very high as the militia recrossed the creek had not
Chief POUNDMAKER persuaded the Indians not to pursue the soldiers. Eight of Otter's force died; 5 or 6
Indians were killed. Otter's foray against the Indians violated the spirit of General Middleton's orders and
the setback prompted Middleton to wait 2 weeks for reinforcements before resuming his march toward
Batoche. On the morning of May 9, his forces attacked the carefully constructed defences at the southern
end of the Batoche settlement. The steamer Northcote, transformed into a gunboat, attempted to attack
the village from the river, but the Métis lowered the ferry cable, incapacitating the boat. After a brief,
intense conflict in the morning, the cautious Middleton kept the attackers at a discreet distance from the
enemy positions. In the afternoon, after failing to make headway against the entrenched enemy, the troops
built a fortified camp just south of Batoche.
The next 2 days, May 10 and 11, were essentially repeats of the first. The troops marched out in the
morning, attacked the Métis lines with little success and retired to their camp at night. On May 12,
Middleton tried a co-ordinated action from the east and south but the southern group failed to hear a
signal gun and did not attack. In the afternoon, apparently without specific orders, 2 impetuous colonels
led several militia units in a charge. The rebels, weary and short of ammunition, were overrun. Eight of
Middleton's force died during the Battle of Batoche. The general later reported that 51 rebels were killed,
but that number seems high. Riel surrendered on May 15; Dumont fled to Montana.
During the Battle of Batoche, General Strange was resting his Alberta Field Force at Edmonton after a hard
march from Calgary. The column left Edmonton on May 14 and on May 28 they caught up to the Frog Lake
Indians, dug in at the top of a steep hill near a prominent landmark known as FRENCHMAN'S BUTTE, 18 km
northwest of Fort Pitt. Direct advance against the entrenched Indians would have been very difficult and
Strange's scouts found no practical way around the Cree positions. They fired at each other from long
range for several hours before both sides retreated.
The last shots of the rebellion were fired on June 3 at Loon Lake, 40 km north of Frenchman Butte, where
a few mounted men under NWMP Superintendant Sam STEELE skirmished with the retreating Frog Lake
Cree. None of Steele's men was killed but 4 Indians died, including a prominent Woods Cree chief.
Chief Poundmaker and the Battleford area Indians had surrendered to General Middleton on May 26 at
Battleford. At the end of May, Big Bear was the only important rebel still at large. General Middleton's
pursuit of Big Bear was so cumbersome that the soldiers never did find him. The Frog Lake Indians
released their white prisoners on June 21 and Big Bear surrendered to the Mounted Police on July 2 at
Fort Carlton. Before the first of August, almost all of the militia were home.
The rebellion had not been a concerted effort by all groups in the North-West. Even most Métis
communities stayed out of the fighting. The people of the South Branch communities, centered at
Batoche, had been the principal combatants. The Plains Cree of Big Bear's band had participated, but the
neighbouring Woods Cree had not. Some Cree from the Batoche area fought with the Métis, as did Dakota
from a reserve from south of present-day Saskatoon. The Blackfoot had remained neutral, the Blood
refusing to abandon their traditional animosity towards the Cree. Almost every white settler had rallied to
the government cause, despite the fact that their vocal agitation before the shooting started had helped
to create the environment that had made the rebellion possible.
As the soldiers left the West, Louis Riel's trial for high treason began at Regina. Riel demanded a political
trial. His lawyers failed in their attempt to convince the jury that Riel's religious and political delusions
made him unaware of the nature of his acts, largely because Riel was so eloquent in his address to the
jury on July 31. The law provided no alternative to the death penalty, and on September 18 Riel was
sentenced to be hanged.
The government arrested many people on the lesser charge of treason-felony. W.H. JACKSON, Riel's
personal secretary, was acquitted by reason of insanity. Most of the provisional government council
pleaded guilty and received sentences ranging from conditional discharges to 7 years in penitentiary.
Chiefs Poundmaker and Big Bear were tried and sentenced to 3 years in jail. Several other Indians from
Batoche, Frog Lake and Battleford were sentenced to various terms after treason-felony convictions.
Dakota chief White Cap was the only major native political leader acquitted of treason-felony. Eleven
Indians were convicted of murder as a result of the Frog Lake "massacre" and other killings carried out
during the rebellion.
Riel's execution was postponed 3 times: twice to allow appeals to higher courts, then for a fuller medical
examination of his alleged insanity. The appeals failed and the medical commission report was ambiguous.
The federal government could have commuted the death sentence and the decision to "let the law take its
course" was purely political. Riel was hanged at Regina 16 November 1885.
French Canadians supported the campaign to suppress the rebellion, but there was widespread outrage
in Québec over Riel's execution that did not abate over time. Wilfrid Laurier's passionate denunciation of
the government's action was a major step forward in his career. On November 27, 6 Cree and 2
Assiniboine warriors, including Frog Lake war chief Wandering Spirit, were hanged at Battleford. Three
other convicted murderers had their sentences commuted. All the rebels sentenced to jail were released
early. Gabriel Dumont, among others, eventually returned from the US under the terms of a general
The rebellion had profound effects on western Canada. It was the climax of the federal government's
efforts to control the native and settler population of the West. Indians who had thought themselves
oppressed after the treaties of the 1870s became subjugated, administered people. The most vocal
members of the Métis leadership had either fled to Montana or were in jail. It took native peoples of
western Canada many decades to recover politically and emotionally from the defeat of 1885.
Author BOB BEAL and ROD MACLEOD
|Painting by Métis Artist: Derrick Whiteskycloud