COLONEL OTTER'S COLUMN.
As I have already stated, the plan of General Middleton's campaign was altered, and Colonel Otter had instructions to take command of his column at Swift Current, a station on the Canadian Pacific Railway, about thirty miles from Saskatchewan Crossing, where the ferry provides a crossing over that river en route to Battleford. Colonel Otter had orders to march speedily to the relief of Battleford, whose residents and neighbouring settlements were threatened by Poundmaker and the various bands of Indians who had joined him.
His column consisted of the Queen's Own Rifles, two hundred and seventy strong, whom he had commanded previous to his appointment to the Toronto School of Infantry. The Queen's Own, during the Fenian raid of 1866, had seen service near Fort Erie, a Canadian town opposite the city of Buffalo, where a number of the corps fell in an engagement with some Fenians who had invaded our territory at that point. In addition to the Queen's own, he had a company of fifty, from the Governor-General's Foot Guards, Ottawa, under the command of Captain Todd; "B" Battery, from Quebec, one hundred and ten strong, with two nine-pounders, under command of. Major Short; a portion of his own Infantry School, called "C" School, forty-six strong, under command of Lieutenant Wadmore, the other half of which was with General Middleton, under Major Smith; fifty Mounted Police, under Colonel Herchmer, and a gatling gun.
Previous to the arrival of Colonel Otter's column in Battleford, Poundmaker's Indians had committed a number of murders in the vicinity. Bernard Tremont was the first victim. He was a Belgian, engaged in stock raising, and while at work in his yard was shot by four Indians. Ickta, one of the tribe of the Stonys, confessed to the murder to General Middleton. James Payne, Farm Instructor on the Stony Reserve, was murdered in his own house while the Indians were claiming rations. This murder was also confessed to the General. Poor Payne had an Indian wife who, apparently, deserted him in his time of need. Mr. Smart, a trader, while on patrol at Battleford, was shot dead on the night of the 22nd April, by some Indians who were hidden in a coulee, three or four miles from the town. He was an enterprising citizen from Battleford, and his loss was much felt.
Battleford is a rising town on the Upper Saskatchewan, about two hundred miles north of Swift Current. It is very prettily situated, at the junction of Battle River with the Saskatchewan, on a high level plateau overlooking these two deep valleys to the north and to the south of the town, and high enough to command a good view of the surrounding country. One of the first impressions of a stranger on reaching Battleford is, what a beautiful place it is to live in. It was originally a Hudson's Bay post, and has gradually grown to be a place of some importance in the northern portion of the territory. Before the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway it was selected to be the capital of the NorthWest Territories, and there the Honourable Mr. Laird, the then Governor, resided. Mr. Laird was most popular in his time, and exercised a beneficial influence in the country. At Battleford also a considerable force of Mounted Police was maintained, and the North-West Council annually met to conduct the local affairs of the Territories. There are some fine settlements in the neighbourhood, which help to maintain the town, and intermingled with these settlements are a number of Indian Reserves, chief among which are Poundmaker's and the Stonys, an offshoot of the Sioux. The trade of these Indians, for the fur that they bring in, is also valuable to the town. As in the case of Batoche, there is, some eighteen miles from Battleford, on the Saskatchewan River, a half-breed settlement, founded by some of those who had left their locations on the Red River to seek other districts in which to settle.
Upon the news of the Duck Lake fight, which was apparently the pre-arranged signal of those who intended to commit depredations and commence hostilities, warnings reached the settlers in the neighbourhood of Battleford that danger was imminent. I might here say that the Duck Lake fight was so precipitated that the Indians and half-breeds were taken unawares, and were themselves unprepared for the outbreak. Undoubtedly, had they the choosing of the time, they would have postponed hostilities for another month; because the snow was still on the ground, there was no feed for horses or ponies, and it was at a time when the natives find it difficult to move about or obtain provisions from the hunt. For that reason, the act of Major Crozier, in his attempt to secure the provisions and stores at Duck Lake, was a fortunate circumstance in the history of the campaign; as the Indians and half-breeds had neither time or opportunity to assemble in a large body to meet the sudden onslaught of the advancing troops. Notwithstanding this, the various tribes of Indians under Big Bear at Fort Pitt, and under Poundmaker at Battleford, accepted the issue of the Duck Lake fight as a signal to commence hostilities. Battleford at the time was defended only by a small body of Mounted Police, under Inspector Morris, supported by a local corps, "The Battleford Rifles," under Captain Nash. The only other troops within a reasonable distance were twenty-five Mounted Police, under Inspector Dickens at Fort Pitt, the next post, a hundred miles distant. The Indians under Poundmaker commenced hostilities by the murder of Payne, a Farm Instructor, whose duties among others was to serve out to them the Government rations. A small party went demanding an advance of rations, and because they were refused, he was shot, after a scuffle, by an Indian named Ickta. The same day a party of four went to a settler named Tremont, who owned a large herd of cattle in the neighbourhood. They persuaded one of their number to shoot him, and there and then, without a moment's warning, the poor fellow was wantonly murdered, with the intent, probably, to take his cattle. The Indians continued pillaging and destroying property in the neighbourhood, advancing as far as that part of the village of Battleford which lies on the south side of the Battle River, and separated from the town which stands on the plateau to the north, as before described. In this part of the village was the Hudson's Bay Post and other buildings, which were all pillaged and destroyed. The settlers congregated in the town, and great anxiety was felt for their safety in their isolated and defenceless position. The Indians, however, did not venture to attack the town, which is surrounded by open ground.
It was to the relief of this place that Colonel Otter was despatched with his column, with all speed, from Swift Current. On the 13th of April, Otter's column marched to Saskatchewan Landing, about thirty miles distant. He was delayed here at the crossing of the river a couple of days, awaiting supplies and transport. The troops and provisions were all conveyed across with despatch by the steamer Northcote, which had been made ready to convey supplies to General Middleton's force at Clarke's Crossing, where, in addition, fifteen or twenty flat boats were being put together to carry supplies and forage to the same destination. Captain Howard had brought with him to this point two gatling guns from his manufactory, one of which was attached to "B" Battery, under Major Short, the other Captain Howard took with him on the steamboat to General Middleton. Colonel Van Straubenzie, on the staff of General Middleton, and the late Colonel Williams, in command of the Midland Battalion, were also on the boat going to join the General. General Laurie, on half-pay of the British army, now residing in Nova Scotia, who had marched with General Middleton's column as far as Humboldt, had returned to assist in the organization of the transport and supply from this point, where he remained during the remainder of the campaign.
On the 18th April, all was in readiness, and at one o'clock p.m. Colonel Otter commenced his march northward, with two hundred waggons laden with forage, supplies and men. He took one of the old trails, along which had been conveyed the supplies and stores in days gone by in the primitive conveyances of the country. His march differed little from that of the General's column to Clarke's Crossing, except that by means of the transport he was enabled to cover distances in a shorter time. His column took but five and a half days to cover the intervening distance, of one hundred and eighty miles!
The country through which the column passed is a vast unoccupied prairie, covered with luxuriant vegetation and furrowed paths, known as "buffalo runs," now awaiting the industry of the settler to fill it with happy, industrious and contented homes. About ninety miles from Battleford the Eagle River had to be crossed, and pioneers were sent forward to construct a bridge for the passage of the troops and transport. This was speedily executed. After crossing this river into the Eagle Hills, greater caution had to be observed, as it was the neighbourhood of Indian reserves, where the disaffected tribes were on the war-path. By five p.m. on the last day's march, viz., 23rd April, they reached within three miles of Battleford, Colonel Otter deeming it prudent to camp for the night and reconnoiter before proceeding, as traces of the Indians were met with. He sent forward some scouts who discovered that a band of Indians were surrounding the heights opposite Battleford, and were setting fire to the buildings which they had left standing in their former raid. Judge Rouleau's house, only lately built at considerable expense, was among the number to fall a prey to the flames. There is no doubt that the Indians were aware of the approach of the troops, and took the opportunity before their arrival to commit these additional outrages in their defiant and wanton spirit. The scouts opened fire and surprised them in their fiendish work, causing them to jump upon their horses and flee. Colonel Otter sent forward Colonel Herchmer with his Mounted Police to intercept them, but without avail. On the following morning, camp was struck at daybreak, and shortly after the troops reached Battleford, to the great relief and joy of the inhabitants. One of the principal citizens, Mr. Smart, had only two nights before been shot dead while on patrol, by Indians secreted in a gully between the two rivers, open in that direction to an attack. This was on the 25th April, the day after the battle of Fish Creek.
After a few days' rest, Colonel Otter, fired with a sense of the wrongs committed upon the settlers and the murders perpetrated, determined to go out and punish Poundmaker and his Indians for their villainous acts, which he felt to be necessary. He gallantly organized a portion of his force to make an attack on Poundmaker, who was known to be in force at Cut Knife Hill, where his braves and people were feasting on the spoils they had lately taken. Poundmaker had selected this place as his stronghold, to protect his families in case of an attack, which he no doubt felt must soon come. Cut Knife Hill had been the scene of a fight between the Crees and Sarcees some fifteen years ago, when the former came off victorious; so that on the present occasion they were well acquainted with all the advantageous points of the position, and the plans of defense had been thoroughly discussed and explained by the chief to his braves. From close enquiries made by Colonel Otter, it had been ascertained as nearly as possible that Poundmaker had three hundred and fifty braves in this strong position. However, it was determined to make them give an account of themselves, and so on Friday, the 1st of May, about three o'clock in the afternoon, the column of teams, nearly forty in number, carrying the force with their supplies and ammunition, were ready, and they marched out from Battleford.
The attacking column was composed of the Mounted Police and scouts, under Colonel Herchmer, with Captain Neil in advance, and the line of march was by the south side of the Battle River, going west in the direction of Poundmaker's reserve. Following th police were the artillery, with two seven-pounders and the gatling under Major Short, with Captains Rutherford and Farley, and Lieutenants Pelletier and Prower. After them came "C" School of Infantry, under Lieutenant Wadmore and Lieutenant Cassels, Q.O.R., the half company of Ottawa Sharpshooters, under Lieutenant Gray; No. 1 Company of the Queen's Own Rifles, under Captains Brown and Hughes and Lieutenant Brock; the Battleford Rifles, under Captain Nash and Lieutenants Marigold and Baker, brought up the rear with the ammunition and forage transport. The staff consisted of Lieutenant Sears, Brigade Major; Captain Mutton, Q.O.R., Brigade Quartermaster; Brigade-Surgeon, F. W. Strange.
The troops, numbering in all about three hundred, rode in the waggons, and with a parting cheer, the little column moved off, determined upon a surprise at daybreak. Otter's plan was a rapid advance, a surprise, an attack and a retirement to Battleford. The distance to Cut Knife Hill was thirty-five miles, and about seven o'clock in the evening, half the journey was completed, when a halt was made to await the rising of the moon. A day's rations were served out, and the men whiled away the time until eleven o'clock, talking over their probable fate, should an engagement take place. At half-past eleven the column resumed its march, the men making themselves as comfortable as they could in the short time they had before reaching the scene of action. The country in no way differed from the general aspect of the North-West prairies, being occasionally dotted with clumps of trees. Dawn soon appeared, which in this northern latitude is at an early hour, and as the sun rose in all its glory, the troops came upon the spot where the Indians, according the the reports of the scouts, were supposed to be encamped, but which showed evident signs of having been lately vacated. They advanced through a hollow which led them into a deep gully, two hundred yards wide, densely wooded with poplar and willow underbrush, through which ran the Cut Knife Creek, which gives its name to the locality. This gully differed in no way from that of Fish Creek or any of the numerous gullies with which the prairie is indented. But, unlike Fish Creek, the enemy, instead of being found in the gully, had taken up a position about a mile beyond, no doubt intending, had they not been surprised, to have contested the advance of the troops across it. The Indians, not anticipating this hastily conceived attack, were asleep in their tepees, unmindful of the fate that was about to overtake them.
The position Poundmaker had now taken up had to be approached from Battleford through this gully. The trail along which the troops had to march to reach the summit, was flanked, a few yards to the right, by a smaller gully, and on their left flank the Indians were enabled to find protection in another one, running into the Cut Knife valley. Colonel Otter's force was thus placed with a gully on the right flank, a gully on the left flank, and the deep valley of Cut Knife Creek, which he had just crossed, was in his rear. Had the Indians been in this position, silently awaiting the approach of the troops, Colonel Otter would have found himself drawn into an ambuscade Indians are known to be successful in planning. With the exception of one Indian, who was up and looking after the ponies, the encampment was wrapt in slumber. But after the first alarm they were promptly in action, though not before Colonel Otter had placed his men to the best advantage. As the column crossed the creek before mentioned, and arrived at the prairie, they saw, about a mile to the left, the Indian tepees which marked their encampment; and the advanced scouts, as they reached the top of this hill, were observed to take shelter, thus denoting the presence of the enemy in position. Colonel Herchmer dismounted his men, and with a detachment of Police, who had come in waggons, extended in skirmishing order and advanced to the top of the hill. Major Short, with the guns and the gatling followed, the remainder of the column still wending its way across the gully.
The rattle of musketry and fusilade of the gatling were soon heard, and the startled Indians opened fire upon the advancing line. The guns and the gatling were brought promptly into action; and, as in the battle of Batoche, the Indians made a determined charge to try and capture them, dreading the destructiveness of their fire, which they were powerless to silence. They advanced, holding their blankets in front of them, running in a zig-zag manner to puzzle our riflemen. Major Short called for volunteers to protect his guns, and made a gallant charge upon the advancing enemy, which caused them to fall back. In this charge, Corporal Sleigh, of the Mounted Police, who had passed safely through the Fort Pitt danger, was killed, and Lieutenant Pelletier and Sergeants Gaffney and Ward were wounded. Major Short received a bullet through his forage cap, cooly remarking, "It's a new one, too!" This charge was made before the remainder of the column had got into position.
The Indians, who now came pouring out of their encampment, were not long in taking up the positions they had thoroughly studied, in anticipation of a fight. The remainder of the column had now reached the prairie level, having left the horses and waggons in a sheltered spot half way up the slope they had first ascended. The Queen's Own were extended along the crest of the gully to the left, to protect that flank; "C" Company and the Ottawa Sharpshooters were extended to protect the right flank; the Battleford Rifles protected the rear, while the Mounted Police and the Artillery attacked the front. Not man minutes had elapsed before Colonel Otter perceived he was being attacked on all sides, the enemy, under cover of the gully through which the column had approached, having even gone round and menaced his rear. Now was required all the steadiness and valour of the men to withstand the wily Indians.
The enemy outnumbered our troops, and were fighting for the safety of their families, who were close to the field of battle, and for the protection of the herds of cattle and ponies, which they prized so much, all of which tended to make their onslaughts more vicious and determined. This, with their thrilling war-cries, intermingled with the roar of the guns and the rattle of small arms, made the scene a peculiarly impressive one, and likely to strike terror into the hearts of raw and inexperienced troops. But in all the encounters throughout this campaign the men showed no want of either steadiness or discipline, but always a soldierly bearing and a laudable determination to succeed.
Death was dealing destruction all round. As soon as one flank was attacked and repulsed, another flank came under fire and the rear was menaced. But the Indians gained no advantage and got as good as they gave, although the clever way in which they are accustomed to take cover made it difficult for our troops to get a fair shot at them.
Colonel Otter, an hour after the action opened, finding that his rear was in danger, instructed the Battleford Rifles to clear the enemy from that position - a work which they admirably performed, under Captain Nash and Lieutenant Marigold.
The artillery supported the various corps, from time to time, by shelling the enemy, occasionally dropping a shell into their encampment, some fifteen hundred yards away. The firing throughout of the two batteries ("A" and "B"), the one with the General's column, and the other with Colonel Otter's, was at all times excellent. At Fish Creek, Captain Drury, with the second shot, set fire to a house, at fifteen hundred yards' range, by throwing the shell through the thatched roof.
Until twelve o'clock the fight was maintained. As fast as the Indians were driven out of one position they made their appearance in another, and all efforts to dislodge them were without avail. Had Colonel Otter had a good support in his rear, there is no doubt he would have had sufficient confidence in his men to charge the enemy's encampment and take possession of it; but surrounded as he was by these precipitous gullies, filled with savages, he did not change his original intention of coming out to make a reconnaissance, to punish the turbulent tribes, and then to retire. He maintained the fight, which may very properly be called an unequal one, until noon, when he determined to withdraw and return to Battleford with his tired troops. And now the most difficult movement of the day had to be performed, - that of retreating across the deep gully with his entire force.
He ordered the Scouts, the Battleford Rifles, and Captain Rutherford and his men, with one gun, to proceed through the gully and occupy the heights on the opposite side of Cut Knife Creek. By this movement the line of retirement could be commanded and protected. The waggons then made their way across the gully, the main body of the troops holding their position until they were safely across. And now began the difficult part-retiring the troops down the long incline leading to the gully and across it to the other side. It was a movement of great danger, but was well executed, the men retiring in skirmishing order, by alternate ranks, and holding the enemy in check.
When Colonel Otter's intentions were discovered, the Indians pressed upon the retiring troops with great vigour. But the steady and rapid firing maintained by every man restrained them: if it had not been for the precautionary measures, in placing the guns and the gatling in so good a position, it is doubtful if it could have been accomplished with so little loss of life. The guns dropped their shells into the advancing Indians, and the gatling swept the face of the hill down which they were following our troops, and soon the whole column was enabled to form upon the prairie level, to partake of a meagre meal and enjoy a short rest before returning to Battleford.
In summing up the casualties, it was found that there were eight dead and thirteen wounded, who were cared for by Brigade-Surgeon Strange, I.S.C., and Surgeon Lesslie, Q.O.R: The dead were all taken off the field, with the exception of Private Osgood, of the Ottawa Sharpshooters, who was missing. Osgood, on being reported absent, a party was sent back for him, which met the ambulance corps with a body which, they said, was Osgood's; this was not found to be incorrect until too late to again seek for it. Osgood, when shot, had, it appears, fallen in a coulee, and thus escaped the notice of those near him.
To praise too highly the conduct of the officers and men during the engagement, is an impossibility, yet to under- rate the strength of the Indians in their peculiar mode of warfare, on their own ground, I certainly think, is folly. While they have not the courage to face a foe in the open, their ability to protect themselves and to pick off their opponents from behind cover, is certainly superior to ours. They are brought up to this from their youth gaining their livelihood by stalking and shooting the game of the country.
After a short rest the column resumed its march and returned to Battleford, reaching there at ten o'clock at night, after an absence of thirty hours.
Not having been an eye witness of this engagement, I regret that I am unable to give a more detailed description of the striking events of the day. But from all accounts the troops brought renown upon themselves for their admirable behaviour.
We shall now leave this column for the present, to take up other events of the campaign. Colonel Otter remained in Battleford until the arrival of General Middleton. on the 25th of May, acting entirely on the defensive.
While Colonel Otter apparently acted upon his own responsibility in making this attack upon Poundmaker, the circumstances by which he was surrounded must be taken into consideration. On his arrival at Battleford, he found that several murders had been committed, settlers' property had been destroyed, and their owners were obliged to flee to Battleford for safety A portion of Battleford itself was also burned and pillaged. These doings, no doubt, moved him to attempt to inflict some punishment upon Poundmaker's Indians. Moreover, an amalgamation between Big Bear's band (which had so recently captured Fort Pitt) and Poundmaker was to be feared, and Colonel Otter deemed it advisable for the safety of the country to inflict a blow on Poundmaker before this junction was effected. The reports that Big Bear's runners brought back to their chief about the fighting that had taken place and the loss the Indians had suffered at the battle of Cut Knife, no doubt, led Big Bear and his tribe to feel that they were safer in the neighbourhood of Fort Pitt, and no junction was afterwards attempted. On the whole, then, this attack, it must be said, was well timed and pluckily executed.
Poundmaker's attitude at this period may be gathered from the following letter to Riel from his camp, which throws considerable light upon his proceedings, and taken in connection with Colonel Otter's prompt action, is of interest here:
"CUT KNIFE HILL,
"April 29, 1885.
"I want to hear news of the progress of God's work. If any event has occurred since your messenger came away, let me know of it. Tell me the date when the Americans will reach the Canadian Pacific Railway. Tell me all the news that you have heard from all the places where your work is in progress. Big Bear has finished his work. He has taken Fort Pitt. 'If you want me to come to you, let me know at once,' he said, 'I will be four days on the road." Those who have gone to him will sleep twice on the road. They took twenty prisoners, including the master at Fort Pitt; they killed eleven men, including the agent, two priests and six white men. We are camped on the Creek, just below Cut Knife Hill, waiting Big Bear. The Blackfeet killed sixty police at the Elbow. The half-breed who interpreted for the Police having survived the fight, though wounded, brought the news here. Here we have killed six white men. We have not taken the barracks yet, but this is the only entire building in Battleford. All the cattle and horses in the vicinity we have taken. We have lost one man, Nez Perce, killed, he being alone, and one wounded. Some soldiers have come from Swift Current, but we do not know the number. We have here guns and rifles of all sorts, but the ammunition for them is short. If it be possible we want you to send us ammunition of various kinds; we are weak only for want of that. You sent word that you would come to Battleford when you had finished your work at Duck Lake. We wait still for you, as we are unable to take the fort without help. If you send us news send only one messenger. We are impatient to reach you. It would give us courage as much to see you and make us work more heartily. Up to the present everything has gone well with us, but we are constantly expecting the soldiers to visit us here. We trust that God will be as kind to us in the future as in the past. We, the undersigned, send greeting to you all."
"When this reaches you, send us news immediately as we are anxious to hear the news. If you send us news, send us as many men as possible."
List of Killed.
Gunner Wm. Phillips, "A" Battery; Lieutenant W. Fitch, Private T. Moor, 10th Grenadiers; Private R. R. Hardisty, Private James Fraser, 90th Battalion; Captain E. P. Brown, Boulton's Mounted Infantry; Captain John French, French's Scouts; Lieutenant A. W. Kippen, Intelligence Corps.
ROYAL CANADIAN ARTILLERY - Gunners Wm. Fairbanks, M. Cowley, N. Charpentier, Driver T. Stout.
10TH GRENADIERS - Major Dawson, Captain Mason, Captain Manley, Staff-Sergeant Mitchell, Corporal Foley, Privates Brisbane, Eager, Millsom, Martin, Marshall, Barber, Cantwell, Quigley, Cook, Stead, Scovell, Bugler Gaghan.
90TH BATTALION - Major Mackeand, Sergeants F. R. Jackes, Sergeant-Major John Watson, Corporals Wm. Kemp, James Gillies; Privates Rolph, Baron, Mack, Erickson, Alex L. Young, F. Alex. Watson.
MIDLAND BATTALION.-Lieutenant G. E. Laidlaw, Captain John Helliwell, Colour-Sergeant Wright, Sergeant Christie; Corporal Halliwell, Private Barton, Corporal Daley. BOULTON'S MOUNTED INFANTRY. - Private W. Hope Hay. FRENCH'S Scouts.-Privates Allen and Cook. INTELLIGENCE CORPS.óLieut. Garden, A. 0. Wheeler. ON STEAMBOAT.-Mr. Pringle, Medical Corps; Mr. McDonald, Boat's Crew; Mr. Vinen, Transport Service.
Sergeant Ward, Mounted Police; Lieutenant Pelletier, 9th Battalion; Sergeant Gaffney, Gunner Reynolds, and Corporal Morton, "B" Battery, Royal Canadian Artillery; Sergeant-Major Spacknan, "C" School of Infantry ; Colour Sergeant Cooper, Privates George Watts, J. S. Fraser, Charles Varey, and George Lloyd, of the Queen's Own Rifles; Private J. McQuilken and Colour-Sergeant Chas. Winter, of the Governor-General's Foot Guards ; Bugler Ernest Gilbert, of the Battleford Rifles.