RIEL IN THE ASCENDANT
Riel, about this time, irritated the people by petty acts of tyranny. He seized and opened the mails. He stopped Dr. Schultz's freight and examined it, as he claimed, to see whether there were any arms or ammunition concealed, and to collect the customs duties upon it. He seized the printing press of a local journal, the Northwester belonging to Dr. Bown. On the 6th November he entered the printing office with about twenty armed men, requiring Dr. Bown to do some printing for him. Bown refused, and was arrested and placed under guard, and while he was under arrest Riel used his office to do the necessary printing. About this time, also, Captain Cameron, with his man-servant, drove to the barrier at River Sale, having left his wife - daughter of Sir Charles Tupper - at Scratching River to await her husband's return. Captain Cameron arrived safely at the harrier, and seeing he could not drive through the obstruction, sitting up in the seat with his arms folded across his breast, he ordered the rebels to remove "that blasted fence." The half-breeds laughed; but liking the pluck of the Captain, they took his horses by the bridles and led him up to Father Richot's house, where, it is said, he was invited in, some refreshments were offered, and, after a quiet chat, he was ordered to proceed on his return journey to Pembina. It was Riel's tyrannical acts at this time that prevented the English-speaking portion of the community from working harmoniously with the French half-breeds, in an honest desire to meet the views of the Canadian Commissioners who were sent with full powers to satisfy the people that their rights would be respected. Had Riel not been seeking to gain personal power, the unfortunate results which followed would have been avoided.
Direct communication with Fort Garry having been cut off by the seizure of the mails, Colonel Dennis determined upon going to Pembina to confer personally with the Governor. Accompanied by Mr. Hallet, an intelligent and loyal half-breed, he set out from Fort Garry on the 1st of November for Pembina, crossing the prairie to avoid the main trail. Arrived there, he remained till the 1st of December, when he returned with a commission from the Governor appointing him Lieutenant and Conservator of the Peace. Events now crowded upon one another with rapidity, and Riel's actions became bolder day by day. About Fort Garry he exercised supreme and unquestioned authority.
Being in full possession of the Fort, and feeling the strength of his position, Riel commenced to lay his plans for the assumption of further power. In this he was anxious to have the countenance of the English-speaking part of the population. When he took possession of the printing office of Dr. Bown, he had a proclamation printed, calling a meeting, composed of his own council and twelve delegates, who were to be selected from the various English parishes, to discuss the affairs of the country. The English settlers hesitated to countenance in any way the proceedings Riel had initiated; but in the hopes that their counsels might lead to a peaceful solution of the difficulties, they determined to attend the meeting. The convention assembled in the Court-house of the settlement near Fort Garry, on the 16th of November, and was guarded by an armed force. In the meantime Mr. McTavish had entered a protest against the unlawful acts which had already been committed, and this was read and discussed at the meeting. This protest or proclamation was issued on the 12th of November, upon the demand of a number of influential people, who thought public notice should be taken of the illegal proceedings. Riel expressed his intention of forming a provisional government, and the convention felt it was only invited to carry out his behests and to give the appearance of countenancing them. The members present were not disposed to overturn the lawful authority which at the time existed, and which was only lying dormant in consequence of the authority Riel had usurped. The convention adjourned till the 1st of December. In the interim, there were those at work who still hoped to smooth over the difficulties by allowing authority to revert to its legal channel. They found, however, that Riel was determined to press his own authority. He had prepared what he called a "Bill of Rights," which, in itself, with the exception of some unconstitutional clauses, contained no disloyal or objectionable features. This was passed by the convention. The English members made an attempt to bring about a conference with the Governor upon this basis, but Riel took a personal stand against the latter and would not listen to reason. They therefore dispersed, feeling that they could not join in the unreasonable opposition Riel seemed determined upon giving, and which was likely to jeopardize the peace of the settlement. The colony was isolated from the outer world by hundreds of miles of prairie, with an Indian population in their midst, which, it was feared, would take advantage of the excitement to commit depredations.
While matters in the settlements had reached the stage I have related, the Governor still remained at Pembina, awaiting the date upon which it had been arranged that the proclamation should be issued transferring the territory to Canada. Mr. Macdougall, no doubt, unaware of the altered policy of the Canadian Government, and thinking that the Queen's proclamation, which by pre-arrangement was to issue on the 2nd of December, would duly arrive, and that it had been only delayed in the mails, and being also impatient at his detention in Pembina, he boldly determined upon a Coup d'Etat. He issued a proclamation of his own, proclaiming himself Governor of the territory, and crossed the boundary line for the purpose of reading it on Canadian soil and giving it full legal effect. At the same time, by virtue of this proclamation, he commissioned Colonel Dennis to enter the territory and raise a force to quell the insurrection, giving him extended powers in the premises. About the 20th of November, Mr. Newcombe had gone out to Pembina to the Honourable Mr. Macdougall, to see what was to be done about protecting the Government provisions. Mr. Macdougall kept him there and sent him back with copies of his proclamation in French and English; and after many adventures lie arrived on the 30th of November. Colonel Dennis arrived on the following day, by way of St. John's, with a further supply of the proclamation, and handed them to me and others to copy out, and have posted up in conspicuous places, as the printing presses had been seized by Riel. This task we gladly undertook, feeling that a lawful authority now existed which would make itself felt. Colonel Dennis informed us of his intention to raise a force and establish the authority of the Governor; and instructed me to follow him to the Stone Fort, which was a post of the Hudson's Bay Company, thirty miles down the river towards Lake Winnipeg. The proclamation we posted up in various parts of the settlement, and I, with Mr. Hart and others of his surveying parties, followed him to the Stone Fort, Major Webb being sent to Portage la Prairie there to organize four companies. We found that good feeling existed on the part of the English-speaking people, who were desirous that a vigorous, and legal authority should be established to deal with the serious aspect of affairs. Colonel Dennis set vigorously to work, called upon the people to support him, and organized a force intending to deal summarily with the usurper Riel, and those who had joined him.
The effect of the proclamation upon the people of Winnipeg was very marked. They soon saw that submission to the new authority would become necessary, and that a choice would have to be made between the Provisional Government. sought to be established by Riel, and the Canadian Government, represented in the person of Colonel Dennis.
At the time, the tone of the people in Winnipeg was decidedly loyal; and, had Mr. Macdougall's authority been legal, and had Colonel Dennis remained in Winnipeg to enforce it, it would have been maintained. But after the people had recovered from the first surprise, it began to. be whispered about that all was not right; and therefore some who felt that if the transfer of the country had actually taken place, they would have been apprised of it. But before these doubts got into circulation, Colonel Dennis had retired to the Lower Fort, and thither all those who wished to join him repaired.
In Dr. Schultz's storehouse was a quantity of Government provisions brought up to supply the surveying parties and the workmen on the Government road during the winter. These provisions were of great importance in the isolated position of the country, for they could not easily be replaced; and as there had been a large addition to the population during the summer, provisions would most likely be scarce. Consequently, a very jealous eye was kept on these stores, especially as Riel fully appreciated their value, and aroused our fears by coming over to Dr. Schultz's place and taking an inventory of the property. Riel attempted to put a guard on the provisions, stating that his reasons for doing so were lest we might take them and he be accused of the theft. To hold on to these provisions, and to protect Dr. Schultz's property, were the reasons which led the Canadians to occupy his premises and defend what they felt to be their food for the coming winter. The Canadians all went down to the Stone Fort, to enroll with Colonel Dennis, and the Colonel sent them back to Winnipeg to remain there and keep together for mutual protection. It Was on their return to Winnipeg that they occupied the Doctor's premises. On the 4th December a memorandum came from Colonel Dennis requesting the Canadians to withdraw from the village; but it was decided, after anxious consultation, to remain, as no better place offered at the time where the party could keep together for safety and protection. In coming to this decision they were influenced by the natural desire to prevent the provisions, upon which all depended for the winter, falling into Riel's hands, while at the time no one thought of the probability of an attack.
Colonel Dennis lost no time in taking active measures for the suppression of the rising. He requisitioned and purchased supplies, arms and ammunition, and proceeded to the formation of companies in various parishes, a duty which he entrusted to me. With the first call for loyal support a large number of Christianized Indians from the neighbourhood of Lake Winnipeg, under Chief Prince, came to offer their services. Individual members also flocked in, and Colonel Dennis soon found that he would have a number of men to tax heavily his commissariat. I immediately left for the parishes, for the purpose of enrolling the different companies, appointing their officers, and drilling them. I found a ready response to the call. In each parish I formed a company of fifty, appointed officers and non-commissioned officers, and arranged for their drill. I went to Winnipeg and formed the men who had returned there into a company, with Dr. Lynch as Captain, Mr. Miller, 1st Lieutenant and Mr. Allan, 2nd Lieutenant. I directed them to remain where they were until further orders; to make no offensive movement; and, if necessary, to defend themselves, but on no account to fire the first shot.
On reaching Kildonan, the parish adjoining Winnipeg, I held a public meeting in the evening to enroll members of the company, and it was at that meeting I had the first doubts thrown upon the legality of the proceedings which the Governor had taken.. I was questioned closely by Mr. William Frazer and one or two others, as to the seal that had been attached to the proclamation, wishing to know if it was under the Queen's seal. I could only reply that I knew nothing about seals, that I was there acting under the orders of my superior officers, and that my duty was simply to enroll men. My explanation was accepted by the majority, who apparently were not anxious to question too closely the authority; and after Judge Black had been consulted as to the legality of the proceedings, I succeeded in enrolling a full company, including Mr. Frazer and those who had been my questioners.
On the following day, about the 6th of December, the company fell in, were formed up, and spent the day in drilling. In the evening I intended to pass on to St. James' parish, to enroll a similar company there. But in the afternoon I received a letter from Colonel Dennis telling me he did not wish Dr. Schultz to occupy his buildings any longer; that he could not support him, and that he wished him to retire. I rode to Dr. Schultz's house, arriving there during the night, and found them all assembled in the two houses. I informed the Doctor of Colonel Dennis's wishes, and a consultation of a few of the leading men was held. It was agreed that it was too late to evacuate the premises that night, but it should be done on the following day. There were a number of ladies present, and arrangements could not at any earlier moment be properly made for their departure. During the night Riel paraded the town with a number of men and performed a variety of evolutions, and about two o'clock in the morning he returned to the Fort. There was much excitement in the town over the action being taken by Colonel Dennis, and in consequence Riel aroused the spirit of his people and called to his support a large following in the Fort. To their great credit be it said, a strong party of the French, under Dease, remained aloof, and steadily refused to be drawn into any unlawful or disloyal action. In fact, I think, very few of the French half-breeds were really disloyal, and, in. other hands would have been open to reason. But Riel, by persuasion, insidious arguments, and promises of reward, which he was enabled to make good from the stores he controlled in Fort Garry, succeeded in gathering a strong force. This, however, we did not know at the time, for Riel's support was drawn from the parishes to the south of the Assiniboine, while the English parishes lay to the north, and little communication was at that time held between them.
Early on the following morning I went on my way to St. James' parish, about three miles to the west of Winnipeg, to enroll a company there. When I left, there were a number of people about and a great deal of excitement. This, however, was the case every morning and it was expected about noon that Dr. Schultz and those with him would be able to retire without exciting any opposition on the part of Riel. I held a meeting in Rev. Mr. Pinckham's parish about nine o'clock, and, after arranging for the enrolment of a company, I went across the prairie to Kildonan, where I drilled a company during the day, and had provisions and blankets put into a house for the reception of Dr. Schultz's party. About four o'clock in the evening, the party not having arrived, I went up to Winnipeg but was unable to get into the village. I then heard that they had surrendered, in response to negotiations opened by Mr. Snow, who went to the Fort on behalf of the party and the property on the premises. Riel was told that they had only assembled at Dr. Schultz's to protect themselves and their property, and if Riel would guarantee that their lives and property would not be threatened they would retire quietly to their homes. This was answered by a written command to surrender in fifteen minutes, and backed by an additional force of 200 men. The messenger who brought the message led the party to believe that it would be a mere matter of form, that they would be marched to the Fort and set at liberty, and that all property would be respected. Their hands were tied, by the strict orders that had been issued, that they were on no account to fire the first shot. Of this Riel had heard, and it emboldened him in the action he took. It is fortunate that so much moderation was shown by Dr. Schultz, Dr. Lynch and others, or hostilities might have commenced on that occasion. The whole party, with the exception of the ladies, were made prisoners on reaching Fort Garry. Riel was, no doubt, further emboldened in this action by the knowledge, which had now become almost a certainty with him, that the action taken by the Governor was illegal.
I hastened to return to Colonel Dennis with news of the surrender of Dr. Schultz's party, but was met by a courier with a letter from him informing me that he had abandoned his project and was leaving the country. He instructed me to go to Portage la Prairie and hold a conference with a tribe there of Sioux, asking them to remain peaceable and loyal to the Queen, and not to interfere in the difficulties that had arisen. These Sioux were the remnants of the tribe that had committed a massacre in Dakota, in 1863, when twelve hundred whites fell victims to their lust of blood. They found protection under the British Government and had lived peaceably in our midst ever since. 1 was relieved to find that they had no desire to break the peace, as Chief Little Fox assured me.
Before leaving, Colonel Dennis had taken steps to send similar messages to other tribes, with a request to remain at peace. He instructed me at the same time to remain in the country and do my utmost to keep matters quiet. 1 proceeded at once to High Bluff and Portage la Prairie to carry out his instructions and was nearly made prisoner on my way thither by a party of Riel's men who were encamped in a house about ha]S way to intercept messengers - While there I met Colonel Dennis, who was on his way to Pembina to rejoin Mr. Macdougall. I remained at Portage la Prairie during the winter, receiving the hospitality of the Rev. Mr. George and Mr. Alcock.
Disquieting rumours were now the order of the day. The sudden collapse of Colonel Dennis's movement and the capture of fifty prisoners, who were detained in the Fort, gave Riel complete control over the country. He, however, confined his jurisdiction to the neighbourhood of Fort Garry and the town of Winnipeg; but his ambition was greatly stimulated by his success, and his success emboldened some to uphold the authority he had usurped.
We must now revert to what was passing in Canada upon the news reaching it of Riel's acts and of the half-breed depredations.