The first overt act was committed when Riel requested the French half-breeds to bring their arms with them to a meeting to be held on the 3rd of March; and from that day matters grew worse. On the 18th of March the stores of Walters, and Baker, and Kerr Bros., at St. Laurent, were raided; and Indian agent Lash, Astley, a surveyor, Tompkins, the telegraph repairer, and other Government employees were taken prisoners.
Major Crozier, who was stationed at Fort Canton, received this news on the 19th, and at once sent over to Prince Albert to Captain Moore and others asking for reinforcements. A meeting was held, and it was determined to send a force of forty men, who on the 20th marched to Fort Canton, forty miles distant, arriving there about ten o'clock the same night.
Major Crozier had already received a letter from Riel, through Mr. Mitchell, the owner of stores at Duck Lake, demanding his surrender. Crozier at once sent Thomas McKay with Mitchell to the half-breeds to endeavour to get them to disperse. McKay, who is an intelligent English half-breed, started for Batoche with Mitchell during the night of the 20th, and arrived at Walters and Baker's store, which is on the opposite side of the river to Batoche. They were there met by a guard and were escorted across the river to the council-chamber, which Riel had set up in the church. McKay's sworn account of this interview is important as showing the determination of Riel to shed blood. Mr. Mitchell introduced McKay to Riel, and having ascertained that he came with Mitchell, who was the bearer of correspondence, he was accorded the same protection as was guaranteed to Mitchell.
Upon being introduced, McKay said, "There seems to be great excitement here, Mr. Riel." He said, "No, there is no excitement at all; it is simply that the people are trying to redress their grievances, as they had asked repeatedly for their rights." McKay then told him that it was a very dangerous thing to resort to arms. Riel said that he had been waiting fifteen long years, and that they had been imposed upon, and it was time now, after they had waited patiently, that their rights should be granted, as the poor half-breeds had been imposed upon. McKay disputed his wisdom and advised him to adopt different measures. He accused McKay of having neglected the half-breeds. The latter told him that this was simply a matter of opinion, that he had certainly taken an interest in them, and that his stake in the country was the same as theirs, and that time and again he had so advised them, and had not neglected them. He also told Riel that he had neglected them a long time if he took as deep an interest as he professed to. Riel became very excited, and got up and said: You don't know what we are after.. It is blood, blood; we want blood; it is a war of extermination. Everybody that is against us is to be driven out of the country. There were two curses in the country-the Government and the Hudson's Bay Company."
Reil now turned to McKay and said that he was a traitor to his Government; that he was a speculator and a scoundrel, a robber and a thief. He finally said it was blood, and the first blood they wanted was his. There were some little dishes on the table, and he got hold of a spoon and said, "You have no blood, you are a traitor to your people, your blood is frozen, and all the little blood you have will be there in five minutes," putting the spoon up to his face, and pointing to it. McKay said, "If you think you are benefiting your cause by taking my blood, you are quite welcome to it." He called his people and the committee, and wanted to put him on trial for his life; and Garnot got up and went to the table with a sheet of paper, and Gabriel Dumont took a chair on a syrup keg, and Riel called up the witnesses against him. He said he was a liar, and he told them that McKay had said all the people in that section of the country had risen against them. He said that it was not so; that it was only the people in the town. Champagne got up and spoke in his favour. McKay told them that Riel was threatening to take his life, and said, "If you think by taking my life you will benefit your cause, you are welcome to do so." Champagne said no, they did not wish anything of the kind; they wanted to redress their grievances in a constitutional way. Riel then rose and said he had a committee meeting of importance going on upstairs, and he went off. McKay spoke to them for quite a while, and Riel occasionally came down and put his head in, and said he was speaking too loud, that he was annoying their committee meeting. When he had said what he had to say, McKay asked for something to eat, as he was pretty hungry. After he had eaten, McKay lay down on some blankets in the corner till Mitchell was ready. Mitchell was upstairs, and when he came down, they prepared to leave for Fort Carlton. Riel presently came in and apologized to McKay for what he had said, adding that he did not mean to harm him personally, but that it was his cause he was speaking against, and he wished to show that he entertained great respect for him. He said he was very sorry not to have him with him, that it was not too late to join him yet. He also said that it was Major Crozier's last opportunity of averting bloodshed, and that unless he surrendered Fort Carlton, an attack would be made at twelve o'clock.
It had been arranged with Mr. Mitchell at the committee meeting upstairs that Riel should send two delegates to meet Major Crozier half way; and an hour after the arrival of McKay at Fort Carlton, he turned round and accompanied Captain Moore to meet the delegates. At the appointed place they were met by Charles Nolin and Maxime Lepine, who had been sent as delegates to demand the surrender of Fort Carlton, with all its stores and property, undertaking if it were quietly given up that the Police should be allowed to go unharmed. As Major Crozier's instructions to the delegates were that the people should disband, and give up the leaders at once, or suffer the penalty of their criminal acts, the meeting resulted in nothing; and Lepine did not present the document intended for Major Crozier. It was afterwards found among Riel's papers in Batoche subsequent to its capture.
Things remained as they were for a day or two, awaiting anxiously the arrival of Colonel Irvine. This officer had been despatched with a force of a hundred men in great haste from Regina, upon the receipt of the first news of the outbreak. He arrived at Prince Albert on the 24th March; but in the meantime, Major Crozier had determined to send a guard with some sleighs and take away the forage and provisions that were in Mitchell's store at Duck Lake to a place of safety. So, on the morning of the 26th, about four o'clock he sent a small detachment off with a dozen sleighs to remove the stores, under Sergt. Stewart. They advanced, with four men in front acting as advance guard, and when within a mile and a-half of Duck Lake, the guard were seen returning at full gallop with a number of half-breeds after them. The sleighs were halted and turned round, and McKay, who was with them, awaited their coming. They were a party of between thirty and forty, headed by Gabriel Dumont. He was very excited, jumped off his horse, and loaded his rifle, cocked it and went up to McKay and threatened to blow his brains out. McKay told him that two could play at that game, and that he had better be quiet. Dumont talked wildly, and wanted McKay's party to surrender. He said it was McKay's fault that his people were not assisting them, and that McKay was to blame for all the trouble. McKay refused to surrender, and said that they had the best right to the property. Some men got into the sleighs and attempted to snatch the lines, but the teamsters held on to them. Gabriel Dumont fired his rifle over their heads, and they then stepped out of the road and allowed the sleighs to return to Carlton, without, however, having secured the forage and provisions. Sergt. Stewart had sent a message back to Major Crozier to say that he had met with resistance and wanted support, and about three miles from the fort they met Major Crozier coming with his whole force to assert the law. He sent back young Retallack with a despatch to Col. Irvine to tell him that he had started out to support some teams that had gone over for provisions, and that help would be needed. McKay and his party turned round and accompanied him. Crozier's force, numbering in all about one hundred, now advanced along the trail towards Duck Lake. About four miles from there the advance guard reported that there were some Indians in a house belonging to Beardy, whose tribe had joined the insurgents, and whose reserve they were then crossing. They advanced past this house to where McKay had been stopped in the morning.
On nearing Duck Lake the advance guard was seen galloping back, pursued by a large body of the rebels, and one of them, Ernest Todd, reported to Major Crozier that the half-breeds were advancing in numbers, and that he had been fired upon, receiving a bullet in his saddle. Major Crozier at once called Joe McKay, and said, "I will hold a parley with them before attempting to advance ;" but, while holding this parley, he saw an attempt on the part of thee enemy to surround his men, and at once gave the order to fire. At the same time, one of the Indians who was parleying with Major Crozier tried to wrest the rifle from Joe McKay, and in the scuffle that ensued the Indian was shot. The nine-pounder was loaded, ready for action, but Major Crozier was in the line of fire, and it could not he used upon the enemy until he moved, and the gunners could not make him hear. Before he got out of the way, the great body of the rebels had disappeared over the hill out of danger. Major Crozier turned round angrily and said, "Why don't you fire that gun ?" He was told that he was in the line of fire, and the answer was, "Well, I am only one man, you should have fired anyway ;" and to this circumstance a number of the rebels owed their lives.
The fight that ensued was nearly being a complete massacre, and only by the coolness of Major Crozier and his force was this avoided. Captain Morton took his men to the right flank, near a rail fence, where, only seventy-five yards distant, and not seen at first for a bluff, they were terribly exposed to the fire from the neighbouring house. The police were formed up near the sleighs. The skirmish lasted for thirty or forty minutes, and was most disastrous. Nine Prince Albert volunteers and three policemen were killed and about twenty-five wounded. There was no possibility of an advance through the deep snow, and the enemy kept well out of sight, though the gallant men managed to kill six of them, and in this fight Gabriel Dumont got a severe scalp wound. The mistake Major Crozier made was in attempting to hold a parley. Riel took advantage of this to send his men round, under cover of the gullies, and made an attempt to surround the police and capture the whole party.
Major Crozier ordered his men to retire. The horses were hitched up under fire, and the withdrawal took place in the most orderly manner. Captain Moore, while he was stepping into one of the sleighs, had the misfortune to receive a bullet, which shattered his leg, and the injury was so great that the limb had to be amputated. The little force reached Carlton about four o'clock, and half an hour afterwards Colonel Irvine marched in with his men. Colonel Irvine, now being in command, determined to evacuate the fort and to retire on Prince Albert. This was done on the morning of the 28th. A portion of Fort Carlton caught fire by accident and was burned; and on the 3rd of April, Riel and his men marched up and took possession of the ruins of the fort, where they remained for a time in the unconsumed buildings.
Major Crozier was quite unprepared for such an encounter, and, no doubt, did not contemplate that, in the execution of his duty, he would meet with such murderous opposition. Otherwise, he would have hesitated to expose his men, without greater military precaution, as Colonel Irvine was expected shortly with an increased force. Though brave lives were lost in the endeavour to uphold the laws of their country, and to protect the isolated settlements from the insurgents, they have not been sacrificed in vain. This engagement was the signal to the Government to take decisive steps to prevent the recurrence of such a rising, which now seemed inevitable, and to show the power of Canada to maintain her laws, to punish offenders, and to control her Indian population scattered throughout the immense territory.
The danger that presented itself was not so much the half-breed rising, under Riel, which was confined to a certain locality, but the fear that in the excitement of war and at the instigation of Riel, the whole Indian population of the country might rise, and the various bands and reserves scattered over it would commit depredations, and bring death and desolation to the peaceful homes of the settlers. I may here say that such was not the case, owing to the excellent system under which Canada has always managed her Indian population. Although there may be faults arising from individual instances of bad management, yet the general system, and the good faith and honesty which prevail in the management of Indian affairs have been productive of the very best results, and on this occasion prevented widespread disaster reaching the far distant homes of the enterprising and defenceless settlers. The Indians have shown themselves capable of appreciating all that has already been done for them, and sensible of the advantages yet in store.
With the exception of a few evil spirits, who committed some atrocities, the general demeanour of the Indians showed the white settlers that on future occasions there need not be that alarm which fills the mind in having these savage tribes as neighbours. Of course, from their nomadic habits and savage nature, for many years to come they will require controlling; but, out of thirty thousand Indians, spread over the country, there are probably fewer individual instances of crime among them than there is in the same number of white people. It does not do for us to judge them by our own standard; they are a conquered race, they are narrowed down from their wonted privilege of roaming free over the whole country to occupying reserves set apart for them, which, though liberal in area, is, nevertheless, a restraint upon their freedom.
It was at once felt by both Government and people that the half-breed rising in the North-West, if allowed to assume important dimensions and become an Indian rising, great disaster would befal the commercial interests of the country, and throw its prospects back for many years by retarding immigration, which is so essential to its development. It was true statesmanship, therefore, on the part of the Government, to realize this fact in time, and to throw promptly into the North-West a force strong enough to insure the speedy re-establishment of law and order, and to show the outer world the determination of Canada to protect the lives and property of her most distant citizens.
The rising in the North-West also brought out such a national feeling in the Government's call for troops, that will allay any anxiety in the future, and prove to all political parties, that when the interests of Canada or her national existence are at stake, the people are a unit. Every province enthusiastically desired to join in the expedition, and the Canadian spirit that was aroused dominated every sectional and provincial feeling. This attitude of the nation has done much to raise the character of our people in the eyes of the world.
It would seem unaccountable that Major Crozier, an officer of twelve years' experience in the country, should have been led into a trap, which proved so disastrous. But Major Crozier was resting under the insult offered by Riel, who sent to demand his surrender, and as an officer of the country, with an armed force at his back, he deemed it his duty, for the honour of his men, to go out and support the teams and the little detachment which had been stopped. It must also be remembered that the whole of this vast region, eight hundred miles long by four hundred broad, filled with a halfbreed and Indian population, had hitherto been well and peacefully governed by a small force of five hundred mounted police, which, in themselves, combined military and civil elements. By this force the law had been well administered and well upheld. By their coolness and courage, on occasions without number, they had entered the camps of the excited Indians, and, with an escort of two or three, been accustomed to take their prisoner. Their ability to do so has frequently excited the admiration of American officers to the south of the boundary, who were engaged in the same duties, where, for the capture of a murderer or a horse thief, or in putting down whiskey sellers, a force would have to be put in motion and often lives lost in the attempt.
On our side of the line this was accomplished by the determined action of two or three policemen; and Major Crozier doubtless thought that the same determined action on his part would nip in the bud a serious outbreak, which would prove disastrous to the country. On this occasion, however, a new element had sprung up in the person of Riel, who had not yet interfered on this side of the line. He was prepared to resort to force to accomplish his purpose, or die in the attempt. Besides this, Riel worked upon the superstitious beliefs of his people; he worked upon their feelings, and overawed them by the fears he excited for their safety, the while holding out large promises of reward to stimulate their courage and devotion.
After the battle of Duck Lake, the half-breeds returned in an excited state to their headquarters, where they held the prisoners, and in the wild excitement of their savage nature some of them wished to wreak their vengeance upon their harmless captives; but they were too valuable as a hostage to use in the future, when Riel must have felt that he would have to give an account of his actions. He at once set to work to enlarge his plans for the defeat of the whole country and to hold at defiance the authority of Canada. Immediately he sent his runners to the different tribes of Indians, hundreds of miles away, with letters indited by himself, instructing them to rise, to seize the forts, and to secure all the provisions and ammunition. These runners came to my own neighbourhood, in the Shell River district, to the Indians and half-breeds in the thickly settled Qu'Appelle district, to Poundmaker in the Battleford district, and Big Bear in the Fort Pitt district, and wherever he knew of a tribe of Indians or a settlement of half-breeds. He cunningly took advantage of an eclipse of the sun, which was to occur during March, and told the Indians that upon a certain day the sun was to darken, and that was to be a sign that they should rise, and also be a sign of his power. It is here worthy of remark that "John Smith's tribe at the Company's crossing, near Prince Albert, "Mis-ta-wa-sis" (big child), near Carlton, "Chic-a-sta-fa-sin" (star blanket), on the road to Green Lake; "Moosomin," near Battleford, besides many other tribes whose reserves were near the scene of the outbreak, left their reserves to avoid being compelled to join in the rising. Riel, moreover, instituted a policy for his own aggrandizement, by attempting to overthrow the religion of his church; he declaimed against the interference of the church in the temporal affairs of the people, limiting it strictly to its spiritual power; he formulated a new religion, constituting himself the head and prophet; he baptized Jackson, the secretary of his provisional government, into this new religion, and gave a feast in the village of Batoche in honour of it, inviting all his people. Those who came he held as soldiers, and did not allow them to return to their homes. This all occurred during the latter part of March. He then cut the wires in the neighbourhood of Batoche, which severed telegraph communication between Prince Albert and the East. The telegraph communication crosses the Saskatchewan at Clarke's Crossing on its way to Battleford, and there branches off in a northerly direction to Prince Albert. It has been a matter of astonishment that he never attempted or permitted the cutting of the wires elsewhere, which was an easy thing to accomplish all through the country, and would have hampered the movements of the forces sent to overthrow him. His object in this was supposed to be, to allow the fullest information to go to the world of the events that were now likely to occur in rapid succession, in the hope that the Fenian element in the United States would come to his assistance, or that the half-breeds, to the south of the boundary, would send him aid. Possibly also, he expected that the Indians on the boundary line of the United States would harass the Canadian troops. Such were the desperate measures of Riel, into which he had drawn his people, and he assured them of the co-operation of these forces to assist them in their cause.
Colonel Irvine's plans were now altered, and instead of taking his whole force to punish the rebels, he deemed it more prudent to act on the defensive, and take steps for the protection of the settlers, whose property and lives were considered to be in great danger. The half-breeds who committed the dastardly act at Duck Lake now felt that they carried their lives in their hands, and under the command of Riel were determined to go on to further victories, and rouse the half-breed and Indian population throughout the whole northern district. This, no doubt. led Colonel Irvine to abandon Fort Carlton and concentrate his forces in Prince Albert, for the protection of that populous district, and in the altered state of affairs to await the action of the Dominion Government.
We will now leave Riel for a time to see the effect of the Duck Lake fight upon the Canadian public, when the news was sent over the wires.