Batoche: The Last Battle

The troubles in the Canadian North-West were likened by authors Bob Beal and Rod Macleod to a prairie fire, caused by carelessness and miscommunication.

The day after his encounter with the Metis at Fish Creek, Major-General Frederick Middleton was badly shaken. The disdain he had for his enemy had vanished. “I could not help feeling sorry to see those poor citizen soldiers laying dead and wounded,” he wrote. “Most of them being well-to-do tradesmen’s sons who thought they were going out for a picnic.”

The defeat by Gabriel Dumont’s forces left Middleton in a fog of indecision. Finally after two weeks he marched the column of 850 men out and on the night of May 7 camped 10 km (?) outside the Metis stronghold at Batoche.

The troubles in the Canadian North-West were likened by authors Bob Beal and Rod Macleod to a prairie fire, caused by carelessness and miscommunication. In 1869 the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Canadian government agreed to transfer the North-West Territories to Canada. Unfortunately neither side bothered to consult the people who lived there: the First Nations and the Metis. The charismatic Metis leader Louis Riel led the resistance, forming a provisional government and seizing Fort Garry. The conflict ended when the Canadian government sent troops. Riel was exiled to the United States.

Battle of Batoche The Capture of Batoche, lithograph by Sergeant Grundy (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-2424).

In the next decade and a half the Canadian government focused on its goal of filling the prairies with white settlers. The new Canadian Pacific Railway began pushing track westward from Winnipeg. Many Metis left their land in Red River and moved west to the South Branch of the Saskatchewan River, south of Prince Albert. They tried to set down roots, but the Canadian government ignored their demands for recognition of their rights.

Amid growing desperation, the Metis secretly persuaded Riel to return. Fed up with the failure of the federal government to address the Metis concerns, Riel formed a new provisional government on March 8. Fighting first broke out at Duck Lake when a Cree emissary and a police interpreter scuffled during a parley. Twelve police and volunteers and six of the rebel force died.

Then on April 12, Dumont, with about 150 Métis and Indians, prepared an ambush at Fish Creek, 20 km south of Batoche. Middleton’s soldiers tried unsuccessfully to drive Dumont’s men from the ravine and suffered heavy casualties, 6 killed and 49 wounded.

On the morning of Saturday May 9 Middleton’s troops awakened at four o’clock and were ready to march to Batoche, some 9 km away. At Batoche the South Saskatchewan makes a big bend. On higher ground the missionaries had built a church and established a cemetery. The village was located on both sides of a ravine. Three lines of rifle pits had been dug carefully and hidden in the bush and scrub.

On the first advance, Middleton soon appreciated that he was in an extremely unpleasant position. The men cautiously advanced and then withdrew.

On Sunday May 10 Middleton rested his troops. He was not really sure what to do next. He seemed happy conducting a leisurely siege, but his men were getting exasperated with the pointless routine of advance skirmishing and retreat. “I am in a ticklish position,” he telegraphed his superior. On the other side the defenders were becoming discouraged as well. They were not prepared for siege warfare. They were short of ammunition and their ranks were thinning with desertion.

When Middleton next gave the order to advance, his officers quietly made up their minds that there would be no turning back this time.

The men moved cautiously through the bush and ravine, pressing on through a volley of shots. As reinforcements arrived, the front line formed a line and began firing in earnest. At this point the defenders ran from rifle pit to rifle pit, firing as they went. They fell back stubbornly, contesting every metre. By the time Middleton was roused from his lunch by the noise of battle it was too late. The troops broke through the line of rifle pits, drove out or killed the occupants, and ran down into the village.

The defenders fought on bravely, rallied and killed Captain French. But the superior force was merciless and the defenders were depleted by desertion. The defenders finally abandoned their last stand and fled for their lives. The battle was over and the Metis scattered, never to reassemble. Dumont skillfully evaded capture and eventually reached the US. Riel, confused, tired and frightened, surrendered to Middleton without trying to escape.

It might be said that some rebellions, that of 1837 comes to mind, have their goals eventually achieved. It is difficult to make that claim for the rebellion of 1885. There were small gains, as arrangements were made for representation of the West in the Canadian Parliament. The bitter question of land rights was settled. Nevertheless, once again the Metis sold their land and moved on, many ending up in poverty. Louis Riel was hung for treason, opening a huge chasm in Canadian politics. As for Middleton, he was investigated for illegally seizing furs he took to be tribute, and his career was ruined.

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.

James H Marsh is Editor in Chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia


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