Manitoba Historical Society
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My Love Affair with Louis Riel: Does he know where Riel buried Scott?

by Lillian Gibbons

Winnipeg Tribune, 9 January 1952

The body of Thomas Scott, who was shot on Louis Riel’s orders, March 4, 1870, has tantalized historians since that day.

But the strange story of a plumber, a rebel, a broken oath and a bundle of bones wrapped in tea-chest lead now may solve the mystery.

Today, according to C. E. Matthews, 354 St. Anne’s Road, Scott’s bones lie buried in the sacred ground around St. Boniface Basilica.

Because he “simply had to tell somebody,” Mr. Matthews Monday revealed his story, quoting a fellow plumber, Michael Sweeney, now dead, as his source.

In 1904, Sweeney was putting a sewer along the wall of the old church when he found a bundle of bones wrapped in lead foil from a tea chest.

There was a medal on a chain around the neck too rusted to read and Sweeney saw no significance in his discovery, reburying the bones where he found them.

Scott was an Ontario Orangeman, after being a volunteer in a Fenian raid at Sterling in 1868, who came west in ‘69 as a wood cutter. A big man, six feet two, he first appears in history leading 16 men out of the bush from their road work to the boss, John Snow, demanding higher wages.

He was first arrested by Riel Dec. 6 1869, and thrown into Fort Garry with other prisoners. He made a bold escape Jan. 9, getting to Portage la Prairie where he stirred up the English settlers.

In the middle of February, under Maj. C. A. Boulton, they marched to Fort Garry to demand the release of the prisoners. But they themselves had to surrender to the Metis and became prisoners. Scott along with Boulton was in jail.

Once Riel said Boulton should die but a delegation earned him a reprieve. Then he picked on Scott.

The charge read against him March 3, 1870, was: “Having taken up arms against the provisional government and struck one of the guards.” Five of the seven French half-breeds voted for execution, two for exile.

Mr. Matthews discovered Sweeney’s story by accident. Always interested in history, he had been in many homes in St. Vital since he got his first plumber’s license in 1915.
That fall he was doing some work in a house he believes was 125 Guay Ave., where an old man sat in the corner and mumbled in French and English.

The woman of the house, his daughter or niece, did not want him to talk. But bit by bit, as the plumbing job proceeded, Mr. Matthews found out this old gentleman was Ambroise D. Lepine, adjutant general at the council of war trial of Thomas Scott, March 3, 1870.

The trial resulted in Scott’s death by a drunken firing squad the next day.

“The men near Riel took an oath never to reveal where they put the body. Lepine said it was wrapped in the lead foil of a tea chest and buried in sacred ground, by the first window of the old church.”

A photograph of St. Boniface in 1869, published in Fr. A. Morice’s Critical History of The Red River Insurrection shows a little church near the site of the present cathedral. Fire had destroyed the cathedral of 1860; the present cathedral was opened in 1908.

Why did Riel give the order for execution?

To put down excitement in the settlement and restore peace, say some. To make an example and give a warning, say others.

The prisoners were all released by March 24. Quietness settled here but in Ontario when the news reached there the storm broke. The Dominion government dispatched the 750 men of the Wolseley expedition, who arrived Aug. 24. Riel and Lepine fled—and Scott’s body remained to tantalize historians.

There are many stories of where Scott was buried. Leslie Johnston, provincial librarian, recalled a story that a body was found in the reeds of Netley Creek the spring after Scott was shot.

Rev. A. Morice believes it was buried in St. John’s cemetery. Others say it is outside or inside Fort Garry.

“Andre Nault said those who knew would never tell—except the place was sacred ground,” said Mr. Matthews.

It was this same Nault, uncle to Riel through marriage, who quoted Father Morice as his source for the information Scott’s body was buried in St. John’s.

But Mr. Matthews is sure he has the right place.

“Today it would be one side or the other of the main walk up to the front door of the Cathedral,” he said.

Page revised: 10 June 2021

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