The Red River Rebellion and J. S. Dennis, “Lieutenant and Conservator of the Peace”
by Colin Read
Stiff and formal, fussy and officious, pompous and punctilious, John Stoughton Dennis, fully bedecked with flowing whiskers and magnificent moustaches, careened through Red River in 1869, leaving chaos and wreckage in his wake. This is an overdrawn picture, perhaps, but one that has been widely accepted. 
The stuffy Stoughton Dennis, a surveyor by trade, considered himself to be something more, to be, in fact, a thoroughly competent and capable military leader. In this, he was deluded, but late in 1869, as the Red River rebellion was unfolding, unfortunate circumstances combined to vest him with the military command of the pro-Canadian forces in the North-West, a command which (to be kind), he discharged less than well. Many of the errors he made during the turbulent days of December 1869, seem, in the light of his earlier military experience against the Fenians in 1866, to have been quite predictable, and Dennis has largely deserved the bad historical press accorded him over the years. Still, in 1869 he was as much the victim of circumstances as of his own shortcomings. Yet little or no attempt has been made to understand the difficulties of his position. A balanced assessment of his role in the events of 1869 is overdue.
Dennis was born in 1820 in Kingston, Upper Canada into a United Empire Loyalist family imbued with strong military traditions. His maternal grandfather had been an army officer, while his father, Joseph, was a lake captain who had been pressed into service against the Americans in the War of 1812. Descended from “martial ancestors,”  Stoughton Dennis readily persuaded himself that he possessed considerable military talent. Though he began a very successful surveying career in 1842, he became more interested in the militia, where he could emulate his family traditions and satisfy his own ambitions. Here, his ascent through the ranks was rapid, as befitted a gentleman. In 1855 he became Lieutenant of a Toronto troop of cavalry raised by the formidable George T. Denison; the succeeding year he gained command of the Toronto Field Battery of Artillery. In 1862, he was recognized as a competent administrator,  and earned the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel as the new Brigade Major of the 5th Military District. 
Peace-time honours came easily to Dennis, but he must have been uncomfortably aware that the proof of a soldier’s merit lay on the battlefield, for he craved the opportunity to test his mettle under fire. In June of 1866 when the Fenians crossed the Niagara River, seeking to capture the Canadas and hold them ransom for Ireland, he somehow secured command of the 480 officers and men of the Queen’s Own who had been despatched to the front, though he had had no previous association with them! The unceremonious shunting aside of their regular commander and the sudden elevation of Dennis “created an unpleasant feeling” in the regiment.  Despite this, Dennis now had the opportunity to demonstrate his military prowess, and the demonstration was to foreshadow in many respects his performance in 1869 in Red River.
On June 1, the day of the Fenian incursion, Dennis’ Force was sent to Port Colborne on Lake Erie, there to await reinforcements and instructions. The former soon arrived, commanded by Lt.-Col. A. Booker of Hamilton, who supplanted Dennis as senior officer That evening, the two were ordered by Colonel Peacocke, commander of the forces on the Niagara frontier, to unite their men with his on the morrow, to prepare for a combined attack on the Fenians, then lodged at Frenchman’s Creek. The two officers also learned that the Fenian camp, plagued by drunkenness, was in riotous disorder, knowledge that led Dennis to suggest the ignoring of Peacocke’s order and the launching of an immediate attack at Port Colborne.  This mad-cap scheme was rejected, but Dennis, Booker and Captain Akers, Peacocke’s emissary, did agree that Dennis and Akers would commandeer a tug, patrol the Niagara River and put in at Fort Erie to meet Booker and his men on their way to the rendezvous with Peacocke.  Dennis’ eagerness to participate in this plan was later ascribed by an unfriendly observer to his desire to escape both Booker’s authority and the hostility and dislike of the Queen’s Own.  In any case, Akers and Dennis did venture forth with 108 men on the tug, The Robb, blissfully unaware of the fact that, when Peacocke heard of the plan concocted by his three subordinates, he immediately vetoed it. 
On the second of June, while Dennis and company steamed up and down the Niagara, Booker’s force, enroute to join Peacocke’s, was attacked and scattered by the Fenians. In this, the battle of Ridgeway, Booker lost ten men and provided the Fenians with their single great victory in their sorry struggle with England.
When Booker failed to arrive at Fort Erie as scheduled, Dennis decided to continue the patrol of the river, in order to intercept Fenians fleeing back to New York. That afternoon, the Colonel, still ignorant of Booker’s defeat, set in at Fort Erie with some sixty prisoners, who, like their fellows, had sought the safety of the American shore when it appeared the Canadians were out in force against them. Dennis landed approximately 70 of his men, just as 150 of the enemy appeared. Confident of victory over this rag-tag body, he urged his men forward, but an initial burst of fire was quickly followed by Dennis’ order to retreat.  He had spied ever more Fenians and had realized that the enemy were in strength. The Robb had put out into the river; no escape was possible that way, thus it was every man for himself.  Dennis contrived to get away. He first hid in a friend’s house, then shaved off his whiskers, though not his magnificent moustache, shed his officer’s uniform, and donned “the common clothes of a labouring man.”  In this guise he skirted the Fenians and late that night entered Peacocke’s camp. Thirty-four of his men, who were not so enterprising or so lucky, were captured. 
Once the invasion had collapsed, and Canada West had been rid of the Fenians, and captured militiamen freed, Dennis faced several irate former subordinates. Captain McCallum, for one, informed the militia authorities that at Fort Erie Dennis had exposed his men to unnecessary risk and, insinuated that the Colonel had acted cravenly.  For another, Captain King, who had lost a leg while serving with Dennis, publicly labelled his superior “a coward” and a “Poltrooney scoundrel.”  Accordingly, Dennis asked that a court investigate the accusations levelled, and, though the authorities evidently felt that no case could be made against him, they established a court of inquiry.
Six charges faced Colonel Dennis; most averred he had exposed his men to unnecessary risk, but one flatly accused him of deserting them under fire.  The court exonerated him completely, but its president, Col. George T. Denison, an old associate who privately felt that Dennis should have been tried for disobeying Peacocke’s orders, published a dissenting opinion which questioned the Colonel’s military judgement, if not his personal courage.  Denison carried the substance of his indictment into print, in his History of the Fenian Raid, despite Dennis’ attempts to influence the interpretations rendered in that work. The appearance of the book marked the end of the two men’s friendship, for in it Denison assessed Dennis thusly:
Yet, Denison’s appreciation of the military talents of the man who was to play such a prominent role in the early stages of the Riel rebellion was not unjustified. The Fenian episode had proved him impatient of restraint, and demonstrated that he was capable of committing himself and those in his command to action without first carefully considering all the ramifications of that action. The encounter at Fort Erie suggested further that, once the measures Dennis had adopted proved ill-advised and potentially catastrophic, he was alltoo inclined to turn tail and to extricate himself, giving little thought to his men. Many of these characteristics were to surface again in 1869.
In 1869 the Department of Public Works sought a competent individual to survey the lands of the North West Territories before their scheduled transfer to Canada from the Hudson’s Bay Company on or about December 1. J. S. Dennis, though fresh from a rather inglorious escapade, was a good surveyor with extensive experience, and received the appointment. Possibly, political connections helped him secure it, though he was certainly no “party hack.” Later in his career, he explained to John A. Macdonald, that he had “never, upon principle, since I have been in receipt of a salary from the Government, either as a staff officer of Militia or since I entered the regular Civil Service, cast a single vote.” 
On July 10, 1869, William McDougall, Minister of Public Works, told Dennis to consider himself a temporary employee of his department and ordered him to proceed to Red River at once to begin work there. The Minister informed his new subordinate that he considered the American grid survey system best suited to the needs of the North-West, although he argued that the sections established should be 800 acres in extent, rather than 640, as in the United States. Obviously, it is unfair to suggest as some have that Dennis, who arrived in Red River on August 20, came to impose in high-handed fashion an alien survey system on the inhabitants of that colony. In the light of McDougall’s instructions he could not have considered himself to have a free hand in determining the system to be used. Moreover, Dennis was sensitive to the needs of the colony. He advised McDougall of the pressing necessity of extinguishing the existing Indian land title, and informed him that “great confusion and irregularity” existed “in the surveys and descriptions” of the grants already made. Consequently, “much care and skill” and compromise would “be required in reconciling difficulties” involving “clashing descriptions and disputed occupations.” Dennis was also acutely aware that the French half-breeds, who comprised, he estimated, 3,000 souls, or one-fifth of the settlement, were “likely to prove a turbulent element;” for they had already threatened violence should the surveys be run. Hence, the Colonel intended to call on the Catholic priests to explain that he had no intention of running rough-shod over Métis rights and to ask the clergy to explain this to their Métis parishioners. 
Dennis knew that the Métis riverfront strip farms would not mesh with a grid survey system, and the plan of survey he forwarded to McDougall, though based on 800 acre sections, proposed no surveys along the Red and Assiniboine rivers where the Métis farms lay.  He instructed his surveyors not to work in any part of the settlement occupied by the Métis. Also, he informed McDougall that he had taken every opportunity to impress upon the half-breeds and the Indians, the government’s intention to deal honourably and equitably with them. However, if the threatened violence did materialize, he intended to take his surveyors out of the field immediately. Clearly if an incident occurred in these circumstances, it would have to be a manufactured one.
Governor McTavish of the Hudson’s Bay Company had reluctantly granted permission to proceed with the surveys, and the Colonel decided to begin by running the principal meridian north from the 49th parallel at Pembina and base lines west to Portage la Prairie and east to Ste Anne’s. Unfortunately, the base line passed through the Métis community of St. Vital and the farm of Andre Nault. and October 11, when a survey team tried to run the line through Naults hay privilege, its members encountered a party of eighteen Métis, led by young Louis Riel, who informed them that the land south of the Assiniboine constituted part of the Métis patrimony and was to be left inviolate. 
McTavish, on learning of the incident, commented that the Métis knew full well that the survey party could have continued its work without injury to anyone. He felt that they had chosen to create an incident to let the Canadian government know that it was not wanted in the North-West and to impress upon it the fact that, in its attempts to acquire Red River, it should have attempted to arrange terms with the local, not the imperial, government. 
While Dennis’ actions so far were understandable, they were certainly unwise. The Red River community was divided along many lines, and attempts to persuade the authorities to overcome the Métis resistance could only serve to divide further the inhabitants and irretrievably alienate from the Canadian cause the most significant portion of that community Moreover, though the Canadians in the colony might regard the Colonel as the representative of the government;’ he had no legal standing there, enjoying merely the status of a privileged guest. In time, these facts were all keenly appreciated by Prime Minister Macdonald who came to feel that:
Unfortunately, after the interruption of the surveys, Dennis increasingly aligned himself with the Canadian party in Red River. In fact ever since his appearance in the settlement, Dennis had been regarded in many quarters as a political partisan, since he had arrived in company with Dr. John Christian Schultz, a bluff. imperious, overbearing Canadian, who made no attempt to disguise his conviction that he, and other Canadians like him, were destined to control and direct the future of the colony within the Canadian Confederation. And to make matters worse, Dennis had lodged in the Schultz home.  These facts later led Sir John A. Macdonald to assume that, from the outset, Dennis had erred in striking up a too close association with the controversial doctor.
Undoubtedly. Dennis was inextricably identified with the Canadian parry. yet, he seems to have considered the Canadians as something other than a party, since he considered them to be beyond mere partisan interests. On October 20, when he learned that his minister, William McDougall, now the Lieutenant-Governor designate of the territory, was approaching the colony and that the Métis intended to refuse him admission to it, Dennis felt obliged to consult two leading Canadians about what action to take He closeted with them because he knew that the existing “three parties” in the settlement had no “sympathy with each other, either socially or politically” and he wished to steer clear of those animosities and of party generally by conferring with the Canadians. 
In any case, the three decided that the authorities must take “immediate and vigorous action” to forestall the “intended outrage;” and they informed Judge Black of their conviction. Indeed, through Black, Dennis was ultimately successful in securing a meeting of the Council of Assiniboia, to consider how to prevent McDougall’s expulsion. And Dennis was prepared to entertain a provocative scheme advanced by William Dease, a French half-breed opposed to the Riel parry, to force McDougall’s way into the colony with Dease’s men.  Still, Dennis was not devoid of reason and good sense. On hearing the erroneous report from Dease that McTavish had essentially agreed to Dease”s plan, Dennis advised McDougall by mail to stay put on the American side of the border until real support had materialized for him in the colony.
In a second report to McDougall of the same day, the Colonel usefully analyzed the situation in the colony. He pointed out that the settlement was deeply divided, that the Métis opposed the transfer of the colony to Canada and that the “English” (English-speaking?) settlers viewed the Métis with considerable hostility. Yet, he knew that the “English” would not shoulder arms against the French half-breeds, lest such a conflict resolve itself into one of nationalities and religions.” Further, he noted that the “English” reluctance to act forcefully was affected by the fact that the citizens of Red River had neither been consulted about the transfer of the colony, nor about the type of government to be bestowed upon it. The attitude of the “English,” he wisely concluded, was at best one of lukewarm acceptance of Dominion authority; consequently, they felt “that the Dominion should assume the responsibility of establishing amongst us, the Government which it, and it alone, has decided upon.”
These observations should have led Dennis to conclude that, in the absence of enthusiasm for Canada’s cause, he and McDougall must play a careful, cautious hand. Instead, he noted that the “English” would likely be willing to prevent the Métis from barring McDougall from the colony, that Riel did not represent all the French half-breeds, and that Dease would be willing to escort the would be Governor into Red River.  Logic, indeed his own, suggested circumspection, but Dennis here were evidently counselling confrontation, perhaps because he knew that McDougall, on his suggestion, had brought with him 350 rifles and 30,000 rounds of ammuniton. 
Whatever Dennis’ advice, the Council of Assiniboia decided on October 29 to counsel McDougall not to enter the colony while conditions were so unsettled. Dennis offered to take this sage advice, contained in a letter from McTavish, to the Lieutenant-Governor designate. He volunteered because if he carried the message he could be certain it would reach its destination and because he would also be afforded an opportunity of briefing his superior personally on the situation in the settlement He was entrusted with the letter, and, guided by an English half-breed, William Hallett, he skirted the Métis roadblocks and met McDougall in Pembina on November 1.
When McDougall read McTavish’s letter, he found that those on the Council of Assiniboia who were aware of Dennis’ analysis of conditions in Red River concurred heartily with it. He found, too, that McTavish deemed Dennis’ advice that he remain at Pembina until it was safe for him to enter the territory “sound and judicious.” The governor explained that he and the Council were not prepared to ask the settlers of the colony to turn out to assist McDougall, in case such a call precipitate “a collision between different sections of the people,” leading to “all the disasters of a war of races and religions.” Dennis, who perhaps had changed his mind yet again, seconded the conclusion of McTavish’s despatch, telling McDougall that he could count on the support of the Canadians in the colony, but that these, unfortunately, were few in number and scattered about the country.
Dennis and Hallett, exhausted after their hasty, and sometimes harrowing, ride over the prairie, decided to recuperate for a few days with McDougall, then ensconced just north of Pembina in British territory in the Hudson’s Bay Company fort. But the rest was a short one, for on November 2 a Métis party ordered McDougall and his entourage across the line, and the succeeding day enforced their order. They seized the unfortunate Hallett, bound him to a cart, and drove him off, “a prisoner, towards Fort Garry.” They also obliged McDougall and company, Dennis included, to trudge back to Pembina. 
Dennis asked McDougall’s permission to return to the colony. He felt that once in, if he did not interfere “in any way with the refractory party I might probably be allowed to go on with my duties without being molested,” but McDougall refused the request. Indeed, the latter, unaware of Ottawa’s deep desire that he refrain from forcing the situation,  and unaware, too, that Ottawa intended not to proceed with the transfer of the territory until it was tranquil, intended making Dennis a vital tool in the subduing of the supposed rebels.
Through November Dennis was in touch with the “Friends of Canada” in Red River, on the one hand receiving information,  and on the other attempting to correct mistaken impressions about McDougall’s mission. In all this, McDougall formed a good opinion of his subordinate, considering him a valuable asset, especially since he was “acquainted with the leading men of the Settlementstands well in their estimation, and knows the country.”  Dennis, McDougall concluded, could be entrusted with a dangerous and delicate mission.
On the night of November 29, “the coldest night we have yet experienced.” McDougall sent Dennis and “a trusty guide” back into the colony. Dennis was armed with two proclamations to post in the settlement, both dated December 1. The first declared that McDougall now represented government authority in Red River. The second appointed the Colonel, the veteran of Fort Erie, McDougall’s “Lieutenant and a conservator of the peace;” and authorized him “to raise, organise, arm, equip and provision a sufficient force ... to attack, arrest, disarm or disperse” those in arms and “to assault, fire upon, pull down or break into any fort, house, stronghold or other place in which the said armed men may be found.”  McDougall later explained, somewhat disingenuously, that he had simply given Dennis the powers any magistrate had to end riots and subdue mobs. McDougall had instructed Dennis to canvass opinion in the settlement, and, should he find “among the loyal people” a disposition “to put down the malcontents,” he was to issue a call to arms, organize “a force and put down the outbreak,” but, should Dennis not find such a disposition, he was “not to make any call but return to Pembina and report accordingly” For his part, McDougall had “every confidence” that his Lieutenant would “execute his orders with promptitude, discretion, and success.”
Actually, Dennis’ experience at Fort Erie should have suggested to McDougall that his Conservator of the Peace, when armed with military authority, found it difficult to act with “discretion.” Chances were he would choose to invoke his authority Indeed, Dennis must have been pre-disposed towards rallying the so-called loyal of the colony by the knowledge that, if he raised a force, McDougall himself was prepared to seize the Hudson’s Bay fort north of Pembina and defend it against all comers! Furthermore, word from Red River already had it that “the English” of the settlement were so fearful of “the French” that they would heed any call made “with authority” summoning them to subdue the revolt.  And the Colonel’s initial contacts in the colony confirmed that report.
Dennis arrived at William Hallett’s on the Assiniboine at 5 A.M. on the morning of December 1, “after a more than usually disagreeable trip.” Here, he conferred with the now-liberated Hallett and two leading residents of the territory, James McKay and Robert Tait, who both personally feared that “the result of any appeal to arms would be certain to ruin men of property, whose crops, stock, etc., the French would be sure to destroy.” Yet they and Hallett did assure Dennis “that the English speaking people would now eagerly turn out to put down the émeute.” Further, on his way to the settlement at the forks, McDougall’s lieutenant was assured by William Dease that Dease could muster”over ninety” Métis against Riel’s party, which numbered, at the most, only 300 “reliable men.” 
In Winnipeg, where the Métis had taken possession of Fort Garry, trained “two six-pounder guns” on Schultz’s establishment in an unsuccessful attempt to intimidate the doctor into handing over the government stores in his care, seized both the printing presses in town, and decided to establish a provisional government, Dennis “found an uneasy and excited state.” Nonetheless, after consulting Schultz, who feared for “himself, and family, and property,” and after canvassing various citizens and finding that loyal men had been enrolling and drilling at various places in the settlement, the Colonel decided to issue a call to arms. 
Convinced that “the Insurgents would seize upon the Stone Fort (Lower Fort Garry), so soon as my arrival and the nature of my orders became known:” Dennis hurried to that stronghold, some twenty miles north of Winnipeg, arriving there about 6 P.M. on December 1. He showed the master of the fort his commission, thus securing the eager co-operation of that officer. By eight that evening he had “some 70 young men assembled;” he then gave them an hour’s drill and formed a guard for the fort.
From the beginning of the crisis in October, Dennis had done all he could to see that the Indians of the North-West were inclined to the Canadian cause. Fittingly enough, then, on December 2 he received a reinforcement of 70 to 120 men, for the most part “civilized and Christianized Indians,” from Chief Prince’s band.  Though Dennis knew that McDougall was averse to the use of Indians, and though he declared his feelings on this score to be those of his superior, he did keep Prince and fifty of his men in the fort “to serve as a permanent guard.” He did not intend to get them involved “in any actual fighting just at the present,” and contented himself with the reflection that, despite their lack of proper military procedure, his “red-skinned sentries” would prove effective sentinels indeed. 
The Indians Dennis mustered were to play as he planned, a relatively inconsequential role in events, but the fact that he had enrolled any Indians at all allowed lurid tales to circulate. These, in turn, were to scandalize American opinion, discomfit McDougall, who was to ask Dennis to disband his Indian followers, and upset the government in Ottawaespecially Joseph Howe, Secretary of State for the Provinces, who was to regret that McDougall should have been represented by “a person with so little discretion” as Stoughton Dennis. 
Aside from mustering the Indians, Dennis made further preparations for hostilities. On December 2 he arranged for his presence in the fort to be broadcast throughout the settlement, and he officially informed Governor McTavish of his commission and of his actions under it. Too, he spent some time with Judge Black, consulting with him about the advisability of proclaiming martial law, so Dennis could seize an American troublemaker, Enos Stutsman. Black did not care for the idea (Prime Minister Macdonald was to think it “a bit of frenzy”), and asked Dennis not to implement it for a few days. Stoughton agreed, but privately resolved to proceed “so soon as I may have a force to back me up.”  And Dennis spent a good part of the day taking measures to acquire that force.
He called in his surveyors to assist his efforts, and then sent Captain Webb and his men off to Portage la Prairie to organize the loyal there. He, and others, divided the parishes into company districts. The Colonel was to be the ultimate commander of those enrolled: Major Boulton, another surveyor, was to be second in command. Dennis, well satisfied with these arrangements, wrote McDougall that] hope, and believe, your delivery from the humiliating situation you are now in, is a mere matter of a very short time. You had, therefore, better get things in readiness to move in.” 
On the evening of the second, the situation seemed to improve further for Dennis’ cause with the enrollment at the fort of twenty-one Canadians from Winnipeg. These volunteers told the Conservator of the Peace that all the thirty or so Canadians in the village were “anxious to serve,” whereupon the Colonel provided for the establishment of a company in that centre. He gave instructions that the men of the company were to stay in the town “in their usual lodgings” and were to avoid provoking the rebels. The following day, Dennis wrote to Schultz, informing him that the Winnipeg Volunteers were to remain in their homes and were not to fire first upon the insurgents, for “a collision, at present, would, in consequence of our not being fully prepared, possibly result disadvantageously.” 
Whatever Dennis’ orders about the necessity of their staying in their homes, the Canadians enrolled in Winnipeg apparently believed that he had also directed that, “if they suffered any inconvenience or annoyance.” they were all to gather at Schultz’s establishmentthe repository of the $10,000 worth of government stores. On the night of the third the Canadians did assemble at Schultz’sat the doctor’s request, or so Dennis thought. Once inside, they were hectored by Riel’s followers, who, on two or three occasions, formed a “skirmishing line” in front of the buildings. Once, “a party of about fifteen presented their guns to the windows as if going to fire.” 
Dennis, feeling that his force would not “probably be in a condition to justify a collision for ten or twelve days,” instructed Schultz and the Canadians by letter to abandon Winnipeg for the Scotch Settlement of Kildonan. Though Dennis had had the previous day assurances from emissaries of the various parishes “that the requisite force would be raised”  he was now evidently disappointed with the degree of enthusiasm displayed for the Canadian cause, and he used this occasion to remind Schultz that he had promised wide support for Dennis’ efforts. In any event, he informed the doctor, “I see no other course for you to pursue, but to send Mrs. Schultz to a friend’s house ... shut up your premises, and let the property take its chances.”
Considering the casual regard the Colonel had had for his superior’s orders at Fort Erie, the reception now accorded his own instructions was ironic indeed. Boulton had organized those at Schultz’s into the “No. 1 Company of Winnipeg Volunteers” and had already written Dennis that they intended to “resist attack,” but that `if you send me any orders to carry out, I will do so without delay.”  Now, he met with Schultz and two other Canadians, Lynch, a surveyor, and Snow, the road builder, to discuss Dennis’ instructions. They decided that, since those orders seemed to give them some freedom of choice in the matter, and since they had seventy men and a good stand of arms, they would hold fast. Schultz wrote Dennis justifying this decision by suggesting that the rebels were suddenly ready to seek an amicable settlement. On Sunday, the fifth, Boulton and Snow went to Fort Garry to confer with their chief. Snow told Dennis that he was anxious to have the Canadians remain in Winnipeg to guard the government stores. To this. Dennis stiffly replied that “whoever stayed there after the orders I had given, assumed the responsability [sic].” 
Boulton returned to Winnipeg about midnight to find the town “full of Frenchmen”ninety-six to be exactwho “kept parading about, and placed sentries all around” Schultz’s. Throughout Sunday, those inside had found the Métis “more daring” than usual.  Consequently, Boulton, on his return, assembled the volunteers and got them to agree to give up their untenable position. He told them to be no later than 2 or 3 P.M. the next day “at the outside, in leaving.” The major then rode to Kildonan to drill the recruits there, but on returning on the sixth about 4 P.M. found that he could not enter the town. As well, he “heard that Dr. Schultz’s house was closely invested.” He wrote Dennis that he was at a loss to know “why they have not come out.”  After receiving this, Dennis dashed off an order to the trapped Canadians, repeating his “orders of the 4th instant ... to leave the Town and establish themselves at Kildonan School-House.” If, however, “the attempt to come down would bring on a fight.” they were to remain where they were and do nothing to provoke “hostilities.” 
That evening, Mr. Alexander Black and his wife, patients of Schultz’s, brought Dennis the news from the doctor that the forty or so Canadians in his house were “in a state of siege ... That they could not go out either to get food, wood or water, and begged for help.” The Colonel took some comfort from the certain knowledge that, had his orders been obeyed, this situation would never have developed. Yet, he feared to abandon Schultz and the others, lest their capture disastrously affect morale. He understood from Black that the Métis in Winnipeg numbered but fifty, and he calculated that these would fall back before a superior force and that their dispersal “could be effected...without necessarily having a collision.” 
Dennis got the forty volunteers then drilling at the fort to agree to go with him to Winnipeg, and arrived at the nearby Scotch settlement, confidently expecting to secure an additional sixty men. He was, however, vastly disappointed to find “an entire absence of the ardour which existed previously.” “Some of the leading men in St. Andrew’s” assured him that the change had come about because of the distribution of the Métis List of Rights. 
The Métis had produced their demands on December 1, insisting on the need for such disparate things as a railroad, a territorial legislature and the recognition of French as an official language. Dennis had first seen the list on December 4, and now on the sixth he heard the Scots tell him that some of the items in it were “reasonable.” The Scots also informed him of the report that the Métis were suddenly eager to send a deputation to McDougall, and indicated that they them-selves were more hopeful than before of a peaceful settlement. They would not volunteerdespite the fact that that same day Dennis, aware that he was short of men and assured by others that the response of the loyalists “would be more complete if I would make a call and accompany it with evidence, that all could see as my authority” had issued a call to arms. The Conservator of the Peace had ordered “all loyal men of the North-West Territories to assist me by every means in their power” to subdue the insurgents “and thereby restore public peace and order” The call had little effect generally, other than convincing “the insurrectionists ... not to treat with Gov. McDougall under any circumstances.”  Certainly, it did not move the stubborn Scots, who were to tell Dennis again on the seventh when he repeated his plea for aid for Schultz and his men that they would “arm and drill” only for strictly defensive purposes. 
At 3 A.M. on the morning of the seventh, Dennis sent off a message, via Mrs. Black. to Schultz and his comrades “telling them of my inability to relieve them, and that if obliged to surrender, they must only get the best terms they could.” On receiving this gloomy news, the doctor and his men asked Riel for permission to retire with their arms, but had to settle, instead, for “an unconditional surrender, with the stipulation” that their “lives be spared.” The prisoners, fifty-six in all, were marched off to Fort Garry, where they “spent the greater part” of their first night “singing songs.”  Their festive mood was not to last.
In addition to the capture of Schultz and his men, and the poor turnout of volunteers, Dennis had other worries, as leading men counselled him to forego opposition to the Métis. On December 6 Boulton had informed him of talk that a peaceful settlement should be made with the Métis by discussing with them their bill of rights.  Also on the sixth, merchant lames Ross urged the Conservator of the Peace not to “make any aggressive move at present,” lest a “civil war result.”  The same day Dennis conferred with other residents of the colony, including Sutherland of the Council of Assiniboia, who persuaded him to agree to see the Métis, if possible, to attempt to convince them to send a deputation to McDougall.  At the Scotch Settlement on the seventh, he found that delegates had been chosen to meet him at the fort “without delay, to request that aggressive measures might for the present be abandoned. Considering all of the pressures on Dennis, then, it is not surprising he decided that the resort to arms to put down the French party, at the present time must be given up. He did resolve, however, to continue the drilling in the several parishes, “believing that such will not be without good moral effect on probable negotiations.”
Increasingly, Dennis’ position deteriorated. Late on December 7 he received a proclamation dated December 8 declaring the establishment of the provisional government decided upon on November 24.  The next day he got a letter, dated the sixth, from Machray the Anglican Bishop of Rupertsland, who asserted “that the state of things is assuming daily a graver aspect,” and he expressed his disappointment that the “English population” were not more forward in their loyalty than they were. On the other hand, the insurgents were “over 600 men,” “well armed,” and apparently ready to resort to barbarities if attacked. The Bishop, therefore, advised McDougall’s Lieutenant not to contemplate the use of force against the rebels, but instead to try to establish a meeting between them and his chief, who should himself adopt “a very conciliatory attitude.” 
Almost inevitably, Dennis, on December 9,
Dennis’ proclamation, revoking the call to arms, declared his conviction that all sought peace and that the rescinding would “relieve the situation of much embarrassment.” He urged the rebels to send a deputation to McDougall “without unnecessary delay” to discuss their grievances. 
Dennis determined to keep Prince and his men on “to guard the Fort for a few days,” but gave orders to stop the drill and “the receipt of further supplies” there.  Even before this, Dennis had already helped undermine his own position at the fort. At the beginning, he had imposed prohibition on the volunteers, but, as one of his assistants later recalled, he eventually “made an exception in his own favour. No one cared a pin about the order until one day Dennis left the mess table and got some brandy, blandly remarking as he supped it that he ‘always liked brandy with his fish’.” With this incredible display, temperance rule had ended as all felt free to indulge. 
On the ninth, Dennis began making preparations to leave by dismissing the almost 450 men who had been “organized, and more or less drilled” under his commission at eight different locations in the colony.  He sent Boulton to Portage la Prairie to stop the drilling there; in addition, the major was “to convene a council of the Indians in that neighbourhood, particularly the Sioux ... and tell them to be quiet.” 
Dennis, knowing that William Dease’s half-breed party were now unwilling “to go against the French to fight,”  and aware for some time that the English-speaking settlers at Red River simply could not be counted on to oppose the rebels, informed McDougall. He explained that the Métis List of Rights had sapped the will of the people to resist, for they could see that the rebels asked for nothing “very unreasonable.” He added that he intended to leave the settlement, but only after attempting (unsuccessfully he predicted) to arrange the sending of a rebel deputation to the Lieutenant-Governor. 
This news, when it arrived, must have sorely disappointed McDougall, who had written his Conservator of the Peace on the eighth that he hoped soon to be in a position to command affairs at Red River McDougall had also just sent word to Howe that he was “anxiously expecting a second report from Colonel Dennis, which I hoped would inform me of the dispersion of Riel and his parry, or of a joint deputation to me, and an armistice in the meantime.” 
In Winnipeg, on the ninth, the members of Snow’s road-building party were captured by the Riel forces and confined in Fort Garry, along with Schultz and the Canadians. The next day Dennis heard the report that in Winnipeg “the French” continued “to arrest Canadians wherever they find them.” Obviously the situation was quickly deteriorating, and since he then knew “there was no prospect of getting the French leaders to agree to a meeting,”  the Colonel decided to act in a fashion reminiscent of his actions during the Fort Erie incident when he had managed to extricate himself, but had left many of his men within the Fenians’ grasp.
As one of his men at the lower fort later recalled,
Actually, Dennis, who left the fort at 2 A.M. on Saturday, December 11, had ordered the payment and discharge of the volunteers,  who were entitled to the pay and the supplies of militia volunteers in Canada. He also left detailed instructions for the disposition of the supplies collected, and had told surveyor Hart that, after seeing to these instructions, he was to return to his normal work, being careful not to survey “beyond the limits of the English portion of the settlement.”  Later, he ordered Webb to proceed with the surveys. Curiously Dennis seems to have expected that, after his flight, life would go on much as usual in the colony.
After leaving Lower Fort Garry, Dennis struck south for Winnipeg, and then veered westward to Poplar Point and Portage la Prairie. He went west in response to a report that 500 Sioux were journeying east to begin war” upon their own hook.” He did, in fact, encounter some 100 lodges between Poplar Point and Portage la Prairie, but he also found Major Boulton in consultation with the Indians and the report current “entirely without foundation.”
From Portage, Dennis and a guide set off southward early on the morning of December 12, arriving in Pembina on December 15, “dispirited but not dishonoured,” as one follower thought,  though not all would have agreed. The Colonel brought McDougall, who had heard reports of the imprisonment of Schultz and his men, full particulars of the unhappy events in the settlement. These persuaded McDougall to leave for Canada, but he was anxious that Dennis accompany him to help explain the course of events to the government. Consequently, the two set off on December 18, but not before taking steps to ensure that the Indians of the North-West would be friendly to Canada, come spring, when the two expected that a military expedition might well be on its way through Indian lands to the Red River settlement.  Dennis did not, however, as has been alleged, seek to “organize whatever Indians he could for an assault on the French Métis of Red River,”  but merely tried to ensure that the Indians would join the anticipated Canadian force.
Neither McDougall nor Dennis could have enjoyed the long, arduous trip back east. The Colonel experienced the embarrassment of meeting in St. Paul some of those men he had left behind, uninformed and reputedly unpaid, who had subsequently escaped their immediate predicament. On this occasion, “accounts were settled.”  One trusts that these were financial only, but perhaps not, since Dennis did suffer an accident which delayed his return home and left him temporarily lame. 
Other humiliations were in store. On the way, on December 23, Dennis discovered that the transfer of the North-West, scheduled for December 1, had not occurred and that, consequently, McDougall’s various proclamations, including that appointing him Conservator of the Peace, “were worth no more than waste paper.”  Worse yet, in Ottawa, politicians seeking whipping boys found two eminent ones in Dennis and McDougall. Joseph Howe, for instance, evidently felt free to blame them for the entire rebellion;  in particular, he regarded Dennis as “imprudent” and his actions in the west from beginning to end as “reckless and extraordinary.” Prime Minister Macdonald was only a little less censorious, observing that McDougall and “the redoubtable Stoughton Dennis ... have done their utmost to destroy our chance of an amicable settlement with these wild people [the Métis]. 
Dennis was obviously unaware of Macdonald’s judgment of his activities, for in 1870 he asked the Prime Minister, in typically awkward prose, “to find some means of making it known that in my late proceedings in the N.W. I simply discharged a duty but discharged it with prudence and judgment.” He assured what must have been an astounded Macdonald that he could only gain by the production of all the facts about the turbulent events in Red River, as such production would redeem him in the eyes of the general public.  At least, Dennis still retained a good opinion of himself and his record, and even felt free to offer the Prime Minister advice on the handling of matters in the North-West. 
The rebellion did have some long-lasting effects on Dennis. For one thing, it ended his relationship with John Christian Schultz. The two men had “a frank and free conversation” in 1870 over their respective roles in the events of 1869 which ended their friendship and in later years this led to a vindictive and bitter effort by Schultz to damage Dennis’ career.  In spite of everything, though, 1869 did not finish Dennis’ prospects. For, whatever his military capabilities, he was a good, competent surveyor and an able, efficient administrator. Despite the imbroglio of 1869, his men in the North-West had run 182 miles of meridianal lines and surveyed 20,000 acres on the west side of the Red and on the north bank of the Assiniboine rivers, ascertaining “present actual boundaries (but making no change whatever).”  It was not their fault, nor Dennis; that their activities had helped precipitate confrontation in the North-West.
The Colonel survived the notoriety of 1869 to be appointed, on March 7, 1871 Canada’s first Surveyor-General, ironically just in time to agree to the Macdonald government’s decision to reverse its consent to his earlier recommendation that the sections of the North-West be 800 acres in size.  Still, as Surveyor-General, Dennis performed solid, useful serviceso much so that Macdonald, who had found him so sadly lacking in tact and judgment in 1869, was persuaded to appoint him his Deputy Minister of the Interior in 1878.
McDougall’s Conservator of the Peace thus survived the difficulties of 1869 well, eventually received a C.M.G. for his services to the Dominion. Just as the fiasco he had helped manufacture at Fort Erie in 1866 proved no bar to his surveying appointment in Red River in 1869, so the impasse he helped produce there did not prevent his elevation to posts of prestige and consequence. Though he retained the cherished title “Colonel” until his death in 1885, his active military career had long been ended.
The assertions of several historians notwithstanding, Dennis had no connection with the military expeditions to the North-West in 1885, although his son, John Stoughton Dennis, Junior, also a surveyor, did. Colonel Dennis’ last opportunity to win his spurs in combat had ended ingloriously when he had fled from Red River to the safety of American soil in the numbing cold of a December day.
In Red River, as in the Fenian raid, he had proved a poor commanderone too eager to commit himself and his men, one too eager to flee when his actions proved precipitate. Still, in the North-West it is true that he was in large measure the victim of McDougall’s actions and the dupe of Schultz and others who would have had him believe that the people of the territory were anxious to be rescued from Louis Riel and his rebels. The blame, for there is little credit to be shared, must be equitably apportioned.
6. PAC, MG29 E74, John Colin Armour Campbell Collection, Official Reports of Colonels Peacocke. Lowry. Booker and Dennis, Captains Akers and McCallum,” [typescript], pp. 18-19, Captain Akers. Report, Montreal June 1866.
7. John A. Macdonald, Troublous Times in Canada. A History of the Fenian Raids of 1866 and 1870 (Toronto, W. S. Johnston and Coy. 1910). pp. 42-43. Dennis had earlier been instructed to establish a patrol of the river but that order did not give him license to desert his command.
19. PAC MG26 A, Macdonald Papers (microfilm), pp. 88692-95. J. S. Dennis to John A. Macdonald, Ottawa, 14 December 1878. Joseph Howard suggests that Macdonald was an “old friend” of Dennis Joseph. Kinsey Howard Strange Empire: The Story of Louis Riel, Martyr, Saint or Traitor? (Toronto, Swan Publishing Co., Ltd., 1965). p. 72.
20. Canada. House of Commons, Sessional Papers thereafter referred to as SP), 1870, Vol Ill, No 12, “Return to an Address of the House of Commons for Copies of Instructions to Surveyors,” p. 5, J. S. Dennis to Wm. McDougall, Red River Settlement 21 August 1869.
22. SP, 1870 Vol III. No 12, “Correspondence and Papers Connected with Recent Occurrences in the North-West Territories,” p. 7, Memorandum of facts and circumstances. J. S. Dennis, Red River Settlement, 23 October 1869.
27. Ibid., p.12, Memorandum, J. S. Dennis, 27 October 1869. Dennis provided Dease and his men with supplies. Begg declares that Dennis actually sent surveyors out to try to raise a force to bring McDougall in Alexander Begg. History of the North-West. Vol I (Toronto. Hunter, Rose & Co 1894). p 387.
29. Thompson, Men and Meridians, Vol. II, p. 13. These rifles did get into the colony. SP., 1870. Vol III, No 12 “Correspondence and Papers, p. 16. W. E. Sanford to Joseph Howe Hamilton, 18 November 1869.
36. SP 1870, Vol. III. No 12, “Correspondence and Papers ..., pp. 106-07. “Record of Proceedings, J. S. Dennis. A later report had it that William Mckay [sic] told Dennis he should not incite one part of the population against another PAC, CO 42 (microfilm), Vol. 684, p. 21. Report of Wm. B. MacDougall, Pembina, 31 December 1869. Tait and McKay later disputed Dennis’ version of the interview.
53. Hartwell Bowsfield, ed., The James Wickes Taylor Correspondence. 1859-1870, Vol III of Manitoba Record Society Publications, ed. by W. D. Smith, p. 93. Malmros to J. C. B. Davis, 11 December 1869, Winnipeg.
55. “Diary of a Prisoner ...,” Niagara Historical Society Publications, No 25 (1913), pp. 39-40. Begg lists the names of forty-five who signed the surrender. Begg, History of the North-West. p. 415. Lamb reports that Schultz and his men booby-trapped the building they vacated. R. E. Lamb, Thunder in the North, Conflict over the Riel Risings, 1870...1885 (New York, Pageant Press Inc., 1957), p. 22.
73. SP 1870. Vol. III, No. 12, “Correspondence and Papers ..,” p. 124, J. S. Dennis to Wm. McDougall, Pembina, 17 December 1869. From this letter it might seem that Dennis had ordered the payment only to Prince and his men.
77. PAM, MG3 B16-2, Patrick Gammie Laurie Papers. An account of P. G. Laurie’s experiences during the rebellion by Mrs. J. H. Storer, n.d., p. 16. [The editor’s comment]. Lamb suggests that about twelve of Dennis’ men were captured by Riel. Lamb, Thunder in the North, p. 26.
79. PAC, C.O. 42 (microfilm). Vol. 684. pp. 585-86. J. S. Dennis to the Minister of Public Works, Ottawa, 12 February 1870, copy. Even Judge Black had assured the settlers that Dennis’ commission was legal. SP 1870, Vol. III. No. 12. “Correspondence and Papers ..,’ p. 117. C. W. Boulton to Colonel Dennis, Winnipeg, 4 December 1869.
Page revised: 23 April 2010Back to top of page