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Western Manitoba and the 1885 Rebellion

by Ken Coates
Department of History, University of Victoria

Manitoba History, Number 20, Autumn 1990

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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Brandon, Manitoba, at the time of the 1885 rebellion in Saskatchewan.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The Métis rebellion in the Saskatchewan district in 1885 was a comparatively modest uprising, but historians have nonetheless analyzed and debated various aspects of it. There remains, however, a surprising gap in the literature. Historians have offered few comments on the impact of this Western Canadian event on those areas in the region not directly involved in the skirmish. [1]

An explanation for this apparent oversight lies, at least in part, in the national implications of the Rebellion. In searching for the meaning of the Western conflict, historians have typically turned to broader, national issues, including the last minute salvation of the Canadian Pacific Railway from financial ruin, the toppling of the Conservative Party in the province of Quebec along with the emergence of the Liberals as the majority party in French Canada, and, more recently, federal government perfidy in dealing with the Métis and Indians of Western Canada. This emphasis on national perspectives has, meant that little attention has been given to the regional response to the rebellion.

The historiographical neglect has been compounded, no doubt, by the limited writing on Western Canadian settlement between 1870 and 1885. The historiography for the period between the Red River Resistance of 1869-1870 and the Northwest Rebellion of 1885 is still fragmentary. [2] The period is an important one, for the nature of early settlement did much to shape the character of Manitoba society. This is particularly true for western Manitoba (defined as the area west of Portage La Prairie to the Saskatchewan border, and between the Canada-United States boundary and Riding Mountain), which was in the midst of initial settlement when fighting broke out to the west. [3]

The western Manitoban reaction to the rebellion has to be understood in the context of the promises and experience of the early settlement period. Central Canadian promoters dreamed of a western agrarian empire, and encouraged the land-poor settlers of Ontario to consider migrating west. [4] Many came, forty thousand in fact between 1876 and 1881, but the nascent boom could not be sustained. [5] Those in the region pushed beyond the original boundaries of Manitoba; as one government agent noted, “The tide of immigration begins to see a greater advantage in settling upon the fine and fertile lands on the western border of the Province, instead of losing time looking for land that is only apparently superior on account of its temporary advantageous locality.” [6]

By the early 1880s, the settlement frontier extended as far west as the instant boom town of Brandon. [7] Squatters entered the Brandon Hills and Turtle Mountain districts; colonization companies also opened territories in the vicinity. When the western boundary of Manitoba was extended to its present location in 1881, 16,000 people were added to the province. [8] The results fell far short of the promoters’ vision for the West; disappointment, capped by a collapse in the market for urban and rural property, soon set in, the problems of settlement exacerbated by economic recession and crop failures. [9]

The settlement boom also entrenched western Manitoba’s Protestant Ontario character. Most of the immigrants came from Ontario and attempted to re-create their home society in the prairie West, transplanting the institutions, values and outlook of the empire—building province of the east. [10] It did not take long, however, for the recent immigrants to Manitoba to discover the painful inequities of the Canadian economic and political system, particularly as they found how the national tariff and transportation systems worked from the other end. Their protests, which started over railways and tariffs, led settlers south of Brandon to form a Farmers’ Protective Union in 1883. The gathering farm anger, which focussed on the Canadian Pacific Railway’s monopoly, the need for provincial control over land and resources, and the elimination of the hated tariff among other issues, was slowed by the introduction of partisan politics, particularly the attempt by western Liberals to co-opt the movement. [11]

However, when leaders branched out in radical directions, they quickly discovered the limited extent of agrarian anger. Charles Stewart, from Rounthwaite (south of Brandon), argued that Manitoba should secede if its representations to the federal government were ignored. W. L. Morton described the resulting controversy:

In a province which was largely colonized out of loyalist Ontario, which had known the threat of annexation during the Red River troubles, which had seen with bitterness many of its settlers leave for Dakota Territory in the preceding two years, the threat of secession was deeply angering. Not only did the press denounce Stewart’s speech as being at once disloyal and unrepresentative; many a quiet farmer drew back from the Union which was led by such a man. [12]

Morton claimed that “The rise of the Farmers’ Union was Manitoba’s counterpart to the rising of Indians and the Métis, once more under Louis Riel, on the Saskatchewan in 1885. [13] The organization did represent the province’s (particularly the western half’s) first systematic attempt to redress the perceived inequities of Confederation. The comment, however, misses the extent to which the region’s reaction to the Manitoba and Northwest Farmers’ Protective Union and the 1885 Rebellion were of the same piece. Manitobans were, it seems, caught in a basic paradox. As Paul Rutherford argues in his assessment of post-Confederation western protest, “western regionalism seemed based on two opposed concepts, regional alienation and ‘Canadianism’.” He continues, “Because of the Ontario imprint, the west ... had been ‘Canadianized’ from the beginning ... The west had no choice but to remain in confederation; more important, it did not visualize any choice.” [14]

Rutherford’s analysis certainly explains the demise of the Farmers’ Union, very much a spent force by 1884, although organizers continued their agitation for reform. [15] The region’s response to the Métis and Indian uprising to the west in 1885 provides a further, and even better, example of the limits of agrarian protest and the basic loyalties of the citizens of western Manitoba.

The outbreak of fighting in the Saskatchewan River district hardly caught western Manitobans unaware. They had followed with interest and sympathy the gathering conflict between the settlers and Métis of the Northwest and the federal government. Although the concerns of the Prince Albert and Batoche residents differed in many respects from those of the western Manitoba farmers, they shared a number of common grievances: the slow pace of railway (main line and branch line) construction, the high transportation costs, the country’s protective tariff structure, the second-class constitutional status of Manitoba and North West Territories, and the shortcoming of the party system in Canada. Western settlers also resented the limited attention given to their area by the national government.

As in the case of many whites in the Saskatchewan country, western Manitobans’ sympathies for Métis problems broke down with the arrival of Louis Riel. Although Riel’s early activities stressed constitutional redress and petitions to Ottawa, the regional press, recalling his participation in the Red River Resistance and the execution of Thomas Scott, drew the line at supporting this old enemy of Protestant Ontario.

In the minds of western Manitobans, and of most Canadians, the battle at Duck Lake on March 26, 1885 and the declaration by Riel and Dumont of a “provisional government,” changed the agitation in the North West Territories from a protest movement to rebellion. That Métis were involved in the Duck Lake skirmish also transformed the situation from a political confrontation to an ethnic or even racial battle, unleashing in the process a deeply-entrenched hostility among the white settlers to Métis and Indian peoples. The struggle suddenly became a loyalty test, one that Western Manitobans were determined not to fail. Ironically, as the battle began, the Farmers’ Union was meeting in Brandon, demanding greater attention to railway construction and encouraging a diversification of the local economy away from grain farming. [16] Such concerns were put aside; there were now larger issues at stake.

The response to the rebellion in western Manitoba took two forms. First, there was a resolve to prove the region’s loyalty to the Canadian government, which some questioned given the rhetoric of the farm protest movement. Second there was a determination to share in the defence of their communities and the attack on the Métis. The former response rested on the realization that western protest, which many supported, had been diverted from its natural, political track by the ‘indolent’ Métis under Louis Riel. The threat of the conflict escalating, particularly the prospect of wider ‘half-breed’ and Indian involvement, sent shock waves through the communities in the area. While preparing to do their share for the national war effort, the citizens of Western Manitoba braced themselves for an extension of the conflict into their own backyards.

The Canadian government, anxious to put down the Métis uprising, swiftly organized a military response. In less than two weeks, troops under the command of Major-General F. D. Middleton were advancing toward the front. Western Manitobans were anxious to do their share. When the troops of the 90th Battalion passed through Brandon on 25 March, crowds numbering in the hundreds turned out to greet the “soldier boys.” Local bands provided music, women’s groups served tea and sandwiches, and a rousing cheer was given to the patriotic speech delivered by Adjt.-General Houghton. A number of local men, caught up in the patriotic fervour, volunteered on the spot to join the troops as guerillas. [17]

Area residents were also determined that the central Canadians would not fight the Métis alone. Charles Boulton, a staunch Conservative who had opposed Riel during the 1869-70 Resistance, was in Winnipeg when the rebellion began. He appealed immediately for permission to recruit a company in the Shell River district. Within two days, on 27 March, he had received the authorization, and headed west for Birtle and Russell to fill out his complement of sixty soldiers. [18]

Members of the 90th Battalion of the Winnipeg Rifles leaving Winnipeg in 1885 for Saskatchewan. The battalion passed through Brandon on 25 March, cheered on by crowds “numbering in the hundreds.”
Source: Archives of Manitoba

By early April, Boulton had found his men. The recruitment drive encountered few difficulties; in Birtle, for instance, there were twice as many volunteers as places in Boulton’s troop. [19] Buoyed by a tumultuous send-off in Birtle, where cheering crowds lined streets bedecked with banners, [20] Boulton and his men headed for the front, where they soon found themselves in the midst of the fighting. Support for the local company continued. On 24 April, another twenty-four men signed on to fight. [21] Residents sent “boxes of good things” to the soldiers, and later requests for additional manpower were answered enthusiastically. Boulton had clearly done a good job of convincing the people of the Birtle-Russell area of the urgency of the western conflict. [22]

Boulton was not alone. On April 2, it was announced that Capt. Scott of Middleton’s staff had authorized the commissioning of a Brandon Company. Captain Wastie and 1st Lieutenant Clementi-Smith immediately laid plans for the organization of their contingent. Clementi-Smith, the Dominion Land Agent for the Brandon area, also informed the farmer-militiamen that time spent at the front would count towards the residency requirement for proving up homesteads, an important inducement given the recent nature of settlement in the area. [23] Other Brandonites rallied around the cause. Shortly after the Brandon Company had left for training in Winnipeg, Sergeant Rose organized the Brandon Mounted Rifles and offered their services to Maj.-Gen. Middleton. To the dismay of the men, and many others in Brandon, their offer was turned down. [24]

The Métis uprising had inflamed passions in the eastern provinces, and the hasty appeals of the Macdonald government for militia volunteers from Ontario had been quickly oversubscribed. [25] Therefore, as western Manitobans flocked to the standard, they discovered little demand for their services. For instance, the young men from Neepawa who eagerly volunteered for service, who formed a company early in April, and who made their way to Portage to await orders ended up waiting a long time. [26] Like their compatriots from Shoal Lake, who similarly organized a company for service, [27] the group from Neepawa were held in reserve throughout the rebellion. [28]

The fact that local boys were not well represented at the front did not dampen regional enthusiasm for the government side in the rebellion. Troops continued to pass through Brandon on their way west, and the citizens turned out in force to cheer them on their way. The arrival of the Queen’s Own and the Royal Grenadiers on 9 April brought out a huge crowd, with sandwiches and coffee provided for the soldiers. [29] The demand on local women for such services was so great that the ladies of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union patriotically agreed to suspend their regular meetings while the fighting continued so that they could meet the trains and provide refreshments. [30]

The greatest reception in Brandon, understandably, was reserved for the arrival of the 91st Battalion from Winnipeg, which included the volunteers of the Brandon Company. The soldiers disembarked for a short time, and paraded through the city’s streets. The soldiers welcomed the patriotic enthusiasm, particularly that displayed by Brandon merchants, who brought large quantities of beer to ease the tedium of the westward journey. [31]

Western Manitoba was obviously prepared to do its share. The region’s earlier opposition to the federal government had seemingly evaporated, or at least been suppressed, in an outpouring of loyalty. They did not, of course, have to fight alone. Indeed, with the exception of Boulton’s Scouts, regional companies had a comparatively marginal role in the actual fighting, which fell largely to troops from eastern Canada.

The response of western Manitoba took more than the standard patriotic form. The Métis uprising, particularly when coupled with disquieting reports that a number of Indian bands were about to join the battle, created a genuine fear, often bordering on hysteria, among the white settlers of western Manitoba. As the citizens prepared to join the national effort to put down the rebellion, they also made hasty plans for self-defence.

In the paranoid atmosphere of the first days of the rebellion, rumours abounded that Métis and Indians from around the West were poised to rise up in arms. Suddenly, the settlers of western Manitoba, only too aware of their own vulnerability, started to see a conspiracy in every gathering of aboriginal people, or a plot in any unusual movement or behaviour by a native or Métis. As the Indian Agent of the Birtle Agency reported, “Brandon, Virden and other places are greatly excited over these people (the Natives from Oak Lake), reports being constantly spread by timorous individuals.” [32]

The reaction appeared strongest in Brandon, perhaps because there were few Indians or Métis around the community. With little direct knowledge of the aboriginal people or of their likely response to the growing conflagration, the citizens of Brandon proved unusually susceptible to the slightest suggestion of an escalation of the conflict. The Brandon Sun cautioned the townsfolk to view the rumours with skepticism:

Just here we would venture a word of caution. First to those who undertake to circulate a report. Nothing can be sillier or more objectionable than to start by way of a jest anything that may be of a sensational nature ... Second, to those who hear, don’t be too credulous. The air is full of reports, the most sensational of which are only denied, to be substituted in a short time by others perhaps more alarming ... Above all things let there be no useless excitement or alarm, and we shall have contributed in no small measure to the preservation of peace and order. [33]

The newspaper promptly ignored its own advice and became a major conduit for the circulation of rumour and false reports about the rebellion.

By the first of April, a nightly home guard patrolled the city streets to forestall any sudden attack. [34] As the Brandon Mail commented in support of the city’s appeal for arms for one hundred men:

Nobody expects an attack on the city under an organized band of either Indians or half-breeds, but no one knows the night a number of dissatisfied elements might attempt the destruction of property by fire or some equally destructive agency. An organization, then, by which a force can be mustered, ready for action at a moment’s notice, is highly desirable from every point of view. [35]

A proper home guard was hastily organized—too hastily in the opinion of some who questioned the recruitment of several men of dubious character. [36] After a boisterous meeting at City Hall, Mayor James Smart officially accepted the sixty member Home Guard under Capt. Albertson, a veteran of the Red River Expedition of 1869. [37]

Brandon City Council then began the search for arms. The task proved more difficult than initially expected, largely due, the citizens were informed, to the need for ammunition at the front. [38]

The Brandon experience was quickly replayed throughout western Manitoba. [39] To the north, news of rebellion caused the people of Minnedosa to form a small night patrol, which in turn arrested several Indians of whom, the Minnedosa Tribune later said “It is much more probable that those few were there for personal safety than with evil intentions on the lives or property of others.” [40] The problem escalated within two weeks, when reports that a number of “impudent and bold” Indians, Métis and “strangers” were gathering near the community led the organization of a volunteer company of one hundred men to protect the town.”

In rapid succession, other small towns established home guards and appealed to the federal government for arms. As the Brandon Sun commented, “The formation of companies to go to the front is commendable, but, although we do not wish to needlessly alarm, we must not overlook our own unprotected position.” [42] Other communities obviously shared Brandon’s concern. From Rounthwaite came an appeal:

In the opinion of this meeting the present unsettled state of the country and our own proximity to the international boundary and numerous Indian reserves, demands the organization and arming of the settlers in the vicinity for the protection of our lives and property. Although the probability of a raid by marauding bands of Indians may be very remote ... the community and your petitioners feel it incumbent upon them to form a Home Guard which in the event of any alarming demonstrations on the part of hostile Indians should perform all the duties of an active police and concentrate for mutual protection. [43]

In short order, home guard companies had been formed at Brandon, Minnedosa, Shoal Lake, [44] Woodworth, Oak Lake, Millford, Turtle Mountain, [45] Virden, [46] and Plum Creek (Souris).

The reaction to reports of the rebellion represented a curious mix of bloodthirstiness—each town had its young men or aged veterans anxious for a bit of combat—and genuine concern. A Souris observer reported that “The topic of the day is the rebellion and the proposed Fenian invasion, but little excitement prevails as we are far off the line of march. Our old officers are rustling for a dash at the bloody sons of dynamite or the other relics of barbarism.” Having discounted the seriousness of the threat, the commentary continued, “Scouts have been here from the Northwest, and they have caused an uneasy feeling among them [Oak Lake Indians]. To prevent mischief, and to give a sense of security, a proper supply of arms should be obtained, for it cannot be fotten [sic] that these same Indians were some of the actors in the massacre of women and children which took place some years ago in Minnesota.” [47]

Many in western Manitoba were not convinced that the local militia would be sufficient, particularly when the prospect of a large-scale Native uprising loomed so ominously. In Brandon in particular, local politicians demanded greater protection from the government and petitioned federal authorities to station an armed battalion in their community. [48] The requests drew attention to concern for security. Not missing the chance to boost Brandon over the much-reviled Manitoba capital, local politicians also argued that compared to Winnipeg the western Manitoba city offered a better location and better facilities for the troops. [49] The government ignored the requests. Winnipeg remained the key mobilization point and Brandon had to content itself with cheering on the troop trains as they passed through on the way to the front.

For the Indians and Métis of Western Manitoba, the combination of aggressiveness and paranoia created an extremely difficult environment. The white settlers, on edge because of the fighting in the Northwest Territories, began to see signs of an incipient uprising in every native gathering, or a clue to anticipated treachery in the smallest unusual act. The Indians and Métis, who often protested their innocence and declared their loyalty, found themselves the objects of suspicion.

The rebellion had, in effect, brought white settlers’ long-standing fear of aboriginal people to the surface. Rumours and innuendo became commonplace. J. H. Wood, writing from Birtle and attempting to raise a local militia, observed:

There are in these countries four or five bands of Indians who are quite restless and although they talk loyal to agent Herchmer when we visits them they talk differently to the settlers. Their words “Indians good today, Indians bad in a week if they don’t get plenty of grub.” “Indian tight when hes (sic) hungry” and words of-similar import. They call on settlers and demand tea tobacco &t pork and the more they get the more they want. These demands are making the settlers uneasy and some of them are leaving their homes and going east. [50]

The reaction began with the start of the rebellion, as settlers cast an accusatory eye toward the aboriginal people around them and moved, through the establishment of a Home Guard, to protect themselves from the perceived threat. As early as 27 March 1885, word had reached Winnipeg that a Métis runner had been captured near Brandon. [51] A classic example of overreaction to fear occurred in the first days of the rebellion. Word reached Brandon in late March that the Métis of Oak Lake were in contact with Riel. A passenger travelling on an east-bound train overheard a Métis named Guionville claim that he was an emissary from the rebel forces. The eavesdropper got off the train at the next stop and telegraphed authorities in Brandon to be alert for the rebel agitator. The trap was set as planned, but Guionville had disembarked at Oak Lake. Not to be deterred, Capt. Wastie and another man left immediately for the settlement, burst in on a group of Métis and arrested Guionville. As was proudly reported, “The promptitude with which Riel has been check-mated in this instance will prove to the ignorant and misguided men that they cannot hope to escape from the watchful energy of the loyal subjects of her Majesty in Manitoba and the Northwest.” [52]

The denouement, not surprisingly, demonstrated that the vigilance and swift response had been unnecessary. A Métis correspondent from Oak Lake informed the Brandon papers that the alleged conspirator was a “drunkard,” that no meeting of would-be rebels had ever been scheduled, and that “He (Mr. LaFountain), as well as the other Half-Breeds in this neighbourhood, being thoroughly loyal subjects of Her Majesty, as some of the Indians among them have offered their services as guides ... it is felt that the statement referred to [the earlier story in the Brandon Sun] was uncalled for and out of place.” [53]

The experience was to be repeated often over the next two months. [54] The episodes were individually minor affairs, but together they illustrate the fear endemic in western Manitoba. On April 2, it was reported that an Indian, disguised as an old man, had been observed heading toward Elton with three boxes of rifles. One week later, amidst reports that Indians outside Brandon and Griswold had armed themselves, a Native from Oak Lake was arrested for buying powder and a gun. Chief MacMillan, the arresting officer, thought little of the threat: “The Indians here are a lot of cowards and they have not spirit enough to fight. He [MacMillan] thinks the Home Guard is useless. He believes his two men can do all the work that will be required here.” [55] Oak Lake continued to be the focus of concern. In early May, it was reported that the missionary, Reverend Bruman, had been ordered to leave the reserve, and that the Indians were donning war paint and readying for war. Before a major effort was made to suppress this uprising, it was announced that the report, again, was false. [56] Distressing reports of potential insurrection in the Whitewood and Moose Mountain district (a short distance across the Manitoba-Northwest Territories border) reached the point that merchants in nearby towns announced they would throw open their stores rather than risk death at the hands of rampaging Indians. [57] Similarly, rumours circulated that Indians had attacked white settlers in the Shellmouth district, causing one settler to write reassuringly to his family: “We are not in the least way affected by it [the Rebellion] although a foolish report got somehow into the papers that this district had been plundered and pillaged and caused a good deal of excitement amongst Major Boulton’s scouts out west who all come from this district. There is not the least likelihood of such a thing happening.” [58]

Missionaries, Indian agents and even the occasional farmer protested that the continuing fear of the Indians was irrational and ill-founded. [59] The Wallace brothers, resident in the Shellmouth area, took great pains to reassure family in the old country that they were safe from fighting. Willie Wallace wrote on 2 April 1885:

I daresay old country habitants will be exercising their minds over rebellion reports from Manitoba. These are only too true. But as the scene of the trouble is 400 miles NW from us it does not and will not affect us much ... You need not be the least bit alarmed regarding our safety. Hereway the Indians and Half breeds are not numerous and are contented. [60]

Three weeks later, he wrote that “In Manitoba all is peace and quietness.” [61]

Because rumours continued to circulate through the region, the various Home Guard units maintained their vigilance. [62] Lieutenant Governor and Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney directed the Indians to remain on their reserves, offering the carrot of expanded rations for those who did as instructed, and the stick of severe punishment for those who left their reserves without permission. [63] The government further prohibited the Indians from having guns or powder, forcing many to “have recourse to habits of their fathers and use the bows and arrows.” [64] Most Indians followed the instructions. Even before the official edict was delivered, the Oak Lake band had received greater provisions because they were “unwilling to hunt at any great distance from their Reserves during this excitement.” [65] With the Home Guards out in force, and re-enforcements for the front—line troops held in reserve in Winnipeg, the Indians were well—advised to stay on their reserve, tend their farms or, in some places, split rails in return for rations. [66]

Ultimately, virtually all the rumours proved unfounded, the accusations incorrect, and the often precipitous actions unnecessary. The Indians and Métis of western Manitoba did not join the rebellion, nor is there any evidence to suggest that they seriously considered doing so. [67] There were actually many more protestations of loyalty and offers to assist the government than there were threats to join the insurgents. This all mattered little to the white settlers, however, most of whom had had little contact with the Indians and Métis and lived in considerable fear that the fate of the white settlers in the Saskatchewan district awaited them if they allowed their vigilance to lapse.

Lieutenant-Colonel C. A. Boulton from the Illustrated War News, June 1885.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The settlers of western Manitoba remained on the alert until the end of the rebellion in mid-May. With the battles over, it was time to relax the guard and welcome home the soldiers. With the certainty of purpose reserved for the winning side, the people celebrated both their cause and their victory. The Brandon Sun lauded the efforts of the volunteers:

Called upon to leave comfortable homes and more or less lucrative business relations they without faltering or wavering at dangers or hardships were ever ready to do or die for their beloved country. The heroism displayed by Canadians – Britishers and Canadians are one in times like these – in this deeply to be deplored disturbance, deserves a conspicuous place in the roll of fame. [68]

As the troop trains rolled east, carrying the militia companies back to Ontario and Quebec, they were greeted enthusiastically, particularly in Brandon. An even bigger reception awaited the local companies. As the volunteers returned to Brandon, Birtle and Neepawa, wild civic celebrations were held to commemorate their daring and sacrifice. [69]

The victory over the rebellious Métis, which was satisfying even though it was a marginal military accomplishment, gave the winners leave to reflect philosophically on their accomplishment. With few thoughts wasted on the losers, beyond the oft-repeated declaration that Riel should be hanged for his crimes (including, several newspapers argued, the execution of Thomas Scott), commentators lauded the positive benefits of the rebellion. A young, crisis-ridden country, noted more for its regional divisions than its national purpose, had been pulled together, unified by the common threat of the Métis uprising. As the Neepawa Canadian commented:

While we, however, regret the circumstances which led to this lamentable bereavement, we cannot regard with unmixed sorrow that which gives promise of proving a national benison in disguise. Never before has Canada made such rapid strides toward nationalism as within the past few weeks. A thrill of common pride and sympathy has sped like an electric current from Halifax to Victoria, touching all Canadian hearts and bidding them beat in unison. Like their Saxon and Norman ancestors, common dangers and common triumphs have united them. [70]

The battle in the West threatened to impede settlement, while providing a temporary infusion of cash into the regional economy. In the short-term, urgent military needs interfered with farming activities. Hundreds of teams of horses and oxen were required to transport troops and supplies to market; dozens of teamsters and other workers were hired off the farms of the West to drive the teams and to provide support for the armed units advancing toward the Saskatchewan. [71] Many men from Brandon, Birtle, Russell and Shellmouth accompanied militia units into the field. The troops also required supplies; one Shellmouth resident noted laconically that “war is a rather expensive game,” and claimed that the government had spent over $20,000 outfitting Boulton’s Scouts. [72]

The expenditures were welcome in the cash-poor prairie communities, and there was considerable competition for the well-paid jobs with the army. Farmers also discovered unexpected demand for their produce as the men and livestock of the Canadian forces had to be fed. But there were also costs associated with the departure of many men and a significant portion of the region’s horses and oxen to the front. Many farmers, for instance, were unable (or unwilling) to seed in the spring of 1885, leaving developed fields fallow for the year, [73] and postponing planned expansion of their operations. The short-term benefits from government purchases and contract work with the army were, therefore, offset by a decline in seeding and a significantly reduced fall harvest in 1885.

Members of the No. 2 Birtle Troop from Lieutenant-Colonel C. A. Boulton’s mounted infantry, 1885.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

At the same time, there were fears that the negative effects of the rebellion would linger after the fighting ended. Immediately after the fighting broke out, Charles Boulton wrote, “I am afraid it will hurt Emmigration & railway prospects as the news will be made the most of by outsiders.” [74] Many continued to hope that the elevation of the region to the world stage would compensate for the short term disruptions. In the midst of the fighting, the Brandon Sun tried to reassure prospective settlers: “In the meantime the distance from the scene of the conflict is so great that no intending emmigrant need disarrange plans formed previous to the outbreak on that account.” [75] By the time the fighting ended, the tone had changed, for the short term at least. “In answer to the question as to what effect the rebellion would have on emmigration to this country,” an immigration agent was quoted as saying, “the prospects were, of course, blighted for this year.” [76]

Most were optimistic, however, that the eastern militia would be drawn to the West and that the tremendous attention paid to the region would result in greater immigration. The rebellion had “drawn people’s attention to this country in a most forcible manner as was never known before. All are anxious to obtain information regarding the country and its geography has become a universal study. The fact that Canada has been able, without the assistance of Imperial aid, to suppress the rebellion so speedily and effectively, will have the most beneficial effect upon intending immigrants.” [77]

The high expectations only made subsequent events more disappointing. The trains headed east with a full complement of men, and few indicated any interest at all in returning to the land of their battles. The federal government tried to encourage the soldiers to settle in the West. Under government order, militia men “actively engaged, and bearing arms, in the suppression of the Indian and half-breed outbreak” were eligible for half a section of land or $80 in scrip. Few took up the offer, although the arrangement did spark a speculative flurry in Toronto: “The city newspapers contain advertisements asking returned volunteers to call at certain places where they can dispose of their scrip at profitable prices. Many of the returned heroes could be seen yesterday in the speculators’ offices, bartering off their rewards at a price much below the actual value of the lands ... There appears to be a desire on the part of most of the scrip-holders to dispose of it, as they do not appreciate its value and have no inclination for farming.” [78] It was a bitter message for white people in the West, who had hoped the rebellion would set off a new settlement boom.

The end of the fighting also signalled a return to the partisanship of the pre-rebellion period. The Grit and Tory press, particularly the Liberal Brandon Sun and its rival, the Brandon Mail, had largely put their political battles aside. [79] Once Riel surrendered, western Manitobans seem to have quickly forgotten earlier platitudes about national unity and the new sense of purpose derived from the battle against a common enemy. Through the summer and early fall of 1885, the journalists could seemingly agree only that Riel must hang. [80] Beyond that, they began to re-fight the old battles. The Liberal papers accused the Macdonald government of precipitating the rebellion through neglect of Western and Native demands. The Brandon Mail, the Conservative party’s organ in the region, fought back, alleging that the Liberals’ policy of endlessly sniping at the federal government had brought the West to the brink of rebellion. To the Mail, Riel had gone only one step further than the Liberal agitators who had backed the Farmers’ Union and other protest groups. [81] The rebellion interlude proved to be only a short respite in the bitter political wars. [82]

Neepawa, Manitoba around the time of the 1885 Rebellion.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The reaction of western Manitobans to the Riel Rebellion was very much conditioned by the nature of the community and its relationship with eastern Canada. Although settlers in the region had much to complain about, and were vociferous in their demands, they also were Canadians at heart. Their quick response to the call to arms demonstrated where their true loyalties lay, even though many in the region agreed that the federal government’s handling of Métis and Indian matters had been less than honourable. Western Manitobans were at the forefront of regional protest, but quickly drew the line at armed insurrection.

The explanation lies, in part, in their attitude toward the Métis and Indians. The settlers, many of whom had arrived only recently from Ontario, carried eastern Canada’s negative perception of the Natives and Métis of the West. The considered the Indians dirty, diseased, demoralized, and viewed them as an impediment to development. The Métis, famed fighters and well-organized, were often dismissed in public discourse a “primitive” peoples unlikely to fit into the “new” West that the farmers and railway companies hoped to create. Those images, which drew heavily on the conflict between settlers and Indians in the United States, [83] raised fears that the aboriginal peoples across the West would unite in a race war. This, in turn, led to an almost paranoid reaction to the rebellion in many communities and to the comical and unnecessary efforts to contain the native uprising to the Saskatchewan. In reality, the threat existed only in the minds of white western Manitobans, but that did not make it any less real.

The 1885 Rebellion was a major crisis for the young Dominion of Canada. As such, it was a particularly important challenge for the federal government and the people of eastern Canada. It was also a crucial test for the citizens of western Manitoba, although their performance must be judged on separate criteria. As residents of the hinterland, rather than representatives of the powerful central Canadian provinces, western Manitobans had found much that was wanting in the structure and administration of the Canadian economic and political system. The legacy of opposition, although still very much in its infancy, seemingly placed the settlers halfway between the Métis rebels and the imperialist federal state. In fact, western Manitobans had few doubts as to where their loyalties lay. Caught between their regional protest and their national identity as the rebellion unfolded, the settlers chose Canada, as Rutherford said, [84] without even considering other options.


1. For example, Bob Beal and Rod McLeod, in Prairie Fire (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1984), offer very few comments on events outside the areas under arms. It is interesting, as well, to note that their list of sources includes only five Manitoba newspapers—all from Winnipeg—with more than twice as many from Ontario and Quebec. Such important regional papers as the Brandon Sun, Brandon Mail, and smaller papers from Neepawa, Birtle, Virden, and Minnedosa are not included. Brandon is not listed in the index; Toronto receives nine entries. Many of the same comments can be applied to G. F. G. Stanley’s The Birth of Western Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970). The emphasis on the eastern Canadian response is understandable—it was a national crisis—but as Desmond Morton has briefly pointed out, there were as many men in volunteer units from the west (included mounted scouts, home guards and infantry) as were dispatched form the east. Desmond Morton, A Military History of Canada (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1985), p. 101. One of the most useful studies on the regional response to the rebellion is J. E. Rea, “The Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Rebellion,” The Beaver, Outfit 13:1 (Summer 1982), pp. 43–57.

2. Irene Spry and Gerald Friesen have identified the importance of the “transitional” period, from 1850 to 1890. See Gerald Friesen, “Homeland to Hinterland: Political Transition in Manitoba, 1870-1879,” Canadian Historical Association Historical Papers 1979, pp. 33–47.

3. The region has been studied extensively by historical geographers, who have provided detailed studies of the pace and extent of early settlement. See John Tyman, By Section, Township and Range (Brandon: Assiniboine Historical Society, 1972). This is a shortened version of his dissertation, “The Disposition of Farm Lands in Western Manitoba, 1870-1930,” (Ph.D., Oxford University, 1970). See also John Warkentin, “Western Canada in 1886,” Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba, Transactions, Series III, No. 2 (1963-64), pp. 85-116, T. R. Weir, “Pioneer Settlement of Southwest Manitoba, 1879 to 1901,” The Canadian Geographer, vol. VIII, No. 1 (1964), pp. 64-71. The Dauphin region had not been extensively settled before 1885. See John Warkentin, “The Dauphin Area: an Example of Regional Differentiation in the Canadian West,” The Canadian Geographer, No. 5 (1955).

4. Douglas Owram, Promise of Eden: The Canadian Expansionist Movement and the Idea of the West 1856-1900 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980); David Gagan, “Land, Population and Social Change: The ‘Critical Years’ in Rural Canada West,” Canadian Historical Review, vol. LIX, No.4 (1978), pp. 293–318.

5. Owram, Promise of Eden; Kenneth Norrie, “The National Policy and the Rate of Prairie Settlement: A Review,” Journal of Canada Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3 (1979), pp. 63-78.

6. Tyman, By Section, Township and Range, p. 40.

7. E. McFadden, “Instant City: The Birth of Brandon, 1882” The Beaver, Outfit 13:1 (Summer 1982), pp. 14–21.

8. Tyman.

9. Weir, “Pioneer Settlement,” p. 70; Tyman, By Section, Township and Range, p. 49.

10. Tom Mitchell, “In the Image of Ontario: Public Schools in Brandon, 1881-1890,” Manitoba History (Fall 1986); on this Ontario influence in general, see J. E. Rea, “The Roots of Prairie Society,” in David Cagan, ed., Prairie Perspectives (Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970).

11. Morton, Military History, p. 211; J. F. Conway The West: The History of a Region in Confederation (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1983), pp. 33-34. David Hall, Clifford Sifton: The Young Napoleon (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1983), p. 18. See also Brian R. McCutcheon, “The Economic and Social Structure of Political Agrarianism in Manitoba, 1870–1900,” Ph.D., University of British Columbia, 1974.

12. Morton, Military History, p. 213.

13. Ibid.

14. Paul Rutherford, “The Western Press and Regionalism, 1870-1896,” Canadian Historical Review, vol. 52 (1971), pp. 287-305.

15. The Brandon section of the Farmers’ Union remained active during and through the Rebellion, but found little support for their efforts. Brandon Sun, 19 March 1885, 26 March 1885, 4 June 1885, 12 November 1885; Brandon Mail, 29 October 1885.

16. Brandon Sun, 19 March 1885.

17. Ibid., 26 March 1885, and 2 April 1885.

18. Heather Robertson, ed. I Fought Riel (Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, 1985). See also, Public Archives of Manitoba, Boulton Papers, Boulton to wife, 25 March 1885, 27 March 1885. Boulton wrote, perhaps to reassure his wife, that “I do not think that there will be any fighting.”

19. Birtle Observer, 10 April 1885.

20. Ibid., 10 April 1885.

21. Ibid., 24 April 1885.

22. Ibid., 8 May 1885.

23. Brandon Sun, 2 April 1885.

24. Ibid., 9 April 1885. Most such offers were turned down.

25. Beal and MacLeod, Prairie Fire, pp. 168–78. Also useful here is Desmond Morton, The Last War Drum (Toronto: Hakkert, 1972).

26. Neepawa Canadian, 3 April 1885, 10 April 1885.

27. Birtle Observer, 1 May 1885.

28. Neepawa Canadian, 31 July 1885. The Brandon Mail (13 May 1885) offered a more cynical interpretation of the spontaneous patriotism of the young men of Western Manitoba when a wag commented, “Since it has been learned that Riel’s stock of powder and ball is nearly at the end, it is safe to say there would be but little trouble in forming another volunteer company in the city.”

29. Brandon Sun, 9 April 1885.

30. Ibid., 16 April 1885. Supporting the war effort clearly took precedence over waging old WASP-French Canadian battles. When a French Canadian battalion from Quebec City passed through in mid-April, the greeting received at Brandon was no less cordial and enthusiastic than that reserved for the Orangemen from Southern Ontario. Brandon Mail, 16 April 1885.

31. Brandon Sun, 23 April 1885.

32. Public Archives of Canada (hereafter PAC), RG10, vol. 3584, file 111340, pt. 1, L. W. Herchmer to Commissioner, 5 April 1885.

33. Brandon Sun, 2 April 1885.

34. Ibid., 2 April 1885.

35. Brandon Mail, 2 April 1885.

36. Brandon Sun, 2 April 1885.

37. PAC, RG2, Al, vol. 158, Docket 1818, A. C. S. Wells to A. P. Caron, Minister of Militia, 31 April 1885.

38. Ibid., 7 April 1885; Brandon Mail, 16 April 1885; Brandon City Council Minutes, 13 April 1885.

39. There were dozens of appeals for permission to establish a local militia or for a shipment of arms for local defence. These petitions can be found in Public Archives of Canada, RG2.

40. Minnedosa Tribune, 19 March 1885; Neepawa Canadian, 19 March 1885.

41. Brandon Mail, 2 April 1885.

42. Brandon Sun, 2 April 1885.

43. PAC, RGII, Al, vol. 158, Docket Al B04, Settlers at Rounthwaite to the Deputy Adjutant General of Militia.

44. PAC, RGII, Al, vol. 158, Docket A1806, Scoutun (or Scouton) to Brigade Major of Militia, Major, 25 April 1885.

45. Brandon Sun, 16 April 1885. See also PAC, RG2, Al, vol. 158, Docket A1941, W. Milian to Minister of Militia, 18 May 1885.

46. Neepawa Canadian, 29 April 1885.

47. Brandon Sun, 30 April 1885.

48. Ibid., 16 April 1885, 23 April 1885; Brandon City Council Minutes, 20 April 1885.

49. Brandon Sun, 23 April 1885; Brandon Mail, 23 April 1885.

50. PAC, RG2, Al, vol.158, A1948, J. H. Wood to Carling, 13 May 1885.

51. Provincial Archives of Manitoba (hereafter PAM), Boulton Papers, Boulton to wife, 27 March 1885.

52. Brandon Sun, 2 April 1885.

53. Brandon Mail, 16 April 1885.

54. PAC, RG10, vol. 3584, file 11340, pt. 1, Herchmer to Commissioner, 8 April 1885. The concern expressed by Herchmer, namely that the Indians would head to the front when the fields dried, making travelling easier, was expressed in several quarters. See Birtle Observer, 17 April 1885 and PAC, RG2, AI, vol. 158, Docket A1946, George White to Sir, 14 May 1885.

55. Brandon Sun, 9 April 1885.

56. Brandon Mail, 13 May 1885.

57. Brandon Sun, 16 April 1885.

58. Brandon University Archives (hereafter BU Archives), Wallace Papers, Willie to Maggie, 21 May 1885.

59. Brandon Sun, 21 May 1885, Neepawa Canadian, 29 May 1885, Brandon Mail, 11 June 1885, RGIO, vol. 3584, file 11340, pt. 1, Gagnon to Commissioner, N.W.M.P., 3 April 1885.

60. BU Archives, Wallace Papers, Willie to Maggie, 2 April 1885.

61. Ibid., 24 April 1885.

62. Years later, it was easier to look back on the events of 1885 with more humour and cynicism. A Brandon Daily Sun report of 20 July 1907 poked fun at the modest efforts of the “courageous” men of the Brandon Home Guard to protect the city against invasion.

63. PAC, RGIO, vol. 3584, file 11340, pt. 1, Notice from Dewdney, 6 May 1885.

64. BU Archives, Wallace Papers, Willie to Maggie, 9 June 1885.

65. PAC, RGIO, vol. 3584, file 11340, pt. 1, Herchmer to Commissioner, 5 April 1885.

66. Ibid., Gagnon to Commissioner, 3 April 1885. Indian Agent L. W. Herchmer of the Birtle Agency wrote after the rebellion, “The outbreak of the rebellion naturally greatly excited my Indians, and some of the more timid ones fled to the hills, leaving their gardens unplanted, and have made their living by hunting, which they propose to follow this winter, returning next spring to farm.” Department of Indian Affairs, Annual Report, 1886, pp. 60–1.

67. See Birtle Observer, 10 April 1885, 17 April 1885.

68. Brandon Sun, 30 July 1885.

69. Neepawa Canadian, 31 July 1885; Brandon Sun, 30 July 1885; PAM, Charles Boulton Papers, contains a variety of letters, testimonials and newsclippings commemorating the return of Boulton’s Scouts. The people of Neepawa had, in fact, little to cheer about. The greatest boast the Neepawa company could come up with was that their men had been the tallest group in the battalion. Neepawa Canadian, 17 April 1885.

70. Neepawa Canadian, 31 July 1885.

71. Rea, “Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Rebellion.,” passim.

72. BU Archives, Wallace Papers, Willie Wallace to Maggie Wallace, 24 April 1885.

73. A number of western Manitobans claim that the practise of leaving fields in fallow can be traced to the “accidental” experiment in 1885. Observation by Fred MacGuiness, publisher emeritus, Brandon Sun.

74. PAM, Boulton Papers, Boulton to wife, 25 March 1885.

75. Brandon Sun, 30 April 1885.

76. Ibid., 16 July 1885.

77. Ibid.

78. Tyman, p. 134.

79. There had been occasional flare-ups, particularly in the later stages of the rebellion. On 21 May, the Brandon Mail accused the “Grit Press” of wanting more blood, so as to sustain their criticism of the government’s handling of the whole affair. It went on to say, “No one knows better than the Grit press themselves, that but for the presence of Riel the shedding of blood would have been averted, that for this presence, they are also fully aware but [that ?] themselves and their friends are responsible.”

80. See, for example, Brandon Mail, 12 November 1885, 19 November 1885; Neepawa Canadian, 22 May 1885; Brandon Sun, 19 November 1885. The antipathy of the editor of the Birtle Observer to the “lawless half-breeds” was evident throughout the conflict, and he supported the government’s decision to execute Riel. On the general attitude of the paper toward the Métis, see Birtle Observer, 17 April 1885.

81. Brandon Mail, 6 August 1885, 17 September 1885, 8 November 1885. For the Liberal response to the last accusation, see Brandon Sun, 16 July 1885.

82. BU Archives, Wallace Papers, Willie to Maggie, 5 July 1885, 15 January 1886. In the first letter, Willie complains about the imposition of new taxes and writes, “I sympathize with them (those protesting the taxes) so much that I would like to see a rebellion on our own account.” Six months later, he is complaining about the Conservatives’ failure to keep their promises and John A. Macdonald’s handling of the Riel execution.

83. This is well represented in petitions to government. See PAC, RG2, Al, vol. 158, Docket 1828, R. S. Thompson to Thomas Greenway. Thompson, Reeve for the Municipality of Louise, wrote, “I do not mean to question the loyalty of either the Half Breeds or Indians on this side of the boundary, but it is our proximity to the line wherein lies our danger as I believe that any trouble that may arise would be from that source.”

84. Rutherford, “The Western Press and Regionalism,” p. 305. See the similar comment in Douglas Owram, Promise of Eden, p. 176.

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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