Manitoba History: The Guns of Manitoba: How Cannons Shaped the Keystone Province, 1670-1885

by David Grebstad
Etobicoke, Ontario

Number 72, Spring-Summer 2013

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The use of artillery pieces is a valuable analytical tool for historians. As expensive, technically-demanding combat equipment, artillery symbolizes a commitment on the part of the employer that is indicative of the importance ascribed to the endeavour. The deployment and employment [1] of cannon in Manitoba during the 17th to 19th centuries is reflective of the political and social evolution of the province. Not only are artillery pieces historical indicators of Manitoba’s past, but in many ways the guns of Manitoba were also the authors of its future. This article will demonstrate how the use of artillery ordnance between 1670 and 1885 shaped the course of Manitoba’s history.

A 12-pound cannon used during the South African War (1899–1902) is featured at the Royal Canadian Artillery Museum in Shilo.
Source: Royal Canadian Artillery Museum

The Final Argument of Kings

Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, ordered that the motto Ultima Ratio Regnum—the Final Argument of Kings—was to be etched into the field pieces of his armies. [2] It may be tempting to dismiss this as mere hyperbole or powdery-wigged, French-baroque machismo, but in reality this act was indicative of the importance then ascribed to artillery ordnance. One could not simply wander about the countryside and find an artillery piece, or “swing by the market” and pick one up. Their construction, transportation, and sustainment with shot and powder, were costly endeavours. Moreover, the technological advances that were required to prevent the piece from exploding and killing everyone around it entailed a hefty price tag. As more and more metal was required to ensure the safety of employing the piece, concordantly the weight of the piece increased and thus made it more challenging to deploy as well. This eventually led to the requirement for horses to manoeuvre it about, alon with an increased number of personnel to service the cannon. Whereas every infantryman could carry his own gunpowder and musket balls, cannon required dedicated transport and storage facilities. To this end, the deployment and employment of cannon during the period in question became cost-prohibitive in terms of money, manpower and munitions for all but the richest kings and countries. In his seminal work on the history of artillery, Field Artillery and Firepower, Major General J. B. A. Bailey observed that employment of artillery denotes a certain majesty, if not authority, as it represents the “military power, and the economic strength that pays for it.” [3] Only kings, and later States and state-sponsored economic endeavours, had ample treasure to acquire cannons for employment.

Artillerists, cannoneers, gunners—whatever title they assume—are a unique phylum of mankind. It takes a special person to stand beside a steel tube and cause a very large controlled explosion to occur therein. Early cannons were apt to explode, killing the operator, until artillery technology advanced to such a degree as to allow for the safety of the crew firing it. It is no wonder that gunners adopted Saint Barbara as their patron saint; her pagan father was consumed by lightning from the heavens immediately upon beheading her after her conversion to Christianity. [4] The robust technical acumen required to employ artillery efficiently meant that those admitted to the fraternity had to be substantially more intellectually competent than the average soldier. Whereas the recruiting standards for infantry musketeers required no more than two opposing teeth to rip open the gunpowder bag [5] and a trigger finger (it appears intellectual capacity was not a criterion), the standard for the artillerymen was more robust. During the Victorian period, Bailey reports, “unlike the officers of other arms of the British Army, officers of the Royal Artillery had to undergo extensive professional training, were promoted on merit, and could not purchase their commissions.” [6] Bailey’s observation demonstrates how artillerymen were a cut above the average soldier.

The high professional standard associated with artillerymen came at a cost which was somewhat painful to absorb, in particular if there were no immediate wars demanding the artillerist’s skills. The Chief Factor at the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Albany bemoaned the expense of his artillerymen who paid no dividend during times of peace when he referred to them as “costly and idle specialists.” [7] In other words, an artilleryman’s skills and knowledge rarely came to the fore until required for actual combat, where they proved critical.

Such factors demonstrate how the use of cannon in Manitoba illustrates the political and social evolution of the province and its people. A cost-benefit analysis of the high cost of acquiring artillery ordnance, the logistical demands of employing and deploying it, and the high standards required of personnel operating it reflects a significant commitment to the endeavour on the part of the employer. When considered in conjunction with the distance from the force generation base—namely Europe—and the primitive transportation networks extant in Manitoba between the 17th and 19th centuries, the deployment of cannon represented a significant economic and political commitment. Sending cannon to Fort Garry from half-way across the world signified a major undertaking.


The early history of Manitoba is inextricably linked to two fur-trading companies, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company. The two companies took very different approaches to the fur trade, both physically and philosophically. The Hudson’s Bay Company initially preferred setting up shop on the margins of Hudson Bay where native fur traders would come to them along the northern river systems. The Hudson’s Bay Company had relative success with this system. As such, situated as they were on the coast, the Hudson’s Bay Company forts along the Manitoba margin of Hudson Bay were vulnerable targets for marauding French ships during the numerous conflicts that characterised the 17th and 18th centuries, and therefore required a robust defence. As a result, as early as 1686 two nine-foot-long “great guns” firing nine-pound shot were deployed to the Hudson’s Bay Company post on the Hayes River, later to become Fort York. [8] After suffering the privations of French raiders during the latter part of the 17th century, the Hudson’s Bay Company decided that, in order to solidify its economic future in the region, some serious investment would be required to maintain its forts. Consequently, the defences at Fort York were improved between 1723 and 1729 to include “two bastions with stone as a defence against fire arms… [and] six great guns.” [9] Additionally, work on vastly improving the fort on the Churchill River, eventually renamed Prince of Wales Fort, began shortly thereafter. Eventually Prince of Wales Fort was completed as a European-style, star-shaped stone fortress constructed with:

four bastions connected by curtain walls along which ran boarded runways for guns...forty-two cannons were mounted on the walls, and across the river a battery with emplacements for six additional cannons was constructed to aid in closing off the mouth of the river to hostile shipping. [10] [emphasis added]

The six 24-pounder [11] cannons deployed across the Churchill River at what was called the Cape Merry Battery, were delivered by the Seahorse in 1744. [12] Building the fort took forty years due to its isolation and the lack of sufficient material in the immediate vicinity. This large deployment of cannon from Europe to the far-flung and desolate outposts of Hudson Bay was a major logistical undertaking that came with a substantial price tag. Such an outlay of treasure and effort reflected a substantial commitment on the part of the Hudson’s Bay Company to the development of the Manitoban interior. As E. E. Rich observed in his history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, “the first stone fort in the Arctic, accepted as the post-Utrecht period ends in 1730, was the logical culmination of the [company’s] resolve to resist French threats and defend their rights against European attacks.” [13]

The forts as defensive structures did not enjoy complete success for the purpose for which they were intended. Despite the formidable capacity for defensive fire, Prince of Wales Fort and York Factory were captured by the French under the command of Jean-François Galaup, Comte de LaPérouse in 1782. At Prince of Wales Fort the governor, Samuel Hearne, was “stricken with terror by the approach of four hundred Frenchmen” [14] and surrendered the fort without firing a shot. LaPérouse absconded with several of the cannon from Prince of Wales Fort and proceeded to York Factory where the defences “consisted of thirteen cannon, twelve and nine pounders, which formed a half-moon battery in front of the Factory.” [15] A contemporary witness described the French assault:

About 10 o’clock this morning [22 August 1782] the enemy appeared before our gates; during their approach a most inviting opportunity offered itself to be revenged on our invaders by discharging the guns on the ramparts, which must have done great execution; but a kind of tepid stupefaction seemed to take possession of the Governor (Humphrey Martin) at the time of the trial and he peremptorily declared that he would shoot the first man to fire a gun. Accordingly, as the place was not to be defended he, resolving to be beforehand with the French, held out a white flag with his own hand, which was answered by the French officer’s showing his pocket handkerchief. [16]

Cannon are only as effective as those who operate them. Both Prince of Wales Fort and York Factory could have inflicted a withering fire upon their assailants, had the defenders put up a fight. Although both forts were returned to Great Britain as part of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, LaPérouse’s undermining of the walls, spiking of the guns and destruction of the gun carriages meant Prince of Wales Fort never regained its military prominence. [17]

Whilst the Hudson’s Bay Company was building its subarctic redoubts, private fur traders plied the river highways of the interior from Montreal to the prairies. In 1783, a number of these traders united to form the North West Company, and became known colloquially as Nor’Westers. The Nor’Westers dominated the inland St. Lawrence-Great Lakes-Winnipeg River system with voyageurs and bateaux. They became far more interactive and integrated with the native population. [18] Like their Hudson’s Bay counterparts, the Nor’Westers also looked to artillery ordnance to provide firepower defence for their trading posts in the interior. In his journal, North West Company trader Alexander Henry the Younger mentions that in 1808, while in charge of the North West Company post at Pembina, he ordered a carriage built for a Coehorn mortar. [19] The Coehorn was a small, but very effective mortar originally designed in 1720 by the Dutch engineer Baron Meeno van Coehorn and capable of firing up to 800 metres. It proved so effective that the design was still in use during the US Civil War. [20] Such was the nature of the artillery ordnance deployed to the interior at this early date, because the logistical demands of moving any more robust an artillery piece by canoe from the Bay would have been taxing to say the least.

The success of the Nor’Westers’ trade in the interior solicited a response from the Hudson’s Bay Company who abandoned the previous strategy of coastal fortresses and began dispatching trading parties to penetrate the northwestern interior where they established inland trading posts. This move brought them into direct competition with the North West Company. Until the early 19th century, the fortunes of the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company had collided solely in the account books, but their destinies were to become far more entwined. Violence and conflict were the result. Consequently, the more deliberate penetration of the interior by the Hudson’s Bay Company at the beginning of the 19th century entailed more frequent deployment of cannon. Whereas previously the artillery ordnance in the interior was likely to be smaller and more mobile, like Henry’s Coehorn, during the second decade of the 19th century the region of The Forks was to see the arrival of a battery of guns that would be instrumental to the evolution of the province.

The Red River Colony

The story of Lord Selkirk’s colonizing of the Red River Settlement is well known and need not be relayed in great detail here. A commonly overlooked element of Selkirk’s colonization, however, is the role that artillery ordnance played in it. Selkirk and his subordinates must have had some reason for caution when outfitting their expedition to the Red River. In his seminal work The Selkirk Settlement and the Settlers, historian Charles Bell recounted the importance that Selkirk and his appointed governor Miles Macdonnell placed on the requirement for adequate firepower:

Two old iron swivel guns had been taken from the stores of Lord Seaforth at Stornoway, but [Miles Macdonell], not satisfied with them, asked for some “sound brass pieces,” 3-pounders, with carriages, etc., complete. Without doubt these guns were sent, and transported to Red River, for carriages in a state of decay and bearing that date are still to be seen about the old buildings of Fort Garry. A few years after, the Northwest Company took possession of nine cannon stored in the warehouse of Lord Selkirk at what was termed the “Government House,” which a few months later became Fort Douglas. These cannon played a very prominent part in the history of the Selkirk settlement from 1811 to as late a date as 1870, when Riel, as President of the Provisional Government, commanded the situation largely through being in possession of them. They are now scattered, most of them being in the custody of private individuals who use them to adorn their lawns, or have consigned them to the lumber heaps of their back yards. [21]

Curiously, in The Story of Manitoba Frank Schofield states that Macdonnell purchased several small cannons in Yarmouth when bad weather had forced his ship to seek harbour while en route to Stornoway. [22] Regardless of when or where they were acquired, both accounts serve to illustrate the importance that the cannon had in securing the settlement. That Macdonell was insistent on an increased amount of firepower indicates that there was a certain apprehension as to what type of welcome they would receive in Red River. Similarly, the fact that the settlers were committed to shipping up to nine brass field pieces across the Atlantic from Scotland to The Forks, followed by an arduous navigation down the Manitoba river systems, illustrates the level of commitment of the settlers. Once in place in the Red River Settlement, these field pieces were to become critical factors in determining the destiny of Manitoba.

The Red River Settlement was divisive from the very beginning. It sat astride the North West Company trade routes and thus directly challenged the profitability of that company of traders. Although the Settlement was nominally neutral, the fact that Selkirk himself owned a controlling share of the Hudson’s Bay Company demonstrates that the colony was more or less an adjunct of the company. Is it any wonder that the Nor’Westers were reticent to live peaceably with their new neighbours?

Tension escalated during the first few years of its existence, exacerbated by the constant threat from the Métis and poor growing seasons. The third draft of settlers, who arrived in July 1814, found the colony filled with “turbulence and uncertainty.” [23] The North West Company agents, under Duncan Cameron, struggled to drive the settlers out of the area using a variety of tactics, even offering to provide transport to send the settlers back east. In the spring of 1815, 140 of the 200 settlers took up the offer. [24]

The possession of artillery by the Selkirk settlers and Hudson’s Bay personnel meant that Cameron was reluctant to resort to force, as he and his North West Company compatriots had “an abiding fear of [the cannon].” [25] During the spring of 1815, Cameron’s allies amongst the settlers (those who would eventually quit the settlement) took advantage of the absence of Miles Macdonell, who had spent the winter on the plains, to break “into the [Hudson’s Bay Company] storehouses and [take] to the North West Company post at Fort Gibraltar the field pieces upon which Miles had relied so heavily (and legitimately) for defense.” [26] A number of these cannons were dragged away and distributed to various North West Company forts in the region, altering the balance of power. [27] Presumably, the presence of the cannon in the Red River Settlement had deterred any violent behaviour amongst the North West Company and their Métis allies. Once that deterrence was removed, violence escalated. In June, the settlers who had agreed to the Nor’Westers’ terms left the settlement in North West Company canoes. [28] For the sixty settlers who remained, “the Métis rode through their crops, burned their houses and finally drove them to their boats” in which they fled north, returning several months later under the guidance of the new Hudson’s Bay Company governor, Colin Robertson. [29]

The settlers returned to a generally peaceful setting, and a repaired colony. After they had fled, four Hudson’s Bay Company employees had stuck it out in Red River. John McLeod and three colleagues saved the crops, repaired some homes and even rebuilt the governor’s house, but only after they beat back a number of Nor’Wester assaults. Here is McLeod’s account as related by Schofield:

The brunt of the struggle was near the [Hudson’s Bay Company] post, close to which was our blacksmith’s smithy—a log building about ten feet by ten. Being hard pressed, I thought of trying the little cannon (a three or four pounder) lying idle in the post where it could not well be used. One of our settlers (Hugh McLean) went with two of my men, with his cart, to fetch it, with all the cart chains he could get and some powder. Finally, we got the whole to the blacksmith’s smithy, where, chopping up the chain into lengths for shot, we opened a fire of chain shot on the enemy which drove back the main body and scattered them, and saved the post from utter destruction and pillage...For many days after we were under siege, living under constant peril; but unconquerable in our bullet-proof log walls, and with our terrible cannon and chain shot. [30]

Shortly after the return of the settlers, the North West Company post at Fort Gibraltar was seized in a bloodless coup de main led by Colin Robertson and most of the remaining field pieces were recovered. [31]

The return of the settlers and the recovery of the field pieces caused the balance of power to shift once again and consequently tensions between settlers and Nor’Westers re-escalated. Amongst the settlers, apprehension grew that the Métis were gathering with the intent of driving them off. The tension culminated at the Battle of Seven Oaks on 19 June 1816, where a party of twenty Red River settlers confronted a superior Métis force. The situation degenerated and ended with all but one of the settlers being killed. It is instructive to note that, upon realizing that he was outnumbered, the new governor of the colony, Robert Semple, sent one of his number back to the fort to bring up one of the field pieces. Unfortunately for Semple and his party, he was too impatient, and confronted the Métis without the support of the cannon. [32] The outcome may have been substantially different had Semple and his colleagues waited to deploy their superior firepower. The Métis proceeded to re-occupy Fort Douglas and the balance of power was restored in their favour, for the time being.

Starting in May 1815, Selkirk wrote repeatedly to the Hudson’s Bay Company and the government requesting infantry and artillery support to help protect the colony. [33] The government, under Governor General Drummond, demurred, and it fell to Selkirk to raise a band of mercenaries from among ex-soldiers of Swiss regiments who had fought for the British during the War of 1812 and settled in Canada at the end of hostilities. [34] In June 1815 Selkirk led this little band of reinforcements out of Montreal bound for Red River. This force was able to seize the North West Company at Fort William (present-day Thunder Bay) by surprise and took possession of the two cannon that the Nor’Westers had in their possession. From there, he dispatched a smaller force to seize the North West Company fort at Lac la Pluie (Rainy Lake) and thought of sending the two cannon along with them, only to find that they would be unable to man-handle the cannon across the portages. [35] This small force, under Captain Orsonnes, took the fort at Lac la Pluie with no violence, and eventually made its way to Red River, leaving on 10 December “dragging two brass field pieces mounted on runners with them.” [36] In a demonstration of some fortitude, this small force decided against making the journey along the traditional Winnipeg River waterway, and instead struck out across land from Lake of the Woods, pausing at Fort Daer near Pembina, and arriving at Red River on 10 January 1817, all the while dragging their field pieces along the way. [37] Finding that the Nor’Westers and their Métis allies had re-occupied Fort Douglas, but that the post was garrisoned by only 15 men, Orsonnes and his compatriots were able to take the fort by a night-time raid. [38] The arrival of the main body of the Swiss-Canadian force and Lord Selkirk himself at Red River over the next several weeks put an end to the militant to-ing and fro-ing in the settlement. By 1821 the North West Company had been absorbed by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

One last chapter in the story of the military conflict between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Nor’Westers was to be written before the amalgamation, however. The initiative having changed, once again in favour of the settlers and their Hudson’s Bay Company allies, Hudson’s Bay Company trader William Williams undertook a short, punitive campaign in 1819 with the intent of avenging the Battle of Seven Oaks. Taking two cannon, one of which he mounted on a barge, and two swivel-guns, he established an ambuscade near Grand Rapids where the Saskatchewan drains into Lake Winnipeg, awaiting the arrival of Nor’Wester wintering parties bringing their furs to the markets in the east. As the Nor’Westers rounded a bend in the river, they found themselves face-to-muzzle with Williams’ little battery and had no recourse but to surrender and subsequently be placed under arrest. [39]

The struggle for the little settlement at The Forks was minuscule in comparison with the epic struggles occurring in Europe at the time, but nonetheless it was a key period in defining the nature of Manitoba. The deployment and employment of artillery ordnance was a key element of the balance of power. The use of artillery reflected not only the commitment on the part of the concerned parties to their own preferred destinies, it also—depending on who was in possession of the equipment—drastically altered the destiny of the province. Cannon shaped the course of Manitoban history in its infancy, and would continue to do so throughout the remainder of the 19th century.

Pax Manitobensis

Between the culmination of the struggle for the Red River Colony and the eruption of the Red River Rebellion, Manitoba underwent a rather tranquil period. The focus of this particular era was on settlement and growth, with the artillery playing an extremely limited role. When artillery pieces did arrive on the scene, it was in reaction to an outward threat rather than internal strife. The blood feud between the Nor’Westers and the Hudson’s Bay Company having passed, the new threat to Manitoba originated in the United States and was manifestly more dangerous.

After the Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812, American expansionism, blocked to the north, found its outlet to the west and south. [40] Manifest destiny flowed westward around the southern shores of the Great Lakes like a river around a boulder, eventually extending its reach to the southern tracts of the Red River Settlement. The United States even went so far as to construct a military post only eighty kilometres south of Fort Garry. [41] Lacking any man-made transportation infrastructure, the Red River Colony was isolated from the rest of Canada save for the rivers that had been the fur traders’ highways for decades. Manitoba seemed easy pickings for the rapidly expanding American empire, and their covetous gaze was felt keenly in Manitoba and Ottawa. Between the amalgamation of the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company, and the outbreak of the Red River Rebellion, three military excursions were dispatched to the colony as a deterrent to American expansionism.

In May 1846, a contingent of the 6th Foot (Royal Warwickshires) was dispatched under Major John Crofton consisting of “infantrymen, gunners and sappers, accompanied by 17 women and 19 children, in all 383 individuals, young and old.” [42] Along with them they carried two 3-pounders and one 6-pounder cannon. [43] The force took the Bay route, travelling up the Hill/Nelson River system and south through Lake Winnipeg to arrive at Fort Garry. The 6-pounder would have weighed 850 lbs. alone, so one can imagine the tribulations that would accompany moving the piece from Upper Canada to Red River via Fort York. When the apparent threat from the U. S. subsided, the Warwickshires were withdrawn in 1847. They were replaced by British Army pensioners who, it was hoped, would settle in the region and provide a sort of militia for the colony. Unfortunately, they were found to be “a useless lot, lazy and indifferent.” [44] Soldiers were again dispatched to the colony in 1857, this time in the person of the Royal Canadian Rifles with twenty gunners and sappers joining them. [45] Like their predecessors, the Warwickshires, the Rifles were not meant for a long sojourn in Red River. Three years later, the small contingent packed up and moved back to Upper Canada. Although numerous petitions were sent to London requesting troops for the protection of the colony, the Imperial Government was disinclined to acquiesce. Any troops would have to come from a militia formed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. [46]

The period between 1821 and 1869 was singularly uneventful, from an artillerist’s point of view. Despite the arrival of the cannon with Crofton’s force in 1846, artillery played little to no role in the continuing evolution of the province. What was the fate of those field pieces? Did they return with Crofton? Little is known from available sources. However, the lack of conflict caused the demand for the gunners’ skills to decline precipitously. Nonetheless, when the spectre of American expansionism re-appeared in the1840s, the threat was sufficiently pressing to warrant the dispatch of Crofton’s small battery of guns. The mere presence of troops and artillery might have played some small part in dissuading American interest in the region. Regardless, in 1870 the pax Manitobensis came to an abrupt halt, and cannon were once again thrust to the fore.

The Red River Rebellion

Cannon were an integral factor during the Red River Rebellion, the direct outcome of which was the formation of the Province of Manitoba. In brief, Canadian interest in acquiring what was known as Rupert’s Land [47] had grown substantially in the latter half of the 19th century. Canadian interest in acquisition grew proportionally to the British disinterest in retention and the Hudson’s Bay Company’s declining fortunes. This situation culminated in the attempted purchase by the Dominion of Canada of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company for £300,000 on 1 December 1869. [48] Settlers, mostly Métis, of Red River, indignant at the lack of consultation and fearful of losing their land rights to a new, Ontario-based survey system, confronted the Dominion surveyors, barred the entry of the appointed Lieutenant-Governor, and established a Provisional Government in Fort Garry under the leadership of Louis Riel. Amid revolution and counter-revolution in Fort Garry between the Provisional Government and a pro-Canada faction, violence erupted. The Dominion government took a number of diplomatic and military steps to address the situation. On the one hand the Dominion government entered into negotiations with the Provisional Government and eventually passed the Manitoba Act which created the Province of Manitoba; on the other, Ottawa dispatched a military force under Colonel Garnet Wolseley to suppress the rebellion. Fortunately, before Wolseley’s expedition arrived at Fort Garry, Ottawa and the rebels reached a diplomatic solution, and bloodshed was averted.

Although a foundational moment in Manitoba’s history, the “rebellion” was far more of a “resistance.” Thankfully, although tensions were high, the amount of violence that the uprising precipitated was actually minimal. The overwhelming military power that the Dominion government could bring to bear, in particular the artillery that accompanied Wolseley, was an important factor in the peaceful settlement of the resistance.

As in the extended struggle between the Selkirk settlers and the Nor’Westers, the party that controlled the artillery also held the balance of power. The cannon that had, during the previous episode, resided in the main at Fort Douglas, were now kept at Fort Garry. Fort Garry, built in 1822 and refurbished in 1835 after a severe flood, had become the political and administrative hub of the colony. It is no surprise then that, after the proclamation of the Provisional Government, Riel’s first move was to seize the fort. On 2 November 1870, Riel and his colleagues took the fort, where he was able to take control of 390 rifles and 13 cannon that belonged to the Hudson’s Bay Company. [49] While the fact that the fort was the strategic centre of the colony no doubt played into Riel’s plans, the primary impetus for his movement was to secure the firearms and cannon. [50]

Riel’s ability to secure the cannon was a key element in the fate of the rebellion, and had the cannon been put out of reach, Riel may not have achieved the success he did. The Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Sir Stafford Northcote, who went to Ottawa during the rebellion to represent company interests, was critical of the Governor of Rupert’s Land and Assiniboia, William Mactavish, for not ensuring the cannon remained out of Riel’s hands. Northcote lamented in his diary that Mactavish “had undoubtedly shown great want of energy at the beginning of the affair, especially in not removing the guns from Fort Garry to the Stone Fort, where they would have been quite safe under the protection of the English.” [51] The result was the loss of these important military instruments.

Possession of the artillery afforded Riel the upper hand during the subsequent counter-revolution by the pro-Canadian element. Donald A. Smith, of the Canadian Pacific Railway, dispatched to Fort Garry as a representative of the federal government, recorded in his diary:

the French [Riel et al.] now reunited, who, to the number of at least seven hundred were prepared to offer the most determined resistance, which, as they were in possession of a number of guns (six and three pounders), ample stores of ammunition, provisions, and every other requisite, they in a great measure could have done most effectually. [52]

Later, on 1 December 1870, as the pro-Canadians were assembling in the home of one of their leaders (Dr. John Schultz, later the Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba), Riel “assembled his armed Métis supporters and, directing a 9-pounder gun at Schultz’s building, demanded a surrender within fifteen minutes. He received it.” [53] The mere presence of artillery proved persuasive.

While cannon dominated the armed struggle around Fort Garry, more cannon and their keepers trekked from Toronto to Fort Garry with the intent of bringing the rebels to heel. As mentioned above, Wolseley’s expedition was dispatched by Sir John A. Macdonald, ostensibly under a mission of peace. [54] That the force was one of peace was purely subterfuge. Directly upon arrival in Winnipeg, Wolseley formed his soldiers in open column to march on Fort Garry. According to an officer present, Captain G. L. Huyshe of the 60th Rifles, there was considerable excitement, and hope, amongst the soldiers that Riel was intending to fight. This enthusiasm turned to dismay upon their learning of his flight. [55] Such martial spirit and disposition hardly lends credibility to any claims of peaceful intentions.

The force was one of combined arms, comprising three battalions: one of British regulars from the 60th Rifles, and two ad hoc battalions of Militia volunteers styled the Ontario Rifles and Quebec Rifles. Accompanying them were the usual support organizations—a detachment of Royal Engineers, a detachment of the Army Hospital Corps and Army Service Corps, and a detachment of Royal Artillery under Lieutenant Alleyne. [56] Lieutenant Alleyne’s battery consisted of four seven-pounder brass mountain guns. [57] Concerning these four brass guns, two key points must be made. First, just getting the guns to Fort Garry was a real achievement. The gun barrel itself, excluding carriage, shot and propellant, weighed some 250 lbs. As no continuous railway line existed, and the government of the United States forbade travel over its sovereign territory by British and Canadian military elements, the tortuous route taken by the force consisted of trains and steamships to Fort William. From Fort William to Fort Garry these pieces were sent by canoe and arduous portage through forest, rapids, lakes and rocky landscape of Northwestern Ontario. [58] The physical stamina and devotion to duty that would be required to undergo such an excursion is commendable.

Second, the fact that artillery was included at all—the powers-that-be were well aware of the challenges of the trek—illustrates the value which the government ascribed to the intent of this force. No doubt motivated by the possession of the Hudson’s Bay Company cannons by Riel and his supporters, and notwithstanding any claims to peaceful intentions, the inclusion of these four artillery pieces, and the fact that they were subsequently left in Fort Garry after the departure of the Wolseley Expedition, demonstrated the level of commitment the Dominion government gave to securing Manitoba.

In the end, the rebellion was resolved relatively peacefully. Riel departed with some haste, and Manitoba was admitted to the Confederation as the fifth province in May 1871, with Rupert’s Land coming under Canadian control as a series of territories. Artillery pieces—many of which were veterans of the Selkirk struggle—played an integral role in both the prolongation and culmination of the resistance. Had the guns been put out of reach, as Northcote observed, perhaps Riel would not have been able to establish the control he did over the settlement in the first instance. Additionally, deployment of Lieutenant Alleyne’s four-gun battery represented a substantial commitment on the part of the Dominion government to the resolution of the conflict. These guns were to become an important element in the continued evolution of Manitoba as a fully fledged member of the Canadian confederation. The embryonic province made a substantial commitment to national security and its own order and governance when, for the first time, it generated its own indigenous artillery organization as part of Canadian national defence.

An unfair fight? Boys posed with bows and arrows beside cannons at York Factory, 1916.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, John A. Campbell Collection #143, N26655.

The Winnipeg Field Battery

Until the end of the Red River Rebellion, the story of cannons in Manitoba and their importance to that province’s evolution was one, in the main, of cannons and their operators travelling to Manitoba from both eastern Canada and abroad. Whether it was the cannons of the Hudson’s Bay Company guarding their forts on the Bay coast, or the guns of the Dominion that accompanied Wolseley and his men, it was cannon and cannoneers from abroad that shaped the fortunes of Manitoba. In the aftermath of the Riel Rebellion, the creation of the Winnipeg Field Battery as an official military unit of the Dominion government represented the growth in prominence and sophistication of Manitoba.

As mentioned previously, when Wolseley and his force departed from Fort Garry shortly after the Riel Rebellion, the two Militia battalions that had been part of his force were left behind to garrison the new province. Their residency was temporary, and they too departed several years later. The four seven-pounder brass guns that accompanied Wolseley, however, remained in Manitoba, and became the nucleus of the Winnipeg Field Battery.

As during the pax Manitobensis, the main military threat to Manitoba after the Riel Rebellion was from the south, although the threat was fomented by disaffected colleagues of Louis Riel. Thinking he could take advantage of the strife caused by the uprising, William O’Donaghue enlisted the aid of the Fenian organization. [59] In 1871, the Fenian movement was declining after a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to wrest Canada from the British Empire. “General” John O’Neil was enticed by O’Donaghue to make another attempt at invading Canada, this time by taking advantage of the tumult still simmering in Manitoba. A half-hearted and poorly organized invasion penetrated no farther than the Hudson’s Bay Company post slightly north of the border, and then ended ingloriously when the invaders were arrested by a small detachment of American troops. [60] While the Fenian incursion was more bark than bite, it did for a time raise some concerns within Manitoba. The Lieutenant-Governor, William Archibald, managed to secure some 1000 militiamen as a defensive force, even dispatching a vanguard of about 400 men in two companies to meet the invaders. Amongst this force was one of the 7-pounder brass cannon that had come out from Toronto with Wolseley. [61]

Judge Walker of Brandon, then Captain Walker, was “a member of that body which took with them a small brass rifled cannon, which was afterwards reorganized as the Winnipeg Field Battery.” [62] The small force that moved out to confront the Fenians never actually made contact with the enemy. As Frank Schofield described it, once the invasion force seized the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Pembina, the “army” seemed to be content to loot the place and subsequently fled ignominiously at the approach of an American cavalry squadron sent to apprehend them. The whole episode concluded with the dismissal of the ad hoc Manitoba militia on 7 October 1871. [63] Notably, the inclusion of a single cannon provided an impetus for the creation of the Winnipeg Field Battery.

The creation of the Winnipeg Field Battery reflected both the growing status of Manitoba and Winnipeg within confederation, as well as the continuing perceived threat from the United States—their official assistance to Canada during the Fenian incursion notwithstanding. Shortly after the Fenian affair, the citizenry of Winnipeg moved to create a field battery “with a view to training in the science of gunnery, a specially selected number of the residents of the Red River Settlement... as an additional aid towards the preservation of peace, order and good government.” [64] The Winnipeg Field Battery was authorized on 13 October 1871 in Militia General Order Number 22 as “a Field Battery of Artillery at Winnipeg” [65] under the command of “Captain and Adjutant William N. Kennedy, M.S., from 57th Battalion, and Winnipeg Rifle Company [and] 1st Lieutenant William Morris, Gentleman, M.S.” [66] The battery was initially outfitted with two of Wolseley’s four cannons and two smoothbore 3-pounders that were brought to the Red River Settlement by Selkirk’s settlers. [67] As these guns were without limbers (having been transported by canoe), the limbers were outfitted by the initial members of the battery at personal expense. [68] These cannon comprised the main armament of the battery until replaced by two 9-pounder, rifled, muzzle-loading cannon in 1876. [69] Presumably the battery profited substantially from professional mentorship when elements of “A” Battery of the Royal Canadian Artillery—one of the first two permanent-force units of the Canadian Army [70]—was stationed in Fort Garry in 1875 from Quebec, on garrison duty for a year. [71] The Winnipeg Field Battery furnished sixty-two men for the North West Rebellion in 1885 and was one of the first units dispatched to the theatre of operations. [72] It performed excellent service during the campaign, fighting during the battles of Fish Creek and Batoche, although during the Battle of Batoche it seems to have demonstrated some difficulty in accuracy. Charles Pelham Mulvaney, who participated in the campaign, reported that:

In the afternoon some of the Winnipeg Field Battery went down below the church to shell some houses on the opposite side of the river. The guns were placed side by side about one hundred and fifty yards from the cemetery fence. The house aimed at was about one thousand five hundred yards distant across the Saskatchewan. We always had a sort of an idea that an artilleryman could hit his mark with much greater accuracy than we could with our rifles, for the muzzle of a nine-pounder is not so likely to describe figures in the air as a weapon whose holder feels a strong inclination to duck his head at the whizz of a passing ball. But from what we saw that day we think we could do better. How many shots were fired I do not like to say, but they went all round that house and apparently any where [sic] but through it, until we got rather tired of the order: ‘Common shell, percussion fuse—load.’” [73]

Despite this singular example of inaccuracy, the Battery was very successful during the campaign. One of the battery’s officers, Captain George H. Young, seems to have particularly impressed his superiors. Captain Young was made the Brigade Major [74] by the Commanding General, Major General Frederick Middleton. Middleton was suitably impressed by the Winnipeg gunner, enough at least to report in his memoirs that “whatever duty I assigned to Captain Young, I could always depend on his performing it thoroughly and well.” [75] It is likely on account of his reliability that Young was subsequently asked to command the escort that ferried Louis Riel to Regina for prosecution. Young displayed a particularly commendable devotion to duty during this task as Middleton recorded that he “never let [Riel] out of his sight until he had handed him over to the Police Authorities in Regina, even sleeping under the same blankets with him.” [76]

The conclusion of the North West Campaign was a seminal moment in Manitoba history. For the previous two centuries, nations had sent men with cannon to conquer or keep Manitoba. The departure of the Winnipeg Field Battery, manned by Manitobans, to conduct counter-insurgency operations in the west at the behest of the federal government represented Manitoba’s coming of age as an integral part of the Dominion of Canada.

A gunner with 18-pound cannons at Camp Sewell, around 1912.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Camp Sewell 33.


The history of Manitoba, the land and its people, is intimately entwined with the history of artillery in the province. The story of cannon in the Keystone Province, and the evolution of the people of Manitoba is a symbiotic tale whereby each played a significant role in shaping the other. Historians have underrated the employment and deployment of cannon in the study of Manitoba’s history. In reality, the evolution of Manitoba to its present state was made possible only by the use and presence of artillery pieces, but has been defined by those equipments as well. The deployment of large numbers of fortress artillery pieces in the Hudson’s Bay Company forts represents the commitment on the part of that company to the economic exploitation of the region. The dedication to the penetration inland of both the Company and the Selkirk settlers is reflected in the deployment of heavy, unwieldy field pieces and their constituent support requirements along the rivers of northern Manitoba. The arrival of these field pieces at The Forks changed the balance of power in the collision of destinies between the Nor’Westers and the Hudson’s Bay Company, to the point that the fortunes of the province lay in the hands of those who controlled the cannon. Manitoba, and Canada, may have looked substantially different if the Nor’Westers had maintained control of the cannon stored in Fort Douglas and eventually won out over the Hudson’s Bay Company in the early 19th century. The cannons, and those who controlled them, rose again to prominence during the Riel Rebellion almost sixty years later. Their ownership by Riel served to lengthen the conflict, compelled the Dominion government to dispatch a sizable and capable military field force, and doubtless played some role in forcing Ottawa to accept a diplomatic solution to the problem by creating the province of Manitoba. The creation of the Winnipeg Field Battery shortly thereafter signalled both a commitment on the part of the local and national leadership to secure sovereignty over the West against threats both internal (native and Métis uprisings) and external (American expansionism), as well as the maturing of the province into an integral part of the Confederation. In whatever capacity used, the employment and deployment of cannon in the Keystone Province was instrumental in making Manitoba what it is today.


1. It is necessary to differentiate between the emplacement of artillery pieces—that is to say, their deployment—and their actual use—that is to say, their employment. Cannon may produce a psychological and moral effect simply by their presence. They have a much different and substantially greater effect when fired at someone or even when fired as a salute. Consequently, deployment and employment are not synonymous and must be considered either together or separately.

2. Major General J. B. A. Bailey, Field Artillery and Firepower, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2004, p. 160.

3. Ibid., p. 141.

4. Standing Orders for the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery Volume I—Customs and Traditions, pp. 7-1/5, 7-2/5, available at last accessed 6 November 2012.

5. John M. Hyson, Joseph W. A. Whitehorn, John T. Greenwood, A History of Dentistry in the US Army to World War II, Washington: TMM Publications, 2008, p. v.

6. Bailey, Field Artillery and Firepower, p. 166.

7. E. E. Rich, Hudson’s Bay Company 1670-1870: Volume I—1670–1763, London: The Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1958, p. xx.

8. Ibid., p. 184.

9. Ibid., p. 507.

10. Michael Payne, “The Healthiest Part in the Known World: Prince of Wales’s Fort As Fur Trade Post and Community in the Eighteenth Century” in Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, Series 3, Number 35 available at last accessed 22 November 2012.

11. In artillery parlance, the “poundage” of a gun denotes the weight of the shot it fires, not necessarily the calibre of the barrel. Of course, as the weight of shot increased, so did the size of the projectile and therefore the calibre.

12. Rich, Hudson’s Bay Company, p. 535.

13. Ibid., p. 509.

14. Frank Henry Schofield, The Story of Manitoba, Winnipeg: S. J. Clarke Publishing Ltd, 1913, p. 66.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., p. 67.

17. Payne, “The Healthiest Part in the Known World.”

18. Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985, p. 57.

19. “Henry’s Journal” Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, Series 1, Number 37, read 9 May 1889 available at docs/transactions/1/henrysjournal3.shtml last accessed 22 November 2012.

20. Bailey, Field Artillery and Firepower…, p. 204.

21. Charles N. Bell, The Selkirk Settlement and the Settlers, Winnipeg: The Commercial, 1887, p. 8.

22. Schofield, The Story of Manitoba, p. 103.

23. Friesen, The Canadian Prairies, p. 74.

24. Ibid., p. 74.

25. J. M. Bumsted, “Editorial Introduction” in The Collected Writings of Lord Selkirk, Winnipeg: The Manitoba Historical Record, 1987, p. xlii.

26. Ibid.

27. Thomas Selkirk, “The Memorial of Thomas Earl of Selkirk, ca. 1819” in The Collected Writings of Lord Selkirk, Winnipeg: The Manitoba Historical Record, 1987, p. 118.

28. Schofield, The Story of Manitoba, p. 121.

29. Ibid., p. 74.

30. John McLeod as quoted by Schofield, The Story of Manitoba, pp. 123–124.

31. G. F. G. Stanley, Toil and Trouble: Military Expeditions to Red River, Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1989, 23.

32. Friesen, The Canadian Prairie, p. 78.

33. Bumsted, “Editorial Introduction” in The Collected Writings, p. xli.

34. Stanley, Toil and Trouble…, p. 24.

35. Ibid., p. 28.

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid., p. 29.

38. Ibid., p. 30.

39. Friesen, The Canadian Prairies, p. 82.

40. Stanley, Toil and Trouble, p. 35.

41. Ibid., p. 36.

42. Ibid., p. 39.

43. Personal communication with Major (ret’d) Marc George, Director, Museum of the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery, Shilo, Manitoba.

44. Stanley, Toil and Trouble, p. 42.

45. Personal correspondence with Major (ret’d) Marc George, Director, Museum of the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery, Shilo, Manitoba.

46. Stanley, Toil and Trouble, p. 44.

47. Rupert’s Land consisted of all of what is now western and northwestern Canada.

48. George F. G. Stanley, The Birth of Western Canada: A History of the Riel Rebellions, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960, p. 42.

49. Kathleen Sinclair, “History and Hospitality” Manitoba Pageant, vol. 15, no. 1 (Winter 1970).

50. David Kilgour, Uneasy Patriots, Edmonton: Lone Pine Publishing, 1988, p. 150.

51. Sir Stafford Northcote, “The Ottawa Diary of Sir Stafford Northcote” in Manitoba: The Birth of a Province, p. 77.

52. Donald A. Smith, “Donald A. Smith’s Report” in Manitoba: The Birth of a Province, p. 35.

53. Stanley, Toil and Trouble, p. 59.

54. Ibid., p. 133.

55. Captain G. L. Huyshe, The Red River Expedition, Annapolis: The Naval and Military Press, orig. published 1871, pp. 194-195.

56. Stanley, Toil and Trouble, p. 258.

57. Schofield, The Story of Manitoba, p. 290.

58. The author grew up in Northwestern Ontario and served nine years as an Army Reserve Artillery Officer in the region. He can attest to the fact that even with modern technologies, moving artillery pieces in this part of the country remains an arduous task.

59. There is some debate as to whether or not this episode can really be considered a “Fenian” invasion on the lines of those that occurred in Ontario and Quebec. Frank Schofield relates that William O’Donaghue tried to cognitively link this incursion with the Red River Rebellion, even going so far as to refer to the name “Fenian Raid” as a misnomer. (Schofield, The Story of Manitoba, p. 307.)

60. Stanley, Toil and Trouble, pp. 208–210.

61. Ibid., p. 207.

62. Gilbert McMicken,“The Abortive Fenian Raid on Manitoba, Account by One Who Knew Its Secret History” in Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, 1, no. 3, available at transactions/1/fenianraid.shtml last viewed 20 October 2012.

63. Schofield, The Story of Manitoba, pp. 309–310.

64. W. L. Marschamps, “13th (Winnipeg) Field Battery, Canadian Artillery” in Massey’s Magazine, vol. 3, no. 3 (March 1897), p. 183.

65. “Militia General Orders (22)” in The Canada Gazette, 14 October 1871.

66. Ibid.

67. Marschamps, “13th (Winnipeg) Field Battery...”, p. 183.

68. Ibid., p. 183.

69. Ibid., p. 96-97.

70. It is a matter of some pride within the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery that the first regular, professional military organizations of the Canadian Army were artillery units—A and B Battery of the Permanent Force Artillery, authorized on 21 October 1871 by Militia General Order Number 23. Coincidentally, both batteries still exist as part of the 1st Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery in Shilo, Manitoba.

71. Colonel G. W. L. Nicholson, The Gunners of Canada: The History of the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery Volume 1, 1534–1919, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Limited, 1967, p. 105.

72. Stanley, The Birth of Western Canada…, p. 352.

73. Charles Pelham Mulvaney, The History of the North-West Rebellion of 1885 Including a History of the Indian Tribes of North-Western Canada, Toronto: A. H. Hovey & Co, 1885, p. 255.

74. At the time of the campaign, the Brigade Major was essentially the operations officer for the Brigade. His tasks were to put together the plans and written orders required to translate the commander’s direction into action by subordinate battalions.

75. Frederick Middleton, Suppression of the Rebellion in the North West Territories of Canada, 1885 by General Sir Fred Middleton, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1948, p. 57.

76. Ibid., p. 58.

Page revised: 7 January 2018