Brandon and the Saskatchewan Rebellion
by MacDonald Coleman
Manitoba Pageant, April 1958, Volume 3, Number 3
Although the city of Brandon was many hundreds of miles from the scenes of battle in the Saskatchewan Rebellion of 1885 the events there exerted a powerful influence on the Wheat City. In February of 1885 the news reached the city by telegraph that Indians and half breeds had massacred a number of white people at Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. Brandon immediately organized a home guard and, in the weeks that followed, as its residents slept at night they knew that armed men were patrolling the streets ready for any emergency. Duck Lake and the scenes of the rebellion might be far off in Saskatchewan but near at hand at Griswold and Oak Lake there were sizable numbers of Indians and Brandonians were taking no chances that their homes should fall victim to an ambush from this quarter.
There seemed some reason for the fear and panic that prevailed in Brandon. In April of 1885 word reached the city that Louis Riel was sending a spy to Oak Lake, just thirty miles away, to urge the Indians there to rise in revolt. Captain Wastie, of Brandon's own company of soldiers, rushed out to Oak Lake to forestall any such move or at least to observe events.
The Captain was entirely successful in his mission. Trouble did indeed seem to be brewing among the Indians of Western Manitoba. Large chunks of iron had been thrown across the track in an apparent attempt to wreck troop trains which by this time were rushing soldiers from Winnipeg and the East to the scenes of the fighting in Saskatchewan.
Further, Mr. Wastie was able to arrest at gunpoint a half-breed named Guionville who had come from Qu'Appelle and who confessed that he had been sent by Louis Riel. Later, it was proved that Guionville was quite simple-minded and, whether he was a spy for Riel or not, didn't much matter since the Indians of Griswold and Oak Lake were peaceably inclined and had no intention of marching against Brandon. (No one did find out who had thrown the chunks of iron across the tracks but no harm was done and the incident was not repeated.)
After the residents of Brandon were assured that the nearby Indians were not warlike, the city's group of armed men ceased to patrol the streets. The city no longer feared for its own safety but concentrated its attention on the events at the front.
Troop trains all this while were moving through Brandon. From letters left by some of the soldiers who rode on these trains we receive eye witness accounts of their impressions of the Wheat City of those days.
Private T. E. Elliott of Ontario gives us a quaint account of a some-what frivolous happening on their brief stopover in Brandon. "About forty girls got on the train at Brandon to serve coffee," he writes. "The boys were uproarious and were seized with a sort of spontaneous combustion for everyone seemed to start at the same time to kiss and hug the girls ... It was something terrific! ... the girls screaming and the men of Brandon looking black in the face."
Another private, C. E. Leigh of the Midland Battalion of Ontario on a similar passing troop train, was so impressed with the young ladies of Brandon that he wrote a poem about them.
On May 24th and 25th of 1886, months after the Saskatchewan rebellion had been crushed, Brandon decided to give a gala celebration in thanksgiving that the days of fear and panic were ended and that order had been restored in the North-West. Brandon had sent a company to the front under Captain Wastie, Lieutenant Clementi Smith and Sergeant Clark. They had long since returned home and were on hand to share prominently in the celebrations.
The streets of Brandon on those memorable days of May in 1886 were hung with welcoming banners. "Welcome to the Gallant Ninetieth", one banner proclaimed. "Long live the Heroes of Fish Creek and Batoche," said another. "Welcome to our Brave Volunteers" still another announced.
The banners were Brandon's tribute to the 90th Battalion, composed largely of Winnipeg volunteers who were being welcomed to Brandon in triumph on those two gala days.
Captain Wastie with Company B marched proudly at the head of his men to welcome the Ninetieth as they arrived at 6:45 in the morning on a special train from Winnipeg. Behind the uniformed company the city band came playing martial airs. Gay was the parade through the streets as Brandon welcomed the visitors. Since it was a Sunday, after the Ninetieth had had breakfast, they paraded to the Church of their choice. In the afternoon excursion parties conveyed by smartly outfitted teams drove the visitors about the city. In the evening the band of the Ninetieth put on an impromptu concert at the Langham Hotel. So ended the first day of Brandon's thanksgiving for the end of the Saskatchewan Rebellion.
But the following day was even gayer. In the morning there was a lacrosse match between the visitors and Captain Waste's men. In the afternoon there was a mock battle on the grounds of Judge Walker's house where Brandon's B Company, advancing as war-whooping Indians, surrendered after a hard fight to the equally noisy Ninetieth. The crowds loved it all and that night it was May 25th now Pacific Avenue rang with cheers and counter cheers as the special train took back to Winnipeg a sampling of those who had fought for Queen and country.
Brandon was glad that the Rebellion was over. Glad that the city had contributed its little bit to the cause. Glad that peaceful times had returned so that the Wheat City could carve out its destiny as a rapidly developing prairie city.
Page revised: 30 June 2009