The Buffalo Hunters Fight the Sioux
Manitoba Pageant, January 1962, Volume 7, Number 2
An excerpt from "The Battle at the Grand Coteau - July 13 and 14, 1851" by William Morton. The complete text of this paper appears in Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, Series III, Number 16.
In 1824, Governor George Simpson planted a colony of Métis under the leadership of Cuthbert Grant, at White Horse Plains eighteen miles west of the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. He believed that these seasoned plainsmen would protect the main settlement from the Sioux. Red River was never attacked; but the story of the Battle at the Grand Coteau shows clearly that his confidence was not misplaced. Though caught deep in Sioux territory and greatly outnumbered, these warriors of the hunt defended themselves with the skill and daring that made them almost invincible in Indian warfare.
The decision was now taken to fight. While they did not know how many Sioux they faced, they knew the camp was a very large one; it seemed to them unlikely, careless as the metis customarily were of odds in conflict with the Sioux, that they would be able to beat off the attack of hundreds of the boldest fighters on the plains.
They therefore resolved to sell their lives dearly, and if possible to hold out until succor came from the main party. The carts were placed in a circle, wheel to wheel, with the shafts tilted in the air. The poles carried to make the frames on which the buffalo meat was dried were run through the spokes to make the carts immovable. Packs, hides, saddles, and dried meat was piled between and under the carts to complete the barricade.
The purpose of the barricade of carts was not to form shelter behind which the hunters would fight. It was meant to fence in the cart ponies and oxen and to break up the charge of the Sioux horsemen. The carts formed a corral, but gave little protection against gunfire or arrows. For that purpose trenches were dug under the carts and here the women and children took shelter. But the men dug trenches, or rifle pits (here one meets the rifle pits of Batoche) out in front of the barricade. Their purpose was to hold the Sioux out of range of the carts and of the draft animals. The women and children were reasonably safe in their trenches, but if the draft animals were killed, the party would perish on the plains without further attack by the Indians ...
When these final preparations were completed, the scouts were seen to signal that the Sioux were coming. When they appeared along the crest of the Coteau, it was not the few horsemen promised the night before, but an army, the whole man power of the great Sioux camp, their war ponies of piebald and pinto and chestnut vivid on the skyline, their gun barrels and spear points glinting in the fierce sunlight of the plains.
At a signal the Sioux host halted. Was it possible they did not mean to attack? The meets had held their buffalo-runners ready in the cart circle for a sally. Now thirty of the hunters rode out to accost the Sioux and warn them to keep their distance from the camp ...
The metis rode up to the advance guard of the Sioux, made them some presents and requested them to go away.
The Sioux ignored both the presents and the request. They could and would take all the camp had to yield, and brought out some carts to haul away the booty. They began to push forward.
The metis at once wheeled away and rode hard for the camp. The Sioux tried to head them off, hoping to overwhelm the camp by entering with the hunters in their retreat. But they were too slow, and the hunters re-entered the cart circle, left their horses and ran for their rifle pits.
The Sioux came charging in, hoping to brush aside the flimsy barrier of the carts and break up the circle. At their head rode a young chief, "so beautiful," Falcon]. said in after years, "that my heart revolted at the necessity of killing him." He shouted to the Sioux brave to turn away, but the Indian rode on, the war cry ringing from his lips. Falcon shot him off his horse, and the metis hunters fired in volley.
Here and there a Sioux warrior whirled from his saddle and tumbled into the grass; the others pulled their ponies around and galloped back to the main body.
Inside the circle Lafleche° had donned his surplice with the star at the neck, and had taken his crucifix in his hand. His tall white figure passed around the carts as he encouraged the warriors and soothed the children. All through the fight he prayed amid the fighting and exhorted his people from a cart rolled into the centre of the circle, a prairie Joshua. He did not, he told a friend later, take a gun himself, but he had a hatchet handy, resolved that if the Sioux reached the carts he would fight beside his metis warriors ...
There was no time for sleep for anyone. The mass of the Sioux now closed in and surrounded the camp, as Lafleche wrote, like a waist-band. Indian-fashion, they did not charge in a body. They crept for-ward, sniping; they made sudden dashes; now and then excited braves would come charging in on horseback, and swerve off shooting from the saddle, or under their horses necks. It was exciting, it was dangerous, but it was not the one thing that might have brought victory to the Sioux, the overwhelming of the metis by their numbers. The metis were therefore able to hold them off from the cart circle, firing steadily as targets offered, themselves offering no target. Most of the Sioux bullets fell short of the cart circle; all their arrows did. Only occasion-ally did a horse rear, or an ox bellow as a shot went home. And up the sun-scorched slope, the Sioux began to feel the bite of the telling metis fire. Warrior after warrior, "like choice game" writes Dugas, "was offered up with the sure hand of the priest practised at the sacrifice." Some of the stricken warriors turned over quietly in death, some leaped in their death throes, "strewing the yellow prairie with their heaving bodies".
The fight was too hot for them. Indians, and even the warlike Sioux, would never suffer casualties as Europeans would. It was not a matter of courage, but of the conventions of warfare. In battle the Indian saw no merit in death, however brave. The Sioux now drew back to take account of the nature of the contest they had engaged in. Their shame grew as they viewed the small numbers of the metis and the fragility of their defences. Their shame turned to anger. Whooping and yelling, the infuriated warriors charged in on their straining ponies, swerving, checking, striving always to kill or stampede the stock in the corral. But their fury produced no giving way. Lafleche still cheered his people, from the cart in the corral. Falcon, steady, earnest, fired with his men, and moved among them to keep them steady. With him was his sister Isabella; when he went around the rifle pits, she took his gun and fired for him, not without effect.
The second assault failed like the first, and still the Sioux had not used their numbers to make a mass charge and overrun the gun pits and the barricade of carts. Sullenly the Sioux began to withdraw, one by one or in small groups. The more stubborn or more daring kept up a sniping fire and tentative sallies from time to time. But after six hours all were wearied of the unrewarding battle. A chief was heard to cry: "The French have a Manitou with them. We shall never come to the end of them. It is impossible to kill them". Such was the effect of Lafleche's courage. And in fact not a metis had been killed in the action, although they had lost twelve horses and four oxen. The Sioux had suffered losses they thought heavy, and now began to load their wounded into the carts they had brought to carry away the plunder of the metis camp. They had also to regain their courage and replenish their ammunition. A heavy thunderstorm completed their discomfiture, and it was followed by a mist which made it impossible to shoot ...
On the next day, July 14, the Sioux were expected to attack. A council was held and the decision was taken to try to join the main party as they had not withdrawn far, and kept raising the war whoop around the camp during the darkness of the night.
It was a decision to retreat in the face of an enemy yet undefeated and in overwhelming numbers, one of the most dangerous operations of war. The metis planned and executed it brilliantly. Four mounted parties were sent out a mile from the line of march, one ahead, one behind, and two on the flank towards the Sioux. They were to signal any approach of the Sioux by two scouts galloping past one another on a butte, the best known of all the plains signals of the buffalo hunters. The carts were to advance in four columns, so placed that by two columns wheeling quickly, one left and one right, a square could be formed rapidly. Then the cart corral could be formed, the barricade stiffened with the poles, and the hunters fan out for the fight.
After an hour's march, the scouting party behind was seen to make the signal of two horsemen crossing on a butte. The Sioux who had been shouting around the camp during the night were in pursuit. At the signal the columns halted and wheeled into position, the ponies and oxen were taken out of the shafts, and the carts run into the circle. The metis had learned even more vividly from the loss of stock they had suffered in the first day's fight the need to conceal their stock and hold the Sioux at a distance. The cart ring was now formed of two lines of carts, then at three chains from the barricade of carts the hunters hastened to throw up their rifle pits well out from the cart ring.
The Sioux were perhaps less numerous and less fiery than the day before, but they closed in none the less on the cart corral and pressed the attack for five full hours. Once more Lafleche exhorted his people to remember their faith and their ancestry; once more Falcon and Isabella aided the metis marksmen in the heat and dust and drifting smoke.
Finally the firing slackened and the war cries died away. Once more a thunderstorm was rolling up over the Coteau. A Sioux chief rode up, upraised palm out in the gesture of peace, and demanded to be allowed to enter the camp. He was told to leave quickly, if he did not wish to be left on the prairie. He replied with dignity, before retreating, that the Sioux had had enough, that they were going away; that, hence-forth and forever, they would never again attack the Metis.
Then the whole war party, mounted and yelling a last defiance, war plumes flying and lances waving, put itself at a gallop, and charged in single file around the cart ring, firing a last tremendous volley of gun fire and arrows from the backs of their straining ponies. It was the heaviest volley of the two day battle. Then the cloud of horsemen streamed over the choulder of the Coteau and vanished. As they vanished the rain broke in torrents.
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