The Red River Rebellion

by Peter McArthur

Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1972, Volume 17, Number 2

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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These are the recollections of Captain Peter McArthur, entrepreneur and steamboat operator, as recorded during the winters of 1934 and 1935 by his daughter Agnes and his son Charles.

I was imprisoned with the others by Riel in December 1869, escaped in January, was recaptured, and finally released early in March when I went to Ottawa and appeared before the Parliamentary Committee. We all testified, received some publicity and adequate indemnity.

Sixty-four years have passed since then and I want to put in the record that time has deprived me of the pride in our party's activities and I have come to feel that all the Red River parties interested in the transfer of Rupert's Land, with the exception of the native tribes, made grave mistakes. The record of the local Indian bands was good and they had as much at stake as anyone.

In the first place, the Board of Control at Beaver House in London (H.B.C.), should have shared with the Wintering Factors in Canada the £300,000 purchase payment for Rupert's Land. Failure to do this caused bitter discontent and complicated the rebellion. The Canadian Government erred in not checking up this point.

Furthermore, the Canadian Government erred in sending out Governor MacDougall to take over the Red River District before there was a formal transfer of title; and this was aggravated by the unexplained activities of the Ottawa surveyors dragging their chains over the lands of the established settlers.

Lindsay Russell, the surveyor-general, was in charge of Dominion Government affairs in Red River in 1869. Besides surveying he was constructing the Dawson Road to give access to the Lake of the Woods. His provisions, about twenty tons of pork and beans, were stored in the Dr. Schultz's warehouse. The buffalo hunt was a failure that year and an effort was made by the buffalo hunters to persuade Mr. Russell to distribute some of the government provisions to them. This was refused. Then Louis Riel and his party walked into Upper Fort Garry and took possession. By August of next year when they ran out of the fort, they had managed to make away with goods to the value of £300,000.

It is my considered opinion that if the Surveyor General had distributed the provisions when asked, there would have been no rebellion. Governor MacTavish of the H.B.C. and Archbishop Tache were both unavoidably absent at the time. These two could have handled the situation.

The Dominion Government's chief engineer, Lindsay Russell, then issued a proclamation calling on all loyal citizens to protect the government property (the pork and beans in Schultz's store). About forty-five of us, mostly young newcomers, responded; the British flag was raised and the oath of loyalty administered. The rest of the inhabitants of Red River were not interested for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which was that the guns of the fort, about 200 yards distant, were trained on the cache of provisions, where the company of volunteers made their headquarters.

Louis Riel invited us all over to the fort for a conference and then made us prisoners. We were taken to the upper floor of the courthouse and lodged in various rooms in groups of six or eight. Looking out of the windows we could see cannon being trained on our prison and we sent two men to see what terms could be arranged with Riel. These two men were Thomas Scott and Alexander McArthur, my brother.

Scott was detained by Riel but my brother returned with the report that the only terms were unconditional surrender. The unmarried men, about forty of us, were taken to the common jail outside the fort, which was enclosed in a stockade. During the tedious weeks of imprisonment which followed, we put in time story-telling, joking, singing, or in any other way we could. The guards were not rough with us; Riel complained of their humanity and tried to show by his own demeanor the ferocity proper to the occasion. But Scott stood up to him; he said loudly and openly what the rest of us quietly thought, and that is why he was shot. His death was a great shock to us all.

One day a visitor came to see me; his name was Bill Allen. On shacking hands, he left a pocket knife in my palm, and I started to cut the oak beams holding the bars in our window. I worked at night only and hid the chips in my pockets. During the daylight my scarf thrown over the window sill effectively concealed the work. In ten nights the bars were loosened and we waited for the signal to escape.

Bill Allen brought word that on account of the severe cold all the outside guards had withdrawn to shelter. We decided to try to escape right away, and with some difficulty the five in our compartment squeezed through the narrow opening and dropped to the snow. Four of us started to walk to Portage la Prairie through the thick woods along the river. But slow moving as we were and exhausted by the cold, we were easily tracked down and captured about 25 miles from the fort.

Charles Mair, the poet and author escaped. He had gone to the village, hired a cutter and horses from Drever, and had taken the beaten trail to Portage. When at daylight he had met the relief guard coming on duty at the fort, he pretended he was drunk and sang the Marseillaise at the top of his voice. His voice was excellent and his French good, therefore he fooled the guards completely and escaped to Portage, fortunately for him as he had more reason to flee than the rest of us because of his letters to the Toronto Globe which had aroused the enmity of the Red River settlers.

As our escape became known to the other prisoners, there arose a general commotion and they too tried to escape. However the guard was alert and captured nearly all of them.

The number of prisoners taken by Riel in 1869 was about forty. Of these, three escaped, one was shot, and some were released on swearing allegiance to the rebel cause. The remainder were set at liberty through the efforts of Donald A. Smith, who had lately arrived in Red River as commissioner for the Imperial Government, the Canadian Government, and the Hudson's Bay Company.

It was in March when our party was released from Upper Fort Garry, and we were told by Riel that if we were found in the country after twenty-four hours, we would be shot. George Allen, John Latimer, and myself formed a party that left the settlement early in the morning on snowshoes, dragging our bedding of buffalo robes and our provision, pemmican and hardtack, on a toboggan which I had hastily constructed. Our objective was St. Cloud, 450 miles to the south.

That night we made first camp in a timbered bottom on the banks of the Red River, twelve miles north of the Grand Forks. The evening was clear and cold and some of the trees crackling with frost made us think of pursuit and pistols. However, we soon had a roaring fire of white ash logs and prepared for supper. Just then we were overtaken by the American Consul who had been to Fort Garry, but having been confronted with a strange flag, was obliged to return to Washington. The consul, Mr. Malmross, was very much better provided with good cheer than we were and, with the spirit of goodwill dominating the scene, a pleasant evening was spent by all.

In the morning, while the others prepared for the journey, the Consul announced that he had decided to walk on ahead. So off he marched on the beaten trail which wound through big trees and climbed a rise where there was a long stretch of open prairie. Before going very far the trail forked, and, as it turned out, the Consul, well in advance of us, took the wrong fork.

The next to leave was the dog-train and by that short interval of time a heavy wind had arisen and partly obscured the prairie trail so that the driver of the dogs did not notice that his employer (Malmross) had turned aside, and therefore drove through to the Grand Forks.

We three refugees were the last to leave and when we arrived at the fork of the trail the sun had risen and far to the right through the haze of snow someone noticed a speck in motion. We waited and the speck proved to be Mr. Malmross backtracking hastily and very much exhausted. He was incapable of further effort; our improvised sled was unfit to carry him, so the only possible solution was to bury him in the snow and go for help.

Digging a hole in the snow in the centre of the trail, we wrapped him in our buffalo robes and hurried on. As an afterthought, I placed an axe in an upright position beside him. As the day wore on the blizzard in-creased in violence so that we made progress with great difficulty and it was dark when we reached the Grand Forks. The first person we met was the worried dog-train driver, who enquired if we had seen his partner.

He immediately started back to the rescue, and next morning at sunrise, as he rested his dogs on the trail, he spotted the tip of the axehandle, and there safe enough was Mr. Consul, not much the worse for the misadventure, except that he had been delayed a day on his journey.

As we neared St. Paul, the snow disappeared and snowshoes were discarded for stage and train. At the Merchants Hotel we were given a real Red River welcome with the best of everything our friends had. We all found that we were unable to sleep in the beds; they seemed too soft, and so we removed the blankets, spread them on the floor, and went quickly to sleep.

Page revised: 20 July 2009