The Red River Rebellion

by Peter MacArthur

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1973, Volume 18, Number 3

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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At various times, during the winters of 1934-35, the late Peter McArthur of Winnipegosis dictated his memoirs, which he thought might be interesting to posterity. Some notes were written by his daughter Agnes and some by his son Charles. It is from these memoranda that the following narrative is compiled.

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 with the others 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 us of 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 native tribes, made grave mistakes. The record of the local Indian bands was good and they had as much at stake in the transfer as anyone.

In the first place, the Board of Control at Beaver House in London should have shared with the wintering Factors in Canada the 300,000 pounds purchase payment. Failure to do this caused bitter discontent and adversely complicated the rebellion. The Canadian Government erred in not checking up this point.

Furthermore, the Canadian Government erred in sending out Governor McDougall to take over the Red River district before there was a formal transfer of title; and this was aggravated by the unexplained activities of Ottawa surveyors dragging chains over the lands of 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 Lake of the Woods. His provisions, about 20 tons of pork and beans, were stored in Dr. S. Schultz’s warehouse. The buffalo hunt was a failure that year and an effort was made by the buffalo hunting faction to persuade Mr. Russell to distribute some of the government provisions. This was refused and then Louis Riel and his party walked into Fort Garry and took possession. By August of next year when they ran out of Fort Garry, 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 McTavish of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Archbishop Taché were both unavoidably absent at the time. These two could have handled the situation.

The Dominion Government 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 oath of loyalty administered. The rest of the 12.000 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 then invited us all over to the fort for a conference and 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 Alex McArthur, my brother. Scott was retained and McArthur 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, and during the tedious weeks of imprisonment which followed, we put in the time story-telling, joking, singing, or any way we could. The guards were not rough with us and Riel had reason to complain of their humanity and tried to show by his example a ferocity proper to the occasion. This is why Scott was ordered shot. Scott’s death was a great shock to us; he had said loudly and openly what the rest of us quietly thought.

One day a visitor came to see me; his name was Bill Allen. In shaking hands, he left a pocket knife in my palm, and I started to cut the oak beam holding the bars in our window. I worked at night only and hid the chips in my pocket. During daylight my scarf thrown over the window sill effectively concealed the work. In ten nights the bars were loosened and we waited for a signal. Bill Allen brought word that on account of the severe cold all the guards had withdrawn to shelter. We decided to escape 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 and trackless woods along the river, but, 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 Dreever and taken the beaten trail to Portage; when at daylight he had met the relief guard coming to 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, and therefore he fooled the guards completely and escaped to Portage, fortunately for him as he had fore reason to flee than the rest of us because his letter to the Globe describing the Red River settlers had aroused enmity.

Our escape soon becoming known to other prisoners, there arose a commotion and general attempt to escape, however the guard was aroused and captured nearly all of them.

Red River Refugees

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 Smith, who had lately arrived in Red River as commissioner representing the Imperial Government, the Canadian Government and the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was early in March when our party left Fort Garry and we were told by Riel that if found in the country after 24 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, which was buffalo robes, and our provisions, which was pemmican and hard-tack, on a toboggan which I had hastily constructed. Our objective was St. Cloud, 450 miles south, and that night we made first camp in a timbered bottom on the bank of the Red River, 12 miles north of Grand Forks. The evening was clear and cold and some trees cracking with the frost made us think of pursuit and pistols. However we soon had a rousing 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, he 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 we marched on the beaten trail which wound through the big trees and climbed a rise where there was a long stretch of open prairie. Before going very far the trail forked and the Consul took the wrong fork.

The next to leave was the dog-train and by that short interval of time a wind had arisen and partly obscured the prairie trail so that the driver of the dogs did not notice that his employer had turned aside, therefore he drove through without pause to Grand Forks. The three refugees were the last to leave and when they 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. The first words he said were, “Have you seen my man?” Here was a problem. The man was incapable of further effort, our improvised sled was unfit to carry him, and 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 the axe in an upright position beside him.

As the day wore on the blizzard increased in violence so that we made progress with difficulty and it was dark when we reached Grand Forks. The first person we met was a worried dog-driver, and the first words he said were, “Did you see my partner?” He immediately started back to the rescue. Next morning at sunrise the wind was down but there was not much of a trail visible; however, where the dogs stopped the driver had a look around, espied the tip of an axe handle and under there safe enough was Mr. Consul, not much worse for the misadventure except he was a day later on his journey than he expected. As we neared St. Paul, the snow disappeared and snowshoes were discarded for stage and train. At the Merchants’ Hotel we were given a Red River welcome with the very best they had. We all found that we unable to sleep in the beds and were obliged to remove the blankets and spread them on the floor.

Page revised: 20 July 2009