The Fenian "Invasion" of 1871
MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1950-51 Season
The invasion of Manitoba in 1871 was one of the most fabulous episodes in the history of our Canadian and American frontier. It seems impossible that it could have happened at all ... yet it did. It is only when you know what the frontier was like, how its people thought and acted, that you realize it was possible.
Yet, even when you have learned a good deal about the frontier and the people on it, you know that it could not have happened but for two strange men. Those men were W. B. O'Donoghue and John J. O'Neill. They barked at the moon, and almost got away with it. There were not many like them. I might well have called my paper "Wild Scenes on Red River". I would like to explain that I might have borrowed the latter title from the newspapers of frontier times.
On any occasion when a disturbance broke out in those days, it was the usual thing for the editor to set up a row of headline type, reading "Wild Scenes" at such and such a place.
He would then insert it in a spot where it would attract most attention. It was a great circulation builder. There was something electrifying about those two words. They could be used to advantage for almost anything, but especially for rebellions, invasions, floods and boiler explosions.
It cannot he said that in all cases the article that appeared under the headline justified the dramatic introduction. But it made readers sit up and take notice. It probably induced them to suspect that the editor undoubtedly had more exciting details, which might be revealed in the next edition.
Probably this was the beginning of the exaggeration that marked some of the stories that were told, as well as written, in pioneer times. Certainly we know through our research that some of those tales do not stand the test of careful scrutiny. Of course, the blow-hard spirit is not gone. But modern communication facilities and competition tend to restrain it.
In addition to discussing O'Donoghue and O'Neill, I would like to try to throw a little additional light on the attitude of people south of the border to the invasion, to outline in some detail what happened in the United States courts when the leaders of the raid were brought before the bench.
I think it can be said with some degree of truth that the Manitoba raid, the counterparts of the Riel rebellions and similar disturbances, were common to the North American frontier ever since the time settlers started moving out from the eastern seaboard, in fact, even before.
The independent individualism of the frontier has always been rebellious when confronted with the first manifestations of organized government. Men of the frontier preferred to be asked to do ... not to be ordered.
The surveyor, the tax collector, the law enforcement officer and the court, all were viewed as representatives of oppression. There was a scorn of older society, impatience with its restraints and its ideas, and an indifference to its lessons everywhere in the advanced settlements.
Let me give you an example of a "wild scene" on the American side of the border. The year was 1861. Dakota Territory had been created and its officers appointed by President Lincoln. The first territorial legislature was in session at Yankton.
The speaker of the house turned out to be an officious gentleman. The members of the house, who took an instant dislike to him, asked the sergeant at arms, who was a noted desperado, to throw him out of a window of the legislative building. The speaker sought help from the territorial governor. The governor posted a company of armed militia in the building. Both the council which included Enos Stutsman of Pembina, and the house, revolted at this affront. They refused to proceed with their work until the militia was withdrawn. A day or two later the sergeant at arms was able to throw the speaker out of a window after all. He tossed him out of the window of a saloon, along with the window frame.
During the same session, the governor and the receiver of the United States land office engaged in a hair-pulling, choking and fisticuffs exhibition in a Yankton hotel. The governor was William Jayne, who had been Abraham Lincoln's family physician. Governor Jayne was militantly pushing a bill in the legislature to extend citizenship to halfbreeds who could read and write. Like Lincoln, he had a sympathy for downtrodden races. The land office man did not agree. The governor won in the hotel fight but lost in the legislature. No one on the frontier wanted to be told what to do.
No one can deny that the Dominion and provincial governments and the thinking people of Manitoba had reason to be tremendously disturbed when they learned in September of 1871 that an army was being assembled in the United States to invade the province. Manitoba was still writhing from the aftereffects of the violent rebellion of the previous year. Fenians had already made attempts to invade Canada at several other places.
Mr. John P. Pritchett in an article in the Canadian Historical Review in 1929 and Hon. Gilbert McMicken in a paper presented to this Society in 1888-89 have made contributions to the history of the raid that probably cannot be matched in this paper. I can only attempt to supplement their fine work.
At this point I would like to say that I heartily endorse Mr. Pritchett's view that the invasion was born as a result of the rift between Louis Riel and W. B. O'Donoghue. I would like to explore that point a bit deeper as I go on.
Somehow I believe we shall learn more about the causes and circumstances of the Manitoba invasion in a study of the lives of the two major leaders than in anything else. Perhaps we shall be able to reach a conclusion as to why this almost unbelievable episode happened at all.
For reasons readily understandable they seem to have left behind no completely believable answer to the question, why did you do it? So the best method to follow in seeking the answer, it seems to me, is to study these two men, to determine what characteristics and traits motivated their acts.
J. J. Donnelly and Thomas Curley, the other two leaders played such insignificant roles they seem hardly worthy of any mention at all.
I have examined the Pritchett and McMicken papers. My other sources are the files of the court of Pembina, some of the messages and letters of Presidents Andrew Johnson and U. S. Grant, frontier newspapers, minutes of the "Red River Congress" and an unpublished manuscript written by Gordon J. Keeney, a Fargo attorney who practised in the courts of Pembina.
Let us first take a look at O'Donoghue. I consider him one of the most amazing characters ever seen on the frontier. He is first met as a supporter and apparently a close friend of Louis Riel. He was an eloquent speaker and undoubtedly spoke both English and French. He was an able organizer. He was fiery-tempered, proud and egotistical. He probably was not a member of the Fenian Brotherhood, but he apparently was attracted to its principles. He was thoroughly sympathetic with the Métis of Rupert's Land and had won a following among them.
Riel liked him, at least for a time, and he became treasurer of the provisional government and a member of Riel's cabinet.
I think it is important to re-emphasize at this point a serious break that had occurred between O'Donoghue and Riel at the Fort Garry gate, April 20, 1870. You will recall that Riel at that time held the fort and that a violent dispute took place when Riel ordered the provisional government flag with its shamrocks and fleur-de-lis lowered and replaced by the Union Jack. You will recall that Riel assigned a man to guard the Union Jack, with orders to shoot.
In a sense that probably was the germ from which the Manitoba invasion began.
The smouldering resentment that developed in O'Donoghue at this affront later was fanned into flame in the two violent disputes between the two men at the St. Norbert conference.
O'Donoghue was no little man. He was the man who was to carry a petition from the Métis to President Grant asking for aid. He knew big men in the United States senators, politicians, prominent newspaper editors. He conferred with many of them and he managed to hit the front pages. He liked that. He even had a personal interview with President Grant, and Grant treated him courteously, even though he rejected his plea.
Was O'Donoghue discouraged? Not a hit of it. He appeared before the Fenian Brotherhood council, in New York City, repeatedly seeking aid. Time and again he was turned down. But he didn't give up. After a trip west he tackled the council again, and they turned him down again.
But now O'Donoghue got a good break. General John J. O'Neill, a member of the council, was swung by his eloquence. He resigned from the brotherhood and stepped to O'Donoghue's side.
Let us now take a look at O'Neill. He was thirty-seven years old at the time of the Manitoba Invasion. Within the span of those thirty-seven years he had already lived a most colourful life. He had seen glory as well as defeat, but his unconquerable spirit had never been broken. He had become instead, a Don Quixote out of Cervantes, seeking a new world to conquer.
He was born in Ireland, after his father had died, and he had come to Elizabeth, N.J., a clever, resourceful, energetic boy of fourteen. He had no education beyond his fifteenth year and he became in succession, a shop clerk, a travelling book agent and a proprietor of a Catholic book store in Richmond, Va., by the time he was twenty-two.
He must eventually have found civil life dull because in 1857 he joined the Second U.S. Dragoons for the Mormon war. While he was with the Dragoons he exhibited one of his outstanding traits ... an unwillingness to submit to discipline. He deserted and made his way to California where he joined the 1st U.S. Cavalry.
By the time of the War of the Rebellion, O'Neill had become a sergeant. He soon found himself in the Peninsular campaign, where his leadership and courage advanced him in December, 1962, to the rank of second lieutenant in the 5th Indiana Cavalry. He quickly won a reputation as an unusually active and daring officer and four months later was a first lieutenant. Thereafter he distinguished himself notably near Glasgow, Ky., and at Buffington Bar during Morgan's Ohio raid, and on December 2, 1863, was severely wounded at Walker's Ford.
At about this time we find another manifestation of his nature ... his extreme egotism and his temper, which made it hard for him to work with others. In 1864, because he had received no further promotion in rank he resigned from his regiment. He next appeared as a captain with the 17th U.S. coloured infantry. Even then he was not content and left the service in November, nearly six months before the war was over. In all this one can see the symptoms of instability and rebellion.
After the war he became a claims agent for the government in Tennessee. Now the Fenian organization came into being and he heard with interest the plans for an invasion of Canada proposed by the faction headed by W. R. Roberts. He became a Fenian organizer in his district.
With characteristic energy he led a detachment north from Nashville, Tenn., in May, 1866, to take part in the attack.
He now demonstrated his unfortunate propensity for impulsive action. Finding himself in command of a raiding party of 600 men at Buffalo, N.Y., he crossed the Niagara river and occupied the Canadian village of Fort Erie. When he and his men fled in the face of British troops he received his first acquaintance with the United States courts.
One could well ask, would it have made any difference if the courts had sent him to prison then; would that have averted the Manitoba invasion. The answer probably is that it would not. Only four years later, O'Neill was sent to prison, and from there, little more than a year later, he marched on Manitoba.
The raid on Fort Erie led to his appointment as "inspector general of the Irish Republican Army", and it is evident that he was more or less of a hero; almost a martyr to some of the Fenians. By the end of the next year he had replaced Roberts as president of the Roberts branch of the Brotherhood. It is almost possible to visualize his conceit at this stage of his career. Soon he began preparing for another attack on Canada and his bold attitude caused no little alarm in the Dominion.
Now we have another glance at a manifestation of his inability to get along with others.
He affiliated himself with a firm of land speculators in a programme of founding Irish settlements in Nebraska. The first was at O'Neill. Others were at Atkinson, Neb., and in Greeley county, Nebraska.
It was not a particularly attractive country about the village of O'Neill - vast stretches of semiarid soil, valuable chiefly as hay lands. But O'Neill apparently had some success in inducing his countrymen to come there. It was while he was engaged in this enterprise that he died in Omaha, Jan. 7, 1878.
The town of O'Neill somehow reflects the rebellious philosophy and independence of its founder even today. While most Nebraska prairie cities keep their stores open Saturday night, those in O'Neill are closed. By custom they open at 6.30 Sunday morning so people from the surrounding country who come to early mass may trade. The spirit of John O'Neill lives on.
The next year he quarrelled with his "senate" and when, on May 25, he attempted a raid at Eccles Hill on the Vermont border, only a fraction of the Fenian organization supported him. His men fled when the Canadians opened fire. Now he was arrested for the second time, by a United States marshal.
One can imagine how his soul rebelled as he sat in prison beginning his two year sentence, and his jubilation when, after three months, President Grant released him by presidential pardon. This was typical of Grant, who could not ignore the pleas of men who had fought with him. O'Neill, in a rapturous moment on the day of his release, declared he never again would trouble Canada ... this virtually on the eve of his Manitoba excursion.
The picture of O'Neill is not quite complete without pointing out that there is no record that he himself ever killed a Canadian in his pursuit of glory. But while he said he was a devout Catholic he was also a devout Fenian, and Fenianism was condemned by his church.
Later on I should like to sketch briefly O'Neill's life after the Manitoba raid and tell why it is that his name is spoken, written and printed every day in a certain city in the United States and probably always will be.
In the year 1871, we find these urbane gentlemen making plans for the invasion. What probably motivated them? Certainly they both were glory hunters. Was O'Neill really interested in the foolish Fenian scheme of winning independence for Ireland by harassing Canada? It is highly doubtful. Did he see in the new raid an opportunity to regain lost prestige, that he might lord it over other Fenian leaders who had laughed at him in recent months? Was he still looking for high office, or a fortune in a new land?
How about O'Donoghue? Was he really eager to help the Métis, or was he, too, seeking to regain prestige? Or was he trying to revenge himself on Riel by stealing his visionary Métis empire away?
Were they both fanatical crusaders for a people they likened to the unhappy natives of their homeland?
Two presidents of the United States had issued proclamations against any invasion of Canada. They had said that any American arrested in Canada could expect no aid from them. They had ordered law enforcement officers to be on the alert.
To all this was added the prospect that the province might send an armed force against them, and that national troops might march west from Ottawa.
Furthermore, the United States and Canada had entered into an agreement permitting American troops to seize the invaders on Canadian soil.
O'Donoghue and O'Neill apparently did not know that, nor that the boundary line at Pembina was in dispute. Nor did they seem to reckon with the importance of the animosity of the Catholic clergy to the Fenian movement and their influence in dissuading the Métis from joining in O'Donoghue's scheme.
Whatever the motives of the two men they had decided now on one of the most incredible adventures of their times, an invasion of a Canadian province with a handful of men. The sheer bravado of it challenges the imagination, even when it is realized they probably expected to be joined by a Métis horde on the Canadian side.
Let us now turn our attention to Pembina, which that year had acquired a federal court. Lawyers and litigants had become weary of the long journey to Yankton, deep in the southern part of the territory.
So distant and inaccessible was this southern court, litigants without considerable means were virtually denied justice. The first officials of the court reached Pembina by travelling virtually the same route as the Manitoba invaders, except that they used either stagecoaches or river steamboats from Fort Abercrombie north.
There were sessions of this court in May and September, each marked by grand jury deliberations. The chief legal body was the territorial supreme court, consisting of three men, one of whom was designated chief justice. These three took turns at circuit-riding and when not sitting as the supreme court. presided over the several district courts which had been established.
The lawyers of that day were for the most part well trained and by any criterion might be described as clever. They were adepts at finding loopholes in the laws and were quick in taking advantage of technicalities.
Counsel for the government had to be resourceful. The judge had to be shrewd. There were instances when the judge proved to be not as brilliant as the bar, and there were times when the lawyers did not look like lawyers and when the courts did not resemble courts at all.
The Manitoba raiders arrived in the vicinity of Pembina while the court was in session. Judge French, then chief justice, was on the bench. The clerk of the court was George I. Foster, whose son, Charles S. Foster, still lives in Fargo.
George Foster had a dual position. He was clerk as well as court commissioner. In addition, he was correspondent for the newspaper, the Yankton Press. He wrote two dispatches describing the invasion. The first was dated at Pembina, Oct. 5, 1871, on the very day it occurred.
Here is what it said:
Since the arrested men were soon to come before Mr. Foster in his capacity as court commissioner, it may be well to cite briefly the provision of the Neutrality Law under which they were to be prosecuted.
The law was passed by congress in 1818 when a number of Americans participated in an expedition which attempted to join revolutionary forces planning to take over the Spanish colonies in Florida.
Generally, it seems to have been rather ambiguous and difficult to apply to the cases in hand. The authorities chose provision No. 6 of the act, which made it a crime "to retain another person to go beyond the limits of the United States with the intention to be enlisted into the service of either belligerent."
This made it necessary to prove not only one man's act but another's intention. Everybody concerned made a bad job of it. They did the best they could with an inadequate law.
Just what happened was related by Mr. Foster in his next dispatch to the Yankton Press, dated Pembina, Oct. 16, 1871. Here is what he said:
Upon his arrival in St. Paul, October 16, O'Neill was re-arrested and again a court commissioner released him for lack of evidence. The day after his arrest a reporter of the Pioneer interviewed him.
The story was published in the Pioneer of October 17, 1871, and in it was O'Neill's denial that it was a Fenian movement and a statement to the effect that he had a thorough dislike for the British government and that he was always sympathetic with and willing to help people struggling for independence.
"The General looks to be in splendid condition physically, and so far as recent events are concerned, they do not seem to wear very greatly upon his elastic and hopeful mind," the reporter wrote.
Here are some of O'Neill's statements:
The following year the four leaders were indicted at Pembina, but O'Neill was not found. The other three escaped punishment by some common technicalities. The indictments charged the men with violation of Section 11 of the Neutrality Law-beginning and setting afoot a military expedition against the province of Manitoba.
Double jeopardy and doubts as to the residence qualifications of four grand jurors were some of the stumbling blocks thrown in the way of the government. Some of the grand jurors in question seem to have disappeared; things like that happened on the frontier. The district attorney gave it up.
It might be expected that John O'Neill would never say die ... he didn't. He lived to see his name perpetuated forever.
If you find time some day you can see it for yourself. Get in your automobile, cross the boundary near Killarney, Manitoba, and drive directly south about 525 miles on U.S. Highway No. 281. When you have come 525 miles you will be in Nebraska and as you enter a little town of about 2,500 people you will see a sign reading "Welcome to O'Neill".
John O'Neill founded that town, May 12, 1874, and it was named in his honour. After he left the scenes of his last military expedition he promoted his last grandiose scheme.
Page revised: 22 May 2010