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The Battle of Frenchman Butte

For the week of Monday May 27, 2002

On May 28, 1885, Major-General T. B. Strange attacked Big Bear's band of Cree near Frenchman Butte in Saskatchewan, sparking one of the last armed struggles of the Northwest Resistance.

Misto-Ha-a-Musqua (Big Bear) A Plains Cree chief

Misto-Ha-a-Musqua (Big Bear)
A Plains Cree chief

© LAC / O. B. Buell / C-001873

In the 1870s, the Native people of the Prairies were concerned about the disappearance of the buffalo and the increasing number of white settlers. From 1876 to 1882, Plains Cree Chief Big Bear (Misto-Ha-a-Musqua) refused to sign Treaty No. 6 which proposed giving up land rights in exchange for reserves and government assistance. Big Bear later tried to unite the Cree to persuade the federal government to create an Aboriginal territory in the Northwest and improve their living conditions.

With the failure of Big Bear's peaceful approach to negotiating with the government, young warriors, led by Wandering Spirit and Imasees, adopted more radical means to protest against the broken promises. On April 2, 1885, the warriors went to Frog Lake in search of provisions and, once there, pillaged the Hudson's Bay Company store and took hostages. Despite Big Bear's calls for peace, nine people were killed. Two weeks later, the Cree warriors seized Fort Pitt.

Defence of Fort Pitt

Defence of Fort Pitt
© A History of Riel's Second Rebellion
and How it Was Quelled

by T. Arnold Haultain, Toronto Public Library

On May 27, while the Plains Cree prepared for a Thirst Dance with the Woods Cree at Frenchman Butte, scouts spotted soldiers from the Alberta Field Force, who had been pursuing Big Bear's Cree since the Frog Lake incident. The Cree spent the night digging deep rifle pits north of the Red Deer River Valley to shelter civilians, hostages and warriors. The next morning, Major-General Strange opened fire. Although the Cree held a strong defensive position and the swampy ground prevented the soldiers from advancing, the battle finally ended in a stalemate. The Canadian troops retreated while the Cree fled to the North to take refuge in the forest.

Big Bear surrendered at Fort Carlton in early July. Despite his efforts to contain the violence of his compatriots, he was held responsible and sentenced to three years in prison for treason. Released after two years because of failing health, he died shortly after in January 1888. Misto-ha-a-musqua (Big Bear), Indian Treaty No. 6, Frenchman Butte and Fort Pitt have been designated respectively as a person, an event and sites of national historic significance.

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