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The North-West Mounted Police Retreat from Fort Pitt

For the week of Monday April 20, 2010

On April 22, 1885, the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) stationed at Fort Pitt in modern-day Saskatchewan arrived at Fort Battleford to join supporters of the Canadian government who had taken refuge there in anticipation of a Cree uprising. These events, and the subsequent destruction of Fort Pitt by the Cree, were part of the Northwest Rebellion/Resistance of 1885 in which First Nations and Métis groups were opposed to the Dominion of Canada’s increasing control over the region.

North-West Mounted Police on duty at Fort Battleford
© Parks Canada / Kevn Hogarth

Settlement of Western Canada began to expand in the mid-19th century, and the buffalo populations were being hunted to near extinction. First Nations and Métis faced the possibility of starvation as their main sources of food and income were destroyed. The Dominion of Canada, which wanted to give European and Canadian settlers the land occupied by the First Nations, began to offer treaties in which First Nations would give consent to the government to settle some of their land in exchange for reservations, help for them to become farmers, and enough food to make it through the difficult transition to farming. One treaty, Treaty 6, was signed in 1876 at Fort Pitt.

Most of the First Nations groups accepted the treaties, but Misto-ha-a-Musqua’s (also known as Big Bear) band was one of the last and most reluctant to do so. After signing the treaty, the government and Misto-ha-a-Musqua could not agree on the location for a reservation, and the government stopped providing the promised support. While Big Bear was willing to resist the government and negotiate on behalf of the Cree and other First Nations groups, a more militant Plains Cree warrior named Kahpaypamhchukwao (also known as Wandering Spirit) wanted to take more direct action. Against Big Bear’s wishes, Wandering Spirit and his men attacked the mission settlement at Frog Lake and killed several settlers there. The band then moved on towards Fort Pitt, intent on attacking the fort, but Big Bear and William McLean, Chief Trader for the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Pitt, were able to convince Wandering Spirit and his group to allow the NWMP and the civilians living at the fort to leave for Fort Battleford before Fort Pitt was looted and burned to the ground.

Big Bear at Fort Pitt pre-1885
© O.B. Buell / Library and Archives Canada / PA-118768

Ultimately, the Rebellion/Resistance of 1885 ended in defeat for the First Nations and Métis groups involved. The Cree group who were at Fort Pitt were split up and forced onto different reservations, while Big Bear was sent to prison. He was released two years later in 1887, and died that winter on the Little Pine reservation.

Fort Battleford and Frog Lake were designated national historical sites in 1923, as was Fort Pitt in 1954. In 1971 Misto-ha-a-Musqua (Big Bear) was designated a person of national historic significance.

For other stories on the Northwest Rebellion/Resistance of 1885, see The Battle of Duck Lake: A Struggle for Land and a Way of Life, A Second Last Stance and Batoche: Sacred Grounds of the Métis. For more information on Fort Battleford and Fort Pitt, see Fort Battleford National Historic Site of Canada.

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