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Fort Battleford National Historic Site of Canada

History

The Commanding Officer's house
The Commanding Officer's house
©Parks Canada / July 2000 / Tracey Verishine

Established in 1876, Fort Battleford presided over some of the most pivotal events in the history of western Canada.The North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) at Fort Battleford assisted during the negotiations between First Nations and the Canadian government at the time of the signing of Treaty Six. They established the rule of Canadian law and order while the community of Battleford, the first seat of government for the North-West Territories, grew into a thriving community. They supervised the early settlement of the area, and even provided settlers from among their own retired members.The NWMP were also charged with looking to the welfare of the local First Nations. During the conflicts which arose in 1885, when it appeared that citizens of the West might rise in open revolt, the NWMP at Fort Battleford provided a steadying influence and served as a refuge for area residents who feared a general outbreak of violence.

Fort Battleford National Historic Site of Canada commemorates the role of the North- West Mounted Police at the fort from 1876 to 1885 in extending the Canadian government's interests in the west. The role of the fort during the North-West Rebellion/Resistance of 1885, included its role in the "siege" of Battleford, as a base for the military operations at Cut Knife Hill, Fort Pitt, and the search for mistahi-maskwa (Big Bear). It was also the site of the surrender of pîhtokahânapiwiýin (Poundmaker) to General Middleton's forces on 26 May 1885.

Fort Battleford - 1876 to 1885 mistahi-maskwa (Big Bear)
The North-West Rebellion/Resistance Fort Pitt
The "Siege" of Battleford The Search for mistahi-maskwa (Big Bear)
Cut Knife Hill pîhtokahânapiwiýin (Poundmaker)Surrenders
pîhtokahânapiwiýin (Poundmaker) The Aftermath

To the topFort Battleford - 1876 to 1885

A time of adventure and uncertainty, the late nineteenth century witnessed tremendous change. As the buffalo disappeared, the First Nations lifestyle was threatened. The Canadian government wanted to open the west for settlement. The killing of Nakota (Assiniboine) by wolf-hunters in the Cypress Hills in 1873 confirmed the government's belief that this vast prairie region required administration. The need for extending law and sovereignty to the west became the motivation for the formation of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP). The force set out for the west in 1874.

Battleford was declared capital of the new North-West Territories of Canada in 1876. That same year, construction began on Battle River Post, later known as Fort Battleford. Situated near the junction of the Battle River and the North Saskatchewan River, the fort was close to large First Nations populations as well as Government House . From the moment the NWMP occupied Fort Battleford ,one of their main activities was public relations with the surrounding First Nations. The government believed that treaties were required before settlement could commence, and that the local First Nations needed to become acquainted with Canadian laws. The NWMP provided protection and assistance during the treaty-making process. They were involved with the negotiations and signing of Treaty Six in 1876, and were also charged with distributing annual treaty payments. However, the relationship among First Nations, Indian Agents and the NWMP gradually deteriorated as more and more the NWMP became enforcers of the government's Indian Policy

To the topThe North-West Rebellion/Resistance

Frustrated by the government's response to their concerns regarding the treaties and their livelihood, First Nations, such as the Cree, grew increasingly discontented. By 1885 violence had erupted, including attacks at Frog Lake and Fort Pitt led by kah-paypamhchukwao (Wandering Spirit), war chief of Big Bear's band. While mistahi-maskwa (Big Bear) might not have condoned the actions of Wandering Spirit and his followers, the government, who viewed these events as a rebellion against its authority, saw Big Bear as an instigator. As a result of these conflicts, the force stationed at Fort Battleford grew from 12 men and 16 horses in 1876, to 200 men and 107 horses in 1885. Fort Battleford now boasted the largest concentration of North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) in the West.

Fort Battleford became the focal point for the Canadian government's military operations during the 1885 Rebellion. It was the base of operations during the battles at Cut Knife Hill, Fort Pitt, Frenchman Butte, Steele Narrows and the search for Big Bear. Around the same time the fort also sheltered approximately 500 local people who feared an attack from the surrounding First Nations. News of the battle at Duck Lake between the Métis and NWMP made the residents of Battleford uneasy, and they sought protection within the stockade of the fort.

At the same time pîhtokahânapiwiýin (Poundmaker)and his followers were on their way to Battleford to request overdue rations. Expecting to meet with the Indian Agent, Poundmaker was surprised to find the town abandoned. Through a series of mis-communications, the Indian Agent refused to meet with Poundmaker's band. Although Poundmaker tried to prevent it, some of his followers looted the deserted buildings of Battleford. Later, the militia, led by Colonel Otter, also looted the town on their way to the battle at Cut Knife Hill. Fear, coupled with a succession of violent incidents between townspeople and First Nations groups, kept the townspeople crowded inside Fort Battleford for almost a month.

By successfully suppressing the armed conflicts of 1885, the government secured its claims to the west and paved the way for settlement and immigration. Instead of addressing First Nations grievances, the government tightened regulations governing most aspects of First Nations culture, including: schooling, socialization, livelihood and customs. Many First Nations were prosecuted for their involvement in the conflict. Poundmaker went to Fort Battleford to negotiate terms of peace with General Middleton and was arrested. He was sentenced to three years in prison for treason- felony. The largest mass hanging in Canada, since Confederation, occurred November 27, 1885, when six Cree and two Assiniboine men were tried for murder and publicly hanged within the walls of the stockade. Many more served time in prison.

These convictions left an impact on the development of the west, serving as examples of the government's response to challenges to its authority. While there was continuing discontent among First Nations, there were no further attempts at armed resistance.

To the topThe "Siege" of Battleford

A severe winter in 1884-85, coupled with a decrease in government rations, made life more and more difficult for First Nations living on the reserves near Battleford. Plans were made during the winter for all the First Nations of the area to meet with Agent Rae at Battleford in the spring. Their intention was to combine their numbers and use their weight to demand better rations. They had decided that pîhtokahânapiwiýin (Poundmaker) should act as their chief representative.

When news of the Métis success at Duck Lake reached Poundmaker in March 1885, he decided to utilize the unrest and fears of government agents to negotiate necessary supplies. Joined by the Assiniboine, the Cree went to Battleford. Some of the Assiniboine had killed two men on their way to join Poundmaker. Having heard the news of these murders, of the Métis victory at Duck Lake, and rumours of the approaching Cree, the citizens of the town of Battleford took refuge across the river inside the walls of Fort Battleford. Poundmaker and his followers arrived on March 30 to find the town deserted. Efforts to open negotiations with Indian Agent Rae failed. Hungry and frustrated, some of the Cree and Assiniboine began looting the empty homes in the Battleford area, despite Poundmaker's attempts to stop them. The citizens of Battleford later painted a picture of wholesale destruction, but it appears that most of the looting of the town had been done by Canadian soldiers scrounging for supplies and souvenirs after the arrival of Colonel Otter's relief column on April 24. Fearful of returning to their homes, the people of Battleford adopted a siege mentality, and remained within the fort for almost a month.

The next day the combined Battleford bands moved west to the Poundmaker reserve and established a large camp east of Cut Knife Creek. Although Poundmaker was appointed the political leader and chief spokesperson for the combined bands, a soldiers' lodge was also erected at the camp. According to Plains Cree tradition, once erected, the soldier's lodge was in control of the camp. Throughout April the combined bands, about 1500 people, remained on Poundmaker's reserve. They awaited a police attack, just as the citizens of Battleford were waiting for a First Nations attack upon the fort. Poundmaker succeeded in keeping the young men under control, even though envoys from Louis Riel kept arriving to urge the First Nations to join with him. Poundmaker was more inclined to distance himself from the Métis, and try to gain some advantage for his own people by expressing his allegiance to Queen Victoria.

Without General Middleton's approval, on April 24 Otter's column arrived from Swift Current to lift the "siege of Battleford". He then moved against the First Nations at Cut Knife. There had been no overt hostilities, other than the looting, but Otter determined that a show of force would convince the Cree and Assiniboine to surrender. On May 1, with almost no intelligence as to the First Nations' intentions, Otter made a forced march with about 300 men, a Gatling gun and two seven-pound mountain guns, in an effort to surprise the First Nations camp at Cut Knife.

To the topCut Knife Hill

The origin of the name Cut Knife goes back to an 1840s battle between the Sarcee, led by Broken Knife (or Cut Knife), and the Cree under wîhkasko-kisêýin (Sweetgrass). It occurred where the present-day Poundmaker Reserve is.

The 1885 Battle of Cut Knife Hill occurred on May 2. After his relief of Battleford on April 24, and without General Middleton's approval, Colonel Otter decided he should move against the 1500 or so Cree, Assiniboine and Métis gathered at Poundmaker's Cut Knife Reserve. He departed Battleford on May 1 with 300 men, making a forced march the forty miles to Cut Knife. Although he had hoped to take the encampment by surprise, his troop movements were no secret. Firing broke out before all the troops could take up position. The actions of pîhtokahânapiwiýin (Poundmaker) were basically defensive, and he restrained his men from pursuing the retreating soldiers after the battle.

Otter’s Relief Column at Battleford Otter’s Relief Column at Battleford
© Saskatchewan Archives Board

Otter's men had an advantage only in more modern weapons. The terrain was certainly against them, and the wisdom of proceeding against the First Nations became immediately uncertain. The carriages of the seven-pound guns collapsed soon after the fighting commenced, so they were useless. The troops were caught in the open. The Cree, Assiniboine and Métis used the cover of ravines to outflank the soldiers. After six hours of fighting and attempting to shoot at an enemy they could not see, Otter broke off the engagement around noon. Poundmaker asked his warriors to stop fighting. As Otter's column withdrew, they were no longer fired upon and no attempt was made to pursue them, suggesting to Otter that he had decimated his opponents. It did not occur to him that it also suggested that Poundmaker and his followers had no real interest in fighting. Otter withdrew, having suffered eight men killed and sixteen wounded; First Nations sustained about the same number.

To the toppîhtokahânapiwiýin (Poundmaker)

Poundmaker was born about 1842 at Blackfoot Crossing, Alberta. He was the son of an Assiniboine man who was a shaman or medicine man, and a Cree woman who may have had some Métis ancestry. Poundmaker grew up with his Plains Cree relatives, as it was customary for a man to live with his wife's people. His mother's brother, mistawâsis (Big Child), had great influence upon him during his childhood.

Unlike most Cree men who rose to prominence during this period, Poundmaker's renown was not based upon his abilities as a hunter and warrior. Poundmaker demonstrated from an early age a distinguished ability to speak, negotiate, and make peace. He further distinguished himself when isapo-muxika (Crowfoot), Chief of the Siksika (Blackfoot), in accordance with a long-standing custom, adopted Poundmaker as his son to replace one of his own sons who had been killed in battle. This relationship gave Poundmaker a significant degree of notoriety, and offered him tremendous insight into the workings of Blackfoot society, which for many years had been in open conflict with the Cree and Assiniboine.

Poundmaker Poundmaker
© Saskatchewan Archives Board

Poundmaker had grown enough in influence that in August, 1876 he was able to speak as a headman of one of the "River People" bands at the Treaty Six negotiations at Fort Carlton. He soon emerged as a spokesperson for a group of individuals who were critical of the terms of the treaty, and he was instrumental in having the treaty amended to include a "famine" clause which would commit the government to providing additional relief and support in the event of famine. There was also a "medicine chest" clause that was to help deal with diseases such as scurvy and Tuberculosis. Poundmaker had other grave concerns regarding the treaty, and only agreed to sign because the majority of his band was in favour of it.

In late 1879, Poundmaker, now chief of his band, accepted a reserve and with 182 followers settled on thirty square miles (fifty square kilometres) along the Battle River, about forty miles (sixty kilometres) west of Battleford. The government's ongoing failure to keep treaty promises haunted and frustrated Poundmaker during these years, and he became a leading activist in politics. He represented the Cree at inter-band and inter-tribal meetings, and he was a powerful spokesperson in discussions and negotiations with the government authorities. His efforts were effective,and he did not escape the notice of outside observers. The Battleford newspaper, the "Saskatchewan Herald", referred to him as "the most industrious, best behaved, and independent chief in the district".

Poundmaker, along with mistahi-maskwa (Big Bear), became convinced that power lay in numbers. With the help of his connections with the Blackfoot, Poundmaker set about helping to organize the First Nations into a large, organized and more cohesive unit in order to more effectively lobby the government for improvements to the lot of First Nations. He was in favour of gathering all the Cree of northern Saskatchewan onto one large reserve to aid in this political aim. Such a united group could speak with one voice when dealing with the Canadian government.

Throughout this period Poundmaker cultivated friendly relations with government authorities, and even assisted them in convincing Big Bear to move onto a reserve. In July 1881,Poundmaker served as a guide and interpreter to the Governor- General the Marquis of Lorne, and his party on their trip from Battleford to Calgary.

In June, 1884, a thirst dance was held on Poundmaker's reserve, at which discussions were held about the worsening living conditions, and the problems inherent in the reserve system. Over two thousand people attended this gathering, and trouble nearly erupted when the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) disrupted the gathering to make an arrest of a man accused of earlier assaulting a farm instructor. The NWMP were by this time associated with enforcing Canada's failing Indian Policy, and First Nations people were beginning to resent and distrust the police. The government had recently moved to ban First Nations travelling away from their own reserves without permission or passes, and had also decreed unlawful, thirst dances and other cultural expressions. The people gathered at Poundmaker's reserve assumed the police had arrived to shut things down. Violence was only averted through the determined efforts of Poundmaker and Big Bear.

After the North-West Rebellion/Resistance, Poundmaker was tried in Regina, and sentenced on four counts of treason- felony. The trial lasted two days, but the jury returned with a verdict of guilty within half an hour. There was considerable sympathy for Poundmaker within the Euro-Canadian society, and both Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, and North-West Territories Governor Edgar Dewdney, interceded to prevent Poundmaker's hair from being shorn while he was in prison ,as was customary for inmates. He was thus spared some of the humiliation his circumstances dictated. He was sentenced to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary in Manitoba, but would serve only one year. He was released in 1886 due to poor health as he had contracted tuberculosis during his time in prison. Four months later, while visiting his adopted father Crowfoot, on the Siksika reserve at Blackfoot Crossing east of Calgary, Poundmaker died of a lung hemorrhage.

To the topmistahi-maskwa (Big Bear)

Big Bear Big Bear
© University of Saskatchewan Archives

Big Bear was born in central Saskatchewan about 1825 into a Plains Cree band that lived along the North Saskatchewan River. Big Bear's father was an Ojibwa chief and his mother Cree or Ojibwa. These people lived in the parklands of present-day central Saskatchewan, but made forays out onto the plains to hunt buffalo. During his life Big Bear had several wives, and at least four sons. He was a noted hunter and warrior, and soon rose to prominence among his people.

He enters the written record in November of 1862, when he was reported to be the "head chief" of a large camp of Cree people near Fort Carlton. A Hudson's Bay Company trader wrote later that in about 1865 Big Bear moved from the Carlton area to Fort Pitt, and there became head man of a small band of people, mostly relatives.

Known as a peaceful but independent character, Big Bear was occupied during these years with the traditional activities of his people. He only came to attention during the trying days of the 1870s when the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) arrived, the buffalo disappeared, and the treaties were signed. He and his band had taken part in the last great First Nations battles on the Plains. Hostilities between the Plains Cree and their allies and the Blackfoot Confederacy had culminated in the 1870 Battle of Belly River in present-day southwest Alberta. The Cree were badly defeated during this encounter.

In 1874 members of Big Bear's band refused gifts sent by the Canadian government with their emissary, William McKay. McKay, a Hudson Bay Company official, visited the First Nations to explain to them why the NWMP were coming into the region. McKay recorded that at this time Big Bear's camp was comprised of 65 lodges(about 520 people). In 1875 Big Bear rejected the explanations of treaty offered by another government emissary, the Reverend George McDougall. Big Bear told McDougall that if the government wanted to talk to him then the government should come to him itself. He likened the inducements to take treaty like bait for a fox trap. The next summer the Governor of the North-West Territories, Alexander Morris, came to make treaty with the Cree. Big Bear came late to the Treaty Six ceremonies at Fort Pitt, and was dismayed to find that many of the chiefs had already signed. He refused to sign, holding out for better terms. As long as the buffalo lasted he continued to refuse to sign, and his defiance attracted more and more independent warriors and small groups of non-treaty people.

The buffalo were decreasing already by the winter of 1878-1879, just as Big Bear was at the height of his influence. He began trying to build a large First Nations alliance to demand better terms from the government. He met the new Indian Commissioner, Edgar Dewdney, at Fort Walsh in June of 1879. He spoke with Dewdney for several days about the problem of the vanishing buffalo, and the inadequacy of the treaties to make up for their loss. However, he was unable to bring any understanding or change to Dewdney's, and the government's, position. A destitute Little Pine, one of the holdout non-treaty chiefs, relented. He and other chiefs signed Treaty Four at Fort Walsh that July on behalf of 472 people, further weakening Big Bear's position. Little Pine's and Lucky Man's people were then allowed immediate provisions, but Big Bear still refused to sign.

Big Bear and his hungry band then moved south to Montana. He was soon joined by many treaty First Nations, and there they hunted the last remaining buffalo. By 1882 these herds were gone as well, and the "Canadian"First Nations began to return to Canada to petition the government for food and the means to begin farming on their reserves. Big Bear's band tried to hold out, but the situation was hopeless. His people were starving. At Fort Walsh in December, 1882, Big Bear finally signed his adhesion to Treaty Six so his people would be given food and blankets. His following at this time was 247 people.

Big Bear told the government's Indian department officials that his people wanted a reserve near Fort Pitt, and in July, 1883, his band was moved there at government expense. Once there, Big Bear visited many of his old friends, and he saw how pitifully inadequate the reserves were, and how poorly the few agricultural projects were providing for the people. He once again began agitating for reforms, and he requested a new reserve for his own band as well.

By 1884 Big Bear could see that any form of violence or overt resistance towards the emerging Euro-Canadian society would be futile, so he cooperated with Poundmaker and together they tried to unite the treaty bands in the Battle River-Fort Pitt area in a last attempt to get a better deal from the Canadian government. He organized a "thirst dance" in defiance of a new government decree forbidding such gatherings, while he tried in vain to convince other leaders to organize themselves, and not turn their backs on traditional ways. He even met with Louis Riel in August, 1884. Still very unhappy with the treaties, he wanted a new one to be negotiated. He wanted to see the government adopt a unified approach when dealing with First Nations, and he had a new concept of reserves. He requested Riel to take these matters into account in any of his future negotiations with the government. Perhaps if the government heard such concerns often enough it would pay attention.

The government, however, remained complacent. Big Bear began to lose his influence as his peaceful approach and complex ambitions caused dissent within his band. More aggressive followers were prepared to fight for their cause. The Warrior Society became more and more disaffected. During the spring and summer of 1885 Big Bear was unable to restrain members of his band and on two occasions some resorted to serious violence. They killed nine people at Frog Lake, and took a number of others captive. Later this same group burned Fort Pitt. Big Bear, their peace-time leader, no longer had any say in matters. Circumstances had slipped his camp into a state of war.

After the Resistance/Rebellion, Big Bear, considered the leader of his band and responsible for its actions, was held accountable for this violence. Even though witnesses testified about his attempts to restrain the violence, he was convicted of treason-felony, and spent the next two years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. Released in March of 1887, he was already in ill health when he moved to Poundmaker's reserve. The agent there reported him ill and he refused all medical aid. He was visibly crushed by the loss of his traditional lifestyle, and disillusioned by his failures to unite his people and achieve a better life for them.Big Bear died on Poundmaker's Reserve in January 1888.

To the topFort Pitt

Fort Pitt was built in the winter of 1829-30 by John Rowand of the Hudson Bay Company (HBC). It would serve as one of the major trading posts on the Plains for the next fifty years. Fort Pitt was frequented by Cree, Assiniboine, and Blackfoot people who traded their buffalo hides, meat and pemmican for blankets, kettles, powder, tea and the many other items available from the Company. Pemmican was a much sought-after trade item since it was used to provision all the HBC posts in the West. For the traders occupying these posts, time and resources did not allow them to obtain all the meat and pemmican themselves. The fresh meat and pemmican offered for trade by the First Nations people was therefore vital for the success of the fur trade.

Fort Pitt was one of the locations chosen to host the 1876 signing of Treaty Six, since it was centrally located for many bands. A North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) sub-post was established at Fort Pitt the same year.

During the Rebellion/Resistance of 1885, Big Bear's followers surrounded the fort. Negotiations followed in which the civilian inhabitants of the fort surrendered, and the hopelessly outnumbered NWMP detachment,under Inspector Francis Dickens, withdrew to Fort Battleford. During the negotiations several returning NWMP scouts were fired upon, but there was otherwise little violence. The captive civilians were later released unharmed, but Fort Pitt was looted and then burned to the ground.

Fort Pitt was partially rebuilt by the HBC in 1886. It continued as a trading post for another four years. The decline in the fur trade following the North-West Rebellion/Resistance, and increasing settlement, spelled the end to a good portion of the HBC trade on the prairies. The Company would subsequently concentrate its efforts further north. Fort Pitt was closed in 1890.

To the topThe Search for mistahi-maskwa (Big Bear)

The Alberta Field Force, the government's western column commanded by General Thomas Strange, arrived at the scene of the Frog Lake killings on May 23, 1885. They buried the bodies which had been left lying where they had been killed, and pushed on to Fort Pitt the same day. Strange put some of his men to work rebuilding the fort as a base of operations. Strange decided to pursue Big Bear's band without waiting for General Middleton.

Big Bear's band and the other bands with them had been lingering in the area since the capture of Fort Pitt. Altogether they numbered about 1,000 people. They were undecided as to what to do. The Plains Cree for the most part wanted to join Riel or pîhtokahânapiwiýin (Poundmaker); the Woods Cree remained passive. On May 4 th the Cree heard confusing reports of the engagement at Cut Knife Hill between Poundmaker's people and Colonel Otter's forces. These accounts left them with the impression that Poundmaker had been defeated, and caused a dispirited Big Bear to give up leadership of his band. The Woods Cree were, as a result of the news, even more determined to protect the Fort Pitt captives, and stay out of the fighting. The Cree continued to linger in the area, holding a thirst dance and sending out scouts to determine what was happening.

Strange's column soon discovered the trail of Big Bear and his followers. Sam Steele's Scouts followed, and on May 27 had a brief skirmish in which a Cree man was killed. A few days later Strange's column caught up to the Cree encampment near Frenchman's Butte. The Cree had dug some defense-works, and commanded the higher ground. After a skirmish, the Cree, now led by kah-paypamhchukwao (Wandering Spirit)and Imasees, withdrew. Strange decided to break off pursuit until reinforcements and supplies caught up to him, fearing a pursuit through muskeg and forest would expose them to attack.

Middleton, by this time, had reached Fort Pitt. Strange waited for Middleton to join him, and sent Sam Steele and his Scouts in pursuit of Big Bear, whom they held responsible for the actions of all the Cree.. Some of the Woods Cree, with a few of the prisoners, diverged from the main body and surrendered. Steele caught up to the rest of the camp on June 3 at Loon Lake, and his surprise attack forced the Cree to make a quick withdrawal across the narrows. Low on ammunition, Steele withdrew. His sentries later fired upon a party from the Cree camp, not realizing it was a peace delegation headed by one of the captives, Fort Pitt factor William McLean, sent to negotiate a surrender. Since the delegation was unable to make contact with Steele, the attempt to negotiate peace was not repeated.

The apparent rejection of the peace party tipped the balance of sentiment back in favour of the war party, and delayed the surrender of these bands. After the battle at Rat Foot Hill (Steele's Narrows), the Cree and military retreated in opposite directions. The Woods Cree broke away altogether from the Plains Cree soon after the fight at the Loon Lake narrows, and took the captives with them. The captives were released on June 19, and the Woods Cree surrendered soon after.

Middleton then set about organizing a four-column pursuit force meant to trap Big Bear. These forces set out to the north in roughly parallel courses, and spent the better part of a month wandering fruitlessly around the forest and muskeg.

After the Loon Lake skirmish, the different Cree factions fragmented further. Some escaped to the United States; most surrendered to the various columns of infantry pursuing them. Big Bear himself eluded the eastern-most column, commanded by Commissioner Irvine of the NWMP, and carried on towards Fort Carlton. By this time the soldiers were foot-sore, dispirited and sick from a month's tramping through the bush.

On July 4, 1885 Big Bear and his youngest son, mistatim-awâsis (Horse Child), appeared alone at Fort Carlton and surrendered to the four NWMP left there by Irvine to watch the ford of the river. Big Bear no longer led anyone, and his bedraggled appearance revealed that of the soldiers pursuing him. The search for Big Bear was over.

To the topPîhtokahânapiwiýin (Poundmaker)Surrenders

Poundmaker Surrenders Poundmaker Surrenders
© Saskatchewan Archives

Colonel Otter's attack on the Cree, and some Assiniboine and Métis, at Cut Knife Hill on May 2 1885, left Poundmaker and his followers on the move. They didn't feel safe on their own reserve. They expected to be attacked, but had no clear idea of what to do. Some members were in favour of joining Louis Riel's cause, but most wanted to avoid trouble. Poundmaker was in favour of seeking refuge further west, among the Blackfoot, who were entirely uninterested in fighting against the government.

On their way through the Eagle Hills, armed men from Poundmaker's camp captured a wagon train carrying supplies for Colonel Otter's column. Poundmaker stepped in to ensure that the twenty-one captured teamsters were treated well. Not only were they now supplied with more food and arms,but they also had hostages as leverage in negotiations. This skirmish had occurred on May 14. Five days later they received word of the defeat of the Métis at Batoche, and the surrender of Riel.

Now the Métis involved returned to the Batoche area and the rest of the Cree and Assiniboine camp turned back towards Battleford. This gave Poundmaker a chance to reassert his authority. He sent captives,Father Louis Cochin to Colonel Otter at Fort Battleford ,and farm instructor Jefferson to General Middleton who was en route from Batoche, to ask about terms of peace. Otter replied that he did not have the authority to deal with Poundmaker, and Middleton wrote a threatening reply demanding that Poundmaker surrender immediately and unconditionally.

Poundmaker and dozens of his followers arrived at Fort Battleford on May 26. Amidst hundreds of officers they surrendered their arms to Middleton; Poundmaker was arrested .

To the topThe Aftermath

Poundmaker Surrenders Poundmaker Surrenders
© National Archives of Canada

Those deemed responsible for murder and inciting conflict during the North-West Rebellion/Resistance were put on trial and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Louis Riel was charged with treason and tried in Regina. He refused to make use of the insanity defense his lawyers advised, but tried instead to justify his actions and his beliefs before the court. He was found guilty, and on November 16 1885, was hanged.

The execution of Riel had repercussions across Canada. English-speaking Protestant Ontarians approved whole-heartedly of his execution, while French-speaking Catholic Quebeckers saw his execution as a further attack on French-speaking people by the English-speaking majority. The Métis looked upon the execution as a final betrayal by the government, and Westerners in general remain unconvinced as to the wisdom or propriety of hanging Riel.

pîhtokahânapiwiýin (Poundmaker) and mistahi-maskwa ( Big Bear) were also tried in Regina, and these trials also received much attention. Big Bear's oratory once again suffered in translation, an interpretive short coming which plagued him in all his dealings with the government. Both men were found guilty of treason-felony and sentenced to three years in the federal penitentiary at Stony Mountain.Both were released early and succumbed to illness shortly thereafter. In addition, several First Nations prisoners, most notably kah-paypamhchukwao (Wandering Spirit), were tried,without legal counsel, at Fort Battleford for their role in the North-West Rebellion/Resistance. These were the men who had led the warriors responsible for the civilian deaths at Frog Lake and in the Battleford area. On November 27 six Cree and two Assiniboine men were hanged within the fort's stockade.

Big Bear Big Bear
© National Archives of Canada

After 1885, conditions for First Nations people did not improve. There were treaty grievances that remained unaddressed and stricter control of their lives and activities. They were confined to their reserves unless allowed out with a signed pass. Although First Nations had not joined with Riel in his quest, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald saw them as duplicitous. Fort Battleford maintained a police presence in the area as national policies and increased settlement spelled the disappearance of a whole way of life.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Fort Battleford's importance had declined. It was decommissioned in 1924. Local people demonstrated their continued interest in the fort and the events of 1885 by preserving its remaining buildings and opening the North- West Mounted Police Memorial and Indian Museum. Thanks to their efforts a vital link in the Saskatchewan story had been preserved. The site was turned over to the Government of Canada in 1951 to be administered as a National Historic Site.

Sources :

Fort Battleford Pamphlet

Agenda Papers

Dictionary of Biographies

Prairie Fire: The 1885 North-West Rebellion, Bob Beal and Rod Macleod, McClelland & Stewart Inc., Toronto (Ont), 1994

Loyal till Death: Indians and the North-West Rebellion, Blair Stonechild and Bill Waiser, Fifth House Ltd., Calgary (Alta), 1997.