Backgrounder

Red River Expedition of 1870
Painting of the Red River Expedition at Kakabeka Falls
Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1989-400-1 In memory of Viscount Wolseley

In May 1870, Col. Garnet J. Wolseley led an expedition from Toronto, Ontario, to the Red River Settlement to oversee the transfer of power from the local provisional government to the dominion government. This was the last British military operation on North American soil. It served both international and domestic political purposes. As a firm display of Canadian sovereignty, it demonstrated to American expansionists that Canada intended, with Britain's support, to assert control over its new territorial acquisition, recently acquired from the Hudson’s Bay Company. At the same time, its despatch appeased the anger of some Protestants in Ontario that had been aroused by the actions of the provisional government.

Under Wolseley’s command were two militia battalions, the 1st (Ontario) Rifles and the 2nd (Quebec) Rifles, and one battalion of British regulars (373 officers and men from the 60th Rifles), plus small detachments from the Royal Artillery, the Royal Engineers, the Army Service Corps, and the Army Hospital Corps. In total, there were 1,214 officers and men.

Much of the significance relating to the Red River Expedition is the speed at which it managed to traverse the largely unsettled territory. The troops travelled largely by steamboat from Toronto to Port Arthur (Thunder Bay). An inland road from Lake Superior had not yet been completed. The 94-day journey overland across more than 1,100 km, was all the more strenuous with few roads, bridges, or supply depots to aid them. They finally arrived at Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg), in a downpour, on August 24, 1870.

At this time, the Red River Settlement had 13,000 residents, the largest population west of Lake Superior, and served as an administration centre for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Approximately 90 percent of the residents were of mixed Indigenous and European ancestry. Many of their families had been living on these lands for generations. The new civilian lieutenant-governor was delayed en route, reaching Red River nine days after the expedition. Louis Riel and other leading members of the provisional government, not sure what to expect with the arrival of the troops at the settlement, vacated Upper Fort Garry shortly before Wolseley and his men arrived.

The British regulars soon returned to the East, but the militia regiments remained as a garrison for the new province of Manitoba. Both units were disbanded in the summer of 1871. Many of the militiamen stayed in Manitoba, settling in the growing towns or staking out good farmland.