The Batoche and St. Laurent areas were home to approximately 1,200 settlers, the majority of which were Métis. In 1872 the Village of Batoche was established when Xavier Letendre opened a ferry crossing and built a store. By 1884 the Batoche area grew to approximately fifty family river lots.
The roots of the Métis go back to the first European fur traders who travelled the interior of Canada where Indigenous peoples lived. When French Canadian and Scottish traders married First Nations women, their offspring became known as Métis or Country-born. The Métis drew upon the skills and traditions of both backgrounds becoming a unique and thriving culture.
Between 1783 and 1821, the Métis worked for the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company hunting, fishing, guiding and paddling the canoes of the two rivals across Rupert's Land. With the union of the two great competitors into the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821, many Métis were left without work. Settling in Red River, they turned to buffalo hunting, the York boat brigades and freighting for the Company to provide for their families. By 1850, the Métis, or "les gens libres" as they called themselves, had successfully challenged the Hudson's Bay Company monopoly and many were trading independently with the First Nations peoples in the West.
The Move to Batoche
The inability of Riel's Provisional Government to obtain guarantees for the Métis in Manitoba in 1869-70, as well as the dwindling herds of buffalo, convinced many that they must adopt some of the agricultural ways of the whites or be swallowed up by eastern settlement. They looked westward to the Saskatchewan country as a place to make a fresh start. Their fathers and grandfathers had wintered there in the past, and in 1872, it was decided to establish a settlement along the South Saskatchewan River. It would stretch from St-Louis-de-Langevin in the north to La Coulee des Tourond (Fish Creek) in the south spanning the Carlton Trail, the main trade route between Fort Garry and Fort Edmonton. In 1873, Xavier Letendre "dit Batoche" built a ferry where the Carlton Trail crossed the South Saskatchewan River. Soon a little village flourished on the banks of the river. By 1885, the community numbered about 500 people.
The Métis laid their farms out in long river-lot fashion, cultivating a small portion of them, but living principally by freighting, trading and raising cattle. They were a sociable people holding parties and dances in their homes to celebrate weddings, New Year's and other special occasions, or just to make the long winters pass more quickly. The annual "la Fete des Metifs," celebrating St. Joseph, the patron saint of the Métis, was held on July 24. It featured foot, horse and wagon races (naturally with wagering on the side), handicrafts and large amounts of food and drink.
Unrest in the North West
There were problems within the settlement. In 1878, the government had surveyed some of the tradition river-lot farms of the Métis already at Batoche, but many who arrived later had to settle on lands surveyed in the eastern Canadian square-township system. There were also difficulties with acquiring "legal" land titles, obtaining scrip (a certificate which could be exchanged for a land grant or money), resurveying the rest of the settlement and acquiring greater representation in Territorial and Federal politics.
Unrest during the period was not restricted to Batoche. First Nation peoples were demanding food, equipment and farming assistance promised in their treaties. Settlers across the Northwest were angered and disillusioned with Sir John A. Macdonald's national policy of railway development and protective tariffs. The farmers were denied consideration on grain liens, couldn't get their crops to market and had to pay higher prices for eastern Canadian manufactured farm implements because of the high tariffs placed on cheaper American equipment.
Metis leaders such as Gabriel Dumont, Maxime Lepine, Moise Ouellette, Pierre Parenteau Sr. and Charles Nolin, held meetings and drafted petitions to draw the government's attention to the situation. When the Canadian government failed to respond, another meeting was held in the spring of 1884. Action was needed. Three men were sent to a small mission in St. Peter's, Montana, to invite Louis Riel, the Métis leader in Manitoba in 1870, to lead his people in this new struggle.
The North West Rebellion/Métis Resistance
The resulting military confrontation was not simply an inevitable clash between complex and primitive societies. Such an interpretation leaves the impression that there was nothing vital in the culture or that the groups then inhabiting the Northwest presented a monolithic front prior to and during the events of 1885. The events which preceded the outbreak of violence involved complicated political and economic factors as well as the cultural and social issues traditionally emphasized.
Essentially there were five significant engagements during the North West Resistance/Rebellion. The North-West Field Force was involved in four of them: Fish Creek, Cut Knife Hill, Batoche and Frenchman's Butte. At Duck Lake, the skirmish was between the Métis and the North-West Mounted Police under Superintendent Crozier. One other major event occurred during the campaign - the Frog Lake "Massacre" where whites and Métis in the community were either killed or taken hostage by the malcontents of Big Bear's Cree. Only the Battle of Batoche gave the Canadian government forces a decisive victory.
The only clear Métis victory came at Duck Lake, the initial outbreak of violence. The other three conflicts, Fish Creek, Cut Knife Hill and Frenchman's Butte, were all stand-offs in one form or another. At Fish Creek, the Métis retreated after an indecisive battle; at Cut Knife Hill, other opponents withdrew after meeting stiff resistance from Poundmaker's Cree; and at Frenchman's Butte, Big Bear's Cree retreated from the barrage of fire into their defensive alignment, although the militia were unable to pursue them through the muskeg.
The Battle of Batoche
The Battle of Batoche was fought over four days from May 9 to May 12, 1885. Less than 300 Métis and First Nations people led by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont defended Batoche from a series of rifle pits which they had dug along the edge of the bush surrounding the village. The North West Field Force, commanded by Major General Frederick Middleton and numbering 800, attacked the defences directly as well as embarking on manoeuvres intended to distract the Métis and First Nations away from the North-West Field Force's numerical source of strength.
The land forces also ran into significant resistance from the Métis who effectively held their positions. When the Field Force withdrew into their zareba the Indians and Métis harassed them with gunfire until daybreak. The Métis and Indians believed they had won a victory on this first day of fighting. They next two days changed little. The North-West Field Force bombarded the Métis positions with their four nine-pounders and harassed the riflemen with their rapid fire Gatling gun. In defending their position through the first three days, the Métis and Indians seriously depleted their supply of ammunition.
May 12 was the decisive day of the battle. It began when Middleton, equipped with one nine-pounder, the Gatling gun and 130 men, reconnoitred to the north of the church and rectory, and began to advance on the Métis rifle pits. This feinting action was intended to draw the Métis out of their rifle pits around the church to the north where the Gatling gun was positioned. On hearing the guns to the north, Lieutenant Colonel Van Straubenzie was to open fire and move against the defence lines around the church. Due to the strong wind, however, Van Straubenzie was unable to hear Middleton's guns open fire and he failed to co-ordinate his attack with Middleton's action.
Middleton withdrew to his camp furious that the co-ordinated attack had not come off. Unknown to Middleton, his manoeuver had served its purpose - the Métis had in fact been drawn to the north anticipating a major offensive there. As Middleton sat down to lunch minutes later, the Midlanders, under Lieutenant Colonel Williams, broke through the weakened Métis lines near the church.
The battle was over in minutes as the Field Force swept down the slopes to Batoche, past rifle pits where by now the Métis were firing nails and stones from their rifles.
Riel and Dumont escaped. Riel gave himself up later and Dumont fled to the United States. Those who had not dispersed were captured and held for later trial in the courts. When the battle ended, there were more than 25 dead from both sides.
Batoche After 1885
The Rebellion/Resistance failed but the Métis community at Batoche was not destroyed in 1885. By the 1890s, the community had recovered but the placement of the railway at Duck Lake signaled the end of prosperity. By 1915 only one store remained in the village of Batoche. Increasing settlement from eastern Canada, Europe and the United States further isolated the Métis and many chose to move further north. Tuberculosis took a heavy toll and jobs became more difficult for both men and women who worked mainly as labourers or domestics. Although Batoche lost its economic base, the location remains significant for its role in the story of Canada and for those who personally connect with the historic events.
The village was declared a national historic site in 1923, and for many is symbolic of Métis resilience. Métis pride, language and cultural traditions are celebrated by Elders, Community and Parks Canada programming here at Batoche.