Established in 1876, Fort Battleford is at the center of some of the most important events in the post-European contact history of western Canada. The North West Mounted Police (NWMP) at Fort Battleford served many roles, and the town of Battleford was the first capital of the North West Territories. NWMP members were police officers as well as translators, administrators, and escorts, especially during Treaty Six negotiations. The NWMP at Fort Battleford also had an active role in the 1885 conflicts.
People have lived in the Battleford region since the end of the last glacial period. These first peoples artifacts dated to over 11,000 years old. First Nations oral histories and archaeological sites show that the Battleford area has been continually occupied by the descendants of these original inhabitants since then. Canada created the North West Territories after buying unceded Indigenous territory (land) from the Hudson’s Bay Company without involving Indigenous Peoples in any of the discussions about that land purchase.
Treaty 6 Negotiations
While Fort Battleford did not have a direct role in Treaty 6 negotiations, the Treaty has had profound implications for many Indigenous Peoples with whom the Fort interacted.
Canada agreed to Cree, Nakoda, and Saulteaux requests for a treaty in the mid-1870s. In 1875, Canada sent surveyors and telegraph crews to Cree and Saulteaux territory. Local Indigenous leaders, faced with disease and the loss of the buffalo, were concerned about the survival of their communities. Cree Chief Sweetgrass and three other Chiefs had asked Canada for a treaty as early as 1871. But it was not until 1875 that Canada decided to negotiate a treaty (and even then, it would be 1876 before negotiation started). The treaty was signed that same year by Indigenous Peoples at Fort Pitt, Fort Carlton, and Duck Lake.
Treaty 6 is unique because the Chiefs secured a treaty that included a medicine chest on each reserve, farming assistance, and Canada’s promise to help Indigenous Peoples in the event of disease and/or famine. Lead Canadian negotiator Alexander Morris was harshly criticized by his superiors in Ottawa for including these terms in the treaty.
Soon after the Treaty, Parliament passed the Indian Act of 1876, an attempt to assimilate Indigenous Peoples throughout the country. Later, in response to the North West Resistance of 1885, Indigenous Peoples were confined to reserves unless allowed out with a signed pass from the Indian Agent. Although First Nations had not joined with Louis Riel, Sir John A. Macdonald saw them as disloyal and withheld food and other items promised under Treaty 6. It was starvation rather than persuasion which prompted major opponents like Lucky Man and Little Pine to sign in 1879, and finally Big Bear in 1882.
Treaty 6 remains active today, covering around 313,400 square kilometers. Chipewyan-Dene, Woodland Cree, Plains Cree, Nakoda, and Métis peoples all live within these lands to this day.
The Establishment of Fort Battleford
The late 1800s in western Canada were a time of tremendous change. First Nations’ traditional, buffalo-based lifeways were under enormous strain from European settlement, and the threat of starvation loomed.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government incorrectly viewed the region as “empty,” and wished to encourage European occupation. The settlement of Battleford, established on the south bank of North Saskatchewan River, was declared the capital of the new North-West Territories in 1876. That same year, construction began on the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP)’s Battle River Post, later known as Fort Battleford. The relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the NWMP soured as the NWMP became enforcers of the Indian Act. In the words of Sir John A. McDonald (1887): “The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and to assimilate the Indian people in all aspect with other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are they fit for the change.”
The North-West Resistance, March to June 1885
In March 1885, the Métis formed a government in Batoche. Canada viewed this as an open attack on its sovereignty. The North West Mounted Police were sent to the region.
Attempts at negotiations between the two groups failed, resulting in what is now known as the Battle of Duck Lake. Canadian forces were defeated and retreated to Fort Carlton with 12 dead and 12 wounded, while Métis and Indigenous forces suffered six dead and three wounded.
The success of the Indigenous forces at Duck Lake inspired some, but not all, to take up arms against the cruel living conditions Canada subjected them to. West of Fort Battleford, Wandering Spirit (Kah-paypamhchukwao), war chief for the band of Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa), attacked the settlement of Frog Lake after local Indian Agent Thomas Quinn repeatedly refused to provide food to the band. Quinn and eight other Frog Lake residents were killed. The Canadian government viewed Big Bear as responsible even though he did not approve of the killings. As a result, Fort Battleford grew from 12 men and 16 horses in 1876, to 200 men and 107 horses in 1885. Fort Battleford was then home to the largest number of North-West Mounted Police in the West.
Fort Battleford became the hub for the Canadian government's military operations during the 1885 Resistance. 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.
After the Battle of Duck Lake, Cree leader Poundmaker (Pîtokahânapiwiyin) and his followers traveled to Battleford for rations and supplies. Upon arriving, Poundmaker was surprised to find the town abandoned, as all of the residents had left for the Fort, where they remained crowded inside for almost a month. After waiting several days with no response to their requests to meet with an Indian Agent, Poundmaker and his band left the Battleford area and established a large camp east of Cut Knife Creek, which included a soldier’s lodge.
Poundmaker was appointed the political leader and chief spokesperson for the assembled First Nations. But according to Plains Cree tradition, once a soldiers' lodge is built, control of the camp is transferred from the Peace Chief to the War Chief, with Fine Day (Kamiokisihkwew) assuming leadership. Poundmaker wanted to distance himself from the Métis, and try to gain some advantage for his own people by expressing allegiance to Queen Victoria. Despite avoiding involvement in the conflict, the camp expected to be attacked by Canadian forces.
That attack came on May 2, 1885, from almost 400 NWMP, regular army troops, militia, and volunteers, who had two seven-pound guns and a Gatling gun, all under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William Otter. Otter set out in pursuit of Poundmaker, ignoring orders from General Middleton to remain in Battleford.
On the morning of May 2, Otter and his command attacked approximately 1,500 Indigenous men, women, and children in what would be known as the Battle of Cut Knife Hill. The Canadians had to ford Cut Knife Creek and cross through a marsh. During this, they were detected by the camp, losing the element of surprise and allowing the Cree, Nakoda, and Métis to organize a defense.
Although the Canadians used their seven-pound guns early in the battle, the guns soon broke, making them useless. This left Otter and his troops unable to attack, with ravines to their left and right. Their only line of retreat was back through the marsh and across the creek. Indigenous Peoples defending themselves fired on the Canadians, and they began to slowly surround and outflank the Canadian attackers. After six hours of fighting Otter retreated back across Cut Knife Creek. During the retreat, Poundmaker convinced the other Indigenous leaders not to continue the fighting. The battle had cost the lives of eight Canadians and five First Nations people.
The Aftermath of the Resistance at Fort Battleford
The 1885 resistance came to an end with the fall of Batoche on May 12, the surrender of Louis Riel on May 15, and the final armed conflict, the Battle of Loon Lake on June 3. On May 26 Poundmaker surrendered himself to the North West Mounted Police at Fort Battleford, and Big Bear and his son Horse Child (Mistatim-awâsis) surrendered at Fort Carlton on July 4.
Following the end of hostilities, the Canadian government wanted to assert their control over the region and ensure that no similar challenges to their authority took place. Louis Riel was charged with treason and tried in Regina. He was found guilty, and on November 16 1885, was hanged. The Métis viewed the execution as a final betrayal by Canada.
Poundmaker and Big Bear were also tried in Regina and the trials received much public attention. 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.
At Fort Battleford, trials were conducted for other First Nations prisoners, including Wandering Spirit, Big Bear’s war chief. Charged with being responsible for the settler deaths at Frog Lake and Battleford, six Cree and two Nakoda men were convicted of treason and sentenced to death. These convictions came with the accused never having lawyers, and with the motivations of the judge in question (he had lost his home in the Resistance and wished to hang as many Resistance participants as possible).
On November 27, 1885, Fort Battleford was witness to the largest mass hanging in Canadian history. Canada executed eight Indigenous leaders in front of a large crowd. “The executions of the Indians ought to convince the Red Man that the White Man governs,” said Sir John A. MacDonald. After the execution, the bodies were placed in a mass grave near the Fort. The eight men hanged were:
- Kapapamachakwew (Wandering Spirit)
- Pah Pah-Me-Kee-Sick (Walking the Sky)
- Manchoose (Bad Arrow)
- Kit-Awah-Ke-Ni (Miserable Man)
- Nahpase (Iron Body)
- A-Pis-Chas-Koos (Little Bear)
- Itka (Crooked Leg)
- Waywahnitch (Man Without Blood)
After 1885, Fort Battleford maintained a police presence in the area.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, Fort Battleford was less important. It was decommissioned in 1924. Local people demonstrated their continued interest in the fort and the events of 1885 by preserving its remaining buildings. The Fort was declared a National Historic Site in 1951 and has since been administered by the Government of Canada.
The Buildings of Fort Battleford
- Barracks #5 was built after the North West Resistance of 1885. After the Resistance, the NWMP increased the number of people stationed at Fort Battleford. The additional men needed a place to live, and Barracks #5 was born.
- When the Fort was built in 1876, it had a garrison of 14 officers and men. The original Fort was not defensive, so there were no walls. Of the 1876 buildings, only the Officer’s Quarters, the largest house, remains. The Fort changed over time. In 1879, walls were built. By 1884, 12 buildings were inside the walls.
- The Guardhouse is in its third location. In the 1880s, it was near today’s Kramer Campground. Then, in the 1890s, it was moved near to Barracks #5 and a cement floor was added. The floor was three times as thick under the prisoner cells as it was under the guard’s offices. In the 1940s, it was moved to its present location.
- Originally, Fort Battleford was supposed to have a large, U-shaped stable to house 160 horses, but it was never built. None of the Fort’s stables except for the Sick Horse Stable are still standing. Built in 1898, they were originally outside of the Fort’s walls. In the 1940s, it was moved inside the Fort. The ramps on either side of the building were designed to make it easier to move sick horses in and out of the building. The Chinese-style dome on top of the stable is unlike anything else at Fort Battleford — borrowing styles from many different places was common in the mid-Victorian era.
- The Officers’ Quarters, dates from 1886. It was originally for unmarried officers, who lived on the first floor, with their offices and dining room upstairs. In 1894, it was renovated to make space for officers’ families, and for a billiard (pool) room. The Officers’ Quarters is a good example of mid-Victorian architecture. If you come to visit, be sure to notice the French-style roof, the pointed window frames, and pinnacles that overhang the second-floor windows.
- The Commanding Officer’s Quarters is the only structure from 1876 still standing today. Hugh Sutherland, director, and John Oliver, foreman, oversaw its construction. It was difficult to build. Some of the main timber for the house came from north of Edmonton, floated down the river. The smaller logs came from the Eagle Hills, while the windows are from Winnipeg. The house has gables and crosses, along with arched windows (that fit perfectly into a pointed sash), and tall, thin evergreen trees (designed to draw your eye up, towards the heavens) — all of these are neogothic, Victorian architecture.