Métis Nation History
Métis Nation History

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After the defeat of the police and civilians at Duck Lake, Riel and Dumont felt thoroughly confident of being able to deal with the forces which they were apprised the Canadian Government would send into the field against them. They held many long consultations together, and in every case it was Dumont who laid down the details of the military campaign. "These Canadian soldiers," he would say, "can not fight us here. We will entrench ourselves in positions against which they may fire cannon or gatling guns in vain. They are not used to bush-fighting, and will all the time expose themselves to our bullets. Besides, distances here are deceptive; and in their confusion they will make the wildest sort of shooting." It was decided that the rebel forces should make their main stand at an advantageous position, which Dumont had accidentally observed one day when he was out elk-stalking three years ago. This place, he assured his chief seemed to be intended by nature for a post of defence. It lay a short distance from Batoche's Crossing.

"But my idea is to engage them several times with portions of my force; gradually to fall back, and then fight at my final ground the battle which shall decide who is master in these territories, the half-breeds or the Canadian volunteers."

All this while General Middleton, with his brave fellows, had been making one of the most laborious marches recorded in modern wars. Perhaps the worst portion of the march was around the dismal reaches of Lake Superior. I take an extract from correspondence to the Toronto _Mail_. "But the most severe trial was last night's, in a march from Red Rock to Nepigon, a distance of only seven miles across the ice, yet it took nearly five hours to do it. After leaving the cars the battalion paraded in line. A couple of camp fires served to make the darkness visible. All the men were anxious to start, and when the word was given to march, it was greeted with cheers. It was impossible to march in fours, therefore an order was given for left turn, quick march. We turned, obedient to the order, but the march was anything but quick. Then into the solemn darkness of the pines and hemlock the column slowly moved. Each side being snow four feet deep, it was almost impossible to keep the track, and a misstep buried the unfortunate individual up to his neck. Then it began raining, and for three mortal hours there was a continuous down pour. The lake was reached at last, to the extreme pleasure of the corps. The wildness of the afternoon and the rain turned the snow into slush, at every step the men sank half a foot. All attempts to preserve distance were soon abandoned by the men, who clasped hands to prevent falling. The officers struggled on, arms linked, for the same purpose. Now and then men would drop in the ranks, the fact only being discovered by those in the rear stumbling over them. Some actually fell asleep as they marched. One brave fellow had plodded on without a murmur for three days. He had been suffering, but through the fear of being left behind in the hospital refrained from making his case known. He tramped half-way across last night's march reeling like a drunken man, but nature gave out at last, and with a groan he fell on the snow. There he lay, the pitiless rain beating on a boyish upturned face, until a passing sleigh stopped behind him. The driver, flashing his lantern in the upturned face, said he was dead. 'Not yet, old man,' was the reply of the youth, as he opened his eyes. 'I'm not even a candidate for the hospital yet.'"

The following description of the Great Salt Plains, as given by a _Globe_ correspondent, is also worth reproducing: "The Great Salt Plains open out like broad, dreary marsh or arm of the sea, from which the tide has gone out. For about thirty-five miles the trail stretches in a north-westerly course across this dismal expanse, and away to the south-west, as far as the eye can reach, nothing save marsh grass, flags, bullrushes, and occasionally clumps of marsh willows can be seen. North-east of the trail scattering bluffs of stunted grey willows cluster along the horizon, and at one point along the trail, about midway of the plain, is found a small, solitary clump of stoneberry bushes, not more than thirty yards long, five or six feet in width, and only three or four feet high." The objective point of Major-General Middleton's march was Batoche's Crossing, where Riel had several large pits sunk, and fortifications thrown up, for a grand and final encounter with our troops. The line of march lay sometimes along the Saskatchewan's banks, but more frequently through the open prairie. The position of the rebels prior to the battle was this: Dumont, with 250 half-breeds and Indians, had been retreating slowly before General Middleton's right column on the east bank of the river, their scouts keeping them informed of the General's movements. Dumont appears to have thought of waiting for the troops to attack him on Thursday night; at least that is the belief of the scouts, who saw some of his mounted men signalling to him all afternoon on Thursday. However that may be, he lay waiting for our men at the edge of a big _coulee_ near Fish Creek, early on Friday morning, his forces being snugly stowed away behind boulders, or concealed in the dense everglades of hazel, birch, and poplar. From day to day, almost from hour to hour, this veteran buffalo hunter had learned every tidings of the General's troops that keen observation made from clumps of bush along the prairie could give him. So when he learnt that the General himself, with his officers, were near at hand, his eyes fairly gleamed with enthusiasm.

"My men," he said, as he went from covert to covert, from bluff to bluff, "you know the work that lies before you; I need not repeat it to you. Do not expose yourself, and do not fire unless you have a tolerable target." Then he arranged a system of signals, chiefly low whistles and calls, by which the men would be able to know when to advance, retire, lie close, make a dash, or move from one part of the ground to another.

"They will at first fall into an ambush," he said, "then, my men, be nimble. In the panic there will be a rich harvest for you. Bring down the General if you can. Wherever an officer is in range, let him have a taste of your lead in preference to the privates." Then he lay close and watched, and listened, many times putting his ear to the ground. At last he gave an exclamation. It was in a whisper; but the silent rebels who lay there, mute as the husht trees around them, could well hear the words, "they come!"

Let me now briefly describe the position which the rebel had chosen for himself. About five miles from McIntosh's stand two bluffs, about five hundred yards apart, thickly wooded on the top. Between these bluffs is a level open prairie that extends backward about a thousand yards, across which there runs a deep ravine, thickly timbered at the bottom.

Now, on the morning of Friday, the twenty-fourth of April, General Middleton, who was still on the march to Batoche's, was riding with his staff, well in front. With him was Major Boulton's Horse, who acted as scouts. As they were passing the two bluffs named, suddenly the crack of musketry rang out upon the prairie. Major Boulton now perceived that he had fallen into an ambush. At the same time that deadly balls and buck-shot came whistling and cutting spitefully through the air, there arose from both bluffs the most diabolical yelling. For miles over the silent prairies could these murderous yells be heard. Nor were the rebel balls fired without effect. Captain Gardner fell bleeding upon the ground, and several of the men had also fallen.

General Middleton, who had been some little distance in the rear was speedily apprised of the surprise, and dashing on toward the rebels' hold he met Boulton's Horse retiring for reinforcements. Then "A" Battery, the 90th regiment, and "C" Company, Toronto, with enthusiastic cheering, began to cry out: "Show us the rebels!"

In a little while the firing became general, and our men struck out extending their formation as they neared the edge of the _coulee_, from which puffs of smoke were already curling up. Twenty of Dumont's men, with Winchesters, fired over a natural shelf or parapet protected by big boulders. The column was divided into two wings, the left consisting of "B" and "F" Companies of the 90th, with Boulton's mounted corps, and the right of the rest of the 90th, "A" Battery, and "C" School of Infantry. The left wing, "F" company leading, came under fire first. As the men were passing by him; Gen. Middleton shouted out:

"Men of the 90th, don't bend your heads; you will soon be there; go in, and I know you'll do your duty."

The men were bending down, partly to avoid the shots and partly because they were running over the uneven, scrubby ground. Colour-Sergeant Mitchell, of "F" company (one of the famous Wimbledon Mitchells), displayed great coolness, and afterwards did good execution with a rifle when the troops had entered the bush. "A," "C," and "D" Companies of the 90th, with "A" Battery and the School of Infantry, were on the right, the whole force forming a huge half-moon around the mouth of the _coulee_. The brush was densely thick, and as rain was falling, the smoke hung in clouds a few feet off the muzzles of the rifles.

Here the 90th lost heavily. Ferguson was the first to fall. The bandsmen came up and carried off the injured to the rear, where Dr. Whiteford and other surgeons had extemporized a small camp, the men being laid some on camp-stretchers and some on rude beds of branches and blankets. "E" company of the 90th, under Capt. Whitla, guarded the wounded and the ammunition. General Middleton appeared to be highly pleased with the bearing of the 90th as they pushed on, and repeatedly expressed his admiration. He seemed to think, however, that the men exposed themselves unnecessarily. When they got near the _coulee_ in skirmishing order, they fired while lying prostrate, but some of them either through nervousness or a desire to get nearer the unseen enemy, kept rising to their feet, and the moment they did so Dumont's men dropped them with bullets or buckshot. The rebels, on the other hand, kept low. They loaded, most of them having powder and shot bags below the edge of the ravine or behind the thicket, and then popped up for an instant and fired. They had not time to take aim except at the outset, when the troops were advancing.

Meanwhile the right wing had gone into action also. Two guns of "A" Battery, under Capt. Peters, dashed up at 10:40 o'clock, and at once opened on the _coulee_. A couple of old barns far back to the right were knocked into splinters at the outset, it being supposed that rebels were concealed there; and three haystacks were bowled over and subsequently set on fire by the shells or fuses. Attention was then centred on the ravine. At first, however, the battery's fire had no effect, as from the elevation on which the guns stood, the shot went whizzing over it. Dumont had sent thirty men to a small bluff, covered with boulder and scrub, within 450 yards of the battery, and these opened a sharp fire. The battery could not fire into this bluff without running the risk of killing some of the 90th, who had worked their way up towards the right of it. Several men of "A" were struck here. The rebels saw that their sharpshooters were causing confusion in this quarter, and about twenty of them ran clear from the back of the ravine past the fire of "C" and "D" companies to the bluff, and joined their comrades in a rattling fusillade on "A." Fortunately, only a few of them, had Winchesters. "A" moved forward a little, and soon got the measure of the ravine. The shrapnel screeched in the air, and burst right in among the brush and boulders, smashing the scraggy trees, and tearing up the moss that covered the ground in patches. The rebels at once saw that the game was up in this quarter, though they kept up a bold front and seldom stopped firing except when they were dodging back into new cover. In doing this they rarely exposed themselves, either creeping on all fours or else running a few yards in the shelter of the thicket and then throwing themselves flat on the ground again, bobbing up only when they raised their heads and elbows to fire.

The shrapnel was too much for them, and they began to bolt towards the other side of the ravine, where our left wing was peppering them. This move was the first symptom of weakness they had exhibited, and Gen. Middleton at once took advantage of it and ordered the whole force to close in upon them, his object apparently being to surround them. The rebel commander, however, was not to be caught in that way. Instead of bunching all his forces on the left away from the fire of the artillery, he sent only a portion of it there to keep our men busy while the rest filled off to the north, retiring slowly as our two wings closed on them. Dumont was evidently on the look-out for the appearance of Col. Montizambert's force from the other side of the river.

The general advance began at 11.45 a.m., Major Buchan of the 90th leading the right wing, and Major Boswell of the same corps the left. When the rebels saw this a number of them rushed forward on the left of the ravine, and the fighting for a time was carried on at close quarters, the enemy not being over sixty yards away. An old log hut and a number of barricades, formed by placing old trees and brushwood between the boulders, enabled them to make it exceedingly warm for our men for a time. At this point several of the 90th were wounded, and General Middleton himself had a narrow escape, a bullet going through his fur hat. Captains Wise and Doucet, of Montreal, the General's Aide-de-camps, were wounded about this time. "C" infantry behaved remarkably well all through, and bore the brunt of the general advance for some time, the buckshot from the rebels doing much damage. The rebel front was soon driven back, but neither here nor at any other time could the rebels' loss be ascertained. The Indians among them, who were armed with guns, appeared to devote themselves mainly to shooting the horses. A good many Indians were hit, and every time one of them was struck the others near him raised a loud shout, as if cheering. The troops pressed on gallantly, and the rebel fire slackened, and after a time died away, though now and then their front riflemen made a splurge, while the others made their way back. Captain Forrest, of the 90th, headed the advance at this point, Lieutenant Hugh J. Macdonald (son of Sir John Macdonald), of this company, who had done excellent service all day, kept well up with Forrest, the two being ahead of their men, and coming in for a fair share of attention from the retreating rebels. Macdonald was first reported as killed and then as wounded, but he was not injured, though struck on the shoulder by spent buckshot. Forrest's hat was shot off. At 12.50 the rebels were far out of range, going towards Batoche's, and the Battle of Fish Creek was practically over. [Footnote: I am chiefly indebted to the Toronto _Mail_ for the foregoing account of the battle.]

During the battle, many instances of the greatest bravery are recorded. Private Ainsworth, of the 90th, was seen to leap upon the shoulders of a savage, who, in company with another, had endeavoured to cross the flat land and get shelter, wresting his gun and felling him to the earth with the butt of it, then securing the rifle firing at and killing the other Indian. While doing this, he was exposed to the fire of a score of guns, getting riddled with buck-shot and being struck with bullets. But the greatest daring and bravery were exhibited by Watson, of the Toronto School of Infantry. Finding it impossible to dislodge the enemy, he rushed headlong for the ambuscaded half-breeds, followed by a score of his comrades whom it was impossible to control. The war-cries of the Indians, the huzzas of the troops, and the rattle of musketry fairly echoed for miles, as evidenced by the statements of the west side contingent upon arriving on the scene. Watson paid the penalty of his daring by death, while the narrow escape of many others were remarkable. The utmost bravery all the while was displayed by our troops. When a man fell his comrade would pause for a moment, and say:

"I hope you are not badly hurt," and then again look out for the enemy. Some of the men who received only slight wounds were anxious to remain in the fight, but their officers insisted that they should be taken to the rear, and attended to by the surgeons. Upon couches made of boughs, and covered with blankets, the brave young fellows were placed; and many of them submitted to probings and painful management of wounds without making a murmur. They seemed not to be concerned for themselves, but went on all the while enquiring as to how it was "going with the boys."

General Middleton, himself a veteran soldier, expressed as I have already stated, his admiration for the bravery of all the men who were engaged. There was no bolting, even in the face of heavy fire; no shrinking, although _one man in every eight_ had been struck by the enemy's shot or bullets. Major Boulton had many narrow escapes, while he was standing for a moment, a hail of buckshot came whistling by his ear, burying itself into his horse, which was killed instantly. The Scouts, known as Boulton's Horse, under this brave officer, bore very gallantly their portion of the battle's brunt. Half-breads and Indians had orders from their leaders to shoot down horses as well as men; and Dumont frequently said, that the mounted men were the only ones of the force of the enemy for which he cared anything. Several of the horses were shot, and many of the men were riddled with buck-shot, but they bravely stood their ground. In the night, when the weary were sleeping after the hard day's work, dusky forms could be seen by the light of the moon, creeping stealthily towards where slept the gallant Scouts. The Guard heard a crackle, and turning, perceived three pairs of eyes gleaming with ferocity in the shadow of a clump of poplars.

"Qui vive?" he cried, and raised his rifle; but before he could take aim, three shots rang out through the still night, and he fell dead, pierced by as many bullets. There was a general alarm through the camp, but no eye could detect the form of a Rebel. They were safe among the shadows in the ravine. In the few moments of silent horror that ensued after the commission of the murder, three diabolical yells sounded from the ravine, and far over the moon-lit prairies. Then divers voices were heard in the bluffs, and down in the gorge. These came from Dumont's men, who jeered, and cried that they hoped the soldiers enjoyed the pastime of watching their dead.

On the following day, the bodies of the brave young fellows who had fallen, after being decently, and decorously disposed in death, were brought to the graves hollowed out in this far-away wilderness by the hands of old comrades. It was a very sad spectacle indeed. The death of brave soldiers is always mournful to contemplate; but war is the _trade_ of regulars, and they expect death, and burials in distant sod. But war is not the trade of our volunteer soldiers. They are mere young fellows, of various pursuits of life, and death and burial away from home lose nothing of their sorrowful surroundings, because the taking off has been at the hands of rebel murderers. General Middleton conducted the ceremonies; and here upon the wide, husht prairie, which will soon deck the graves with flowers, they were laid away. The brave young fellows who faced the Rebels' shot and ball without failing, faltered now, and many of them wept copious tears.

On the following day, General Middleton began to make ready for his march toward Batoche's, where the Rebels' stronghold is located. -The Story of Louis Riel: the Rebel Chief

(Primary source documents / Timeline)

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