Canada’s North-West Rebellion reached its climax in May 1885, as the government army closed on the mixed-blood Métis’ provisional capital, the tiny village of Batoche.
In the arena of world conflicts, the Battle of Batoche was merely a small skirmish, yet it played an important part in Canadian history. It was the largest and longest battle to take place on the western prairies of Canada, and its political and social repercussions still affect many of that nation’s institutions today.
Of the North-West Rebellion’s five major engagements, Batoche was by far the most significant. Some historians, in fact, have concluded that the Battle of Batoche is every bit as consequential as the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Often referred to as half-bloods by the rest of the population, the Métis were the offspring of native Canadian women and European fur traders, mostly French, but with some Scottish and Anglo-Saxon blood in the mix. Speaking a French-based dialect, they continued to depend for a living primarily on hunting, trapping and trading, especially in furs. Generations of that lifestyle imbued them with a fiercely independent spirit.
In 1869 federal government policies that ignored traditional Métis landholdings in Manitoba’s Red River settlement kindled the Red River Rebellion, which was led by Louis Riel. An expedition under the command of British Maj. Gen. Garnet Joseph Wolseley brought the revolt to an almost bloodless end in 1870, after which the Métis left en masse to set up new settlements farther west, putting down roots in what is now the province of Saskatchewan. Even though Riel is credited with leading the negotiations that led to the establishment of Manitoba as Canada’s fifth province in 1870, he was forced to leave for the United States when government policy continued to alienate the Métis throughout the western territories.
The Métis refugees established prosperous farms in the West, naming their settlement after a Métis trader, Xavier Letendre, whose nickname was “Batoche.” Like their aboriginal brothers, the Métis subsisted largely by hunting buffalo. But by the early 1880s, bison were disappearing from the western prairies, and the Métis began to seek education and other means to adapt to the changing economic situation. At the same time, they began to encounter problems similar to the ones they had experienced along the Red River, as white settlers threatened to take over their land. Métis appeals for help from the federal government again met with silence or evasion in Ottawa, eventually producing a volatile situation. In 1884 a committee calling itself the People of Saskatchewan elected four delegates, headed by Gabriel Dumont, to ride to Judith Basin, Mont., and persuade Riel, the proven statesman they most trusted, to return and lead them in an effort to convince the government to solve their problems.
Born in the Red River settlement in 1844, Louis David Riel had trained in Montreal for the priesthood and as a lawyer, but he never graduated from a university. Ambitious, well educated and bilingual, he had quickly emerged as a leader among the Red River Métis in 1869. One of Riel’s most fateful decisions at that time, however, was to execute Irish-born Canadian Thomas Scott, who had been charged with fomenting rebellion against the Métis’ provisional government at Fort Garry (in modern-day Winnipeg) during the Red River Rebellion. However justified it may have been, that act inflamed anti-Catholic and anti-French sentiments in Ontario. It also led to Riel’s voluntary exile from Canada.
A controversial individual, intelligent as well as masterful, Riel was gentle and peace-loving by nature, yet capable of passionate rages. He had spent some time in mental asylums in Quebec. During his years in the United States, he came to believe that he had a holy mission to lead the Métis people, considering himself the “Prophet of the New World.” Riel therefore agreed to return, convinced that God had chosen him to create an independent Métis homeland on the Canadian western prairies. He also wanted to make Batoche the home of a new and independent Catholicism outside the official Catholic church.
The Métis regarded Riel as a self-sacrificing patriot and were ecstatic when he agreed to return to Canada to lead them. To the white settlers in the area, on the other hand, he was a bloodthirsty rebel and a mad messiah. The government continued to ignore Riel’s petitions to Ottawa, though Prime Minister John A. Macdonald knew that his resolve not to bargain with the Métis would force a military resolution of the problem. By March 1885, the Métis—realizing that the federal government was not interested in their concerns—established a provisional government at Batoche. Riel became their spiritual and political head, pledging to rule with compassion and justice for all.
Despite the independent course they took, at no time did Riel and the Métis consider their new government at odds with Ottawa. They only wanted their grievances addressed. Still, they had no illusions about the likelihood of conflict, and though Riel maintained that divine intervention would enable the Métis to prevail, he was practical-minded enough to appoint Gabriel Dumont as his military commander.
Stocky and possessing a commanding aura, Dumont was a legendary buffalo hunter, unmatched in rifle marksmanship. Though he could not read or write, he had brilliant intuitive leadership qualities, and the Métis called him the “Prince of the Prairies.”
The Métis were not alone in their troubles. Many Indians in the region were starving and having trouble adjusting to life on the newly established reserves—and, again, the federal government had turned a deaf ear to their concerns.
Cree Chief Big Bear, the last of the Plains Indian leaders to sign a treaty with the Canadian government, and another Cree chief, Poundmaker, along with a few Dakotas, decided to join forces with Riel. On the other hand, a far greater number of Indians, such as Blackfoot Chief Crowfoot, preferred to avoid risking a ruinous war. The coalition of the Métis and some 400 Cree and members of other indigenous tribes in the region set the stage for the coming clash with the federal forces.
The Métis initiated the confrontation that came to be known as the North-West Rebellion by taking prisoners in the Batoche area and occupying the nearby community of Duck Lake. When 56 North-West Mounted Police and 43 volunteers from the settler population came to free the hostages on March 26, 1885, they were ambushed by Dumont and 200 Métis. The rebels, who lost five Métis and one Indian, easily won the day, forcing their opponents to retreat with nine volunteers and three Mounties dead. Riel, as he would do several times during the course of the conflict, limited casualties by forbidding rebel fighters from pursuing the fleeing enemy.
The debacle at Duck Lake led the federal government to rush militia regiments west via the newly built Canadian Pacific Railway. Meanwhile, news of the rebel triumph spurred Riel’s Indian allies into action. They attacked several settlements, most notably the village of Battleford, where Poundmaker’s Crees killed two whites and forced the 400 villagers to take refuge in the town’s fort. At Frog Lake, a war chief in Big Bear’s Cree band named Wandering Spirit instigated a massacre of nine people.
In the meantime, the Canadian government was not idle. Adolphe Caron, minister of militia and defense, chose Maj. Gen. Frederick Dobson Middleton to organize the North-West Field Force, for which some 8,000 men had volunteered. A traditional British officer unaccustomed to leading inexperienced militiamen, Middleton represented the elite of the British officer corps. He surrounded himself with British regular officers. He was physically courageous, even foolhardy, but he was also cautious and unwilling to risk very many casualties. In the coming days, that caution would lead to multiple blunders.
In April Middleton moved out with 400 men from Fort Qu’Appelle, adding militiamen to his force as he headed north. His troops numbered some 800 by the time he reached Clarke’s Crossing, on the Saskatchewan River. There, he divided his North-West Field Force into two columns, one crossing to the west side of the river, the other remaining on the east. Both began the march to Batoche, where the Métis were entrenched.
Meanwhile, Riel’s scouts had been keeping an eye on Middleton’s army from the time it had left Fort Qu’Appelle, and Dumont insisted that he did not want to stand and fight at Batoche. Instead he was in favor of attacking the Canadian forces after they had crossed the river and then pursuing guerrilla warfare against Middleton’s slow-moving columns. Riel initially disagreed but later relented, allowing Dumont to put his plan into action. All of the 150 men he placed at Dumont’s disposal knew the terrain well and were highly mobile, able to strike quickly in surprise attacks.
Along the route he believed Middleton would take, Dumont placed 130 of his men in a coulee on the left bank of Fish Creek and hid his horses in the surrounding woods. He was confident he had set a perfect trap for Middleton’s army, reproducing a classic “buffalo pound.” This was a method by which the Plains Indians hunted buffalo, from which he expected few of Middleton’s soldiers to escape. In his narrated memoirs, Dumont explained, “I wanted to treat them like buffalo.” On April 24, he and the remaining 20 Métis rode some distance ahead and took cover, to give the alert when the Canadian forces arrived.
Excellent though it might be in theory, Dumont’s trap did not work as planned, due to the poor discipline of the Métis and Indians. A good many of Dumont’s men deserted, while others lit campfires that alerted the advancing Canadians, who uncovered their hiding places. The element of surprise was gone. Even so, a day of skirmishing ended in a draw. The Métis suffered eight men dead and 11 wounded, while inflicting 10 dead and 42 wounded on the Canadian side.
Middleton still had superior numbers and firepower, and if his untested volunteers had been professionals, he could have easily won the day. As it was, however, his command had been shaken. The Canadian advance was stalled for two weeks while the raw recruits in his army were trained for the coming battle. On May 7, his army, now better prepared, resumed its march toward Riel’s headquarters and capital at Batoche.
Batoche had been built at a bend on both sides of the South Saskatchewan River where it was about 100 yards wide. It was a cabin village of 500, with a few homes and stores straggling for about three miles on both sides of the river. A little distance away on high ground on the east side of the river were the cemetery and St. Antoine-de-Padoue Catholic church. In that simple village, Riel—who still believed that God would protect the Métis—chose to make a stand.
Again Dumont saw fit to augment the Almighty. Under his direction, dozens of elaborately concealed rifle pits, reinforced by earthen mounds and heavy logs, often positioned atop inclines, were dug at critical points along trails and in heavily wooded areas. Pits were also hollowed out around the narrow bridges over the numerous creeks that flowed near the town, on the high banks on both sides of the river and at the crest of a slope looking down on the village. This complex network was manned by some 350 Métis and a few Indians, only 200 to 250 of whom were armed with rifles, muzzleloaders and shotguns.
Middleton established his base south of Batoche with some 800 to 900 men (numbers vary according to different accounts). His soldiers were predominantly infantry, augmented by four 9-pounder field guns and a Gatling gun. To take the village, the general devised a simple coordinated two-pronged attack from the river and by land. Prior to his arrival, he had ordered the Hudson Bay supply steamer Northcote to be converted into a gunboat. Boxes, chests, mattresses, planks, sandbags and sacks of grain were used as makeshift armor. Armed with a 7-pounder, the Gatling gun and about 35 militiamen, the flat-bottomed steamer was supposed to attack Batoche from the river at the same time the militia launched their assault by land. Hoping to surprise the Métis in a deadly crossfire, Middleton planned that Northcote would steam down the river past Batoche and disembark troops who would attack from the riverside as the army moved into town.
When Middleton launched his attack on May 9, Northcote set out in the early morning and arrived an hour earlier than scheduled. With no support from the attacking militia, it became an easy target when Métis spotted the boat. They began raking its decks with rifle fire from well-camouflaged trenches and rifle pits on both banks of the river. That firing, however, used up much precious ammunition that the Métis would need in the fighting to come.
Because of confusion in Middleton’s orders, Riel’s knowledge of the steamer’s movements and the rifle fire, Northcote seemed to flounder. As it moved faster, trying to escape the withering fire, Dumont’s men lowered two ferry cables across the South Saskatchewan, one behind the vessel and the other several hundred feet ahead of it, with the intention of capturing it. The second cable was not dropped low enough in time to snag Northcote’s hull, but it decapitated the vessel’s smokestacks and wheelhouse, leaving the improvised gunboat disabled and floating helplessly downstream.
With his riverine attack plan effectively scuttled, Middleton, flourishing his cavalry sword, led the infantry in a land assault. His troops reached the village by midmorning and advanced past the cemetery and the church to Mission Ridge, overlooking Batoche. From there his artillery began to shell the village while the Gatling gun fired across the river on the Métis entrenched on the western bank. At that point, though, the Canadians were stopped in their tracks by Métis fire.
When the militia passed St. Antoine-de-Padoue church, priests waved white truce flags and began talking with General Middleton. Some historians believe that they told Middleton about the Métis shortage of ammunition, information that would be of vital importance in the coming days.
Seeing his militiamen repulsed by the Métis, who effectively held their positions, Middleton ordered them to retire in an orderly fashion under cover of the Gatling gun. As the Canadians withdrew, the Métis and their Indian allies continued to harass them with gunfire from the surrounding bush.
Twice, in the morning and in the afternoon, the Métis advanced under a smoke screen of burning grass and tried to surround Middleton’s men, but with the aid of the Gatling, the Canadians managed to foil their attempts. Middleton withdrew to the highest ground possible above the river, where he told his men to set up camp in a zareba fashion (a corral formed by wagons). Under rifle fire from the Métis and Indian allies, he ordered the fortification of the zareba with rifle pits and the four 9-pounders surrounded by earth embankments. As darkness fell, the firing petered out, and both sides settled in for the night.
Métis and Indian resistance on the first day of the fighting seemed to have momentarily stunned Middleton, while Riel’s fighters were in an almost victorious mood. Middleton’s soldiers made several probing attacks over the next two days, but gained no significant advantage in the sporadic fighting. On May 10, Middleton tried to demoralize the Métis by pounding them with his artillery. The Métis, however, seemed to have disappeared into the landscape, popping up here and there to harass the Canadians.
Middleton spent most of May 11 in reconnaissance, exploring ways in which to launch a major attack. The Royal Grenadiers from Toronto advanced, and two 9-pounder crews of the Winnipeg Field Battery began shelling Batoche from a ridge overlooking the village, only to be surprised by a number of Métis and Indians who had crept up along the ravine to within 20 yards of the guns. Positioning the Gatling gun ahead of the battery, Captain Arthur L. Howard broke up and repulsed the rebel charge.
On the rebel side of the lines, the North-West Field Force’s cannons and rapid-fire Gatling were taking a somewhat demoralizing toll on the Métis. For three days they and the Indians had held the militia in check, but as Middleton had foreseen, it had seriously depleted their limited ammunition supply.
From the first hours of the fighting, Riel could be seen walking from pit to pit holding a crucifix and exhorting his men with prayer to uplift their spirits. According to Dumont, in his reflections about the battle, Riel seemed fearless.
By nightfall, Middleton was convinced that the Métis and their allies were running low on ammunition, while his militia had gained valuable combat experience from the past few days of skirmishing. He made up his mind to attack the next day. Unknown to him, Lt. Col. Arthur Trefusis Heneage Williams, commander of Ontario’s famous Midlands Battalion, had independently reached the same resolve. “Men,” he told his troops, “we can rush the enemy and take Batoche tomorrow.”
As he had on the first day of the battle, Middleton planned his decisive attack for May 12 to involve a two-pronged assault, but this time both forces would move by land. It began when the general, with 130 men, one 9-pounder and the Gatling gun, moved to the Jolie Prairie overlooking Batoche. He had surveyed the area the previous day, apparently watched by Riel’s men. Middleton hoped that the feint he led would draw the Métis out of their rifle pits around the church and trick them into moving northward. Thereupon the majority of his troops were to execute a quick flanking movement, followed by a powerful charge.
Lieutenant Colonel Bowen Van Straubenzie, with a larger force, was supposed to open fire and move against the defensive lines around the church when he heard gunfire. Because of strong winds, however, Van Straubenzie was unable to hear the guns of the smaller force open fire and thus failed to coordinate his attack with Middleton’s action. Annoyed, Middleton withdrew to his camp, but his maneuver had served its purpose. The Métis had in fact been drawn to the north, anticipating a major offensive in that direction.
While Middleton lunched minutes later, Colonel Williams ordered A and C companies of the Midlands Battalion to move up to the preceding day’s positions. Once they did so, he whispered: “I have not received any orders to do what I am going to do. Batoche can be taken and will be taken today. We will advance through and along this ravine. I only ask you to follow me, and we will go as far as we can. We will be supported by the Royal Grenadiers and the 90th [Winnipeg] Rifles.”
Each soldier was issued 100 rounds, but the troops advanced without fixing bayonets. As they reached the Métis rifle pits and enemy fire intensified, the Midlands troops took cover, returned fire and sporadically but steadily advanced a few at a time. Their success drew the 90th Winnipeg Rifles and the Royal Grenadiers to join the charge. Enraged that the attack had proceeded without his direct order, Middleton told his bugler to sound recall, but the troops ignored it, and the general, realizing that Williams’ unauthorized initiative promised victory, committed the rest of his men to their support.
The Métis fired the last of their bullets at the oncoming Canadians. Most waited until the last minute to abandon their positions. When Dumont ordered 93-year-old Joseph Ouellette to withdraw, the white-haired frontiersman replied, “Wait, I want to kill another Englishman.” Moments later, when the Canadians overran the trenches and fought their way into Batoche, one young soldier leaped into a trench to find himself sharing it with the corpse of an elderly Métis—Joseph Ouellette.
Van Straubenzie’s troops broke through the weakened Métis lines near the church, and the battle was over in minutes as the Field Force broke the Métis defenses, sweeping down the slopes through Batoche, past the emptied rifle pits. Captain John French and Staff Sgt. Walter F. Stewart led the Midlands Battalion into the town to begin clearing the houses under intermittent sniper fire. Moments later, French was shot dead, and Stewart’s cousin, Captain Ted Brown, was also subsequently killed by a sniper. In the process of clearing Batoche, the Canadians found and freed 17 surveyors, storekeepers and settlers who the Métis had captured and held in a 10-by-12-foot hole in the ground for 18 days.
In the waning hours of the battle, Riel’s men, their ammunition exhausted, had resorted to shooting nails, stones and metal buttons from their old muzzleloaders before scattering into the surrounding countryside. Although their cause was now lost, some 50 to 60 Métis—only 40 with rifles—were still fighting during the final minutes, but they were soon overwhelmed by Middleton’s troops. By 7 p.m., the army had rounded up more than 200 Métis prisoners, while their women and children began to emerge from cellars and riverbank caves.
Even though the fighting had at times been fierce, casualties at Batoche were relatively light. Middleton had lost eight men killed and 46 wounded, while the Métis dead were listed at 16, with 30 wounded. One casualty was 10-year-old Marcile Gratton, shot at one of the stores as she had tried to make a dash to her mother’s hiding place. As her father and mother grieved over her body after the battle, a Canadian soldier was reportedly overheard to say, “I’d sooner have let them keep Batoche than to have hurt one hair of that poor little girl.”
The next day, Riel surrendered to a party of mounted scouts and was taken to Regina to stand trial for treason. Dumont managed to evade his pursuers and escaped to the United States, where the Prince of the Prairies appeared for a time in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show. He was pardoned years later and returned to resume the life of a hunter. The rest of the provisional government was caught and charged with treason and other crimes. The other Métis leaders were either imprisoned or, like Dumont, disappeared until a general amnesty was proclaimed. Any Métis fighters who had not escaped were held for later judgment.
At his trial, Riel gave two long speeches that demonstrated his powerful rhetorical abilities, and rejected attempts by his defense counsel to prove he was not guilty by reason of insanity. On August 1, a jury of six English-speaking Protestants found Riel guilty of treason and sentenced him to death. He was hanged in Regina on November 16, 1885.
Perhaps the most controversial figure in Canadian history, Louis Riel led a life that has spawned a massive and diverse literature. It is ironic that after so many years of considering him a traitor, the Canadian government may soon posthumously pardon Riel and perhaps even officially name him as one of the Fathers of Confederation. Gabriel Dumont has become a folk hero and is commemorated, among other means, by a provincial educational institution wholly owned and controlled by the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan.
Although they lost the Battle of Batoche, the Métis are currently making significant strides in their lengthy struggle to be recognized as a distinct people, with land, economic and social rights similar to those gained by their native Canadian counterparts. The battlefield, now part of the Batoche National Historic Park, rang the death knell to Riel’s dream of a “New Nation,” but it gave his hardy people a pride in their history.
Canadian author Habeeb Salloum specializes in Canadian, Arab and Latin American history, travel and the culinary arts. For further reading, he recommends: Louis Riel: The Rebel and the Hero, by Hartwell Bowsfield; and The Battle of Batoche: British Small Warfare and the Entrenched Métis, by Walter Hildebrandt.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here. This article contains affiliate links. HistoryNet may earn a commission from them.