Virtual Saskatchewan Home Navigation Bar

Get Around Virtual Saskatchewan!



Fort Battleford

by Dave Yanko

FORT BATTLEFORD - The spring of 1885 was a terrifying time for many European-Canadian settlers in the Town of Battleford.
Indians and settlers, the story of the fort.
First came news that nine volunteers and three North West Mounted Police were killed March 26 by Metis and Indian insurgents at Duck Lake. Then came word angry Indians from the Poundmaker reserve were coming to attack Battleford.

Some 500 men, women and children abandoned their homes and belongings to take refuge in the fort, a NWMP depot whose minimal defences reflected the Mounties' policy of persuasion rather than force in dealing with aboriginal peoples.

Chief Poundmaker (Pitikwahanapiwiyin) and his Cree, accompanied by a group of Stoney Indians, arrived in Battleford several days later. However, the primary reason for Poundmaker's visit was to press for fairer implementation of treaty terms for his hungry people, not to attack the town. When an Indian agent refused to come out of the fort to speak with the chief about his concerns, some of the Cree and Stonies ransacked and burned houses in Battleford. This, in spite of Poundmaker's efforts to keep the peace. The Indians returned to Poundmaker's reserve.

On April 2, just days after the Battleford lootings, eight settlers were murdered and several taken hostage at Frog Lake after warriors commanded by Big Bear's war chief, Wandering Spirit, were refused food by the local Indian agent. Two of the hostages taken by Wandering Spirit's men were women.

View of the rear of the commanding officer's residence.

Within the stockade walls of Fort Battleford, dozens of women and children crowded into the commanding officer's residence, where floors served as cramped sleeping quarters during the month-long "siege". The women and children, townsmen and the small NWMP contingent assigned to fort could only pray and wait for help, which finally arrived on April 24 in the form of militiamen under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter.

Fort Battleford today is interpreted to those dramatic days in 1885 that have come to be known, depending on who's telling the story, as the Northwest Rebellion or the Northwest Resistance. In fact, Fort Battleford is a commemoration of historical events that continue to be interpreted and reinterpreted to this very day. That history is created by people with differing points of view is perhaps the best lesson available to those who tour the fort.

Five original buildings are open to the public. Inside the rebuilt stockade walls are the commanding officers' residence and the officers' quarters, as well as the "sick horse stable" and the jail house. The guided tour begins at a barracks located outside the stockade.

The interpretive information and displays offered in the barracks provide context and background for the remainder of the tour, which takes approximately 90 minutes. Roots of the 1885 conflict led by Metis leader Louis Riel at Batoche are the focus here. But the displays and commentary also provide insights into Mountie, aboriginal and settler life at the time.

Gold braid was associated with rank.

Gold braiding on Mountie tunics was an indication of rank, for instance, with higher ranks appearing more glittery than lower ones. When they arrived here to construct the fort in 1876, the recently-formed Mounties brought with them a rigid hierarchy that force organizers believed was necessary not only to retain order among enlisted men, but to generate respect among the peoples policed. Given their small numbers, respect was something Mounties depended upon.

Indian artifacts such as war clubs, weapons and tools are displayed, as are a number of large photographs that reveal the attire, and hint at the lifestyle, of the day. The recreated interior of a trapper's sod hut puts an all new slant on the word "cozy", while another room employs original furniture to recreate the legislative chamber of Government House. Battleford was the capital of the Northwest Territories until 1883, when land speculators succeeded in having the capital transferred to Regina.

Inside the stockade, the commanding officer's residence is a reflection of Victorian lifestyle as well as a tribute to the women and children who made the building their home during the siege. The chinaware, silverware settings (including a silver toast rack), servants' quarters and formal dining room would seem to be features unknown to most who lived in the Northwest Territories at the time. Still, it's unlikely the large and well-appointed home offered much solace to young kids trying to go to sleep during the siege.

Some speculate the trap door in the floor of the summer kitchen was the entrance to a tunnel used by the commanding officer to get to the officers' quarters without having to brave the prairie winter. Others suspect the passageway, now filled with dirt, simply led to a root cellar.

One witness who might know the answer to this question has opted for silence. It is said the officers' quarters are haunted by the ghost of a surgeon who dispatched himself with a rifle in an upstairs room. If you're interested, ask your guide to relate a strange occurrence or two. Apparently there's no shortage.

The mass grave of the executed Indians.

The surgeon's suicide is by no means the saddest event to transpire within these stockade walls. Eight Cree and Stoney Indians accused and found guilty of murder during the spring uprising were hanged here on Nov. 27, 1885. Some were clearly guilty of the charges. But one wonders about the quality of justice meted out by a court that offered no translation for the accused.

Sadder still, perhaps, was the edict all Indian students enrolled at a nearby industrial school attend the mass execution. It would be decades before Indian groups again began speaking out for their rights.

That's now happening. And the history of the rebellion, or the resistance, is evolving to take fairer account of the Indian view of events. Fort Battleford, abandoned as a Mountie depot in 1924, is coming to grips with its history.

Fort Battleford National Historic Site is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from the Victoria Day Long Weekend to Canadian Thanksgiving. Additional information is available at the Parks Canada website.

Contact Us | Contents | Advertising | Archives | Maps | Events | Search |
Prints 'n Posters | Lodging Assistance | Golf | Fishing | Parks | Privacy |

© Copyright (1997-2012) Virtual Saskatchewan