by Dave Yanko
FORT BATTLEFORD - The spring of 1885 was a terrifying time for
many European-Canadian settlers in the Town of Battleford.
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
|Indians and settlers, the story of the fort.
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
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
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
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