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The Past Meets the Present

by Molly McFadden

Manitoba Pageant, January 1961, Volume 6, Number 2

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Every time I purchase an old book for my Canadiana collection, I open it with awe and anticipation because often the author has taken part in the actual events of early Canada he is describing, and I have the feeling of being there with him.

Major C. A. Boulton in The North West Rebellions, wrote seventy-five years ago: "... muddy roads and sloughs filled with water, and when the winds blow cold and damp, the difficulties of marching ... a very trying and an arduous task."

Reverently turning the old brittle pages of this book for a quick survey, I was conscious of a slight bulkiness towards the back and opened it there. To my surprise I found two old soiled letters written in pencil on thin paper by two of the soldiers mentioned in the book. There is no doubt of their authenticity and their personal message from the past brought the book and its contents to life in a special way.

I read quickly to verify facts. Major General Fred Middleton, Commanding Canadian Militia and N. W. Field Force, gave an Official Despatch in the appendix dated Head Quarters, Fish Creek, May 1, 1885. Lord Melgund (later Lord Minto, the governor-general of Canada) was his Chief of Staff. It stated that on the morning of April 23rd: "both columns advanced on the two sides of the river (Fish Creek) with the scow moving down between them. We halted about eighteen miles down the river, my column near the farm of a settler named McIntosh, the other in line with us on the other side. After a quiet night we started on the morning of the 24th at about seven a.m. . . . Mounted Infantry scouts spread out well in front, with support of Mounted Infantry under Major Boulton about two hundred yards in rear. An advanced Guard of the 90th Battalion about three hundred yards in rear of that, and the main column about two to three hundred yards in rear of the advanced guard ... On approaching some bluffs, just as the left advanced scouts were circling round, we suddenly received a heavy fire from a bluff and some ground sloping back on our left, which fire was luckily too high to do mischief, having been evidently fired in a hurry owing to the approach of the left scouts. Major Boulton instantly ordered his men to dismount, let loose their horses and hold the enemy in check. This was done by them most gallantly, the flankers and files in front falling back on the main body ..."

Boulton's Mounted Infantry, No. 1, was a Russell, Manitoba troop in which was the surgeon, P. N. Rolston, and troopers D. Baker and J. Langford, mentioned in the following letters found in book:

Date: Clark's Crossing, N.W.T.,
April 18th.

My dear Papa,

I have not much chance of writing but we are waiting here for a few days [1] so that I will try to send you a few lines. We are serving here under General Middleton and Lord Melgund. We came by rail to Qu'Appelle and have ridden about 200 miles over for the most part the poorest country that I have seen yet. [2] They expected to meet Riel here but he is 36 miles north with as far as we know, 200 men. [3] We have about 500 and expect more in a few hours. The Indians are for the most part quiet at present, although they may rise at any moment. We went out reconnoitring the other day and took three Sioux Indians. They belonged to Riel but whether they were scouts or not I do not know.

It is expected that we shall have a fight tomorrow or this evening. (On morning of 24th.) Some of us are on one side, some somewhere over there. The great difficulty is that they won't fight together, but are all scattered round in 25 and 30 so that our big guns don't get much show.

If anything should happen to me you will be able to hear all about my affairs from J. P. J. Jephson, the lawyer at Russell.

Now dear Papa, with best love to all at home and hoping you are well, I remain

Your affectionate son,
D'Arcy

Clarke's Crossing was the ferry on the South Saskatchewan River, forty miles south of Batoche. As the place was on the main trail to Battleford, and on the telegraph line to the west, it became a strong objective point to reach and hold as a second base of operations. General Middleton's plan was to divide his force, and march upon Batoche on both sides of the river.

On Thursday morning of April 23rd, seven days after their arrival at Clarke's Crossing, they marched forth for eighteen miles and made camp by erecting a zareba. Lieutenant Hugh J. Macdonald (son of Sir John A. Macdonald) was in command of mounted pickets for the night. The next morning, they moved off at 6:30 with General Middleton, and troops in front. When they had advanced four miles they came upon the McIntosh farm where the enemy had evidently camped recently. Soon after this, they encountered the enemy and D'Arcy Baker was shot along with two comrades, Gardiner and Langford. Major Boulton told them to drag themselves to the rear as best they could out of danger and ordered the remainder to "hold and fire away" but to dismount "and lie close." "There was no wavering, no thought of retreat, but rather a dogged determination to hold their ground, under the galling fire of an unseen enemy."

On Major Boulton's strength of forty armed men, eight were wounded, D'Arcy Baker critically. The General ordered firing to cease about four in the afternoon and a corral made about six hundred yards from the ravine and a hospital improvised. Later the wounded were transported by ambulance to a safer spot about half a mile to the left of the battleground, near the Saskatchewan and close to the gully of Fish Creek, which there empties into the river.

D'Arcy lived all the next day, Saturday, but passed away the next morning, April 26th, and was buried beside his comrades. A hundred wagon loads of stone were hauled, and a huge cairn, surmounted by a wooden cross, was erected over the spot where lay in honour their country's dead. The rest carried on to end the Rebellion soon after victoriously.

The second letter speaks for itself:

Fish Creek, Sunday, April 26th.

My dear Mr. and Mrs. Baker,

A sad task has dissolved itself upon me in breaking the news concerning the fate of your son D'Arcy. He came by his death on the battle-field on Friday morning, last April 24th. He, under the command of Col. Boulton, was in the front acting as scout, when all of a sudden the rebels opened fire upon our force. About ten minutes after the commencement of the fusilade, your son received his death wound from the bullet which passed through his lungs ... he breathed with difficulty and Dr. Rolston informed us that the case was serious. Hopes of his friends were blighted ... Hour after hour found him sinking although up to the last he retained consciousness ... His last hours were spent in prayer ... I enclose a lock of his hair after his death which I thought you would like to have ... Once again assuring you of the true affectionate sympathy of all his friends and comrades.

Yours most sincerely,
James Langford

c/o Col. Boulton's Mounted Infantry, North West Territory.

Notes

1. He has days crossed out and inserts "hours" instead indicating the uncertainty of time in his mind.

2. 350 miles, muddy and wet, without bridges and without improvements, and thirty miles of it was across the salt plain, unusually difficult in wet weather.

3. Rebels at Fish Creek under Gabriel Dumont were 280.

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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