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Fort Douglas Recaptured - January 10, 1817 - From Journal of Miles Macdonell (Selkirk Papers) and the Narrative of John Tanner

Introduction by Alice Brown

Manitoba Pageant, January 1962, Volume 7, 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.

On June 19, 1816, the struggle between the North West Company and Lord Selkirk's men, both colonists and Hudson's Bay Company people, for control in Red River reached a violent climax at the Battle of Seven Oaks. Through the summer and fall of 1816, the victorious Nor'westers held the area and occupied the colonists' Fort Douglas as their headquarters.

Meanwhile, Lord Selkirk hurried westward from Montreal with men of the De Meuron and Wattville regiments which he had hired for the defence of his Colony. By the time he reached Fort William, he had learned of the disaster at Seven Oaks, and in retaliation he captured this stronghold of the North West Company. Selkirk remained there during the winter of 1816-17, but he sent some of his men on to the post at Rainy Lake.

In December, an expedition commanded by Miles Macdonell set out from Rainy Lake to regain control in Red River. They had as their guide the whiteman, John Tanner, who had grown to manhood among the Indians of this country. He led them first to the Red River at Pembina by a route which was seldom used by traders. After retaking Fort Daer they proceeded north on the usual trail to the "Passage" on the Assiniboine, and thence eastward to Fort Douglas on the Red River (near the present location of the C.P.R. station).

This is the story of the events of 9 and 10 January 1817 as Miles Macdonell relates them in his Journal, and as John Tanner tells of them in his narrative.

January 9, 1817 - Left our encampment at sunrise. It came in to blow a storm from N.W. and cold. Snow drift. Several of our men got frostbitten, it was with difficulty that we could make headway against the wind. Stopped to make fire to warm us at 4 miles from the passage. Reached the passage at sunset. Peguis was here with 9 Indians waiting for us. They came out of a wood with a flag displayed to meet us. When they first appeared at a distance they were taken for Brules. Witschy called a halt to form a line. Our men were so cold that they would have fought to great disadvantage. We entered the wood along with the Indians and made fires. Peguis made me a present of 10 Buffalo tongues, which were very acceptable having nothing for ourselves or men to eat. We resolved to remain here till midnight and then to proceed to Fort Douglas, so as to attack it by escalade before day; it is distant 4 leagues. With this intention it was deemed best not to lay down to sleep. Our cattle and luggage is to be left here with some of the Canadians to follow in the course of the next day. Weather cold - blowing a storm from N.W. all day.

Friday, January 10 - At midnight the men were prepared for the march, the Indians were all the night on the alert and now pressed our departure. I gave the soldiers who suffered much from the cold and were all day on a light diet a little brandy which I had kept in reserve, which cheered them much. We set out in high spirits certain of success. Mr. Laidlaw accompanied us. He would not remain behind with the cattle and luggage - The wind had fallen. The night was fine and clear and not so cold as the preceding day. On reaching the freemen's houses at the Forks parties were sent to make prisoners all within and sentries placed on these to prevent their giving intelligence to the enemy. Four ladders were immediately prepared and after the men had warmed themselves we proceeded to the Fort. No sooner were the ladders placed to the pickets than Nolain, Jno. Taylor [Tanner] (guide) L'Ecureil, Witschy and others entered. The main gate was then thrown open when we all entered, the houses were taken possession of, and all within the Fort were made prisoner and all put into one quarter except Mr. McLellan, Seraphin Lamar, Toussaints Voudrie, F. Mainville and 12 others. All was finished and quiet before daylight, guards and sentries placed. Gave some liquor to the men. Took possession of all the stores in the Fort. It was time we had arrived and made so easy a conquest; 17 of the Meurons and 7 or 8 Canadians are frost bitten, many of them walk with difficulty and pain and the whole were jaded and much fatigued. Had our flag hoisted at sunrise.

It is interesting to read also John Tanner's version of this incident from his narrative of his years in the Indian Country.

When I arrived near the trading-house at Rainy Lake, and where I expected to have found Mr. Tace, being as yet ignorant of the changes that had taken place, I found the captain I have before mentioned. He treated me with much attention, and would have given me some goods, but all those left in the house by the North West had already been disposed of to the Indians. After several days' conversation with me, he succeeded in convincing me that the Hudson's Bay Company was that which, in the present quarrel, had the right on its side, or rather, was that which was acting with the sanction of the British government, and by promising to aid me in my return to the States, by liberal presents, good treatment, and fair promises, he induced me to consent to guide him and his party to the North West Company's house, at the mouth of the Assineboin.

I started with twenty men in advance, and went to Begwi-o-nus-ko Sah-gie-gun, or Rush Lake, whence the horses were sent back, and the captain, with the remaining fifty men, came up. At Rush Lake we had snow shoes made, and engaged She-gwaw-koo-sink, Me-zhuk-ko-nong, and other Indians, to accompany us as hunters, and as we had great quantities of wild rice, we were pretty well supplied with food. We had, however, a long distance to travel over the prairie, and the snow was deep. When we were out of meat, there was occasionally something of a mutinous disposition manifest among the soldiers, but little serious difficulty occurred. In forty days after we left Rainy Lake, we arrived at Red River, and took the fort at the mouth of the Pembinah, without any difficulty, there being few or no persons there except squaws and children, and a few old Frenchmen.

From Pembinah, where I left my children, we went in four days, to the Assineboin, ten miles above the mouth, having crossed Red River a short time before. Here Begwais,l a principal man of the Ojibbeways, met us, with twelve young men. Our captain and governor, who was with us, though they understood there was no more than twelve men in the North West Company's fort at the mouth of the Assineboin, seemed at a loss to know in what manner to attempt its reduction.

They counselled with Be-gwais, and he advised them to march immediately up to the fort, and show their force before it, which he thought would be sufficient to ensure immediate surrender. When Capt. Tussenon had engaged me at Rainy Lake, I had told him I could make a road from that place to the door of Mr. Harshield's bed room, and considering myself able to do so, I was dissatisfied that they took no notice of me in these consultations. At night, we at that time having approached very near, I communicated my dissatisfaction to Loueson Nowlan, an interpreter, who was well acquainted with the country, and who had a half brother in the fort, a clerk for Mr. Harshield. We talked together as we left the place where they had been counselling, and after we had lain down by our own fire, and Nowlan agreed with me that it would be in the power of us two to go forward, and surprise, and take the fort, and we determined to attempt it, but we communicated our intention to some soldiers, who followed us. There were no hills, bushes, or other objects to cover our approach, but the night was dark and so extremely cold that we did not suppose the people within could be very vigilant. We made a ladder in the way the Indians make them, by cutting the trunk of a tree, with the limbs trimmed long enough to serve to step on, and placing it against the wall, we went over and got down on the inside, on the top of the blacksmith's shop, whence we descended silently, one after another, to the ground. When a sufficient number of men had got in, we went to find the people, first cautiously placing two or three armed men at the doors of the occupied rooms to prevent them from getting together, or concerting any means of resistance.

Page revised: 23 May 2011

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