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Tragic Events at Frog Lake and Fort Pitt During the North West Rebellion, Part 4

by W. J. McLean

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1972, Volume 18, 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.

Part 3 here

During the North West Rebellion of 1885, W. J. McLean, Chief Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Pitt on the North Saskatchewan River, was taken hostage, with members of his family, by Indians under the leadership of Big Bear. Late in May, McLean attempted to get a message to the commander at Fort Pitt, but was unsuccessful, and he and his party were forced to continue their flight with the Indians, following the battle of Frenchman's Butte, on May 28th ...

From this time our greatest physical hardships began. We were without means of transportation of any kind. Louis Mongrain gave us a kind, tractable old ox to carry our tent. We had little or no bedding left by then, and no provisions whatsoever. After being compelled that evening to walk through several miles of marsh and woods, and carrying two of the younger members of my family, they being only three and a half, and one and a half respectively, we camped for the night. Although weak and weary, after having no food all day, we halted not to repose, but to pass a most anxious and fearful night.

This was owing to one of the leading warriors having died late in the evening from the wounds he had received in the battle. As a result, the life of one or more white men was eagerly sought by his friends as a traditional atonement, and it was moved that I might be the victim. I believe that I owed my safety that night to the vigilance of Louis Mongrain and "Wandering Spirit" who stayed with me at my tent until morning.

The dead warrior was buried at dawn, and at the request of Mongrain and "Wandering Spirit" I attended the burial, which gave much satisfaction to his friends, and removed any evil designs they might have had upon me. We then started on a long day's journey and were without food until noon, when some of the Wood Cree women brought a small supply of flour and bacon. This very limited supply of provisions we had to use extremely sparingly, as we did not know when or how we were going to get anything again.

That night we camped on a fine, park-like ridge between two small lakes, known as the Horse Lakes, and remained there two days. During this time some of the Indians went back to the battlefield and returned very much elated with news that they had beaten the soldiers and that they had run away to Fort Pitt. They brought three or four rifles and as many sabres, which they had picked up on the battleground.

That appeared to us somewhat ominous, for we did not understand what it meant. It was a sore exhibit to us captives, but we had to suppress our feelings carefully. It so happened that General Strange had really won his battle, although he had no knowledge of it. He was unfortunately misinformed by a reconnoitering officer that a large body of Indians was coming around to his rear, and between him and his camp and supplies, over which he had left but a small guard. In view of the danger of being cut off from his supplies, General Strange fell back on his camp to protect it, whereas had he been correctly informed, he would have followed up the Indians and effected their surrender, the evening of the battle.

Owing to a false alarm during the night, the camp at Horse Lakes was broken up in confusion at break of day on the first of June, and in a heavy rain we travelled all day through swamps and woods in a northerly direction to Loon Lake. That night we camped drenching wet, and had to lie down to rest in that condition (having no change of clothes) which was not congenial to good health or feelings. Before sunrise the next morning we were ordered to be up and march again, and as we emerged from our tent into the cool air and continued drizzling rain, we were for a moment obscured by an aqueous haze arising from our bodies.

The heavy rain had swollen the many creeks we met to overflowing their banks, all of which we had to wade through, to a depth often up to and above our waists. We camped that night both wet and weary, and on the following day about noon we reached the ford at Loon Lake in fine, clear weather, which was truly welcome to us. Most of the Indians crossed the ford in the afternoon and we had to cross also. The Wood Crees took the younger members of my family across on horseback, but the older ones had to wade through with my assistance. The ford was over four feet deep.

We camped on a fine arm of the lakes about a mile and a half from the ford. Several of the Indians did not cross the ford that evening, and the next morning they were surprised and attacked by Major Steele and his scouts, about eighty strong. Four of them were shot before they crossed the ford, and among the slain was Chief "Cut Arm" of the Wood Crees. All the Indians from where I was camped rushed to the assistance of their compatriots, and for about half an hour a hot fusillade was kept up from each side of the ford.

The Indians then sent a courier on horseback to get me to come out in all haste and stop the soldiers. I rode out at once, full of hope that I would be able to negotiate with them for peace. I found the Indians under cover behind the high ridge overlooking the ford. They asked me to speak to the master of the soldiers and try to arrange with him to put an end to further fighting. I felt glad to be given a chance to carry out their wish in such a desirable object, and taking the piece of white cotton which I had long concealed about me, I fixed it to a long pole. Believing that it would receive notice as a flag of truce, I crept up to the crest of the ridge and commenced to wave it, so to be seen by the scouts who were firing continuous volleys from the top of a hill which bordered on the south side of the ford.

I did not know who they were, but believed their intentions were to kill as many Indians as they could, and rescue us. I called to them as loud as I could, both in English and in French, but the only response we could get was a volley from their rifles, and a rattle of bullets on the trees over-head and around us. I kept calling and waving the flag, forgetting that I might be killed myself by my would-be rescuers, until a lot of earth and dry leaves were thrown in my face by a bullet which struck the ground in front of me, and which was observed by the Indians.

One of them, creeping up behind me, said: "Come away. We do not want you to be shot. They will not listen to you." He then pulled me back. My feelings of disappointment then can be better imagined than I can describe them. I regretted my failure to be peacemaker and put an end to such wretched warfare. I learned afterwards that Major Steele had one man wounded, and while getting some sort of litter made to carry him back as quickly as possible to where he could get medical aid, he kept forty of his men on the top of the buttes on the edge of the ford, firing quick volleys at anything they could see in the direction of the Indians, until he got away some distance, when the firing party was to follow him. The reason my flag was disregarded as genuine was because the Rev. George McKay, who was with Major Steele's command, tried that morning with a similar flag to parley with the Indians, and they disregarded it and fired at him. I returned to camp a truly sorry man.

Next day the bodies of the Indians killed by Major Steele's scouts were brought to camp, and buried in one grave. Louis Mongrain then became provisional chief of the Wood Crees, and asked me to attend the funeral of their dead chief with him. Stanley Simpson and Farming Instructor Mann, who had to assist in digging the grave, were instructed by Mon-grain to conceal themselves until after the funeral, because he feared a spirit of revenge might incite the chief's relatives to kill one or both of them.

The scene of the chief's funeral was truly a pitiable one. The men of the tribe evinced much sorrow, and his wife and family were, as is characteristic of the Indians, loud in their lamentations for their dead. Next day we had to decamp with the fleeing Indians, although they were quite ready to fight if attacked. Immediately on leaving camp we had to cross a deep strait of the lake on rafts, and then traversed a large swamp with dense bush, and water up to our arms, out of which we thought we would never get. Our good ox managed to get through with us, but many of his race were left to die in that dismal swamp.

That day an unfortunate Indian woman, who felt the hardships of the march were too much for her, committed suicide by hanging herself from the limb of a tree. That night we camped on the north side of Loon Lake, and remained there for a day. It was here the Wood Crees made private arrangements to separate from the Plain Indians. At a meeting called by the Wood Crees, it was suggested that all should go to Batoche to join Riel. The Plain Crees readily concurred, as they were becoming disheartened and tired of wooded country.

Next morning all was a bustle to start. I was made aware of the scheme, and regarded the move unconcerned, when the Plain Indians spoke of it. It was understood among the Wood Crees that Big Bear and his followers would be allowed to start first, and the Wood Crees feigned to be in a hurry to follow them. After travelling a short distance along an arm of the lake, the Plain Indians were so far ahead that the curve prevented their observing the Wood Crees who, instead of following, struck north and travelled as fast as the rough and marshy country would permit.

We camped late, very tired and foot sore, our moccasins being totally worn out. That was the only footwear we had. However, we felt relief at being rid of the Plain Indians. Next day we continued to travel through rough country with fallen timber and marsh most of the way. The Indians were travelling through the worst sections of the country, to make it harder for any troops that might follow them.

During the day, two of Big Bear's followers came up with us, the "Wandering Spirit" and "Dressy Man." They stated that Big Bear did not discover that he had been deserted until he camped. They came to join the Wood Crees, because it would not be safe to go to Batoche with their people, without me. When we halted at noon, we had nothing to appease our hunger, and I became alarmed we would perish of starvation. I pleaded with the Indians to allow us captives to go back to Fort Pitt, before we were too weak to travel. I told them, in my desperation, that it would be as well to kill us all, than to compel us to follow them and endure such hardships. They answered, saying they were sorry to see us enduring such misery, but they were afraid to let us go and leave them, as in the event the soldiers came after them, they would have no one to intercede for them, but they had some little provisions yet and would share them as long as they lasted.

That was some consolation in the circumstances, and we had to accept it. Just then, through the guidance of kind Providence, an Irish retriever belonging to me, and one out of three hundred or more dogs, which must have been eaten by the Indians during our captivity, drove a moose into the small lake in front of us. One of the Indians shot it with my gun, which was in his possession. He acknowledged that I had a certain claim on the moose, and without my expecting it, he sent me a piece of the meat, which relieved us for some time.

The following morning some of the Indian women brought moccasins for nearly all the members of my family to wear. We continued travelling north for two days and reached the Beaver River, which was overflowing its banks owing to the heavy rains of the week before, and we experienced considerable difficulty in crossing it. We crossed in small boats, which were made for the occasion out of raw hides lashed on wooden frames. After the crossing, we camped for the night, and the next day travelled about six miles northeast and camped in a fine open piece of country where rabbits were numerous, but the Indians were so fearful that they would not do any shooting.

However, they caught quite a few with snares and we were given two or three per day, according to the catch. This was not much for the eleven of us to partake of. Again with Mr. Simpson, my chief clerk, I resorted to my friends, the Indians of Riding Mountain, in whom I had faith. I found no difficulty in enlisting their help to co-operate with me in an effort to effect the freedom of myself and family, and the other captives with me. I explained that I could be of use to them, if they set me free to go where I could meet men of authority and enable me to arrange matters of peace, and end the trouble we were all in.

They took the matter to their council and it was discussed at their meetings, and on the third day, the 18th of June, they sent for me.

Part 5 here

Page revised: 20 July 2009

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