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The Fenian Invasion of 1871
From Ten Years in Winnipeg, 1879

by Alexander Begg and Walter R. Nursey

Manitoba Pageant, April 1960, Volume 5, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The Fenians were a group of Irish revolutionists who organized into the Fenian Brotherhood and took part in a brief uprising in Ireland in 1848. The Fenian Society in America which was organized in the late 1850s, was an offshoot of this revolutionary brotherhood. One of its principal aims was to direct armed violence against Britain and British institutions. During the American Civil War many soldiers of Irish ancestry in both the Union and Confederate armies were members of Fenian "circles".

After the suppression of an uprising in Ireland in 1865 the Fenians in America were determined to invade Canada. One plan called for a border crossing by 50,000 Irish-Americans to arm the Canadian-Irish.

On June 1, 1866, the Fenians crossed the border and captured Fort Erie, but they retreated two days later when a large body of Canadian troops advanced towards their positions. At that point the U.S.S. Michigan arrived and arrested the Fenian army.

Later, in 1871, the Fenians planned another invasion. This time Manitoba was their target.

The following account of the events involved was written by an observer who lived at Red River at the time of this action.

We now come to the great event of 1871, which threw the whole Province into a state of excitement unequalled by anything since the rebellion. We refer to the Fenian invasion of that year. Several rumours had been afloat respecting suspicious movements of the Fenians on the other side of the boundary, in which O'Donohue, of rebellion fame, seemed to be implicated, but little attention was paid to these reports. At last word came that the H.B. Co's. post at Pembina had been taken, and immediately a Governor's proclamation was issued over the signature of Hon. Thos. Howard, Provincial Secretary, calling upon the inhabitants to rally round the flag, and enroll themselves as volunteers. The appeal was answered to nobly, and in a short space of time a number of recruits answered to the roll call, and marched for the frontier under command of Major Irvine.

We have not space to give full particulars of this raid, but we cannot help recording the alacrity with which young men and old turned out to defend the Province. Gilbert McMicken, Esq., the newly appointed Lands Agent, arrived in the midst of this excitement, and having had considerable experience in counteracting Fenian invasions in other parts of Canada, his services were at once secured, and his experience in such matters proved of value. The conduct of Col. Wheaton, the American officer at Pembina, in putting a stop to the whole affair by arresting O'Neil and O'Donohue at the H.B. Co's. post, is worthy of great praise.

A strong feeling existed at the time that this Fenian scare was only a prelude to another rebellion on the part of the French, but this to a certain degree was contradicted by the fact that the French in a body tendered their services to Governor Archibald. Riel was at the head of these French Volunteers, and fault was found with Governor Archibald for having shaken hands and buried the hatchet with the ex-President of the rebellion. We must say, however, that there was too much of a disposition at the time, to throw discredit on the feelings and intentions of our French neighbors, and whatever may have been the portion of truth or falsehood in the rumors afloat at the time, it behoves us as historians to give them the full credit of their outward acts, which undoubtedly evidenced a disposition of loyalty. The capture of O'Neil and O'Donohue put an end to the raid, during which, although there was much excitement, there was no blood spilt.

The first Provincial Agricultural Exhibition of the Province, which opened on the 4th October was almost a failure on account of the Fenian diversion, although there were about 500 entries, and many of the articles exhibited fully equal to those of any other part of the Dominion.

Page revised: 30 June 2009

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