Manitoba Historical Society
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Butler's Mission

by Ross Mitchell

Manitoba Pageant, September 1960, Volume 6, Number 1

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.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 April 1959 issue of Manitoba Pageant carried the story of Lieutenant William Francis Butler who had come from Ireland to act as intelligence officer for Wolseley's Expeditionary Force. What follows is the story of his trip as far west as the Rocky Mountain House and his return to Fort Garry.

Colonel Wolseley's force arrived at Fort Garry on 24 August 1870. During the first week of September, the regular troops started on their return journey and on 10 September, their leader left for Ottawa. Nine days later, while Butler was shooting wild fowl at Lake Manitoba, word reached him of the disaster to France at Sedan where Napoleon III and the whole army surrendered to Prussia. The young warrior, an admirer of France, resolved to go to Paris and there offer his services in the hour of her extremity. At Winnipeg he boarded the steamer International and had reached Pembina when he was induced to return. At Fort Garry the Lieutenant-Governor, Adams G. Archibald, requested him to visit the Saskatchewan country and to report on conditions. A terrible epidemic of smallpox had broken out among the Indians and be-cause of lack of authority violence reigned. Butler was instructed to carry commissions of Justice of the Peace to Hudson's Bay Company officers and to missionaries, and to take steps to combat the epidemic. On 24 October, he set out from Fort Garry with a young Hudson's Bay Company officer and a French metis attendant. The Hudson's Bay man drove his own buckboard and also had a riding horse; Butler and Pierre Dome, the metis, had a Red River cart, five horses and a Canadian bronco, Blackie, for riding. The party was well equipped with blankets, deer skins, moccasins, capotes and buffalo mittens to withstand the cold.

A view of Fort Edmonton

A view of Fort Edmonton
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Map to illustrate the location of some places of importance at the time of Butler's mission in 1870

Map to illustrate the location of some places of importance at the time of Butler's mission in 1870

Butler, who had something of the poet in his nature, found nothing terrible in the loneliness of the prairies. "One saw here," he wrote, "the world as it had taken shape and form from the hand of the Creator."

On the second day out, the party reached Portage la Prairie, the last settlement towards the west. A few miles further on they crossed Rat Creek, western boundary of the new province of Manitoba, and there they saw the new-made grave of an Indian who had been left to die of smallpox. A passing French missionary had buried the poor victim and recorded the incident on a cross over the grave.

On 30 October, they reached Fort Ellice near the confluence of the Assiniboine and the Qu'Appelle rivers, 230 miles west of Fort Garry. There the Hudson's Bay Company officer stayed. Dome returned to Red River and Daniel, another metis, was hired to guide Butler to Fort Carlton on the North Saskatchewan River. Although the horse had to subsist only on prairie grass, Blackie carried Butler bravely for fifty miles a day. On 7 November, they reached the South Saskatchewan River which they had to cross. They had counted on the river being frozen over, but the black current ran swiftly between icy banks. For two days, they made unsuccessful attempts to cross in the box of the Red River cart with oilskin bound around it. Meanwhile, ice was forming in the centre of the river and a light horse attached to a long line was able to cross on the third day. Blackie then tried but broke through the ice and the sharp edges defeated his efforts to clamber out. When all attempts at rescue failed, Butler mercifully put a bullet through the horse's head. Then he went back to the camp and "cried like a child".

Next day, he crossed the river and pushed on to Fort Carlton. There the smallpox had abated but out of sixty persons at the fort thirty-two, including the Hudson's Bay Company officer, had perished. Leaving on 14 November, Butler reached Fort Pitt and stayed there for six days. On the evening of 26 November, he reached Edmonton. In twenty-two days of actual travel he had ridden 1,000 miles!

After a stay in Edmonton, Butler determined to go to Rocky Mountain House, on the North Saskatchewan, 180 miles distant. Though it was close to the country of the warlike Blackfoot tribe he took the risk. Leaving Edmonton on 1 December, he reached his destination four days later although the thermometer that morning stood at twenty-two degrees below zero. The glorious spectacle of the Rocky Mountains and the bright sunshine more than compensated for numb hands and feet. At Edmonton he had met the Reverend Rundle and another Wesleyan missionary. At Rocky Mountain House he met Father Lacombe who for more than twenty years had been a missionary to the Indian tribes.

Hudson's Bay Company post of Fort Ellice near the junction of the Qu'Appelle and Assiniboine Rivers from an engraving made in 1859.

Hudson's Bay Company post of Fort Ellice near the junction of the Qu'Appelle and Assiniboine Rivers from an engraving made in 1859.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

A week was spent at the Hudson's Bay Company fort. Returning to Edmonton Butler exchanged his horses for a team of dogs and a painted cariole. On 20 December, he set out for the east. Following ex-pert advice he procured a sleeping bag, seven feet long, made of deer-skins with the hair inside and covered on the outside with canvas. Thus equipped he could sleep in comfort without shelter of any kind though the temperature one morning was forty-four degrees below zero. Christmas day was spent in the home of a Wesleyan missionary at Victoria Mission where smallpox had carried off two of his children and still raged among the Indians. Reaching Fort Carlton he decided to go down the North Saskatchewan to Cedar Lake thence to Lake Winnipegosis, Lake Manitoba and Fort Garry. Between Fort Carlton and Prince Albert he conducted Mrs. Winslow, wife of a Hudson's Bay Company officer, her child of eight months and a nurse. For two nights the sleeping bag was turned over to Mrs. Winslow and her boy. During the first night, all was quiet, but on the second, the infant cried unmercifully and it was only on arrival that the cause — frost-bitten nose and cheeks — was found.

Despite the hazards of winter travel, Lieutenant Butler made his last camp on 19 February 1871. At Fort Garry he prepared his report to the Lieutenant-Governor. He made these recommendations: (a) that a resident magistrate for the district be appointed, (b) that a well equipped force of 100 to 150 men be enlisted for police duty for two or three years service, (c) that two government stations to assist settlement be established, one near Edmonton, the other near Prince Albert, (d) that the Indian title to land be extinguished. Thus he forecast the establishment of the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan and the North West Mounted Police. We can be thankful that the man who undertook the mission to the Great Lone Land was so well fitted, physically and mentally, for the task and that he could present so clearly the rights of the Indians, whose way of life he admired.

Page revised: 24 February 2019

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