The Battle at the Grand Couteau

by William L. Morton

Manitoba Pageant, April 1964, Volume 9, 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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An excerpt from "The Battle at the Grand Coteau, July 13 and 14, 1851" by William Morton; Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, Series III, No. 16, 1961.

The scouts had just topped the first "buttes" and the party had just climbed to the top of the first terrace of the Coteau when they sighted a large camp of Indians. They at once signalled a warning to the carts below. Falcon promptly ordered camp to be made on a spot which could be easily defended and sent five hunters forward with a spy glass. These rode boldly and carelessly, Metis fashion, to the top of the nearest high bluff. There they saw that the camp was that of a very large band of Sioux (the number of warriors is estimated in the various accounts at from two thousand to twenty-five hundred). These figures are no doubt greatly exaggerated, but serve to indicate how impressed all the Metis and their companions were by the size of the band.

The five scouts, having scorned concealment, now scorned any other precaution. They proceeded to ride towards the camp. At once a party of twenty Sioux rode out to meet them. When the two met, the Sioux surrounded the Metis and invited them to go to the camp in a way that left no doubt that they were considered prisoners. There seemed to be nothing for it but to go peacefully. But two Metis suddenly kicked their buffalo-runners into a gallop and broke away and escaped under fire back to the carts. Three, James Whiteford, one of the three McGillis boys in the party, and one Malaterre, were held by the Sioux.

The Metis camp, when they saw the fugitives riding hard down the slope, sprang to arms. Falcon and Lafleche called the hunters together; with the boys of twelve years old, there were seventy-seven men who could handle a gun.

Diagram: Sioux Indians on the March

The Sioux who had pursued the two Metis who escaped then approached the camp of the Metis, and parleyed with some of them. They insisted that they had no warlike intentions and that the three captives would be freed on the morrow. They protested that they were hard up, and in need of help. They would come the next day with the prisoners and only a small party, in the hope of receiving some presents.

With that they rode off, but Lafleche and the Metis were convinced that they were insincere and meant trouble.

They therefore began to make ready to receive an attack and when three Sioux horsemen were seen approaching, they sent ten mounted men to meet them and keep them from observing the camp and its defences. The customary courtesies were exchanged, but the Sioux were kept at a distance and departed. The Metis were convinced that a surprise attack had been intended then and that they had foiled it.

The decision was now taken to fight without further parley, even if this meant, as they feared it did, that the three captives would be killed. It was thought better to sacrifice them and save the party than to risk all. While they did not know how many Sioux they faced, they knew the camp was a very large one; it seemed to them unlikely, careless as the Metis customarily were of odds in conflict with the Sioux, that they would be able to beat off the attack of hundreds of the boldest fighters on the plains.

They therefore resolved to sell their lives dearly, and if possible to hold out until succor came from the main party. The carts were placed in a circle, wheel to wheel, with the shafts tilted in the air. The poles carried to make the frames on which the buffalo meat was dried were run through the spokes to make the carts immovable. Packs, hides, saddles, and dried meat was piled between and under the carts to complete the barricade.

The purpose of the barricade of carts was not to form shelter behind which the hunters would fight. It was meant to fence in the cart ponies and oxen and to break up the charge of the Sioux horsemen. The carts formed a corral, but gave little protection against gunfire or arrows. For that purpose trenches were dug under the carts and here the women and children took shelter. But the men dug trenches, or rifle pits (here one meets the rifle pits of Batoche) out in front of the barricade. Their purpose was to hold the Sioux out of range of the carts and of the draft animals. The women and children were reasonably safe in their trenches, but if the draft animals were killed, the party would perish on the plains without further attack by the Indians.

After darkness two men were sent to carry the news of the threatened attack to the main party and to ask for help. The camp police kept an especial guard that night, but Lafleche and the hunters stayed up to watch the eclipse of the moon, of which he had warned them, spread its black shadow over the silver slopes of the Coteau.

The next morning, Sunday, July 13, "having exhorted and confessed all those who presented themselves, Lafleche celebrated Mass and distributed the sacrament to all who desired to die well."

When these final preparations were completed, the scouts were seen to signal that the Sioux were coming. When they appeared along the crest of the Coteau, it was not the few horsemen promised the night before, but an army, the whole man power of the great Sioux camp, their war ponies of piebald and pinto and chestnut vivid on the skyline, their gun barrels and spear points glinting in the fierce sunlight of the plains.

At a signal the Sioux host halted. Was it possible they did not mean to attack? The Metis had held their buffalo-runners ready in the cart circle for a sally. Now thirty of the hunters rode out to accost the Sioux and warn them to keep their distance from the camp.

In the midst of the Sioux the three hunters could be seen. McGillis, on seeing the thirty approach the front of the Sioux, suddenly kicked his horse into a gallop and escaped from the startled Sioux, and joined the Metis band. Daring as was his action, he was in terror and be-sought his friends not to laugh at his being afraid. There were, he gasped, two thousand Sioux who meant to attack them.

The Metis rode up, however, to the advance guard of the Sioux, made them some presents and requested them to go away.

The Sioux ignored both the presents and the request. They could and would take all the camp had to yield, and brought out some carts to haul away the booty. They began to push forward.

The Metis at once wheeled away and rode hard for the camp. The Sioux tried to head them off, hoping to overwhelm the camp by entering with the hunters in their retreat. But they were too slow, and the hunters re-entered that cart circle, left their horses and ran for their rifle pits.

The Sioux came charging in, hoping to brush aside the flimsy barrier of the carts and break up at the circle. At their head rode a young chief, "so beautiful," Falcon said in after years, "that my heart revolted at the necessity of killing him." He shouted to the Sioux brave to turn away, but the Indian rode on, the war cry ringing from his lips. Falcon shot him off his horse, and the Metis hunters fired in volley.

Here and there a Sioux warrior whirled from his saddle and tumbled into the grass; the others pulled their ponies around and galloped back to the main body.

Inside the circle Lafleche had donned his surplice with the star at the neck, and had taken his cuicifix in his hand. His tall white figure passed around the carts as he encouraged the warriors and soothed the children. All through the fight he prayed amid the fighting and exhorted his people from a cart rolled into the centre of the circle, a prairie Joshua. He did not, he told a friend later, take a gun himself, but he had a hatchet handy, resolved that if the Sioux reached the carts he would fight beside his Metis warriors.

Diagram: Metis Rifle Pits at Batoche

A brief pause followed the first charge, but was ended almost at once. Whiteford and Malaterre were guarded by an American living with the Sioux. This man now told them to make a dash for it. He would, he said, only pretend to shoot at them. Whiteford suddenly put his horse, perhaps the best runner on the plains, to a run and rode, weaving and swaying through a poplar grove, down the slope towards the camp. Malaterre, knowing his horse was too poor to carry him clear, first shot at the nearest Sioux and actually hit three. He then rode for his life, but was soon brought down by a storm of balls and arrows. His body, bristling with shafts, was dismembered and mutilated and his remnants waved at the Metis to terrify them. But Whiteford escaped unharmed; and with true Metis bravado, he checked his flight and shot down a pursuing Sioux. Then he was welcomed wildly with-in the cart circle, where he joined the defenders. His old mother, who had been weeping for a son she believed doomed, ran to him and said: "My son, if you are tired, give me your gun and go and get some sleep. Let me fire a shot at those rascals out there!"

There was no time for sleep for anyone. The mass of the Sioux now closed in and surrounded the camp, as Lafleche wrote, like a waistband, Indian-fashion, they did not charge in a body. They crept forward, sniping; they made sudden dashes; now and then excited braves would come charging in on horseback, and swerve off shooting from the saddle, or under their horses necks. It was exciting, it was dangerous, but it was not the one thing that might have brought victory to the Sioux, the overwhelming of the Metis by their numbers. The Metis were therefore able to hold them off from the cart circle, firing steadily as targets offered, themselves offering no target. Most of the Sioux bullets fell short of the cart circle; all their arrows did. Only occasionally did a horse rear, or an ox bellow as a shot went home. And up the sun-scorched slope, the Sioux began to feel the bite of the telling Metis fire. Warrior after warrior, "like choice game" writes Dugas, "was offered up with the sure hand of the priest practised at the sacrifice." Some of the stricken warriors turned over quietly in death, some leaped in their death throes, "strewing the yellow praire with their heaving bodies".

The fight was too hot for them. Indians, and even the warlike Sioux, would never suffer casualties as Europeans would. It was not a matter of courage, but of the conventions of warfare. In battle the Indian saw no merit in death, however brave. The Sioux now drew back to take account of the nature of the contest they had engaged in. Their shame grew as they viewed the small numbers of the Metis and the fragility of their defences. Their shame turned to anger. Whooping and yelling, the infuriated warriors charged in on their straining ponies, swerving, checking, striving always to kill or stampede the stock in the corral. But their fury produced no giving way. Lafleche still cheered his people, from the cart in the corral. Falcon, steady, earnest, fired with his men, and moved among them to keep them steady. With him was his sister Isabella; when he went around the rifle pits, she took his gun and fired for him, not without effect.

The second assault failed like the first, and still the Sioux had not used their numbers to make a mass charge and overrun the gun pits and the barricade of carts. Sullenly the Sioux began to withdraw, one by one or in small groups. The more stubborn or more daring kept up a sniping fire and tentative sallies from time to time. But after six hours all were wearied of the unrewarding battle. A chief was heard to cry: "The French have a Manitou with them. We shall never come to the end of them. It is impossible to kill them". Such was the effect of Lafleche's courage. And in fact not a Metis had been killed in the action, although they had lost twelve horses and four oxen. The Sioux had suffered losses they thought heavy, and now began to load their wounded into the carts they had brought to carry away the plunder of the Metis camp. They had also to regain their courage and replenish their ammunition. A heavy thunderstorm completed their discomfiture, and it was followed by a mist which made it impossible to shoot.

Page revised: 1 July 2009