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Tragic Events at Frog Lake and Fort Pitt During the North West Rebellion, Part 1

by W. J. McLean

Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1972, Volume 17, Number 2

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.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 following extracts are from the diary of W. J. McLean, Chief Factor, Hudson's Bay Company, who was transferred from Ile a la Crosse to Fort Pitt in the autumn of 1884. When McLean arrived at Fort Pitt on October 28, he found the Indians "restless and turbulent," but after several chats with Big Bear, the Plain Cree Chief, McLean was able to "settle them down for the winter in a spirit of better will and contentment." In the spring, however, all hell broke loose ...

This narrative is published by permission of D. J. McLean, 390 River Avenue, Winnipeg, a son of W. J. McLean.

March 1885 - Indians showing renewed hatred and restless conduct, openly threatened their agent, Thomas Quinn, and other white men at the Frog Lake Mission. I intimated to Inspector Dickens, the officer in charge of the North West Mounted Police at Fort Pitt, that it appeared the situation on the Indian Reserve was becoming grave, and he, fearing for the safety of his men at Frog Lake, withdrew them about the end of the month and concentrated his entire force of twenty constables and three non-commissioned officers at Fort Pitt.

However, upon discussing the hostile attitude of the Indians with Mr. Dickens and Mr. Quinn, they seemed to treat it lightly and remarked that the Indians were no more aggressive than they were in the autumn before my arrival. No Indians from the Reserve had been to the Fort for some weeks, and I pointed out to Mr. Dickens that I regarded this as a sign of their discontinued friendship. I thought it would be proper for him to order all government employees and other white people engaged on the reserves into the Fort. This would strengthen his detachment considerably and would be safer for all concerned. He, however, did not wish to interfere with the authority of the Indian Agent.

April 3 - Farming Instructor Mann, stationed at the Onion Lake Reserve, between Frog Lake and Fort Pitt, arrived at two o'clock in the morning and reported that nine white men, including Indian Agent Quinn, Farming Instructor Delaney, and two priests, Father Taford and his amiable assistant, had been massacred. Farming Instructor Fitzpatrick, an American, and the HBC clerks, James K. Simpson and W. B. Cameron had been spared. Mann had been warned by a friendly Indian and so made good his escape from Big Bear's men who were on the way to kill him and his family when the warning reached him.

Children of Mr. and Mrs. W. J. McLean, living in Winnipeg (1972), L. to R: Duncan J. McLean, born at Fort Qu'Appelle in 1877, the last surviving prisoner of the Indians during the North West Rebellion, Miss Fredericka McLean; Hunter Murray McLean, named after his maternal grandfather, Alexander Hunter Murray, founder of Fort Yukon (1845), the most northerly point of British occupation during the tenure of the Hudson's Bay Company.

We at once commenced to barricade all the windows and doors with sacks of flour, of which there was a large quantity on hand. On the following day we pulled down the buildings which might give shelter and cover for the Indians, and set up a barricade of carts, wagons, cordwood, and logs. At about 5 o'clock in the evening, Chief Cut Arm of the Onion Lake Reserve, with four braves, appeared on top of a high ridge behind the fort and signalled for someone to go out and meet him. Inspector Dickens did not consider it safe for him or any of his men to go out, so I with my interpreter went out to where they were, and found that they had brought Mr. and Mrs. Quinney to me unharmed. Chief Cut Arm confirmed the tragedy at Frog Lake, but said that no HBC men had been killed and that Mrs. Delaney and Mrs. Gowanlock were alive but captives of Big Bear.

As Justice of the Peace for the North West Territories, I swore in every civilian as a special constable, and they all did sentry duty with the police. All were called inside at sundown, and the doors were then barricaded until six the next morning. The servants of the HBC, with some members of my own family, and two police, kept sentry duty in my house, which, being two-storied, had the best lookout. Each sentry did duty for two hours and the watchword was exchanged every fifteen minutes. My own three eldest daughters took their places regularly in the watch and proved most vigilant.

On the 13th of April, Inspector Dickens, for some unexplained reason, insisted on sending out two of his men and one civilian to locate the whereabouts of a large band of Indians. I remonstrated, as his men were not versed in scouting nor acquainted with the country through which they would travel, and warned that his men, horses, and their attachments were almost sure to fall into the hands of the Indians. He, however, persisted, and about eleven in the forenoon the three mounted men were dispatched.

Between three and four o'clock that afternoon, the Indians, fully two hundred and fifty strong, all mounted, made their appearance on the ridge back of the fort. Their first act was to round up the Company's cattle and shoot seven or eight of them and to make fires and cook several of the freshly killed beef. Later a note, written by H. A. Halpin, a prisoner of Big Bear, and signed by the chief himself, was brought to me. It asked for tea, tobacco, and a blanket for Big Bear, as he was very cold. Shortly after, another messenger, an Indian known as Miserable Man, came asking for kettles to make the tea, and for a shirt and trousers for himself, as he was almost nude and shivering. All this he got. Later that evening I got another message saying the Indians wanted to see me, and after consulting with Mr. Dickens, it was decided that I should go with an interpreter.

On nearing the Indian camp, several of them came forward and shook hands. They seemed to be in good humor and said their chief wanted to see me next morning when the sun would attain the altitude to which they pointed, which would be about ten o'clock. They said the chief had important matters to talk to me upon, and added, for me to go back to the fort and sleep well as we would not be disturbed during the night. They also told me to keep my family close to me, shook hands, and went back to their camp. Then I returned to the fort.

On the following day I went out to meet the chiefs, but before leaving the fort I told the sentries, if they saw the Indians lay hold of me and take me by force behind the ridge, to fire upon them even at the risk of killing me. I took no firearms with me to prove that I had no feeling of hostility toward the Indians. They in turn said I had no reason to fear them as they were all friendly to me. At this point I took my handkerchief out and signalled to the fort that all was well.

I was then asked to sit down with Chief Big Bear and the other chiefs, and the calumet, gaily decorated with ribbons and feathers, was filled and passed around, commencing with the chiefs and headmen. I was not offered the pipe; this seemed ominous. Big Bear did not pass me the pipe a second time, but was checked this time by the other chiefs who told him he was not to treat me in a hostile manner. After the pipe ceremony was over I addressed the chiefs and told them I was ready to hear them.

They said they were all very dissatisfied with their condition since the government had taken them in hand, and owing to the changes that were going on in the country, they regarded their future and that of their children with great alarm. They referred to the extermination of the buffalo, and that the influx of the white man would lead to the extermination of many other animals and fish which enabled them to live. They said the government had made many promises to them that were not productive of any good, and instead of their conditions improving they were becoming worse every year. Very much excited, Big Bear then said that they had now arrived at the determination to drive the government and the white people out of the country. In this they would get plenty of help, for they now had twenty ox trains loaded with rifles and ammunition, with ten thousand Americans coming to join them. They also had the halfbreeds to fight with them.

Mr. and Mrs. W. J. McLean, unsigned portraits in oil, date unknown; but they may bare been painted in 1876 or shortly thereafter.

He said they did not want to drive the HBC people away, as they and their forefathers had received many useful supplies from the Company and its servants, and they did not want to leave their own country under any circumstances. "For you personally, although many of us never saw you until you came here last fall, we all knew you by reputation, and we know you are a friend of the Indians. We are sorry we did not ask your advice on these matters before. Things have now happened that are too late to mend but which might have been prevented had we opened our minds to you in time. Your tongue is straight and we want you to tell us what you think of what we have started and do not hide anything from us.

I began my remarks by saying I was truly sorry to hear the conclusions they had come to, and I could not believe they understood or realized what it really meant to them. "However, as you have asked my opinion on the matter, and to hide nothing from you, I will do so without any reservations, but let me ask you, if what I say may not be to the liking of some or all of you, not to be displeased with me. And I wish to assure you that never on any former occasion have I had greater cause to speak to you in the light of a true friend and adviser than at the present grave and important time."

"First I ask you to believe me that any endeavors on your part to drive the government or the peaceable white men out of the country is not only hopeless but a most dangerous undertaking for you to attempt. That would mean declaring war against the Great Mother The Queen and her fighting men. Owing to how little you know and have seen of the soldiers of the Queen and the great weapons they use to fight with, you cannot understand the great forces and powers that would come against you."

At this point one of the chiefs said it was not the Queen they wanted to fight, but the government. Then I told them the best advice I could give them was for them to return to their reserves and keep quiet there, "it will be to your good, as I fear and believe you are being misinformed and misled by bad counsel." Chief Cut Arm then broke in and said that while my words had been weighty, they had not consulted me in time, and now could not act on my good advice because they were pledged to Louis Riel to carry on what he got them to commence.

At this stage Wandering Spirit, who had assumed the role of chief warrior, got up and came forward to where I was sitting, then placing his Winchester rifle on his arm, said: "You have spoken enough. We believe what you have said about the HB Company and yourself, we know you through our ears long since, but you have said too much about the government, we do not want to hear anything about him. (He spoke of the government in the singular - as one man.) "We are tired of him and all his people and we are going to drive them out of the country. Why do you want us to believe that the government has plenty of soldiers? Look at the few Red Coats (North West Mounted Police) that you are keeping at the fort, is that plenty? Is that all the government can send? He has been trying to send more for two years to frighten us. We are not afraid of them. We are going to finish them off before the sun goes down, and we would have killed them long ago were it not for you and your wife and children. We do not know why you keep the Red Coats in your fort. That is the only thing we have against you. The fort was built for us many years ago, not for the Red Coats. They will not be there long. We will make short work of them and kill them like young ducks, but we want you to get your wife and children out of the way of danger."

I said I was sorry to hear him speak so unfriendly of the Red Coats who had done him no harm, and he should not want to harm them. He again placed his hand on my shoulder and said: "Do not speak too much. That is why I killed the agent. I am going to tell you now that we have already taken your old place (Fort Qu'Appelle), Calgary and Edmonton. We have torn up the iron road and cut down the poles with the speaking iron (telegraph), and we have come now to take your fort and kill the Red Coats, but we do not want to kill you and your family."

At this moment two or three women and youths rushed into the crowd and called out: "Red Coats! Red Coats! They are going to shoot us." In an instant every man was in the saddle and they rushed upon the unfortunate scouts which Inspector Dickens had sent out the day before. Two of them were instantly shot. The third made his escape into the woods, but was captured during the night at the fort, where, instead of falling into the hands of welcoming friends, he encountered a horde of wild savages who were then in occupation, revelling in the plunder - the stores and valuable articles which they found therein.

When he was about to be shot, he begged to be allowed to speak to me, and when being asked if he were a friend of mine and answered in the affirmative, he was then told by his captors that they would bring him to me in the morning. They did so, and following my earnest entreaties they spared his life.

Rescue of Mrs. Gowanlock and Mrs. Delaney by scouts from General Strange's detachment, Frog Lake, 7 June 1885, as depicted by staff artist, Canadian Pictorial and Illustrated War News, 13 June 1885.

On the previous evening when the two constables were shot, I was left alone with Big Bear and two old Indians, who were, however, armed with rifles. I stood up and looked around to see if it was possible to escape to the fort, but all the young warriors were between me and the fort, and so I concluded that it would be unwise to attempt an escape at that time.

The horrifying scene intensified my fears for the Mounted Police and confirmed my belief that they would receive no quarter from the savages. At this point Wandering Spirit came forward and told me to hold up my arms. I thought my time had come, but complied with the demand. Then Wandering Spirit said, "You must swear by the spirit that is above and the spirit that is below (pointing at the same time upward and downward) that you will not desert us, and we will spare your life and take care of you." It was a critical position and I reluctantly answered that I would not leave them without their knowledge. He replied that the young braves were excited and wanted to get at the Red Coats, but your family stands in the way, so we cannot let you go now but you must send a letter to your wife and ask her to come here.

In the meantime, my family being anxious about my safety, had sent my two daughters, Amelia and Eliza, to the Indian camp. Some Indians went forward to meet them and seemed astonished at their nerve and asked them if they were afraid. "No!" they replied, "we have been taught never to be afraid of Indians." This was good instruction since the Indians always had a great respect for courage. Wandering Spirit then told me to write a letter to my wife telling her to join me with the children. The note was sent back to the fort with my daughters. However, I expressed doubt to the Indians as to whether the officer in charge of the Red Coats would let my family come out. Upon hearing this some of the young braves remarked, "We will soon bring his wife and children to him."

During all this excitement, whenever I could interpose, I pleaded for the safety of the police, and finally I was permitted to send a note to Inspector Dickens intimating that he and his men would be allowed to depart under certain restrictions - leaving his horses, saddles, harness and wagons behind. I had suggested to Mr. Dickens that he use the flat boat or scow which I had built inside the fort with a view to aiding the escape of the Hudson's Bay Company servants, and also to transport a valuable collection of furs which was in store in the fort. My object in insisting that the furs be taken along was not wholly for their value but for a means of defence, for they were in bales, and when these were piled around the sides of the flat boat would serve as a bulwark against rifle fire. Mr. Dickens and his men left this way by the Saskatchewan River for Battleford.

When I asked about the safety of the others in the fort, the chiefs said if they came out and joined me they would be taken care of, but if they preferred taking their chances with the Red Coats, they could do so. They preferred to join me. I notified the chiefs and very shortly thereafter all forty-four souls from the fort were billeted with several families of Wood Crees, each of which made their own selections as to who they would look after. I found myself with my family and servants consigned to one of the leading men, a chief, Little Poplar, a Plain Cree, a very active and turbulent agitator, who proved to be a very indifferent caterer.

That night, as soon as it was known that the police had gone away, some of the chiefs came to me and said I must go down to the fort with them and make a fair distribution among them all of all the supplies in the fort. I was not in a position to say no, but pointed out that it was dark and that it would be best to wait until morning. They agreed, but shortly thereafter some of the young braves began to steal away to the fort and before it was far into the night, the camp was almost deserted. All had gone to the fort where they carried on a wholesale pillage and revelry all night long and the following day.

We passed a miserable night. It was stormy with a heavy fall of snow, and we tried to keep warm by huddling together in a sitting posture in one of my tents. On the afternoon of the fifteenth I was asked to go down to the fort and take what supply of provisions I wanted for myself and family. This was a ceded privilege for which I expressed gratitude. I could not, however, avail myself of this offer to any extent for my wagons and horses had been stolen. So I accepted some provisions of flour and bacon.

During the afternoon of the 15th and all day on the 16th the Indians were busy fixing up all the carts and harness and loading them with spoils from the fort. On the 17th the whole motley cavalcade moved on for Frog Lake. Nearly all the captives marched on foot. I had been given two inferior horses to hitch to harness, but they were so small they could almost jump out of the harness. However, I hitched them to the wagon and my wife and the younger members of my family rode in it, while the older ones and myself marched through the mush and snow which was melting fast. I felt sore at the wretched appearance of my driving outfit and at being reduced to such treatment, but it was truly a case of "must not look a gift horse in the mouth." I had feign to content myself with the whole woeful lot ...

Mr. John Gowanlock

Mrs. John Gowanlock

Only a few months before his death, John Gowanlock had gone to Frog Lake to build and operate a grist mill.

Biographical Notes

Father Taford (Father Francois Xavier Fafard), Oblate, had come to the North West Territory in 1875. At the time of his death he was in charge of the Roman Catholic mission on the Indian Reserve at Frog Lake (between Battleford and Edmonton).

"his amiable assistant" This reference is to Father Felix Marchand, priest at the Roman Catholic Mission at nearby Onion Lake. Whilst visiting the mission at Frog Lake he too was killed by Big Bear's band. The two priests were slain shortly after celebrating the mass on Maundy Thursday, April 2, 1885.

"Mr. and Mrs. Quinney ..." Mr. Quinney is referred to else-where as the Protestant missionary or Episcopal pastor (at Onion Lake), but neither Young or Mulveney, in their respective works, give his initials or refer to him as "Reverend." He may have been a lay preacher or catechist.

Part 2 here

Page revised: 20 July 2009

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