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Tragic Events at Frog Lake and Fort Pitt During the North West Rebellion, Part 3

by W. J. McLean

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1972, Volume 18, 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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W. J. McLean, Chief Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company, transferred from Ile a la Crosse to Fort Pitt in the autumn of 1884, reported in his diary for May 4, 1885, that Wood Cree couriers from Battleford brought the news that soldiers and Mounted Police were fighting Poundmaker's band. Later reports said Poundmaker and his men were retreating in the direction of Duck Lake and Batoche. The Plain Indians tried to persuade the Wood Crees to join Riel at Batoche, a policy opposed by McLean, who with his family and several others were prisoners of the Indians.

After they all had assembled, Big Bear's son, who had taken his father's place, moved that they should all start to join Louis Riel at Batoche, but the Wood Crees again made it apparent they were against going to Batoche without more knowledge of Riel's position there, which they regarded as doubtful. After debating the stand the Wood Crees took, one of Big Bear's followers, known as Half Blackfoot Chief, proposed that couriers should be sent to Batoche to bring news of Riel. That was agreed.

Difficulty arose in finding anyone to take that long trip which was regarded as not to be without risk. Eventually one Louis Goulet offered his service to go, provided they would give him a good horse. That he got, and a young Wood Cree volunteered to go with him. Goulet started from my tent, and before he left I told him to take notice of what was going on at Battleford, which he would have to pass en route. He could probably judge by what he would observe there whether he should continue his journey beyond there or not.

After Goulet left on his trip, which was supposed to take eight or ten days, Half Blackfoot Chief proposed to start the ceremony of the Thirst Dance, which they usually performed annually, especially before going on the warpath. The ceremonies pertaining to the Thirst Dance were regarded by them as a very momentous event ... After passing through its ordeals, the participants were respected as braves among their own race ...

Late on the second day after his departure, Goulet returned. His young partner, who had deserted him through fear, preceded him, but his story, which was to the effect that the earth was trembling at Battleford with soldiers and horses, did not receive credence until Goulet's arrival. He corroborated what the young fellow had reported. Nothing more at the time was said about going to join Riel.

(On May 26, returning scouts reported the arrival of a large number of troops at Fort Pitt, and while McLean tried to get a message to the commander, the Indians prepared to battle the vanguard of Major-General Strange's troops at Red Deer Creek ...)

At early dawn on the 28th of May, General Strange attacked the Indians from the south bank of Red Deer Creek and fought the battle known as the battle of Frenchman's Butte. All the Wood Crees who had any of the prisoners in charge took them away the morning before the fighting began, being aided by a very dense fog. They made their get away unobserved. It was impossible for me to accompany them as I was too closely guarded by the Plain Indians.

Before the battle began, we were roughly wakened from a transient rest, and commanded to flee along with the women and children and some old men. We were not given time or chance to pick up any little trinket which we still had retained. Tents and everything we possessed (which was very little then) we had to abandon. We were hustled off on foot in the dawn of morning, with a heavy dew upon the grass and a dense fog around us.

The Chippeweyans all deserted that morning with their pastor, the Reverend Fr. Le Goff, who felt loathe to leave us. They travelled a short distance with us, and then struck out in the direction of their mission at Beaver River. We could not venture to follow them, as two or three old Plain Crees, who were sent along with us, kept close watch on us. After travelling five or six miles, we halted among a lot of fallen timber. Couriers were running to and from where the fighting was going on, bringing us very exaggerated accounts of how the battle was progressing.

About noon, Chief Big Bear came up to us. He told us his men had killed a great many soldiers and some officers. We had to listen to all we were told, and no matter how we felt about the disaster that we were told was befalling our would-be rescuers, we could only be silent. We could hear the reports of the cannon with which General Strange was shelling his opponents, who would not show for open fight.

Eventually we learned that several shells were fired without any results, being fired at too great an elevation and going too far beyond the pits in which the Indians were under cover. They were beginning to regard "the big gun," as they called the cannon, of such a nature that no aim could be taken with it. That delusion, however, was of short duration, for suddenly an order was given the gunner, and sufficiently loud-spoken to be heard by the Indians and the old cannibal-destroyer Choilebois, who under-stood English, telling them that they were done for; that the soldiers had got the proper range, which they had ascertained with their rifles, the day before. To convince them beyond a doubt that such was the case, the next shell fired wounded three of the Plain Crees, one of whom died that night. The following shell wounded another of them and his horse.

Seeing that, they all fled at once and when they came to where we were, they appeared terrified and so precipitate was their flight, that they left their wounded behind them. Not until the arrival of some of their scouts, who told them the troops did not cross the creek as they had supposed, but were going toward their camp, did they go back to bring their wounded men and several things that had been abandoned at the scene of the flight.

Louis Mongrain, a Wood Cree, who had been with us nearly all day, went and brought my two tents to me, one of which I gave him for his kind act, but everything else of our little belongings that we abandoned in the morning was appropriated, but by whom, we could not say.

One article in particular that I regretted was a small silver box the Marquis of Lorne had sent me with an autograph note asking my acceptance of it as a souvenir of the pleasant stay he had with us at Fort Qu'Appelle in 1881. It was not however, as I thought, lost to me, as it was afterward handed back, and was the means of rendering me a great assistance in effecting our freedom, as will be seen later on.

Part 4 here

Page revised: 20 July 2009

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