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Tragic Events at Frog Lake and Fort Pitt During the North West Rebellion, Part 5

by W. J. McLean

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1973, Volume 18, 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Following false reports of the outcome of the battle of Frenchman’s Butte on May 28, 1885, W. J. McLean, a Hudson’s Bay factor taken hostage with his family by the Indians, urged his captors to free him, so he could negotiate a peace settlement ...

On arriving I was received kindly and with marked respect. I was directed to sit down on a rug that had been placed for me and Chief Ke-Win, who was spokesman. He asked me what I thought I could do if I was allowed to go back. I answered that 1 felt sure I would be able to arrange for peace for them, and would make such representations as would help them very much, if I could find the Master of the soldiers. He then asked if the Master of the soldiers was my friend. I said I probably did not know him, but was sure he would receive me as a friend. Another of the chiefs asked me if it was the government that sent him out to shoot them. I replied that I thought he was sent out by the government, but not to shoot them, providing they were willing to make peace. He then said that they did not want me to deal with anyone representing the government, as they could not believe them and added, it was the people the government sent to deal with us that had been the cause of you and us being in trouble now.

“You must write our mother, the Queen, and ask her to stop the soldiers and Red Coats (North-West Mounted Police) from shooting us.”

I answered that I was not in a position to write to their great and good mother, the Queen, but I assured them I would arrange matters with the officer commanding the soldiers to their satisfaction, if they sent me to speak for them. The spokesman then asked me why I would not write to the Queen, and to be brief, I said I did not know the Queen.

“You know her son-in-law,” he said. “You can write to him and he can arrange with his mother-in-law for us,” and while saying this, he produced the silver box given to me by the Marquis of Lorne. Holding it towards me, he asked who gave it to me. I answered it was the Queen’s son-in-law.

“We are aware of that,” he said. “You lost it, but I am going to give it to you,” and he handed it to me.

I thanked him and said: “If you set me at liberty, and if I fail to settle matters for you with the Master of the soldiers, I will then write on your behalf to the great man that gave me this box.”

He then said he was willing that I should get my freedom and added: “You and your family have suffered great hardships. We are all sorry for it, but we are not wholly to blame, but the government.” Then addressing the council, he asked all that were in favour of my going away to arrange peace to stand up. They all stood up at once, except “The Dressy Man.” He sat with his head down. When he was asked why he did not stand, he said he was afraid to let me go, as the soldiers, if they came, would be sure to shoot them, and if I went away they would have no one to stop the soldiers from killing them.

I told him that so long as they kept me and the other white people, the soldiers would follow them, should they travel to the sea. But if they set me free, I could go and prevent more fighting, but I could be of no service to them in captivity. He then asked me if I would give them a letter to give to the soldiers to the same effect as I had spoken of. I said I would, if they could furnish me with the means to write a letter. He then stood up and said his heart was with the others.

I was then declared free with my family and all the other white prisoners in the camp. Many of the Indians shook hands with me. They then sent a young man to one of the tents, and he brought a foolscap book and pencil to write the letter I was to give them. I did so and had it read, interpreted and explained to them. They expressed entire satisfaction with it. I then handed it to the senior chief among them, but behold, each of the chiefs wanted one. That however, was quickly done, and with Stanley Simpson’s assistance we soon got out nine of them and handed one to each of the chiefs.

I then addressed them and said: “You are now sending me to represent you as peacemaker. I hope to be successful, but there is something I want from you as a pledge of good faith to take with me and present to the chief of the soldiers when I meet him, and ask him to return it to you with an assurance of his good will. I trust that you will always remember me as your friend and find on all occasions that I have given you good council.”

Here the “Wandering Spirit” said: “You keep your word true. You are now leaving us with knowledge of it.” The chiefs spoke a few words among themselves, and then the A.D.C. was sent to the senior chief’s lodge. He returned with a long missive, which he placed with ceremony in front of the chief. Then the chief took up the pipe of peace, for such it was, that was brought to him with its long and gaudily-decorated stem, and with some tobacco and a small bunch of sweet-smelling grass, put it carefully in a parcel and handed it to me, saying: “I think this is what you want.”

I said: “You have understood me rightly,” and received the pipe with the veneration due it. That (to me) memorable meeting was then adjourned. When I returned to my tent I found that the joyful news had preceded me and it was known all over camp that we were set free.

We at once commenced preparations to start away, and one of the chiefs went through the camp, calling on everyone that could give anything to help the children that were going away, to bring it to his tent. Shortly afterwards he came to my tent and handed my wife about eight pounds of flour and two pounds of bacon, which was most gratefully received. Some of the women brought moccasins for the children, all with good wishes.

In less than an hour we had said goodbye to them and started on our long return journey, feeling grateful at being released after 62 days of captivity, passed in great mental anxiety and physical hardships. We then had a journey of at least 140 miles ahead of us, before reaching Fort Pitt, where we hoped to meet friends and secure such help as would relieve our bodily wants generally. We were hopeful of making the journey in seven or eight days, notwithstanding the very rough country we had to travel through in our weak condition.

The very small supply of provisions for such a long and hard trip was cause for much anxiety to us. Owing to the number there were of us (27 in all) we divided into two parties in order to be more convenient for our journey. I was given two horses for the younger members of my family and I also secured one for Farming Instructor Mann to use for his family. However, this was very reluctantly given, owing to his connection with the government.

Two of the Indians from the camp came as far as the Beaver River to assist us to cross it. They had found two canoes, belonging to the Cold Lake Chipewyans, that had been hidden in the woods near the banks of the river, and with these we had no great difficulty in getting across the river, which was accomplished at ten o’clock at night. On our way to the river, each of the two Indians shot a rabbit and Stanley Simpson shot one also. One of the rabbits was given to Mr. Mann and his party and we retained two, and with one of them and a small bit of bacon and a little flour, my wife made sufficient soup to enable us all to have a small portion for supper, the two Indians sharing with us.

At five o’clock next morning we had breakfast similar to what we had for supper, only a little less, owing to Mr. Mann’s party indiscreetly consuming all the food they had, regardless of the morrow. We could not see them go without anything, therefore shared our breakfast with them. We then took leave of our benefactors, the two Indians, and started to make as long a day’s journey as we possibly could.

The Halfbreed took the lead as guide, Mr. Simpson, Fitzpatrick and myself following, cutting trail for the rest of the party to follow. We travelled as fast as we could all day, as we were not free from fear that the Indians might change their mind and come after us to take us back. When we halted at noon, Stanley Simpson had six and the other hunter three rabbits. We cooked four and retained two, in case our hunter had less luck in the afternoon, but our friends of the other party cooked and ate their three, regardless of what success their hunter might have, which was only one rabbit. Mr. Simpson got three, one of which he gave to the Mann party.

We camped at nine o’clock that night in a pretty open space surrounded by a grove of aspen, feeling very tired but more buoyant in spirit by our feeling of freedom. After supper the Halfbreed’s wife and two of my boys set a few rabbit snares and in the morning we got five rabbits, two of which were given to the Mann party to breakfast on. We made a very early start and travelled up to noon, through marshy country in which rabbits were scarce. Mr. Simpson only got three rabbits and one partridge.

In the afternoon we traversed a wide stretch of burned woods in which there was no game of any kind, and when camping time came, we had but one partridge and one rabbit to make supper with, and that was not enough for the children of our party. Mr. Mann’s party had nothing. How-ever, we continued to travel until dark, the days being in their longest stage then. At ten thirty we arrived at Loon Lake, close to where we had camped when Big Bear and his party were deserted. We certainly felt tired, also dejected at the prospect of nothing to eat for supper or break-fast either, as far as we knew, for one rabbit and a partridge were not much to be divided among 27 people, all in need of food.

(As the tents were being set up, Stanley Simpson went with a gun to the edge of the lake, where to his surprise he found one of the oxen which had been abandoned earlier. It was shot for food. The following day, Mr. Simpson and the Half breed left by canoe to look for some flour and bacon which had been cached by an Indian widow on the journey north. The two men returned that evening.)

They were very cheerful and full of good news and much pleased with their success in finding the treasure of flour and bacon ... about 20 pounds of flour and eight pounds of bacon. Besides that, they brought about eight pounds of biscuits, which they found at the strait where General Middleton had camped with his command when he came that far in pursuit of the Indians. He was unable to cross the swamp because the bottom was thawed out when the troops arrived, making it totally impossible for man or beast to cross.

Mr. Simpson brought something else of keen interest to us. It was two envelopes which he found where the troops had camped. One of the envelopes was addressed to Major-General Middleton (afterwards Sir Fredrick) commanding North-West Field Forces, and the other to Lieutenant-Colonel Stranberzie, commanding Fort Pitt. The writing on the address of the former I readily recognized as being that of Lieutenant-Colonel Bedson, and on it was written: “Send back some news from the front.”

I knew Colonel Bedson (my brother-in-law) would be extremely anxious to get news of myself and family, but did not then know he was in the field to help rescue us. However, it was only one day more until he met us. After our pleasant excitement had subsided, my dear wife divided the proceeds of the day’s expedition with Mrs. Mann for their party, and I need scarcely say we all partook of a supper such as we had not had nor enjoyed for the last 67 days. Next morning all the party made a start in continuance of our journey. We had luncheon at the spot where we camped with the Indians when going north. After lunch, Mr. Simpson and the older members of my family went to see the bridge the troops had erected across the strait which we, with the Indians, had to cross on rafts.

There they found part of the Winnipeg Daily Times newspaper of the 16th of May, and from it we learned of the battle of Batoche and its results. Every line of news the paper contained we read with eagerness, and felt truly sorry on noting that so many friends we knew had been slain in battle. After we read the paper, it was folded carefully and taken to be read by the other members of our party. The Winnipeg Daily Times merged into the Winnipeg Sun and that paper into the present Manitoba Daily Free Press.

Curiosity caused some of us to visit the grave of Chief Cut Arm which we found had been opened by the troops under General Middleton, suspecting it might be the grave of one or more of us prisoners. At the grave we found a letter written and signed by William McKay, then of the Hudson’s Bay Company, stationed at Battleford and addressed to Chief Big Bear, warning him against doing any injury to the white prisoners he had with him and strongly advising him to give them up without delay. That letter, however effective it might have been, never reached the addressee. After we discussed things generally, we went on walking to the ford, and Mr. Simpson and I re-crossed the lake to bring our tents and other things left behind in the morning. We got back and up to the ford in time to take the others across before dusk.

Shortly after we got our tents up our party, who had travelled around with the horses, arrived in camp. We sat around the campfire late, commenting on the first news we had had from civilization in three months. At four o’clock the next day we were all up, feeling well and cheerful. While we were engaged in getting breakfast ready, we were alarmed by hearing a distant noise which we could not identify.

Some of the party said it was only the croaking of frogs, but I did not believe it to be such, and remarked that it was very unusual for frogs to croak after sunrise at that season of the year, and to me it sounded like the rumbling of a heavy wagon or cart. But who could it be? Was it some of Big Bear’s Indians? If so, we were likely to be in trouble again, hence our alarm. For a few minutes we felt very dismayed at the prospect of falling into the hands of some wretched hostile Indians again.

Our intense anxiety was of short duration. We were watching the direction from which the uncertain sounds came, when suddenly we saw the heads of two horses showing over the hilltop overlooking our camp, and immediately a man showed himself, and asked in English which was the best way to get down to our camp with his team. Just imagine, if possible, the sudden transition of our feelings. We hailed him in an ecstasy of delight, though we did not know who he was. However, we knew that he was not one of our dreaded Indians.

Some of our party ran at once to meet and guide his horses to our camp. I directed him to a nice clear space near my tent. He unhitched his horses and after he had done so, he said he would like to see Mr. McLean. I answered by saying he was then speaking to Mr. McLean. He eyed me rather suspiciously, but I asked him to be good enough to excuse my external appearance, and rest assured there was no intention to practice fraud upon him.

He pointed to a large case and then took it down from the wagon, saying he was instructed by Major Bedson to deliver it to Mr. McLean. Seeing the case was addressed to Major Bedson, Fort Pitt, I asked if Major Bedson was out with the troops, and he answered that he was and that he would be with us in less than half an hour, as he only left him and two other gentlemen about a mile and a half away talking to the scout who had seen us in the early morning without our knowledge of it, and had gone back. Major Bedson gave his instructions to go back to meet the teams that were coming behind and bring them to meet us.

The members of my family were anxious to see what the case contained, but we concluded that as the donor was so close at hand, we would await his arrival before it was opened. We did not have long to wait, for in less than half an hour he was with us, accompanied by Messrs. George Hamm and Hayter Reed, all friends of myself and my family. It need scarcely be stated that our meeting was of a most cordial and pathetic nature; some of my family shed tears of joy.

After we had exchanged greetings, Major Bedson instructed his teamsters to open the case, which contained complete outfits of clothes for all the family, and enough to give to Mrs. Mann for her family. We then had breakfast and enjoyed some nice things which the case contained be-sides the clothing. After breakfast was over, we got ready to start. Major Bedson had brought sufficient means of transportation for us all. I assigned my good old ox and horses to the half-breed family, who were left with plenty of provisions to follow on to Fort Pitt, and my good and charitable wife gave the half-breed woman a quantity of flannel and dress goods for herself and her needy children.

Some of us started from camp on foot and walked until we met the teams and ambulance that were coming to meet us, which we did early in the afternoon. And then we travelled comfortably to Fort Pitt. We carried on all day and the succeeding night without halting, except to have some refreshments and to give the horses reasonable rest and feed. At four a.m. on the 24th of June we arrived at Fort Pitt, and at once my family went on board the steamer Marquis, where quarters were provided for us.

A large area of the bank of the river in front of the steamer was covered with military tents in which troops were quietly sleeping, and there was no outward sign of life, excepting the solitary sentries who were on duty. The scenery surrounding the place was entirely changed since we left, and we could scarcely recognize our former home. As soon in the day as General Middleton was ready to see me, I went to his tent and presented the Pipe of Peace, which I had brought to him from the Indians who had set us free to negotiate peace for them, about three hundred fighting men.

The General received me very courteously and expressed his pleasure at our being released and returned, without losing any of my family or of the others that were captives with me, notwithstanding the great danger and hardships we passed through. He also made manifest his satisfaction with the course of my actions with, and influence over the Indians during my captivity, and said the country owed me a very great debt, for in this matter alone I had saved many hundred thousand dollars and probably some valuable lives to the country; by convincing the large body of Indians who held me of how futile it would be to continue their strife.

The General then arranged to have two couriers sent to the Indians as per my instructions, with their calumet of peace and a supply of tobacco from the General, all of which arrangements were carried out successfully and my obligations to the Indians here ceased. During the afternoon the General and many of his officers called on us on board the steamer and extended their congratulations at our safe return. We were also serenaded by the troops from the banks of the river.

Page revised: 20 July 2009

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