On a cold November day in 1885, eight men sat in a guard room at Battleford, North West Territories.
These men had seen the world change around them. When they were born, their families lived traditional lives on the land their ancestors had occupied for millennia.
As they grew up, things began to change. Slowly, they lost their land, while they watched loved ones die of starvation and disease. When they asked for help from the government that now controlled their land, their pleas usually fell on deaf ears.
Eventually, these men took up arms, leading to the deaths of several white settlers. For the government, that was a crime they could not ignore. Retribution would be swift, and harsh.
Now, these men found themselves convicted of murder in a trial where the end result was a certainty before it even began.
So here they stood, in the cold wind on the Canadian Prairie that had once been their homeland, awaiting their last moments.
As the men walked up to the platform, they followed a squad of mounted police who marched with black military cloaks over their shoulders.
Each man stood in front of a noose, above a trap door.
Before the black caps went over their heads, they looked out into the crowd. It was not a large crowd, as the authorities had limited attendance, but there were enough people to send a message.
There were faces of anger from those who saw them as savages bent on killing anyone who came across their path. But there were also faces, Indigenous like the men on the scaffold, who had lost everything too, and now looked on in sympathy.
Then, the sharp sound of grating iron broke through the silence as the lever was pulled and each man fell through the trap door to their death.
The date was Nov. 27, 1885, and Canada had just conducted the largest mass hanging in its history.
I’m Craig Baird…and this is Canadian History Ehx![TRANSITION]
This episode deals a lot with the North West Resistance. The story of that resistance is a deep and complicated one and I will be glossing over much of it in this episode beyond the relevant facts. However, on June 13, I have an episode coming about the North West Resistance, that goes into deep detail about the influential event.
For the first half of the 19th century, the Indigenous of Western Canada lived, for the most part, their traditional lives but change was already in the air. Fur traders from the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company were disrupting centuries-old trading networks through fur trading. Indigenous territories shifted to take advantage of the fur trade opportunities, and as fur traders travelled the land, they brought with them diseases such as smallpox.
But, for the most part, the Indigenous people lived as they always had. They moved with the seasons, followed the great herds of bison, and defended their territories from their enemies.
By the mid-point of the 19th century, things began to change. The bison were disappearing, and more white settlers were arriving in the Canadian Prairies.
Various fur trade and police forts also appeared, and with the forts, more people from the east arrived to live within their vicinity.
Almost as soon as Canadian Confederation happened in 1867, the Government of Canada was looking to settle the land in the west. With the transfer of the vast area of Rupert’s Land in 1869, and the admittance of British Columbia into Confederation in 1871 on the promise of a railroad across the country, it was the beginning of the end of the Indigenous way of life.
By the 1870s, everything had changed. The bison were gone, Indigenous nations were starving, and the government saw an opportunity.
In exchange for small parcels of land, rations and supplies, the Indigenous people of future Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba signed a series of treaties from 1871 to 1877. These numbered treaties ceded all of the central and southern portions of those future Prairie Provinces to the government.
The government now had the land to settle, but for the Indigenous it was not a fair bargain. For a people who had lived lives of freedom on the prairies, to suddenly be under the control of what amounted to a foreign power was not an easy pill to swallow. They were now at the mercy of the government, and more specifically, the Indian Agents who managed their reserves.
Indian agents were responsible for government policy on reserves and enforcing the federal Indian Act. As chief administrator, the Indian Agent held a huge amount of sway over the Indigenous people on the reserve he managed. He dictated the rations the Indigenous could receive, whether their grievances reached the government and, after 1885, whether or not they could even leave the reserve.[PAUSE]
Prior to 1885, Chief Big Bear and his Cree band settled at Frog Lake after signing Treaty 6 in 1882. Big Bear was unhappy with the unfair terms he was forced to agree to get rations for his starving people.
This brings to a notorious Indian Agent named Thomas Quinn, who set in motion the tragic events that led to several avoidable deaths.
Even though Big Bear had signed the treaty and ceded land to the government, Indian Agent Quinn was withholding rations from Big Bear’s band.
Among Indian Agents, Quinn was notoriously harsh. He kept the Indigenous he was assigned to on the brink of starvation. In his mind, if they didn’t work, they didn’t get rations.
One of the worst stories of Quinn came on an April Fool’s Day, when he promised the Cree full rations if they showed up to the ration house. A line of Cree, men, women and children, showed up to get food, only to have Quinn open the door and yell “April Fools!”. The Indigenous walked away without the food that had been promised.
Quinn’s attitude towards the Indigenous can be seen an exchange between himself and Cree leader Little Poplar on Oct. 19, 1884. This account was written by William Cameron, a witness to much of what I will talk about this episode. He wrote his recounting of the story in 1926 as the book Blood Red The Sun, which I used extensively for this episode.
The Cree had arrived at the Hudson’s Bay Company post of Fort Pitt to meet with Quinn in order to receive their treaty payment. At this exchange, the Cree were supposed to receive beef along with money.
Little Poplar stated that Quinn was the man the government sent to say no to everything the Indigenous asked for. He added that people were starving, needed wanted fresh meat and wanted to kill an ox for food.
“The government gives cattle to the Indians for work and milk, but not to kill. There is no beef for you.”
Little Poplar stated he had seen the railroad and knew it brought food. He asked why it could not bring food for his people. Quinn simply responded,
“You heard what I said.”
In the afternoon, Big Bear spoke with Captain Francis Dickens, the son of Charles Dickens and an officer in the North West Mounted Police. He told Dickens that he and the Cree liked him, and said his heart was good. Then, he told him that Quinn had a heart made of stone. He added as he pointed to Quinn,
“When the governor made the treaty with us, we were told we should have beef to eat at every payment.”
Then, Miserable Man, the war chief of the Cree under Big Bear, walked up to Quinn and said,
“When I am hungry this winter and ask for food, if you don’t give it to me…”
Quinn simply smiled.
Later that day, Angus McKay, the Hudson’s Bay Company officer in charge of Fort Pitt had a steer slaughtered for the Cree to eat. While the Cree appreciated what he did, they were angry that the meat did not come from the government, as per the treaty promises.
That winter was not an easy one for the Cree at Frog Lake, and Quinn continued his harsh treatment and withholding of full rations.
Meanwhile, other events in the North West Territories were falling into motion towards a momentous moment in Canadian history.[PAUSE]
On March 19, 1885, Louis Riel established the new Provisional Government of Saskatchewan. The Canadian government, no fans of Riel thanks to his Red River Resistance 15 years previous, were not going to allow a provisional government to be set up in what they considered to be their territory.
At Fort Carlton, located in west-central present-day Saskatchewan, Commander Leif Crozier ordered 19 of his men to go the general goods store at nearby Duck Lake to get supplies.
On March 26, the soldiers encountered Metis leader Gabriel Dumont, who had been waiting along the road. Crozier and his men chose not to engage the larger force, and instead went back to Fort Carlton to get reinforcements. Crozier then rallied together 53 officers and men from the North West Mounted Police, 41 men from the Prince Albert Volunteers, and a seven-pounder cannon.
The Metis and Canadian militia met at Duck Lake later that day. In the battle, 200 Metis routed the smaller militia, leaving the Canadians with 12 dead and 12 wounded. The Metis suffered only five dead and three wounded.
The North West Resistance had begun.
Losing the battle came as a huge shock to the Canadian government, who quickly began to put together a force to travel to the area to put down the resistance.
There is much more to tell about the North West Resistance, as it’s a huge event in Canadian history, but at this point we are going to leave that story.[PAUSE]
As April 1, 1885 rolled around, tensions were high across the North West Territories but at Frog Lake things seemed to be relaxed.
A prominent Cree named Wandering Spirit was happy, even greeting William Cameron with a smile and saying “Big Lie Day!”. That is what the local Cree now called April 1, the anniversary of the day Quinn lied to them.
Any worry about the local Cree joining the North West Resistance were put to bed when Imasees, the son of Big Bear, told Quinn and William Cameron that they had been asked by the Metis to join the fight, but they refused.
“We do not wish to join the half-breeds, but we are afraid. We wish to stay here and prove ourselves the friends of the white men. Tell us all the news that comes to you, and we will tell you all we hear.”
Quinn responded, stating,
“I am glad you wish to remain friend with us. The fighting is far from here. Stay on the reservation and no one will bother you. I will see that you do not want for food.”
Miserable Man, who had threatened Quinn before the winter, shook hands with Quinn at this point and left. Quinn of course, had no intention of providing the food he promised, and the Cree knew it.
That night, as William Cameron walked to Quinn’s house, he tripped over a Cree man laying on the ground watching the house to ensure Quinn didn’t flee in the night.
Cameron warned Quinn that something seemed to be in the air, but Quinn stated that the Cree may kill him, but they could not scare him.
Late into the evening, as Big Bear slept in his lodge, Imasees, Wandering Spirit and other leaders held a secret council.
Just after midnight on April 2, the Cree entered the homes of the settlers and seized all the weapons before the occupants woke up.
At 4 a.m., two Cree warriors slipped silently into the home of Quinn and went upstairs to his room. Quinn’s Cree wife woke up to see a group of Cree in the room. She is unnamed in all the documents I found, but she was the niece of influential Cree leader Lone Man. She sprang out of bed, waking Quinn.
Lone Man told the Cree there not to harm his niece and Quinn was soon taken from the home. Wandering Spirit then came up to him, put his hand on his shoulder and stated,
“You are my prisoner.”
Throughout the morning, various white settlers were rounded up as the Cree took control of the community. The settlers were ushered into the local Catholic Church where two priests were conducting Mass with several other settlers. The Cree allowed the settlers to continue their Mass.
By this point, Big Bear was aware of what was happening and quickly went to the church. It was his hope to prevent any bloodshed.
William Cameron stated in his book Blood Red The Sun,
“I am convinced Big Bear would have flung himself upon the first of his followers to point a gun and fought for our lives.”
As Mass ended, the settlers were allowed to leave the church and Wandering Spirit had some taken into the farm instructor’s office.
The settlers were told to begin moving to the Cree encampment, located a few kilometres away.
Every settler agreed to move towards the encampment except one, Thomas Quinn.[PAUSE]
In his book, William Cameron states that he was in the shop and had given Miserable Man a shawl, some tobacco and tea. Miserable Man was tying up the parcel when a shot rang out, followed by two more in quick succession.
“At the first report, the eyes of Miserable Man opened wide. At the third he snatched his bundle from the counter and dashed out of the shop.”
Cameron then stated he ran to the hill and came upon the body of Quinn. He identified Imasees as the man who initially shot Quinn, wounding him. Cameron then stated it was Wandering Spirit who came upon the prone Quinn. He ended his life quickly, with a gunshot to the chest.
At this point, mayhem erupted in the area. The Cree began to yell in what Cameron described as a war chant. The settlers began to run, as Big Bear ran out of a building yelling for the Cree to stop. Cameron states,
“As well might he have shouted at the wind.”
Cameron began to walk away, stating that at every moment he expected a bullet to hit him. He felt that running would only invite the pursuit of the Cree. He chose to walk to a nearby Wood Cree camp, where he was protected by the chief. He remained there for the next two months.
Back at Frog Lake, death hung in the air. Wandering Spirit and his men had killed nine men in the community, including Quinn.
The following are those who were killed in what has now become known as The Frog Lake Massacre.
George Dill was a business partner in a trading business with William Cameron. He had only come to Frog Lake the previous autumn.
Charles Gouin was a Metis man who worked in the agency store, while Reverend Leon Adelard Fafard had come to Quebec to serve the church. In the confusion after Quinn was killed, Fafard was shot through the neck. Fafard survived and as he tried to get up, another Cree warrior shot him in the head.
Felix Marie Marchand was the second priest killed at Frog Lake.
The other men killed were John Delaney, John Gowenlock, John Williscraft and William Gilchrist. Dill and Gilchrist had ran from the community and were shot by Cree pursuing them.
The bodies of both priests were placed in the cellar beneath the church and the earth walls were thrown over them. Quinn and Gouin were buried in the basement of a house. Soon after, all the buildings were burned to the ground.
With the remaining settlers taken as hostages to a settlement outside the Cree camp, they were told if they remained inside they were safe. If they were found outside, they would be considered an enemy. From this point onwards, no other settlers were harmed.
Big Bear, the leader of the Cree, now found himself thrust into the North West Resistance that he had tried to avoid. James Simpson, an officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company arrived at Frog Lake that night from Fort Pitt and asked him how he let it happen.
“It is not my work. They have tried for a long time to take away my good name and they have done it at last. If you had been here this might never have happened.”[MID ROLL]
After the killings, the Cree, numbering 200 in all, moved on to nearby Fort Pitt. On April 15, 1885, the Battle of Fort Pitt occurred. The militia at the Fort, numbering only 22, were outnumbered ten-to-one and after one constable in a scouting party was killed, Constable Francis Dickens surrendered. The Fort was then destroyed.
At this point, the Cree moved north with the supplies they took from the fort as the Canadian militia and North West Mounted Police pursued them. Eventually, the Cree and the Northwest Mounted Police met at Frenchman’s Butte, located northwest of Fort Pitt.
The battle, which occurred on May 28, saw 200 of Wandering Spirit’s warriors fight against 400 men from the Alberta Field Force. The Cree were able to repel the force, and Wandering Spirit was said to have moved up and down the rifle-pits, encouraging his warriors and building up their courage despite being outnumbered two-to-one.
After this battle, a change began to occur in Wandering Spirit. He became withdrawn and quiet. It was said in some accounts that Wandering Spirit had become so stressed over the massacre and the pursuit of the police, that his hair turned white.
Eventually, feeling there was no hope for him, and hoping to atone for his actions, he chose to end his life by suicide. He said later,
“I knew there was no hope for me. Perhaps, I thought, if I sacrificed myself the government would not be so hard on the rest.”
He shot himself in the chest but survived his suicide attempt. He was taken to Battleford for medical treatment and to stand trial with ten other Cree men who had surrendered or were captured while he recuperated.[PAUSE]
The trial began on Sept. 22, 1885 and was presided over by Charles Rouleau, the local magistrate.
Rouleau had served as the magistrate for the North West Territories Council since Sept. 28, 1883 and during the North West Resistance, his home had been burned to the ground.
He apparently stated after he lost his home that every Indigenous person and Metis brought before him would be sent to the gallows if possible.
The entire trial was held in English, which the accused, for the most part, could not speak. This prevented them from defending themselves against the charges.
Nonetheless, Wandering Spirit pled guilty to the charge of murder.
He said he admitted his guilt so he could clear his conscience and have assurances for his afterlife. While he did plead guilty, he said he played only a small role in the death of Thomas Quinn and the massacre itself.
He stated he fought against it but Imasees and the others would not Quinn go.
Round the Sky was accused of shooting Father Leon-Adelard Fafard. One account of the killing stated that Round The Sky was provoked to shoot Fafard by his comrades but this evidence was never presented in court.
Miserable Man and Bad Arrow were accused of killing Charles Gouin. Both men pleaded not guilty. Miserable Man asked William Cameron, who was a witness at the trial, to back his alibi that he was in the Hudson’s Bay Store when the massacre erupted.
Cameron hated Miserable Man and said nothing.
It was only later in his book, written in 1922, that he backed up Miserable Man’s alibi.
Iron Body and Little Bear were accused of shooting George Dill but the evidence was shaky at best. Iron Body was linked to the murder simply for his association with Little Bear, and both men stated neither of them was responsible for the murder.
Two other Cree were also put on trial for their actions at the Looting of Battleford. Crooked Leg was accused of murdering a farm instructor, while Man Without Blood stood accused of killing a rancher near Battleford.
At the end of the day on Sept. 22, after only one day of trial, 11 Indigenous men were sentenced to hang.
“Wandering Spirit had maintained a stoic silence regarding the massacre and the motives which prompted him to commence it. A silence unbroken even when, after pleading guilty, he had been given the opportunity to speak before sentence was pronounced.”
Afterwards, three men, I was unable to find two of their names, had their sentences commuted. One of the three, Four Sky Thunder, was given 14 years imprisonment for burning the church down.
In his judgement, Rouleau stated that Wandering Spirit was the greatest killer ever to walk on two legs in America.
“You were too weak to oppose the white man and could not have provided for yourselves even if you had killed them all, and now you would starve unless the government took you in charge.”
After the verdict, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald wrote,
“We must vindicate the position of the white man; we must teach the Indians what law is.”
During his imprisonment, Wandering Spirit told Cameron that he regretted that he believed the Cree could return to their old way of life. He stated he was not afraid to die, but he begged not to be buried with the ball and chain still shackled to him.[PAUSE]
On Nov. 27, 1885, Wandering Spirit, Round the Sky, Bad Arrow, Miserable Man, Iron Body, Little Bear, Crooked Leg and Man Without Blood stood on the platform awaiting their death at the end of the noose.
All but Wandering Spirit gave last words, which were mostly shouting war cries or something in defiance of the white people who were putting them to death.
Little Bear told the Indigenous in the crowd to remember how the whites had treated him and to make no peace with them.
According to legend, Wandering Spirit softly chanted a love song to his wife.
Cameron wrote as a police constable approached Wandering Spirit,
“The war chief turned his head and watched him with the detached air of one who has an idle but no personal concern in an interesting proceeding. Then the black cap dropped over the face of the war chief himself, and the rope settled about his lean, sinewy neck.”
With the pull of a lever, all eight were put to death.
“There was a sharp sound of grating iron, the trap dropped, and eight bodies shot through it. A sickening click of dislocating necks and they hung dangling, gyrating slowly at the ends of as many hempen lines. A few convulsive shudders and all was over.”
This would go down as the largest mass hanging in Canadian history.
It was said in some accounts that students from the Battleford Residential School were brought to witness the hangings of the eight Indigenous men.
As for Big Bear, even though he opposed the attack and tried to keep peace, he was charged with treason and sentenced to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. Released after two years in February 1887, he died on Jan. 17, 1888.
William Cameron, who had testified against the Cree at the trial, but in defence of Big Bear at his trial, later moved to Vermilion in what is now Alberta. He served on the town council there and founded the Vermilion Signal. He was also awarded the North West Canada Medal for his role as a scout and guide.
He died in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan on March 4, 1951 of double pneumonia at the age of 88.
As for Charles Rouleau, the man who sentenced eight Cree to death, he was appointed to the Supreme Court of the North West Territories. He moved to outside Calgary where he founded Rouleauville. That was later annexed by Calgary and is now the Mission neighbourhood. He died on Aug. 25, 1901. Rouleau, Saskatchewan, the filming location for Corner Gas, was named for him.
After the hanging, Minister of Justice, and future Prime Minister, John Sparrow David Thompson looked at the cases against the Indigenous men and felt that mitigating circumstances were not taken into account and that justice had been arbitrarily dispensed.
Now, what happened to the bodies of the men after they were removed from the gallows? As it turned out, it created a mystery that lasted for almost a century.
There was no individual grave for the men who died on that day. William Cameron stated they were put into wooden boxes and buried in a large common grave on the hillside below the police barracks.
As time went on, the grave site was forgotten.
Then, in 1972, a group of students took it upon themselves to find that grave and give some sort of peace to those who were buried there.
Using old plans of the fort, they rediscovered the grave and marked it with a concrete pad and a chain link fence.
Eventually, this was removed and replaced with a modern headstone that was inscribed with the names of each of the men put to death on Nov. 27, 1885.
Information from Blood Red The Sun, Literary Review of Canada, Wikipedia,
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