by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
Assiniboia District Governor Robert Semple sent a man to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) post at Brandon House, located along the Assiniboine River near its confluence with the Souris River, to gather intelligence about the intentions of the North West Company (NWC), whose members were commonly referred to as Nor’Westers.
The man was captured before reaching his destination, a letter from Semple was seized and the courier was released in order to inform Peter Fidler at Brandon House that the Métis had captured HBC boats near Qu’Appelle and that the HBC officers and servants were in the custody of the NWC’s Alexander Macdonell. The HBC employees were released after promising in writing not to take up arms against the Nor’Westers. It was the released prisoners who confirmed to Semple that the intention of the Nor’Westers and Métis was to continue harassing the Red River Settlers.
After receiving this intelligence, Semple, an ex-member of the British Army, ordered the destruction of Fort Gibraltar (an action advised by Colin Robertson before he left Red River), so “that it should not serve as an asylum to an armed banditti (sic) of incendiaries and robbers coming a second time for the avowed purpose of attacking the Settlement — The pickets, and other serviceable wood, was rafted down to the
Settlement, for the purpose of strengthening Fort Douglas.”
Later Lord Selkirk justified this action, writing in his account of the events to Charles, Duke of Richmond: “It had served as a strong hold for those who had conspired to ruin the settlement, where they had trained and prepared their dependents for the perpetration of crimes, and whence they had frequently sent them forth to strike terror into the families of the settlers, to interrupt their agricultural labors, to lay waste their fields, and to burn their homes.”
The destruction of Fort Gibraltar was, of course, another affront to the HBC’s rivals and set the stage for the Battle of Seven Oaks.
Cuthbert Grant, who had been appointed in 1815 by the NWC as “Captain General” of all the Métis on the plains, leading his subjects and accompanied by Nor’Westers, raided Brandon House, seizing mostly pemmican which they considered their rightful property, as it had been previously confiscated from them by the HBC.
From Portage la Prairie, they set out across the prairie in the direction of The Forks. Their stated purpose, outlined by the NWC’s Alexander Macdonell at Portage, was to bring provisions to a group of Nor’Westers starving near Lake Winnipeg. They were to secretly transport pemmican, an illegal act according to Miles Macdonell’s Pemmican Proclamation of 1814, to the starving fur traders.
Alexander Macdonell instructed the party upon arrival “at Passage, a place on the Assiniboine River, nine or ten English miles above the settlement and garrison at the forks of the Red River, they should land and unload the canoe, secrete it in the woods and put the pemmican into two carts sent for that purpose, with which they were directed to proceed in an orderly and peaceable manner, avoiding if possible, being discovered or seen by the Hudson’s Bay people and settlers; to keep at as great a distance as possible from Forts Gibraltar and Douglas; to avoid the Settlement in like manner and upon no account
molest any of the settlers.”
As events transpired, with the exception of attempting to keep their distance and loading the pemmican on two carts at Catfish (Now Omand’s) Creek, Grant’s men ignored Macdonell’s instruction not to “molest” the settlers.
Macdonell further instructed Grant to gather intelligence at Frog Plain (Seven Oaks) from the “Canadian free hunters and others supposed to be there, regarding the North West Company’s canoes
(a brigade that had earlier set out from Fort William along the shore of Lake
Superior) in Lake Winnipeg and afterwards, if the canoes had not made their appearance to encamp at a place called the Press (probably the Lockport Rapids), distant at least fifteen miles below the settlement, to remain there and wait their arrival of which they were to send me immediate notice.”
It was argued at the time by HBC officials that the real intent of the heavily-armed party was to continue their policy of harassment and confront the settlers at Fort Douglas. Some evidence seems to suggest they were to join up with the Nor’Westers arriving from Fort William and then attack Fort Douglas.
A letter written by Grant to Cameron on March 13, 1816, claimed his intention, as well as that of the Nor’Westers, was to spend the summer at The Forks “for fear they (the settlers) should play the same trick as last summer of coming back but they shall receive a warm
Once the party had loaded the two carts, they held a council, deciding to travel northeast across the prairie in two separate groups.
Chief Peguis sent two Ojibway to warn Semple that the Métis and Nor’Westers were approaching the settlement. The chief offered to provide men to protect the colony, but this was flatly refused by Semple.
The governor, totally inexperienced in the ways of the frontier, compounded one mistake upon another. Failing to listen to Peguis or accept his support was perhaps his most tragic failure.
If Robertson had remained in the colony, he would have reminded Semple that the Ojibway were true allies, who rejected the continual overtones made by the Nor’Westers to change sides and attack the Red River Settlers. In his journal, Robinson wrote of his respect for Peguis as well as the aid the Ojibway had freely provided to the colonists.
When Robertson took Fort Gibraltar in 1815, he wrote in his journal that the Ojibway “took up arms and came to our assistance. Another proof of the attachment of these Indians to the Colony is that a number were present at the seizure of Cameron ...”
Peguis and his people had already given the settlers yeoman support, helping them to escape marauding Métis the previous winter by escorting them safely to Jack River. The Ojibway were the one group that could be counted upon for assistance in times of trouble, and it is highly unlikely that the colonists would have survived their first years at Red River without Peguis’ support and the knowledge he imparted about the survival techniques required to live in a harsh land.
Sometime between six and seven
o’clock on the evening of June 19, 1816, a lookout spotted “a party of horsemen and two carts,” testified colony blacksmith Michael Heden, during a subsequent trial arising from the confrontation.
“Governor Semple directly went into the watch-house (at Fort Douglas), and Captain (John) Rogers with him, and looked with his spy-glass to see what they were (up to).”
At this stage, the Métis and Nor’Westers, numbering from 62 to 68 — the number varied in later testimony — were past the HBC fort in the vicinity of Frog Plain. A ballad by Pierre Falcon, the “Bard of the Prairie Métis,” who accompanied Grant to the plain, is entitled Chanson de la Grenouillere — Ballad of Frog Plain. The ballad became very popular among Métis and voyageur traders, who didn’t refer to the battle nor the location by its English name of Seven Oaks.
A map by Peter Fidler made in 1816, which was revised in 1819 by Aaron
Arrowsmith, showed the horsemen were travelling as far to the west as a swamp would allow them in order to keep some distance between themselves and the fort.
Seven Oaks is actually three kilometres northwest of where Fort Douglas once stood on the southwest side of Point Douglas at the foot of what is today’s George Street. A stone monument was erected in 1891 by the Manitoba Historical Society at the corner of Main Street and Rupertsland Boulevard to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the battle. In 1951, the battlefield was declared a national historic site.
The name Seven Oaks is derived from a creek where seven oak trees once stood. The English name of Seven Oaks was given to both the creek and site before the battle, according to Colin Inkster (1843-1934). The creek has since dried up and the oaks no longer exist. Colin’s father, John Inkster, built a two-storey log house and outbuildings, completed in 1853, on the site which is now the Seven Oaks Museum.
It was reported that the armed party was making its way toward settlers still tending their crops outside the fort. In fact, Semple, despite all warnings, refused to bring all the settlers into the fort as a safety precaution.
Before the battle began, the first group of Métis, which had not been spotted from the fort, arrived near the creek and captured three settlers working their fields — Alexander and William Bannerman and Alexander Murray — allegedly so that they could not issue a warning that the Métis were bypassing the fort.
John Pritchard later recounted that after he was taken prisoner he saw others captured before the start of the battle, including the wife of Alexander Murray, two of William Bannerman’s children, Alexander Sutherland and Anthony McDonell, a HBC servant.
It was the second group of Grant’s party that was spotted from the fort.
Semple then asked for men to accompany him outside the walls of the fort. It was another of Semple’s many errors — the settlers were quite safe
behind the fort’s walls, and confronting a heavily-armed group of horsemen while on foot was the height of folly, especially since the rival force was comprised primarily of experienced Métis plains fighters. However, it can be argued Semple didn’t leave the fort with the intention of provoking an armed confrontation. Alexander McBeath, an ex-soldier, advised Semple to arm the party with the fort’s two artillery pieces, and volunteered to accompany Semple’s party if given a gun, but the governor said: “No, no, there is no occasion, I am only going to speak with them.”
Charles Bellegrade, one of the “free” Canadians, that is, not a servant of
either fur trading companies, said he
encountered Semple on Frog Plain at about 4 p.m., two hours before Grant’s men were sighted from the watchtower at Fort Douglas. According to Bellegrade, Semple told him that he expected the Métis and was going to “read a
paper .. to them, and afterwards if they choose to kill me, they may.”
Semple may have only wanted to talk to, or read an unspecified paper to, the Métis, but by recklessly marching out of the fort, he provoked a battle, as shown by how events stemming from his actions unfolded.
“Twenty-eight people including myself immediately joined the governor,” said John Pritchard, an Englishman who came to Canada in 1800 and who wrote a narrative of the troubles at Red River. “We proceeded by road leading down the settlement, and as we were going along, we met many of the settlers running for the fort, crying out, in great consternation and terror, ‘The half-breeds, the half-breeds!’
“When we were advanced about three-quarters of a mile along the settlement road (now Main Street), we saw some people on horseback behind a point of weeds.”
Pritchard, who switched his allegiance from the Nor’Westers to the HBC in 1814, said the horsemen were more numerous than expected. Actually, the increased numbers resulted from the rejoining of the two forces that had previously been split by Grant. Pritchard reported that he also saw six of the NWC’s Canadian servants: Boucher, Louis Morin (Morain), (François) des Champs, Joseph Hesse, (first name unknown) Mageau and (Boucher) Lavigne.
“We had not proceeded far, before the half-breeds ... with their faces painted in the most hideous manner, and in the dresses of Indian warriors, came forward ...”
Riding into battle disguised as aboriginal warriors was presumably meant to terrify Semple’s party. Pritchard said this act was “very unusual,” as the Métis always dressed in “Canadian-style” clothing.
As their foes approached, Semple ordered John Bourke, a shopkeeper who was later wounded in the battle, but survived by fleeing the scene, to fetch a cannon from the fort. The cannon never made it to the scene of the battlefield. Before he fled, Bourke sent Hugh McLean, a new recruit from Fort Douglas, back to the fort with the cannon.
The riders formed a half circle, cutting the settlers and Semple off from their safe haven. “As they advanced, we receded, walking backwards, being in a great measure panic-struck at the enemy so far
superior in number, and mounted on horseback.”
Pritchard said one of their party, James Bruin, wanted to fire into the Métis and Nor’Westers, shouting, “We shall be surrounded, let us keep them off!”
Semple cried out in reply that no one was to fire unless he so ordered.
According to later testimony, Métis horseman François Firmin Boucher was sent by Grant to meet Semple and inquire about why his party was pursuing the riders.
“What do you want?” he asked
“What do you want?” Semple countered.
“We want our fort,” replied Boucher.
“Well, go to your fort,” Semple suggested.
What was finally said depends upon the varied testimony of those present, but the following exchange of words and actions was reputed to have
“Why did you destroy our fort, you rascal?” asked Boucher.
“You scoundrel, do you dare to tell me so,” Semple replied.
(Next week: part 3)