“Terrorists” raid Manitoba — threat from “murderous band” generates patriotic response

by Bruce Cherney (part 1 of 2)

If the word “terrorist” had been in common usage in 1871, it would have been applied to the Fenians who attempted to invade Manitoba in that year.

But at that time, “terrorism” had only been coined to describe the French Revolution as a “system or rule of terror” as explained by the Academie Francaise. Terrorism, as it is understood today, only arose when it was practiced by Russian revolutionaries starting in 1878.

In October 1871, the words used to describe the Fenians were “miserable banditti,” a “murderous band,” or an “alien horde.”

The Fenian invasion was stopped dead in its tracks like the recent alleged terrorist plot  to use fertilizer as an explosive to bomb Canadian landmarks and another alleged plot originating in England to combine liquids to make bombs and bring down airplanes over the Atlantic en route to the United States.

The Fenian Brotherhood had been founded in the United States by Irish immigrant John O’Mahoney in 1857. Its purpose was to achieve Irish independence from Britain.

By the 1860s, the Fenians had hatched the idea that one way to gain independence for Ireland was to capture Canada and hold it hostage until the British government agreed to their terms. This is somewhat similar to terrorists seizing an airplane and holding its passengers hostage until a government agrees to release prisoners from jails.

The Fenians were a real threat to Canada since its ranks were filled with highly-disciplined and fully-trained ex-American Civil War soldiers.  By the time the first raid was launched into New Brunswick in April 1866, the Fenians had some 10,000 veteran soldiers organized into military clubs.

The idea of using Canada as a bargaining tool was promoted by William Roberts, who founded a new faction of the Fenians who disagreed with O’Mahoney’s plan of an fomenting an uprising in Ireland using money and resources raised in the U.S.

While a New Brunswick raid quickly collapsed, Roberts’ raid on June 1, 1866, into Niagara resulted in the defeat of Canadian militiamen at Ridgeway, but the Fenians soon withdrew back across the U.S. border. Another raid into Quebec lasted only two days. 

The Fenian movement received a setback in 1867 when an Irish uprising was quelled by the British.

It wasn’t until 1870 that the Fenians under “general” John O’Neill were able to mount two small raids over the Quebec border, which were unsuccessful. 

It was at this stage that O’Neill and the Fenians turned their attention to Manitoba. Their decision to focus on Manitoba was the result of coming into contact with William O’Donoghue, the ex-treasurer of the Louis Riel-led provisional government. Along with Riel, O’Donoghue had fled to the U.S. when British regulars and Canadian militia approached Upper Fort Garry on August 24, 1870.

Riel returned to Manitoba after the arrival of the troops from Eastern Canada, evading the militiamen from Ontario intent on revenging the provisional government’s ill-advised execution of Thomas Scott by a firing squad in March 1870, but O’Donoghue decided to stay in the U.S. and hatch a plan to invade Manitoba and “liberate” the new province from British tyranny. Riel objected to O’Donoghue’s call for the American government to intervene on behalf of the Metis people and annex Manitoba, saying the fate of the Metis was better served by the Canadian government.

The O’Donoghue plot’s success hinged upon support coming from the Metis once the invasion was underway, but he failed to properly gauge the sentiments of the Metis for his cause and they instead readily volunteered to repel the invaders.

O’Donoghue’s friendship with Riel had first been tested on April 20, 1870, when the president of the provisional government called for the shamrock and fleur-de-lis flag flying over Upper Fort Garry be replaced with the Union Jack. At the time, the provisional government was initiating discussions with Ottawa to negotiate the settlement’s inclusion in Canada as its newest province.

O’Donoghue resented the lowering of the provisional government’s flag to the point that Riel had to appoint a guard to protect the Union Jack. 

Riel believed that Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald would eventually honour his verbal promise of amnesty for the leaders of the 1869-70 Red River Rebellion made to Father Noel-Joseph Ritchot when the priest was in Ottawa negotiating the terms of Manitoba’s entry into Confederation.

While O’Donoghue was a member of the provisional government rumours were rife in Red River that he had ties to the Fenians. There was never any actual direct evidence, but the rumours continued. The proof was eventually provided when news arrived in Manitoba that O’Donoghue was mustering an invasion force south of the border.

On August 26, 1871, The Manitoban and Northwest Herald reported that the latest rumour was that O’Donoghue had taken the steamboat Selkirk, was in the process of grabbing the International and that 1,500 Fenians troops were poised along the border for an invasion.

The Manitoban and Northwest Herald in later issues reported rumours of anywhere up to 2,000 men “coming all the way over the plains to Fort Garry.” The Winnipeg newspaper said the rumours had been too easily dismissed.

On September 11, 1871, James Taylor, the American consul in Winnipeg, reported that rumours were circulating in the city of large quantities of arms stored at or near Pembina for use by the Fenians.

The St. Paul Press on September 19 also reported the rumours. “As confirmation of these rumours, a number of strange faces have been observed gathered about the several Irish hotels, and mysterious hints have been dropped that there is really some movement on foot ... It is claimed that a considerable force has already been enlisted for the proposed raid, or whatever else it may be against one of the possessions of a ‘hated despotism.’”

O’Donoghue had been meeting with influential politicians while in exile in the U.S., including American President Ulysses S. Grant, to gain support for his cause. Although his plans were politely listened to by a number of influential men, they refused their support.

In New York City, he approached the Fenian Brotherhood to discuss an invasion of Manitoba and was repeatedly turned down. But, there was one man who liked what he heard. “General” John O’Neill, resigned as a member of the Fenian Brotherhood’s council and offered his services to O’Donoghue.

As a Civil War veteran, O’Neill had only achieved the rank of captain with the U.S. Army. It was he who led the May 1866 raid by 600 that occupied Fort Erie, Ontario, and fled back to Buffalo, New York, as British troops approached. After this raid, O’Neill became the “inspector general of the Irish Republican Army.”

In another raid at Eccles Hill in Quebec, his men fled when Canadian militiamen opened fire.

He was arrested by the American authorities and given a two-year sentence, but was pardoned by President Grant after serving only six months. This action seemed to confirm to Canadian officials that influential American politicians covertly sympathized with the Fenians. 

Upon his release, O’Neill pledged never again to trouble Canada, a promise he soon broke.

Meanwhile in St. Paul, Minnesota, O’Donoghue let it be known that he was prepared to disclose the whereabouts of Thomas Scott’s body which had mysteriously disappeared after his execution (it has not been located to this day). With this news, the Minnesota correspondent for The Manitoban and Northwest Herald offered a reward of $350 if O’Donoghue provided the information. Whether or not O’Donoghue actually knew where Scott was buried was never revealed, because he did not provide information on the grave site and instead started to plot an invasion of Canada.

The Canadian government did not take the rumours of invasion lightly and sent secret service policeman Gilbert McMicken west to investigate and prepare for the threat. McMicken  headed a spy network in the U.S. which had informers within the ranks of the Fenians in Buffalo, New York and Chicago, including some the of the organization’s leadership. 

En route to Fort Garry, McMicken met with his agents to receive information “in respect to the condition of Fenian matters and especially as to the projected movement upon Fort Garry,” McMicken related to the Manitoba Historical Society his actions in a presentation called The Abortive Fenian Raid on Manitoba, Account by One Who Knew Its secret History, on May 11, 1888. His full account also appeared in the Manitoba Free Press.

While McMicken did have first-hand information on the events of 1871, some of what he related was refuted by Alexandre-Antonin Tache, the archbishop of St. Boniface. In a lengthy letter to the Free Press, Tache gave his own version of the events of 1871 which, unlike McMicken’s account, included primary documents, rather than simply relying upon personal remembrances. 

McMicken said his “narrative had been necessarily more personal than you wished for the difficulty of reference to official documents.” But Tache was able to cite numerous letters, reports and official documents, and by using these, the archbishop was able to bring a measure of suspicion upon some of McMicken’s recollections and assertions.

“... I have considered more carefully what you have said before the Historical Society, and was forced into the conclusion that your narrative, far from being the expression of historical truth, was in the main opposed thereunto,” wrote the archbishop in 1888.

Tache had been mentioned by McMicken as having met with O’Donoghue at McCauleyville, Minnesota, giving the impression that the archbishop was somehow involved in the conspiracy.

Tache admitted he saw O’Donoghue briefly at Georgetown and “exchanged a few sentences and stopped my conversation short, as I perceived at once that he was endeavouring to deceive me. He also admitted to seeing others, including O’Neill — whom he called a stranger — who was pointed out to him while he was travelling through the U.S. en route to  church business in Eastern Canada.

Information of the archbishop’s alleged long meeting with O’Donoghue had been provided to McMicken by his “hostess” at McCauleyville, who was from the Eastern Townships in Quebec and possessed “a loving and loyal Canadian heart.” She told McMicken her loyalty to Canada had prompted her to eavesdrop on the conversation.

The woman’s story was refuted by Tache, who said, “... during my stopover at McCauleyville, the night of the 27th Sept. nobody entered my room, so the good looking lady playing the eavesdropper could not have listened to any conversation of mine with O’Donoghue (who anyway wasn’t in town during the archbishop’s visit)  or anybody else.”