“Terrorists” threaten Manitoba — “collecting on our border for . . . plunder, robbery and murder”

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

In September 1871, rumours were spreading in Winnnipeg and St. Paul, Minnesota, that the Fenians were preparing to launch a raid into Manitoba. The rumours of an attack  by the “murderous band” created 

a climate of apprehension in Manitoba. 

In his article, The Abortive Raid on Manitoba, Account by One Who Knew its Secret History, which was read to the Manitoba Historical Society on May 11, 1888, and published in the Manitoba Free Press, Gilbert McMicken implied that Alexandre-Antonin Tache, the archbishop of St. Boniface, had somehow been in collusion with the Fenian leadership. He wrote that Tache had met with the Fenian leaders while travelling through the U.S. en route to church business in Eastern Canada. Much of his information was based on an encounter in McCauleyville, Minnesota, with a woman originally from the Eastern Townships in Quebec who “posessed a loving and loyal Canadian heart.” The woman claimed to have eavesdropped on a conversation between tache and Fenain  leader Willaim O’Donoghue. 

Tache refuted the account by the Canadian agent, who was sent west by Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald to investigate the Fenian threat, and wrote his own version of the 1871 events, which was also published in the Manitoba Free Press in 1888. 

Tache said the only person he met was “Kennedy ... in the public entrance of the hotel,” who had pointed out “General” O’Neill to Tache.

“I have no idea of how the secret service police is conducted in this Dominion of ours, but if on such lines as these it must be liable to many blunders,” Tache wrote. “To say the least, you made a great mistake in listening to such fabrications and making them the basis of your convictions.”

Tache said he felt the Fenian threat was small because there did not appear “to me a very considerable number to march to the conquest of a country.

“This circumstance, instead of giving me great anxiety and uneasiness, relieved me greatly of such feelings.”

Tache actually met with McMicken in the U.S. and assured him of the loyalty of the Metis and “that there was not the remotest danger of the half-breeds of Manitoba joining the Fenians.”

It would appear that McMicken refused to believe the archbishop and said that, while in St. Paul,  he had also met with Alfred Boyd, a member of the Manitoba cabinet and sometimes referred to as Manitoba’s first premier, who “said the half-breeds intended pretty serious doings.”

McMicken was so fearful of a Metis uprising that he urged Tache to cancel his trip and return with him to Fort Garry to convince the Metis to remain loyal to Canada. Unmoved, Tache reiterated that he didn’t believe that the threat was serious and would not cancel his trip. Perhaps this refusal contributed to McMicken’s criticism of Tache and his inferred collusion with the Fenian leaders.

McMicken may have heard of the tensions that existed in Manitoba between recent Ontarian arrivals — especially the militia — and the Metis, and extrapolated this to a Metis desire to follow Willaim O’Donoghue and the Fenians.

Indeed, the province was divided along linguistic, religious and racial lines, but this didn’t translate into any deep-seated desire to revisit the events of 1869-70. In 1871, the Metis still felt they had made substantial progress with the passing of the Manitoba Act of 1870, which guaranteed their language and religious rights and also promised them land.

There was a measure of resentment present among the Metis, because of the violence perpetrated against them by the militiamen from Ontario at the instigation of some local community leaders, but it wasn’t a good enough reason to provoke widespread revolt against the government.

In the end, only a handful of Metis joined O’Donoghue and “General” John O’Neill, while the vast majority supported keeping the Fenians out of Canada.

While McMicken was reporting general support among the Metis for the Fenians, the U.S. government was issuing orders to thwart the anticipated raid.

Captain Lloyd Wheaton, the commander of the U.S. troops at Pembina, was told “to take all legitimate steps in your power to cause due respect to be paid to the neutrality laws of the United States.”

Compounding the perceived threat was the question of jurisdiction in the region around Pembina. The actual  Canada-U.S. border was still disputed and would not be resolved until the joint Boundary Commission set out in 1874 to mark the 49th Parallel. The jurisdiction question was temporarily set aside when the Canadian and U.S. governments reached an agreement to allow American troops to cross the border and seize Fenian invaders.

With the threat impending, Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald issued a proclamation on October 3, 1871, for “loving subjects to put themselves in readiness at once to assist in repelling this outrage upon their hearths and homes. We enjoin them immediately to assemble in their respective parishes and enroll themselves for this purpose.”

The Manitoban and Northwest Herald reported that two hours after the proclamation, “the men of Winnipeg turned out almost to a man, and a monster meeting was held at the Court House ... from the enthusiasm manifested, it was evident that the men of Winnipeg were not only alive to the importance of the crisis, but were prepared to face the foe that menaced the province.”

Volunteers poured forth from Winnipeg, the parish of Kildonan and other nearby communities.  Overall command was given to Major Acheson Irvine, who led the local rifle battalion.

“In fact, all over the Province, amongst English and French, amongst young and old, there was such a spirit manifested that it was evident that O’Neill and O’Donoghue had a day’s work before them, ere they could take Manitoba,” reported The Manitoban and Northwest Herald.

The volunteers and militia assembled at Fort Garry on the afternoon of Friday, October 6, which was described as a “wet and cold and muddy” day, in preparation for crossing the Assiniboine River and then heading south to meet the Fenians.

The crossing wasn’t without incident. Myles McDermot, a member of the Winnipeg Home Guards, slipped from the scow and fell into the river and barely escaped drowning. An officer of the regular militia had his horse catch a foot, throwing both into the mud along the bank. “The officer was extricated instantaneously, but it took three-quarters of an hour to haul the horse out of the mud.” 

Once across the river, news reached them that “General O’Neill, General Thomas Curley, Colonel J.J. Donnelly and Mr. O’Donoghue and Kelly” 

had been captured on Thursday, October 5.

Details of the raid come from many sources, either immediately after the invasion and during the later trials of three Metis men who were implicated in the raid.

During the later trial, witness Antoine Paul Laronte, a resident at the Canadian Custom House at Pembina, said that on October 5 at 5 a.m. he had been cutting wood outside when Oiseau L’Entredre — one of the Metis arrested — approached him for information on the number of people in the house. L’Entredre was next seen with a party “marching in ranks, in military order, armed with carbines ... having bayonets fixed at the end of the carbines.” Ten people inside the house were taken prisoner, according to Laronte, himself included.

The Fenians left the Custom House to attack the nearby Hudson’s Bay Company post.

W.H. Watt, who was in charge of the Pembina post, said about 7:30 a.m. on October 5, armed men took possession of the post in the name of the “Provisional Government of Red River.”

Watt had been “taken prisoner while in bed.”

He said that he saw O’Donoghue, O’Neill, Curley and Donnelly, who “were called Generals, Colonels and Commanders-in-chief,” among the 37 armed intruders. Apparently this solicited laughter from those observing the court proceedings.

The Fenians plundered the post, loading wagons with their booty, including pemmican. With the approach of the American troops under Wheaton, “They scattered in all  directions,” said Watt. “Each one ran hither and thither ...” 

Watt said he tried to restrain O’Donoghue from fleeing, but the Fenian leader eluded his grasp.

Captain Wheaton sent a telegram from Fort Pembina to U.S. Consul Taylor in Winnipeg, saying he had captured O’Neill, Curley and Donnelly.

In total, Wheaton captured 10 men, 94 muskets, 11 sabres and 12,000 rounds of ammunition. It was believed that only about 40 men were originally involved in the raid.

O’Donoghue was captured a few kilometres away from the HBC post on the Canadian side of the border by a group of Metis. They turned O’Donoghue over to a Mr. Bradley at the Custom House who in turn handed O’Donoghue over to the Americans. This action by a Canadian government official mystified Archibald.

The Manitoban and Northwest Herald on October 14, 1871, called O’Donoghue “vile and wicked. For some time back he has built his hopes of advancing his Fenian and nefarious designs upon the apparent antagonism of race and class in the community. He has plotted deeply, and archly; but miserably; and is now a vagabond and outcast.”

O’Donoghue, the architect of the “abortive raid,” later became a school teacher in Minnesota and died of tuberculosis in St. Paul on March 16, 1878.

Despite the news of the capture of the Fenians, Archibald and Irvine still felt there was a threat. There was even a rumour — completely unfounded — that another Fenian party was marching toward Winnipeg from Portage la Prairie.

As more news of another raid appeared, the Fenian scare remained rife in Winnipeg.

On Saturday, Irvine told Archibald he had a report of another invasion and he needed at least 50 additional troops (there were about 200 men already under his command).

On October 7, P.B. Douglas at the Custom House warned that “bands of men from St. Paul and elsewhere ... suspicious looking characters” were near Pembina. Douglas was also being told that the four Fenians captured in the October 5 raid and appearing before a U.S. magistrate would soon be released — quite true — and would initiate another raid — untrue.

“Hurry! Hurry!! An attempt will be made on Fort Garry, and especially, if successful here,” Douglas pleaded.

He also assured Archibald, “The Half-breeds and Indians here appear to be loyal.”

On Sunday morning, Archibald was told that 200 Metis had gathered on the east side of the Red River at St. Boniface  and wanted to assure him of their loyalty and desire to defend the province. The lieutenant-governor crossed the river and was enthusiastically received. Three cheers were given to the Queen and Archibald, who shook the hands of all the men gathered, including 1869-70 Manitoba provisional government leader Louis Riel.

This simple handshake would haunt the lieutenant-governor throughout his brief time in Manitoba. His gesture was widely criticized in both Ontario and among those who fuelled hatred against the Metis in Manitoba. 

Even Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald saw ominous political ramifications resulting from the handshake.

“On talking the matter over with (Sir Charles) Tupper (of the federal cabinet) we came to the conclusion that it was my duty as your friend to tell you the state of feeling here about the handshaking with Riel,” wrote Macdonald to Archibald. “It has simply excited the English-speaking inhabitants of the Dominion to a state of frenzy. There is no reasoning with them.”

“It did not seem to me that it was quite the time when the country was in danger, to enquire into the antecedents or spurn the offer of any man willing to fight against the Fenians,” Archibald later explained. 

Archibald also said that denying the Metis a role in the province and its defence would just as surely have driven them into the camp of O’Donoghue, and “Fort Garry would have passed into the hands of an armed mob, and the English settlers to the north of the Assiniboine would have suffered horrors it makes me shudder to contemplate.”

The other newspaper supporting Archibald was Le Metis in St. Boniface, founded by Joseph Royal, a lawyer and member of the provincial legislature.

Archibald was hounded for the handshake and accused rather unfairly that he solely favoured the French-speaking segment of the population.

The Free Press Weekly called him “Mr. Slumbering Traitor Archibald!”

When his resignation was announced in 1873, his leaving was widely celebrated in the English-speaking portion of the community.

The Manitoban and Northwest Herald did support his tenure in the province, saying his administration endeavoured to be fair to all. “Governor Archibald, when he came here, found two sets of people, so to speak, the French and English ... he appointed French and English, man for man as near as could be, with a view to the interests of the province.”

A Manitoban editorial of January 1, 1872, reviewing the events of the previous year, outlined Archibald’s many accomplishments such as the 

advent of responsible government, courts, a police force, treaties with natives and a functioning postal service.

For his part, Archibald congratulated everyone for opposing the Fenian threat.

“Your loyal response,” he said, when opening the 1872 session of the Manitoba legislature, “irrespective of race and creed, to the call made upon you to rally round the flag of Empire, is convincing proof of the soundness of policy which, notwithstanding the troubles of the past, has aimed to treat you all as one people, interested in a common country and sharers of a common destiny.” 

The Fenians captured by the Americans were quickly released by the local authorities. The Manitoban and Northwest Herald called the court proceedings that led to their 

release on what amounted to be a shaky technicality, “a screaming farce.”

Archibald said the U.S. civil authorities “discharged these marauders for reasons which I am unable to comprehend.”

In Manitoba, Oiseau L’Entredre, Andre Jerome St. Matte and Isadore Villeneuve were indicted for “unlawfully levying war against Her Majesty the Queen (Victoria).”

Although there was evidence 

presented at the trial to question L’Entredre’s mental competency, he was proclaimed quilty by a jury and Judge Francis Johnson sentenced him to be hanged. This sentence was later commuted to a term of imprisonment. The other two dependents were acquitted.

Defence attorney Joseph Royal objected to the sentence, citing L’Entredre’s mental capacity as grounds for compassion. 

While the Fenian raid turned out to be more farce then threat, it did briefly unite all the province’s inhabitants in a common cause. The problem was that the union was very short lived, quickly becoming unraveled by partisan prejudices. 

In fact, some in the English community publicly criticized the Metis for allegedly being too slow to react to the Fenian threat, even though they had provided troops to repel the invaders. Royal was singled out for attack under the claim that he had taken two extra days to publish the lieutenant-governor’s proclamation in 

Le Metis. 

Royal’s Le Metis said on October 5 that the Fenian crisis presented an opportunity for the Metis to show their loyalty to the flag and at the same time demonstrate the unity of “le deux populations anglais and francoise (English and French) du pays (of the country).”

Royal also formed a 30-member cavalry company to combat the Fenians.

Tache said the French-speaking segment of the population wasn’t slow to react since among the first 120 volunteers advancing to meet the Fenians — besides the 80 regular militia — were “42 French-Canadians and Half-breeds, under the immediate command of a French officer ... and would naturally, in case of fighting, receive the first brush.”

Tache also pointed out it was only the Metis who directly contacted the enemy, capturing O’Donoghue on October 5.

“I have the desire to mention that all the inhabitants (Metis) on the road (to the U.S. border) have been most ready in rendering us all aid and assistance we have required of them,” wrote Major Irvine to Archibald on October 7.

An editorial in The Manitoban and Northwest Herald on October 21, 1871, pled for “differences to be set aside ... and when the (Fenian) danger is over ... surely we can afford to rest a little, ere we are quarreling amongst ourselves again.”

It was a futile appeal as admitted by the newspaper editor, who said “the flame of old animosities seems to have been blown into greater fury than ever, and the peace and harmony which ought to have been evolved from one common danger, is not to be found.”

In 1888, when criticizing McMicken’s account of the Fenian raid, Archbishop Tache wrote that “anti-historical productions ... give vent to sectional prejudices and manifest falsities ... all that is contrary to the mutual respect and consideration that the different groups of our population ought to entertain one for the other.”