Red River Expedition — Riel fled to St. Boniface as troops approached Fort Garry

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

Mounted on a Red River pony Colonel Garnet Wolseley, on August 24, 1870, led his advance force of green-coated British regulars from Point Douglas toward the village of Winnipeg. Although the marchers were pummeled by a torrential rainfall, their spirits were high as a result of a report by spies sent out earlier to the village which claimed Louis Riel, the president of the provisional government, was going to fight.

A “special correspondent” for the Toronto Globe, on hand to witness the troops’ arrival, wrote that “the advance guard of the company was accompanied by a string of  vehicles resembling nothing so much as a funeral of a first-class Democrat in New York. Several people were arrested as they rode into the lines. They were informed that since they had come into the lines they must remain within them until morning.”

The “special correspondent” was Red River Settlement businessman and historian Alexander Begg, who reported on the events of 1869-70 under the nom de plume “Justitia.” He supported a square deal between Canada and the Métis.

One gentleman, who had apparently been drinking heavily to the success of the troops, complained about his arrest and the detention of his horse and sulky. He said he was “groshly ‘sulted” about his arrest. 

Another man who had been arrested suggested that the troops should let him go so he could prepare a good meal with plenty of ale for the officers. An officer escorted the man home and tasted the “lauded” beer and “pronounced it excellent.”

“As the fort was neared, the line was thrown into one column, and in this formation the little army moved steadily on for the walls.”

While the north gate was barred, the advance skirmishers found the south gate thrown wide open.

Instead of a fight, the “little army” found Fort Garry virtually deserted, with only a few individuals present who were employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company as well as one old man holding the reins of a horse, according to the Globe correspondent. The old man was questioned about Riel’s whereabouts, but claimed to have no information about where the Métis leader had fled, which was also the case when others inside and immediately outside the fort were questioned.

In the fort, a field gun was mounted over the north gate, but no one was manning the artillery piece.

“By God! He’s bolted!” was the cry from the ranks.

Despite having traversed over 1,000 kilometres of wilderness to reach the fort, only to be disappointed there wasn’t going to be a fight, the men ran the Union Jack up the fort’s flag pole, “gave three cheers for Queen Victoria and made the best of things,” according to a later account by voyageur Robert Lovell who accompanied the expedition (Manitoba Free Press, October 11, 1921).

Riel had fled to St. Boniface where he met Archbishop Taché and told the priest: “No matter what happens now, the rights of the Métis are assured by the Manitoba Act; that is what I wanted. My mission is finished.”

Taché had returned from Ottawa a day before the arrival of the troops at Fort Garry and told Riel “there was not the slightest danger.”

Both Taché and Father Noel-Joseph Ritchot, one of three delgetes sent to Ottawa to negotiate the settlment’s entry into the Canadian Confederation, had been assured by Sir George-Étienne Cartier — Prime Minister Macdonald’s Quebec lieutenant in the federal cabinet — that it was only a matter of time before an amnesty was issued.

Canadian Governor-General Sir John Young gave Ritchot a document saying, “Her Majesty was going to proclaim a general amnesty immediately.”

But faced with political intrigue in Ontario, Macdonald said in July that “neither the Governor General nor the cabinet should be committed to a general amnesty.”

As Taché and Riel watched Wolseley’s troops enter Fort Garry from the steps of St. Bonfice Cathedral, the Métis leader turned to the bishop and said, “It appears we have been deceived.”

Riel was right. Due to political reasons, he would not immediately receive an amnesty as promised to Ritchot. Instead, Riel became a fugitive, fleeing to St. Joseph’s in the Dakotah Territory, although he would periodically and unhindered recross the border into Manitoba. The amnesty eventually came in 1875, conditional on five years’ banishment from “Her Majesty’s dominions.”

During an 1883 interview with reporters from the Winnipeg Daily Sun, when he could enter Canada — although he still feared reprisals — Riel was asked, “How did you manage to keep ahead of him?”

“When he (Wolseley) came in at one door of Winnipeg I went out the other. I wanted to keep just far enough away from his soldiers so that they would have no pretext for raising a fuss or any trouble. While Wolseley was in the fort, I was talking to Archbishop Taché at his place on the other side of the river (in St. Boniface). While he (Wolseley) was speaking to his soldiers in front of the fort, I passed by on horseback, along the road, very quietly. I heard them calling the half-breeds bandits.”

Riel said he would have remained in Red River if Wolseley offered some gesture of conciliation, but it never came, so he went into hiding.

Several people approached Wolseley offering to capture Riel — “dead or alive,” according to Captain George Lightfoot Huyshe, an officer in Colonel Wolseley’s personal staff.

Huyshe said Wolseley replied that he would not arrest Riel without a warrant from a civil authority. A magistrate was found (by whom and what magistrate Huyshe does not state in his book, The Red River Expedition, published in 1871), and a warrant was issued for the arrest of Riel, William O’Donoghue and Ambroise Lépine on charges of the murder of Thomas Scott, for false imprisonment of the members of the Canadian Party and robbery, presumably of Hudson’s Bay Company and Canadian Party property, “but found (the warrant) to be informal,” so it was never enacted. 

In the Red River Settlement, the absence of civil government meant there was neither legally-empowered constables or magistrates, except former HBC-appointed officials which by then had no authority under the Manitoba Act, available to maintain law and order. 

It wasn’t until Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald arrived from Eastern Canada on September 2 that the creation of a formal government began, including the establishment of a provincial police force.

Donald Smith, a Canadian government emissary during the Red River Resistance, was appointed by Wolseley as a temporary governor, but the HBC man was reluctant to undertake this responsibility and made no effort to impose his authority.

Wolseley later wrote: “Personally, I was glad that Riel had not come out and surrendered, as he at one time said he would, for I could not then have hanged him as I might have done had I taken him prisoner when in arms against his sovereignty.”

Still, Wolseley made no effort to find out where Riel was hiding, preferring to savour his apparent success. “Our victory, although bloodless, was complete,” said Wolseley.

Actually, Wolseley was more interested in returning to Eastern Canada and using his success to gain a new posting across the Atlantic. The Franco-Prussian War was declared in Europe, threatening to involve the continent in a new conflict, and Wolseley saw this as an opportunity to advance his position in the British Army. 

Between August 29 and September 3, the British regulars left Red River with Wolseley following on September 10.

“Their early departure is much regretted by the people of the settlement, among whom they made many warm friends during their short stay,” reported the New Nation on the day the last contingent of British regulars left. “The poor fellows have a long and toilsome journey before them till Fort William is reached being up stream the greater part of the way.”

In effect, by leaving so quickly, Wolseley abandoned Red River to the revenge of Ontario Protestant militiamen intent on bringing the “rebels” to justice. Eastern newspapers referred to this period as the “Reign of Terror.”

“Of three days before our informant left Winnipeg was Pandemonium itself,” reported the Globe. “The wildest disorder reigned. Of the Canadian volunteers 800 were Orangemen, and these men were frantic in their expressions of hatred and contempt for the half-breed (Métis) population. Among them were a number of persons who had been expelled from the settlement by Riel (some members of the Canadian Party  fled the settlement, including leader Dr. John Christian Schultz, who would enlist the militiamen to harass the Métis). These bigoted partisans apparently thirsted for the blood of the French half-breeds.”

The militiamen wandered throughout the settlement seeking out Riel or anyone associated with the provisional government.

Within days, the militiamen had their revenge on two Métis men whom they killed, and beat up several others, although they failed to capture either Riel, O’Donoghue or Lépine, the men they considered ringleaders of the “rebellion.” 

Following the departure of the British regulars, and with Smith unwilling to exert civilian authority — he only issued a proclamation asking the men to behave — left “these eight hundred blood-thirsty, insolent and arrogant Orangeman (from Ontario) to dominate at their will over the inoffensive people, whose only crime was that they had bravely struggled for their political and civil rights, and, as far at least as an act of parliament (Manitoba Act), had secured them.” 

When facing criticism for his quick departure from Red River, Wolseley said in a valedictory, signed September 9, but read to the militiamen days after he had left: “Some evil-designing men have endeavoured to make a section of this people believe that they have much to dread at your hands. I beg of you to give them the lie to such foul aspersion upon your character as Canadian soldiers by continuing to comport yourselves as you have hitherto done.”

He warned the men against mixing themselves up in political affairs, as it was against Her Majesty’s regulations.

Wolseley hated journalists, whom he accused of being a “race of drones.” When they criticized his actions and reported allegations of a “Reign of Terror” in Red River, it only reinforced his opinion that originally was formed during the Crimean War. He particularly abhorred William Russell of the Times of London, who gained a reputation as the world’s first true war correspondent during the Crimean War. Wolseley accused Russell of providing the Russians with information about British troop movements in the Times. But, the reality was that the correspondent was more noted for revealing instances of outright incompetency among the ranks of the British officers and the appalling conditions endured by the regular soldiers in the field. 

The Toronto Telegraph reported that Wolseley arrived by a special train of the Northern Railway at Toronto’s Union Station at 6:30 p.m. on September 28, in order to catch a Grand Trunk express for Montreal.

In Montreal, on behalf of the “citizens” of the city, Mayor William Workman told Wolseley: “In common with the entire people of Canada, we hailed your command of the expedition with pleasure, and looked forward to your conduct of it with the most implicit confidence, which has been more than justified by the result ... And while it is a matter of sincere congratulation and of devout thankfulness to Almighty God that the expedition has been a peaceful one, we feel satisfied that had it been otherwise, you and the troops under your command would have achieved equal success as you have done in overcoming the difficulties of a long and dangerous journey.”

In reply, Wolseley said: “The difficulties to be overcome were of no ordinary nature, but with such soldiers as I had behind me, I could have gone anywhere ... I must also say, that from first to last the Canadian government have done all they could to support me in every possible way which lay in their power.”

Wolseley finished his speech at a dinner in Montreal prior to his departure for London, by saying he would never forget the friends he made in Canada. “In all that concerns you and this country, I shall always take the deepest interest, for I feel that I am quite as much a Canadian as any one here.”

In a special report from the Winnipeg Telegram, October 22, 1899, the success of the Red River Expedition was attributed to “careful organization, steady arduous labour, constancy of purpose, and shrewd knowledge of men.”

Wolseley did in part remember his time in Canada, taking under his wing such men who took part in the expedition as Captain Redvers Buller, Lieutenant Hugh McCalment and his spy in Red River, Lieutenant William Butler. These soldiers would become part of “Wolseley’s Gang.”

“I know these men of mine,” Wolseley said in the 1899 interview, “and they know me. I selected them originally because of my discernment of character ... We have worked long together; their familiarity with my methods, and my just reliance on them, relieves me of half of the burden of command ... I am always on the alert for capable men, since they are not so plentiful; and oh! outsider, if you should fulfill my requirements, your turn may come tomorrow.”

“The ‘gang’ as an aggregate is a weapon of extraordinary and diverse force; break it up and its parts are but the withes (branches) of the fagot (sic), with here and there a stick of exceptional stoutness,” commented Wolseley’s interviewer.

The Masons of Prince Rupert’s Lodge in Winnipeg, members of the Red River Expedition, in the spring of 1894 held special services to commemorate their participation in the 1870 trek and asked Wolseley to revisit the province.

Wolseley replied in a March 16, 1894, letter from Dublin: “I shall always look back with the deepest pride to having been associated with those gallant Canadians who contributed in 1870 to the creation of your splendid province ... The Red River Expedition was my first independent command, and I gratefully remember the fine spirit that animated the Canadian soldiers that took part in it.”

For leading the Red River Expedition, Wolseley was knighted by Queen Victoria. Sir Garnet Wolseley advanced in the ranks in the British Army until he became commander-in-chief from 1895 to 1900. In 1885, he became Lord Wolseley, the Viscount of Wolseley in the County of Stafford.

Wolseley, who was also a Mason and the Worshipful Master of the Military Lodge of Ireland, asked for “a photograph of those brethren who helped me so effectively in 1870,” but expressed his regret that it was impossible at the time to “visit to your city.”

When Wolseley died in 1913, the survivors of the Red River Expedition telegraphed London florists to send a wreath to his funeral in their name.

The Free Press reported, “Genuine sorrow was expressed in Winnipeg  yesterday (March 25) when it was learned that Field Marshal Lord Wolseley had died. The great English leader has always been looked upon as the special pride of Canadians owing to his connection with the early history of the west. Survivors of the Red River Expedition that notable journey of a handful of pioneers of whom there are quite a number still living Winnipeg were deeply shocked when informed of the passing of the veteran.”

 Winnipeg Mayor T.R. Deacon ordered flags to be flown at half-mast on all civic buildings.

The Manitoba Free Press obituary of Wolesley’s death called the expedition leader “the founder of good government in the west”  — a stretch to say the least, since he was only in Manitoba for a very brief period of time and refused to take on civil authority, handing off this duty to a reluctant Smith. In addition, Lieutentant-Governor Adams Archibald only possessed the power to establish the institutions that would subsequently govern the new province, a task he commenced upon his arrival, making him “the founder of good government.” 

The newspaper may be implying that by ending the reign of the provisional government with Riel’s flight from Red River, Wolseley set the stage for the creation of “good (Canadian) government.” 

“Although it is almost half a century since I saw him last I have watched his brilliant career with interest and I know the remainder of the veterans of that expedition who are alive regret so much as I do the death of such a brilliant son of England,” said Thomas Scott, mayor of Winnipeg from 1876 to 1878 and a “survivor of the famous Red River Expedition,” in the Free Press report of Wolseley’s passing.