By Jon Guttman
For the 18-year-old Dominion of Canada, the North-West Rebellion of 1885 was its closest parallel to both the Civil War and any of the Indian Wars that raged across its southern neighbour, the United States.
When on March 19, 1885, the half-blood Métis leader Louis David Riel established the Provisional Government of Saskatchewan, an attempt by North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) and Prince Albert Volunteers under Superintendent Leif Crozier to arrest him ended in an embarrassing rout at Duck Lake, 2.5 kilometres from Riel’s self-proclaimed capital of Batoche, on March 26. While John A. Macdonald’s government in Ottawa and the Métis, under the capable leadership of legendary buffalo hunter Gabriel Dumont, mobilized for war, an added dimension to hostilities concerned the First Nations of the territory. Would they rise up alongside the Métis?
The Aboriginals would have had their reasons. A decline in the bison population, combined with economic troubles back east and consequential lapses in the government’s distribution of rations in accordance with its own treaties caused widespread hunger that drove many tribes to request renegotiation. Although most First Nations, most notably the Blackfoot spokesman Crowfoot, appealed against violence, a relative handful of Cree and Stoney (Assiniboine) became involved in the fighting. Even so, while the Métis certainly sent emissaries among them, there is scant evidence of any First Nations outside of the Batoche area striking any formal alliance with them. What essentially transpired, then, were two parallel conflicts. Such was the background to the Battle of Cut Knife Hill, a victory for the First Nations that, but for the fears generated by the Métis revolt, should never have occurred at all.
On the night of March 30 a band of Cree led by Poundmaker (Pîhtokahânapiwyin) approached Battleford, wishing to parley with the Indian agent John M. Rae. Coming as it did after the Duck Lake skirmish, their presence only drove some 500 frightened residents into the nearby fort. Rae did not respond to Poundmaker’s request for two days, during which many of his starving band — against his orders — plundered abandoned houses in the area. In addition, Assiniboine warriors from the Eagle Hills, 30 kilometres to the south, moving to join Poundmaker, killed two farmers along the way. On April 2 another band of some 250 Cree nominally led by Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa) descended on Frog Lake and, allegedly at the instigation of his war chief and shaman, Wandering Spirit (Kapapamahchakwew), killed nine settlers. They then overran and burned Fort Pitt, holding the local residents hostage.
When the North-West Field Force arrived in Saskatchewan to deal with the rebellion, it perceived three separate opponents and divided its attention accordingly. While the main force of 900 soldiers and militia, led by Major-General Frederick Dobson Middleton, departed Fort Q’Appelle to march on Batoche on April 10, another column under Lieutenant-Colonel William D. Otter was dispatched to relieve what Middleton thought to be the besieged fort at Battleford. A third column of about 400 soldiers and NWMP under Major-General Thomas Bland Strange left Calgary for Edmonton, aiming to bring Big Bear’s band to ground. Troop movements during that bitterly cold spring were expedited by the Canadian Pacific Railroad, although uncompleted stretches necessitated the soldiers marching from one section of track to the next. One important by-product of the North-West Rebellion was to spur the railway’s final completion by November.
Departing Swift Current, where the rails ended, on April 13, Otter’s column consisted of 763 men from 2nd Battalion, The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada (2 QOR); B Battery, Royal Canadian Artillery; C Company, Infantry School Corps; some sharpshooters from 1st Battalion, Governor General’s Foot Guards; and a NWMP contingent led by Percy Neal. Only 50 men were mounted, but Otter also had 48 horse-drawn wagons at his disposal.
On April 24 the swelled populace at Fort Battleford greeted Otter’s arrival with elation, unaware that Poundmaker’s combined band of Cree and Assiniboine had long since retired to his reserve at Cut Knife Creek, named for a Sarcee warrior slain in a skirmish with the Cree, 40 kilometres to the west. Angry locals pressed Otter to pursue and chastise the Aboriginals for their depredations, and many of his inexperienced militiamen expressed disappointment that they had “missed out on a good fight.”
Otter, the only Canadian-born among the three commanders (Middleton was born in Belfast, Ireland and Strange in Meerut, India), had already seen a “good fight” in his time. Born in The Corners, Canada West, on December 3, 1843, he had joined the Non-Permanent Active Militia in Toronto in 1864. He was a captain serving as adjutant to the 2 QOR by June 1866, when the Niagara area was invaded by a force of Irish-American Civil War veterans called the Irish Brotherhood, or Fenians, seeking to seize territory to ransom for an independent Irish republic. On June 2, 1866 the Fenians clashed with the militia at Ridgeway, just east of Fort Erie. After 90 minutes of holding their own against their more battle-seasoned opponents, the 2 QOR either mistook mounted Fenian scouts for attacking cavalry or redcoated 13th Battalion of Hamilton militia for a relief force. Whatever the cause, the 2 QOR’s formation fell into confusion and Fenian skirmishers, seizing the opportunity, drove them and the entire militia force from the field. Besides the humiliation of hearing its initials frequently interpreted as “Quick, Over to the Rear,” the 2 QOR suffered nine dead and 25 wounded, four of whom died soon after. Notwithstanding this battle won, the Fenians ultimately lost their campaign. Seeing their position untenable, they withdrew to New York, where they were arrested for violating the Neutrality Act of 1818.
In the succeeding years Otter continued his military career, joining the Permanent Force when Canada established its first professional army in 1883. Now, in 1885, he could not have ignored the opportunity to redeem his old unit, the 2 QOR, a company of which accompanied his column. Although Middleton had ordered him to stand fast in Battleford, Otter telegraphed Edgar Dewdney, lieutenant-governor of the North-West Territory, for permission to “punish Poundmaker” and duly got it.
Leaving about half of his force at Battleford, Otter departed at 1600 hours on May 1 with a flying column of 392 men, 75 of whom were NWMP, with a rearguard contingent of Battleford Rifles. Whoever was not mounted rode in the wagons. Besides their single-shot Snider-Enfield and repeating Winchester rifles, Otter’s men were supported by B Battery’s two 7-pounder rifled cannon and a Gatling gun. The weather was cloudy and drizzling, but the force made good progress through low wooded hills. Scouting reports had pinpointed Poundmaker’s band east of Cut Knife Creek, but when Otter’s force reached it early on the morning of May 2, they found the camp deserted. Poundmaker’s people had in fact settled in on the far side of Cut Knife Hill to the west.
Neither force was aware to the other’s proximity until Jacob, a Cree elder who habitually went for an early morning ride, spotted the Canadians and galloped back to alert the camp. As sleepy Cree and Assiniboine hastily dressed and stumbled out of their teepees, Poundmaker, the Cree’s political leader, deferred command to his war chief, Fine Day (Kamiokisihwew). With a mixed bag of bows and arrows, muzzle-loaders, shotguns and a few up-to-date rifles and limited ammunition available to his warriors, Fine Day selected about 100 braves and relegated half of them to escorting the women, children and elderly from danger and guarding them. The rest he divided into squads of four or five.
Meanwhile, Canadian scouts were advancing just north of Cut Knife Hill. At about 200 metres to their left, they spotted the teepees and lodges. Dismounting, they sent their horses back and took up positions just below the brow of the hill. Upon sighting the scouts, the First Nations likewise dropped to the ground and at 0500 hours hostilities commenced with a mutual fusillade.
To his preponderance in infantry firepower Otter soon added his 7-pounders, which began firing into Poundmaker’s abandoned encampment, followed by the Gatling gun. Fine Day had a more intimate knowledge of the terrain, however, and also recognized that, as long as they kept their heads down, his braves were under the trajectory of the crew-served weapons. As Canadian troops advanced up the hill, he could also see that the best place for his warriors was in the coulees, ravines, trees and bushes to either side of them. Signalling his squads using a hand mirror, he directed an alternating but deadly accurate fire that convinced the Canadians that they were facing more warriors than were there.
Behind the firing line, brigade surgeon F.W. Strange formed the wagons into a hollow square, in which he set up his medical station. Soon he was treating 16 wounded, two of whom would die later.
At least one of the elderly 7-pounders broke up upon firing, its barrel rolling down the hill. The crew retrieved it, bound it back together with bits of wood and rope, and fought on. At one point Fine Day signalled a frontal assault on the guns, only to face a countercharge by members of the 2 QOR, NWMP and some gunners. A Nez Percé, probably a refugee from the 1877 war in Idaho who had settled among the Cree, fell dead alongside another warrior, and English-born Corporal Ralf Sleigh took a fatal round in the head before the Canadians retreated with several more men wounded.
After six hours of fighting on a day that became increasingly hot, Colonel Otter took stock of the situation. His 2 QOR had acquitted itself well, but it and other advancing units were in danger of being enfiladed by the First Nations who he noticed advancing on either flank. Familiar with what had befallen Lieutenant-Colonel George A. Custer’s 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment at the Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876, he had the wounded piled on the wagons and ordered a general retirement, covered by two lines of Battleford Rifles, joined by the Gatling and remaining operational 7-pounder once they got east of Cut Knife Creek.
Although Otter’s retreat was in commendably good order, his exposed troops were still vulnerable to a follow-up attack by the First Nations warriors. Poundmaker is generally given credit for ordering Fine Day to let the soldiers go, though it is just as likely that Fine Day judged his warriors too few or too low on ammunition to make it worthwhile. Whatever the case, Otter’s decision to quit the field and the Aboriginals’ decision to let him prevented a battle that never should have been fought from becoming an even bloodier tragedy. As it was, the fight cost the Canadians eight dead and 14 wounded, while the First Nations, left victors on the field, paid with six lives and three wounded.
The day after the battle a local Jesuit priest, Father Louis Cochin, visited the site and found the remains of Private William B. Osgoode of the Governor General’s Foot Guards. The only soldier, alive or dead, not recovered during Otter’s withdrawal, he’d been shot on a knoll at the left side of the Canadian line and rolled down the hill toward the First Nations, whose women stripped and mutilated the body. Father Cochin also found the Nez Percé’s remains, unburied because, unlike the Cree and Assiniboine, he had no relatives. Cochin buried both men where he found them; the latter’s grave now bears a marker identifying him only as a “Nez Percé Warrior.”
Cut Knife Hill was the most successful battle fought by the First Nations during the North-West Rebellion, but like the Fenian victory at Ridgeway it was rendered moot by the conflict’s final outcome. After the fall of Batoche and the capture of Riel on May 15, all of the starving tribesmen caught up in the fighting gave themselves up, one by one. Convicted of treason, Poundmaker was sentenced to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. Although he was released after seven months, it so affected his health that he died of a lung hemorrhage on July 4, 1886. His remains were eventually buried at his old reserve near Cut Knife Hill in 1967.
William Otter went on to a distinguished military career, including command of the Royal Canadian Regiment during the Boer War and Acting Director of Internment Camps during the First World War. He was a general and a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath when he died in Toronto on May 5, 1928, at age 85.
Fine Day, whose skilful execution of fire and manoeuvre tactics dominated the battle, escaped to Montana. After a few years he returned to spend the rest of his life on the Sweet Grass reserve near Battleford. He got to meet King George VI in 1939 and was into his 90s when he died in 1941.