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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 4

A Brief History of Lower Fort Garry

by Dale Miquelon

A Role Against Riel

In the Red River troubles of 1869-70 Lower Fort Garry played a secondary but nonetheless important role which reflected the feelings of neutrality and even hostility toward Riel characteristic of the lower settlement of which the fort was the store and centre. William Flett, clerk in charge of the post, recorded the events of the time in the post journal. His entries display the animus of a conscientious employee who regarded the insurgents activities as a clear-cut example of unlawful challenge to constituted authority. Flett made a note of whatever news he heard from visitors from the forks and what he saw on his own visits to the upper fort. Thus many of the major events of the rising can be traced in the journal.

The transfer of Rupert's Land without the consultation of its inhabitants from the Hudson's Bay Company to the Dominion of Canada was the basic cause of the Red River insurrection. Open resistance began on 11 October 1869, when a group of Métis led by Louis Riel stopped a Canadian government land survey which implied the transfer's validity.1 The Métis had always held that they possessed the land by virtue of their native blood and had reiterated this belief first at Seven Oaks (1816) and second in the free-trade controversy culminating in the Sayer trial (1849). Riel's eloquent identification of the transfer as a danger to their property rights brought considerable Métis support for his position that any union with Canada must be the result of direct negotiation with the settlers.

Events moved rapidly, and on 28 October, Flett recorded in the Lower Fort Garry journal, "Reports are reaching us every day that the French half-breeds are intending to stop Governor McDougall the new Dominion governor, as he enters the boundaries of the settlement and return him back by an armed force. They have barracaded the public road from Pembina and are guarding it as well as other roads leading from that quarter."2 On 3 November, he added, "heard that the half-breeds had taken possession of the Upper Fort."3

On 28 November, Alexander Begg went to the lower settlement with news that English- and French-speaking groups had, after much dispute, agreed to set up an executive council to negotiate with Canada. At Lower Fort Garry he met Flett, and the two proceeded to a nearby farm where they met with the settlers.4 But the "appearance of adjustment to the disputed question" which Flett noted in the journal was fleeting.5 On 1 December, McDougall, the Canadian governor-designate who was at Pembina, issued on his own authority a royal proclamation of the transfer of Assiniboia to Canada and at the same time gave Colonel Stoughton Dennis a commission as conservator of the peace, authorizing him to raise a force of men to disperse the "rebels." The bogus proclamation opened a rift between those settlers who did and those who did not believe in its authenticity. Riel's convention drew up a list of rights which was to serve as a basis of negotiation with Canada, and this was circulated to counteract any effect the proclamation might have.

Meanwhile, the people of the lower settlement, who viewed the whole train of events with alarm, had proceeded to organize themselves. On Saturday, 27 November, Flett "sent up Mr. Watt by a request of the Chairman of the Committee of Public Safety with a verbal message regarding the occupation of this place by armed men for its protection."6 The journal entry for Monday, 29 November, reads, "A number of young men under the instructions of________commenced (this evening) military drill and exercise. Very conflicting reports reach us every day regarding the movements of those who are disturbing the peace of the settlement."7

As soon as he had received his commission from McDougall, Dennis made for the lower fort where he anticipated strong support. Flett recorded that he "took possession of this place in the name of the Queen and Dominion Government and read the Queen's Proclamation," and in the margin, "Intends to make it his headquarters."8 The next day there were "men coming in from all around to see Col. Dennis who is making active preparations in organizing and enrolling men to support law and order."9

While Dennis was continuing his preparations and supplies were "coming in for government from different parties," the problem of supplies was leading to new trouble in the upper settlement.10 There the Métis captured Dr. John Shultz and a group of Canadians who were defending a supply of Canadian government pork stored in Shultz's house. Flett described this as causing "a great excitement."11 Some days later he went to the upper settlement on business and was in time to see "the self-constituted provisional government flag hoisted on the flag staff within the upper fort and was present when the numerous volleys of Cannons and musketry were fired in honor of the same, the brass band playing chorus headed it is said by one of the priests."12 (This was, no doubt, Père Dugast's school boys' band from St. Boniface.13)

While in Upper Fort Garry Riel was in the ascendant, at the lower fort Dennis admitted his failure to raise an adequate force among the almost neutral settlers and gave up. "Col. Dennis left here last night," wrote Flett, "his destination is uncertain. He left orders with his officers to pay off all the men who had been enrolled as well as those who had been here on guard and his instructions was carried out this evening and nearly all the men went to their respective homes."14

On Monday, 13 December, Lower Fort Garry's gunpowder was taken away by the settlers, probably to hide it from Riel.15 On Tuesday the last "government officials" left. Flett decided to tighten control in the uneasy settlement and on Thursday stopped all liquor sales.16 This attempt at prohibition was unsuccessful as explained in the following journal entry:

A party with George Calder and Thomas Syms at their head came and threatened if we would not sell them any rum they would forcibly take it consequently in consideration of this troubled times we thought it advisable to sell to every man according to his means of purchasing the same.17

There now arrived in the settlement three good-will ambassadors sent out by Sir John A. Macdonald to quiet apprehensions as best they could. One of these was Donald Smith, resident governor of the Company in Montreal. Smith manoeuvred Riel into allowing him to speak to an assembly of the people. "Mr. Boyd brought a verbal message requesting all loyal settlers to go to the upper fort to attend a general meeting of the settlement," wrote Flett on Tuesday, 18 January.18 At the meeting, Riel proposed the election of a convention of 20 English-speaking and 20 French-speaking settlers to consider Smith's oration. On Monday, 24 January, Flett recorded, "Meetings were held today to elect delegates from the different parishes to confer with the French (tomorrow) regarding the present troubles in the settlement."19 The convention duly met and accepted Smith's proposal that they send delegates to negotiate with the Canadian government at Ottawa.

While events were thus proceeding favourably, there was a number of jail breaks by prisoners captured in the fight for the government pork. A small band of Canadians led by a reluctant Colonel Boulton, who had come to Red River with the surveyors, set out from Portage La Prairie to liberate the remaining prisoners. When they arrived in the settlement they found that the last of the prisoners had been released, but they were themselves arrested and marched to the cells of Upper Fort Garry. Boulton was condemned to death. The principal of the escaped prisoners was Dr. Shultz; the search for him now led to an interesting sequence of events at the lower fort.

On Sunday, 20 February, according to Alexander Begg, "An expedition of over fifty men on horseback was started down the settlement under charge of Le Pine & Isidore Goulait to search for Dr. Shultz.... The party in search of Dr. Shultz found his wife in the house of John Tait — but no Dr. could be found....Alex, Fisher and another man went down to the Stone Fort recon[n]oitering — they visited the Indians in that direction. Some told them there were 60 men in the Lower Fort and they were returning to give Riel that information when they met Myles McDermott who took them to the Stone Fort and showed them the contrary."20 Flett noted the incident in his journal.

The following day, Monday, 21 February, Flett wrote in the margin of his journal, as if it were a late addition to a previous entry, "Comm. D.A. Smith and Archdeacon McLean came down this evening to consult with influential parties about quieting the troubles if possible."21 That same evening, having received word that it was not garrisoned, Riel determined to pay a surprise visit to the lower fort, one of the few possible hiding places for Dr. Shultz which had not been searched. Begg described the incident in his journal.

Last evening there was a general pressing in of horses by the French — stables were visited in the neighbourhood of the town and wherever found horses were taken off without leave or license. This was preparatory to another expedition to hunt up Shultz — a large party headed by Riel himself having set out for the Stone Fort last night. They returned this morning about half past eight O'Clock without having found him they were in search of. They took with them Mr. John Tait whom they restored to his home. While down the settlement they visited and ransacked the Stone Fort — taking the keys of all but the provision store away with them when they left.... It is...said that Riel while down on the expedition last night was disguised so that his best friend would not have known him — the disguise was said to consist partly of a long red beard.22

The report of the disguise is probably true since Flett did not recognize Riel in the group and merely noted, "A party of French came down numbering about between 60 and 70."23

The midnight ride of the red-bearded Riel has great romantic potential in the hands of a storyteller of even shambling imagination. More easily enjoyed than believed is Sheriff Inkster's later recollection that "Riel pushed into the Archdeacon's bedroom, thinking Schultz might be the occupant, pulled the bed-clothes roughly from the bed and frightened the Archdeacon nearly out of his wits."24

Did Riel talk with Donald Smith? Folk legend attaches great importance to a "midnight interview" in which Riel could not win Smith's support and left the fort resigned to the failure of his mission.25 But Smith and Riel had frequent opportunity to talk, and it is not necessary to insist upon such dramatic circumstances for a confrontation. They did have one interview two days earlier, however, which has some resemblance to that of legend.

The capture of the Canadians from Portage and the intended execution of Colonel Boulton had again divided the settlement. On Saturday, 19 February, Riel had promised to spare Boulton's life in return for Smith's promise to persuade the English and English half-breed settlers to elect delegates to a second provisional government which it had earlier been agreed to establish. This is why Smith and McLean were in the lower settlement.26 It is possible that this earlier and successful meeting between Riel and Smith was seen as a failure in the light of subsequent events and that the whole sequence was transferred in the public imagination to the lower fort.

Although the tale of a midnight interview is untrue, the two raids on the lower settlement were significant because, in the words of Alexander Begg, they "tended greatly to embitter the minds of the English settlers, as it looked like a defiance to them after the late rising against the French."27 The mission of Smith and McLean was of the utmost importance and insured the success of the second provisional government.

Of the Portage Canadians made prissoner on 18 February, none was more troublesome than Thomas Scott, who had earlier been captured at Shultz's house and then escaped. The execution of Scott on 4 March is a blot on Riel's reputation and was directly responsible for his downfall. This was not immediately apparent. On 8 March, Bishop Taché arrived in Red River with the general amnesty of the Governor-General of Canada. He spent two nights at Lower Fort Garry while explaining events to the Indians who lived nearby.28 On 23 and 24 March, delegates were sent to Ottawa to negotiate the entry of Assiniboia into confederation, and on 12 May, the Manitoba Act was given royal assent.

The first warnings of trouble came from Père Richot, Red River's principal negotiator, who returned to the settlement in June with news that the amnesty would not cover the execution of Scott and that English Canadians were demanding Riel's life. Then it was heard that a military force was being sent to the colony with the new Lieutenant-Governor. The settlement waited.

In the third week of July, a Captain Butler of the 69th British Regiment arrived in Manitoba from St. Paul. On 21 July, he went to Lower Fort Garry where he remained for two days. After a brief trip to the upper fort to see Riel, he returned, engaged a canoe and hastened to Fort Alexander to meet Colonel Wolsley and the troops who were coming by the Canadian route.29 On 26 July, Mr. Boyd and Reverend Gardener followed with a brigade of boats.30 Nearly a month later Flett recorded with much satisfaction, "This morning Mr. Smith with Col. Wolsley with the long looked for troops arrived here amidst the cheers of the settlers. After stopping for breakfast the colonel with all his detachment left here with their boats and canoes for the upper fort to dislodge the rascally rebels and to establish law and order in the country."31

The troops arrived at Upper Fort Garry the following day and entered without resistance. Across the river in St. Boniface, Riel remarked to two companions, "No matter what happens now, the rights of the Métis are assured by the Manitoba Act; this is what I wanted — My mission is finished."32 Flett noted in his journal, "Riel Runs for his life the cowardly dog."33

On 26 August, the first detachment of volunteers arrived at Lower Fort Garry under "Colonel Waneewright." On Sunday another brigade arrived, and on Tuesday the last of this first battalion of the Ontario Rifles camped at the lower fort for the night before moving up-river. The first company of the Second Battalion, Quebec Rifles, appeared on Wednesday, 31 August. Over the next few days the remainder of the Quebec Rifles arrived, and Flett proceeded to ready Lower Fort Garry for their winter accommodation. The stores were turned into barracks as they had been in 1846, and the troops were soon in winter quarters.34 Lieutenant-Governor Archibald held a levee at the lower fort on Tuesday, 6 September. "A great many of the volunteer officers and most respectable of the settlers and clergy were invited to attend."35 In the course of the next few months, Archibald spent several nights at the lower fort while passing between Winnipeg and the Indian settlement.

The presence of soldiers resulted in great animation at the fort. The old stone store was repaired and used as a barracks. The strain on facilities was apparently great, and on 19 September, Duncan McRae and Robert Clouston arrived to lay the foundations for a new storehouse, 24.5 feet by 50 feet.36 The Company's barn was reshingled and loaded with grain taken out of the stores. Guard rooms, cells, and officers' quarters were all arranged. A small house was erected outside the fort near the forge.37 In January, the fort became more lively still with the arrival of the battalion's brass instruments from Upper Fort Garry.38 On 27 January, the "Varieties Club had theatricals...after 8 o'clock and after that the officers of the battalion had a dance."39 It may have been the presence of troops which prompted the Hudson's Bay Company to commence brewing at the lower fort, and on 18 April 1871, the first beer was put in the cellars.40 If this was the reason, production began a little late, for on 7 June, the troops began to leave for eastern Canada.41

Lower Fort Garry was not yet entirely finished with regular troops. On 4 October 1871, a proclamation was sent down from the forks "to warn all and sundry to organize and prepare themselves to arm to repel the Fenian Raid,"42 a minor incursion into Canadian territory organized by Riel's old associate, O'Donoghue.

The effectiveness of O'Donoghue's raid was considerably lessened by Riel's support of the new government at the head of his own Métis forces.43 The next day the fort's square was full of farmers trying to fit themselves into the pattern of military drill, just as many had done exactly two years before. On Friday, they managed to obtain 44 rifles for the protection of the fort. By Saturday, reports came that the American army had stopped the Fenians at Pembina. Nevertheless, the next morning all the volunteers were ordered to the upper fort, On Tuesday, they returned to their homes, the comic opera over.44

In the meantime the government had decided to garrison the forts. On 19 October, a Mr. Provost and 15 soldiers arrived at the lower fort to pass the winter, and on 2 November, Colonel Smith and Majors Irvine and Peebles came down to make arrangements to station 50 soldiers and 2 officers at the fort. On Saturday, the troops arrived at Upper Fort Garry from Canada, and on Sunday, the detachment was in the lower fort. Provost and his 15 men returned to the upper fort.45 On 28 November, Flett was pleasantly surprised when a group of officers visiting from the upper fort gave him a set of silver plate sent by the Quebec battalion which had passed the previous winter there.46

So Red River colony became Manitoba; and Lower Fort Garry, which had always been a secondary post in the fur trade, was the scene of many events that marked the settlement's troubled passage from colony to province. In the years that followed, commercial activities at the fort increased as it entered that period of its history when the transportation revolution was making of it, in Donald Gunn's words, "the most important post the Hon. Company has in the country."47

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