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

The Second Battalion, Quebec Rifles, at Lower Fort Garry

by William R. Morrison

The Journey West

Since the journey of the expedition to the Red River is probably more interesting than what the troops did when they got there (and this is especially true of the Quebec Rifles), some study should be made of the details of this trip.

The volunteers, with the Second Battalion in the process of being fleshed out with additional English-speaking volunteers, assembled in Toronto in the first week of May, 1870, and was barracked at the Crystal Palace. There it joined the regulars of the Sixtieth Rifles, and there it was joined by Colonel Wolseley and his staff on 5 May.

Colonel Wolseley, who was at that time Deputy Quartermaster-General in British North America, was a fortunate choice for commander of the expedition. He had given distinguished service for over 20 years to the British army, and was a man of courage and considerable intelligence. He was also, by the military standards of the day, quite progressive in his thinking; this was an advantage to him in the novel circumstances he was to find on the trip to Red River.

The expeditionary force left Toronto at the end of May, travelling to Collingwood by train, and by steamer to Thunder Bay. The Quebec Rifles seem to have acquitted themselves well on this part of the trip; Colonel R.F. Fielden of the Sixtieth Rifles reported "the men of the Quebec Battalion behaved well. I did not notice any irregularity or drunkenness whatever, and the Officers were very attentive to their duties, from their leaving the Crystal Palace to the time of the companies being embarked on board the 'Algoma.'"14

The only incident during the trip through the lakes was the American government's unwillingness to pass the expedition through the Sault Ste. Marie canal, an episode which was more an annoyance than a danger. It was the next part of the journey which posed the difficulties.

From Thunder Bay west, the expedition was compelled to help build its own road, along with the navvies who were brought along specifically for the task. A good deal had been done under the direction of S. J. Dawson before the arrival of the troops, but much remained to do. From 9 June to 16 July, the noncommissioned officers and men of the Quebec Rifles put in 940.5 days' work on the road.15 The sort of work they were required to do on this section is indicated in the reports which were sent back east, one of which runs as follows:

Col. Wolseley started from camp on Monday morning, 6th [June], at 4.30 A.M., to ride along the road as far as [he] could. It poured with rain. . . . At the present moment the road may be said to end at the Oskondigee Creek, 75 feet wide. It is still unbridged, but a gang of men reached there on Monday evening to construct a bridge, which will not take long . . . . For the last eight or nine miles before reaching that creek the road is only a track, and it is impassable for loaded wagons in wet weather . . . . Strong gangs of men are now working at it.16

The same writer also commented that "the hard work which the troops have had to do has not hurt their health; this may be attributed to the absence of liquor and to the good food they have received."17

Wolseley wrote of the militia's work during this period:

The absence of any spiritous liquor as part of the daily issue, is marked by the excellent health and spirits of the men, and I may add by a remarkable absence of crime. The work performed by the men up to their arrival here [at Ward's Landing, three miles from Lake Shebandowan] has been very considerable, so much so, that many companies already begin to present a ragged appearance. This work has been especially hard upon the Militia, from the fact of their having to work in thick winter trousers when the thermometer has sometimes stood over 90° in the shade. Only one pair of trousers was supplied to each man by the Department of Militia and Defence. I have made repeated application for a pair of light serge trousers per man to be given in addition to the heavy ones, and I am glad to say that they have at last arrived, and are now being distributed. Lately each militiaman was furnished with a pair of linen trousers, but they are of a most inferior description, and last only a short time. They are quite unsuited for a climate such as this one, where it rains nearly every other day. Speaking generally, the personal equipment supplied to the Militia by the Canadian Government is much inferior to that furnished to the Regular Troops from our own Military Stores . . . . The Militia have vied with the Regulars in their exertions to push everything forward, and the Regulars by their good conduct and the manner in which they have worked, have set them an example that they have been justly proud to follow.18

To focus more exactly on the Quebec Rifles as they journeyed west is not as easy as might be hoped, because this unit was the last to travel over the route, and thus did not receive as much official attention as did the others. Some rather sketchy indications of its progress appear in the official reports, from which we can get some idea of what went on during the trip. There is a record of the progress of a detachment of 12 officers and 95 men of the battalion. It left Toronto on 4 June at 7 A.M., and left Collingwood at 3:30 P.M. of the same day, arriving at Sault Ste. Marie on 6 June at 9 P.M. It left the Sault at 11 the next morning. It arrived at Prince Arthur's Landing on 8 June at 10 P.M.19 The rest of the battalion maintained a similar schedule.

On Tuesday, 21 June, Wolseley inspected the Quebec Rifles (at 7 A.M.). It was reported that "the men turned out clean and well, but presented a contrast to the 1st Ontario Rifles in their height and size, a great many of them being small, slight men, apparently quite unable to withstand the hardships which are before them."20 This rather unkind observation was to prove to be unfounded.

The further details of this trip, though rather interesting, are much too lengthy and complicated to recount here. They may readily be found in the Appendix to Notes on the Route from Lake Superior to Red River and on the Settlement Itself.

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