Journal Volume 6 2010

Sir William F. Butler (continued/3)

Canada 1870

WinnipegUntil 1870 the boundary of the Dominion of Canada ended at the border of Ontario. Beyond that point the great wilderness area known as British North America was administered by the Hudson’s Bay Company. It ran the territory through a chain of trading posts where trade goods, tobacco and coffee were exchanged with the local Indians and French settlers for furs and buffalo hides.

In 1870 British Columbia was granted accession to Canada because the leaders of that province feared the USA which had recently bought Alaska. The British and Dominion governments started negotiations with the Hudson’s Bay Company to incorporate the territories between Ontario and British Columbia into Canada.

Unfortunately there were about 15,000 settlers of French and mixed race known as the Metis living on farms along the rivers just west of Lake Winnipeg. The main centre was Fort Garry near the present city of Winnipeg. The Metis took fright at the prospect of their lands being overrun by settlers and their traditional way of life destroyed. A revolt began to take shape under the leadership of a Meti called Louis Riel and a provisional government formed. The response of the government was to send a military expedition to the Red River to bring the rebellious Metis to heel.

The expedition was assembled in Toronto under the command of Colonel Garnet Wolseley, then a rising star of the British army. Butler still in England and desperate for a military posting telegraphed Wolseley and set sail immediately for Canada. At first Wolseley refused him an appointment on the grounds that every post was filled but Butler pointed out that they had no intelligence of what to expect and volunteered for the job. He had already travelled further west on the American side of the border. Wolseley already knew Lieutenant Butler and had marked him as an officer of exceptional intelligence and ability. He was therefore commissioned to go round by way of the United States to find out the situation and to rendezvous with Wolseley when halfway to Fort Garry.

Butler travelled by train to St Cloud in Minnesota and then by stage coach and river steamer north towards Fort Garry. As he approached the fort he saw horsemen on the riverbank and knew that his movements were being watched. He feared being arrested and shot as a spy. He began to seek help from the local Indians promising them rewards when the redcoats arrived. Realising that the government was serious and that a military expedition was on the way, Riel and the Metis leaders sent a message offering talks. Butler met them and although still only a lieutenant acted as the representative of an imperial power. Riel appeared unwilling to back off his position and Butler perceived that militarily the Metis were toothless. He determined to make his way eastwards, to try to find the expedition and report his contacts to Colonel Wolseley.

Butler set off in a canoe with a crew of Indian and half-breed paddlers down the Red River to Lake Winnipeg and then along the southern shore of the lake to the mouth of the Winnipeg River. He now had a journey upriver of 160 miles through falls, rapids, whirlpools and long portages. It took him seven days through a wilderness, in the company of Indians, living off the land, confirming the romantic notions which he had cherished since his childhood reading of the works of Fenimore Cooper. It would in time inspire him to write his own adventure story ‘Red Cloud’ which was a popular favourite with Irish schoolboys in the 20th century. He reached the Hudson Bay post at Rat Portage which is now a resort town called Kenora on the Lake of the Woods. He heard from local Indians that there was an army of white braves some 80 miles away. He was still being shadowed by Metis scouts. Nevertheless he set off to find the expedition. Four days later he stood on a rock overlooking Rainy Lake and watched a canoe paddled by eight Iroquois braves carrying a British officer who turned out to be Colonel Wolseley.

Wolseley’s first Question was ‘Where the hell have you come from?’ And Butler replied ‘From FortGarry, sir, 12 days out.’ He had covered 400 miles of the toughest wilderness on his own in 12 days. He now led the expedition back across the Lake of the Woods and down the Winnipeg to Fort Garry. The troops had now crossed half a continent, hacked through long forest tangles, built 40 miles of road and carried enormous loads of supplies over endless portages. They took Fort Garry without a fight because the Metis had fled into the wilderness.

On September 6th 1870 the Hon Adams Archibald was installed as Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba and the North-West Territories. The troops now withdrew eastwards but Butler stayed behind: the wilderness was in his blood and he did not want to leave. Whilst he was considering his future, which included a desire to become a ‘Wild Goose’ and join the French Army which had just suffered a huge defeat by the Prussians at Sedan, he received an offer from Governor Archibald which fitted exactly his wishes and his abilities.


Back to list of contents   Back to previous page   Move to next page