Red River Rebellion 1870

There had been minor Fenian uprisings throughout these years. These escapades were, of course, the cause of the previous active service warnings. The last Fenian raid occurred at Eccles Hill in 1870. This name, our sister rifle regiment The Victoria Rifles, carries as a battle honour.

The same year saw a military operation carried out which, although no shots were fired or lives lost, proved itself a masterpiece of organization. The occasion was the Red Rivcr Rebellion. The Imperial Government and Hudson’s Bay Company’s right to lands in the North-West Territories were transferred to the Dominion Government. Thus a vast area was added to the Dominion of Canada. In 1869, our former acquaintance, Lieutenant-Colonel Dennis, was appointed to initiate a survey of the land. The Métis [a person of mixed North American Indian and European ancestry], alarmed at the possible disappearance of their lands and livelihood, stopped the survey party. Later, the newly appointed governor of the Northwest Territory, the Honorable William McDougall, was turned back at the border by armed patrols of rebels. The leader of the Métis was Louis Riel. Emboldened by his initial successes, he then seized Fort Garry and set up a “Provisional Government”. No immediate steps were taken by the Canadian government to arrest him. There was some excuse for the Métis as sufficient care had not been taken to explain the situation to them. There was no excuse for Riel. He understood very well.

During the winter of 1869-70 loyal citizens were pillaged and imprisoned. The climax came when an outspoken loyalist, Thomas Scott an Irish Protestant, Orangemen and very anti-Catholic, repeatedly taunted his captors and threatened to kill Riel. A Métis court voted to execute Scott and Riel went along with their decision.  Scott was executed by firing squad on 4 March, 1870. The news of this so enraged the people of Ontario that the government was forced to take action.

On 16 April, 1870, a military contingent under Colonel Garnet S. Wolseley was authorized to quell the rebellion, arrest the leaders, and restore law and order. The force, numbering 1,200, consisted of two guns of the Royal Artillery, the 1st Battalion The 60th, The King’s Royal Rifle Corps, under Lieutenant-Colonel R. J. Fielden, two specially raised battalions of Canadian rifles and about two hundred voyageurs. It is of more than passing interest to note that the QOR representatives were brigaded with a battalion of British riflemen whose fame was known to every student of military history; that eighty-six years later the two regiments would be allied; and to remember that the QOR was represented in this initial step of securing the Northwest Territories for Canada.

The battalion from Ontario was known as the 1st (Ontario) Battalion of Rifles. It was under command of Lieutenant-Colonel S. P. Jarvis and had an establishment of 375, all ranks. The volunteers enlisted for one year, or longer if required. The ranks were quickly filled. The QOR quota was two officers and twelve riflemen. The two officers were Captain Bruce Harman and Ensign Hugh J. Macdonald. The rates of pay were “Colour-Sergeants $15.00 per month, Sergeants $15.00 per month, Corporals and Buglers $13.00 per month, Riflemen $12.00 per month. Men must be between 15 and 45 years of age; each man had to have a medical examination.”

As a Fenian lobby prevented the force going through the U.S.A. the route to the Red River Settlement had to be via Lakes Huron and Superior; to Prince Arthur’s Landing, near the present Port Arthur; across the fifty mile watershed to Lake Shebandowan; then via various waterways through Rainy Lake, Lake-of-the-Woods; Winnipeg River, Lake Winnipeg and finally the Red River. Forty-seven arduous portages had to be made. It rained for forty-five days out of the thirteen weeks required for the trip. Mosquitoes and black flies made life utterly miserable.

Yet there was no loss of morale, no crime and little sickness. Every man was well fed and well looked after. Despite the hazards, not a life was lost. With the delightful frankness that marked the strong-minded individualists of those days, Wolseley remarked that he considered the success and economy of the operation arose “chiefly from the fact that it was planned and organized far away from all War Office meddling”.

Wolseley reached Fort Garry at the end of August, 1870. Riel and his associates fled over the border. Law and order were rapidly restored. Later, in 1870, the Canadian parliament passed an act creating the Province of Manitoba. Both Métis and loyalists were to have exactly the same rights of self-government as had the other provinces.

Excerpted and edited from “THE QUEEN’S OWN, RIFLES OF CANADA 1860-1960; ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF CANADA By Lieutenant Colonel W. T. Barnard E.D. C.D.

28 thoughts on “Red River Rebellion 1870”

  1. From 71 to 75 i worked the lake shebandowan area out of the o.p.p. shabaqua detachment. while snorkeling with my brother off the s. end portage (marked with an historic plaque) we located & retrieved 4 or 5 cannonballs. Perhaps the loss of these precipitated the story of lost cannons. they appeared as sand covered bumps about 15 ft. down & there may have been more. r.l. daughtrey senior provincial constable (retd)


    1. Oh boy this is getting more interesting. We have have not given up on our search and now we have more solid information. Why would you carry cannon balls if you don’t have the cannons or vise versa lol.


    2. The story of the cannons having been dumped I. A lake to facilitate quicker travel to the rebellion was common folklore in the area. I’d heard they were dropped into French Lake in Quetico Park. I worked there as a student from 72- 76.

      In 76 I joined the OPP and served until I retired in 2005. Having been a diver with the OPP I always thought about diving the area if credible II formation came forward.

      I often wondered if the stories were true but there are no historical records to support it.


    3. Hi Richard.
      That is very interesting to hear regarding the cannon balls. The Red River Expeditionary Force had four 7 pounder brass cannons. Two were left at the fort Wolseley had constructed at Prince Arthur’s landing on Thunder Bay. The other two went with the expedition to Fort Garry. All the available evidence indicated that these two guns made it all the way to Fort Garry. I found no information on what happened to the guns after the British troops of the expedition returned via Thunder Bay once the Canadian volunteers had arrived. Were the two guns at Fort Garry left there or did they return with the Royal Artillery men? Were the two guns at Thunder Bay taken back to Ontario or were they also transported to Fort Garry? I can’t speak to either of these two questions, though I am of the opinion that the two at Fort Garry remained there. What I can say with as much certainty as it is possible to is that the expedition did not dump either of the two guns it took with them during their journey to Fort Garry. What happened to the cannon balls, by the way? My book on the Red River Expedition was published at the end of 2019.
      Best wishes,
      Paul McNicholls


    4. Richard, do you still have the cannon balls and/or can you remember how about how big the dimensions of them were? it appears the cannons were 7lbs but we can’t seem to find out how big the cannon balls were.


      1. A quick math calculation based on the weight of steel would make a 7 lb. projectile 2 3/4” in diameter (rounded off).

        Therefor the circumference would be
        C = 2 x Pi x R
        C = 2 x 3.14 x 1.375
        C = 8.63” in circumference


  2. Thanks for the reply to my question. Forty years ago I worked at Dawson Trail Camp Grounds for the MNR and we all heard the story. Occurred (allegedly) as Wolseley and the troops paddled across French Lake on their way to the rebellion.

    In any event. I think next time through that area I’ll check with the staff to see where the story originated.

    Thanks again.


  3. We’re any cannon left behind along the Dawson Trail during the march to the rebellion? There is a long held belief that at least one was lost while crossing French Lake in what is now Quetico Park.


      1. I have been working on a book on the Red River Expedition, the manuscript went to the publisher about 10 days ago. I found no mention of any guns being lost in all of the diaries and reports that I read. There were 4 brass 7 pounders with the expedition. Two remained at the fort at Prince Arthur’s Landing on Thunder Bay and two went with the expedition. In the final approach to Fort Garry, they still had two guns.with them.


      2. Thanks so much for the information. It was folk lore I guess that they dropped them in the lake. Maybe the ones left behind in Port Arthur was the start of the tale.

        In any event, thanks for the information and getting back to me.


      3. My pleasure, Jeff. The information you picked up may have related to the guns left at Thunder Bay, but I also found no information about what happened to the two that made it to Fort Garry.


    1. Hello Jeff. We chatted sometime ago about the Red River Expedition. In case you are interested, my book is now in print. It is called Journey Through the Wilderness and published by Helion and Company in the UK. It is available on the Amazon and Chapters websites.


  4. is there ny way to find the memebers names of the royal canadian rifles regiment 1840-1870 who huarded the red river settlement.
    my great great grandfather thomas franklin was a member
    of these older regiment


  5. There was mention of 2 guns from the royal artillery on the expedition in 1870 from Ontario to Manitoba were these a type of canon and if so how could they be transported in canoe’s. Finally did both guns survive the trip? Thanks


    1. I have been working on a book on the Red River Expedition, the manuscript went to the publisher about 10 days ago. There were 4 brass 7 pounders with the expedition. Two remained at the fort at Prince Arthur’s Landing on Thunder Bay and two went with the expedition. I found no records of what happened to these guns afterwards.


      1. I was born and live in Atikokan, my dad looked for the cannon in the early 70’s because someone supposedly knew the location. They just drove around in a boat and never found it but when I was young he told me where they looked. A few years ago I recruited some friends to resume the search which we have been doing occasionally the past few summers. We have been looking underwater and have found some interesting archeological items which the mnr is now aware of, but no cannon. This canoe route was the trans Canada highway back in the day, so who knows what treasure awaits.

        The story of the cannon is known to some old timers that spent time in and around quetico park. Recently, I heard a cannon was supposed to be lost in the Kashabowie river also, lol.

        Water levels are considerably higher then they were in the 1870’s so the search is difficult in the dark deeper waters. It’s somewhat disappointing to hear reports that no cannons were lost, however, we feel to many stories of this topic lead us to believe there may be some truth to these tails, so the search continues for us. Gord.


      2. Ford;

        I worked at French Lake in Quetico for four years. We heard the stories of the cannon. It was supposedly left behind to speed up the trip to Manitoba. The troops allegedly sank it deliberately in the Lake.

        The story I heard was that it was dropped in French Lake just out from the river mouth at what used to be the day use picnic area.

        A submersible magnetometer might be the only way to find it if it exists at all.

        Good luck on your quest.


      3. Best of luck with your search and let met know if you turn anything up, Gord. All I can say, after a thorough trolling of the records of the expedition, is that they said they had 4 brass guns. Two were left at the fort at Prince Arthur’s Landing and two were taken with them. All those who left first hand accounts of the final march on Fort Garry speak to there still being two guns with them. Wolseley wanted to make sure he had sufficient firepower to overawe any opposition he might encounter along the way and so, in my view, it is unlikely he would have sacrificed the guns along the way. Those behind the dispatch of the expedition were also clearly focused on the expenditure of the force and so would not likely have discarded such expensive items. Added to this, there is a strong reluctance amongst artillerymen to give up their guns. Putting all of this together, and,as I have already said, those that were there said that they started and finished with two guns, I think it doubtful that they lost any on the way. Having said this, I did not find any mention of the either the guns at Thunder Bay or the two that I believe made it to Fort Garry after the British contingent began its return journey.


      4. Paul and Jeff, Thanks for all the replies regarding the cannons, I can’t seem to find out the dimensions of a 7lb. Cannon, and we are wondering how big these things are and the approximate weight of what we are looking for? We thought the troops were travelling in canoes and could see how one may fall into the lake but it seems larger boats were actually used and maybe someone accidentally lost one lol. Gord


      5. I looked for images on line and found several for 10lb / 12lb cannons.

        It would look like a small Civil War era cannon with wheeled under carriage etc. Not something that would be carried in a canoe unless broken down into its various parts.

        It would be some hard work trudging through the northern Ontario bush and paddling lakes dragging it with them. Tough people back then!


    2. Jeff and Gord. I don’t have the dimensions of the guns but they were brass muzzle loaders and weighed 200lbs each. According to one of the staff officers of the force, this was 50lbs more than a steel gun of the same calibre, but the weight of the required carriage was less. This, together with their cost (they were cheaper) were the reasons they were selected. The boats used were quite substantial and nothing like them had been used on the eastern side of the route before. Hudson’s Bay Company York Boats had been used on the western side and were used again during the Red River operation. 6 York boats were sent up from Fort Garry to support the expedition as it crossed Lake of the Woods and made its way down the Winnipeg River. These were larger than the boats used by the expeditionary force, but the expedition’s boats were also much larger than the North Canoes that the North West Company had used prior to 1821. The expedition’s boats were built by a number of manufacturers most in Ontario but with a few in Quebec. Their dimensions ran from 25 to 33 feet long, 6 ½ to 7 ½ feet wide and 30 to 35 inches deep, with a carrying capacity of between 2 ½ and 4 tons. So the boats were certainly big enough to carry the cannons. The challenge was getting the boats and all the other equipment and supplies across all 47 portages. There were certainly boat casualties along the way, and I found reference to an accident with a pistol that likely cost the life of one of the expedition’s members (in the past all accounts have said there were no losses). I don’t wish to deter your searches, however, as mentioned in a previous post, all first hand accounts state that both guns made it to Fort Garry and there is even a diagram of the formation of the boats as they rowed up the Red River from Lake Winnipeg that I found in one of the officer’s field diaries. This specifically shows in which boats the guns were located. I certainly wish your exploration the best of luck though.
      PS My book will be out early next year in case you are interested.


      1. Paul, let us know how to purchase your book, sounds interesting and thanks for the information you provided. Gord


      2. Once the book is out (some time early next year) I will let you know. You can then decide if you want a copy.
        All the best,


    3. Hello Gord. We chatted sometime ago about the Red River Expedition. In case you are interested, my book is now in print. It is called Journey Through the Wilderness and published by Helion and Company in the UK. It is available on the Amazon and Chapters websites.


  6. I just received a photo of my grandfather’s regiment heading out to the riel rebellion. How would I find out what branch he was in? The uniform is clear in the regimental picture but I don’t know how to take it from here. His name is Thomas Mollard.


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