By Gary Wilson
Some 500 miles north of Havre in Canada lies the town of Battleford and the Fort Battleford National Historic Site at the confluence of the North Saskatchewan and Battle rivers. The former river was the northern commercial waterway equivalent to the Missouri River, only the main midwestern marketing center was at Fort Garry (Winnipeg) not St. Louis.
At this confluence, the town of Battleford was established in 1875. In many ways, it was similar to Fort Benton with its fur trading posts, and steamboats plying up and down the river. The capitol of the North-West Territories was moved there in 1878, creating a bustling town with several government buildings. The capitol, however, was moved south to the new Canadian Pacific rail center at Regina in 1883, and the Indian Department inherited several more buildings at Battleford.
The North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) established a major outpost at the town in 1876, and so would begin a future tie to Fort Assinniboine.
The NWMP ("Mounties") established both the Battleford and Fort Walsh posts to oversee the many new Indian Reserves and their devastating problems with mainly Montana whiskey smugglers. Also, horse stealing by whites, again from Montana, besides Indian conflicts both in the Territories and across the border, plus many other criminal problems.
A cooperative effort was very important to the Canadians with the American military, and after a few snags, such a relationship developed. But it was frustrating to the Mounties, since the Federal Marshals also were part of the enforcement picture, and they were few in number. It wasn't until the Montana Stockgrower's Association was formed that interborder animal thieving was contained.
The Mounties at Fort Battleford operated under another major obstacle: they had only 28 men and two officers to patrol an area at least equal to northern Montana!!
Once the refugee Sioux (Teton-Lakota) problems were resolved, and they had returned to the South Dakota reservations, their duties should have become routine, except for the expected influx of settlers. But that white invasion would be a problem for the Metis and Indian populations, especially for the French-speaking Metis, who feared the loss of land rights once the government district became provinces. It had happened to them in Manitoba in 1870.
The Metis pressed for the Bill of Rights that they had earlier proclaimed at Fort Garry, Manitoba under the Louis Riel, the prominent Metis spokesman. That rebellion (resistance) against the new Dominion of Canada had failed and Riel was expelled from the country, plus many Metis fled to the Milk River and Spring Creek (Lewistown) areas.
But, in 1884, the Metis leaders of the northern Saskatchewan country found Riel teaching school in Montana at St. Peter's on the Sun River. Riel had remained active - even militant - in his efforts to overflow the Canadian government. Riel had earlier told the Indian people along the Milk River (while dispensing liquor) that someday the Metis and their Indian brothers would kill all the whites in the north and sell the country to the United States, and they all would be rich.
Riel established himself at the new Metis provisional, capitol of Batoche, east of Fort Battleford, and developed a plan for a new Metis state. His military leaders included Gabriel Dumont, Michael Dumas and Andre Nault.
This militant activity at Batoche, with runners coming and going to the various Indian reserves, made the Mounties nervous, although Ottawa showed no such alarm. However, subposts were established at Hudson Bay Company fur trading posts to monitor the activity.
Eventually, the tense political situation exploded into an armed conflict in March of 1885 with Big Bear and Poundmakers Plains Crees participating; also involved were a few Assiniboine and Chipewyans. Oh yes, and one United States refugee Nez Perce, who was killed.
The "war" (resistance) was of short duration, though the Mounties were way outnumbered and suffered several reverses until Mounties' reinforcements and government militia arrived.
The outcome could have been quite different if more Indian tribes on both sides of the border had become involved, plus the northern Montana Metis population. The soldiers of Fort Assinniboine are credited with keeping any such large force from joining Riel's forces.
Fort Assinniboine continued in the aftermath, receiving almost two hundred members of Big Bear's band, and Gabriel Dumont and Michael Dumas, who were all given political immunity.
The Indian peoples led by Little Bear, Little Poplar and Lucky Man stayed in the vicinity of the fort, receiving temporary aid and work.
Eventually, these and other landless Indians of Montana received land on the former military reservation, now known as Rocky Boy's Reservation.
Today Fort Assinniboine is the site of a state-run agricultural experiment station and a historical tourism site in development. Fort Battleford, like Fort Walsh, is a Canadian national historic site.