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The Battle of Cut Knife Hill

"They fought in a way that surprised the police, who have been accustomed to look upon them as arrant cowards. They are the beau ideal of skirmishers, expose themselves but little and move with marvelous quickness."
- A lieutenant under Colonel William Otter

“When my people and the whites met in battle, I saved the Queen's men.”
- Poundmaker, Plains Cree Chief

Action at Cut Knife Creek As a result of the Northwest Resistance, the Canadian government was forced to take notice of the growing unrest in the Northwest Territories. Within a month of the Frog Lake Massacre, almost three thousand militia troops had been sent west on the nearly completed Canadian Pacific Railway, under the command of Major General Sir Frederick Dobson Middleton. In addition, about 1700 settlers signed up for voluntary service.

A company of three hundred men under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter, was sent to relieve Battleford which was under siege by Poundmaker (Pitikwahanapiwiyin)’s Plains Cree and some Nakoda (Assiniboine or Stoney) warriors. On May 2, 1885, Colonel Otter's troops descended from the train at Swift Current. They marched west up the Battle River to Poundmaker’s reserve, about 40 km west of Battleford, just north of Cut Knife Hill. They brought with them cannons as well as the new Gatling gun which could fire successive barrels instead of only one shell at a time.

Cutknife Creek, Saskatchewan, 1885 The soldiers marched all night and came upon Poundmaker's camp in the early morning. Otter’s men began firing at the sleeping camp. A small group of Nakoda warriors immediately staged a diversion by jumping up, throwing their blankets in the air, falling to the ground, and firing their weapons. The troops were taken by surprise and retreated, but soon forced the Nakoda back into a ravine.

Meanwhile, the war chief in Poundmaker's camp, Fine Day, skillfully directed his warriors from the top of the hill. To confuse the soldiers, the Cree attacked in small groups, then withdrew and attacked from another area. At any one time, there were only about fifty Cree warriors fighting the troops — the rest were protecting the women and children. Otter’s men could not be certain of the Crees’ location, and were unable to ascertain how many of them there were.

Sketch from the Winnipeg Star After seven hours of fighting, eight soldiers had been killed and approximately fourteen wounded. Realizing that his men were vulnerable and might suffer great casualties, Otter ordered them to retreat to Battleford. Poundmaker refused to let his warriors follow. In doing so, he may have prevented an outright massacre. However, Poundmaker’s role in the Northwest Resistance was not yet over.

One newspaper reported twenty-six Cree casualties, and most of the soldiers thought that at least one hundred First Nations people had died. However, according to the farm instructor who was living in the camp, only six were killed and three wounded. In spite of their more advanced weaponry, Otter and his men left Cut Knife Hill without a victory.

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