River Coteau - The Days Before
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The Battle of Grand Coteau occurred halfway between the Battle of
Seven Oaks and the Riel Rebellion of 1885. In 1813 –1818, the Métis
Nation was in its infancy. After their defeat at Batoche in 1885, the
dream of a political Métis Nation was dead. The events of 1851
demonstrated the Métis Nation at its military finest.
The Métis people of Red River were largely descended from Ojibwa and
Cree mothers. These First Nations had been in a state of warfare with
the Sioux since the French fur trade. Pierre La Verendrye had lost a
son, Jean Baptiste, in a battle between the Ojibwa and Sioux, in 1736,
and the fur traders on the Assiniboine complained about their hunters
and trappers deserting them to go to war against the "Sues."1 In the
middle of the 19th century, the issues that fed the war between the
Sioux and the Red River Métis were territory and buffalo. They were in
direct competition for the same resources.
There had been previous battles between the Sioux and the Métis. From
1840 to 1844, the Sioux had been hurting the Métis. Finally in 1844,
they had struck back and killed eight Sioux. The Sioux sent a letter
demanding compensation. The Métis had Cuthbert Grant answer it. The
Sioux sent back a reply that they were ready to make peace by taking the
warriors who had killed their young men as replacement. This was the way
the Sioux made peace— by fictive adoptions.
The events of 1851 began with the departure of the Red River people
on the spring buffalo hunt.
In June of that year, the Saint Boniface, or "main river"
party accompanied by Father Albert Lacombe going for the first time
to the plains where he was to serve out his ministry, travelled
south to a rendezvous with the Pembina party. From Pembina the
combined parties set out west on June 16 to a rendezvous with the
buffalo hunters of Saint Francois-Xavier. The parties numbered three
hundred and eighteen hunters. With them were the able-bodied women,
with children too small to be left in the settlement, for it was the
women who cut up and dried the meat, made the buffalo hide sacks and
prepared the pemmican.2The total number of persons
was thirteen hundred with eleven hundred carts.3
On June 15, the White Horse Plain
party had left Saint Francois-Xavier, accompanied by its missionary,
Rev. Louis Francois Richer Lafleche, grand vicar of Bishop
Provencher and himself later to be famous as Bishop of Three Rivers.
The party was small, numbering only two hundred carts and
sixty-seven hunters, with an unknown number of women.4
It was led, not by the chief of the White Horse Plain settlement, Cuthbert
Grant, but by a nephew of his, Jean Baptiste Falcon, a son of the
bard of the Métis.5
The two hunts rendezvoused on June 19 near Pembina. As well as the
usual election of officers, they also agreed to the route the two camps
would follow – parallel and about twenty-five miles apart. They further
agreed to a plan for mutual support in the event of attack by the Sioux.