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Indian Fall: Massacre at Frog Lake

Big Bear had just returned from the bush with a modest harvest of furs, muskrat mainly, that would fetch a few dollars for him at the local Hudson's Bay post. He was happy to be back at his camp and he was eager for the news. After all, he had finally selected a reserve, and with the arrival of spring it would be surveyed and his people could begin breaking land and planting crops. But Big Bear had barely set his things down when a messenger arrived at his door: "The Sioux Speaker wishes to see you at once."

The messenger was referring to Thomas Quinn, the Indian sub-agent for Frog Lake, a settlement that had sprung up to serve several reserves in the district northwest of Fort Pitt. It consisted of a smattering of homes and stores, a Catholic church and rectory, a blacksmith shop and a sawmill, a small mounted police detachment and fewer than two dozen white and Metis residents. Quinn was a mixed blood of Sioux descent, who spoke Cree fluently and was married to a woman from Big Bear’s band. But despite his native heritage, he was often rigid and overbearing with the Indians. As a result, many despised him.

"Big Bear," he said when the old chief arrived at his office, "I sent for you as soon as I heard you were back. Thanks for your prompt response. I was in Onion Lake yesterday whence I travelled all night. The Indians out there are in a restless mood. There is serious trouble in the east. The half-breeds and Indians are fighting whites at several points. I want you to use all your influence to maintain peace among the people here. I want you to send for Kehiwin, the chief at Long Lake, immediately so that we will have plenty of help in case trouble should come our way."

"Yes, Dragon fly," replied Big Bear, using the nickname that Indians had given Quinn. "You know I have always tried to keep my people contented and at peace. You know also that times have changed. My word as chief does not carry the weight it had of old; however, I will do what I can."

This conversation occurred on April 1, or Big Lie Day, as the Crees called April Fool's. It was an occasion for merriment, and some of Big Bear's warriors had played a trick on William Cameron, the twenty-three-year-old Hudson's Bay store clerk. Wandering Spirit, the war chief, and Miserable Man sent one of their brethren to the store to say that Quinn wanted to see Cameron immediately at the home of John Delaney, the farm instructor. When Cameron arrived, Wandering Spirit yelled, "Big lie day" and everyone had a good laugh. Several of the warriors, including Wandering Spirit, remained at the settlement until well into the evening, and harmony prevailed.

But later, back at their camp, the mood among the warriors changed. They held a war dance that went on all night. Somewhere amid the drumming, the dancing and the singing, a murderous intent arose among these ragged, displaced, angry men. It surfaced first in Wandering Spirit. "Quiet," he called out at one point. "Tomorrow, I am going to eat two-legged meat. So what do you think?"

There was no response. Wandering Spirit sat down and the dance resumed. A short while later, he spoke again. This time, he challenged his followers. "Tomorrow, I am going to eat two-legged meat. If you don't want to join me, then go home and put on your wives' dresses."

The war chief’s challenge worked. When the dance ended, Wandering Spirit and his men stole through the still, silent bush with painted faces and weapons in hand, and arrived at the settlement shortly before sunrise. Their first stop was Quinn's house. Several warriors entered the dwelling, awakening the agent, his wife and their baby. "Man Speaking Sioux, come down," Wandering Spirit shouted. Big Bear's son-in-law, Lone Man, who had accompanied the warriors, dashed upstairs and urged Quinn to stay were he was. But the agent confronted the intruders. They immediately seized him and his family and marched them off to Delaney's home.

Meanwhile, some of the warriors began rounding up the rest of the settlers. Others went to the Hudson's Bay store, helping themselves to merchandise and demanding ammunition from Cameron, who had been roused by the disturbance. The clerk gave them what little he had. Then Big Bear arrived and ordered his followers to stop the looting. "Don't to anything in the company's place," he said. "If there's anything you need, ask Cameron for it."

By this time, most of the settlers had been forced from their homes and taken to Delaney's. From there, everyone moved to the church, a tiny structure measuring about twenty feet by twenty feet and constructed of poplar logs. It was Holy Thursday, and the two Roman Catholic priests, Adelard Fafard and Felix Marchand, were determined to hold an early-morning service. Several Indians, including Big Bear, stood at the back of the church during the mass and Wandering Spirit knelt on one knee in the centre aisle, with a Winchester rifle in one hand and a lynx-skin war bonnet on his head. Others, who had uncovered a stock of sacramental wine, barged in and out of the church, shouting, laughing, banging their drums and showing signs of drunkenness. As the disruptions escalated, Father Fafard ended the mass.

For another hour or so, the warriors looted and harassed the whites. Then the Crees decided to take the settlers to their camp as prisoners. Wandering Spirit ordered Quinn to leave first. "You have a hard head," the war chief told the agent. "When you say 'No' you mean no and stick to it. Now, if you love your life you will do as I say: Go to our camp."

"Why should I go there?" Quinn asked.

"Go," said Wandering Spirit.

"I will stay here," replied Quinn.

"I tell you, go," the warrior snapped. But Quinn stood his ground. And Wandering Spirit shot him in the head.

Some of the prisoners had begun walking to the Cree camp when the first shots were fired. Seeing what had happened, William Gilchrist, an employee at the sawmill, and George Dill, an independent merchant, panicked and ran. At that, warriors gave chase and murdered both men. Charlie Gouin, a mixed-blood carpenter, was shot in the shoulder, then died of a gunshot wound to the chest as he tried to dive into a building, and John Williscraft, another sawmill worker, pleaded for his life but was gunned down when he turned to run.

John Gowanlock and his wife, Mary, also started to leave the settlement for the Indian camp. He was the next victim. Gowanlock collapsed into the arms of his wife when the bullet hit and she fell to the ground with him. "I laid upon him, resting my face on his, and his breath was scarcely gone when I was forced away by an Indian," she later recalled. "I did not seem to know what it all meant, and I went through it dazed and stunned, with only the power of my limbs left to me to follow the Indian, as he dragged me after him."

A terrified Delaney and his wife, Theresa, witnessed the murders of Williscraft and Gowanlock. A moment later, the farm instructor staggered away from his wife and gasped, "I am shot." Theresa Delaney dropped to the ground to comfort her husband, who was seriously wounded, and Father Fafard knelt beside them and prayed. Undeterred, a Cree warrior named Bare Neck pulled the trigger again. "I thought this shot was meant for me," Mrs. Delaney said, "and I laid my head upon my husband and waited. It seemed an age, but it was for my poor husband and he never spoke afterwards. Almost immediately another Indian ran up and ordered me away."

With the women removed, Wandering Spirit shot and wounded Father Fafard and a second Cree, Round the Sky, finished him off. Father Marchand was the last of nine men to die that morning. He was shot in the neck as he knelt in prayer. The Frog Lake Massacre, as it came to be known, was over in a matter of minutes. It was the work of a few men driven by alcohol and rage. Afterward, the warriors were in control of Big Bear's camp, which had grown to about two hundred lodges with the arrival of Kehiwin and three other bands of Bush Cree who had been summoned by Quinn. Along with these additions, there were the prisoners—Mary Gowanlock, Theresa Delaney, William Cameron and several Metis. But one resident of the settlement, Quinn's nephew Henry, had escaped unnoticed and fled to Fort Pitt with news of the massacre.

Big Bear had run down the road screaming at his warriors to stop. But they had paid no attention. They continued to ignore him as they debated their next move. They also brushed aside the objections of the Bush Cree, many of whom were appalled by the killings and wanted no part of any war against the whites. Indeed, the councils that followed the massacre nearly led to violence between the two groups of Crees. At one point, a chief named Seekaskootch confronted Wandering Spirit and said, "It is a shame to see how you have butchered those innocent white people down there, but you cannot scare me."

But whatever their fears and reservations, the Bush Cree dared not defy Big Bear's warriors by attempting to leave the camp. So Wandering Spirit and his councillors had their way. They would move east. They would plunder Fort Pitt. They would go to Battleford to be reunited with their brethren in that district. Then they would join what they imagined to be a general uprising aimed at sweeping the white man from the prairie.

But first they celebrated the slaughter of whites at Frog Lake. They ordered their followers to take as much food as possible from the settlement and had them round up all the cattle in the district—about four hundred head. Three days after the massacre, several Indians, led by Big Bear's councillor Four Sky Thunder, returned to the settlement to burn some of the buildings, including the church where the bodies of the two priests, along with those of Delaney and Gowanlock, had been laid in the basement. It is said that as the church burned, the smoke took the form of a man, then changed to a horse, and this was seen as a sign of bad luck. Nevertheless, the victors danced and feasted for another week and lived as they had in the days of freedom. Then they began marching toward Fort Pitt.

From pgs. 166-172 of Indian Fall: The Last Great Days of the Plains Cree and the Blackfoot Confederacy, by D’Arcy Jenish. Reprinted with kind permission of the author.

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