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Indian Fall: The Fall of Fort Pitt

Big Bear had led his people in to Fort Pitt many times: coming out of the bush in the spring, sleds laden with the winter's harvest, furs to be traded for powder and shot, axes and teapots and myriad other wonderful and useful goods; and returning in the fall, coming in off the prairie, travois loaded with buffalo robes and pemmican, provisions for the Hudson's Bay Co.'s northern brigades that worked the vast river, lake and bush country beyond the Saskatchewan. In those days, when the buffalo were plentiful, when the land belonged to the Indians and when they were a free people, Big Bear always rode or marched at the front of the column, sending his high-spirited young men ahead to fire their guns and announce their arrival.

Now he was old and weatherbeaten. He walked at the back of the column with the women and children, the elderly and the infirm. Wandering Spirit was in charge and he had brought the young men of the camp to a boil with his message about a broader Indian campaign that had already taken control of Calgary, Edmonton and Qu' Appelle, torn up the railway and burned Fort Carlton. They would join the campaign and help rid the plains of this cursed race of men who had subdued, confined and humiliated them.

They reached Pitt late in the afternoon on April 14, after a thirty-mile march, and the Hudson's Bay factor, William McLean, witnessed their arrival. The warriors, he later recalled, "fully two hundred and fifty strong and all mounted, made their appearance on a ridge north of and about two thousand yards back from the fort." The Crees sent messengers to the fort, who conferred outside its walls for about an hour with McLean. They informed him that they wanted police to evacuate the post and warned that, if the officers resisted, everyone would be at risk.

This made for a tense night at Pitt. Twenty-five mounted police were stationed there, under the command of Inspector Francis Dickens, the incompetent and alcoholic son of the famous British novelist, and over forty civilian men, women and children. They knew that the warriors camped on the ridge had massacred civilians at Frog Lake. They knew that Pitt could not be defended since it was surrounded by ramshackle fences that could easily be torn down or surmounted. And they did not have enough horses to escape.

The following morning, McLean and an interpreter went to the Cree camp on the ridge and tried to persuade them not to attack. But Wandering Spirit was in a belligerent mood. He loaded his gun, placed a hand on McLean's shoulder and said, "That will do. You have said enough. We do not want to hear anything about the Government and if you want to live, do as I tell you." The war chief let McLean know what he had in mind for the police who were holed up in the fort. "They will not be long there; we will … kill them all as if they were young ducks, but we want you to get your wife and children out of the way of danger."

In the midst of this meeting, two officers from the fort, constables Clarence Loasby and David Cowan, along with their guide, Henry Quinn, committed an inexplicable blunder. Dickens had sent them out the previous day to look for Big Bear's camp, contrary to McLean's advice, and they inadvertently rode into the Indian camp as they returned to Pitt. Cree warriors mistakenly believed they were being attacked and opened fire. Cowan was hit in the heart as he and his companions tried to gallop their horses toward the fort. Loasby was shot in the leg and the left side, but managed to crawl to safety under covering fire from his fellow officers who had come out of the fort. Quinn, who had escaped with his life at Frog Lake, managed to get away again.

When the shooting subsided, Big Bear and McLean frantically tried to negotiate a peaceful surrender of the fort. Both were determined to prevent a bloodbath, and they convinced Wandering Spirit to allow the police to leave Pitt, provided everyone else surrendered to the Indians. They gave the officers two hours to clear out, then extended the deadline an hour. As heavy snow began to fall, the police emerged, carrying the wounded Loasby. They boarded a leaky scow, while McLean's wife waited nearby with some of her nine children, acting as a shield to ensure that the Cree warriors did not attack. Then the police officers began their journey to Battleford down the ice-clogged North Saskatchewan.

Fort Pitt had fallen to Wandering Spirit and his warriors. They spent the next day looting and ransacking the place. Once they had taken what they could, they set fire to the fort, let it burn to the ground, and returned to Frog Lake.

From pgs. 172-175 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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