A Critical Re-evaluation of the Geopolitical Objectives of the United States Government's Northern Plains Indian Wars of the 1860s and 1870s, and their Encompassing Historical Contexts.
The telegraphed dispatch arrived on Independence Day.1
A nation is 100 years old only once. Therefore, July 4 of the year 1876 was of prime significance and the festivities planned to celebrate the throwing off of American subservience to British rule were replete with patriotism and celebrities.
Ulysses Simpson Grant, the famous Union commander of the Civil War, was president. It was an election year and Grant's administration was in perpetual political difficulty over the countless charges of corruption that had ultimately forced him to forsake his hopes for a third presidential term.
However, that day's news had shed him of one of his most outspoken and prominent critics.
Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Henry Sheridan, as well as others of the military, political and corporate elite, were in Philadelphia, the nationally historic centre named for the Biblical city of brotherly love, when they read the account in the local newspapers. But the report was not one of brotherly
When queried initially by reporters both Sherman and Sheridan dismissed the story with terms like "preposterous" and "not possible." But as it became apparent that it was neither of these, they too lapsed into the shocked silence and confused outrage that was gripping their entire country.
The United States of America, One Nation Under God, had received rebuke.
Custer was dead! As were 264 of his brothers in arms!
George Armstrong Custer, golden boy of the US Army, Civil War hero, the youngest major-general in American history, had fallen victim to national ambition, vanity and corruption.
On the afternoon of Sunday, June 25, eight days earlier, he had led elements of the famed Seventh Cavalry, numbering more than 200 men, to their deaths near the banks of the Greasy Grass River in Montana Territory, at what was to become known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Perhaps hoping for a spectacular victory that would restore his fortunes as the rising star of the US Army or establish a basis for entry into politics, he had fallen to a vastly superior force of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho.
The victors that day were a persecuted and cheated minority. That they should have vengeance on their tormentors had, they were assured, been ordained by the spirit world through a holy man, tribal and war chief that they knew as Tatanka Iyotake. He had just been acclaimed the supreme chief of all the assembled hunting tribes in the unceded territory--an unprecedented honour.2 That he fought that day himself has been conclusively proven and his name, Sitting Bull, would become synonymous with the worst defeat ever inflicted on the United States military in all of its Western Indian wars.
It also made him the most famous Indian of all time.
The policies pursued by the United States government had virtually guaranteed an endless succession of armed confrontations with its indigenous peoples as it had moved steadily West toward its "Manifest Destiny." Treaties had no sooner been negotiated and signed, when plans were being laid in the highest offices of the land to renege on them. Almost everyone, from the most prominent politicians in Washington D.C., to their emissaries in the military and commerce on the frontier, was engaged in a national disgrace of lies, deceptions and thievery.
Official amoralities like the slaughter of tens of millions of buffalo to force the acquiescence of the various tribes to the government's will and the hunting down of any remnants who would not or could not comply, hardened the resolve of the remaining Natives to resist.
By the late-1860s and early-1870s the conflict in the United States had finally reached as far into its northwest as the Canadian border with the Dakota and Montana territories. Civil War veterans and other land-hungry Americans were filling up the comparatively empty Prairies behind the rapidly emerging railroads, pushing ever westward to the Rocky Mountains and beyond.
The forwardmost elements of this expansion were inevitably the most lawless and included in their ranks whiskey traders, gun-runners, buffalo and wolf hunters and outlaws of every stripe. Murder, rape and plundering was often visited on whoever might have the misfortune of crossing paths with them, regardless of race.
This was the Wild West.
This boiling cauldron of humanity spilled over the still uncertain international boundary between the United States and Canada, threatening to consume the fledgling country's claim to the nearly uninhabited Great Plains between its newly established provinces of Manitoba and British Columbia. The border was an amorphous and illusory concept with Indians and outlaws, cowboys and cavalry, fur traders and missionaries and great herds of buffalo all crossing it at will.
Possession was nine-tenths of the law and the two countries had found themselves at loggerheads on this issue numerous times in the past hundred years. Though for the most part neither one wanted to fight a war over the division of the continent, the competition between the two brothers could at times be fierce, as evidenced by the American War of Independence and the War of 1812.
Canada was also in the process of discovering that its interests and those of the British Empire did not always coincide. The Imperial government, wearying of North American colonial entanglements and always more engaged by its European affairs, was not hesitant to trade away Canadian territory in order to appease American expansionists.
In 1844, James Knox Polk campaigned for the presidency of the United States on the issue of possession of the Oregon territory and was at the same time fomenting a similar dispute with Mexico. He demanded that Great Britain forfeit all her claims on the Pacific coast as far north as Russian territory at 54 degrees, 40 minutes. In effect, he was attempting to encircle British territorial interests and place the United States in the strategic position to swallow the entirety of the continent. This immediate objective was eventually abandoned in the aftermath of the Mexican war, but Polk's sabre rattling did gain for the US all of the continent up to the 49th parallel.
Though by this time there was little doubt who would win a war, in the short term at any rate, Polk's ambitions had been tempered by the unpopularity of his dispute with their southern neighbour and the enormous internal political difficulties attendant to the acquisition of so much new territory. These problems--the status of slavery in the new tract and repeated Southern attempts to expand it north into the Free States--would be the precursor to the American Civil War.
The Civil War would provide Canada with invaluable breathing space in which to lay the groundwork for its own Confederation in 1867 and devise a solution for its massive loss of immigrants to the United States, due to the settlement of all arable farmland.3
Invoking the providence of the Biblical God of the Israelites, the infant country drew upon the Old Testament and the eighth verse of King Solomon's 72d Psalm for its name: "And He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, And from the River unto the ends of the earth."
Thus both nations, the Dominion of Canada and the United States of America--newly born in the mid-1860s--turned their gaze West and dreamt of ascendancy from sea to shining sea.
Heedless of their neighbour's aspirations, the American Presidents Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant, their respective Secretaries of State William H. Seward and Hamilton Fish, as well as countless other politicians and newspaper editors, habitually called for the outright annexation of Canada and British North America.
On June 24, 1864, as the Civil War was drawing to its conclusion, the New York Herald editorialized that soon " four hundred thousand thoroughly disciplined troops will ask no better occupation than to destroy the last vestiges of British rule on the American continent and annex Canada to the United States."
During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln had paid little attention to expansionist elements like the Irish-American "Fenians" who, after he was assassinated and Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency, were freely allowed to launch guerrilla raids into Canada. Johnson was expressing his displeasure with Britain's wartime commerce with the secessionist states and lending a supporting arm to those who might formulate a policy of armed conflict, in the furtherance of Manifest Destiny. Professedly the Fenians only motivation was to hold captured Canadian territory until Britain abandoned its occupation of Ireland. But in the nation's highest circles it was rumoured that any territory gained from Canada, especially on the south bank of the St. Lawrence River, would be permanently attached to the rapidly expanding United States.4
This sympathy had found earlier expression in a military standoff between the two in 1860 over the ownership of San Juan, an island in the straits of Juan de Fuca along the Pacific coast boundary. Twelve years later, in 1872, after the arbitration of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and at the height of the Grant presidencies, the entire island chain was given to the Americans.
As a result of this and other disputes, both countries were heavily engaged in espionage against each other and had been for years.5
Canada was likewise having difficulties in dealing with the indigenous peoples of her Western frontier. For the most part, expansion had been achieved through the Hudson's Bay Company and its trading for furs with the various tribes throughout the forested north and mountain ranges of the far West.
But its Great Plains, almost a thousand miles from east to west, were not as rich in valuable furs and the Indians who lived there tended to be very fierce indeed. This was the home and hunting grounds of the nomadic and war-like Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Sioux, Plains Cree, Assiniboine, Plains Ojibway, Blackfoot, Blood, Peigan and Sarcee, among others. Many white explorers and adventurers who penetrated deeply into this vast region did not live to relate their experiences.
War had been an increasingly present fact of life amongst these Plains tribes for more than a century, and as the technology of white civilization came into their hands they used it against their hereditary enemies, pushing them violently aside and enlarging upon whatever territory they coveted.
Up until the mid-1850s this was the last large unexplored tract left in North America. Then, from 1857 to 1859, Captain John Palliser led a Royal Geographical Society expedition that mapped the region and its Western mountain passes, finally giving the British Empire somewhat more than the tenuous claims of its 1818 and 1846 boundary treaties with the United States.6
Nonetheless, American explorers and traders had also been trying to establish links with the Plains tribes north of the 49th parallel. Regarded with deep suspicion and greeted with a shoot-on-sight policy, they were bloodily repulsed by the Blackfoot, Blood, Peigan and Sarcee from the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition in the earliest 1800s. Deflected eastward but continuing to work out of Fort Union and other outposts on the upper Missouri, the American Fur Company began enticing delegations of Cree and Assiniboine from the Canadian Plains, east of the Cypress Hills, to Washington D.C. for displays of the United States' military power as early as 1831.7
In 1853 and 1854 Isaac I. Stevens, the incipient governor of Washington Territory, led a congressionally mandated exploration party which reported directly to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, (who was soon to be the first and only president of the Confederate States of America), mapping a route for the proposed Northern Pacific Railroad. For military and commercial purposes, the American government desired to build a railroad west across the Great Plains between the 49th and 47th parallels, adjacent to its border with British North America. Along the way, Stevens, an ardent expansionist and veteran of the Mexican War, dispatched delegations which deliberately crossed the international boundary at the Souris River, the Cypress Hills and the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, penetrating British territory deeply in search of the region's Plains Indians and Red River Métis hunters.8 They successfully drew various chieftains to Fort Benton, (then still a part of the huge Nebraska Territory), for "counseling sessions with [representatives of] the Great White Father"--Governor Stevens' political mentor and close personal friend, President Franklin Pierce.9
Numerous other armed exploration, prospecting, trading and hunting expeditions swarmed over the border throughout the 1860s and early-1870s, introducing huge quantities of liquor and up to date weaponry to the region's tribes.10
However, the Northwestern Plains remained almost exclusively Indian territory and was far too distant from the effective frontier of Canada or the United States to fall under either's direct influence. It continued on as a tantalizing prize, very much desired by both.
Further east, the arrival of new settlers from Ontario at the Selkirk Colony and nearby Fort Garry, close to the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, throughout the early and middle decades of the century had caused a tremendous amount of friction between them and the mixed race Métis and Half-breed peoples. The Métis were the offspring of French fur traders and Indian women, while the Half-breeds held a British patrimonial lineage. Both groups were longtime residents of the frontier. At bitter issue were their hereditary and cultural pursuits, the apportioning of farmland and long-established trade patterns.
Ideas that had been formulated in the East, without regard for the desires of the people of the West, led to armed conflict time and time again.
Farmland next to precious water was resurveyed and expropriated by Ottawa. Free trade with neighbouring American settlements was imperiously and self-servingly curtailed by the Hudson's Bay Company. Also officially hampered were the traditional Métis buffalo hunts, while the wishes of the local Indian tribes were almost completely ignored.
Understandably, neither the mixed-race nor Indian peoples of the West were anxious to be absorbed by a government so indifferent to their desires. Ultimately, not even the whites were being consulted by Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald in Ottawa who planned to render the entire Great Plains a mere "colony" of central Canada by "swamping" it with new settlers--thereby silencing their complaints.11
When a coalition of Métis, Half-breeds and whites formed a transitional government in 1869-70 and started to enforce its own laws under the leadership of a former divinity student named Louis Riel, (following the Hudson's Bay Company's sale of its territorial rights to Canada), Ottawa sent an army of 1,200 to smash them.
When approached for the use of American rail transport, President Ulysses S. Grant refused Canada's request. Still smarting over the rejection of the United States' $10 million bid for the British Northwest, Grant had in November 1869 revealed his secret plans for the annexation of Canada to the members of his cabinet. The region north of the Great Lakes was amongst the most miserable in the world for the mass movement of troops or the construction of a railroad. Canada, Grant believed, was cut off from its West. With the purchase of Alaska from Russia only two years previously in 1867, the staunch resistance of most Nova Scotians and not a few New Brunswickers to union with Canada, and the recent arrival of a petition from British Columbian colonists urging a speedy American annexation, the continental goals of the United States became obvious and seemed assured.12
On March 5, 1870, Washington D.C.'s National Republican (the capital's primary organ of the Republican party) threatened that "[should] any attempt be made to bring the North-West colony into subjection by a resort to arms there can be but one opinion throughout the American Union, as to the duty of the United States Government in the matter, and that is to adopt the most decisive method to prevent an Indian war of extermination and protect the colony in the spirit of the Monroe Doctrine and under the claims of our common humanity against the oppression of a foreign power."13
Indeed, a single bold military thrust into this region from Minnesota, (under governors Alexander Ramsey, Henry H. Sibley and William R. Marshall, the epicentre of annexationist passion), would have gained them the entire western portion of the continent. Towards this end the American consular delegation to the disputed British Northwest at Winnipeg was a den of secret agents and spies. Headed up by General Oscar Malmros and later James W. Taylor, they were in constant contact with the provisional government, offering it advice and support and at the same time urging Washington to provide Riel with financial aid. The consulate's ultimate objective remained unwaveringly the political absorption of the Northwest.
Yet with the attainment of his goals so close at hand, President Ulysses S. Grant (plagued by the unruly Irish-American Fenians who had launched yet another of their invasions into Canada) had met his match with Prime Minister Macdonald in the Machiavellian world of cloak-and-dagger, and geopolitical skulduggery.
Forced afoot, the Canadian troops were compelled to make their arduous journey through the rugged Shield country, north of the Great Lakes. In the interim, Macdonald (a longtime spymaster against both the Americans and Fenians) was learning quickly from his mistakes and hastening to exploit the weaknesses he had uncovered. Sensing that his American opponent was desirous of appearing to the outside world as honest and aboveboard, Macdonald entered into an unwritten agreement with Riel's provisional government that would give the Métis leader almost every concession he had demanded. Then, after Riel had rejected American aid, Macdonald pounced on his Métis rivals with the Canadian Army. Ostensibly arriving to protect the settlers from marauding Sioux Indians, they instead toppled Riel's provisional government, scattering the Métis in particular further west and sowing the seeds for future conflict.
When the Fenians immediately offered to step into the breach, the bewildered Riel turned them down as well, and was at length driven by Macdonald into a prolonged American exile.14
Incredibly, at this very time the Imperial government in London had decided that Canada, if push came to shove, was expendable! Faced with the possibility of a European war in the fallout of the 1870 Franco-Prussian conflict, the British, unhappy at the prospect of tangling with the Americans as well, withdrew all of their troops from North America.
Canada--with a population of less than four million--would either gain and hold the majority of the North American continent through its own devices and fortitude, or succumb as a nation to the continental aspirations of the immensely more powerful United States of America.
In his final analysis of this first Western fiasco, Macdonald concluded that the new Dominion of Canada would have to build that "impossible" transcontinental railroad in order to retain its paid for, but as yet unoccupied, Great Plains.
In order to prevent this, staggeringly wealthy Republican party financier and Grant confidant Jay Cooke of the Northern Pacific Railroad, (as well as its other directors--state governors among them), stepped up their efforts to hasten its completion and moved behind the scenes to gain secret control of their rival, the upstart Canadian Pacific Railway.15 Cooke deduced that could he restrict access to the northern Great Plains solely to his Northern Pacific Railroad, the entire region would shortly fall into the American orbit. He had also, to no avail, tried to entice Riel's provisional government into union with the United States in 1870, and was known to associate with the Fenians. Using expatriate Canadians and the perfidious Montrealer Sir Hugh Allan, Cooke now attempted to purchase leverage over the Conservative government of Sir John A. Macdonald through clandestine campaign financing and thereby ensnare the Canadian Pacific's directorship.
Thus while a joint American-Canadian surveying expedition was establishing the exact location of the international boundary across the Great Plains, (under the terms of 1871's Treaty of Washington and the protection of Major Marcus Reno's two companies of US Seventh Cavalry, in addition to a single company of Twentieth Infantry), the most potent American power brokers were labouring surreptitiously to erase it!
After their intrigue was revealed by a disgruntled underling in 1873, Macdonald's government, seriously implicated, collapsed. The surrounding scandal forced a contraction of the London money markets, which, combined with other factors, led directly to the bankruptcy of the Northern Pacific conspirators. It also installed Alexander Mackenzie and his Liberals in office--ardently opposed to the Canadian Pacific's construction timetable, but equally as practised in the art of corruption. And for good measure, it plunged North America into the worst economic depression in its history.
Work on Canada's Canadian Pacific and the United States' Northern Pacific railroads, the vanguards of their respective country's craving for the northern Great Plains, ground to an almost complete stop. In fact, the Canadian Pacific existed in name only. Not a single mile of track had been laid! The Northern Pacific, on the other hand, was poised for its final assault on the northern Plains Indians, having stretched forth to the east bank of the Missouri River at Bismarck, in the Dakota Territory. That very winter, in March 1873, brevet Major-General George Armstrong Custer and almost the entirety of his elite Seventh Cavalry were transferred to nearby Fort Abraham Lincoln.
British Columbia, meanwhile, isolated on the west coast and lured into Confederation by the promise of a speedily completed transcontinental railroad, protested Canada's delays bitterly and was soon threatening to secede.
The United States, having been stymied on the industrial-economic front, turned its attention once again to intrigue and covert political action. Sometime in 1874 the exiled Métis member of Parliament from Manitoba, Louis Riel--now a revolutionary--was ushered into his first known secret meeting with President Ulysses S. Grant.
Despite its grandiose schemes, it was still all the United States could do to keep its hold on the Dakota, Wyoming and Montana territories in the face of ceaseless harassment from such feared Indian leaders as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Rain-in-the-Face, Four Horns, Black Moon and Gall. The Sioux were the mightiest of all the Plains Indians, numbering thirty thousand among their many tribes in both Canada and the United States. Of these, the Tetons or Lakota, with their seven separate bands and allied Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho, amounting to twenty thousand on both reservations and unceded territory, were providing the main opposition to the US Army.
The powerful Blackfoot Confederacy had already been almost entirely routed from their huge reservation in northwestern Montana Territory. For resisting American intrusions of their treaty lands they were bloodily terrorized across the border and into Canada by the US Army in January 1870.
The Lakota's other perpetual enemies, the Plains Ojibway, Plains Cree and Assiniboine, (who had separated from the Yanktonais Sioux two and one half centuries earlier), were also spread out across their northern flank and now beginning to experience the negative aspects of the rapidly encroaching white civilization.
Interspersed amongst these latter tribes were the Métis, angry with their treatment at the hands of the Canadian government and who, in previous decades, had formed treaties with the Sioux.
Such were the circumstances that the North-West Mounted Police trekked into during the drought-stricken summer of 1874, and so began one of history's greatest epics.
Formed as a paramilitary force in order not to excite American annexationist passions, but cavalry in reality, their assignment was to conclusively establish Canadian sovereignty north of the 49th parallel and negotiate the peaceful settlement of Canada's Western tribes on reservations. As these 275 men rode into the West from Fort Dufferin, Manitoba, newspapers across the continent predicted their lives would be violently cut short by the rampaging Indian tribes or outlaw desperadoes, gun-runners and whiskey traders who vastly outnumbered them and had already decimated hundreds upon hundreds of US cavalrymen, soldiers and settlers. Many deserted.
The "Mounties," as they came to be called, built a number of forts at strategic sites throughout the North-West Territories and began their task by driving out and arresting the large criminal elements emanating from the United States.
Not all of the Indians welcomed them with open arms, however. Many wanted no white men of any sort trespassing on their territory or arranging a life for them on reservations, and dangerous confrontations occurred on not a few occasions. Theirs remained a shaky hold at best. Only the Mounties' Herculean efforts at even-handed and fair dispensation of justice, and the ancient inter-tribal animosities, worked to their advantage.
War was not uncommon between the Blackfoot Confederacy and Cree-Assiniboine Alliance. At one battle on the banks of the Belly River in 1870, only a few miles from where the NWMP would build Fort Macleod four years later, over 300 warriors were slain! The Blackfoot were victorious that day, due mainly to the repeating rifles they had obtained from American gun-runners.
But at another battle between these two groups near the northeastern slopes of the Cypress Hills, a mere four years earlier in 1866, the Cree annihilated more than 600 Blackfoot!16
These Plains tribes were formidable indeed, and the Mounted Police existed exclusively at their pleasure. Few settlers displayed the daring to make their way West.
South of the border, justice had long since ceased to operate. There was no adequate equivalent to a federal police force at work, applying equal justice to whites and Indians. There was only an alliance of the Northern Pacific Railroad, Black Hills gold mining interests and the United States government itself--all determined to force the Indians onto mostly miserable reservations, take possession of their coveted lands and push the tracks through to the Pacific coast.
Time and again the two would clash as the freedom loving and ferocious Indians of the northern Great Plains found themselves forced into an ill-defined and ever shrinking enclave of foothills, badlands and prairies, 500 miles wide and 600 miles deep, with their backs to the Rocky Mountains on both sides of the Canada-US border.
Unrecognized as they have been, these were the factors that culminated in the deaths of George Armstrong Custer and 264 members of his Seventh United States Cavalry.
And while this is by far the most written of episode in the history of the North American West--and probably North American history as a whole--there remains a much deeper level of secrecy and intrigue to this epic story that has never been correlated or deduced.
Endnotes: 1 This is the subject of much uncertainty, to say the least. Just which outpost, town or city received the news of the Little Bighorn disaster first and on what date is largely unknown. According to Joseph Manzione's "I Am Looking to the North For My Life": Sitting Bull 1876-1881 (Salt Lake City, UT, University of Utah Press, 1991) it arrived in the eastern United States on July 5, 1876. Robert Utley states on page 3 of his Cavalier in Buckskins: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier (Norman, OK.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988) that it was published in Bismarck, Dakota Territory on July 6 and apparently reached that town very late on the night of the fifth. Many writers therefore feel that it was then sent out over Bismarck's telegraph wires on either July 5 or sixth.
Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1985) gives a plethora of different dates on pages 323-25. It reached Fort Ellis, Montana Territory on July 3 and probably nearby Bozeman the same day. It may have reached the capital at Helena the next day, July 4. A woman from Elizabeth Custer's hometown in Monroe, Michigan testified in 1938 that the news reached there on July 4. The Shoshone and Crow scouts with General Crook's detachment camped on Goose Creek, Wyoming Territory apparently knew of the outcome that very hour--on June 25! Short of the supernatural, this last seems astonishing.
Corroborating the July 4 date is Dr. Paul A. Hutton's in-depth military biography, Phil Sheridan and His Army (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1985). On page 315 Dr. Hutton records that "On July 4, an Associated Press wire story originating in Salt Lake City [Utah] claimed that Custer and every man of five companies of the Seventh [cavalry] were killed." Sherman and Sheridan dismissed the story out of hand. (However, Sheridan telegraphed Chicago asking for updates from the Terry-Custer column. As of July 4 and fifth there were none.)
Regardless of these conflicting dates, historically the event is wholly associated with the July 4, 1876, Centennial celebrations and particularly so with Philadelphia, the United States' original capital, where the president, Sherman, Sheridan and everyone else of national prominence had gathered for the National Exposition.
2 Utley, Robert M., The Lance And The Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co., 1993), 84-89, 133-34, 162-63. No one chief has ever held such a title or exercised such sway, before or after Sitting Bull. This excellent biography is highly recommended
3 So bad had this loss of populace grown that throughout the 1860s two people left Canada and entered the United States for every immigrant who arrived--and this was at a time of Civil War in the US!
Lamb, William K., History of the Canadian Pacific Railway, (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1977), 5.
4 D'Arcy, William, The Fenian Movement in the U.S.: 1858-1886 (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1947), 84-85. Highly placed Fenian Bernard Doran Killian, held conferences on several occasions with both President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward in 1865. Killian assured his Irish brethren that they had the administration's full support, when he returned to their third Fenian Brotherhood convention in Philadelphia later that year. These agreements were well known at the time and were published in the Fenian newspaper Irish People on February 15, 1868, perhaps adding to President Johnson's political discomfort, as he was being impeached at the time. A letter sent by Killian to Seward, dated November 18, 1865, restates their understanding and D'Arcy records that it is preserved in the archives of the State Department in Washington, D.C.
The Fenian's are also credited with assassinating Montreal Conservative M.P. Thomas D'Arcy McGee in Ottawa on April 7, 1868. McGee had been a fellow revolutionary as a young man in Ireland, but chose not to support the Fenian's actions in the New World, thus guaranteeing attempts on his life.
5 D'Arcy, The Fenian Movement in the U.S. This rare work lists many examples of British and Canadian espionage against the United States and the Fenian movement, which was allowed to thrive there in the latter half of the nineteenth century. There are also numerous instances listed of American consular employees fulfilling the same purpose in Canada.
Cole, J. A., Prince of Spies, Henri Le Caron (London, England: Faber and Faber, 1984). Here is the account of one of history's great espionage agents and adventurers, Henri Le Caron (whose real name was Thomas Miller Beach). Required reading.
6 The Treaty of Ghent, signed in 1818, officially brought to a close the War of 1812 and established the location of the international border as far west as the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. On the Great Plains the 49th parallel was agreed upon as the boundary. When the Oregon Dispute was finally settled in 1846, the 49th parallel was extended west over the mountains to the Pacific Ocean. But treaties are, by long tradition, made to be broken and the United States did not prove itself deficient in keeping faith with history's most ancient traditions.
There also exists some evidence that the Palliser Expedition was, in part, carrying out a mission for the newly formed British Secret Service. Both Captain John Palliser and the first head of the Secret Service, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Best Jervis, were contemporaneous members of the Royal Geographical Society. This illustrious exploration body provided Palliser support for his adventure in the wilds of the fabled North American West. This was actually the second time that Palliser visited the West, having travelled there on a big game hunting trip in the 1840s. He also received funding from the Imperial government's Colonial Office. Maps of these almost completely unexplored regions of the British Empire were the Secret Service's most coveted prizes, and this was Palliser's primary objective. In fact, at this time--the mid and late-1850s--the British Secret Service was known as the "Topographical and Statistical Department" (widely acknowledged as its first "modern" incarnation) and maps were its fundamental reason for existence. Their worth can be measured by the fact that Palliser's maps served as the primary geographical documentation used by the North-West Mounted Police when they set forth to occupy the North-West Territories for Canada in the summer of 1874. Like his American contemporary, Washington governor Isaac I. Stevens, Captain John Palliser was also carrying out some early analyses of the most sensible route for a transcontinental railroad. His considered opinion would have delighted his Yankee counterparts, as he was convinced that it had to run south of the Great Lakes.
Here, combined with the contemporary American continental manoeuvrings, lies the stuff for some great but yet to be written historical novels.
Andrew, Christopher, Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (Kent, England: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1987), 30-33.
7 Lavender, David, Let Me Be Free: The Nez Percé Tragedy (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1992), 68-69. Read also Alvin Gluek's Minnesota and the Manifest Destiny of the Canadian Northwest (University of Toronto Press, 1965), chapter two "The American Approach," particularly pages 26-40.
This was during the first administration of "Old Hickory," President Andrew Jackson. Jackson, famed as an annexationist, had volunteered to lead an American army of conquest against Quebec in the War of 1812.
The chief partner of the American Fur Company on the upper Missouri River at this time was Kenneth McKenzie, who had been born a British subject and was a former employee of the Hudson's Bay Company. Having left the HBC's employ under less than amicable terms in 1821, (after a short period of service at probably their farthest western Prairie outpost, on the Souris River), McKenzie and several others formed the short-lived but profitable Columbia Fur Company. Their success in the almost entirely unexplored (and unexploited) Mandan Indian territory attracted the attention of John Jacob Astor, who owned the much larger and rival American Fur Company. In 1827 Astor absorbed his annoying competitors for $20,000 but retained the outposts and services of the energetic and experienced McKenzie, as well as his partners. The American Fur Company and Hudson's Bay Company had been at daggers drawn over their respective country's western territorial ambitions almost from day one, especially in the hotly contested Oregon Territory. It was the Oregon Territory that became the foremost centre of dispute between the United States and Great Britain, through their mercantile surrogates the AFC and HBC, for the next twenty years.
Nicknamed the "King of the Upper Missouri," McKenzie's Fort Union (originally Fort Floyd) became the focal point of the AFC's attempts to usurp the HBC's control of the northern Plains fur trade. (McKenzie opened another fur-trading post much further west at the confluence of the Marias and Missouri rivers, which he modestly named Fort McKenzie, aimed at usurping HBC trade with the Blackfoot Confederacy. Lamentably, in 1837 a riverboat landed there carrying smallpox, which decimated the local Blood and Peigan bands--six thousand tribesmen perished.) There can be no doubt that it was the formerly British Kenneth McKenzie who beguiled the Canadian Plains Cree into their Washington, D.C. journey in 1831.
To this day, the only Cree who live in the United States, (on the Rocky Boy reservation in northern Montana, gained for them by the famous Western painter Charlie Russel), are the refugees of the Big Bear band that fled there following the failure of Louis Riel's 1885 Provisional Government of the Saskatchewan. The Cree have never been considered "American" Indians, even though the United States did manage to coax them into signing the 1855 Judith River Treaty.
8 Wheeler, Keith, The Old West: The Railroaders (Alexandria, VA.: Time-Life Books Inc., 1973), 30-33.
Irwin, Leonard B., Pacific Railways and Nationalism in the Canadian-American Northwest, 1845-1873 (New York, NY: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1968), 18.
Anderson, Frank W., Fort Walsh and the Cypress Hills (Saskatoon, SK.: Gopher Books, 1989), 23.
9 Whitney, David C. and Robin Vaughn, The American Presidents-Seventh edition (New York, NY: Prentice Hall Press, 1990), 111-18. Franklin Pierce, whose term in office ran from 1853 to 1857, grew notorious in the United States as the last president who wanted to expand slavery into the Northern States. He was also an impassioned disciple of the Manifest Destiny doctrine who fought in the Mexican War of 1846. In fact, Pierce's Inaugural Speech made clear that he would stop at nothing to obtain "certain possessions not within our jurisdiction." (Throughout this period of history it was the Northwest, not Mexico, which was by far the primary object of American desires. Irwin, Pacific Railroads and Nationalism, page 9). Governor Stevens of Washington was a man after his friend the president's own heart. (Stevens was also a personal friend of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis.) But because of lingering tensions from the Mexican War and attendant regional jealousies, Pierce was forced to expend the lion's share of his efforts on the acquisition of territories in northern Mexico. His protégé Isaac Stevens' domain, the much less populated Pacific Northwest and northern Plains, was nevertheless much encouraged by Pierce's attempts to provide public land grants to the railroad consortiums that would open their region of the North American continent to massive immigration, for the heavily documented purpose of extending the United States' border northward.
Fittingly, when former President "Handsome Frank" Pierce died in 1869 he was widely regarded as a traitor because of his ceaseless opposition to the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves. To this day Pierce is generally viewed as a dangerous demagogue, almost entirely out of step with his times.
Washington governor Isaac Stevens was eventually killed while serving on the Union side in the Civil War.
10 Hildebrandt, Walter, and Hubner, Brian, The Cypress Hills: The Land and Its People (Saskatoon, SK: Purich Publishing, 1994), 35-52. A fascinating and valuable addition to our understanding of this beautiful, almost completely overlooked, yet extremely significant region of the northern Great Plains.
11 Sprague, D. (Douglas) N., Canada and the Métis, 1869-1885 (Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1988). Read all of chapter two "Acquiring Canada's First Colony," especially pages 24 through 30.
Prime Minister Macdonald frankly admitted this tactic in a letter to an Ontario member of Parliament named J. Y. Brown, dated October 14, 1869. In it he wrote:
"In another year the present residents [of Manitoba] will be altogether swamped by the influx of strangers [Ontarians] who will go in with the idea of becoming industrious & peaceable settlers."
On February 9, 1871, Macdonald confessed the "colonial" intentions of his government and the moneyed, imperialistic interests he represented in another letter to Brown, who had been complaining about the political actions of Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Adams G. Archibald.
"If the original intentions of keeping it [Manitoba and, ultimately, the yet future provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta] a Crown Colony, to be governed by instructions from Ottawa, had been carried out, we would of course have been responsible for his [Archibald's] actions " [italics added]
Macdonald's colonial plans did not, however, meet with universal acceptance from the other men who helped form the Canadian Confederation. Liberal leaders Edward Blake and Donald Mills, in particular, displayed much more democratic leanings than the dictatorial Macdonald and his Conservatives, recommending that the North-West Territories not be subjected to colonial status but be brought into the nation commanding "the same rights of local self-government, free from federal control, as is enjoyed by the provinces of this Dominion." A number of other politicians from Quebec and the Maritimes agreed, to no avail.
12 It is intriguing to note that a motion tabled in Congress on December 9, 1867, by Minnesota Republican Senator Alexander Ramsey offered the Hudson's Bay Company $46,000,000 for the northwest!
13 Stanley, George F. G., The Birth of Western Canada (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1975), 126.
14 Riel had created an almost inextricable political difficulty for himself by executing an Ontario Protestant named Thomas Scott, a trouble-making bigot who had publicly vowed to assassinate the Métis leader. Had he simply left Scott to cool his heels in his prison cell until all the difficulties with Ottawa had been ironed out, things might have been resolved very differently. But the Ontario Liberal party used the issue in a mercenary political fashion to add a religious flavour to the demands of Riel's provisional government, and Prime Minister Macdonald (not one to let an opportunity slip by) moved immediately to impose a military solution on the situation suitable to the majority of his Eastern electorate. Riel was forced to either voluntarily submit to a term of exile from Canada or be charged with murder. Riel chose the exile, and was heavily induced in that direction by a bribe paid to him by Macdonald and the Hudson's Bay Company director Donald A. Smith.
15 Berton, Pierre, The National Dream: The Great Railway 1871-1881 (Toronto, ON: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1970). Mr. Berton, Canada's most perennially popular historian, covers this Jay Cooke annexation scheme in some detail. The volumes Mr. Berton has produced on the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway should be on every Western historian's list of required reading, as they reveal a tremendous amount of what can only properly be described as North American Western frontier history.
16 As far as the writer of this work has been able to ascertain there were never any all-Indian battles of such horrifying magnitude, in terms of combatants or losses, on the Plains of the United States. The eminent American historian Robert M. Utley has stated that the Battle of the Little Bighorn leads the list of western American battles, in regard to numbers killed. (Original reports from the unprovoked 1864 massacre of Cheyenne Indians at Sand Creek, Colorado by Colonel John M. Chivington's gaggle of frontier army regulars and volunteers set the number of Cheyenne slain at 500. The total has since been reliably revised downward to a still miserable 123.) The Red Ochre Hills Massacre of March 1866 between the Plains Cree and Blackfoot, with its reported 600 slain, makes both the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Sand Creek pale in comparison. This number is taken from Frank W. Anderson's Fort Walsh and the Cypress Hills. Walter Hildebrandt's and Brian Hubner's The Cypress Hills: The Land and Its People, however, states that this battle resulted in about 300 dead. Neither work cites any reference, though the accounts are taken from Isaac Cowie's The Company of Adventurers (Toronto, ON: William Briggs, 1913), pages 313-15. Little investigation of this conflict has been carried out. The Red Ochre Hills are southwest of present-day Swift Current, Saskatchewan.
Another Canadian Plains Indian battle also easily compares with the Battle of the Little Bighorn: 1870's battle on the banks of the Belly River, near present-day Lethbridge, Alberta, where it is estimated that over 300 Cree, Ojibway, Assiniboine, Peigan and Blood were slain.
In addition, Custer's and Sitting Bull's fight on the Little Bighorn is completely eclipsed by the slaughter of approximately 420 Blackfoot by the Cree, just south of Fort Edmonton in 1824.
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