Whether you consider Louis Riel a hero or a villain, the history of the North-West Resistance is a fascinating one.
Now, a new online exhibit gives fresh insight into the final months of the Resistance, from the front lines in Saskatchewan to the politics in Ottawa.
The exhibit features a digitized version of a Canadian Pacific Railway ledger that contains approximately 1,000 telegrams sent during the 1885 Riel Resistance. The telegrams were sent between General Frederick Middleton’s forces in Saskatchewan and Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s government in Ottawa and give details about the Battle of Fish Creek, Cut Knife Hill, the Battle of Batoche and more.
The ledger is thought to have been made by John Myers Egan, who was the general superintendent of the CPR Western Division from 1882-1886. It appears that Egan kept the ledger when he left the CPR, and it was passed down through various family members until it ended up with a relation by the name of Garry Rollins. Rollins saw its value and donated it to the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan in 2015.
The ledger is of particular historical value because it contains first-hand accounts of the conflicts during the North-West Resistance.
“As a historian, whenever I see that, it always gives me a bit of a shiver because you’re seeing something that normally you wouldn’t get to see,” said Curt Campbell, manager of the Preservation Management & Digital Records Program at the archives.
Perhaps one of the more notable telegrams also happens to be one of the shortest. Sent May 16, 1885 from an E.W. Warner to Egan, the telegram announced the capture of Riel.
“Riel taken yesterday, Noon Three Miles from Batoche by three scouts — said he was coming in and gave himself up asked to be taken to camp at once. General Middleton gave orders to have all men keep their tents Riel’s arrival, fearing he would be shot at sight Dumont not heard from yet [government?]. Lines ok weather clear and pleasant,” reads the telegram.
Another short telegram sent to “the officers in command,” from AP Caron, minister of militia and defence, ordered Riel and the other prisoners to be taken to Regina instead of Winnipeg. It is a chilling telegram in hindsight, knowing Riel was to take his last breaths in Regina before being hanged later that year.
Campbell said a source like the ledger helps historians get a better idea of what was going on at that time. For military historians, in-the-moment information like the type of supplies needed, number of casualties, and where the men were initially buried after the battles will be of special interest, he said. The ledger also gives a big-picture look at Canada during that time.
“It will give insight to historians and to the public into how white Canada, especially from the East, were trying to project their power, their ideals, into Saskatchewan,” said Campbell. The telegrams also tell us a lot about the kind of relationships Canada had with the Metis and indigenous people during that time, said Campbell.
Several long telegrams were also sent to newspaper offices like the Winnipeg Free Press and the Toronto Globe, now the Globe and Mail, to give detailed updates on the battles.
The Saskatchewan Historical Newspapers online website was also expanded this month. The new section has more than 6,400 pages of newsprint and a digitized copy of Illustrated War News, which was published in 1885. To check out the online exhibits visit www.saskarchives.com.