Many may be familiar with the story of Robert Armstrong, the 19th-century hero who accepted the surrender ending this country’s historic rebellion, but fewer still know the tangled destiny that launched him from his Indigenous origins into one of Canadian history’s most iconic chapters
About a dozen women were waiting for Robert Armstrong when he came down the hotel stairs for breakfast.
“Is this a delegation?” he asked, a little slyly.
When the answer came, no amount of cheek could keep him from being startled: “We want to kiss the man who captured Riel,” the women said.
Such was life as a hero in 19th-century Winnipeg. According to the account, published in a magazine nearly 40 years later, Armstrong was there because he had recently accepted Louis Riel’s surrender near Batoche, in what is now Saskatchewan – the beginning of the end of the 1885 Indigenous uprising known as the North-West Rebellion.
The cooing of fans notwithstanding, Armstrong did not “capture” anyone. When Riel encountered the three scouts sent to find him, the Métis leader handed over his revolver and a note of surrender. But Riel was as feared in Western Canada as he was hated back east. A young country was now in Robert Armstrong’s debt.
For the dark, playful man from Prince Albert, the moment was a kind of apotheosis. In nearly two decades on the edge of the American Wild West, as a wagon train escort, buffalo hunter, ranch hand and party to a government land survey, Armstrong had dedicated himself to the conquest of the frontier.
If that path in life reached its greatest glory near Batoche, holding Riel’s pistol, or in the Winnipeg hotel with the women lined up, it was also an odd destiny for Armstrong to fulfill. A destiny that made the secret he carried with him all the more peculiar, and all the more tangled in irony.
As the amateur historian John Pihach has discovered, and written up in a recent book from the University of Regina Press, Robert Armstrong was a member of the Wyandotte tribe of Oklahoma. His real name was Irvin Mudeater, and he was the son of a prominent chief. The person who formally ended the most dramatic assertion of Métis nationalism in Canadian history was himself an Indigenous man with mixed ancestry and a culturally hybrid background.
The story of how Mudeater became Armstrong sheds light on a key chapter in Canadian history during the country’s sesquicentennial, as the country grapples with so many of the colonial legacies and questions of identity that Armstrong, or Mudeater, represented.
A neighbour’s story
If Armstrong’s strange triumph in Batoche was a long time coming, the truth about who he really was arrived like a bolt from the Prairie sky.
Mr. Pihach, a retired weather observer who lives in the small Saskatchewan city of Yorkton, is about as unlikely a conduit for the story as it is possible to imagine. His area of interest is not Indigenous history, but Eastern European genealogy (he is the author of Ukrainian Genealogy: A Beginner’s Guide) and seems a little stunned that he has brought the true identity of Louis Riel’s captor to light.
“I still feel it’s very uncanny that I ended up writing this book,” he said by phone earlier this year.
The result, Mudeater: An American Buffalo Hunter and the Surrender of Louis Riel, is the product of enormous research and careful reconstruction of shadowy events, but it began with a conversation between neighbours.
The man who lives next door to Mr. Pihach told him one day that his great-grandfather was Robert Armstrong, the man who brought Riel into custody – and that Armstrong had written a memoir.
The neighbour, Trevor Wheeler, had been telling people this for years, to general skepticism. But Mr. Pihach was intrigued. Armed with a copy of Armstrong’s manuscript and the Mudeater name – which does not appear in the memoir but was known in the family – he began his research. What he found would connect the story of Irvin Mudeater to the wider story of North American colonization at every turn.
The present-day Wyandotte Nation’s history stretches back to early colonial contact in Southern Ontario, when the tribe was assembled from remnants of the Wendat Confederacy and neighbouring peoples that had been decimated by European disease and war with the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, in the 17th century.
Called the Wyandot, they spent much of the next two centuries moving south and west from their Great Lakes homeland, all the while facing harassment, lopsided land exchanges and attempts at assimilation from American settlers and the U.S. government. They settled first in Ohio, then in Kansas and finally in Oklahoma, where a faction within the tribe changed the spelling of its name, and where the Wyandotte Nation is based today.
A history of displacement
By the time Irvin Mudeater was born, in 1849, the Wyandot “were really integrated into the white world,” Mr. Pihach said. “They were farmers, they were businessmen, they were Christians.”
Irvin’s father, Matthew Mudeater, was typical in this respect. During the tribe’s Kansas period, he became a respected but controversial chief who argued in favour of forgoing tribal affiliation to secure U.S. citizenship and developed a reputation among the white residents of Kansas City as a sort of gentleman farmer. He even seems to have had a variety of peach named after him – the “Wyandotte Chief.”
Mudeater’s ancestry, like his cultural patrimony, was marked by the tribe’s history of displacement: the family traced its roots to a white man who had been adopted by the tribe as a child after being left behind by settlers during a Wyandot raid. The boy was found keeping himself alive by eating soapstone from a creek bed – hence the name Mud Eater, according to one genealogical account that Mr. Pihach uncovered. Mudeater later married a Wyandot woman – Matthew and Irvin were his descendants.
If his family background gave him a head start, Irvin’s path into mainstream American society was eased by the Civil War, when he began accompanying wagon trains to Colorado and Santa Fe that were left exposed to Indigenous raiders by the army’s deployment in the south and east. When a Cheyenne war party attacked one of Mudeater’s convoys, it served as a kind of baptism into the violent and bitterly prejudiced world of white frontiersman; he took his first scalp after that skirmish, and in his memoir began referring to Indigenous people as “Redskins” thereafter.
After dropping out of a college preparatory class in Ohio, he returned to the Plains and joined Bill Cody in hunting buffalo. This way of life could be a romantic lark – while working as a guide for rich Europeans on pseudosafaris in the Wild West, Mudeater wrote that he gained 20 pounds on a six-week excursion with the voluptuary “Lord Sanford” – but it was also laced with menace.
The depletion of buffalo herds by overhunting in these years was among the leading instruments of American domination over the Indigenous Plains tribes, whose diet, religious rites and nomadic lifestyle were all intimately tied to the animals. Serving the increasingly efficient and mechanized hide-tanning industry, Mudeater followed herds from state to state as they were driven into extinction.
The real Robert Armstrong
When Mudeater came to Canada in 1882 – probably to escape the law after shooting a man in Montana, Mr. Pihach tells us – he took a new name: Robert Armstrong. There are two theories for why picked that one. Mr. Pihach thinks it may have been the name of a colleague on an old surveying crew.
But Lloyd Divine, tribal historian of the Wyandotte Nation, has another theory: Robert Armstrong, he says, was the well-known name of a five- or six-year-old boy who was captured by a Wyandot war party in Pennsylvania and adopted into the tribe near the end of the 18th century, like Mudeater’s namesake. Later in life, the young man turned down the chance to return to his birth family and lived the rest of his days as a Wyandot, becoming an important figure in the tribe, Mr. Divine said, “because of his ability to communicate back and forth across cultures.”
The two families were close, so Irvin Mudeater would have known about the original Robert Armstrong, Mr. Divine believes. This leaves the possibility that, just as he was slipping decisively into white North American society, Mudeater chose as his alias the name of a man who took the opposite route, out of the white world and into tribal life.
“Even though he was in Canada denying his heritage, I would think that by using the name Robert, he was honouring his heritage,” Mr. Divine said. “That could have been the constant reminder to keep him grounded, to always remind him of who he was and where he came from.”
Why Mudeater began passing as a white man, and when, is bound to remain a mystery: his memoir does not mention his Indigenous ancestry at all. Government officials, in any case, were not interested in the elaborate quilt of his identity – they wanted to know where he was from. In Canada, he started telling census-takers he was an English Presbyterian, and then Irish.
He preserved his tribal membership for years after his rechristening, though, and eventually went to live among his people in Oklahoma for a decade, leaving his Canadian wife behind. Mr. Pihach concludes, of Armstrong’s shifting self-identification, that he “represented himself variously and according to the community in which he was living at the time.”
This was more than the usual frontier myth-making, the kind that saw men with checkered pasts reinvent themselves with tall tales in the wide open West. For Indigenous people of Armstrong’s time, keeping secrets or maintaining evasions about the nature of their identity was a familiar experience.
“At the time, there would have been a lot of Indians, not necessarily just Wyandots, but all the tribes had a lot of difficulty surviving and retaining their identities,” Mr. Divine said. “There was a lot of persecution, there was a lot of trouble you could get into simply for being Indian. It was very, very, very common up until the 1960s and even 1970s, for people to deny their heritage and simply live as whites. So if Irvin did that, he would have been one of many.”
“It’s such a painful history,” the Cherokee scholar Eva Marie Garroutte, author of the 2003 study, Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America, said in an interview earlier this year. “And it’s not like it’s history, either.”
A strange question
Of all the people who were deceived about Robert Armstrong’s real identity, his family members do not appear to have been among them. He married a fellow Prince Albert resident named Adeline Burke in 1888, a woman reputed by family lore to have Inuit blood. Although he was going by Armstrong at the time, and his background “wouldn’t have been widely known” in Canada, his wife “probably knew” about his past, Mr. Pihach believes.
An understanding of their Indigenous ancestry certainly trickled down to his descendants. Mr. Pihach spoke to four of Robert Armstrong’s grandchildren or great-grandchildren and while “their daily consciousness is not Indigenous,” he said, “there is no concealment of their Indigenous roots.”
Mr. Wheeler, who described himself as “part Indian,” evidently sensed the tension between this heritage and his great-grandfather’s role in arresting Riel, who many Indigenous Canadians consider a hero.
“He probably didn’t think that they were going to hang him,” Mr. Wheeler said, almost apologetically.
But Riel did hang, for treason, in November, 1885 – and Armstrong showed little remorse. When the execution made the benign circumstances of his arrest reflect badly on prime minister John A. Macdonald, who had called for the charge of treason, Armstrong signed a letter published in The Prince Albert Times falsely claiming that Riel was preparing to flee when he was taken into custody.
Armstrong cherished the spoils of his role in ending the rebellion. After the arrest, he looted a horse that had belonged to Riel. Later in life, a silver medal bearing Queen Victoria’s image that he received for his service in the rebellion was one of his prized possessions, Mr. Pihach reports. In 1925, the Calgary Stampede made Armstrong a guest of honour.
But even the rollicking, amoral frontiersman seemed, in old age, to experience some sense of disquiet at having helped lead Riel to his controversial fate. During Armstrong’s retirement in Calgary, when he lived with one of his daughters, a Riel biographer asked him whether he would have arrested the Métis leader had he known what was going to happen.
Armstrong replied that he was following orders. Mr. Pihach has also reproduced the rest of his reply: “‘That is a funny question to ask me. … I was sorry for Riel. If I had had my way, there would have been no hanging of such a man. But that is a strange question to be asked.”