Stumbled across a few shots of a flamboyant Frontier Partisan who played a key role in the fight that sparked the Northwest Rebellion in Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1885: Gentleman Joe McKay.
I wrote of this frontier conflict in a chapter on the great Metis war leader Gabriel Dumont in Warriors of the Wildlands.
The Metis of the Canadian prairies enjoyed an epic life. The descendant of French couriers du bois (woods runners) or Scottish and English fur traders and Indian women of a variety of nations, they had fallen away from civilization to live what Victorian Age observers considered a fascinating but barbarous existence that revolved around great hunts for buffalo.
By 1885, their way of life was under intense pressure from the Canadian government, who could no longer abide their semi-civilized polity on the plains. The Metis had begun to set aside their nomadic ways and they were anxious to have their claims on the land upon which they had settled affirmed by the Canadian government. They petitioned the government in Ottawa repeatedly. And repeatedly they were ignored by a government that considered them squatters, and clearly planned to displace them as the march of civilization covered the prairies that had once been their hunting grounds.
Gabriel Dumont, who had been Captain of the Hunt and was now a respected community leader, recruited the mystic rebel Louis Riel to help plead their case. Increasingly resentful of the disrespect of the government, and fearful of losing their tenuous place in a rapidly changing world, the Metis grew frustrated, then rebellious. It would come to a shooting war.
In late March, while securing the contents of a small store at Duck Lake, Dumont’s Metis encountered a contingent of mounted police on a similar mission. The Canadian force was mounted on sleighs to cross the spring snowfields. They deployed the sleighs as makeshift barricades.
Dumont sent his brother Isidore and an elderly Cree Indian named Assiwiyin to parlay with the Red Coats. There was a scuffle and shots rang out and Isidore and Assiwiyin fell dead in the snow.
Dumont believed it was Gentleman Joe McKay who fired the fatal shots. McKay was Metis of English descent and acted as a guide and interpreter for the Northwest Mounted Police. He was a picturesque fellow — and apparently a capable Frontier Partisan. His gravestone portrays him as a sniper.
The first battle of what would become a short but sharp war didn’t go too well for McKay and his comrades.
The Metis, who held a strong position in trees and log cabins, opened fire. The constables, under the command of Northwest Mounted Police superintendent Lief Crozier, opened up with a 7-pounder artillery piece, which might have reduced the log cabins — except that the crew, nervous under fire for the first time, put a shell in before the powder charge and jammed the piece.
With his artillery down and his force being cut up by the Metis riflemen, Crozier ordered the retreat and the Red Coats limbered up their sleighs and fled, leaving a dozen dead. Their blood up, Dumont’s warriors wanted to run down the Red Coats like a herd of stampeding buffalo, but Riel stood them down.
In later years, Gentleman Joe maintained that he had fired on Crozier’s orders. I can’t find much on the man outside the incident at Duck Lake — another Frontier Partisan enigma.
*Mistawasis attended the dedication of the Joseph Brant Memorial in Victoria Square in Brantford in 1886. One Loyalist honoring another.