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Battle At Frenchmans Butte 1885

Jim Thunder

White historians have written that the battle at Frenchmans Butte, May 28, 1885, was indecisive. They don't like to admit that the well-armed Canadian Militia had failed in their tasks.

Their military strategy had been to free the white prisoners and capture Big Bear's warriors who were responsible for the massacre at Frog Lake. They accomplished neither task. The militia was forced to retreat at Frenchmans Butte. Weeks later, it was the Indians who turned the white captives loose and gave them their freedom. The warriors were never captured but surrendered themselves voluntarily.

Now let us go back 100 years to the battle at Frenchmans Butte and take a closer look. Historians state that there were hundreds of warriors there and that the Indian rifle pits extended for two miles along the ridge. How can that be? In 1884, the year before the rebellion, the NWMP (North West Mounted Police) took an inventory of the combined camps of Big Bear and Lucky Man during the Treaty payments at Fort Pitt. There were 135 women, 162 boys, and 149 girls and 58 men who possessed 15 Winchester rifles and 20 muzzleloaders. Fifty-eight warriors and 35 rifles.

It is true that during the rebellion Big Bear's camp was reinforced by warriors from Kehewin, Saddle Lake, Frog Lake and Onion Lake. However, not all the warriors from these bands came, only a few and in small groups. The maximum number of warriors who fought at Frenchmans Butte would have been approximately 200 and not all of them had rifles. And those who did have rifles had only a limited amount of ammunition. General Strange's militia consisted of well over 300 men equipped with the most modern rifles of the time and were also backed up with a cannon.

During the battle, the militia could not advance beyond the creek because they were pinned down by the rifle fire from the Indian rifle pits upon the ridge. General Strange ordered Major Steele to mount his scouts, ride along the creek, and try to find a crossing. The general's strategy was to attack the warriors on the front and at the side, while the cannon shelled the rifle pits.

When the military scouts started riding along the creek, Wandering Spirit took four or five of his warriors from his main force and they ran along the wooded ridge in line parallel to that followed by the scouts. Major Steele and his scouts rode along the creek for approximately a mile and a half but whenever they tried to cross the creek, they were fired upon from the Indians on the opposite side.

When they finally realized that they could not cross, they rode back to the main force. Major Steele reported to the general that there were hundreds of Indians all along the ridge! They did not realize that they had been deceived by four or five warriors.

By the time the military scouts had returned some of the Cree warriors had circled in the woods and were now shooting at the soldiers from the front and side. The general knew that it was only a matter of time before the soldiers would be surrounded so he ordered a retreat.

Historians write that General Strange retreated because he did not want what had happened to Custer have happen to his force. How could the general compare Custer's last stand to his situation, when his soldiers outnumbered the warriors?

The battle at Frenchmans Butte is now a National Historic site. The rifle pits the warriors dug a 100 years ago are still clearly visible. Also, the scars of the battle can still be seen on some of the trees. A monument on the site gives a brief history of the battle. The words on the monument state that the militia "retired" from the battle. They didn't want to write that the military had retreated.