The question, other than why, which has plagued me was how? When the Canadian militia went west in 1885 the railroad was nearly complete and despite some hardships they were able to journey fairly quickly from the cities of the East to the wild lands in the NorthWest. Fifteen years earlier when Wolsey led his expedition to Fort Garry on the Red River it took almost 4 months by boat and portage and on foot and this was only 1/2 way. The march of the NWMP in 1973 was long and arduous for horsemen. How could a similar force of Canadian infantry have made the journey in a reasonable time and unnoticed without the railroad? It would not have been possible and there was no railway yet, at least not in Canada.
|A newly raised section of US infantry, the varnish on their coats barely dry, commence drilling at their frontier outpost. (Miniature Moulds homecasts looking remarkedly like Imrie Risley figures.)|
Now, relations between the young Dominion of Canada and its bustling neighbour to the South were rocky at times and there was still a vocal faction in the US which was in favour of annexation, at least of the North West if not the whole, but the Government had had enough war and went out of its way to discourage discord and be a good neighbour. They even offered to allow British and Canadian troops to travel west on US railroads in 1870 which would have allowed a quick trip and a relatively easy march north to Winnipeg. Naturally the Canadian government declined this affront to its young dignity. It seems unlikely that they would have changed their minds two years later but the Fenians were able to move their private armies by rail despite US government opposition. Was it possible that this Cyprus Hills Expedition was actually a privately funded, unofficial affair? That could explain the official silence, not to say cover up. But why? and why from Montreal? Who could have arranged it? It would have needed someone with connections in the North West and in Montreal and political connections to the MacDonald Government and someone with money and strong patriotic sentiments.
Now I am still reluctant to names names, especially based on speculation so I emphasize that this is mere idle speculation, fiction if you will, with no intent to besmirch the name and memory of a great Scottish Canadian who made prodigious quantities of money which he spent lavishly on the public good, endowing universities, especially McGill University in Montreal, a city he later represented in Parliament, and other public institutions, one of the driving forces behind the nearly bloodless resolution of the Red River Rebellion, the peaceful inclusion of the NorthWest into Canada and the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway amongst other things. A man who later raised and personally paid for a volunteer Canadian regiment of Mounted Rifles to fight the Boer in South Africa. We are talking of course of Donald Smith, later Lord Strathcona. You can easily google him and see the connections, personal, commercial and public with all the key players on the Canadian side. You may also see mention of the scandal surrounding the Prime Minister with hints of political contributions from railroad investors including American ones and his refusal to repay various debts by Smith incurred in the service of Canada in the North West during this time. Its not a smoking gun but it is suggestive.
Now apart from the Metis rebellion, there was another threat to Winnipeg at that time, the Fenians. Having been repulsed in the East, John O'Neil along with William B. O'Donoghue, and John J. Donnelly, (what a set of rebellious names!) decided to grab Winnipeg, hopefully in collusion with the Metis. Riel and the majority of Metis weren't interested as they basically wanted to join Canada as long as their rights and lands were respected so they rebuffed his advances. A force composed of Canadian militia and local volunteers including both English settlers and Metis was raised to meet the Fenians but the raid when it came was a farce which was stopped by the US army on their side of the border, or so we are told. There are a lot of unanswered questions such as why was no one charged or held, why was the party so small and what happened to all the men, arms and money that had been gathered? Let us note that O'Neil's base in St. Paul was not the western end of the railroad, that the US was involved in a series of Indian Wars in the west with tribes that did not recognize the Canadian-US border and who had not all surrendered their sovereignty and that the western US armies contained a lot of Irish soldiers, not all of whom were completely happy with how they were treated.
Looking at the Red River affair, the Metis support against the Fenians, the Indian vs US situation south of the border, the troubles north of the border between American citizens and native Americans and the welcome later offered to the Redcoats of the Northwest Mounted Police when they arrived, I may have been misled by my familiarity with the 1885 rebellion. Perhaps this had nothing to do with Canadians vs Metis and Indians but was rather an attempt to block a plot to establish a free Irish republic north of the 49th Parallel supported by civilian elements eager to profit by expanding north and by rogue elements of the US army in league with the Fenians or with a grudge against the Indians? Additional elements of the US armies may have been drawn in during the confusion perhaps due to misinformation leading to an unholy mess which the government was only too happy to bury.
What if the governor of the region had had advance warning and knew that the North West Mounted Police would not be able to be formed, trained and march west in time and used his contacts and money to raise a small body of volunteers to be secretly conveyed in civilian clothes by steamship and railroad from Montreal to Bismark, North Dakota, then north by wagon to the Cyprus Hills to found and garrison a fort to defend Canada's sovereignty, possibly ostensibly as HBC employees or similar? The militia in Montreal had been trained hard to face the Fenians and had several times answered the call but apart from the Guides, they did not see action. Surely there could have been found a hundred or more volunteers to go discretely west for another stab at the Irish foe? And knowing the Canadian militia it would have been hard to stop them from packing their uniforms. OK maybe not full dress complete with bearskins but it was the prerogative of illustrators and toy soldier makers to portray soldiers in their Sunday best.
Of course it is still possible that the plains Indians viewed this as a three sided conflict which would make for a messy wargame campaign, although one full of possibilities including inter-tribal conflict, but that is a question that only time and more investigation can answer.