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Above: Fort Pitt just before its surrender April 14, 1885 - the North Saskatchewan River flows right to left just behind the buildings.

The Last Hostage: Duncan McLean, 91, tells how Indigenous people took Fort Pitt, NWT in 1885, and held he and his family and others captive for 70 days.

By Duncan McLean - as told to Eric Wells - Weekend Magazine No. 32, 1968


THE OLD WEST, the west of free-wandering Indians who ofttimes engaged in bloody clashes, ended in 1885. That is the opinion of Duncan McLean of  Winnipeg. And he should know. McLean, 91 at the time of this writing {1968}, was taken prisoner, along with his eight brothers and sisters and father and mother, when eight years old. For 70 days, through the spring and summer of 1885, he lived with the Indians as they made their last futile fight for the old freedoms. After 1885 the Indians never again freely roamed the plains. They were penned up in reservations and the Old West was gone forever.

It began at Frog Lake on April 2, 1885, when Big Bear's Plains Cree, led by war chief Wandering Spirit, massacred {most of} the whites there. Ten days later, 250 Cree braves appeared in front of Fort Pitt, a Hudson's Bay Company post on the North Saskat­chewan River, between Prince Albert and Edmonton, and after two days the fort was surrendered. Then the long captivity of the McLeans began.

The main Indians in this little-known and often mis-represented drama were:

 Big Bear: "A man of great presence and dignity and when he talked with his right arm free and the left holding the blanket across his chest, with the dramatic gestures and inflections natural to him, he reminded me of an Imperial Caesar, and one of the most eloquent and impressive speakers I have ever listened to." He was paramount chief of the Plains Cree and while he wanted freedom for his people. He opposed the killing of the whites.

Wandering Spirit: "A copper Jekyll and Hyde ... in his war dress he would scare the life out of you. He painted his face yellow and wore a lynx skin bonnet with five plumes for enemies killed ... but at other times he was amusing or racked by re­morse." As war chief of the Plains Cree, he fired the first shot at the Frog Lake massacre.

Cut Arm: "I will shoot the first man who kills a white man," this brave Chief told his Woods Cree who, while opposed to war, reluctantly joined the Plains Cree in their last campaign. Ironically, the first Indian shot by the whites when a relief column caught up to the Cree was Cut Arm.

I am the last living prisoner of the hostiles.  My personal memories of those days are, for the most part, of the good times. Everything wasn't bad, and I remember the camp fires at night, bacon and bannock, my Indian friends, and my family. There were nine children, and my mother and father, on that long trail through the wild bushlands of northern Saskatchewan - and we all survived. For many years after our family tales were re-told, in more comfortable circumstances, as old friends came to visit us, particularly to see my father, William J. McLean, Chief Trader of the Hudson's Bay Corn­pany, and the man who surrendered Fort Pitt on April 14, 1885.

The terror began when young Henry Quinn crept into the fort. He had been at - Frog Lake when Wandering Spirit and his warriors struck. His uncle, government agent Tom Quinn, was killed. But Henry led a charmed life. Fifteen minutes before the killing started - which left nine whites dead, two men dying in the arms of their wives - Henry was led away on some pretence by a friendly Indian.  He looked back and saw his uncle shot down.

Henry then crawled on his hands and knees through the bush to what he hoped would be the safety of Fort Pitt, 30 miles away. He reached us in a state of complete exhaustion; his tongue was so swollen he couldn't speak. But when he could speak, he recounted the hor­rors of Frog Lake, and we speculated on what our fate would be when Wandering Spirit arrived in his yellow war paint, Winchester in hand.

At that moment, the two most important men in the fort were my father and Inspector Francis Jeffrey Dickens of the North West Mounted Police, who headed a detachment of 23 men. Yes, Inspector Dickens was the son of the famous novelist, Charles Dickens. He was a gentle but diffident man, old before his time at 41. His sight was failing, his deafness increasing, and he stammered. He wasn't short of courage but he was a product of civilization and believed in compromise.  He had, some years before, arrested an Indian thug in the Blackfoot country, and he wouldn't release his man although under threat by the thug's companions. He temporized by calling in Crowfoot, the Blackfoot chief. Crowfoot declared the man innocent, and Dickens freed him. That incident - the Mounties get their man but let him go - and the subsequent events at Fort Pitt re-established the sobriquet con­ferred on him by his father.

It was given him by the novelist on some happy occasion when “Frank”  impressed his father with his ability to stalk grouse in England. Not even Charles Dickens could have suspected that the affectionate nickname of those halcyon days in the woodlands of England would return to haunt his boy in the wilds of Saskatchewan - it was "Chicken Stalker."

My Dad, at 44, was a veteran of more than 20 years on the plains, having left his home in Scotland at 19 to join The Company. Mother was the daughter of the celebrated Alexander Murray, who built Fort Yukon for Sir George Simpson, governor of The Bay, in the 1840’s.  Sir George told my grandfather "go as far west and north as you can," and he did, and built Fort Yukon right under the Russian's noses. Later the new government of Canada had to give it up, however when the United States bought Alaska.

Anyhow, I want you to know that my Dad knew the Old West and the Indians. The Indians called him "The Master" and often “Straight Tongue," a resplendent name indeed when awarded by an Indian.  These two were responsible for the 44 civilians and 23 Mounties in the fort. And it might be noted that Fort Pitt was really not a fort.  It was simply an old Hudson's Bay trading post of six stout build­ings arranged in a square. Its palisade had disappeared long ago, and, now all it had was a fence on one side to contain the livestock.

But; aware that the showdown was only a short time away, we erected barricades with wagons and, logs. We cut loop-holes and arranged a hospital for the wounded. Dad also began building a boat. It was a big flat-bottom scow. The river was just breaking up from the winter's ice, and Dad's plan was that he would send all the civilians it would carry down the North Saskatchewan to the safety of Battleford, some 100 miles away.

But life in the fort, despite our preparations and despite Henry Quinn's tales of massacre and destruction, was not completely unhappy; we held nightly sing-songs around the organ which Dad had hauled 1,000 miles overland for my mother. The Lost Chord, as I recall, was a favourite during those tense days.

On April 13, the 10th day after we had received the frightful news of the massacre and had stood to arms, Inspector Dickens said he intended to send out a scout­ing party to discover the whereabouts of our enemy. Dad and others opposed this on the ground that the police would be ambushed, but a party went out. It consisted of two constables, Cowan and Loasby, and Henry Quinn was sent along as their guide.

Our sentries kept watch, expecting to see them come galloping back at any moment for we were certain that the Indians were within a few miles. It was just after - lunch when the alarm was raised. There on the hill were horsemen - but they were Indians! They were slowly, silently assembling about half a mile away - 250 braves in full war regalia. There was ab­solute silence inside the fort and out on the plain, until somebody said, "There's Wandering Spirit."

After a while, some of the riders detached themselves from the group and began descending onto the flats. "Here It comes now," somebody shouted, and then, came the crash of rifle shots. But the Indians weren't­, shooting at us. In a most casual manner, they were slaughtering the cattle we had driven out of the fort and they butchered them right before our eyes and retired back up the hill for a feast.

Late in the afternoon a man approached the fort. He was a half-breed prisoner bearing a note, requesting tea, tobacco, and a blanket for Big Bear. Dad and Dickens complied with this request. They also agreed that they would use every effort to persuade the Indians to return to their allocated reservations. Toward evening a small group approached and sat down about 300 yards from the, fort, while one man came up to the barricade. He requested that a conference be held outside the fort.

Dad walked out and was greeted in a friendly manner. He returned in a short while with the information that the big chiefs wanted a conference the next day. He said the Indians had given their word that we would not be attacked but our garrison stood to arms throughout the night. Our scouts did not return, The next morning at 10 o'clock Dad went out to meet his Indian escort, He disappeared over the hill. Time on such an occasion seems  endless but it wasn't long before we heard wild cries and war whoops, and, worse, gun shots.

Suddenly the plain was alive with action. Our scouts were returning, pursued by mounted Indians. There was Wandering Spirit firing from the saddle. Constable Cowan toppled from his horse, and Constable Loasby catapulted onto the ground when his horse collided with an Indian pony. Loasby got up and started to run toward the fort but was hit by a bullet. Both men now lay as dead.

My sister Amelia was the first to shoot from the fort to give Loasby covering fire when an Indian approached him with his knife upraised. Four Indians fell but one crawled up to Loasby and took his revolver. We thought he was dead, but the policeman sprang to his feet and started running again towards us. Stanley Simpson, a Hud­son's Bay employee, jumped over the barricade and helped drag him in. Although seriously wounded twice, Loasby recovered. Cowan was dead and lucky Henry Quinn had escaped again.

When our scouting party had unexpectedly run into the Indian camp between them and the fort, Quinn immedi­ately headed for the nearest bush for cover. Employing the same tactics he had used to escape from Frog Lake, he hurled himself from his horse and took to his hands and knees. His bush craft saved him but we didn't know that at the time; we assumed he was dead or captured.

Meanwhile, the sudden shooting had broken up, the big chiefs' meeting with Dad. They had just finished reciting their grievances against the government, and assur­ing him that it was the government they intended to fight, not the Queen, when shouts ran through the camp, "The red coats are coming to kill us!" This misadventure of the scouts running, into the Indian camp ended, any hope of pacification.   

When Wandering Spirit returned from supervising this skirmish, he carried his· smoking. Winchester and ordered Dad to raise his arms. Dad thought his. last moment had come but the war chief raised one arm himself -still cradling his rifle in the other - and demanded that my Dad swear by the Spirit Above - and, lowering his arm, by the Spirit Below - that "you will not desert us." In return for this, the war chief said he would spare the lives of the civilians. As for the Mounties, he spoke of them with contempt, saying, "We are going to finish them off before the sun goes down. We will kill them like young ducks."

Dad attempted to soften their attitude toward the police and finally, through the intervention of Big Bear, achieved a compromise. The terms were that the civilians could surrender and join the Indian camp as hostages, while the police were to be allowed two hours to evacuate the fort but that, apart from weapons and ammunition, they were to leave their horses and supplies behind. In this there was some reasonable hope: the civilians would at­tach themselves to Big Bear; the Mounties could escape in the scow; and the Indians would get the fort.

Just as these details were being made clear in the chiefs' council, shouting and turmoil enveloped the camp again. Dad feared that the young braves bad launched an attack. Instead he heard the chiefs call out, "Make way for the brave young mistresses," and two of his daughters, Amelia, 18, and Kitty, 14, walked into the circle.

In later years, I've been asked many times how two young girls were permitted to walk out unescorted from a fort, manned by Mounted Police, into an Indian war camp, filled with braves, inflamed by their bloody deeds in a massacre, and who, on that very day, had shot down a patrol, and killed a policeman. His body still lay on the plain, now horribly mutilated, within sight of the fort. Had you known my sisters, you would understand.

First, nobody could have stopped them - not the Mounties, the Indians, or my mother. They wanted to know what had happened to my dad. Kitty simply jumped over the barricade and said she was going to find out, and Amelia said, "I'm going with you." We saw them go, hand in hand, and disappear over the top of that bill.

It would require a book for me to tell you about my sisters. They were well-read, musical, smartly dressed, and knew all about the white man's world, for they had at­tended boarding schools. But they knew the glory of the West too; they had seen the buffalo, and knew the In­dians before the bitter days. They could ride, shoot and spoke Cree, Saulteaux, and Sioux. They knew the Indians intimately and, as Kitty correctly noted in her journal, "we never locked our doors or windows until the arrival the settlers.”

Amelia and Kitty once were chased by three Indians near Fort Qu' Appelle, who shot some arrows at them. Dad said, "Our Indians wouldn't behave like that." And sure enough they weren't our Indians - they were Sioux fleeing U.S. Army vengeance, who had crossed "The Medicine Line" (the border) into the sanctuary of Canada. The arrows  were recovered and we had them for years.

When Sitting Bull - the Sioux chief who, with Crazy Horse as his war-leader, wiped out Custer and his army at Little Big Horn in 1876 - visited my father in Fort  Qu'Appelle, he was told what the Sioux had done to my sisters. Sitting Bull gravely explained that it wasn't the Indians who were so much different, but rather the white man. He apologized, however, and struck up an instant friendship with young Kitty. Before he returned to the United States, he paid us a farewell visit and sent for Kitty, He laid his hands on her head in a most solemn manner and said. "May the gods be good to the best white friend I ever had," and then placed a long string-of brass beads around her neck. Dad told her later that Sitting Bull had given six ponies to a trader for the beads.

Amelia was less of a tomboy than Kitty, more reserved; but a daring rider and dead shot. My mother also had rapport with the Indians. She was called "Medicine Woman" and attended them for all their ailments. Mother stuffed the bowels back into horse which had been gored by a buffalo and it recovered.  She was considered a great healer. Soon after my birth, she placed me in the arms of a squaw to be "adopted," after the custom of the plains, as a spiritual son replacing an Indian boy who died at birth just as I was born.

I tell you this about my family as a digression, but I think it necessary if you are to comprehend their actions. So when Loasby was brought wounded into the fort, mother and my sister, Elizabeth, immediately set about dressing his wounds; and naturally Amelia and Kitty, went off to find Dad.

The commotion we heard as they disappeared over the hill was the shouting of the Indians, "There's bravery for you! That's courage!" Some inquired, "Aren't you afraid?" Standing in their midst; Amelia raised her right arm in the Indian fashion, to command silence, and in perfect Cree asked, "Why should we be afraid of you? We have lived together as brothers and sisters, for many years. We speak the same language. Why should we be afraid of you?" The big chiefs then came forward and welcomed them, and took them to where Dad was being held, Dad then outlined to them the terms of the proposed surrender, explaining that under no circumstances would he be freed because of his pledge to Wandering Spirit. He said he was willing to accept the protection of Big Bear for all the civilians and that, it was a much better prospect than waiting for death in the fort.

    He said he was chiefly concerned about the Mounties, for he was sure they would  all be killed unless they managed to escape down the river on the scow he had built. The Indians had decided on the two hour ultimatum and everyone had to be out of the fort by ten. Finally, he emphasized that mother and our family had to be the last to leave, otherwise, he believed, the Indians would attack immediately and prevent the Mounties from escaping.

When my sisters, to our joy, returned unharmed, these were the terms presented to everybody in the fort. The civilians unanimously accepted Big Bear’s protection, and the Mounties began tarring the bottom of the boat.  While the Mounties were at work, the civilians packed clothing and food to take with them into captivity.  We dug a hole and buried our family treasurers, including a large silver snuff box, given to my father by the Marquis of Lorne, then governor-general, which, many days later, was to be an- important factor in our subsequent fortunes.

Mother prepared a litter for the wounded policeman, strapping him onto her own mattress. Towards sundown, the Mounties, with much shouting and swearing, rushed towards the river. Their horses were harnessed to the big scow and they had 400 yards to cover to launch it. When the Indians on their hill top perceived this mode of es­cape, they came charging down on horseback, firing random shots.

But they were too late. The Mounties were all aboard, including the wounded man, and were pushing far out into the ice floes on the rushing river.  The weather was cold and they had a long perilous journey ahead of them. Inspector Dickens, less descriptive in his writing than his famous father, entered only four words in his diary, “Very cold weather. Travelled.”

The only Mountie left at Fort Pitt was the dead Constable Cowan, a bright red spot on the drab winter grass.  And in the centre of the abandoned fort stood my mother with her nine children gathered around her.  At sunset she was the last to leave, and thus began the long weary trail which lay ahead of us … she was in her mid-30’s and she was pregnant.

Continued - click here

Duncan McLean       - at Lower Fort Gary - 1968 Wandering Sprirt   - a War Chief of the Plains Cree Big Bear - centre with single plume hat - trading at Fort Pitt  a year before the events recounted in this story.

Sub-Inspector Francis Dickens (5th to the left - above white triangle) pictured with his command at Fort Pitt - 1884.