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OUR LITTLE group left the fort as darkness began to descend. We had a small wagon pulled by two fine horses, and on it we had two tents, blankets, extra clothing, and some food, mostly flour, tea, and bacon. The three younger children, under six, rode on it and the rest of us walked. All was quiet now and it was beginning to rain.

We tramped up the familiar hill and on the far side met Dad and made camp. All the prisoners huddled together and soon it began to snow. We were all apprehensive, for the young braves, ignoring the chiefs, had begun looting the fort. All through the night we could hear their wild shouting and the intermittent discharge of guns. However, our predi­cament didn't compare to that of Henry Quinn. He was the young man who had escaped the massacre at Frog Lake by crawling on his hands and knees and who, just this very day, had evaded capture when the police scouting party he was leading was shot down by the Indians.

Quinn had spent most of the day hidden in the bush, and he was totally unaware of the abandon­ment of the fort by the police and ourselves. In the darkness, young Quinn emerged from his hiding place and began crawling toward the silent fort.  He reached it just before the Indians. Henry was flab­bergasted when he jumped over the barricade and found the fort deserted. As he was attempting to fathom the unexpected situation, he saw the Indians approaching and he hid himself in an empty barrel.

Soon the looting was in full swing. The Indians went on an orgy of destruction, many of them drunk. Quinn peeked out and saw them dancing about, arrayed in white man's clothing and women's dresses. It was like an exuberant Halloween party except that he knew the revellers would not be satis­fied with harmless pranks. A fire started, and Quinn saw his options as being burned alive or scalped. He sprang out of hiding and joined the celebration. Blackening his face at the first opportunity, and grabbing an old coat and a big hat, Quinn blended with the party. He danced and hollered all through the night undetected. In the dawn the hung-over Indians discovered their un-enlisted recruit. A court martial was convened and Henry had much difficulty establishing himself as a civilian and escaped being executed only by the intervention of the Woods Cree. Henry was then brought up the hill to be with the other prisoners. The looting continued for two days. Hardly any attempt was made to conserve food for the hungry days ahead. Finally, everything went up in smoke. My sisters helped Dad salvage some food, the family Bible, and a copy of Robinson Crusoe, both of which were often read aloud as we sat around our camp fires while on the trail.

Amelia played the last tune on the organ, frighten­ing the wits out of some of the Indians who thought it was the hiding place of Machie Manitou - the Bad Spirit. They chopped up the organ and set fire to it.  The Indians drank all the eau de cologne and Dr. Thomas' Electric Oil in our pharmacy, and ate sar­dines with honey. They found Stanley Simpson's spare glass eye and found a one-eyed Indian to use it. They were extremely disappointed when he an­nounced that he couldn't see, and Stanley explained it was because it was the wrong colour - blue. Just the same the Indian continued to use it, and proudly popped it in and out to the envy of others.

On the third day, we prepared to move off. The Indians took all our good horses and gave us a few scrawny ponies, so feeble they could scarcely pull our wagon. Everybody walked except for the toddlers, and we had to push the wagon over the rough spots. Snow and slush covered the ground, often up to our knees. We made slow progress, back to Frog Lake where the Indians intended to unite all their forces.

Before we started, the prisoners were divided into groups and placed in the custody of Indian guar­dians. Ours was Little Poplar, an American Indian, who had attached himself to Big Bear's band  the previous year. He wore a Stetson hat adorned with plumes, and in his broad leather belt carried a Bowie knife and two six-shooters. He was not of a friendly disposition. He had nine wives, all sisters whom he had married successively as each reached woman­hood. He was soon to demand Amelia as his 10th.

As we neared Frog Lake, Stanley Simpson, a young Hudson's Bay Company clerk who appointed himself guardian of my sisters, shouted, "Girls, look to your left," but we all saw what he wished us to avoid. It was the" body of a dead man, propped up against a tree, just as though he were resting, with a pipe in his mouth. Other bodies were scattered about. Dad buried them the next day. The pretty Roman Catholic church was a smouldering ruin now, burned down by Four-Sky Thunder with the bodies of two priests inside. We camped at this grisly scene for two weeks while the Indians held pow-wows with drumming and chanting all through every night. Here we met James K. Simpson and William Bleasdell Cameron, both well known to us as employees of The Bay, and now, like ourselves, prisoners. We also met Mrs. John Gowanlock and Mrs. John Delaney, now widows, whose husbands had died in their arms in the massacre. They were both "owned" now by two gallant half breeds who had purchased them for $30 and two horses from their Indian captors and had saved them "from a fate worse. than death."

It was while we were at Frog Lake that Dad and James Simpson began their intrigue with the Woods Cree which eventually led to our freedom, and which also prevented the Indians of northwest Sas­katchewan from joining forces with Louis Riel in his new republic at Batoche, some 250 miles away. The. Woods Cree were reluctant warriors who constantly restrained their brothers, the Plains Cree, from stepping up the tempo of the war. A stealthy liaison was established between the Woods and my father who was regularly informed of the plots being hatched in the war council. They, in turn, all inter­posed the arguments they had heard from Straight Tongue, as they called Dad.

Well over 1000 Indians were now assembled. There were more than 200 lodges, and some 300 armed men. While the councillors held their inter­minable sessions, the social program reached new heights for all the rest. Every night there was danc­ing.  Very few of the Indians now wore the fine raiment of the past, the beautiful beaded buckskins which they had worn in the dances a few years ago were now gone. They danced in a weird assortment of clothing taken from The Bay posts. One Indian called Dressy Mari wore my Dad's silk top hat, adorned with ribbons, and Stanley Simpson's black silk frock coat. Another wore the gown which my father had given my mother to attend the governor-general's ball.  It had cost $100!

      The passing of two weeks had seen spring come, and we were living in relative comfort. We knew nothing, of course, of what was happening on the plains. On May 4 our scouts came in with exciting­ news - messengers were arriving from Poundmaker, the Plains Cree chief who was besieging Battleford. The messengers signalled their approach by mirrors flashing in the sun while many miles away, and we waited impatiently. They brought news of the Battle Of Cut Knife fought on May 2. They didn't know the outcome of the battle but they had seen the beginning of the fighting, and they were greatly impressed by the bravery and effi­ciency of the soldiers. They told of how the soldiers moved swiftly, unencumbered by women and chil­dren, and it was their opinion that they couldn't be beaten.  Fortunately for us, the messengers didn't know that Cut Knife was a victory for Poundmaker.

After this news was digested; depressing for the Indians but refreshing for us, Big Bear made his last speech. He stood in the centre, with all of us in a circle around him and, assuming his stance as an "Imperial Caesar," said: "You have heard the report brought to you by the couriers that were sent to bring hews from Poundmaker.  It is an alarming one for you. What are you going to do about it? You were in a hurry to commence trouble and now you have it. The soldiers of the Queen have come to fight you, and very shortly you will likely have to show how you can fight them." Big Bear then announced he was retiring from his office, and after that attended no more war councils. His place was taken by his son, Imasees - the Evil One - who, with Wandering Spirit, led the war faction in subsequent councils.

The next day we took to the trail, a straggling caravan, miles in length, with scouts far ahead, and a rearguard pushing along the stragglers. The mili­tant Indians scolded us for our slow progress, re­minded us of the efficiency of the soldiers who "travelled without women and children."  We had some 700 women and children, 44 prisoners, and 300 warriors.  We marched forward - Wandering Spirit was confident that the soldiers would flee.

With the retirement of Big Bear, camp discipline began to deteriorate and so did our security. Threatening incidents occurred as the young braves began eyeing my sisters. One evening, Little Poplar and some of his thugs herded us into a clearing some distance from the camp where he announced that the white women were to become the wives of his braves. He said Amelia was to be favored by becoming his 10th bride.  

"When mother heard this, she collapsed, sobbing.  My sisters were attempting to console Mother - as Little Poplar stepped up to Dad and demanded, "Do you agree?"  When Dad replied, "Of course not," Little Poplar drew his Colt revolver and pointed it at Dad's head. Mother fainted, and the silence was broken by a click.  But it wasn't Little Poplar's Colt. Unnoticed by us, a friendly Indian, Blue Skybird, had joined the group, and he was now standing, pointing his rifle at Little Poplar's chest. The two men stood watching each other, then Blue Skybird said in a very slow, deliberate voice, "You shoot The Master and you are dead."  Little Poplar kept his revolver on Dad and demanded, "What is it to you?"  Blue Skybird replied, "Never you mind, this is my affair."  That was all that was spoken. The two just stood there, until an older man appeared and took Little Poplar by the arm, saying. "Come, come, my son," and we walked back to our tent.  Mother, when she came to, couldn't believe we were still alive.  

On May 24 we observed the Queen's birthday with bannock, bacon, and tea. The Indians, also were preparing for a celebration, they were going to have a Thirst Dance, a grand ceremonial requiring the construction of an arena, some 200 feet in circumference.  Inside the celebrants were to dance without any refreshment until they collapsed. The occasion was significant as a source of reconcilia­tion, much needed, because the Woods and Plains Cree  were definitely suffering strained relations.

When the arena or lodge, which required some days to construct was completed, scouts came flying into camp with the news that the white man's army had occupied Fort Pitt and was now moving toward our  camp.  Immediately,  the  dance  lodge  was  torn down,  and  the  announcement  was  made  that  the  Indians  would fight  them  at  Frenchman's  Butte,  a knoll on the banks of Red Deer Creek, about three miles away. We marched there right away, and Wandering Spirit supervised the defence. The white prisoners were put to work digging entrenchments. As morn­ing dawned on May 28, the Indians were ready in a formidable position. As the troops were sighted, prisoners and camp followers were ordered to the rear and 300 rifles were readied. We were kept under guard and Dad offered $1,000, to any one who would carry a message across the lines to tell the troops of our whereabouts. He had a large piece of cotton which, he said, could be used as a white flag of truce, assuring the Indians that the white men would not fire upon it.


Wandering Spirit heard of this conspiracy and convened a trial, accusing Dad of breaking his pledge to stay "to the very end." The war chief out­lined the case, placing special emphasis on the pen­alty - death. Dad's defense was conducted by two Woods Cree - the best, he later said, that any man could want - who announced they would shoot the first witness for the prosecution. Wander­ing Spirit's informer declined to step forward, and the war chief dismissed the case.

After the trial Wandering Spirit ordered the pri­soners to be moved some miles farther back. It was now 50 days since we had marched out of Fort Pitt, and the troops were in total ignorance of our fate. As there was no means of sending a message, and assuming that we would soon be in retreat, Dad tore the frontispiece out of Robinson Crusoe and wrote this message:

To John Rose McLean

    From his Uncle

Look for us up the hill

N.W. from here

W. J. McLean & family

all well 27th May 1885

May God protect us

He fixed the paper in a tree branch, undetected by the guards. On the day after Dad had written out the message, Major-General T. B. Strange launched the assault on Frenchman's Butte.

The position obliged the troops, 200 strong, to attempt a frontal attack and heavy rifle fire from the entrenchments pinned them down. Later, when a field gun was brought into action, the shrapnel had a demoralizing effect on the defenders. Wander­ing Spirit complained of the unfair use of "the gun that spoke twice," referring to the shell bursts fol­lowing the initial discharge. The Indians began to abandon their position but Strange, unaware of this, ordered a withdrawal. The battlefield was evacuated almost simultaneously by the contesting forces, the Indians in flight to the north, while the troops re­tired to the south to await reinforcements. As Strange said, he wasn't "going to commit a Custer."

The Indian retreat was a rout. Equipment was left behind and our baggage train severely reduced. Army scouts, pressing our rearguard, found evidence of the demoralized enemy the next day, and with the discovery of our Robinson Crusoe message, har­ried our flight with renewed vigour. For three days and nights, under constant alarms, we were driven deeper into the bush.

Shoeless, in rags, and actually starving - the Indians ate their dogs - we pressed on. My father carried my two youngest brothers, one on his back, and one in his arms, almost every mile of the way. At times we were up to our knees in muskeg - no wonder the troops couldn't catch us. We shook off our pursuers.

The split between the war and peace factions was now clearly defined, and at night an increasing number of tents, including ours, were erected as close as possible to the peacemaker, Chief Cut Arm. Wandering Spirit, his dreams of military glory ended, left the war party. Little Poplar joined Imasees to bolster the war party and, as we rested on the shores of beautiful Loon Lake; recuperating from our ordeal in the warm spring sun, he outlined the future strategy. He said we would retreat so far into the bush that the troops would never be able to follow.  After resting in the wilderness, Little Poplar said the Indians would emerge and capture Battleford and Prince Albert, killing all the whites. After that, they would-take a' steam paddle-wheeler down, the river and across the big lake to Winnipeg where they would join up with the Metis, and kill all the whites. Then they would take a train to Montreal, kill all the whites there and, finally, take a big boat to England; and kill everybody there. After that, he said there would be no more whites to take the country away from the Indians. As Little Poplar was advancing this plan to the war party, Chief Cut Arm was addressing the peace party there was to be no more fighting. He agreed with seeking sanctuary in the bush until the terms of peace could be established. He again re­peated his pledge that he would shoot the first man who killed a white man.

We were awakened early the next morning by gun fire, first a few shots, and then volley after volley. Chief Cut Arm stepped out of his tent to see  whether the time had come to enforce his pledge and was instantly felled by a bullet. The Mounties, under Col. S. B. Steele, were upon us!  In an instant, camp was broken and we were herded quickly across a ford, some 60 yards wide. My sister Kitty crossed twice, rescuing a little Indian boy who had been left behind. As she carried him across, a bullet grazed her neck and; she turned her head. A cry went up, "My God! There are white prisoners there. Stop the shooting!"

That night in our dismal camp; the Woods Cree mourned their great chief. Now, they took a hostile view of events. The red coats, they charged, were killers who did not want peace - look at what they had done to Cut Arm. The chief’s body had been recovered from the field and now awaited burial. They called a council and decided that five white prisoners at least must die in retribution - they selected the McLeans, as Dad was considered the nearest equivalent to the dead chief.

Stanley Simpson came to our tent and informed us, expecting to die himself as he was considered part of our family. He said almost nonchalantly; "l guess it's all up with us now," as we saw the armed Indians approaching. "Good-bye."  I am reputed to have added my observation, although I can't remember saying anything, "We can't let those darned Indians see us crying." This apparently evoked laughter. However, it didn't last long because the Indians meant business.

As usual, there had to be some talk and and argu­ment and once more Straight Tongue spoke, coun­selling the need to demonstrate mercy in order to win the clemency of the Queen. While this was taking place, Louisan Mongrain, who had been elected to replace the dead chief Cut Arm, ap­peared. His speech was short. He, said, "I renew Cut Arm's pledge, I will shoot the first man to kill a white man." That did it, the firing squad disbanded.

Cut Arm was buried with fitting ceremony, and the next day the Woods Cree finally separated from the warlike Plains. Both parties went on diver­gent ways but still deeper into the bush. By subter­fuge, all the prisoners managed to join the Woods. But despite this friendly company, the rigours of the trail were increasingly severe.  Mother collapsed and became hysterical. This caused great consternation among the Indians. As the Indians gathered in con­versation with Dad, Kitty intruded, "You are brave men, you have broken a woman's heart."

This melodramatic sarcasm had a profound ef­fect; there were murmurs all round, yes, they agreed, matters had gone too far. The peace council was summoned, with Dad and Stanley Simpson in at­tendance. The Indians agreed that peace must be established right away but they vowed that the gov­ernment couldn't be trusted, and they therefore insisted that Dad should personally intercede on their behalf with the Great Mother.

They asserted my father was a personal friend of the Queen and when he demurred they produced the snuff box which my mother had buried inside Fort Pitt.  On the lid in handsome engraving was the name of the Marquis of Lorne who, as governor-general, had given the box to Dad.  The Indians said Lorne was the Queen’s son-in-law. The box was given back to Dad in return for his promise to act as a mediator.  Should the soldiers not agree to peace then Straight Tongue would go and see the great man whose name was on the lid.

With that agreed, the calumet was produced, now greatly decorated, and the peace pipe ceremony commenced. It was passed first to Dad with the words, “I think this is what you want.”  Dad answered, “You have understood me rightly.” With each puff, friendship and trust were renewed.  When the ceremony had ended, the pipe was given to Dad to present to General Frederick Middleton, “The Master of the Soldiers”.  Wandering Spirit stood up with his hand outstretched to Straight Tongue.  “You have kept your word true," he said.

On June 15 - we began the 140 mile journey home, living off the country. We reached Fort Pitt on June 24, 70 days after leaving it. Only a few blackened beams marked the site of the Fort, and between it and the river we saw rows of neat, white tents of the new Canadian army.  General Middleton accepted the peace pipe and sent it back to the Indians with suitable gifts.  

In our little sector during the final convulsion perhaps some 1,000 persons were directly involved. The death toll was 10 whites and about the same number of Indians - and so the West was won or lost, according to which side you were on.  The leading figures disappeared into history books as minor references. Little Poplar and Imasees escaped to the United States. Big Bear was the last to surrender, deserted by all except his son, Horse Child, my friend, a boy of eight like myself. At his trial, Big Bear gave his last noble oration, and white man's testimony was called in his defence. He got three years and died soon after his release.  Wandering Spirit, his once black curly locks now white, walked through the camp on the eve of sur­render, announcing, "All you who wish to see Wandering Spirit for the last time, come and see him now." He then retired to his tent and sat alone in silence. After the curious had viewed him for some time, he leaped to his feet and with a mighty cry plunged his knife into his chest. He missed his heart, and lived to hang, refusing any defence at his trial for the killing of Tom Quinn in that mad plot of Big Lie Day. He answered simply, "The charge is true."

At the mass execution, eight Indians were hanged, while the others chanted war songs. Wandering Spirit crooned a love song for his wife. Inspector Francis Dickens left the North West Mounted Police and died within a year, still chained to that awful name his father, Charles Dickens, had once given him, Chicken Stalker.

      Dad lived to become chief trader of the Hudson’s Bay Company in charge of Lower Fort Garry, the only stone fort still standing in the West.  My mother recovered and gave birth to a girl.  But I’m the only one living who walked the whole way on the last war trail of the Old West.    

The McLean children - photo taken 1895 - our author Duncan in back row - second from the left.

Full slate - back row - standing - left to right = Helen, Duncan, Kitty, Bill

Second row -seated - left to right = Freda, John, Elizabeth, Angus, Amelia

Front row - seated on floor - (these children born after the events of 1885 described in the account)
Murray, Lillian, and Lawrence