THE WAY THE WEST WAS REALLY WON.
OR LOST, DEPENDING UPON WHETHER YOU WORE SHOES OR MOCCASINS.
John Wayne or James Stewart had precious little to do with it.
This is a small portion of my families past history. I am of French,
Cree, Scot, Cree and Chippewa descent.
I am from the French “voyageurs” and Scot fur traders
that married the Indian women from the various western tribes.
These people were in the far west long before there was a western
United America or Canada or any borders to restrain them.
I have added to the beginning this item taken from the parish
burial records at St. Xavier Parish in what is now Winnipeg Manitoba,
In 1851, St. Xavier was also known as Grantown or “White
Horse Plain”. The parishes combined were known as “the
Red River Settlement”.
Jean Baptiste Malaterre was the brother to my great grandfather,
Louis Malaterre. They were also uncles by marriage to Louis Riel,
as their niece; years after the event here, would grow to marry
Gabriel Dumont it is said was at this battle as a boy of about
thirteen or fourteen years old.
My great grandmother, Isabelle (Fayant) Mc Gillis was in the
group that came to the rescue, she also was about thirteen, and
she claimed to have helped tend to those that had been wounded.
Isabelle Fayant would later marry a nephew of, Marie (McGillis)
Grant and the Cuthbert Grant of this story. Isabelle Fayant and
Angus McGillis were my greatgrandparents.
This event took place in what is now the state of North Dakota,
southeast of Minot. If you were to look at a map, find, Velva
N.D. go south on highway No. 41 about 20 miles and you will find,
Dog Den Butte. (maison de chein).
MAL À TERRE Jean-Baptiste
d. and s. 13 Jul 1851*
Witnesses Pascal Breland, Charles Montmini
* Burried near the rivière des Chayenne, killed by the
Sioux, feet and hands cut, scalped, with a broken scull, his brain
lying on the ground. He had gun wounds, 67 arrows and three knives
sunk in his body.
The exact quote: «Nous soussigné avons inhumé
près de la rivière des Chayennes le corps de l'infortuné
Jean Baptiste Mal à terre, massacré le même
jour par les Sioux. Il fut retrouvé les piés et
coupés, la chevelure levée, le crâne cassé
et la cervelle répandue sur la terre et ayant dans le corps
en outre des trous coups de fusil, soixante sept flèches
et trois couteaux plantés.»
This is copied from the book, “Cuthbert Grant of Grantown”,
written by Margaret MacLeod and W. L. Morton. McClelland and Stewart
Limited. 1974. No plagiarism is intended.
In June of 1851 the St. Boniface or main river party, accompanied
by Reverend Albert Lacombe going for the first time to the plains
where he was to serve out his ministry, traveled south to a rendezvous
with the Pembina party. From Pembina the combined parties set
out west on June 16 to rendezvous with the bullalo-hunters of
Saint-Francois-Xavier. The parties numbered three hundred and
eighteen hunters. With them were their able-bodied women who cut
up and dried the meat, made the bullalo-hide sack, and prepared
the pemmican. The total number of persons was thirteen hundred
with eleven hundred carts.
On June 15 the White Horse Plain party left Saint-Francois-Xavier,
accompanied by its missionary, the It was perhaps well, as it
was inevitable, that they should have remained so . In 1851 the
precarious Reverend Louis Francois Richer Lafleche, grand vicar
of Bishop Provencher and himself later to be famous as Bishop
of Three Rivers. The party was small, numbering only two hundred
carts and sixty-seven hunters, with an unknown number of women.
It was led by a nephew of Cuthbert Grant, Jean Baptiste Falcon,
a son of the barb of the Metis.
It seems evident that the Metis of St. Boniface and Pembina
and those of Saint-Francois-Xavier were acting independently of
one another, as Hind says they were in 1852. It may be conjecture
that the cause of the separation was the rejection by the Metis
of St. Boniface and Pembina of Grant's leadership following the
troubles surrounding the Sayer trial of 1849.. But they has to
plan mutual support in the attack by Sioux. It was therefore important
to give them no advantage.
The rendezvous was kept safely on June 19 or 20. A general council
was held, not only for the usual election of officers, but also
to discuss "the route the two camps would have to follow
to keep apart sufficiently from one another so as not to injure
each other's hunt."
The decision was made to divide, but to move, as a single camp
moved in parallel columns, along parallel routes at twenty to
thirty miles from one another. The parties were to keep in touch
and come to see anther's help in the event of attack by the Sioux.
There was an express agreement, clearly something novel, that
on no pretext would any Sioux be allowed to enter either camp.
After the council, both parties advanced out into the plains
toward the southwest, veering off a little from the lands of the
Sioux in so doing. According to Lacombe's account, they traveled
and hunted together, or in close proximity, for some days, until
perhaps June 28.
When they did separate, it does not appear whether the White
Horse Plain party was to the south or north of the main party.
It is natural to suppose that it would have taken the northern
route, as the one less exposed to attack by the Sioux, and the
rest of this narrative rest on the assumption ,which admittedly
could be erroneous. The main party encountered some Sioux shortly
after parting company but, according to the previous agreement
with the small party, did not allow them into camp, and chased
them away. The Saint-Francois-Xavier camp was warned at once.
For some days after that encounter, which must have taken place
about June 30, the two parties traveled and hunted without incident.
Their parallel routes must now have been towards the land between
the headwaters of the Sheyenne River and the big bend of the Souris.
The main party was traveling near the Maison du Chien, or Dog
Den Butte, a well-known landmark on the outlying ridge of the
Coteau de Missouri that was known as the Grand Coteau. They were
on the march on Sunday, July 13, by permission of Lacombe in order
that on Monday they might run some buffalo which had been reported
to be near. While the camp was on the march, a small party of
Sioux tried to cut off some stragglers.
The evening before, Saturday , July 12, the Saint-Francois-Xavier
camp reached a spot on the Grand Coteau of the Missouri which
cannot now be determined precisely. On the assumption made above
that it had followed a northern route, and assuming also that
the two parties had kept roughly parallel after their separation,
it would be twenty to thirty miles north of the Maison du Chien.
The scouts had just topped the first "butte." and
the party had just climbed to the top of the first terrace of
the Coteau, when they sighted a large camp of Indians. They at
once signaled a warning to the carts below. Falcon promptly ordered
camp to be made on a spot that could be easily defended and sent
five hunters forward with a spyglass.
These rode boldly and carelessly , Metis-fashion, to the to of
the nearest high bluff. There they saw that the camp was that
of a very large band of Sioux (the number of warriors is estimated
in the various accounts at twenty-five hundred).These figures
are no doubt greatly exaggerated , but serve to indicate how impressed
all the Metis and their companions were by the size of the band.
The five scouts, having scorned concealment, now scorned any
other precaution. They proceeded to ride towards the camp. At
once a party of twenty Sioux rode out to meet them. When the two
met, the Sioux surrounded the Metis and invited them to go the
camp in a way that left no doubt that they were considered prisoners.
There seemed to be nothing for it but to go peacefully . But two
Metis suddenly kicked their buffalo-runners into a gallop and
broke away and escaped under fire back to the carts . Three- James
Whiteford, one of the three McGillis boys in the party, and one
Malaterre -were held by the Sioux.
The Metis camp, when they saw the fugitives riding hard down
the slope, sprang to arms. Falcon and Lafleche called the hunters
together; with the boys of twelve year old, there were seventy-seven
men who could handle a gun.
The Sioux who had pursued the two escaping hunters then approached
the camp of the Metis and parleyed with some of them .
They insisted that they had no warlike intentions and that the
three captives would be freed on the morrow. They would come the
next day with the prisoners and only a small party , in the hope
of receiving some presents.
With that they rode off, but Lafleche and the Metis were convinced
that they were insincere and meant trouble.
They therefore began to make ready to receive an attack and,
when three Sioux horsemen were seen approaching, they sent ten
mounted men to meet them from observing the camp and its defenses.
The customary courtesies were exchanged, but the Sioux kept at
a distance and departed. The Metis were convinced that a surprise
attack had been intended then and that they had foiled it.
The decision was now taken to fight without further parley,
even if this meant, as they feared it did, that the three captives
would be killed. It was thought better to sacrifice them and save
the party than risk all.(29) While they did not know how many
Sioux they faced, they knew the camp was a very large one; it
seemed to them unlikely, careless as the Metis customarily were
of odds in conflict with the Sioux , that they would be able to
beat off the attack of hundreds of the boldest fighters on the
They therefore resolved to sell their lives dearly, and if possible
to hold out until succor came from the main party. The carts were
placed in a circle, wheels to the center with the shafts tilted
in the air.
Poles carried to make frames on which buffalo-meat was to be
dried were run through the spokes to make the carts immovable.
Packs, hides, saddles, and dried meat were piled between and under
the carts to complete the barricade.
The purpose of the barricade of carts was not to form shelter
behind which the hunters would fight. It was meant to fence in
the cart-ponies and oxen and to break up the charge of the Sioux
horsemen. The carts formed a corral, but gave little protection
against gun-fire or arrows. For that purpose trenches were dug
under the carts, and here the women and children took shelter.
But the men dug trenches, or rifle pits (here one meets the rifle
pits of Batoche) out in front of the barricade. There purpose
was to hold the Sioux out of range of the carts and draft animals.
The women and children were reasonably safe in their trenches
, but if the draft animals were killed the party would perish
on the plains without further attack by the Indians.
After darkness two men were sent to carry the news of the threatened
attack to the main party and to ask for help. Although the camp
police kept a special guard that night, Lafleche and the hunters
stayed up to watch the eclipse of the moon, of which he had warned
them, spread its black shadow over the silver slopes of the Coteau.
The next morning , Sunday , July 13, "having exhorted and
confessed all those who presented themselves, "Lafleche celebrated
Mass and distributed the sacrament "to all who desired to
When these final preparations were completed, the scouts were
seen to signal that the Sioux were coming. When they appeared
along the crest of the Coteau, it was not few horsemen promised
the night before , but an army -the whole manpower of the great
Sioux camp, their war-ponies of piebald and pinto and chestnut
vivid on the skyline, their gun-barrels and spear-points glinting
in the fierce sunlight of the plains.
At a signal the Sioux host halted .Was it possible they did
not mean to attack? The Metis had held their buffalo-runners ready
in the cart circle for a sally. Now thirty of the hunters rode
out to accost the Sioux and warn them to keep their distance from
The three prisoners could be seen in the midst of the Sioux.
McGillis, on seeing the thirty approach, suddenly kicked his horse
into a gallop and escaping his startled captors, joined the Metis
band .Daring as was his action, he was in terror and besought
his friends not to laugh at his being afraid. There were, he gasped,
two thousand Sioux who meant to attack them.
The Metis rode up to the advance guard of the Sioux, made them
some presents, and requested them to go away.
The Sioux ignored both the presents and the request. They could
and would take all the camp had to yield ,and had brought out
some carts to haul away the booty. They began to push forward.
The Metis at once wheeled away and rode hard for the camp. The
Sioux tried to head them off , hoping to overwhelm the camp by
entering with the hunters in their retreat. But they were too
slow , and the hunters re-entered the carts circle, left their
horse, and ran for their rifle pits.
The Sioux came charging in, hoping to brush aside the flimsy
barrier of the carts and break up the circle. At their head rode
a young chief, "so beautiful, "Falcon said in after
years, "that my heart revolted at the necessity of killing
him. "He shouted to the Sioux brave to turn away, but he
rode on, the war-cry ringing from his lips. Falcon shot him off
his horse, and the Metis hunters fired in volley.
Here and there a Sioux warrior whirled from his saddle and tumbled
into the grass; the others pulled their ponies around and galloped
back to the main body.
Inside the circle Lafleche had donned his surplice with the
star at the neck, and had taken his crucifix in his hand. His
tall white figure passed around the carts as he encouraged the
warriors and soothed the children. All that day he prayed amid
the fighting and exhorted his people from a cart rolled into the
center of the circle, a prairie Joshua. He did not , he told a
friend later , take a gun himself ,but he had a hatchet handy,
resolved that if the Sioux reached the carts he would fight beside
his Metis warriors.
A brief pause followed the first charge , but was ended almost
at once. Whiteford and Malaterre were guarded by an American living
with the Sioux. This man now told them to make a dash for it .
He would , he said , only pretend to shoot at them. Whiteford
kicked his horse, perhaps the best runner on the plains, into
a gallop and rode weaving and swaying through a poplar grove,
down the slope toward the camp . Malaterre , knowing his horse
was too poor to carry him clear, shot at the nearest Sioux and
actually hit three. He then rode for his life , but was soon brought
down by a storm of balls and arrows. His body , bristling with
shafts, was dismembered and his remnants waved at the Metis to
terrify them. But Whiteford escaped and with true Metis bravado,
he checked his flight and shot down a pursuing Sioux . Then he
was welcomed wildly within the cart-circle, where he joined the
defenders. His old mother , who had been weeping for a son she
believed doomed , ran to see him and said "My son, if you
are tired ,give me your gun and go get some sleep. Let me fire
a shot at those rascals out there.
There was no time for sleep for anyone. The mass of the Sioux
now closed in and surrounded the camp, as Lafleche wrote, like
a waistband . Indian-fashion, they did not charge in a body .
They crept forward, sniping; they made sudden dashes; now and
then excited braves would come charging in on horseback, and swerve
off shooting from the saddle, or under their horses necks. It
was exciting, it was dangerous, but it was not the one thing that
might have brought victory to the Sioux, the overwhelming of the
Metis by their numbers. The Metis were therefore able to hold
them off from the cart-circle, firing steadily as targets offered,
themselves, offering no target themselves. Most of the Sioux bullets
fell short of the cart-circle; all of their arrows did . Only
occasionally did a horse rear , or an oxen bellow as a shot went
home. And up the sun-scorched slope, the Sioux began to feel the
bite of the telling Metis fire. Warrior after warrior, "like
choice game," writes Dugas, "was offered up like a heathen
priestly offering at the sacrifice. "Some of the stricken
warriors turned over quietly in death, some leaped in their death
throes, "strewing the yellow prairies with their heaving
The fight was too hot for them. Indians, and even the warlike
Sioux, would never suffer casualties as Europeans would. It was
not a matter of courage, but of the conventions of warfare. In
battle the Indian saw no merit in death, however brave. The Sioux
now drew back to take account of the nature of the contest they
had engaged in.
Their shame grew as they viewed the small numbers of the Metis
and the fragility of their defenses. Their shame turned to anger
. Whooping and yelling, the infuriated warriors charged in on
their straining ponies, swerving, checking, striving always to
kill or stampede the stock in the corral. But their fury produced
no giving-way. Lafleche still cheered his people from the cart
in the cart-corral. Falcon, steady , earnest , fired with his
men, and moved among them to direct their fire. With him was his
sister Isabella ;when he went around the rifle pits, she took
his gun and fired for him, not without effect.
The second assault failed like the first, and still the Sioux
had not used their numbers to make a mass charge and overrun the
gun-pits and the barricade of carts. Sullenly the Sioux began
to withdraw, one by one or in small groups. The more stubborn
or more daring kept up a sniping fire and tentative sallies form
time to time. But after six hours all were wearied of the unrewarding
battle. A chief was heard to cry ;
"The French have a Manitou with them. Such was the effect
of Lafleche courage. And in fact not a Metis had been killed in
the action, although they had lost twelve horses and four oxen.
The Sioux had suffered losses they thought heavy , and now began
to load their wounded into the carts they had brought to carry
away the plunder of the Metis camp. They had also to regain their
courage and r replenish their ammunition. A heavy thunder-storm
completed their discomfiture, and it was followed by a mist which
made it impossible to shoot.
Moreover, their scouts, thrown out towards the main Metis body
at the Maison du Chien, had brought in reports that had to be
considered . The two hunters sent on Sunday might have encountered
the Sioux scouts and returned to camp towards the main party.
Would they bring the main party to help of the besieged camp?..
The Metis themselves had the same question to consider. When
the Sioux withdrew , the hunters rode out over the battle field,
where they saw many traces of the hurt inflicted on the attackers.
Eight Sioux had been killed and many wounded , as was shown by
the bloodstained grass and the waters of two nearby ponds. There
they found the mutilated body of the unfortunate Malaterre pierced
by three balls and sixty -seven arrows. They buried him there
on the prairie.
On the next day, July 14, the Sioux were expected to attack
, as they had not withdrawn far but had kept raising the war-whoop
around the camp during the darkness. A council was held, and the
decision was taken to try and join the main party.
It was a hard decision to have to make. To have to retreat in
the face of an enemy yet undefeated and in overwhelming numbers
is no doubt, one of the most dangerous operations of war. The
Metis planned and executed it brilliantly. Four mounted parties
were sent out a mile from the line of march, one ahead, one behind,
and two on the flank towards the Sioux. They were to signal any
approach of the Sioux by two scouts galloping past one another
on a butte, the best known of all the plains signals of the buffalo-hunters.
The carts were to advance in four columns so placed that, by two
wheeling quickly, a square could be formed rapidly. Then the cart-corral
could be formed, the barricade stiffened with the poles, and the
hunters fan out for the fight.
After an hour's march, the scouting party behind was seen to
make the signal of two horsemen crossing on a butte. The Sioux,
who had been shouting around the camp during the night, were in
pursuit. At the signal the columns halted and wheeled into position,
the ponies and oxen were taken out of the shafts, and the carts
run into the circle. The Metis had learned even more vividly from
the loss of stock they had suffered in the first day's fight the
need to conceal their stock and hold the Sioux at a distance.
The cart-ring was now formed of two lines of carts; then at three
chains distance out, from the barricade of carts the hunters hastened
to throw up their rifle pits well out from the cart-ring. The
Sioux were perhaps less numerous and less fiery than the day before,
but they closed in none the less on the cart-corral and pressed
the attack for five full hours. Once again Lafleche exhorted his
people to remember their faith and their ancestry; once more Falcon
and Isabella aided the Metis marksmen in the heat and dust and
Finally the firing slackened and war cries died away. Once more
a thunder-storm was rolling up over the Coteau. A Sioux chief
rode up, upraised palm out in a gesture of peace, and demanded
to be allowed to enter the camp. He was told to leave quickly,
if he did not wish to be left on the prairie. He replied with
dignity, before retreating, that the Sioux had had enough; that
they were going away; that henceforth and forever, they would
never attack the Metis.
Then the whole war party, mounted and yelling a last defiance,
war plumes flying and lances waving, put itself at a gallop, and
charged in single file around the cart-ring, firing a last tremendous
volley of gun-fire and arrows from the backs of their straining
ponies. It was the heaviest volley of the two day battle. Then
the cloud of horse-men streamed over the shoulder of the Coteau
and vanished the rain broke in torrents.
The weary Metis thought that they must have suffered losses
from the tremendous discharge but, as men ran in from the rifle
pits, it was found that only three were wounded and those but
As they rejoiced, the first part of hunters from the main party,
warned by the fugitives, came pounding over the prairie. They
had been dispatched post-haste early that morning by Father Lacome.
The main body came up later.
With the three hundred and eighteen fresh hunters of the main
party were as many Saulteaux warriors. With those of the White
Horse Plain camp, they numbered seven hundred men, a force sufficient
to scatter the enemy. The Sioux, it was known from their increasing
use of arrows, were short of ammunition as well as discouraged
by their defeat. Many of the hunters demanded that they should
be pursued and chastised. But Lafleche and Lacombe, with the majority
of the hunters were against further fighting. Better to be merciful
and complete the hunt, they decided
The Metis resumed their hunt, but first they raised on the plain
a tall pole bearing a letter to the Sioux. What was in the letter
no one has recorded.
In the whole adventure they had lost only the unhappy Malaterre,
and in the two actions not one man, woman or child. They had lost,
it was true, twelve horses and four oxen, but not enough to prevent
moving over the plains The Sioux, it was reported later, had lost
eighty men, besides many wounded, plus sixty-five horses. By the
standards of Indian warfare, this was a heavy defeat, and in fact
it ended the long warfare of the Metis and Sioux. The Metis thereafter
were masters of the plains wherever they might choose to march.
The action of the Grand Coteau showed that they could fight and
move on the plains even in the face of superior numbers of Sioux,
perhaps the most formidable warriors of all the North American
plains tribes. Their conduct of the march of the cart brigade,
their plains-craft, their battle tactics - from the firing from
the saddle to the use of the rifle pit-were brilliant by any standard
of warfare. Captain Napoleon Gay, after his service with Riel
in 1870, tried to train his volunteer cavalry in the Franco-Prussian
war as well as the Metis mounted riflemen were.
The battle of the Grand Coteau was perhaps the proudest memory
of the Metis nation. It symbolized their highest endeavor as a
people Nothing more conclusively proved their mastery of the plains
by which they lived.
It stands half way between the collision at Seven Oaks and the
black day at Batoche, when the Canadian militia did what the Sioux
had not done and overran the Metis rifle pits. And finally it
demonstrates the boundary of Canada and the United States was
not a mere astronomical line, but a real boundary marked by a
clash of people and cultures, the border of the park belt and
the grassland, of the prairie and the plains, where the Metis
of Red River continued and the old feud of the Cree and Saulteaux
with the Sioux ,and helped , in the blind and primitive working
of history with geography , to prepare for the different histories
in western North America of Canada and the United States.