NWMP: Carrying Despatches In The Riel Rebellion

Photograph of a NWMP officer's belt buckle and red serge (Source of photo - Sheldon Boles).




Veteran Windy Gale send us the following material which he transcribed from the 1933 edition of the Vancouver Division’s Scarlet & Gold magazine.  The article provides an interesting insight into the efforts of early Force members under difficult situations.




We have managed to overcome the usual reluctance of members of the Force –The Old Originals – in recounting their intensely interesting experiences of over forty years ago, and have secured a short memoir from “the Old Scout” Captain J.A. Killough, now of Castlegar, British Columbia. Captain Killough carried mail and dispatches for the Battleford Column during the Riel Rebellion in 1885, and received a medal and script as an award for his services.)

     Here is the story in the Old Scout’s own words:

In 1883 I became well acquainted with Col. S. B. Steele at Medicine Hat, and have a butcher’s knife as souvenir of his which he gave me while walking near the river. Dr. W. F. King, chief astronomer of the Dominion, built the (first house in Medicine Hat, and this was my headquarters.)

“We had 125 Dominion land surveyors scattered all over the prairies and I located depots or stations with a man and two horses at each, hundreds of miles apart. It was my duty to leave orders and mail at each station for the surveyors and this caused me to travel all over the prairies. In this work I because acquainted with the Indians, and was glad to meet up with them, as there were no settlers then.

“I may say I always found the Indians quite friendly and honest until after June, 1884. They were always pleased so do any favours, and seemed to enjoy chats with me. I did have some trouble with two of Big Bear’s men when he was being moved to Frog Lake Reserve from the Cypress Hills in 1883. I had a fight with these two, but came out best, fortunately.

“The Police were respected by the Indians at all times until Riel had his runners going among the tribes.”

     Commenting on the services of Captain Killough, the records of days gone by contain the following:

Battleford, 5th. July 1885:

“I have much pleasure in certifying to the valuable services rendered by Mr. J. A. Killough while carrying the mail and despatches for the Battleford Column.

“The service was a very dangerous one, but Mr. Killough never failed in any journey that he began, nor hesitated to enter upon any duty required of him.”

(Signed) W. D. OTTER, Lt. Col. – Commanding Battleford Column.


Written by Old Scout (Captain) Joseph Arthur Killough.

Photograph of Killough

Photograph of Captain Joseph Arthur Killough taken 14 years after the Northwest Rebellion.

     In writing these reminiscences I will endeavour to picture some events and incidents as they occurred in my experience during the Riel Rebellion of 1885 . It is now all of fifty years since then, as it really began on June 16th, 17th and 18th of ’84, when there was a lot of trouble at Poundmaker’s reserve. At one time guns were presented, cocked ready to fire, and there were over 500 Indians well armed, with Big Bear’s two sons in command. This showed an underlying unrest, taking Major Crozier with over a hundred Mounted Police and some volunteers to settle it temporarily.

     The Metis had previously sent for Louis Riel, who was in Montana, to come north and take up their cause in open rebellion against the government. Riel arrived in July of that year, and it was known that hostile meetings were being held from then until the outbreak. The Mounted Police could have put down this insurrection then, if the government at Ottawa had given them authority. For some reason this was not done, but had it been, serious loss of life would probably have been prevented and a cost of between four and five million dollars saved. As it happened, however, this expenditure, fairly well distributed throughout the Territories, was a great boon to the settlers at a time badly needed on their newly acquired homesteads.

Photograph of Louis Riel

Photograph of Louis Riel.

     Riel was well educated. He knew there was an eclipse of the sun due on March 16th; so when he sent his runners to all the tribes, he told them the sun would be darkened as a sign that the Great Spirit, Kistchee Ogammow, sympathized with them and that they would be victorious in their fight for independence and repossession of the country.

illustration of the battle at Duck Lake.

illustration of the battle at Duck Lake.

     The matter was brought to a head on March 25, 1885, when a force of Mounted Police and volunteers were attacked by Metis and Indians at Duck Lake, overwhelmed by numbers, and compelled to retreat with heavy loss. Major-General Middleton, commandant of the Canadian Militia, at once mobilized the relief forces and moved west against the rebels.

Photograph of

Photograph of Indians on the war path (from what I suspect was a very dusty original photograph plate.

     Early in April, Colonel Otter, in command of the Battleford relief column, engaged me as a scout and dispatch courier. There were six Wood Mountain scouts as well, and we, with the N.W.M.P., formed the advance guard to the expedition. Col. Herchmer-—fondly, Billy, to the rank and file—took quite a liking to me and called me his “Kid,” singling me out for many of the more hazardous missions.

     We expected to get in touch with the Indians as we approached the Eagle Hills, and some were seen by the scouts. A few shots were exchanged, but no casualties, other than Scout Charley Ross’ horse falling with him. The next shot he fired, his rifle exploded, having during the fall got mud in the muzzle, causing six inches of the barrel to burst.


August 1885 - NWMP members at Fort. Battle ford.

August 1885 – NWMP members at Fort. Battle ford.

  There was great excitement now as the artillery rushed up and unlimbered ready for action. The ridge was rough and stony, and, galloping to position, the gunners had a hard time to hold their seats. When the guns were ready the Indians could not be seen, as they were in the wooded hills. We travelled until nightfall, and, camping a few miles from the old town of Battleford, the seriousness of the situation was fully realized. The red blaze of burning buildings and their reflections flamed ominously throughout the countryside. It looked as though the fort at Battleford had been besieged and was abandoned. The next day, however, after passing through the ruins of the old town, and crossing Battle River, we found the Fort was still safe though crowded with refugees. The people, realizing they were safe now, with their scalps still whole, cheered and capered about in excitement and relief. The column was over four miles long and made an impressive appearance, giving all a sense of security that had not been felt for many a day.

     Shortly after our arrival at the Fort it was thought advisable to advance against Poundmaker about thirty-five miles out. This attempt was made about May lst, with results, unfortunately, not so good. I had been south with dispatches when the Cut Knife fight took place, and, returning as the troops were coming in, was on hand to help carry the dead and wounded into the Industrial School, the only building left south of Battle River. Excitement ran high as the casualties were brought in, dead and wounded, some mutilated and scalpless. Surrounded by Indians, the wonderful behaviour of all the men in this engagement is a matter of record. Col. Herchmer with his police force, and Charley Ross with his scouts, Major Short with the Gatling gun and battery, Queen’s Own and C School-they all did their best. But fighting an unseen foe, sniping from behind thicket and bluff, was hazardous in the extreme, more dangerous through savage rushes against any cut off or weakened group.

     I assisted in carrying in Lloyd, and heard the story of Atcheson standing over him in protection with clubbcd rifle against the red devils, fiendish with their war cries. Lloyd fired his last cartridge at an Indian in the act of pulling his trigger point blank against Atcheson’s stomach.

1885 -Illustration of the Battle of Cutknife Creek.

1885 -Illustration of the Battle of Cutknife Creek.

After the fight at Cut Knife, the Indians formed bands throughout the Eagle Hills, ready for any depredation, and as there were daily transports going in, I suggested to Col. Otter that a mounted escort be provided. This was done for a time, but one Thursday morning there was no escort on hand. Twenty-nine teamsters were taken prisoners with all their transports, effects and heavy laden wagons—a great haul for the Indians.

     Returning from a mission I came upon the scene. The Indians were about four hundred yards distant as I scanned the ground for wounded or dead. This was near the house where Payne was killed and the squaw and child murdered. The bushes gave me opportunity to spy out the ground unseen, and I caught sight of a band of Indians in the act of burying someone. It turned out to be the result of a fight with a party of six police scouts. Elliot was killed and another wounded. The Indians caught sight of me and gave chase, but I escaped through the gap in the hills, racing into Battleford, and arrived before the Police Scouts. Sergeant F.(Fred) Bagley, an old Imperial officer, who was afterwards leader of the Mounted Police band at the Coronation, took my horse in charge.

     Now, when the police scouts came in there was great excitement. I remember well Col. W. Herchmer, Col. W. D. Otter, Chief Surgeon Strange, and other officers standing around. When I offered to lead a force against the Indians, Otter said, “I dare not go, for I am liable to be court-martialled now by General Middleton.” Herchmer and others were willing to go, but could not under these circumstances.

Photograph of No

Photograph of NWMP Commissioner L.W. Herchmer.

     When Chief Surgeon Strange heard my name, he came up to shake hands, saying: “Why, Killough. I knew your father well. He supported me in an election in York, on Yonge Street, north of Toronto.” He then treated me to rum and tobacco.


     But dispatches had to be taken out, and ammunition transport stopped. I offered to go, as I knew the country and where the Indians were. Herchmer said: “Kid, you’re foolish to do this, as five hundred men would be required to go through.” However I was detailed for the work, and an order given to commandeer any horse I wanted for the trip. After looking them over, I decided on the one I had, as he seemed best fitted for the job.

     On Saturday I started South, accompanied for about ten miles by forty Mounted Police under command of Sgt.-Major Tommy Wattam. We had our Colts up and ready as we rode through the gap on the gallop. I took them to where Elliot was buried. Strange, the Indians had wrapped him in a tarpaulin and covered him with earth—un-mutilated. While we were recovering the body of Elliot, police scouts rode in and reported Indians to the West. I left the police and rode south. It was a very hot day, and I passed no Indians close at hand. I found piles of transport dumped along the route. Covering about sixty miles, I reached Miller Station unmolested.

     No one appeared to be about but I could make out dimly in the dusk large supplies of transport scattered about. A hurried investigation proved that this important station had been abandoned. On the way I had observed several bands of Indians in the distance, and realized they might revisit this supply base at any minute. There was a strip of woods here about 1 mile wide which no doubt held a band or bands of Indians. But my horse and myself were dog-tired with the sixty-mile ride in the heat. We could go no farther. I fixed my horse up for the night as quietly as possible, making a barricade of sacks of oats and boxes. At the streak of dawn we were away again, very thankful not to have been raided.

     I rode on through the day, using every obstruction as a blind, and seeking cover at the slightest sign of Indians. I used every precaution I knew – looking, and even trying to think, like an Indian. I passed many more scattered dumps, and spent that night like the previous one. The following afternoon I came upon a large crowd of settlers fleeing from the scene. As soon as they recognised me as a white man, they cheered lustily. They were very glad to receive the news and to know that the troops were at last on the ground to quell the uprising.

     As I was now only about fifty miles from Swift Current, I decided to go through all the way. Arriving there, I found that I had been reported killed in the Eagle Hills.


When I got back to Battleford I found that Poundmaker and his tribe had come in and surrendered to General Middleton. With him were the teamsters who had been taken prisoners before I started my journey. I had been so long on the four hundred mile trip they had given me up for lost. I arrived in the evening. Middleton had gone by steamer to Fort Pitt with officers and some troops. I only had time to get something to eat, and was ordered to cross the river at once and act as guide with the Middleton troops to Fort Pitt. The steamer “Northcote” took me and my horse across where we found Sinclair with fifty teams, and other outfits, making a long column. Bob Armstrong also was there. (Tom Hourie and Bob Armstrong, two great scouts, captured Riel at Batoche.)

       I had dispatches for Middleton which I gave him personally on arrival. I had not met the General before this. Standing beside him, I asked for General Middleton, and he held out his hand for the dispatches, smiling. I was surprised, and the other officers laughed when I hesitated in handing them over to him. I wasn’t going to give the papers to the wrong man.

     Then I did some scouting for a few days and learned that Col. S. B. Steele, one of the best officers of the N.W.M.P., under the command of Major General Strange, had got the Indians on the run after several sharp engagements. Steele deserved great credit for this, but did not receive any from Middleton when General Strange reported him for honours and promotion.

Photograph of NWMP Sam Steele.

Photograph of NWMP Sam Steele.

At Frenchman`s Butte (where I met “Good Man” Joe McKay from Prince Albert), the Indians had prepared for great resistance. They had hundreds of rifle pits six feet long, three feet wide and about the same depth, partly covered with logs and poles. Dead Indians were straggled around, partly in and partly out of the pits. One of these was only wounded and he shot at us at close quarters. He was instantly shot and scalped by one of the scouts. Dick Wilde, from Battleford, and another one from Prince Albert, were with me at the time.

At Loon Lake we found a squaw hanging in a tree. She was a cripple and Big Bear hung her as she could not follow. Whether it was the sight of this or not, General Middleton’s horse reared and stumbled, and the General went clean over his head into the lake. Getting thoroughly soaked, he took it very coolly, and as though nothing had happened, mounted and rode on again.


     Major Bedson was now chief of transport and commissariat, and he came to me with the suggestion that I take some transport down the river sixty miles by steamer, land and go north, and try and connect with the pursuing forces. This was decided upon, and we loaded ten carts with provisions, and on to the steamer. I was in control of the outfit, comprised of myself, seven Indians and three breeds. A young man by the name of Fines was to go with me to make a report, but he did not turn up. A large number of troops went on board going down, but they returned with the steamer to Fort Pitt.

     Choosing a spot to land, we unloaded but it was a difficult job reaching the top of the steep river bank. This being accomplished, we travelled about two miles, halted, and camped for the night by a lake about six hundred yards wide. Now, I was very suspicious of my companions. I thought it best to give them an exhibition with my guns, having lots of ammunition. I had also a splendid Colt .45, and a Remington repeater .45-75, one of the best—I had used it for years. First I used my Colt on a duck, about a hundred yards out in the lake. I got him in three shots, the first two over and under very close, and the third knocked him over. I next used my rifle and made such expert shots, cutting off the head of a diver, and hitting such small marks, that the Indians said if there was a moose across the lake, we would be sure to have moose meat for supper.

They said: “Waw-way moniass parshesee gun meewasin kitchee, nitchie parcheese gun memouwa meewassin!” I learned this Cree language a few years before—they said I pronounced the words very good-“Meewassin peak squa nitchie!”

     Now for supper. The Indians gathered a large supply of duck eggs, and boiled dozens of them. I ate some of the fresh ones, but they consumed all the rest, chicks, shells and all the trimmings, with great satisfaction. Then, as breeds and Indians love to gamble, they started at it, but I put the fire out as some of the enemy might be near by. I next started to talk to them, and they were very much interested when I informed them that we had nearly five thousand men in the field, and if that were not sufficient to quell the rebellion we could very quickly assemble a hundred times as many. I picked up a handful of sand and let it sift through my fingers, and said the troops of the Empire were as numerous as the grains of sand, and that our great Queen Mother’s troops had never been defeated the world over. They were greatly taken with this, particularly as they had a fine respect for the N.W.M.P., calling them Meewasin chemoginish – good Mounted Police.

     On the second evening, after steady travelling northeast, I knew we must be getting close to our forces, or the enemy. So, after halting for the night, I rode on for about two miles and reached Turtle River where it empties into the north end of Turtle Lake. Here a large bear was catching fish. Seeing me he disappeared into the bush. I got several large fish that he had killed and brought them back into camp. We had a great feast that night.

     Early next morning an Indian came up holding a white flag. He gave me a letter from headquarters ordering me to return to Fort Pitt with the outfit. They could not follow Big Bear and had given up the chase in that direction—so I returned, overland. The same day I got back, two scouts came in on my trail and said they had followed it from the last camp near Turtle Lake, and stated I was within two miles of Big Bear’s main camp. Middleton and Major Bedson would not believe this, but the scouts gave fairly good proof that such was the case.

     There is little doubt that Colonel Otter had been led astray by his guides. One morning an Indian came out of the woods very much excited. The guide cautioned him not to talk but they let him go as he had come down the West side of the lake. He went back the same way, but it turned out later that he was one of Big Bear’s scouts, “Sky Thunder,” who had probably come to surrender and guide them to the main body of Indians who had gone down the East side of the lake. This same guide had led the party on a long day’s march and ended the same place they started from. When taken to task for it, he put his hand up and said: “It is so long time since I be here, me get lost.”

     It was then that Charley Ross and his sixteen scouts did some good work in capturing a lot of Big Bear’s horses and a supply of valuable furs. The seven Indians and three breeds, it turned out, had been with Big Bear, but left him and came into the Fort with Mrs. Delaney, Mrs. Gowanlock and others. They told the General they had not taken any part in the rebellion, but evidence against them was so clear that they were arrested as the chief murderers at Frog Lake. In fact, two of them were “Wandering Spirit” and “Dressy Man,” accused of scalping, torturing, and murdering Constable Cowan – cutting his heart out and sticking it on a pole. One of the breeds was a cousin of Riel’s and a lot of Chief Factor McLean’s effects were found in his possession. Some of the Indians were hung later at Battleford. What a nice lot of companions I had with me alone.

     Next I am on my way with dispatches from Middleton to Col. Otter, and I had to do some hunting for him. It was midnight when I found them, in thick woods, sleeping under the guns. They were surprised to see me. Otter said: “You are a wonderful scout, for you are always turning up everywhere and at any time.” The pursuing forces had at this time unfortunately lost their beef cattle. Scout Bear Paw Bill had failed in his duty to keep them on hand for slaughter. I told Otter I would have a look for them. I took a big circle around, and found their trail going southwest. Following them for about twenty-five miles, I knew I could not get them back without help, or that night, so I started back hell for leather. It was a bright moonlight night and some ride. I gave my horse free rein and he brought me back safe by midnight. I told Otter to give me two men in the morning and we would find the cattle. He was very pleased, as he had felt sure Big Bear would have them by that time. However, we found them about forty miles away, lying down and so stiff from travelling we could hardly get them started. But we managed to herd them in, much to the troops’ satisfaction, as they were out of beef.


     The next day I was sent with dispatches to Middleton at Fort Pitt, and then to return to Col. Otter, and to Col. Irvine at Green Lake. Before starting for Green Lake with Brigadier General Seers and a guide, we rode eastward a few miles and found signs of Big Bear and his forces going South. They had scattered out but came together again farther on. Arriving at Green Lake, I met Bob Wilde. I was sorry to hear afterwards that he had been killed by Charcoal. He was a fine specimen of the Force. The dispatches I carried were for both Otter and Irvine to return to Battleford.

   While at Green Lake, I was walking down to the water’s edge on a path through the brush, my guns back at the camp, when I met a very large cinnamon bear. He was so close I could have put my hand on his head. Oh, what a head! I looked at him straight in the eyes. He savagely stared at me, but was as much surprised as I was. I was wondering in what time I could leg it back to camp — when he turned his back on me and lumbered off.

     On my return trip from Col. Irvine’s, I found two of Big Bear’s horses loaded with pack saddles. Their backs were in such a condition I was going to shoot them, but a half breed, one of Big Bear’s men, came on the scene claiming them. When I arrived at the south end of Jackfish Lake, I found that Col. Otter had camped here, which was fortunate for me, as I had been short of food for two days. I found some hardtack on the ground that had been soaked with rain. I washed it and as I always had plenty of tea, I made a fair meal. While eating, a very old squaw came up, leaning on a staff. She cursed Big Bear and said he had left her to die. I made some tea for her and she found a piece of very fat pork, which she ate greedily. She told me where Big Bear intended crossing the river.

     A short distance from Jackfish Lake I came upon a body of several hundred Indians. I spoke to them but they did not talk to me until I told them about the old squaw. Then they said they would go and get her. They acted as though they had lost hope in the success of the rebellion, and were on the point of giving it up.

     When I reached the river a steamer, the “Marquis”, was coming down with troops from Port Pitt. They came to the shore and took me and my horse on board. Arriving at Battleford, a few days hence, word came in that Big Bear was captured by Superintendent Gagnon, near Carlton, where the old squaw told me he would cross the river.

1885 - Illustration of the Battle of Batch.

1885 – Illustration of the Battle of Batch.

     On May 12th, the rebel camp at Batoche was stormed and three days later Riel was taken. He was tried for high treason, and after a lengthy trial, condemned and hanged on November 16th, in the yard of the Mounted Police Barracks at Regina. Riel claimed he was the Prophet of the Saskatchewan.

     A letter in Riel’s own handwriting was found in Poundmaker’s camp signed by himself after the Duck Lake fight wherein nine men were killed, in which he said: “Praise God for the success He has given us. Capture all the Police you possibly can. Preserve their arms. Take Fort Battleford, but save all the provisions, ammunition and arms. Send a detachment of at least one hundred men.”

     In another letter, proved to be in his handwriting at the trial, addressed to the French and English “Metis” (mixed breeds), from Battle River to Fort Pitt, he said: “We will you to take Fort Battle and Fort Pitt. Try and have the news which we send to you conveyed as soon as possible to the Metis and Indians of Fort Pitt. Tell them to be on their guard, to prepare themselves for anything. Take with you the Indians; gather them together everywhere. Take all the ammunition you can, in whatever stores they may be. Murmur, growl and threaten. Rouse up the Indians.”


Joseph was born on February 13, 1863 in Ontario and moved west to establish a homestead near Pense Saskatchewan.  With the outbreak of the Northwest Rebellion, he volunteered to be a Scout and was attached to General Otter’s Column  At the rebellion, he remained in Saskatchewan until 1915.  It was at this time, he and his wife moved to Castlegar BC where he settled and resided until his death on February 5, 1936.  With his involvement in the North West Rebellion, he was presented with the Northwest Rebellion medal with the “Saskatchewan” bar.

Photograph of the 1885 North West Rebellion medal (Source of photo - Sheldon Boles).

Photograph of the 1885 North West Rebellion medal with the Saskatchewan Bar.  (Source of photo – Sheldon Boles).


Windy Gale closing block