The Green Ghost over Red River

A new, shorter, shinier version of this essay can be found on the DIES blogThis version is decidedly longer and more historical.

 

White dudes: co-opting indigenous resistance since 1871.

On October 5th 1871, forty men lead by William O’Donoghue and John O’Neill crossed into Canada from the US, and temporarily seized a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post. Their plan was to then meet-up with Louis Riel and Métis volunteers, with whom they would proceed to seize the Red River Settlement in the name of Fenianism.

Fenianism, the brand of republican Irish nationalism that sought an independent Ireland by armed revolution, made its mark in North America with its Canada strategy. The Canada strategy emerged as early as January 1865 as a way for the North American Fenian Brotherhood to circumvent the formidable British Royal Navy while still attacking territory abounding with British symbols. (1) Seizing British North American territory made military sense, but was complicated by dependence upon public support for the invasion, of which there was none.

The Canadian strategy involved three widely separated attacks on Eastern Canada in 1866. While ultimately unsuccessful, the events of 1866 struck fear into Canadian popular culture and served to expedite Confederation in 1867. These are the three Fenian raids that are most widely researched. By 1870, American Fenianism was no longer considered a threat in eastern Canada. Colonel John O’Neill of the Fenian Army led a disastrous Battle at Eccles Hill on May 25th that historian Peter Toner has described as Fenianism’s “death rattle.”(2) As the Fenian threat deflated in eastern Canada, another was rising in western Canada: the Resistance of the Métis at Red River.

unequaljustice2
Red River Valley in 1871 | Manitoba Historical Society

During the late 1860s, the mainly Métis and francophone community at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers experienced an influx of Anglophone Ontarian settlers who were largely hostile to the Roman Catholic, largely Francophone, Métis ‘half-breeds.’ In 1869, the Dominion of Canada purchased Red River and the surrounding lands from the Hudson’s Bay Company, sent surveyors out to the settlement and appointed the infamously anti-French William McDougall as Lieutenant Governor of Rupert’s Land and the Northwest Territories.

In October, some Métis men organized as the Métis National Committee to assert their rights to land and their rights to participate in negotiations with the Dominion before land could be surveyed and governments installed. Over the course of 1860-1870, they formed a provisional government while they fought and negotiated with the Canadian government the conditions upon which Manitoba would join Confederation. Among the members of this provisional government was William O’Donoghue, who went on to spearhead the 1871 raid. O’Donoghue’s Fenian reputation proceeded him so that contemporary newspapers speculated that leader Louis Riel was a Fenian puppet (3) and that the provisional government was a Fenian front or the handiwork of an “evil genius” like O’Donoghue. (4)

LouisRiel(1878)
Louis Riel in 1878 | University of Manitoba Archives

The terms agreed to would protect Métis land, language, and religious rights. And so, Manitoba entered Confederation in July of 1870, and Colonel Wolseley and the British regulars took control of Red River a month later. (5) An influx of Ontarian settlers soon followed. These new settlers were so cruel to their Métis hosts, that Governor Archibald wrote to Prime Minister Macdonald,

Many of the French half-breeds had been so beaten and outraged by a small but noisy section of our people […] that they feel as if they were living in a state of slavery […] (6)

The land, cultural, and religious protections had clearly not been implemented. The period from 1870-1875 at Red River has been aptly termed a “reign of terror.” (7)

Whether or not O’Donoghue had yet begun to plan for it, fears of a Fenian raid on Red River were aroused immediately after the Resistance. In fact, conspiracies theories swirled in Canadian and American papers supposing that Irish-Americans had provided the Métis with money for the guns and ammunition that made the Resistance possible. (8) Canadian officials fearfully anticipated a Métis-Fenian alliance, concluding that the Catholic connection as well as the oppressive atmosphere under which the Métis lived at Red River gave them plenty of motive. As Governor Archibald wrote to MacDonald, “Bitter hatred of these people is a yoke so intolerable that they [Métis] would gladly escape it by any sacrifice.” (9)

A.G. Archibald | Dictionary of Canadian Biography
A.G. Archibald | Dictionary of Canadian Biography

On 28 January 1871, O’Donoghue met with American President Grant, bearing a secret petition he had written in October 1870 from “the people”(10) of Red River urging American Annexation. The following day, the New York Herald wrote, “From the frozen wilderness of the Northwest comes a protest against English perfidy and Canadian oppression.”(11) According to the Herald, O’Donoghue claimed that, “the annexation movement has assumed formidable proportions in several British provinces,”(12) and all the United States government need do is encourage it, “to make this policy felt throughout the Dominion.”(13) His plea did not persuade President Grant and O’Donoghue was told that the United States government would not support him in any capacity.(14)

O’Donoghue then met with the Fenian Brotherhood in both New York and Washington D.C. While they professed moral support, the Canadian strategy had declined in popularity as the financial costs of the 1866 and 1870 had proved too costly. (15) Furthermore, few believed that a Fenian-Métis alliance would be fruitful since Riel had already shown an eagerness to negotiate with Dominion officials. (16) The Fenian army leader at Ridgeway, John O’Neill, was the only East Coast Fenian leader to join O’Donoghue. (17) While the Brotherhood refused to support the invasion, they made and kept a promise to O’Neill that they would not denounce or oppose the movement. (18) O’Donoghue gained a very valuable ally in O’Neill, but two men could not constitute an army.

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William O’Donoghue | Dictionary of Canadian Biography

Prime Minister Macdonald had been “overwhelmed” (19) with intelligence about a possible Fenian raid on Manitoba since 1870. As O’Donoghue and O’Neill strategized over the summer of 1871, Macdonald sent head Secret Serviceman Gilbert McMicken to Manitoba to assess the Fenian threat. One of McMicken’s key informers was Bishop Tache. Tache informed McMicken that O’Donoghue and O’Neill had professed to be moving into Red River to take up homesteads, but Tache said that the number of men accompanying him made him doubt this to be the truth and gave him “great anxiety and uneasiness.” (20) To further his suspicions, McMicken was well aware of Métis aggravation and feared that their support for the American Fenians would lead to Manitoba leaving Confederation. These fears were entirely realistic and the Canadian government knew that it would not take much to precipitate a dangerous border war. (21)

By the time McMicken arrived in Red River, he was convinced of an impending Fenian raid. He made a report to Archibald instructing him to call upon volunteers so that the Fenians could be repelled before the Métis could join them. Unbeknownst to him, Riel and his immediate followers had met on September 28th at St. Vital to discuss the rumours of O’Donoghue’s raid. The transcription of this meeting shows that none of these men had been in communication with O’Donoghue, and furthermore, that they resolved “not to be allowed to be prevailed upon by O’Donoghue, whether he be strong or weak”(22) and to contact the influential persons of each parish “to bring the Métis […] in favour of the advantages already possessed by virtue of the Manitoba Bill.”(23) Thus despite the unfulfilled promises of the Canadian Government, they still had no desire for American annexation.

Scholars such as Pritchett have attributed this to Riel’s loyalty to Canada, but at this time, Riel and his provisional government were still awaiting amnesty from the Canadian government. A continued desire for that amnesty combined with the Catholic Church’s condemnation of secret societies, (24) is a more likely explanation for their rejection of a Fenian alliance. On 3 October 1871, Archibald issued a proclamation calling on volunteers. Companies of men immediately came forward to protect the settlement, including English, French, and Métis. (25)

ProvisionalMetisGovernment
The Provisional Government, including O’Donoghue to the right of Riel | Library and Archives Canada

The day before O’Donoghue and his volunteers took Pembina, two Métis informants for Riel had rushed out to tail him. O’Donoghue tried to represent his position as being as strong as possible in the hopes that the two men would send a favourable report back to Riel and Métis volunteers would augment their ranks. (26)

The raid on October 5th has been called “an ignominious and notorious failure.”(27) Ouch. Armed with breech-loading Springfield rifles, the company took possession of Fort Pembina, an unarmed Hudson’s Bay Company post three miles from an American post of the same name. According to a courier for Archibald named George Webster, the raiders had captured “all those who were not connected with them,”(28) one of whom demanded liberation on the grounds of his American citizenship. O’Donoghue was afraid to detain him, and so let him go. The man ran to the U.S. military post at Pembina and informed Captain Lloyd Wheaton of the raid.(29) Before noon, the U.S. military lead by Wheaton had seized the post and arrested O’Neill and ten others. O’Donoghue fled but was captured and bound by several Métis men who handed him over to American authorities.(30)

Contemporary speculation on the perpetrators of the raid were varied, but the Métis were the most popular target. As the events of October 5th unfolded, the hostilities from 1870 re- emerged and paranoia ensued.

Three weeks after the Fenians arrested and detained in the U.S. had been released, three Métis were arrested and taken to Winnipeg to stand trail for “levying war against Her Majesty.”(31) One was convicted, one acquitted, and one remanded. The story of these three men was not widely publicized at the time. Andre Jerome, who was remanded, gave a detailed account of his time in Stony Mountain Penitentiary to a local newspaper in 1906. He described being put through physical labour that was intended to pressure him to “disclose the secret operations of his leaders.”(32) Although standard punishment at the time, it would have been illegal in this case as Jerome had not been convicted of any crime.

Some historians have concluded that Jerome was tortured, and that, combined with the conviction and threat to execute one of the other men, Letendre, was a Métis-targeted demonstration of the power of the new Canadian state. Garrioch noted in 1933 that these events occurred “so as to teach the French what was to be expected under the new order of things.”(33) From 1871, the terror escalated in Red River and Canadian repressive policies served to convince the Métis to move further west to escape it.

In the second Métis Resistance, in Batoche in 1885, the Riel-as-Fenian conspiracy theory became fashionable once more. The New York Tribune reported that a “half-breed Indian” had travelled as Riel’s ambassador to meet the Fenians in Buffalo.(34) The New York Times and the Montreal Gazette also reported that Riel was in league with Fenians, and the Freeman’s Journal of Dublin wrote that Riel had said that he was expecting assistance from 7000 Americans and Fenians.(35) The Anglo-American Times was the most outlandish, reporting that Riel was part of a French conspiracy to unleash 40,000 Fenians into the Northwest to destabilize the Empire.  The Anglo-American Times had the news on the most dubious authority: a mysterious Prussian agent who, apparently, was wandering around Saskatchewan during the conflict.(36) Archibald’s post-1871 testimony had clearly fallen on deaf ears when he said, “If the Métis had taken a difference course, I do not believe the Province would now be in our possession.”(37)

The events of 1871 cannot be called a Fenian raid. It was not officially sanctioned by the Brotherhood and was much more explicitly American Annexationist than Irish Nationalist. However, the Canadian public perceived it as a Fenian raid and as such it is perhaps one of the most influential acts attributed to the Fenian Brotherhood. O’Donoghue’s 1871 attempted raid re-ignited indigenous-settler hostilities of Red River and the lingering threat, or “Green Ghost,” of American Fenianism lingered over the region for fifteen years. Although indeed a failure, the raid haunted the Métis of Red River, who unjustly served as the scapegoats Canada needed to banish the Green Ghost.


Follow Metis academic superhero Zoe Todd and read her blog.

Also read Chelsea Vowel’s blog. She is also a superhero.

Listen to Metis in Space. Because if you haven’t yet, you’re in for a treat.

Check out this great Winnipeg Free Press article, ‘The Metis Question‘ by Mary Agnes Welch.

For some historical comic relief, I of course recommend Kate Beaton’s work.

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1 Peter Toner, “‘The Green Ghost’: Canada’s Fenians and the Raids,” Éire-Ireland 16, no. 4 1981, 28.

2 Peter Toner, “‘The Green Ghost’: Canada’s Fenians and the Raids,” 47.

3 Geoff Read and Todd Webb, “’The Catholic Mahdi of the North West’: Louis Riel and the Métis Resistance in Transatlantic and Imperial Context,” The Canadian Historical Review 93, Number 2, June 2012, 193.

4 George F. G. Stanley, The Birth of Western Canada: A History of the Riel Rebellions. University of Toronto Press, 1936, 133 and 136.

5 John Perry Pritchett, “The Origin of the So-Called Fenian Raid on Manitoba in 1871,” The Canadian Historical Review 10, 1929, 23-24.

6 Report of Select Committee on the Causes of the Difficulties in the North-West Territory in 1869-70, 156-157 in John Perry Pritchett, “The Origin of the So-Called Fenian Raid on Manitoba in 1871,” 24-25.

7 Edward A. Jerome and Ruth Swan, “Unequal justice: the Métis in (W.R.) O’Donoghue’s raid of 1871,” Manitoba History 39, 2000, 37.

8 Edward A. Jerome and Ruth Swan, “Unequal justice: the Métis in (W.R.) O’Donoghue’s raid of 1871,” 25.

9 Report of Select Committee on the Causes of the Difficulties in the North-West Territory in 1869-70, 156-157 in John Perry Pritchett, “The Origin of the So-Called Fenian Raid on Manitoba in 1871,” 24-25.

10 George F. G. Stanley, “O’DONOGHUE, WILLIAM BERNARD.”

11 “Perfidious Albion,” New York Herald, January 29th 1871, Vol. XXXVI, Issue 29, page 6. American Antiquarian Society, 2004.

12 “Perfidious Albion,” New York Herald, January 29th 1871, Vol. XXXVI, Issue 29, page 6. American Antiquarian Society, 2004.

13 “Perfidious Albion,” New York Herald, January 29th 1871, Vol. XXXVI, Issue 29, page 6. American Antiquarian Society, 2004.

14 John Perry Pritchett, “The Origin of the So-Called Fenian Raid on Manitoba in 1871,” 37.

15 Peter Toner, The Rise of Irish Nationalism in Canada, 1858-1884. Ph.D dissertation, University College Galway, 1974, 237.

16 Patrick Steward, Erin’s Hope: Fenianism in the North Atlantic World, 1858-1876. M.A dissertation, University of Missouri, 2003, 328.

17 Patrick Steward, Erin’s Hope: Fenianism in the North Atlantic World, 1858-1876, 328.

18 John Perry Pritchett, “The Origin of the So-Called Fenian Raid on Manitoba in 1871,” 38-39. 28 Peter Toner, The Rise of Irish Nationalism in Canada, 1858-1884, 230.

19  Peter Toner, The Rise of Irish Nationalism in Canada, 1858-1884, 230.

20  Edward A. Jerome and Ruth Swan, “Unequal justice: the Métis in (W.R.) O’Donoghue’s raid of 1871,” 28.

21 Edward A. Jerome and Ruth Swan, “Unequal justice: the Métis in (W.R.) O’Donoghue’s raid of 1871,” 25-26.

22 A.H. de Trémaudan, “Louis Riel and the Fenian Raid of 1871,” The Canadian Historical Review 4, 1923, 134-135.

23 A.H. de Trémaudan, “Louis Riel and the Fenian Raid of 1871,” 135.

24  Patrick Steward, Erin’s Hope: Fenianism in the North Atlantic World, 1858-1876, 331.

25 Edward A. Jerome and Ruth Swan, “Unequal justice: the Métis in (W.R.) O’Donoghue’s raid of 1871,” 28.

26 A.H. de Tremaudan, “Louis Riel and the Fenian Raid of 1871,” 138.

27 John Perry Pritchett, “The Origin of the So-Called Fenian Raid on Manitoba in 1871,” 40.

28 Edward A. Jerome and Ruth Swan, “Unequal justice: the Métis in (W.R.) O’Donoghue’s raid of 1871,” 26.

29 Edward A. Jerome and Ruth Swan, “Unequal justice: the Métis in (W.R.) O’Donoghue’s raid of 1871,” 26; and Patrick Steward, Erin’s Hope: Fenianism in the North Atlantic World, 1858- 1876, 330.

30 Patrick Steward, Erin’s Hope: Fenianism in the North Atlantic World, 1858-1876, 331.

31 Edward A. Jerome and Ruth Swan, “Unequal justice: the Métis in (W.R.) O’Donoghue’s raid of 1871,” 30.

32 Edward A. Jerome and Ruth Swan, “Unequal justice: the Métis in (W.R.) O’Donoghue’s raid of 1871,” 43.

33 Edward A. Jerome and Ruth Swan, “Unequal justice: the Métis in (W.R.) O’Donoghue’s raid of 1871,” 43.

34 Geoff Read and Todd Webb, “’The Catholic Mahdi of the North West’: Louis Riel and the Métis Resistance in Transatlantic and Imperial Context,” 191.

35 Geoff Read and Todd Webb, “’The Catholic Mahdi of the North West’: Louis Riel and the Métis Resistance in Transatlantic and Imperial Context,” 192.

36 Geoff Read and Todd Webb, “’The Catholic Mahdi of the North West’: Louis Riel and the Métis Resistance in Transatlantic and Imperial Context,” 192.

37 A.H. de Tremaudan, “Louis Riel and the Fenian Raid of 1871,” 114.

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