A first-hand chronicle of Wolseley’s expedition to end Riel’s Red River Rebellion by a remarkable trio embedded on the mission.
In the spring of 1870, two reporters set off from Toronto to cover one of the biggest stories in Canadian history: Colonel Garnet Wolseley’s 1870 expedition to Red River. Over the course of six months, the Daily Telegraph’s Robert Cunningham and the Globe’s Molyneux St. John brought readers along as they paddled and portaged alongside the expedition’s 1,100 troops and 400 voyageurs and guides from the shores of Lake Superior to Fort Garry.
But that’s not the whole story. Buried well below the fold was the fact that St. John’s wife — international burlesque star Kate Ranoe — accompanied him and the expedition, and not just as an adventurer. Owing to an accident early on, Ranoe ended up ghostwriting many of St. John’s stories.
Embedded is the remarkable story of two reporters and one extraordinary woman as they journeyed to Red River with Colonel Garnet Wolseley and his expeditionary force.
“All the way up, stories have been retailed in the barrooms of the hotels of the most ludicrous character. Captain Cameron and his eye-glass comes in for a share of these remarks. It was told that he went boldly up to the stockade the insurgents had thrown across the Fort Garry road, took out his eye-glass, looked through it wonderingly at the impediments, and in a club-house kind of style, said, “take away that blawsted fence,” and when some of the half-breeds made their appearance, he took to his heels, and manfully ran for it. ” — Robert Cunningham, “The Insurrection in the North-West,” Globe, January 13, 1870
In March 1869, the Canadian government and the Hudson’s Bay Company finally agreed to terms for the sale of Rupert’s Land, a vast tract bestowed upon the company by English royal charter in 1670. It stretched from present-day Labrador in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west to Baffin Island in the north. The nearly 1. 5 million square miles featured an extensive fur-based economy that supported 100,000 or so Indigenous Peoples and a few thousand non-Native settlers. It also contained 97 trading posts and a partially built telegraph line. In exchange for the land (and everything else), Canada agreed to pay the Hudson’s Bay Company £300,000 cash, grant it nearly 11,500 square miles of land concessions, and guarantee its ability to trade without “exceptional” taxation within its former territory.
The Parliament of Canada ratified the deal in July 1869 and set December 1, 1869, as the closing date for the transaction. It also passed legislation to establish a temporary government for the NorthWest Territories “until more permanent arrangements” could be made. Prime Minister Macdonald designated William McDougall, his public works minister and long-time advocate of westward expansion, as lieutenant governor.
On paper, McDougall wasn’t a bad choice; he at least had some experience on the file. Earlier in the decade, he’d served as commissioner of Crown land in Canada West, overseeing the department responsible for colonization in northern parts of the province. During Confederation debates, he’d been an outspoken advocate of Canada annexing Rupert’s Land, even helping to ensure that a provision for the admission of the territory was included in the British North American Act, 1867. And in Macdonald’s first government, McDougall, as public works minister, was responsible for transcontinental expansion. One of his first acts was to introduce a series of resolutions into Parliament calling on Great Britain to transfer Rupert’s Land to Canada outright.
While negotiations with the Hudson’s Bay Company dragged on into the summer of 1868, McDougall hired senior Dominion engineer Simon Dawson to map out the “best means of opening a line of communication between Lake Superior and the Red River Settlement. ” Dawson recommended an old North West Company canoe route he’d run across back in 1857 — “impassable to any vessel larger or stronger than a bark canoe,” he said — linked by two new roads to be built at either end, one from Lake Superior to the start of the canoe route at Shebandowan Lake, the other from the western end of Lake of the Woods to Fort Garry. McDougall liked the plan and contracted Dawson to build the eastern road and another engineer, John Allan Snow, the western.
McDougall and the Dominion government billed Snow’s part of the project as a “humanitarian mission. ” The inhabitants of Red River were desperate for food because their crops had been ruined by locusts the previous year and droughts had decimated buffalo herds and game and fish stocks. In October 1868, Snow and his crew arrived in Red River and were initially welcomed by the local population. But quickly the bloom came off the mission. Rather than pay local hires cash for services, Snow and his paymaster, a McDougall appointee named Charles Mair, developed a convoluted payment system involving credit for provisions that were scarce in the settlement. The system became a source of agitation when locals realized Snow’s credits had subpar value and could only be redeemed at a store owned by John Schultz, unofficial leader of a small group of outspoken immigrants known as the Canadian Party. Schultz was a strident advocate for Canada annexing Rupert’s Land and flooding the territory with English-speaking Canadian settlers. He’d also gained a reputation as an ”unscrupulous land-grabber. ”
Mair’s presence didn’t help Snow’s cause in Red River. Mair was a 30-year-old poet and co-founder of Canada First, a movement dedicated to promoting Canadian nationalism and westward expansion. George Brown, editor of the Toronto-based Globe, shared similar politics, and on learning McDougall was sending Mair to Red River, hired him as a correspondent to “inspire eastern interest in the northwest frontier. ” Mair’s columns began running in January 1869 and featured romantic accounts of an idyllic prairie landscape, as well as insulting caricatures of local residents, especially the “indolent half-breeds. ” Annie Bannatyne, a Métis woman married to prominent businessman Andrew Bannatyne, took particular exception to a January 4 story in which Mair said Métis women had “no coat of arms but a ’totem’ to look back to [and who] make up for the deficiency by biting at the backs of their ’white’ sisters. ” Bannatyne and two of her similarly slandered friends accosted Mair in her husband’s store shortly after the article arrived in Red River. They pulled his nose, slapped his face, and ran him into the street at the business end of a riding crop. Mair’s stories earned the Globe significant enmity in the settlement — enmity not forgotten when Robert Cunningham arrived on the scene as the paper’s special correspondent in January 1870.
A fascinating account of life on the edge. Embedded encourages us to rethink the drama of imperial expansion. A great read.
Ted Glenn’s book brings a largely forgotten tale to life in a fine and exuberant style.
Black-and-white illustrations and photographs bring the key personalities and various scenarios to life, while a fascinating appendix that profiles some of the artists who travelled with the expedition is worthy of its own book.
Masterful weaving of the voices of Cunningham, St. John and Ranoe. .. Glenn's history brings forth a truly remarkable story.
Embedded offers an accessible narrative. ..like the readers of the Globe and the Daily Telegraph, [readers will] follow the journey, feel the excitement and dread of running rapids, traversing rivers, forests, and lakes and fleeing and fighting fires.