Battle of Grand Coteau
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The Battle of Grand Coteau (Big Knife) was a small engagement between a Metis hunting party and a Sioux war band that occurred on July 14th and 15th of 1851.
The Metis were a relatively new people who had emerged in the mid to late 18th century. They were the product of the mingling (In fact Metis means mixed or mingle.) of Native American and European.
The Metis were in fact largely the result of the intermarriage between European traders and trappers and Native American women. The traders / trappers were divided between English trappers and traders and French Canadian trappers and traders. The English trappers largely worked for the Hudson Bay Company, in the late 18th and early 19th century the French Canadian trappers / traders worked for the North-West Company that is until the Hudson Bay Company absorbed the North West Company along with its traders.1
The Metis had settled and formed a community in the Red river valley and its tributaries that flowed into Lake Winnipeg beginning in the late 18th century. They eventually established settlements along this valley and its tributaries.
In the Red River they settled in a series of farming communities that practiced subsistence agriculture. They were roughly equally divided between English speaking Metis and French speaking Metis. The English speaking Metis were overwhelmingly Protestant in religion and the French speaking Metis overwhelmingly Catholic. Both groups were subject to the ministrations of “Missionaries” of their respective dominant faiths. The “Missionaries” were upset at what they regarded as the “pagan” or Indian aspects of Metis society and culture.2
The Metis themselves regarded themselves as neither Indians nor Europeans but as a “New People” and had formed in the Red River valley the basis for a “New Nation”.
On aspect of Metis society was the lack of a secure secular hierarchy. In religious matters their respective Churches tended to be dominated by non-Metis Priests and Pastors and the Churches tended to be dominated by far away centralized Church institutions. These institutions tended to also want to turn the Metis into “Europeans”.
The central feature of Metis life in the Red River valley was the Buffalo hunt. When large expeditions of hunters would go into modern day North Dakota and Montana to hunt bison in mass hunts involving at times thousands of people. The expeditions were organized like military expeditions with an elected leader. The hunts were large communal affairs in which thousands of bison would be killed and butchered and the meat taken back to the Red river valley for redistribution and processing.
The leaders would generally lead by persuasion, which was like how much of the secular authority was organized in the Red River valley. In this way the Metis resembled in social structure the Indian nations around them.3
The Metis themselves generally got along well with the various Native groups around them, who generally treated them like another Indian nation. Knowledge of one or more Indian languages, and Plains Indian sign language was very common among the Metis along with intermarriage with neighboring Indian groups.4
However by 1830 relations between the Metis and the powerful Lakota (Sioux) confederation had broken down over hunting rights. By then the population of bison was declining alarmingly and the Lakota regarded the Metis hunters as threats to their subsistence. This competion for subsistence led to a state of “war” between the Metis of the Red river valley and the Lakota. Although it was generally characterized by low level sniping and skirmishing that was characteristic of native war.5
In early July 1851 two parties of hunters, one composed of 67 hunters, commanded by Jean-Baptiste Falcon, the other of 318 hunters both with large numbers of women and children had left the Red river valley for the Dakotas for the Buffalo hunt. They were in two groups largely because of disputes over leadership. The smaller group had with it a certain Father Lafleche and the larger a Father Lacombe both from Quebec. Traditionally the Buffalo hunts were accompanied by a Priest.6
Near Butte North Dakota the smaller group encountered a large Lakota war party. The numbers given are 1200-2500. Both figures are utterly absurd.7 It is unlikely that the war party was more than a few hundred in size. It appears that the Lakota were determined to teach the Metis a lesson.
The Lakota seized 5 scouts from the smaller hunting party. After that happened the Metis circled their carts into a circle dug trenches to protect the women and children and dug outside the circle of wagons they dug rifle pits.
A Lakota scouting party tried to reconnoiter the Metis position. A party of Metis went out to greet them and there was a brief parlay during which the Lakota complained about depredations on their hunting grounds. The parlay basically went nowhere. The Metis sent messengers to the main hunting group.
The next day the Lakota led by their chief White Horse arrived. The Metis offered presents to the Lakota to – well go away. However the Lakota saw a chance to get plunder and also to teach the Metis a lesson.
The Lakota were apparently expecting an easy victory and were repulsed in their initial attack with several dead.7 The Lakota then attacked with a hail of bullets and arrows that did little harm to the protected Metis.
The individualistic and honour based way of fighting of the Lakota prevented them from trying the sort of co-ordinated mass charge that would have destroyed the Metis position. As it was the Lakota concentrated on doing individual deeds of personal bravery and thus failed to overwhelm the position.
After c. 6 hours of attacks and skirmishing the Lakota retired and a thunderstorm swept across the plains.
Father Lafleche describes part of the battle as follows:
They appeared to want to organize and advance as a body up to us; that is what we mostly feared as not being one against twenty we could not resist hand to hand. Fear takes over in their councils and they do not dare come closer; convinced that death awaits the first to open the route. As a matter of fact, the gap that they would have achieved in our weak rampart would have cost them dearly; we were all well decided to prove to them that a white values his life and does not give it away cheaply. Each with his knife on his belt, ready to replace his gun and your friend who had not considered convenient to his character to grab a gun, had decided at the supreme moment that he would raise his axe on the first scoundrel who would dare to raise his hand on my cart. Happily it did not come to this end. After a fusillade of approximately six hours one of the chiefs cried out “Hola warriors we cannot kill the French and they are crushing us; we would be better off to leave. They could get mad for good and then they could come after us. Warriors let us go”. It did not take more to discourage them and you better believe that their harangue clearly heard from our camp, redoubled our cries for joy. They immediately start their retreat, and resume gloomily their way from which they had triumphantly advanced. They were so sure to raze our camp. That they drove their horses harnessed to the shaft, in order to carry our spoils. But what a setback! Instead of our luggage they only have to transport their wounded and their dead.8
Aside from being a first person account the above also indicates that Father Lafleche really didn’t understand either the Lakota or frankly the Metis he was ministering too. His comment about a “a white values his life” indicates that he has momentarily “forgotten” that The Metis are both “White” and “Indian”, but then the missionary impulse was turn to Metis into “Whites”.
An account given by a Metis witness of the battle is as follows:
The Sioux attacked again, un-mounted they would fire into the camp hoping to hit things they could not really see. The Buffalo hunters of the camp being better shots and having clearer targets exacted a heavy toll on the attackers. Hours later and after many casualties the Sioux withdrew. After the enemy saw how few it took to repel the huge party they were shamed. The humiliation turned to anger. They again mounted a full scale attack and were again repulsed. They pulled back out of rifle range. This allowed the Metis to assess the damage done to them. (There was) one dead, the unfortunate, Jean Baptiste Malaterre, whom they now had to bury. The other damage was twelve horses and four oxen killed (the two men who served as witnesses to this burial were, Pascal Breland and Charles Montmini).As night fell the Metis could hear singing from the Sioux camp, they were mourning those killed and no doubt preparing for the next day’s battle.9
As mentioned above there were no Metis casualties, although some animals were killed. One of the Metis scouts seized earlier was killed trying to escape.
The next day as the Metis were trying to retreat the Lakota attacked them again forcing them to quickly circle the wagons again and build firing pits. The battle lasted 5 hours. At the end a Lakota chief tried to parlay and told the Metis that the Lakota would never war against the Metis again. At that the entire Lakota war band raced at the Metis position and let loose the heaviest hail of bullets and arrows of the whole battle and then withdrew. Only 3 Metis were wounded on this day.10
The Metis account says concerning the next day’s events:
Not being certain if the two riders sent out for help ever found the main body, the Metis council decided it would be prudent to withdraw and seek them, Early the next morning camp was struck and they headed south. After an hours march the scouts reported the Sioux were in pursuit and an attack was again imminent.
Once again the Red River carts were circled, pits hastily dug. Again the Sioux came in a dismounted attack. This time the battle went on for five hours. Unlike the way the white men fought wars the Indians were not out to see how many they could kill or be killed. To retreat was the better part of valor. They could not resist one final mounted attack however. They circled the carts on horseback and fired one last heavy volley. This caused the slight wounding of three Metis. No one knows how many Sioux died but there have been estimates of as many as eighty or ninety. Before they left one of the Chiefs said they did not know the French, as he called the Metis, were protected by the "Black Robed Manitou" so well and from this time forward they would never bother them again. He lifted his long lance high in salutation and then galloped off.11
Less than an hour later the other hunting party accompanied by 300 Saulteaux Indians, enemies of the Lakota arrived.
Despite some friction the aftermath was peace between the Metis and Lakota and an agreement to share the contested hunting grounds.
Among the participants in the battle was Gabriel Dumont, the military leader of the Metis in the North-West Rebellion, who at this time was a boy of 14 years of age.12
The number of Lakota dead are not known but the figure of 80 dead can be dismissed as a huge exaggeration. Given the precepts of Indian warfare even a moderate or “small” loss of say 20 dead would have been considered quite severe so it is likely that casualties were in that region.13
The battle of Grand Coteau proved to be a sort of birth point for the creation of the distinct Metis nation that had been slowly emerging in that part of the frontier for well over a century. As such its life was brief and was to be crushed in the North–West Rebellion of 1885.
1. Morton, Desmond, The Last War Drum, Hakkert, Toronto, 1972, pp. 5-9, Wilson, Garrett, Frontier Farewell, University of Regina Press, Regina, 2007, 103-122, Beal, Bob, & Macleod, Rod, Prairie Fire, McClelland & Stewart, 1994, pp.11-26.
5. Wilson, pp. 123-126, Morton, William, The Battle of Grand Coteau, Manitoba Historical Society, Series 3, 1959-1960 Season, Here.
6. Wilson, pp. 124-125, Morton, William, See also Lafleche, Richer, Letter, from Report of the Missions of the Diocese of Quebec, No. 10 March 1858, Here.
7. Wilson, pp. 127-128, Lafleche, and Haag, Larry, Eye witness accounts of the Battle of Grand Coteau, The Virtual Museum of Metis History and Culture Here.
10. Lafleche, Haag, Wilson, pp. 127-132, Morton, William.
12. Wilson, pp. 127, 132. For Gabriel Dumont’s part in the North-West Rebellion see Morton, Desmond and Beal et al.
13. Wilson, p.131, Morton, William. For greatly exaggerated Indian losses see Lafleche.