Harlan: A Tragic History – Chapter 2 of 6

Written by Harold McNeill on October 12th, 2010. Posted in Family 1940 1965

Memorial at Frog Lake

Photo (Frog Lake Memorial):  One man who died was the John Delany, the Grandfather of my Aunt Hazel (wife of my mom’s brother Melvin Wheeler), all part of the interesting history of our family. Note, many of these historic signs still denote the event as a Massacre in the midst of the Northwest Rebellion. Little mention is made at these historic sites of the attempt by an “Indian Agent” follow the “letter” of the laws passed in Ottawa, to starve the local bands into full submission to his wishes.

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Early Spring, 1949

While our home in Marie Lake, Alberta (20 miles north of Cold Lake), was nestled within the pristine beauty of the lakes and evergreen forests dotting Northwestern Alberta, Harlan District was spread out along fields and poplar forests that gently rose from the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. Situated just inside the Saskatchewan border with Alberta, the community was less than ninety miles south-southeast of Cold Lake. Today, it remains a small farming community. Most things remained the same when my sister, Louise, and I lived there for a few months over the spring and summer of 1949. Louise was six and I was nine when we moved in with Aunt Liz (Dewan-McNeill) and Uncle Warren Harwood lived on a farm property in an area that was home to many in the
extended Harwood Family.

During that spring and summer, our cousins Betty (10) and Stanley (7), explored the grassy fields and poplar woodlands around the farm. Of course, we were oblivious to a significant piece of Canadian History that played out just over sixty years earlier – The “Frog Lake Massacre of 1887”.

Calling it a massacre was wrong, as the more appropriate name should have been “Attempted Genocide at Frog Lake” or “The Frog Lake Uprising“.  While some changes slowly seeped into the historic narrative, much in the way of naming is yet to be addressed by the Federal and Provincial Governments in the naming of sights and events.

That ill-fated attempt at genocide might have succeeded if bands had not risen against the deliberate starvation through federal government policies designed to subjugate the original inhabitants of that area. While the Indian Agent in Frog Lake bore a substantial part of the blame, Sir John A. MacDonald and his government were the architects of a policy that decimated many local Indian bands across Canada. Some tried to justify what happened as part and parcel of the challenges of “taming this new land”, but that explanation falls far short in explaining the brutality of the government policy and particularly the actions taken by many “Indian Agents.” assigned the task of handing out food supplies.

At the time the four of us were playing in the fields, we now know a member of our own family, Aunt Hazel Wheeler (nee Martineau), the wife of Mom’s brother, Melvin Wheeler, traced her family history directly to those tragic events that played in the Harlan District over the fall of 1887.

The farm where we lived with Uncle Warren and Aunt Liz Harwood (nee McNeill) was twenty-five miles southeast of Frog Lake, thirteen miles from Onion Lake and five miles west of Fort Pitt. The district became the epicentre of a rebellion of which the charismatic Métis leader, Louis Riel, was the prime mover, who chaffed at the injustices heaped upon the Cree and other tribes by the Federal Government. Riel was able to weld the diverse Indian Nations together in common purpose.

In his book, The Frog Lake “Massacre”, Bill Gallaher writes: “Superintendent Crozier and a contingent of policemen aided by a small volunteer force from Prince Albert, had confronted Louis Riel and his rebels, some of them Cree, at a place called Duck Lake, a few miles east of Fort Carlton. After the ensuing battle, 14 men lay dead.” (p. 102).

News of the confrontation quickly spread to the tribes in the Frog and Onion Lake area, where activist leaders, including Wandering Spirit, Man Who Speaks Another Tongue, and others who, gained a substantial following. Much of their anger was focused on one man, Thomas Quinn,

the Ottawa-appointed Indian Agent at Frog Lake. The man was an arrogant, stingy Scotsman responsible for enforcing Federal Government policy regarding the distribution of food supplies. The bands were in desperate straits after being forced out of their traditional hunting grounds and left utterly dependent upon government handouts.

Quinn took his directions to heart by forcing the largely peaceful Indian bands to bow to his every whim before he would release any food and other supplies agreed upon in the treaties. As the tribes became increasingly desperate and as their land base continued to shrink under the onslaught of the white settlers, it was not long before their traditional food supplies all but disappeared. Pleas for relief emanating from moderate leaders, including Chief Big Bear, fell upon deaf ears at Fort Battleford and Ottawa.

Having heard of Louis Riel’s initial successes in confronting government forces, activist leaders convinced many warriors to stand and fight rather than bow to the dictatorial Indian Agent. To resolve the situation, a meeting with the local settlers and Indian Agent would occur at Frog Lake:

“The air in the room was hot and close, thick with pipe smoke and body odour. All of the whites in Frog Lake had gathered in John and Theresa Delaney’s house to discuss Dicken’s message (a message from Inspector Dickens of the North West Mounted Police suggesting all the white settlers at Frog Lake, evacuate the community immediately and head to Fort Pitt), viewed by some as an emergency. It was near midnight as Theresa served tea and coffee strong enough to make sleep a far off in the country.” (Gallaher, p. 103)

I noticed, as I’m sure others did, that he didn’t mention the Indian’s dislike of Quinn – they always called him “Dog Agent” or “The Bully” behind his back – and that perhaps he should go too.” (Gallaher, p. 105)

“Early the following morning, the group was taken hostage by the rebels, then under the leadership of Wandering Spirit. While being forced back to the Cree village, Quinn suddenly stopped and refused to follow instructions. Wandering Spirit stepped in front of the belligerent man, “You have a hard head, and I wonder if there is anything in it? He raised his rifle and shot Quinn through a head not so hard that a bullet couldn’t split it open…” (Gallaher, p. 106)

The sudden, violent killing of the “Dog Agent”, Quinn, left the remaining hostages scrambling for their lives:

My mind was churning madly. We hadn’t taken more than a few steps when John Delany cried, “I’m shot!” He reeled several feet away like a drunkard, then staggered back and collapsed at Theresa’s feet. Oh, my God! Theresa cried. “Father, Father!” As she called, one of the priests, Father Fafard, came running to her side and dropped to his knees. Delany lived only long enough to hear the priest administer consolation and say, “You are safe with God, my brother.” These words had just passed Fafard’s lips when Man Who Speaks Another Tongue shot him in the face. He fell across Delany’s corpse.” (p. 128)

The uprising had passed the point of no return as the rebellious leaders and their followers headed toward Fort Pitt to confront the government forces. Only a few days passed before miserable weather a lack of weapons, food, and other supplies led to the collapse of the resistance, but not before many more had died in skirmishes in the valleys and hills surrounding Harlan, Fort Pitt and Frenchmans Bute.

The eight Indians, considered ring leaders, were arrested, and taken to Fort Battleford for trial, the outcome of which was never in doubt. After being convicted, they were hanged on makeshift gallows within the Fort. Chief Big Bear, the moderate leader of the Cree, who was present for the hangings, was then put on trial believing that he, as the leader, was ultimately responsible for the A group of people in a room Description automatically generatedrebellion. After being convicted, he spoke eloquently in defence of his people:

Photo (Web File): The eight Rebellious leaders were hanged in a public event at Fort Battleford barrack square on November 27, 1885. Their bodies were unceremoniously interred in a scrubby bush area below the Fort.  More photos and words follow near the end of this story. The men hanged—Kah-Paypamahchukways, Pahpah-Me-Kee-Sick, Manchoose, Kit-Ahwah-Ke-Ni, Nahpase, A-Pis-Chas-Koos, Itka, and Waywahnitch.

Following the hanging, Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa) was put on trial a sad end to a popular leader. In 1871 he was the leading chief of the Prairie People and by 1874, headed a camp of 65 lodges (approximately 520 people). His influence rose steadily in the following years, reaching its height in the late 1870s and early 1980s. Due to events leading to the Frog Lake Uprising, his power was slowly eroded by the more aggressive leaders for reasons outlined later in this story. Following is the full Chief Big Bears full speech to the court as translated from the original Cree.

I think I should have something to say about the occurrences which brought me here in chains! I knew little of the killing at Frog Lake beyond hearing shots fired. When any wrong was brewing, I did my best to stop it in the beginning. The turbulent ones of the band got beyond my control and shed the blood of those I would have protected. I was away from Frog Lake a part of the winter, hunting and fishing, and the rebellion had commenced before I got back. When white men were few in the country, I gave them the hand of brotherhood. I am sorry so few are here who can witness for my friendly acts.