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British adventurer in the New World — Butler was Wolseley’s agent in Red River
Jan 15, 2010

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

Sir William Francis Butler was one of a number of British adventurers and soldiers who played a brief, although important, role in the early history of Manitoba and Canada.

Similar to Garnet Wolseley — operetta composers Gilbert and Sullivan’s “very model of a modern Major-General” — Butler would pop in and out of history, taking up arms wherever rebellious subjects challenged the British Empire. His and Wolseley’s careers were somewhat intertwined, as Butler fought alongside the general against the Ashanti and Zulus in Africa. 

Another intersection with Wolseley was during the Red River Resistance and the journey down the Nile River with Manitoban and Canadian boatmen to relieve General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, who was under siege by the Mahdi at Khartoum, Sudan.

Butler was a man of many talents — a soldier, adventurer and author — who was born at Ballyslateen House, Suirville, Tipperary, Ireland, on October 31, 1838, the son of Richard and Ellen Butler. The Butler family had been in possession of the Irish estate since obtaining a land grant from Queen Elizabeth I in 1584. 

Butler’s earliest boyhood recollections were of the Irish Potato Famine of 1847 and the scenes of suffering and evictions of destitute tenant farmers from the estates of primarily absentee British landlords.

In later reports on the family’s history, it is noted the Butlers were sympathetic with the plight of the Irish. Butler’s brother, Thomas, in speeches and letters to the press in the 1860s, advocated legislative and administrative changes needed to “secure the prosperity of the Irish people,” including agricultural reform.

“It is a strange coincidence in imperial history to find two brothers, with an interval of thirty-three years between their efforts, should have addressed words of warning to the government of the day,” reported the Review of Reviews in a sketch of William Butler reprinted in the February 6, 1900, Winnipeg-based Morning Telegram. “In both cases their warnings were neglected, and in both cases the consequences of neglecting their advice brought immeasurable disasters upon the empire (conflicts in Ireland and in South Africa).

The great irony of Butler’s life is that he apparently saw no moral ambiguity between his sympathy for the oppressed and enthusiastically taking up arms in the name of “Queen and Country” to quell rebellions by the oppressed within the British Empire. 

But in his later years, Butler did recognize the conflict. When given a command in South Africa, “despite the unwillingness, and despite the knowledge of his adhesion to a live-and-let-live policy between the British and Boers in South Africa, the post was positively thrust upon him as a duty.”

Although he performed his duty, he did actively object to the jingoism of the wealthy Cecil Rhodes and British Governor Sir Alfred Milner who promoted the overthrowing of the Boer republics — Transvaal and Orange Free State — in South Africa. His objections resulted in his resigning his command and returning to England (some sources indicate he was forced to resign as a result of behind-the-scenes manipulations by Rhodes and Milner). General Butler had warned Milner that the Boers were well-armed and would be a formidable opponent, which turned out to be the case.

In the end, Butler took no active part in the Boer War, and was “considered to be in disgrace,” due to his stand on South Africa.

After receiving his early education at Tullabeg College, King’s County, Butler became a commissioned officer in the British Army’s 69th Regiment and two years later was stationed in Madras, India. Butler first saw Canada briefly in 1867 with his regiment, but shortly after returned to Ireland where he languished in a military barracks, yearning to return to a more adventurous life. 

Butler received a letter stating that for £1,100 he could purchase a commission to lead a company in Her Majesty’s Service, but Butler had neither the resources nor the inclination to further his military career by buying his advancement, which was the common practice of the era before merit allowed British soldiers to progress through the ranks.

He said “every fibre” of his existence still “beat in unison with the true spirit of military adventure ... no matter in what climate, or under what circumstances,” so he began to follow with great interest the newspaper reports of events in the distant Red River Settlement, where there was a “small spark of revolt.” While still in the British Isles, Butler heard that the Canadian government was going to dispatch Wolseley to lead British regulars and Canadian militia to suppress the unrest in Red River.

He wrote in his most famous book, The Great Lone Land, that the alleged Métis insurrection under Louis Riel presented “one chance of a solution to the difficulties” which had beset his military career.

He sent a telegram to Canada, asking the authorities to “remember me” when forming the expedition to Red River.

At his first opportunity, he booked passage to North America, although he had not received a confirmation of acceptance to serve in the expedition. The first ship on which he could purchase a ticket was headed for Boston. From there, he resolved to find his way to Montreal and then Toronto where Wolseley was gathering his expeditionary force. Arriving in Toronto, he was deeply disappointed to discover that the Red River Expedition had already mustered and there were no vacancies.

“I got your telegram,”  Wolseley told Butler, “but the whole army in Canada wanted to get on the expedition.

“‘I think, sir, there is one berth still vacant,’ I answered.

“What is that?

“‘You will want to know what they (the Métis) are doing in Minnesota and along the flank of your march, and you do not have no one to tell you,’ I said.”

Wolseley agreed to commission Butler as his agent, but he would also need the approval of the government. Butler was sent to Montreal to await instructions. The New Nation of August 27, 1870, noted Butler was a lieutenant at the time he arrived at the Red River Settlement. 

To pass the time, he went on a sightseeing trip to Québec City. While there, he was told to report to Montreal to receive his orders. Two months after sending his original telegram, Butler was finally heading west.

Butler was initially told it wasn’t necessary to visit Fort Garry where the settlement’s provisional government had been established unless it was feasible— that is, Riel granted him safe passage into Red River. His orders were to join the expedition as it prepared to enter Red River. What his exact role was — spy, scout or emissary for Wolseley — was left up to Butler. It is probably more appropriate to label him an intelligence officer, sent to glean information on the strength of the Métis in the community and whether they  were prepared to fight — an important consideration for Wolseley and especially for the mostly Protestant Orangemen from Ontario bent on revenging the execution of Thomas Scott on March 4, 1870.

A later sketch of Butler’s career indicated that Wolseley also asked him to investigate the Fenian threat in Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Butler was given money to fund his mission and boarded the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada at Montreal for the first leg of his journey westward “in a high state of excitement.” His journey to Red River would eventually involve most of the common modes of transportation then available, including rail, stagecoach, horse and steamboat.

Although he was part of the force sent to repress the “rebellion,” Butler wrote he could not easily “condemn the wild Métis of the North-west — wild as the bison which he hunted, unreclaimed as the prairies he loved so well, what knew he of State duty or loyalty? He knew that this land was his, and that strong men were coming to square it into rectangular farms (Canadian surveyors in Red River were the instigation for the Resistance) and push him further west by the mere pressure of civilization.”

Butler agreed with many commentators that the Métis were not informed of the Hudson Bay Company’s decision to sell the North-west to the Canadian government and had no inkling of the fate awaiting them when they came under Ottawa’s control.

“If they (British and Canadian governments) meant him (Métis) fair, why did they not say so?” asked Butler rhetorically.

He even said newcomers from Ontario had aggravated the impending land transfer through their inflammatory actions and musings against the HBC and Métis inhabitants. Butler blamed everyone from the HBC to the Canadian government to the Imperial authorities for bungling the transfer.

“Any matter-of-fact, sensible man would have managed the whole affair in a few hours; but so many high and potent powers had to consult together to pen dispatches, to speechify, and to lay down the law about it, that the whole affair became hopelessly muddled.”

Still, he also called Riel a tyrant and his followers “armed malcontents.”

Actually, Riel and his followers had to be “armed malcontents” in the minds of Eastern Canadians or there was no justification for Butler's journey from Ireland to Red River. There would be no sport afoot, so Butler convinced himself the reports heard in the east were true that murder and mayhem reigned in the Red River Settlement. 

The execution of Scott reinforced his opinion. Yet, with the exception of the execution of Scott, the armed malcontents had peacably ruled the settlement. It was Scott’s death which swayed public opinion in Ontario against the provisional government and Riel. The province of Ontario even offered a $5,000 reward for the capture of “the murderer Riel.” The subsequent outcry in Eastern Canada forced Prime Minister Sir John Macdonald to send an army west. 

“This act (Scott’s execution),” wrote Butler, “committed in the coldest of cold blood, bears only one name; the name of red murder — a name which instantly and for ever drew between Riel and his followers, and the outside Canadian world, that impassable gulf which the murderer in all ages digs between himself and society, and which society attempts to bridge by the aid of the gallows.”

Those heading west with Wolseley via the all-Canadian route — an extremely arduous journey — were reinvigorated when rumours reached them prior to arriving in Fort Garry in August 1870 that “Riel is going to fight.”

Expecting trouble, Butler armed himself with a Colt six-shooter and a 14-shot repeating carbine before embarking in Minnesota on the steamer International for the trip to Red River.

Riel knew Butler was aboard the steamer and sent a party to meet him. For his part, Butler was resolved to avoid the Métis, skipping ship prior to arriving at Fort Garry. He then made his way to the Indian settlement (St. Peter’s) north of Lower Fort Garry (the Stone Fort) where he believed he would be granted sanctuary as the Ojibway were Canadian government supporters.

While at St. Peter’s, he received an invitation to meet Riel and traveled by canoe up the Red River to Upper Fort Garry, arriving on July 23.

Butler wrote he arrived at the fort and saw two flags flying; the Union Jack in tatters and a well-kept provisional government banner sporting a fleur-de-lis and shamrock on a white background.

Although he agreed to see Riel, Butler was contemptuous of the leader, refusing to visit his home in the fort. Instead, Butler entered another building, took up a cue and played pool with the messenger who had delivered Riel’s invitation.

“We had played half a dozen strokes when the door opened” and in stepped Riel, whom Butler described as “a short stout man with a large head, a sallow, puffy face, a sharp, restless, intelligent eye, a square-cut massive forehead overhung by a mass of long and thickly clustered hair, and marked with well-cut eyebrows — altogether a remarkable-looking face, all the more so, perhaps, because it was seen in a land where such things were rare sights.”

Riel advanced and shook hands with Butler, but the Wolseley operative continued his pool game, which Riel saw as a slight, causing him to start for the door.

“I see I am intruding here,” said Riel, who left the room, but was persuaded to return by a companion.

Butler and the Métis man then sat on chairs to discuss Riel’s position on the transfer of the settlement to Canada.

“Speaking with difficulty, and dwelling long upon his words, Riel regretted that I should have shown such distrust of him and his party as to prefer the Lower Fort and the English Settlement to the Upper Fort and the society of the French. I answered, that if such distrust existed it was justified by the rumours spread by his sympathizers on the American frontier, who represented him as making active preparations to resist the approaching expedition.”

Riel denied this charge, saying he only wanted to resign to a proper government authority and had done everything in his power to maintain the peace.

Riel asked about the location and size of the force bearing down on the Red River Settlement. Butler replied that is was at Lake of the Woods, and intentionally made its size “as low as possible, not to deter him from fighting.”

Butler said the “black-coated Métis” was “playing the part of Europe’s great soldier (Napoleon) in the garb of a priest and the shoes (moccasins) of a savage (and) looked simply absurd.”

The meeting ended after about an hour, with Butler leaving to join Wolseley at Lake of the Woods in the vicinity of Rat Portage (now Kenora).

After a 950-kilometre trek by water, Wolseley, the British regulars and Canadian militia as well as their guides and baggage, camped 10 kilometres north of Upper Fort Garry during a rainstorm. Wolseley complained the heavy rain made it impossible to march to the fort in “all the pride, pomp, and circumstances of war.” The rain-sodden troops were forced to board boats for the second-to-last stage of their journey. At about 8 a.m. on August 24, 1870, the troops landed at Point Douglas and then marched south  toward the fort.

Just prior to the arrival of the soldiers, Riel fled to St. Boniface where he told Archbishop Taché he had done all he could to ensure the rights of the Métis in the newly-created province of Manitoba.

“Personally,” Wolseley wrote his wife, “I was glad that Riel did not come out and surrender, as he at one time said he would, for I could not then have hanged him as I might have done had I taken him prisoner when in arms against his sovereign.

During an 1883 interview with Winnipeg Daily Sun reporters, which was published on June 29, Riel  said he had been alerted of the approach of Wolseley and the troops by an HBC employee and decided to flee across the Assiniboine River opposite the fort and later across the Red to St. Boniface.

“I knew he would murder me if he caught me, and I always kept ahead of him. I wanted, however, to be in sight of him, so as to give him a chance to arrest me if he so wished,” Riel told the reporters.

“He did not know where you were?” asked one of the interviewers.

“When a general comes on such an expedition,” replied Riel, “it is not the duty of the enemy to reveal his whereabouts, but it is the duty of that general to find out, and so General Wolseley should have known where I was. I was only a furlong ahead of him all the time.”

While he watched Wolseley and the troops enter the fort, Riel said he heard the general refer to the Métis as “bandits.”

Riel said he would have remained in Red River if Wolseley offered some conciliation, but it never came and he went into hiding.

Only 10 days after their arrival, Wolseley and the British regulars departed for Eastern Canada, leaving behind to “maintain the peace,” the main body of the militia intent upon revenging the death of the “patriot” Scott.

Despite his contempt for Riel, Butler said, “although the Métis leader was “vain, ignorant and conceited,” he could not be treated too harshly, as Riel “seemed to be an implicit believer in his mission; nor can it be doubted that he possessed a fair share of courage too — courage not of the Red River type, which is a very peculiar one, but more in accordance with our European ideas of that virtue.”

Actually, Riel was well-versed in European virtues as he spent years attending college in Montreal, which was possibly a fact unknown to Butler.

In the end, Butler called the Red River Resistance “a tempest in a tea-pot,” which came to a fitting finalé with the flight of Riel and his lieutenants.

Newly-arrived Adams Archibald, appointed by Prime Minister Macdonald as Manitoba’s first lieutenant-governor, “set matters completely to rights,” according to Butler.

“I was left alone in Fort Garry,” wrote Butler. “The Red River Expedition was over, and I had to find my way once more through the United States to (Eastern) Canada. My long journey seemed finished, but I was mistaken, for it was only about to begin.”

Donald Smith, a wealthy HBC furtrader, future Canadian Pacific Railway director and later Lord Strathcona, told Butler he had a better idea for the captain other than returning to England. Smith proposed Butler undertake a tour of the North Saskatchewan region where aboriginals were being ravaged by smallpox and the effects of whiskey brought in by unscrupulous traders. Smith’s idea was for Butler to compile a report on the situation and make recommendations on any action to be taken.

Smith, who had originally been sent as an emissary of the Canadian government during the Resistance, approached Archibald, whose authority extended to the North-west Territories where the North Saskatchewan Valley was located, with his plan. As a result, Archibald asked Butler to consider undertaking the tour.

“There is no necessity, sir, to consider the matter,” replied Butler. “I have already made up my mind and, if necessary, will start in half an hour.”

Eventually, Butler struck out across the prairie in the depth of winter, traveled to the foothills of the Rockies, returned to Fort Garry and reported back to Archibald the conditions he had encountered over the course of his 1,500-kilometre trek.” 

His western tour and his report to Archibald formed the basis of his book, The Great Lone Land, in which Butler referred to the Canadian prairies as “that great, boundless, solitary waste of verdure.”

Before his book was released, Butler wrote a letter, published in the Winnipeg-based Manitoban on February 12, 1872, saying that he received some insight into Western Canada from other books, but “I have found nothing to induce me to alter, in any way, the opinions previously formed during my journey, and hastily set forth in my report to the Lieut.-Governor, at the conclusion of that journey.” 

The book, published in 1872, made Butler a popular author in Britain, and his impressions of the prairies was engrained in the minds of the European reading public for years to come. In fact, Butler’s account popularized Western Canada in Europe, which at the time was scarcely known. In addition, the book’s title was often later used by Manitoban and Canadian newspaper and book writers to describe the vast prairies of Western Canada.

A sketch of Butler in the Review of Reviews said the region where “Riel mustered his half-breeds was remote, almost inaccessible, and altogether unknown. Lake Winnipeg was much less known to the British public than Lake Tanganyika is to-day (1900 when the sketch was published), and it was regarded as an enterprise of no small peril to penetrate the geographical vastness in which Riel was at home.”

The book helped to reshape Butler’s eurocentric views of the original inhabitants of the West, which was an incredible transformation given his earlier opinions about the people living in the great lone land.

“I know that it is the fashion to hold in derision and mockery the idea that nobility, poetry, or eloquence exist in the wild Indian,” wrote Butler. “I know that with that low brutality which has ever made the Anglo-Saxon race deny its enemy the possession of one atom of generous sensibility ... worthy only to share the fate of the wild beast of the wilderness — to be shot mercilessly when seen.”

In the Review of Reviews, it was said all books by Butler showed a sympathy for the “oppressed races of the world,” which reflected “the unsympathetic treatment which he has received of late, for while little prejudice exists against a Tory Catholic, when that Catholic happens to be both an Irishman and a Liberal he is seldom persona grata with our governing classes.”

Butler said aboriginal people would soon disappear from the land if they weren’t protected, so he proposed in his report that a quasi-military force be established to shield natives from the worst effects of European settlement. Butler’s report was one of the deciding factors which led  Prime Minister Macdonald to create the North-West Mounted Police (now RCMP), whose mission was to enforce peace and order in the West for the benefit of both aboriginals and settlers alike.

After a two-year stay in Canada, Butler joined Wolseley in fighting the Ashanti in Africa. He was promoted to major in 1874 and made a Companion of the Bath. A year later, he was in Natal on Wolseley’s staff where he was promoted to protector of Indian immigrants.

Butler married Elizabeth Thompson, a famous painter, in 1877.

In 1882, Butler was with Wolseley in Egypt when the general put down an uprising led by Urabi Pasha.

Butler was later in London when he received a message that he was to go on a “confidential civilian mission” to Ottawa. It was a dissapointment, as Butler had expected to join Wolseley in the Sudan to fight the Mahdi. Yet Butler’s presence in Canada was actually part of his overall plan to eventually bring down the Mahdi.

“I leave in a couple of hours for New York,” he wrote Wolseley on February 8, 1884. “The last phase of the Egyptian game of pull-Baker pull-Mahdi is not such as one cares to be away from on the Western Continent. I hope that if anything should arise you will not forget that the cable can find me in Ottawa in a couple of hours (by this time the trans-Atlantic telegram cable had been laid).”

Wolseley’s relief of Gordon at Khartoum would be a replay of the Red River Expedition, but on a grander scale with six times the number of troops used in Manitoba. In total, 7,000 troops would be moved down the Nile by boat. 

Gordon had been sent by British Secretary of War Lord Hartington to investigate the military situation in Egypt, which had been threatened by a revolt led by Muhammad Ahmad, who declared himself Mahdi, the “Guided One,” in 1882 and defeated Ottoman-Egyptian forces to set up his own state. The Mahdi’s ambition was to unite Sudan and drive out the Egyptians and capture Khartoum. 

Once in Khartoum, the British government declared Gordon to be a civilian in the employ of a foreign government, as his mission became the evacuation of Egyptians from the city.

Gordon travelled to Khartoum to set up a government and then oversee defence of the city which was by then under seige by the Mahdi’s army. The plight of Gordon and those beseiged was heavily reported in British newspapers. 

Under increasing public pressure, Prime Minister William Gladstone was forced to take action. He authorized the creation of what became known as the “Gordon Relief Expedition” under the command of Wolseley, who was by then appointed a lord by Queen Victoria. 

Butler returned by April and General Wolseley consulted him and others on the best way to mount the campaign against the Madhi. It was decided by Wolseley that a combined water and land campaign would be used to relieve Khartoum and defeat the Mahdi. The objection of the naval campaign was to rushdown the Nile River to Khartoum and rescue Gordon, while the land force would follow to challenge the Mahdi’s army.

Butler was given the task of securing boats in England to be shipped to Alexandria, Egypt — 400 were needed.

Butler and a Colonel Alleyn of the Royal Engineers with the help of Chief Louis Jackson of the Kahnawake Reserve designed a 32-foot “Nile whaler.” The chief from Ontario became a foreman for the Canadian contingent of the expedition. Each boat was capable of carrying 10 soldiers and over 500 kilograms of stores and ammunition. 

It took 47 boat building firms four weeks to build the needed vessels for the Nile expedition.

(Next week: part 2)