by Bruce Cherney
Ghost tales are part of the human condition, whether you believe in the existence of spectral shades or not. Such tales have been long associated with the evening of October 31, as well as folklore in other lands unfamiliar with the Celtic celebration of “Shamain” from which Halloween arose. An example of such a ghostly tale outside the Halloween tradition is the Legend of White Horse Plain.
According to the legend, which is dated to an event in 1690s, an Assiniboine chief had a beautiful daughter with two suitors: one a Sioux chief from Devil’s Lake, the other a Cree chief from Lake Winnipegosis. The Sioux were related and allied to the Assiniboine, while the Cree were regarded as traditional enemies.
According to research compiled from old residents and other sources by Margaret A. McLeod in the 1950s, the Cree man offered the gift of a magnificent white horse to the chief. The horse was a “Blanco Diablo (white devil) of the famous Mexican breed,” that was “nimble of foot, strong and sturdy,” and “could outrun and outlast any other breed of horse, and go three or four days longer than any other without food or water.”
Presented with such a magnificent gift, the chief chose the Cree chief as his future son-in-law.
Not everyone was pleased.
“Is it not enough,” a medicine man thundered at the chief, “that you make peace with the enemies of our forefathers? Now you will disgrace us by mingling our blood with that of our foes!”
His protests went unheeded, so he sent word of the chief’s decision to the rejected Sioux suitor.
“The gifts were presented and the Cree claimed his bride,” wrote MacLeod. “Then, with the feasting and merrymaking scarce begun, suddenly there was an alarm — a cloud of dust in the distance.”
The slight had to be avenged, so on the wedding night, a party of Sioux warriors, led by the shunned suitor, attacked the Assiniboine camp. The newlyweds fled on two mounts — she on the white steed and he on a grey. But they were spotted by the Sioux, who gave chase.
Despite her fear of being captured, the girl held back her fleet charger to allow her husband to keep up. It was a disastrous decision as the Sioux caught up to them just east of the present-day community of St. Francois-Xavier and unleashed a torrent of arrows, killing the bride and groom.
While the gray was caught, the white horse escaped and for years was reported to be wandering the nearby plain. According to aboriginal legend, the soul of the slain bride had entered the white horse. As time passed, they came to believe the ghost of the white horse haunted the plain. Today, a monument at the junction of highways 1 and 26 commemorates the famous legend.
Of course, such legends have a basis in fact. The legend recalls the real-life conflict between the Cree, Assiniboine and Sioux, although the outcome was romanticized as is typical of many similar folk tales from other lands. In the absence of a written language, such tales are used to better remember a past traumatic event.
In the early part of the 17th century, the Cree were being pushed further north by the Sioux and their Assiniboine allies. The Sioux invaded and seized Cree territory from the north shore of Lake Manitoba to Lake Superior. But with the arrival of white and Métis traders, the Cree began acquiring firearms, which they used to drive back the Sioux, as well as conquer Assiniboine land.
Out of necessity, the Assiniboine were forced to make peace with the Cree in Manitoba or perish. They abandoned their Sioux allies, who were too distant to lend their assistance when immediately needed. Even after the Assiniboine made peace, the Sioux continued to make forays north to battle with the Cree and their new allies the Ojibway.
The Métis also periodically fought the Sioux when they went south to hunt buffalo. A skirmish in 1851 in Missouri was the last such encounter.
But the Sioux had bigger problems south of the border, where white settlers infringed on their traditional lands and the U.S. Cavalry harried their camps to force them onto reservations. With such threats, the Sioux were reported in the Nor’Wester of March 14, 1860, to have agreed to peace with the Ojibway and Métis at Fort Garry in the Red River Settlement. “We have walked many miles through the snow to make peace, and I hope the war is over,” said Man of the Leaves, a Sioux chief.
The significance of the spot traditionally associated with the Legend of White Horse Plain was related to McLeod, who said the ridge on the eastern edge of the prairie was once called Coteau de Festin, as from time immemorial it had been a gathering place for aboriginal people.
“A place where they held dog feasts, sun dances and other celebrations,” McLeod wrote in the November 2, 1957, Winnipeg Free Press.
“For more than two and a half centuries this region has been called the White Horse Plain. It carried that name for more than 50 years before the first white man set foot in the west, for over a hundred years before Manitoba existed; for so long indeed that the actual occurence which named it has been almost forgotten by its people, leaving only the legend it engendered.”
The Manitoba Free Press reported on July 31, 1926, that a discovery under the Main Street of Westbourne “may have” confirmed the historical basis of the legend. According to the newspaper, an ancient battleground, containing the skeletons of combatants, was found in the middle of the village. “In addition to several perfect skulls and bones, flint objects, arrow heads, huge clam-shells and other articles were found.”
Originally, the villagers were spooked by their discovery, but a coroner from Portage la Prairie assured them the skeletons were of great age. The find was dismissed as an old “Indian burial ground,” since a local aboriginal man of over 90 years had no traditional knowledge of such a grave site. “And it was not customary for the Indian tribes so to forget or neglect their graves.”
A wildly speculative theory was then advanced that the site contained the victims of a battleground, “where the tribes of the Portage plains met the Indians from the north-west side of Lake Manitoba and Dauphin ...,” according to a report written by George H. Hambley. “This seems more feasible as there are no remains of children or infants and ... no evidence of female remains whatever have been unearthed. Thus if it was a battle-ground it is of great interest in piecing together something of the history of these plains long before the paleface arrived, when the Indian fought, the buffalo roamed far and free, and the Legend of the White Horse Plains had its origin.”
Although the conclusion is highly suspect, it still indicates a lingering local knowledge of aboriginal folklore. The fact that the skulls and bones, despite their age, were in perfect condition, as well as the presence of ornamental grave goods, such as huge clamshells, suggests it was indeed a burial ground.
Battles are a nasty business, so evidence of trauma is invariably found on skeletal remains, which wasn’t the case at Westbourne. The area is also important to aboriginal people as the site of the Westbourne Mound, a burial mound near the community, which may have been built 1,000 years ago.
The Legend of White Horse Plain is a better Halloween ghost story than is usually told — it won’t scare young children, and is derived from the remembrance of something real that occurred a long time ago.