Information from the distant past often comes to light in strange and unexpected ways. The mystery story that follows begins innocently enough. While sorting out some 19th-century family correspondence, the author of this biography came across a letter that appeared to be in the wrong transfer case. The postmark on the envelope is "Ottawa Feb. 8 1921" and the sepia three-cent stamp features the bearded profile of King George V. What is this letter doing in the file containing letters from the 1880s? What mystery is here?
It soon appears there are several mysteries. Inside the 1921 envelope, which is addressed to "Mrs. J.W. Dafoe, 509 Spence St., Winnipeg Manitoba" is a four-page, handwritten document with an interesting letterhead: "The Manitoba Free Press Coy., morning, evening and weekly, W.F. Luxton, Managing Director."
We are suddenly back in the late 19th century in the rising city of Winnipeg.
One mystery is quickly cleared up. The writing on the document is in the youthful hand of Jack Dafoe, then city editor and reporter on Luxton's paper. The document at hand appears to have been written by him toward the end of 1889, not as a letter to Alice, but notes prepared for perusal by her father in his capacity as a federal government official. It describes the mysterious discovery by a survey party of scattered human remains in what is now southeastern Saskatchewan and which was then part of the Northwest Territories, a region just beginning to attract large numbers of settlers.
The puzzle of the 1921 envelope and postmark is also swiftly solved. A note on the back of the 1889 document reads "Found this in couch today. Will it interest Jack any?" The note is signed "Jewel." That would be Alice's younger sister, Miss Julia Parmelee of Ottawa, who seems to have discovered the 1889 pages pushed down under the springs or horsehair cushions of a couch where they may have been lost 30 years before. Historic documents, as many historians have discovered, are where you find them. Jack was clearly interested in this vintage example of his reporting in the 1880s, putting the document in a safe place where it was discovered more than a century after it was written and a lifetime after it was fortuitously retrieved from Great-Aunt Julia's commodious couch in Ottawa.
The story seems to have come to public attention in the autumn of 1889 when members of the Canadian survey party sent back reports of the discovery of the human bones and abandoned carts. The Free Press duly reported the grisly find, and before long various well-meaning western old-timers were in touch with the paper to add "details" to the story. On Oct. 9, for example, the paper reported that "in conversation with a reporter of the Free Press concerning the finding by a survey party of several skeletons, some broken carts and a pile of empty cartridge shells, Mr. Latouche Tupper said he felt almost certain that the fight took place in 1879 when a band of Mandrils or Gros Ventres came across from the United States side of the line and attacked a party of Stonies of Ocean Man's band. About fourteen, Mr. Tupper thinks, were killed in the fight. Only one scalp was taken by the Stonies, but they had seven rifles, the owners of which were killed, it is presumed. Among the killed were two of Ocean Man's brothers. Mr. A. McDonald of the HB Co., now of Qu'Appelle, and Donald Armit of the same company now stationed at Lake Manitoba, doubtless will remember the locality of the fight and other particulars."
Nowadays a reporter would simply pick up the telephone or activate the BlackBerry or the laptop and contact messrs McDonald and Armit for further details. The reporter of 1886, likely Jack Dafoe himself, had clearly failed to reach the Hudson's Bay Company traders and hoped they would read the story in the paper at some point -- or hear of it -- and get in touch. They never did respond and are now beyond reach. Latouche Tupper was easy to find, being a well-known Winnipeg character of the day, famous during the land boom earlier in the decade when he was said to have cleared $10,000 to $15,000 a day on land speculation -- at least "in his own mind," according to George Ham, who remembered Tupper when he was writing his memoirs in the 1920s.
Although McDonald and Armit were not heard from, a correspondent at Prince Albert, C.R. Stovel, wrote to confirm Tupper's recollection: "Chief Ocean Man's band and another band under Chief Pheasant Rhump (both Stonies) came to reside on their reserves at Moose Mountain shortly after this occurrence and brought with them the bodies of those killed which were buried in the Stony fashion, consisting of being wrapped in their blankets and placed on a platform supported by poles and raised to a height of five feet from the ground. The number of the buried was, I think, twelve or fourteen."
All very well, but what about the bones that were found scattered at the site of the massacre? If all the bodies were recovered for burial, how do we account for the remains found at the site of the battle? Are they all referring to the same event or have several "legends of the West" merged into one? And what about the names of the chiefs: "Ocean Man"? "Pheasant Rhump"? Is Jack's difficult Victorian newsman's handwriting being deciphered correctly? Subsequent information indicates both chiefs are known to history.
More details became available in early December 1889, when Jack interviewed a Mr. H. Fegrans of the Royal Geographical Society of Stockholm, Sweden, a member of the survey party who had recently arrived in the city. "He states," Jack recorded, "that the skeletons and carts were not found at Wood Mountain, but on the south slope of the Souris Coteau. Three carts were drawn up in a slough, evidently for the purpose of defence and the attacking party had their position on the hill immediately above, but moved afterward a little to the east toward which position the defenders were exposed. Mr. Fegrans and his companions counted 200 cartridge shells at the two positions held by the aggressors, so it may be assumed that the struggle was a long and severe one.
Besides three complete skeletons in the slough there were many other human bones scattered about and the remains of six horses; numerous tin cooking utensils, all riddled with bullets, and several axes were also strewn about the spot. Judging from the appearance of the place the outfit had not been plundered after the fight, which led Mr. Fegrans to believe that the attacking party was composed of white men as Indians would not have killed the horses and would most probably looted the camp of their victims.
The carts were almost honeycombed with bullet holes. They stood at the foot of the slough bank as they had been left on the day of the fight and appeared to be perfectly sound, but when a rancher who thought he could make use of them began handling them they fell to pieces and Mr. Walker's land examining party, of which Mr. Fegrans was a member, secured a month's supply of firewood from the remains. Mr. Fegrans found, among other things, several stone pipes, some of them half filled with tobacco; but the most interesting and probably the most important find, as it may tell the history of the fight, was a small board about a foot long and three and a half inches wide on which were carved over 30 Indian hieroglyphics, Indians, horses and buffaloes being the principal objects delineated.
According to this Indian letter, the party were out hunting and had made a great deal of pemmican when they met with a party of unfriendly Indians and had a fight in which seven were killed. The slat had been burned almost in two by a prairie fire and the destroyed part somewhat interrupts the thread of the story. There is one thing certain at least, that the little band of hunters was exterminated and their bones left to rot where they fell."
The account ends there and we do not know whether the "Indian letter" was ever "translated" and interpreted in full and linked to any known event or if anybody ever pieced together the details of what the Free Press writer calls "the last border fight in the country."
After more than a century the trail is cold, the clues scattered, the witnesses long dead. What actually happened that day long ago on the wind-swept Souris Coteau? Was it a fight of Indian against Indian, some ancient quarrel flaring up for the last time? The Stony, a sub-group of the Assiniboine, had once inhabited parts of southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba, but had been pushed west by incoming tribes. The Gros Ventres, part of the Hidatsa, a Siouan-speaking group living along the Missouri River in western North Dakota, were old enemies of the Stony and likely to fight them on sight. Or was the Stony hunting party ambushed by a gang of murderous white men? Did the Indians who were brought home for burial on their reserve die in some other incident at some other time and place, the two events uniting in the hearsay evidence of unreliable raconteurs long after the event? History has a way of getting mixed up and the late-coming observer, looking at mingled fragments of the past, often reaches inaccurate conclusions, turning facts into fiction. How do we know for certain the victims were Indians? Bones are bones, after all. Perhaps they were a party of white men killed by Indians. Who can say? Modern methods of scientific identification might help, but the bones, by now, are no longer available for study. Why are we asked to assume only Indians would have carried away plunder from the victims? A war party, travelling light, might not have been interested in loading themselves with extra baggage and carts and the horses may have been killed because they were in the line of fire during what was clearly a long and hot fight. If the attackers were white men, who were they, where did they come from and where did they go after the battle?
So little evidence has come down to us. Indeed, not much evidence was available a mere decade after the supposed event. Journalists like to say they gather the raw material of history, but in 1889 the story of the battle at the Souris Coteau turned out to be no more than an interesting news story that held the attention of readers for a few days or weeks. It served to remind reporters such Jack the old, Wild West was just over the horizon. For us, more than a century on, it is transformed again into an authentic fragment of history.
In Search of Canada is the story of the formative years of Canada's most famous newspaper editor, John Wesley Dafoe. Written by his grandson, it is an honest account of the man that his family and his friends knew, from his unpromising beginnings in the backwoods of pre-Confederation Ontario to his early and unexpected success in 19th-century Winnipeg journalism.
The author, Christopher Dafoe, will be launching his book June 26 at McNally Robinson. Excerpt printed with permission of Great Plains Publications.