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Visiting The Grave Of Canada’s Largest Mass Hanging

Visiting The Grave Of Canada’s Largest Mass Hanging

· 15 min. read

I've wanted to visit the Battlefords in Saskatchewan for a few years now. As somebody who loves history, just to visit a city that once housed the capital of the North-West Territories is reason enough. I'm sure I've passed through the city when I was younger, but I've never had the chance to explore it as an adult.

My interest in both cities grew when I was doing research for my 2017 article, "6 Saskatchewan Cemeteries to Visit This October". One individual I interviewed for the article was Don Light of the North-West Historical Society. Light was tasked with the sensitive job of moving about eighty graves within The Battleford Cemetery. Relocating graves is always the last option when it comes to a cemetery, but in this case, they had no choice. The Battleford Cemetery sits on the edge the North Saskatchewan River, and the banks of the cemetery were slowly eroding. Had the graves been left undisturbed, headstones, monuments and caskets would start falling into the roaring river below.

Light and I had an excellent chat that day and he told me many fascinating stories about what they found when they were moving the graves. Some of the graves he had to move were Metis graves, all while under the supervision of police and Indigenous professionals. Many of these caskets had rotted and were open, and they found a plethora of Roman Catholic crosses and First Nation beadwork, a sign of traditional Metis culture.

As fascinating as Light's story was, the more interesting story he told me was that of a lesser-known cemetery in Battleford. This cemetery is small and only holds the graves of eight individuals, all from 1885. These men were executed, but it wasn't just any execution. These eight people were from the largest mass execution in Canadian history. These men were captured, charged and hanged without a thorough trial, and their bodies were buried in the outskirts of Fort Battleford. It is also said they were forced to dig their own graves days earlier.

Grave of eight Indigenous men in Battleford

Before we get too far into the execution, we need to step back and talk about what happened in 1885. For over a century the official statement was that the Metis began the North-West Rebellion - the final, bloody uprising of Indigenous people against the Canadian government. In recent years the truth of that story has come to light, and thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), these stories are finally being heard.

The North-West Rebellion - now understood as the North-West Resistance - was caused by a mass, systematic starvation of Indigenous people. The Metis had been forced to move West following the Red River Rebellion in Manitoba, and the Canadian settlers had moved in from the south. This, plus the over-hunting of bison, caused wide food shortages for all Indigenous people, with the white settlers controlling the main supply chain.

The Metis also claimed that the Canadian government was not respecting the treaties, nor their rights as Indigenous people. After the successful creation of Manitoba a few decades earlier, they decided to form their own government, this time called the Provisional Government of Saskatchewan. Their first act as a new governing body was to attack the nearby town of Duck Lake, which was outside their de facto capital of Batoche. Twelve Canadian military men and six Metis were killed in this battle, with the Metis declaring victory.

Hanging sign by grave

Four days later a group of Cree - who may or may not have known about the Metis uprising - approached Battleford, seeking food and resources. News of what happened in Duck Lake had arrived in Battleford days earlier, so upon seeing the band approaching, many civilians fled across the river to the fortified Ford Battleford. From there, they watched their town, referred to later as "Old Town", get plundered. Reports say that for almost a month the band came back and stole more things, from horses to cattle to guns, destroying and burning houses as they went. During this, the band would kill a rancher named John Payne and a farmer named Barney Tremont, in what at the time appeared to be cold blood.

Three days later the Cree, now fully aware of what the Metis had done a week earlier, attacked the community of Frog Lake. They were led by Kah - Paypamahchukways (Wandering Spirit), and started with the home of Thomas Quinn. Quinn was a notoriously strict "Indian Agent" who is responsible for many of the policies that led to the starvation and suffering of the Indigenous people. The Cree would hold him and his interpreter Charles Govin as hostage.

The Cree would then round up the rest of the citizens of Frog Lake and bring them into the local Catholic church for mass. Once mass finished, they began moving the people to a Cree encampment a few kilometres away. Quinn protested and refused to leave, and he was shot dead by Kah - Paypamahchukways. Govin would then be shot by both Manchoose (Bad Arrow) and Kit-Ahwah-Ke-Ni (Miserable Man) shortly after.

The band would kill another eight people: the two Catholic priests, Leon Fafard and Felix Marchand, Fafard's lay assistant John Williscroft, as well as John Gowanlock, John Delaney, William Gilchrist, George Dill, and Charles Gouin.

This event, known as the Frog Lake Massacre, is what caused the Canadian government to get involved in the North-West Resistance. Three months later, the resistance had failed, nearly a hundred were dead and the Metis leader Louis Riel was captured and charged with treason. His government was disbanded, and many Metis fled and scattered across the prairies and into the United States. The Cree call this period "e-mayikamikahk", or "where it went wrong", which symbolizes the end of any possible "friendly" relations between the Indigenous peoples and the Canadian government.

A century later, further interviews have brought out some additional details of what occurred during the Siege of Battleford and during the Frog Lake Massacre, and the reasoning for the murders. While they don't clear the men of their actions, it clarifies why things happened the way they did.

Close-up of sign by grave

One of the most well-understood killings was that of Thomas Quinn. Not only was Quinn responsible for the starvation of Cree people, but he was also said to use his authority to exchange food rations for "favours" with Indigenous women. It is never explained why the interpreter was shot but it may be for allowing such things to happen.

It is said that John Payne also did something similar with Indigenous women and that the man who shot him, Itka (Crooked Leg)*, was the husband of one of those women.

The priests in Frog Lake were said to have been sexually abusing children, with Leon Fafard being shot by his son, Pah Pah-Me-Kee-Sick (Walking the Sky). No explanation as to why the second priest or Williscroft was killed, but it may have been for the same reason.

Although these actions do not clear the Cree for what they did, it does bring in a better context of what happened. None of this context was known in 1885 when Kah - Paypamahchukways (Wandering Spirit), Pah Pah-Me-Kee-Sick (Walking the Sky), Manchoose (Bad Arrow), Kit-Ahwah-Ke-Ni (Miserable Man), Nahpase (Iron Body) , A-Pis-Chas-Koos (Little Bear), Itka (Crooked Leg)* or Waywahnitch (Man Without Blood) were captured and charged with murder.

Although these men were charged, they had no actual trial. The judge in Battleford was Charles Rouleau, a man who had watched his house burn during the looting of Battleford's Old Town. Following the looting, he declared, "every Indian and Half-breed and rebel brought before [me] after the insurrection was suppressed, would be sent to the gallows if possible.". He would go through with this promise. Each of the eight convicted men was forced to dig their own graves and then were hung without a Cree translation of their charge. He would later condemn three more men to death, and sentence Big Bear to three years in the Manitoba Penitentiary.

Each of the convicted were given ten minutes to speak their piece, of which all except for Wandering Spirit chose to use. In 2018, Terry Atimoyoo from Little Pine First Nation said that the reason Wandering Spirit did not speak was because he had switched places with this cousin, who looked similar and was dying from cancer. By speaking, there was a chance he may have been identified and both men would have died.

It is said that on the day of the execution, students were brought from Battleford Residential School and were forced to watch (although not too close so they wouldn't "hear" it). Prior to the execution, they were told: "This is what happens when you disobey".

After the execution, the bodies were cut down, placed in a cart and buried in an undisclosed location.

Almost a full century later, in 1972, the location of these bodies was found by a group of students. A concrete slab was placed above their graves, and in recent years a monument with the names of the eight men was erected in their memory.

Path to gravesite

The monument is on public property, but it is a little difficult to get to. There is no physical address, but its latitude and longitude is 52.731780, -108.294889. When I visited the grave, I parked on the nearby 1st Avenue East and walked along the property line. There appeared to be a vehicle trail on the other side of the property, but since I don't know Battleford very well, I wasn't comfortable driving into somebody's yard. The gravesite was also only a few minutes away, so it wasn't too difficult to get to.

The trail goes down into the valley and turns from dirt to sand. This was easy enough going down, but it was very hard going back up. If you plan to visit it, I'd recommend walking on the grass on the way up and bringing plenty of bug spray.

The sand trail ends at a clearing, and to your right is a fenced area. This is where the gravesite is located.

Fence around grave in Battleford

Inside the fenced area was the headstone, as well as a sign telling the story of the North-West Resistance, and the people who were executed for it.  Some call these men heroes, while others call them murderers. I'm not able to make a claim either way, but I do know these men fought for their people, their culture and their land, and that their lives and death was a changing point in Canadian history.

Grave of eight Indigenous men in Battleford

Did you know about the grave, and do you have any interest in visiting it? Tell me about it in the comments below.


Further Reading:

Eagle Feather News - Solemn anniversary of 1885 Battleford hangings marked at Wanuskewin

Cree Literacy Network - An infamous anniversary: 130 years since Canada's Largest Mass Hanging 27 November 1885

The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan - University of Regina - Frog Lake Massacre

Wikipedia - Looting of Battleford

Wikipedia - Frog Lake Massacre

Wikipedia - 1885 Hangings at Battleford


*It is said that one of the names on the stone, Ikte (Crooked Legs), is spelt wrong. It should be Heektay (Dead Hair).

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