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Bruce County Historical Society

Bruce County, Ontario, Canada

Incorporated 1901 - 1915       Re-incorporated 1957

Bruce County History

Military History

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Pensions to Militiamen of 1812-1815 - Bruce County
Pensions to Militiamen of 1812-1815 - Bruce County

Men Of Bruce Answered Call of 1870

from Bruce County Historical Notes, Volume 46, No. 2, September 2004

What prompted men of Bruce County to leave home and family and go off to face an unknown enemy in Western Canada in 1870?

If the answer could be summed up in one word that word would be ‘Riel’. Louis Riel, it will be remembered, wanted to protect the rights of the Métis in the North West. The Métis feared that the impending sale to Canada of the Hudson’s Bay Company lands would bring with it an unwanted influx of Protestant English settlers from the east, especially from Ontario. Riel became secretary of a semi-military organization that seized Fort Garry and took a number of prisoners.

The unpleasantries came to a head in March of 1870 when Riel and his Métis executed one of the prisoners, Thomas Scott, an Irish workman from Ontario. Scott was also an Orangeman, and therefore anti-Catholic, and likely anti-French to boot. Propaganda, including exaggerated details of Scott’s torture and death, soon inflamed many in Ontario. Among the inflammatory statements, the Huron Signal at Goderich reported:

... his trial was conducted in French, of which he did not understand a word — that he was denied the privilege of one day’s respite to prepare for death — that he was compelled to kneel in the snow, and the villains who shot him did their cruel work so badly that he lay for an hour alive after he was thrown into his coffin. This outrage will stir the blood of every true Briton, and we full believe the rope is already spun which will hang Riel.

Ottawa then mounted what became known as the Red River Expedition, sending British troops and two volunteer battalions from Canada, one from Quebec and one from Ontario. It was organised as a mission of peace, not war, and for the Imperial troops sent west it no doubt was. It was a different story among the Ontario forces, agitated by news accounts and editorials. Many openly talked about getting revenge.

Thomas Adair 
Thomas Adair 

One of those from Bruce who answered the call was Thomas Adair, a prominent Southampton businessman. He is described in his obituary as ‘a man of genial and social nature’. There is a strong possibility that he was widowed about the time the expedition was being formed, leaving him the sole support for his 10 children. His Reform Party affiliations suggest he went on the expedition out of a sense of patriotism toward Canada. Many regarded the rebellion as a test of nationalism.

Thomas Adair had been to the ‘front’ before, serving with the First Southampton Rifles, one of the companies of the 32nd Bruce Battalion sent in 1866 to meet the Fenians who were expected to invade Canada.

Adair’s role in the Red River Expedition was no small undertaking. He was selected to command, as a volunteer quartermaster, the military transportation company set up to move the supplies of the Ontario troops west. Adair had 80 teamsters and their horses and equipment under him, including four teamsters from Southampton, Hutchinson Jackson, Donald Robertson, George E. Smith and John Slocombe.

Also from Bruce County were the following teamsters: James Clendening, Duncan Kerr, Philip Miller and William McVicar, all from Carrick Township; Alfred Hardy and David Love, from Arran Township; James Gilmour and J. Gilroy, from Culross Township; F. Burnham, Walkerton; Robert McFarlane, Amabel, and John Kerr, Kincardine.

The volunteer Quebec battalion and the 60th Rifles and Steel Battery of the Imperial forces likely had their own transportation masters.

The Toronto Globe of May 18, 1870, noted that the teamsters were chosen principally from the rural districts and engaged at $22 a month. They were subject to military law while on the expedition, and “liable to be punished or discharged as the commanding officer may see fit.”

The men also had to purchase their own kit, according to the Globe story. The general in charge, however, “promised to have the kitt furnished at the lowest figure.”

The kit consisted of the following articles: two blankets, India-rubber sheet, waterproof bag, knife, fork, spoon, tin plate and cup, at a cost of $7.50.

The 32nd Bruce Battalion was asked to send three volunteers from each company. After first assembling at Paisley, the volunteers were transferred in May of 1870 to Collingwood where they boarded steamers bound in June for Fort William, now Thunder Bay.

From there, the troops including regulars of the 60th Rifles of the Imperial Army led by Col. Garnet Wolseley, headed for Lake Winnipeg. The worst part of the journey lay ahead. The Dawson Trail stretched before them, 450 miles from Port Arthur west to Winnipeg. Of this distance, 140 miles were on land and 310 on the water, with 7 portages. The trail was intended to be completed by then, but the troops on the expedition had to do some of the road-building themselves.

When the troops reached Fort Garry on Aug. 24, they learned that Riel had fled across the border into the United States. After that, the expedition was short-lived. Col. Wolseley soon left with his British troops, leaving the Ontario volunteers to stand guard.

(Portions of this story first appeared in Forgotten Lives by John Weichel, published by the Bruce County Museum & Archives.)