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Gabriel Dumont: The phantom of the plains

Any roster of North America’s most revered 19th century guerrilla warriors would include the likes of Sioux chieftain Sitting Bull, Confederate cavalrymen Jeb Stuart and John Moseby, and maybe even Laura Secord, the diminutive housewife who conquered 25 miles of unforgiving swamp to warn the British of an impending American attack at Niagara Falls during the War of 1812.

There’s another name that belongs on that list – perhaps even at the top – yet is rarely if ever mentioned because of the curious Canadian custom of ignoring or disparaging our homegrown heroes. That name is Gabriel Dumont, military commander of Louis Riel’s ill-fated North-West Rebellion in 1885.

Born in the Red River area of Manitoba in December 1837, Gabriel was the son of Metis buffalo hunter Isidore Dumont and Quebec-born Louise Laframboise. Though he never had formal education and was unable to read or write his entire life, by the age of 12 young Dumont had mastered the essential skills of the plains – riding and marksmanship – and was conversant in six languages. At 14 he received his first taste of battle in a Metis victory over a large group of Sioux camped near the Grand Coteau junction of the Missouri River just over the U.S. border. It was there the tiny Metis force – outnumbered ten to one – introduced the tactic of firing from rifle pits ringing a circle of wagons. Dumont never forgot the lesson, and from that day forward dedicated himself to the study of battle pitting a small force against a numerically-superior enemy. By the time he was elected permanent chief of the Saskatchewan Metis in 1863, Dumont’s fame as a leader and tactician had spread from Ontario to Alberta.

Despite his lack of formal education, Dumont was as much visionary as warrior. In 1872 he took advantage of the growing traffic on the Carlton Trail by opening a ferry across the South Saskatchewan River upstream from Batoche. The following year he became president of the commune of St. Laurant and tried to broker a deal with the federal government to allow his people to own their own farms once the buffalo herds were depleted. Dumont’s proposal was summarily rejected by Ottawa, but he persevered. In 1877-78 he chaired a series of meetings which drew up demands for Metis representation on the Territorial Council and for farming assistance, schools, and title to land already occupied. When he was again snubbed by Ottawa, Dumont made his fateful decision to travel to the U.S. to convince exiled Metis leader Louis Riel to return to Canada to plead their case to the federal government.

On March 19, 1885, after exhausting all conventional means of negotiation with Ottawa, Riel declared the formation of provisional Metis government in Saskatchewan and named Dumont adjutant general in command of 300 warriors. Six days later, with two dozen horsemen accompanying him, Dumont led a supply raid into the town of Duck Lake, where they were confronted by a small contingent of North-West Mounted Police. After an initial skirmish the outnumbered police retreated to nearby Fort Carlton and Dumont and his men proceeded to clean out the stores. Within hours the commander at Fort Carlton mobilized his entire garrison of 56 NWMP troops and 43 militia volunteers from Prince Albert and returned to Duck Lake, but by that time Riel and the rest of the Metis force werefortified in a position on the other side of the river. Dumont and a dozen sharpshooters chose an ambush spot about two miles outside of town, and shortly after the police and militia came into view the shooting started.

It’s never been clearly determined who fired the first volley, but the battle lasted about half an hour. When it was over a dozen police and militia troops were dead and several more severely wounded. The Metis losses were five dead and three wounded, including Dumont, who was grazed in the scalp by an errant bullet.

The confrontation at Duck Lake triggered an immediate response from Ottawa, which declared Riel a “traitorous insurrectionist.” A force of more than 1,500 regular army troops was dispatched to Saskatchewan under the command of Major-General Frederick Middleton, but before it arrived Dumont’s guerrilla army established alliances with the Cree and Sioux tribes, who were as determined as the Metis to control their own destiny. On April 24 Dumont’s contingent of sixty horsemen routed Middleton’s main column of 500 troops outside the town of Fish Creek, but that victory – in which Dumont personally set the prairie ablaze in order to blind the federals with smoke — was the high water mark of the rebellion. His guerrillas continued to wreak havoc until Riel ordered a halt to the raids, and on May 24 they clashed with Middleton for the last time at Batoche. Before the federal troops arrived Dumont ordered his men to dig a series of trenches protected by log barriers. By slipping from trench to trench and firing from under cover, approximately 250 Metis, Cree and Sioux kept the bulk of Middleton’s army at bay for 96 hours with minimal casualties. It was only when Dumont’s guerrillas finally ran out of ammunition that the federals prevailed. Riel was captured and hanged for treason on Nov. 10 at Regina, but Dumont escaped to the U.S., where the following year he accepted an offer to demonstrate his marksmanship skills in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.

After an extended visit to Quebec in 1889 to dictate his memoirs, Gabriel Dumont, the elusive phantom of the plains, returned to his old homestead near Batoche where he lived quietly until his death from heart failure in 1906.

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