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Invasion of Canada

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Many people believe America and Canada have always been at peace with each other, but that’s not completely true. On this date in 1871, U.S. citizens invaded Canada by way of Pembina in what became known as the Fenian Invasion.

The Fenians’ goal was to hold Canada hostage until England granted Ireland its freedom. The first Fenian raid took place June 2nd, 1866, when Fenians crossed the Niagara river from Buffalo, NY, and captured Fort Erie. It took a number of days to squelch the invasion; and the leaders of the movement were brought back to the states and punished. It was agreed that the US would be allowed into Canada to address any further incursions.

Meanwhile, out in Fort Garry and Winnipeg, the French-Indian Métis realized the Canadian government was planning to annex the upper Red River territory without making provisions for the Métis, their homes, or their land. The Métis rebelled, and for a while, things looked promising for them, but it was not to last.

An Irishman named O’Donoghue saw the plight of the Métis as similar to that of Ireland and had taken part in the rebellion. He later connected with General John O’Neill who was something of a Fenian hero for commanding 600 men during the raid on Fort Erie. O’Neill was a reckless romantic with an insatiable thirst for adventure. By the first days of October 1871, the two were headed for Pembina to prepare an attack.

The Canadian government was alarmed, and Gilbert McMicken, the Commissioner of Dominion Police, hurried west to take charge of the situation. His trip from Ottawa took him through Chicago and then Breckenridge, Minnesota. As he headed north from there, he kept a low profile. He encountered a number of Fenians along the away – all headed for Pembina. McMicken actually overtook O’Donoghue, at one point, and sat at the opposite end of a bar one night. By the time McMicken arrived in Fort Garry, he had surreptitiously gathered a great deal of information.

The Fenians did indeed cross the border and seize the Hudson’s Bay Fort, but U.S. troops descended on the Irishmen, and by the end of the day, the whole thing was over. It turns out O’Neill and O’Donoghue only had about 40 men, and the Métis had refused to join in. The plan was doomed from the start.

Dakota Datebook by Merry Helm

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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