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Invasion of Canada, Part 2


Yesterday we told you about the Irishmen – or Fenians – who wanted to invade Canada by way of the United States. The Fenains’ goal was to hold Canada hostage until England granted Ireland its freedom. The movement was, in fact, the birth of the Irish Republican Army – or IRA.

The first Canadian raid took place during the wee hours of June 2nd, 1866, when the Fenians crossed the Niagra from Buffalo, NY, and captured Fort Erie. It took a number of days to squelch the invasion; leaders of the movement were brought back to the U.S. and punished. The Fenian organization was outlawed, and the U.S. and Canada agreed that American officials could come onto Canada and capture participants in any future exploits the Fenians might plan.

Meanwhile, out in Fort Garry and Winnipeg, the French-Indian Métis were realizing 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 took part in the rebellion. In fact, he went to Washington to petition President Grant for help. When he was turned down, he asked the Fenians to help the Métis. The Fenians turned him down, but in the process, O’Donoghue won a crucial ally. General John O’Neill 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, and he liked O’Donoghue’s plan. By the first days of October 1871, the two were headed for Pembina to prepare the attack.

The Canadian government was alarmed about the impending Fenian threat. Officials instructed Gilbert McMicken, the Commissioner of Dominion Police, to hurry west to take charge of the situation. His trip from Ottawa took him through Chicago and on to Breckenridge, where he headed north to Georgetown. There, he had to grab a stagecoach, which turned out to be a bit of a problem. Our good man, Limpy Jack Clayton, was the driver chosen for the job, but his horses had just covered a rugged 20-mile trip, and he cared more about his horses than he did about himself. After a great deal of spitting and spewing, Limpy Jack was finally persuaded, and they headed north. At one point, Limpy Jack saved them from a prairie fire.

McMicken kept a low profile as he continued north. 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 the bar that night. By the time McMicken arrived in Fort Garry, he had gathered a great deal of information to share with officials. He figured the Fenians numbered 70 or less, because the venture had no money to bring Irish sympathizers out from the East Coast.

The Canadians weren’t easily calmed, however, and called up a volunteer militia. The new government hadn’t been fulfilling their promises to the Métis, and rebellion was once again close at hand. If they joined with the Fenians – which O’Donoghue was counting on – the invasion could be very serious.

The people of Ft. Garry learned, October 5th, that the Fenians had crossed the border and seized the Hudson’s Bay Fort. They were holding the trader, Mr. Watt, prisoner – not too difficult, since Mr. Watt had only one arm. U.S. troops under the command of Colonel Wheaton descended on the Irishmen, and by the end of the day, the whole thing was over. It turns out O’Neill and O’Donoghue had only about 40 men, and the Métis refused to join their cause. The plan was doomed from the start.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm