© 2024
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Battle of Grand Coteau


Throughout much of the early nineteenth century, the Métis remained one of the dominant groups of the Red River Valley. Descended largely from Ojibwa or Cree mothers and European fathers, the Red River Métis were fiercely independent, noted as excellent horsemen, trappers, voyageurs and buffalo hunters. Their success, however, often put them in conflict with the ancient enemy of their Ojibwa and Cree ancestors; the Dakota.

Throughout the early nineteenth century both the Métis and Dakota competed for much of the same resources; frequently fighting for territory and buffalo throughout the upper plains. This continuous state of war was only settled at the Battle of Grand Coteau; a quick, but deadly skirmish fought on this date, July 13, 1851, southeast of present-day Minot, North Dakota.

In the late spring of 1851, Métis parties set out on their annual buffalo hunt; looking to fill their stockpiles with hides and pemmican. While the Métis parties often worked in tandem, they remained about thirty miles apart, so as not to interfere with each other's hunt. This allowed them to stalk buffalo more effectively, but in separating their forces, the hunters put themselves at greater risk of attack.

On July 12, the hunt was interrupted when a small Métis party stumbled upon a large encampment of Dakota. The Métis sensed trouble was afoot and prepared for battle; forming a corral with their wagons to protect the livestock, as well as two lines of trenches. Women and children were hidden in the first trench, dug underneath the corralled wagons while the seventy-seven men who could handle a gun used the outer trench as rifle pits.

The next day, the battle began. The Métis were hopelessly outnumbered, by some reports nearly twenty-five to one. But however brave and skilled the Dakota were, they were unable to break the Métis spirit or barricade. Even though the Dakota had the far superior numbers, they never attacked in mass, preferring to ride around the Métis corral and rifle pits, sniping from their horses. Had they attacked in a sustained frontal charge, it is likely the Métis would not have been able to fend the Dakota off. But that was not to be. Running out of ammunition and seeing their Métis opponents as belligerent as ever, the Dakota saw no merit in continuing the battle and broke off their attack.

The Battle of Grand Coteau was a costly one for the Dakota, who lost some eighty men and sixty-five horses; discouraging future confrontation with the Métis. For the Métis, the Battle of Grand Coteau represented the height of their power on the northern plains. While defending against a much larger force, they lost none in the main fighting and proved the strength of both their resolve and tactics. Just like Dakota, the Métis would finally lose their bid for independence, but at Grand Coteau, they at least secured for themselves a few more decades of freedom.

Dakota Datebook written by Lane Sunwall


"Battle of Grand Coteau - the Days Before", Heritage Community Foundation http://www.albertasource.ca/metis/eng/beginnings/political_battle.htm (accessed June 24, 2008).

Carter, Sarah, "Review: Peter Douglas Elias, the Dakota of the Canadian Northwest: Lessons for Survival", Manitoba Historical Society http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/19/northwestdakota.shtml (accessed June 30, 2008).

Morton, William, "The Battle at the Grand Coteau: July 13 and 14, 1851", Manitoba Historical Society http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/transactions/3/grandcouteau.shtml (accessed June 24, 2008).

Timbrook, Mark. "Battle of the Grand Coteau: A Forgotten Event of Regional History." Minot, ND: Ward County Historical Society.