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Newmarket proudly sent volunteers west to battle in Riel Rebellion

In this week's Remember This?, History Hound Richard MacLeod recounts the town's pride when the local volunteer companies joined the government forces in Saskatchewan to 'put down' the North-West Rebellion of 1885

This article is the first in a two-part series in which I’ll highlight events from the mid-1800s to the turn of the century, a period that saw several historic events occur in Canada, which were reflected here in Newmarket.

Prior to the uprising in 1837, William Lyon MacKenzie and Robert Gourlay had advocated for a union of the Canadian provinces. The idea was supported by Lord Durham in his report to Queen Victoria. Upper and Lower Canada were to eventually unite in 1841, though for some time the matter was treated more as a marriage of convenience than as a real union.

The gloomy conditions of that period in Canada have been well documented. There appeared to be two ways forward being proposed as a way out of the current hard times — annexation by the United States or a confederation of the provinces. 

There appears little doubt that public sentiment locally was favorable to confederation as a safeguard against a foreign policy of coercion. 

Two men, George Brown and John A. Macdonald, two staunch adherents of the British system, advocated for confederation. Brown, editor of The Globe, pushed union as the only logical way forward and he was ably supported by the clever statesmanship of Macdonald in piloting numerous conferences concerning the issues prevalent at the time.

Newmarket’s newspaper wrote, “Perhaps there are few more momentous incidents on record in Canadian history (than) the meeting between Brown and Macdonald on June 15th, 1864, which came as a result of an offer from the former, the strong, dour, passionate Scot, who suppressed his personal and political feelings in order to open the way out of the deadlock and into Confederation.” 

Reports of the prospect of American annexation were met with considerable consternation by Newmarket citizens. Their forefathers, who had arrived in the early 1800s, were still fiercely loyal to the Union Jack. Britain represented a system of government, a monarchy, that possessed safeguards that no republic could ever possess, in their opinion.

The important figures in Newmarket during those days were of strong conviction. According to the paper of the time, they considered the great decisions proposed, read the arguments set forth by the Globe and discussed the editorials written in simple, incontestable language by the editor of The Newmarket Era. 

All seemed in favour of a united Canada. And when Brown and Macdonald separately visited the village during this period and addressed the people regarding the great challenge of Confederation, they pushed the great potential for beckoning development to our forefathers.

On March 28, 1867, the British North America Act was born and received the assent of Queen Victoria, becoming the Constitution of the new Dominion of Canada on the first of July.  

The Fathers of Confederation, through Lord Carnarvon, expressly asked Queen Victoria to call the new country the Dominion of Canada, from the eighth verse of the Psalm 72: “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the rivers unto the ends of the Earth”.

An examination of many local papers of the time spoke of Newmarket’s rapid progress since Confederation and of the great prominence given to each year’s recognition of the union. 

Enthusiastic celebrations by the community and district are documented. The first Dominion Day was grandly celebrated in Newmarket. The volunteers paraded, a cricket match was played on the fairgrounds and a picnic for the citizens was held in Rogers’ Woods, just north of the village.

Two years later, in April 1869, a bill was introduced in the House of Commons, making July 1 Dominion Day, a legal holiday. Editorials proclaimed it was a step in the right direction and that every effort should be made to encourage a national Canadian pride.

With Confederation accomplished, the Canadian public’s attention turned to the great, lonely land lying west of the Great Lakes. The Hudson’s Bay Company had, by this time, relinquished its charter rights to the British government for 300,000 pounds sterling, all Native reservations around their trading posts, and one-twentieth of the land in the fertile belt. 

The British government transferred this vast territory to Canada, with the proviso that it was to respect and conserve the rights of the people in the area, welcoming them into the Dominion. This arrangement was concluded in the spring of 1869, the purchase money paid Oct. 1. 

The government in Ottawa failed to recognize the need to inform the more than 10,000 people inhabiting this new territory in an official manner of the steps that were being taken.

We all learned about the Red River Rebellion and Louis Riel at school. I will not go into the factors surrounding the whole affair but suffice to say, rumors and uneasiness were ramped within the people around Red River. 

The Metis were fearful their rights were being endangered, and appealed to Louis Riel, the son of a white father and an indigenous mother. His inflammatory speeches prompted armed rebellion and a period of great unrest was upon us.

The death sentence that hung over six men captured by Riel’s forces would eventually result in Canada’s first military execution. The Era states: “Shot, in front of Fort Garry, on the 4th day of March 1870 for being loyal to his Queen and Country, Thomas Scott, aged 21 years, and brother to Hugh Scott of Toronto...”

Meetings were held throughout the towns and cities calling for revenge for the death of Scott. A meeting was called in Newmarket on April 20 to consider the situation. Long speeches were made, discussing the perceived spinelessness of the government. Strong feelings rose among the people and five resolutions were passed condemning the course being pursued by the government and a statement of sympathy was sent to the friends of the late Thomas Scott.

In March 1885, the call went out for men to enlist and go west to put down the uprising. Prominent citizens of Newmarket, among whom were A.R. Watson, James Allan, B.F. Reesor, M.W. Bogart, John Savage, W.T. Perkins, J.E. Dickson, Dr. Widdifield, MPP, and Erastus Jackson, asked the mayor to call a public meeting to consider the advisability of providing woolen underwear.

The streets were filled with excited people and Red Coats. Col. Wyndham arrived from Toronto, the town band marched up Main Street and volunteers paraded. Dr. Hillary from Aurora selected men from the Newmarket Company and a second company under the command of Major Wayling of Sharon were formed. All these men were billeted at Newmarket.

The accounts received from the West were not reassuring. Indigenous uprisings continued and all indications were that a much larger force, probably 10,000 men, would be needed. 

The Newmarket Company was reinforced to its full complement and drills commenced. Finally, a telegram came ordering the Newmarket Company to proceed at once. News spread through the town and in the town hall every man of both the Newmarket and Sharon companies was provided with one pair of woolen drawers, two woolen shirts, one pair woolen socks and one pair woolen mitts. 

At the Forsyth House (King George Hotel), each man was provided with a hearty sandwich, one half pound of cheese and one can of potted beef.

At noon, the bugle sounded to fall in, the town bell began to peel and quickly joined by the bells of the Christian and St. Paul’s churches, the band appeared, and crowds began to gather.

At 12:30 p.m., the Volunteers, headed by the band playing the martial music of the Royal Grenadiers, marched to the Royal Hotel, where William Jones took their pictures. 

Led by the band they marched to the station, where a special train awaited them. More than 600 people had assembled to see them off with members of council shaking their hands. Rousing cheers were given to the officers and men of the 12th Battalion, the York Rangers and for the 35th Battalion who were on the same train. 

As the train moved off the band played The Girl I Left Behind Me. Newmarket was proud of the prompt and hearty response of these young men for active service, who were surely showing the determined character of the area.

The raw chill of a late spring intensified the discomfort and messages back told of the difficulties encountered in walking across the gaps of the uncompleted CPR, over the ice of the north shore of Lake Superior, then of the appalling massacre at Frog Lake and the Duck Lake butchery, the homes of the settlers raided and the inmates cruelly slain.

By May came the word that the rebellion was over, Riel had been captured and the operation complete. By July, the troops were expected home, to be laden with honours.

Next week we will look at the Queen’s Jubilee and more events from this period. 

Sources: The Newmarket Era; Minutes of Newmarket Council; The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; Stories of Newmarket – An Old Ontario Town by Robert Terence Carter; Articles by Robert Terence Carter in the Newmarket Era; Photos From National Archives, University of Manitoba Archives and the Canadian History Project.



About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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