You're probably wondering, now how in the world does a Fenian "Invasion" have anything to do with St. Vincent? Well, technically it may not, since it involves Pembina across the river. But saying that, since the two towns' histories are so intertwined - and there were many area residents of Irish descent that may have had sympathies with those directly involved - I offer this piece of history of my little corner of the world. It is fascinating to say the least - and definitely colorful!
The Fenian "Invasion" of 1871
by Roy P. Johnson
The invasion of Manitoba in 1871 was one of the most fabulous episodes in the history of our Canadian and American frontier. It seems impossible that it could have happened at all ... yet it did. It is only when you know what the frontier was like, how its people thought and acted, that you realize it was possible.
Yet, even when you have learned a good deal about the frontier and the people on it, you know that it could not have happened but for two strange men. Those men were W. B. O'Donoghue and John J. O'Neill. They barked at the moon, and almost got away with it. There were not many like them. I might well have called my paper "Wild Scenes on Red River". I would like to explain that I might have borrowed the latter title from the newspapers of frontier times.
On any occasion when a disturbance broke out in those days, it was the usual thing for the editor to set up a row of headline type, reading "Wild Scenes" at such and such a place.
He would then insert it in a spot where it would attract most attention. It was a great circulation builder. There was something electrifying about those two words. They could be used to advantage for almost anything, but especially for rebellions, invasions, floods and boiler explosions.
It cannot he said that in all cases the article that appeared under the headline justified the dramatic introduction. But it made readers sit up and take notice. It probably induced them to suspect that the editor undoubtedly had more exciting details, which might be revealed in the next edition.
Probably this was the beginning of the exaggeration that marked some of the stories that were told, as well as written, in pioneer times. Certainly we know through our research that some of those tales do not stand the test of careful scrutiny. Of course, the blow-hard spirit is not gone. But modern communication facilities and competition tend to restrain it.
In addition to discussing O'Donoghue and O'Neill, I would like to try to throw a little additional light on the attitude of people south of the border to the invasion, to outline in some detail what happened in the United States courts when the leaders of the raid were brought before the bench.
I think it can be said with some degree of truth that the Manitoba raid, the counterparts of the Riel rebellions and similar disturbances, were common to the North American frontier ever since the time settlers started moving out from the eastern seaboard, in fact, even before.
The independent individualism of the frontier has always been rebellious when confronted with the first manifestations of organized government. Men of the frontier preferred to be asked to do ... not to be ordered.
The surveyor, the tax collector, the law enforcement officer and the court, all were viewed as representatives of oppression. There was a scorn of older society, impatience with its restraints and its ideas, and an indifference to its lessons everywhere in the advanced settlements.
Let me give you an example of a "wild scene" on the American side of the border. The year was 1861. Dakota Territory had been created and its officers appointed by President Lincoln. The first territorial legislature was in session at Yankton.
The speaker of the house turned out to be an officious gentleman. The members of the house, who took an instant dislike to him, asked the sergeant at arms, who was a noted desperado, to throw him out of a window of the legislative building. The speaker sought help from the territorial governor. The governor posted a company of armed militia in the building. Both the council which included Enos Stutsman of Pembina, and the house, revolted at this affront. They refused to proceed with their work until the militia was withdrawn. A day or two later the sergeant at arms was able to throw the speaker out of a window after all. He tossed him out of the window of a saloon, along with the window frame.
During the same session, the governor and the receiver of the United States land office engaged in a hair-pulling, choking and fisticuffs exhibition in a Yankton hotel. The governor was William Jayne, who had been Abraham Lincoln's family physician. Governor Jayne was militantly pushing a bill in the legislature to extend citizenship to halfbreeds who could read and write. Like Lincoln, he had a sympathy for downtrodden races. The land office man did not agree. The governor won in the hotel fight but lost in the legislature. No one on the frontier wanted to be told what to do.
No one can deny that the Dominion and provincial governments and the thinking people of Manitoba had reason to be tremendously disturbed when they learned in September of 1871 that an army was being assembled in the United States to invade the province. Manitoba was still writhing from the aftereffects of the violent rebellion of the previous year. Fenians had already made attempts to invade Canada at several other places.
Mr. John P. Pritchett in an article in the Canadian Historical Review in 1929 and Hon. Gilbert McMicken in a paper presented to this Society in 1888-89 have made contributions to the history of the raid that probably cannot be matched in this paper. I can only attempt to supplement their fine work.
At this point I would like to say that I heartily endorse Mr. Pritchett's view that the invasion was born as a result of the rift between Louis Riel and W. B. O'Donoghue. I would like to explore that point a bit deeper as I go on.
Somehow I believe we shall learn more about the causes and circumstances of the Manitoba invasion in a study of the lives of the two major leaders than in anything else. Perhaps we shall be able to reach a conclusion as to why this almost unbelievable episode happened at all.
For reasons readily understandable they seem to have left behind no completely believable answer to the question, why did you do it? So the best method to follow in seeking the answer, it seems to me, is to study these two men, to determine what characteristics and traits motivated their acts.
J. J. Donnelly and Thomas Curley, the other two leaders played such insignificant roles they seem hardly worthy of any mention at all.
I have examined the Pritchett and McMicken papers. My other sources are the files of the court of Pembina, some of the messages and letters of Presidents Andrew Johnson and U. S. Grant, frontier newspapers, minutes of the "Red River Congress" and an unpublished manuscript written by Gordon J. Keeney, a Fargo attorney who practised in the courts of Pembina.
Let us first take a look at O'Donoghue. I consider him one of the most amazing characters ever seen on the frontier. He is first met as a supporter and apparently a close friend of Louis Riel. He was an eloquent speaker and undoubtedly spoke both English and French. He was an able organizer. He was fiery-tempered, proud and egotistical. He probably was not a member of the Fenian Brotherhood, but he apparently was attracted to its principles. He was thoroughly sympathetic with the Métis of Rupert's Land and had won a following among them.
Riel liked him, at least for a time, and he became treasurer of the provisional government and a member of Riel's cabinet.
I think it is important to re-emphasize at this point a serious break that had occurred between O'Donoghue and Riel at the Fort Garry gate, April 20, 1870. You will recall that Riel at that time held the fort and that a violent dispute took place when Riel ordered the provisional government flag with its shamrocks and fleur-de-lis lowered and replaced by the Union Jack. You will recall that Riel assigned a man to guard the Union Jack, with orders to shoot.
In a sense that probably was the germ from which the Manitoba invasion began.
The smouldering resentment that developed in O'Donoghue at this affront later was fanned into flame in the two violent disputes between the two men at the St. Norbert conference.
O'Donoghue was no little man. He was the man who was to carry a petition from the Métis to President Grant asking for aid. He knew big men in the United States senators, politicians, prominent newspaper editors. He conferred with many of them and he managed to hit the front pages. He liked that. He even had a personal interview with President Grant, and Grant treated him courteously, even though he rejected his plea.
Was O'Donoghue discouraged? Not a bit of it. He appeared before the Fenian Brotherhood council, in New York City, repeatedly seeking aid. Time and again he was turned down. But he didn't give up. After a trip west he tackled the council again, and they turned him down again.
But now O'Donoghue got a good break. General John J. O'Neill, a member of the council, was swung by his eloquence. He resigned from the brotherhood and stepped to O'Donoghue's side.
Let us now take a look at O'Neill. He was thirty-seven years old at the time of the Manitoba Invasion. Within the span of those thirty-seven years he had already lived a most colourful life. He had seen glory as well as defeat, but his unconquerable spirit had never been broken. He had become instead, a Don Quixote out of Cervantes, seeking a new world to conquer.
He was born in Ireland, after his father had died, and he had come to Elizabeth, N.J., a clever, resourceful, energetic boy of fourteen. He had no education beyond his fifteenth year and he became in succession, a shop clerk, a travelling book agent and a proprietor of a Catholic book store in Richmond, Va., by the time he was twenty-two.
He must eventually have found civil life dull because in 1857 he joined the Second U.S. Dragoons for the Mormon war. While he was with the Dragoons he exhibited one of his outstanding traits ... an unwillingness to submit to discipline. He deserted and made his way to California where he joined the 1st U.S. Cavalry.
By the time of the War of the Rebellion, O'Neill had become a sergeant. He soon found himself in the Peninsular campaign, where his leadership and courage advanced him in December, 1862, to the rank of second lieutenant in the 5th Indiana Cavalry. He quickly won a reputation as an unusually active and daring officer and four months later was a first lieutenant. Thereafter he distinguished himself notably near Glasgow, Ky., and at Buffington Bar during Morgan's Ohio raid, and on December 2, 1863, was severely wounded at Walker's Ford.
At about this time we find another manifestation of his nature ... his extreme egotism and his temper, which made it hard for him to work with others. In 1864, because he had received no further promotion in rank he resigned from his regiment. He next appeared as a captain with the 17th U.S. coloured infantry. Even then he was not content and left the service in November, nearly six months before the war was over. In all this one can see the symptoms of instability and rebellion.
After the war he became a claims agent for the government in Tennessee. Now the Fenian organization came into being and he heard with interest the plans for an invasion of Canada proposed by the faction headed by W. R. Roberts. He became a Fenian organizer in his district.
With characteristic energy he led a detachment north from Nashville, Tenn., in May, 1866, to take part in the attack.
He now demonstrated his unfortunate propensity for impulsive action. Finding himself in command of a raiding party of 600 men at Buffalo, N.Y., he crossed the Niagara river and occupied the Canadian village of Fort Erie. When he and his men fled in the face of British troops he received his first acquaintance with the United States courts.
One could well ask, would it have made any difference if the courts had sent him to prison then; would that have averted the Manitoba invasion. The answer probably is that it would not. Only four years later, O'Neill was sent to prison, and from there, little more than a year later, he marched on Manitoba.
The raid on Fort Erie led to his appointment as "inspector general of the Irish Republican Army", and it is evident that he was more or less of a hero; almost a martyr to some of the Fenians. By the end of the next year he had replaced Roberts as president of the Roberts branch of the Brotherhood. It is almost possible to visualize his conceit at this stage of his career. Soon he began preparing for another attack on Canada and his bold attitude caused no little alarm in the Dominion.
Now we have another glance at a manifestation of his inability to get along with others.
He affiliated himself with a firm of land speculators in a programme of founding Irish settlements in Nebraska. The first was at O'Neill. Others were at Atkinson, Neb., and in Greeley county, Nebraska.
It was not a particularly attractive country about the village of O'Neill - vast stretches of semiarid soil, valuable chiefly as hay lands. But O'Neill apparently had some success in inducing his countrymen to come there. It was while he was engaged in this enterprise that he died in Omaha, Jan. 7, 1878.
The town of O'Neill somehow reflects the rebellious philosophy and independence of its founder even today. While most Nebraska prairie cities keep their stores open Saturday night, those in O'Neill are closed. By custom they open at 6.30 Sunday morning so people from the surrounding country who come to early mass may trade. The spirit of John O'Neill lives on.
The next year he quarrelled with his "senate" and when, on May 25, he attempted a raid at Eccles Hill on the Vermont border, only a fraction of the Fenian organization supported him. His men fled when the Canadians opened fire. Now he was arrested for the second time, by a United States marshal.
One can imagine how his soul rebelled as he sat in prison beginning his two year sentence, and his jubilation when, after three months, President Grant released him by presidential pardon. This was typical of Grant, who could not ignore the pleas of men who had fought with him. O'Neill, in a rapturous moment on the day of his release, declared he never again would trouble Canada ... this virtually on the eve of his Manitoba excursion.
The picture of O'Neill is not quite complete without pointing out that there is no record that he himself ever killed a Canadian in his pursuit of glory. But while he said he was a devout Catholic he was also a devout Fenian, and Fenianism was condemned by his church.
Later on I should like to sketch briefly O'Neill's life after the Manitoba raid and tell why it is that his name is spoken, written and printed every day in a certain city in the United States and probably always will be.
In the year 1871, we find these urbane gentlemen making plans for the invasion. What probably motivated them? Certainly they both were glory hunters. Was O'Neill really interested in the foolish Fenian scheme of winning independence for Ireland by harassing Canada? It is highly doubtful. Did he see in the new raid an opportunity to regain lost prestige, that he might lord it over other Fenian leaders who had laughed at him in recent months? Was he still looking for high office, or a fortune in a new land?
How about O'Donoghue? Was he really eager to help the Métis, or was he, too, seeking to regain prestige? Or was he trying to revenge himself on Riel by stealing his visionary Métis empire away?
Were they both fanatical crusaders for a people they likened to the unhappy natives of their homeland?
Two presidents of the United States had issued proclamations against any invasion of Canada. They had said that any American arrested in Canada could expect no aid from them. They had ordered law enforcement officers to be on the alert.
To all this was added the prospect that the province might send an armed force against them, and that national troops might march west from Ottawa.
Furthermore, the United States and Canada had entered into an agreement permitting American troops to seize the invaders on Canadian soil.
O'Donoghue and O'Neill apparently did not know that, nor that the boundary line at Pembina was in dispute. Nor did they seem to reckon with the importance of the animosity of the Catholic clergy to the Fenian movement and their influence in dissuading the Métis from joining in O'Donoghue's scheme.
Whatever the motives of the two men they had decided now on one of the most incredible adventures of their times, an invasion of a Canadian province with a handful of men. The sheer bravado of it challenges the imagination, even when it is realized they probably expected to be joined by a Métis horde on the Canadian side.
Let us now turn our attention to Pembina, which that year had acquired a federal court. Lawyers and litigants had become weary of the long journey to Yankton, deep in the southern part of the territory.
So distant and inaccessible was this southern court, litigants without considerable means were virtually denied justice. The first officials of the court reached Pembina by travelling virtually the same route as the Manitoba invaders, except that they used either stagecoaches or river steamboats from Fort Abercrombie north.
There were sessions of this court in May and September, each marked by grand jury deliberations. The chief legal body was the territorial supreme court, consisting of three men, one of whom was designated chief justice. These three took turns at circuit-riding and when not sitting as the supreme court. presided over the several district courts which had been established.
The lawyers of that day were for the most part well trained and by any criterion might be described as clever. They were adepts at finding loopholes in the laws and were quick in taking advantage of technicalities.
Counsel for the government had to be resourceful. The judge had to be shrewd. There were instances when the judge proved to be not as brilliant as the bar, and there were times when the lawyers did not look like lawyers and when the courts did not resemble courts at all.
The Manitoba raiders arrived in the vicinity of Pembina while the court was in session. Judge French, then chief justice, was on the bench. The clerk of the court was George I. Foster, whose son, Charles S. Foster, still lives in Fargo.
George Foster had a dual position. He was clerk as well as court commissioner. In addition, he was correspondent for the newspaper, the Yankton Press. He wrote two dispatches describing the invasion. The first was dated at Pembina, Oct. 5, 1871, on the very day it occurred.
Here is what it said:
"The 'last sensation' in this country is taking place even now while I am writing. Perhaps a few words from one 'on the spot' will not be objected to.
For some days past, vague rumors of Fenians have been in circulation hereabouts among others that General O'Neill and other gentlemen of Fenian note were already in the vicinity of Pembina.
But most people apparently considered the new Fenian excitement rather a good joke until this morning when the news was brought to town that General O'Neill and party had taken possession of the Hudson's Bay Company trading post at North Pembina, some 21 miles north of this place on the Red River, and that Mr. Watt, the trader, was a prisoner in their hands.
And now nearly everyone in town, especially the 'new importations,' worked themselves up to a respectable degree of excitement. A few of the old settlers appeared to treat the whole affair in a matter of fact manner, and remained all day at their posts, working as though nothing was about to happen.
About 11 o'clock a.m., Captain Wheaton, Commander at Fort Pembina, with a portion of his forces, including surgeon, ambulance and hospital steward with his bag of lint, passed through town on their way to recapture the 'fallen citadel' and liberate the restrained trader.
This trading post is situated on disputed ground, the international boundary line having never been located west from the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky mountains.
A survey made by Major Long and party in 1823 planted their 'post' about one-fourth of a mile this side of the Hudson's Bay trading post, and a later survey by General Sikes and Captain Heap of the U.S. Engineers Corps, in May, 1870, set their stake some three-fourths of a mile north of the trading post.
This latter stake, I am informed, is recognized by the Department of Dakota for military purposes-at least it will be seen by the sequel that it has been by Captain Wheaton today.
When within about half a mile of the scene of action, the captain's forces, about 30 in number, alighted from their wagons, deployed and started on the double quick.
About this time the newly established occupants of the post, doubtless thinking that the 'business' looked a little 'unfavorable' commenced to 'evacuate the premises' and were seen emerging from each gateway and taking up their line of march in rather a confused manner towards the North Pole.
And now the scene presented to eye-witnesses must have been grand and novel-an epitomized third Bull Run retreat.
But as we were not an eye-witness of these 'beauties,' we will return with our imagination to the place where we really are and have been most of the day, sitting in our office in Colonel Stutsman's building at Pembina.
About 3 o'clock p.m., Captain Wheaton and party passed through the town on their return to Fort Pembina, having in charge 'Generals' John O'Neill, Thomas Curley and J. J. Donnelly and ten of the rank and file of the routed party. It is reported that there were some forty men in the party at the trading post.
It is now, at 7 o'clock p.m., reported that W. B. O'Donoghue of Red River 'unpleasantness' fame, was, during the afternoon, taken prisoner by halfbreeds and sent to Fort Pembina.
The Hudson's Bay post is comprised of a store, warehouse, dwelling and a few outbuildings, all built of hewn logs, and the whole being surrounded by a stockade some eight or ten feet high, with bastions at each of the four corners, and gateways or entrances on the east and north sides.
It was built several years since, and constructed with a view to protecting the occupants - consisting usually of a trader, clerk and domestics - from Indians."
Since the arrested men were soon to come before Mr. Foster in his capacity as court commissioner, it may be well to cite briefly the provision of the Neutrality Law under which they were to be prosecuted.
The law was passed by congress in 1818 when a number of Americans participated in an expedition which attempted to join revolutionary forces planning to take over the Spanish colonies in Florida.
Generally, it seems to have been rather ambiguous and difficult to apply to the cases in hand. The authorities chose provision No. 6 of the act, which made it a crime "to retain another person to go beyond the limits of the United States with the intention to be enlisted into the service of either belligerent."
This made it necessary to prove not only one man's act but another's intention. Everybody concerned made a bad job of it. They did the best they could with an inadequate law.
Just what happened was related by Mr. Foster in his next dispatch to the Yankton Press, dated Pembina, Oct. 16, 1871. Here is what he said:
"In my communication of the 5th instant, I left the leaders of the so-called Fenian movement under guard at Fort Pembina. On the 6th, Captain Wheaton filed a complaint with the United States commissioner, and warrants were issued for their apprehension and placed in the hands of Deputy (Judson) LaMoure, who immediately relieved the captain of the responsibility of further entertaining his distinguished guests. The complaint embraced Section 6 of the Neutrality Laws of the United States.
On the morning of the 7th, the examination before the commissioner commenced, Captain Wheaton appearing for the United States and Colonel Enos Stutsman and George F. Potter, Esq., for the defendants.
The prosecution was conducted as one case and occupied all day Saturday and until 7 o'clock p.m. on Monday, and resulted in the discharge of the prisoners, two of whom, Generals O'Neill and Curley, left on the Wednesday morning stage for St. Paul. Colonel Donnelly and Mr. O'Donoghue are still in town.
The ten 'followers' captured, together with the 'stragglers' of the vanquished party, in all about twenty, have taken up their line of march toward the rising sun and Pembina has again settled into its usual quietude.
Governor Archibald, in his proclamation to the citizens of Manitoba published in the Manitoban of the 14th instant, delivers himself of the following: 'I regret to have to inform you that on the same day, the United States civil authorities at Pembina, to whom Colonel Wheaton was obliged to hand over his prisoners, discharged these marauders for reasons which I am unable to comprehend.'
It may be an easy matter for Governor Archibald, sitting in his easy chair at the Government House in Fort Garry to sit in judgment upon and condemn men whom he has never seen and of which he knows nothing. But it is no easy matter for the United States commissioner at Pembina, sworn to faithfully perform the duties of his office, to hold for trial men against whom no traces of any crime having been committed by the prisoners against the laws of the United States or any other authority no person can deny who heard the testimony given on the examination."
Upon his arrival in St. Paul, October 16, O'Neill was re-arrested and again a court commissioner released him for lack of evidence. The day after his arrest a reporter of the Pioneer interviewed him.
"But really, the people of Pembina have exhibited no excitement over the little 'unpleasantness' except on the day of the capture by Captain (Lloyd) Wheaton.
But from Manitoba papers and from information received from other sources, these twenty so-called Fenians, together with a less number of French halfbreeds, created alarm and confusion throughout the whole province of Manitoba, causing Lieut.-Governor Archibald to issue a proclamation for the people en masse to organize and arm themselves preparatory to a brave defense of their country, and from the best authority we hear there were about 1,000 men in the province armed and 'spoiling' for a fight with the Fenians.
But the citizens of Manitoba were too slow to he able to figure at all in the capture of the reputed invading party, Captain Wheaton quietly stepping in and crowning himself with all the glory of 'bagging' in one sweep the leaders and many of the followers of this small but brave band.
The result of the captain's 'voice' upon the party was to entirely disorganize and disband the party, if they ever had an organization or were banded together, neither of which facts were shown on the examination before the commissioner."
The story was published in the Pioneer of October 17, 1871, and in it was O'Neill's denial that it was a Fenian movement and a statement to the effect that he had a thorough dislike for the British government and that he was always sympathetic with and willing to help people struggling for independence.
"The General looks to be in splendid condition physically, and so far as recent events are concerned, they do not seem to wear very greatly upon his elastic and hopeful mind," the reporter wrote.
Here are some of O'Neill's statements:
"I desire to state that if I had not been interfered with by the United States authorities, I would have had fully one thousand men with me. They would have been subject to my command for whatever I chose to do.
I had enough men to resist Colonel Wheaton had I desired to fight United States soldiers. I had fought too long under the Stars and Stripes to want to fight United States troops, whether they had crossed the line legally or illegally.
I desire to state the intimation has been thrown out that the men were arrested without a show of resistance. The three men myself, General and Colonel Donnelly have as good a record for bravery as Colonel Wheaton.
We had made as good a record as Colonel Wheaton in the late war for all that constitutes soldiers.
Instead of wearing the United States uniform, Wheaton would act with more propriety if he should wear the British uniform. As a prosecuting attorney, though, he made a perfect ass of himself, and showed a complete ignorance of the law.
I believe the action of Colonel Wheaton to be entirely unauthorized, in crossing into British territory and arresting anyone. Nor do I believe his conduct will be sanctioned either by the department commander, or at Washington.
He went upon British territory and ordered his men to fire, and they did fire several volleys. It is surprising that someone was not killed. It was no fault of his that there was no one killed. Had there been any killed, I have no doubt he would have been guilty of murder.
I do not fear any arrest. I have fought and bled for the United States government. I am not aware that I have violated any law of the United States."
The following year the four leaders were indicted at Pembina, but O'Neill was not found. The other three escaped punishment by some common technicalities. The indictments charged the men with violation of Section 11 of the Neutrality Law-beginning and setting afoot a military expedition against the province of Manitoba.
Double jeopardy and doubts as to the residence qualifications of four grand jurors were some of the stumbling blocks thrown in the way of the government. Some of the grand jurors in question seem to have disappeared; things like that happened on the frontier. The district attorney gave it up.
It might be expected that John O'Neill would never say die ... he didn't. He lived to see his name perpetuated forever.
If you find time some day you can see it for yourself. Get in your automobile, cross the boundary near Killarney, Manitoba, and drive directly south about 525 miles on U.S. Highway No. 281. When you have come 525 miles you will be in Nebraska and as you enter a little town of about 2,500 people you will see a sign reading "Welcome to O'Neill".
John O'Neill founded that town, May 12, 1874, and it was named in his honour. After he left the scenes of his last military expedition he promoted his last grandiose scheme.
* Mr. Roy P. Johnson was a member of the editorial staff of The Fargo Forum; a specialist in the history of the Red River Valley, the State of Minnesota and the frontier movements of population west of the Mississippi River.