Burton Robert Louis


Mrs. Barclay wrote this story in 1973. It is based on papers belonging to her father, Robert Louis Burton. In those papers was an account of a N.W.M.P. sergeant, who apparently was one of the first to enlist in that new force. The story is a series of fictional letters written from the constable's point of view, one likely common among the men involved in the Northwest Rebellion.

Harry J. Ryan the fictitious sergeant had volunteered for the force, and left his work as a carriage maker, which he had carried on with a man named Edward. In 1873 his troop set out by train for Collingwood, Ontario, on the southern tip of Georgian Bay. At the end of the steel they took a steamer to Port Arthur. Kathleen, the girl to whom he wrote, had been orphaned by a carriage accident, and she was to stay with Edward.

By May of 1874 Ryan was writing from Red River. From Port Arthur the men had travelled by steamer to North West Angle on Lake of the Woods. After a march and travel by sleighs, they reached Fort Garry.

In 1875 he wrote that they had started west with one hundred and twenty-five field guns. They had problems getting fodder for the horses, as well as with lost horse­shoes, fires, grasshoppers, and a shortage of water. Finally they reached Fort Macleod, where the men were divided into small detachments.

At Fort Qu'Appelle, in 1876, Harry's detachment was quartered in an old Hudson Bay Post until they could build a new barracks. The following year he wrote to Kathleen from Shoal Lake, Manitoba, telling of his first arrest. The prisoner was taken to Swan River guard room, as there was no jail within one thousand miles of Shoal Lake.

Later, after delivering the prisoner taken at his second arrest, Harry became snowblind on the return trip to Shoal Lake. He lay down and fell asleep, but fortunately was rescued by a half-breed.

Kathleen's letter in the spring of 1878 told of gossip being spread regarding her relationship to Edward. Harry asked Edward to sell his (Harry's) share of the business and give Kathleen the money for passage west. Edward informed him that his share would be only three hundred dollars, whereas Harry said his father had originally in­vested eight hundred. Harry asked Kathleen to look for written proof, then go to a lawyer. The matter was settled, but eighteen-year-old Kathleen was hesitating to come west and marry him.

(The excerpts begin with Harry's letter from Battleford, dated November 6, 1883. He had threatened to resign if not allowed to marry, but Major Crozier had advised a delay.) "A rebellion is inevitable. The buffalo are continu­ing to decrease in number, and the government in Ottawa ignores the petitions of the Indian and Metis people. Last summer about 1500 Indians gathered at Poundmaker's reserve. Many notable chiefs were present, including Big Bear, Wandering Spirit, and Lucky Man. The young war­riors were in a dangerous frame of mind, eager for action, and difficult to restrain. A farm Instructor by the name of Craig had been assaulted by an Indian half-crazed with hunger. The weapon was an axe handle. A Corporal and three Constables were sent from Battleford to bring in the offender. Major Crozier, who gave the order, was correct in anticipating that the culprit would not be given up and they returned without their man. The Major hesitated to show force in this matter, knowing only too well that in their excited state the Indians might disobey the com­mands of their Chief, Poundmaker, and start hostilities with disastrous results.

You probably read of the accusation of cowardice by the Eastern politician whose name I cannot utter without spitting into the dust! The Major's hand was forced and he gave the command for a troop of 25 to go to the reserve. This number was augmented almost immediately by 25 more.

When we rode into the village the Indians at first pre­tended not to understand our mission. Warriors swarmed about us making angry gestures. Through an interpreter we were able to identify the wanted man, and when he was finally pointed out, the braves drew themselves up into a line and protected him.

A battle seemed imminent and had either side made the slightest hostile move a massacre would have started. William McKay, the Hudson's Bay Factor, saved the situa­tion. With supreme disregard for personal danger he strode between the two lines exhorting the Indians not to act in haste. He explained the consequences of attacking the police force and said the arrest must be made in the name of the great white Mother, Victoria. The words of McKay were effective, the council of older Indians was heeded, and the prisoner was finally surrendered to us.

It was not until we were well on our way back to Battle- ford that the soreness of an irritating blister on my left foot turned into real pain. Stopping to remove my riding boot I discovered that it had been slashed with a knife! On arrival at the barracks the wound in my foot proved to be superficial, but my boot was full of blood. Strangely enough I could not account for the incident!"

"Prince Albert

Dec. 31,1885.

It is over, Riel was hanged in Regina."

Harry's job had been to protect the townspeople of Prince Albert and farmers of the surrounding area, who came in for safety. He had not been sent to the battle of Batoche, and, he said, he would have had no heart for it. "I have seen the petitions sent to Ottawa by the Metis people. Their demands are not unreasonable and are not dissimilar to those of the white settlers. They only ask for the rights naturally due them as a people!"

Kathleen had married Edward in spite of their age difference. She had borne him a son, whom she had named Ryan.

By August, 1904, Harry had heard of Edward's death. Harry, himself, was retired after thirty-one years on the force. He had not wanted an administrative position, so was living on a small farm near Prince Albert with his wife, Elizabeth. He had met her when he returned from the Yukon in 1898. They had no children. Kathleen's son, Ryan, was expressing a desire to one day become a Mountie.

In his 1936 letter Harry wrote of his continuing love for Kathleen. His farm has been sold, and he was living on his pension. As he looked out across the Saskatchewan River, he seemed to see a regiment marching west. One of his last remarks was, "With honesty I say I have no regrets." The papers fluttered from his hands, and then came his words to Kathleen, "You are with me now, even at the end "