The Ottawa Sharpshooters

2 May 1885

Tucked away close to the Cartier Drill Hall is the Ottawa Sharpshooters’ Memorial erected to the memory of two Ottawa volunteer militiamen, Private John Rogers and Private William B. Osgoode, who died on 2 May 1885 at the battle of Cut Knife Hill in the North-West Rebellion. The bronze monument, sculpted by the British sculptor Percy Guy Wood, is of a guardsman, his head bent in mourning, leaning on his reversed rifle. The sculpture is set on a ten-foot granite pedestal with an inscription and two medallions featuring the faces of the two servicemen in relief.

Sharpshooters’ Memorial, Major’s Hill Park, 1888, Topley, Library and Archives Canada, 2411919.

The memorial was originally installed in a far more prominent spot—Major’s Hill Park, where the Château Laurier is located today. However, when the hotel was built, it was moved to a site on Elgin Street in front of the old City Hall. (This City Hall was destined to be destroyed by fire in 1931.) When construction of the National Arts Centre began on that site in 1965, the Memorial, along with the 1899-1902 South African War Memorial, travelled to Confederation Park. The Sharpshooters’ Memorial was moved yet again in the early 2000s to its present, out-of-the-way location.

It was originally erected in 1888 to honour the ultimate sacrifice paid by these two men in fighting for what many English-speaking Canadians at the time felt was the integrity of the country. The monument’s current less-than-prominent location is more in keeping with today’s far more nuanced view about the North-West Rebellion, now often call the North-West Resistance. The Canadian government’s crushing of the uprising led to the hanging of eight First Nations’ leaders as well as Louis Riel, the famous Métis leader. While Riel was no innocent, having himself executed a Protestant, English-speaking man in the earlier 1870 Red River Rebellion, his execution, despite pleas for clemency from many, including Queen Victoria, embittered French-speaking Canadians who viewed Riel as a fighter for French rights in western Canada.

Back in 1885, there was little discussion of the long-standing grievances of the First Nations and Métis people which led to the uprising. And there were many. With the near extinction of the herds of bison on which indigenous people depended, the Plains’ First Nations were starving. Although the Dominion government was willing to provide rations and instructors on how to farm, assistance was contingent on the First Nations signing unequal treaties and going onto reservations. The government wanted their land for white settlement and the construction of the politically important, transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway. Insensitive and incompetent “Indian agents” made a bad situation far worse. The Métis also felt threatened when government surveyors ignored pre-existing Métis boundaries as they mapped out land for incoming English-speaking settlers.

Notice, Ottawa Daily Citizen, 31 March 1985.

But back East, this didn’t account for much if people were aware. When the government sought volunteers to suppress the rising, thousands of patriotic, young men were quick to answer the call. At the end of March 1885, Captain A. Hamlyn Todd of the Governor General’s Foot Guards asked Sir Adolphe-Philippe Caron, the Minister of Militia in Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservative government, if he could organize a company of sharpshooters for service in the North-West. It took Todd only five minutes to convince the minister than he could assemble the necessary men and be ready to leave by 4:00pm the following day.

Between the Guards and the 43rd Battalion stationed in Ottawa, Todd had more than enough volunteers willing to go at a moment’s notice. In the end, three officers and forty-eight men mustered at the Drill Hall on 31 March 1885 at 9:00 am for their final inspection before boarding the Canadian Pacific Railway for passage to Winnipeg. The contingent’s official name was the Guards Company of Sharpshooters though not all of the sharpshooters were guardsmen. They were generally known at the Ottawa Sharpshooters. Most of the volunteers were young. There were, however, a few veterans of the 1866 and 1870 Fenian raids.

In addition to weapons, each soldier was equipped with two woollen blankets, one waterproof blanket, woollen undergarments, and a pair of leather moccasins. Later, the ladies of the “Broom Brigade,” a sort of women’s military auxiliary, provided each man with a “housewife”—a red case lined with yellow cloth (the colours of the Broom Brigade) containing needles, thread and buttons.

At 11:00 am, the sharpshooters marched to Union Station in LeBreton Flats with the band of the Governor General’s Foot Guards leading the way. The station was filled with people to see the sharpshooters off. The Ottawa Citizen commented that “the platform at the station was filled with a dense mass of enthusiastic, patriotic, jostling, laughing, shouting and war-fever stricken individuals of all ages, sizes, sexes, and complexions.”

Eight days later in Winnipeg, the sharpshooters met up with contingents from other parts of the country, including Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City. Perhaps surprisingly given the circumstances, there were many francophone volunteers. Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph-Aldric Ouimet, MP led the 65th Battalion from Montreal while Lieutenant-Colonel Guillaume Amyot, MP led the 9th Battalion (Les Voltigeurs de Québec) from Quebec City. Lieutenant-Colonel Montizambert commanded the Regiment of Canadian Artillery. Sir Frederick Middleton was in overall command.

Private John Rogers, Ottawa Daily Citizen, 20 July, 1885.

Some twenty members of the Ottawa Sharpshooters saw action at Cut Knife Hill in today’s Saskatchewan at the beginning of May 1885. Against orders from General Middleton, Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter, egged on by angry and fearful settlers, decided to punish the Cree leader Poundmaker and his people who were blamed for looting Battleford some weeks earlier. (Whether they actually did the looting is uncertain.) With a force of close to 400 men, equipped with two seven-pound guns and a Gatling gun (an early machine gun), Otter attacked Poundmaker’s camp of some 1,500 men, women, and children. The Cree, who were joined by Assiniboine bands fought off the attacking soldiers. Surrounded on three sides, Otter chose to retreat, suffering eight dead and fourteen wounded. The First Nations’ losses amounted to five dead and three wounded. Otter’s casualties might have been much higher if Poundmaker had not ordered his warriors to let the Canadian soldiers withdraw.

Among the eight soldiers killed were two Ottawa Sharpshooters—Privates John Rogers of the Guards and William Osgoode of the 43rd Battalion. It was reported that Osgoode’s body was mutilated after his death.

Private William Osgoode, Ottawa Daily Citizen, 20 July 1885.

Rogers, aged 27, had been born in Barbados and had come to Ottawa in 1882 where he worked as a clerk in the Interior Department. He had been a member of Ottawa’s Legal and Literary Society, the Debating Society, the Young Men’s Amusement Club and Taché’s Hill Sliding Club. Osgoode, age 23, was born in New Edinburgh and was a machinist by trade. He had been employed by Messrs. Steward & Fleck.

Two other Ottawa men were wounded in the battle of Cut Knife Hill. Sargeant Winters, a native of Prescott who worked in the Department of Marine and Fisheries, was shot in the face. Winters was one of the few veteran soldiers in the company, having served with the British Army in the 1882 Egyptian campaign against Arabi Pasha.  Private McQuilkin, aged 21, who had just passed his exams to become a land surveyor, received a minor flesh wound to his leg caused by a spent bullet. The bullet apparently fell into his boot after hitting him. Sargeant Winters’ wound was also relatively minor. He was left with a scar on his face and the loss of his sense of smell.

The bodies of poor Rogers and Osgoode were recovered, and returned to Ottawa in July 1885. Their remains were buried side by side with full military honours in Beechwood Cemetery in a plot of land purchased by Ottawa’s City Council. The gravesite was initially marked by wooden stakes with Rogers’ and Osgoode’s names inscribed in pencil. But when visiting veterans had a hard time finding the site a few years later owning to the weathering of the markers, a granite double tablet marker resting on a limestone base was erected at a cost of $348.

Ottawa Sharpshooters on their return from the North-West, Welcome by Ottawa Mayor McDougal, Colborne Powell Meredith fonds, Library and Archives Canada, 3406964.

Just days after Rogers’ and Osgoode’s funeral, the rest of the Ottawa Sharpshooters returned home to a hero’s welcome. Ottawa was decorated with flags, bunting, and banners proclaiming such messages as Home Sweet Home and Ottawa Welcomes You. Across from the Russell Hotel was a painted canvas banner saying Welcome Home, Our Brave Volunteers on one side and Well Done, Our Heroes on the other.

A grand parade was held featuring local militia units, national and benevolent societies as well as county and city officials. The Ottawa boys had been previously been fêted at stops along the way from Winnipeg. At Owen Sound and later at the East Toronto Junction station, meals were prepared and served to the troops by local women. When they arrived late in the afternoon at Union Station, a huge crowd awaited them, many of whom wore Union Jack badges bearing the words “Cut Knife Hill.”  Railway torpedoes, which were small dynamite charges placed on the rails, provided a “royal salute” of bangs. Met by militia and local officials, the Sharpshooters paraded up Wellington Street to Parliament where Mayor McDougal welcomed them home. The Mayor also presented to Captain Todd a silk Dominion ensign with the words “Ottawa Sharpshooters, Cut Knife Hill, 1885” embroidered on it.

The parade then continued on to the Cartier Drill Hall where Sir Adolphe-Philippe Caron welcomed the men home on behalf of the Dominion government. He said that they had “travelled a distance of 2,000 miles to vindicate good government and the liberties of the loyal subject.”  That night, fireworks were set off from City Hall Square. Somebody suspended an effigy of Louis Riel made of leather stuffed with straw from a noose on Wellington Street close to Parliament Hill.

On the Sunday, a special Thanksgiving Service was held at St. Albans Church. The following Monday, the officers, NCOs and men of the Governor General’s Foot Guards hosted a gala dinner at the Russell House Hotel in honour of the Sharpshooters. The hotel’s dining room was decorated with bayonets and the arms of Canada’s provinces. Silk banners proclaimed “All honour to our guardians who fought for our country and honour” and “All honour to the wounded and our comrades who fell at Cut Knife Hill, May 2, 1885.”

Not all of Ottawa was happy with the celebrations. Six hundred francophone residents met in St. Joseph’s Hall on Dalhousie St. to condemn the hanging of Riel in effigy. This prompted an anglophone resident to write to the Citizen to censure the six hundred saying: “Is this a British Country? Has it been won by British pluck? Are we loyal men or rebels? The writer went on to ask “Do the French Canadians make common cause with the wretch who let loose the horrors of Indian War on the defenceless settlers of the North-West?” He ominously added “If so, …then the sooner we loyal Britons gird our loins for the inevitable conflict the better.”

The Citizen’s editor was appalled by the letter writer’s words. While the editor didn’t “hold Riel on the same level as our gallant fellows who placed their lives on the country’s altar to vindicate law and uphold order,” he said that “nationality should have nothing whatever to do with it.” He also retorted that the newspaper did “not hesitate to say that those who make it a question of race are making a great mistake.” Such a view, he said, was an insult to the French-Canadian volunteers who served in the North-West. He also argued that Riel should get a fair trial.

Unveiling of the Sharpshooters’ Memorial by Lord Stanley, 2 November 1888, Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada, 3362497.

There was widespread support for the commissioning of a memorial to honour Privates Rogers and Osgoode via public subscription. After early success in raising money, pledges fell off. As a consequence, it took three years before the memorial was unveiled in Major’s Hill Park in early November 1888 by Lord Stanley, who had just arrived in Ottawa as Governor General. The unveiling was not without controversy. The plaque on the memorial referred to the two men as members of the Guards Company of Sharpshooters. There was no mention of the 43rd Battalion to which Private Osgoode had belonged. Feeling that the Guards had been unduly favoured, the men of the 43rd Battalion initially refused to attend the memorial’s unveiling. In the end the Battalion was well represented when their commanding officer ordered them to join the ceremony.

At the unveiling, Governor General Lord Stanley poured oil over the trouble waters by noting that while the force was officially designated as the Sharpshooters of the Guards, in reality the unit has been composed of men from both battalions—the Governor General’s Foot Guards and the 43rd Battalion.

Sketch of Constable David L. Cowan of the North-West Mounted Police, Ottawa Daily Citizen, 27 June 1885.

Something missed that day was the recognition of another Ottawa death in the line of duty in the North-West. Two weeks before the deaths of Privates Rogers and Osgoode, David L. Cowan, age 19, a constable in the North-West Mounted Police, was killed at Fort Pitt (Saskatchewan), when Cree warriors led by Big Bear seized the fort which had been commanded by Inspector Francis Dickens, the son of Charles Dickens, the famous author. Constable Cowan was a member of a police scouting party. On news of his death, the Carleton County Council issued a statement saying “although in years a boy, he died like a man, defending the honour and glory of the standard he volunteered to uphold.”

The First Nations and Métis uprisings were quickly put down. Riel was hanged in Regina on 16 November 1885.

The repercussions of these events in the North-West continue to be felt today.

Sources:

Bumsted, J.M., 2019. “Red River Rebellion,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/red-river-rebellion.

Camerons, Ottawa’s Regiment, 2020. History, http://camerons.ca/history/#1881-1899.

Carter, David R. 2016. “Inspector F.J. Dickens of the North West Mounted Police,” Eagle Butte Press, https://djcarter.ca/books/inspector-fj-dickens.

History Nerd, 2013. Sharpshooters’ Ambulatory Memorial, 14 June, https://www.historynerd.ca/2013/06/14/sharpshooters-monument/.

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1885. “An Ottawa Boy Killed,” 23 April.

————————-, 1885. “Notes,” 31 March.

————————-, 1885. “Bad News,” 1 April.

————————-, 1885. “A Splendid Record, 28 April.

————————-, 1885. “North-West Troubles,” 1 May.

————————-, 1885. “Otter’s Fight,” 7 May.

————————-, 1885. “Ottawa’s Heroes,” 7 May.

————————-, 1885. “Ottawaites (sic) Who Fought Poundmaker,” 18 May.

————————-, 1885. “The Rebellion,” 30 May.

————————-, 1885. “General Notes,” 5 June.

————————-, 1885. “Late D.L. Cowan,” 12 June.

————————-, 1885. “Our Dead Heroes,” 20 July.

————————-, 1885. “Home,” 25 July.

————————-, 1885. “The Sharpshooters,” 28 July.

————————-, 1885. “Riel’s Effigy,” 28 July.

————————-, 1886. “Better Later Than Never,” 30 September.

————————-, 1887. “Sharpshooters’ Memorial Fund,” 20 December.

————————-, 1888, “The Sharpshooters’ Memorial,” 16 June.

————————-, 1888. “Not Credible,” 25 October.

————————-, 1888. “The Unveiling Tomorrow,” 31 October.

————————-, 1888. “The Statue Unveiled,” 2 November.

Ottawa Journal, 1888. “The Sharpshooters’ Memorial,” 26 October.

——————-, 1967. “Hill Talk,” 18 February.

Urbsite, 2017. Sculptor Week I – Time to wake up the Sharpshooters Northwest Resistance Monument?,17 September,  http://urbsite.blogspot.com/2017/09/sculpture-week-i-time-to-wake-up.html.   

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