Researchers in Saskatchewan may soon begin the hunt for weapons that have been lost to the world for more than 130 years.
On May. 2, 1885 Chief Poundmaker’s warriors fought, and eventually forced Col. Otter’s forces to retreat during the Battle of Cut Knife. Poundmaker went on to lead a delegation to Fort Battleford in hopes of reaching a peace agreement with Gen. Middleton.
All of those who attended the delegation were subsequently arrested and the weapons they brought with them were then confiscated.
Now researchers and members of the Poundmaker Cree Nation are hoping they may be able to recover the weapons from their watery tomb.
“No one has directly objected to the idea of taking the next step which would be to do some fundraising to attempt some sort of underwater excavation," Milton Tootoosis, a headman for the Poundmaker Cree Nation said regarding the proposal to start the search for the weapons. “It will largely be determined by the fundraising … we would have to raise several hundred thousand dollars so it all depends on how fast we can accomplish that, but I hope we can maybe do the dive in 2019 or possibly 2020.”
At this point the First Nations band council has yet to decide whether to proceed, but Tootoosis added he is hopeful there will be fast progress, as the weapons could be of great historical significance to the Poundmaker Cree nation.
“We do have a facility that could certainly house these objects temporarily, but we are undertaking a campaign to build a permanent museum that would be state of the art,” Tootoosis said. “We’ve been made well aware that to store artifacts they need to be in a room or facility that has air quality controls, security, and so on. We would be very open to having these weapons on display on the reserve or possibly in another location.”
The research into the location of the weapons is led by Butch Amundson, archeologist with the Prairie Steamship Heritage Association and Stantec.
“The Steamship that was carrying the weapons, the S.S. North West, left Fort Battleford on May 31, 1885 on route to Fort Pit, which is about 150 km upstream from Fort Battleford,” Amundson said. “The guns that were confiscated from the people that accompanied Poundmaker were loaded onto the bows of the North West with the intention of hauling them to Fort Pit. The next day they stopped halfway at an island called Pine Island.”
Pine Island was a typical stop for steamships at the time, as they would use the island to gather lumber for the boilers which powered the ships.
The wood would typically be stored on the bows of the ship, and in the case of the S.S. North West it was determined there was not enough capacity for both the lumber and the weapons, so the decision was made to cast the weapons into the river.
“A newspaper article from May 28, 1885 states that Gen. Middleton reported there were 210 rifles seized, so we think that is probably how many went into the river,” Amundson said. “Archie Valentine (a crewman aboard the North West) described them as antique, flintlock muzzleloaders, and referred to the weapons as ‘a great pile of junk, red with rust’ and noted he wished they would have kept the rifles to show the government what they were fighting against.”
The possibility also exists that along with the rifles, there may have been other weapons of varying natures cast into the river. Although there is no confirmed evidence of the existence of these weapons the possibility remains that items such as knives and tomahawks may reside under the water with the firearms.
Amundson added he doesn’t believe the weapons will have been greatly eroded, as fresh, cold water like the water found in the North Sask. River does not generally deteriorate the types of metals found in the firearms.
The depth of the water where the weapons are thought to be located is roughly three-metres, depending on sand bars in the area which may increase or decrease the water's depth.
Amundson noted if the rifles are on the surface of the river bed they will be relatively easy to retrieve, but if the sediment has shifted greatly there is a possibility of the weapons being buried under several feet of sand, which would make the weapons impossible to retrieve.
Pine Island was surveyed in 1884, along with GPS in recent years, which has allowed researches to map the island’s location.
“We know the island is in the same place as it was when the weapons were dumped, and the Prairie Steamship Heritage Association did a metal detection survey in 2015 in the location we believe is the most likely for the ship to have docked,” Amundson said. “There is a scatter of significant chunks of metal in an area that is several hundred metres long along the side of the island, so we believe that is where the weapons would have been dumped.”
The re-discovery of these weapons could be of great historical impact to not only historians and archeologists in Canada, but more so to the people of the Poundmaker Cree Nation.
“It’s more a question of what these rifles mean to the people they belong to, Poundmaker and the neighbouring First Nations," Amundson said. “I wouldn’t pursue it as an archeologist without the guidance and permission of the rightful owners of these rifles. If we do it right and ask for the guidance and consent of the peoples whose heritage it is, then I think archeology is a tool that can be used to advance reconciliation.”
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