top of page

How Manitoba and Half of Canada Nearly Became American - a Guest Post

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

by Rob Bauer

In 1869, one of the most underappreciated but vastly important events in the history of North America took place in today’s Canadian province of Manitoba. The fate of a few thousand people nearly transformed the western half of Canada into part of the United States. You’ve never heard this story before. Before you finish, you’ll know why you’ve never heard it.

The center of the story is the Red River Valley. The Red River, sometimes called the Red River of the North, flows in both the US and Canada. (Thus, we include the word “north” to differentiate it from the river of the same name that forms the Texas-Oklahoma boundary.) It forms the boundary of the Dakotas and Minnesota in the US before flowing into Manitoba. The Red flows into Lake Winnipeg from the south, and the city of Winnipeg grew at its confluence with the Assiniboine River.

In the 1860s the Red River Valley was home to several thousand Métis. Who are the Métis? The word is French. The Spanish word would be mestizo, and the English translation is “mixed-blood.” The Métis were the offspring of the fur trade. Typically, they had European blood on the father’s side and Native American blood on the mother’s side. Most European ancestors were French or Scottish, with some Irish and English. Native American ancestors included Cree, Chippewa, Ojibwa, and Assiniboine. Because of the French influence, most Métis practiced Roman Catholicism. The Métis were a member of the Nehiyaw Pwat, a Cree-Assiniboine word that means “Iron Alliance.”

Manitoba’s Genesis

In 1869, several events made the Red River a critical point in Canadian geography. One came when the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) elected to sell Prince Rupert’s Land to the Dominion of Canada. The HBC was transitioning out of its historic role in the fur trade and converting its activities to real estate development and resource extraction. This decision was critical to our story. Prince Rupert’s Land was an enormous swath of land, 3.9 million square kilometers. To put it another way, Prince Rupert’s land was five times the size of France. The Red River Valley was part of Prince Rupert’s Land.

The HBC valued the sale at $40 million. The problem was that the Dominion of Canada had only existed since 1867. (More precisely, had achieved dominion status within the British Empire in that year.) It did not have $40 million to buy land. But the United States did.

This fact put the Canadian government in several binds. It was already frightened of American expansion. After all, the US had just fought the Civil War. It had hundreds of thousands of trained and experienced soldiers it might call on, and an industrializing economy to equip those soldiers. Not only that, the American doctrine of Manifest Destiny was still powerful.

Manifest Destiny was the belief that the US was destined to expand across the continent of North America. Although heavily reliant on racism, domination of so-called inferior people, and a vague faith that the Protestant God had chosen Americans as a special people, it was enormously popular. It was the American Exceptionalism of the 19th century. And it said nothing about the 49th parallel as a permanent boundary.

Plenty of recent American diplomatic moves stimulated fear in Ottawa. American diplomats had issued the Ostend Manifesto in 1854 demanding Spain sell Cuba to the US. William Walker was filibustering in Mexico and Central America all through the 1850s. The US had just bought Alaska from Russia in 1867. Many Americans believed Manifest Destiny would connect the Louisiana Purchase with Alaska by including all the lands in between. In retrospect, Canadian fears of American designs appear quite justified.

The Red River Resistance

So, the Canadian government had a powerful need to get settlers out onto the northern Great Plains, lest the US send people to occupy it instead. No one had surveyed the boundary between the two nations yet. Who knew what Americans might do? In fact, Americans had already invaded Canada several times in the last decade.

On multiple occasions in the 1860s, Fenians from the US had attempted to invade Canada on their own authority. The Fenians were Irish patriots who hoped to gain possession of Canadian territory, then trade it back to Britain for Irish independence. But they also served as an unsavory example that might inspire further American filibustering. So, Canada needed more settlers on the Northern Plains. Badly. Problem was, only one way existed to get them there. They had to pass through the Red River Valley. Which meant dealing with the Métis.

Ottawa tried to skate the issue at first. It resolved negotiations with the HBC by paying less money but allowing the HBC to retain ownership of the most agriculturally valuable land in Prince Rupert’s Land, so the company could make future profits through land sales. However, at no time were the Métis party to these negotiations over the future of their home. As a result, some of them took up arms against Canadian expansion. This was the Red River Resistance of 1869.

The Métis of the Red River issued a “Declaration of the People of Rupert’s Land and the North West,” declared themselves independent of Canada, and elected Louis Riel as their president with a full council of advisors. And, in the absence of any viable railroads reaching to the Red River, they had sufficient military force (their culture focused heavily on buffalo hunting) to repel Canadian authorities. The Métis could also call on their Nehiyaw Pwat allies to aid them.

This was the critical moment when things might have turned, and the dreams of Manifest Destiny’s supporters realized. An 1870 article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press opined, “The Red River revolution is a trump card in the hands of American diplomacy, if there is statesmanship equal to the opportunity, by which, if rightly played, every vestige of British power may be swept from the Western half of the continent.” All the US needed to do was extend support to Riel and offer sufficient inducement to bring the Métis into the American fold.

Quickly, Canadian and British politicians realized their error. As William Gladstone admitted, “Perhaps a mistake had been made in handing the territory over to Canada without testing public opinion in the Red River settlement.” Americans, especially politicians from Minnesota, thought the US should pounce on the opportunity. Alexander Ramsey, Senator from Minnesota, tried to persuade President Ulysses Grant and Secretary of State Hamilton Fish to treat with Riel.

If the US recognized Métis independence, it could assist them in repelling Canada’s attempt to reclaim the rebellious territory. With America’s ability to call up considerable force thanks to the Civil War, Great Britain might back down and surrender the northern prairies without a fight.

Minnesota and the Métis

This brings us to the relationship between the Métis and the state of Minnesota. Much of the state’s early commerce involved the Red River Métis. Recall, the Métis sustained themselves through buffalo hunting. Using the Red River Cart, a wheeled vehicle of Métis design, the Métis brought thousands of buffalo hides and robes to the tiny cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul to trade for goods of European manufacture. (Note the steamer trunks and fancy plates in the image below.)

These were the years before the Great Northern Railway extended from St. Paul across the northern plains. Much of Minnesota’s commerce arrived via the Red River Cart trails pioneered by the Métis to towns such as Calgary and Fort Benton. When Washington’s first territorial governor, Isaac Stevens, traveled west from St. Paul in 1853, he traveled on Métis cart trails escorted by Métis guides such as Pierre Bottineau. US military engineer John Mullan, from whom the Mullan Road takes its name, found his route when he met Métis Johnny Grant in 1853.

But the relationship was about more than commerce. Consider the map of Minnesota Territory.


Note the large swath of land to the west of the Red River that isn’t part of Minnesota today. There’s a story here, and it, too, involves the Métis. When Minnesota Territory applied for statehood in 1858, the Métis living in the Turtle Mountains/Pembina area participated in the vote on the new state constitution. In fact, the Métis provided the deciding votes that brought Minnesota Territory into the US in 1858. However, once Minnesota gained statehood, leaders (including Alexander Ramsey) placed the boundary with the Dakotas at the Red River, thus leaving the Métis out of Minnesota and relegating them to Dakota Territory. They’d been used.

So, then, little more than one decade later, one can imagine the Métis might be wary of American advances. President Grant further reduced American chances when he announced that he favored acquisition of the northern plains above the 49th parallel by any means short of war. In so doing, he gave up any chance of bluffing Britain and Canada into a land cession. For one of the rare times in the mid-19th century, the US failed at the game of territorial acquisition.

Fallout for the Métis

There’s still more going on here, however, and the importance for Canadian history is immense. Even with the chances of the northern prairies falling into US hands diminishing, the Canadian government still had to deal with the angry Métis of the Red River. Over the winter of 1869-70, occasional fighting took place between the Métis and Canadians from Ontario seeking to gain access to land. The Métis captured one of these men, Thomas Scott, imprisoned him in Upper Fort Garry, then executed the trespasser. This enraged the Protestant population of Ontario, who then called for the blood of the Roman Catholic Métis,

Things might’ve gotten further out of hand, but negotiations were in process, and eventually, the Métis and the Dominion of Canada agreed to the Manitoba Act in 1870. Besides creating the Canadian province of the same name, the act also provided the Métis with 1.4 million acres of land, so they could pursue their traditional lifestyle even as white Canadian settlers moved in around them.

The Canadian government, it seemed, had unraveled all the knots of the problem, and found a (mostly) peaceful solution. But it couldn’t stop there. Recall the anger in Ontario over the killing of Thomas Scott. Angry vigilantes swarmed into the Red River Valley. Canadian Prime Minister Sir John Macdonald finally had the military strength and troops to enforce order by the summer of 1870. Rather than doing so, however, instead he placed a $5,000 bounty on Louis Riel’s head, forcing him to flee to the US. Violence against the Métis mounted, and soon, their lives were in such danger that many dispersed to the south and west.

Nor was that all. The 1.4 million acres guaranteed to the Métis? Well, in 1870 Canada passed an act that, essentially, stripped people involved in mixed Indian-white marriages of their property rights in the name of “civilizing” them. This, by definition, included all the Métis. It seemed Canadian authorities had taken good notes from American methods of dispossessing native people.

This ends the story of how a modest community of a few thousand mixed-blood people played a critical role in shaping the destiny of two transcontinental nations. With the Red River cleared of opposition, Canadian settlers found their way west to populate the Prairie Provinces and extend Canadian authority from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It also closed the era of nation-building in North America—so far, for good.

Things ended less well for the Métis. They made one more attempt to establish themselves as a nation, the Northwest Resistance of 1885 in Saskatchewan. When the Battle of Batoche resulted in their defeat, Canadian authorities captured Louis Riel (who’d returned from Montana, where he’d been teaching at St. Peter’s Mission in the eastern foothills of the Rockies), hung him, and, once again, the Métis scattered. But with no homes to return to, and no more buffalo to hunt by the mid-1880s, they became the so-called “landless Indians” of Montana, scraping a meagre existence on the outskirts of towns throughout eastern Montana or living in shacks of coulee logs scattered throughout the north-central part of the state.

Author Bio:

A former college history professor, Rob Bauer now brings his knowledge to his historical novels. You can download his first novel for free right here. One of his stories, The Buffalo Soldier, features his own original research about 1890s Montana.

Rob’s most recent novel is titled Theodora. She was the most dynamic and amazing woman of the ancient world, and this is book 1 in her rags-to-empress story. His next book debuts on June 9. It’s a feel-good story set in the 1970s titled Dreams Lost & Found. Use the links below to see more.

Rob also writes a history blog on his website, He’d love to have you follow along.

In addition to his historical novels, Rob is also a huge baseball fan and has written four nonfiction books on baseball history. In 2019 he gave a presentation at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

When not writing, Rob lives at the beach with his wonderful dog Cora and tries to maintain the fiction that he’s a runner. To that end, he swears he’ll finish a marathon someday.

Books by Rob Bauer:


bottom of page