The Battle of Cut Knife Hill, fought on May 2, 1885, was an encounter between the Cree forces under chief Poundmaker (pîhtokahânapiwiyin) and the Battleford Column of the Canadian Militia Field Force commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter. The action ended in the defeat and withdrawal of the militia; the engagement was prevented from turning into a slaughter of the militia force only by the personal intervention of Poundmaker. Otter had arrived at Fort Battleford on April 24, 1885, with a force of 500 men and orders from Major-General Frederick Middleton to defend the garrison from attack by Cree and Stoney (Assiniboine) Indians. Otter, contrary to his orders, instead adopted an aggressive approach and left the fort on the afternoon of May 1 with 325 soldiers and policemen, and two antiquated field guns and a Gatling gun, in search of Poundmaker’s camp. After a 60-km overnight march in freezing weather, the militia stopped at dawn for breakfast on a hill bounded by rolling, bushy terrain on each side and a ravine beneath. Otter had blundered into a poor tactical position. Poundmaker’s camp lay just over a hill on the other side of the ravine; however, neither side was aware of the other’s proximity. Jacob, a Cree elder who habitually began his day with a horseback ride before anyone else arose, detected the militia and hurried back to rouse the camp.

The engagement began when Otter’s men detected the Cree camp and directed cannon fire at it. Cree war chief Fine Day divided his force into groups of four or five men, which he directed through the bush from a high ridge with signals from a hand mirror. The militia, quickly pinned down in open ground, overestimated their enemy’s numbers because of the rapidity with which the Cree and Stoney groups moved. Otter’s gun carriages virtually fell apart, rendering his cannon useless, and the Gatling gun was ineffective at the 100-metre range that separated the combatants. Late in the morning, Otter organized a retreat that cleared the battlefield but left his men open to pursuit. Warriors were about give chase on horseback when Poundmaker intervened; although authority during battle was in the hands of Fine Day as war chief, Poundmaker persuaded his people to take no aggressive action. Canadian casualties numbered eight dead and fourteen wounded. Because of the speed and intensity with which they were outflanked, the soldiers and police thought they were facing up to 600 warriors and that they had killed anywhere from 26 to more than 100; in fact, Fine Day triumphed with a force of fewer than 100 men, sometimes reduced to as few as 50 as others left to guard the evacuation of the camp’s women and children. Cree casualties were nine in number: six killed and three wounded. The skirmish at Cut Knife Hill was carried by the clever guerrilla tactics of Cree war chief Fine Day, and marked the last time government forces were defeated during the North-West Rebellion.

John Chaput

Further Reading

Beal, B. and R. Macleod. 1984. Prairie Fire: The 1885 North-West Rebellion. Edmonton: Hurtig.