The Green Ghost over Red River: White Dudes Co-opting Indigenous Resistance Since 1871
by Jasmine Chorley
The discussion about allies in activism, namely bad allies and how to be a good ally, is nothing new, and much has been written about settler allies of Indigenous action in this Idle No More era (see Gehl, Unsettling America or Morgensen for examples). There is also historical precedent of white allies causing more trouble than they’re worth. In October 1869, the Métis National Committee convened to assert their right to lands at the Red and Assiniboine Rivers and their right to participate in negotiations with the Dominion before land could be surveyed and settler governments installed. Over the course of 1860-1870, the Métis formed a provisional government while they fought and negotiated with the Canadian government over the conditions upon which Manitoba would join Confederation. Among the members of this provisional government was William O’Donoghue, the ally in question.
O’Donoghue was born in Ireland in 1843, and emigrated at a young age, bringing to North America his memories of an Gorta Mór (the Great Famine) and the Young Ireland Rebellion of 1848. He arrived in Red River in 1868 to begin a teaching position while studying for the priesthood. But he abandoned both pursuits in late 1869 to join Riel’s movement, in which he was very active.
On November 16th of that year he was elected to the 1st Convention of Red River as a representative for Saint-Boniface; on December 22nd he helped Riel seize Hudson’s Bay Company funds at Upper Fort Garry; on December 27th he became Treasurer of Riel’s Provisional Government; and on January 18th, 1870 he assisted in the capture of Canadians who had planned to overthrow the Provisional Government. He also assisted in drafting the first three versions of the Métis Bill of Rights.
For all intents and purposes, he was an ally whose support surpassed lip service as he resisted the Canadian government alongside the Métis. But in the summer months of 1870, a rift developed between O’Donoghue and Riel. Riel believed that O’Donoghue was more concerned with striking a blow to Britain and less with Métis rights, and O’Donoghue thought Riel not radical enough and greatly disapproved of Riel’s willingness to negotiate with Canada.
On August 24th, 1870, Canadian troops under Wolseley arrived at Fort Garry; Riel fled to the United States, and O’Donoghue did too. Exile cemented the rift between the men and their political ambitions soon became mutually unintelligible. In January 1871, O’Donoghue met with Ulysses S. Grant, President of the United States, carrying a secret petition he had written in October 1870 from “the people” of Red River urging American Annexation. His plea did not persuade President Grant and O’Donoghue was told that the United States government would not support him in any capacity.
O’Donoghue then met with the Fenian Brotherhood in both New York and Washington D.C. Fenianism, the brand of republican Irish nationalism that sought an independent Ireland by armed revolution, made its mark in North America with its Canada strategy. By attacking Canada, the North American Fenian Brotherhood could circumvent the formidable British Royal Navy while still attacking territory abounding with British symbols. While the American Fenians professed moral support for O’Donoghue’s ambitions, the Canadian strategy had declined in popularity, as the financial costs of the three raids of 1866 had proved too costly. Furthermore, few believed that a Fenian-Métis alliance would be fruitful since Riel had already shown an eagerness to negotiate with Dominion officials. While the Brotherhood refused to support the invasion, they made and kept a promise to O’Donoghue that they would not denounce or oppose the movement.
No Presidential support. No Fenian support. No Métis support. O’Donoghue’s planned liberation/annexation was quickly losing traction. But he was joined by the Fenian army leader, John O’Neill, the only East Coast Fenian leader to do so. O’Donoghue was not to be dissuaded – and he drafted a constitution for a Republic of Rupert’s Land. O’Donoghue, of course, was to be it’s President.
Despite these setbacks, rumours of a Fenian invasion of Manitoba were in full swing in Ottawa – and had been for quite a while. During his time as Treasurer of Riel’s Provisional Government, O’Donoghue’s Fenian reputation preceded him so that contemporary newspapers speculated that Riel was a Fenian puppet and that the provisional government was a Fenian front, the handiwork of an “evil genius” like O’Donoghue. Following the Red River Resistance itself, fears of a Fenian raid on Red River were immediately aroused. Conspiracy theories swirled in Canadian and American papers, supposing that Irish-Americans had provided the Métis with money for the guns and ammunition that made the Resistance possible. Canadian officials fearfully anticipated a Métis-Fenian alliance, concluding that the Catholic connection as well as the violent atmosphere under which the Métis lived gave them plenty of motive. Governor Archibald even remarked of the oppressive conditions under which the Métis lived to Prime Minister J.A. MacDonald, “Bitter hatred of these people is a yoke so intolerable that they would gladly escape it by any sacrifice.” 
Macdonald had been so “overwhelmed” with intelligence about a possible Fenian raid on Manitoba since the Resistance, that he sent head Secret Serviceman Gilbert McMicken to Manitoba to assess the Fenian threat. By the time McMicken arrived in Red River, he was convinced of an impending Fenian raid. He made a report to Archibald instructing him to call upon volunteers so that the Fenians could be repelled before the Métis could join them. Unbeknownst to him, Riel and his immediate supporters had met on September 28th to discuss the rumours of O’Donoghue’s raid. The transcription of this meeting shows that none of these men had been in communication with O’Donoghue – and furthermore, they resolved “not to be allowed to be prevailed upon by O’Donoghue, whether he be strong or weak” and to contact the influential persons of each parish “to bring the Métis […] in favour of the advantages already possessed by virtue of the Manitoba Bill.” Despite the unfulfilled promises of the Canadian Government, they still had no desire for American annexation.
The day before O’Donoghue and his volunteers took Pembina, two Métis informants for Riel had rushed out to tail him. O’Donoghue tried to represent his position as being as strong as possible in the hopes that the two men would send a favourable report back to Riel and Métis volunteers would augment their ranks. O’Donoghue still did not understand that his goals and Riel’s were not one.
On October 5th, 1871, O’Donoghue and O’Neill led about forty men into Canada from the US. Their plan was to then meet-up with Riel and Métis volunteers, with whom they would proceed to seize the Red River Settlement. The raid has been called “an ignominious and notorious failure.” Armed with breech-loading Springfield rifles, the company took possession of Fort Pembina, an unarmed Hudson’s Bay Company post three miles from an American post of the same name. According to a courier for Archibald named George Webster, the raiders had captured “all those who were not connected with them,” one of whom demanded liberation on the grounds of his American citizenship. O’Donoghue was afraid to detain him, and so let him go. The man ran to the U.S. military post at Pembina and informed Captain Lloyd Wheaton of the raid. Before noon, the U.S. military lead by Wheaton had seized the post and arrested O’Neill and ten others. O’Donoghue fled but was captured and bound by several Métis men who handed him over to American authorities.
As soon as word of the events reached Red River, speculation abounded as to the perpetrators identity. Opinions among settlers varied, but the Métis were the most popular suspect and three weeks after the arrested Fenians had been released, three Métis men were arrested for “levying war against Her Majesty.” One was convicted, one acquitted, and one remanded. The story of these three men was not widely publicized at the time. Andre Jerome, who was remanded, gave a detailed account of his time in Stony Mountain Penitentiary to a local newspaper in 1906. He described being put through physical labour that was intended to pressure him to “disclose the secret operations of his leaders.” Although standard punishment at the time, it would have been illegal in this case as Jerome had not been convicted of any crime.
Some scholars have concluded that Jerome was tortured and that, combined with the conviction and threat to execute one of the other men, Letendre, this was a Métis-targeted demonstration of the power from the new Canadian state. From 1871, the terror escalated in Red River and Canadian repressive policies served to convince the Métis to move further west to escape it.
In the second Métis Resistance, in Batoche in 1885, the Riel-as-Fenian conspiracy theory became fashionable once more and a variety of outlandish reports appeared in The New York Tribune, The New York Times, the Montreal Gazette, and The Anglo-American Times. Archibald’s post-1871 testimony had clearly fallen on deaf ears when he said, “If the Métis had taken a difference course, I do not believe the Province would now be in our possession.”
O’Donoghue’s attempted 1871 raid re-ignited indigenous-settler hostilities in Red River and the persistent threat, or “Green Ghost,” of American Fenianism lingered over the region for fifteen years. Although indeed a failure, the raid haunted the Métis of Red River, who unjustly served as the scapegoats Canada needed to banish the Green Ghost.
O’Donoghue was clearly a poor ally after 1870. It appears that his real hope was to strike a blow against the British, be that as a Fenian or as a member of Riel’s provisional government. I, myself, believe in the power and potential of global Indigenous alliances in the present day. I believe that on all continents, Indigenous successes and struggles can illuminate and enlighten one another. O’Donoghue knew there was a common ground between the oppression he had witnessed at home in Ireland and what he witnessed at Red River.
O’Donoghue failed to listen. He believed Riel to be not radical enough, but Riel and his supporters chose to negotiate with Canada because it was their lives on the line. O’Donoghue chose to disrupt Red River society without the support of the Métis, further endangering their lives. He should have recognized, as all white settlers who consider themselves allies should, that while we can learn from each other’s struggles, the knowledges and experiences of the Indigenous people of that place, the knowledges produced in relationship with that place, must be at the forefront.
On top of the damage his flawed alliance inflicted upon the Métis at Red River, there is a secondary present-day parallel. Certain historians of the Fenians have begun to interrogate that history for an insight into our present-day societal obsession with terrorism. One of the (many) criticisms of the impending Canadian “Anti-Terror” legislation (Bill C-51) is that it will paint Indigenous land defenders as terrorists. This language has been invoked in it’s current form since the Oka Crisis of 1990, and what the above narrative demonstrates is that Indigenous warriors have been painted as terrorists since the 1860s.
Jasmine Chorley is a ban-Albannach writer born, raised, and living in Toronto. You can follow her adventures in re-tweeting at @jasminechorley.
- John Perry Pritchett, “The Origin of the So-Called Fenian Raid on Manitoba in 1871,” The Canadian Historical Review 10, 1929, p. 37.
- Peter Toner, “‘The Green Ghost’: Canada’s Fenians and the Raids,” Éire-Ireland 16, no. 4 1981, 28.
- Peter Toner, The Rise of Irish Nationalism in Canada, 1858-1884. Ph.D dissertation, University College Galway, 1974, 237.
- George F. G. Stanley, The Birth of Western Canada: A History of the Riel Rebellions. University of Toronto Press, 1936, 133 and 136.
- Report of Select Committee on the Causes of the Difficulties in the North-West Territory in 1869-70, 156-157 in John Perry Pritchett, “The Origin of the So-Called Fenian Raid on Manitoba in 1871,” 24-25.
- Peter Toner, The Rise of Irish Nationalism in Canada, 1858-1884, 230.
- A.H. de Trémaudan, “Louis Riel and the Fenian Raid of 1871,” The Canadian Historical Review 4, 1923, 134-135.
- A.H. de Trémaudan, “Louis Riel and the Fenian Raid of 1871,” 135.
- A.H. de Tremaudan, “Louis Riel and the Fenian Raid of 1871,” 138.
- John Perry Pritchett, “The Origin of the So-Called Fenian Raid on Manitoba in 1871,” 40.
- A.H. de Tremaudan, “Louis Riel and the Fenian Raid of 1871,” 114.