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Thomas Scott (c.1842 - 1870):

Thomas Scott gained fame due to his involvement in the Red River Rebellion of 1869-70. It was his death then which exacerbated the pertaining situation and confronted the newly-established Canadian Confederation (1867) with its first major crisis.

Scott was originally from County Down, generally thought precisely to be Clandeboye. While little is known of his origins, there survives a glimpse provided by Lord Dufferin, who was Governor-General of Canada between 1872 and 1878 and whose family seat was the Clandeboye Estate. According to Dufferin, Scott

came of very decent people – his parents are at this moment tenant farmers on my estate in the neighbourhood of Clandeboye – but he himself seems to have been a violent and boisterous man such as are often found in the North of Ireland.

In or around 1863 Scott turned up in Canada West, where he was probably a labourer. He was a Presbyterian, an active and zealous Orangeman, and a member of the 49th Hastings Battalion of Rifles at Stirling. In the summer of 1869 Scott arrived at Red River. The Red River Colony or Settlement had been founded in 1812 by Scottish settlers at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers in what is now Winnipeg. After 1836 the colony was administered by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and populated mainly by francophone and anglophone Métis people, that is, people of mixed European settler and indigenous Canadian descent. Most were the descendants of French and English voyageurs and coureurs de bois (mostly itinerant, unlicensed fur traders) who had come west in the fur trade and settled down with wives of indigenous background. Scott found employment as a labourer on the “Dawson Road” project, a new wagon road connecting Red River to Lake Superior, under Superintendent John Allan Snow In August he led a strike against Snow, who capitulated after Scott’s vigorous stance (he threatened to throw Snow into the Seine River near Red River). However, Snow laid a charge of aggravated assault against Scott and three others at the autumn session of the General Quarterly Court of Assiniboia. Scott was convicted and fined £4 (about £250 in 2018) in November. Scott then became involved with Schultz’s Canadian Party, a small Anglophone group of merchants, journalists and speculators, which promoted the annexation of Red River to Canada. (“Canadian” in this context indicates preference for a more centralised polity based round Ottowa.) From this point on, Scott was involved with the struggle for the future of the Red River Settlement.

The politician Louis Riel and the Métis were in effective control of the settlement, establishing a provisional government, which was tolerated comfortably by the Métis population.. An abortive resistance by the Canadian Party resulted in the capture on 7 December of Schultz, Scott, and some 50 others, and their incarceration in Upper Fort Garry. Scott was an unexceptional prisoner until the night of 9 January 1870 when he and several others managed to escape. Scott fled to the Canadian enclave at Portage la Prairie with lurid tales of the treatment meted out by his captors. During the next month he helped to organize a relief expedition of Canadians, ostensibly to secure the release of the remaining prisoners and with a secondary objective of attempting to capture Riel. The latter, meanwhile, had already released all the prisoners.

Scott and the Portage party descended on the Red River Settlement in mid-February and tried to enlist the aid of the Kildonan settlers, (led by Lord Selkirk and who had arrived from Kildonan, Scotland in 1817), but without success. Except for the irreconcilables among the Canadians, the people of Red River were prepared to allow Riel’s provisional government, which would be broadly representative, to come to a settlement with Ottawa. A conciliatory message from Riel to the Kildonan settlers ended the threat and the opposition melted away.

With little alternative but to return to Portage, Scott and his group decided on a last defiant gesture, to pass through Winnipeg under the walls of Upper Fort Garry where Riel and his Métis followers were established. Unaware that the challenge to the provisional government had effectively ended, Riel himself probably ordered the capture of the Portage group, which was accomplished without violence on 18 February 1870. Thomas Scott and 47 others, including Major Charles Arkoll, their presumed leader, were confined in the fort.

Outside the walls of Upper Fort Garry the emergency seemed to be over. But inside Thomas Scott was proving a difficult prisoner. Although the evidence is not completely conclusive, it seems clear that Scott did not disguise his contempt for the Métis. He insulted and provoked his guards who on 28 February took him outdoors and assaulted him. The incident marked a tragic turning point.

Though there was acquiescence, if not enthusiasm, among most of the inhabitants of Red River in allowing Riel and the incoming provisional government to negotiate entry into confederation with Ottawa, Riel’s leadership depended in the end on the continuing support of the armed Métis. After months of tension and threatened attack by the Canadian Party, they were excitable and unruly. To ignore Scott’s challenge might be seen as weakness. There was a growing spirit among the Métis that Scott must be punished. A Métis court martial, an ad hoc tribunal employed frequently on the prairie, met on the evening of 3 March. Scott was tried on the charge of insubordination. By majority vote the court martial convicted him and the death penalty was imposed. The following day he was shot by a Métis firing squad.

In the long run and with hindsight, it has been argued that the execution of Scott was a mistake. It jeopardised the entry of the Hudson’s Bay territory into the dominion, poisoned relations between English and French Canadians, condemned Riel to the same fate 15 years later, and endangered the future development of Manitoba. Riel said at the time: “We must make Canada respect us.” In the short term perhaps it worked. But insofar as respect implied control, Riel was later hoisted on his own petard. Those opposed to the possible commutation of his death sentence explicitly invoked Scott, an obscure if volatile figure during his life, who became a cause célèbre after his death. To a degree quite unconnected with his own fate, he came to symbolise one of the unresolved problems of the new confederation. Was the Northwest to be the patrimony of Ontario or was its settlement to be a joint venture of English and French Canadians? The more extreme reaction may be seen in a resolution of Toronto Orangemen carried by the Globe on 13 April 1870:

Whereas Brother Thomas Scott, a member of our Order was cruelly murdered by the enemies of our Queen, country and religion, therefore be it resolved that ... we, the members of LOL. N .404 call upon the Government to avenge his death, pledging ourselves to assist in rescuing Red River Territory from those who have turned it over to Popery, and bring to justice the murderers of our countrymen.

Thomas Scott thus became it could be said a martyr in the cause of Ontario expansion westward, a sentiment implicit even in the letter from his brother, Hugh Scott, to Sir John Alexander in which he stated that his brother “was a very quiet and inoffensive young man, but yet when principle and loyalty to his Queen and Country were at stake throughout a brave and loyal man.”


Born: c.1842
Died: 4 March 1870
Richard Froggatt

Dr RG Caves, Vancouver


Kenneth McNaught: The Pelican History of Canada (Penguin Books, 1969); Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Prof JE Rea); “Ulster and Canada”, Ulster-Scots Community Network; (Gerald Friessen)