The last invasion of Canada from U.S. soil occurred in 1871. This happened when a band of American opportunists launched an attack on a trading post just north of Pembina. The leaders who coordinated this invasion, William B. O’Donoghue and John J. O’Neil, had similar goals and anticipated the assistance of sympathetic Métis once the battles began. Métis were of mixed white and Indian parentage. In northeastern North Dakota and southern Manitoba, most of the Métis were descendants of French fathers and Chippewa mothers. O’Donoghue was an ambitious organizer who had been a supporter and close friend of Louis Riel, leader of the Métis. O’Neil, was one of the champions of the Fenian Brotherhood whose ultimate goal was to gain control of Canada.
Manitoba had just become a province of Canada on May 12, 1870. A provision of the Manitoba Act protected Métis lands and guaranteed their right to religion and to the use of their language in the legislature and the courts. Louis Riel was named head of the provisional government of that province, and it was his position to maintain peace and order while awaiting the arrival of the first lieutenant governor, Adams G. Archibald, and the military. When the soldiers arrived, they decided to get rid of Riel and his supporters. Warned of this, Riel and O’Donoghue fled to the U.S.
Riel returned to Canada in September, and a petition was to be sent to President Grant asking him to intercede with England’s monarch, Queen Victoria, to grant Riel amnesty. O’Donoghue was selected to carry the petition to the president. Since what O’Donoghue wanted was the annexation of the Manitoba settlement to the U.S., he stopped off in New York to meet with the Fenians and get their support of an invasion of Manitoba. The Fenian leadership turned O’Donoghue down, but John J. O’Neil saw this as an opportunity for his own ambitions and resigned his position on the council to ally himself with O’Donoghue.
O’Donoghue and O’Neil were joined by J. J. Donnelly, Thomas Curley and about three dozen other soldiers as they made their way to Pembina in early October 1871. The people of northeastern Dakota Territory did not take this excursion seriously as the group of Irish loyalists marched north towards Canada. On Oct. 5, they crossed the Manitoba border and 20 miles north of Pembina took possession of the Hudson Bay Company trading post which was surrounded by a stockade about 8 feet high.
This was no longer a joke because it naturally caught the attention of the provincial government at Fort Garry, which immediately sent soldiers from Winnipeg and St. Boniface. Lt. Gov. Archibald was concerned that Louis Riel might join the invaders, so Riel was notified to determine what his course of action might be. Riel assured Archibald that the Métis would remain loyal to Canada. Col. Loyd Wheaton, commander at Fort Pembina, also led a force of Americans against the invaders.
The next day, Wheaton’s group captured O’Neil and a dozen of the raiding party at the trading post. O’Donoghue and the remaining insurrectionists were captured by Metis soon thereafter and all the prisoners were brought to Fort Pembina. That same day, Wheaton filed a complaint with the United States commissioner, George I. Foster, and turned the prisoners over to Deputy Commissioner Judson LaMoure.
The prisoners were brought before Foster on Oct. 7, with Wheaton appearing for the U.S., and attorneys Enos Stutsman and George F. Potter were assigned to represent the defendants. The prosecution against all the defendants was conducted as one case and the hearing lasted two days. The charges against all were dropped and the defendants were ordered out of town.
Archibald was outraged. He wrote in the newspaper, “I regret to have to inform you that on the same day, the United States civil authorities at Pembina, to whom Wheaton was obliged to hand over his prisoners, discharged these marauders for reasons which I am unable to comprehend.”
This event marked the end of the Fenian attempts to invade Canada. Since the invasion was put down almost before it got started, it is but a footnote in U.S.-Canadian relations. During the later 1860s, the Fenians had made a number of forays into eastern Canada with the goal of overthrowing the Canadian government and holding it for ransom in exchange for the independence of Ireland. These earlier attempts were bloodier because the U.S. government did not try to stop them. When Ulysses Grant became president, he made it known that the U.S. would intervene if any attempts were made through the U.S. to invade Canada. That is why Wheaton immediately sent forces to apprehend the invaders in 1871.
It is interesting to note several of the principal individuals involved in this incident also played an important part in the history of northern Dakota Territory. U.S. Commissioner George I. Foster moved to the new settlement at Fargo and became one of the founding fathers of that city. Foster County was named after him. Deputy Commissioner Judson LaMoure served four terms in the Territorial Legislature and 12 terms in the North Dakota Senate. When Alexander McKenzie became the kingpin of North Dakota politics during early statehood, LaMoure was his primary operative. LaMoure County, as well as the towns of LaMoure, Jud and Judson were all named in his honor. Enos Stutsman, one of the defense attorneys, had served six terms in the Dakota Territorial Legislature before his death in 1874. Stutsman County was named in his honor.
Several of the individuals became known beyond the Dakota boundaries. Riel was considered the father of Manitoba because of his efforts to give the Metis a voice in governing themselves in the 1860s and 1870s. In 1885, he led a rebellion against the Canadian government to assist the Indians and, after he was captured, Riel was hanged for treason. Potter had been a state senator in Minnesota and went on to play an important role in Minnesota politics. Wheaton remained in the military, attaining the rank of brigadier general at the outbreak of the Spanish American War. His exploits during the war were well documented, as he won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his action in the Philippines. And, finally, O’Neil led a group of people to Nebraska where they founded a settlement in 1874 that became the town of O’Neil.