Love and death leaves its mark on the priairies
St. François Xavier, also known as Grantown, was one of the main Red River Metis settlements and was famed as the starting point for many buffalo hunts that went west from here. This place overlooked a unique cultural place with a unique name – White Horse Plain.
White Horse Plain is the gateway to the west and was a gathering place for indigenous people for hundreds and hundreds of years. Celebrations took place here; ceremonies were conducted; and massive expeditions staged here before leaving for the season.
White Horse Plain took its name from a Cree legend. The legend goes (more or less) as follows:
Before the coming of the white man to the prairies, the Cree were being pushed westward by the encroaching settlers and by their traditional enemies, the Sioux. After several years of fighting, the Sioux had gained a foothold in the lands around Lake Winnipeg and the Cree were being pushed towards starvation as their hunting grounds were overrun by their enemies.
Salvation came when the first European traders started to arrive, bringing with them guns and ammunition which allowed the Cree to make effective war against the Sioux – driving them back to the south into their own territory. Because of the newfound strength of the Cree, the Assiniboine made peace and became allies with them. This was a peaceful time for both tribes.
Early one summer in the 1690s, a large band of Assiniboine was camped on the banks of the Assiniboine River about ten miles west of the site of present day Winnipeg. This band was under a chief who had a beautiful daughter. Two suitors came to his lodge to ask for her hand - a Cree chief from Lake Winnipegosis, and a Sioux chief from Devil’s Lake.
The Cree was the favored suitor. He was offering a unique white horse in exchange for his intended bride. The horse was a special horse that came from the Spaniards to the south and was swift as the wind and strong. The horse was known to be able to outrun and outlast any other horse on the prairies. The gift of the horse was so impressive that the Chief accepted it and sanctioned the proposed marriage.
While the Chief was happy about the upcoming nuptials, not all the Assiniboine shared his joy. A powerful medicine man who held a grudge against the Cree protested. He yelled at the Chief, “Is it not enough that you should make peace with the enemies of our forefathers? Now you will disgrace us by mingling our blood with that of our foes!” The Chief was not moved by his words, so he used his magic and his words to poison the camp and stoke hatred against the Cree. When his words and magic didn’t work, he sent word to the Sioux Chief that his offer was rejected and that he should make war on the Cree suitor in revenge.
On the wedding day the Cree bridegroom arrived from Lake Winnipegosis mounted on a fine grey horse, leading the white horse loaded with gifts for his prospective father-in-law. He presented his gifts and the fine white horse. These were accepted with great acclaim and a feast and celebration started. Everyone was happy except for the Medicine man.
Suddenly, the celebration was cut short and the alarm was sounded: the Sioux were coming to attack! The camp exploded in fear and confusion. The Chief cried to his new son-in-law, “Mount your horse. Ride away. It is your only chance!” At this, the Cree bridegroom ran with his bride to the tethered horses, helped her mount the white horse, jumped on the back of the grey horse, and they fled quickly to the west of the camp. The Sioux chief and his war party saw them leave and followed them.
For a while they were able to escape their pursuers – hiding in the ravines and in dense brush – however, once they went out on the open prairies the white horse was easily spotted. They tried to ride away again, but the grey horse could not keep pace with the white one, and the wife did not want to leave her husband to the Sioux attackers. She slowed her horse to stay with him, but they were eventually surrounded by the Sioux and were killed by enemy arrows.
The Sioux captured the grey horse, but the white horse was too swift and it escaped into brush. For years it roamed the plain – giving rise to the name White Horse Plain. It was believed that the soul of the girl had passed into the body of the horse and that the ghost of the girl and the horse still haunt the prairies.
The place where the lovers were killed was a point just east of St. François Xavier. A statue of a white horse commemorating the legend can be visited to this day.
Read more: The Legend of the White Horse Plain by Margaret Arnett MacLeod, Manitoba Pageant, Volume 3, Number 2, January 1958