During the middle of summer in 1851, a group of Ojibwe and Métis departed Pembina and headed west for their annual buffalo hunt. On the first night out they waited for the contingent of Métis from Grant Town (St. Francois Xavier) to meet them. Once the second group rendezvoused, the combined force elected two captains to lead them on the expedition. The Grant Town group selected Jean-Baptiste Falcon as their leader, while the Pembina group chose Pascal Breland.
Departing the rendezvous site for the hunting grounds in the west, each group advanced – separated by several miles – using a standard formation with mounted scouts out front and on both flanks of the two groups. These scouts would “float” around the field, keeping contact between the two groups using various signals, while the captains led from the front center of the line of Red River carts that followed along.
After about a week, both parties were in sight of the Missouri Coteau and the Souris (Mouse) River. The more northerly group was near present-day Minot, while the other was off to the southeast of Minot in the vicinity of present-day Sawyer, near Maison du Chien (Dogden Butte). It was likely that they would be able to find buffalo within a few days, as the region was rich with game. However, unbeknownst to them their enemy the Cut Head (Yanktonais) Dakota had observed them and were planning to attack them.
That evening, the Métis scouts of the northern group spotted a large encampment of Dakota. Knowing that they were in danger of attack, the group immediately went into a defensive posture and circled their wagons, creating a fortress from where they could defend themselves if needed. Within this makeshift fort, the Ojibwe and Métis dug a large hole in the center for the women and children to hide themselves. The animals were secured within the enclosure as well. Then, the men worked through the night digging trenches and foxholes outside of the ring of carts to serve as defensive rifle pits, with the excess dirt acting as berms for added protection.
The next morning, they saw the Dakota approaching. Estimates are that somewhere between 2,500-3,000 warriors were in the enemy force. A head count of the Ojibwe and Métis was made. They only had 77 men – including several young boys who could handle a rifle – with which to defend themselves. Two men were sent out to ask for a truce, but the Dakota rejected it and the next day the battle started.
The Dakota attacked the encampment throughout the day, but the defenders were able to hold position without a single life lost. In turn, they killed eight Dakota warriors and wounded over twice that many. The next day, it was hoped that a retreat could take place so that they could join the group near Dogden Butte, but they were quickly cut off and they were forced to retreat back to the wagons. The Dakota, angry that they could not break through, fought with increased intensity but the Ojibwe/Métis force again fought them off with the help of some of the women loading their spare guns so that they always had a ready firearm to shoot. They suffered three minor casualties and only one man died. Again the Dakota suffered worse and lost a few dozen warriors in their attack.
That afternoon, the sky darkened with an impending thunderstorm on the horizon. A Dakota emissary was sent to parlay. He announced that the Dakota would stop their attack, then a group of several hundred warriors circled the wagon fort and fired a final volley into the sky. The Dakota departed and the storm came. With the storm came 300 men from the group at Dogden Butte. These men were ready to take the fight to the Dakota, but Father Laflèche and Father Lacombe, the attending Catholic priests present, begged the warriors from pursuing the Dakota.
Later that fall, the Ojibwe and Métis sent a peace offering to the Dakota. It was agreed that they would thereafter share the hunting grounds of the Missouri Coteau.
Battle of Grand Coteau—North Dakota: 12-14 July 1851. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.lermuseum.org/index.php/colony-to-confederation-1764-1866/1815-1866/battle-of-grand-coteaunorth-dakota-12-14-july-1851-1
Eyewitness Account of the Battle of the Grand Coteau. (2013, September 11). Retrieved from http://www.metismuseum.ca/resource.php/11684
Morton, W. L. (1961). The battle at the Grand Coteau, July 13 and 14, 1851. Publisher not identified.
A collaborative effort of members of the Ojibwe and Metis communities