Battle of Cut Knife

From Academic Kids

Battle of Cut Knife
Conflict North-West Rebellion
Date May 2, 1885
Place Near Battleford, Saskatchewan
Result Cree/Assiniboine victory
Cree, Assiniboine Dominion of Canada
Fine Day William Otter
200 300
6 dead
3 wounded
8 dead
14 wounded

The Battle of Cut Knife, fought on May 2nd, 1885, occurred when a small force of Cree and Assiniboine warriors were attacked by a flying column of mounted police, militia, and Canadian army regulars. The warriors routed the Canadian forces and won the largest victory of the North-West Rebellion.



In the spring of 1885, the Métis living in Saskatchewan broke away from the Canadian government and took control of the area around Batoche. They formed a provisional government under Louis Riel. Soon, Riel began to contact the local Natives; the Cree and the Assiniboine. The Canadian government decided to crush the rebellion, afraid that it would spread to the tribes across the northwest. One band of Cree, led by Poundmaker, went to Battleford to talk to the Indian Agent, Rae. The purpose of the visit was to ask for help (many members of the band were starving) and to discuss the situation. The people of Battleford and some of the settlers in the surrounding area didn’t understand what the Cree intended, so they took refuge in Fort Battleford, completely abandoning the town. When the Cree arrived in the town, the Indian Agent refused to come out of the fort to meet with them. He kept them waiting for two days. Near the end of the second day, they were starving. Finally, they stole some of the food from the stores in the town and left.

Meanwhile, bands of Assiniboine living south of Battleford had heard about the Métis rebellion. A small group of them killed a local farmer who had treated them harshly in the past, and shot their Indian Agent for beating a teenage girl. They then decided to go north to Battleford to meet up with Poundmaker. When they arrived, Poundmaker and his band had left, and a group of Métis were taking supplies from the deserted town. A group of militia from the Fort tried to stop them and there was a short skirmish. The Métis loaded the supplies into carts and headed off to join Riel's forces. As they left the town, they set fire to several buildings, including the Hudson's Bay Company. The Assiniboine went north to join with Poundmaker.

The Canadian government sent General Frederick Middleton to Saskatchewan to crush the Métis rebellion. The police at Fort Battleford called on him for reinforcements. Middleton sent Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter with 500 soldiers to Battleford. When he arrived in late April, there were hundreds of people crammed into the Fort. However, there were no Natives anywhere near. The people in the fort wanted revenge on the Cree for taking their possessions and Colonel Otter was disappointed that he hadn’t got to fight any Natives.

Otter decided to attack the Cree. General Middleton told him to stay in Battleford, but he disobeyed. He divided his force in half. Some soldiers stayed in Battleford, while he led a column of 350 to attack the Cree at Cut Knife. His force was made up of 75 North West Mounted Police (cavalry), several small units of Canadian army regulars, and various volunteers and militia. He carried with him two cannons and a Gatling gun (a primitive machine gun). He set out on the afternoon of May 1st. His plan was to march all night and attack the Cree early in the morning, while they were asleep.

Meanwhile, the Cree were encamped on their reserve north of Battleford, on Cut Knife Creek. They were joined by various other bands, including Assiniboine. They knew that there were thousands of Canadian soldiers in the area to fight the Métis rebellion and decided to protect themselves. The warrior Fine Day was chosen to replace Poundmaker as chief until the fighting was over. The entire encampment was moved across Cut Knife Creek to the west side. Behind the camp was Cut Knife Hill, and on both sides of it were ravines filled with bushes and trees.

The Battle

Just after dawn on May 2nd, Otter’s column arrived. Otter had expected that the camp would be in the prairie on the east side of Cut Knife creek. He had not anticipated that he would have to ford the creek. After his column had crossed the creek, they had to wade through a marsh before they reached the encampment. An old Cree man had woken up when he heard the sound of the soldiers crossing the creek and woke up the camp. Colonel Otter set up two cannons and a Gatling gun and started firing on the camp. In the first few minutes, there was total confusion. The gunfire broke lodges and destroyed the camp. Women and children went running for the safety of the ravines. A group of Assiniboine warriors charged Otter’s men to stop them from killing the women and children. The other warriors moved into the ravines and Fine Day went to the top of Cut Knife Hill to direct the Cree counterattack. The warriors fought in small groups. One group would run forward, attack the soldiers, then rush back to the ravine before the soldiers could get them. As soon as the soldiers tried to attack the warriors on one side, another group of warriors would rush out of the second ravine and attack them from behind. The other warriors guarded the women and children. Otter couldn't attack, because he had no idea where the Cree were or how many of them were there.

Otter formed his men into a triangle shape. Two lines of soldiers and police faced the two ravines. The volunteers and militia guarded the back, facing the marsh. As the battle continued, the warriors began to move along the two ravines, getting closer and closer to the soldiers. The warriors stayed behind trees and bushes while they fired, so that Otter's men couldn’t see anyone to shoot at. The Natives trapped Otter’s soldiers: on the left and right were the ravines, and behind the soldiers was the marsh. After six hours of fighting, Colonel Otter decided to retreat. As the soldiers were crossing the marsh, some warriors started mounting their horses to attack. Poundmaker asked them to let Otter’s men leave. They respected Poundmaker and allowed Otter to escape.There still wasn't peace to the rebellion, and no outcomes.


The Battle of Cut Knife was the largest victory the Natives would win during the North-West Rebellion. At the start of the battle, they seemed to have every disadvantage: they were outnumbered, they were attacked by surprise, and they even had so little ammunition that some warriors had to shoot pebbles instead of bullets. Fourteen of Otter's soldiers were wounded, and eight were killed; three Natives were wounded and about six were killed. The battle also changed many of the soldier's minds about Natives. Otter had thought that they were cowardly and weak, and that they would surrender as soon as he attacked. After the battle, many soldiers began to respect the bravery of the warriors, as well as their tactics. Despite suffering their worst defeat during the campaign, the Canadian army would eventually win out. In just a few weeks, the starving Cree went to Battleford to make peace with General Middleton. Fine Day, the Cree commander who had won the battle, fled to the United States. Poundmaker was arrested and jailed. Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter survived the battle and, despite his wounded pride, remained in the military.

Many people have compared this battle to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. There are some major similarities: in both cases, an army officer disobeyed orders; both tried to catch a Native camp by surprise; both Custer and Otter badly misjudged the terrain and had to slow down their attacks; and both ended up being surrounded by warriors and had no idea where to charge. Otter, at least, knew when he was beaten and decided to retreat, while Custer kept fighting and suffered hundreds of casualties. Of course, the battles were very different in their outcome. One third of Custer's soldiers were killed. Most of Otter's soldiers, on the other hand, survived the battle and emerged with a new respect for Native warriors.

The Battle of Cut Knife was the NWMP's worst defeat and the Cree and Assiniboine's greatest victory. It would, however, be one of their last.

See also


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