Prairie Warships: River Navigation in the Northwest Rebellion.


336 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 978-1-894974-30-1
DDC 971.05'4





Reviewed by William A. Waiser

Bill Waiser is a professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan,
and the author of Saskatchewan’s Playground: A History of Prince
Albert National Park and Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of Western
Canada’s National Parks, 1915–1946.  His


Prairie Warships convincingly demonstrates that there are still things to be learned about the 1885 North-West Rebellion. In this case, the new perspective is from the North and South Saskatchewan rivers and how sternwheelers plying these waters played a pivotal role in the Canadian military campaign against the Métis rebels.


Tolton begins his story by documenting how a fleet of steamboats, mostly owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, carried freight across the northern prairies of western Canada in the 1870s and 1880s before the arrival of the railway. These steamers, surprisingly large and fast, were able to navigate the treacherous waterways because of experienced crews, including American captains who had once worked the Mississippi River system.


Come the rebellion, the steamboats were pressed into service ferrying troops and supplies along or across the rivers. One ship also saw battle. The fortified SS Northcote was part of a two-pronged attack on Métis headquarters at Batoche in May, 1885. But the plan collapsed when the Métis fighters lowered a ferry cable across the South Saskatchewan River and pulled over the smokestacks of the Northcote, sending the steamer drifting helplessly downriver.


Prairie Warships is an engaging book, thanks in no small part to Tolton’s writing talents. His research is detailed and impressive. But less fortunately he continues to put forward the outdated interpretation that the First Nations were ready allies of the Métis in 1885 and that chiefs like Big Bear and Poundmaker did not have their own strategy for dealing with a distant and insensitive Canadian government.


Tolton, Gordon E., “Prairie Warships: River Navigation in the Northwest Rebellion.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 23, 2024,