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Famine Among the Blackfeet

Back to The Riders of the Plains.

The following is an excerpt from The Riders of the Plains: A Reminiscence of the Early and Exciting Days in the North West (1905), by Cecil Edward Denny. This work is in the public domain.

Continued from Chapter XX – Troubles with the Sioux.


Chapter XXI

Famine Among the Blackfeet

Edgar Dewdney, Indian Commissioner of the North-West Territories.

IN THE SPRING OF 1879, Mr. Dewdney, the Indian commissioner, arrived at Macleod, and visited the various reservations in Treaty No. 7. The Indians were beginning to return from the south, bringing some dried meat with them, but not enough to last long. The buffalo had now nearly altogether disappeared from off the plains, and the Indian commissioner left word that should the Indians suffer from hunger, cattle were to be slaughtered for them, arrangements being made with I.G. Baker and Co., to supply both beef and flour, should it be necessary to issues.

Considerable numbers of cattle had been driven into the country the previous fall by men intending to settle, most of them locating near Macleod or Pincher Creek, a few only going north. By the beginning of summer, nearly all the Blackfeet and Sarcee Indians had returned to the Blackfoot Crossing, and a large number of Bloods had returned to their reserve on Belly river. They could not procure no game, and the Bloods in the south commenced to commit depredations by killing what cattle they found. They slaughtered a large number, and although as soon as word would be brought to the fort that cattle had been killed, parties of police would at once go out and try to arrest the perpetrators, none were caught.

The Indians posted sentinels on the hills at long distances apart, who, as soon as a party of police would leave the fort, flashed signals with glasses they carried for that purpose from one another, until the party engaged in cattle killing were warned, and had ample time to escape.

This cattle killing near Macleod finally became so bad that many of those owning stock drove them back across the line, preferring to pay the heavy duty over there to the risk of losing all their stock. Some of the parties remained on the American side several years, eventually returning to this side when the Indians were finally settled on their reserves, and drawing regular government rations.

At Calgary, at which fort I was in command, matters began to be very serious, as the summer advanced. The Blackfeet were actually dying of starvation, and had I not taken the responsibility of feeding them, an outbreak must most certainly have occurred. It was a pitiably sight to see the parties brining in their starving fellows to Fort Calgary for food, some of them being mere skeletons. I have seen them after I had an animal killed, to issue, rush on the carcass before the life was out of it, and cut and tear off the meat, eating it raw. The Blackfeet showed great gratitude for the food I issued them, and never afterwards forgot what was done for them, and I found in after years, when I had charge of them as Indian agent, that to this one cause I greatly owed the success I had in dealing with them on many a critical occasion.

A modern replica of Fort Calgary in Calgary, Alberta.

The following is the report written by me to Colonel Macleod, who was at that time expected at Fort Macleod, although Capt. Winder, who was in command at that post, had authority to forward supplies to any Indian camp in need of food:

“Fort Calgary, 5th July, 1879


A modern replica of Fort Macleod.

       “Sir: As Mr. Merent leaves this fort to-day to proceed via the Crossing to Fort Macleod, I have the honor to report how the Indians are situated at this post and the Crossing, and the action I have taken in the matter of feeding them. On the first arrival of word from the Crossing that there were nearly 200 lodges there starving, and waiting for supplies, I immediately despatched S.C. Christie to Fort Macleod with a letter to you, also stating the condition of the Indians, and asking permission to purchase beef for them. Ever since that time the Indians have been coming in here in hundreds, always headed by a chief, for food, as they are actually dying of starvation. (I have heard already of 21 cases of death.) As they are and have been getting no assistance from any post, I took upon myself the responsibility of purchasing and issuing beef to them; for the last three days I have been obliged to issue beef at the rate of 2,000 lbs. per diem. I have advised the Indians not to move their camp up here from the Crossing, as I expected you would have been at Fort Macleod when Sub-Constable Christie arrived there, and that some of the Indian cattle would be sent to the Indians at the Crossing. I have told them all that as soon as you arrived at Fort Macleod provisions would be sent to them, and that in the meantime I would supply them with meat, which I have done, and am now doing. Until assistance arrives from Fort Macleod I can manage to keep them in meat the way I am now doing for a week or two, but of course the expense will be great. I am buying cattle from Mr. Emerson of this post, at 7 cents per pound. There is no doubt whatsoever that if I had not fed them, and do not continue to feed them, they will take the matter into their own hands, and help themselves.

Defrocked missionary to the Blackfoot, “Father” Jean L’Heureux.

         “Crowfoot sent up here yesterday, asking me to go down to see and talk to them in their distress. It is utterly impossible for me to leave here until the Blackfeet receive assistance from some other post. Crowfoot himself will, I think, be here to-morrow. All the other chiefs have been in, with the exception of Three Bulls, who is at Cypress. The Blackfeet are utterly destitute, there being no buffalo in the country. I have had to send meat out to parties coming in here who were eating grass to keep themselves alive. The rush here is not quite so great as it was, as I have established some order in the going and coming. Every part that tomes in is headed by a chief, who sends a man some hours ahead to notify me of their coming. Every party that comes in is headed by a chief, who sends a man some hours ahead to notify me of their coming, so that I can have meat ready for them. I am keeping careful note of what I issue, and to whom, and in what quantity. I am paying the men from whom I purchased beef by voucher on I.G. Baker and Co. I am nearly out of flour, and can issue no more without running myself short. It is impossible for me to keep meat for our own use any length of time, because of the scarcity of salt. I sent some time ago to Macleod for salt, but could procure none. I am not only feeding the Blackfeet, but also Stoneys and some halfbreeds, who have come off the plains starving. I have asked Mr. L’Hereux to go himself to Fort Macleod. He will be able to state the exact nature of the case. I have advised the Blackfeet not to move up from the crossing until I hear what is going to be done for them, and when supplies will be sent. They are now within easy reach of this post, coming up from the Crossing in a day and going backwards and forwards with meat. I hope that I have your approval in the action I have taken, and trust to have full instructions before long, as this is rather a trying situation.

         “I have the honor, sir, to be your obedient servant,

         “C.E. DENNY, Inspector commanding Fort Calgary.”

         I had received orders from the Indian commissioner in the spring not to ration Indians at Calgary, but of course such a state of affairs as I have described was not apprehended, and not long afterwards I received a letter from the Indian commissioner, thanking me for the action I had taken. The price of beef, 7 cents per lb., was in those days considered high, strange as it may seem, as to-day the country is overrun with cattle, and beef sells as high as 10 and 12 cents per lb. The reason of this was that cattle could be purchased in Montana at a low figure, there not being much market in that country at that time for them, and the ranges were much overstocked. The herd of yearling heifers purchased by me in 1878, cost, delivered at Calgary, $10 per head, of which $3 per head was allowed for driving, and say $2 per head profit for the purchaser. This would leave the original cost $5 in Montana. As soon as possible after things had come to this pass with the Indians, cattle and flour in large quantities were contracted for, and sent to the different reservations. Men were also engaged to butcher, and police went to see to the fair issue of rations. From this year dates the beginning of the issue of regular rations to the Indians under treaty No. 7, which has continued ever since. For a year or two after this many bands of Indians would be away for months at a time in quest of buffalo, sometimes going far south along the Missouri river, and in fact scouring the country for them. It was hard to make them believe that the buffalo had become extinct, as for years after they believed they would reappear.

Their belief was that the buffalo originally came from a hole in the ground, in the centre of a lake, located in the north, and that on the advent of the whites, they had returned into this lake, ultimately to reappear.

         The ration given to the Indians at that time was 1 lb. of beef and ½ lb. of flour per head all round, and this ration has been little altered, although the tendency has been during the last few years to cut it down, but it is little enough, where they have nothing else whatever to live upon.

Since we came to the country in 1874 up to this year, 1879, no man of the force had been killed or molested by an Indian. Many had died from various causes, but no death was occasioned by Indians. But the clean record was broken in October, 1879, by the deliberate murder at Fort Walsh of Constable Greybourn, stationed at that post.

It was the custom to herd the horses belonging to the fort about three miles away where the feed was good, and a permanent herd camp was established of four men and a non-commissioned officer stationed there under canvas, one man being continually on herd during the day, and the horses being driven into the fort and stabled at night.

At the time the murder occurred, a camp of Blood Indians was not far off from the herd camp, and they made themselves very obnoxious by continually prowling round and begging in the camp. Greybourn left camp that morning to take his turn on herd, and shortly thereafter an Indian, named Star Child, also left. This Indian had given a good deal of trouble, and in fact at one time Greybourn had strong words with him. Some hours after Greybourn’s departure his horse returned to camp along, and the men at once went out to search for him. About a mile away they came upon his cap, and a further search disclosed his dead body, lying at the bottom of a gully and in some brush. On examination a bullet hole was found in the back of his head, no doubt causing instant death.

Word was immediately sent to the fort, and the body removed. A party proceeded to the Blood camp, as suspicion at once centred on Star Child, who was known to have had a grudge against Greybourn. The camp was thoroughly searched, but the Indian could not be found, and no information whatever could be gained from any Indian in the camp. It was afterwards learned that Star Child had that morning left for Montana, where he remained for two years, and although efforts were made to have him extradited they were without effect.

He returned to the Blood camp near Macleod in 1881, and was, after much trouble, captured. He was tried for murder at Fort Macleod, but, although it was a moral certainty that he had committed the murder, there was not the slightest evidence to prove it, and he therefore was acquitted. He, therefore, was arrested a few years afterwards for horse stealing, and sentenced to five years in the Manitoba penitentiary, where he died before completing his sentence. Poor Greybourn was buried at Fort Walsh with military honors, and a gloom was cast over the whole force at the end of this year by the sad event.

Continued in Chapter 22 – After a Murderer.

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I'm a Western Canadian writer, carver, and fiddler who has a special place in his heart for history and the unexplained.

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