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Trouble With 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 XXV – Governor General Visits Northwest.


Chapter XXVI

Trouble With Blackfeet

MATTERS AT THE Blackfoot Crossing had not been going on well during the winter of 1881, and early in the spring of ’82, I was instructed to proceed via Ft. Macleod to the Crossing and take charge of the Blackfeet, also the Sarcees, who had their reserve near Calgary, and the Stonies, who were located at Morleyville, some forty miles west of Calgary.

Blackfoot Crossing.

A good deal of trouble had been caused at the Blackfoot agency owing to a flaw in the beef contract, which gave the contractors the right to dispose of all heads and offal of animals killed; these parts they sold to the highest bidder among the Indians, and in many instances exorbitant prices were charged.

Inspector Francis Jeffrey Dickens of the North West Mounted Police; son of the famous British novelist Charles Dickens.

The Blackfeet had only the previous year returned from a long sojourn across the line and had done little or nothing in the way of building, but were mostly congregated around the agency. Flour had on some occasions run out during the winter, and, remembering the starving conditions they had been in previous to crossing the line, they were afraid of a recurrence. They were therefore dissatisfied; after spending nearly two years in Montana stealing horses and trading for whiskey, the young men among the Blackfeet were a pretty wild lot, and under the control of the soldier lodge which they had organized while on the other side. This band of soldiers was the cause of the greatest trouble to the Indian department of employes on the reserve, and things had come to such a pass that on several occasions shots had been fired in close proximity to men working on the reserve, and finally a shot was fired at one of the men employed by the butchers, who, the Indian stated, had sold him a beefhead, and then had delivered it to some other Indian. A party of police from Ft. Macleod, under Inspector Dickens, was sent to arrest the Indian, Bull Elk, who had fired the shot. But the Blackfeet resisted the arrest, this being the first serious resistance shown towards the police since they had been in the country. Although the party of police was small, vigorous efforts were made to take him, and it was not until the prisoner had been forcibly taken away from Sergt. Howe and Constable Ash, who showed a brave front, and Inspector Dickens even knocked down, and many shots fired by the Indians pretty close to the police, that they had to desist, and send in word to Ft. Macleod for reinforcements.

Major Crozier immediately started for the Crossing with all the available men he could muster, and these only amounted to 20. He found the Indians in a most excited state, and they positively refused to give up the Indian, Bull Elk. The situation was a most serious one, and required prompt action, as it would have ruined the prestige of the police with the Indians, had this man not been taken.

Major Crozier informed Crowfoot, the head chief, that if the Indian was not given up by the following day, he would take him by force. At the same time a temporary fort was made out of one of the Indian department buildings, and sacks of flour were used as a barricade. A very good fortification was made in a short time, and every precaution taken in the event of the Indians showing fight.

Colonel James Macleod of the NWMP, who would become the Force’s second Commissioner.

This prompt action overawed the Indians, who although in large numbers, did not dare to go to extremities. The Indian was taken the next day without resistance, and sent into Fort Macleod, where he was tried by Judge Macleod and imprisoned. This was about as close a shave of coming into actual conflict with the Indians as had yet occurred; and only the coolness and courage shown by the officers and men averted an Indian war, which would most certainly have followed, had an Indian or white man been killed.

This happened only a week or so before my arrival to take charge of the Blackfeet, and I found them in a most excited and unsettled state; and it would have taken very little to have made them leave their reserve, and go south again, in which event they would have made a slaughter of settlers’ cattle before they left. A small detachment of police under Inspector French had been left at the Crossing, and their work was far from being safe or pleasant.

I found that the Indians were anxious to go to work, but as yet had no tools. These I shortly supplied the, and I also took over the heads and offal of all animals killed, and issued them as rations, thus removing one of the chief causes of trouble.

I also made arrangements for seed for the Blackfeet, Sarcees and Stoney Indians, and started the Blackfeet in building houses, the villages being scattered along the Bow river, some distance from each other. It was necessary to break up the large numbers congregating together.

Mr. Norman Macleod, who was Indian agent at Ft. Macleod, shortly afterwards resigned, and I was appointed agent over the whole of Treaty No. 7, which comprised the five tribes: Blood, Blackfeet, Piegans, Sarcees, and Stonies.

The headquarters of the agency was at Ft. Macleod, but I had to be constantly journeying from one reserve to another, having to visit each at least once a month, and sometimes oftener, and when it is remembered that the reserve farthest south- the Blood- was at least a hundred and fifty miles from that to the Stonies, and the other reserves, at distances proportionately great, the amount of travel was indeed large. There were also two experimental farms, west of Ft. Macleod, and the other on Fish Creek, seven miles from Calgary. These also had to be visited. I had the assistance of a sub-agent, Mr. Pocklington, who was, however, stationed permanently at the Blackfoot Crossing, but he saved me much work; also valuable assistance was always given by the police, particularly among the Bloods, on which reserve a detachment was placed.

Stoney Indians

I found the Piegan and Stoney Indians getting on much better than any of the other tribes, they having quite a large tract of land under cultivation. However, I managed this summer to get quite a large acreage under crop on all the reserves, principally potatoes, barley and turnips, and got the Bloods and Blackfeet to make a good start in the way of house-building, which they had done little of previous to my arrival.

The Stoney and Piegan Indians took the cattle promised them at the treaty, and did well with them, but the rest of the tribes in the treaty refused them, and it was just as well they did, as what with the hundreds of dogs in these camps and the unfitness of these Indians to take care of cattle, they would either have soon been all killed or else lost past recovery.

The two supply farms were given up and sold the following year. This was just as well, as they were a great expense and of little use for the purpose they were originally intended.

The police in the west had their hands full this summer, as continual raids were made by the Crees and Southern Indians on the Bloods and Blackfeet, after horses, many of which they ran off. Of course these Indians retaliated, but a check was put to this after a while, as many Indians were captured red-handed, and sent down to the penitentiary.

Cree chief Piapot.

One instance of this horse-stealing that occurred, I well remember. One of the Blood Chiefs, White Calf, came and reported to me at Macleod that forty of their horses had been stolen by Crees on the night previous, and he was anxious to take a war party and go after them. This I would not allow, but gave him a letter to Col. Irvine, the Police Commissioner at Ft. Walsh, in which I asked him to try and recover the stolen horses, and I stipulated that only three Bloods should go; however, without my knowledge, quite a party started, in fact about ninety, and after they were well on the road they sent me word that this large party had gone, as they were afraid of being attacked by the Crees at Cypress Hills; I much doubted this explanation, and the sequel showed I was right. They gave Col. Irvine and the police at Ft. Walsh endless trouble to keep them from coming into hostile contact with the Indians congregated round Cypress, and did in fact kill a Cree as they were leaving. Of course they had endless excuses. They had seen their horses among the Crees, who refused to give them up. The Chief, Pie-a-pot, had thrown the tobacco they had offered him to make peace into the fire. With the exception of this band I had no trouble with the Indians during the summer, they remaining quietly at work on their reserves, but I had to be constantly among them, and the talk was without end. By this time it was known that the C.P.R. railroad would be built through the Blackfoot reserve, and indeed the survey had been made, and it was to be expected that the Blackfeet would cause trouble over it, but such was not the case. They showed no signs of displeasure, but only curiosity, which was to be expected, as they were totally ignorant of what a railroad was.

I, on many occasions, spoke to the Blackfeet on the subject, and was asked a thousand questions, I pointed out to them the advantage they would derive from the road running near them, and they appeared satisfied; I however recommended that when the road was actually building through the reserve, it would be well to have police detachments near or on the reservation. This was afterwards carried out, and no trouble whatever was caused by the Blackfeet to the working parties. The road was built without a single hitch, much to the credit of the Indians.

The Blackfeet asked me on many occasions the meaning of the surveyors’ mounds and stakes, stating that they had been told that wherever a mound was erected, a house would be built. I over and over again took pains to fully explain the nature of the surveyors’ work, but the Indians were so superstitious that they more easily listened to false than true reports.

Although the country was fast filling up with cattle, but few cases of cattle-killing occurred this year, and although cattle belonging to the Cochrane Ranche company were running on the Blackfoot reserve in close proximity to the Indian villages, none were killed, a vast difference to what now exists after ten years, when the same company are complaining every year of the number of cattle belonging to them that are killed by the Blood Indians near their reservation. In fact the whole time I was in charge of treaty No. 1 very few cases of this kind occurred.

The Cochrane Ranch near Cochrane, Alberta.

As the year 1882 might be said to be the first year in which the plain Indians undertook to farm, the result was most surprising, and in fact the crops raised from ’82 until ’84 have never since been equaled. In fact from 1892 until the present time it was seldom if ever, that enough vegetables were grown on the different reserves to even furnish seed for the following year.

An extract from my annual report to the Indian Commissioner for 1882 reads as follows:

“The summer has been a good and fine one, and large crops have been raised on all the reserves, with the exception of the Stonies, where as usual early frosts destroyed what crops there were. The Bloods raised as much, I should think, as two hundred thousand pounds of potatoes, and a large quantity of turnips, also some oats and barley, but principally potatoes. The Piegan crop of potatoes, oats and barley, is even greater than this. The Blackfeet have, I should think, about one hundred thousand pounds of potatoes, some turnips, and some goods fields of barley for the first year’s crop. The Sarcee crop is not very large owing to the land being bad, and the potatoes being hurt by the frost in the early part of the summer. Previous to the harvest I visited the reserve and advised the Indians to turn in as much seed for the next year as possible, telling them that the government would not furnish them with seed another year.

         “I also had large root houses built on the different reserves to hold the seed. The result is that the Indians have turned us over an abundance of potatoes, more than we can use for seed; the rest will be issued instead of flour. On the Blood Reserve we have three root-houses full of potatoes, about seventy thousand pounds, received in various quantities from different Indians, from one bag up as high as fifteen from individual Indians.

         “The Bloods have besides this a large amount of seed, many thousand pounds, in their own root-houses. We have in the last month allowed the Indians to use their potatoes, and have cut the rations one-half. It has saved many hundred sacks of flour already, and I hope to keep to this ration for the winter. We should be able to double the amount of land in crop next year.”

The report further goes on to state:

         “The result of the work done on this reserve is most satisfactory. On the Piegan reserve the potato crop is very large. The Indians have turned over for next year’s seed about fifty thousand pounds of potatoes and I have purchased fifty thousand pounds from them at 2½ cents per lb., to issue as rations at the same rate as flour, which will effect a saving of nearly 4 cents on every pound issued, as flour is $8.75 per 100 lbs., on that reserve, and it is also a great encouragement to the Indians to sell some of their produce. I have allowed some of the Piegans who had more potatoes than they could use, to sell to people in the country by giving them permits. They have, I should think, sold $1,000 worth, and have still large quantities on hand.

         “We are making also on this reserve a great reduction in the rations, letting them use their potatoes in lieu. The Indians are all fond of potatoes and it is about the best crop they can raise. At the Blackfoot Crossing we have taken in from Indians for seed, between twenty and thirty thousand pounds of potatoes, and they have a good many on hand to use. Here we are also making a reduction in the rations of flour.”

It will be seen from the above that wonderful progress had been made by these Indians this year, and it is all the more astonishing, as up to this time they were rightly considered the wildest and most warlike Indians on the plains. They have never since those first two or three years done anything near so well, from what cause it would be difficult to say. There is, however, no doubt that the seasons have been getting drier for the last six or seven years, the three or four weeks of heavy rains that always came in June of every year do not now put in an appearance, and in consequence crops are a failure nearly every year, the grass also being less luxuriant. Therefore, the only way in which this country will ever be fit for farming will be by the aid of irrigation, and even then the great expense will stand in the way, without assistance from the Canadian government.

Continued in Chapter 27: Trouble with the Southern Indians.

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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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