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Trouble with the Southern Indians

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 XXVI – Trouble with Blackfeet.


Chapter XXVII



A GOOD DEAL OF TROUBLE was caused during the years 1882 and 1883 by southern Indians, particularly the South Piegans, coming over to our side and camping with our Indians, to whom they were related, being an off shoot of the Blackfeet who had settled in Montana, and had taken the treaty from the United States government. The American authorities had been having a good deal of trouble with them during the year 1882, and at one time had to send troops on to their reserve, thereby causing many of them to cross over on to our side. They were a source of unrest to the Blackfeet and the police had trouble returning them to their own country.

South Piegan Indians.

A modern replica of Fort Calgary in Calgary, Alberta.

A detachment of police under Inspector French had been left at the crossing, but it was found better to withdraw them. They therefore went to Ft. Calgary, being the first force of police since 1879, who had been stationed at that place, and from this time on the force was year by year increased as the town sprang into existence. The Canadian Pacific railway was this year surveyed into and past Calgary. During the building of the Canadian Pacific only one case is known of any obstruction caused by Indians, and that occurred near Maple Creek, a tomahawk being driven in between the ends of two rails, and a few yards further on a rail was laid across the line. Sergt. Blight and three men were despatched from the police detachment at Swift Current, and arrested three Assiniboine Indians on suspicion, who, after some questioning, gave the name of the Indian, also an Assiniboine, named Buffalo Calf, who committed the offence. This man was sent to the penitentiary for two years for the crime.

Superintendent (and future Commissioner) Acheson Irvine of the North West Mounted Police.

As Lt.-Col. Irvine states in his report, it is fortunate that the Indians, generally, have not developed this terrible method of redressing their grievances, whether fanciful or not.

Much trouble has been caused at the annual Indian payments in the west, and in the fall of 1882, owing to the large number of Indians who had been overpaid at the previous year’s payments, I had great difficulty in making anywhere near the necessary reduction. I found that the Indians had begun to ascertain the value of money, and to use it more sensibly than heretofore, buying principally blankets and clothing, of which they were much in need, having now no buffalo robes as substitutes. The issue of government ammunition to the Indians I recommended should cease, and that some clothing should be sent instead, and common cotton print for the women, who suffered most, being literally in rags; indeed the women would fight over old cotton flour sacks, of which they made dresses.

This years’ payments showed that the Blackfeet and Blood Indians had begun to decrease, a natural consequence of their coming in contact with the whites, and this decrease has been steadily going on to the present day, when these tribes are now about half what they were when the first treaty was made with them. It will be but a few more generations before they will be nearly extinct, as happens with all Indian tribes, sooner or later.

        The police found it difficult to eradicate the old customs among the tribes, many of which were crimes according to the white man’s law, but an article of faith and teaching among the Indians. I think that too much was expected when it was thought that these old customs of generations could be eliminated in a year or two. It must be remembered that the western Indians, through their forefathers, had been brought up to believe that stealing, lying and killing were virtues to be cultivated, and could not understand why they should be punished- the greatest chiefs among them were those in whom these qualities were most prominent, and to be a chief was the aim of all young men in the camp. I think that the first few years the sentences of the Indians who had committed crimes against white man’s law were most severe. However, as the country was now beginning to settle it was no doubt necessary. A great deal of trouble was taken to put a stop to a punishment the Indians had among themselves for infidelity among their women, which was the cutting off of the nose of the offender. They were loath to give this up, and severe punishments had to be meted out to them.

A Canadian residential school.

The missionaries and teachers on the reserves were not very successful, although indefatigable in their labors, and I still think, as I represented at that time, that the only way to teach the children and to bring them up as useful members of society, is to separate them altogether from the tribes, as their parents will never force the children to attend school if they wish to shirk. I recommended the same plan as now adopted in the United States with success, to establish industrial schools some hundreds of miles away from the reserves, which would effectually prevent all intercourse between the children and their parents, and at intervals the parents might be taken to see them, in order that they might, by their reports of the advancement made, induce others to send their children.

In Sept. 1882 Inspector Steele in command of B. troop, who had the previous year been stationed at Ft. Qu’Appelle, was moved to the Pile of Bones creek, and erected the first buildings

Sam Steele was perhaps one of the most famous Mounties to serve in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush.

in what is now the town of Regina, the capital of the Northwest Territories. The buildings put up were portable houses, and were erected for the use of the police. The government buildings were shortly afterwards built, and the town of Regina came into existence. Inspector Steele was engaged for the next year in looking after the construction parties on the Canadian Pacific railway as that road was building west, and the quietness and absence of disturbances among the thousands of workmen engaged in building that road were largely due to the watchfulness and energy displayed by him, and the non-commissioned officers and men under him. Inspector McIlree, who had remained at Ft. Walsh after I left in the spring of 1882, and who had a difficult job in looking after the Indians assembled there, was this summer promoted to the rank of superintendent, and was the next spring stationed at Ft. Calgary, where he had his hands full of work, the Canadian Pacific railway being built through that place during this year. In 1883 Ft. Walsh was finally abandoned and the men and officers stationed there moved to the west, and to Regina, which was this year made the headquarters of the force.

The old fort at Walsh did not long remain standing, as it was shortly afterwards burnt down by Indians, and the old village also soon disappeared much in the same manner; although a good deal of material from the old houses was moved when the railroad passed Maple Creek, at which point many of the old inhabitants of Ft. Walsh took up their residence.

In the north, around Battleford and Fort Pitt, the Cree Indians and halfbreeds were giving the police no end of trouble during the years 1882-3, and the seeds were growing that sprang into rebellion in 1885. There is no doubt that the Crees in the north were insufficiently fed.

At Ft. Macleod there was plenty of work for the increased force of police and that work was ably performed. The village of Macleod had slightly increased in population, and many ranches had been started in that section and also from High River to Calgary. The first newspaper was established in 1882 at Ft. Macleod, the Macleod Gazette, which is still in existence and was edited by C. Wood, formerly in the Mounted Police. This was the second newspaper started in the Territories, the first being the Battleford Herald, which started a year or two previously.


The Cochrane Ranch near Cochrane, Alberta.

Many thousand head of cattle now grazed on the plains in the west, the first few years’ success of this industry inducing many others to embark in the business. It was however a new thing to most of the large companies, and for the first year or so the want of knowledge caused, during the hard winter that prevailed in 1882-3, some serious losses, particularly to the Cochrane Ranche Co., which had some 7,000 or 8,000 head ranging on the north side of the Bow river in the vicinity of Calgary. Many of these cattle were driven in from a long distance south, in the fall of 1882, and came in thin. It seemed to be thought by the management that it was necessary to close herd the cattle, and the result was that, the winter of ’82 and ’83 being an unusually severe one, many thousands of their cattle died before spring, and the country round Calgary was fairly poisoned by the stench of the carcasses. After this year the Cochrane Co. decided to move their cattle from Calgary and obtained a large grazing lease between the Belly and Kootenay rivers, some twenty-five miles south of Ft. Macleod where they have remained ever since, with great success in stock raising. They have lost no cattle during the winters, of any account, the only loss they have really sustained being by Indians, the Bloods having their reserve just across the Belly river and in close proximity to the Cochrane ranche. This however was to be expected as hundreds of head of cattle would cross over and graze close to the Indian villages, which was a temptation almost impossible for the young men to resist. A police detachment was always kept near the reserve, and good service was done by them in hunting up and arresting the offenders, and many an Indian was sent to the penitentiary for numbers of years for this offence. Strange as it may appear, when the Indians were practically wild, and only recently on their reserves, cattle killing was not nearly as prevalent as it has been in the years from 1890 until today.

A modern replica of Fort Macleod.

In 1883 a new town site for Ft. Macleod was surveyed, where the town now stands, about two miles west of the old fort, and a more unsuitable situation could hardly have been chosen- high up on the bench land, above the river, on a bed of loose stones, with little or no soil fit for cultivation in the whole plot. A new fort was also built west of the town, and very respectable buildings erected. The contract was taken and the work done by the Galt Co., who had built a saw mill in the Porcupine hills, to the west, where most of the lumber was manufactured.

It was found necessary to abandon the old fort and town, as the river had broken through its banks and carried away some buildings, and had formed a new channel on the south, converting what had been the mainland into an island. The Indian Department also put up buildings, those put up by me being the first built in the present town of Macleod. Most of the buildings in the town were erected in the following year, in which year the fort was finished and occupied by the police, with Superintendent Cotton in command. Major Crozier having been appointed Assistant Police Commissioner, was stationed at Battleford, that point causing more anxiety to the government than any other place in the Territories.

Fort Battleford in Battleford, Saskatchewan.

         The game that existed in plenty apart from the buffalo when we first arrived, had nearly altogether disappeared. Where deer used to be found in numbers, none were now to be seen. We used to kill many in the wooded bottom near the old fort, but for some years there had been scarcely any there, and save in the foot hills and mountains, no game, with the exception of a few bands of antelope, geese, and ducks, in the spring and fall, now existed in the country. Most of the hunting in the mountains was done by the Stoney Indians, who went far back in the range, and managed to kill a good many deer of all kinds, including elk now and then, and also a good many sheep and a few bears.

A white wavey, or snow goose.

Geese, ducks and grouse, were still plentiful on the plains, and the game laws that now came into force helped towards the increase of the latter, although, each fall, the flight of geese to the south was less in numbers, no doubt caused by the great slaughter that was always going on in the north, and particularly by the destruction of the eggs during the laying season by halfbreeds and Indians. The geese were not protected by law as it was supposed that the damage done by them to the crops necessitated their destruction. However this might be, flights were not nearly as numerous in 1882-3 as in previous years, unless the waveys be excepted. These geese, white in color with black tips to the wings, were, and still are, as numerous as ever, and strange as it may appear, neither I nor any other resident or Indian in the north, ever saw or heard of a nest of one of these birds having been seen. Indians in the north have often told me that they had heard that the wavey nested very far in the north, in a marshy spot of many miles in diameter, and this swamp was impassable. The truth of this story is hard to substantiate, but no doubt these birds do nest far inside the Arctic circle.

A cottontail rabbit.

Rabbits, both the cotton tail and the jack rabbit, the latter being a species of hare, turning white in the winter were still numerous; in fact the genuine rabbits, or cotton tails, are fast increasing in the north, and if steps are not taken in time, will eventually prove as great a pest as in Australia. In 1877 none of these rabbits were to be found south of the Red Deer river, 100 miles north of Calgary, but they have year by year crept south till they are now quite numerous in the vicinity of Ft. Macleod. As the wolves are killed off, which animals live principally on these rodents, they increase enormously in numbers. The wolves, since the buffalo had gone, were most destructive to stock, both horses and cattle, and although nothing like as numerous as in the buffalo days, when parties of “wolfers” who had been out all winter poisoning wolves, would return in the spring with many hundred pelts, they killed and maimed many animals annually among the cattle herds. In late years a bounty has been offered by the Territorial government and cattle companies of $5 per head killed, but still the damage goes on and comparatively few are killed. They will not ear the poisoned baits as in the old days, no doubt growing wiser with experience, and riding down and shooting them is about the only successful method yet discovered, and this thins them but slowly. Hounds were for some time used, but a couple of large prairie wolves would stand off a whole pack, and the dogs soon become afraid to tackle them. Therefore as a game country unless long trips are made into the mountains, which necessitates a good outfit for camping, the western portion of the Territories is a failure, and whoever comes out with the intention of shooting will be disappointed. However, a journey to the far north, about 150 miles north of Edmonton, on the Lesser Slave lake, or Peace river, would well repay the journey, as much game, such as elk, many kinds of deer, caribou, and now and then a wood buffalo are still to be found, and a party prepared for the rough work in the mountains, would still find many sheep, goats and bears to reward their labors.

Continued in Chapter 28: Western Indians Become Restless.

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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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