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Cypress Hills Massacre- Excerpt from ‘Riders of the Plains’, 1905

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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. Despite its name, this chapter actually has nothing to do with the Cypress Hills Massacre, which was described in the previous chapter. This work is in the public domain.

Continued from Chapter II – Ruin of the Red Man.

Chapter III

Cypress Hills Massacre

IN 1869, THE HUDSON Bay Company transferred their right in Prince Rupert’s Land to the Canadian government. At that time the province of Manitoba was principally inhabited by half breeds, nearly all Cree or Sauteaux. There were two parties of these, the Roman Catholic party and the Scotch and English element, who traded with the Hudson’s Bay Company. The former were dissatisfied and formed a provincial government of their own under the leadership of Louis Riel. It is a matter of history how the Red River rebellion began, and how it ended, and no doubt some blame must be attached to the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1870 the expedition to Red River took place, and on the withdrawal of the troops, a militia corps was left in the town of Winnipeg, to look after ostensibly the half breed population, who were at this time far from settled.

These halfbreeds were in the habit during each summer of starting with long trains of Red River carts and their families for the plains to hunt the buffalo and make pemmican, which consisted of dried buffalo meat and fat, pounded together, and packed with hot grease in thin bags. This not only supplied them with food for the winter but was a valuable article of trade to the Hudson’s Bay Company, which yearly shipped thousands of sacks to their northern trading posts on the peace and the Mackenzie rivers.

These half breeds would generally go as far west as the Cypress mountains, and nearly always came into collision with the Indian tribes who congregated around that neighborhood and bloody fights ensued. After a while many of them branched out from Manitoba, and settled permanently in the North West Territories, mixing among the Indians, instilling evil in their minds. They confined themselves nearly altogether to the northern portion of the Territories, along the North Saskatchewan river, and as they were among the Crees, whose friends and relations they were, they made a strong element in the warfare carried on by the northern or wood Indians, against their brethren of the plains.

These men, as I have before stated were dissatisfied and unsettled, and a slight cause only was wanting to bring about an almost similar state of things to that existing at the same time of the expedition in 1870. In all probability it would not have confined itself alone to Manitoba, but would have extended into the North West Territories, as the half breeds no doubt depended on their friends among the northern Indians to join them. This, then, was another cause which demanded that some permanent force should be organized, and dispatched to Manitoba and he North West Territories. Before closing the chapter in reference to the share that the halfbreeds had in forcing the organization of the N.W.M.P., it would not be out of place to say something about their people, who at present are a large part of the community of the North West Territories, and are not by any means a peaceable or settled race.

There is probably no other part of the world outside of the North West Territories that can show a people with such a peculiar origin and with the same characteristics as the half breeds of these Territories. They led a nomadic life, bit withal were so bound together, and had such common interests and love for the country in which they were born. Although for many years large numbers of them went south along the Missouri river, to follow the buffalo, they all came back to the northern part of the Territories and along the North Saskatchewan river. From this country many of them originally came and they mingled again with their old friends and relations- the Crees. They sought their old camping places, around or in the vicinity of some of the old Hudson’s Bay Company posts, such as Carleton fort and Fort Edmonton.

Long previous to the time that the Hudson’s Bay Company and the American North West Fur Company consolidated, the Hudson’s Bay Company were in the habit of bringing out men to work at their different forts in Prince Rupert’s land. They came from Scotland, the Orkney and Shetland islands and in some instances from England end Ireland. It was found that the men from the north of Scotland and the Orkney and Shetland islands could be engaged at lower wages and for a longer time, and were also more tractable than any other men they could get. In reality they were more easily deceived than the same class of Irish or English.

These men would be engaged by the Hudson’s Bay Company’s agents in Edinburgh or other parts of Scotland, and by promises of grants of land in Prince Rupert’s land or Manitoba, after a certain number of years’ service in the company, would sign agreements binding them to this company for a term of years, generally not less than 10. They were to get their food and a very small salary, a few pounds per annum, generally from £16 to £20. These men were then sent out in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s sailing vessels to York factory, a point of supply, situated on Hudson’s bay. The voyage would last sometimes for three months and these unfortunate men would have most of the romance knocked out of them before they reached York factory. From this point they were sent either over land or up the many rivers emptying into Hudson’s bay, hauling by hand the heavily lo9aded boats belonging to the company for hundreds of miles into the interior. Their destination was generally some of the company’s forts along the North Saskatchewan, from which forts they were often sent to the far northern posts along the Mackenzie or Peace rivers.

These men after they got out here, found that they had been badly fooled. As there was no possible way for them to get back home, they had to make the best of the bargain. Although they had all the food that they could eat, of its kind, which was principally dried meat and pemmican, they were, to all intents and purposes, the slaves of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The factors did not hesitate to put a deserter in irons and try him summarily before the officers, who held almost despotic sway over the whole of Prince Rupert’s land.

These men were nearly all unmarried, and it was the aim of the Hudson’s Bay Company to keep them in the country and in their employ, and they encouraged them to contract marriages with the Indians among whom they dwelt. In fact many of the officers of the company contracted these marriage. That consisted in either buying or taken an Indian woman. Even today it will be found that many of the chief officers or traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company, either are halfbreeds or have more or less Indian blood in their veins.

By the contraction of these marriages the result of course was that around the different Hudson’s Bay company’s posts, nearly all of their employees had families more or less numerous. As the boys or girls grew up and intermarried among themselves, the foundation was laid of the present half breed population.

         These half breeds were even more the slaves of the company than their forefathers. Those not working for the Hudson’s Bay, or who had left them, went by the name of freemen. The large majority of half breeds are either Cree or Seauteaux. This is easily accounted for by the fact that it was among those Indians, along the North Saskatchewan river that the company had their forts and did their trading. They never to any great extent, extended their trading posts among the plain Indians to the south. These Indians did the principal part of their trade with the American North West Fur Company along the Missouri river. It is therefore seldom that a Blackfoot or Piegan half breed is seen. When found, they generally come from the south.

The half breeds at the present time are numerous, well armed, active and of good physique, never having lead any other life than that of hunting and trapping. They are well supplied with horses and might make formidable foes, but for the established fact that there is little or no backbone or stamina in a mongrel of any race.

The Hudson’s Bay Company after surrendering their right to “Prince Rupert’s land,” were anxious to see some government force in the country south of the Saskatchewan to suppress the trade in liquor carried on by the American traders from Montana. Of course this was to their interest, as they had abandoned the liquor trade and if it was carried on in the country where they were trading, would to a very great extent cripple their fur trade and be a great loss of profit to themselves. They well knew that they could hold their own against any other traders from any place except those in the whisky traffic. They therefore added their voice to that of others asking the Canadian government to take some steps to put a stop to the illicit liquor traffic going on south of the Saskatchewan.

I have therefore shown some of the principal causes that first led to the organization of the North West Mounted Police, and briefly drawn a picture of the state of the North West Territories previous to their advent. It must be remembered that all that vast country west of Manitoba to the Rocky mountains and north of the American boundary line, was teeming with millions of buffalo, overrun with elk, deer, and antelope, and all the rivers were full of beaver and other fur bearing animals. From this source an almost fabulous amount of wealth in the way of furs had been derived by the Hudson’s Bay Company for over a century. Stories were in circulation regarding its wealth in minerals. This country was in the hands of a few lawless American traders. Their trade was doing incalculable injury to the tribes of untutored Indians on British soil. Therefore the time was fully ripe for the Canadian government to take some steps to ascertain what they really owned in Rupert’s land, and to occupy that vast territory and place it on some basis of civilization. All causes had tended to the same end, which was the eventual organization of the North West Mounted Police.

Continued in Organization of the Force.

Ruin of the Red Man

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 I: Condition of Canadian Northwest in 1872.

Chapter 2

Ruin of the Red Man

THE TRADE DERIVED from the Stony Indians was a valuable one, consisting nearly altogether of fine furs, such as fox, marten, beaver, otter, and many others.

This tribe had for some years been subject to missionary labor, which the plain Indians had not, and it was so far successful that they did not barter their furs for whisky, but confined their trade nearly altogether to the H.B. Co., either at their small post on Ghost river, or at their fort at Edmonton, on the Saskatchewan. A Mission had been built a few years before by this tribe on the Bow river, and at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, and Mr. McDougall, a minister of the Methodist persuasion, had resided some years among them prior to the advent of the police. This gentleman had also at various times visited some of the trading forts in the south, and had been able to observe the terrible effects the whisky traffic was having on those tribes coming into contact with it, and he was not backward with others who had passed through the country in making his voice heard in the east, by urging the Canadian government to take steps at once to put a stop to this iniquitous traffic.

His chances of observation were good, as he had lived many years among the Indians, and in fact partly supported himself and family by Indian trade. He also often went on the plains himself with a string of carts on a buffalo hunt for both meat and pelts. The latter he sent yearly overland to Winnipeg, some 700 miles, returning with a year’s supply of provisions and trading goods.

Other missionaries also were in the country, there being many Roman Catholic priests in the north along the North Saskatchewan river, but it was only on very rare occasions that any missionary visited the south, or any of the trading forts in that country, and no missionary labor whatever had been performed among the wild and fierce tribes of Blackfeet, Bloods, Piegan and Sarcee Indians who roamed the southern plains, they having so far been found intractable and unteachable, and the constant use of whisky had been so demoralizing that it was unsafe for a peaceable traveler to go among them.

A few other travelers had from time to time passed through the southern country with strong escorts, and brought bad reports of what they had heard and seen of the liquor traffic, and such men as Butler, Ross and Palliser had to be listened to.

However, with but few exceptions none of these travelers ventured far on the plains, the road generally taken by them if journeying south, being along the foot of the mountains, they sometimes visiting some of the traders’ posts for supplies, but most of the travel being from Winnipeg, went along the North Saskatchewan, calling at the different H.B. Co. trading posts, such as Ft. Carlton, Pitt and others until their arrival at Ft. Edmonton, from which post they generally took either the Jasper or Yellow Head Pass, through the mountains to British Columbia.

The distance from Ft. Edmonton to the nearest prominent American trading post, which was situated on the Elbow river not far from the present site of Calgary, was about 200 miles; nearly all of the country from 50 miles north of the Bow river being a timber country and the country of the Cree Indians, which Indians had always been bitter enemies of those of the plains, who never came into contact without a battle, although it is true that some bands of Blackfeet would go as far north as Edmonton to trade for articles they could not procure from the American traders, but these always took care to go in large parties, and even then seldom came south again without a collision with the Crees, in which generally many were killed. It was therefore seldom that travelers passed through the plains to the south, and when they were forced to do so, generally took a trail that ran along the foot of the mountains, and thus avoided coming in contact with the Indians who lived far out on the plains. There was therefore not much actual knowledge of the real state of things by individual observation, and for that reason the stories told were if anything far ahead of the real existing state of things.

Fabulous tales began to be told of the mineral wealth of the southern portion of the Territories, its climate, inhabitants and capabilities. Tales were told of Indians from the south trading gold dust and nuggets at the H.B. Co. forts in the north, of the use of golden bullets by the Indians in their old flint muskets, and many other equally astonishing tales, and of course the whisky trade was equally exaggerated, for although it was bad enough, it could not come up to the tales told of it.

We were told of companies of traders, drilled and armed, inhabiting strong forts protected by artillery, which would take a strong force of soldiers to dislodge, and that those traders were growing enormously wealthy from the proceeds of their unholy traffic, having the Indians in almost complete subjection to them.

Of course there was some foundation for these stories, in fact gold had been traded by the Blackfeet at Ft. Edmonton but this gold was the proceeds of the massacre of a party of emigrants, who it is supposed were on their way from the south to Peace river, as many rumors were in circulation in Montana as to the vast richness of the gold deposits in that river, and more than one outfit started out to reach this point who were never heard of again, being in all probability killed by the plain Indians before they left their country.

One instance I know of, that happened not many years previous to the advent of the police, a party consisting of men, women and children, with horses, wagons and provisions, were camped on the Old Man’s river, not far from the present site of Macleod; where they came from, and where they were going was never known, but they were supposed to be on the way from Montana to either Edmonton or Peace river, or were a party of emigrants who had lost their way on the plains. Their camp was visited by many bands of Blackfeet, who professed the greatest friendship for them, but at an unguarded moment they were attacked by Old Sun, a Blackfoot chief, and none were left to tell the tale. What horrible scenes took place can only be imagined, but the whole camp was wiped out as completely as if the earth had swallowed them up. The fair haired scalp of a woman that was for a long time in possession of Old Sun, and some gold dust traded by some Blackfeet at Fort Edmonton, were the only relics of the gruesome tragedy preserved.

Blackened remains of parts of wagons were to be seen long after the arrival of the Mounted Police, on the spot where once these unfortunate people camped.

Other causes that could indirectly be traced to the trade carried on by men from the American side of the line, led to the almost complete demoralization of the Indian tribes on the plains, and increased the stories circulated through Canada.

In the years 1870-71 a frightful epidemic of small pox swept off more than a third of the Indians belonging to the plain tribes. In some cases what had been powerful tribes dwindled down to only a few hundred souls. The Sarcees, who previous to the epidemic numbered several thousands, on the arrival of the police could only show three or four hundred. This frightful epidemic came among the Indians originally from the south. It is said by some to have first started at Fort Benton, on the Missouri River, being brought up that river on a steamer. Two men having the small pox were put off the boat at that place, and their clothing was given or traded to Indians after their death. There is, however, no doubt that it first spread into this country from the south. Southern traders were constantly passing between Montana and the North West Territories, and they were in continual communication with Canadian Indians, who also were often visiting American trading forts on the Missouri river. In all probability that was a means of spreading and developing the dread disease among the Indians of the plains.

The small pox was totally unknown to the Indians, who would flock round the trading posts and try and assuage their agonies with liquor, neglecting all cleanliness, and thereby spreading and intensifying the disease. The lodges of whole camps would be left standing on the river bottoms with nothing but the dead bodies in possession, the Indians leaving everything and flying either to the plains or forts for relief.

Doctors there were none, and with small pox and whisky combined, the Indians died off like sheep. They even became so desperate that they would try to spread the disease not only among themselves but among either white men or half breeds. I have been informed of cases where the Indians would pick off he scabs from their own bodies and leave them on the door handles or other places where white men or other Indians would come in contact with them. Their means of doctoring were most primitive, and some of the means they took for relief were almost certain death. A dose of nearly boiling whisky would be taken, and then an Indian in his agony would rush from his lodge, and plunge headlong into the ice-cold water of the river. In the winter they would break the ice and plunge in. This nearly always resulted in death, although to my astonishment I have been told that in some few cases a cure was the result.

The small pox then, combined with the whisky trade, with which it was indirectly connected, went far to cause, the rumors of demoralization among the Indians to be circulated in the east.

In the year 1871 some Indian traders from across the line located a trading post in the Cypress hills, to trade with the Indians in that section. The Cypress hills was in those days a kind of general battleground for the tribes of Indians, Assiniboines and Sioux on the south, Crees and Seauteaux on the north, and Blackfeet, Bloods, and Piegans on the west. Even the halfbreeds that came in large parties from Winnipeg to hunt the buffalo and make pemmican often came into collision with some of these tribes, and bloody battles were the result. The American traders who came to that place in 1871 and remained there during that winter, traded whisky to the different tribes who came there from time to time.

Two Indians belonging to the Seauteaux camp, a branch tribe of the Crees, where found shot dead by their friends, who laid the blame on the traders. They in turn laid the blame on the Bloods, some of which tribe had been in the vicinity. However, this matter was supposed to be settled by the traders who gave the Indians some presents, and even buried the two Seauteaux who had been killed.

A short time after this took place the traders were reinforced by a party of some twelve or fourteen white men from Benton, who, although they came ostensibly after stolen horses, had more or less connection with the traders, and certainly had no love for the Indians. The Seauteaux Indians near the fort were very poor, both in horses and arms, having in reality only half a dozen horses in camp. Their arms consisted of a few flintlock muskets, and bows and arrows. The Indians from the north, such as Crees and Seauteaux were not supplied with repeating rifles. It was seldom that they came in contact with American traders, from whom they could procure these arms. It was, therefore, certain that these Indians had not stolen the horses which the men from Benton were in search of. The stolen animals was supposed to be in the camp of a large party of Crees, some thirty miles away from the fort.

It was claimed by the traders that a Sauteaux Indian came to the fort and then rode off with a horse belonging to one of them. The white men went in a body to the Seauteaux camp to get revenge. They claimed that the Indians fired the first shot, which, however, did no harm. These men then sheltered themselves under a cutbank, and opened on the Indians, who, although they exceeded them in number, could do them little or no harm, as their arms were nothing in comparison to the repeating rifles and revolvers in the hands of the traders. The number of Indians was about 100, old and young, against 18 or 20 white men. The Indians were in the open or in their tents, while the white men were under cover. Nearly 40 Indians were killed, some being women; only one white man was killed. This fight was called the Cypress Hills massacre, and I think, appropriately.

The traders after this fight abandoned their fort, burning it, and went south. Some account of the massacre leaked out and was taken up by men in Montana, who were averse to the wholesale slaughter of Indians. The matter was referred to Washington, it being then thought that the Cypress hills was in American territory. The boundary line had not been run at that time, and in fact was not in that section until three years later. The government at Washington on ascertaining that this fight did not take place in the territory, referred the case to the government of Canada, which government took the matter up. This was another cause of hastening the organization of the N.W.M.P. The result of the trial of these traders some years afterwards will appear in a future chapter.

Continued in Cypress Hills Massacre.

Condition of Canadian West 1872

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.


Chapter 1

Condition of Canadian West 1872

IN AND PREVIOUS TO the year 1872, reports had been widely circulated in Canada, and representations had been made to the Dominion government, that the vast country lying west of Manitoba to the Rocky Mountains, and from the North Saskatchewan to the American boundary on the south, was infested with lawless companies of traders from the territory of Montana, lying south of the line on the American side.


The small town of Fort Benton, on the Missouri River, in that territory was the point of supply to these parties, and outside of the few goods, such as blankets, tobacco, ammunition, etc., their chief stock in trade consisted of liquor, and that of the poorest quality. The objective point of these traders was north of the boundary in the North West Territories of Canada, and the trade was altogether with the Indians residing in that country. The leading firms in the town of Benton were not behind the rest in sending out parties, well supplied with whisky and other goods, to trade in Canadian territory, and in fact today the two head partners in the largest and richest business firms in that state owe their great wealth and good standing, one to two lucky years of whisky trading on Sheep Creek, south of the present city of Calgary, and the other to the same cause, on the Missouri River. This trade of liquor to the Indians had been gradually increasing for many years previous to 1873, in fact ever since the Hudson’s Bay Company put a stop to it in their own trading posts, which trade they had carried on from time immemorial, with immense profits to themselves, but they put a stop to it as soon as they saw that settlement of the country was imminent.

This illicit trade finally assumed such proportions that the American traders on many of the rivers of the present Territory of Alberta had gained such a foothold that they had built themselves forts, and were permanently located in the country, making these forts their headquarters and during the summer months sending parties with trading goods to all parts of the country.

       These forts were built of logs, and strongly fashioned, and in some cases the bastions were even armed with cannon of small caliber.

The principal fort of this kind was at the junction of the Belly and St. Mary’s rivers, some 50 miles in Canadian territory, and was named “Whoopup,” the name being derived from the fact that one of the former occupants of the fort who was outfitted by T.C. Powers, of Ft. Benton, was at one time making a good trade, but ran out of whisky; so he sent a messenger to Benton to Powers, to send more at once, as he was whooping it up in his trade, hence the fort took this name. This fort was a rendezvous for all the traders of the country, being a point of supply to all northern and other small trading forts, of which there were many scattered along the different rivers.

This fort was on the direct trail to Ft. Benton, about 200 miles south, and was built as far back as the year 1868 by two Benton traders, Messrs Healey and Hamilton, who took an active part in the trade with the Canadian Indians. Both of these men married Blackfeet women, and their sons and daughters who were sent to school in Montana, are now well married, and can hold their own, as far as education is concerned, with the white settlers among whom they mix.

At this particular fort a large stock of whisky or alcohol was always on hand, together with other articles of trade such as blankets, beads, provisions and clothing of all kinds, and in the spring, when the buffalo robes (the chief article of trade) were brought from other outlying forts, being the result of the winter trade, the store rooms were packed to the roof with tens of thousands of these valuable furs, worth from three to as high as ten dollars a piece, according to their quality. A split robe, being one cut down the middle and then sewn together with sinew, was not of near the value of what was called a head and tail, or complete robe, which ranged in price from five to ten dollars.

These robes, the result of a winter’s trade, were then forwarded to Ft. Benton by horse or ox teams, and from there down the Missouri river by the large traders in Benton who had advanced the goods, or liquor, to those in the north, who then loaded their teams with a fresh supply of goods and returned for another year’s trade into Canadian territory.

These traders did not confine themselves to the trade in buffalo robes, but bought from the Indians, horses and anything else they might take a fancy to. The price given in whisky or alcohol was absurdly small; a small cup of diluted alcohol being often traded for a prime robe, which would fetch in Benton from five to seven dollars. Most advantageous bargains were often made with half drunken Indians, who, when in that state, would sell anything they had for more whisky.

Hundreds of horses were thus bought, but not always with such profit to the trader, who, had he confined his trade to robes alone, which could be safely stored away in the forts, his trade would have been comparatively safe, while horses had to be herded, and many a watchful eye was on them as long as they remained in the country, and it was a common thing for Indians to run off large bands of horses, not only those they had themselves traded, but often those belonging to the traders themselves. These raids were even made as the trains loaded with robes were on their way south, and constant vigilance had to be exercised in watching the bands at night, and in all weathers, as the more stormy it was, the greater danger of their being run off.

No mercy was shown to skulking Indians, who were shot on sight, and as these parties going south with their winter’s trade consisted often of as many as twenty men, serious fights often took place in which many were killed, the Indians general the losers, owing to the white men being well armed with repeating rifles, while the Indians at that time had little else but flintlock muskets, or even bows and arrows.

It was not until some years after that repeating rifles and fixed ammunition were general among the plains Indians, when many more traders came north to reap the rich harvest to be gathered in the Indian trade.

When the Mounted Police came into the country, the Blackfoot were nearly all armed with repeating rifles, as the whisky trade had become a recognized business with hundreds of men from the south, and rifles and ammunition were traded as well as whisky, and permanent trading posts had been established. The Indians had such a craving for liquor that not only did they sell their robes and horses, but also their women, and I doubt if there was a trader in the country who did not have from one to three squaws, bought for liquor.

One instance I remember, of an old whisky trader informing me that the squaw he then had was Number 57, bought by him at different times from Indians during his career as a trader in the country.

These traders then held the Indians in almost complete subjection, not on account of any friendship the Indians had for them, as they would take any and every opportunity to raid and kill any small party or single individual found away from the trading posts, but by the almost ungovernable passion the Indians had for liquor; their greatest chiefs and bravest warriors would crawl on the ground and give up all they possessed for a cup of whisky, and as the American traders were the only ones from whom they could procure this liquor, and as the traders allowed only a limited number of Indians to trade at a time, the Indians would do all they could to encourage them to remain among them, and in but few cases would have wished them to leave.

Also as nearly all these traders had married Indian women, according to the Indian custom, that is by purchase, and in many cases, the women were connected with some of the leading chiefs, they had a certain influence through these women with the Indians themselves, for, strange as it may seem, the women in most cases became attached to the white men with whom they lived, and used their influence in the tribe for the benefit of their husbands, and in many instances would undertake to trade whisky in the camps in making a sharp bargain for their masters.

The system of whisky trading had gradually demoralized and to a great extent decimated what at one time were large and powerful tribes (not only as far as numbers were concerned) and had taken the courage and spirit out of what remained, so that their former active and healthy mode of life was gradually being superseded by a loafing, half-drunken existence, the men only hunting to supply themselves with what meat they required, and to get robes enough to buy them the required amount of liquor and other necessities.

This was all the more easy as they had acquired the new firearm which was a hundred times more destructive than the old flintlocks or the bows and arrows, and therefore the amount of exertion required to kill the buffalo, which still roamed the plains in immense herds, was greatly lessened, and the number killed much larger, with less exertion, and the old time hunts were turned into a slaughter.

As the traders multiplied in the country and whisky became more plentiful, the Indians could procure more of it and in consequence many more robes were traded, each year tending to the destruction of the buffalo.

The result of this trade on the Indians, as I have before said, would lead them towards complete extinction if not put a stop to.

The gradual extinction going on was caused by the liquor trade both directly and indirectly.

Indirectly, as regards the numbers killed in their drunken fights, as often a whole camp would get drunk, and the trader was careful to leave before that climax was reached, and the Indians in these debauches would act more like wild beasts than human beings, and during its progress often was many as a dozen men, women and children would be killed, old grudges were remembered and only wiped out by the death of one or more.

Diseases spread among the tribes unknown to them before, and many died from such causes.

It will be understood that the liquor trade was confined to the south and southwest only, and principally among the plains Indians, as the H.B. Co. had withdrawn their trading posts from this section, confining themselves form the North Saskatchewan, northward and eastward, and when the Mounted Police came into the country they had only one small trading post south of the North Saskatchewan, it being on a small river near the mountains, about 30 miles west of the present city of Calgary, and this post was for the purpose of catching the trade of the small tribe of Stony Indians, a branch of the Assiniboines, who confined themselves to hunting in the mountains, and seldom went on the plains, they being at war with the Blackfeet. The Hudson’s Bay Company had given up the liquor trade some years before the advent of the Mounted Police.

Continued in Ruin of the Red Man.

Introduction to ‘The Riders of the Plains’

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.


THE SUBJECT ON WHICH this book is written is one which must be of deep interest, not only to those now living in the N.W. Territories, comprising the divisions of Alberta (in which the principal scenes are laid) Saskatchewan and Assiniboia, but to all Canadians who take a pride in the advancement of their country, and more particularly in the opening of the prosperous and important western section known as the North West Territories. It is now thirty years since that far western territory was first opened, and it was then looked upon by those in Canada as Terra Incognita. Three hundred, mostly hardy Canadians, with a sprinkling of old countrymen among them, after incredible hardships, penetrated into the then Rupert’s Land. I therefore will try to give a brief synopsis of the opening of the North West Territories to settlement in the year 1874 by the advent of the North West Mounted Police, the causes that led to the organization of that force, after the Hudson’s Bay Company had sold their rights to Rupert’s Land to the Canadian government.

The beginning of opening of this western section of Canada commenced with the organization of the North West Mounted Police, which force after the greatest hardships and privations, crossed the vast plains from Winnipeg, Manitoba, with little or no knowledge of their ultimate destination, which was supposed to be a vast area of country lying at and along the east slope of the Rocky Mountains from the boundary line on the south to the North Saskatchewan on the north and from longitude 114 to the British Columbia line in the west.

I will also in this sort volume try to picture what state of things existed in that far western country prior to the advent of the North West Mounted Police, what work was before them; what work they actually did; what difficulties they overcame; and the results thus attained after years of hardship, bravely borne, and in many cases, individual bravery of a rare order shown. Also the benefits derived by the country from their advent, which suddenly springing from gross savagery to a settled, civilized, and law abiding territory, in a few short years, is today the wonder of the world.

I will try in this volume to show that this wonderful progress in so short a time against odds that heretofore many nations have spent millions to overcome, was accomplished by a small force of 300 officers and men, and will give a short history of their work, hazardous journeys in the performance of their duties, and also a history of the rapid advancement of the country now known as the North West Territories. The subject is itself one of deep interest at the present day, when as at the advent of the police, the North West Territories were a lone land cut off from civilization, and only inhabited by the tribes of savage Indians, roaming the plains in quest of game, on which they altogether lived. The immense herds of buffalo supplied them not only with food, but with clothing, tents, and nearly all they required. The robes were traded, partly at the Hudson’s Bay forts on the North Saskatchewan, but unfortunately the plains Indians such as the Blackfeet, seldom visited these northern trading posts without coming in hostile contact with the Cree Indians, who had long resided along the North Saskatchewan, and were to a great extent under the rule of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which company had given up what a few trading forts they originally had in the Blackfoot country. At other times these Indians went far south to the Missouri River and traded their furs at Fort Benton to the American traders, who, well knowing the weakness of all North American Indians for strong drink, habitually purchased these valuable furs for a few glasses of whisky.

The fact of these American whisky traders from Montana coming into the Territories, drew the attention of the Canadian government to the vast unknown territory they held in the west, unknown, because the Hudson’s Bay Company had never reported that any section of the country over which they had control was of any value whatever, for it was obviously in their interests, so they thought, to belittle the resources of Rupert’s Land- a disastrous policy from the point of view of the settler, and one which retarded the settlement of that fertile country for many generations. There were vague reports that American traders from the south were doing, during the summer months, a large trade with the Blackfeet and other plains Indians, this trade on their part being done in whisky, while the Indians not only traded the robes gained by them during their summer hunts, but were becoming demoralized, and were trading horses, and almost anything they owned, even to their women, for this horrible compound sold as whisky by these traders. This attracted the attention of the Canadian government, and in the year 1874 a force was organized and sent west into then Rupert’s Land to drive out these American whisky traders, and to get into communication with and gain the confidence of the thousands of wild, uncivilized Indians belonging to Canada, who roamed the western plains, and to try (a unique experiment) by moral suasion, to bring them into the ways of civilization. This was done by a small force of 300 officers and men from the year 1874 until the Canadian Pacific Railroad was built in 1885, and I write this book to give a short history of our march into this country, what we found when we arrived, the work we did and the results thereof.

Few of the original 300 officers and men that first came into the country are left. Some died in the country, and the hardships they endured did not lengthen their lives, others are scattered over the world. A few, but a very few, are still in the country, and to these men, many of them old, poor and crippled, is due the thanks not only of the Canadian government, but of every settler in the thriving towns and villages and peaceful farms, now thickly scattered through Alberta, Saskatchewan and Assiniboia. Let them pause and think what must have been the hardships endured by such a small force of men; marching into an unknown country, inhabited by thousands of savage Indians, building forts, dealing justly with these Indians, stamping out the illicit liquor trade, and so dealing with the Indian tribes that from that time until today, no settler has been murdered, and when the country settled, all lives have been safe and property secure. The settlers of the North West Territories have not had to go through the experiences of those of Minnesota and other American states and territories where the settler had to meet the Indian. No massacres have taken place, but a few head of stock stolen, no depredation committed. But railroads have been built, homesteads taken up, towns started and rapidly growing, and not one hitch has occurred. Many of the new towns are in close proximity to large Indian reserves, but yet the Indians themselves are progressing, although decreasing, and hundreds of them today work for the settler. Therefore let the farmer comfortably located on his ranche in Alberta or Assiniboia, sometimes give a thought and a prayer of thanks to that hardy, courageous 300, who opened the country for him, and by courage, forbearance, and clear moral suasion, made it possible for the settler to live in peace and quietness when, but for these men- and all praise be to them for it- battle and murder and sudden death would have been the portion of many, as was the case in the early settlement of the western Territories of the United States.

Continued in Condition of Canadian West in 1872.

The Riders of the Plains: A Reminiscence of the Early and Exciting Days in the North West (1905)

The Riders of the Plains

A Reminiscence of the Early and Exciting Days in the North West

By Sir Cecil Denny, 1905

The following constitutes the memoirs of Sir Cecil Edward Denny, an Inspector of the North West Mounted Police who marched west with the Force from Fort Dufferin, Manitoba, in 1874 in order to suppress the illegal whisky trade which was taking place in what is now southern Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan. These memoirs were originally published in 1905 by the Herald Company of Calgary, Alberta, and are now in the public domain.

The original book contains inconsistent spellings, irregular capitalizations and lowercasings, and some instances of questionable grammar and punctuation. The organizer of this arrangement has done his best to reproduce the original content as accurately as possible, and has only corrected a handful of spelling mistakes which were undeniably unintended.


Table of Contents


Chapter 1 – Condition of the Canadian Northwest, 1872

Chapter 2 – Ruin of the Red Man

Chapter 3 – Cypress Hills Massacre

Chapter 4 – Organization of the Force

Chapter 5 – Off for the West

Chapter 6 – On the March

Chapter 7 – Lost on the Plains

Chapter 8 – Among the Whiskey Traders

Chapter 9 – Building Fort Macleod

Chapter 10 – Critical Conditions

Chapter 11 – Slaughter of the Buffalo

Chapter 12 – Severe Trip to Helena

Chapter 13 – Journey to Red Deer

Chapter 14 – Building the Village of Calgary

Chapter 15 – Arrival of Sitting Bull

Chapter 16 – Treaty of 1877 Described

Chapter 17 – Winter in Calgary, 1877

Chapter 18 – Indian Medicine Dance

Chapter 19 – A Strange Adventure

Chapter 20 – Troubles with the Sioux

Chapter 21 – Famine among the Blackfeet

Chapter 22 – After a Murderer

Chapter 23 – Trouble with Indians at Calgary

Chapter 24 – Indian Farm Started

Chapter 25 – Governor-General visits Northwest

Chapter 26 – Trouble with Blackfeet

Chapter 27 – Trouble with the Southern Indians

Chapter 28 – Western Indians become Restless

Chapter 29 – Treaty Indians making Progress

Chapter 30 – The Northwest Rebellion

Chapter 31 – Indians of the South kept Quiet

Chapter 32 – After the Northwest Rebellion

Chapter 33 – Some Advice to Settlers

Chapter 34 – Progress of the Territories

Joe Tanner’s Daring

The following is an excerpt from Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies (1894) by James F. Sanderson.

Joe Tanner’s Daring

One of the bravest leaders among the Indians that I ever knew was Kay-siss-a-way, meaning He Moves Quick. His Christian name was Joseph Tanner, his grandfather being an Englishman of that name. He was, on the grandmother’s side, of Red Lake Chippewa Indian blood and, in addition to his reputation for bravery, he was accounted one of the shrewdest as well as the most honest of the red men with whom the whites had to deal. He was employed for some years in the latter part of his life as a contractor for the conveyance of the mails and he only died about a year ago, on Silver Creek, below Fort Ellice. He was, in every respect, one of Nature’s noblemen, if ever there was one.

He was, in his earlier manhood, a recognized leader among his tribe and no man’s reputation stood higher for personal bravery or skill as the head of party on the warpath.

One time he started out with about twenty Saulteaux Indians under his leadership, from the old Brandon House, which was three miles southeast of where the town of Brandon now stands, on the Assiniboine River. Joe’s greatest foes at that time were the Sioux, so he and his war party went by way of Devil’s Lake into Dakota. Joe sent out two runners to reconnoiter and they returned with the information that a camp of the enemy was located 20 miles away, in the Long Valley or Kin-a-pus-a-styan.

Joe started his men so as to reach the camp of the Sioux at about daybreak, and when they arrived, he sent off the young men to steal what horses they could get before the Sioux took the alarm. They returned with 30 head of horses. Joe asked them if they were satisfied with that booty and they replied that they were.

“Then I am not,” was Joe’s grim reply. “I did not come merely for horseflesh. You stay here on the outskirts of the camp, and I will go into the camp and see whether I cannot make some trouble for those dogs of Sioux. You can await my return and, if there is trouble, you can be prepared to take a hand. Meantime, cache the ponies so that we can get them on our return.”

Joe started for the camp and soon found his way, undetected into the middle of it, just as day was breaking. He noticed a lodge in the centre of the camp with a fine horse tied in front of it. Rightly concluding that the lodge and the horse were the property of the chief of the Sioux, he determined to get the horse by the short method of killing his owner. Pulling aside the flap of the lodge, he found that the end of the lariat by which the horse was secured was in the hands of the chief, who jumped up as soon as Joe looked in. Joe shot him down and scalped him. Then he jumped on the back of the horse and dashed at headlong speed through the now thoroughly aroused camp. Before he reached his own men he killed two more of the Sioux, but was too busy to spare time to scalp him.

When he reached his own band the fight became general and resulted in the total rout of the Sioux, twelve of whom were killed. Only three more scalps were, however, secured, in addition to that of the chief, which Joe already carried at his belt. The rest of the killed were carried off by their retreating friends. “We did not do so badly,” said Joe when recounting the story. “We killed, all told, fifteen Sioux, got four scalps, and 30 head of ponies.”


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Iron Shield’s Fall

The following is an excerpt from Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies (1894) by James F. Sanderson.

Iron Shield’s Fall

One of the most gallant and successful stands ever made by a band of Indian warriors against overwhelming numbers, was made by five Cree braves, a little over twenty years ago, on an island in the Saskatchewan about half a mile below Medicine Hat, and a little above the point where Seven Persons Creek joins the river.

Two of the band were Crees and the other three were Oos-kus-chee-moos-suks, or Young Dogs, as they were called, a cross between Crees and Assiniboines. The leader was a Cree named See-uka-nis, or Little Rump, who is still alive, having been only a young man at the time I speak of. He was in Medicine Hat last summer revisiting the scene of the great exploit performed by him and his companions.

They had come from the Cypress Hills to the plains of Medicine Hat for the express purpose of running off as many as possible of the horses belonging to a numerous band of combined Bloods and Blackfoot, who were encamped on that favorite spot. But they found, on their arrival, that the time was too near daybreak to suit their purpose, and they resolved to wait until the next night so that they might be favored by the darkness in their attempt. In order to escape detection by their enemies they went to the island already mentioned, and scooped out for themselves a hole in the sandhill. It could hardly be dignified by the name of a cave. Piling some brush over the entrance, they prepared to await in concealment the fall of night.

They had not been long stowed in their cache when a young Blood, who had driven the horses from the camp over to the island to pasture, and who was accompanied by a dog, came past the place. The dog discovered the presence of the hidden men and gave unmistakable indications of the fact, but his master pretended not to notice that anything was wrong, and gave no sign of suspicion. As soon, however, as eh had gone out of sight of the spot, he hurried to the camp at the top of his speed and gave the alarm to his friends, who, to the number of fifty or upwards, rushed to the spot. Before the Crees knew what was coming the warriors had surrounded them and opened fire upon their hiding place. But, if the Blood and Blackfoot warriors had the advantage of numbers, the Crees and their friends had the best of the position. Being well armed and sheltered, they returned the fire of their assailants with deadly effect, standing them off successfully the whole day until night was approaching.

Now there was a noted chief and warrior of the Bloods named, in Cree, Pua-pisk-pachk-ka-hach-kwan, or Iron Shield, who happened to be away from camp that day, buffalo hunting. Towards evening he returned to the camp and learned of the fight that had been going on all day on the island. Said one of his wives to him, in reproach, “Where has Iron Shield been all day, while his young men have been fighting with our enemies? All day long has the battle been going on over on the island, and Iron Shield’s war whoop has not been heard not has his gun spoken.”

Iron Shield heeded not the taunt of the woman, but called to a boy to bring him his war dress and his war horse, and was soon at the scene of strife. He scoffed at his warriors and charged them with cowardice. “Why,” said the angry chief, “have you played at war with those Crees all day? Why do I not find you dancing the scalp dance around their dead bodies, instead of being held up by a handful of sons of dogs of Crees?”

The warriors replied little, except to say that those enemies were men to be dreaded, and to point to the bodies of fourteen Blood and Blackfoot braves who had fallen by their hand. The sight, instead of making the chief more cautious, only seemed to further excite his fiery disposition. He set spurs to his steed and galloped right up to the opening of the gave where he was met by a volley from the garrison. He fell from his horse, pierced through the heart by a bullet from the rifle of Little Rump.

His fall completed the discomfiture of his braves, and not one of them dared venture near the cache while daylight lasted. They held a pow wow of their chief men and determined, in the darkness, to creep up on the Crees, take them by surprise, and make the fight a hand to hand one. This scheme they attempted to carry out, but when they reached the hole whence the bullets had been sped that laid low fifteen of the braves, including Iron Shield, they found it empty. Little Rump and his Young Dog allies had lost no time in stealing through the lines of their enemies, under cover of the darkness, and crossing to the other side of the river where they had left their horses. By the time the Bloods and Blackfoot had raided their fort, they were well on their way across the prairie, headed for their fastnesses among the Cypress Hills. There was no sign upon them of their having been in a fight, except one of them had been pierced through the arm by an arrow.

The historic hole where they made their gallant stand is pointed out on the island to this day, and is regarded with pardonable pride by their Crees, and with the reverse kind of feelings by the Bloods and the Blackfoot.


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The following is an excerpt from Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies by James Francis Sanderson.


There was a large band of Blackfoot encamped on the plain of Medicine Hat. This was a favored resort of the Blackfoot in the spring and summer and, at the time I speak of, the whole district was claimed by them as a part of their territory.

The chief in command of the band was known as Wa-push-ka-pim-bach-tat, or Running Rabbit, and, as usual with Indians, they had quite a number of ponies with them. These they turned loose on the hillside above Bull Head (now Ross) Creek in charge of a young land, not suspecting that any roving band of their enemies would attempt to steal horses, in daylight at least, in the neighborhood of such a powerful band of warriors as they were.

In this, however, they were mistaken, for two Cree braves, Ka-nich-ta-pas-ka-kiswat, or Good Firer, and a companion, came from Moose-ota-miskan, or Moose Jaw, about fifty miles north-east of where Moose Jaw station now is, and near Last Mountain Lake. In the early morning they came upon the band of ponies and, riding boldly into the middle of them, lassoed two and rode off with them. They took it for granted that the young lad would take them for Blackfoot and pay no heed to their movements. But in this they reckoned without their host. As soon as he saw the daring theft committed, he ran to the camp and gave the alarm.

Immediately on hearing the news, the O-kish-che-ta-wak, or warriors of the Blackfoot, started in pursuit, headed by their war chief, Running Rabbit, and were soon close on the heels of the horse thieves. They ran them into a coulee, about four miles down the river. The Crees took shelter in the brush and, being well armed and provided with ammunition, stood off their enemies until nearly close of day. They killed ten of the boldest of Running Rabbit’s braves, and compelled the others to keep at a respectful distance from the place where they had posted themselves.

The baffled Blackfoot, finding it impossible either to kill or dislodge them, and fearing that they might escape in the coming darkness, finally set fire to the brush on all sides of the brave pair, and burned them and the horses where they stood.

Around the campfires of the Crees the tale is told to this day, with great pride, how Ka-nich-ta-pas-ka-kiswat and his brave comrade sent ten of their enemies on the trail to the happy hunting grounds ahead of them, and died a warrior’s death themselves, without giving the Blackfoot the satisfaction of carrying their scalps at their belts.

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How Seven Persons Creek was Named

The following is an excerpt from Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies (1894) by James F. Sanderson.

How Seven Persons Creek was Named

Long, long ago- it would be useless to attempt to find out how many years ago- a party of Blackfoot when out on the war path, had occasion to cross a creek a little way above its junction with the South Saskatchewan. On the banks they found the dead bodies of seven men lying just as if they had been suddenly struck down when following each other in Indian file. Although it was evident that they had been dead for some time, there was not a single indication of decay about them, unless the absence of any vestige of hair upon their heads might be regarded as such. They were not scalped; the hair had simply been removed without any indication being left of the manner of its removal. There was no wound visible on the bodies, nor could the Blackfoot tell whence they had come, or to what tribe they belonged. Being unable to explain this most mysterious find, the braves made up their minds to watch the bodies, to see whether anyone would come to claim them or give them burial. They waited patiently for five days in the neighborhood and watched the corpses closely, but there was no sign of any such party appearing and the bodies continued in the same condition of non-decay.

As they discussed various theories to account for the death of the men, someone suggested that they had died of starvation, but a close examination of their equipment proved that they had not been short of provisions. The final conclusion of the Blackfoot was that the seven persons had, in some way, offended the Great Spirit who breathed through the unfreezing opening in the South Saskatchewan, and that he had punished them by striking them dead.

Finally the leader, who was a great medicine man named Yellow Calf Shirt, advised them to build a high pile of stones around the bodies, and leave them as they lay. This was done, and the party went on to fight with their inveterate enemies, the Crees.

It was in the fall of the year that they found those seven mysterious bodies. In the following spring, when the Blackfoot, having occasion to pass near the same point, visited the spot where the seven persons had lain, not a trace of them was to be seen. There was not so much a shred of their clothing nor a fragment of their bones, as would undoubtedly have been the case had they been eaten by the wolves or had they merely decayed.

The stones that had been piled up around them were still there, exactly as they had been left the previous fall, but there was no sign by which they could tell what had carried away the bodies of the seven persons. Ever since then, in Indian tradition, the creek has been known by the name it still bears- Seven Persons Creek.

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How Medicine Hat was Named

The following is an excerpt from Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies (1894) by James Francis Sanderson.

How Medicine Hat was Named

There is a certain part of the South Saskatchewan River about a mile and a half from Medicine Hat, on which, even during the most severe winters, no ice forms. This opening in the river is regarded with great interest by the Indians, as it is believed to be the breathing place of the Great Spirit who lives in the river and who, when he shows himself, assumes the form of a serpent. As an indication of the widespread interest of the Indians in this particular spot, it may be mentioned that, during last winter which was more than usually severe, I was asked by the Blackfoot Indians whether it had frozen over. On learning that the opening was still there, the Indians evinced great delight. Had it been otherwise, they would have taken it as proof that the Great Spirit had either dried or gone elsewhere to some other breathing place.

Far back in Indian tradition, it is said that one of a hunting party of Blood Indians was sent forward to reconnoiter the country and see if buffalo were to be met with in any numbers. He was accompanied by his newly-married wife and a favorite dog, the latter bearing the travois- a crosspole arrangement to which the dog was harnessed- for the purpose of carrying some share of the travelling outfit.

One evening, the Indian camped by the river side and, as he was walking along near the opening in the river referred to, the serpent appeared to him and told him that if he would throw the flesh of his wife into the opening, he would become a great warrior and medicine man. The Indian returned to his tepee and repeated to his wife the words of the serpent. His wife at once expressed her willingness to die for the good of the tribe and in obedience to the call of the Great Spirit. Her husband, however, was reluctant and instead of his wife killed the dog. Carrying its carcass to the opening, he threw it in with the request that the Spirit might be pleased to accept from him his dog as a substitute for his wife. The Spirit refused to accept, and declared that, unless the Indian would sacrifice the wife, he could do nothing for hi. The man returned and informed his wife accordingly, and she again expressed her willingness to comply with the demand.

Finally, she was sacrificed and her flesh given to the Spirit, who then directed the man to stay all night on the island near by, to rise early next morning, and, as the sun rose, to proceed towards the cutbanks lying to the east. At the base of one of the cutbanks he would find a bag containing medicines and a hat trimmed with ermine. He was instructed to bring back the medicine bag and the hat with him to the Spirit who would explain the purpose of the hat and the efficacy of the medicines. The hat, he was told, was to be worn only in war, and would ensure victory to the wearer. The tradition had it that the Indian became famous as a medicine man and warrior.

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