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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. The organizer has also chosen to italicize quotations in the hope that the contrast will make for easier reading.


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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The Prediction

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

The Prediction

There were two noted chiefs of the Crees who were brothers-in-law. One was named Eh-kaka-putta-what, or The Man who didn’t Miss, and the other Pas-ki-si-ka-nis, or Little Gun. The latter was not only a brave warrior, but a great medicine man and an expert at stealing horses.

In the year 1872, the two chiefs left the Moose Jaw valley on the warpath for the West, going by way of the Cypress Hills to the Sweet Grass Hills. Their party numbered sixteen all told. After crossing the Milk River, the runners whom they had sent out to reconnoiter returned and reported having found a camp of over 100 lodges of Peigans. Little Gun, having made medicine, told the young men that if they preferred to avoid a battle they could make a detour and pass the camp of the enemy. The young men replied that they had come out to follow his lead, and that they would be satisfied to do whatever he advised. The Man who didn’t Miss, however, spoke up and said that he had come out to have what, with grim humor, he called “some fun”, and did not propose to miss any chance of having it that might offer. He had come out, he added, to kill or be killed. When his only boy had died the previous winter he had made a vow to the Great Spirit that he would seek out his enemies on the first opportunity to have revenge for the death of his boy. “Therefore,” he said in conclusion, “I will not go around the camp of the Peigans, but will go right to it, even if I have to go alone.”

On hearing this, Little Gun asked the young men if they were willing to go and attack the enemy, and they said they were. “Then,” said Little Gun, “half of us will never see our homes again or, if over half of us should return from the fight, every one will be wounded. I am no coward, as you know, and I will go with you, but I think my brother-in-law has done wrong in inducing you to undertake this fight. This I know- that neither he nor I will ever see our campfire again.”

The party made ready and started for the enemy’s camp. The very first two shots that were fired by the Peigans killed The Man who didn’t Miss as he sat on top of a hill overlooking the camp. Finding himself mortally wounded and unable to take any further part in the battle, he passed his gun to one of the young men, telling him to make good use of it and in case he should be shot, to pass it to another so that it might do effective work in the fight. “As for me,” he said, “I am going to see my boy.”

Notwithstanding that they were so much outnumbered, the Crees maintained the fight all day, but Little Gun and five more of their braves were killed. There were 13 men of the Peigans killed, but only one scalp was taken by the Crees, and that was taken by Is-pish-koos, or The Ant. Of the nine who returned under cover of the night, there was not one who was not wounded. Thus was the rashness of one man punished and the prediction of the other literally verified.

The Sutherland Boys

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

The Sutherland Boys

Two of the finest young warriors the Crees ever had were two Scottish half-breeds, sons of a Highland Scot named Hugh Sutherland, a Hudson’s Bay Co. employee. One was called Oo-sa-us-tik-wan, or Yellow Hair, and the other, Tip-oo-es-tik-wan, or Curly Hair. They were tall, strapping young fellows, very fair and blue eyed. They had a great reputation which they fully deserved as warriors, and absolutely without an atom of fear in their composition.

When the report went abroad that they were to go on the warpath, the young Cree braves flocked to them from every quarter, assured that under the leadership of the Sutherland boys, they would return victorious, bringing back many ponies and plenty of scalps.

In the winter of 1869, a band of mingled Crees, Saulteaux and Young Dogs (a cross between the Crees and the Assiniboines) had gathered at the call of Yellow Hair and Curly Hair, at the Red Ochre Hills, to make a raid on the camps of the allied Blackfoot, Bloods, and Peigans. They numbered between 500 and 600 warriors and were the pick of the tribes.

I met them at the Red Ochre hills just as they were about to start. I took occasion to say to Yellow Hair that it would be better for him to be between the stilts of a plough than to be dressed in his war clothes and preparing to fight the Blackfoot and Bloods. “I have never been taught anything but fighting,” was the reply. “I suppose I have relatives beyond the Big Water who would be sorry to see me leading this kind of life, but how can I help it?”

The party started up the South Saskatchewan on the ice, for it was the winter time. Finally they reached the place where the town of Lethbridge now stands. There they halted and sent runners or scouts to find out where the camp of the enemy was and what their strength might be. Those scouts were not sufficiently careful in their reconnaissance, for they reported a camp of only about 60 lodges, never having noticed that there were about 200 more lodges scattered over the adjoining country within easy reach of signal or other means of alarm.

The place where the Blackfoot, Bloods and Peigans had pitched their camps was just above Fort Whoop-Up, a trading fort built by an American named Healy.

Acting on the information brought by their scouts, the Sutherland boys attacked the enemy with every prospect of an easy victory. However the noise of the firing in a very short time brought the other Blackfoot and their allies to the scene, and the Crees were completely outnumbered. Nevertheless, they kept their ground, fighting with the courage and desperation of lions at bay until the approach of night, when they retreated, still fighting, until they crossed the Belly River at a point opposite to where Lethbridge now stands. There they were completely surrounded and before they succeeded in cutting their way through and escaping, both Yellow Hair and Curly Hair had fallen and between 60 and 70 of their men. The two brothers made a grand stand before they fell, fighting with their knives after their lower limbs had been rendered powerless by the bullets of their enemy, and only yielding up their scalps with their lives.

The Blackfoot and their allies were led in this battle by three half-breeds, Jerry Potts, who commanded the Bloods, and two brothers, Alex McKay or Mak-kaw, meaning Unborn Calf, and Charley McKay, or Ky-u, or The Bear, who led the Bloods and Peigans. To this day the Blackfoot will tell you that they never saw braver men than the two Sutherland brothers. Two large piles of stones were raised by their enemies to mark the spot where they fell. Those cairns are still to be seen on the west side of the Belly River, on the old bull trail, leading to Macleod, and no Blackfoot, Blood or Peigan passes them without adding a stone to the pile.

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The Gros Ventres’ Raid

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

The Gros Ventres’ Raid

It was about 1868 when a terrible battle took place in the Medicine Hat district, between a party of Gros Ventres and a strong body of Blackfoot. The Medicine Hat vicinity seemed to have been a favorite one for hostile tribes to meet and settle their differences with gun or bow, tomahawk and scalping knife, and it undoubtedly had every natural requisite for a battlefield.

A war party of Gros Ventres had halted at the head of the Cypress Hills. Their chief, White Calf, sent forward runners to Medicine Hat to see if there were any Blackfoot or other hostile Indians encamped there, and to report as to the prospects of making a successful attack on them. The scouts reported that there was one small camp on the side of the river, and that there would be no difficulty in surprising and wiping them out. White Calf took his measure accordingly, and, the following day, in the grey of the morning, his 400 Gros Ventre warriors surrounded and attacked the handful of Blackfoot.

They would have made very short work of their surprised and outnumbered enemies, had it not been that the noise of the firing attracted the attention of a more numerous band of Blackfoot and Bloods, who were camped near the junction of Seven Persons Creek and Bull Head Creek. These immediately came to the aid of their relatives, and White Calf and his warriors found themselves caught in the trap in which they had expected to catch the others.

The battle raged most fiercely at a point about two miles up Seven Persons Creek from its confluence with the South Saskatchewan, and the Gros Ventres were utterly routed and chased by the victors clear into the timber on the Cypress Hills, at what is now Gros Ventre Creek. Out of the 400 that formed White Calf’s following, only about 300 returned, the bodies of the rest being left either on the battle ground or along the line of their flight, and their scalps in the hands of the Blackfoot and Blood warriors. White Calf himself escaped, but was badly wounded and had, among other injuries, a broken arm.

The leading warrior of the Blackfoot at that time was Buffalo Back Fat and among those with him in this engagement was The Swan, a Peigan chief who, as far as I know, is still alive on the reservation. He was, at least, the last time I was there. This was the severest defeat that had been inflicted on the Gros Ventres for years, and put an effectual check to their forays, probably for all time.

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