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 VIII: Among the Whisky Traders.
Building Fort Macleod
THE WEATHER WAS cold when we arrived at the Old Man’s river, and we camped in tents on the river bottom. At that time there was plenty of cottonwood timber on the bottoms that could be used for building purposes. As soon as we had a few days’ rest, the men were all set to work felling trees and cutting them into 12-foot logs for building. We had such a short time to put up buildings and stables that they were run up in the quickest manner possible. This was by digging long trenches three feet deep, the length of the building required, then placing 12-foot logs upright side by side in these trenches, forming the walls, with logs across for beams. After covering the building with poles, a foot or two of dirt was added. The walls were plastered with clay inside and out, and putting in the windows and doors, the buildings were finished. Very little lumber was brought up by the bull teams with the window sashes. It was just enough for doors, so the ground was our only flooring. These buildings were built in a square, with two log buildings on each side. They consisted of men’s quarters and store room, stables on one side and two long buildings facing them, for officers’ quarters, orderly room, etc. These buildings were rushed up in quick tie, everyone taking a hand, and pretty tough work it was, particularly the plastering. The weather was pretty cold. The clay had to be mixed with hot water and thrown on by hand, which was freezing work. While we were at this work, Baker & company’s men had been at work and built some similar structures not far from the fort, one of which was a store. This was pretty well filled up with all sorts of goods, such as canned fruit at $1 per can and everything else in proportion. As we had received no pay up to this time it was all credit, orders being taken on the men’s pay, and when they did receive it, there was not much left after settling their bills. After the long march on short rations, no price was begrudged for luxuries. Parties had been sent north to Sheep creek after whisky traders, some of whom were captured and brought in, and fined or imprisoned, their robes being confiscated and the whisky spilt. Captain Crozier had the honor of the first capture, that of Taylor, and after that we all had plenty of travelling to do. The Indians had by this time come in, and had got over their fear of us, many councils being held. They were told the reason of our coming, and were all glad to have the whisky trade abolished. Large camps of many hundreds of Blackfeet, Bloods and Piegans camped near us, and were on the most friendly terms. They were in those days a splendid looking lot of men, well off. They owned hundreds of horses, fine large lodges made of tanned buffalo skins, some of them fancifully painted, with any number of buffalo robes for trade, and all they required to eat, and were the happiest people in the world.
As I said before, they soon became very friendly, and were of considerable help in finding where the different whisky traders were located. During the winter we were visited by the Blackfeet, Blood and Piegan Indians, some seven thousand comprising these three tribes at that time, although they have since dwindled down to half that number. They were totally without any idea of civilization, living altogether on the plains during the summer, and camping on the rivers near wood during the winter. They were constantly at war with the Crees in the north, and the Sioux, Crows and Gros Ventres in the south, and generally held their own. War parties of them would start out each summer, and travel hundreds of miles on foot on horse-stealing expeditions, and generally returned with large numbers of stolen animals. It took us years to put a stop to this wholesale stealing, and it is not over yet, and I doubt if it ever will be totally eradicated.
The Indian education is directly the opposite of that of civilized nations. They are taught when children that the more they steal, like or kill, the higher their state in the happy hunting grounds or sand hills, where the western Indians believe they go after death.
No mission work had been done among the plain Indians before we arrived. A few Catholic priests had been among them but made little impression. The mission work had been confined to the north, among the Crees, and a small mission near the mountains, up the Bow river at a place called Morley, was among a small tribe of Stoneys, a branch of the Assiniboia Indians. This mission was in charge of Rev. G. McDougall, part trader and hunter, and part missionary.
A great mistake has been made in expecting the Indians to be civilized all at once. It is impossible that they could reach the state of enlightenment in a few years which has taken whole generations to accomplish. It must be remembered that a vast change took place in a few years in their surroundings and style of living after the advent of the whites. What they learned among the whites was seldom to their advantage, either morally or physically, and their teachers did not always set the best example.
There were on our arrival no cattle in the country, except for a few domesticated cows, north along the Saskatchewan, and it was some time before the Indians would eat beef, believing it to be bad medicine. Flour they traded for but little, their chief demand being for tea, tobacco, and blankets. Buffalo meat was nearly altogether their only sustenance. Tea they were very fond of, and we used often to attend their dances, which were new to us, and generally held in the largest lodge in camp. A mixture of tea and tobacco was drunk, which had the effect almost of liquor on the Indians. A tragedy was enacted at once dance I attended. An old Indian, who had a young squaw of who he was very jealous, attended the dance. The old man left the tent, being jealous of another young fellow, leaving his woman in the dance. He went outside and cut a hole in the side of the tent, and while the woman was dancing quite close to where I was sitting, he shot her through the head with his pistol. The poor girl fell dead across the fire, and there was for a short time a good chance for a general fight. The man was captured and handed over to us, and afterwards sent down to Winnipeg for trial. He was imprisoned for some years, and is now in the camp, with another wife. In those days the Indians were very jealous of their women, who were really slaves. They were purchased for so many head of horses, and did most of the camp work, and the cutting up of buffalo, drying the meat, and preparing the robes in different ways. They also pitched and struck the lodges, cooked and did nearly all the work. It was the custom of the Indians in those days to cut off the nose of a woman for infidelity, and on some occasions they were killed. It took us some years to put an end to this custom altogether. Their dead were either left in lodges, with blankets or other offerings to the sun, or in the fork of some tree, where they remained for years. There were many of these bodies in the trees along the banks of Old Man’s river, and many dead lodges, from the time of the smallpox some years previously.
Of course, we received Indian names, and the crest of the force was taken from the name given Col. Macleod, that of Stum-ach-so-to-kan, or Buffalo Head, the names nearly always being that of some animal, or a part.
We spent our Christmas in the buildings, they having been finished by that time, and we were fairly comfortable. We had an abundance of buffalo meat, men being engaged to hunt for the force. We also killed numbers of deer not far from the fort, keeping the mess pretty well supplied with venison.
A small village had sprung up near the fort, two or three stores, and a billiard room of logs having been built, mostly by old traders in the country, who had come in and, as their whisky trade was stopped, tried to make a living in a more legitimate manner. We found them a very decent lot of men in spite of all we had heard against them. They were of all nationalities, and were either miners or traders and hunters. There were, of course, some hard cases among them, but these did not long remain, as they did not find law and order to their taste. We had by spring a guard room full of prisoners, one or two of whom were in for murder. They were not sent down to Winnipeg, our nearest jail, 900 miles off, until the following summer, and a hard trip it was for the escort.
The citizens in the village were most hospitable, and did what they could for us. Of course, more or less whisky circulated during the winter among the men, very poor stuff at $5 per pint bottle, but alcohol and Jamaica ginger were principally sold. Some whisky casks were unearthed by the Indians, and a general drunk ensued, some casualties occurring, and our time during the winter was fully taken up, travelling long distances, and trying to put a stop to the traffic, in which we succeeded very well.
Most of our horses were sent into Montana to winter on Sun river, where feed could be purchased, in charge of an officer, Major Walsh. We managed to purchase a little hay from a trader a few miles down the river at $30 per ton, and also some native horses were purchased for use on our expedition.
The second death occurred in the force a short time after we had begun to build the fort, poor Parks dying from fever brought on from exposure and the hardships of the march, but the force was generally healthy.
A small detachment was stationed some eighteen miles down the river at a small trading post going by the name of Ft. Kipp, after the original builder. This fort was built of logs, the same as all other buildings in the country, and surrounded by a log stockade, and had been built for a whisky trading post. The men were under an officer named Brisbois who was in command of F troop, to which I belonged. Two of the men from this detachment had been at our fort at Macleod for some time on leave, but left to return to Kipp the day before New Year. On that day word had arrived that one of I.G. Baker’s bull teams had got into Whoopup, about 30 miles from Macleod, and had a large quantity of mail for the police with them, but were not expected to arrive at Macleod for nearly a week. We had received no mail since the previous June, with the exception of a few odd letters now and then, and of course we were all most anxious to get this mail by New Year, if possible. I therefore asked permission to ride down to Kipp the day before New Year, and bring up the letters. Col. Macleod was very backward in granting this permission, but at last it was given and I started down a little before sunset, on a tough little native horse bred in the country. I intended to make Kipp that night and go on to Whoopup the next day. There was a little snow on the ground and only a faint trail to be seen. I had not got more than a few miles on the way, when the wind changed to the North very suddenly, and one of the Northwest blizzards set in. It turned very cold- some 20 degrees below zero. I turned round to come back, but found it utterly impossible to do so, as the wind and snow struck me in the face, and I could not prevent my eyelids from freezing together.
There was nothing to do but continue on the road, trusting to the horse taking me during the night into Ft. Kipp. I had a good warm buffalo coat on, but suffered intensely, only keeping myself from freezing by getting off now and then and taking a run, but this I could not keep up long for fear of losing the trail. When it got dark, I had to stick to the saddle, to the pommel of which I tied the reins, letting the horse take his own road, as I could see nothing, and did not know the country even if I had been able to see it. Luckily for me, the horse had been bred in that vicinity and was wonderfully intelligent. He could not go out of a walk. Hour after hour went by with use still plodding along, and the storm still continuing. About midnight it brightened up a little, and I saw before me a steep bank, at the bottom of which I supposed to be a river. However, there was nothing for it but to go ahead, letting the horse go where he pleased. It thickened up again, and for an hour nothing was visible, until I found myself suddenly surrounded by lighted windows.
The horse had walked in through the gate of Ft. Kipp without my knowledge and stopped in the middle of the square. It was lucky I let him have his head, as I should have perished had he become lost. A welcome sight it was. The blazing log fires and a good meal soon put my blood in circulation.
I inquired of Capt. Brisbois if the two men who were on leave, and who I knew had left Macleod that day, had arrived, but was told they had not. We therefore concluded that they had remained at another small trading post about half way from Macleod, and would come in the next day. The following morning being fine, I rode down to Whoopup and took all the letters for the police, returned to Ft. Kipp in the afternoon, and was informed that the two horses belonging to the men Baxter and Wilson, who were on leave, had come into the fort saddled but without their riders. A party of men, with some Indians, had been sent to search for them, and a short time after they came in bringing the bodies of the two men with them, one being dead and frozen hard, and the other with arms and legs and most of the body frozen stiff, but he was still breathing. The party had followed the tracks of their horses, and found where the men had led them round and round in a circle, and then, where they had left them. They found one man dead not far from the spot, but the other was found a long way farther on. They had got lost and bewildered, and on lying down, were soon frozen in that bitter wind.
I rode in to Macleod as fast as possible for Dr. Nevill, but before he reached Kipp that night Wilson was dead. Had he lived his life would have been a burden to him, as his limbs would have had to be amputated.
Continued in Chapter X – Critical Conditions.