The following article was originally published on my personal website in 2014.
The Murder of Constable Graburn
When the newly-formed North West Mounted police embarked on their Great March West in 1874, tasked with supressing the destructive whisky trade that flourished what would become southern Alberta, they expected to find bulwarked whisky forts bristling with cannons, manned by hard, heavily-armed American whisky traders unwilling to yield to the Mounties without a fight. When they arrived in so-called ‘Whoop-Up Country’, however, the Mounties discovered that the whisky traders were not the implacable gunslingers there were reputed to be but rather profit-driven opportunists and entrepreneurs. Many of them, upon hearing of the North West Mounted Police’s imminent arrival on the Canadian frontier, had returned to the United States, while the remainder stayed in Canada and became legitimate businessmen. Instead of American outlaws, the Mounties found themselves chiefly battling the natural elements, illness and boredom- all formidable adversaries. While a number of North West Mounted Police officers lost their lives to these more stoic forces, none of them fell victim to human violence until November 17, 1879.
The Murder of Constable Graburn
It was the spring of 1879 when North West Mounted Police officer Sam Steele arrived in Ottawa to collect the newest batch of NWMP recruits. By that time, the North West Mounted Police had firmly ensconced themselves in the region that would one day become southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, and had brought some semblance of law and order to that wild frontier. The North West Mounted Police had formed in 1873 and marched west in 1874. Since their arrival on the Canadian Plains, they had effectively brought an end to the infamous whisky trade, made peace treaties with the powerful Blackfoot and Iron Confederacies, and established a friendly relationship with fugitive Sioux chief Sitting Bull, whose tribe fled north into Canada following the Battle of the Little Bighorn. By 1879, many adventurous young men from Ontario and Quebec had heard of the exploits of the redcoats out west, and were eager to enlist in the Force themselves. Among these young Canadians was Marmaduke Graburn.
Marmaduke Graburn was the eldest son of Captain Marmaduke Graburn, an officer of Ottawa’s Department of Marine and Fisheries. He enlisted in the North West Mounted Police as soon as he was of age, and was given the rookie rank of constable. Graburn rode west with Steele and his fellow recruits, and arrived at Fort Walsh, the NWMP’s new headquarters located in the Cypress Hills near the site of the Cypress Hills Massacre, in June 1879. By the time he was sworn in, he was nineteen years old.
An avid hunter and outdoorsman, Graburn was well suited to frontier living. The young Mountie also made fast friends with many of his fellow recruits, and was quite popular at the Fort. According to one of his friends, he was “of most genial disposition, kind-hearted, truly brave, and honourable.”
Earlier in the fall of 1879, a band of Bloods made camp outside Fort Walsh. The Bloods, hungry and impoverished, perpetually begged the fort’s garrison for food and ammunition. The band’s neediness, coupled with a string of horse thefts that had taken place at Fort Walsh earlier that fall, prompted the Mounties to closely monitor their horse herd. Sam Steele, the commander of Fort Walsh at the time, ordered a number of officers to keep watch over the herd. One of these officers was Constable Graburn.
On November 16, 1879, Graburn and two other men were tasked with watching over the Mountie horse herd at a camp about three miles from Fort Walsh. Graburn’s companions included Constable George Johnson, one of the new recruits, and a French-Cree Metis scout named Payette. That morning, Johnson received word from the Fort that he was to retrieve an axe and a picket rope from a small log hut about two miles away. Since Johnson was to be the cook for the day, however, Graburn agreed to go in his stead. The 19-year-old constable grabbed his carbine, mounted his horse, and rode out from the camp, his black trooper leaving deep tracks in the snow.
The hut was only two miles from the horse camp, and Graburn was expected to return within the hour. When he failed to return by mid-afternoon, Johnson and Payette went to look for him. According to a Mountie, “They left on foot, with their arms, and followed his tracks to the hut. They found the axe there, but the picket rope was gone. They noticed that he had, for some reason, gone past the hut; most probably he found the rope had been taken and went further to look for it intending to get the axe when he came back.”
Johnson and Payette followed Graburn’s tracks for another mile beyond the hut before coming to a steep gully. The sun was going down, snow began to fall in earnest, and the pair knew they would have to head back to the horse camp soon. They fired shots into the air and waited for a reply. When none came, the two men headed back to camp and retired for the night.
The next morning, the Mounties rode to Fort Walsh and informed their superiors that Graburn was missing. Immediately, a search party was mounted. Members of the party included Metis scout Louis Leveille and his sons Paul and Gabriel, and Sergeant Robert McCutcheon. The party followed Johnson and Payette’s tracks from the horse camp to the gully. They crossed the gully and rode for about 100 metres before coming to a ravine choked with dead foliage. The Mounties searched for a trail through the dense brush, and as they did so they stumbled upon flecks of blood in the snow. Nearby, one of the party found Graburn’s slouch hat hanging from a branch. After a thorough search, they found Graburn’s frozen body lying face down, hidden among bushes deep within the ravine. His scarlet serge was stained a deep crimson; the young constable had been shot in the back, below his right shoulder blade. He was the first North West Mounted Police officer to be killed in the line of duty.
By the time Graburn’s body was found, the sun was going down. The Mounties placed a guard over the body and endeavored to more thoroughly investigate the crime scene the following morning. The next morning, a wagon arrived on the scene, along with an investigation team led by the famous halfbreed scout Jerry Potts. Graburn’s body was loaded onto the wagon, to be taken back to the Fort for an autopsy and burial, while Jerry Potts and the Mounties scoured the crime scene for clues as to the murderer’s identity. The investigators found cartridges lying on the ground, and learned that Graburn’s own firearm was missing. Potts himself discovered the carcass of Graburn’s horse in the ravine. The animal had been wedged between two trees and shot in the head.
With the evidence they had uncovered, the Mounties painted a picture of what had transpired. According to one Mounted Policeman:
“Graburn had just crossed the creek and met to Indians, who had probably been watching him come all along, and thought they had now a good chance to kill a white soldier. They stepped up to him to shake hands, and while one was pretending to pat his horse, but really holding it so it would not get away, the other stepped behind him and shot him through the back. He must have stayed on the saddle a few moments, as blood was found on it. The jumping of the horse probably threw him off on his face, as he nose was brused by the fall. The Indians, knowing the horse would return to the herd and give the alarm before they could make their escape, took him to the bushes so as to be hard to find, and wedged him between two trees. One must have beat him from behind and the other led him. They tied the halter rope to a tree in front of him so he could not move any way, and shot him with Graburn’s rifle.”
The killers left an obvious trail in the snow. One was on foot, while the other was riding a shoeless pony. According to Sam Steele, “[Jerry Potts] tried to track the murderer out on to the open prairie, but a chinook had sprung up and melted the snow and, the ground being frozen, not a trace was left.”
Although the evidence at the scene of the crime was scant, the Mounties had their suspicions as to who had committed the murder. According to Commissioner James Macleod:
“There is no doubt but the foul deed was perpetrated by two Indians, but we have not been able to fix the guilt upon the murderers: I feel sure that they will be discovered, as when they are across the line and think themselves safe, they will be certain to say something about it which will lead to their detection, and the other Indians will be sure to let us know. When the facts come out they will show that the atrocious crime was committed in revenge for some real or fancied injury done to the murderer or one of his family, not necessarily by a Policeman but by some white man.”
Throughout the winter, the Mounties searched for clues that might help them in their investigation. Constable Graburn was the first Mountie to die in the line of duty, and his comrades were obliged to bring his murderer to justice for justice’s sake, and for the sake of the Force. The Mounties probed the Blood Indians who came to the Fort, begging for food. They asked if any young warrior had been heard bragging about killing a redcoat. Finally, one of the Indians hinted that two young Bloods, who were presently interned in the Fort’s guardhouse for horse theft, knew something about Graburn’s murder.
Somehow, these two Blood prisoners learned that they were suspected in the murder of Constable Graburn. When they were let outside of the guardhouse for exercise, they bolted, and managed to escape the Fort. Before they could reach the safety of a nearby Blood camp, however, a posse of Mounties thundered up and surrounded them. The Indians were detained and returned to the guardhouse.
Back at Fort Walsh, Mountie Leif Crozier asked the two men if they had committed the murder. Both of them denied having any involvement in it. Finally, after a lengthy interrogation, one of them, a Blood named Weasel Moccasin, confessed that he knew who murdered Constable Graburn. He told the Mountie that, earlier that winter, he stayed in a Blood Camp in Montana’s Bear Paw Mountains. There, a young Blood named Star Child bragged to anyone who would listen that he had killed a redcoat back at Fort Walsh.
Crozier, along with many of the Mounties at Fort Walsh, was familiar with Star Child. He was a 17-year-old Blood who had indeed been among the Indians camped near the Fort at the time of Graburn’s death. He had hung around the Fort more than most, harassing the officers and constantly begging for food, and had been thrown out more than once. Several Mounties even recalled Constable Graburn having “strong words” with the Indian two days before his murder. Upon questioning some of the Bloods camped near Fort Walsh, the Mounties learned that Star Child and his family had left for Montana the night of the murder, and had stayed with the Bloods at Bear Paw Mountain ever since.
Crozier sent a message to Commissioner James Macleod, who happened to be in Fort Benton, Montana, at the time, asking if he might gain permission to arrest Star Child on American soil. Macleod relayed the question to the Fort Benton sheriff, a Irishman named John J. Healy. Unfortunately for the Mounties, Healy was not kindly disposed towards the redcoats. He was a hardcore Fenian who disdained all things British. Worse, he was the co-founder of the notorious Fort Whoop Up, and was among the most prominent of the American-Canadian whisky traders whose businesses the Mounties had shut down back in 1874. Healy agreed to arrest Star Child for the Mounties, on the condition the Mounties pay Chouteau County a sum of five thousand dollars. Macleod declined the outrageous offer and returned to Canada.
With Star Child in Montana, the Mounties were unable to make an arrest. However, a year and a half after the murder of Constable Graburn, they gained an opportunity to apprehend their prime suspect. In the spring of 1881, the Bloods who had spent the last few years hunting buffalo in Montana came north to collect their Canadian treaty money. By that time, the buffalo that had once dominated the plains were reduced to a scattering of tiny herds, and the Blackfoot that subsisted on them were desperate for food.
In May 1881, Jerry Potts learned from his Blackfoot friends that Star Child was one of these Bloods who had come north from Montana. He had stayed with a band of Siksika at the mouth of the Little Bow River before returning to visit his own Blood reserve at Standoff. Then he joined up with a band of Bloods who were camped only a short distance from Fort Macleod.
On the evening of May 12, 1881, Jerry Potts, a young constable, bugler George Callaghan, and Corporals Wilson and Pry Patterson, rode out from Fort Macleod for Star Child’s camp. They Mounties arrived at the Blackfoot camp in the dead of night. They planned to arrest the Indian fugitive at dawn.
As soon as the first rays of the rising sun slipped above the horizon, the Mounties closed in on what they had determined was Star Child’s teepee. To their chagrin, the Blackfoot brave stepped out to greet them with a loaded rifle. He leveled the gun at Corporal Patterson’s chest. “Quick! Grab him!” shouted Patterson to an imaginary Mountie who stood over Star Child’s shoulder. Star Child whirled to meet this imaginary foe, and Patterson seized the opportunity. The Mountie lunged at Star Child and grabbed his rifle. The Indian fought back, and during the struggle the firearm discharged. Dogs barked and men shouted as the entire camp woke up. By the time they had handcuffed Star Child, the Mounties were surrounded by angry Blackfoot who demanded that they release their friend.
Fortunately for the Mounties, Red Crow, head chief of the Bloods, was in the camp. The respected chief, along with chiefs Strangling Wolf and One Spot, held back their fiery young braves while the policemen mounted up and made off with their prisoner.
The Mounties arrived at Fort Macleod unscathed, narrowly outriding a party of angry Blood warriors who had followed them from the camp. Star Child was interned in the guardroom, where he would remain until his trial in October.
An eastern Canadian journalist visited Star Child while he was awaiting trial, eager to take the measure of the young man suspected of murdering the first member of the NWMP to die by violence. He described the Blackfoot thusly:
“Star Child is a small and rather delicately-formed Indian, who looks wonderfully like a Chinaman, and the fact that he wears his hair in long closely-plaited braids rather strengthens his resemblance to the Mongolian family. When the door of his cell was opened he sprang from his bunk where he was lying (attired only in undershirt and drawers), and with a little nervous laugh shook hands with me. He is very quick and nervous in all his motions, but he has a weak look both in face and figure. From his appearance one would hardly suppose that he was the man either to plan or carry out the shocking crime with which he is charged.”
On October 18, 1881, Star Child was brought to trial. James Macleod- who had recently resigned as Commissioner of the NWMP in order to take up the mantle of a Stipendiary Magistrate of the Northwest Territories- served as judge. Macleod was assisted in his judiciary duties by Superintendent Leif Crozier and Major John Henry Gresham Bray, while Inspector Thomas Dowling served as crown prosecutor. The jury was made up of six local civilians: Charles Ryan (trader), Daniel Horan (cordwainer), William Parker (ranch hand), Edward Maunsell (rancher), and William Gladstone (carpenter). Five of the jurymen were ex-Mounties. Only Gladstone, a Montanan who had helped John Healy and Alfred Hamilton construct Fort Whoop Up in 1869, had never been a redcoat. Weasel Moccasin, the Blood who had accused Star Child in the first place, served as first witness.
Inspector Dowling presented the jury with the evidence. Anecdotal evidence placed Star Child in the Fort Walsh area at the time of the murder. Several Mounties claimed that Graburn had “strong words” with the Indian two days prior to his murder. Nearly every Mountie believed intuitively that Star Child had murdered their young comrade. And Weasel Moccasin testified that he heard Star Child bragging about his crime while they were camped in the Bear Paw Mountains.
Although many of the Mounties were convinced Star Child was the murderer, the jurymen knew the evidence against the Indian left much room for doubt. Much of the evidence against Star Child was circumstantial, and most of those who witnessed the trial, including the biased Mounties, agreed that Weasel Moccasin’s testimony was full of holes and unreliable. According to Maunsell:
“The evidence that Starchild was seen round Fort Walsh did not help us much because there were several hundred Indians camped around there at the same time. We were reduced therefore to the evidence of the Indian who said Starchild had said he had killed Grayburn. [William] Gladstone was asked his opinion about this. Gladstone had lived mostly all his life amongst the Indians and knew their character thoroughly. He said that the Indians did not regard the killing of a whiteman or an Indian of a hostile tribe as a crime but rather as an achievement to boast about and that consequently it was possible that Starchild, especially as he was only a boy, might have lied and said he killed Grayburn. Gladstone was inclined to this opinion on account of the inadequate cause which Starchild was supposed to give as his reason for killing Grayburn.”
Whether due to lack of evidence, or out of fear of a Blackfoot reprisal against white settlers, the jury voted 5 to 1 in favour of acquittal. After a full day of review, Macleod reached the verdict of not guilty, and Star Child was freed. The decision was not popular with the Mounties, who wished to see Star Child hanged. Officers Cecil Denny and Sam Steele berated the jurors in their memoirs. However, the Mounties would get their own justice two years later, in June 1883, when they sentenced Star Child to four years hard labour at the Stony Mountain Penitentiary for horse theft.
Whether or not Star Child truly murdered Constable Graburn remains a mystery to this day.
- The Vengeful Wife- and Other Blackfoot Stories, Hugh A. Dempsey, 2003
- Bear Child- The Life and Times of Jerry Potts, Rodger D. Touchie, 2005
- Saamis: The Medicine Hat, 1967, Senator F.W. Gershaw
- Early History of the Medicine Hat Country, 1923, James William Morrow