For centuries, long before the arrival of Europeans, the Indigenous battled each other throughout North America. While we know of only a small fraction of these battles, historians know the last one quite well. It would occur on Oct. 25, 1870 when the Cree and the Blackfoot took part in the last battle between the Indigenous in the Canadian Prairies.
It was the Battle of Belly River and it would feature some very well-known participants.
Before we get to this battle though, we have to go back a bit to look at the political makeup of the prairies through centuries. Long before the arrival of European traders and explorers, the prairies were inhabited by the Blackfoot Confederacy and the Iron Confederacy. The Blackfoot Confederacy was made up of the Blackfoot, the Bloods, the Pikuni, the Blackfeet and the Sarcee. The Blackfoot Confederacy had controlled the area from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Great Sandhills in Saskatchewan in the east, and from the North Saskatchewan River in the north and the Yellowstone River in the south. As for the Iron Confederacy, that was made up of the Plains Cree, Assiniboine, Plains Ojibwa, Stoney and some of the Metis. The Cree were by far the largest group within the Confederacy. The Iron Confederacy had started to move west with the Hudson’s Bay Company, coming into the territory of the Blackfoot in the first half of the 1700s.
At first, the Iron Confederacy were trading and military allies of the Blackfoot but as time went on and Europeans began to encroach more on traditional lands, taking resources and pushing the Indigenous away, the two allies would become enemies. As the bison herds began to disappear, the Iron Confederacy continued to move west, into the area of where Regina would be. The next decade, they moved further west once again, while leaders such as Big Bear and Piapot saw that the times were changing because of more settlers arriving and the loss of the bison.
Horse raids, skirmishes and small conflicts would take place but it would all come to an end with the last Indigenous battle in Canadian history on October 25, 1870.
Just prior to this, the Blackfoot had been hit hard by a smallpox outbreak courtesy of a riverboat that went up the Upper Missouri that arrived in the region that had wiped out half of their number. Dr. George Allan Kennedy of the NWMP at Fort MacLeod would describe it as such:
“The epidemic left in its wake entire camps of Blackfoot dead lodges.”
For the Iron Confederacy and the Chiefs Piapot, Big Bear, Little Mountain and Little Pine, the impact of smallpox on Blackfoot presented an opportunity to expand their own territory into the Cypress Hills.
Near Medicine Hat, a war party of 600 to 800 Indigenous was raised consisting of the Cree, Salteux and the Young Dogs set out from future Saskatchewan, following the South Saskatchewan River, armed with bow and arrow, muskets and hand-to-hand weapons.
As the party neared future Lethbridge, legend states that Piapot had a dream that predicted the defeat of the Cree. In his dream, a buffalo bull with iron horns attacked the Cree and despite their efforts, they could not kill the beast and were terrible defeated. After Piapot awoke, he thought about the dream and believed that it foretold the defeat of his war party. Piapot told the others about his dream and stated he would not take part in the battle. Several others also abandoned the battle plan and went back east with him.
The entire exchange was apparently reported by a young ten-year-old boy named Iron Horn who apparently witnessed it. Whether this account is true or not, I can’t say, but it helps build the legend of the dream. According to that account, Piapot said.
“My children, I had a dream last night. I saw a buffalo bull with iron horns goring, stamping and killing us. We were unable to destroy it. After long meditation, I have come to the conclusion that we must abandon the venture and return home, otherwise misfortune awaits us.”
Another war chief, believing Piapot was wrong, apparently replied:
“My children, don’t believe in a dream. Advance and capture the Blackfoot Nation, women and children. The smallpox killed off most of their fighters so we won’t be opposed by any great number.”
The Cree would send scouts out and they soon discovered a Blood camp near Foot Whoop-Up along the Belly River. The scouts decided to steal the horses at the camp and returned to the main party of the Cree to report what they saw, which they reported as 60 lodges.
The Cree chiefs took the scouts information at face value and decided they should ambush the camp at night. What the Cree did not know was that the camp was merely a central part of the much larger winter camp of the Blackfoot that extended along the river. While the Cree outnumbered that small group, the small group had better rifles that were superior to what the Cree had.
The Cree war party set out to ambush the Blood camp and according to Francis Red Crow, the grandson of Blood Chief Red Crow, the Crees came across two isolated Blood teepees at the base of Temple Hill near present-day Raymond. In those teepees were two families of Bloods who were on their way to join the main party. According to Red Crow, the Cree killed everyone in the teepees except for one boy who had hidden himself. After the Cree moved on, the boy ran from the teepee to the main camp and warned the Blackfoot of the Cree war party.
The Cree then arrived at the small camp their scouts had seen and began attacking, slitting open teepees and attacking the people inside. The women of the Blackfoot camp began to swim across the Belly River to get help from the larger party, but one Blackfoot story tells of a woman who took a tomahawk and killed four Cree by herself. In the battle, Mountain Horse, the son of Mountain Chief of the Blackfoot, along with the brother of Red Crow, were killed in this skirmish.
Due to the commotion, several Blackfoot warriors began to arrive and fighting continued through to daybreak. With the Blackfoot was Jerry Potts, who would become a legendary guide and scout for the North West Mounted Police. With the greater number of Blackfoot arriving, the Cree were pushed back towards the river. The Blackfoot were ranged in a coulee running east to west, while the Cree were in a parallel coulee to the south. For the next four hours the two forces exchanged fire. At one point, two South Peigans mounted their horses and galloped along the ridge to get an estimate on the strength and position of the Cree. One was killed when he was shot with an arrow, while another had his horse shot out from under him. The combat would go through the day and as the day wore on, Potts noticed a small butte that overlooked the Cree. He led his party to it and began to fire down upon the Cree. The Cree were hit hard by Potts and his group and they began to scatter. Potts then took this opportunity to charge into the Cree, who fell back on the river, allowing the Blackfoot to press on the Cree who were now getting to get across the river.
Calf Shirt was a seasoned Blood warrior, described by some as a chief, and he was told about the battle happening at that moment as he had just returned from a hunt. Before he left, he promised his father asked that if he should fall to a Cree arrow, he would not take it out. According to the stories, Calf Shirt grasped his knife and ran into the Cree where an arrow hit him in the wrist, but he would not stop. He remembered his promise to his father and did not remove the arrow, instead picking up a bow and killing an archer with his knife. He then began shooting into the Cree, taking several down. One account says he had arrows in his neck and arms, but was still able to kill two Cree warriors with his knife.
Potts would say later
“You could fire eyes shut and kill a Cree that day.”
George Kennedy would say “A head, a hand, anything was enough to shoot at.”
One Indigenous man named Big Brave would say of the battle, “I could not hear for the roar of the guns, and could not see for the smoke.”
Many of the Cree took off running along the open prairie but were taken down by the Blackfoot who were pursuing them. The Cree that did try to make a last stand on the open prairie would lose 50 men.
By nightfall, the Cree had made it into a strand of trees but they were surrounded by the Blackfoot. The Blackfoot decided that the battle was over at that point, and they returned back to their camps. They also allowed the Cree to retreat with their dead and wounded. By the end of the day, 300 Cree were dead, while 40 Blackfoot were dead.
The move by the Cree had failed in terrible fashion because of an underestimating the Blackfoot numbers and how many had died from smallpox. While the scouts had seen 60 lodges at the camp, there were more than 200 lodges nearby not seen. Big Bear and the other Cree chiefs had lost half of their force and Big Bear had lost his son as well. Seeing no other way forward, the Cree would send tobacco to the Blackfoot and in 1871, with the help of Chief Crowfoot of the Blackfoot, a treaty would be negotiated between the Cree and Blackfoot. The Blackfoot then allowed the Cree to settle nearby and hunt the bison from their territory.
Jerry Potts would go on to guide the North West Mounted Police to Fort Whoop-Up, ending the illegal whiskey trade in the region. Potts would pass away in 1896 in Fort MacLeod and was given full honours from the NWMP.
Big Bear would go on to sign Treaty 7 with the other Indigenous of the area but his hope of having reserves adjoining to each other to create an Indigenous nation within Alberta and Saskatchewan was blocked by the Canadian government. In 1885, despite attempting to keep the peace, Big Bear would be imprisoned and convicted of treason, dying a few years later.
Piapot would eventually move out to the area of Indian Head where he would remain for the rest of his life on a reserve. When the Canadian government declared that the Sun Dance was illegal, Piapot refused to honour the law. The Canadian government then tried to remove him repeatedly as chief, eventually succeeding but he still remained chief in the hearts of his people. He would pass away in 1908.
Calf Shirt did not take out that arrow that had struck him and would return to the camp where it was taken out by the Blackfoot.
As for the battle site itself, it would become Indian Battle Park in Lethbridge but much of the park has become covered by housing developments. A city council motion in 2005 attempted to rename the park Valley of Peace Park but this was defeated. The area where the battle was fought is today recognized as an Alberta Historical Resource and a National Historic Site through the federal government. In 2020, the debate over renaming the park came up again due to its negative connotations and Mayor Chris Spearman would say:
“We would want them to tell us what would be respectful and what would be appropriate, in terms of Indigenous culture, that Lethbridge City Council could consider.”
While the name of the park may change, its role in Canadian history is cemented forever.
Information comes from Hammerson Peters, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Shino Dreams, Virtual Museum.ca, American Cowboy Chronicles, MacLeans, Lethbridge Herald, My Lethbridge Now