The History of Milk River

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CraigBaird

As with many other places in southern Alberta, the Indigenous were in the area for thousands of years, following the huge bison herds that once roamed over the land. Even today in the Milk River area, there are many places were teepee rings, buffalo bones and other archeological evidence of Indigenous habitation can be found.

For some time, the area was primarily occupied by the Blackfoot people, with the Cree arriving later as they moved west away from the growing presence of Europeans in the east. Also in the area, the Metis were also quite common as more fur traders started to move into and settle in the area.

Milk River actually has an abundance of Indigenous historical sites near it. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, located an hour northwest of Milk River, is one of the oldest, largest and best preserved buffalo jumps in the world, which was used by the Indigenous repeatedly for over 6,000 years.

Also located roughly an hour northwest of Milk River is the Blackfoot Crossing National Historic Site, which celebrates thousands of years of Blackfoot culture, as well as serving as the gravesite of the legendary Indigenous leader Chief Crowfoot. Located only 30 minutes west of Milk River, you will find the Del Bonita Teepee Ring Site.

The Tipi Ring Site is a 20-metre high terrace that gives views along the north and south of the river valley. The site consists of several Indigenous locations including 176 tipi rings, 25 stone arcs and four cairns. Most of the rings are buried in sod but they typically consisted of thick rock walls of two or three rows of stone.

In addition to the rings, there are several large tools on the site surface and due to the abundance of rings, it is likely many artifacts are buried in this area.

Tipi rings were once very common on the grasslands of Alberta but with the use agriculture in the province reduced the number of these sites immensely. Within this cluster of tipi rings, the majority, about 70 per cent, consist of small clusters of one to three tipi rings. The entire site appears to represent a campsite for a large social group, rather than an extended family camp that were seen elsewhere in the province.

Another aspect of this site that helps it stand out is the abundance of bones from animals. Typically, only nine to ten percent of the artifact assemblage at a site like this is bone on the prairie level but for a terrace site like Del Bonita, the amount is 65 per cent. The larger tipi rings with multiple levels of rocks also suggests that the site was used for long periods of time as more rocks were needed for larger tipis. This likely means that the site was a stopping place or gathering place for weeks or even months on end.

Due to all of this, it is likely that the site has many artifacts buried within it that could shed light on the people who used it and for how long it was used. There are also few visible modern intrusions in the view plane, giving a clear look at what the site must have looked like for the Indigenous who visited there likely over the course of centuries.

The site was made a Provincial Historic Resource on Aug. 30, 2007.

Arguably one of the most interesting sites located near Milk River is the Writing On Stone Provincial Park, which brings me to my next section.

Writing On Stone Provincial Park

If you drive 44 kilometres east of Milk River, you will come to one of the most unique and important historical sites in not only Alberta, but Canada. It is Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park and as of 2019, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a National Historic Site of Canada.

There is evidence in the park that the Indigenous inhabited or passed through the area as long as 9,000 years ago. It is believed that the Blackfoot and other area tribes created the rock carvings and paintings over the centuries, but other Indigenous groups like the Shoshone did so as well and may have created some of the art. Most of the artwork seems to have been made by those moving through the area, but evidence of a medicine wheel and tipi rings shows that there has been permanent settlement there from time to time. In all, there are over 50 petroglyph sites and thousands of pieces of art work.

One interesting aspect of the artwork is that you can see the arrival of the Europeans beginning around 1730 with artwork of horses, metal goods and guns appearing. Pictures of hunters on horseback and warriors without body shields began to appear at this time.

In 1957, the Writing-On-Stone Park was created and in 1977 it was designated as an archeological preserve. An NWMP outpost to replace the original one that was destroyed by fire in 1918 was built between 1973 and 1975 and is now an attraction in the park. In 1981, a portion of the park was named a provincial park to protect it from the increasing impact of vandalism and graffiti. The protection of the art makes Writing-on-Stone one of the largest concentrations of rock art in the North American Plains.

The site is also sacred to the Blackfoot and many other Indigenous tribes.

In 2007, a new visitors centre, with views of the valley, opened.

The Milk River

The Milk River, from which the town gets its name obviously, actually has a very interesting history and is a great place for recreation. The name was given to it by Captain Meriwether Lewis on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He described the river as such:

“The water of this river possesses a peculiar whiteness, being the colour of a cup of tea with the admixture of a teaspoonful of milk, from the colour of its water we called it Milk River.”

The milky colour to the water comes from the fine-grained sediments due to the erosion of the clay rich rocks in the Milk River basin in southern Alberta.

Interestingly enough, when the exploration came through, the Milk River drainage was part of the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase, meaning the future area of Milk River was American. In 1818, the Milk River watershed north of the 49th north latitude became part of British North America in exchange for a parcel of the Red River of the North drainage.

This is one reason why the community has the motto of Under Eight Flags, something I will touch on later.

Founding Of Community

The founding of Milk River could be attributed to the arrival of the railroad but it might be more accurate to say that it all comes down to a person named Mr. Satterlee. When the railroad came through, there was only a section house and a water tank. The section house was called Milk River, after the river nearby.

As people arrived, they were dropped off at the section house and they would then go off to their future homesteads to begin a new life. In 1906, one year after Alberta became a province, Mr. Satterlee arrived with a load of lumber with the intention of building a livery barn and a house. The people who also arrived at the time quickly purchased his lumber from him, and he then ordered more lumber and he created the livery business called Milk River Livery.

On April 15, 1908, the post office was established out of the Fitzmaurice store, with Oscar Fitzmaurice serving as the very first postmaster. Fitzmaurice was actually involved in various things in the community, including serving as a storekeeper, postmaster and a land agent. That same year, the first restaurant was opened by a Norwegian woman who had come to the United States in 1900, and after her husband had died, came up to the Milk River area.

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In an effort to promote the area to hopeful homesteaders, Harry Quinn, a local real estate developer, put the following in the Lethbridge paper:

“Sunny southern Alberta lands in the famous Milk River Valley. Choice farm lands within our rapidly growing new town, ranging from $12 to $20 per acre. Abundance of rainfall. Shallow wells with the finest spring water from 12 to 30 feet. Extensive coal mines three and a half miles from town. Information gleefully given.”

In 1910, a railway station was built, along with a section house that had the only telephone in the entire community, became the property of the CPR in 1912.

Bootlegging

For a very brief period of time, Milk River was a very popular place for Americans to visit, at least for one particular reason. After Alberta ended its prohibition run in the early 1920s, and before Montana repealed prohibition in 1933, bootlegging from Alberta to Montana was very big business.

While there were border patrols conducted, catching people actually smuggling the booze was not always easy. Typically, a bootlegger was caught when their truck broke down in a conspicuous location, making arresting them very easy. Another tell-tale sign of a bootlegger was if someone was seen frequently on both sides of the border, or if the driver would take off at great speed, that typically meant they were smuggling alcohol into the United States. For many bootleggers, it was better to take it slow, playing things cool and taking the back roads and the Coffin Crossing, where there was less traffic.

The border patrol would eventually start to crack down heavily on bootleggers, with Reg Barrows counting 26 bullet holes in a Studebaker parked in Harry Watkins garage. Several early prominent citizens in Milk River were also involved in the practice and one local woman was known to carry a brisk trade in alcohol. The police tried to find evidence and catch her in the act but were never able to until one day when they lifted the lid of her piano and found, inside, several neatly stacked bottles of Canadian Whiskey. The piano was stripped inside so that it was just a shell.

Kids were known to occasionally find hiding places where liquor had previously been, or in some cases, was still hidden.

Helen Loft relates a story about a smuggler.

“When Lyle Leffingwell was a little fellow, his job on Saturdays was to clean the chicken house. Having done the dirty work, he went to the field to an old straw stack to get fresh straw for the hen’s nest and the floor. When he thrust the pitchfork into the stack, there was no doubt what the fork hit. He removed some straw and sure enough, there appeared two gunny sacks filled with bottles of whiskey. Of course, he took them home and he tells his dad and older brother stayed happy all summer long.”

Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur Heritage Museum

In 1997, ten fossilized dinosaur eggs, believed to come from a Hadrosaur, were found at a Devil’s Coulee site. Since they were not the first fossils found in what was often called Fossil Coulee, a museum was established in Warner, near to Milk River.

The story goes that a local girl named Wendy Sloboda was hiking along Milk River Ridge when she came across what she believed to be dinosaur egg shells. This finding was confirmed by Dr. Len Hills at the University of Calgary and Dr. Phillip Currie at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. Based on this discovery, teams of paleontologists came to the area and began to find Hadrosaur eggs with the embryotic material still inside them.

Under Eight Flags

When you journey around Canada, most places have been under just a couple flags. Maybe the flag of France, or the Hudson’s Bay flag, perhaps the Canadian Red Ensign and of course the Maple Leaf. For Milk River, the land the community is on can lay claim to being under eight flags since the 1600s.

The first was the flag of France, from 1682 to 1762, when the Treaty of Fontainebleau ended the Anglo-Spanish War and Spain was given the country known as Louisiana, which ran from New Orleans up to future Milk River. From 1762 to 1800, the Spanish Empire’s flag was over the territory but in 1800 it was under the flag of the French Republic. In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase was conducted by the United States and from that year until 1818, the area of Milk River was part of the United States of America. In 1818, it went under the flag of the Hudson’s Bay Company after the land trade between the United Kingdom and America. It would remain under the flag of the company until 1869 when the British Empire flag flew over the land until 1945 when the Canadian Red Ensign became the flag for the country. That lasted until 1965 when the new Canadian Maple Leaf flag was introduced, the most recent flag to fly over the land of Milk River.

A cairn was created to honour the day when Canada received a new flag, and two years later for Canada’s Centennial. The rocks in the cairn came from many parts of North America, with petrified wood that had been found along the Milk River being used. When finished, it was 37 tons, ran 12 feet long, 6.5 feet high and 3.5 feet thick.

Interesting Stories

One thing I love about researching small towns is the unique stories you can discover, especially in the family histories. I wanted to relate some of those stories here.

Archibald Sinclair was born in Scotland and came to Canada as a young man to teach in Ontario. As a teacher in Ontario, he would teach a man named Arthur Meighen, who would go on to become the Prime Minister of Canada in the 1920s. Sinclair would eventually settle in the Milk River area during the same time his former pupil was leading the nation.

Milk River holds an important distinction in Canadian history because it was at Milk River that Chief Crowfoot and commissioners with the government met for the first time. This meeting happened in 1874 as the NWMP conducted their March West.

When the first Milk River School opened its doors on Jan. 10, 1910, 47 students were enrolled and the door was opened to all but Vern Hunt rode into school on his horse, resulting in his prompt expulsion from the school, along with his horse.

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