It was one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Canadian West, but from that would come an iconic symbol of Canada. At the same time, the outlaw nature of the Wild West of America would be stopped. Sadly, it all began with the slaughter of Indigenous in the Cypress Hills in an event now known as the Cypress Hills Massacre.
For centuries, the Cypress Hills had been an important meeting place for the Indigenous of the Canadian West. Today, it straddles the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan in the south, but long ago it was just a beautiful spot on the landscape. During the early Paleogene era millions of years ago, as the Rocky Mountains were finishing their formation, they created rivers that deposited a sheet of sand and gravel across the area. In this semi-arid environment, giant tortoises lived because of the minimal freezing temperatures. Roughly 10 million years ago, an uplift begin that eroded the surrounding gravel plain, leaving this remnant of an older landscape. When the Ice Age came, the top of the Cypress Hill was never covered by glacier ice, this created an ecosystem similar to what is seen in the Rocky Mountains as a result.
Today, the land is covered in lodgepole pine forests, which were used by the Indigenous for sleds and tent lodges. The Blackfoot called the land i-kim-e-kooy, which means striped earth, or earth over earth, while the Cree called it manatakaw, which means beautiful upland. The Assiniboine called it wazihe. All of these names show its importance as a meeting place.
All of this had changed by the early-1870s. The bison were gone, the Indigenous were being pushed to reserves, and whiskey traders were coming up from the United States, upsetting the way of life of the Indigenous. Along with the whiskey, those traders would sometimes bring violence.
During the early 1870s, small independent companies began to trade whiskey with the Indigenous in the southwestern portion of the North West Territories, located in what would today be Alberta and Saskatchewan. The trade began with American fur traders, who brought in whiskey as part of the fur trade. These strong and cheap liquors benefited the traders who were able to make better deals in trade, but for the Indigenous the alcohol brought disease, poverty and malnutrition. To capitalize on this as much as possible, small forts were set up by the Americans on Canadian soil. The most famous of these was Fort Whoop-Up, which was built in 1869 by John Healy. Officially serving as a trading post, this first fort would burn down within a year and a second fort was built soon after at a cost of $25,000. Situated near to where Lethbridge is today, the traders would brew a drink called Whoop-Up Bug Juice, an alcohol spiked with ginger, molasses and red pepper. It was then coloured black with chewing tobacco, watered down and boiled. While there was legal trading that occurred here, the trade of alcohol with the Indigenous was rampant. Other whiskey trading forts were set up including Robber’s Roost at the junction of the belly and Oldman River, Weatherwax’s Post, Fort Spitzee near current High River, another post in the Cypress Hills and one near Blackfoot Crossing.
At the same time that whiskey traders were coming into Canada, wolf hunters were doing the same, wiping out massive populations of the species throughout the prairies. These hunters would kill bison, then poison the meat of the bison. At this point they waited for wolves to eat the meat and die. The wolves would be skinned, and bounties collected, amounting to $2.50 per hide. The dogs of the Indigenous would often eat the meat and die, which added extra hardships to the Indigenous who already dealt with the declining bison numbers. For the wolfers, they saw little issue with it.
It was in this environment that everything would change in 1873.
In the spring of that year, a small party of wolfers, led by Thomas Hardwick and John Evans, were coming back through the area from their winter hunt. Camping near the Teton River, their horses disappeared in the night. The next morning, as they found their horses gone, the wolfers believed they had been stolen by Indigenous. About 40 of the horses had disappeared, and its possible they had been taken by local Cree, for the wolfers there was little difference between any Indigenous, and they saw all Indigenous as the same group.
Believing that the Indigenous had taken the horses over the border into Canada, they decided to set out to get the horses back.
Walking on foot to Fort Benton in the Montana Territory, they were told by the authorities that they would not assist them, so Hardwick organized his own expedition to find the horses. A group of 13 men, including some Canadians, set out from the fort and traveled north. Eventually, they would reach the trading post of Abe Farwell, located in the Cypress Hills. Across the creek was the fort of Moses Solomon. The Assiniboine in the area, who had dealt with a harsh winter and were low on food, like Farwell but did not trust Solomon, who they said had cheated him. There were reports they even fired at his post. The Assiniboine had come from the north, where one-third of their number had been wiped out by smallpox.
While at the trading post, they met George Hammond, a whiskey trader who was friends with Hardwick. He quickly joined the group in pursuit of the horses.
Farwell, for his part, told Evans and Hardwick that the local Assiniboine, led by a man called Little Soldier, had no horses with them. A quick search was conducted of the Assiniboine camp and the wolfers horses were not found. In the night, the wolfers and whiskey traders began to drink whiskey with some Metis traders who had recently arrived. Farwell remained sober as those around him drank, including Solomon.
In the evening, the horse of Hammond wandered off.
In the morning of June 1, Hammond said that Little Soldier and his men had stolen his horse and he began to travel to the camp of Little Soldier, telling the other wolfers to follow him, which they did. Solomon also joined in the march towards the Indigenous camp. According to one story of the massacre, Alexis Labombarde, one of the Metis in the area, found Hammond’s horse had only wandered away. He called towards the men as they rushed towards the Assiniboine camp, but it was too late.
What happened next is up to debate as there is no reliable testimony from the next few hours. What is believed to have happened is that Farwell tried to restrain Hammond to prevent any violence, which he knew was coming. He was unsuccessful in stopping the men from proceeding to the camp. Hammond then approached the tent of Little Soldier and asked him where his horse was. Little Soldier then said he had not stolen the horse, and that it was grazing on a hill nearby.
Little Soldier then offered two horses as hostages until Hammond’s horse could be found.
At this point, Hammond and his party saw the women and children leaving the camp, and the men stripping off their garments, which they interpreted as a sign of impending battle.
The wolfers quickly lined up at a riverbank 50 yards from the camp ready to fight. Farwell begged the wolfers not to start shooting but instead of listening, Hammond fired his rifle, followed by the rest of the wolfers who fired a volley of bullets into the camp. The Assiniboine fired back, but their weapons were inferior and the wolfers were protected by the river bank.
The Assiniboine managed to outflank the wolfers, forcing them to a high cutbank northwest of their position but this didn’t prevent the slaughter of the Indigenous.
By the end of the gunfight, Ed Legrace, a wolfer, had been killed, while many Assiniboine were dead. The number is not known officially, but it is believed to be at least 20 people and as many as 30. If 30 were killed, likely twice as many were wounded. Some oral histories say it was as many as 300 people killed. Legrace was buried in a wooden coffin that is still located somewhere at the site, while the Assiniboine were left on the ground, with their bones dotting the landscape for years. According to some reports, the camp was rifled through and then burned by the wolfers. Some of the stories also relate that Little Soldier was killed and his head was put on a pike, while various women were assaulted by the wolfers. I couldn’t confirm if either of those events happened, which doesn’t mean they didn’t happen, but they could have also become embellishments on the story amid anti-American anger following discovery of the massacre by those in eastern Canada later in the year.
Another story of the battle states that Farwell had said he would negotiate to get two horses from the camp of Little Soldier, which Hammond would get until his horse was found. While he was negotiating with the Assiniboine, Hammond and the other men took up a position close to the camp. As Farwell left, possibly to tell Hammond what had been agreed to, shots rang out from Hammond’s position. In this story, Hammond had attempted to grab two horses from the camp, but he was stopped by an armed warrior and Hammond returned to the other wolfers who had lined up ready to fight. This story also features the variation that Farwell, realizing what was about to happen, told the Assiniboine to scatter.
It would be some time before news of the massacre reached to Ottawa. It was first reported by Farwell to authorities in Montana, who then reported it to Washington. The Assiniboine had fled to a Metis camp nearby, and the Metis would relay the news of the massacre to Winnipeg. By August of 1873, news had reached Ottawa from both Winnipeg and Washington. At first, it was believed that the massacre had occurred south of the Canadian border, but soon enough it was found that it was indeed in Canada and the matter was referred to Ottawa.
The Helena Herald ran a headline stating quote:
“Whites on the war path, forty lodges wiped out by 16 Kit Carsons.”
As the news reached the rest of Canada, anti-Americanism reached a fever pitch in the new country. The newspapers described the Americans as gangsters and scums. The shock that Americans would commit the crime on Canadian soil angered many, even though Canadians had taken part in the massacre as well. Canadians in Eastern Canada were led to believe that Americans would continually come into Canada to murder people.
The newspaper reports tended to increase the scale of the slaughter, with the Manitoba Free Press reporting more than 40 were murdered in the massacre.
On Oct. 23, several political leaders in the North West Territories held a session where the main topic of discussion was the Cypress Hills Massacre. The purpose of the meeting was to address the, quote:
The government then began to take steps to have those who had committed the massacre extradited to Canada and tried for murder.
Partially as a result of the massacre, the federal government would create the North West Mounted Police. It was not the only reason that the force was created though. As far back as 1871, Captain W.F. Butler had been sent by Lt. Governor Archibald out into the Northwest Territories to assess the region’s need for civil authority. He found that there was a need for it given the rampant American trader intrusion into the country. The Massacre would help push the government into action on this recommendation. On Sept. 25, 1873, an order-in-council was passed to appoint the first nine officers for the Mounted Police Force for the North West Territories. Recruitment soon began and by 1874, the Mounties would begin their March West. At the site of the massacre, Fort Walsh would be built in 1875. It was at this fort that Man Who Takes The Coat, Long Lodge and Lean Man signed Treaty 4.
The creation of the North West Mounted Police was a political move on the part of the government. Through the investigation of the massacre, the government wanted to show the Indigenous that they could trust the Canadian government, which would aid the government in its treaty negotiations throughout the next decade in preparation for the arrival of the transcontinental railway.
In December 1874, NWMP Assistant Commissioner James MacLeod was given permission to enter Helena, Montana Territory to begin an investigation. Seven arrests were made, but two men escaped custody. The remainder of the men were freed because there was not enough evidence to prove they had taken part in the massacre. The American government then refused to allow for extradition of the men. Instead, MacLeod was charged with false arrest, but these charges were dropped.
In June of 1875, two traders and a wolfer crossed into Canada and were arrested by the NWMP.
In October of 1875, the Manitoba Free Press reported that three men were on trial for the murder of Indigenous in the Cypress Hills in 1873, James Hughes, Philander Vogel and George Bell. The newspaper would state, quote:
During that trial, Farwell would give evidence against the wolfers, just as he had a year previous in Montana.
Due to the lack of evidence, the case collapsed, and the three men were acquitted. By 1882, the case had been dropped completely.
While the incident brought no charges, it pushed the creation of the North West Mounted Police and it ensured that Americans stopped coming into Canada to trade illegally.
In 1964, the site of the massacre was turned into a National Historic Site of Canada. Artifacts from the massacre are also found at the Fort Walsh National Historic Site. RCMP Commissioner Stuart Wood would be a major reason that the site would become a National Historic Site. According to his son, he spent years gathering evidence of the events of the massacre, which he used to place together the location of the trading post, the buildings and the event that took place. He would also spend many days sifting through the dirt at various locations reported to be the massacre site. In the process, he found a bull chain, buttons, eye glasses and a gun.
The massacre would be portrayed in The Canadians, a 20th Century Fox movie filmed near Maple Creek, close to the massacre site, in 1960. In the movie, the wolfers were replaced by a rancher and three hired men.
Little is known about what happened to any of the wolfers who had committed the massacre, but Farwell would continue to live in the Cypress Hills area and carried mail for the North West Mounted Police between Fort MacLeod and Fort Benton. He would eventually re-enter the trading business, setting up a post near a creek that now carries his name in the Cypress Hills.
Information from the Scenic Geology of Alberta, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Native American Roots, Manitoba Free Press, From Sage to Timber, The Early West, Strange Empire, History of Saskatchewan and the Old North West, Maple Creek and Area, The University of Saskatchewan, the Toronto Star,