Experience the Old Forts Trail
The history of forts in North America is a long and complex one. Rivalries, sometimes brutal, were common between fur trading companies, European nations, and First Nations.
Starting with the arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1670, the fur trade quickly became a rapacious, productive, and not entirely a peaceful process. Just as in today’s world, individual nation’s economies rose and fell depending on their trading relationships or fortuitous geography.
In eastern Canada, Iroquois and Cree Nations, for example, prospered in the early days from their relationship with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Eventually, as their own lands were depleted of viable furs, the HBC encouraged their indigenous suppliers to migrate westward, either peaceably or forcefully, into new hunting grounds. By 1774, many forts were being established is now today’s Alberta by both the HBC at Fort Edmonton and their bitter rivals the Northwest Company at Fort Chipewyan north of Fort McMurray.
Aided by their European muskets, the Cree Nation’s westward expansion eventually brought them into contact, and often conflict, with the Blackfoot confederacy, a nation covering much of what is now southern Alberta and Saskatchewan and as far south as Yellowstone in southern Montana. The antipathy between these two nations helped shape the story of Canada’s west for over a hundred years.
When the Blackfoot dared to travel northward to HBC’s Fort Edmonton to trade they did so in force out of concern over conflict. But trade they did. For the allure of European goods
was compelling. ‘Thunder sticks’, or rifles, were the iPhones of their day, an absolutely essential piece of technology helping transform one’s life, specifically in the ability to hunt and feed a family – or to engage in war.
By the 1830’s, the Blackfoot Confederacy was seen as North America’s last great untapped market by a new wave of fort builders – American fur and whiskey traders. Prohibited by law from trading whiskey to U.S. tribes, they would haul their goods in large wagons overland to Canadian territory where there was no cavalry to bother them.
For early traders, like those at the notorious ‘Fort Whoop-Up’, which was originally built by Americans and known as Fort Hamilton near today’s Lethbridge, the new market was a gold mine! Buffalo fur robes that might take a native woman many months to create, were purchased sometimes for just a cup of rotgut whiskey. Their worth increased immensely once shipped
south. In one winter during the first days of this fort, more than 70 Blackfoot died or were killed as a result of drunkenness!
These American incursions led to two significant events in the late 1800’s. They were the last great Indian battle in North America, and the creation of Canada’s mounted police force to reassert control of the border and quell the rising violence.
First, the battle: By 1870, the Blackfoot had endured bouts of smallpox devastating their population. Seeing an opportunity, Cree forces and their allies invaded. But when the battle was fully engaged, the Cree realized the Blackfoot were armed with American repeating rifles from nearby Fort Whoop-Up, while the Cree had single shot muskets. The battle became a slaughter with as many as 300 to 400 invaders killed.
Three years later, another violent incident perpetrated by American wolf hunters, or ‘wolfers’, known as the Cypress Hills Massacre encouraged the government in Ontario to send a force of men to establish law and order. The ‘Mounties’ did just that, starting in 1874. They built forts of their own – Fort Walsh near the Cypress Hills, Fort MacLeod near Lethbridge, and eventually Fort Calgary.
At first the natives were glad to see the North West Mounted Police, as they quickly put an end to both intertribal violence and the predations of the whiskey traders. But with the arrival of European ‘law and order,’ the Blackfoot tribes were unable to enforce their own justice, and soon metis and other native tribes were encroaching on traditional Blackfoot territory. Including, two years after the Mounties’ arrival, the escaping Sioux from the Battle of the Little Big Horn, known as Custer’s last stand, which happened in nearby Montana.
Visitors today can get an idea of what a ‘Wal-Mart of 1870’ would have looked like with a visit to the reconstructed Fort Whoop-Up in Lethbridge, and of the life of the early Mounties through visits to Fort MacLeod, where they reenacts the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Musical Ride all summer, Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills, or Fort Calgary.
Oldfortstrail.com provides information on many of the southern fur-trading forts, and the RCMP outposts established to curtail their trade.
By Allen R. Gibson