By: Lauchlan J. Currie
Southern Alberta is generally considered a safe, peaceful place to live. But before the arrival of the North West Mounted Police in 1874, Alberta was a lawless territory. Its first white residents were primarily whiskey traders who sold spirits to the Blackfoot Indians, and wolfers who hunted wolves on the prairies. In contrast to Montana, where law and order prohibited the sale of whiskey to natives, the whiskey trade was vibrant and growing north of the border in the North West Territories (Alberta). The wolfers were also earning a good living. Men did not so much hunt wolves, but trapped and killed them by sprinkling strychnine on the carcasses of dead buffalo, leaving the poisoned meat on the prairie for the wolf packs to eat. Not only wolves died from the poison; so did valuable dogs owned by the Blackfoot Indians. As expected, the natives were not pleased with this activity, and a huge conflict arose between the wolfers and natives. The conflict was exacerbated by whiskey traders selling guns to the natives.
In response to the escalation of armed conflict with the natives, the wolfers decided to set up the first “provisional government” in southern Alberta, in reality a vigilante group that policed firearm sales to the natives. Based near High River, this group was made up primarily of American Civil War veterans who called themselves the Spitzee Cavalry (“Spitzee” translates to High River in the Blackfoot language).
The wolfers issued a decree saying that selling firearms to the natives was prohibited. Traders were forced at gun point to sign pledges agreeing they would not sell guns to the Blackfoot. Most traders agreed to the ultimatum, but not all. John Healy who ran Fort Whoop-up, the infamous whiskey trading fort near modern day Lethbridge, was challenged by the Spitzee Cavalry to stop selling firearms. Legend has it that when the wolfers surrounded his fort and threatened to attack, Healy calmly invited the mob in for dinner. After the meal, the Spitzee group told Healy that he was guilty of breaking the law of selling guns to the natives. Healy confronted the Spitzee Cavalry on their right to enact laws. He then threatened to fire a cannon, concealed in his wall, at his guests if they bothered him anymore. The wolfers decided further debate wasn’t worth the risk and quietly left, never threatening Healy again.
Members of the Spitzee Cavalry were also responsible for the infamous Cypress Hills Massacre. A number of wolfers were camped in Montana when a group of natives stole their horses in the middle of the night. The wolfers tracked the natives to the Cypress Hills in Alberta, but eventually lost their trail. After an evening of hard drinking, the men attacked innocent natives who had nothing to do with the original horse theft. A total of 25 innocent people died, and this atrocity inspired the Canadian government to send a new police force, the NWMP, to establish law and order in the west.
Every July, a group of about 40 Calgarians gather to reconvene the Spitzee Cavalry. With a much more benign agenda, they hire Dewy Matthews and his stock from Anchor D Outfitters and ride horses on a trail ride in Kananaskis Country. There are generally no confrontations with wolves or natives, but some whiskey is often consumed and stories shared of the legendary days when the Spitzee Cavalry was the law of the land in Southern Alberta.