When the West Was Wild
Imagine what it must have been like:
To move across the vast open prairies only as fast as your feet could carry you, following the sea of buffalo that sustain you. Sometimes – if you’re lucky – managing to actually herd those buffalo. To send them where you wanted them to go.
To their deaths.
So that you could live.
For about six thousand years, long before horses or the white man arrived, and even before the pyramids of Egypt, Blackfoot people gathered near Fort Macleod to slowly channel buffalo herds in a complex process that ended by stampeding them over a cliff. The carcasses provided food, shelter, and tools to the people to support a nomadic confederacy that encompassed all of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, and south as far as Yellowstone.
Relive what buffalo hunting was like in pre-history with a visit to the World Heritage site of ‘Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump.’ See the actual cliffs, watch a video explaining the many roles in the hunt, walk the ‘lanes’ with an interpreter, and, in a new program, “Run with the Buffalo,” relive what the bravest hunters did to stampede the herd in its final moments.
Of horses, and horsemen
As the Blackfoot tell the story, their people didn’t know at first what the horse was. Scouts would return and say, “There’s an animal that looks like an elk, and people are sitting on it and going places! It does the work of a dog, but carrying bigger travois.” So in the descriptive language of the Blackfoot, they combined elk: ponoka; and dog: iimiitaa, to make ponokaiimiitaa – horse.
With the horse and, eventually, the rifle, the communal hunt of the buffalo jumps fell by the wayside. Clan leaders didn’t have to come together to plan a hunt – with a horse and gun they could do it alone. Sadly, with trade also came strange new diseases that killed the majority of their people and, as the Americans were conquering their west, another scourge.
Flash forward to the late 1800’s: America had expanded west to what would become Montana. The first American traders to the Blackfoot grow rich on buffalo robes acquired from the various tribes, sometimes trading a beautifully worked robe for nothing more than a cup of rotgut ‘Bug Juice.’ The biggest culprits were from what became known as Fort ‘Whoop Up,’ near today’s Lethbridge. ‘Whoop Up Bug Juice’ was a potent mix of whiskey, chewing tobacco, molasses, red pepper, Jamaican ginger, and a dash of red ink!
New horsemen on the plains
The North West Mounted Police force (NWMP) eventually became today’s RCMP. Created in 1873, the mounted force’s mission was to trek to the vast territories recently purchased by Canada from the Hudson’s Bay Company, in part to make it safe for settlers to move-in, and partly to quell rising violence fuelled, or often perpetrated, by the traders – amid growing concerns that America would claim the land for itself.
The NWMP column arrived after a long and brutal journey and built what they dubbed ‘Fort MacLeod’ on October 11, 1874. Everyone knew ‘the Mounties’ were coming and uncertain of the outcome, natives and whisky traders alike hid. Upon arrival the Mounties did not encounter the cannon-wielding American occupation force they feared they might.
“This is a wild, wild region. We are right up in the country of the Blackfeet Indians, surrounded on various sides by the forts of the whiskey traders, against whom we have come – men of the most degraded and desperate character, who make their money selling the rankest poison to the poor Indian.”*
Such is how Mountie surgeon R.B. Nevitt described the wild country and their purpose. Not all the whiskey had disappeared, of course, and the police were kept busy arresting and hunting traders. It was not an easy post.
Soon after, the first of what was to become the Mountie’s famous ‘Musical Ride’ took place at the new fort – without an audience! Precision drilling on the horses was seen merely as a way to instill discipline. The tradition continues to this day, and can be seen reenacted at the Fort MacLeod museum all summer. Visitors can even participate with the horses for an up-close experience of being a ‘mountie.’
In early days, getting separated from your friends or your horse, especially during winter, could be a harrowing, or downright fatal, experience. The newcomers had little expertise in how to live off the land!
At least one policeman froze to death during those first winters. His horse returned to Fort Macleod, but he did not. In blizzards, one Mountie noted, you could lose a man three feet away.
A town preserved
With the redcoats firmly established, Fort Macleod quickly sprung out of nothing. By 1884, it had its first pharmacist, a young man named J.D. Higinbotham, whose book, called “When The West Was Young” provides fascinating and often humorous insights into the hardships of life for early settlers in Canada.
Today you see a town that looks much as it did during its heyday around the first world war. As with many towns in Southern Alberta, Fort Macleod bet too big on its early future, and found itself bankrupt in the 1920’s. As part of a deal to save the town, it was forbidden to build new facilities for fifty years! Which makes today’s main street, and Alberta’s oldest running theatre in The Empress, a prime location for movie and TV filming.
At Head Smashed In, you can imagine life before the horse. In Fort Macleod, you can imagine life as an early pioneer.
By: Allen R. Gibson
* R.B. Nevitt ‘A winter at Fort McLeod.’ C. 1974. Glenbow-Alberta Institute.
With thanks to Quinton Crow Shoe for the stories of his people. And Sandi
Davis of Fort Macleod.