Photo from Glenbow Archives
In the 1860s, prospectors from Montana crossed the border into what is now Southern Alberta. Many supplemented their search for gold by trading whiskey for buffalo hides and robes ─ a practice by then outlawed in America.
Early profits were huge, and soon posts were built to capitalize on the buffalo robe trade in the northern Blackfoot territories. Fort Whoop-Up and its ilk threatened the stability of the western plains, and the growing American presence worried Canada’s government.
Some traders became fabulously wealthy off the sale of buffalo skin robes to Eastern American society. Others found the Blackfoot savvy bargainers, smart enough to prosper from the white man’s goods in their own trading relationships.
But whiskey and repeating rifles were a dangerous combination, with terrible consequences for the plains tribes. Smallpox and whiskey decimated the population, and the repeating rifles rained death on hundreds of Cree and their allies at the great “Battle of the Belly River,” yards away from Fort Whoop-Up.
To safeguard their claim to these lands, and to put a stop to the threatening violence, a force was sent west – the 300 men of the red-coated North West Mounted Police: Canada’s famous Mounties.
Perfect Spot for a Trading Post
Fort Whoop-Up’s original proprietors, Healy and Hamilton, arrived at the junction of the St. Mary’s and Belly Rivers in 1869 with 30 men and six wagons. The site was a favorite winter camping area of the Blood and Peigan tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy, and a perfect spot to set up a trading post.
By the time Healy and Hamilton returned to Fort Benton, Montana, six months later, they had buffalo robes and furs worth almost $50,000!
Word of their success reached other traders and soon the ‘robe trade’ in Southern Alberta was in full swing. The buffalo robe era is brought to life at the fort. Buffalo robes, “Indian Tanned” by native women, were works of high craftsmanship, and fetched a pretty penny in the markets of the eastern United States. Some, though not many, of the whiskey traders became wealthy off this trade, but the real beneficiaries were American ‘merchant princes’ who funded, and controlled,almost every aspect of the business north of the border. I.G. Baker and Co. and T.C. Power and Bro. exercised virtual monopolies, owning everything from the forts to the wagon trains to the steam boats which hauled their goods from Fort Benton up and down the Missouri River to St. Louis.
Today’s Fort Whoop-Up in Lethbridge, Alberta stands almost on top of the site of the last great battle between large groups of Cree and Blackfoot tribes. Hoping to take advantage of the huge losses suffered by Blackfoot tribes from smallpox epidemics, Cree warriors and allies invaded in 1870. The Battle of the Belly River saw hundreds of the invading Cree force wiped out by the better-armed local tribes.
Enter the Famous Red-Coated Mounties
The military might of the tribes did not go unnoticed by the governments of the day on both sides of the border. The Canadian government in faraway Ottawa eventually decided that something must be done to establish law and order in the northwest, and to cement Canada’s claim to the territory in the face of possible American expansionism. Thus the “North West Mounted Police” forces was created and sent out to quell Whoop-Up.
The Mounties, as they eventually became known, did not have the best of beginnings!
Recruited mostly from the settled towns of the east, the men had no experience or skills in living on the vast prairie, and their trek west was filled with hardships, and hunger. Life as a Mountie was no piece of cake, and it didn’t get much better for years. But the men, in their scarlet tunics, were visible representatives of the Queen. As such, they did much to cement a largely peaceful settlement of the Canadian territories.
It was less than two years after the Mounties arrived in late 1874 that the famous battle at the Little Bighorn River took place just to the south in the Montana Territory. After Custer’s Last Stand, thousands of Sioux drifted north into Canada, seeking shelter from the revenge of the American Cavalry. But they were not welcomed by the Canadian government, and refused treaty rights, most either died of starvation or returned to U.S reservations.
The Root of Canadian Plains Culture
Fort Whoop-Up played a role in the transformation of the native cultures of Canada’s plains, both by arming regional Blackfoot tribes and by supplying them with the killer drink, whiskey. In one winter during the first days of the fort, more than 70 Blackfoot men and women died or were killed as a result of drunkenness.
The rifles the American traders supplied changed the dynamics of life on the prairies ─ by allowing both more buffalo to be killed and more deadly intertribal warfare!
I make no excuse for the whiskey trade. It was wrong, all wrong, and none realized it better than we when we were dispensing the stuff. It caused untold suffering, many deaths, and great demoralization among the people of the plains. There was but one redeeming feature about it: The trade was at a time when it did not deprive them of the necessities of life, there was always more meat, more fur to had for the killing of it. In comparison with various government officials and rings, who robbed and starved the Indians to death on their reservations after the buffalo disappeared, we were saints. –James Willard Schultz
For many years, our forefathers fought and chased away any people who tried to come onto our lands. Then, we let some of our white friends come onto our lands. Soon the buffalo were gone and our lives changed forever. –Oral history of the Blackfoot