The RCMP Quarterly Vol. 30 January 1965
The Early North-West Mounted Police
By Captain Cecil E. Denny
The organization of the North-West Mounted Police in the year 1873 in Toronto, Ontario, and their march west the following year to the country between Manitoba and Rocky Mountains to put a stop to the illicit whisky traffic being carried on by American traders from Montana with the Indians of the plains, is now fairly well known.
The Force consisted of 300 Officers, NCOs and men, divided into six troops of 5 men in each. Our march was westward from the province of Manitoba. There were no trails in those days so we had to take guides with us, but we found after passing the Cypress Hills that these so-called guides knew nothing of the country beyond that point, which we soon discovered was inhabited by savage and warlike tribes of Blackfoot and other Indians who subsisted entirely on the buffalo, which as that period, roamed the plains in immense herds.
There were no white men in this territory with the exception of the “whisky-traders from the south, who had built very strong stockade forts on some of the rivers, and their chief rendezvous was a fort named “Whoop-Up,” located at the junction of the St. Mary and Oldman rivers. This was our objective, our first work being to arrest and punish these lawless traders and put a stop to the miserable traffic, and this, as is now well known, we succeeded in doing in the years that followed.
On our way westward, we met a number of members of the International Boundary Survey Expedition who were then returning homeward, having that year completed the demarcation of the boundary line on the 49th parallel of latitude between the United States and Canada. They were accompanied across the plains by American troops, without who protection the work would not have been possible, as the wild Indians were most of the time on the war path and were not at all backward in attacking any party of whites they came across who might appear unable to defend themselves. We finally located a site for our headquarters, some distance above Fort Whoop-Up on the Oldman river, west of where it is joined by Willow Creek, which post we named Fort Macleod in honor of our Commanding Officer. This was in the fall of 1874.
Three troops, “B” “C” and “F” came west and troop “A” left us at Roche Percee, west of the border of Manitoba and went north to the Saskatchewan and up that river to Fort Edmonton. The following year this troop, under the command of Supt. W. D. Jarvis, and “D” and “F” troops under the Commissioner, Lt.-Col. G. A. French, returned from the Cypress country and wintered near Fort Pelly, building the Swan River barracks.
In the country west of the Cypress Hills, as I have previously stated, there were no white men except the whisky traders and no trails of any kind other than those made by the buffalo. The prairie was fairly alive with game and the rivers full of fish, and so for several years the buffalo furnished us with our fresh meat supply, as no cattle were brought in for some years after our arrival.
All supplies were freighted in by bull teams from Fort Benton, Montana, and these were brought up the Missouri River to Benton by steamer in the summer. Our mail, which we were lucky to get once a month, also came by way of Benton, our nearest railroad at the time being some 500 miles to the south.
We were late in completing the building at Fort Macleod and our horses were in poor condition after our arduous march. They were sent to Sun River, Montana, to winter in the care of Maj. J. M. Walsh. We purchased some cayuses for our work amongst the Indians, who, by the way, we saw little of, and our time was fully occupied hunting down the reckless and daring whisky traders.
When these outlaws were captured, their buffalo robes, teams and wagons would be confiscated, and if the men could not pay their fines, they were imprisoned in our guardrooms which were kept full all winter. Long-term prisoners had to be sent the following summer across the plains to the nearest penitentiary, which was at Stony Mountain near Winnipeg, for many years the only one in the west.
In the spring of 1875, Major Walsh with his troop went east to the Cypress Hills and built Fort Walsh. This was a noted place for the Indians to congregate: the Crees and Assiniboines from the east, the Sioux from the south and sometimes the Blackfoot from the West.
The Cypress Hills country had long been a bloody battle ground for the various tribes for generations past. Peigans, Bloods and Blackfoot proper comprised the Blackfoot Nation and were known as the Plains Indians. The Sarcees, who numbered about 1,200 strong, lived and hunted and had been at peace with the Blackfoot for many years. This tribe came originally from the Peace River country. There was also the tribe of Stoney Indian, numbering over 1,500, who lived together near the mountains, not going far from the foothills or out on the plains on account of the Blackfoot whose hereditary enemies they were.
We found the main camping-ground and the winter camping place of the Blackfoot was at what we named Blackfoot Crossing, on the Bow river where the town of Gleichen is now located. It took this name at the first treaty with the western Indians in the year 1877, the Blackfoot called this place “Si-ok-pa-qui,” which means ridge-under-the-water,” and it had been a camping and burying ground for generations. It was the point where traders with liquor would go, therefore the police were determined to build a fort and occupy it with one troop at some point on the Bow river not too far from this crossing. In the spring of 1875, “F” Troop, to which I belonged was ordered for this duty – Inspector Brisebois and myself being the two officers of this troop.
We left Fort Macleod in August of that year with 50 men, about 60 horses, wagons, tents, provisions and baggage. Jerry Potts, our half-breed guide and Colonel Macleod accompanied us. We struck the Bow river first at about the mouth of High River, but failed to find a suitable building site at that point. It was decided to cross the river and we had to ferry over all our equipment by dismantling our wagons and using the wagon-boxes – with the wagon-sheets which had been well greased lashed around the boxes – two wagon-boxes being fastened together with strong ropes. By swimming our horses and transporting our supplies and baggage in our improvised ferry boat, we did good work, crossing everything in one day.
From this point we struck north to the Red Deer River, camping there for a week at the mouth of Tail Creek on the southside. Colonel Macleod had received word that Maj. Gen. E. Selby-Smyth (Commander of the Canadian militia) had passed up the Saskatchewan River to Fort Saskatchewan and from there he would proceed south to Fort Macleod and return to the east by way of Fort Benton and the Missouri River. We were instructed to meet him with his escort of police, who were all picked from Superintendent Jarvis’ troop, at a point on the Red Deer River where there was a good ford and the spot where the city of Red Deer is now situated.
We travelled up the Red Deer on the south side to this point and had to wait a considerable time for the arrival of the party. Colonel Macleod left u here and accompanied General Selby-Smyth’s party, taking the same trail we had made and crossing the Bow River at the same place. Our instructions were to proceed south to Bow River with “F” troop, our half-breed guides knowing of a good open site on that river on which to build a fort. After locating the place, we were to send word to Fort Macleod, when bull teams would be sent up with men to cut logs and build a stockade fort.
We arrived on the north side of the Bow River in mid-August, just opposite where the city of Calgary now stands; it certainly was a wonderful site- a broad open valley on the south side up and down the Bow with the Elbow River running into the Bow from the south and the Rocky Mountains standing like sentinels along the western horizon. At that time there was plenty of good timber along the Bow and Elbow Rivers, principally pine and Cottonwood. When we looked down the hill over-looking the Bow valley on the north side, the scene was a most impressive one.
The valley where the city of Calgary now stands was actually black with moving bands of buffalo, and these extended to the south on the hills as far as the eye could see and the same to the east on the Elbow River.
Up the Bow River there was a heavy forest of spruce and pine, just about where Shagganappi Point is – a name by the way afterwards given this locality by us – it being a favorite camping ground for the half-breeds who used shaganappi – raw-hide buffalo skin – for many purposes, but particularly for lashing together their red river carts; one small tent pitched near the mouth of the Elbow River was the only sign of human habitation.
This tent we afterwards found out was occupied by a Catholic priest, the Rev. Father Doucet, who had been sent south from Edmonton with an Indian boy to make his way to our fort at Macleod. You may be sure that he was glad to see us, not being anxious to meet any parties of Blackfoot. Fortunately he had so far not encountered any as the Indians were still far out on the open plains to the southeast after buffalo. It must be remembered at that date, the Hudson’s Bay Company had no trading posts south of Edmonton, which was then only a strong stockade fort, built of logs close to and over-looking the Saskatchewan, not far from where the CPR high level bridge now crosses the river and just below the ideal and commanding site of the Alberta Legislative buildings. Richard Hardisty was the Chief Factor of this post, but the company did very little trade with the Plains Indians unless parties of them came north especially to trade their robes, which they did occasionally.