RCMP April 1941
From Out Our Storied Past p. 418-422
An authority on the history of the Cypress Hills district here recounts an exciting incident in the life of the early North West Mounted Police. Mr. Shepherd is a Director of the Saskatchewan Historical Society.
By George Shepherd
One of the most conspicuous officers during the formative years of the Force was Supt J. M. Walsh. His coolness and determination in the face of overwhelming odds were renowned. The idol of his men, Walsh was among those who set the high mark that has endured in the Mounted Police to the present time. It is an honour and a privilege to set forth an incident which assisted greatly in establishing the prestige of the Police among the Indians and white dwellers sixty-odd years ago.
Towards the end of May, 1877, a band of Cree and Saulteaux Indians, after a northern expedition of a few days, camped thirty miles north-east of the newly-founded Fort Walsh. They had heard that several large encampments of strange Indians were situated around the Cypress Hills near Fort Walsh. The Crees and Saulteaux, fearful for the safety of their own encampment, prevailed upon their leader, Little Child, a good and reliable man, with his other chiefs to call upon the Mounted Police at Fort Walsh. The visitors were informed that law was now established in the country; that to guarantee his safety; that Indians must cease making war on one another also, that it was wrong to regard every white man as an enemy at the conclusion of the pow-wow the delegation returned to their camp obviously well pleased.
Soon afterwards, however, a tribe of American Assiniboines came from the Bear Paw Mountains in pursuit of buffalo and pitched their camp of some 200 lodges about half a mile away. A law unto themselves, they had little or no respect for the white man’s authority. Although the newcomers belonged to a United States agency, they ordered the small band of Canadian Saulteaux and Crees to join their camp and conform to Assiniboine hunting rules.
To govern the hunt, dictate the laws, and be in a position to enforce obedience, was the great ambition of every camp chief. Under reasonable and wise guidance such a course was often permissible; but the alien chief, Broken Arm, aimed to absorb all smaller tribes and assume exclusive power in the Cypress Hills district.
When Little Child refused to join the Assiniboines, Broken Arm retired to his camp and shortly afterwards returned accompanied by over 150 warriors in full war costume. He again demanded that the Saulteaux chief and his following join the Assiniboines.
And although Little Child had but thirty braves to meet this threat, he replied, “I will not. You have no right to order me to do so. I am a British Indian and am on British soil. I do not know you and will not submit to your commands. The only chief I will obey is the White Chief (Supt Walsh) at Fort Walsh.”
“You will obey me this day,” Broken Arm insisted, “and when your red-coated friends come to my camp you will be there to see how I use them.”
At this, the Assiniboines attacked the camp, tearing down the lodges, shooting the dogs and horses. The Canadian Indians prudently fled into the woods with their women and children. By offering no resistance they probably saved their lives. After moving his people to a place of safety, Little Child rode to Fort Walsh and reported the matter to Supt Walsh. Broken Arm had made the boast that he would cut out Walsh’s heart and eat it, if the latter dared to come to his camp.
“We’ll see about that later,” the Superintendent remarked.
In less than an hour, Walsh, with Sub-Inspr Edwin Allen, Surgeon Kittson and twenty-five men of other ranks were en route to the Assiniboine camp. At eleven o’clock that night, after a march of forty miles, the police, with Little Child as guide, reached the site where the violence had occurred. A halt was made. The men dismounted, while the scouts and some Indians reconnoitred in the dark. Soon they returned with information that the Assiniboine camp had moved northward. The party immediately resumed their march and cautiously followed the trail. After about an hour another halt was made. Horses, guarded by a strong picket, were unsaddled and they again hit the trail. As they moved slowly along the valley flanked on either side by large hills, Scout Louis Lavailler and Little Child who headed the column sighted the Assiniboine camp just as dawn was breaking.
A third halt was made. Sub-Inspr Allen instructed the men to have breakfast and feed the horses. Meanwhile the Superintendent and Louis Lavailler ascended a hill and surveyed the scene below. It made a perfect picture. Two hundred lodges nestled in a clearing fringed by young cottonwoods; a tiny stream coursed along the base of the beautiful plateau stretched before them, with grass verdant as late May could make it. Everything was still, silent. No sound disturbed the slumbering braves who had performed their war dance until a late hour.
From the hilltop the police could see the war lodge in the centre of the camp circle. Although the patrol were greatly out-numbered, they decided to attempt the capture of Broken Arm at once. They planned to seize the Chief and his attendant Indians in a surprise arrest and then remove them before a general alarm sounded. To be successful, the war lodge must be surrounded before the police were discovered.
Immediately after breakfast, the men stole along a narrow valley which permitted them to pass unobserved to within 400 yards of the camp’s east end. A small butte about a half mile away, near a tiny lake, was selected as the place to which the police would retire with their captives. Dr. Kittson, two men and a scout were stationed here with instructions to commence building a breastwork of stones the moment an alarm was raised or the party discovered. Suitable stones lay about; but it was necessary to defer erecting the barricade to avoid all risk of rousing the sleepers. Should it be seen that the coup de main was unsuccessful, the scout was to ride at full speed to Fort Walsh with an order for the entire command to hasten to their assistance. Dr. Kittson was to hold his ground at all cost, thereby providing a rallying point to which the men could retire in a body or singly if hard pressed or separated. As the courageous detachment proceeded on their dangerous mission, they said good-bye to Dr. Kittson and his men, no doubt with considerable uncertainty that they would meet again.
Sub-Inspr Allen examined arms, then gave orders to load carbines and revolvers. The former were loaded with ball buck. The men were then fully instructed regarding the movement to be made and the part each was expected to play. The necessity of complete silence, strict attention to orders, and their immediate execution was impressed upon them, if success was to be obtained.
The little body of determined troopers then ascended the hill and came in full view of the camp.
The Police walked their horses carefully forward. All was deathly still among the Indian lodges. Nothing stirred. Twenty-two scarlet-coated riders brilliantly bright in the morning sunshine. With confidence in every heart, they were now advancing against a force twenty times their number. No twenty-two men since the days of early Greece ever showed more valour. A British officer had pledged his word that all who put themselves under the protection of their country’s law would be safe. This law had been violated, and the upholders of the White Mother’s sovereignty were ready to bring the offenders to justice or die in the attempt. The suspense, while crossing the narrowing strip of prairie from the hill to their objective, was fraught with intense uncertainty. The neigh of a horse or the rattle of a curb-chain would have been sufficient to warn the sleeping redskins. But even the horses seemed to sense the danger, as they moved quietly onward.
Like wraiths, the riders pressed gently on, using neither rein nor spur. One by one, they passed through the outer circle of the camp. Here and there a dog barked, but the war lodge was reached, surrounded. The crucial moment had arrived. Ten stalwart troopers, already detailed for the purpose, dismounted and disappeared under the edge of the big lodge, entering it from every side. The reclining warriors were seized before they could even rise. Broken Arm and twenty-five braves were whisked away while the alarm spread among the other tribesman.
At the fearless surgeon’s post on the hill, the prisoners were shackled in pairs – until the supply of manacles was exhausted. The horses were hastily unsaddled and tied close together in the centre of the small barricade. Every man set to with all his energy, building a breastwork of stones and earth, topped off with saddles. The prisoners were forced to carry stones.
And soon all was ready. Dr. Kittson, his medicine chest opened, got ready lint and bandages. He also had charge of the ammunition boxes which were placed handy for use. Sub-Inspr Allen spoke inspiringly to the men, imparted instructions concerning their procedure in cast of attack. The guide and interpreter listened intently to the shouts of the minor chiefs remaining in the Indian camp; they appeared to be inciting the others to attack. Great commotion reigned among the Indians. The situation threatened to become more serious. Indians in hundreds advanced toward the little fort, then halted. Some headmen approached and arrogantly demanded to know the reason for the arrests. The intrepid superintendent, with nothing in his hands but a pair of gloves, passed through the line of Police and explained to the Indians why the arrests had been made.
And then a lesson was taught them. It left a deep impression among the natives and Police. The warriors were informed that they were now in British territory where the rights of every man were sacred. Tyrants were not allowed to live on British soil. The law prescribed that men should live together as brothers. The Police represented British law in the West. The chiefs were to be taken to Fort Walsh and there tried for their offence. If found guilty, they would be punished. Those not found guilty would be set free. No man would be dealt with unjustly.
The headmen pleaded for the release of the prisoners, promising never again to commit such an offence, and in future to respect the authority of the Police. But Walsh was firm. He told them that no concession would be granted until after the investigation, which would be held at Fort Walsh as soon as possible. The Superintendent recommended that the Indians return peaceably to their camp; that they refrain from making the plight of the prisoners worse by a demonstration of hostility.
At the conclusion of this lecture a chief at once urged an attack on the camp. The Indians were informed that should this occur the Police and
their captives would never be taken alive; the prisoners had two choices: go to Fort Walsh, or die – it depended on the conduct of their friends. The discussion ended.
The unruly mob withdrew, and the Police prepared for the return trip. The prisoners were told that should their friends fail to send them horses, they would have to walk; the journey, though long, must be made before they could sleep. One of the prisoners, Black Foot by name, thereupon called out demanding of the warriors a horse for each man. Soon afterwards three or four young bucks brought the required animals forward. On the way to the fort, the prisoners were well guarded under the threat of ready guns. The Police and their captives reached Fort Walsh that night at 11:30.
The next week, the examination and trail took place, and punishment was meted out to the offenders. Broken Arm was sentence to six months ball and chain; three other leaders to one, two, and three months, respectively. This strict enforcement of justice was heralded over the plains from north to south, from east to west. It taught the Indians and everyone that the country was governed by law and that the men enforcing it were fully capable.
The successful prosecution of this difficult and dangerous undertaking, established for the N.W.M. P. an influence and prestige that won for them respect throughout the length and breadth of the land. It extended even to the camp of Sitting Bull, far to the south (as the Police learned later upon the arrival of that doughty warrior in Canada). When the report of the incident reached Ottawa, the Government through the Secretary of State, the Hon. R. W. Scott, thanked and praised the Force for its conduct and splendid efficiency.