RCMP July 1963
Walsh the Invincible p. 35-38
Less than five months after Sitting Bull’s Sioux annihilated Lt.-Col. George Armstrong Custer and his U.S. 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn River in Montana on June 25, 1876, the 329 members of the North-West Mounted Police – particularly the 89 at Fort Walsh – began to watch with apprehension as the first lodges of Sioux appeared in Canadian territory.
And when Sitting Bull himself crossed the “Medicine Line” in May 1877, James Morrow Walsh, who commanded the post which bore his name, decided to pay the renowned Chief a personal visit. He took Sg.t Bob McCutcheon, three constables and two scouts with him on the 140-mile trek east to the Pinto Horse Buttes.
After the preliminaries were over – the Sioux were quick to point out that it was the first time white men had dared to walk so nonchalantly into Sitting Bull’s camp – Inspector Walsh arranged a pow-wow with the Chief. He explained the laws of the White Mother’s land and asked Bull what his intentions were, to which the old Chieftain asserted that he had “buried his weapons” upon crossing the Medicine Line.
Wahonkeza, as Inspector Walsh was called by the Sioux, slept at their camp that night and as he was preparing to leave the next morning, an incident took place which gave the newcomers a graphic illustration of Canadian law enforcement at work.
Three American Assiniboines rode into the camp with five extra ponies which the police scouts identified as belonging to Father De Corby, a Roman Catholic priest who lived in the Cypress Hills.
Confronted with this accusation, the Assiniboines vehemently denied stealing the animals, undoubtedly assured in their own minds that the famous Sitting Bull and his warriors would quickly intervene if the few white men tried to press the issue.
Walsh wasted no time in appraising the situation and acted so quickly that before the startled Sioux realized what had happened, the three visitors were disarmed and in the custody of the policemen. The scouts rounded up the ponies.
White Dog, the leader of the Assiniboines, was given a chance to explain and although the Inspector knew he was lying, he accepted his story of how they had come across the horses running wild. The Indians were released after being warned, but the Mounted Police retained the horses.
The result of this little episode had a profound effect upon the Sioux. They had seen for themselves that the red-coated “soldiers” of the White Mother had raw courage to back up her laws.
Before the month was out, another incident was destined to take place which would impress not only the Sioux newcomers, but plains Indians throughout
the north-west of the complete impartiality with which the North West Mounted Police went about their duties.
Inspector Walsh had barely returned to his fort when on May 25, Little Child, a Saulteaux Chief, rode in from the Cypress Hills. A situation had arisen which demanded the immediate attention of the “White Forehead Chief” as Inspector Walsh was known to the Indians of the area, if indeed the words he had been preaching were true. Walsh had long counselled all Indians that the Mounted Police were the guardians of the land and they would guarantee the safety of all persons, regardless of race or color.
Little Child told Walsh that his followers, about 15 lodges of Saulteaux and Crees, had just returned from a hunting expedition in the north and had set up camp in the Cypress Hills 30 miles northeast of Fort Walsh. But the influx of a large band of strange Indians – about 250 lodges – had made him fearful over the safety of his band and its possessions.
Walsh assured Little Child that it was the task of the police to protect all persons and property and that this would be done if the strangers showed any aggressiveness toward the Saulteaux or Crees. Little Child returned to his camp appeased.
To his chagrin, however, he found that the strangers, who turned out to be American Assiniboines from the Bearpaw Mountains in Montana (south of the present town of Havre), had set up their camp less than half a mile from his own. These Assiniboines were on a buffalo hunt and one of their chiefs, Crow’s Dance, informed the Saulteaux that they would have to join the hunt and conform to its rules.
Little Child flatly refused and the haughty Crow’s Dance said he would use force if necessary to back his demands. He returned in a short time with 150 warriors in full costume, ordering Little Child to join him.
“I will not. You have no authority to order me in this manner. I am a British Indian and on my own soil. I don’t know you and will not submit to your demands. The only chief that I will obey is the white chief at Cypress mountain.” Brave words when Little Child could back them up with only 30 fighting men.
“You will obey me today!” countered Crow’s Dance. “When your red-coated friends visit my camp you will be there to see how I shall receive them.” And on that note his braves, led by Crooked
Arm, assaulted the camp, tearing down lodges and shooting horses and dogs.
LITTLE CHILD SEEKS HELP
Wisely the Saulteaux offered no resistance, but gathered up their women and children and fled for cover to some nearby wooded hills. This saved their lives.
After ensuring the safety of his followers, Little Child grabbed a pony and rode to Fort Walsh where he informed Inspector Walsh.
In less than an hour – at 11 a.m. – Sub-Inspr. Edwin Allen, Surgeon John Kittson, 15 policemen and Scout Louis Leveille were on the trail, led by Little Child. Inspector Walsh stayed behind to line up the remainder of the post in case the necessity arose. He was of the opinion that the Assiniboines would return to the United States following their attack on Little Child’s camp. The Inspector later overtook Sub-Inspector Allen’s party along the trail.
Late that evening they reached the remains of the Saulteaux lodges but there was no gin of life. Little Child and Scout Leveille began to scout the area and found evidence that the Assiniboines had moved north. The party rode for another hour and Walsh called a halt. They rested until 2 a.m. while their horses grazed. Moving out again, Little Child and Leveille sighted the Assiniboine camp just at sun-up. It was located in a valley about a mile ahead. Another halt was ordered and the men were instructed to have breakfast. Inspector Walsh and Leveille ascended a hill to survey the camp.
“A perfect picture,” Walsh noted many years later in a letter to his daughter. “Two hundred and fifty lodges fringed by young cottonwood trees . . . a beautiful plateau . . . a little stream running along its base . . . grass as green as late May vegetation could make it . . . not a sound.”
The Assiniboines had evidently staged a late war dance and were sleeping soundly – perfectly fearless. Walsh and Leveille decided that the big lodge in the centre of the camp was the war lodge and the Inspector planned to surround it and seize Crooked Arm and the other leaders before any of them could stir.
Once again the police party saddled up and moved to within 400 yards of the west end of the camp. About half a mile away there was a small butte at the foot of which was a narrow lake. Walsh selected this as the rallying point in case of a siege. Dr. Kittson and three constables were to remain at this butte and start building a breastwork, making use
of the outcropping of large boulders, in case of a premature alarm in the camp.
Sub-Inspector Allen checked the men’s arms and ordered them to load both carbines and revolvers. All were told that the success of the plan depended solely on surprise. Walsh, Allen, Leveille and the 12 policemen walked their mounts into the camp. There was a feeling of tension when the Indian dogs began to bark but the party quickly surrounded the war lodge and policemen dismounted and poured in from every side. The first things seized were the firearms.
Crooked Arm and a dozen other warriors were quickly roused and hustled from the lodge back toward the butte where Dr. Kittson was located as the alarm began to spread. The braves were shackled in pairs as far as the leg-irons would go and all the policemen – as well as the prisoners – began building the palisade of stones. Horses were unsaddled and tied close together in the centre of the group and the saddles were thrown over top of the stones.
By this time, pandemonium had broken loose in the Assiniboine camp and hundreds of warriors began to advance toward the butte. Inspector Walsh sent word that he would hold a palaver with the chiefs shortly and then he calmly sat down and had his own breakfast.
Walsh walked out of the cover to within 300 yards of the Indians. He delivered such an oration on the laws of the land, the rights and privileges of all and the duties of the police, that even his own men, let alone the Assiniboines, were visibly impressed.
The prisoners would be taken to Fort Walsh to be tried for the offence they had committed, he told the Assiniboines. Those who were found guilty would be punished and those innocent would be allowed to return to the camp. No man would be dealt with unjustly, Walsh informed the chiefs. Some of the warriors did not take kindly to having their fellow braves whisked away by this handful of red-coats and showed open defiance.
“You will never take them from us alive. The prisoners will go to Fort Walsh or die, it all depends on your conduct.” After these words by Inspector Walsh, the palaver came to an end.
Walsh turned to his prisoners and told them that they could not sleep before they reached the Fort and as it was a long journey, they should have their friends supply horses. Blackfoot, one of the prisoners, called to the camp and soon three young braves trotted up with 13 ponies. The party reached Fort Walsh at eight that evening.
The following day, Inspector Walsh released 11 of the prisoners, once again impressing upon them the seriousness of disregarding the rights of others. And the next day, Asst. Commr. A. G. Irvine from NWMP Headquarters at Fort Macleod arrived and the two remaining Assiniboines were paraded before him. Crooked Arm, the leader of the war party, was given a six-month sentence and his companion, two months.
The Mounted Police had been in the north-west less than three years when this affair took place and the news spread far and wide across the plains. As Inspector Walsh was later to learn, even the mighty Sitting Bull had signified his respect for the “red-coats” when word of it reached his ears.