From Hoofs to Wings

RCMP April 1941

From Hoofs to Wings p 385-391

On the Old Man’s River, at the feet of Napi, the mythical giant of the Blackfeet, were laid not only the aspirations of the red-men but the evolutionary much of Empire.

By John Peter Turner

It was afternoon in late autumn, 1874.

A chill wind swept across a sea of grass. A deep-cut river course, fringed with cottonwoods, lay in fading light. A hundred miles away, the Rockies loomed above the timbered shoulders of “The Porcupines”, beyond which the westering sun cast long shafts to the darkening bourne of the horizon. Infinite solitude encompassed the magnificent perspective.

Across illimitable pastures, great herds of bison moved. A band of scouting Blackfeet gazed intently from a commanding ridge.

The object of Indian speculation was soon to be revealed. On the vast open, southeastward, a cavalcade of riders accompanied by transport, trailed into view – a motelike patch upon a tawny background. They were preceded by a lone horseman, far in advance. Splashes of colour glistened. Soon, figures appeared, becoming more distinct as they approached – red-coated men on horses, nodding two-wheeled carts, lumbering wagons, shambling cattle. The startling spectacle drew nearer, in a long array that rose and fell as it traversed the undulations of the plain. Then, halting above the land-dip to the river, as though to appraise the nether prospect, the new-arrivals, the life of which this savage realm had never before witnessed, proceeded to make camp.

Striking out three months earlier, from Dufferin, on the Red River, the newly-organized North West Mounted Police, 300 strong, under Commr George a. French and Asst Commr James F. Macleod, had shouldered the prodigious task of carrying Canadian sovereignty to the far west. Attended by all the vicissitudes of prairie travel, their epic, self-supporting march of 800 miles had reached the Sweet Grass Hills, near the Montana boundary. The Commissioner and his Assistant then journeyed a hundred miles below the U.S. line to Fort Benton, the big supply-point on the Upper Missouri River. Here they arranged for provisions and remounts; they also communicated with Ottawa by wire regarding their progress and needs. Upon their return to the main body at the Sweet Grass Hills, the Commissioner and Macleod parted – the latter proceeded onward. For it had been decreed that one portion of the Force would repair to winter quarters far to the east; the other would remain upon the plains. Friendly acquiescence would be sought from the red-skinned tenantry of the surrounding

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country. By firm and fearless methods, a horde of Montana whisky-smugglers who were debauching the Indian camps would be driven out. And so 150 men under Macleod, guided by Jerry Potts, a remarkable Piegan halfbreed engaged at Benton as scout and interpreter, pushed north-westward to the Old Man’s River.

Aside from being a choice camping ground, the immediate location proved an ideal base from which to carry out the enormous task ahead. And something of unconscious significance in the very name of the stream beside which the unerring guide halted gave prophesy of the future. In the oft-told annals of the past, the mythical character of Napit, or “Old Man,” had long been to the Blackfeet the embodiment of supernatural power. All benefits and punishments were transmitted to mankind through Old Man’s creative faculties; people, animals, birds, fishes, trees, even the winds – all things moving and inanimate – were his intimate associates. At Old Man’s door were laid the aspirations and shortcomings of every man and beast. In Old Man were personified all human frailties and attainments. From it emanated a complexity of reward and castigation.

Nightfall of October 13, 1874, – far from an unlucky date – found on Old Man’s River a camp of tents from which was destined to arise many influences.

Busy days followed. Though the gruelling march from Manitoba has been accomplished, the prospect confronting the Assistant Commissioner and his men was one to dispel all hope of relaxation. Despite the worn condition of the weathered horsemen, the biting storms that would soon sweep across the plains urged the immediate erection of shelters. Macleod ordered that stabling and hospital accommodation were to be attended to at once. The selection of a site for a permanent post had received every consideration, thanks to the wily Potts, and the location of the Old Man’s River was one with many features to commend it. Not the least was its proximity to the Great North Trail that passed up country to a favourite whisky-trading rendezvous in the Bow River county; it also commanded a position over Fort Whoop-Up, the main stronghold of the traffickers towards the southwest. Among the nearby cottonwood bluffs, building material and fuel were available. In the broad bottoms, hay could be gathered. Deer, elk and smaller game frequented the bordering brushlands. On the surrounding plain, countless buffalo and antelope afforded a supply of meat; and the river teemed with fish.

Completely isolated, the diminutive army of occupation was thrown upon its own resources. In case of Indian uprising, there could be no hope of reinforcements. The inexperience of the command, the unknown strength and disposition of the Indians, the lawless influence of border traders and freebooters involved possibilities of danger and dilemma.

Plans were hastily laid out for rough log buildings to be erected within a broad curve of the river, which, in high-water, formed an island. Twelve-foot cottonwood logs placed upright in trenches and plastered with clay formed the outer walls; cross-beams piled over with sod sufficed for roofs; the bare ground, soon to be beaten hard by use, provided natural flooring. Windows and doors were already on their way from the Missouri by Benton bull-teams. Surrounded by a high-picketed enclosure, the buildings faced upon a square some 200 feet across; they included living rooms, officers’

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quarters, hospital, guardroom, storehouses, kitchens, and stables. D. W. Davis, representing I. G. Baker & Co., of Benton, assisted in the building of the post and erected a small group of buildings for his firm, including a spacious store replete with frontier necessities and fancy prices.

Assistant Commissioner Macleod resolved that in this wide and lawless sphere there would be no subornation of justice; before the buildings were completed, unyielding vigilance and effort had already begun to stay spoliation at the hands of unscrupulous whiskey-traders from the south. From the outset an impartial policy mocked the crude attempts at justice below the Montana boundary. A leaven destined to involve a realm of savagery in all the usages and restrictions of the modern world was being introduced. The red-coated troopers from the east manifested good-will and friendship. The vanguard of a consuming host was making bold by every humane and honest means to transform barbarism to the white man’s ways; yet the Indian little sensed the great transition.

Within the limits of a single year, Fort Macleod, without threat or swagger, assumed its prescribed position and the hub and lodestar of a new order of life. In the midst of native pride and bearing, a new era was ushered in; soon the theory of honest effort was largely accepted by Indians and frontiersmen alike. Insistence for the apprehension of wrongdoers became an infallible weapon of security; square-dealing was proving a fundamental no-one could assail. From the little outpost on the Old Man’s River, a new West was in the making. No half-measures, no splitting of evidence, no remitted fines, no wavering from the paths of rectitude or the broad highway of genuine and generous liberty cluttered or debased the course of action. No armed sheriffs had come to defy or hold at bay men less criminal than themselves; no ruthless troopers had shot on sight.

Indians were accorded the same measures of justice as their white intruders. No contracts, agreements or verbal promises went unsatisfied – no pledges were broken. Blackfeet, Bloods, Piegans, Sarcees – the entire Blackfeet Confederacy – as well as Crees, Assiniboines and Sioux, were quick to sense the indomitable meaning of the scarlet tunic. “To Uphold the Right” – Maintiens le Droit – was becoming a recognized motto on the plains.

Near the police stockade, an embryo village soon mushroomed into being, and the Benton trading firms of I. G. Baker & Co. and T. C. Powers and Bro. drove a lucrative trade. Several smaller stores and “eating places” were opened. A log billiard room enjoyed the patronage of players, gamblers and loafers. “Blind pigs” and other questionable hang-outs were not entirely lacking. Five dollars in paper, coin or gold-dust, if surreptitiously handled, would produce a pint of “Montana Redeye” and an aftermath of direst possibilities.

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Civilization had come to the Old Man’s River.

The drift was almost entirely from the south – Benton and the riotous highway of the Missouri – but there was small inducement for the baser elements to tarry long. The little citadel of law and order became a discouragement to the proponents of free licence. The long Police march and the building of Fort Macleod had marked the beginning of an era in Western British America. In enviable contrast to the flaming invasion below the international line, Canada had penetrated, by equitable means, the last defiant portion of her wide domain.

Fine stalwart men, heavy of bone and lean of flesh, with the keen sharply-cut features and characteristics of the native-born American – freighters, bull-whackers, mule skinners, reformed whisky traders, frontier merchants, wayfaring adventurers – were mingling with jovial Red River Metis, quiet-mannered natives, and modest, red-coated representatives of the law. A small and happy populace had begun to live on terms of friendship. Grades were not defined. To gain prominence or popularity no-one needed wealth. To be honest and decently behaved – to be a man – was to be socially the equal of those in authority and power. A new mode of conduct settled on the banks of the Old Man’s River.

But there could be no basking in the sun of carefree days for the guardians of the new-born West. A vastly different method than that south of the border had been put in motion; and nature had ideally fitted Col “Jim” Macleod for the arduous undertaking assigned to him. Tall, handsome, lean, enterprising and tactful, he had made his mark in earlier life as a staunch soldier and had won a sovereign’s decoration for exemplary service. His genial features, his fearlessness and integrity, had, in a few experimental months, proven to be indispensable passports to respect among whites and Indians. Above all, his ever-ready solicitude for the rights of men had fitted him for

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a high position in the Indian country. And of the remarkable achievements of the North West Mounted Police in the formative years, no more fitting tribute could have been possible than the words voiced by Chief Crowfoot, the great Ogemah of the Blackfeet Confederacy.

If the Police had not come to this country, where would we all be now? They have protected us as the feathers of the bird protect it from the frost of winter.”

That chapter of Western history, here so briefly touched upon, has long been honoured as an outstanding record of frontier achievement. Before many years had passed, Canada was to write upon her national scroll a story of magnificent service by “The Silent Force” – a service of meritorious activity long since extended to embraced the whole Dominion.

The stage on which the Western conquest was enacted by the North West Mounted Police has so completely changed that the scenes in which the pioneer custodians of law and order took part, and the life they led, can never recur. Civilization, railways, cattle ranches, wheat farms, and the advancing tide of population have swept them into the limbo of the past. So entirely has evolution done its work that it is hard to realize that frontier conditions could really have existed on the plains only a few years ago. Favoured by nature with a healthful, productive climate, the Province of Alberta, the direct successor of a savage commonwealth, has given birth to a hardy, vigorous and enterprising people. The development of vast and varied resources has been undertaken; cities, towns and villages have sprung up; manufactures have been established; branch railroads and motor highways constructed and the work of steady and increasing improvement made everywhere visible. Alas, most of the noble-hearted pioneers who placed themselves in the van of this movement have passed away.

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Today, with a very definite place in the fortunes of not only Canada but the whole freedom-loving world, the Old Man’s River witnesses another great adventure. Where Col Macleod and his troopers faced long odds in the taming of the Blackfeet realm, clean-cut, crisp Canadians, as also Australians, New Zealanders and others, are imbued with the same pioneer resources of daring and initiative.

The thriving, south-Albertan town of Macleod, always with an eye to the future, and a deservedly boastful pride in the past, has become an outstanding preparatory centre in the war effort of the Empire. And, though time has wrought great changes in the land of the Siksikaua – the Blackfeet – the Old Man, mindful of his mythical chieftainship, as the director of indispensable benefits, sees to it that this river continues to flow majestically across the scene.

Hera, as in other air-training fields throughout Canada, a ghastly flailing for the arch-conspirator Herr Hitler is on the way. We may easily imagine Napi chuckling gleefully to see a vast, winged chastisement in the making – and indeed probably anticipating as his own so small share of the credit that will accrue. On the banks of the historic stream, he sees something more than the taming of the Blackfeet – he senses the retrieving of an outraged world from the fell influence of the Nazi curse.

The Empire air-school scheme was born in mid-December, 1939; and, by the following June, Britain’s war effort was given a furious impetus with the fall of France. There was available for the purpose outlined a mere handful of Royal Air Force technicians and Royal Canadian Air Force officers. As a site for one of the service flying schools, Macleod was put forward by its Mayor – G. Rider Davis – son of the pioneer D. W. Davis, the first and only member of the Canadian parliament from this almost boundless constituency, who had assisted in the building of the original fort. The Town Council and the Board of Trade threw their weight behind the proposal. The suggestion was acted upon.

Across Canada, within six months, the greatest military air-training venture the world had seen was on the way in strict keeping with R.A.F. Specifications. The location of Macleod’s flying school was fixed approximately one mile south-west of the town; and by the middle of June, 1940, contractors were working twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week, to whip an area of about one square mile into shape. Aircraft will utilize about 325 acres, 260 of which were sown to grass and the remainder laid out in runways, taxistrips and connections. Into the construction went 62,000 tons of gravel from the banks of the Old Man’s River. Field lighting was installed to permit night flying. Electric power was supplied. A water main was run to connect with the water system of Macleod, Aerodromes, hangars, residences, a control tower, hospital, and other necessary buildings were erected; a sewage disposal system laid down; a power line, telephone and teletype systems inaugurated. Two additional aerodromes, some miles away for use as relief fields, were provided. No. 7 service flying training school, an outstanding link in the British Empire air-training chain, was officially opened on December 18, 1940. Here, R.C.A.F. students will complete their training and receive their wings. Avro Ansons constitute the chief flying equipment.

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In commenting upon this great innovation on the Old Man’s River, Mayor Davis stated: “The town of Macleod is delighted to welcome Canada’s war flyers. The citizens of Macleod have already made arrangements to form a cooperative council of all organizations to carry on auxiliary war work in connection with the R.C.A.F. here. The town of Macleod is a central point and has all the utilities of a large city. We will endeavour to extend true western hospitality to staff and students of the school.”

No better testimony of the rapid advance by the Canadian Air Ministry towards an all-out degree of skill and rapid training, is in evidence than that to be witnessed at Macleod. Without impairing efficiency in the air or discipline on the ground, a curriculum of intensive training involving twenty-eight weeks has replaced that which originally called for thirteen months. And this from a dead-level start less than a year ago. Like the red-coats of the force that spaing into action in ’74 – now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – most of the “air rookies,” thanks to careful selection, are “naturals.” Already their quality has proved to be superb. Yet, along with an accelerated schooling that aims to match and reinforce the invincible R.A.F., the utmost in rational precautions and safeguards rule. Nothing has been overlooked.

With the Commonwealth Air Training Plan in mind, Prime Minister Churchill predicted, with confidence, last autumn: “In 1941, we shall have command of the air.” The Under Secretary for War called upon England to sit tight until “the river of pilots from Canada turns to flood.” The Dominions’ Secretary has predicted 20,000 pilots and 50,000 gunners and observer-bombardiers a year from all sources. A large number of these will come from Macleod on the Old Man’s River.

The initial Fort Macleod and its successor several miles away on the south bank of the river have vanished; but, in this lurid year of 1941, on the very spot where a national problem of the past was grappled with by red-coated men of the saddle, the Empire’s present dangers are being stoutly faced by sterling youths in air-force blue – to uphold the right for the glory of democracy.

On the banks of the Old Man’s River, a great transition has marked the stride by sixty-seven years from hoofs to wing.

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