Royal Canadian Mounted Police Quarterly April 1942 p 404 – 410; reprinted Fall, 1976 p. 54 – 59
When Sitting Bull Came to Canada
By George Shepherd
When the Sioux nation began its migration to Canada in 1876 bloodshed seemed inevitable. Sitting Bull was a power not to be ignored. Yet a few North West Mounted Policemen marched into his camp, and before he realized it, his power was gone – supplanted by British law.
Sitting Bull, the Sioux, Cypress Hills, Wood Mountain, Fort Walsh – what a wealth of memory these names stir in the historian’s breast! How vividly they recall that never in the history of the Mounted Police was there a more gruelling task than that of policing the Cypress Hills-Wood Mountain region when the Sioux sojourned there from 1876 to 1881.
The onerous duty of maintaining surveillance over approximately four thousand warlike Sioux, more than seven hundred of whom were warriors, was undertaken and accomplished by a mere handful of Mounted Police. That not a single life was lost on either side ranks this as one of the outstanding achievements in Canadian history. Perhaps the secret of success was in the manner Inspr James Morrow Walsh and his men won the Indians’ respect and esteem. The story is full of interest.
* * *
Late in May, 1876, Asst Commr Acheson Gosford Irvine of the North West Mounted Police, who was then stationed at Fort Macleod, received word from the Department of Justice, Ottawa, that owing to United States operations against hostile Indians of Dakota and Montana near the Canadian boundary there was a strong possibility the Indians would seek refuge in Canada. The Wood Mountain area was mentioned as the likely point of entry, and instructions were given to keep sharp look-out for indications of such an undesirable influx.
In June, Inspector Walsh, the officer commanding the Cypress Hills district, was at Hot Springs, Arkansas, taking health treatments. From Ottawa he received a telegram advising him of the Custer massacre on the Little Big Horn River in the United States, and requesting that he return to his post. He left immediately for Ottawa where he conferred with departmental officials, then proceeded by way of Chicago and the Missouri River to Fort Walsh, arriving early in August. His first act was to order two scouts (one was the well-known and trustworthy Louis Lavielle) to watch the boundary country to the south-east. He also instructed them to shadow the movements of the Sioux, and to learn if possible their intentions and approximate strength.
The information in Lavielle’s report enabled Walsh to warn trading posts and Indian agencies south of the international line along the Missouri and Milk Rivers of impending assault. As a result these traders and agents forestalled the Indians and saved themselves from attack.
Meanwhile a large band of Sioux had assembled on Rock Creek, ninety miles east of Fort Walsh and several miles south of the United States boundary. In October Inspector Walsh proceeded with a Mounted Police patrol to the Wood Mountain country, and from a point where Rock Creek crossed the boundary, kept about one thousand Sioux under close observation. The band was still south of the line, and in due course the inspector was convinced that the expected raids on the Milk River and Missouri posts would not materialize, for the time being at least. He accordingly retired to Fort Walsh, leaving scouts to keep an eye on the Indians.
The Sioux occupied their time hunting the buffalo between the boundary and the Missouri River, and it was not until November that their advance line entered Canada. Sub-Inspr Edmund Frechette with a small party of police and scouts immediately set out to visit the camp which consisted of fifty-seven lodges. During the trip the patrol suffered frequent delays and great hardship from storms and cold.
Inspector Walsh became uneasy at Frechette’s continued absence and, taking along twelve policemen and three scouts, set forth to investigate. On the way to Legare’s trading post at Wood Mountain, which he reached on December 21, he met Frechette and his party weary from exposure and hours in the saddle. At Wood Mountain he learned that Black Moon of the Uncapapa Sioux, who was Sitting Bull’s uncle and the hereditary high chief of the entire Sioux nation, had arrived there two days previously with fifty-two lodges, increasing to 109 the lodges that had crossed the boundary. The Indians of these lodges with their 3500 horses and thirty U.S. army mules, represented various divisions of the Sioux, numbering about five hundred people. This number was eventually to increase to between four and five thousand by additions from the south.
About four miles east of the old Wood Mountain boundary commission buildings was a small settlement of half-breeds that had been established some years earlier. There also was the camp of White Eagle of the Santee band who with some 150 lodges composed of refugees from the Minnesota Massacre of 1862 had occupied that neighbourhood for years. The new arrivals from the United States had joined White Eagle who since crossing the border had been peaceful and law-abiding and resented the intrusion of other Indians, even though they were of his own nation, unless they were prepared to abide by the orders of the Mounted Police.
Among the newcomers, most of whom had participated in the annihilation of Custer and his command six months previously, the most important were Black Moon, Little Knife, Low Dog and the Man Who Crawls – all Uncapapas – a formidable array of savage war-lords compared to the single police officer and handful of men who had come to face them. A council was held during which Walsh laid down hard and fast rules that were to govern the Indians’ conduct while they remained in Canada; he then inquired regarding their intentions. They answered that they had been driven from their own country and were seeking peace. They begged for pity from the White Mother. They were starving and, other than lassoes, spears and arrows, had no means with which to hunt the buffalo. Like the Indians who had preceded them they pleaded for ammunition, and Walsh authorized Legare to give them limited supplies. Thenceforth the Sioux were kept under constant observation by the red-coated representatives of law and order.
Early in March, 1877, the inspector again set out, this time to visit a camp of newly-arrived Sioux on the White Mud Creek, near the boundary. Hastening to meet them, he travelled with three half-breed scouts in advance of his party. As he pressed onward he sent Scouts Lavielle and Daniels in one direction, choosing another for himself and Joe Morin, the third scout. Soon he came upon a fresh Indian trail. After some reconnoitring he followed it, speedily out-distancing Morin. Presently he saw an Indian on a hill-top; a few minutes later as he raced on he saw another, then another and within a matter of minutes he was in the midst of a camp in the course of erection by the main body of the Sioux.
The sudden appearance of Walsh caused a wild commotion. Because the lone policeman had ridden in from the south they at once supposed him to be the advance guard of attacking Americans. Women and children became panic stricken; screaming and yelling, they started to pull down the partly-erected lodges. Horses stampeded, and a wild rush of fear-crazed Indians ensued. Medicine Bear of the Yankton band and Four Horns of the Tetons were the chiefs in charge. With their warriors they assembled on the opposite side of the White Mud Creek. Meanwhile Walsh was trying to explain the situation to them; but at the wrong moment Lavielle and Daniels, who were searching for Walsh, dashed out at break-neck speed from behind a hill. The shocked and bewildered Sioux trained their guns on the inspector and warned him not to advance across the creek. Lavielle thereupon grew angry and drew his gun to protect his superior officer.
The situation grew tense. Inspector Walsh realized he was in a precarious position. Calmly however he instructed Lavielle to put up his gun; firmly and patiently he stood his ground. After a lengthy discussion he and his scouts were permitted to cross the creek; the Indians were reassured, and began again to erect their lodges. Walsh learned that this particular band had suffered so much from treachery and raids on their camps, that the women and children had been denied even the merest semblance of comfortable sleep for a year. Eventually he was conducted to Four Horns, the leader, who said, “We are Tetons and followers of my adopted son, Sitting Bull, who is yet south but looking this way.”
A council was then held in the usual manner, and the chief made pleas similar to those made by his brethren who had preceded him – pleas that were granted as the others had been.
* * *
In mid-May Sitting Bull, the renowned commander-in-chief of all the Sioux, crossed the boundary with 135 lodges and moved northward up the White Mud. Inspector Walsh immediately departed from Fort Walsh with four constables and two scouts, picked up the trail south of Pinto Horse Butte about fifteen miles east of the White Mud and soon came upon the main camp. There were then in Canada about eight hundred lodges of American Sioux, representing some four thousand Indians. The police were given a hearty welcome and requested by Spotted Eagle, the war chief, to come among them. Such was the climax of months of faithful watching and scouting. At last the Mounted Police were in the camp of the redoubtable Sitting Bull. A dramatic moment of Western history had arrived. It was said to be the first time in Sitting Bull’s career that white men, soldiers or scouts, had marched into his camp and pitched their tents beside his own.
Afterwards Sitting Bull said in effect, “This is the most wonderful day in my life. Yesterday I was fleeing from white men, cursing and reviling them. Today they enter my camp and pitch their lodges beside mine. Boldly and fearlessly they enter my camp. Their White Forehead Chief (Walsh) walks to my lodge alone and unarmed. Alone and apart from his soldiers he quietly sits himself down cross-legged beside my lodge, giving me presents of tobacco and the hand of peace. It is a different world. What has happened? Is my reign at an end?”
These thoughts obviously confused Sitting Bull, and, though he knew it not, he had surrendered his power for ever.
Upon being invited to speak to the camp, Walsh told the Indians about the laws of the Great White Mother and warned them there was to be no bloodshed, no fighting. Canada was not to be used as a base from which to carry war across the boundary.
Spotted Eagle, chief of one of the many bands – the Sans Arcs or No Bows – replied first. He voiced his people’s grievances; they had been driven this way and that by American troops, and in order to save their women and children had been forced to cross the boundary.
Inspector Walsh was struck by the fine physique and bearing of Spotted Eagle. Immaculate in dress, handsome of face, his voice deep and resonant, this war chief was one of the most impressive savages on the plains. He carried a frightful weapon – three blades of steel in a long shaft – which Walsh eventually obtained. Before guns had been procurable the Sans Arcs had used lances to hunt and fight with instead of bows and arrows – hence their name. Later, Spotted Eagle together with Stone Dog and Broad Tail by their influence helped Walsh defeat in council Sitting Bull who wished to go south of the boundary line and attack General Nelson A. Miles of the United States Army.
After Spotted Eagle had spoken other chiefs told of tribulations suffered by their bands.
That night Walsh and his escort slept in the Indian camp. The next morning Sitting Bull and his followers were given an opportunity to witness how the law they had just promised to respect was enforced.
Three Indians leading five horses had just ridden into camp. Solomon, one of the half-breed police scouts, recognized the new-comers as aliens belonging to the Assiniboine branch of the Sioux. One, named White Dog, a notorious character on the plains, was considered a great warrior. The previous year Sitting Bull had tried to bribe him with three hundred horses into joining the camp for the summer.
Upon looking over the horses White Dog and his companions had brought in, Solomon discovered that three of them belonged to Father DeCorby, a Roman Catholic priest of the Cypress Hills. The scout passed the information on to Walsh, stating that Lavielle agreed with him that the horses had been stolen.
Inspector Walsh made sure of his ground before proceeding. He sent Solomon and Lavielle to examine the horses again. When they returned and assured him that they had not been mistaken – that the animals truly belonged to the priest – the inspector decided to make an example of the three horse thieves. He accordingly instructed Sgt ‘Bob’ McCutcheon to make the arrest.
White Dog was standing with his companions among a group of fifty or sixty warriors, telling them of his trip across the plains. Sergeant McCutcheon took two or three men and arrested the Indian trio. White Dog hotly demanded the reason; when the sergeant told him, the indignant warrior retorted that the horses were his and that he would neither give them up nor submit to arrest.
The inspector, realizing that if McCutcheon gave ground or retired for further orders police authority would be jeopardized, joined the group.
By this time the whole Sioux camp was in an uproar; hundreds of excited savages pressed around in an attempt to witness the outcome, and White Dog apparently under the impression the entire camp would stand by him, was more than arrogant.
Walsh stood before him and queried curtly, “You say you will neither be arrested nor surrender these horses?” – the scouts had caught the animals and brought them close. Putting his hand on the Indian’s shoulder, the inspector said, “I arrest you for theft.” He then ordered McCutcheon to seize White Dog’s weapons, and before the Indian or his friends had time to resist he was disarmed.
The camp grew silent and tense. Walsh called for leg irons to be brought, then standing in front of White Dog, he held them up and said, “White Dog, tell me where you got those horses, how you got them and what you intend to do with them, or I shall put these irons on you and take you to Fort Walsh for trial.”
For a moment no-one spoke; the camp was still as a grave.
White Dog’s confidence suddenly deserted him. With evident reluctance he made a statement to the effect that he had been crossing the plains east of the Cypress Mountains when he found the horses wandering unattended over the prairie. He claimed he did not know it was a criminal act to take them, as it was the custom on Milk River below the boundary to assume ownership of stray animals until claimed by the owner. Walsh, although he knew the Indian was lying, accepted the statement, and warned him never again to molest other people’s property in Canada.
White Dog realized only too well that he had been disgraced before the entire Sioux nation. It was a bitter pill to swallow. As he was about to turn away he sneered at Walsh and muttered threateningly in his own language, “I shall meet you again.”
The inspector immediately halted him and called an interpreter, then ordered White Dog to repeat his words. The Indian stood silent and sullen, refusing to speak, and when Walsh put into words his own interpretation of what had been said. White Dog remained stubbornly silent. Walsh again lifted the leg irons. “White Dog,” he said, “withdraw those words, or I shall put you in irons and take you to Fort Walsh for threatening a police officer.”
The Indian was completely subdued, and said he had not meant the words as a threat. Walsh knew that this statement also was a lie, but, having won his point, accepted it as true. He had humiliated White Dog in the presence of the whole Sioux camp, had made him show fear of the law.
The lesson was long remembered by Sitting Bull. Within twenty-four hours of their arrival in Canada the Indians had witnessed British law in operation. Nine or ten men in a hostile camp of six or seven hundred warriors had brought to submission one of the most feared and desperate chiefs of the plains.
Upon his return to Fort Walsh the inspector made a full report to Assistant Commissioner Irvine, who had arrived from Fort Macleod, and it was decided to strengthen the detachment at Wood Mountain. Preparations were made for this undertaking but before the expedition got under way six fine-looking warriors arrived with word that three Americans had been detained in the Sioux Camp, Sitting Bull, realizing that the prisoners’ lives would be in grave danger should any of his young braves decide to take vengeance, had sent the warriors to the police for instructions. He did not know the white man’s procedure regarding prisoners.
The envoys carried American cavalry carbines and belts full of ammunition, which they had taken from Custer’s men during the battle of the Little Big Horn. They also carried coup sticks – strong, slender shafts of wood with round stones attached to the striking ends; Sitting Bull’s nephew, who was in the party, had dispatched twenty-three of the enemy with his coup stick and proved it by notches in the handle.
The next morning at six o’clock Assistant Commissioner Irvine started out for Sitting Bull’s camp at Pinto Horse Butte. With him were Inspector Walsh, Inspr. Edmund Dalrymple Clark, Sub-Inspr. Edwin Allen, a few constables and scouts and the six Sioux warriors. The journey was accomplished in two days of hard riding. The police were greeted by a long line of savages, each of whom insisted upon shaking hands with the white visitors. Walsh had succeeded beyond all expectations in gaining the respect of these ‘tigers of the plains.’
Afterwards the police discussed the three American prisoners with Sitting Bull. One, the revered Martin Marty, a Roman Catholic priest, was apostolic missionary of Dakota territory, another, John Howard, was General Miles’ chief scout and the third was an interpreter. They had been sent by General Miles to ask the Sioux to return to the States – an ironical request, as Miles had been pursuing and fighting these Indians for years. The priest said he had been a prisoner for eight days. All three were immediately given their release.
Later the assistant commissioner and his men noticed some American horses among the Indian ponies.
Late that night Sitting Bull went into the lodge especially set aside for the assistant commissioner and told Irvine how Custer and his command had ridden blindly into the Indians; how the soldiers and Indians had fought in utmost confusion, with Custer’s men using the butts of their rifles.
“The soldiers could not load their carbines,” Sitting Bull said, “and the Indians pulled them off their horses killing them with knives and coup sticks. The horsemen were not even armed with swords.”
Before the police patrol’s return to Fort Walsh, the wily old chief expressed his pleasure at being in Canada and told of his intention to obey the laws of the Great White Mother.
* * *
In spite of his peaceful intentions, however, Sitting Bull found it hard to relinquish the power that once was his, and when a number of Nez Perces who were pursued by U.S. troopers to the border, joined the refugee Sioux with tales of woe, it was the Mounted Police who prevented another blood purge of American soldiers south of the line.
With the swift destruction of the last buffalo herds and the consequent poverty of the Sioux refugees, many dejected bands reluctantly turned southward to accept rations from the U.S. authorities. Those who clung to Sitting Bull remained in Canada until July, 1881. The period of their stay was fraught with peril and hazard, like a keg of gun-powder ready at any moment to burst into unpredictable destruction. But the Mounted Police sat tightly on the lid.