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"Whooping-it-Up" at Fort Hamilton

For the week of Monday July 3, 2006

On July 8, 1874, the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) began their “Great March West” to rid the Canadian plains of more than twenty American “whiskey forts.” The most notorious of these was Fort Whoop-Up.

Fort Whoop-Up
Fort Whoop-Up
© Heritage Community Foundation of Alberta
The I.G. Baker Company of Fort Benton, Montana, established Fort Hamilton south of present-day Lethbridge, Alberta, in 1869. Commonly known as Fort Whoop-Up, “whooping-it-up” meaning rowdy celebration, it burned down in its first season and was subsequently rebuilt on a grander scale under the management of John J. Healy and Donald W. Davis.

Fort Whoop-Up was the last stop along the “Whoop-Up Trail” from Montana. The trail enabled Montanans to bypass American laws that forbade trading alcohol with Aboriginal people by trading in Canada where there was no one to stop them. Those who transported liquor to forts by bull train followed the route easily as broken bottles marked the way. At “whiskey forts,” alcohol was diluted with dyes and water to raise the volume of trade. Chemicals were added to make it more flammable, as this was something the Aboriginal people expected from “firewater.” The limitless additives made the liquor deadly.

Inside the replica Fort Whoop-Up.
Inside the replica Fort Whoop-Up.
© James A. Janke, 2002
In response to the growing whiskey trade, the Canadian Government established the NWMP to police the wild West. To differentiate themselves from the American cavalry, this police force wore red tunics. Founded in 1873 under Colonel French, the Force’s first mandate was to stop the whiskey trade. After a year of recruiting, they departed with 255 men. They marched for months in terrible conditions before reaching Fort Whoop-Up at the junction of the Oldman and St. Mary rivers on October 9, 1874. Major James Macleod, who led the men to the Fort, was shocked to find no liquor and no Americans except the caretaker, Dave Akers, whom Healy and Davis had left in charge when they fled. Akers vowed they only traded furs, but Macleod was skeptical. Macleod offered to purchase the Fort to ensure it would not serve the whiskey trade. Sensing trade would die with the arrival of the NWMP, Baker sold the Fort to the Force who used it as an outpost until it burned down. In 1967, a replica was constructed as an interpretive centre.

The Fort commemorates one of the earliest occurances of free trade in North America. Fort Whoop-Up became a National Historic Site in 1963, for motivating the creation of the NWMP, the predecessor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

For more information about the NWMP please read these stories from the TWIH archives: The Establishment of a National Police Force and The Mounties at Lower Fort Garry.

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