Fort Walsh National Historic Site of Canada

History

Fort Walsh
Fort Walsh
©Parks Canada

Fort Walsh

Established in 1875 Fort Walsh would quickly become the most important, largest and most heavily armed fort the North West Mounted Police garrisoned during their early years in the West. In the heart of the spectacular Cypress Hills, experience life in the 1870s and discover how Fort Walsh presided over one of the most dramatic periods of change on the Prairies. Learn how Canadian law was established in the West, while the Cypress Hills continued to be a meeting place and crossroads for many different peoples, including Mounties, First Nations, Metis, fur traders and whiskey traders. Through diplomacy and conciliation, the North-West Mounted Police avoided much of the violence that often characterised other frontiers. Did you know the internationally recognized image of the RCMP mounted on black horses was born at Fort Walsh? Explore where the RCMP developed their rich traditions at their former headquarters in the Cypress Hills. The story of Fort Walsh is one of fascinating detail and larger-than-life characters. Jerry Potts; Sitting Bull; James Walsh; Big Bear; James Macleod; Alfred Terry; White Bird; Little Pine; Sam Steele; Spotted Eagle; Rain-in-the-Face; Gall; Nelson Miles; Chief Joseph; Lief Crozier; John A. Macdonald; George Armstrong Custer; all these and more are part of the story of Fort Walsh.

Fort Walsh National Historic Site of Canada has been commemorated because the fort served from 1878 to 1882 as the headquarters of the North West Mounted Police; and the fort played a key role: in imposing Canadian law from 1875 to 1883; in implementing Canada's Indian policy; and in supervising the Lakota who fled to Canada under Tantanka Iyotanka (Sitting Bull) after the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

The Cypress Hills Massacre
Fort Walsh: 1875 - 1883
Canadian Indian Policy
The Lakota Refugee Crisis
The Terry Commission
N.W.M.P. Headquarters: 1878 - 1882
James Morrow Walsh
R.C.M.P. Remount Ranch

The Cypress Hills Massacre

In a remote corner of the North West Territories, in present-day southwest Saskatchewan, there occurred an event which would have far-reaching consequences for the rest of the country. It would be the subject of many newspaper articles, and controversial court proceedings in both the United States and Canada. It would stir the Dominion government to move quickly to protect Canada's sovereignty in the West.

The North West Mounted Police force was already in the process of being created by John A. Macdonald's government when news of the Cypress Hills Massacre reached Ottawa in mid-August of 1873. The Massacre, which happened on Sunday, June 1, 1873, made it apparent that Canada must do something quickly to police its vast North West Territory. Reports of increasing violence and illegal whiskey-trading had been filtering in for some time, but the government was moving slowly to deal with the problems. Now something had occurred which convinced the government it had better do something sooner rather than later. News of the massacre hastened recruitment and organization of the new police force, and the N.W.M.P. were dispatched to the West the following year. This police force, and its successors, would stamp its mark on the country for many years to come. The colourful image of the "mountie" would impress itself on two nations, and become known around the world.

American adventurers had been trading rot-gut whiskey on Canadian territory since 1869. This whiskey was 100% grain alcohol cut down with water before other ingredients, such as tobacco, red ink, jamaica ginger, and sometimes strychnine, were added. Throughout present-day southern Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan these traders operated without competition or interference. The Hudson's Bay Company, to whose nominal control this territory belonged, seldom ventured into these southern areas, and the bison robe trade was left to the American free-lancers.

The robes were a valuable commodity, for they were used primarily to make belting leather. This was the leather used to make the drive-belts which ran the machinery of the industrialized eastern seaboard of the United States. This mechanization would consume the vast buffalo herds of the North American prairies, just as it would the many whales of the world's oceans. Buffalo leather drive-belts turned the factory machines; whale oil lubricated them. The industrial revolution, also, would cast a long shadow over the U.S. and Canadian west.

In the Cypress Hills of 1873 at least four trading posts were operating. Between them they employed at least thirteen whiskey traders. The scene of the Cypress Hills massacre was near two of them. Moses Solomon operated one whiskey-fort, and a short distance away across the stream which would become known as Battle Creek, the other was owned by Abel Farwell. Both of these men, and most of their hired help, were Americans based out of Fort Benton, Montana; a boomtown and hide depot 150 miles south-southwest of the Cypress Hills.

As the 1872-1873 trading season drew to its close the rival traders Farwell and Solomon summoned local Métis freighters to their forts to haul their winter's take to Fort Benton, where it would be sold. A late spring that year delayed their departures until the end of May. About the middle of May a group of about thirty lodges of Nakoda (Assiniboine) arrived under the leadership of Hunka-juka.. This band had experienced a very bad spring, and about thirty of their people had died of starvation and exposure during their recent trip from the Battle River, near present-day Battleford, Saskatchewan, to the Cypress Hills. They camped near the whiskey posts in hopes of trading the little they had for provisions. Farwell hired some of them to do odd jobs in return for food. Hunka-juka (or Manitupotis, as he was known in Cree) found his lodges joined by those of Minashinayen, an old friend of his. Inihan Kinyen's twelve lodges also arrived from the vicinity of Wood Mountain. As May drew to a close the camp of some three hundred Nakoda remained near the two whiskey-trading posts while Hunka-juka's people recovered from their recent ordeal.

There were thus quite a number of people living at the quiet creek-bend in the Battle Creek valley that June first of 1873. There were the Nakoda, at least ten Métis freighters with their Red River Carts and oxen, and the people of the two trading forts: nine or ten at Farwell's, including at least two women; and six at Solomon's. Not everyone was getting along perfectly. There were some hard feelings in particular between Solomon's fort and some in the Nakoda camp.

On May 31 one more group would arrive. These were wolfers; hide hunters who obtained wolf-pelts by poisoning buffalo carcases with strychnine and collecting the pelts of the wolves who died as a result of eating the poisoned meat. Wolfers might collect as many as twenty wolves from one poisoned "set" - one buffalo carcase. Such tactics provided pelts without bullet-holes that were easy to get. As many of these men were displaced as a result of the U.S. Civil War, they were eager to make fast money. Poisoning would also provide the pelts of coyotes and foxes, but using poison also led to the deaths of magpies and other wildlife, as well as Indian dogs. First Nations people at this time still relied on dogs to a certain extent to pull their travois, and they greatly resented the wolfers' hunting techniques. Wolfers found themselves unpopular with White trappers and traders as well. It was almost universally agreed that poisoning was a wasteful and dangerous practice.

As a result of the bitter feelings Indians had against the wolfers, feelings towards the traders cooled as well. Traders held the wolfers responsible for their own decreasing popularity among the Indians, even though some of the whiskey traders' own practices helped compound the ill feelings. Wolfers, for their part, resented the traders' trading army surplus breech-loading single-shot and repeating rifles to the Indians at their whiskey forts. Indians armed with such weapons made the wolfers' existence just that much more precarious. So it was a potentially explosive combination of people who came together in the Cypress Hills that June first of 1873.

These particular wolfers had spent the winter of 1872-1873 on the plains of what is now southern Alberta. On their way back to Fort Benton with their pelts they had their saddle horses, together with the driving horses used to pull their wagons, a total of forty head, stolen by a four-member Cree raiding party of Kakiwishtahaw's band. The wolfers had no idea who stole their horses, but they carried on into Benton and got remounted and reinforced. They set out to run the horse thieves down, but lost the trail near the Cypress Hills. These men knew there were trading posts in the vicinity, so their leaders, Thomas Hardwick and John Evans, set out to find them and ascertain if there was any rumour of their stolen horses.

Hardwick and Evans rode into Abe Farwell's fort the evening of May 31, 1873. Farwell told them he had heard nothing, and he assured them the nearby Nakoda camp were not the culprits, as they only had a very few thin horses as a result of the hard winter. He also told them that the Nakoda had proved to be good neighbours as they had returned his junior partner George Hammond's horse that very day when they had found it strayed away from the fort. George had unwisely rewarded this kindness with a keg of rot-gut. Farwell was as hospitable as any westerner of the time, and he invited Evans to bring the rest of the party, about a dozen men, in for breakfast. Tom Hardwick spent the night at Farwell's.

The next morning, June first, the rest of the wolfers arrived. A holiday atmosphere prevailed as the traders packed up the gains of a successful season's trade, and a fair amount of drinking was going on. Many of the traders and wolfers knew each other, and a party was soon under way at Solomon's post. Some of the Metis joined the festivities. Drinking was going on in the Nakoda camp as well, thanks to Hammond's reward of alcohol the previous day.

Inihan Kinyen was at Farwell's when the wolfers arrived, and he did not like the look of the men. As events unfolded that morning he encouraged his band to break camp, but was ridiculed by a drunken member of his band. This was an example of the social changes which the increased use of alcohol was causing among the people of the First Nations. Such cheek would not have been countenanced by the community were it not for the destructive influence of alcohol. The more-or-less positive trading relationships which once had existed were rapidly giving way to wholesale exploitation and social, environmental and economic decline after the Civil War.

About noon a half-drunk George Hammond found his horse was missing again. He invited the wolfers, many of whom were also drunk, to cover him while he went into the Nakoda camp to retrieve two of their horses to hold as a surety until his good horse was returned to him. Hammond supposed those Nakoda who were drinking must have run out of whiskey and had taken his horse so they could once again return it to him for another reward of whiskey. The wolfers for the most part were more than willing to go along with this drunken supposition. One of Solomon's men, Philander Vogle, had been filling their heads with stories about how untrustworthy these Nakoda were, since some of the band had argued with Solomon and threatened his men. The wolfers were still angry enough at the loss of their own horses that it mattered little to them who paid for that loss, so long as someone did, and they would not sit by while yet another horse was stolen. Several Métis also answered Hammond's summons for back-up.

While the wolfers and Métis took cover in a small coulee between Solomon's fort and the Nakoda camp Hammond stumbled into the camp and grabbed two horses and began leading them away. At the same time Farwell's interpreter, Alexis Lebombard, shouted across the creek to Hammond that his horse had just turned up, but Hammond did not appear to hear him. Things heated up in the Nakoda camp immediately, and George was prevented from leaving with the horses. The Nakoda were very insulted by this rude approach to their camp, and comments flew back and forth between the sides. Farwell intervened and called for cooler heads until Alexis could get there to make some sense of the arguments which in several languages were getting more and more heated, as people began to shout and shoot in the air. Before Alexis could get there Hammond returned to the coulee, and squeezed off a shot in the direction of the camp. The shooting then began in earnest.

The wolfers and their allies had the advantage. Firing in rapid volleys with their repeating rifles from the cover of the coulee, the Nakoda could not match them. They were exposed on the open flat where their camp stood, and most were armed only with muzzle-loading muskets, or bows and arrows. The women and children fled away from the shooting to the cover of nearby trees, but a number of people had already been killed. By the end of the day more than twenty Nakota, including some women and children, had been killed. One of the wolfers was also killed.

A number of the wolfers and one of the Métis then ransacked the camp, and burned the lodges. Some women were captured, and wounded people were executed. Other atrocities occurred throughout the night. Farwell's seventeen year old Crow Indian wife, Mary Horseguard, confronted some of the drunken men with a pistol and saved a teen-aged girl from mistreatment. She also made sure the remaining female captives were released the next morning.

The traders hurriedly packed up and headed for Fort Benton, with some of the wolfers returning with them. They burned their forts as they left. The rest of the wolfers carried on in pursuit of the horse thieves. They never found them.

The Nakoda bands were scattered and terribly traumatized by this massacre. Some of them found assistance among the Métis at Chapel Coulee, near the present-day town of Eastend. Others fled southeast into the United States.

One of the first duties of the North West Mounted Police when they arrived in the West the following year was to investigate the events of the Cypress Hills Massacre. Their investigations led in the spring of 1875 to the arrest of eight of the participants by United States authorities. At the extradition hearing in Helena, Montana these men had to face up to their actions on the day of the massacre. Because of conflicting testimony, however, and no clear evidence of premeditation, the mounties failed to get them extradited to Canada for trial for murder.

Three of the participants in the massacre were later captured on Canadian soil, however, and a murder trial was held at Winnipeg in June of 1876. Again, because of conflicting evidence and the lack of evidence of premeditation, no convictions were obtained. The violence of that day in June, 1873 would go unpunished.

The mounties had made a valiant, if unsuccessful, effort and First Nations people were quick to appreciate this point. The attempt to prosecute the offenders had fairly convinced them that the N.W.M.P. meant what they said. Everyone would be held equally accountable before the law. This Queen's law might be a law the Indians could respect. Her red-coated policemen might be friends First Nations people could trust. They seemed to be friends in words and theory, and in the next few years the N.W.M.P. would prove to be friends in deed.

Fort Walsh - 1875 to 1883

Fort Walsh was built by Inspector James Morrow Walsh and his men of "B" Troop, N.W.M.P. (about 30 men), in June of 1875 a short distance up-stream from where the Cypress Hills Massacre occurred. The fort was constructed on a level piece of ground near Battle Creek, sheltered and surrounded by the Cypress Hills. The fort was close to water and the timber needed for building materials, but it sat at a high elevation. Winters at Fort Walsh would sometimes prove a challenge.

Inspector Walsh was sent to establish a police presence in the Cypress Hills by his superior, Assistant-Commissioner James F. Macleod, who had established the force's first fort in the West the previous fall in Blackfoot (Siksika) territory near present-day Fort Macleod, Alberta. The Cypress Hills remained a hotbed of illegal activity at this time. The whiskey trade continued, and horse-theft and violence were commonplace. As a sort of crossroads between various tribes the Cypress Hills were a meeting place for many different peoples, and these meetings were not always friendly.

Fort Walsh was built to bring Canadian law and order to the area. It was to bring to an end the local whiskey trade, and it was to patrol the international border to assert Canadian sovereignty. Fort Walsh was also built to aid in the implementation of Canadian Indian policy. Those who had not already done so were to be encouraged to enter into treaties with the Dominion government. Natives were to be befriended, the Queen's laws explained to them, and told that the government would locate them on reserves and help them adjust to agricultural life.

The N.W.M.P. surgeons spent a good deal of time ministering to their needs, and Natives stopped in at Fort Walsh regularly to ask advice of the officers, to visit and share the news. The Natives actively assisted the N.W.M.P. in ending the illegal trade in liquor, and they realized the N.W.M.P. might prove to be worthwhile allies and advisors in their future negotiations with the government. Adhesions to Treaty Four were signed at Fort Walsh in 1877 (Man Who Took The Coat, Long Lodge, and Lean Man), and to Treaty Six in 1879 (Lucky Man and Little Pine) and 1882 (Big Bear). The mounties encouraged the Natives to discontinue their horse-stealing practices, and to avoid warring with one another. Treaty monies were paid at Fort Walsh, and for a few years government-operated agricultural instruction farms for some bands were established near Fort Walsh.

The mounties at Fort Walsh, and elsewhere, were also responsible for Customs and Excise. They would also do the work of Quarantine and Brand Inspectors as herds of horses and cattle were brought into the country. Their wagons distributed the mail. The first veterinarian in the West was a mountie. The only doctors were N.W.M.P. surgeons. The first lawyers were mounties. N.W.M.P. officers were magistrates and justices of the peace. They could marry and bury people. They arrested, prosecuted and sat in judgement of offenders. They were law and order, and infrastructure. They were the system as it existed at the time. They were policemen in peacetime, but if war came, they would be infantry, cavalry and artillery. They were ambassadors of the new Dominion government, and advisors to that government. They were the government, but they were also its servants. And when their terms of service expired, they were among the first settlers and businessmen in the West. And they were diplomats. Thanks to their efforts American-Canadian relations were improved. The role they played in these years is inestimable.

Fort Walsh's importance increased during the period of the Lakota refugee crisis, and for four years it served as the headquarters of the force. Its garrison had at times been as high as 150 men. With the Lakota back across the border by 1881, however, and with Canadian Natives moving to reserves, it was no longer necessary to have so many men patrolling the border, and Fort Walsh's importance declined.

Fort Walsh was by this time poorly situated. Once it had sat in the middle of a very wild and unruly piece of the country, and since it was supplied through the United States from Fort Benton it was important that it be on the south-facing slope of the Cypress Hills. These days were passing thanks to the activities of the men at Fort Walsh, and thanks to the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Fort Walsh's elevation had made for long winters, and the Fort had experienced sanitation and water quality problems from its inception. Headquarters had been moved to Regina in 1882, and most of the men were posted to other forts: places like Fort Battleford, which would become a hot spot a few years later. (See Fort Battleford N.H.S.) With the arrival of the C.P.R. at Maple Creek in the spring of 1883 supplies were now obtainable directly from the East. It made no sense to keep the fort open for the small detachment now required in this area, and have them haul their supplies fifty miles through rugged country. Fort Walsh was closed and dismantled in the spring of 1883, and its last detachment, "A" Division, moved to a new location about two miles from the rail line and just outside Maple Creek. The Cypress Hills area would now be patrolled from the "A" Division barracks.

Fort Walsh only existed for eight years. In that time it would supervise over tremendous cultural, social, economic and ecological change. It would keep the peace amongst the many different peoples who would pass through the area as refugees from conflict, or as refugees from hunger. Through all the challenges faced the men of the force served with cool-headed determination. Although equipped and prepared for war the N.W.M.P. dealt peacefully with desperate peoples from both sides of the international border, some of whom were formidable warriors, without a shot being fired. The story of Fort Walsh is a story of peace and success to match the Cypress Hills Massacre's story of violence and failure. In the ten years between 1873 and 1883, for which the Massacre and the closing of Fort Walsh neatly serve as bookends, peace had come again to the North West. The agents of this peace were the Dominion government's police force. Canada had "stabled her elephant".

1878
1878
©National Archives of Canada

Canadian Indian Policy

Canadian Indian Policy during the late nineteenth century essentially condoned a three-step process, and in simple terms it might be described as a policy of the "Bible and the plow". It was by no means unique to Canada, but reflected theories and considerations common in English-speaking jurisdictions throughout the world, including the United States. Politicians and governments, together with missionary societies and other vocal groups, had decided Indigenous peoples needed to be:

  1. protected from unconscionable exploitation, and from themselves;
  2. "civilized", and taught the benefits of European-style civilization and religious belief; and,
  3. assimilated into the governing European culture.
Fort Walsh
Fort Walsh
©National Archives of Canada

It must be recalled that political and social concepts were at this time being influenced by new developments in science, particularly evolutionary concepts developed by Charles Darwin and promoted by men like T.H. Huxley. Social planners misunderstood Darwinian concepts and tried to apply them to the world of human affairs. European culture was seen by these Social Darwinists as representing the apex in human development, and other cultures and peoples around the world were classed as more or less "primitive" on a scale which placed Europeans at the top. To people holding such beliefs, many of whom were well-meaning, it seemed unnatural that anyone, once made familiar with European civilization and beliefs, would willingly reject such obvious "enlightenment." The attempted indoctrination and assimilation of Indigenous peoples around the world, all of whom enjoyed their own ancient civilizations, would cause tremendous misery and despair for these peoples.

It was upon such notions that Canadian Indian Policy was founded, and this policy was pursued for the perceived good of the Indians themselves. The mounties at Fort Walsh and elsewhere played a role in applying this policy. The N.W.M.P. were in the West in part to protect the Native peoples from the ravages of the whiskey trade and destructive epidemics of diseases like smallpox and measles. But they were also in the West to lay claim to it for the Dominion government and assert Canadian sovereignty, sovereignty which was being eroded by the activities of American traders.

The mounties played a role in the second step as well. Depending on what one defines as "civilization", the N.W.M.P. were there to "civilize" the Indians by teaching them notions of Canadian law and custom. The N.W.M.P. vigorously discouraged Native tribes from raiding against each other, and stealing each others' horses. Horse-stealing was very much a part of later Plains Indian culture, and was seen as a worthwhile activity whereby young men could prove their courage and establish reputations which were necessary to develop leadership qualities. This state of affairs could not be allowed to continue, however, if the Canadian government hoped to settle the prairies.

On behalf of the government the N.W.M.P. also encouraged Natives to "take treaty" and establish themselves on reserves. They were encouraged to learn to support themselves by farming, as farming was seen as a civilized and honourable profession which taught the virtues of hard work and thrift. This would not only help to "civilize" them, but would solve the problem of sustenance posed by the declining buffalo herds.

For the Dominion government's National Policy to succeed, an important part of which included European-style settlement of the prairies, the Indians had to be restricted to reserves learning those behaviors which would be acceptable to the proposed settlers. And for the government to provide these settlers with title to their farms, Native title to the land had to be extinguished through the treaty-making process. So the N.W.M.P. found themselves extensively involved in aiding Indian Department officials to convince Native leaders that what the government proposed was truly in their best interests. Because the Native leaders for the most part trusted the mounties, and because the mounties tended to believe in the Policy themselves, many Native leaders were quick to sign treaties. Others, like Big Bear, would not sign. Such leaders understood the great changes which were coming, and held out for more generous offers from the Dominion government. His attempts at negotiation, however, were misunderstood as hostility, and leaders like Big Bear would suffer many difficulties before they were left with little other choice but to comply with the government's wishes. Many leaders only signed when starvation left them with no other option.

The role the mounties played as proponents of the Dominion government's Indian Policy stretched their resources, and their credibility as policemen. The N.W.M.P. would come to be viewed as an institution more and more charged with doing the government's bidding than representing and protecting the interests of the people of the West. As time went by the N.W.M.P. found their policing role changing and becoming constantly more complex, as they were thrust into the position of having to force Native leaders to comply with government policies they themselves had helped to convince the Indians would be to their benefit. The dynamic between the Native peoples and the police would be forever changed, as it became more and more clear what the true mission of the police had been: an advance guard of wholesale invasion and settlement.

The Lakota Refugee Crisis

After the Battle of the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876 groups of American Natives began to move increasingly towards the Canadian border, as they contemplated Canada as a possible refuge from the American Army which pursued them. The Great Sioux War of 1876-1877 would drive almost five thousand of these people into the vicinity of Wood Mountain, near the present-day Grasslands National Park.

The first refugees began to arrive in November of 1876, and throughout the winter and early spring of 1877 more arrived. They were Lakota, or Teton Sioux, people led by men like Lame Brule; Spotted Eagle; Bear's Cap, and Four Horns. The influential medicine man and leader, Sitting Bull, arrived with his following in May of 1877.

As each group came into Canada they were met by N.W.M.P. officers like Inspector James Walsh, Commissioner Macleod, or Assistant Commissioner Irvine. Since the Wood Mountain area was in Fort Walsh's patrol district it fell to Inspector, later Superintendent, Walsh to deal with them. As the refugees arrived he made it clear to the Lakota that, while they were welcome in Canada for the time being, they would not be able to stay permanently. They would have to obey the laws of the Canadian government while they were in Canada, and they would not be allowed to use Canada as a safe haven from which to conduct raids into the United States. Any breach of these rules would result in their being expelled from Canada.

The Lakota refugee crisis would drag on for almost five years, and it would test the governments of three nations: the United States; Canada; and Great Britain, which was still responsible for Canada's foreign affairs at the time. The United States looked upon the refugees as an undefeated hostile army hovering on its northern border where it might raid into the U.S. at any time. The American public was sick of war, and they wanted a hasty resolution to this refugee situation. Revenge played a role as well, as it was thought these refugees were getting away unpunished for the annihilation of Custer's command at the Little Big Horn. During this period the U.S. would fight as many as three Indian wars, and the American government was spending about twenty million dollars a year fighting wars in the West; more than Canada's entire budget at the time. So there was considerable pressure on Colonel Nelson Miles and other officers of the U.S. Army to end this state of affairs.

As far as Canada was concerned the refugees were Americans, and an American problem which must eventually be dealt with by the U.S. Permanent resident status would not be afforded the refugees, as Canada had enough trouble feeding her own people. The British government did not wish to impair relations, which were not good, between itself and the U.S. government, but at the same time did not want to appear to knuckle under to American demands that the Lakota be turned over to them.

Sitting Bull had his own agenda. He pitched the claim that his people were in fact British subjects, since the Sioux had been allied with the British against the Americans in the War of 1812. Canada at this time was regarded by the U.S. as a puppet Dominion of the United Kingdom, the same United Kingdom against which they had recently fought a revolution, the War of 1812, and which had to some extent supported the losing side (the Confederacy) during the Civil War. Canada was viewed with suspicion, and her concerns were considered secondary to British and American concerns. The new young nation was walking a tightrope as she tried to distance herself somewhat from Britain while making her own concerns understood by the U.K. and the U.S. Sitting Bull's arguments were ignored, as the Lakota refugees touched off, then became mired in, a three-nation contest of politics, international policy, and international law.

Neither were "Canadian" Natives, some of whom were traditional enemies of the Lakota, happy to see the refugees in Canada. The Lakota were infringing on their hunting grounds and using up the fast diminishing buffalo reserves they depended upon. Inter-tribal strife was also a possibility. In the middle of all these competing interests stood the N.W.M.P. The mounties, led by Superintendent James Walsh, patrolled constantly to supervise the Lakota refugees, and to keep an eye on any problems which might arise between them and neighbouring "Canadian" Natives as well as Native groups just across the border in the U.S.

In the early days of the crisis Colonel Nelson Miles, headquartered at Fort Keogh on the Yellowstone River, considered following the refugees into Canada. He was informed by Walsh, however, that if he were to infringe upon Canada's sovereignty in that way Walsh would be forced to take military action against him. Miles then resorted to pressuring the Canadian authorities to force the refugees back across the border, but Canada refused to use force against the Lakota either. The situation ground down to a process of slow and deliberate negotiation, while cooler heads prevailed.

In late 1877 the American government sent a delegation under General Alfred Terry to Fort Walsh to speak to the Lakota leaders, but this delegation, known as the Terry Commission, failed to produce results. With abundant buffalo still on the plains the Lakota were happy to stay in Canada just outside Miles' reach, sparking incessant reports of Lakota hunting parties on U.S. territory which clogged the lines of communication in three nations.

As time went by and the buffalo declined in numbers, the situation became more desperate. This decline was aided by the actions of Colonel Miles, who instituted a scorched-earth policy in order to hasten the return of the Lakota. He had his troops burn the prairie at intervals to turn the buffalo migrations around, and prevent them from reaching Sitting Bull's people, while forcing the buffalo to remain in the U.S. to feed American Natives. As far as Miles was concerned it was still a state of total war. As a result there was much burned-over country, and Canadian Natives were forced to go hunt in Montana, compounding the problem of displaced peoples and creating something of a bureaucratic nightmare. Fortunately Walsh and his American counterparts were able to convince most of the refugees to return to the U.S. by late 1879.

Only Sitting Bull and his immediate following, about one thousand people, would remain. But Canada would still not hear of allowing them to stay, and refused to provision them. They would have to go back to the United States, or starve. Sitting Bull's support dwindled further, until by July of 1881 his following only numbered a few hundred people. His hopes of remaining in Canada on a reservation created for him would not be fulfilled. He would have to swallow what remained of his pride, and come to terms with the Americans. Accompanied by a few mounties Sitting Bull's small band was delivered to American authorities at the border on July 17, 1881. The Lakota crisis was finally over.

Not all the Lakota returned. About sixty people remained behind. They lived off the land, and worked for ranchers in the Wood Mountain area. They were finally granted a small reserve in 1913. These few descendants of the great numbers of Lakota who came to Canada as refugees in 1876 and 1877 are the only Lakota left living north of the 49th parallel.

The Terry Commission

At the request of the Canadian government American authorities sent a Commission under General Alfred Terry to meet with the Lakota leaders to offer them terms and conditions of surrender. This commission met at Fort Walsh on October 17, 1877.

Superintendent Walsh and a party of N.W.M.P. escorted the reluctant Spotted Eagle, Sitting Bull and other leaders to Fort Walsh. Commissioner Macleod met the American delegation at the international boundary. The sight of Americans on the Canadian side of the border made the Lakota nervous.

The meeting was held in Superintendent Walsh's quarters, just inside the front gate of the fort. General Terry opened the proceedings by telling the Lakota that they were welcome to return to reserves in the United States without fear of military reprisal for what had happened at the Little Big Horn. If the Lakota surrendered hostilities would be at an end. He then informed them, as the American government's policy towards hostile belligerents then decreed, that their surrender to the United States government would have to be unconditional. At the border they would have to turn over to the U.S. army their guns and their horses. They would then proceed to their reservations. They could not be allowed to return with their means of making war intact since such a triumphant return might influence or inspire other groups to take up arms against the American government.

Guns and horses were all the Lakota had. They were the only means they had of making a living. Buffalo were still abundant on the plains in 1877, so the Lakota were not yet hungry. And Sitting Bull in particular did not wish to go back. He hated the Americans, and did not trust them. He refused to shake hands with the delegates, even when Spotted Eagle did. One after another the Lakota leaders turned the American offer down.

There was something else on the minds of the Lakota. The Nez Perce people, under chiefs Joseph, Ollicot, Looking Glass and others, had just finished fighting a running fight with the U.S. military all the way from Idaho, across Montana, to the Bear Paw Mountains just southeast of Fort Walsh, on the American side of the border. The Terry Commission had even been delayed by the hostilities. On Snake Creek, just to the north of the Bears Paw, Colonel Nelson Miles finally caught up to the 700 or so Nez Perce. He surrounded the camp, brought in artillery, and, after a battle that lasted several days, forced Chief Joseph to surrender. By this time many people had been killed, including most of the other chiefs. About two hundred Nez Perce under chief White Bird escaped. They made it into Canada, where the Nez Perce had been heading, and they rode into Sitting Bull's camp about ten days prior to the date of the Terry Commission. Some of these new refugees were very badly wounded. Superintendent Walsh only with difficulty convinced the Lakota they should not go help the Nez Perce. He explained that if they left, they would not be allowed to come back.

The Lakota could not believe the Americans were sending a peace delegation to talk to them at the same time this war was going on. They thought there must be some trick, and that the same thing would happen to them if they returned to the United States. It was a case of very, very bad timing, and as a result of the war with the Nez Perce, together with the other considerations mentioned, the Terry Commission was doomed to failure. The Lakota would only dribble back across the border as leaders of different groups would arrive at independent agreements with the U.S. government. There would be no all at once return, and no dramatic conclusion to the crisis. Many of the Lakota would still remain in Canada nearly four years later, and it would take four long years of ongoing negotiation before they would return to the United States.

N.W.M.P. Headquarters - 1878 to 1882

After the Lakota refugees came to Canada Fort Walsh was reinforced. At times as many as 150 men would be stationed at the fort and its outposts, and four seven pounder mountain guns were added to its arsenal. The force's two nine pound field rifles soon made their appearance as well.

As Fort Walsh emerged as the most important fort of this time, and was central to a relatively volatile area and close to events as they transpired, it was decided that it should be made headquarters in 1878. Commissioner Macleod moved his Assistant-Commissioner, Acheson Gosford Irvine, to take up residence in the newly-constructed Commissioner's Residence at Fort Walsh. Irvine later succeeded Macleod as Commissioner. From Fort Walsh Irvine could keep a close eye on what transpired in the refugee camps, and keep Ottawa appraised of the situation. Any results from negotiations, or new information from the governments involved, could be acted upon at once.

As headquarters all the reports and communications from the other forts and outposts crossed the desks of the officers at Fort Walsh. The force's commanding officer was in constant communication with Ottawa, and Fort Walsh became the busy centre of operations for the N.W.M.P. Despatch riders came and went continually, and Fort Walsh became a stopping-point for many visitors to Canada's North West Territory. A sizeable frontier town of some three hundred permanent residents grew up to the north of the fort, but the numbers of people in the vicinity of the fort often reached into the thousands as Native tribes stopped to receive treaty payments or rations.

Since Fort Walsh was headquarters most of the new recruits to the force came on strength there. These recruits arrived at Fort Walsh via the United States. Their journey from the East, by water and by rail, would end at Fort Benton, Montana. From there they usually walked the one hundred and fifty miles to Fort Walsh. The new recruits, who usually arrived in late spring, would receive their basic training at Fort Walsh. They were put through small arms and foot drills, skirmishing drills, and riding drills. Some would be taught how to use the big guns, and there were artillery drills as well. The largest ever muster at Fort Walsh was 253 men, during one influx of new recruits.

A visitor to Fort Walsh in the spring of 1879 or 1880 would see a continual round of drills and men drilling. They would also see, and probably be challenged to, continuous shooting contests and target practice. Such shooting contests: between officers and men; or old hands versus new recruits; or old country versus Canadians; or civilians versus police; or almost any other imaginable combination of contestants, were a welcome relief to the boredom and routine which characterized service with the N.W.M.P.

As Fort Walsh grew in importance it also grew in size. New barracks and stables were constructed; more shops and facilities were added. A library was constructed in 1881, and there was even a grass tennis court in front of the fort. The mounties played cricket and baseball, raced horses, and had soccer matches which might have dozens of players per side. Métis, Natives, freighters, cowboys, and townspeople were often to be seen engaging in sports with the mounties.

Fort Walsh as headquarters would oversee tremendous changes on the Canadian prairies. Since the Cypress Hills were a convenient jumping-off point to the last of the buffalo herds, Fort Walsh would see people arriving from the north, south, east and west as refugees from hunger. Between these new arrivals, the resident population, and the Lakota and Nez Perce refugees the N.W.M.P. at Fort Walsh had their work cut out for them keeping the peace, and investigating allegations of horse theft.

On several occasions Blood and Blackfoot warriors would arrive claiming Cree, or Saulteaux, or some other group had stolen their horses. Assiniboines would claim Piegan people had stolen theirs, and Americans would arrive saying refugee Lakota had stolen theirs. It was left to the mounties to try to sort matters out, and sometimes unhappy warriors would stage vigorous demonstrations outside the fort. On one occasion a party of Blood warriors killed a Cree elder near Fort Walsh Town, and proceeded to drag the body around the fort while they fired their weapons in the air.

As the buffalo declined to the point of near-extinction the tension grew. Thousands of people were literally starving to death, but the mounties were ordered not to provision these people unless they agreed to sign treaties, or returned to their reserves if they had already taken treaty. During 1882 the mounties increased patrols outside the fort at night, and occasionally fired rockets to intimidate any would-be attackers. Some leaders brought their people to camp as near as possible to the walls of the fort for protection.

Fortunately no general outbreak of violence occurred. Peace was maintained, and with no buffalo to hunt Natives moved onto their reserves and began farming to support themselves. The American refugees returned to the United States during the same period, and quiet returned to the Cypress Hills. There were still problems occasionally, but nothing which required the presence of so large a force or headquarters personel. With the railway and the seat of territorial government arriving at Regina it was decided that headquarters should be moved to that more centrally-located community. Headquarters was moved to Regina in 1882, and shortly after Fort Walsh was closed entirely. Any relations with Native peoples, or investigations of horse-theft, could henceforth be conducted from the "A" Division Barracks outside Maple Creek. Fort Walsh, and the village of Fort Walsh, would fade into memory.

Fort Walsh
Fort Walsh
©Montana Historical Society 947-451

James Morrow Walsh

James Morrow Walsh was born at Prescott, Ontario in 1840. He came from a large family of nine siblings. His father, Lewis Walsh, was a ship's carpenter. Walsh was a good athlete, and excelled at sports like lacrosse and cricket, but he was a poor student. As a young man just out of school he tried a number of different occupations. He tried selling dry goods, he trained as a railroad engineer, and he worked in a machine shop. Eventually he entered Kingston Military School. Finally he had found something which appealed to him, and he graduated with honours in 1862. He excelled in gunnery and in cavalry maneuvers. His gunnery instructor was George French, the same man who would serve as the first Commissioner of the N.W.M.P.

During the period of the Fenian raids Walsh served as a lieutenant in the 56th Grenville Regiment, and was later promoted to Captain. In 1868 Walsh left Kingston's School of Cavalry as an officer with a first class certificate. He continued his education in Toronto where he attended the Militia School of Gunnery. Upon graduation he intended to join the Wolseley expedition to Red River, but on April 19, 1870 married Mary Elizabeth Mowat of Brockville, Ontario instead. To support his new wife he took over the management of the North American Hotel in Prescott, and in his spare time formed a local militia of which he was a part-time major. Within the year he and Mary had a daughter, Cora.

Walsh was one of the first men to join the North West Mounted Police in September of 1873. He was given the rank of Inspector, and was very active during the recruitment and training of the men. He was an excellent horseman, and during the early months of the force's existence Walsh was responsible for supervising the care and health of the horses. When the force left on its March West in July of 1874 Walsh was in command of "D" Troop. Later that year he was transferred to "B" Troop, and would command that troop for the next ten years.

Walsh was a popular officer among the men. He was a brave and daring leader who would never ask the men to do anything he could not, or would not do himself. The men loved him for it. Walsh would become perhaps a little too enamored of western frontier life, but during the unsettled days of the late 1870s he was the right man at the right place at the right time. He was tough, he was a little wild, he was independent, and he could swear like a bull-whacker. He was ambitious, but he was honest and just. He was brave, handsome, and intelligent; and he cut a romantic figure in his buckskins. The men of his troop copied his "Imperial" style goatee, and they called themselves Walsh's devils. They were a goateed, hard-riding, spirited group of men much influenced by the image of James Morrow Walsh.

Walsh was thirty-five when Fort Walsh was established. He was in sole command of the fort during its early years, but after the arrival of the Lakota in Canada Walsh spent most of his time at Wood Mountain outpost. Most of "B" Troop was transferred there as well, while Fort Walsh was reinforced with "E" Troop and later "A" Troop and elements of "F" Troop. Walsh's bravado and straight-forward dealings made an impression on the Native leaders he dealt with. Men like Spotted Eagle, Sitting Bull, Piapot, Coweses, and Man-Who-Took-the-Coat, among many others, respected Walsh for his honesty and fairness. Sitting Bull found in Walsh an honourable friend and trusted advisor. Walsh's personal relationships greatly assisted the eventual repatriation of the Lakota refugees, and convinced many "Canadian" natives to sign treaty.

Walsh was not so popular with his superior officers. He tended to act on his own authority, and some incidents which he played down were considered more serious by his superiors. Where Walsh would grant latitude other officers would take a severe view. Walsh's personality led to clashes with Commissioner James Macleod. The Assistant-Commissioner, later Commissioner, A.G. Irvine did not care for Walsh and felt he was an unreliable officer. Irvine's Victorian sensibilities were no doubt offended by Walsh's occasional vulgarity, profanity, and generally frontier-like behavior.

The American newspapers, however, lionized Walsh. They would run photos of him in frontier dress with captions calling him Sitting Bull's Boss. The American public was very interested in the doings of the refugee Lakota, and they saw in Walsh a character akin to that of the late Lieutenant-Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Walsh's willingness to talk to reporters, and his somewhat unorthodox style of command and performance of his duties, brought him to the attention of the Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald. Macdonald would come to believe that Walsh was deliberately prolonging the Lakota crisis in order to bring more attention to himself and advance his career. But Walsh did succeed in convincing about 4,000 of these refugees to return, and it was only Sitting Bull, who had vowed never to return, and his immediate following who continued to hold out. In the later years of the crisis, 1879-80, Walsh and Sitting Bull's relationship would deteriorate, but Walsh continued to encourage him to return to the U.S.

After so many years dealing with the problem it was natural that Walsh would take a proprietorial interest in the matter, and with his experience of the situation he felt he was best equipped to finally resolve it. But his star was fading, and he was given extended leave in the summer of 1880. He was deliberately kept in the East until the recalcitrant Sitting Bull returned to the U.S. in July, 1881. Superintendent L.N.F. Crozier would take over at Wood Mountain, while Walsh's "B" Troop was re-posted to Fort Qu'Appelle. Crozier by-passed Sitting Bull and talked to other leaders, thus undermining Sitting Bull's authority. Sitting Bull waited for Walsh to return, and even made a fruitless trip to Fort Qu'Appelle to try to see him. But Walsh was not there, and Sitting Bull was told Walsh would not be back any time soon. Sitting Bull continued to lose support. With the disappearance of the buffalo, and Canada's reluctance to provision his people, Sitting Bull had no choice but to return or face starvation. He surrendered at Fort Buford, Dakota Territory, on July 19, 1881. There were less than 200 loyal followers left with the once-mighty Lakota warrior and mystic.

James Morrow Walsh
James Morrow Walsh
©National Archives of Canada

With Sitting Bull back in the United States Walsh was free to return to his command at Fort Qu'Appelle. But his attitude was changed towards the force, and he resigned his commission in 1883. He returned to Ontario, to Brockville, and bought his house called "Indian Cliff", named after a location near Wood Mountain. For most of the rest of his life he operated a business called the Dominion Coal, Coke and Transportation Company. It was headquartered in Brandon, Manitoba. The business was a success, since its major customer was the C.P.R.

For a brief period in 1897-98 he was given the position of Commissioner of the Yukon Territory, which also made him superintendent in charge of the N.W.M.P. there. After striving to establish an effective government administration he got caught up in political controversy and resigned his appointment in less than a year. Walsh died in 1905, the same year the vast area he had once patrolled became the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. His funeral was an elaborate affair, and his coffin rode on a gun-carriage accompanied by a marching band and military escort. In civilian life Walsh attained the level of respect and admiration he felt he was denied, by all except the faithful men of "B" Troop, during his career with the N.W.M.P.

J.M. Walsh in N.W.M.P. uniform
J.M. Walsh in N.W.M.P. uniform
©Glenbow Archives- NA-1771-1

R.C.M.P. Remount Ranch

After Fort Walsh closed in 1883 the area where the fort stood became part of the David Wood and Wellington Anderson ranch yard. Many ranches would establish in the Cypress Hills during and immediately after the days of Fort Walsh. Many of these ranchers were ex-North West Mounted Policemen. Cattle and horse ranching is still the leading economic activity in the Cypress Hills area, and ranching remains one of the most significant cultural identities in the area.

In 1937 Assistant Commissioner S.T. Wood was part of the R.C.M.P. contingent which participated in the coronation of the current Queen's father, King George VI. Wood was so impressed by the Lifeguards of The Household Cavalry dressed in scarlet tunics and mounted on uniform black horses that he resolved the R.C.M.P. should also being as distinctively mounted. In 1938 Wood became Commissioner of the R.C.M.P. and within a year all the horses which were acquired by the R.C.M.P. were required to be black. This greatly limited the number of horses available to Force through sale, and it soon became apparent that the R.C.M.P. would have to raise their own herd of black horses. With limited space available for such an effort at Depot in Regina, the Commissioner started to investigate the purchase of ranch. Commissioner Wood possessed an avid interest in the history of the Force, and had particular interest in the site of the Force's old headquarters at Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills. Wood also felt the rugged terrain of the Cypress Hills would also help raise hearty and well muscled horses. In 1942 the R.C.M.P. entered into negotiations with rancher Frank Nuttall which resulted in the R.C.M.P. re-acquiring the site of old Fort Walsh. The next year the R.C.M.P. Remount Ranch at Fort Walsh was under construction. It was left to Special Constable Barney Montour, under the supervision of Sergeant David Fleming, to reconstruct Fort Walsh. The R.C.M.P. studied period photographs and drawings of old Fort Walsh, and conducted interviews with N.W.M.P. veterans who had served at Fort Walsh, so that they had a very good idea how the old fort looked when construction began. New log buildings were carefully constructed over the still-visible outlines of the old, but the new buildings were made either somewhat larger or smaller so that the underlying archaeological resources would be disturbed as little as possible.

The R.C.M.P. Remount Ranch at Fort Walsh then started the process of raising the large black horses which have become an integral part of the R.C.M.P.'s internationally recognized image. A carefully monitored breeding program was implemented in a corral system behind the fort. Thoroughbred black stallions crossed with mare's with strains heavy horses produced the desired offspring; horses with not only size and presence, but also beauty and grace. At Fort Walsh the horses were raised to three year olds, halter broken, and branded (later tattooed). Then they were driven to Maple Creek, loaded on the train and shipped to Depot in Regina (later the horses were shipped by semi-trailer). Depot was where these young horses were trained, and where in turn they would help to train the men. Fort Walsh horses were also used in the R.C.M.P. Musical Ride. Many of the horses in the Ride today can trace their ancestry to horses raised at Fort Walsh. One mare who served in the Musical Ride, Burmese, who was born at Fort Walsh in 1962, became a favourite of the R.C.M.P. and in 1969 was given to their Honourary Commissioner; Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada. For nearly 20 years the Queen could be seen riding Burmese on state occasions. The presentation of a horse to Her Majesty has been a tradition of the R.C.M.P. ever since.

In 1966, the R.C.M.P. discontinued mandatory recruit equitation training, so they no longer needed as many horses. Fort Walsh was once again decreed to be too far from everywhere else, and too cold. This ironically coincided with the death of Commissioner S. T. Wood (retired), who was an advocate of equitation training and who had saw to the establishment of the R.C.M.P. Remount Ranch at Fort Walsh. The site of the R.C.M.P. Remount Ranch at Fort Walsh and a portion of its lands were then transferred to Parks Canada in 1968, and the R.C.M.P. breeding program was moved to Packenham, Ontario. It is at Packenham that the Musical Ride horses are raised today.

It is the Remount Ranch buildings which present-day Fort Walsh National Historic Site uses to commemorate the original fort. The buildings look virtually identical to the originals, they sit in the same locations, and many served the same purposes at the Remount Ranch as they would have at the old fort. Not all of the original buildings were reconstructed, however, since the Remount Ranch did not have use for as many facilities as the old fort needed. Thus only about half of the original fort has been reconstructed. The only thing Parks Canada has added to the Site is the palisade which surrounds the reconstructed buildings. The reconstructed palisade represents the exact size and shape of Fort Walsh's 1881 palisade, and portrays Fort Walsh as large as it ever became. Most of the buildings are now refurbished to represent the 1880 period, and the animation and interpretation focuses on this very important time. However, the R.C.M.P. Remount Ranch is not forgotten, and a walk around Fort Walsh today reveals the same scenery and views that the R.C.M.P. enjoyed during the 1950s and 1960s.