The Cypress Hills Massacre
Of all the events that took place in the Canadian west prior to the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, perhaps the most significant is the Cypress Hills Massacre. This incident, while tragic, ushered in a new era of peace and stability, the likes of which Canada’s western frontier had never known; it resulted in the formation of the North West Mounted Police- the predecessors of Canada’s iconic Royal Canadian Mounted Police- a force that would establish Canadian sovereignty in an area that was becoming increasingly populated with international gold prospectors and American whisky traders. Because of the Cypress Hills Massacre, by the time the Canadian Pacific Railway began to import the pioneers who would settle the so-called “Last Best West”, Western Canada had already enjoyed a decade of law and order.
The Cypress Hills Massacre took place on June 2, 1873. About two weeks earlier, on May 17, a South Peigan war party raided a crew of American wolfers on the Teton River less than a day’s travel from Fort Benton, Montana. The wolfer crew- which was led by Thomas Hardwick, an American Civil War veteran and prolific Indian killer- had spent the winter harvesting wolf pelts near the Bow River in Canada. They were en-route to Fort Benton, where they hoped to trade in their season’s take, and had nearly reached their destination when the war party found them. Although the South Peigan braves didn’t kill any of the wolfers, they stole nineteen of their horses. Without the extra horsepower, the going was slow, and the wolfers spent the next three days laboriously carting their skins to Fort Benton.
After reaching the town and trading in their pelts, the wolfers formed a posse of twelve men, each armed with a Henry rifle and two large calibre Smith & Wesson revolvers, and rode out onto the prairie, determined to reclaim the stolen horses. The posse, led by Hardwick and another wolfer named John E. Evans (who would later become the Captain of the Spitzee Cavalry), included Trevanion Hale, Elijah Devereaux, Edward Grace, James Hughes, Charles Smith, S. Vincent, and S.A. Harper.
The wolfers picked up the warrior’s trail eight miles north of the Teton River and followed it for three days. On the night of the third day, however, heavy rains obliterated all signs of the fleeing war party. The next morning, the wolfers rode on aimlessly for some time before admitting that the trail was lost. Instead of immediately returning to Fort Benton, the wolfers decided to cross the 49th parallel into British territory and make the short journey to the Cypress Hills, where a number of Montanans had established whisky forts in the summer of 1871 (in the aftermath of the successes of Fort Whoop-Up and Fort Standoff). As none of the party knew precisely where the trading posts were located, the posse leaders- Hardwick and Evans- rode ahead to scout for them, and for potentially hostile Indians.
Hardwick and Evans ventured into the Cypress Hills and discovered two trading posts owned by Moses Solomon- a tough New Yorker of Polish-Jew descent and former employee at Fort Standoff- and Abel Farwell- a veteran trader and former employee of Durfee & Peck- respectively. The forts were situated a short distance from each other, and were separated by a small creek. As it turned out, they were the only forts still in operation at that time of the year- the other Cypress Hills whisky forts were closed for the season- and were not without customers. According to Evans, “we approached the posts very cautiously and discovered about forty lodges of Indians, but as they had only eleven head of horses in the camp, we concluded they were not the thieves, so went in and camped within a short distance.”
The next morning, the remainder of the posse arrived. Some of the wolfers visited with Farwell, while others met with Solomon, each man helping himself generously to the whisky traders’ eponymous wares. As they lounged outside the whisky forts, drinking with the two traders, the wolfers learned that the Indians camped within the creek valley were Northern Assiniboine from Wood Mountain, led by a chief named Little Soldier- Indians whom Farwell knew quite well.
In the midst of the conversation, a Canadian named George Hammond, who worked for Farwell, mentioned that his horse had been stolen in the night a short while ago, and that he believed Little Soldier’s Assiniboine were the thieves. Farwell, whose recollection of the incident different considerably from Hammonds, stated, “No, these Indians brought the horse back and gave it to you, and if they had wanted it they would have kept it”. Farwell recalled the incident that Hammond was referring to. Several days earlier, a war party of seventeen Indians rode up to his post and camped outside it for two nights. On the second night, some of the braves stole three horses from the corral. A few of Little Soldier’s Assiniboine accosted the horse thieves and managed to recover one of the stolen horses- Hammond’s horse- before the war party rode off. They returned the horse to the traders the following day. Before Farwell could recount the story to elucidate his statement, however, a Metis freighter declared that two of his horses were missing, as well.
Immediately, Hammond went into the fort and emerged with his rifle in hand. “Let’s go clean out the camp,” he said and his suggestion met with general acclaim.
In order to mollify his belligerent associates, Farwell invited Hammond to keep any two of his own horses. He further resolved to take two of Little Soldier’s horses as collateral until the two stolen horses were returned. Before Hammond could retort, Farwell turned on his heel and strode down across the creek towards Little Soldier’s camp, praying that the Assiniboine would accede to his demand.
As Farwell approached the Assiniboine camp, he discovered that many of the Indians were drunk. The trader sought out Little Soldier, who had also been drinking, and told the chief what he had arranged, his voice competing with the clamour of the inebriated warriors who sang, whooped and dances throughout the camp. “Yes,” said Little Soldier, “I am the only man who has got two horses.” The other braves in the camp had either only once horse or several dogs. Upon being prompted by the trader, Little Soldier affirmed that his men had reclaimed Hammond’s horse and had led it back into the corral behind the fort, where it was currently grazing with the other horses.
As Farwell spoke with Little Soldier, the wolfers and traders continued to drink back at the fort. In time, Hammond and a handful of whisky traders convinced the visiting wolfers to help them “teach the Assiniboines a lesson”. Led by Hardwick, the wolfers and traders, rifles in hand, crossed the creek and stopped at a coulee a short distance from the teepees. When they saw that Farwell was still among the Assiniboine, they called to him, urging him to get out of their line of fire. According to Farwell:
“I then knew that they meant that I must come out or I would get killed by them; then I said to the Indians, ‘They are going to fire on the camp, and you had better scatter.’ I said I would go and stop it if I could, but I was not at all sure that I would succeed. They did not want me to leave them; they thought the party would not open fire on the camp as long as I was with them.”
In spite of the Indians’ protests, Farwell left the camp to meet the party of wolfers and traders. As soon as he left, the Indians began to scatter, causing Hardwick, who had developed a particularly itchy trigger finger, some grief. The Indian killer accused the approaching trader of preventing him from getting a good shot, while the Indians were still crowded together. Farwell replied that the Assiniboine hadn’t stolen Hammond’s horse, and that it was grazing in the corral behind the fort. He encouraged Hardwick to speak to Little Soldier via his interpreter, a suggestion which was immediately advocated by John Evans, Hardwick’s fellow wolfer. Reluctantly, Hardwick assented, declaring that he would give Farwell five minutes to fetch his interpreter.
No sooner had Farwell retreated to the fort, however, when the Assiniboine began to take cover. Assuming that the Indians were preparing to fight them, Hammond raised his gun and open fired. The other wolfers and traders quickly followed suit, and in no time the creek valley resounded with the cracks of riflery.
According to Evans, the party “kept up a pretty lively fire for some time on the Indians. The part then split up, the main body staying in the ravine, while two or three of the party took to the hills on each side of the creek, where they got a fair view of the Indians, and soon compelled them to evacuate their position.”
After the barrage, Hardwick and a handful of men mounted their horses, crossed the creek- which would known thereafter as Battle Creek- and rode into the Assiniboine camp to finish off the wounded. According to Woman Who Eats Grizzly Bear, the wife of Little Soldier, who had passed out, intoxicated:
“I looked through a hole in the lodge [and] I saw some white men coming towards the lodges. After they reached the lodges, they began to pull up the pins of the lodges; they came to my lodge last… I was sitting alongside my husband; he said come out, you will have your life; he told me three times to come out. I turned back and got my husband around the neck.
My husband then woke up. I thought they would kill him, and I wanted to be killed with him. They tore up the pins of my lodge and threw the lodge over us. One of the white men caught me by the hand, while I had the other hand around my husband; he tried to pull me up. I saw my old mother coming, she grabbed the hand of my husband, my old mother, and I got up and led my husband out. The white man said, come along to the fort and you will have your life. The first thing I saw was my husband’s father lying dead, he being killed. We passed about five steps. My husband threw up his arms and broke away and was shot dead by another white man.”
Apasteeninchaco, Little Soldier’s mother-in-law, affirmed some of her daughter’s account, stating, “I heard my son-in-law, Little Soldier, say… here is my father already dead. Turning to them he said, white men, you will know what you have done today, you never knew a ‘woody mountain Assiniboine’ Indian to harm a white man.”
According to Farwell, the white man who shot Little Soldier was the wolfer S. Vincent. After the Assiniboine chief was killed, the murderers cut off his head and mounted it on a pole. According to The Man Who Took the Coat, an Assiniboine witness and the future chief of the band, “when we reached the timber [we] tried to defend ourselves… Most of the Indians went round to the bush on the top of the hill. I and some others remained where we were; from where I was I saw some of the Americans come to where ‘The Old Man’ [Little Soldier’s father?] was and strike him on the head with a hatchet, leaving the hatchet there in his head.” When the massacre was over, twenty two Indians lay dead in the camp. Only three men- Little Soldier, Fast Runner and Dog’s Backbone- were killed. The rest, the Assiniboine maintained, were women and children.
While Hardwick and his party were murdering the wounded, some of the wolfers at the top of the coulee were counterattacked by Assiniboine survivors who, as The Man Who Took the Coat described, “went round to the bush on the top of the hill”. When the men in the camp heard the gunshots, they rode over to help. In their haste, they failed to see a wounded Assiniboine hidden in the brush. The Indian aimed his rifle at the riders and pulled the trigger. Ed Grace, one of the wolfers, fell from his saddle with a bullet in his chest. He, along with the Indian who shot him, died shortly thereafter.
After Grace’s death, a number of men returned to the Assiniboine camp to take prisoners, the Assiniboine attackers on the hill having been successfully repelled. Antonio “Tony” Amei, a whisky trader known as “The Spaniard”, captured five women, including Woman Who Eats Grizzly Bear- and a small child. Three of the older women were imprisoned in one of the rooms in Solomon’s fort, while the younger two were claimed by the wolfers. Later that night, the child and its mother managed to escape. The next morning, Farwell’s Crow Indian wife, Mary, courageously implored Amei to release the women. The Spaniard acquiesced.
Later that day, the wolfers interred Grace’s corpse in a handmade coffin and burnt it along with the remains of the Assiniboine camp. The traders Farwell and Solomon burnt their posts to the ground. After paying their respects, the wolfers made their way back to Fort Benton, where the townspeople ironically welcomed them as homecoming heroes.
Since 1870, the Canadian government had been toying with the idea of sending a mounted police force west to suppress the illegal whisky trade in what would become central and southern Alberta, the rumors of which they had learned from Hudson’s Bay Company employees stationed at the forts along the North Saskatchewan River. Motions to form such a police force were consistently vetoed by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, who believed that the cost of forming, dispatching and maintaining such a police force outweighed any potential benefits. Advocates for a western police finally succeeded when the Canadian Parliament passed a legislation to create the North West Mounted Police on May 23, 1873, coincidentally ten days before the Cypress Hills Massacre. After learning of the Massacre, Canadian bureaucrats realized that they needed to form the police force quickly if they hoped to established Canadian sovereignty in western Rupert’s Land (a Canadian territory which, at that time, included much of present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan), and so shortly thereafter the North West Mounted Police became a reality. It would be more than a year before the first of the Mounties would embark upon their famous march west. In June 1875, the North West Mounted Police built Fort Walsh, which would become their future headquarters, a short distance from the site of the Massacre.
- Firewater, 2002, Hugh A. Dempsey