The Adventures of Jerry Potts
To the typical Albertan today, the name “Jerry Potts” is an unfamiliar one. Many Albertans have never heard the name at all; despite its regional relevance, it seldom graces the pages of Albertan Social Studies textbooks. To some, the name might evoke the Jerry Potts Elementary School in northwest Calgary. Others might associate the name with the Jerry Potts Boulevards in Lethbridge and Fort Macleod. Few, however, know the story of the legendary plainsman who once wore it.
A hundred and fifty years ago, the opposite was true. In the latter half of the 19th century, Jerry Potts was a household name on the plains of what would one day become southern Alberta. It was a name feared by some, loved by many, and respected by all. To the Indians of the Canadian prairies, Jerry Potts was a formidable warrior, a brilliant tactician, and an even-handed sub-chief of the North Peigan. To the Mounties, he was an incorrigible drunk, a worse interpreter, and the finest scout the Force ever had. And to Canadian historians throughout the 20th and 21st centuries who could study the man’s life and legacy in retrospect, he was one of the most important characters in western Canadian history, a key player in the formation of the Canadian west. In short, Jerry Potts, like his contemporary Kootenai Brown, was one of western Canada’s greatest frontiersmen.
The Upper Missouri
Jeremiah “Jerry” Potts was born in 1840 near Fort McKenzie, an American Fur Company trading post on the Missouri River in Montana. His father, Andrew R. Potts (or perhaps Andrew Petrie Potts), was a clerk employed by the aforementioned fur company. His mother was a Blood Indian of the Black Elks band named Namo-pisi, or Crooked Back.
Andrew, Jerry’s father, was a Scotsman who had come to America in search of better opportunity. He had worked for the American Fur Company for some years in Pennsylvania before coming to the Montana. Upon his arrival at Fort McKenzie, he took Crooked Back as his wife a la facon du pays (in the fashion of the country), as many fur traders were wont to do with Indian women.
The year of Jerry’s birth, a man named Mercereau, a French-Canadian employee at Fort McKenzie, drove a belligerent Peigan Indian named Ah-pah, or One White Eye (in another version of the account, the Indian’s name was Weasel) from the fort. The Indian, infuriated, returned to the fort later that day with a loaded flintlock musket. When he determined that the coast was clear, he knocked on the stockade wicket through which goods were exchanged. When the window opened, he shoved the barrel of his gun into the hole and fired point blank into the face of the hapless clerk on the other side. The poor clerk was none other than Andrew Potts. He died on the spot.
Most accounts state that the murderous Peigan was summarily executed by his band members for his misdeed. According to one old, unlikely legend legend, however, the Indian fled north across the 49th parallel. There, he escaped punishment for another sixteen years.
Life with Alexander Harley
After his father’s death, baby Jerry was adopted by Alexander Harvey, one of the most infamous fur traders at Fort McKenzie. More accurately, upon Andrew Potts’ death, his widow, Crooked Back, was claimed by Alexander Harvey, and baby Jerry came along for the ride. By nearly all accounts, Harvey, a strapping six-foot-tall hunter and saddler, was an exceptionally hard and cruel man. According to fellow fur trader Charles Larpenteur, Harvey was “undoubtedly the boldest man that was ever on the Missouri.” Said Harvey of himself, “I never forget or forgive.”
For nearly five years, Harvey kept Potts under his wing while he went about his business, giving young Jerry a small taste of the brutality of the frontier. In 1841, when Potts was still only an infant, the fur trader shot a Spanish co-worker over an argument. In 1843, he fired a cannon loaded with grapeshot into an unarmed party of Blackfoot who had come to trade at the fort, killing a large number of them of them in the process. He did this in retribution for a black AFC employee who had met his demise at the hands of unknown Indians. Later, Harvey shot an Indian who had attempted to steal a cow from the herd outside the fort. He sat beside the dying Indian, passed him his pipe, allowed him one last drag, and then put a bullet in his head. In 1845, Harvey’s fellow fur traders, who had come to despise Harvey almost as much as the Indians did, complained of the deranged saddler to their superior in St. Louis, Missouri. Harvey was subsequently discharged from the American Fur Company. He abandoned Potts and fled the Upper Missouri.
Life with Andrew Dawson
Fortunately, five-year-old Potts was quickly adopted by another fur trader, a Scotsman named Andrew Dawson. Dawson, an old friend of Andrew Potts’ newly arrived in the Upper Missouri, was a much kinder, gentler man than Jerry Potts’ former adopted father. A fur trading friend dubbed him “the last king of the Missouri”. Under Dawson’s tutelage, Potts learned much about the fur trade. He also picked up a number of Indian languages during his travels with his foster father. He divided his time between the forts of the American Fur Company and the camps of the Bloods, his mother’s people, learning the skills and customs of both the white man and the Indian. As he grew up, Potts became increasingly independent, although he and Dawson remained on good terms. By the time the halfbreed reached his late teens, he was on his own.
According to the unlikely legend mentioned earlier, 17-year-old Jerry Potts took it upon himself to bring his father’s murderer to justice. He set out north with nothing but a name to follow. After an exhaustive search, he found One White Eye in a Sarcee camp near present-day Calgary. In front of the band, he challenged the Indian to a duel. One White Eye accepted. The weapons of choice were knives and tomahawks. After a brutal brawl in which both men were injured, Potts finally took the scalp of his father’s murderer.
Physically, Jerry Potts was a small man. During his early years with Alexander Harley, he suffered from malnutrition (and quite possibly from rickets). As a consequence, he grew up to be stunted and bowlegged. Due to either nature or the effects of neglect, or perhaps some combination thereof, he had a taciturn demeanor; Jerry Potts was a man of few words. He also had an enormous appetite for whisky. When whisky was not available, he would content himself with fine spirits or the rotgut “firewater” of the frontier. In his later years, when alcohol was scarce, he was known to drink Jamaica Ginger, essence of lemon, Perry Davis’ Vegetable Pain Killer, and even red ink.
Jerry Potts was a product of the wild western frontier, and the frontier was a violent place. He grew up to be a skilled knife fighter and an excellent marksman. At the age of 23, he killed his first man (or perhaps his second, if the aforementioned legend is to be believed). The unfortunate was a French Canadian named Antoine Primeau, an American Fur Company employee stationed at Fort Galpin, Montana. Primeau and Potts got into a heated, drunken argument which culminated in Potts drawing his revolver and shooting the former. As Potts was never arrested for his crime, some historians suspect he may have killed Primeau in self defense.
In the 1860’s, Jerry Potts spent roughly half his time working for the American Fur Company at Fort Benton, and the other half among the Blackfoot. While at Fort Benton, he worked under the supervision of Andrew Dawson, his foster father, who had become the AFC agent at Fort Benton along with the fort’s founder, Alexander Culbertson.
Life in Fort Benton
Potts’ primary duty while at Fort Benton was that of a hunter. When not on the prairies, the young Potts spent his time in the fort drinking and engaging in wild contests with other fort residents. One of his friends was another half breed named George Star. Often, the two mixed bloods would fortify themselves with whisky before standing twenty five paces apart with loaded revolvers. The two men would take turns “trimming the other’s mustache” with their bullets. Neither men was ever injured during these pranks, and the local Blackfoot soon began to suspect they were in possession of supernatural powers.
One night in Fort Benton, Potts had a dream about a cat living in the fort. A dream voice told him that this cat would protect him from evil. Upon waking, Potts scoured the fort and found a cat sleeping in the sun. He killed it, skinned it, and wore its fur as a talisman beneath his shirt. He would wear this “medicine” for the rest of his life.
Standoff with the Sioux
In the fall of 1863, Fort Benton’s annual shipment of trade goods was left at an AFC post four hundred miles downstream. The Missouri River was too low to navigate that year, and the supplies had to be hauled overland through hostile Sioux territory. Dawson hand-picked a crew to carry out this dangerous and important task. Among the crew was chief clerk Matthew Carroll, Bob and Jim Lemon, Joe Cobell, and Jerry Potts.
The crew arrived at the post where the goods were held without incident. On October 2, 1863, they loaded the goods onto wagons and set out for Fort Benton. After three days of travelling, the crew was set upon by a large war party of Sioux. The crew formed a defensive circle with their wagons, and by the time the warriors thundered up, they were safely on the inside behind cover, guns at the ready.
Instead of storming the barricade, the Sioux sent a single brave to parley with the fur traders. The white men sent Matthew Carroll to speak on their behalf. As the two men approached each other, the Sioux envoy drew a knife. In return, Carroll pulled a revolver from his holster and sent the Indian scrambling back to the war party. Humiliated, the Sioux abandoned the attack and rode off.
Escape From the Sioux
Another time while working for the American Fur Company, Potts was hired as a guide for a gold prospecting expedition. The outfitter was a man named George Steell, a freighter, clerk, and businessman who would one day become the Indian Agent for the Blackfoot in Montana. The third fellow to accompany the Montanans was a man new to the frontier.
While panning for gold in a creek, the three prospectors heard the distant sound of war whoops. They looked up to see a war party of two hundred Sioux braves pouring into the valley. Frantically, the three men scrambled to their horses and took off along the coulee bottom with the Indians in hot pursuit.
Several of the warriors were mounted on superior horses, and quickly gained on the fleeing prospectors. When Potts realized the warriors would catch up with them eventually, he ordered the prospectors to wheel around and ride through the warriors’ lines. The Sioux had not expected this, and were loath to shoot at the white men who rode through their party lest they miss and hit a friend. By the time the Sioux had organized themselves and turned around, the three prospectors were a good distance ahead.
Potts took his two charges to a log cabin about three kilometres back along the coulee bottom. They turned their horses loose, drew their weapons, and prepared for a fight. They used the cabin door and a pile of logs to build a barricade.
The Sioux kept their horses out of range and approached the cabin on foot. The prospectors barraged them from their positions in the cabin. Potts himself, an expert marksman, shot five Sioux with his revolver. After some time, the Sioux became disheartened, abandoned the attack, and rode off.
Without horses, the three prospectors were stranded on the prairies in hostile territory. Worse, Potts knew that the Sioux would likely return in the night to burn the cabin down. He knew the three of them would almost certainly die there if he didn’t make a move.
Potts was a half-breed, and could easily pass as an Indian in the dim twilight. He wrapped himself in his horse blanket in the Indians style and crawled for half a kilometer to the Sioux camp. Upon reaching the camp, he stood up and walked about inconspicuously, blending in with the Indians. He found the Sioux’s horses and cut three of the fastest ones from their tethers. Quietly, the led them away from the camp and towards the cabin.
When he reached the cabin, Potts gave the signal to his charges. The prospectors mounted up and followed their leader down the coulee to safety.
Ambush Near Sun River
One day, Jerry Potts went on a hunting expedition with one of his younger cousins. At a place near the Sun River, they were ambushed by three Crow warriors. One of the Crows shot Potts’ cousin from his horse. The boy lay dead or dying, with a bullet in his chest.
Potts slid from the saddle and hid behind his mount as the Crows came closer. In their own language, with which Potts was very much familiar, the three Indians decided how they were going to kill him. They settled on turning him loose before shooting him in the back.
The Crows used sign language to tell Potts to go home. He mounted up, leaving his rifle behind, and began to ride away. When he heard the tell-tale click of a cocked rifle, he flattened himself against his horse. The bullet took his hat off. Potts rolled from the saddle, pulled a revolver, and killed his attacker. The two remaining Crows, who were in the process of scalping and looting his dead cousin, looked up in surprise. When they saw Potts standing there, gun in hand, they sprinted towards their own horses. The halfbreed shot both Indians before they could reach their weapons.
Potts stripped the bodies of the dead Crows and discovered a gun made of blue steel. Then he took the Crow’s horses, and carried the body of his cousin back home for burial.
Among the Blackfoot
In the 1860’s, Jerry Potts spent much of his time living among his mother’s people, the Bloods. The Blood Nation (Kainai) is one of the four tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy, along with the Blackfeet (South Peigan), Piikani (North Peigan), and Siksika (Blackfoot) Nations. It is during this time that he distinguished himself as an Indian warrior and earned himself the name Kyi-yo-kosi, or Bear Child.
The 1860’s was a violent decade for the warlike Blackfoot Confederacy. The Blood, Peigan, and Siksika tribes fought many battles with enemies on all sides of their territory. In the north and east, they fought against the Cree and Assiniboine. Some of these conflicts include the Battle at Battle River and the Battle of the Red Ochre Hills. Skirmishes like the Battle of Elkwater Lake were fought against enemies from the west, the Kootenay and Pend d’Oreilles. In the south, the Blackfoot fought against their ancient enemies, the Crows, Snakes, and Gros Ventures, in battles like the Retreat Up the Hill Battle. And in the latter half of the 1860’s, the South Peigan engaged in a long and bloody conflict with white Montanans and the United States Army. This conflict, which would come to be known as the “Blackfoot wars”, would culminate in the infamous Marias Massacre of 1870.
Skirmish Near Shonkin Creek
Jerry Potts, who moved among the camps of the Bloods and Peigan throughout those violent years, fought most of his battles in northern Montana. Once, while camped with a mixed band of Bloods and Peigans near Fort Benton, Montana, he rode out into the prairie to hunt buffalo, alone. He swam his horse across the Missouri River south of the fort and continued south down Shonkin Creek, a branch of the river. There. he came across a party of seven Crow Indians, traditional enemies of the Blackfoot. Four were armed with rifles, while the other three were equipped with bows and arrows.
During his years with Andrew Dawson, Potts had mastered the Crow language. However, he felt it prudent to conceal this fact, along with his identity, from the seven braves . When the warriors called out to him, he feigned ignorance. Instead, he used sign language to converse with them, and learned that they had a large camp on a nearby creek.
The Crows pretended to be friendly. They invited Potts to accompany them to their camp, where he could visit their chief. Potts, knowing he had no other choice, obliged. As the eight of them rode off together, the four Crows with rifles slipped behind Potts, while the three with bows and arrows stayed in front.
As they cantered along the prairies, the Crows began to discuss the half-breed’s fate amongst themselves. Potts listened silently. Eventually, the warriors decided to kill Potts then and there, and loot his body. One of the Crows cocked back the hammer on his rifle.
Potts rolled from his saddle as a bullet ripped by. Rifle in hand, he lay in the grass and shot all four of the gun-bearing Crows before any of them could get off another round. The three Indians with bows and arrows abandoned their companions and raced for camp.
Instead of pursuing his would-be murderers, the mixed blood rode the short distance to Fort Benton. There, he found a large camp of Bloods and Peigans. He told the Indians of his encounter, and many of them immediately grabbed their rifles, mounted their horses, and took to the war path.
Potts led the war party in the direction that the bowmen had fled. By nightfall, they came upon the Crow camp and ambushed their enemies unawares. The skirmish was a complete success, and the Blackfoot returned to Fort Benton that night with dozens of scalps. The ensuing carousal lasted until sunrise.
The Battle of Two Medicine River
Sometime in the 1860’s, Jerry Potts was staying with a band of Bloods on the Two Medicine River, a tributary of the Marias River in northwestern Montana. At dusk, the band was attacked by a combined party of Gros Ventures and Assiniboine Indians.
Potts crept to the top of a coulee overlooking the scene with his rifle in hand. When the enemies began to retreat, he picked them off with withering accuracy. His prowess during the battle earned him a fierce reputation as a sharpshooter on the plains.
In around 1868, Potts took a Crow woman named Mary for his wife. Mary, who was about seventeen years old at the time, gave birth to his son the following year. Jerry named his boy Mitchell.
Jerry Potts was countryborn, and his nature reflected it. He had spent half of his early years among whites and the other half among Indians, and had a firm grasp on the beliefs and values held by both peoples. He preferred the lifestyle of an Indian warrior to that of a fur trader, but could sympathize with white men in a way most Indians couldn’t. His unique upbringing made him a perfect mediator between members of the two disparate cultures.
Sometime in the mid-late 1860’s, a Montanan rancher named W.S. Stocking bought a gray horse in Fort Benton for $150. He brought it to his ranch nearby, where it was promptly stolen by a Peigan brave. One day, Stocking spied his stolen horse tethered in a Peigan camp outside Fort Benton. Knowing that Jerry Potts was living with the band at the time, he sought him out.
Stocking found the half-breed in Fort Benton and told him his predicament. Potts, who knew the potential repercussions of such incidents, agreed to help the man get his horse back. The two of them spent the following day in the Peigan camp, and confronted the horse owner after supper. The Indian claimed he had bought the horse off another Indian from a different band. However, when Stocking offered a decent sum of money for the horse, the Indian rattled off a long list of goods he would accept instead. The Indian’s demand amounted to around $500 in goods, a sum Stocking could not afford.
The Indian’s outrageous demands convinced Potts that the Peigan was, in fact, the horse thief. Early the next morning, while the camp was still asleep, Potts stole the horse from the Indian and returned it to Stocking.
Said Stocking of Potts, “Jerry was about the most decent specimen I ever met with. He was a sort of sub-chief, that is, he had a camp of six or eight lodges on the Marias River, about fifty miles northwest of Fort Benton, the same being people by his Peigan relatives by marriage.”
In 1869, Jerry Potts was employed as a hunter by a party of Montanan traders who were heading north across the 49th parallel. The traders hoped to sell whisky and rifles to the Blackfoot in exchange for buffalo robes. Among the party were whisky traders Alfred Hamilton and John Healy. Potts rode north with the party, while his wife Mary and son Mitchell joined a band of Montanan Crows.
That year, the traders built a trading post at the confluence of the Belly (now Oldman) and St. Mary Rivers near the present-day site of Lethbridge, Alberta. They named the place Fort Hamilton after it’s co-founder. There, they sold whisky and repeating rifles, along with other goods, to the local Blackfoot in exchange for buffalo hides. In time, the trading post came to be known as Fort Whoop-Up.
Sometime after coming to Canada, Potts took two women to wife. They were sisters named Panther Woman and Spotted Killer. Their father was a South Peigan chief named Sitting-in-the-Middle.
In the winter of 1869/70, a massive outbreak of smallpox ravaged the prairies, killing over fourteen hundred Blackfoot. The northerly and easterly Cree and Assiniboine, who had been enemies of the Blackfoot for nearly a century, had largely escaped the epidemic. The chiefs of the Cree and Assiniboine, including Piapot, Little Pine, Big Bear, and Little Mountain, saw this as a perfect opportunity to attack their warlike foes and expand their own territory into the Cypress Hills. They raised a massive war party of 600-800 braves on the South Saskatchewan River and travelled west into Blackfoot territory. After travelling for some time, they established a more permanent camp on the Little Bow River and sent out scouts to reconnoiter the Belly River area to the west. The scouts returned with news of a moderately-sized Blood camp settled in the river valley, and the main war party moved west to engage them.
The Cree scouts had failed to thoroughly search the river valley. To the south of the Blood camp was a camp of South Peigans armed with repeating rifles far superior to the old Hudson Bay Company muzzle-loaders of the Cree. The South Peigan had fled north from Montana following the infamous Marias Massacre, which the Blackfoot suffered at the hands of the U.S. Army.
The Cree attacked the Blood camp on the night of October 24, 1870. In the beginning, a small number of braves ran through the camp, slitting teepees and killing the sleeping Blackfoot inside. In the initial onslaught, the brother of Blood chief Red Crow and several Blackfoot women were killed.
The Bloods fought the Cree throughout the night. In the early morning, the well-armed South Peigan received word of the battle and rode north to help their Kainai cousins. En-route to the battle, they picked up Jerry Potts and George Star, who were both employed as hunters at Fort Whoop-Up at the time.
The Cree fell back under the South Peigan advance and took up positions in a coulee. The Blackfoot occupied a coulee that ran parallel to that of the Cree, and the two sides engaged in a fierce firefight.
When Potts arrived on the battlefield, he noticed a small butte which overlooked the Cree lines. He sent a well-armed party of Bloods and South Peigan to the point, where they fired on the Cree to devastating effect. Unable to fight the Blackfoot on both fronts, the Cree gradually began to slip down into the coulee behind them and make a break for the Belly River.
Potts noticed the Cree retreat and understood the tremendous advantage it afforded the Blackfoot. He led a charge on the Cree lines and sent the entire Cree party fleeing towards the river. This was a decisive moment in the battle, and Potts’ tactical decision would be remembered as the move that won the Blackfoot the Battle of Belly River.
As the Cree swam across the Belly, Blackfoot marksmen picked them off from atop the cutbanks. In Jerry Potts’ words, “you could fire with your eyes shut and be sure to kill a Cree.”
Here, Jerry Potts once again proved himself a renowned warrior. He took sixteen Cree scalps and wounded a number of men. After firing from atop the cutbanks, he plunged into the fray at the edge of the river. At the bottom, a desperate Cree whirled on him with loaded musket. The Indian pointed the barrel in his face and fired. Potts leapt to the side just in time. He fell to the ground dazed, his ears ringing. The ball had passed inches from his head, and the smoking powder that followed it had seared his left ear. Otherwise, he was unharmed. The halfbreed shook his head and went back to the fight.
Many of the Cree who made it to the other side of the river were routed by the Blackfoot. In the end, about 300 Cree and 40 Blackfoot were killed in the battle.
This battle, the Battle of Belly River, would be the world’s last inter-tribal Indian battle. The following year, the Cree and Blackfoot ended their century-long enmity by smoking the pipe of peace on the Red Deer River.
The Revenge of Jerry Potts
Potts left Fort Whoop-Up later that year and went to work at Spitzee Post on the Highwood River (the birthplace of the Spitzee Cavalry of 1872/73). The following year, in 1872, he left Spitzee Post for Fort Kipp.
Throughout these years, the whisky trade poisoned the Blackfoot people. Many brave warriors, once renowned for their daring exploits in the raids and skirmishes of the 1860’s, were reduced to pitiful paupers, starvelings, and alcoholics who would do anything for a cup of “firewater”. The whisky itself, of course, had a deleterious effect on the Indians. Some would succumb to liver disease or the more acute affects of overconsumption. Others would get drunk, wander away from camp, and succumb to the elements. Many would become violent, and kill friends and family in the heat of drunken arguments. According to one whisky trader from the area that would one day be Calgary, seventy Blood Indians died in drunken quarrels in the winter of 1871/72.
In the spring of 1872, Potts’ mother, Crooked Back, was living with her son No Chief in a particular Blood band called the Many Fat Horses band. At the time, the band was camped along with another Blood band called the Many Children band. There was a growing feud between these two bands resultant of the whisky trade, and many Indians on either side resented each other.
No Chief, Potts’ step-brother, had married a daughter of the Many Children band. Some of the girl’s brothers resented him for it. One day, a messenger came to No Chief’s teepee. Some of his brothers-in-law had a gallon of whisky for him, and asked that he pick it up. When No Chief went into the other camp to accept his gift, he was attacked by one of his brothers-in-law, a Blood named Hairy Face. No Chief retaliated by shooting the man in the back. Soon, many of his relatives by marriage were at his throat. No Chief killed his father-in-law with a knife and wounded another man in the shoulder. Finally, one of his brothers-in-law, a Blood named Good Young Man, shot and killed him.
Good Young Man decreed that No Chief’s body was to be left for the dogs. Upon hearing of her son’s death, however, Crooked Back came with a travois to collect his body for burial. Good Young Man caught her in the act, dragged her from her horse, and killed her.
Potts learned of his mother’s and step-brother’s deaths several weeks after the incident. He vowed to avenge their murders.
One day about two month later, Potts led some of Fort Kipp’s horses to the Belly River for water. While waiting for the horses to drink, he noticed two Blood Indians riding double on a horse in the direction of the fort. When his own horses were finished drinking, he led them back to the corral at Fort Kipp.
Just as Potts was finishing up, he saw that the two Indians had finished trading and were riding off. He recognized both of the men. The rider was a Blood named Morning Writing. The other behind him was Good Young Man, his mother and brother’s murderer.
Potts found his rifle, grabbed a horse, set off in pursuit. When the Indians saw him coming, they urged the horse to go faster. With two men riding the same tired horse, however, their going was slow, and Potts gained on them easily. Potts fired twice at the Indians from horseback but missed both times.
Soon, the Indians were near the safety of their camp. Just as they crested the final hill, however, Potts fired off another round. This one took Good Young Man in the back. The bullet shattered his spine.
Satisfied, Potts let Morning Writing escape, and returned to Fort Kipp.
The Coming of the North West Mounted Police
After avenging the murders of his mother and half-brother, Potts returned to Montana to work for the I.G. Baker Company. The I.G. Baker Company was the business which, along with the rival T.C. Powers Company, outfitted much of the Canadian whisky trade. Potts worked for the Company at their post on Badger Creek in Montana, and spent a good deal of time in Fort Benton, the outfit’s headquarters.
In 1874, the businessmen at Fort Benton learned that a large force of Canadian mounted police would be coming to the Canadian west to establish law and order. Their first order of business was to disband the whisky trade that had wreaked so much havoc on the Indians of the North-West Territory.
The men of the I.G. Baker Company decided to bow to the inevitable and ordered their traders to eliminate whisky from their stock. Many hid their surplus contraband in the coulees and returned to Montana. Some decided to stay in Whoop-Up Country and continue trading.
In the late September of 1874, the North-West Mounted Police arrived at the Sweetgrass Hills near Writing-On-Stone. They had been looking for Fort Whoop-Up, and had become lost in the process. A handful of Mountie officers made the journey down to Fort Benton to seek assistance. The Mounties included Commissioner George French, Assistant Commissioner James Macleod, Sub-Inspector Brisebois, Assistant Surgeon Nevitt, two sub constables, chief scout Pierre Leveille, and several Metis.
When the Mounties arrived in Fort Benton, they sought out the businessmen of the I.G. Baker Company. The businessmen, who were eager to forge good relationships with the Mounted Police so as to secure future business with them, invited them to supper. When the Mounties told them of their predicament, the businessmen immediately suggested they hire Jerry Potts as their scout and interpreter.
Potts had seen the effects of the whisky trade on his mother’s people and was more than happy to help the Mounties put an end to it. He accepted their offer of $90 per month rode with them back to the Sweetgrass Hills. After being introduced to the Force, he led the Mounties northwest towards Fort Whoop-Up.
March to Fort Whoop-Up
According to famous Mountie Sam Steele, “[Jerry Potts] won the confidence of all ranks the first day out, and when the morning came he rode boldly in front of the advance guard. It was noon when the party reached Milk River and found him there sitting near a fat buffalo cow which he had killed and dressed for the use of the force. To those new to such a life he appeared to know everything.”
The Mounties learned quickly that Jerry Potts was a man of few words. On the day they were to reach Fort Whoop-Up, the Force came upon a dessicated Assiniboine corpse feathered with arrows. When asked what the probable cause of death was, Potts replied, “Drunk.” Later, when one of the officers, anxious to reach Fort Whoop-Up, asked him what they might expect to find on the other side of the hill, he replied, “‘Nudder hill.”
The Mounties arrived at Fort Whoop-Up later that day. It was a far cry from the whisky fortress they had expected to find, and was populated by an old whisky trader named Dave Akers. Upon searching the fort, the Mounties discovered that the rest of the whisky traders had returned to Montana. They vowed to return to the fort to establish a post there.
The Establishment of Fort Macleod
By the time the Mounties arrived at Fort Whoop-Up, it was early October. Assistant Commissioner Macleod knew the Force would need to built winter quarters as soon as possible, and asked Potts to help them find a suitable location. Potts guided the Force along an old Indian trail that led westward along the Belly River towards the Porcupine Hills. Soon, the company arrived at a large island on the Belly River. The surrounding area was thick with cottonwoods which would provide excellent building material, and the Mounties decided to build their barracks on the island. Immediately, they began to construct the post that would one day be called Fort Macleod.
While the Mounties were building the fort, Potts travelled throughout the surrounding territory to speak with the local Blackfoot. The Blackfoot were a suspicious and warlike people who harbored a deep-seated resentment towards whites, especially in the aftermath of the Blackfoot wars in Montana. Potts did his best to assure them that these strange new Red Coats were a different breed than the despised blue coats, or “Long Knives,” of the U.S. Army. He told them that these policemen from the east were here for their benefit, and had come for the express purpose of crushing the whisky trade that had caused their people so much grief. It is perhaps due in part to Potts’ efforts that the North West Mounted Police never had any serious problems with the Blackfoot like their counterparts south of the border.
In late October, Potts informed his superiors in the Force that whisky was being sold at a fort to the north called Pine Coulee. He led the Mounties to the place, where they arrested the chief trader there, J.D. Weatherwax. Although the arrest and conviction was based on sketchy circumstantial evidence, it nonetheless sounded the death knell for the whisky trade in Whoop-Up Country.
Throughout the fall of 1874, Potts performed various functions for the NWMP. In November, the arranged for the major chiefs of the Blackfoot Confederacy- including Crowfoot of the Siksika, Red Crow of the Boods, and Bull Head of the Peigans- to meet with the Colonel Macleod. Before the meeting, Potts instructed the Mountie officers in basic Blackfoot customs and courtesies. The chiefs arrived and the meeting was a success. Chief Bull Head was so impressed with Macleod that he gave him his own name. From then on, many Indians respectfully referred to Macleod as Bull Head.
The Blizzards of 1875
In February of 1875, Potts was tasked with leading NWMP Captain Crozier and a detachment of Mounties to a whisky fort on the Bow River. The weather at that time was bitterly cold. One of the detachment, Sergeant W.D. Antrobus, remarked, “Even Jerry Potts although he remained rolled up in his blankets, did not sleep at all.”
Potts led the men through a serious of storms to the whisky fort, where the Mounties successfully apprehended a number of whisky traders. After they made the arrests, the Mounties turned back towards Fort Macleod with their prisoners in tow. On the way back, a massive blizzard descended on the party. Wind blew from every direction. Visibility was worse than poor, and the trail they had made on their way to the fort had been destroyed by the snow and wind.
On the way back, the party separated. Potts ordered the Mounties who were with him to come to a halt. Although the storm had obliterated all signs of footprints, Potts trudged back through the snow. Miraculously, he found the rest of the party and guided them back to his group. He led them on through the storm to safety.
According to Antrobus, “This Jerry Potts is justly called the best guide in the country… I do not believe there is another man who could have guided us through that storm as he did.”
In March of that year, Potts Colonel Macleod and three Mounties south to Helena, Montana. En route, the party ran into a massive blizzard and took shelter beneath a cutbank. After two days, the group was low on food and fuel. Potts suggested that they make the short journey to a valley called Rock Springs, where they would find shelter. The men followed Potts into the storm, and soon the Mounties lost their sense of direction. Only Jerry Potts seemed to know where they were going.
In the words of Mountie Cecil Denny, “We plodded on without resting. Our guide was a marvel. He rode steadily ahead with short stops at intervals when he seemed almost to smell out the trail, for nothing was to be seen in any direction.”
Finally, they came to Rocky Springs. There, they lit a fire and began to thaw out. It was then that the Mounties learned that Potts had been snow blind during the last leg of the journey.
Throughout his years with the Force, Potts would astound the Mounties time and time again with his impeccable sense of direction. In his memoirs, Sam Steele wrote, “He possessed an uncanny sense of locality and direction. Others could guide travelers through country they had visited before, but this man could take a party from place to place by the quickest route, through country altogether unknown to him, without compass and without sight of the stars. Unlike other guides , he never talked with others when he was at work. He would ride on ahead by himself, keeping his mind fixed on the mysterious business of finding the way. He was never able to give any clear explanation of his method. Some mysterious power, perhaps a heritage from his Indian ancestors, was at work.”
The Establishment of Fort Walsh
In the summer of 1875, Jerry Potts led the NWMP to the Cypress Hills, specifically to the location of the Cypress Hills Massacre. The area was a hotspot for illegal activity, and the Mounties built a fort in the heart of it. The post was named Fort Walsh after its first commanding officer, Mountie Major James Walsh.
Life in Canada
Jerry Potts would remain with the Mounties until his death. He served them as a scout, an interpreter, and an ambassador for the Indians.
Life as an Interpreter
Jerry Potts was fluent in a number of Indian languages, including, but not necessarily limited to, Blackfoot, Cree, Assiniboine, Crow, and Sioux. Accordingly, he served as the NWMP’s chief interpreter for many years.
Potts was a laconic man who was conservative with his words. This was often very frustrating for the Mounties he served, and for the Indians for whom he spoke. One time, a band of starving Indians arrived at Fort Macleod and begged audience with the Comissioner. As usual, Potts served as interpreter. The band’s chief met with Commissioner Macleod and made a long and eloquent entreaty. The Commissioner listened patiently, having no idea what the Indian was saying. At the end of the speech, Macleod asked Potts what the chief had said. The half-breed answered, “He wants grub!”
On another occasion, Macleod met with a number of important Blackfoot chiefs. The Indians spoke, and Jerry Potts interpreted. Again, the chiefs made long, eloquent speeches. Potts turned to Macleod and summarized them thus: “Dey damn glad you’re here.”
In September 1877, the head chiefs of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the officers of the North West Mounted Police, and representatives of the Canadian government met at Blackfoot Crossing to discuss the terms of Treaty 7. David Laird, the Governor of the North West Territory, knew that the Blackfoot appreciated an expressive speech, and had prepared one for the occasion. At the beginning of the session, Laird stood up and began to deliver his flowery speech. Potts, who was to serve as interpreter for the event, stood there bewildered. Although Jerry Potts was a fluent English speaker, he was a hard, simple man of the plains and had a limited frontier vocabulary. He had no idea what the governor was saying, and said as much when he was called upon to interpret Laird’s speech to the Blackfoot.
The Mounties, embarrassed, found an old mixed blood man among the Blackfoot named James Bird and used him as an interpreter for the event instead.
The North-West Rebellion
In the spring of 1885, Louis Riel led the Metis of the Red River and Qu’Appelle Valleys in the North-West Rebellion against the Canadian government. Riel, who sought better rights for Canada’s Metis and First Nations, found allies in a number of prominent Cree chiefs. For some time, the Canadian government feared that the sleeping giant of the Blackfoot Confederacy might rise to take up arms alongside its one-time enemy. The implications of such an alliance were catastrophic.
The Canadian government sent agents like missionary Albert Lacombe to help keep peace among the Blackfoot. The North West Mounted Police sent Jerry Potts to do the same. In the words of historian Hugh Dempsey, “Playing on the natural enmity between the Blackfoot and Cree, Potts travelled through the excited camps, offering latest new of Cree defeats, disputing wild rumours sent by half-breed messengers, and bolstering the authority of elder chiefs who were counselling for peace.” His ability to deal with an explosive situation with diplomacy and tact was of immeasurable value as he went with police officers from camp to camp during the early weeks of the rebellion.”
According to NWMP officer Sam Steele, “Potts’ influence with the Blackfoot tribes was such that his presence on many occasions prevented bloodshed. The Mounted Police knew his character for tact and pluck and believed that he would stay with his party to the last moment no matter how serious the situation might be. In his dealings with the red man he was a master of finesse.”
Life as a Whisky Drinker
Jerry Potts saw first-hand what the whisky trade had done to his mother’s people. He watched the mighty Blackfoot Confederacy fall from a fearsome warrior society that dominated the northwestern plains to a ragged nation of beggars and alcoholics. When the North West Mounted Police came west in 1874, he was more than happy to help them bring an end to the calamitous traffic that had destroyed the Blackfoot nations.
Although he was a firm opponent of the trade, Potts couldn’t shake his own personal affinity for alcohol that he had developed in his early adulthood on the Montanan frontier. Despite the disapproval of his superiors in the Force, he remained a heavy drinker for the rest of his life.
One day, the Mounties received reports of a suspicious north-bound wagon en route from Montana. In those days, bootlegging was a common offence in the Canadian west, and the NWMP suspected the wagon was laden with illegal alcohol. Jerry Potts and two young constables were sent to investigate.
The wagon was filled with all manner of trade goods. Sure enough, a barrel of American rotgut was among the merchandise. The wagon drivers were apprehended and handcuffed together in the back of the wagon. The two constables named Wilson and Callaghan took it upon themselves to operate the wagon, while Potts was tasked with guarding the prisoners.
During the trip, Potts broke into the contraband and shared it with the two prisoners (one of whom was an ex-Mountie). The three men drank themselves senseless, destroying the evidence in the process. According to Robert Wilson, one of the constables, “After arresting an ex-policeman named Cochrane [and an accomplice] at the border, [we] camped at the St. Mary’s River. The two prisoners and Jerry were soon howling drunk and the rest of us managed to keep from freezing by taking frequent doses of alcohol diluted in water which Jerry called ‘mix’. About midnight a priest, who was camped not far from us, came over and was persuaded to take a drink for his stomach’s sake. It was not long before he and Callaghan became very jolly and were toasting each other at every sip… before morning I had the honour of being the only sober man in camp although I must admit that I took quite enough to keep the cold out. At daylight we saddled up and after each man had taken a cup of alcohol for his breakfast started off.”
Potts married his fourth and final wife in the late 1880’s. Her name was Isum-its-tsee, or Long Time Laying Down. She was the daughter of Blood chief One Spot.
In the 1890’s, Jerry Potts and a NWMP officer named Constable Tom Clarke went duck hunting together. During this excursion, a stray birdshot pellet from Clarke’s shotgun struck Potts behind the ear. In Potts’ own words, “I thought somebody hit me in the head and knock my damn block off.”
Potts, ever superstitious, refused to let anybody remove the lead ball from behind his ear. Instead, he carried it as a good luck charm, like the cat skin beneath his shirt. During his years fighting with the Blackfoot, Potts had never once been injured in battle, and because of this his fellow warriors began to believe he had supernatural powers. Potts found it quite amusing that, after a life fraught with danger, this pellet was the source of his only battle wound.
One day in 1896, Potts found himself recounting the story of his only battle wound to a group of Mounties during a cabin party. One Mountie decided to play a practical joke on the old frontiersmen. He asked Potts if he could see the pellet, and when Potts leaned forward, the policeman flipped his penknife and removed it. Potts, ever superstitious, feared for the future with the loss of his talisman.
A few months after the incident, on July 14, 1896, Jerry Potts died. According to his son, the frontiersman succumbed to throat cancer attributable, in part, to his life of hard drinking.
The life of the legendary plainsman was honoured in a large funeral held in Fort Macleod. Potts was buried with full military honours in the NWMP graveyard near the fort.
His obituary in the Fort Macleod Gazette reads:
“Jerry Potts is dead. Through the whole North West, in many parts of eastern Canada, and in England itself, this announcement will excite sorrow, in many cases sympathy, and in all, interest. His memory will long be green in the hearts of those who knew him best, and ‘faithful and true’ is the character he leaves behind him- the best monument of a valuable life.”
Potts’ value to the NWMP, and his subsequent impact on Western Canada, was perhaps best summarized by Mountie Sam Steele in a later reminiscence: “[Jerry Potts] was a remarkable scout and interpreter… one of the most important aids to us in carrying out our duties, both military and civil… indispensable as a teacher of the mysteries of the plains… [It] would take a large volume to describe even a small part of the usefulness of this man.”
- Jerry Potts- Plainsman, Hugh Dempsey, 1966
- Bear Child- The Life and Times of Jerry Potts, Rodger D. Touchie, 2005
- Jerry Potts- Paladin of the Plains, B.D. Fardy, 1984