(continued from The Adventures of Kootenai Brown (2/7): The Canadian Rockies)
The Adventures of Kootenai Brown (3/7)- The Canadian Prairies
Skirmish with the Blackfoot
Bound for the supposed goldfields of the North Saskatchewan River near Fort Edmonton, Brown and his companions travelled up Wild Horse Creek to its junction with the Kootenay River near present-day Fort Steele. The prospectors continued south down the Kootenai River, crossed the river on horseback (on horses they likely purchased from the local Kootenay Indians) and travelled east across the northern tip of Tobacco Plains- a relatively flat area (compared to the surrounding Rockies) in southeastern British Columbia and northwestern Montana – and the Flathead River country.
At the eastern end of Tobacco Plains, Brown and his companions came to the Clark Range, a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains that separates southeast British Columbia from the foothills of southwest Alberta and the Canadian Prairies beyond. They crossed the Clark Range by traversing the South Kootenay Pass and emerged from the mountains in present-day Waterton Lakes National Park.
The Waterton Lakes area made a lasting impression on Brown, which he recounted in his writings:
“Emerging from the South Kootenay Pass we hit the foothills near the mouth of Pass Creek and climbed to the top of one of the lower mountains. The prairie as far as we could see east, north and west was one living mass of buffalo. Thousands of head were there, far thicker than ever range cattle grazed the bunch grass of the foothills. We killed a three-year-old bull just at the entrance of the pass. None of our party up to this time had ever seen a buffalo.
I had three horses. I was riding one and had the other two “packed”. Each one of the others had a horse and between them two pack horses. As we rode through the mass of buffalo, the great beasts just moved off slowly. We made a lane of only about one hundred yards and they paid little attention. When we fired on them they would run off a few hundred yards and begin grazing again. We only shot for what meat we needed and we packed this on our already heavily packed horses…
I recall my first impression of the Kootenay Lakes, now known as Waterton Lakes… Coming down from the mountain, where we got our first glimpse of the buffalo, we soon reached the prairie shore of a large lake at the further side of which a mountain rose to a sofa-like peak among the clouds. This mountain was afterwards called Sofa Mountain and is so named on the topographic maps of that region in the Rockies.”
Brown and his companions travelled further east, leaving the foothills of the Rockies for the more perilous prairies. There, they met with all manner of prairie hazards, the most dangerous of which was the warlike Blackfoot Indians:
“Around Seven Persons Creek we found hundreds of rattlesnakes and were not anxious to camp there very long. We saw very few coyotes on the open prairie, but hundreds of wolves ran the country in bands… A few coyotes were encountered in badlands, coulees and foothills where they are found today. At the time of which I speak, there roamed all along the south branch of the [South] Saskatchewan River hundreds of grizzly bear, small grizzlies, but grizzlies just the same. Buffalo, mired in the quicksands when fording the stream became their victims…
It was Blackfoot territory then and we knew it and were watching for them…
My first conflict with the Indians was at Seven Persons Creek, near what is now Medicine Hat. With me were the three pals with whom I left Wild Horse Creek. We were looking for an encounter with the Blackfeet because we were in their territory. We were travelling in a north-easterly direction, believing that we were on our way to goldfields in the vicinity of Edmonton. At a clump of cottonwood trees we stopped to eat. As we were eating we were suddenly surprised by a flight of arrows… and we knew that our first “war party” had begun. The arrows used by the Blackfeet were of chokecherry wood with a point of flint or obsidian of different colors. I remember finding one on the top of Sheep Mountain years after. It had a point of moss agate and I presented it to Lord Lathom on the occasion of one of his visits to the mountains of Southern Alberta.
We thought our time had come. The Indians had no firearms but they were all young bucks, thirty-two of them, no old men or war-women- all young warriors- a war party, out for anything they got (presumably a wandering band of Crees), perhaps a white miner making his way across the continent to Wild Horse Creek. We got up and started shooting at anything we could see. We had not much cover as the Indians had driven us away from the cottonwoods, many of which were two feet in diameter. If the Indians had had guns they would have killed all four of us. But we had the shelter of some brush and killed two Indians before they tired of shooting arrows and wandered off.
It was at this time that I received an arrow in my back close to my kidneys. It was a miracle that I was not killed. I thought my time had come, but I pulled it out- an arrow head two and a half inches long and the head was out of sight. The jagged edges caught the flesh as I pulled it out and gave me great pain. I had a bottle of turpentine and, opening up the wound, one of my companions inserted the neck of the bottle and when I bent over, about half a pint ran into the opening made by the arrowhead. This was all the doctoring I ever got and in a few days I was well again.
We were using old muzzle-loaders with balls and caps and we carried bullets in our pockets and in our mouths. Two Indians fell victims to our intermittent fire and the rest, after about twenty minutes’ fighting, rode to the [South] Saskatchewan River and, jumping their horses into the stream, swam them across, taking one of my horses and one other with the. The Indians… all rode bareback and guided their ponies by rawhide halters with one strap tied through the animals’ mouths. They never waited to pick up the bodies of their fallen comrades.
That was the last I saw of seven Persons Creek till 1885, when, as chief of scouts in the Rocky Mountain Rangers, I went with several rangers to the scene of our encounter. This was twenty years later, but we found two Indian skulls and extracted five bullets out of the cottonwoods on the creek bank.”
Journey to Fort Garry
After their skirmish with the Blackfoot, Brown had a falling out with his companions:
“I was very angry that all the others had advised following the directions we did to get to Edmonton. I was for heading closer to the mountains. We had a row over this… I charged the other three with being responsible for getting us into the fight with the Indians, for the loss of my own and another’s horse, and for the wound in my back, which since the application of the turpentine had become very painful.
One squabble resulted in a split-up there and then. The other three said, “We’re going on to Edmonton,” and they crossed the river where the Indians crossed. They each had a horse. The poor fellow whose horse was taken by the Indians was afoot. I was sorry for him. I had two horses, and the thing I suppose I should have done was to give him one. But I had all my earthly belongings packed on that horse, which consisted mostly of ammunition for hunting. Anyway, I didn’t give him the horse. I suppose, if I had, he would have forded the river and gone off Edmonton bound, with the other three.
So we got together and decided that we would follow down the course of the [South] Saskatchewan River. I reasoned that it must flow into the Hudson’s Bay or the Atlantic Ocean and that it would eventually bring us to the fringe of civilization, probably to Fort Garry, of which place we had heard at Wild Horse Creek.”
Although Brown and his new partner had the same route in mind, they decided to split up for reasons unknown. Brown kept the two horses and built a bull boat (a small simple boat consisting of a wooden frame covered in buffalo hide) in which his partner planned to travel down the South Saskatchewan:
“I made a bull-boat for my horseless friend. This was very simply done. The bull-boat was the only watercraft used by Indians in the very early days on the plains of Western Canada. There was so little need to navigate any water that plains Indians never became expert canoe men. They devised makeshift watercraft that would enable them to cross streams or make short journeys by water. The bull-boat was the only thing used at that time. The frame, about six feet in diameter, and as near a circle as can be made, is of willow saplings bent and twined in the shape of a basket about eighteen inches deep; over this is stretched a green buffalo hide, fastened by strips of skin at the top and the whole is allowed to dry. The bull-boat cannot be paddled in the usual way. The occupant must sit in front with equal weight behind and pull the craft along with his paddle. It is never used against the current… The boat must be taken out of the water several times a day and dried. If this is not done water will soak through, fill the craft and all will go to the bottom. Sometimes the bull-boat was made very large, taking three or four buffalo skins. It would then hold three persons and carry enough provisions for several days.
I had no trouble killing a buffalo for the boat I made for my companion, and putting in what meat it would hold, I pushed him off in it for- well, I don’t know where. I thought I might run across him at Fort Garry, for the river flowed in that direction, but I was not sure.”
And so Brown travelled northeast, roughly following the flow of the South Saskatchewan River. Quickly surpassing his waterborne companion, he found himself leaving the prairie for the aspen parkland that characterises (present day) central-western Alberta, central Saskatchewan and southeastern Manitoba. There, he stumbled upon Duck Lake, a French Metis settlement about 87 kilometers northeast of present-day Saskatoon, Saskatchewan:
“I remember my first sight of Duck Lake. My determination to follow the [South] Saskatchewan River brought me to this French half-breed settlement in the early fall, and I accepted their invitation to spend the winter there. I found about fifty families in the settlement who came from Fort Garry. They were hunters and moved from place to place in the hunting season, stopping wherever it was convenient. In winter they made Duck Lake their home and built rude houses out of the small timber from the river bottoms… There was not a man in the settlement who could speak English. Fortunately I could speak good French and I soon picked up the Cree Indian language…
Shortly after I arrived at Duck Lake, a half-breed came out to where I was “still hunting” one day and said. “Mr. Goldtooth has just come to the settlement and asked if you were here. He wants to see you.” I had no idea who this man might be, but I rode into camp with the half-breed and he took me to “Mr. Goldtooth”.
The man I had made the bull-boat for at Seven Persons Creek had a big gold tooth in front of his mouth and it was his arrival the half-breed was announcing.”
Brown and “Mr. Goldtooth” stayed with the Metis throughout that winter of 1865/1866. During that winter, Brown spent much of his time constructing a wooden sleigh. Just before the snow began to melt in the early spring of 1866, Brown hitched his two horses to the sleigh and, along with “Mr. Goldtooth”, proceeded southeast. The two companions travelled for six weeks at a steady pace down the Carlton Trail, which extended from Fort Carlton, Saskatchewan (a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post that lay about 25 km east of Duck Lake) to Fort Garry, Manitoba. After passing through Portage la Prairie, the old historic settlement (currently a city) south of Lake Manitoba, Brown and his partner arrived at Fort Garry.
Shootout at Portage La Prairie
Brown and “Mr. Goldtooth” only stayed in Fort Garry for about a week. “Mr. Goldtooth” travelled further east, while Brown joined the ranks of the local, largely American whiskey traders who, with their underhanded tactics and illicit wares, diverted much business from the Hudson’s Bay Company post near Portage la Prairie. To the impoverished Brown- who had spent the previous decade working a variety of laborious, generally low-paying jobs- the allure of lucrative whiskey trade must have been too enticing to ignore. However, as the adventurer would soon discover, the inherently dishonest, high return industry was not without its pitfalls:
“”Goldtooth” had had enough of the west and returned to Eastern Canada, but I went to Portage la Prairie and began trading with the Indians. I got supplies from Charles House, an American trader… I traded between Portage la Prairie and White Mud River, twenty miles west of Portage la Prairie, mostly with Chippewas and Crees, who were in small scattered camps trapping [musk]rats, mink, foxes, coyotes and wolves. This was the summer and winter of ’66 and ’67.
My trade was mostly in clothing and whiskey, but I had blankets, thread, beads, tea, sugar and a few odds and ends, but my big money was made in whisky, which I sold for thirty dollars a gallon. In Indian camps the very dogs got drunk and it was not very pleasant being around when a whole camp got drunk… At White Mud River there was an Anglican mission in charge of a half-breed clergyman. A trader named Fry, an old English half-breed, Willox Spence, and an old American, Andrew Jackson, were dickering with the Indians and catching furs and fish. It was only a short distance to Lake Manitoba and they fished in the lake in the summer time…
I had no permanent living place at White Mud River and was hardly in the same house two nights in succession. I sold my horses while in these camps and bought dogs…
I was in the habit of taking furs to Portage la Prairie to John Gibbons, who ran a store there. When I arrived on this occasion there were about thirty Red Lake Indians from Minnesota. I could speak their language and Johnnie persuaded me to stay around for the day. In the store there was a cousin of Gibbons, Bob Olone [spelt O’Lone in an account by A.C. Garrioch, a Portage la Prairie clergyman; identified as Hugh F. “Bob” Olone by historian Norma Jean Hall in her article Hon. Hugh Francis Olone, Town of Winnipeg] and Billy Salmon [spelt Sammon in Garrioch’s account]. The store was out of Portage about two miles in the direction of the Hudson’s Bay store. In those days all traders sold rum and whiskey to natives… On this day [May 28, 1866, according to Garrioch] the red men had run out of fur before their thirst for whiskey had been quenched. They had been bringing in rats, otter, beaver, lynx, fox, but the supply had been exhausted. Chief Starving Wolf [possibly identified as “Kwingwahaka, the Wolverine” by Garrioch] had come in for a free drink. By this time they were all very drunk and I didn’t like to give them anymore. So I said to him: “My friend, you know I am not a man of two tongues. I’ll give you one drink and that’s the last you’ll get”. So he drank his drink and away out of the door he went. It happened that we had two puncheons of rum, which being too large to go through the door, we had put into the storehouse just fifty yards behind the store. After the Indians had gone out, Johnnie Gibbons said to an old fellow, Jimmy Clewitt, who was hanging round the store: “Go out into the storehouse and bring in a gallon for the house. It’s a long time between drinks.”
A moment after Clewitt had gone out, I looked out of the window and saw Chief Starving Wolf jump through the door after him, carrying a gun in his hand. I yelled to Olone. Instantly we heard the report of a gun and saw Clewitt running for his life for the store. We also saw the Indian emerge from the store with a large copper pot which we assumed was full of rum, and so it was. Clewitt made the house, and falling into the porch, groaned: “I’m done for.”
In the meantime, although we didn’t know it, it appears that Billy Salmon, the young clerk, was afraid that something would befall old Clewett and followed him out to the storehouse. They were both there when the shot was fired. Salmon also was able to make the porch and rolled over the top of Clewitt, yelling that he was shot.
The Indians immediately began peppering away at the store from their hiding place behind the storehouse. Odd bullets came through the chink and there was rattling and clashing of all sorts of stuff on the shelves of the store. We three survivors, Gibbons, Olone and myself grabbed Hawkins muzzle loaders, and whenever the leg or wing of an Indian appeared around the corner he was nailed. Even Clewitt, whom we expected was dead, jumped up and, grabbing a rifle, began peppering away through a window. After several rounds had been fired, an Indian jumped out from behind the storehouse, probably to get a good aim, and Clewitt and myself both shot him. Another Red Laker ran out to pull in his body, but while getting over a fence he was shot in the leg and fled, dragging the broken member after him.
About this time Olone shouted that we were almost out of ammunition. Had this become exhausted we were goners, for nothing else would have kept twenty-eight Red Lake Indians from entering the store and murdering every last one of us. The nearest house was that of De Marias, a French half-breed. So Olone, gun in hand, gave a yell and started as fast as he could out of the front door and away for help. He de good time and brought back about twenty half-breeds and whites. When the Red Lakers saw reinforcements coming they ran off…
I have said that everyone of us got drunk, but not till we had looked after Clewitt and Salmon. Clewitt, we found, had not been shot but stabbed. He carried the knife between his ribs from the storehouse to the porch, pulling it out when he got up to use the rifle… Poor Salmon was not so fortunate. He had two balls in his body, we knew not where. A doctor had just come to Fort Garry, so we made Billy as comfortable as possible in a light wagon belonging to John McLean and started for the fort. Fearful that we might be ambushed by Indians, Gibbons and Co hired an escort of six mounted men and we drove by easy stages to the doctor. [Salmon] was given every attention… but at the end [of ten days]… we had to bury him at what was called “the new church”, down the river from the settlement about four or five miles.”
- Kootenai Brown: The Unknown Frontiersman, 1996, William Rodney