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  Fort Walsh

by Dave Yanko
Photos courtesy RCMP
Supt. James Morrow Walsh, a flamboyant and respected leader.

Abe Farwell was no altar boy. Like many other fur traders who each year travelled north to do business with "Canadian" Indians, Farwell was an opportunist who swallowed his ethics with far more ease than anyone could swallow the cayenne-pepper-and-painkiller stew he sold as "whiskey".

Yet, Farwell redeemed himself enough to be treated gently by historians who've written of the tumultuous Canadian frontier of the 1870s. His redemption came in a witness box, where he testified against a group of American and Canadian wolf hunters who in 1873 slaughtered Nakota (Assiniboia) men, women and children who were camped near his trading post in the Cypress Hills region of what's now southwest Saskatchewan.

Farwell's testimony failed to result in convictions against the "wolfers", who claimed the Nakota stole a horse and that the Indians fired first – charges hotly denied by the Nakota. But the sad incident is a pivotal point in Canadian history because it sped recruitment and dispatch of the North-West Mounted Police, which evolved into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Fort Walsh, constructed in 1875, was built just north of the scene of the massacre. It became Mountie headquarters in 1878. The scene of the Cypress Hills Massacre was recognized in 2006 as a national historic site of Canada.

courtesy Tourism Saskatchewan
Fort Walsh, as it appears today.

By prosecuting the white wolfers, even unsuccessfully, the North-West Mounted Police earned the respect of Indians who had reasons to doubt a white man's pledge to treat whites and Indians equally before the law. And the trust the Mounties earned from Canadian Indians stood them in good stead when it came to dealing with Lakotah (Sioux) Chief Sitting Bull, whose 5,000 followers arrived in the area that's now Saskatchewan a year after defeating Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Fort Walsh National Historic Site is the reconstructed version of what some might have viewed as the Mountie's "beachhead" in the Cypress Hills. But "beachhead" it was not, because the fort and its operations were designed to generate trust and cooperation with the Indians, rather than fear of force.

The most conspicuous element of this plan was the fort's location. Instead of constructing it at a strategic point on high land, the fort was built on the floor of a deep valley surrounded by hills, like a stage in an amphitheatre. The Mounties knew their presence would be treated with suspicion by the numerous Indian groups who had populated the rich hills for 7,000 years before the arrival of Europeans. They wanted their audience to see every act of the play.

One of the fort's two bastions, the circular corner protrusions designed to give defenders an unimpaired view along two exterior walls of the palisade, was capped with a roof and used for storing oats. And the three-metre palisade surrounding the fort may have been more effective at keeping in disgruntled men than keeping out unwanted visitors. Cold and wet barracks and a wage of 40 cents a day rendered the silver mines in Montana a shining temptation to the fort's earliest residents.

The palisades thwarted deserters, not Indians.

Morale among the men was buoyed through the implementation of an intensive recreational program that included sports of all variety, shooting competitions and, inevitably, horse racing.

Men who garrisoned the fort patrolled enormous tracts of land alone, on horseback. While equine skills were a prerequisite for the mostly central-Canadian men who applied for the force, many exaggerated their riding prowess and it's likely a few had never before sunk foot into stirrup before arriving at the fort. At one point the fort's demanding riding program ended for each man only after he won a grueling cross-country race through the nearby hills and lodge pole pines.

Fort Walsh took its name from its first superintendent, James Morrow Walsh. Walsh was, in every respect but his temper and flamboyant personality (which frequently put him at odds with his superiors), an exemplary Mountie admired by his men and respected by Indian leaders. Sitting Bull and Walsh became fast friends after Walsh and six other men confidently rode into the chief's 1,000-warrior encampment to outline Canadian law for the newly-arrived and much-feared chief (see Men in Red). It was Walsh who in 1877 arranged a meeting at the fort between Sitting Bull and representatives of the American government, who wanted the Lakotah chief and his followers to return to the U.S. and the reservation land where other Lakotah already resided.

Sleeping quarters for the fort's top officer were luxurious compared to the barracks.

Sitting Bull would have preferred to remain north of the "medicine line" in Canada. But his presence posed not only a continued threat of raids into American territory, but also a focal point around which some disenchanted Indian tribes might have united to fight western expansion. Canada and the U.S. thought it best that Sitting Bull return to the States, and Walsh and the chief had many a heated argument over the prospect.

With his followers starving and the Canadian government refusing to grant him relief or reservation land, Sitting Bull in 1881 finally agreed to a repatriation plan that included amnesty. But his decision came only after he sought the advice of Walsh, who by then had been transferred from the fort because Ottawa was uncomfortable with his much-publicized relationship with the chief.

Horsemanship was a critical component of training at the fort. They were, after all, "The Mounties'.

Fort Walsh's importance declined after Sitting Bull returned to the States and "Canadian" Indians from the region moved to reserves located north of the Cypress Hills. The fort was closed in 1883, after the Canadian Pacific Railroad chose to build its line 55 kms (33 miles) north of it. The town that sprang up adjacent to the fort, and which boasted a population that mushroomed during busy winter trading months to between 4,000 and 5,000 people, quickly died. Mountie headquarters were moved to Regina, while most of the 200 to 300 permanent residents of the town moved to Maple Creek or Medicine Hat.

In 1942, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police bought the site of the old fort and launched construction of a ranch used for breeding the stately black horses used by the force. The Fort Walsh RCMP Remount Ranch was used until 1968 to raise horses, including those used in the world-famous RCMP Musical Ride.

The town site that blossomed adjacent to the fort was the hub of commerce for the district.

During its short but colorful existence, Fort Walsh helped bring law and order to the West and the stamp of Canadian sovereignty to a vast territory that was then the topic of annexation among some American politicians. The role its officers played in the Sitting Bull affair was an early high-water mark in what became a Canadian tradition of conciliation and peacekeeping.

Admission to Fort Walsh National Historic Site includes access to the museum/interpretation centre/cafeteria, as well as a guided tour by bus to Farwell's Trading Post, the scene of the massacre, and the fort itself. Guides in period costume lead tours and interpretive presentations. Check the Web site for information on fees, days and hours of operation and camping facilities.

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