by Dave Yanko
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.