Established by Montana fur traders in 1869, Fort Whoop-Up was a whiskey post founded by a group of unscrupulous traders bringing the proud Blackfoot Indians to a state of degeneration, taking their furs and guns in exchange for a potent drink called “Whoop-Up bug juice.” This was made by mixing a quart of whisky, a pound of chewing tobacco, a handful of red pepper, a bottle of Jamaica ginger and a quart of molasses; the mixture was then diluted with water and heated to make “fire water.”
There were terrible massacres among the Indians and the white traders. One of the worst was a battle at Cypress Hills, in May 1873, between a party of “wolfer” and a tribe led by Chief Little Soldier. The “wolfers” were men who killed animals for their furs by spreading strychnine poison over the ground. They were hated by the Indians and the other white fur traders.
The battle was started when a “wolfer” accused Little Soldier’s band of stealing his horse. Later it was found grazing on a hillside, having just strayed away. The “wolfers” rushed the Indian camp, killed Little Soldier and cut off his head, which they mounted on a pole. They then murdered the women and their children.
This prompted the fledgling Canadian government to pass a Bill in May, 1873, that sought to bring order to the frontier, encourage settlement, and to establish Canadian authority through the creation of the North West Mounted Police (NWMP). One of the NWMP’s first goals was to control the trade at Fort Whoop-Up, but after a arduous march from Fort Gary, Manitoba, to Alberta (778 miles, and including Samuel Steele) they found that it had been essentially abandoned. After unsuccessfully trying to buy it, the NWMP rented accommodations at the fort until 1888, when fire destroyed a large portion of the structure. By the early 1900s, the fort had become uninhabitable, with many of the early buildings removed or destroyed by flood or human salvage. In 1946, a commemorative cairn and plaque were placed at the fort, and in 1967 a replica was built in Indian Battle Park, nine kilometres to the northwest of the original location.
Fur Trader Anthony Henday, after a notable trip through the unknown parts of Western Canada in 1755, returned to York factory, on Hudson Bay, with hard-to-believe tales about his adventures. Having penetrated into what is now Western Alberta, he was the first white man to see the Canadian Rockies and, still more astonishing to his Hudson Bay Company friends, to report seeing the Indians riding horses. Although his listeners had doubts, Henday was reporting truthfully. Natives of the Blackfoot tribes had recently acquired horses, mainly by theft from their more southerly neighbor’s. Hence, the white man had nothing to do directly with the introduction of horses to Western Canada.
The Selkirk Settlers were able to get horses for their immediate requirements from the Natives but, having known the massive and improved breeds of Scotland, England and Ireland, they were unimpressed by the small and broken-colored Indian cayuses. These latter were, however, hardy and sure-footed and, as historian Alexander Ross quite correctly said, “their appearance is not presupposing, but they are faster than they look. Few horses could be better adapted for the cart and the saddle, and none so good for the climate.”
But the local horses were not appreciated. To most people they were ugly and spiritless. Sharing that view, Governor George Simpson wrote: “some plan must soon be fallen upon to increase our stock and improve our breed of horses as they are becoming very scarce and of such small growth as to be quite unfit for our work.
“We should select good mares from the United States and from the stock at our own posts,” the governor added, “and get a superior stallion from England.” The result, he hoped, would be heavier horses for farming, and faster horses for buffalo hunting.
Delivering an English stallion at the Red River Colony would present unusual difficulties. But from York Factory Simpson made formal request to Hudson Bay Company officers in London, and under date of February 23, 1831, came the reply from Deputy Governor Nicolas Garry, “we shall send a stallion of a proper breed by ship to York Factory. We should think the experimental farm at Red River the best place to commence raising horses for service.”
That stallion was the famous Fireaway. On arrival at York Factory in the summer of 1831 he was transferred immediately to one of the oar-propelled York boats used on the route between Hudson Bay and Fort Garry. Hay and oats were carried but there were the many portages, at each of which the horse had to be unloaded and reloaded. It wasn’t easy and the horse didn’t like it any better than the men who were obliged to sit at the animal’s feet. Once the great horse fell out of the boat and swam to shore where he was caught and reloaded.
Notwithstanding the numerous hazards created by a horse struggling constantly to balance himself in moving boat—call it a freight canoe or York Boat—George Simpson could report, ultimately, to London that the stallion “reached the settlement in perfect safety … and will soon give us a better breed of horses. He is looked upon as one of the wonders of the world by the natives, many of whom have travelled great distances with no other object than to see him.
For the breeding season following, twenty-five selected mares were brought from Athabaska River to Fort Garry and Twenty-five from Fort Carlton—long trail by any standards.
In due course there were foals bearing the clear marks of superiority; and in the years that followed, the maturing Fireaway horses came to be regarded as the swiftness buffalo runners and the most useful road horses in the country. Indeed, for 50 years thereafter the settlers of Red River talked about the speed and endurance of Fireaway stock. A horse know to be a great-grandson or great-granddaughter of Fireaway was likely to command a substantially better price than a horse of equal quality and unknown breeding.
As late as 1877, settlers in the Portage la Prairie area revived their affection for the memory of that horse, which was also the first purebred race in all of Western Canada. A stranger driving a fast horse blew into town a day or two before 24 of May and promptly challenged all comers to a matched race. With the honor of the community and the reputation of local horses at stake, townsmen came together for serious discussion. Settlers with swift horses were remembered, and thoughts turned to Farmer John Macdonald at High Bluff who had a nimble great-granddaughter of Fireaway. A message was dispatched: “Bring your mare to town at once. We need her for a race.”
Macdonald was plowing with a two-horse team when the exhausted courier reached him. Reluctantly, he unhitched the good mare and her mate from the walking plow, hitched them to his democrat and drove to Portage. Farmers and townspeople couldn’t honestly expect a homesteader’s plowhorse to win a race against a barnstorming flier from St. Paul but they recalled her breeding and nursed a silenthope. It was a great race; every pioneer who saw it agreed and, sure enough, the blood of Fireaway was still virile if not invincible and Macdonald’s mare, drawing a farm democrat and an exultant Scottish settler, came down the Portage la Prairie Street to leave the professional racer from Minnesota a convincing distance behind.
Men talked again about the greatness of Fireaway forgotten were the heroic men who accepted the nigh frightening task of bringing stallions from Hudson Bay to the as the location of Winnipeg when there was no means of transportation than a freight canoe.
Where did the famous stallion go ultimately? On that point there was speculation. According to one story, he was sold to a United States buyer; another report poll of the horse being stolen and whisked across the boundary, and still another, that his breeding worth he became so well established that he was taken back by way of Hudson Bay to England where he was used to produce steeple chasers.
[Actually, Begbie sentenced fewer persons to be hung than the average jurist of the day. Of the 52 murder cases he heard, only 27 of them resulted in a hanging sentence. Some historians believe the “Hanging Judge” epithet was a mis-reading of the Barkerville Gazette, that referred to him as the “haranguing judge” due to his scolding of accused and even juries he disagreed with.]
Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie spent the first thirty-nine years of his life in Great Britain, far removed from the land he was to have such an influence on later in life. During these years Begbie’s life was filled with social and intellectual activities. He received his first degree from Cambridge University where he studied Math and the Classics. He was involved in a great number of extracurricular activities, devoting his free time to singing and acting in amateur productions, playing chess, rowing, and tennis. After Cambridge Begbie went on to study law. Some accounts claim he was a poor law student and barely managed to graduate. Despite this, he managed to establish a successful law practice in London before heading to British Columbia.
It was not Begbie’s skill as a lawyer that won him the appointment of British Columbia’s first judge. The judge for this new colony had to be in excellent physical shape to thrive in the wilderness of British Columbia, a qualification Begbie met with his exceptional 6’5” height and athleticism. The position also called for someone with courage and enough integrity to resist bribes; all qualities of Begbie’s character.
The new colony was in desperate need of a magistrate to maintain law and order over the American mining population, so when Begbie finally arrived in Victoria on November 15th, 1858, he was greeted with great joy. He was immediately thrown into his duties when Ned McGowan’s War erupted six weeks after his arrival. This was to be the first of many events proving him to be levelheaded and fair in dispensing justice. He traveled all over British Columbia, on horseback and on foot, using his sleeping tent as his judicial chamber during the day. Despite his informal surroundings, Begbie always wore his robes and wig while holding court. During his travels Begbie also made note of the topography, weather, agricultural potential and possible road, town, and bridge sites in the areas he visited, providing valuable information to the colonial government
Contrary to his famous nickname “The Hanging Judge”, Begbie only imposed a few death sentences during his reign, yet he was not without fault in the courtroom and certainly had his detractors.
He did not particularly like or respect juries and their verdicts.
Also, he did not always strictly follow the law, but adapted it to suit his own beliefs and the land he was practicing in. Begbie was a snob when it came to other lawyers, distrusting any who were not trained within the British Empire. He even attempted to ban them from practicing in his court.
When Begbie was not traveling on his court circuit he lived in Victoria. He was an active participant in the community, becoming the first President of Victoria Philharmonic Society soon after his arrival. Throughout his lifetime he continued to provide impromptu solo singing performances to the society’s delight. For his outstanding service to the British Crown, Queen Victoria knighted him in 1875. Begbie spent his retirement in Victoria where he died in 1894.
Ellen Cashman (1845 – January 4, 1925), better known as “Nellie,” was Born at Belvelly, near Cobh, County Cork in 1845, Cashman came to the United States around 1850 with her mother and her sister, settling in Boston. As an adolescent, Cashman worked as a bellhop in a Boston hotel. She and her family emigrated to San Francisco, California in 1865.
Following the onset of the Klondike Gold Rush, Cashman left her family home in 1874 for the Cassiar Mountains in British Columbia, Canada. A lifelong Catholic, she set up a boarding house for miners, asking for donations to the Sisters of St. Anne in return for the services available at her boarding house.
Cashman was traveling to Victoria to deliver 500 dollars to the Sisters of St. Anne when she heard that a snowstorm had descended on the Cassiar Mountains, stranding and injuring 26 miners, who were also suffering from scurvy. She immediately took charge of a six-man search party and collected food and medicine to bring to the stranded miners.
Conditions in the Cassiar Mountains were so dangerous that even the Canadian Army advised against the rescue. Upon learning of Cashman’s expedition, a commander sent his troops to locate Cashman’s party and bring them to safety.
An army trooper eventually found Cashman camped on the frozen surface of the Stikine River. Over tea, she convinced the trooper and his men that it was her will to continue, and that she would not head back without rescuing the miners.
After 77 days of unfriendly weather, Cashman and her party located the sick men, who numbered far more than 26; some estimates credit Cashman with saving the lives of as many as 75 men. She administered a Vitamin C diet to re-establish the group’s health. Thereafter, she was fondly known in the region as the “Angel of the Cassiar.”
Later in life, Cashman moved to Tombstone, Arizona. She raised money to build the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, and committed herself to charity work with the Sisters of St. Joseph. She continued to work as a caretaker, taking a position as a nurse in a Cochise County hospital.
In 1898, Cashman left Arizona for the Yukon in search of gold, staying until 1905. Her prospecting ventures took her to Klondike, Fairbanks, and Nolan Creek. She later owned a store in Dawson City.
In 1921, Cashman visited California, where she declared her desire to be appointed U.S. deputy Marshal for the area of Koyukuk. In 1922, the Associated Press documented her trip from Nolan Creek to Anchorage.
In January 1925, Cashman developed pneumonia and rheumatism. Friends admitted her to the Sisters of St. Anne, the same hospital that she had helped build 51 years before. She soon died of her illness and was interred at Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria, British Columbia.
On March 15, 2006, Nellie Cashman was inducted into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame.
My list of of interesting books about Canada (to date). You can add your favourites, too. Just send me a note with your choice, title and author, to firstname.lastname@example.org
Canada’s toughest, gentleman police officer in history
The adventures of (Sir) Sam Steele should definitely put to rest any notion that Canada lacks a colourful history, or, indeed, adventurers the equal to Pat Garrett and Davy Crockett.
Samuel Benfield Steele was born on the family farm in 1851 in Simcoe County, Upper Canada (now Ontario), and spent much of his youth in the nearby Town of Orillia learning to ride and other useful skills that would serve him well in his later life. At age 14-years he enlisted in the militia formed to guard against Fenian cross-border raids, and from there he volunteered for the federal militia called together to restore order with the Métis in what is now Manitoba.
“The journey was an exercise in endurance,” writes Quan: “The troops marched across southern Ontario to Sault Ste. Marie, where they boarded ships bound across Lake Superior to what is now Thunder Bay. That was the easy part. From the lakehead, 965 kilometres (600 miles) of rock, rivers, muskeg, and heavy forest lay between the troops and their destination, Fort Garry on the Red River (now Winnipeg). There was no railway yet, and the road was nothing more than a trail blazed through the bogs and bush. In fact, for the most part the “road” was a water route of interconnected lakes and streams with numerous difficult portages through mud, swamps, and dense forest.”
Unfortunately, for Sam, the uprising was over by the time they arrived so the troops turned around and marched back to Ontario again. However, Sam stayed with the militia—now promoted to corporal at age nineteen—but when the new provincial government was in place the militia was disbanded as well. Nevertheless, the new Canadian government decided it wanted its own army to replace the British troops, traditional peacekeepers, and Sam quickly joined the recently established Canadian army—being the 23rd person to do so.
Two years later however, in 1873, the federal government established a mounted police force for the West, the North West Mounted Police, and Sam saw his chance to get back to his beloved frontier. Therefore, in 1874 the now Sergeant Major Steele (age 23) began one of the most rugged marches that have ever taken place in Canada, across the vast, uncharted territory of the West.
“The going was tough for the already beleaguered group. Grasshoppers razed the grass, and rain turned the wagon track to deep mud. Quicksand was another hazard many men had never experienced. Sam, among the strongest in the troop, was continually called on to help wrestle horses, oxen, and cattle of boggy deathtraps.”
That was only part of the adventure. Having little grass to eat the horses became so weak that they frequently collapsed in their tracks. Therefore the men had to lift them and encourage them to walk a bit further before collapsing again. This prompted one of them to quip. “I thought I’d have an easy ride to the Rockies with a good horse to carry me. Instead I’m having a tough walk to Edmonton, with me carrying the horse.”
The march to Edmonton, 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles), ended on October 31, 1874, but not without one last struggle with nature.
“Sam was preparing for sleep when someone shouted that a horse was in trouble in a nearby creek. Grabbing a rope, he waded into the ice-cold stream and deftly passed the rope around the struggling horse, tossing the other end to men on the bank. But before Sam could get out of the water, the horse slipped, dragging Sam and several men down. In the dark, with only moments before men and horse succumbed to the freezing current, the quick-thinking man made it out of the water, then he hauled the next man out, and so on, until troops and horse were all free of the ice and water.”
This, then, was the stuff Sam Steele was made of, and only the beginning of his remarkable career that included chasing criminals, defying native leaders, upholding the law—and having the time of his life. Indeed, he saw the establishment of a nation, the signing of treaties, the resolution of a rebellion, the building of a railway, war in South Africa, and action in WWI.
In my opinion this bit of Canadian history should be made mandatory reading in every elementary school history course taught, and for every person who is preparing to become a citizen of this country, for therein is the essence of Canadian pioneer culture: Dedication, adherence to standards and perseverance.
If you would like to learn more about any of my books, or to order copies, click on the specific cover below. Two Irish Lads and Nor All Thy Tears are available in both Kindle and Nook formats. Publisher’s price, $4.95.
Thanks for dropping by. Drop back soon for more Canadian history.
In the Upper Canada of the 1820s, in the Village of Sharon, a small community known as the Children of Peace crafted, with simple tools but consummate skill and artistry, a dramatic architectural testament to its vision of a society founded on the values of peace, equality and social justice.This plain folk of former Quakers led the country’s first farmers’ co-operative, built its first shelter for the homeless, and played a key role in the development of democracy by ensuring the elections of William Lyon Mackenzie, and both fathers of responsible government – Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine – in the formative years before Canadian confederation.
The center piece of their activity was The Temple. Completed in 1832 and restored in 2011, it is now part of the Sharon National Historic Site, which encompasses nine historic buildings in a park like setting.
The architectural elements of the Temple combine to express a singular vision of the most striking beauty. Its three tiers, four-fold symmetry, lanterns and pinnacles were inspired by the old testament from the Bible. Jacob’s Ladder, a gently curved staircase, leads to the musicians’ gallery above. The four central pillars even bear names: Faith, Hope, Love and Charity.
Known for their pageantry, the Children of Peace integrated a unique social vision with distinctive artistic and architectural works and an unparalleled musical tradition: they formed the first civilian band in Canada and commissioned the first organ built in Ontario.
Thanks to the dime store novels and Hollywood larger-than-life approach to frontier history, most of the gunfights we know about are American. However, Canada has had its share of shootouts, too. Take the shootout outside Fortier’s Cafe in the gold mining community of Fisherville, British Columbia, in 1864.
Ironically, the dispute began between two factions who each wanted to be the law in Fisherville, and after much threatening talk the two agree to meet to talk things over. The players were a group of Americans under the leadership of William “Yeast Powder Bill” Denniston (a.k.a. Bill Burmeister); Robert “Overland Bob” Evans; and Neil Dougherty. The opposing side, mostly Canadians, was lead by a hot-tempered, mouthy Irishman named Thomas Walker. His lieutenants were William “Dancing Bill” Latham, John “Black Jack” Smyth and “Paddy” Skie.
“The talk started peacefully enough but within a few minutes the two [walker and Dinniston] began shouting. Tom Walker, his temper boiling over, pulled his revolver from its holster, levelled it at Yeast Powder Bill and squeezed the trigger.
“The range was point blank when the heavy pistol roared but, unfortunately for Walker, his hand was unsteady. The .45 slug missed Bill’s expansive chest by ripped away the thumb from his right hand. Walker tried to fire a second shot but his gun jammed. Yeast Powder Bill, howling in shock and pain, drew the pistol from his left holster and shot Walker through the heart. Walker died where he stood. It was his great bad luck that Bill was ambidextrous.
“When Walker’s gun fired, Overland Bob Evans commenced shooting. This brought immediate return fire from Walker’s friends. Within seconds the shooting had become general and Evans lay prone in the dust with at least two bullets in his body. Although Evans was down his companions, thinking him dead, continued shooting.
“Walker was dead, there was no doubt about that, and his friends, intent on avenging him, kept up a steady barrage of fire into the ranks of the Americans. For several minutes the scene was one of sheer chaos. The men who were armed with clubs closed and began to beat on each other. When the shooting finally stopped the air was heavy with the acrid smell of gun smoke. Both sides retreated to count casualties.”
Amazingly, Evens recovered from his wounds so Walker was the only actual casualty from the fracas.
If you would like to learn more about any of my books, or to order copies, click on the specific cover below. Two Irish Lads and Nor All Thy Tears are available in both Kindle and Nook formats. Publisher’s price, $4.95.