Fort Walsh: Horses, Whiskey, and Murder

James Morrow Walsh

James Morrow Walsh

©2008AngieHaggstrom

South West of Maple Creek, Saskatchewan Canada is a national historic site that not many know exists. Part of the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, Fort Walsh National Historic Site is a recreation of the Trading Post, town site, cemeteries, and North West Mounted Police (NWMP) Fort that once flourished here. The Trading Post was a major trading point in the west and was an important part of daily life for the Aboriginals, traders, and settlers who lived here. In fact, the events that occurred in this area changed life on the Canadian Prairies forever.

The area had been a hub of activity before the construction of the Fort and even before Farwell’s Trading Post. The local tribes often used this area for winter camps because of the trees and abundant wildlife in the park. The Metis people (those who had Aboriginal and French lineage) also settled into the area. In fact, you can still see the tipi rings and the cellars of the Metis shanties to this day.

Then, in the 1870 a man named Abe Farwell moved out west and built a trading post here to trade furs and supplies for the Hudson Bay Company. The tribes and fur traders (often called wolfers) camped not far from the post and would bring in their pelts and collect their much-needed supplies. This was a huge benefit to the area at the start. European settlers received furs, beads, and other supplies from the west and the people here could get pots, tobacco, lanterns, and other items that were simply not available this far west.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all innocent. Farwell also brought in whiskey, which the natives and wolfers traded for freely. One night in 1873, the wolfers were drinking heavily and chatting away when they noticed their horse missing. Immediately the local Nakota tribe was blamed for stealing it. The drunken wolfers gathered up their buddies, grabbed their guns, and headed towards the village. It is not known who fired the first shot, but what is known is the devastation left behind. By the end of the fight, men, women, children, and even the elderly were murdered where they stood; almost the entire tribe was eradicated.

The worst part was yet to come. After the massacre was over, the horse was found a short time later not far from the wolfers camp. The horse’s owner hadn’t tied him off properly and the horse had simply wandered off. The traders were taken to trial, and even with Farewell ‘s testimony, they were found to be innocent of their charges. Today, this event is known as the Cypress Hills Massacre.

Chief Sitting Bull

Chief Sitting Bull

This event did cause two positive changes in the Canadian prairies. First, because the wolfers went to court, the Aboriginals eventually respected and trusted the NWMP. This became vital three years later in 1876 when General Custer was defeated in the ‘Battle of Little Big Horn.’ Chief Sitting Bull and the Sioux would arrive and stay until they signed treaties and return to the United States in 1881. Secondly, the Massacre led to the arrival of the Canadian Mounties (NWMP) and the building of Fort Walsh in 1875. James Morrow Walsh initially ran the Fort. He would become a great friend of Chief Sitting Bull and would eventually arrange talks between the American Government and the Sioux.

After a long and trying fight, the Mounties would eventually bring peace to the area. After there was no more buffalo for the wolfers to trade and the Aboriginals had been settled onto reserves, (the Nikaneet still live on a reserve in the Cypress Hills not too far from the Fort), the need for the Mounties was gone and they left in 1883.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Musical Ride

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Musical Ride

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) returned to the Fort in 1942 and used it to train and breed their horses until 1968. This would lead to the creation of the famous RCMP Musical Ride and their signature black horses.

There is so much to see at the Fort Walsh site and the quiet countryside makes it a peaceful and interesting afternoon. You can get a tour of the Fort including the Trading Post, the museum and theatre, the cemeteries, the town site, and even enjoy the picnic or cafeteria. They even have cannon demonstrations, the Musical Ride, and other events throughout the year.

If you would like to take more information about the area or history, here are some sites that might interest you:

A virtual tour of Fort Walsh

Comprehensive information about Abe Farewell and the Fort

Pictures from the Fort

Thank you for taking the tour of the Cypress Hills!

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(This post now appears here: http://www.traveltheprairies.com/saskatchewan/fort-walsh-horses-whiskey-murder/)

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