Conscience of Canadians aroused

by Bruce Cherney (part 1 of 2)

When Chief Justice Edmund Burke Wood of the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench banned spiritous liquor in the North West Territories, from the boundaries of Manitoba to the Rocky Mountains, he was motivated by an incident that occurred on June 1, 1873. 

On that day, a band of Assiniboine Indians were attacked and decimated by a party of white men. The ambush was supposedly an act of revenge against the Indians, who allegedly had stolen a string of horses.

The conscience of the Canadian West was immediately aroused by the attack, which came to be known as the Cypress Hills Massacre, after the rolling hills in the south-west corner of Saskatchewan where the attack took place.

During the trials of the 13 white men that were held in Winnipeg and Helena, Montana, the cause of the massacre was attributed to liquor brought into Canada from the U.S. by American whiskey traders. Both white and Indian witnesses at the trial said they were so befuddled at the time by Montana Red Eye that they had difficulty remembering any of the details of the massacre. 

Of more consequence than the liquor ban was the decision by Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald to create a special force to bring order to the North-West. The new police force was ordered to stop  the whiskey trade and protect the aboriginal people of the region.

A July 1, 1876, Winnipeg Free Press editorial, following the Winnipeg trial of three American whiskey traders who were alleged to have taken part in the Cypress Hills massacre, said that “... however some people may regard uncivilized Indians, Canada is bound to afford that class of her people exactly the same protection that she does any other. Therefore, the case disposed of, although resulting in the acquital of the accused parties, must have beneficial results, in that it may be expected to inspire our wild Indians with an increased confidence in the guarantee afforded them in the enjoyment of their rights; and, at the same time, it may well intimidate 

persons inclined to overt conduct towards this section of our population ...”

Despite the rather derogatory terms used to describe native people — common in the era — the newspaper still insisted that “Indians, no more than other people, can be killed upon Canadian soil, with impunity ...”

While the U.S. Cavalry did its utmost to solve the American "Indian problem" by using bullets and artillery shells, the Canadian government decided it was in its interests to actually protect aboriginals by forming the North-West Mounted Police.

Historian Gerald Friessen has pointed out that the Americans spent $20 million annually fighting plains Indians in the 1870s and the Canadian government had an entire annual budget of $19 million of which $400,000 each year was devoted to the NWMP.

In America, settlers came first and law and order was an afterthought when things got dicey. In Canada, western expansion and settlement was preceded by the deployment of the NWMP. 

In the early days of the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company, traders weren’t adverse to trading whiskey for furs, but this trade was widely criticized and eventually dropped. Its demise was an altruistic motive, since the fur trading companies realized that whiskey and the ability of native peoples to trap furs weren’t a good mix.

The Americans weren’t bothered by such concerns — they freely crossed the border in pursuit of a quick dollar and had no interest in the social ramifications of the whiskey trade.

The whiskey trade was apparently not limited to Americans, though they were by far the majority of such traders. William Wood, writing to the Free Press in a letter dated September 3, 1873, said that liquor had been arriving in Edmonton House (now Edmonton, Alberta) from Fort Garry (Winnipeg) almost daily over the course of two weeks, despite the imposition of the ban.

“One of these men arrived here yesterday with about eighty gallons of rum, says he left Fort Garry in broad daylight with his carts uncovered, and no one tried to seize his casks, or take notice of him.”

Wood said that such traders are unscrupulous enough to demand food in exchange for liquor thus condemning native families to starve.

On the other hand, he said the Americans to the south were doing all they could to prevent the whiskey, arms and ammunition from crossing the border.

“America is now trying to do her part,” he wrote. “What is Canada doing? Selling and allowing unlimited supplies of brandy, whiskey, rum, etc., to be taken out of one of her own Provinces to demoralize and ruin the heretofore peaceable Indians of  the Saskatchewan (district).”

There is no doubt that Winnipeg merchants were benefitting from the liquor ban, selling product with little concern for its ultimate destination, but there is also little doubt that most involved in the trade came from south of the border

It was a particularly nasty trade. While Wood reports that brandy, whiskey and rum arrived from Fort Garry in the North-West, it came out during the Winnipeg trial that the cause of the massacre was Montana Red Eye, a foul concoction that could include tea, tobacco, Perry’s painkiller, molasses, turpentine, red ink for colour, a little alcohol and a great deal of slough water. As the name implies, the nasty brew was brought into Canada by the American whiskey traders.

The defendants in the Winnipeg trial were George M. Bell, James Hughes and Philande Vogle, who were called citizens of Fort Benton in the territory of Montana. The trio had been arrested by a U.S. marshall and then extradited to Canada.  The three men had actually first appeared at a hearing in Montana before U.S. Commissioner W.E. Cullen, who determined after 20 days of testimony that there was not sufficient evidence to bring the men to trial.

The Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench failed to obtain witnesses living in Montana or their testimony, despite their participation in the Cypress Hills Massacre, according to the May 24, 1876, Free Press.

The newspaper said that the Montana witnesses had further stated that Bell, Hughes and Vogle were not present and engaged in the massacre, according to “affidavits of John H. Evans and Trevanian Hale of Fort Benton.”

The court discounted any mention of these affidavits because they could not be produced for the trial.

The main testimony came from local residents such as Abel Farwell, who knew the Assiniboine and traded with them in the Cypress Hills region out his post called Fort Farwell, located about 120 metres away from another trading post across the Milk River called Fort Solomon, operated by Moses Solomon.

According to Farwell, the Assiniboine had some trouble with Fort Solomon the day before because the fort people had sold them liquor. The Assiniboine wanted more and when this was denied, they were said to have fired into the windows at the fort.

Farwell  testified that Hughes was with the party that arrived from Fort Benton, and that Vogle and Bell had already been trading in the area.

Farwell testified that the Benton party asked him if the Assiniboine had their horses and he replied that they did not. The only horse the Assiniboines had was earlier returned (a horse owned by George Hammond, originally from Benton, but a local resident at the time). Despite Farwwell’s assurance, the trader said he later saw Hughes, Bell and Vogle as well as other men firing in the direction of the Assiniboine camp for 15 to 20 minutes, apparently at the instigation of Hammond who still claimed a horse theft had occurred.

Farwell’s interpreter Alexis Lebombard, who said he lived anywhere on the prairie, was in the area during the massacre. He also said he told Hammond that his horse named George was not in the Assiniboine camp, but his statement was ignored.

He was at the river bank when he heard shots and “saw the Indians running away, women, children and all towards the bush ...” He told the court that the men who went into the camp “fired a good many shots, and I saw one old man fall, and raise himself on his hands and knees and try to crawl away ...”