The Battle of Belly River

On the morning of October 25, 1870 an army of Cree clashed with Blackfoot warriors at the Belly River, near present-day Lethbridge, Alberta. When night fell and the fighting ceased, hundreds of dead lay on the ground or in the river. This was the last, largest, and bloodiest of the battles between Plains Indians. Famous personages from the history of western Canada figured on both sides.

The Cree faced great difficulties in the 1860s as their world shifted about them. This was not the first time the Cree had adapted, however, and they examined their options with care. Originally a forest people, the Cree had moved west and out onto the plains in the 17th Century. There they adapted to a life based on the great herds of buffalo. The Cree understood the implications of European settlement and moved away from it. They traded and worked with the English and French but never adopted their ways.

Big Bear

As they moved west, the Cree came into contact with other peoples and formed alliances with them.  The Cree traded with Europeans, then bartered European trade goods with other Indians for items they needed, such as horses. And they allied against other peoples, such as the Dakotah tribes, that were hostile.

By 1850 or so, the Cree recognized that the buffalo herds were diminishing and they moved west again, to the Qu’Appelle area on the Saskatchewan. But in the 1860s, those herds, too, were thinning. Moreover, Metis from the Red River had begun to settle on the Saskatchewan in places like Batoche and St. Laurent as the beaver trade collapsed. It was time for the Cree to move on, but where?

Important Cree included Big Bear, a far-seeing and imaginative leader, and Piapot, whose followers included Assiniboine and other peoples. Big Bear and Piapot saw the problem in terms of encroaching settlers and lack of buffalo. West, in the Alberta foothills, there was plenty of buffalo and no settlers. But this was the territory of the Blackfoot Confederacy — the Blood, Peigan, Blackfoot, and at times the Sarcee.

Piapot, 1885

The Blackfoot tribes were also facing changes. Although they saw no problem with the supply of buffalo, American traders had come north. This brought both good things and bad to the Blackfoot. Bad things included alcohol and disease, good things were new repeating rifles and ammunition.

The American traders had come up from Fort Benton in Montana. The American Fur Company was the major trading outfit in the area. This company had been trading for beaver, fox, and other valuable furs but had thought buffalo hides of little value. The great expansion of steam power in Europe and North America in the mid 19th Century meant that there was a need for strong material for drive belts and buffalo hide leather was very suitable for this purpose. Demand for hides began to increase.

The American traders recognized an opportunity and began buying buffalo robes from the Indians. Toward the end of the 1860s, the traders looked north to their major suppliers and decided to set up a base there. Negotiating their way through the tribes, with the assistance of the US Indian Affairs Bureau, they traveled north to the Oldman River system and constructed Fort Hamilton, somewhat north of the Belly River.

Fort Hamilton was indeed a fortress. The outer walls had no windows, but plenty of rifle slits. Artillery was part of the fort’s armament. The Blackfoot never made the error of attacking the fort and, anyway, saw some advantage in its existence. They had less distance to travel to trade their hides and were secure in their own territory. It was the American traders who were afraid of them, not the other way around.

Indians who wished to trade were let into an enclosed area, the wall pierced with rifle slits. The trader stayed behind the wall, viewing his customer through a small opening through which he passed out the trade goods. These might be brand new Henry repeating rifles or it might be whiskey, the major item offered in trade. So much whiskey flowed from Fort Hamilton that it came to be called Fort Whoop-Up.

Blood Indians outside Fort Whoop Up. Note the gun slits, cannon, and company flag.

In 1869, a riverboat on the Upper Missouri brought smallpox to the region and the traders took the disease north with them to Fort Whoop-Up. That winter, the Blackfoot were ravaged by sickness. (Dempsey identifies the disease as scarlet fever.)

Big Bear and Piapot heard of this development. The Cree had been in contact with Europeans for more than two centuries and had developed some resistance to imported disease. Now, with the Blackfoot weakened, the Cree saw an opportunity to take over their buffalo territory. Big Bear, Piapot, and some other chiefs planned a major incursion into the Alberta foothills. Big Bear assembled three thousand people who were to set up their own settlement in Blackfoot territory. This included as many as 800 fighting men. Piapot led another contingent.

Late in the afternoon of October 24th, a Cree advance party came upon a Blood settlement west of the Belly River and attacked it. The Blood were greatly outnumbered but their repeating rifles were far superior to the Cree arms and they held their ground. Meanwhile, they sent messengers to others of the Blackfoot Confederacy nearby. Big Bear committed his forces to the battle but Piapot had a dream warning him against the conflict and held back.

Unknown to the Cree, a large group of Peigan had moved into the region after others of their group had been murdered by US troops in the Marias Massacre. These were now roused to action and a large war party rode back to the Belly River. Along the way they stopped at Fort Whoop-Up and picked up Jerry Potts.

Potts was then working as a hunter for the traders at Fort Whoop-Up. His mother was Blood and he had lived among Blood and Peigan all his life, at one time acting as patriarch of his own band. He was a ferocious fighter and had a great reputation among the Blackfoot since he was never wounded in battle.

At dawn, when fighting began again, the Blackfoot forces had been bolstered not only with the Peigan but other warriors who continued to trickle in all day until this army was as large as that of the Cree. The Blackfoot were ranged in a coulee running east and west and the Cree in a paralell coulee to the south. The two groups engaged in heated combat well into the day.  Potts noticed that a small butte overlooked the Cree lines. He led a party onto the butte and fired down into the enemy. The Cree were being hurt badly now and began to mill in confusion. Potts seized this opportunity and his force charged directly at the Cree who broke and fell back on the river. The Blackfoot warriors pressed on and many Cree tried to get across the river. They were slaughtered in the water. Potts later said, “You could fire with your eyes shut and kill a Cree that day.” The killing ended at nightfall and the Cree were allowed to retreat with their dead and wounded. Cree losses totalled around 300, but only 40 Blackfoot were reported dead.

The Belly River. The battle was fought on the west bank.

Big Bear’s grand scheme had failed, partly because he had overestimated the numbers of Blackfoot who had died from disease. His army had lost almost half its warriors killed and many more were incapacitated by wounds. One of Big Bear’s own sons was killed in the battle.  Now he saw, there was nothing to do but sue for peace. The Cree sent tobacco to the Blackfoot and, in 1871, made a treaty with them.

In the years afterward, the Blackfoot allowed the Cree to settle nearby and to hunt buffalo in their territory. But the buffalo was not the inexhaustible resource it had seemed. Hides increased in value and the early 1870s saw the herds on the Kansas plains wiped out. Not just hunting, but also agriculture, doomed the buffalo. Settlers began moving into the plains in great numbers, aided by the railroads being built in both Canada and the US. By 1879 the buffalo was almost gone from the Blackfoot territory and Indian peoples were being pushed into reserves.

Jerry Potts lost family members to alcohol and alcohol-fueled violence. In 1874 he guided the NorthWest Mounted Police to Fort Whoop-Up to shut it down. The American traders abandoned the fort before they arrived. Potts expressed hatred and disdain for the Cree until 1896 when he died of cancer.

Jerry Potts (center) and family. The woman seated immediately to his left was his wife.

Big Bear tried to make the best of the Plains Indians’ chances. He tried, for instance, to get the tribes to select reserve territories that adjoined one another, looking to form an Indian nation in Alberta and Saskatchewan. This was blocked by the Canadian government, even though the tribes were, by treaty, supposed to be able to choose their own territories. For a long while he refused to sign Treaty No. 6 but finally, his people on the verge of starvation, Big Bear signed in order to receive food from the government. He was marked as a trouble maker and, during the 1885 Riel Rebellion, Canada imprisoned him by accusing him of the murder of some whites, something Big Bear had been careful not to do all his life. He died a few years later.

Big Bear (left) and Poundmaker in prison 1886.

Piapot also attempted to negotiate a decent life for his followers. He signed treaties and honored them, moving away from settlement areas. In 1883 he organized a sort of non-violent resistance to the Canadian Pacific Railway which resulted in some concessions being granted to his people. Piapot adapted the Blackfoot Sun Dance to the Cree. When the Canadian government declared the Sun Dance illegal, Piapot refused to acknowledge  the law. Attempts to remove him as a chief failed and Piapot remained an important Cree leader until his death in 1908.

Today the Belly River battleground is memorialized at Indian Battle Park, near Lethbridge, though much of the battle area has been covered by housing developments. A city council motion to rename the place Valley of Peace Park was defeated in 2005.

Sources for this article include:

The Plains Cree: Trade, Diplomacy, and War, 1780-1870

Other sources are out of print:

Hugh Dempsey, Jerry Potts, Plainsman, Glenbow Institute Occasional Paper No.2 and the same author’s A Blackfoot Winter Count, Glenbow Institute Occasional Paper No.1

Cecil Denny, The Law Marches West available used in a number of different editions.

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