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.
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.
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.