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Canadian Wild West

Updated: Mar 11

In today's post we'll be diving into Canada's "Wild West", while not as well known as the American "Wild West" we still had a version of this while smaller and less popularized in pop culture. We will take a look at Sam Kelly, John Ware, Jerry Potts and Kootenai Brown as well as taking a look at Bar U Ranch.



Sam Kelly

Born in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in 1859, the tall, lanky Kelly, renowned for his deadly aim as much as for his bright, red beard, came to prominence in the Saskatchewan-Montana border country in the 1890s when he fell in with American Frank Jones and his criminal friends. Sam Kelley (alias Charles 'Red' Nelson) was one of the wiliest, most dangerous and most wanted outlaws of the Big Muddy. Yet, when he turned himself in to a Montana sheriff in 1904, suddenly, there wasn't enough evidence to convict him of a single crime. That's the way things worked in the Big Muddy region of Canada and the U.S. Witnesses got scared, or they disappeared for a while. Or maybe they just got forgetful. Whatever the case, Kelley used the occasion of this good fortune to take an early retirement from the outlaw trade. And when he died with his boots off in 1937, Debden, Saskatchewan, lost one of her most, umm, colourful homesteaders. Kelley was born in Nova Scotia and came west to Montana for reasons unknown—much of the Sam Kelley story is sketchy. One of his earliest documented escapades occurred in 1895, when he and an accomplice broke two men out of a jailhouse in Glasgow, Montana. The jail break occurred on May 25, one day after Deputy Sheriff 'Hoke' Smith left town in search of Kelley with a posse armed to the teeth. Kelley and his partner hid within view of the jail, waiting for Sheriff Sid Willis to leave. When Willis went to the Bank Saloon at noon, the outlaws launched the escape. They rode up to the jailhouse casually, two horses in tow. On signal, the prisoners used a key moulded from tallow and fashioned from a tin can to unlock their cell. As they glided by the sheriff's wife, who sat flabbergasted at her desk, one of them tipped his hat. Sheriff Willis gave chase until a bullet spooked his horse and he was flipped out of the saddle. A posse might have been struck to pursue the outlaws, but all the town's men, horses and guns were on the road with Hoke. It seems that was no coincidence. Hoke, by all reports a stalwart citizen and talented cowboy before they pinned a badge on him, later resigned when it was discovered he and Kelley had been corresponding by letter. Kelley would come to be known best as co-leader with Frank Jones of the infamous Nelson-Jones Gang, one of the primary reasons the North-West Mounted Police established a post in the Big Muddy Valley. The gang specialized in horse and cattle rustling, stealing stock on one side of 'the line' and selling it on the other. But Kelley, Jones and their crew were not averse to robbing the occasional trainload of Montana gold. And as with all outlaw bands of the era, membership expanded and contracted with the ebb, flow and death of individual bandits. It wasn't unusual for gangs like Nelson-Jones to work with other outlaw groups such as Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch. Rustling was a lucrative and dangerous business that attracted a range of personalities. Some outlaws were Robin Hood figures in the their home communities and stories still circulate about kind deeds done for poor homesteaders. Kelley's partner Frank Jones, on the other hand, is said to have simply enjoyed the act of killing. Most outlaws killed only when they had to; a Nelson-Jones Gang member called 'the Pigeon-toed Kid' boasted five notches on the handle of his pistol, and Kelley would kill to defend himself. And when the guns were drawn, Kelley was said to be a formidable opponent. In an 1896 dust-up with a Glasgow, Montana deputy named Allison, Kelley shot a rifle right out of the lawman's hands, destroying the weapon. People around Debden would later claim he could use a rifle to dehorn a steer at 100 yards. Still, when the odds were stacked against them -- when a Montana posse of 15 to 20 heavily-armed men set off to retrieve them either dead of alive -- the Nelson-Jones boys could be quite practical. They'd flee over the line to take refuge in the Canadian section of the Big Muddy Valley. The 'Sam Kelly Caves', a feature stop on any tour of the valley, was one of their favorite hideouts. The two caves, enlarged wolf dens that housed men and horses separately, were ideal for outlaw business. They were located just inside the Canadian boundary across a small gully from Peake's Butte, a craggy height of land with a commanding view of the surrounding area that included the trails frequented by Mountie patrols. A visual signal from the lookout post atop Peake's Butte gave the bandits plenty of time to flee back into the U.S., where the Redcoats couldn't touch them. If their vigilance flagged and a patrol approached the cave while they were still in it, one outlaw could lay down cover fire while the rest escaped from an emergency tunnel that exited out of sight of the patrol. Kelley is said to have lived in the caves for several years following his decision to go straight. Around 1909, he purchased a ranch in the Big Muddy Valley and set off on a new life as a legitimate rancher. Whether it was ghosts from the past, economics, or a simple change of heart, he left the Big Muddy in 1913 to homestead near Debden, about 75 km (45 miles) northwest of Prince Albert. Kelley took with him some horses and three Montana buddies. All four men homesteaded around the shores of a small body of water that came to be known as Kelley's Lake. For the most part, it appears, Kelley was reasonably well behaved in Debden. His life there is neither well documented nor much discussed by town folk. However, the other men were likely involved in a little rustling. And one of them, Louis 'Big Lou' Morency, had a falling out with Kelley that apparently brought the two men face to face for a gunfight on a Debden street. They stared each other down and circled around, but neither drew his weapon. Kelley's death was sad, but not violent. In the spring of 1937, Kelly suffered a breakdown. Neighbours tried to nurse him along, but he became increasingly confused and ornery. Their concern turned to alarm when they found him shooting at the water barrels around his house, claiming he was being followed, and they arranged to have him committed to the Battleford Mental Hospital. The 78-year-old Kelly died there in October and was buried in a numbered grave. He found in death the anonymity he desired — and could finally stop running from his past.


John Ware

John Ware, cowboy, rancher (born circa 1845–50 in the United States; died 11 September 1905 near Brooks, AB). John Ware is legendary in the history of Alberta for his strength, skilled farming techniques and skilled horsemanship. Born enslaved, he became a successful rancher who settled his first ranch near Millarville (near Calgary, Alberta) and his second ranch near Brooks, Alberta. Despite widespread anti-Black racism and discrimination, he was widely admired as one of the best ranchers and cowboys in the West. Most historical sources on John Ware are accounts written by his friends and acquaintances long after his death. Ware himself could neither read nor write. In addition, according to author, historian and public speaker Cheryl Foggo, he did not share specific details about his early life with his five surviving children. For these reasons, historians are unable to confirm many details of his life, especially those of his youth. Ware’s exact date and place of birth have not been confirmed by historians. However, his marriage registration from 1892 lists Tennessee as his place of birth. Some sources indicate that Ware was born enslaved in the United States (see also Black Enslavement in Canada). His skill as a rancher suggests that he worked with horses while enslaved. It is likely that Ware gained his freedom at the close of the American Civil War (1865). Although details of his journey west are unknown, he eventually found his way to Texas. When John Ware became a free man, cattle ranching was spreading across the Midwestern United States. He travelled west and honed his skill as a cowboy. An experienced cowhand by the late 1870s, he worked driving herds of Texas cattle northward along the Western Cattle Trail to the distant ranges in Montana. In 1882, he was hired in Montana to help bring 3,000 head of cattle from the United States to Sir Hugh Allan’s North-West Cattle Co, which was located in the foothills southwest of Calgary, Alberta. Ware found that experienced cowboys were much in demand in this part of the North-West Territories, as it was called then. He remained in the area and worked for several large cattle companies, including Bar U Ranch, until 1884. In the mid-1880s, he started working for the new Quorn Ranch on Sheep River. The ranch soon bought a large herd of cattle and began to raise horses intended for the English market. Ware worked as a lead hand with cattle and managed Quorn’s horse herd. In the springs of 1884 and 1885, Ware joined many other cowboys in two large roundups from Fort Macleod to search the foothills from Calgary to the Montana border for cattle. Before the second roundup began, Ware registered his own cattle brand in 1885. It was known as the 9999 (four-nines) or walking-stick brand. In 1887, Ware established his own ranch on the foothills near Millarville, near the Sheep River. Later in 1898, he re-registered his brand as 999 ( three-nines). In 1891, Ware met Mildred Lewis, who had moved from Toronto, Ontario, to the outskirts of Calgary with her family. The couple married in 1892. They established their homestead at Ware’s Millarville ranch and had six children, one of whom died as a baby. In 1902, as more settlers arrived in the area, the family moved. The new ranch site was located along the Red Deer River north of Brooks, near Duchess, Alberta. The home was destroyed by the spring flood of 1902. Ware rebuilt on higher ground. The family did not occupy the new home for long. At the end of March 1905, Mildred died of pneumonia. In September 1905, Ware was killed when his horse tripped in a badger hole and fell on him. Ranchers from across the region attended his funeral in Calgary. They mourned him as one of their community’s most respected members. The Wares’ five children were taken in by Mildred’s parents, Daniel and Charlotte Lewis. They lived variously in Blairmore and Calgary. Eventually, the Ware daughters, Mildred and Janet (Nettie), lived near Vulcan, Albert. Two of the couple’s sons, Arthur Nelson Ware and William James Ware, later joined the No. 2 Construction Battalion, the only all-Black battalion in Canadian military history. The couples’ son Robert Lewis Ware and daughter Janet Amanda “Nettie” Ware ensured that their father was respectfully commemorated. People came to view John Ware as a hero for his great physical strength, horsemanship, skills as a rancher, good nature and courage. His true story is difficult to separate from the legends about him. This is because there are few records about his life or details left directly by John Ware. Most of what is known about him was written by fellow cowboys. However, those accounts did not begin to appear until the late 1930s after Ware’s death. Historians have little information from his family members. His wife died before him and he died while his children were very young.

Though stories about Ware contain exaggerations, his status as regional folk hero show how well respected he was. The traits he is said to have had are typical of frontier heroes of cowboy culture. What distinguishes him the most, however, is how successfully he established himself on his own terms in 19th-century Canadian society, where anti-Black prejudice and discrimination were common. In southern Alberta, several places near the site of John Ware’s first ranch are named after him. These include Mount Ware, Ware Creek and John Ware Ridge. There is also a memorial cairn near the location of his former Millarville ranch. Calgary is home to John Ware Junior High. At the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, the John Ware Building houses the 4 Nines Dining Centre.


Jerry Potts

When the sun-burnt, mosquito-bitten officers of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) rode into Writing-on-Stone in the fall of 1874, they were disheartened, saddle-weary, and lost. The previous winter, they had first come together as a unit in Fort Dufferin, Manitoba. That summer, after months of training, they rode out west bound for the notorious Fort Whoop-Up, determined to bring law and order to the Canadian Wild West. Unfortunately, some of the Metis guides they hired had a less than complete knowledge of the western territory’s geography. By early fall, the Mounties found themselves straddling the Boundary Commission Trail on the Canadian-American border with no idea where they were in relation to their destination, Whoop-Up Country.

The Force’s Assistant Commissioner James Macleod and a handful of officers rode south to Fort Benton, Montana, in the hopes that they might find some directions. They found better. Two of the town’s most prominent businessman hosted the Mounties. During dinner, the Montanan merchants suggested that Macleod and company hire a short, bowlegged Scots-Blackfoot frontiersman named Jerry Potts as their guide. Despite learning that the unimposing mustachioed plainsman was a man of few words who had an enormous appetite for whisky, the commodity which they hoped eliminate from the Canadian plains, the Mounties took their suggestion and hired Jerry Potts as their chief scout. They couldn’t have been happier with their decision. Jerry Potts returned with Macleod to Writing-on-Stone, took up a position at the head of the column, and led the bedraggled Mounties northwest over prairies and coulees. Said Mountie Sam Steele of the quiet, mysterious guide, “he never talked with others when he was at work. He would ride on ahead by himself, keeping his mind fixed on the mysterious business of finding the way. He was never able to give any clear explanation of his method. Some mysterious power, perhaps a heritage from his Indian ancestors, was at work.” In no time, Potts led the Mounted Policemen to Fort Whoop-Up, on the banks of the Oldman River. Shortly thereafter, he led them upriver to the location at which they would build Fort Macleod, their first permanent headquarters. In the ensuing months, Potts, who was fluent in a number of Indian languages, also served the Mounties as an interpreter and Indian ambassador. While the Policemen were building Fort Macleod, he traveled throughout the territory to speak with the local Blackfoot chiefs, on whose lands the Mounties encroached. Potts informed the chiefs that the red coats were there to suppress the whisky trade which had brought the Blackfoot people so much grief, and that they had their interests at heart. The officers who accompanied Potts on these excursions noticed how the powerful Blackfoot chiefs treated the wiry half-breed with deference and respect and took him at his word. The scout, they soon realized, was well-known and highly respected among the people of the plains. Over the years, various Mounties got the taciturn frontiersman to open up and reveal his mysterious past, which, if the manner in which the Blackfoot treated him was any judge, had evidently earned him a ferocious reputation throughout the Canadian-American plains. As it turned out, Jerry Potts was a man of two worlds. He spent half his time among his father’s people, the predominantly-white traders and ranchers of Fort Benton, Montana, working for various fur trading companies. While at the Fort, one of his favorite past-times was to fortify himself with whisky before playing a gutsy game with his co-worker and fellow half-breed George Star, in which the two of them, armed with revolvers, would stand 20 paces apart and literally trim each other’s mustaches with bullets. In the white man’s world, Jerry Potts’ primary function was that of a scout. As a result, he often found himself far from the Fort in hostile Sioux territory. One time, while on a scouting expedition with two white men, Potts and his charges were set upon by a war party of about 200 well-equipped Sioux braves. At first, the half-breed ordered his charges to flee on horseback. When he realized that some of the warriors mounted on faster horses would inevitably catch up to them, however, Potts suddenly ordered his two clients to wheel around and ride through the Sioux ranks. After passing through the horde unscathed, Potts had his clients take shelter in a nearby abandoned cabin, where he, armed with nothing more than a revolver, managed to fend off the enterprising braves who rushed their location. That night, after sneaking into the Sioux camp and stealing three of their best horses, Potts and his two charges rode back to the Fort, escaping certain death. When he was not working for the fur traders of Fort Benton, Jerry Potts lived among his mother’s people, the Blackfoot. He participated wholeheartedly in various raiding parties and war parties against the Sioux, Crow, Shoshone, Cree, and Assiniboine, and quickly established himself as a formidable warrior and horse thief. On October 25, 1870, Potts participated in the Battle of Belly River, the last great battle between the Blackfoot and Iron Confederacies and the last great inter-tribal Indian battle in the world. It was due to Potts’ leadership that the Blackfoot were able to take advantage of a Cree-Assiniboine retreat, turn the tide of the battle in their favour, and completely route their enemies. Due to his martial prowess, and the fact that he, despite his extensive combat experience, was never wounded in battle, the Blackfoot began to regard him with superstitious awe. Potts himself was imbued with the superstitious nature of a Blackfoot and, due to instructions he received in a dream, wore a catskin amulet around his neck day and night for good luck. In 1869, Jerry Potts guided John Healy, Alfred Hamilton, and a handful of American whisky traders from Fort Benton to a place on the Oldman River. There, the whisky traders built Fort Whoop-Up, the notorious whisky fort which’s calamitous traffic, in essence, became the main reason for the formation of the North West Mounted Police. Throughout the early 1870’s, Potts watched in horror as the Canadian whisky trade, which he helped establish, succeeded in all but destroying his mother’s people, the Blackfoot. In the spring of 1872, Potts’ mother and brother were killed in a whisky fueled argument. When Potts received word of the incident, he avowed to avenge their murders. About two months later, while watering horses near a Canadian whisky post called Fort Kipp, Potts spotted his mother and brother’s murderer riding out from the fort. The half-breed, furious, pursued the Indian and killed him just a short distance from his own camp. Following the death of his mother and brother, Potts sought an end to the whisky trade, and was more than happy to assist the Mounties when they rode into Fort Benton in search of a guide. After joining the Mounties, Jerry Potts performed the functions of scout and interpreter. By all accounts, he was a magnificent scout, and an abysmal interpreter. In the winter of early 1875, he led his respective Mountie charges through blizzards on two different occasions, during one of which he was rendered snow-blind. Said Sam Steele of his scouting ability,“he possessed an uncanny sense of locality and direction. Others could guide travelers through country they had visited before, but this man could take a party from place to place by the quickest route, through country altogether unknown to him, without compass and without sight of the stars.” On the other hand, during the signing of Treaty 7, during which the Blackfoot Nations made an agreement with the British Crown, Potts served as interpreter between the Blackfoot chiefs and Government of Canada representatives… that is, until called upon to translate Governor of the North-West Territory David Laird’s eloquent speech into Blackfoot. Potts, a man of limited frontier vocabulary, had no idea what the well-educated governor was saying, and said as much when called upon to interpret. As a scout and Indian ambassador, Jerry Potts proved to be an invaluable asset to the Mounties. However, his love of whisky often strained his relationship with his superiors. For example, during the early days of the suppression of the whisky trade, Potts and a few officers of the NWMP accosted a pair of bootleggers smuggling whisky across the 49th parallel. The half-breed, who was tasked with keeping an eye on the prisoners in the back of their wagon, broke into the contraband and shared it with the men he was supposed to be guarding. In the words of Constable Robert Wilson, one of the Mounties who accompanied Potts on this mission, “the two prisoners and Jerry were soon howling drunk…” The three men promptly quaffed all the evidence of their wrongdoing, much to the displeasure of Potts’ superiors once they got wind of the incident. During the North-West Rebellion of 1885- fomented by Metis revolutionary Louis Riel; in which the Metis people of the Red River and Qu’Appelle Valleys, and their Cree and Assiniboine allies fought against the Canadian government- Jerry Potts served as a peacemaker. While Metis and Cree ambassadors rode into Blackfoot reserves imploring their old enemies to take up arms with them against the Canadian government, Potts reminded his Blackfoot friends of their century-long feud against the Cree and Metis, and the good decade-long relationship they had enjoyed with the North-West Mounted Police. Due in part to Potts’ efforts, the Blackfoot refrained from joining the rebellion, thereby preventing what would likely have a huge amount of bloodshed. In the words of North-West Mounted Police physician Dr. George Allan Kennedy, “had the Blackfeet forgotten their own enmity and joined hands with the Crees, it is hardly possible to calculate the enormous loss of life and property that would have followed…” On July 14, 1896, 56-year-old Jerry Potts succumbed to throat cancer, which was likely attributable, at least in part, to his life of hard drinking. This paragon of the Canadian Wild West was buried in the North-West Mounted Police cemetery in Fort Macleod with full military honours. His obituary in the Fort Macleod Gazette reads:

“Jerry Potts is dead. Through the whole North West, in many parts of eastern Canada, and in England itself, this announcement will excite sorrow, in many cases sympathy, and in all, interest. His memory will long be green in the hearts of those who knew him best, and ‘faithful and true’ is the character he leaves behind him- the best monument of a valuable life.”

Kootenai Brown

Although perhaps best known for being Waterton Lakes’ first park ranger, Alberta’s first petroleum pioneer, and the Chief Scout of the Rocky Mountain Rangers, John George “Kootenai” Brown has a rich and colourful Canadian Wild West history. Indeed, he is one of the greatest frontiersmen of the Canadian Wild West. Kootenai Brown’s story began in Ireland in 1839, when he was born into a long line of Scottish-English military men. Having lost both his parents in the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840’s, he was raised by his paternal grandmother, who fought tooth and nail for him to attain an officer’s rank in the British Army. In those days, officers of the British Army attained their rank by purchasing it. Brown’s grandmother, being of modest means, wrote incessantly to the Commander-in-Chief of he British Army, asking that her grandson be granted a commission pro bono on account of his father and grandfather’s dutiful service to the Crown. Her persistence paid off. In 1858, Brown was granted a gratuitous commission in British Army at the height of the Sepoy Mutiny, a bloody revolt in India which left the British Army in desperate need of officers. Brown left for Calcutta on January 14, 1858 with a command of 21 private soldiers. In India, Kootenai Brown acquired an appetite for adventure which, as he soon learned, would not be satiated by British military life. After returning to Ireland in 1860, he left the Old World for the New, never to return. With his friend Arthur Wellesley Vowell- a man who would one day serve as Gold Commissioner for British Columbia’s Kootenay district- Brown traveled to Panama in the hopes of eventually reaching the Cariboo goldfields of British Columbia. He and Vowell crossed the Panama Isthmus by train and traveled up the West Coast by steamer to San Francisco. There, they worked odd labour jobs, earning enough money to buy steamer tickets to Victoria, the present-day capital of British Columbia which, according to Brown, “in 1862 had no idea of ever becoming a capital of anything.” There, Brown and Vowell worked as lumberjacks for some time in order to raise money for a prospecting venture. When they each had enough to purchase an outfit, they traveled up the Fraser River to Port Douglas, up the Lillooet Trail to Coyoosh Flat (present-day Lillooet), and up the rugged Old Cariboo Road to the Cariboo goldfields of Williams Creek. Like most of the prospectors who flocked to British Columbia’s Cariboo region to hunt for gold, Brown and Vowell were unsuccessful. After a season of fruitlessly panning the Cariboo River, the two partners split up. Vowell returned downriver to civilization. Brown decided to spend the fall and winter at the lawless Williams Lake, where he witnessed a deadly shootout between two rival prospectors. Later that winter, Brown decided to temporarily abandon the search for gold and try his hand at trapping. Together with a partner, Brown succeeded in bringing in a season profit of $3,000 (current equivalent to roughly $100,000 Canadian). He used the money to outfit himself for another year-long prospecting venture which was, like the first one, completely unsuccessful. When the season was over, Brown, totally broke and down on his luck, found work as a swamper hauling canoes over a particularly rough stretch of the Fraser River. After earning himself enough money to buy himself a hat, coat, and pair of suspenders, Brown traveled down the Fraser to New Westminster, where he found work as a Constable for the Colony of British Columbia’s Civil Service. His employers immediately dispatched him to Wild Horse Creek (near present-day Fort Steele), where a new gold rush was underway. Brown made the journey from New Westminster to his new post via the route that would one day become the Dewdney Trail. As it turned out, Wild Horse Creek was just as wild and lawless as the Cariboo. Brown’s first act as Constable was to arrest three counterfeiters, who were making purchases with their imitation gold dust. When the Colony of British Columbia, on account of budget cuts, reduced his pay, he quit the service and took up prospecting once again. Brown and his new prospecting partners, after a fruitless season panning Wild Horse Creek, sold their claim to a party of Chinese prospectors and traveled east, hoping to try their luck on the North Saskatchewan River near Fort Edmonton, where it was rumoured that another gold rush was underway. Brown and his partners had no idea where Fort Edmonton was aside from that it was somewhere to the east. Without a map or compass, the party traveled through the mountains, eventually stumbling upon the Kootenai Pass, located near the Waterton Lakes region. There, they crossed the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains over into the western Canadian prairies. Brown and his three companions traveled further east along the prairies, running into all manner of prairie animals including huge herds of buffalo and prairie wolves, prairie grizzlies, coyotes, and “hundreds of rattlesnakes.” At Seven Persons Creek, near present-day Medicine Hat, Alberta, they were set upon by a war party of 32 young Blackfoot braves, all of them armed with either bows and flint-tipped arrows or hand-to-hand weapons. The prospectors, who were armed with muzzle-loading percussion rifles, drove back the warriors, killing two of them in the process. During this skirmish, Brown received an arrow in his lower back which narrowly missed one of his kidneys. He pulled the arrow out himself, and allowed his companions to dress his open wound by emptying half a pint of turpentine into it. Following the skirmish, the party traveled down the creek to the South Saskatchewan River. There, they had a falling out. Two of the prospectors rode north to Fort Edmonton. Brown decided to follow the river, hoping that it might lead to civilization. The third companion, a man with a gold tooth who had lost his horse during the skirmish, would have to travel on foot through extremely dangerous territory. Feeling sorry for his companion, Brown killed a nearby buffalo, constructed a bull boat from its hide, and pushed him off in it so that he, too, might travel downriver. Brown quickly outstripped his waterborne companion as he rode downriver. In time, he came to the French Metis winter village of Duck Lake, just downriver of present-day Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The village’s Metis inhabitants invited Brown to stay with them for the winter. The frontiersman gratefully accepted. Shortly thereafter, one the Metis approached Brown, telling him that a newcomer named Mr. Goldtooth was looking for him. Mr. Goldtooth, as it turned out, was the man Brown had made a bull boat for. He, too, stayed the winter at Duck Lake. portage-la-prairieIn the spring, Brown and his companion rode southeast to Fort Garry, present-day Winnipeg, Manitoba. From there, they they split up. ‘Mr. Goldtooth’ traveled east towards civilization, while Brown entered into the whisky trade. At various Indian camps, he sold clothes, blankets, and whisky to the local Cree and Ojibwa in exchange for muskrat, mink, fox, coyote, and wolf pelts. On one occasion, while he was trading in his furs at a post at Portage la Prairie, Brown found himself caught in a ferocious shootout between the post’s white owners and thirty angry Ojibwa from Red Lake, Michigan. During this firefight, one Indian and one white man were killed. Following the shootout at Portage la Prairie, Brown continued to trade with the First Nations for over a year. During this time, while on a business trip to Fort Garry, he chanced upon a U.S. recruiter for the Pony Express. After hearing what the recruiter had to say, Brown decided to leave Manitoba for the American frontier. There, in North Dakota, he ran mail for the U.S. Army. In the fall of 1867, Brown was captured by a band of Sioux, who warned him that he and other white men were not welcome in the territory, before releasing him. Despite the warning, he continued to ride for the Pony Express through hostile Sioux territory. In the spring of 1868, Brown and fellow courier, a Sioux half-breed named Joe Martin, were captured by a Sioux war party led by Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa chief whose warriors would, in eight years, massacre U.S. General George Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn. The Sioux braves stripped the two couriers completely naked and debated amongst themselves on how best to torture them. While the warriors argued, Brown and Martin inconspicuously rolled down a hill into nearby Strawberry Lake, where they hid underwater. By this time, it was getting dark, and the Sioux were unable to find the two men. After hiding out in the water for several hours, the naked, barefoot couriers made their way on foot back to the safety of Fort Stevenson, from which they had come. While under the employ of the U.S. Army, Kootenai Brown’s work took him to the Red River Valley. There, he married a French-Cree girl named Olivia D’Lonais and decided to quit his position and live among the French Metis. The Irishman enjoyed many happy years living with the semi-nomadic, devoutly-religious French-Cree Metis, immersed as he was in a tight-knit community which revolved around the annual buffalo hunt and the music and dance-filled winter camp. By the mid 1870’s, the buffalo that had dominated the prairies since time immemorial were quickly disappearing. The First Nations and the Metis who depended on buffalo for sustenance began to break up into smaller bands in search of food. In 1877, Brown, his wife, and their two daughters left the Metis camp and headed west in search of better opportunity. There, in Montana, Brown made his living as a wolfer, or wolf hunter. Wolfers were a hard breed of men largely despised by white traders and Indians alike. Instead of shooting wolves with bullets or snaring them with traps and damaging their pelts in the process, wolfers typically acquired their pelts by killing a buffalo, dressing its carcass, and rubbing the raw meat with toxic strychnine. Prairie wolves would flock to the carcass and gorge themselves on the poisoned meat before collapsing. Then the wolvers would return to the carcass to harvest the pelts. In the spring of 1877, after hauling the season’s take of pelts to Fort Benton, Brown and his family camped with a Metis band a short distance from the fort on the Teton River. There, Brown was approached by a wolfer named Louis Ell, who asked him to accompany him to the fort. Brown obliged. En route, Ell insited that Brown owed him a debt. Brown denied the allegation. In the heat of the argument that ensued, Brown drew a knife and stabbed the wolfer in the gut. Ell died shortly thereafter. A Metis who had witnessed the stabbing rode to Fort Benton to report it, while Kootenai Brown rode north for the Canadian border. The Fort Benton sheriff apprehended Brown about 110 kilometres north of the fort and interred him in the jailhouse. There, the sheriff’s successor, Sheriff John Healy, a fellow Irishman and other great frontiersman of the Canadian Wild West, watched over him until his trial. During his trial, Brown pleaded that he killed Ell in self defense. The Territorial Grand Jury agreed and rendered a verdict of not guilty. Upon being set free, Brown reunited with his wife and daughters and traveled north into Canada. He and his family made their new home in the Waterton Lakes area, which was, at the time, called the Kootenay Lakes region. There, he earned the nickname by which he is known today: “Kootenai” Brown. Kootenai Brown spent the rest of his life in the area, working as a trader, fisherman, hunter, guide, and packer. In 1885, during Riel’s North-West Rebellion, Kootenai Brown served as the Chief Scout of the Rocky Mountain Rangers, a ragtag militia of ranchers, cowboys, ex-Mounties, remittance men, and old-timer frontiersmen who guarded the narrow-gauge Galt Railway bridging Medicine Hat with Lethbridge. Later, in 1889, he became Alberta’s first petroleum pioneer, using the crude oil he produced in the Waterton Lakes area as lubricant for his wagons. In his later years, Kootenai Brown was instrumental in turning his beloved Kootenay Lakes area into the Kootenay Forest Reserve, which would later become Waterton Lakes National Park. Kootenai Brown became Waterton Lakes’ first park ranger and served that function until his death in the summer of 1916.


Bar U Ranch

Nestled between the rolling Porcupine Hills and the towering Rocky Mountains, surrounded by the prairie landscape and shaped by Chinook winds, the Bar U Ranch National Historic Site is one of the first and most enduring large corporate ranches of the West. Steeped in history, the Bar U commemorates the history and importance of the ranching industry in Canada. The Bar U Ranch was one of a small group of large corporate ranches in western Canada, including the Cochrane, the Oxley, the Walrond and the Quorn. From 1882 to 1950, the Bar U was one of the foremost ranching operations in Canada. The key personalities associated with the Bar U - Fred Stimson, George Lane and Patrick Burns - were leaders in ranching. They involved the Bar U Ranch in many of the major issues which shaped the industry.

At the practical level, the Bar U was one of the best managed of the large ranches and served as a training ground for many cattlemen. From 1881 to 1902, Fred Stimson and the North West Cattle Company practised open range ranching. Infrastructure at the ranch headquarters was kept to a minimum. This era opened with a sparse arrangement of buildings confined to the central and western end of the site. Stimson gradually added buildings, corrals and fences as he adapted to changing circumstances. Under George Lane and his partners (1902-25), the Bar U achieved international repute as a centre of breeding excellence for cattle and purebred Percheron horses. The ranch was the linchpin of a business empire which included a number of ranches in the shortgrass prairie as well as, farms, meat packing factories and flour mills. Developments on the site reflected this diversification and intensification. New barns, corral and feed preparation facilities accommodated the Percherons, while new residential buildings housed more staff.

During the Burns era (1927-50), the Bar U was part of a multi-ranch cattle operation. An experienced and resilient owner, Burns piloted his ranches through the depression, cutting back operating expenditures and investing in long-term improvements. Much of the ranch's infrastructure became redundant as he scaled down the Percheron operation. Several buildings were adapted to store grain, which was grown in huge quantities during the Second World War.

The Bar U remained one of the largest ranches in the country until 1950, after which date the executors of the Burns estate sold land to other ranchers.

While most of the large ranches of the 1880s went out of business in the early 20th century, the Bar U has survived to the present day. This long history, populated along the way by colourful characters like former slave John Ware and the outlaw The Sundance Kid, and the structures from the late 19th and early 20th centuries provide a direct link with the early years of ranching in Alberta. Together they make the Bar U unique among historic ranches and provide an excellent opportunity to commemorate the ranching industry.

In 1891, a 25-year-old Harry Longabaugh was a horse breaker at the Bar U Ranch in southern Alberta. At 160,000 acres it was one of the largest commercial ranches of the time. Longabaugh is better known today as ‘ The Sundance Kid ’ and known for the company he kept: he became a member of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. Edward, Prince of Wales visited the Bar U in 1919 and was so taken with it that he bought a neighboring ranch, which he named the EP.



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Linda Wilson
Linda Wilson
Mar 25, 2022

I really liked learning all about Canadian Wild west instead of American. You did a good job with this. I would like to go see the Bar U Ranch, it would be a step back in history for sure.😍

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