These Hills Talk - A Journey to the Cypress Hills Massacre Site
Tucked away in a remote valley in the Cypress Hills area of Saskatchewan, is the location of a horrendous crime that has become forgotten to time. On June 1st, 1873, American and Canadian wolfers, bison hunters and whiskey traders, spurred on by rumours and ideas manifested by a night of drinking, visited a tribe of Assiniboine people to confront them over stolen horses that they believed the tribe had taken.
No one knows the exact details of what happened that day but the result was over 20 First Nation's people lives were taken. The exact numbers are lost to history. Only one of the wolfers was killed in the melee, a french Canadian man.
This day would become to be known as the Cypress Hills Massacre a pivotal moment in the formation of the west as we know it today.
Just prior to the Cypress Hills Massacre the North West Mounted Police had been created by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. Once news reached Ottawa of the slaughter, he ordered men to march west to investigate the killings and bring a Canadian presence to the land. Back then the 49th parallel wasn't the definitive line in the sand like it is today.
Inspector James Morrow Walsh and his 30 men were given orders to set up a fort to protect the area from further bloodshed and establish the rule of law. Two years after the Cypress Hills Massacre the aptly named Fort Walsh was established. From 1875 to 1883 this would be the headquarters of the newly formed North West Mounted Police and would serve as a beacon for law and order.
Fort Walsh, 1878
In 1875, Assistant-Commissioner James Macleod, James Walsh's superior, was given permission to enter Helena, Montana by the United States government. His job was to investigate the crimes committed and to extradite the people responsible back to Canada to face punishment. Only seven men were arrested and two escaped custody. In the end all were acquitted because of conflicting testimony. No one ever was punished for the massacre that occurred that day.
Artist rendering of trial
Some of the Assiniboine people who fled from Cypress Hills eventually settled in the Carry the Kettle Nakoda First Nation after signing Treaty 4 at Fort Walsh. They were forced from their traditional home lands and were settled 100km east of Regina.
This formative event that occurred in Saskatchewan has been unfortunately mostly forgotten. Often when I speak to people about the Cypress Hills Massacre, I get a reaction of confusion and bewilderment that such an event took place in Saskatchewan.
I am originally from the Qu'Appelle area and went to high school in Indian Head, it was here that I grew up with people from the Carry the Kettle Nakoda First Nation and even then I didn't learn about their ancestors and their story until recently.
Growing up where I did, I feel a connection to all these people who lived here before me. My hometown was the launching place of General Middleton's men in the much more famous Louis Riel Rebellion. As well my mom's family farm is not far from Wood Mountain where Sitting Bull and his men took refuge after the Battle of Little Bighorn and the destruction of General Custer's troops. I grew up reading these stories and thinking about how so much changed in such a little time. I am only here because of the decisions made by men who were all trying to do what they believe was best for their people. We still live with the results from their decisions today.
An officer's desk at Fort Walsh Historic Site
This is why I have been planning for years to visit the site of the Cypress Hills Massacre, I wanted to immerse myself in the hills, valleys and creeks of the area and listen to the forgotten voices of a previous generation.
I was given the opportunity recently when Tourism Saskatchewan invited me to visit Cypress Hills with a bunch of other explorers and photographers. I had a tremendous weekend of making new friends and seeing the sites. However, I remained fixated on visiting the site of the Cypress Hills Massacre.
My vehicle came to a stop and I gazed out over the lonely view before me. The rain slowly ran down my windshield, each drop created its own unique track that in turn increasingly blurred my view. I had arrived at the Fort Walsh Historic Site. The original fort was disassembled when the NWMP abandon it in 1883, but it has since been rebuilt to showcase to visitors the history of the area. I was the only vehicle in the parking lot as it was a Sunday and they were closed. Coupled with the weather that most would describe as miserable, I would have the hills to myself.
The clouds were thick and dark, spewing rain from them. My breath fogged from my now Rudolph-coloured nose and the wind snapped past my ears as I began organizing my gear for the short hike ahead of me. This was the kind of day you don't go outside for.
Overlooking Fort Walsh
To get to the Cypress Hills Massacre site it is a short 5km hike that takes you through a quiet valley, home to the meandering silky waters of Battle Creek. As I buckled my strap on my backpack and let a frigid shiver reverberate down my spine, I started my journey that I longed dreamed about completing.
I walked pass the foreboding walls of the reconstructed Fort Walsh. There was something unnerving about the timber walls that I knew were empty inside. I felt as if I were an unwelcome visitor to the stories that whisper from the whitewashed buildings.
This uneasy feeling was compounded by a sign reminding me of the many cougars that live in the area. Cypress Hills is home to the most dense cougar population in North America with one predator living in every 6 square kilometers. I couldn't help but feel like I was being watched. I checked my pocket to make sure my small knife was still there. The weight of it gave me very little comfort, I knew I have little chance of using it in an attack. Cougar's are an ambush predator. I wouldn't know I was someone's dinner until it was too late.
Not a face you want to see when you're alone.
I tried to shrug off my rising sense of mortality and began my first steps on the trail. The rain was playing games with me as each cloud would bring its own definition of a rain storm. It seemed that every 5 minutes I was either putting my hood up or down.
The hiking trail to the Cypress Hills Massacre site is as easy as any other front country trail, with many markers and a well worn path to follow. The trail began in a thick forest where I could hear birds fluttering away in the bush as I made my approach. Many seemed quite upset that I was interrupting their quiet Sunday afternoon.
Eventually, the trail opened up to a massive valley. I was a speck in a sea of prairie. The clouds were still hanging heavily above me and were slowly scraping their bellies against the hilltops. In all my travels I have never felt more alone.
I busied myself taking pictures of what I saw and what inspired me until I was snapped out of my viewfinder by the sound of a disgruntled snort. I had stumbled upon a herd of mares who were curiously looking at me. I grew up around horses so I wasn't nervous about them. I knew some just wanted to see if I was packing some oats while others would just be happy if I moved along.
You got any food?
A few of the braver ones cautiously made their way towards me. I gently spoke to them using my distinctly higher pitched "horse whisperer" voice. "Hey girl." I cooed as I rubbed a nose that was now aggressively looking for a scratch. The irony of the moment was not lost on me. Even though times have changed, the people have left and the stories grow old - the horses are still here.
The herd soon left me when they realized I had nothing of value for them and I continued my short pilgrimage alone. In the distance I could see some old empty buildings. They only helped remind me of my isolation.
Humanity in the distance
I took some time to explore the buildings, they felt like a violation to the natural world they so rudely interrupted. They stood defiantly above the surrounding shrubs and grasses. Their straight lines an affront to the randomness of nature that they opposed.
A short distance from here I came across a bridge that spans Battle Creek - an important water source to the many people who've called this place home. Sitting perched on the railing was a bird calmly waiting my arrival. When I approached it showed little fear and only flew away once I came within striking distance. I am not a spiritual person, I believe that life is random and no one controls my destiny or that of others, but this bird seemed to beckon me forward as it jumped from tree branch to tree branch. I had reached the location of the Cypress Hills Massacre.
Battle Creek from the bridge
I don't know what I was expecting. The Cypress Hills Massacre site, much like its stories, seems forgotten. A rock with a plaque commemorating the event sat in a lonely gravel parking lot, with an outhouse and another small building sitting in disrepair. The unnatural sound of the gravel crunching under my feet felt wrong. Here I was alone, in the place I longed to visit and I was greeted with the tracks of modern man. I don't know why I was so surprised.
Hungry and feeling a bit disappointed I decided I would have a bite to eat before I moved on. The hike back was along the same gravel road I was so disgusted with. My enthusiasm for hiking had greatly diminished.
There were no picnic benches or anything to sit on, so I decided I would use the white rock that holds the plaque as a backrest. I let my body flop down into the wet dirt and got comfortable as I ate my meal of granola bars and an apple from my tree in my backyard. I munched away and gazed out on the hills that had now fully enveloped me. I was fully immersed and and let out a sigh of intense relaxation.
The silence attacked me. There were no sounds of cars, planes or people. It was just me, the birds, and the wishing sound of the trees and shrubs fighting against the wind. I closed my eyes to remove the visual assault of the gravel road and let my ears do the discovering.
What can you hear?
My imagination began to work in overtime. I could hear the shouts of men, the screams of women and children, the thundering booms of rifles. It was all happening again. June 1st, 1873, a day of blood. After a few moments I opened my eyes again and woke up in reality. The sounds of terror was gone and the silenced blanketed itself over me again. This is why I came here.
Knowing that I couldn't stay there forever I packed up my things and continued my hike home. I had gotten what I wanted from my journey. I tightened up my backpack straps as I looked up the steep embankment and the gravel road that scarred it. This was my way home.
My lungs gasped for breath while I overlooked the Cypress Hills Massacre site one last time from the top of the valley. It was most likely from this place that the American and Canadians began their attack. It was the perfect position, it allowed anyone to look down into a camp and fire from relative safety. I imagined the Assiniboine camp full of people who had no idea what the day would bring. Taking one last look at the site, I continued on.
Looking over the Cypress Hills Massacre Site
My wandering mind was interrupted by the sounds of horses in the distance. There was a second herd of mares that had become aware of my presence. They too cautiously made their way to me, however their call had peeked the interest of the first herd I had met.
A loud response was given by the mare who was in charge of the first herd, challenging them to dare enter their territory. The leader of this new herd quickly responded and the tensions rose. I was now a bystander in a fight that did not concern me.
Sizing up the enemy
The new herd approached the hill side and took a moment to survey their opponent. In a sudden flurry of activity the leading mare began galloping down the hill. The others followed suit. Realizing the aggression, the mare from the first herd made their charge as well.
Hoofs thundered, lungs barked warnings and weapons were shown as legs and heads flipped and kicked their way down the steep embankment. This needed to be settled.
It is 143 years since the Cypress Hills Massacre. the combatants may have changed but the fighting still continues.
The Cypress Hills Showdown
Have you visited Fort Walsh or the Cypress Hills Massacre site? What was your experience like? Share it in the comments.