18 September 2005

Along the Whoop-Up Trail: Fort Benton and Western Canada's Shared Past

By Ken Robison, Historian
Overholser Historical Research Center

[Published in the Fort Benton River Press 31 Aug 2005]

While problems with Canada over cattle and war on terrorism policies may cloud our view of our neighbors to the North, we have strong historic bonds that should not be forgotten. Fort Benton’s River and Plains Society has recently had two useful reminders of just how close our shared regional history really is.

On Thursday, August 18, our Overholser Historical Research Center (OHRC) hosted three different Canadian researchers working on historical projects that connect Fort Benton and western Canada. Dr. Sarah Carter, professor at the University of Calgary, spent the day digging into our homesteading files. She is using our records, diaries, archives, and photography as part of a two-year project to study women homesteaders in the northern plains. Dr. Carter is fascinated by the large number of female homesteaders in early Chouteau County and the wealth of information we have on their experiences.

That same Thursday, Walter Hildebrandt, also from Calgary, spend the morning at the OHRC reviewing the photographs that we have relating to the Cypress Hills Massacre. He is in the process of expanding the photography in a new edition of his book The Cypress Hills The Land and Its People. Mr. Hildebrandt selected seven of our photos and expects to use at least two of them in the new edition.

The third Canadian researcher team to visit that day, were Doug and Jo Anne Goyette from Olds, Alberta, who were researching a grandfather, Ed Goyette, who lived in Fort Benton from 1900 to 1910 and operated the Board of Trade Saloon.

A second recent reminder of the great impact Fort Benton had on the development of western Canada is illustrated by a trip the River & Plains Society from Fort Benton took to the Lethbridge area August 25-26 to participate in the official opening of historic North West Mounted Police (NWMP) Barracks at Fort Macleod and in a visit and tour of Fort Whoop-Up at Lethbridge.

When the Hudson’s Bay Company turned control of the Canadian North-West over to the new Canadian government in 1869, “free traders” from Fort Benton moved into the void to dominate the trade in buffalo robes and furs with the Blackfoot. With steamboats bringing supplies and trade goods to the Upper Missouri, Fort Benton served as the supply point, and trading posts were set up throughout the area of what is now southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. While both the Hudson Bay and the American Fur Company traded whiskey for robes in the past, the absence of law and order along the border brought a significant increase in the “whiskey trade.”

The most infamous of the trading posts was built in 1869 along the Belly River (now Oldman River at modern Lethbridge). It became known as Fort Whoop-Up, Fort Benton traders, John J. Healy and A. B. Hamilton, ran the post in the 1870s. Today, the whiskey post at Fort Whoop-Up has been reconstructed in the vicinity. The fifteen members of the visiting Fort Benton group were hosted at a breakfast and given a special tour by Fort Whoop-Up director Doran Degenstein and historian Gord Tolton.

Photo Caption: “The trail leading from Fort Benton to the Fort Whoop-Up in the lawless period of the early 1870’s became known as the Whoop-Up Trail. (Courtesy of Fort Whoop-Up)”

Photo Caption: “John G. Lepley and Bob Doerk of the River & Plains Society stand by an original 1832 cannon taken by Johnny Healy from Fort Benton to Fort Whoop-Up in 1869. (Photo by Ken Robison)”

In 1873 Canadian authorities acted to curb the lawlessness by creating the North West Mounted Police (known today as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police). The following year the first contingent of North West Mounted Police (NWMP) moved westward to establish law and order and to shut down Fort Whoop-Up and the other whiskey posts north of the border. For the next decade, until the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1884, the NWMP used Missouri River steamboats to Fort Benton and then overland bull trains to move men and supplies up the Whoop-Up Trail into western Canada.

In 1884 a large barracks complex was built at Fort Macleod, used until the 1930s, and then dismantled. Two years ago, a preservation group, the Riders of the Plains, began to reconstruct the huge complex that will eventually have some 50 buildings. On August 25, 2005, the official opening of the NWMP Barracks (reconstructed) was held at Fort Macleod with dignitaries from Ottawa and Calgary. Sharalee Smith of Fort Benton, representing the Old Forts Trail Association, announced the addition of Forts Whoop-Up and Macleod to the Old Forts Trail. The Fort Benton delegation were guests at the dedication ceremonies and a dinner followed by a performance of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Musical Ride led by Commissioner Guiliano Zaccardelli. The performance of the Musical Ride was magnificent.

Photo Caption: The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Musical Ride performing at Fort Macleod August 25, 2005. [Photo by Ken Robison]

In the 136 years since Fort Whoop-Up and the other trading posts triggered the formation of the North West Mounted Police, Fort Benton and western Canada have shared a strong historic bond. That bond is today alive and well for both sides of the border to enjoy.