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Ed Barnett: from mountie to rancher.

Opening of the Canadian West for settlement and development was started by hardy pioneers who saw a chance for adventure and a new life in a remote and largely unknown wilderness far from the comforts and safety of their homes. My grandfather, Edward Barnett, was one such pioneer who migrated west in 1877 as a young man of nineteen years; he spent the next six decades in south-central Alberta as an adventurer, policeman, rancher, farmer and pioneer who helped to open the El Dorado we know today as Alberta. (1)

Edward Barnett was born in Almonte, Ontario, in 1858. His father was a sash and door manufacturer, so as a young man Ed obtained a good training in basic carpentry. While still at home, he heard of the Red River Rebellion, the Cypress Hills Massacre, Fort Whoop-Up, and formation of the NorthWest Mounted Police (NWMP). Such stories aroused within him a keen desire to see the "Wild West" first hand. He left his home and family and headed west in 1877. At this time the most feasible route into western Canada was through the United States by boat, wagon trains, and horseback.

In his own words, my grandfather recalled,
 Everywhere on the six month trip from
 Almonte to Winnipeg I encountered first
 hand many last desperate attempts being
 made by the Indians to drive the white man
 from the plains. In 1877 Winnipeg was a
 one-street town that led to the Hudson Bay
 fort. There were no sidewalks and after a
 rain it was a common sight to see carts
 stuck on the main street. Traders were
 getting ready to go out and barter with the
 Indians for furs, the chief source of money
 supply. The Hudson Bay post was a good
 sized village inside four walls with a great
 arched gate and corner bastions with small
 canons mounted along the four walls.
 Dingy cells within the walls were used to
 lock up prisoners. There was much
 speculation going on in Winnipeg. People
 were buying up land hoping they could
 make a fortune if they could guess where
 the new Canadian Pacific Railway would
 cross the Red River.

 But Winnipeg was not my goal. I wanted
 to go much farther west across the vast
 prairie land where the buffalo roamed free,
 the many Indian tribes held full sway, and
 a small force of NWMP was fighting to
 establish law and order. I struck up an
 acquaintance with three NWMP who had
 brought a prisoner from Fort Walsh to the
 Stony Mountain Penitentiary in Winnipeg.
 He was charged with stealing horses and
 shooting up the police. With their prisoner
 safely in jail they were ready for the return
 journey to Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills.
 As there was an acute shortage of young
 men in the West, I had no difficulty in
 joining their caravan. (2)

The trek across the western plains in the summer of 1877 to the Mounted Police post at Fort Walsh in south-western Saskatchewan took six weeks. By now this section of the international boundary had been surveyed along the 49th parallel (3) and the Mounted Police had made their famous trek from Dufferin, Manitoba, to Fort Macleod. Barnett and the three Mounties followed this same 850-mile trail with a wagon and six horses.

Many interesting events occurred on the trek to Fort Walsh. Ed met Canadian Indians for the first time near the Hudson's Bay post at Qu' Appelle, and a few days west of there he saw his first Indian buffalo hunt on the western plains. The weather became hot and dry and as they travelled, the long prairie grass was turning brown for lack of moisture and sloughs were few and far between. A raging prairie fire, fanned by strong winds, threatened the small caravan; herds of deer, antelope, and wolves raced past to escape the smoke and fire. After the fire passed, Barnett and his companions carried on through the desolate burned-out wilderness.

When the Cypress Hills were reached, flesh water streams and an abundance of saskatoons and raspberries, partridges and ducks provided a welcome change from their constant diet of buffalo and antelope. The rolling hills made each day's travel Interesting--the small party was always looking forward to what lay over the next hill. Finally Fort Walsh came into view-a palisade of logs enclosed the fort nestled between the hills--a most welcome sight after the long, tiresome trek from Winnipeg.

At that time, B, E, and F Troops were stationed at the fort. Ed enlisted on August 17, 1878, was assigned to E Troop, and spent the next three years at Fort Walsh. He was now Constable Edward Barnett, Regimental Number 165, E Division. During this period he gained valuable experience in dealing with Indians and law breakers on the plains of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Major Sam Steele was a drill instructor who trained the new inexperienced recruits in the art of horsemanship. Drill marching, target practice, and guard duty were carried out in the first few weeks, followed by posting diaries and charging those caught violating the law. Ed's diary describes learning to ride horseback for long distances in all kinds of weather, and finding his way through an unfamiliar wilderness. He was often chilled to the bone by rain or snow, plagued by mosquitoes and flies, and soaked when fording rivers. Part of his duties included putting up log buildings and corrals, hay for the livestock, and digging water wells. My grandfather's diary continues:
 Conduct of the NWMP was strictly
 impressed on the new recruits. A main
 responsibility was to deal fairly with the
 native Indians while enforcing the law of
 the land, a task that required patience and
 restraint at times and an understanding of
 the Indian's culture and his nature. Main
 problems for the NWMP were Indian
 unrest over rapid disappearance of the
 buffalo, their main source of food and
 clothing, and bringing to justice the
 whiskey smugglers and horse thieves.

Ed had the exciting experience of coming into contact with the American Sioux Indians who had fled to Canada following defeat of General George Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876. The first of the refugee Sioux set up camp near the Mounted Police outpost at Wood Mountain, 115 miles south-west of Regina. This was in December 1876. Sitting Bull, their chief, arrived with 135 lodges the following March? Shortly after, some 5,000 more Sioux arrived in the area, causing an international crisis which threatened the policy of opening up the West through railway construction and immigration. The government was therefore anxious to get rid of the Sioux but there were only a small detachment of RCMP assigned to patrol the Wood Mountain area.

By February 1880, most of the Sioux, beset by starvation and hassle by government agencies, accepted the terms of the two countries and returned to the United States. Sitting Bull and a few followers were reluctant to go south, but being reduced to absolute destitution by mid-1881, they finally agreed to the American terms of surrender. My grandfather was a member of the Mounted Police escort that handed Sitting Bull and his 187 followers over to the American soldiers on July 21, 1881.

Ed continued with the Police until later in 1881. Several interesting events were mentioned in his diary during this time. He recorded the murder of the first Mounted Policeman--Constable Marmaduke Graburn--in November 1879. Ed knew Jerry Potts, the famous guide and interpreter, and had encounters with Big Bear, chief of a large band of Cree Indians who camped near Fort Walsh before moving north. When E Troop was later transferred to Fort Macleod, Barnett experienced a ten-day trip with wagons and supplies from Fort Walsh. He thus left Fort Walsh for the last time, never to see that part of the country again. At Fort Macleod, he served under Colonel J. E Macleod until his discharge on August 17, 1881. This completed his three-year term of service with the NWME The ex-Mountie decided to stay in southern Alberta for the first winter and then headed north to Calgary. He was twenty-three years old.

Having left the strictly regimented life of the Police, my grandfather started his search for a new life. For a while he helped to put up ranch buildings and corrals for the first ranch to be built by Jonas Jones on the Old Man River between the Porcupine Hills and the Rocky Mountains. The following summer Colonel Macleod suggested that Ed look at the country between Calgary and Edmonton which had good potential for ranching and farming. He therefore set out for Calgary on horseback, finding only a few settlers near High River on the way. Calgary in the early 1880s consisted of only a store, a sawmill, police barracks, a few mud-roofed shacks, and a mission building near the unction of the Bow and Elbow rivers. Ed talked to some people who had come down from Edmonton with very favourable reports about the Red Deer district. The country at this time was little known and had very few settlers so he decided to head further north to see this distant, isolated territory.

He followed what was then known as the Calgary-Edmonton Trail. (5) It followed the approximate route of present-day Queen Elizabeth Highway between the two cities. Ed started out in February 1882, with a fourhorse team and a sleigh loaded with provisions. The snow was three feet deep with a thick crust that often would not hold up under the weight of the sleigh and the horses. As far as possible, he followed the trail which wound north along Nose Creek About fourteen miles north of Calgary, near Three Buttes, a raging blizzard forced him to stop for the night. By the morning the temperature had dropped to 40 degrees below zero. Unable to find his way because of poor visibility and drifting snow, my grandfather had to stay a second night out on the desolate plains. The next day he stumbled across Nose Creek and followed it back to Fort Calgary.

After that close encounter, Ed decided not to make another attempt until the following winter. In February 1883 he travelled north in a buckboard with four horses as far as the Red Deer River. The only source of supplies was by a wagon train running every week or so between Calgary and Edmonton. Ed came across a couple of drifters and the three of them built a log cabin by the Red Deer River where they remained over the winter of 1883-84. They survived the winter on a diet of rabbit and flour until spring brought a welcome addition of ducks and geese from the south.

Barnett was still looking for a good place to start ranching and farming. He therefore moved farther north in the summer of 1884, across the Blindman River to the area where Lacombe stands today. A year earlier, the federal Department of the Interior had deployed Dominion Land Surveyors (DLS) throughout the western interior of Canada. in the Lacombe area, Charles A. Magrath, DLS, who later conducted strategic irrigation and settlement surveys in southern Alberta, had surveyed the 11th base line from the 4th to the 5th Meridians in 1883. This main base line crosses Buffalo and Gull lakes and passes just north of present-day Lacombe. This was used as a controlling line for township surveys in the Lacombe area, starting with M. G. Charbonneau, DLS, in 1884.

For his three years of service in the Mounted Police, Ed was given scrip for a free grant of land of his choice in the West, not to exceed 160 acres. He picked a location in the vicinity of present-day Lacombe and settled here as a squatter on Crown land until the section boundaries were surveyed. His chosen location was near the Calgary-Edmonton Trail about three-quarters of a mile north of present-day downtown Lacombe. This location was ideal for establishing a farm and ranching operation as it was a favourable building site with plenty of good soil and water. When the surrounding township was surveyed in 1884, Ed's land grant became the north-east quarter of section 30, township 40, range 26, west of the 4th Meridian.

He built a good sized house on this location; it was made of logs with a stone fireplace, which was later supplemented by an iron stove for cooking brought in by wagon from Calgary. Food consisted mostly of rabbits and the occasional deer for meat, and vegetables from a small garden. Hay was cut by hand with a scythe to provide feed for his few horses and for travellers along the trail. Ed's house and small ranch soon became a popular stopping place along the Calgary-Edmonton Trail. Known in the early years as "Barnett's Rest," it was one of the first such stopover places on the trail. In all, about eight stopping houses were built along the 194-mile trail between Calgary and Edmonton over the next few years. The stagecoach trip between the two centres took five days if all went well. Freight wagons took considerably longer--up to fourteen days depending on weather conditions.

Several events of interest took place along the Calgary-Edmonton Trail in the early years. In 1886, Ed became involved with two escaped prisoners named Gallagher and "Crackerbox" Jones. They had been charged with stealing a horse near Edmonton and the police were hot on their trail. In an attempt to reach the United States, they hid in a wagon load of hay going south from Edmonton, but the police found them. They were taking them to Calgary for trial when they stopped overnight at Ed's Stopping Place. Here, the bandits caught the police off guard, handcuffed them together, and threw the keys down the well. They then headed south to freedom in the United States. It took Ed a long time to file the handcuffs off the policemen, who then charged Ed as being an accomplice in order to hide their own incompetence. Ed was taken to Calgary to stand trial, but, as he recalled, "as nothing could be proven that I was in any way responsible for the escape, I was released to find my way back to Lacombe at my own expense."

When the North West Rebellion broke out in the spring of 1885, people fled to Calgary and Ed was the only white man left at his stopping house. Stores at Red Deer were closed and those at Battle River belonging to Hudson's Bay Company were abandoned. Only a few priests and Ed Barnett remained in the area. As Ed stated in his diary, "The priests relied on God for their safety. I relied on a good horse, a rifle, and my knowledge of Indians learned as a policeman."

Ed's diary describes other incidents related to the Riel Rebellion. He served as a dispatch rider for the Mounted Police, operating out of his ranch during this time. On one occasion at his stopping house he was approached by twenty Indians all decked out in their war paint, demanding food. Having anticipated this, Ed had put four of his horses inside his house, fearful that the Indians would try to seize them. He then gave the Indians some tea and tobacco and told them there were more men in his house who could protect his possessions. Hearing the ruckus caused by the horses in the house, the Indians believed Ed and left, but not without firing a couple of shots at the house. No damage was done and there was no need to return the fire. A blizzard blew in that night and cooled the ardour of any other Indians who might want to raid him.

The rebellion came to an end with the surrender of Louis Riel. The Metis ceased hostilities and the Indians settled down once more on their reserves.

During the next few years, Ed helped incoming settlers wherever possible, advising them on camping spots and locations of land they were searching for by quarter-section. He also donated some of his land for a church and a school. He homesteaded at his stopping house location for twelve years, 1884 to 1896. Meanwhile, several sidings were established along the Calgary-Edmonton Railway during construction in 1890-91. Each siding was initially a spur track and a box car numbered in consecutive order north from Calgary. Railway officials decided the area near Ed had some promise, so a spur track and box car were located there, becoming Siding 12. Soon after it was re-named Barnett Siding by local residents,

a fitting tribute to the man who pioneered the area. The box car became the third building of the little hamlet; the other two were an unfinished log building started as a store, and another log cabin. Ed's homestead and stopping house were about a mile north of there.

In 1892, the settlement was named Lacombe, in honour of the famous Roman Catholic missionary, and boasted a population of twenty-five a year later. In anticipation of a new townsite being developed there, Ed and two men from Winnipeg, A. Nanton and J. Munson, bought the south-east quarter of section 30-40-26W4 on January 18, 1894. The trio then hired Jacob Doupe, DLS, to subdivide part of this quarter-section into eighty lots, plus blocks and streets to provide for a new townsite. The main east-west avenue in this new town was named Barnett Avenue (today it is known as 50th Avenue). The town plan, referred to as Plan 1, was registered in the Land Titles Office in Edmonton on September 19, 1895. In 1900, as the town grew, the trio hired A.P Patrick, DLS, to subdivide more lots in the south-east quarter of section 30.

Ed met Elva Green at Lacombe in 1894. Born in Nova Scotia on July 13, 1873, she had attended Normal School and became a teacher. She came to the Lacombe district in 1891 with her parents, who took out a homestead about three and one-half miles north-east of the town. Elva was the first teacher at Milton School, built on the southeast quarter of section sixteen. This first school was built of logs and heated by a box stove fuelled with wood. The children either rode horses or walked to school. She later became the second teacher and first woman teacher at the Lacombe school, which was established in 1892. A cairn on Highway 12, on the east side of present-day Lacombe, honours Elva as one of the first teachers in the tiny settlement. She was a thrifty, hardworking woman who was regarded as a strict and excellent teacher.

While teaching at Milton School in 1894, Elva met Ed Barnett and they were married at her parents' farm in December of that year. For their honeymoon the couple rode on horseback to the small settlement of Lamerton, about twenty-five miles east of Lacombe. Ed was interested in this Buffalo Lake country as a possible rangeland for his growing herd of about ninety cattle at Lacombe.

Ed and Elva's first child, a daughter, was born at Lacombe in 1895. The following year they moved to Lamerton, taking a small herd of cattle with them. Ed slowly built up his herd with ample grazing land available in the Buffalo Lake hills. Nearby Spotted Creek provided plenty of jackfish to supplement their food supply. Their first son, Bill, my father, was born here in 1897. Settlers were few and far between and as few fences had been built, cattle rustling became a thriving business in the country. Ed branded his cattle and horses with his unique brand, an upside-down wine glass, to protect his livestock.

In 1898, Ed moved his family, livestock, and possessions farther east to an area south of Botha, near Sullivan Lake. However, dry summers and severe winters resulted in a large loss of cattle; as well, the remote area made it difficult to bring in food and supplies. At the turn of the century, there was a need for the family to be closer to a town for the education of their two children, for access to supplies, and for medical help when they needed it. Ed moved his family back to Lacombe where he built a large house for them. He then found a suitable homestead in the Buffalo Lake area, about eight miles north-west of Stettler (SE1/4-540-20-W 4) in what would later become known as the Liberal District. On this homestead he built a large two-storey house "of many windows and a wide veranda." Once it was ready, Elva and her children moved there and three more children were born there in 1899, 1902, and 1905.

Ed built the Buffalo Lake homestead into a thriving farm and ranch operation. Land was cleared of trees, crops planted, cattle, horses and sheep were raised. Coal for stoves was hauled from mines several miles to the east. This was the era of change to gasoline-powered tractors from horse-drawn machinery, which greatly improved the efficiency and scale of farming and ranching.

Ed bought his first car, a 1912 McLaughlin, in Calgary for about $1,200. Most roads were mere trails of earth and clay without a gravel surface and little ditching to provide drainage. A trip to Stettler in wet weather was usually a nerve-wracking ordeal, with deep ruts in the road and large mud holes where the car could get stuck, even with chains on the rear tires.

Locally, Ed and Elva were active in the Liberal community. Elva also contributed to work in the United Church at Lacombe and at Liberal. She played the church organ at services for many years, and was a member of the Eastern Star, the Rebecca Lodge, and took part in the United Farm Women of Alberta. Many community meetings and other gatherings were held at their farm.

Ed was a member of the Masonic Lodge and the Edmonton Old Timers' Association. The four decades on the farm in the Liberal District slipped by quickly. In later years Ed often passed the time doing woodwork with his fret saw, constructing various wooden pipes for smoking and at one time he built a large model ship in great detail. Often there was sawdust and wood on the kitchen floor. Ed Barnett died in August 1939 at age eighty-one and is buried in the little church yard at the Liberal cemetery about half a mile south of his homestead. From Ontario across the West to Saskatchewan and southern Alberta and eventually to eastcentral Alberta, my grandfather came to rest in a land he had proudly contributed to in its growth and development. Grandmother Elva died in 1963 at age ninety. She is buried in the Liberal cemetery beside her husband.


(1) A major portion of this story is taken from the writings of Ed Barnett in the Edward Barnett collection at the Glenbow Archives, Calgary. Other information was offered by his surviving children who recalled stories of the earlier days told by their parents. Their own recollections of their childhood also provided valuable information on Ed's life

(2) Unless otherwise stated, all such quotations are from my grandfather's's diary in the Glenbow Archives

(3) Reports Upon the Survey of the Boundary Between the Territory of the United States and the Possessions of Great Britain, from the Lake of the Woods to the Summit of the Rocky Mountains. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1878.

(4) North-West Mounted Police: Early History of the RCMP Lethbridge: Lethbridge Division, RCMP Veterans Association, p. 28.

(5) Mark Anderako, Historic Trails Alberta. Edmonton: Lone Pine Publishing, 1985, p62. ISBN 0-919433-38-3.

Doug Barnett, grandson of Ed Barnett, is an honorary life member of the Alberta Land Surveyors' Association and a retired Saskatchewan and Canada Lands Surveyor. He is a graduate of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Calgary, and of the University of Alberta. He taught and administered the Surveying (Geomatics) Engineering Technology Program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, Edmonton, for thirty-one years prior to his retirement in 1995.
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Author:Barnett, Doug
Publication:Alberta History
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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