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The story of Fort Whoop-Up is often interpreted as the earliest incursion of Americans into what is now Alberta. They were whiskey traders who contributed to the demise of the buffalo and to the suffering of the Blackfoot people. But Fort Whoop-Up was part of a larger, more complex history.

In 1860s, there had been several gold rushes in British Columbia, including the Cariboo gold rush of 1862, the Wild Horse River of 1863, the Big Bend of 1864, and Perry Creek of 1867. American miners from Montana crossed the boundary into present-day Alberta as early as 1864, searching the Rocky Mountain foothills for gold.

The Hudson's Bay Company sold Rupert's Land to the Canadian government to form the North-West Territories in 1869, creating a vast area without British law and order. It was into this milieu--of the Blackfoot people, prospectors, fur traders, and missionaries --that whiskey traders entered the scene.

John J. Healy, whose name is inseparable from Fort Whoop-Up, was thirty years old in 1869 when he followed American prospectors heading across boundary. Several years later, in an interview he stated, "Like all the traders and trappers in the Northwest states, I listened to the tales of gold brought down by the Indians from the Dominion, and they enticed my ears." (1)

By 1867 Healy had established a farm, trading post, and ferry crossing at Sun River, Montana Territory, near Fort Shaw. In 1869, with a partner, 31-year-old Alfred B. Hamilton, Healy formed the "Saskatchewan Mining, Prospecting & Trading Outfit," and put into effect a plan to usurp the Hudson's Bay Company's trade with the Blackfoot north of the border. Unlike Montana, where the army enforced laws against trading liquor to the Indians, there was an absence of Canadian law in place in the North-West Territories.

Despite the name of his company, it was not gold that ultimately attracted Healy to venture north. Healy and Hamilton's intention was to trade whiskey for buffalo robes from the Blackfoot with financial backing from Isaac G. Baker, Hamilton's uncle, and Thomas C. Power of Fort Benton. However, Indian Agent Lieutenant Pease seized Hamilton and Healy's wagons as they headed north in November 1869 because they were not licensed traders. (2) In early December, they obtained the government approval they needed. A permit signed by General Alfred Sully, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Montana, stated:
Messrs. A.B. Hamilton and J.J. Healy of Montana Territory, having
placed in my hands bonds and security to the amount of $10,000 that
they will not trade with any other person... after they leave Sun River
Settlement and I being satisfied that said persons have no intention to
infringe the laws regulate trade and intercourse with the Indians are
by direction of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs at Washington
permitted to pass through the Blackfoot Country and cross the Northern
boundary line of the United States of America at a point within about
30 miles of St. Mary's Lake. They are also privileged to take with them
a party of 20 to 30 men and six wagons loaded with supplies, provided
there is no spiritous liquors in the Wagons, except a small quantity
which may be taken safely for Medicinal purposes... (3)

The party included six other `white' men --Patrick Heaney, George Houk, Joseph Healy, John Largent, Joseph Wei, and Joe Spearson--and Indigenous members Bob Mills, Jose `Castilian Joe' Arrana, and Jerry Potts, all part of the expedition. As well, Big Plume, a Blood chief, accompanied the entourage. (4)

On December 8, 1869, a Helena newspaper, the Rocky Mountain Gazette, reported, "John Healy and A.B. Hamilton, of Sun River, have started an expedition to explore the Saskatchewan country." Leaving Sun River and following the Riplinger Trail, named after whiskey trader John Riplinger, the wagon train traversed the American Blackfeet Reservation and crossed the boundary near the north branch of the Milk River, reaching the junction of the St. Mary's and Belly rivers shortly after Christmas 1869. The 200-mile trip took about twenty-two days covering an average of ten miles a day. (5)

Healy, telling his story a decade later, recounts,
... in 1869 Alf Hamilton and I got up $25,000 and started at Whoop-up
with the Indians. We got all the trade, and as the Hudson Bay men
looked to the Bloods to supply them with meat for their northern
stations, and we got all they had, we were starving them out. We took
50 gallons of alcohol, not so much for the value of the goods it would
bring in, as thereby to secure the Indian trade... (6)

If Healy, Hamilton, and their party left Sun River on their journey north, shortly after they obtained the permit on December 6, 1869 to cross the Blackfeet reservation, they may have arrived at the junction of the St. Mary and Belly (Old Man) rivers just after Christmas 1869, around December 28.

Soon after their arrival, construction began on the crude cottonwood log buildings which became the first Fort Hamilton, named after the partner. According to a diagram by Col. James Macleod of the NWMP, the original fort consisted of a palisade 60 feet by 60 feet, with three rooms on each of two sides, and a gate.

The fort soon became known as "Fort Whoop Up." According to George Houk, one of Healy's original partners,
During the winter [of 1869-70]... the camp ran short of whiskey and a
Dutchman [or German] named Joe Wye [sic] was sent back to Fort Benton
for more. When asked to what he was doing 'up' there, Joe, who was
quite a gambler, replied, "Oh, we're just whoopen-on-em-up," meaning
that they were whooping up the whiskey trade with the Indians and
making good money at it. (7)

Joseph Wei likely took the shortest route to Fort Benton. The trail between Fort Benton to Whoop-Up was about 210 miles. Wei's on his return from Whoop-Up left Fort Benton, crossed the Teton River, then forded the Marias River, went over Medicine Rock Hill (to where present Shelby is situated), then across Alkali Flat and along Rocky Spring Ridge, to Red Creek at the boundary.

An alternate route, the Riplinger Trail, used on their first trip by Healy and Hamilton, headed from Fort Shaw to Stand Off west of Fort Whoop-Up. The origin of the name Stand Off dates from 1870 when two traders, Joe Kipp and Charlie Thomas, purchased a large supply of alcohol from Helena merchants. With five men and three four-horse teams and wagons they headed north along the Riplinger Trail. A posse headed by U.S. Marshal Charles D. Hard followed them north to arrest the party, but Kipp claimed they had reached British territory. The name of post they built farther north, Stand Off, near the confluence of the Waterton and Belly rivers, recalled the event. Later, they abandoned Stand Off and built Fort Kipp at the junction of the Belly and Old Man rivers. (8)

Ox teams and mule teams were regularly used on the trails, hauling trade goods north and buffalo robes on the return trip. Mules could cover twice the distance of oxen in the same time. The entire trip from Fort Benton to Fort Whoop-Up by oxen took two to three weeks (between fourteen to twenty days), eight or ten days for mules. Horses were generally not used for freighting.

By June 1870, Hamilton and Healy had returned to Fort Benton after their first winter at Fort Hamilton. The Helena Daily Herald of June 15, 1870 reported:
It will be remembered that last winter, Messrs. Al. Hamilton and John
Healy, two of Sun River's enterprising citizens having received
authorization to go beyond the border to trade for robes, departed with
their outfit of Indian goods into British Possessions. These gentlemen
recently returned from their expedition, bringing with them a large
number of robes and peltries of various kinds. We judge from all we
could learn, that this venture will net Messrs. Hamilton and Healy
upwards of $50,000--not very bad for six months cruise among the Lo
Family 9 across the border. (10)

By July 1870, Hamilton and Healy were back at their Sun River post. When the two men had left Fort Hamilton, it was partly burned down by the Blackfoot. Hamilton never returned to the fort.

After the arrival of the North-West Mounted Police in October 1874, Colonel James Macleod made a diagram of the two forts, confirming Fort Hamilton was partially burned, dilapidated, and had not been used for some time.

Not long after their return to Sun River, Healy and Hamilton planned a new post. They contracted William Shanks Gladstone, an ex-HBC carpenter, whose diary pins the date he led the construction as June 1870. (11)

Gladstone worked for two years with thirty men to build the new fort. It took from the summer of 1870 to the summer of 1871 to construct, with trade continuing throughout, as evidenced by the visit of American railroad mining engineer Frank Wilkeson in the summer of 1871. (12)

Later in 1870, Healy and Hamilton applied to Washington for another permit to cross the Blackfeet Reservation but were refused. At the time, a report was issued by the Treasury of the Secretary accusing the Interior Department of having "allowed parties to take wagon loads of liquors in the Indian country, simply requiring bonds of them not to trade in our lines." (13)

Healy ignored the directive and continued to smuggle liquor through the Blackfeet Reservation. When he returned north in the fall of 1870, he was accompanied by more men to work on the construction of the new, larger fort. Made of cottonwood logs, round upright ones for the walls and squared logs for the buildings, the fort measured 130 feet by 140 feet with solid rows of dwelling, shop, and store rooms, a stable on three sides, bastions at the north-west and southeast corners, and a south-facing gate.

An event that demands recounting happened when Fort Whoop-Up was engaged in dealings with the Indigenous people, around November 1, 1870. Known as the "Last Great Indian Battle" in Canadian history, the inter-tribal conflict in the Belly River Valley involved the Blackfoot and Crees and their Assiniboine allies. The Blackfoot were armed with breech-loading rifles they obtained from the American traders; the Cree had mainly bows and arrows.

The battle took place just a few kilometres upstream from Fort Whoop-Up which was still inhabited by traders at the time. It would appear, though, there were surprisingly few witnesses from the fort although, according to A. J. Simmons, Indian Department official in Montana, about fifteen white men joined the Blackfoot, including Jerry Potts along with a freighter named Howell Harris. Among the Cree and the Blackfoot, the oral tradition of the battle is strong. The site of the battle the Blackfoot became known as Assinay/itomotsarpi/akaaenaskoy --Assiniboines/when we defeated them/Fort Whoop-Up. The outcome saw 42 Bloods, Peigans, and Blackfoot killed; 173 Crees and Assiniboines also met their death. (14)

In 1872, Col. Patrick Robertson-Ross, commanding officer of the Canadian militia on a reconnaissance for the Canadian government, reported on the whiskey post which he visited:
... named Fort Hamilton, after the mercantile company of Hamilton,
Healy and Company of Fort Benton... It is believed that they number
about twenty men, under the command of John Healy, a notorious
character. Here it appears they have for some time carried on an
extensive trade with Blackfeet Indians, supplying them with rifles,
revolvers, goods of various kinds, whiskey and other ardent spirits, in
direct opposition of the laws both of the United States and the
Dominion, and without paying duty on goods introduced....

The demoralization of the Indians, and injury resulting to the country from this illicit traffic, is very great. (15)

The report by Colonel Robertson-Ross spurred the creation of the North-West Mounted Police in 1873. When Healy and Hamilton heard of the plans to send a contingent of the police west, he placed an ad in the Rocky Mountain Gazette, a Helena newspaper, briefly offering the fort for sale. (16)

The NWMP began its four-month long march in July 1874 from Fort Dufferin, Manitoba. Lost and bedraggled, they reached the Sweet Grass Hills where NWMP Colonel Macleod sought help and supplies by taking a group of his men to Fort Benton. There he met Jerry Potts, a noted scout, who Macleod immediately hired as a guide. They were accompanied by Charles Conrad of the Baker firm and headed north across the boundary.

Potts knew the location of Fort Whoop-Up and took the NWMP there, arriving on October 9, 1874. Expecting trouble, the police set up their two cannons overlooking the fort. Macleod and Potts boldly went to the fort's gate. Only three individuals were there--Dave Akers and two native women. Cecil Denny, one of the North-West Mounted Police on the trek west, described the fort:
Whoop-Up was a stockade fort, about a hundred yards square, the
dwelling houses facing inward. The bastions at the corners were
loop-holed and the fort was the proud possessor of two old-fashioned
brass field-guns, which I doubt could be fired without danger of
bursting. (17)

Donald Watson Davis, only 21 years of age, working for Hamilton and Healy, was in charge of the fort from 1871 to 1874. Denny states he was present when the NWMP visited, although it was probably Dave Akers to whom he was referring. Davis, later in 1874, became the Canadian manager of I.G. Baker & Company headquartered in Fort Macleod, and became the first elected Member of Parliament for the Alberta District of the North-West Territories in 1887. (18)

After the NWMP arrived, Akers offered to sell them the fort for $25,000. However, the police would only offered $10,000 so Healy sold the fort to Akers in 1876.

An arrangement between Akers and the police saw the NWMP establish barracks in the fort in 1875. In 1876 they expanded the stockade to keep their horses within the walls where they could not be stolen. Constable Joseph MacFarlane (McFarland) at the end of his term of enlistment with the NWMP received title to 160 acres; he also bought a few head of cattle from Healy. In 1878 MacFarland [sic] married Marcella Sheran, a sister of local coal mine owner Nicholas Sheran, the first marriage recorded at the fort. (19)

In 1888, a fire consumed part of the fort. According to a newspaper account, the "Southern Wing of the old fort was totally destroyed." (20) Dave Akers was still the owner at the time. After 1890 when the police no longer needed the fort, it was turned into a ranch.

In an 1891 interview, the 52-year-old Healy stated:
Looking back at it now, I wonder how we succeeded in building that
fort. In the fall of 1869 I went north with only six men and a number
of wagons of trade goods, and located the junction of the St. Mary's
and Belly rivers. That first winter we built and traded and fought. The
next winter I had more men, and in 1872 finished the fort. It was 140
feet square, with two bastions, in which I placed two six-pound rifled
pieces. Then, for the first time, I felt I could defy all the Indians
in the Northwest, if necessary. (21)

(1) Adney, E.T. unpublished manuscript, Historical Society of Montana Library, Helena.

(2) Nancy Thornton, in Gordon Tolton et al. The Last Blast: The Fur Trade in Whoop-Up Country, Proceedings of the 2009 International Fur Trading Symposium. Lethbridge, AB: Fort Whoop-Up Interpretive Society, 2013, 56.

(3) Permit to Messrs. Hamilton and Healy, General A. Sully, December 6, 1869, file 184, GA.

(4) J. Riplinger to S.H. Eastman. January 8, 1870. Montana Superintendency of Indian Affairs, RG 75, M234, Roll 489, 773, NARA. In Gordon Tolton et al., The Last Blast: The Fur Trade in Whoop-Up Country. Lethbridge, AB: Fort Whoop-Up Interpretive Society, 2013, 99.

(5) Historian Hugh Dempsey believes that they left Sun River about December 28 and after three weeks, arrived at the confluence of the Oldman and St. Mary's rivers reaching there about the middle of January (Dempsey, 2002: 47); Dempsey in Michael Payne et al., Alberta Formed, Alberta Transformed, University of Alberta Press, 2005, 228. Dempsey suggests many historians have incorrectly stated 1869 as the year the fort was built. Even if they arrived at the site in late 1869, Fort Hamilton could not have been built until early January 1870.

(6) Alexander Staveley Hill, From Home to Home: Autumn Wanderings in the Northwest in the Years 1881, 1882, 1883, 1884. Langley, BC: Heritage House Publishing Company London, 1885, 151-160.

(7) Lethbridge Herald, July 26, 1913.

(8) Paul F. Sharp, Whoop-Up Country: the Canadian-American West, 1865-1885. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973,46; John D. Higinbotham, When the West Was Young: Historical Reminiscences of the Early Canadian West. Toronto: the Ryerson Press, 1933, 191-192.

(9) The word `Lo' refers to the Indigenous people, from an 18th century poem by Alexander Pope which begins, "Lo, the poor Indian!" See: Dempsey, in Payne et al., 2005, 229.

(10) Helena Herald, June 15, 1870.

(11) Gladstone, 1910, in Georgia Fooks, Fort Whoop-Up: Alberta's First and Most Notorious Whiskey Fort, Lethbridge: Historical Society of Alberta, 1983, 46.

(12) The Manitoban, March 18,1874.

(13) U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Secretary of the Interior, December 15, 1870, M. 606, roll 10, 117-18.

(14) Dempsey, Firewater, 2002, 69.

(15) Colonel Patrick Robertson-Ross, Report of a Reconnaissance of the North-West Provinces and Indian Territories of the Dominion of Canada 1873, 27-28.

(16) Dempsey, Firewater, 2002, 152.

(17) Cecil Denny, March of the Mounties. Surrey; Heritage House Publishing Company, 1994, 42.

(18) Stacey, Beverley, A. D.W. Davis: Whiskey Trader to Politician. Alberta History, Vol. 38, no. 3 (summer) 1990, pp. 1-11.

(19) The Benton Record, Benton M.T., July 19, 1878.

(20) Lethbridge News, Dec. 12, 1888.

(21) Ken Robison (ed.), Life and Death on the Upper Missouri, Fort Benton: Overholser Historical Research Center, 2013, 259.

by Kenneth Favrholdt

Kenneth Favrholdt, formerly with the Claresholm Museum, is a freelance writer and historian.



A flow of natural gas, capable of supplying a town the size of Edmonton, has been struck at Athabasca Landing by the petroleum boring party under the supervision of Dr. Selwyn and direction of the Dominion government. Further down the Athabasca river, natural gas has come up from fissures in the rock for years, and the bubbles that rise to its surface are easily ignited. At low water these fissures, being exposed, can be lit, and the weary traveller is often spared the necessity of cutting wood to boil his kettle by merely putting a match to them. They are easily put out, but more often they are left until the river rises and extinguishes them. The fact of such a large flow of gas being struck at a depth of 400 feet shows the amount of pressure exiting in the overlaying strata, and will assist the party in making calculations on the distance yet to go before oil is reached. As sand, suitable for making plate glass can be extracted from the tar sands along the river, this discovery of natural gas may, in future years, prove a boon to glass manufacturing industries.

--Edmonton Bulletin, September 10, 1894.
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Author:Favrholdt, Kenneth
Publication:Alberta History
Geographic Code:1CALB
Date:Jan 1, 2020
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