Academic journal article Alberta History

Fort Whoop-Up

Academic journal article Alberta History

Fort Whoop-Up

Article excerpt

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. …

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