Sunday, April 20, 2014

Cattle Drives in Western Canada, Part 2

Almost anyone will agree that Southern Alberta is the centre of the Canadian Cattle Industry. There is an argument that a couple of ranches west of the mountains are larger than any on the east slope. Those on that east slope can argue that Southern Alberta produces more cattle both for feeding and for market. One argument that can not be denied is that Western Canada’s cattle business did not start off in the Southern Alberta area but in Southern BC.

            In 1869 British Columbia had already spent ten years establishing herds of cattle and horses and farms producing pork, dairy products, oats, barley, wheat and many other items. The land east of the Rocky Mountains had little more than a few garden plots as far east as the Assiniboine and Red Rivers or Fort Gary. (You may know it now as Winnipeg.) The two year old country of Canada had just taken over that vast stretch of land which included the area the former manager (Hudson’s Bay Co.) called Rupert’s Land. It was still the home of all the Hudson’s Bay trading posts that had been there before but the factors of those posts no longer managed or supplied security for anything more than the actual storage and trading areas.

            It is true that being responsible for several hundred thousands of square miles of land is a serious responsibility for a two year old government but that was a small fraction of their worry. They also had several thousand Métis residents who had been the work force that kept the Hudson’s Bay Company operational for several generations but where now French speaking Catholics in a world controlled by English speaking Protestants. They also had a neighbour to the south who was ten times larger by population, even after a devastating Civil War, many of whom believed it was their Manifest Destiny to govern all of North America. Whiskey traders were also bringing in alcohol, much of it lethal and selling it to the natives who, if they didn’t die from the so called “whiskey” itself wound up killing each other in alcohol induced fights or freezing in the snow. Then, the last straw was a drunken battle in the Cypress Hills between a group of wolfers and about three hundred Nakota where 23 of the Indians where killed.

            (This is the battle at the end of the award winning novel “The Englishman’s Boy” by Guy Vanderhaeghe which became the award winning TV mini series with Michael Eisner in the lead role.)

            The Prime Minister, John A. McDonald with a great deal of help from advisers, decided Canada’s North West Territories needed a police force the size of a small army. Eventually this force was formed – after the usual time and money wasting as is associated with any bureaucratic body – and called the North West Mounted Police.

            Despite his demands what John A actually got was a force the size of a small battalion.

            What does this have to do with cattle drives? It meant the immigration of a small body of consumers of beef and relative safety for settlers or more consumers.

In the late summer of 1874 two hundred and seventy former farmers and military men where living and working on the Canadian prairies and they needed to be fed. This doesn’t require a large herd every year but it does require some cattle and if possible a few pigs and chickens.

Those first cattle came from Montana to places like Fort MacLeod, Fort Walsh and Fort Saskatchewan. Most of these were the wild, long horn animals that had been trailed up from Texas during the nine years since the end of the Civil War.

Later it became apparent to commanding officers – Walsh, MacLeod, and many of those under them – that the Blackfoot where not going to receive the meat they had been promised. Though they didn’t have clearance or the money a few extra cattle where added to the herds from the south and, along with some trapping and hunting the Blackfoot people managed to survive.

When in 1876 Sitting Bull’s people came north of the 49th parallel after the Battle of Little Big Horn, money was found for a few more cattle.  Not enough to feed both the Lakota and the Blackfoot but, with a little special management, enough to avoid embarrassment for government people and enough to avoid an Indian war.

Feeding the various native tribes was a problem that continued for most of those last years of the nineteenth century. As a small example, George and Edward Maunsell had 103 head of cattle delivered to Southern Alberta in June, 1879 to start a ranch. In the fall of that year when the local ranchers completed their roundup the Maunsells (who had participated in the roundup) found they had 54 head. The Blackfoot, Cree, Assiniboine and Lakota managed to survive but relations between these people, the ranchers and the Mounties took a very long time to recover even though it was the “toffs” in Ottawa that created the antagonism.

Having heard of the arrival of the Mounted Police on the plains a man named John Shaw, along with Frank O’Keefe and Charles Ashton took two hundred cows and a hundred eighty seven steers through the North Kootney Pass. They arrived in Morley, North West Territories in August 1875 but there was little sale for their cattle since supply had already been received from Montana. Shaw rode north to see if there was sale for his beef at Fort Edmonton (Hudson’s Bay) or Fort Saskatchewan (NWM Police) but those sites had also been supplied by animals from the south.

There were several bringing cattle up from Montana in those early years most notably George Emerson and Tom Lynch. The foundation for these animals was the Texas longhorn but in the 1870s they where beginning to be bread with heavier animals from Oregon.

During the fall and winter a great deal of building took place a short distance from Morley where John Shaw had returned after his unsuccessful trip north. The Mounted Police built a new post, the Hudson’s Bay Company expanded their post and I.G Baker of Fort Benton built a post. Next to the Police post was the T.C Power & Brother store, Harry Taylor’s billiard hall and some Métis cabins.

This new NWMP post which had been named Fort Brisebois after the Officer Commanding the detachment was renamed by Assistant Commissioner Irvine at the suggestion of Colonel Macleod.  Thus in the spring of 1876 John Shaw, having completed a sale to the NWMP through an agent finally began delivering his BC cattle, the first herd to be sold in Calgary. The name of the post came from Calgary House on the Isle of Mull in Scotland. The first cattle in Canada’s premier “cow-town” came from the Chilcotin and Okanogan countries in B.C.

What really increased the cattle business was the railroad reaching into the plains. In 1881 the Canadian government opened large areas for ranching leases. These ranches, usually were of several thousand acres and supplied with financing from Eastern Canada, the US or England. A few years later the Homestead Act was instituted and the large ranches gained neighbours of 160 to 640 acres.

Going back a couple of years and a couple of paragraphs, many of the cattle that came in to stock these new ranches where driven by George Emerson and Tom Lynch. In both 1779 and 1880 they brought 1000 head in from Montana, selling many of them to the growing number of settlers around the Fort Macleod area but also building up herds for themselves.  In 1883 a herd of 3000 head for the newly formed North West Cattle Company and in ’84 another 2000 head.

It will be evident that the few men mentioned are not the only ones who brought cattle into the North West Territories during these years. By 1884 when the Transcontinental Railway was working its way up the foothills and into the mountains the range was already overstocked and full of many thousands of cattle.

In 1885 the Mounties went east to join the Canadian Militia in putting down the Riel Rebellion.

The three member nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy hunkered down on their reserves to ensure the white men didn’t think they where involved with the Métis and Cree fighting that war. While attempting to stay out of sight they began entertaining the idea of raising cattle along with the horses. They still had a few of each despite their living conditions and within a few years managed to acquire the government loan of bulls to build those herds.

During the years from the US Civil War (1865) until 1886 millions of cattle had been moved around on the surface of North America. Several of those millions had wound up in the slaughterhouses of Chicago. Several hundred thousand had become the foundation of herds in those areas that are now the states of Montana (1889), Wyoming (1890), and the Dakotas (1889) and through the usual forces of nature became millions.

The same forces where pressuring the Canadian cattle industry. Every year the price for beef would fall a little in the east and every year a little more money was demanded of those raising cattle. In the case of the large “combines” with several thousand cattle the demand was from the ranch owners in offices on Wall Street, Young Street or Fleet Street. In the case of the small operators the cash demands where from bankers and suppliers. Consequently on ranches from Fort Edmonton to El Paso the land was overgrazed.

During the winter of 1886 – ’87 nature solved the overgrazing problem. The most severe winter in many years that surprised everyone but the oldest trappers and natives killed thousands of cattle, horses, sheep, Wapiti, moose, deer and many other animals. Some of the smaller farmers who managed time to cut some hay and didn’t have many animals in the first place only lost 20% of their animals. Some of the larger ranches lost 80% and a couple even more. An estimated average for losses in Western North America that winter is 75%. It was the beginning of the end of the open range.


            Next time, I’ll mention some horses.

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