The nature of trade with the Europeans changed significantly about 1860. Industrialization increased phenomenally in the eastern United States. The new factories all had steam-powered engines that were connected to machines with driving belts. The most durable material for the belts was buffalo hide. As well, the growing eastern population wanted buffalo robes for winter coats and for blankets in sleds and open carriages. Herds that were already under stress were now hunted intensively.
The buffalo hides were too heavy and bulky to be shipped by canoe and York boat to the HBC posts along Hudson Bay (from whence they could be conveyed to England). In the south, however, steamboats navigated the Missouri River as far upstream as Fort Benton. The Niitsitapi trade shifted southward.
The American Civil War displaced thousands of men, many of whom drifted westward to the plains. Montana Territory became home to many of these veterans and the buffalo robe trade became their livelihood. The traders carried their goods northward by ox train to the British Territories where they constructed barricaded shelters. The hides were then hauled back to Fort Benton, and other posts, and shipped by steamboat to St. Louis.
While alcohol had always been a part of the trade, the HBC often limited the amount liquor it distributed. Many American traders made whisky the focus of trade. Their poisonous concoction had a strong alcohol base that was augmented with pepper, gunpowder and even strychnine. Alcohol consumption was accompanied by increased violence and, before long, Canada’s North-West Territories became a violent and lawless place.
In 1873 a camp of Nakoda (or Assiniboine as the eastern division of the Nakoda has been called) was massacred at the Cypress Hills by a group of American wolf hunters who were seeking revenge for stolen horses. When news of the incident reached eastern Canada, politicians were alarmed at both the act of violence and the extensive presence of Americans in western Canada. The North-West Mounted Police were formed and sent west in 1873. A year later, they arrived in southern Alberta only to find that most of the whisky traders had anticipated the police and had gone back south. The police soon became agents of change as the Canadian government began treaty negotiations.
About the images (in order
First Whiskey Spilled, The North-West Mounted Police were sent west to evict the American whiskey traders and restore order, 1874, R.B. Nevitt, watercolour and pencil.
Collection of Glenbow Museum 74.7.11
This is a map of the whiskey trading posts. Naapiaohkii (whiskey) was the most important item these Americans traded. The effects were disastrous for the Blackfoot. Courtesy of Glenbow Museum