Though peaceful to visit today, the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan and Alberta had a troubled history in the years just after Confederation. The hills were hard to reach from Hudson's Bay Company posts on the Red and Saskatchewan Rivers, but were infiltrated eventually by traders from the Missouri River town of Fort Benton, Montana. The traders' presence by 1870, with great amounts of illegal whisky, underlined the weakness of Canadian authority west of Winnipeg.

Violence peaked on the morning of June 1, 1873, when traders and some wolf hunters from Fort Benton scattered an Assiniboine camp of 50 lodges, killing at least 20 men, women, and children beside what is now called Battle Creek, a tributary of the Missouri River in southwestern Saskatchewan.

Wooded and well watered, the Cypress Hills have been intensively used by First Nations for millennia. In May, 1873, 50 lodges of Assiniboine were camped within shouting distance of two posts operated by Montana traders - Abel Farwell on the west bank of Battle Creek, Moses Solomon on the east. Also in the hills were hundreds of Métis who followed the dwindling bison herds to winter here, far from their Red River homes.

By late May, relations between the forts and the camp were bitter, with the Assiniboine especially angry with Solomon. Traders' stocks were low and they prepared to hire Métis to freight their furs and hides south to Montana. Into this tense situation, coincidentally, rode a dozen angry wolf-hunters from Fort Benton. A few weeks earlier they had lost several horses, probably stolen by Cree. They tracked their missing property north into Canada, lost the trail, and reached Farwell's post in a foul mood.

What happened next can be pieced together from many contradictory witness statements. A trader's horse went missing. He blamed the Assiniboine, and enlisted the Benton party to enter their camp and forcibly take a horse. All parties were intoxicated, and while Farwell tried to negotiate, women and children began to flee. Some Assiniboine even challenged the well-armed traders and wolfers to fight. There are different accounts of who fired first, but the result was horrific. Shooting with repeating rifles from shelter in a coulee, the whites overwhelmed the Assiniboine, whose muskets and arrows killed only one wolfer, a French-Canadian named Ed Legrace. He still lies buried in a rough wooden coffin under the site of Solomon's post. There was no burial for the Assiniboine; bones lay on the site for years. The survivors, however, reached safety with some Métis a few kilometers away. The Montana traders packed their belongings and returned south, escorted by the wolfers.

News of the massacre spread slowly. Abel Farwell reported it to the authorities in Montana, who relayed it to Washington. Meantime, Métis brought the same news to Winnipeg. Both reports reached Ottawa about the end of August 1873.

For three years the federal government tried to bring the murderers to justice. In July 1875, officers of the new North West Mounted Police traveled to Montana, but failed to extradite seven men. Another three, captured in Canada, were tried and acquitted in Winnipeg in June 1876. The affray had been confusing and no witness under oath would incriminate any specific prisoner. All charges were dropped in 1882. While the US government cooperated, public opinion in Montana favoured the accused; in Winnipeg it was divided.

An artist's rendition of the trial at the Helena Court House after the Cypress Hills Affair, 1875 (Courtesy Hamilton Art Gallery).

It is hard to measure the massacre's impact. It confirmed that the West needed a police force, which the government had already begun to create. Parliament passed the needed legislation even before the massacre. Cabinet discussed the whisky trade early in August and on the 28th the Ottawa Citizen announced that the NWMP would be organized immediately. The next day saw the first published report in eastern Canada about the Cypress Hills Massacre. The eastern press paid little attention - it was absorbed in watching Sir John A. Macdonald's scandal-plagued government fall, which it did on November 5th. By then, the first 150 members of the NWMP were already training in Manitoba.

Officials believed the investigation would strengthen Canadian authority by showing First Nations that the justice system was impartial. At first it probably did; afterwards, other influences kept most First Nations on the Plains from resisting the spread of settlement.

The Cypress Hills Massacre gradually became part of popular knowledge about Canada's past, largely through efforts by RCMP historian J.P. Turner and local historian Bruce Shepherd. Ochankugehe (Dan Kennedy) published a moving account by an Assiniboine survivor in 1972. The massacre also inspires creative writers. Wallace Stegner's memoir, Wolf Willow, and Guy Vanderhaege's 1996 classic, The Englishman's Boy, both retell the story in dramatic ways. The incident remains important to Assiniboine in the area, where some are working to obtain protection for the site of the 1873 camp.