In the Blackfoot Confederacy
There is no aristocracy
Crowfoot Noble and wise
His army did surprise
With one fiery thrust
Clashed in the dust
With the invading foe
To bring them to woe.
I have much pride in relating the following story of the Great Tigers of the Plains - the Blackfoot Confederacy.
The last of our battles of any importance was fought in the year 1870, when the Blackfoot Confederacy was decimated and nearly annihilated by the dreadful scourge of smallpox. Hearing of this misfortune to their enemies, the Crees, under the leadership of Chief Pie-a-Pot, decided to raid them.
The Crees followed the river, starting west near Medicine Hat. At a point eighteen miles northeast of Lethbridge, the Head Chief of this small army had a dream one night which seemed to predict ill fortune for the raiders. Iron Horn, a Cree Indian now living at Belknap Agency in Montana, was a participant in this war expedition, and although only ten at the time, he remembers the war council that he witnessed at that time between Chief Pie-a-Pot and his men. An Indian Chief addressing any of his followers calls them his 'children.' On this particular morning, Iron Horn tells us, the Chief harangued his men in somewhat the following words: "My children, I had a dream last night. I saw a buffalo bull with iron horns goring, stamping, and killing us. We were unable to destroy it. After long meditation, I have come to the conclusion that we must abandon this venture and return home. Otherwise, misfortune awaits us."
His words had the effect of dividing the party. The more superstitious decided to return home, while the remaining braves were prevailed upon by an opposing Chieftain to continue their westward trek. "My children," this Chieftain shouted, "don't believe in a dream. Advance and capture the Blackfoot nations - womenfolk and children. The smallpox killed off most of their fighters, so we won't be opposed by any great numbers."
It was decided to send ahead a reconnoitering party of Cree scouts. These scouts were always the most essential part of an Indian war party going into a hostile country. Able-bodied young men were allotted to this special task which comprised investigating the county ahead, locating enemy camps, hunting parties, or any hostile enemy scouts. The scouts had to pantomime what they saw, running to and fro on a prominent place to indicate to the oncoming party that the enemy was in close proximity.
On this occasion the Cree scouts discovered a Blackfoot camp at Many Ghosts, known in the old days as Fort Whoop-up, a trading post. Thinking to kill two birds with one stone, they captured some of the Blackfoot ponies and reported back to the main camp. In reality these men only located the central part of a large camp which extended to what is now called Whitney's Crossing, south of Whoop-up, and as far north as Fort Kipp.
Night was chosen as the most propitious time for making the attack. After the warriors had made the short journey to Fort Whoop-up, they discovered that Chief Mountain was head of the camp located by the Cree scouts. Deploying for action, the Crees now sent forward some of their most intrepid braves who in loud voices announced to the sleeping Blackfeet "We are here," at the same time commencing a barrage on the camp.
The place of action was at a point where the C.P.R. bridge crosses into the Blood Reserve at St. Mary's, near Lethbridge. Some of the Blackfoot women swam across the river to the main camp, to summon aid. One of these women showed remarkable bravery by slaying four Cree warriors with her only weapon, a tomahawk, during the first part of the hostilities. Casualties were few at first. Although outnumbered, the Blackfeet held their own, due chiefly to the modern firearms which they used. The noise of rifle firing and the howling of dogs soon brought assistance to the handful of isolated Blackfeet. At break of day warriors from the Blackfoot camps north and south could be seen approaching on horseback, in twos and threes, over hills and knolls, chanting their war songs in joyful anticipation of battle. The Cree braves, noticing these horsemen, cried out to the others: "Look at them coming over every hill. We are outnumbered. Let us retreat!"
The invaders began to retreat, the Blackfoot warriors in full pursuit. The Crees endeavored to reach the present site of the city of Lethbridge but were headed off by their enemies to a coulee south of the railway bridge at Lethbridge, near Ashcroft mine. All along the route of retreat, hand to hand conflicts occurred, and dead bodies were strewn, as the Crees tried to make a stand. If one stands on a knoll, now used by the City of Lethbridge as a dumping ground, one can see the historic landmark where Chief Pie-a-Pot's warriors put up a stubborn resistance.
After throwing down large boulders on the Cree braves and killing a few in this manner, the Confederacy fighters closed in and routed them out of the coulee, sending them down a steep cutbank into the river. Here a fearful massacre occurred, the water of the river turning crimson with blood. Chief Calf Shirt, already wounded in the neck and arm, with arrows sticking out of his body, dispatched two of the enemy with his Bowie knife. Jerry Potts, famous interpreter for the Northwest Mounted Police in later years, did magnificent fighting for the Confederacy warriors in this battle. Referring to it in later years, Jerry said "You could shut your eyes and hit a Cree." Stabbing and drowning were the order of the day. Prairie Chicken, a Blood warrior, jumped his horse from a cutbank into the river to go after the enemy, south of where Ashcroft mine now operates. Approximately about ten Crees survived this battle in the river and crossed safely on the other side, just south of where the C.P.R. bridge now stands, where they proceeded to entrench themselves in the brush. The remains of this trench could be seen up to a few years ago. These surviving Crees had only one old revolver and no ammunition, as their supply of powder was wet from the recent encounter in the river. One casualty occurred in this trench, a Cree shooting another brave accidentally with his arrow.
This battle, as stated as before, originated with the Crees, who went on the offensive mainly for pillaging purposes. Unfortunately for them, they came in contact with the whole Confederacy encampment, and were nearly wiped out. Most of those who escaped succumbed to their wounds on the way home, only four or five surviving to tell the tale.
Throughout these chronicles, it will be noted, I have made frequent use of the word 'Chief'. It was necessary for any Indian who aspired to this title to be a great fighter - not the 'armchair' variety of modern times. The Chief must always lead his men into battle. Chief Sitting Bull, the great Sioux chieftain, whose men massacred General Custer's command to the last man, was in personal command at that historic fight. Chief Crowfoot, commander of the Confederacy warriors, was credited with leading his braves to battle on more than twenty occasions. Other chiefs, such as Red Crow of the Bloods, Crow Flag, Peigan chief, and Cree Chief Pound Maker, of Louis Riel Rebellion fame, were all leaders and fighters.