Chapter 2, Note 36 (pages 47 and 231)

Montana had no interest in affording transnational Crees any place in the region (p. 47)

…for further sources and discussion of these years (p. 231)

The first half of the 1880s witnessed a dramatic shift in public opinion towards transnational Crees. As local development shifted away from (fur trade) labor markets in which Crees could participate and Montanans sought to develop towards statehood, military engagement with Crees was forwarded as the sole solution. The border which had previously been ignored by whites and Indians alike was now ascribed significance by both. Montanans looked to the 49th parallel as a protection, however frustratingly ineffectual, from foreign Indians and argued for its strengthening. Indians from Canada looked to the line as a way to escape pressures from the Canadian government and military. Conversely, they also used the border as a means to raid American settlers and flee with their spoils unmolested. As the next wave of Crees crossed into Montana under very different circumstances in 1885 – duress and as political refugees – the lasting prejudice that was built in the years immediately previous would haunt their subsequent settlement efforts. By 1885, Montana had fully soured towards foreign transnational Indians, be they Cree, Chippewa or others.There is a much richer narrative to tell of the early-1880s evolving prejudice against Crees than could be included in the text of Native but Foreign. Below is a more detailed discussion of these years, with particular emphasis on how Americans singled out Chief Big Bear to blame.

Seeking to put a face to the perceived Cree threat, the Montanan press and citizenry soon focused its suspicion and vitriol on Cree Chief Big Bear. A prominent leader from the Plains Cree north of the line, he was well-known for resistance to Canadian efforts to bind its Native populations to reserves by treaty, even reported by Montanan papers.[1] An early Montanan report described him as “a most miserable specific of the red man.”[2] With similar ongoing treaty processes in the United States, Big Bear was exactly the type of Native leader U.S. officials disliked. With a figure like Big Bear looming in the press coverage, U.S. officials were eager to force “foreign Indians to return to their own country, and so prevent them from driving game away from the hunting grounds of [their] own Indians.”[3] American efforts to bring order to its territories involved processes of first defining Native populations, and then removing or containing them via reservations. If Native groups could be defined as “foreign,” versus domestic, it obviated the responsibility for the United States to proceed in the costly, violent, and complicated steps of removal or containment. Montanans and the United States were not rejecting Crees because of their indigeneity alone. Rather, Crees’ foreign origins allowed the United States to solve easily the extra “Indian problems” by shrugging jurisdiction. U.S. Indian policy held no provision for “foreign” Indians.

American settlers to Montana held increasingly negative views of Crees during the early 1880s. Starvation and conflict in Canada led Big Bear’s associated bands and others south of the line in search of food. While this often led to actual theft of livestock, the general uncontrolled presence of roving bands of non-Treaty Indian peoples frightened local residents. Montanan newspapers were filled with concerned reports of Cree encampments crossing the line, their supposed depredations and the need for the U.S. Army to provide security. Part vitriol against the transnational Crees, part exasperation with the U.S. government for not better controlling the borders, such sentiments filled the press year after year. “They come from the north of the line,” complained one soldier in Montana, “murder settlers and steal their horses and get away before the soldiers can follow them,” . . . “[they] always strike where least expected and then scatter off over the line before the troops can follow.” [4] Soldiers and citizens felt impotent to control the region and provide, or enjoy, stability. This led to calls for a stronger military presence, patrolled border, and decisive deportation policy. “We have been throwing clods of earth at these people long enough,” declared General Alfred Terry in 1882, “The time has arrived, I think, when we should begin to throw stones.”[5] Quickly, their reputation was souring and all Cree border-crossers, even peaceful traders or immigrants, faced cold reception in Montana. Though Big Bear later returned to Canada, signed a settlement treaty and ceased his transnational presence soon thereafter, Montanan prejudice continued to simmer as other Crees continued depredations.

With reports that Big Bear planned to fight, in the spring of 1882, forces were dispatched from Fort Assiniboine to strike “terror into the hearts” of unwanted Crees, burn their camps and drive them north.[6] First Lieutenant Gustavus Doane, of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment stationed at Fort Assiniboine summed up much of the region’s sentiments towards Big Bear’s band in a letter to his wife, stating “I never was tired of a Tribe as I am of this one.”[7] This statement likely spoke as much to Doane’s personal interactions with tribal individuals as it did to the Army’s inability to control Cree movements and public frustration over the same. Montana’s press stoked fires of resentment against Big Bear continually, editorializing “Big Bear, the Cree, is on Beaver Creek and his camp is sure to be a centre of horse stealing; operations and a refuge for dangerous renegades and cut-throats from all tribes.”[8]

As previous deportation efforts were clearly ineffectual in staving off the repeated border-crossing of Big Bear’s band and others, what solutions did Montanans pursue? Like Doane, the press argued first that an increased military presence was needed along the line. Otherwise, Big Bear and others would continue to evade mounted infantry units, and “laugh at the soldiers” before quickly returning to “their old stomping ground as if nothing had happened.”[9] Patrick Burke, a U.S. Army Signal Corps member stationed in Helena, wrote to his father, “The Indians north of here under Big Bear . . . always strike where least expected and then scatter off over the line before the troops can follow.”[10] Second, the policy which banned soldiers from firing unless fired upon needed to be rescinded. As evidence, they highlighted how Big Bear band had “simply dodged” an April 1882 expedition. Crees understood this policy that rendered any force sent against them utterly impotent given they did not fire first. By evasion and non-engagement, Crees, Métis, and others had veritable free range over the borderlands. The Benton Weekly Record concluded, “Until a large body of cavalry is stationed at Assiniboine, and greater discretion is allowed officers in command, expeditions from the post against Indians and half-breeds, must necessarily prove abortive and expensive.”[11]

The perceived injustice of this inversed power differential was echoed sarcastically by the Daily Independent in Helena. Commenting on Big Bear’s repeated pattern of evading U.S. forces by crossing the border and then returning again, the Independent related that “the hostiles from the Queen’s dominions declare their intention of running the Milk river region to suit themselves.” Then, with musing cynicism, they quipped: “Wonder what Uncle Sam is going to do about it? Perhaps the Secretary of the Interior will recommend the removal of the troops from Montana for fear they may degrade the morals of the reds. As he has recommended the removal of troops from the Indian agencies in Dakota, it would be no surprise if he next recommended the removal of the troops from all the Indian countries.”[12] The bitter sentiment expressed is telling. Northern Montanans were already anxious about the state of their “domestic” Indian issues, and the seemingly endless threat of foreign Indians, over which they apparently had no control, was vexing. Crees “from the Canadian side . . . [were] engaged in their usual spring sports,” and Montanans, for the time being, were left without recourse or security.[13]

In December of 1882, Montanans rejoiced at the news that Big Bear had surrendered to Canadian authorities and accepted newly negotiated treaty terms. In essence, it was the same Treaty Six he had refused to sign in 1876, but included back-payment of annuities to the original date of the treaty.[14] The Benton Weekly Record explained the significance that this event had for residents of northern Montana:

There is much importance attached to Big Bear’s accepting the treaty, in as much as to him can be ascribed the major part of the depredations committed by North Cree Indians.[14a] He has disturbed the people of this Territory by his raids upon stock, and his war parties have more than once within the past few years alarmed the settlers north of Benton . . . and while it may be a somewhat embarrassing confession, it is none the less true that Montana settlers have only the Montana Indians to fear since Big Bear’s yielding to the treaty.[15]

Eight to nine months later, Montanans still viewed him as central to the border situation. First, they supposed that treaty would end all Cree depredations south of the line. Misunderstanding the fractured nature of Cree societies, they assuming that all “Plains Crees,” (as opposed to “Swampy and Thickwood Crees”) were under the direct control of Big Bear or sub-chiefs under him. Second, they assumed this all-encompassing hierarchy meant that all Crees would follow Big Bear’s surrender and hopefully be settled somewhere beyond the immediate proximity of the border. Almost immediately, continued transnational Cree activity revealed the inherent fallacy in these beliefs.

In fact, as the winter of 1883 transitioned into spring, Cree border-crossings and horse thieving accelerated at a rate that rivaled previous springs.[16]  One Chippewa-Cree recollection wrote, “They had developed the profession of stealing horses to a science” during periods of inter-tribal raiding and warfare. This expertise certainly translated well to the theft of horses and livestock from ranchers and settlers in Montana. Whereas Montanans had previously suggested that Crees were not “what may be properly called hostile Indians,” a new tone cast Crees in the most recalcitrant of terms – with press coverage focused on wanton, gratuitous destruction of property.[17] These reports completely ignored the context in which Crees engaged in their transnational movements. For most Crees, the passage south was undertaken, especially in the winter months, only out of dire necessity. One Northwest Mounted Police soldier, observed the following on January 3, 1883: “Cold as Hell [sic]. Killed chicken. A party of Indians passed nearly frozen.”[18] The continued return of Crees southward resumed calls for reformed policy. In order to curtail the theft or slaughter of livestock and quell rising Cree-Piegan violence, Montanans advocated the establishment of new forts.[19] Reports that Big Bear himself was readying an attack from across the line increased such calls.[20] And, though members of Big Bear’s band reopened cross-border raiding into north-central Montana, including his son Little Bear or Imasees, it was in direct opposition to Big Bear’s command.[21]

The late spring and early summer of 1883 followed much of the same pattern. In hopes of reducing potential troubles, Louis Riel was arrested after he and his Métis band attempted to vote at Rocky Point, Montana, but refused to swear allegiance to the United States. It was deemed preferable to board him in jail than have him mixing with Métis and other “British subjects” at large.[22] Long suspected of inciting Crees to cross the border and the Missouri River to “murder the whites,” the targeting of Riel was similar to that of Big Bear and underlined a belief that eliminating the threat of charismatic individuals would reduce broader problems.[23] On the prairies north of Fort Benton, Crees ranged the country and U.S. Army officials from Fort Assiniboine vied to capture and deport them. All along, Montanans faced the perennial frustration of being unable to do anything more than deport Crees. The Benton Weekly Record lamented in May 1883, “. . . it is to be regretted that something cannot be done with these Indians after all the time and trouble spent in capturing them. They will hardly be turned loose on the other side of the line before they will return again to commit more depredations.” Looking to a presumed resumption of violence after the 1883-84 winter, a Fort Maginnis solider opined, “One thing is certain; if the boys get a chance they will show them no mercy.” Surprisingly, Cree cattle and horse thefts declined that next year.  Yet, when occasional depredations were detected, Crees were depicted in despicable terms, as carrion looking for “an easy prey.”[24] In the summer and fall of 1883, Big Bear returned north, and while some Montanans expressed momentary relief, they kept a watchful suspicious eye on his band.[25]

 

[1] See “From Over the Border,” The New North-West (Deer Lodge, MT), December 6, 1878, 2. One later report placed Big Bear among the Cree leaders who joined Assiniboines in an attack against Blackfeet that may have stretched into Montana (Fort Kipp) in fall 1870. See “Montana Indian Fight,” Helenea Indepenent, May 11, 1890, 7.  For information on Big Bear’s reluctance to sign the 1876 Treaty 6, see Jill St. Germain, Broken Treaties: United States and Canadian Relations with the Lakota and Plains Cree, 1868-1885 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 227-28, 242-43.

[2] “Our Fort Walsh Letter,” The New North-West (Deer Lodge, MT), August 1, 1879, 2.

[3] Samuel Breck to Fort Assiniboine, August 15, 1881, Ft. Assiniboine Telegrams, MSU.

[4] Patrick Burke to Mrs. Burke (mother), November 4, 1883; and Patrick Burke to Mr. Burke (father), June 21, 1882, Patrick Francis “Frank” Burke Papers, SC 304, MSHS.

[5] “Our Border Indians,” Helena Daily Independent, February 28, 1882.

[6] “Captured by Crees,” Daily Helena Independent, March 8, 1882; “No Further News,” Daily Helena Independent, March 9, 1882; “The Expected Fight,” Daily Helena Independent, March 10, 1882; “Hunting a Fight,” Benton Weekly Record, March 23, 1882, 5; “Healy’s Account,” Daily Helena Independent, April 1, 1882; and “The Assiniboine Expedition,” Benton Weekly Record, March 30, 1882, pg. 5.

[7] Gustavus Doane to Mary Hunter Doane, March 26, 1882, Doane Letters, MSHS.

[8] “Indian Iniquities,” Benton Weekly Record, May 4, 1882.

[9] “More Cavalry Needed for Assiniboine,” Benton Weekly Record, May 4, 1882.

[10] Patrick Burke to Mr. Burke (father), June 21, 1882, Patrick Francis “Frank” Burke Papers (Burke Papers), SC 304, MSHS.

[11] “More Cavalry Needed for Assiniboine,” Benton Weekly Record, May 4, 1882.

[12] “Big Bear and his Blanketed Band,” Daily Helena Independent, May 17, 1882. Emphasis added.

[13] “Montana Matters,” Daily Helena Independent, May 10, 1882.

[14] Dempsey, Big Bear: The End of Freedom, 113-4; and St. Germain, Broken Treaties, 242-46.

[14a] For information on Big Bear’s reluctance to sign the 1876 Treaty 6, see Jill St. Germain, Broken Treaties: United States and Canadian Relations with the Lakota and Plains Cree, 1868-1885 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 227-28, 242-43.

[15] “Big Bear’s Surrender,” Benton Weekly Record, December 28, 1882.

[16] “The Cree,” Undated manuscript, RBSA, 1.

[17] See “Indian Marauders,” Daily Independent, March 23, 1883; “Indian News,” Daily Independent, March 24, 1883; “A Cree Raid,” Benton Weekly Record, March 24, 1883; “An Indian Raid: Cree Cattle Thieves Whipped by Whites and Piegans – Troops in Pursuit,” The Daily Miner, March 27, 1883; “The Indian Raiders,” Daily Independent, March 27, 1883; “The Cussed Cree: Raid of British Redskins into the Marias Country,” The Daily Miner, March 30, 1883, and “Montana Matters,” Daily Independent, April 5, 1883; “Crees on the Warpath,” Washington Post, March 24, 1883;   “Raiding Across the Border: Thieving Canadian Crees Pursued by Troops and Their Chief Killed,” Washington Post, April 24, 1883; “Canadian Crees Captured,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 3, 1883, and “Capture of Canadian Crees,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 8, 1883; “Crees Prepare for War,” Rocky Mountain Husbandman (Diamond City, MT), May 17, 1883, 7; and “The Restless Apaches,” Washington Post, May 16, 1883.

[18] Diary of William H. Metzler, NWMP, 1880-1885, January 17, 1833, William H. Metzler Fonds, M836, GA. For other mentions, see January 22 and 31, February 5, March 3, 6, and 8.

[19] “Montana Matters,” Daily Independent, March 29, 1883.

[20] Crees Preparing for War,” Daily Independent, May 13, 1883; and Butte Daily Miner, May 15, 1883.

[21] See Dempsey, Big Bear: The End of Freedom, 111-12.

[22] “Arrest of Louis Riel,” Benton Weekly Record, May 19, 1883.

[23] Daily Independent, December 19, 1882. Upon Riel’s return to Montana in August of 1883, there was continued debate as to the consequences of his presence. The Helena Herald reported their delight in his return, stating that “No one can know Mr. Louis Riel and talk with him half an hour without recognizing him as a gentleman and scholar, a worthy and desirable friend.” In response, the Benton Weekly Record retorted, “We do not question that Louis Riel comes well up to the Herald’s ideal of a gentleman and a scholar, and that it prizes him as a bosom friend. The majority of mankind, however, would recognize Louis Riel for just what he is, a low scoundrel whose fox-like cunning has alone kept him out of jail for these many years; whose sole and centered occupation for a long time has been peddling liquid hell-fire to the Indians in defiance alike of United States and Territorial laws; who, as it has been made to appear before a grand jury by unimpeachable testimony, has attempted to blackmail every prominent man in the Northern country; who is about as much of a gentleman as Sitting Bull, and as much of a scholar as the famous wild Australian children.” Clearly, some personal politics and industry rivalry is at play, but the proximity of Benton to the depredations of Crees and Métis, with whom Riel was often associated, make their vitreous response understandable. See “The Herald and Louis Riel,” Benton Weekly Record, September 1, 1883. See also “Montana Matters,” Daily Independent, May 25, 1883.

[24] Captured Reds,” Benton Weekly Record, May 26, 1883; Patrick Burke to Mrs. Burke (mother), November 4, 1883, Burke Papers, MSHS; and “Hostile Crees,” Daily Independent, June 8, 1884.

[25] See “Indian Removal to Qu’Appelle,” The Daily Enterprise (Livingston, MT), July 27, 1883, 1; “Big Bear Becoming Civilized,” The River Press (Fort Benton, MT), September 5, 1883, 5; “Riel, the Manitoba Renegade,” The River Press, September 3, 1884, 4; and “Canadian Indian Troubles,” The Daily Enterprise, October 10, 1884, 3.

[26] According to reports from the following year, such concerns were warranted, for just as the Benton Record had feared in the Spring of 1880, Canadian Indians had “wantonly” killed cattle on their return northward during the Spring of 1881. In response, a detachment of soldiers from Fort Assiniboine were sent to the Sweet Grass Hills region of the Marias River to investigate these reports and ascertain the exact details of said depredations. Whether or not livestock had indeed been killed by migratory Natives, the presence of uncontrolled, non-treaty Indians with no legal accountability to local American officials was cause enough for concern. See Thomas H. Ruger to Fort Assiniboine, June 3, 1881, and G. S. Turner to Captain R.L. Morris, May 29, 1881, Ft. Assiniboine Telegrams, MSU.

[27] “The Indian Conundrum: What a Soldier has to say of its Probable Solution,” Washington Post, April 26, 1880, 2.

[28] Daily Independent, December 19, 1882. Upon Riel’s return to Montana in August of 1883, there was continued debate as to the consequences of his presence. Visit http://www.nativebutforeign.org for sources and discussion concerning Riel’s activities and reception in Montana. The Helena Herald reported their delight in his return, stating that “No one can know Mr. Louis Riel and talk with him half an hour without recognizing him as a gentleman and scholar, a worthy and desirable friend.” In response, the Benton Weekly Record retorted, “We do not question that Louis Riel comes well up to the Herald’s ideal of a gentleman and a scholar, and that it prizes him as a bosom friend. The majority of mankind, however, would recognize Louis Riel for just what he is, a low scoundrel whose fox-like cunning has alone kept him out of jail for these many years; whose sole and centered occupation for a long time has been peddling liquid hell-fire to the Indians in defiance alike of United States and Territorial laws; who, as it has been made to appear before a grand jury by unimpeachable testimony, has attempted to blackmail every prominent man in the Northern country; who is about as much of a gentleman as Sitting Bull, and as much of a scholar as the famous wild Australian children.” Clearly, some personal politics and industry rivalry is at play, but the proximity of Benton to the depredations of Crees and Métis, with whom Riel was often associated, make their vitreous response understandable. See “The Herald and Louis Riel,” Benton Weekly Record, September 1, 1883. See also “Montana Matters,” Daily Independent, May 25, 1883.

 

Augmenting military concerns in the early 1880s, Montanan ranchers and homesteaders viewed border-crossing Natives with considerable apprehension and Ft. Assiniboine sent detachments to investigate suspected transnational Native depredations. Local Montanan boosters and territorial officials sought to accelerate white settlement towards the goal of statehood. They perceived a continued transnational Cree presence as threatening that goal. Loath to return to an era of daily “bloodshed and pillage by the Indians,” local Montanans consistently drove federal policy towards the forced removal of “foreign” Indians throughout the 1880s. In the same month as aforementioned Fort Assiniboine troops were being ordered into the field, the local Benton Weekly Record filed two reports of some three thousand Indians who had already crossed the line and were “coming this way.” Placing hope in the Assiniboine garrison, the Record spoke positively of the two cavalry companies and one infantry company, each armed with artillery pieces, which were to intercept and “drive them back.” Had General Thomas H. Ruger not sent these forces, commented the Record, the local stockmen were planning to organize a posse of their own to halt the Indian advance. Oddly, a simultaneous admission to the anticipated peaceful nature of the Crees was pronounced. Despite the fact that the Crees were likely travelling with their families, and holding no disposition for conflict, these northern Montana locals were adamant that the government support their desire to eliminate any Native incursions from north of the line. More significantly, they were willing to take up arms themselves to enforce the same policy.

See sources:

  • G. S. Turner to Captain R.L. Morris, May 29, 1881, Ft. Assiniboine Telegrams, MSU.
  • Thomas H. Ruger to Fort Assiniboine, June 3, 1881, Ft. Assiniboine Telegrams, MSU.
  •  “Our Threatened Border,” Benton Record, December 21, 1877.
  •  “3000 Strong!” Benton Weekly Record, August 25, 1881.
  •  “The Indian News,” Benton Weekly Record, August 25, 1881.

 

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