Thursday, April 12, 2018

Canada's Battle of Belly River

Dear Friends,

A reader in Canada has written to ask me if I can write something about Canada during the Old West. He suggested I look into an Indian battle that took place on the Belly River. Well, I did. And yes, this is what I found.

The Battle of the Belly River took place on October 25th, 1870, in what is present day Lethbridge, Canada, located in Alberta about a 105 miles north of Montana. The battle is considered the last major battle between Indian tribes in Canada. It's also considered the last major conflict between the Iron Confederacy of the Cree and the Blackfoot Confederacy.

The Blackfoot and the Cree were waging war over the control of the Cypress Hills. The Battle of Belly River was the culmination of years of warfare between two people who had nothing in common other than their dislike for each other.

Before Europeans settled in the Canadian West, the prairies were inhabited by two Native Indian alliances. One was the Blackfoot Confederacy. They're said to have been very warlike. They consisted of the northern Blackfoot also known as the Siksika, the Blood Indians also known as the Kainai, the southern Peigan which are also as the Blackfeet, the northern Peigan who are also known as the Piikani and Pikuni Indians, and later to join that Confederacy was the Sarcee who are also known as the Tsuu Tina Indians and the Gros Venture Indians.

With the exceptions of the Sarcee and the Gros Venture tribes, who were the only two unrelated tribes in the Blackfoot Confederacy, all of the other tribes were bound by blood ties and spoke a common language which was Blackfoot. As for their lands, the Blackfoot Confederacy had controlled an area that stretched from west of the Rocky Mountains of Alberta to the east of the Great Sandhills of Saskatchewan, and from the north of the North Saskatchewan River of Alberta all the way south to the Yellowstone River of Montana. They had controlled that huge area for centuries.

The Iron Confederacy was an alliance made up of Plains Cree Indians, Salteaux Indians also known as Plains Ojibwa, Stoney who are also known as the Nakoda, the Assiniboine also known as the Stone Sioux, and it's said that occasionally the Metis Indians were part of the alliance as well. The Iron Conderacy was said to be heavily involved as a sort of middlemen in the fur trade in the 1700s. The Cree were suppliers of pemmican.

Pemmican is defined as "a paste of dried and pounded meat mixed with melted fat and other ingredients." It's actually a concentrated mixture of fat and protein used that was pounded into a paste as a food source. The word comes from the Cree Indian word "pimîhkân" which itself is derived from the word "pimî" which means "fat" or "grease". 

The Cree was the largest tribe in the Iron Confederacy. They moved into western Canada with the Hudson Bay Company in the early-mid 1700's. Even though the Iron Confederacy encroached on Blackfoot lands, since the western Canada plains were traditional Blackfoot territory, surprisingly things started out easy enough with the Iron Confederacy being initially seen as trading partners. Soon the Iron Confederacy was seen as a possible military ally. That didn't work out and when troubles intensified, the two alliances soon became bitter enemies.  

It is said that "mutual antagonism existed between the Blackfoot and Iron Confederacies beginning around 1790 after the Gros Ventures left the Iron Confederacy and joined the Blackfoot Confederacy." This mutual antagonism resulted in a large number of skirmishes. There were also a number of pitched battles between the two on the Canadian plains.

The last of their battles took place along what is today known as the Oldman River on October 25th, 1870. Yes, what was the Belly River is now the Oldman River. As I said before, the battle is known as the Battle of Belly River.

It's said that in 1869 and 1870, there was a massive smallpox outbreak that tore into the Blackfoot. Sadly, that smallpox outbreak reportedly wiped out nearly half of them.

One observer at the time said, "The epidemic left in its wake entire camps of Blackfoot dead lodges." Dead lodges were teepees used as to house their dead. Dr. Kennedy reported that the dead lodges were found all over the Canadian plains.

Chiefs Piapot, Little Mountain, Big Bear and Little Pine of the Iron Confederacy saw the plight of the Blackfoot as the perfect opportunity to wipe them out and expand their territory into the Cypress Hills. Those chiefs saw the Blackfoot as no different than a wound prey. So immediately they raised a war party of about 800 braves. The war party was made up of Cree, Salteaux Indians, and Young Dogs Indians which is said to be a Cree-Assiniboine mix. The war party was armed with bows and arrows, and close combat weapons such as tomahawks and knives. They did have some muskets from their association with the Hudson Bay Company. But seriously, for 1870, they were poorly armed.

When they left camp, they went southeast into Blackfoot territory. They followed the South Saskatchewan River until they had reached about 15 miles northeast of present-day Lethbridge.

There is a legend that says, while reroute to the battle, the Iron Confederacy war party stopped for the night. During the night, elderly Cree Chief Piapot had a dream that predicted the Cree defeat. Supposedly, in his dream, there was a buffalo bull with iron horns that attacked the Cree warriors. Unable to kill the buffalo, the Cree warriors were gored and then trampled to death. It's said that Piapot decided that his dream was an omen of an impending disaster for the Cree.

So in the morning, he told the other Chiefs about his dream, and how that was the reason that he would not have his warriors take part in the battle. Some of the Cree were said to be "troubled" by Piapot's "vision" and in fact decided to return home. In fact, I read where some actually accompanied Chief Piapot back home.

Other Cree saw the Chief's dream as only a dream. They saw the Blackfoot as perfect targets considering how weakened they were because of the smallpox outbreak. Those warriors would not be stopped by what they saw as simply an old man's nightmare.

Once they were in what's known as Coyote Flats about 20 miles northeast of Fort Whoop-Up, the Iron Confederacy war party decided that was the place where to launch their attack on the Blackfoot. The Blackfoot camp was at the Little Bow River, but the Cree Chiefs knew that the Blackfoot hung around Fort Whoop-Up. Fort Hamilton which was built in 1869 was commonly called "Fort Whoop-Up" because the post served as a trading post which included illegal whiskey sales to Indians among others.

Knowing the Blackfoot were there at Fort Whoop-Up, the Cree sent out a scouting party to check things out. When the scouts returned, they reported that a Blood Indian camp was about three miles north of Fort Whoop-Up on the Belly River. While out the scouts stole a few of the Blood's horses.

The Cree Indian scouts failed to report the rest of what was there. Probably because the scouts were too busy stealing horses, but they completely missed the fact that the Blood Indian camp was just a small part of a much larger winter camp of Blackfoot. That winter camp extended for almost 20 miles in every direction. That was one big camp. Sounds like a city.

Besides the small camp, a larger camp of Blood Indians led by Button Chief and Buffalo Back Fat were camped in the same area. Also camped along the river was a small band of well-armed Blackfeet who were armed with repeating rifles, a few needle guns, and revolvers that they picked up from Fort Whoop-Up. Those Blackfoot were led by Mountain Chief, Big Leg and Black Eagle. Some say they obtained those repeating rifles and revolvers before they were driven north into Canada from Montana by American Army Major Eugene Baker and his cavalry.

Also unknown to the Cree was smaller bands of southern Peigan Indians which were led by Chief Crow Eagle. His band was camped with the Blackfoot. So all in all, the combined forces of the Blackfoot, Bloods, and both northern and southern Peigan Indians, matched or exceeded the number of warriors in the Cree, Salteaux, and Young Dogs Indian war party. Also, the Blackfoot were better armed.

On the night of October 24th, the entire Cree, Salteaux, and Young Dogs war party left camp to ambush the Blood Indian camp.

According to one source, "the Crees, on their way to ambush the Blood camp, happened upon two isolated Blood teepees pitched at the base of Temple Hill. The teepees belonged to two Blood families who were travelling to join a different band of Bloods camped along the St. Mary River. Due to exhaustion, the families had decided to camp at the base of the hill rather than complete the journey that night. The Cree killed everyone inside the teepees except for a small boy. After the warriors had left, the boy ended up crawling out of the teepee and making his way to the St. Mary River, where he warned the Bloods of the Cree presence. Sometime that night, the Cree war party arrived at the Blackfoot encampment. A handful of enterprising braves ran into the camp, screaming 'We are here!' They slit the teepees of the sleeping Bloods and slaughtered the residents therein. In the foray, the Cree braves killed a brother of Red Crow who was a great Blood chief who was absent from the river valley at the time, a number of squaws, and- according to Mountain Horse, the son of Mountain Chief who was in a nearby Blackfeet camp at the time of the attack, also several children."

A few Blackfoot women swim across the Belly River towards the main Blood camp in order to sound the alarm. During this, it's said that a Blood Indian woman armed only with a tomahawk killed a couple of Cree warriors. It's also said that the women, and the sounds of gunfire alerts the Blackfoot.

As western artist Charles Marion Russell depicted in his painting above, it was reported that "by daybreak, the river valley was swarming with warriors."

At dawn, the first to arrive was the southern Peigan Indians who came in from the south. Their arrival is said to have had the Iron Confederacy war party making a slow retreat. Soon the Cree neared the Belly River. It was there that they took up a position in a deep ravine. That ravine ran from the river up and onto the prairie.

The formidable Blackfeet force led by Mountain Chief soon secured an opposing position south of the Cree. Then a large number of Bloods, Blackfoot, and northern Peigan, arrived to occupy positions on the northwest and the north side of the prairie. Soon fighting broke out between the Cree and the southern Peigan. Then the Blackfoot and Cree started fighting from dueling ravine positions.

The Cree and south Peigan took positions in two revines that are said to have ran parallel to each other about a 100 yards or more. The ridges of those ravines were separated by a distance that ranged from as close to 30 feet apart to as far as 200 feet away. It's said that the warriors on both sides took up positions at the tops of the ravines after making sure their horses were out of the range of gunfire.

After that, for four hours the battle waged as the tribes exchanged fire. And while rifles were used, they also exchanged arrows, and one report said that some even threw rocks believe it or not. It's said at one point, two southern Peigans on horseback galloped along the ridge to see how many of the Cree enemy were there. One of the warriors was shot and killed. The other is said to have had his horse shot from under him.

During this time the Blackfeet, Blood Indians, and the Peigan from the north, steadily made progress and moved more and more forward until they worked their way around to the south where they could better engage the enemy. When that happened, the rifle fire from the Blackfoot is said to have been too much to endure and the Cree decided to slowly retreat. In fact, the Cree is said to have actually slipped down into the ravine behind their pursuers and head toward the river. All very quietly.

About that time, the Cree were discovered retreating. The story goes that Jerry Potts, who was a Scot-Peigan Indian scout, was scouting around the banks of the southern ridge during the Cree's stealthy retreat. He saw them retreating. Potts is the man credited with signaling to the north Peigan to take action and not let the Cree get away. Legend says that if it weren’t for Jerry Potts that battle might have turned out very different.

The north Peigans did attack the retreating Cree. Close behind them were the Blackfeet and Bloods who did as well.

Soon hundreds of Blackfoot, Blood and Peigan warriors on horseback and even on foot go over the ridge and into the ravine after the Cree. The Cree were cut down and for those who made it out of their position, they were forced up a hill to the north. The Cree with their horses tumbled over the other side in a desperate break for the river. The battle then moved to the western shore of the Belly River at the base of that hill. Blackfoot warrior Mountain Horse later said, "Stabbing and drowning was the order of the day."

Eye-witness accounts describe how Bloods Chief Calf Shirt had arrows in his neck and arm, yet he was still able to kill two Cree warriors with his Bowie knife. While some of the Cree warriors fought and died on the banks of the Belly River, it's said that most actually tried to swim across the river. The Cree that tried to were shot dead by Blackfeet on shore.

There were so many retreating Cree moving across the river that it's said that they look like a solid mass in the river. Subsequently, they were easy targets for Blackfoot who fired from the riverbank and the hill. Jerry Potts is quoted as saying, "You could fire with your eyes shut and be sure to kill a Cree."

It's also said, "the air was thick with gunsmoke while the Belly River ran red with blood."

As for the few Cree warriors that reached the east side of the river alive, close behind were the Blackfoot and the Blood Indians. When the Cree was found on the open prairie, it's said the Blackfoot overtook them and cut them down. The Cree that did try making a last stand on the open prairie east of the river lost 50 of their warriors.

It was after that that a few Cree made it into a strand of trees, they were completely surrounded. Fortunate for Cree warriors, the Blackfeet decided that it was over and simply returned to their camps. Yes, allowing the Cree survivors to return home and tell others what happened there.

The Battle of Belly River was one of the bloodiest Indian battles ever recorded in Canadian history. The Blackfoot Confederacy lost about 40 warriors and had about that many wounded. For the Iron Confederacy and the Cree, it was devastating as the lost between about 300 warriors.

It is said that in 1871, about a year later, the Iron Confederacy sent a peace offering of tobacco to the Blackfeet. Then in the fall of that same year, the Chiefs of the two Confederacies met to make peace. Of course, from what I've read, that didn't stop the small skirmishes or the horse stealing.

Tom Correa


  1. Where did you find that painting? I heard it had been lost. It's location could not be found when I was searching for it a few years ago. You missed a couple good points about this battle: Jerry Potts' participation on the side of the Bloods and that there were two mixed blood (Cree and Scottish as I remember) brothers who fought with the Crees and were killed.

    1. Hello Heather, As for the picture? Well, believe it or not, I found it on google as a towel or blanket that's for sale on the web. As for Jerry Potts. I intentionally kept him out until I could verify something that he did. About that time of the Cree retreat, Jerry Potts who was to be Scot-Peigan was scouting around and discovered the Cree retreat. Most believe that if it weren’t for him that battle may have turned out very different. I just updated the story to reflect this. Thanks for visiting my site. Tom

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