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Fort Whoop-up


The name of Fort Whoop-up is notorious. In the history of the whiskey trade and of the Mounties, it stands for everything that was wrong in the west - lawless American desperadoes dealing noxious "whiskey" to an Indian population unaccustomed to alcohol; buffalo hides by the hundreds of thousands being shipped out, leaving nothing but rotting carcasses and starving Natives; and a general atmosphere of anarchy with no accountability. Fort Whoop-up was the worst, but certainly not the only whiskey fort in the North-West.

When the Hudson's Bay Company turned control of the North-West over to the Dominion Government in 1869, opportunistic traders of questionable ethics started to move in. The "free traders", as they were called, had discovered that their highest profit was made dealing so-called whiskey to the Indians for buffalo robes and horses.
Natives at Fort Whoop-up

The trouble was, it had been illegal to sell liquor to the Indians in the US since 1832, and there were a lot of cavalry posts to enforce the law. But over the border in Canada they could do as they pleased - and they did.

Using Fort Benton in Montana as a supply point, these unscrupulous characters smuggled their hootch across the frontier and set up trading posts throughout the area that is now southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. At any given time from 1869 to 1874 there were as many as 30 whiskey posts in the area! Whoop-up was one of the first, built originally in 1869 by J.J. Healy and A.B. Hamilton. Officially it was called Fort Hamilton, but not by anyone who actually went there. The first structure burned within the year - whether by accident or deliberately by Indians is open to question. The second structure was more substantial, with bastions at two corners of the loop-holed stockade, and ranges of rooms built into the wall, all opening into the center of the fort.

The presence of these posts was a plague on the Indians as awful as any smallpox epidemic. The Native population had already been depleted by disease. Now the buffalo - their source of food - were disappearing due to the voracious appetite of eastern industries for the huge, tough hides. They couldn't even take the carcasses left behind because the hated "wolfers" poisoned the meat to kill wolves and coyotes for their fur. The final blow was the devastating impact of liquor. When they had no buffalo hides left to trade, the men would barter away their horses for a quart of "whiskey." Not only did this leave them sick and lead to violence, it also left them without the means to hunt and feed their families. They were a desperate people.

The traders were fully aware of the effect they were having. One fellow commented that the whiskey traders were doing a great service, "as they keep the Indians poor, and kill directly or indirectly more Indians of the most warlike tribe on the continent every year, at no cost to the United States' Government, than the entire regular army did in ten years." The cruelty of this remark is horrifying, but it helps to explain how the traders got away with it.

Reports began to circulate, finally reaching Ottawa, that the trade was completely out of control, and that the Americans were committing outrages against Canadian Indians. The Lieutenant Governor warned Sir John A. Macdonald with increasing urgency that the situation was becoming explosive, but Sir John believed that he was exaggerating. Then the Hudson's Bay Company complained that the government wasn't living up to its responsibilities, now that Canada controlled the territory. When Macdonald's plans finally fell into place and the Force was formed, the news traveled quickly to the free traders. They quickly buried or hid their unsold stocks of whiskey and fled. They planned to come back and resume trade when the Mounties left again.

But the arrival of the Mounties was the end of the whiskey trade. The traders knew when they were licked, and went into respectable businesses. The Blackfoot, formerly so protective of their territory, were greatly relieved to see the arrival of the men in scarlet to stop the exploitation of their people. As Jerry Potts told Assistant Commissioner Macleod, translating for a Blackfoot chief, "Dey damn glad you here!"



Sources and Further Reading: Georgia Green Fooks, Fort Whoop-Up: Alberta's first and most notorious whiskey fort. Lethbridge, Alta.: Whoop-Up Country Chapter, Historical Society of Alberta, 1983; Philip Goldring, Whiskey, horses and death: the Cypress Hills Massacre and its sequel. Ottawa: National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, 1979.

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