Visiting the former Fort Hamilton — now Fort Whoop Up, Lethbridge, Alberta: recalling 19th century rogue traders

Provincial flag of Alberta
Provincial flag of Alberta | Source
Fort Whoop Up, Lethbridge, Alberta
Fort Whoop Up, Lethbridge, Alberta | Source
Fort Whoop-Up, Alberta, 20 October 1881
Fort Whoop-Up, Alberta, 20 October 1881 | Source
North West Mounted Police lancer
North West Mounted Police lancer | Source

A poignant National Historic Site of Canada

This review of the former Fort Hamilton — now called Fort Whoop-Up (its previous, colloquial name), in Lethbridge, Alberta, has caused me to use a provocative title which indicates recollections of rogues who traded here.

So what happened in the second half of the 19th century, that rogue traders gave Fort Hamilton — rebuilt and enlarged — a bad name, to the extent that its more colloquial name has now overtaken the former usage?

What happened was that free trade in whiskey, centred at trading posts such as Fort Whoop Up, created what would now be called synergies of supply and demand particularly among local First Nations, with destabilizing consequences for the North West (in which Alberta was included until 1905). Not long after the setting up of Fort Hamilton trading post in 1869, over 70 people from the Blackfoot First Nations died of alcohol related issues.

There was another explosive addition to the trade mixture: weapons, in the form of repeating rifles. When on October 20, 1870 a Cree force met forces of the Blackfoot Confederacy close to present day Fort Whoop Up, a massacre ensued when death in the form of lead bullets reigned down upon the more lightly armed Cree (1), during the Battle of the Belly River. It is estimated that 40 - 50 Blackfoot were killed, but losses among the Cree were approximately 200-300. Numbers among the opposing forces were equally balanced, with several hundred fighting for each side, but undoubtedly the possession of new repeating rifles enabled the Blackfoot to gain the upper hand, to devastating effect.

Finally, more widely, what addiction to whiskey and the profusion of repeating rifles failed to produce, the arrival of the deadly disease of smallpox did.

For many First Nations, the history of Fort Whoop-Up is partly synonymous of many facets of death and destruction which the coming of Europeans signified.

However, there are also other aspects of local heritage which are commemorated at Fort Whoop Up, now a National Historic Site of Canada. First Nations' products such as weaved items are regularly bought and sold here.

It is also recalled that the North West Mounted Police — now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police — was created specifically to bring law and order to a region formerly affected by much social turbulence and even the fear of US intervention.

Historical panels at the Fort and a well-stocked gift shop combine to provide the visitor with memorable information and items.

The current, wooden structure of the Fort dates from 1967 as a Centennial project. The original Fort was located in the same general area as the present structure, but not in the identical location.

The Fort may be accessed at 200 Indian Battle Park Road, Lethbridge, close to the Oldman River.

March 24, 2015

Note

(1) Far more severe in degree and numbers, the massacres on the Somme some decades later yet represented a similar, grim collision between insufficiently prepared ground troops with developments in machine gun and poison gas technologies. (These occurred, even as Anglophone High Tories raged in favour of imposing Conscription upon on Quebec; and machine gun technology was also used by Toronto-recruited troops to kill protesters in Quebec City.). So, this article indeed has a provocative title; but the title's negative connotations are not restricted to isolated rogue elements. Belying a Canada which today sees itself as a peaceful, trading nation par excellence, its history 100-150 years ago contains evidences of sanguinary, roguish impulses at the highest levels of policy. (This is not to try to deny the honourable military service and sacrifice of many Canadians down the years.)

Map location of Lethbridge Census Division, Alberta
Map location of Lethbridge Census Division, Alberta | Source

Also worth seeing

In Lethbridge, notable sights include the Galt Museum; the Japanese Gardens; Henderson Lale; the record-breaking High Level Bridge, dating from 1909; dining in the Water Tower Restaurant; and many others.

Nanton (distance: 121.4 kilometres); the Air Museum commemorates Canadian aviators of Bomber Command during World War Two and notably possesses a Lancaster bomber. There are various well appointed antique shops close by.

Waterton (distance: 124.6 kilometres): this outstandingly scenic location - part of Warterton-Glacier International Peace Park - has striking views from the much photographed Prince of Wales Hotel over the often snow-capped Rockies and the Waterton Lakes.

How to get there

Air Canada, flies to Lethbridge Airport, via Calgary, with wide North American and other connections, from where car rental is available. Contact details for Fort Whoop Up may be viewed at: http://fortwhoopup.ca/?page_id=33 . Some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. For up to date information, you are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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