The history of Fort MacLeod is a history that intertwines the Blackfoot, the Métis, Fur Traders, Whiskey Traders, and the Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP).
The cast of characters:
The Blackfoot: The Blackfoot controlled lands stretching from the North Saskatchewan River in Alberta to the Yellowstone River in Montana; and, from the Rocky Mountains to the Cypress Hills on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. Close to Fort MacLeod is Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump, where for thousands of years the Blackfoot people hunted bison by driving them over a cliff. The Blackfoot saw this practice diminish (and their food source) as the buffalo disappeared from the prairies.
The Fur Traders: French and American fur traders had established themselves in the Canadian West long before the arrival of the NWMP.
The Métis: The Métis are descendants of First Nations people and French fur traders. It was a Métis guide (Jerry Potts) who led the NWMP to Fort MacLeod. Shortly after their arrival, the Métis founded a settlement near Fort MacLeod called Half-Breed Flats.
Whiskey Traders: In the 1860s, when the U.S. eradicated the sale of illicit alcohol, many Whiskey Traders moved North to Alberta to trade their noxious mixture of alcohol, tobacco and turpentine to the indigenous people for buffalo fur. This destroyed First Nations societies and impeded government settlement plans. Banishing the whiskey trade from the West was a priority for the Canadian Government.
One scrapbook at Fort MacLeod contains the following quote from George Houk, a buffalo hunter and whiskey trader: It’s a wonder they didn’t get an army and kill every one of us. We deserve it.”
NWMP: When strife between the above groups became unmanageable, John A. MacDonald passed an act to allow the creation of the Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP) in 1873 to “bring order to the Canadian West.” Less than a month later, the Cypress Hills massacre happened and expedited the creation and arrival of the NWMP in the West.
In 1874, approximately 300 officers departed from Dufferin, Manitoba in what is now known as the “Great March West.” The march progressed rather miserably until the NWMP met up with Jerry Potts, a well known and respected Métis guide. With the help of Potts, the NWMP made their way to Fort Whoop-Up (the main Whiskey trade fort). However, news of the coming of the NWMP spread quickly and when the police reached Fort Whoop-Up, they discovered that it had already been abandoned by Whiskey traders.
From here, the NWMP made their way to the area they named Fort MacLeod (after Colonel James MacLeod) and managed to build a hastily made fort of logs, planks, sod, and any other materials they could find before winter hit the prairies. The first fort was built one mile east of the present town. However, after a spring flood, the fort was moved to its current location. The fort continued to be important in Western history and became the division headquarters until 1920 when it was moved to Lethbridge.