Canada 150 Roadtrip: Fort Saskatchewan Heritage Precinct 

The City of Fort Saskatchewan is just northeast of Edmonton, Alberta, and was founded as an outpost for the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) in the 1870s. The NWMP are the precursors to the famous Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or Mounties. Fort Saskatchewan recently built a historical reconstruction of its original fort and I had the good fortune to visit it this evening. The museum display panels inside the stables of the fort are well-researched, well-written, and well-designed. You cannot access the site without a guide present, but when you do get the chance the fort is well worth it! The charming and knowledgeable interpretive guide Sally Scott showed us around and spoke to us of daily life in the fort, as well as one of the infamous people imprisoned there.

Further Reading

“Additional Information: Ate His Family”: Wendigos and Murder Trials in 19th Century Western Canada

Sometimes, when you’re scrolling through online archival entries or flipping through dusty boxes of otherwise banal documents, you spot something that sticks out: something alarming. These documents are all the more tantalizing because of a lack of context – or just enough context to leave you wondering.

A few weeks back, I was prepping a powerpoint presentation on the natural and cultural history of the Beaver Hills east of Edmonton (as I have been known to do) and I was searching for images of local Cree people from the nineteenth century. I wasn’t having much luck so I had literally plugged in the word “Cree” into Library and Archive Canada’s image database and was trolling through the hundreds of images there. Then I ran across this one:

“Cree cannibal executed at Fort Saskatchewan.” 1879-1880. Photographer: G.M. Dawson. Image from Library and Archives Canada.

The focus of the image is what appears to be a First Nations man wearing a dark coat, mocassins, and holding a chain on a ring. Standing next to him is a man who, judging from his hat and uniform, is a member of the North-West Mounted Police: an early Mountie.  I almost scrolled past it, but then I saw the arresting image title: “Cree cannibal executed at Fort Saskatchewan.

I had in fact sort of achieved my research goal: I had found a photograph of a Cree man taken in the local area. Fort Saskatchewan (at that time a NWMP post and prison), after all, lies between the Beaver Hills (where Elk Island National Park is) and Edmonton. However, I had stumbled upon a much more fascinating story than the one I had initially set out to tell… albeit one with minimal available details.

What information I could find in the LAC database entry on this case is slim. The photo is apparently from 1879-1880, and taken by a person called George M. Dawson. From the accession number, this photo was acquired by the LAC in 1969. In the entry for the photographed of the chained man, under “additional information”,  reads this tantalizing phrase: “ate his family.” According to the photograph title, this man was executed as a cannibal. Other files with the same accession number show images from the Canadian Geological survey, mostly from the 1890s onwards, of viewscapes and travelling scenes. Here, for instance, is a lovely undated photo of a train of horses at Jasper Lake. There appear to be thousands of these along a similar vein.

I did find another photograph, also taken by the same photographer, which I suspect to be from the same case as it is from the same year: “Indian Bones, victims of Cree Cannibal, brought in as evidence by the Mounted Police. 1879.”

Indian Bones, victims of Cree Cannibal, brought in as evidence by the Mounted Police. 1879.
“Indian Bones, victims of Cree Cannibal, brought in as evidence by the Mounted Police. 1879.” Photographer: G.M. Dawson. From Library and Archives Canada.

Again, very little information accompanies this gruesome image, especially not the reason why a photographer who apparently accompanies geological surveys would be in a position to take a picture like this. I can only speculate as to why these photographs were taken – it’s unlikely it was for a newspaper and too early to be put on a picture postcard for the ghoulish. (People did send postcards with morbid subjects, because human beings are terrible, but the popularity of photographic postcards didn’t take off until 1900 or so.) I do know that crime scene photography wasn’t really yet a thing, and anyway these bones look like they were retrieved and put on display.

So at this point in my research, I still didn’t know much of anything about this specific case or the people involved beyond the captions provided by the LAC. I still didn’t know the name of the accused “cannibal” in the photograph. It was not uncommon for everyone in a photograph to be named except First Nations people, who were almost invariably labelled “Indian” or by their nation; white photographers didn’t often bother to find out the names of these peope as their racial identity was apparently enough of an identifier.

What I do know is that there were multiple cannibal scares in what is now Northern Alberta in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. In this area fear of the Wendigo (cannibal monster) was very, very real, and people did die. What I found absolutely fascinating while conducting this research was the confluence of supernatural Indigenous explanations for gruesome behaviour like cannibalism (due to famine or insanity or both) and the newly imposed Canadian law by North-West Mounted Police.

In short, in the late nineteenth century you had the unusual situation of Mounties arresting bogeymen and putting them on trial for murder. 

A Wendigo (or “wîhtikôw” in Cree) is a cannibal spirit that can take over a person and compel them to eat other people. According to my friend and fellow scholar Caitlin Elm, who is Tall Cree, when she was young she was told wendigos are so famished that they eat their own lips so they always look like they’re baring their teeth. Once they have tasted human flesh, there is no going back.

Historian Nathan Carlson describes Wendigos in this way:

“Wîhtikôw was regarded by the Native people as a type of supernatural or spiritual condition that compelled its sufferers to bouts of rage, insanity, and— if the condition went unchecked— homicide and cannibalism. Moreover, it was oftentimes believed that the only way to stop wîhtikôw, if cures were unsuccessful, was to execute the sufferers by beheading them and then burning their hearts over a funeral pyre.”

The Brandon Mail, April 30, 1896, Page 3, Item Ar00308: Incident peel.library.ualberta.ca/newspapers/BRM/1896/04/30/3/Ar00308.html
Newspaper headline for an article recounting the Wendigo incident at Trout Lake described by historian Nathan Carlson. The Brandon Mail, April 30, 1896, Page 3, Item Ar00308. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

There was a spate of Wendigo incidents reported in newspapers in Western Canada throughout the 1890s. In 1897, two women from Whitefish Lake were brought to a missionary for treatment after one of them had a dream of her brother (who had been dead for four years) who offered her human flesh to eat in a bowl of ice, and both women subsequently became sick and were thought to be wendigos. Both of them ultimately recovered and they never consumed human flesh. In 1899, two men at Cat Lake were arrested and put on trial for murdering a man who had been overtaken by the wendigo spirit. The afflicted man had asked them to kill him before he killed others, and they had done so.  A contemporary newspaper article on the 1896 Trout Lake Wendigo (an incident described in detail in an article by Nathan Carlson in Recollecting: Lives of Aboriginal Women of the Canadian Northwest and Borderlands; you can read the article in full on the publisher’s website here) describes the justification for disposing of the wendigo in this way:

“The reason that an axe was used was that there is a belief amongst the Indians that a bullet will not pierce a “wendigo” or man eater. The body was burned and large trees felled over the grave to prevent the possibility of a re-apperance of the “wendigo.” Some days after the death of the man the people of the settlement were terror stricken, believing that he might reappear and destroy them. His murder is justified on the ground that unless he was killed he would have killed others, and that it is the custom of the country.”

– “A Trout Lake Tragedy,” The Brandon Mail, April 30, 1896, Page 3.

In the 1890s, people were being killed and eaten by wendigos, but other people were being charged by Candian lawmen for murdering those possessed by the cannibal spirit (sometimes before the monster could even kill anybody). At least one man – or wendigo – was executed in Fort Saskatchewan for his actions: the one photographed above.

Now, I am not saying that the man in the first photograph was possessed by the Wendigo spirit. I’m also not saying that he wasn’t, or that others didn’t see him that way.

After having written all of the above and trolled through as many photos as I could at Library and Archives Canada, I did a Google search and ran across an article from the Edmonton Journal with a copy of the above photograph. It had much more written detail than I was able to uncover, from documents held at the Provincial Archives of Alberta, including trial records. According to the article, the man in the photograph was named Swift Runner or Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin and he was the first man hanged in Fort Saskatchewan. He was convicted and executed for the “murder and cannibalism of wife, mother, brother, and six children.” His wife is the only named victim: Charlotte.

Swift Runner was hanged for his actions on December 20th, 1879, at 7:30 in the morning.

Resources

Elk Island National Park: Founded on a Bet?

It’s no secret that I’ve been doing a lot of research into Elk Island National Park’s history recently for work. One of the things that I could never quite wrap my head around is the motivations for the foundation of the park in 1906. Elk Island is one of the oldest national parks in Canada – it in fact predates the foundation of the more famous Jasper National Park by a year – and is the only remaining example of an “Animal Park,” founded as it was to protect one animal species (elk). Other national parks, like Banff, were considered “Scenic Parks,” founded to protect their beautiful scenery from logging and settlement and to encourage tourism. (The other two “animal parks” in Canada, incidentally, were Buffalo National Park (1909-1939) and Nemiskam National Antelope Park (1915-1947).) Elk Island has over a century of conservation history under its metaphorical belt, starting with the preservation of a small band of elk enclosed by a fence. But what motivated the creation of the only entirely fenced national park in Canada?

Elk in Buffalo Park, Wainwright, Bell Photo, circa 1910. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces, http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC005162.html
Elk in Buffalo Park, Wainwright, Bell Photo, circa 1910. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

The basic outline of the story that I was always told by other park employees and in short trail guides from the 1980s was that Elk Island was founded by “five guys who put up a $5,000 bond.” I’m going to be honest with you: I had no idea what that meant. When pressed, colleagues explained to me vaguely that five conservation-minded men from Fort Saskatchewan asked the government to create a national park and pooled their resources to show that they were serious in their commitment, and that the government matched that $5,000. Not knowing much about Edwardian bonds or the financial situation of the Canadian government in 1906, and not knowing what the money was even for, I wasn’t sure if this made sense. I was really left with more questions than answers.

Doing a little digging, it turns out that those five men from Fort Saskatchewan were all members of a hunting club. I knew that middle- and upper-class hunters from settler communities were often involved in early conservation efforts in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, largely because they wanted large game to be managed for their own benefit and protected from the being killed by local people (largely Aboriginal and/or poor) for subsistence. The early history of national parks in North America as a whole is riddled with stories like this: more privileged “visionaries” reserving tracts of land from those who lived on and used that land already. This interpretation fits with descriptions of the Fort Saskatchewan men being concerned that unnamed people would shoot the last remaining elk in the region.

I still didn’t quite understand what the $5,000 bond was, though. I then ran across this newspaper clipping on the foundation of the park in the May 6th, 1906 edition of the Edmonton Bulletin (click to enlarge). The relevant paragraph is the following:

“Alberta Game Laws Changed: The Proposed Elk Park – No More Spring Shooting,” Edmonton Bulletin (May 3, 1906), 1. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
“Alberta Game Laws Changed: The Proposed Elk Park – No More Spring Shooting,” Edmonton Bulletin (May 3, 1906), 1. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

“It is known to all who are familiar with such matters in Alberta that practically the last of the elk . . . are contained in a band variously estimated from forty to one hundred which is at present making its stamping grounds in the Beaver Hills, to the east of Edmonton. As Mr. Walker explained, some of the residents of his constituency, being very desirous of preserving the band, approached the Minister of [the] Interior on the occasion of his recent visit to this city and asked that he lay the matter before the Government at Ottawa and induce them to build a fence around at tract of timber in that part of the country . . . known to be the haunt of the elk. The Minister of [the] Interior replied that the Government would not be very likely to undertake anything of the kind unless they had some guarantee that there would be a fair possibility to get the elk inside the fence after it had been built, whereupon the Fort Saskatchewan men offered to put up a cash bond of $5,000 as a guarantee that within ten days after the fence was built they would have at least twenty elk within this enclosure. The guarantee was considered an evidence of faith in the scheme that could not well be overlooked, and the minister promised to do what he could to have the land set aside for the purpose of a deer park fenced.”

And thus Elk Park was born.

Three sides of the fenced enclosure were built around Astotin Lake by volunteers, leaving the southern boundary open. Elk were driven into this area, and the fourth fence constructed soon after, enclosing a grand total of about 24 elk in June 1907. After that point the five men were “released” from their bond as they had fulfilled their obligations.

Now, I interpret this incident almost as if it were a formalized “bet”: the Minister of the Interior, Frank Oliver, didn’t believe that it was feasible to enclose this band of elk. The residents of Fort Saskatchewan disagreed. $5,000 was put forward by five men as a guarantee that they was serious about protecting these elk, and Oliver would set aside land for them to try to enclose the animals. If the five men were right, Oliver would make the fenced enclosure officially a national park (or protected game reserve). The residents, in the end, succeeded, and Elk Park was quietly managed as if it were a national park until it was officially designated one under the Dominion Parks Act in 1913. That does of course make me wonder, though: what if they’d failed to enclose the elk? Would “Elk Park” have been quietly re-absorbed into the Cooking Lake Forest Reserve from which it was carved out?

Regardless, the narrative of “far sighted, visionary conservationists” founding the park in 1906 never sat well with me. It always seemed like an idealization of the past or a romanticize of its founders. It’s a truism that people do things for selfish reasons. More research into this specific situation bore this assumption of mine out. It appears that one of the five men, a Mr. Lees, was awarded two contracts totalling $13,800 in 1906 to construct that fence. (Fence posts and wire are expensive.) He more than made up his temporary investment of a portion of that $5,000 bond.

But see, the thing is: just because national parks were founded for quote-unquote “selfish” reasons does not negate the century-long conservation legacy that came afterwards. Origins are not destiny. I think that telling a more nuanced, “warts and all” story is far more fascinating and provides a deeper understanding than a glossy soundbite about historical “visionaries”. Whatever their intentions – be it personal profit, a desire to reserve those elk for their own hunts, or an actual desire to see elk protected from harm at the hands of human beings – those five men did secure the protection of the last remaining significant elk herd in the Edmonton area, and the park that they helped to found went on to play a huge role in preserving plains and wood bison from extinction in the future. And that’s worth celebrating.

Resources

  • “Alberta Game Laws Changed: The Proposed Elk Park – No More Spring Shooting,” Edmonton Bulletin (May 3, 1906), 1.
  • Colpitts, George. Game in the Garden: A Human History of Wildlife in Western Canada to 1940. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002.
  • Hart, E.J. J.B Harkin: Father of Canada’s National Parks. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2010.
  • Scace, Robert. Elk Island National Park: A Cultural History. Unpublished report prepared for Parks Canada Department of Indian & Northern Affairs. Calgary: Scace & Associates Ltd., 1976.