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Tragedy at Fort Macleod

Published November 15, 2007        by Matt

A small police detachment was stationed some eighteen miles [from Fort Macleod], down the Old Man's River at an abandoned liquor trading post, named Fort Kipp after the original builder. It was the customary log structure, surrounded by a stockade.

An officer named Brisebois was in command. Two of his men had spent Christmas on leave at Fort Macleod; they left to return to Kipp two days before New Year. On that day word was brought to the fort that a Baker Company bull team, loaded with supplies and mail for us, had arrived at Whoop-up [near the present Lethbridge], but would be at least a week in reaching Macleod. We naturally were most anxious to get this mail at once, since no letters or papers had reached us since leaving Dufferin [Manitoba] in June; particularly we wished to have it by New Year. I therefore asked permission of Colonel Macleod to ride to Whoop-up, pick up the letters, and return by that time.

The colonel hesitated, but being himself anxious to hear from the Commissioner, he at last consented. I started on the evening of 31st December, riding a tough little Indian pony, with the intention of staying overnight with the detachment at Kipp and returning to Macleod the following day. Snow on the ground made the trail faint. I had made about half the distance when a sudden change of the wind, bringing a north-west blizzard, decided me to turn back. The temperature fell to twenty degrees below zero, I found it impossible to make headway with the wind and snow full in my face, and I had difficulty in keeping my eyelids from freezing together. The slight trail was soon blotted out. I had no alternative but to turn my back to the storm and trust to the horse to find the way to Fort Kipp. Luckily I was wearing a warm buffalo coat, but even this and my buffalo skin moccasins did not prevent me suffering considerably, and I only saved myself from freezing by dismounting at intervals and running beside the horse. In doing so, however, I was in danger of leading the horse away from the point for which he was making. I could see only a few yards in any direction through the blizzard.

Darkness came on, and I did not dare leave the saddle, to the pommel of which I fastened the reins, letting the horse have his head. Fortunately he had been bred in the vicinity and was wonderfully intelligent; he never went out of a walk, but kept plodding long hour after hour through the storm. Around midnight it cleared somewhat, and I could see dimly ahead what I took for the steep bank of the river. I trusted to the horse and he plodded on. The storm thickened again, and for another hour nothing was visible.

Then suddenly I found myself surrounded by lighted windows.

Without my realizing it the horse had walked through the open gate of Fort Kipp and stopped in the middle of the square. It was fortunate I had put my trust in his intelligence; otherwise we should no doubt have been lost, and I would have perished.

Fort Kipp that night was a welcome haven. The comfortable rooms, with their blazing log fires and a warm meal, soon put my blood again in circulation. I inquired of Inspector Brisebois if the two men, Baxter and Wilson, who had been in Macleod on leave, had returned. His reply being that he had not seen them, we concluded they had taken shelter at a small trading post some ten miles up the river, and would come in the following day.

Next morning was clear and I rode to Whoop-up, returning to Kipp in the afternoon with the letters. Here I learned that the horses ridden by the missing men had come into the fort, riderless, soon after I had left, and a party accompanied by Indians had been sent out to search for them. Just before I started for Macleod the poor fellows were brought in, one frozen stiff, the other, Wilson, still breathing, but with arms, legs, and most of his body frozen also. I took a fresh horse and rode as fast as the snow would allow to Macleod, and on my reaching there Dr. Nevitt raced to Fort Kipp, only to find on arrival poor Wilson dead.

The search party had followed the trail of the unfortunate men's horses to where they had wandered in a circle, and then laid down, soon to freeze in that bitter north wind. Shortly after this sad occurrence another man named Parks, ill from the exposure and hardship of the march, died in the rude hospital at the Fort. These three deaths cast a gloom over us all, and our first New Year in the West. The bodies of Baxter and Wilson were brought to Fort Macleod and buried with military honors by their comrades, with whom they were great favorites.