History Comes To The Plains

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In May, 1873, a band of angry wolfers pursued Indian horse thieves from Fort Benton northward into the Cypress Hills, where a few days later they slaughtered several dozen drunken and probably innocent Assiniboin in what history knows as the Cypress Hills Massacre. The wolfers undoubtedly knew they were carrying their gun law across the line into Canada; just as surely, the knowledge would not have troubled them. For one thing, there was enough Fenian sentiment and enough Manifest Destiny around Fort Benton to convince most of its citizens that the northern Plains were a natural and inevitable extension of the United States. For another, the boundary was less a boundary than a zone.

There was no telling where the precise line lay: wolfers and traders did not carry astronomical instruments. Even such prominent landmarks as Wood Mountain and the Sweetgrass Hills might lie in either nation, and though the Convention of London in 1818 had established the Forty-ninth Parallel as the boundary from Lake of the Woods to the Rockies, and the Oregon Treaty of 1846 had extended that line to the Pacific, neither the Indians who stole the horses nor the wolfers who pursued them recognized any dividing line short of the Cypress Hills—a line which had nothing to do with international agreements, but was established by topography and a balance of tribal force.

But even while the wolfers were urging their horses northward across the unsurveyed boundary zone, the first line of the geometry of law was starting west from the Red River settlements. By October, 1873, it would be at Wood Mountain; by the end of the following summer it would reach clear to the crest of the Rockies, thus linking the line which had been brought to the northwest corner of Lake of the Woods by a Joint Commission in 1826 and the eastward reaching line that in 1861 had been carried from the Pacific to the Rockies.

Only a little more than a year after John Evans’ wolfers poured their murderous fire into Little Soldier’s charging Assiniboin, the cairn-marked line of the frontier would be drawn accusingly across their track, making very clear the international implications of their raid. The series of trials and extraditions by which Canada would attempt for two years to convict and punish the raiders would so publicize the boundary that thereafter no one could cross it, for any purpose, in ignorance.

Surveyors are not heroic figures. They come after the explorers, they douse with system what was once the incandescent excitement of danger and the unknown. They conquer nothing but ignorance, and if they are surveying a boundary they are so bound by astronomical and geodetic compulsions that they might as well run on rails. The mythic light in which we have bathed our frontier times, when decision was for the individual will and a man tested himself against wild beasts, wild men, wild weathers, and so knew himself a man—that light does not shine on them as it shines on trapper and trader and scout and cowboy and Indian fighter. They do not even acquire the more pedestrian glamour of the farming pioneer, though they make him possible.

Among the chronicles of long Canadian marches, it is the march of Sir Garnet Wolseley from Toronto to Fort Garry to suppress Louis Riel in 1870, or that of the newly organized Mounted Police from the Red River to the Rockies in 1874, which has become folklore. But when the Mounted Police stopped, 590 miles out from Red River, to repair equipment and shoehorses and oxen and rest men and animals in a burned-over, dreary plain within sight of the Cypress Hills, the surveyors were there ahead of them. It was from their depot at Willow Bunch, on Wood Mountain, that Assistant Commissioner MacLeod went to beg surplus oats and provisions for his used-up command. By that time the surveyors were close to completing a journey that might have been called epic if it had not been so well planned, so successful, and so utilitarian.

They may as well be nameless; there were no heroes among them. And they do not need to be separated by nationality, for it was of the essence of their work that it was international, co-operative, mutual. But they are entitled to credit for the swift and efficient completion of a job of immense importance; and though they have never seemed glamorous, a young man seeking excitement in 1872 could have done worse than enlist with them.

Until the transfer of sovereignty over Rupert’s Land to the Dominion government there had been little need of defining the boundary established in 1818. The scare which Louis Riel threw into both Canada and Great Britain in 1869 and 1870 hastened the inevitable, and with the actual transfer in November, 1869, the Dominion, faced with border troubles all the way from the Red River to the Fort Whoop-up country at the foot of the Rockies, was clearly committed to a swift survey to fix the bounds of its jurisdiction and deter the raids and incursions, unofficial and semi-official, from the United States. The inciting cause was a hasty American claim that the Hudson’s Bay post at Pembina, on Red River, was actually on American soil.