Original article by Jason Paul Sailer – additional information & editing supplied by Gord Tolton.
One of the volunteer militia units raised in the Northwest Territories (the name of the western prairies of Canada before provinces were established) in response to the 1885 Rebellion was the Rocky Mountain Rangers (RMR), a group of civilians / frontiersmen & ex-military men from the southern part of present day Alberta.
On the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers, discontent among the mixed-blood Métis society, and those of their Cree and Assiniboine allies, erupted into armed conflict. The intents of Blackfoot nations closer to the Rocky Mountains and the United States – Canada border were still in doubt. To newcomers out on the western prairies, remote living brought fears and fueled rumors. The main purpose of the RMR was to fight as a mounted Calvary against either discontented Canadian natives or border-jumping American warriors. They were to supplement patrols of the Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP) and provide security to the railroad construction crews.
The unit was organized and commanded by John O. Stewart, a rancher turned militia Calvary officer who ranched near Fort Macleod. On March 18th, 1885 an armed force of Métis seized the town of Batoche, Saskatchewan and demanded the surrender of the nearby Hudson’s Bay Company post at Fort Carlton. At the time of the seizure of Batoche, Stewart was visiting family in Ottawa and he quickly contacted the Minister of Militia and Defense, Adolphe Caron, offering to raise a volunteer mounted unit for service as the Federal government seen fit. The Métis revolt spread to the surrounding communities including Duck Lake, where on March 26th, Métis led by their leader Louis Riel, clashed with the NWMP and a group of local armed volunteers. The battle ended shortly afterwards with the police and volunteers retreating to Fort Calton. Nine volunteers and three NWMP members were killed, with many more injured. Five Metis and one native warrior died. As the news of the Duck Lake battle hit the headlines down east, the government was forced to act quickly to end the fighting. Stewart was directed in early March 1885 to organize “four units of Rocky Mountain Rangers”. Stewart was in immediate communication by telegraph with former military contacts back home to begin the effort of organizing the units. On the way back home to Alberta, Stewart stopped over in Winnipeg to order supplies and received word he was promoted to the rank of Major. In the meantime, the Canadian Pacific Railway began arranging troops to be transported on the recently completed railway line, enabling them to reach the region where the fighting was occurring in a week and a half later. Troops would be arriving from Ontario, Quebec, and as well as Nova Scotia. Out west, many locals volunteered to fight under Major General Fredrick Middleton and the remainder of the Canadian troops.
As soon as Stewart got home he went about organizing the troops of Rangers, who would then report to General Thomas B. Strange’s ‘Alberta Field Force’ which was organizing and preparing to head east towards the fighting. Stewart took over the local Northwest Coal & Navigation Company (NWC&NC) offices to finalize the paperwork and weed through the volunteers in forming the troops. He was also authorized to recruit Americans, who accounted for a large fraction of local population—robe traders, range riders and bull-team freighters working new homesteads—a rich resource of home-grown talent who knew the prairie, and how to ride and shoot. Volunteers were expected to provide horses, tack and firearms, but as uniformity and quality of weaponry were problematic, Stewart distributed fifty Model 1876 .45-75 Winchester rifles. Armed with these weapons, the Rangers had no identifiable uniform, just functional work clothing: “a sombrero, or a broad-brimmed felt hat with wide leather band, coat of Montana broadcloth or canvas lined with flannel, a shirt of buckskin, breeches of the same, a cartridge belt attached to which is a large sheath knife, and the indispensable leather chaps. Top boots with huge Mexican spurs completed the equipment.” Ex-Mounties accessorized with yellow-striped breeches. Rangers were encouraged to pin the left side of the wide brim of their felt slouch hat up the crown.
After two weeks of quick training (often marred by the men not taking it seriously), one hundred men divided into three troops of Rangers departed Fort Macleod at the end of May; troops #1 & 2 headed east towards Lethbridge and Medicine Hat, while troop #3 was left to patrol Fort Macleod and the Pincher Creek regions and to bolster the diminished NWMP posts. Troops #1 & 2 were to guard the narrow gauge railway construction, the Federal telegraph line, and the Canadian Pacific Railway bridge in Medicine Hat, and leading them east included famed western scout Kootenai Brown. The areas south towards the Cypress Hills and the border country were of concern as well. The Macleod Gazette reported “the corps is composed of a fine body of men, and as they marched past armed to the teeth with Winchester rifles and cross belts jammed full of cartridges – there was one opinion expressed regarding them and that was that they would make it extremely unhealthy for several times their numbers of rebel half-breeds or natives should occasion require action.”
The RMR’s arrived at Coalbanks not long after. It was a settlement located at the bottom of the Belly (Oldman) River valley. In the fall of 1879, Elliot Torrance Galt was the government’s assistant Indian commissioner, a job he would never have obtained had it not been for the name of his father, Sir Alexander Galt. Though competent enough, he was not content with a safe patronage appointment and longed for some venture to give him a chance to make his own mark. While riding through the present day location of Lethbridge, Alberta he encountered a former US trader by the name of Nicholas Sheran who was picking coal out of exposed outcrops along the Belly river valley and was also operating a ferry operation. Galt was impressed with the abundance of the coal and mentioned it to his father. He was instructed by Sir Alexander to return within a year to get samples of the coal for analysis.
The test results proved that the coal was very high in carbon, highly used in steam generation and for making coke, the fuel used in making steel. Another market was railway steam locomotives, something Sir Alexander knew would be eventually coming to the Canadian west. He was well aware of the government involvement with the CPR on the transcontinental railway, and its approximant route would be within the area of these coal sources. A mine location would be selected across the river from Sheran’s mine and the face of the Canadian west would change with the incoming wave of industrialization.
As Canada’s High Commissioner in London, England Sir Alexander Galt was the most powerful Canadian in Britain. This prestigious appointment connected him with the most influential of elite London capitalists, those who had the cash to help start first large scale mining operations in the remote Canadian prairies. After canvassing several wealthy individuals and families (including William H. Smith, William Lethbridge, William Ashmead Bartlett Burdett-Coutts, and the Baroness Burdett-Coutts) Galt was able to raise 50,000 pounds sterling (approx. $100,000 Canadian) to form the North Western Coal & Navigation Company (NWC&NC), basically to exploit the coal deposits in the Belly river valley and transport it downstream to market – which was to be the fuel hungry Canadian Pacific Railway.
A contract was hammered out with the CPR to supply 20,000 tons of coal per year, and on October 13, 1882 shovels and picks attacked a seam of coal in the side of a coulee on the east side of the Belly river. Soon afterwards the settlement of Coalbanks was established around the mine in the valley. With a transcontinental railway creeping across the prairies, the coal in Coalbanks was of national significance, but to be of any value it had to be at the market, and the closest point to the market was 100 miles east where Medicine Hat would be established on the South Saskatchewan River. The link between Medicine Hat and Coalbanks was the fact that the South Saskatchewan River connects into the Belly River. The ‘navigation’ portion of NWC&NC would now come into effect.
And it was here that Elliott and Nelson Todd launched the Baroness in 1883, the namesake of Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts. The Galt’s established a boatyard near the Coalbanks mine, and used wood from their Porcupine Plains sawmill. It was joined by the Alberta, another coal carrier, christened after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, launched April 15, 1884. The Minnow sternwheeler was loaded upon a rail flat car and shipped to Medicine Hat to be used as a tug boat for the larger two vessels. A scheme to float coal down river by barges & stern wheelers proved unreliable due to the unpredictable river water levels. The three ships were moored at Medicine Hat in the fall of 1884 and were for sale or demolition. However, the fighting in Saskatchewan would create a new role for these vessels. These three ships would join other privately owned sternwheelers to assist in the Riel Rebellion in central Saskatchewan by transporting supplies and troops.
To feed the railroad, Galt had to build a railroad. So in January 1885, the NWC&NC announced plans to build a 104 mile narrow gauge railroad from the mines at Coalbanks to the CPR junction at Medicine Hat. William Cox, a NWMP constable from Fort Macleod stated in his report “construction on the Galt railroad from Dunmore to Lethbridge, otherwise known as the ‘Turkey Track railroad’ began. This line and the accompanying telegraph line was going to be one of the main objectives of the RMRs.
Despite the federal government order to protect the railroad, the RMR felt obliged to the defense of the ranch country. Upon the arrival at Coalbanks, Stewart sent 10 rangers north to assist NWMP patrols between Fort Macleod and High River, providing a line of communication between the isolated ranches. This helped stem the tide of unsubstantiated rumors flooding the country and reassure the ranchers their concerns of protection were being heard. Wasting no time, Major Stewart left a detachment of rangers at Coalbanks and proceeded eastwards towards Medicine Hat following the proposed route of the Turkey Track. The troops were a welcome sight to calm the nerves of the jumpy workers. Six days later they arrived into the railroad town of Medicine Hat. It came into existence along the South Saskatchewan River in 1883, the chosen site of the strategic bridge that would carry the CPR to Calgary and the Rocky Mountains. Crews building the bridge and laying the tracks made Medicine Hat a rough-and-tumble boomtown.
As battles raged to the north, the Bloods and Peigans were quiet, and the Blackfoot pledged neutrality. Still, loose stories of marauders abounded. The locals heard unsubstantiated rumors of Blackfoot attacks – a motion was made to open the drawbridge portion of the bridge to prevent a mounted force crossing the river into town, but was rebuffed by the local NWMP superintendent who scoffed at the notion, and bravely boast that his detachment could easily stand and defeat Crowfoot and his braves. The RMR set up a camp near the South Saskatchewan River for the region, but Stewart faced a morale problem in his ranks, his men wanted to fight natives, not protect bridges!
After settling in Medicine Hat, long, monotonous patrols were sent out into the Cypress Hills, strategic hunting grounds of the Métis, with sheltered trails leading to Montana. The Blood and the Peigan were quiet. The RMR & NWMP escorted wagon trains, and patrolled the bull train trail between Macleod and the US Border, Galt’s railway, and the Dominion Telegraph construction projects. Stewart felt that embattled Cree or Métis might regroup in the Hills or escape through the dense jack pines, into American settlements, and posted a $1,000 bounty for the capture of Riel. With the eventual Métis defeat at Batoche, Riel surrendered to government forces, but the Rangers failed to capture Riel’s military general, Gabriel Dumont, a legendary buffalo hunter whose knowledge of the country allowed him to slip across the border.
Like most of the other voluntary units formed in the Territories during the rebellion, the Rocky Mountain Rangers existed officially for three months. By June 3rd, the troops began to wind down operations and began heading back to Fort Macleod. By July all three RMR troops were back in Fort Macleod, and were officially struck off on July 17, 1885. For exemplary performance and hardships endured, 114 Rangers were awarded the North West Canada Medal and became eligible for 320 acres of homestead land. These grants encouraged the veterans to become established as pioneer settlers in southern Alberta.
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