Canadian Cree Deportation at the International Boundary

As discussed in our previous web blogpost about the Galt Sternwheelers and the Riel Rebellion, with the surrender of Cree Chief Big Bear on June 25th, 1885, those hostilities came to a close. Several Cree families and warriors then made a dash to the United States to escape any possible persecution from the NWMP. Some ended up in the state of Montana, where they settled.  However, it wasn’t easy for his followers as they often had to move around to look for food, or escape from grumbling white settlers who accused them of committing crimes, etc. The American Natives didn’t give them any sympathy either and lobbying the government there for legal status went nowhere.

On the Canadian side of the border, many Natives had settled down on the reserves, and the most effort the NWMP had to exert was to urge those camping in the river valley below Lethbridge or wandering about the town, to go back home. Pretty quiet considering the rebellion and the tension that came with it just a few years earlier!

Back to Montana – after extensive lobbying that these ‘Canadian’ Natives were regularly being blamed for lost cattle or looted homesteads, the American government sent a representative out to investigate the situation. After reviewing it for about a month or so, he discovered that many settlers, far from being anxious to get rid of the Cree, were inclined to think they were rather useful than otherwise! The federal agent submitted his report and the matter was dropped until State politicians got a hold of the report and the matter became an issue again. Back and forth negotiations between Washington and Montana led to the decision to deport the Cree out of the state and back to Canada in the spring of 1896. By May, Washington set aside $5000 for this purpose and arranged for the railways (Great Northern, Great Falls & Canada Railway, and the Alberta Railway & Coal Company) to take them to the International Train Station at Coutts / Sweetgrass, where they could be processed. From they’d be forwarded to Lethbridge and later still north towards Edmonton or east to Regina.

In charge of the operation was Lieutenant John Pershing, commander at Fort Assiniboine near Havre, Montana with Major Sanno of the 3rd Infantry as the point man at the ground level. The American military had their work cut out for them and as soon as the Cree heard the rumors of the impending deportation, they’d scatter into the wind. In June 1896 Canadian Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Mr. Amedee-Emmanuel Forget and interpreter Hourie accompanied NWMP Superintendent Richard B. Deane as they went to the Montana capital of Helena to meet with the state officials to review the details of the Cree deportation.  When they arrived, they met the governor who admitted he didn’t know any of the details of the deportation! The governor said they better go to Fort Assiniboine and talk to the commander there. On arrival they were told that the details were still being hammered out by the American military, so the group returned empty handed back to Canada, awaiting word. A month later, Deane got a telegram from the Americans that the first group of Cree was being assembled and would arrive at Coutts within 3 days.  As Deane was reading the telegram, to the south in Montana the Great Northern Railway was bringing a group from Havre to Shelby, where a waiting Great Falls & Canada Railway narrow gauge train was waiting. It was reported that the American soldiers refused to help the Cree transfer their belongings from the GN train to the GF&CR train, and that after finding this out the Cree refused to move their own belongings.  The railway employees ended up doing all the work!  Several telegrams from both GF&CR and the GN were sent to Fort Assiniboine asking for the commander to instruct his soldiers to help with the transferring process.  Meanwhile, Deane and a few NWMP sat at Coutts bidding time and twiddling their thumbs waiting for the train to arrive. Finally, the railway employees were able to transfer everyone to the narrow gauge train and it set off towards Coutts, arriving a couple days later with 110 Cree, 170 horses, and 30 wagons onboard! For the next 36 hours, Deane and his men sorted through the mess, dividing the Cree into two groups; one going to the Bobtail reserve south of Edmonton and one to Regina.

While they were reloading the narrow gauge train to take the Cree north, Deane received word from Major Sanno that another group of Cree was being assembled in Great Falls, and would be heading northwards within the week.  Deane replied back that he would only accept the Cree in the daylight only, so the GF&CR had to slow their trains to meet his request! The next train would arrive at Coutts around 6 in the morning, allowing the NWMP and the Canadian customs agent to do their work. The Canadian government veterinary was brought down from Lethbridge to inspect the Native horses.

There was an incident with the second group of deported Cree – as they were being loaded onto the narrow gauge train at Great Falls. Many in the group did not think they would be deported to Canada, and had actually hired a lawyer to advocate for them on their behalf with the State. Meanwhile as the lawyer was at the courthouse, a troop of US Cavalrymen surrounded the camp to prevent anyone from leaving early. It was announced that the Cree had to board the train that would take them to the International border tomorrow. The Cree refused to leave initially, as they were waiting for word from their lawyer, however the lawyer failed to mention to the Natives that the American federal government had jurisdiction over the State government, and the Natives attempt to stay in Montana would be futile! The next day the US military began loading the Cree onto the railcars, a warrior by the name of Day Bow grabbed one of the soldier’s guns and shot himself dead. Understandably after the shooting, more soldiers were sent to assist in the loading and escorting the train to the International border and many of the Cree became agitated over the state of affairs. Fearing trouble between the Cree and the Canadian Natives, the Alberta Railway & Coal Company requested that additional NWMP be added to the northbound train to keep the peace. Superintendent Deane instructed Inspector Williams at Coutts to supply men to accompany the train. Fortunately, no incident occurred and a few days later the Cree boarded an eastbound CPR train to Regina. A small portion of the group left Lethbridge by wagon to head north towards Edmonton and were accompanied by 3 NWMP.

Meanwhile the trains continued to arrive at Coutts with more deported Natives. The next train brought 71 Cree and 340 horses – several who were sick and had to be put down. Additional NWMP were brought in from nearby Milk River to assist. It was decided to move the horses separate from the train and trail them to Lethbridge. At first the Cree were nervous on hearing they’d be separated from them, but the NWMP assured them they would be reunited in Lethbridge. A few days later, just that happened. It was rumored that on the next northbound train that two Cree warriors would be on it – these two were suspected to be part of the Frog Lake Massacre, where 9 settlers were killed. Superintendent Deane issued a warrant for their arrest as soon as the train arrived at Coutts. The two warriors, Lucky Man & Little Bear, were escorted by the NWMP to Regina where they were questioned by the authorities. It was later determined that since several years have passed since the Riel Rebellion, it would be impossible to obtain enough evidence to justify their commitment to trial, so they were released.

In early July, Major Sanno telegrammed the NWMP in Lethbridge that the remainder of the Cree in Montana would be brought to Coutts within the next week or so. Deane reminded him that money set aside by the American federal government had been all spent and that additional money was needed before they could keep the operation moving. While the money was being raised, the 10th US Calvary escorted a train full of Cree northwards from Great Falls and arrived at the International Border on July 22. This group only had 57 Cree and 143 horses, which made things a bit easier for the NWMP working at the Train Station. After a couple days of processing, the group was split and headed north towards Lethbridge. The sixth and final train was brought to Coutts at the evening of August 1st and consisted of 53 Cree. It was discovered that several Natives had contracted measles and the entire camp had to be quarantined on the border. The main doctor in Lethbridge, Dr. Mewburn, was brought down by carriage to assess the patients. After a few weeks the camp was relocated to Milk River and after another month they were given a clean bill of health. They were loaded onto the train and headed to Lethbridge, with this group’s final destination being Regina.

Under terms set down by the federal government, none of the relocated Cree could actually be forced to stay on the reserves, as they didn’t have official ‘status’. Many chose to stay in Canada, though it was later determined a quarter of the deported Cree would return to Montana. In 1916, under pressure from humanitarians such as the western artist Charles M. Russell the American federal government agreed to allow the Cree their own reservation (reservation in US, reserve in Canada).  The Cree, along with a group of Metis, would join a band of Manitoba Ojibwa, led by their chief Rocky Boy, at the newly created Rocky Boy Agency near Box Elder, Montana.

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All images and content are copyright Great Canadian Plains Railway Society / Galt Historic Railway Park Archives unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission. Special thanks to Gord Tolton for contributing, and Chris Doering for reviewing & editing!  Another article to check out on this topic is Benjamin Hoy’s writeup on the deportation of the Cree as well;


Group of Stony Indians @ the Coutts / Sweetgrass Train Station – taken on June 30th, 1906. Great Canadian Plains Railway Society / Galt Historic Railway Park Archives











Cree chief Little Bear with Cree at the Rocky Boy Reservation in Montana in March 1909 – Montana State University – Northern Archives #FM-1-134