The Colourful History of Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills

Fort Walsh National Historic Site

If you haven’t realized it by now I enjoy exploring old frontier forts that are scattered across western Canada. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Fort Whoop-Up in Lethbridge, Fort Normandeau near Red Deer, and Fort Calgary in its namesake city. I also had the privileged of visiting a North West Mounted Police Post in Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park and Last Mountain House near Regina. Fort Walsh had been on my bucket list for awhile, but up until a recent trip to the Cypress Hills area I hadn’t made it for a visit. We were camping in the Firerock Campground and opted to drive the Battle Creek Road, which turned out to be a bit of an adventure on its own. The drive is roughly 50km from the town of  Elkwater to Fort Walsh, but the road gets progressively worse the further east you go. It took about an hour to travel that distance, but I wasn’t even remotely upset as those backwoods roads are definitely more fun than any highway.

The Colourful History of Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills
The memorial of Constable Marmaduke Grayburn of the NWMP. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
One of the landmarks along the drive is the memorial site of Constable Marmaduke Grayburn. Although this is not the exact spot of his untimely death there was a NWMP outpost located here that was named Grayburn Detachment in his honour. The memorial plaque reads,

“Constable Marmaduke Grayburn NWMP, was shot and killed by unknown persons in the Cypress Hills Nov. 17, 1879. He was the first mounted policeman killed by violence since the force was organized in 1873. Star Child a Blood Indian was accused of the murder but was acquitted in 1881.”

The Colourful History of Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills
The Symons Noble Cabin. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

Another historic site along the road is an abandoned log cabin. Through the power of social media and some sleuthing online I was able to uncover a few details about its history. According to the Canadian Nature Photographer and the Historic Reesor Ranch it’s called the Symons Noble Cabin because it was lived in by Robert Symons in 1939 and then he sold it to Albert and Sylvia Noble just three years later and they built the addition. According to local historian Fay Beirebach the Coleman Family actually lived in the cabin prior to Symons moving in, but no-one is quite sure who built it. Symons was a writer, painter, game warden, and rancher living in the area. He often carried a pencil and scrap of paper to sketch the landscape. He published several books about the Cypress Hills area. The Nobles lived here for ten years while raising a family and working a nearby sawmill.

The Colourful History of Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills
The famous Parks Canada red chairs have a gorgeous view of the Cypress Hills and Fort Walsh below. Read more about the Red Chair program right here. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

Archaeological evidence confirms human habitation in the Cypress Hills as far back as 8,500 years, which were entirely pre-contact First Nation groups. In the mid-1600’s early European traders and explorers began to arrive in the region, bringing whiskey, firearms, and diseases, all of which wreaked havoc on the local First Nation people. The introduction of guns made hunting bison much easier and before long bison were being slaughtered for their pelts to trade for whiskey, instead of for food, shelter, and tools. Although whiskey trading had been outlawed in the United States this practice was still prevalent in the highly lawless Canadian west. In the mid-to-late 1800’s at least four major Métis camps with about 300 families had been erected in the Cypress Hills. Like the plains First Nation, the Métis were nomadic people following the bison herds, but they also incorporated some European language and traditions into their distinct culture. In 1859 the Palliser Expedition passed through the region on their westward journey to document western Canada. Of the area Captain John Palliser wrote, “these hills are the perfect oasis in the desert we have travelled.”

The Colourful History of Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills
Looking down at Fort Walsh from the surrounding hillside. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

In 1889 the Hudson’s Bay Company transferred Rupert’s Land to the Canadian Government, but it would still be a number of years before law and order could be brought to the western territory. In the early 1870’s the entire region was a tinderbox. Ungoverned trading posts and whiskey forts, dispirited First Nation groups, and wolf hunters all contributed to this volatile scene. On June 1, 1873 everything came to a head when a trader discovered his horse had been stolen. He immediately, but falsely, accused a group of Nakoda that were camped nearby. After recruiting several wolf hunters from Montana who had been drinking heavily, they attacked the camp. By the end of the day some twenty Nakoda men, women, and children were dead and the Cypress Hills Massacre was born. As a direct result of this tragedy the newly formed North West Mounted Police (now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) headed west to bring order to Canada’s newest territory once and for all.

The Colourful History of Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills
This was the civilian cemetery from the town of Fort Walsh. A few of the graves have been identified and several are associated with the McKay family who operated a small trading post and farm near the fort. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

The NWMP force, with some 275 men, set out from Fort Dufferin in Manitoba in July 1874. They first established Fort Macleod by the end of the year and then Fort Walsh in 1875. Fort Walsh quickly became the largest and most heavily armed fort in the NWMP’s possession. In a mere seven years the NWMP abolished the whiskey trade and brought law and order to western Canada.

The Colourful History of Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills
Peeking through he entrance to Fort Walsh. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
The man who established Fort Walsh, Major James Morrow Walsh, was a true leader who commanded respect for the NWMP. An informative sign inside the fort’s museum reads,
“Major James Morrow Walsh was a courageous leader. His superiors respected him, his men admired him, and the newspapers loved him. As Walsh rose in rank, his superiors were not always pleased with his sometimes impulsive decisions and unconventional methods. However, Walsh used his influence and reputation to enforce Canadian law and keep peace in the west. In 1877, Walsh’s scout recognized stolen horses in the possession of White Dog, a Nakoda man visiting Tatanka Iyotanka’s Lakota camp. Walsh instructed one of his sergeants to place White Dog under arrest. The Mounties seized the horses but chose to release White Dog when he argued the horses were found, not stolen. The situation escalated again when White Dog threatened Walsh. However, when challenged by Walsh, White Dog backed down. To those looking on it proved that the Canadian law and the NWMP should be respected and obeyed.”
The Colourful History of Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills
A panoramic shot from inside the walls of the fort. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
By 1880 the NWMP had over five hundred men scattered at forts hundreds of kilometres apart. They were responsible for an incredibly large piece of land. Fort Walsh’s immediate jurisdiction included some 52,000 square-kilometres of present-day southwest Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta. Fort Walsh was the NWMP headquarters from 1878 to 1882 and was strategically placed close to the US border.
The Colourful History of Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills
Outside the fort’s walls was a First Nations Camp. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
Fort Walsh closed in 1883 after its importance decreased at the end of the Lakota Crisis. Fewer men were needed with a more secure border in place and Regina, which sat on the new transcontinental railroad line, became the capital of the North-West Territories and the new NWMP headquarters. Ranching became the main economic activity in the Cypress Hills region and two men, David Wood and Wellington Anderson, developed a ranch where Fort Walsh had been. Today’s fort is a recreation of the original that once stood in these hills.
The Colourful History of Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills
These are Métis Trade Cabins and they represent trading posts from the 1870’s. These cabins are near the location where Métis settler, Edward McCay, established his post in the spring of 1872. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
The plaque on the above monument reads,

“In 1875 a detachment of North-West Mounted Police under Superintendent J. M. Walsh built a post here which served from 1878 to 1882 as the headquarters of the force. The men stationed here played a key role in implementing Canada’s Indian policy and in supervising the Sioux who had fled to Canada with Sitting Bull after the battle of the Little Big Horn. Following the return of the Sioux to the United States and the settlement of the Canadian Indians on reserves, the fort’s importance declined and in 1883 it was abandoned. From 1943 to 1968 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police used the site as a remount station.”

The Colourful History of Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills
This stone marker is located within the NWMP cemetery and indicates the fort as a National Historic Site of Canada. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
I had a great time exploring Fort Walsh and learning how this piece of Canadian history connects with the other forts and outposts I have previously visited. The staff were fantastic and they were all dressed in period costume, which adds a sense of realism and authenticity in picturing what life was like in the 1870’s. If you’re ever in the area make sure you stop and discover this important piece of our heritage.
About Tyler Dixon 218 Articles
Tyler is originally from Saskatchewan, and yes he cheers for the Roughriders, but don’t hold that against him as Calgary has been his home for the past eight years. He is a teacher working at a wilderness- based treatment program for youth working to overcome addiction. Tyler is also a volunteer with the GOT Parks initiative, which aims at reconnecting Canada’s youth with our national, provincial, and territorial parks. During his time away from work, Tyler enjoys outdoor activities, such as hiking, biking, and snowboarding, team sports, travelling, photography, spending time with good friends, and being at home with his wife and German Shepherd, Rome.