Everyone loves a good mystery. Even more, everyone loves finding the solution to a mystery. This is what archaeologist Donalee Deck strives to achieve as she digs for answers by literally digging up the past. Her report forms the bulk of material in The Cypress Hills Massacre, edited by Robert Clipperton.
By using ground-penetrating radar, Deck was able to document previously unknown structures and other archaeological features at Abel Farwell’s trading post, originally known as Fort Farwell, in the Cypress Hills region of what is now southwestern Saskatchewan. Her digs helped determine when the fort was constructed, what it looked like, and what daily life was like.
The outline of the massacre is generally known. On June 1, 1873, American wolf hunters slaughtered several Assiniboine families camped near the fort. The details leading up to this event, and its aftermath, are not so well known. The unprovoked assault on Canadian soil caused an international incident, resulting in an extradition trial for the accused.
Thomas R. Cox, secretary of the American Board of Indian Commissioners, wrote from Bozeman, Montana in July 1873, less than two months after the massacre: “Had the Assiniboine Indians attacked a white village & committed the same atrocities, nothing short of their extermination would have satisfied the public sentiment of the Country.”
The Cypress Hills Massacre will appeal to archaeologists, history buffs, and the general public. The book is divided into four sections. The first two deal with archival records from 1873 to 1941. The third and fourth sections deal with early and recent archaeological investigations.
Of greatest interest to history buffs are the reports from historical newspapers of the time, such as the Manitoba Daily Free Press, The Fort Benton Record, and The Helena Weekly Record. These papers record differing figures for the number of dead and conflicting statements about what really happened.
Other important sources include North-West Mounted Police reports and an eyewitness account from a survivor of the massacre. Contributors to the book who had previously sought out the facts are Mounted Police historian John Peter Turner and historical sleuths George Shepherd and Zachary Hamilton. Unfortunately, the full story is incomplete, as some files are missing, causing researchers to gnash their teeth.
The federal government had authorized the creation of the North-West Mounted Police about a week before the massacre, but news of the atrocity led Ottawa to speed up organizing the force so it could march west the following year. This essentially meant that the self-administered law of the gun, so rampant in the United States, came to an abrupt end north of the border.
The Cypress Hills Massacre has an annotated bibliography, list of references, and is profusely illustrated with photos – both colour and black and white – as well as sketches of the dig sites. Even if archaeologists can’t provide all the answers, they can at least help to unveil the shroud of mystery that has surrounded the Cypress Hills massacre for more than a century.
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