The following historical background will hopefully shed some light on this moment in history, one that has oft been forgotten. The time is circa 1870 and the place, the Montana Territory.
Let’s go back to 1862 when gold was discovered near Bannack, Montana. This attracted floods of white men into the Montana countryside. These men were described by their contemporaries as rough, uncivilized and often criminal. As John C. Ewers noted in his book The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains they were considered little more than “thieves and blackguards,” the sort of persons who could “not be tolerated in any civilized society.” With the advent of these people flooding into the country, a series of wrongs committed against the Indian people began to go unpunished, thus setting the stage for war.
To add to this, in 1863, annuities, promised to the Blackfeet by treaty with the U.S. government, never reached the Indians due to a Sioux war and the Blackfeet agent’s fear of travel. Ultimately he refused to complete the journey north, and the goods were never delivered to the Indians.
At last a new agent was chosen for the Blackfeet, but he was possibly worse than the previous one. In his writings, he referred to the Indians as “degraded savages,” and called them “hopeless.” Under his “care” and “guardianship,” more injustices were committed, and the Indians, who had voiced their disapproval of the white invaders, escalated their protests from capturing a few horses (a practice laudable to Indian society) to killing the white invaders.
Also, at this time, the governor of the district, Governor Edgerton, took steps to ignore the U.S. government’s treaties with the Blackfeet and stated openly, “The Government will, at an early date, take steps for the extinguishment of Indian title in this territory, in order that our lands may be brought into market.”
In 1865, a war between the Blackfeet and whites ensued after gold was discovered in the Sun River Valley. The whites wanted the gold; the Indians demanded that the treaties, which had given the land to them, be upheld. Also that winter the Indians helped many of these white men to survive a particularly harsh season. However, this aid was clearly forgotten when friendly Indians visited John Morgan in Sun Valley that winter. There he killed one of the Indians and hung the other three affable visitors from a nearby tree.
Now add to this, the horror of smallpox, which may have been transmitted to the Indians through contaminated blankets. This disease was carrying off the tribe’s young people, and the Blackfeet began to fear for their future.
About this same time the white settler’s eye began to covet not only gold, but the rich grazing land, which again had been promised to the Blackfeet by treaty. Perhaps because of the discovery of gold, or perhaps only because the white settlers screamed so hard all the way to Washington, the United States government blatantly refused to uphold the promises of the Treaty of 1868.
Hostilities grew and in 1869, two Indians, while on a peaceful errand for their agent were shot and killed in broad daylight on the streets of Fort Benton. No action was ever taken to right this wrong.
Then the worst happened. In 1870, one of the friendly villages of Blackfeet was struck by the cavalry, an incident that is now known as the Baker massacre (see appendix), in which an entire village of women, children and old men were killed while the warriors were out of the camp on a buffalo hunt.
While news of the massacre stirred the hearts of those in the east and incited their protests, closer to home, the white settlers in the west applauded the military’s action.
It was during this time that the Indian whiskey traders began to take unprecedented advantage of the Indians’ uncertainty of the future by pouring barrel upon barrel of illegal liquor into their trade. While liquor had always been a part of the trade, never had the West seen such large quantities of the “white men’s water” so easily obtained. The liquor had ill effects on many in the tribe and the weak-hearted went crazy under its influence, oft times killing family members or friends or even freezing overnight in a drunken stupor.
In its defense, the U.S. government, witnessing the horrible effect on the Indian tribes, cracked down on the traders whom the Indians called “whisky sneakers,” thus making it almost impossible to trade alcohol to the Indians south of the Canadian border.
In 1869, a new problem began when the Hudson’s Bay Company ceded its vast territory north of the “medicine line” (the divide between the United States and Canada) to Canada. This effectively left no law and order in the land; no one to prevent American rascals from trading more and more liquor to the Indians. During the next four years more than a dozen forts, large and small, flew the American flag on Canadian soil.
As said by John C. Ewers in his book The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains, these “whiskey forts” were directly responsible for one of the bleakest time periods in Blackfoot history when easily twenty-five percent of the tribe perished, directly due to the liquor trade.
In spite of their colorful names, these American posts north of the “medicine line” were responsible for one of the darkest chapters in Blackfoot Indian history. At a time when these Indians were disturbed by the steadily growing influx of white settlers upon their Montana hunting grounds and by the United States government’s refusal to honor treaties made with them, when another smallpox epidemic was carrying away large numbers of their sturdy young people, and when they were thoroughly shaken by the massacre on the Marias, it took but little more to demoralize the Blackfeet completely. That little was a ready supply of “white men’s water” with which to drown their sorrows…
There are no complete records of the number of Indian deaths caused by “white men’s water” in the period 1869-74. But the Blackfoot agent in Montana estimated that six hundred barrels of liquor were used in Blackfoot trade in 1873, and that in the six years prior to that time, 25 per cent of the members of these tribes died from the effects of liquor alone.
And so it is during this turbulent time period in American history that our story begins.