It should not be any surprise to any who know me, either personally, or virtually, that Fort Whoop-Up in Lethbridge, Alberta is a place that means an awful lot to me, and a living museum that continues to impress an awful lot of people who visit it annually.
What does not impress me, is that it seems to be a place that is in a state of constant threat by the forces who should be standing steadfast behind the facility and the organization that administers it. Without going into that extremely political process, I submit for your perusal, this letter that supports the bid by the Fort Whoop-Up Interpretive Society (FWUIS) under the Request For Proposal open-bidding process. (Yes, FWUIS has to apply for the job that it has done for nearly 43 years.)
In a quarter-century of my association with Fort Whoop-Up Interpretive Society (FWUIS), I have been a volunteer, a board member, secretary, vice-president, representative, employee, and ultimately historian of the Fort’s very rich legacy. From this experience, I have been fortunate to become a published author of many non-fiction narratives surrounding this subject. Quite simply, Fort Whoop-Up has changed my life. I have made the greatest friendships of my life while there. My family has long been involved in the Fort; my daughter was very nearly born there and has never known a time when the place was not a part of her life. And come to think of it–neither can I.
Historical Background and Relevance to City Heritage
In some 200 years of contact with Euro-American society, the Blackfoot Confederacy adapted to many influences entering its realm. From trade to the firearm to the horse to first contact to changing hunting habits, the Blood, Peigan and Siksika became a formidable force in both trade and military domination, but could not resist the westward movement or the colonial changes of North America. Just as our region became a part of the Dominion of Canada, a small-business push from the south brought the first staying influence into Blackfoot culture.
In the winter of 1869, John Healy and Alfred Hamilton of Sun River, Montana, opened a trading post at the confluence of the St. Mary’s and Oldman rivers to deal primarily with the Blood tribe in trading buffalo robes and other furs in exchange for traditional trade goods, items of interest, and, of course, alcohol. The ribald reputation of Healy and Hamilton’s enterprise led to Fort Hamilton being known primarily as “Fort Whoop-Up,” a nickname that became the primary identity of a second, expanded post constructed in the summer of 1870. In dealing with the Blood, and also the Peigan, the Siksika, the Pend’oreille, Crow, Kootenai, Assiniboine-Stoney, Sarcee, Sioux and Metis–and as a store for other settlers and traders–the Fort was prosperous and was the first permanent Euro-American settlement on the prairies south of Edmonton or west of Winnipeg.
In the fall of 1870, a winter camp of t the Bloods were attacked in the valley of the Oldman River by a formidable fighting force of a Cree-Assiniboine-Salteaux alliance from the east. Peigan and Siksika allies rallied to the Bloods’ aid and overwhelmed the invaders, but also received the aid of trade partners at Fort Whoop-Up, in what has become known as the last grand intertribal battle in North America.
In 1874, parochial concerns of sovereignty led the Canadian government to assign the North West Mounted Police to investigate Fort Whoop-Up, show the flag and initiate negotiations with the Blackfoot Confederacy in preparation for Treaty Number Seven. Contrary to the popular opinion that the Police had closed the post and halted the liquor trade, the truth is much more interesting.
In establishing Fort Macleod as a regional headquarters, the NWMP utilized Fort Whoop-Up as a temporary quarters site, drew supplies from the post, consulted with Fort personnel on local conditions, and even established a permanent outpost within the walls of Whoop-Up itself–a detachment that served local law enforcement until 1889¬–effectively, Lethbridge’s first police precinct. Under police supervision, Dave Akers, the eventual owner of the post, continued to do business with members of the Blood tribe, even into the years of the treaty.
Along the way, the Whoop-Up Trail, connecting with the Missouri River, was instrumental in the success of the NWMP, as the Montana merchants associated with the robe trade became suppliers and contractors to the Police, the federal government, the Canadian Pacific Railway and the needs of Treaty Number Seven, as well as fostering the ranching industry, early homesteaders and the supplies required by the coal mining industry of early Coalbanks. The Whoop-Up Trail and the Great Falls & Canada Railway that paralleled the route created dozens of southern Alberta and northern Montana communities.
Civically, many firsts can be attributed to Fort Whoop-Up. It was a trader named Nicholas Sheran who first exploited the coal deposits of the Oldman River coulees–deposits that were later noticed by the Galt family whose own enterprise initiated the founding of the town of Lethbridge and all that has come from that. Trader Donald W. Davis was the first Member of Parliament from Alberta, and Senator James Gladstone, first aboriginal Parliamentarian in Canada, descended from Fort Whoop-Up’s builder William Gladstone. In fact, the names of the traders themselves still resound among the southern Alberta community.
Even while the traders, Mounties and original Blackfoot customers were still alive, the fight to retain this history was begun. Journalists, authors and archivists flocked to the surviving figures of the era to salvage their words, and in 1912, organizers of the first Calgary Stampede built a replica of Fort Whoop-Up and invited remaining traders and Mounties to meet the public. Over many decades, Stampede founder Guy Weadick called for the era to be commemorated. His torch was taken up by many parties, including historian Alex Johnston, the Lethbridge Chamber of Commerce, the Kinsmen Club, and even by Boy Scout troops of Montana and southern Alberta, who marked out the Whoop-Up Trail as a project during the 1950s.
The purpose of this lengthy recounting is to provide awareness that this rich, vibrant and true history is precisely what Fort Whoop-Up has exhibited and told to millions of visitors in nearly fifty years of public display.
In 1967, the Kinsmen undertook the construction of a replica of Fort Whoop-Up in Indian Battle Park as a Canadian Centennial project. Operation of the facility progressed to the Whoop-Up Country Chapter of the HAS, (the current Lethbridge Historical Society) for a few years. Finally, in 1973, the Fort Whoop-Up Interpretive Society, a non-profit volunteer organization was created to operate the city-owned facility on a fee-for-service basis. On several occasions – in 1985, in 1997 and 2009, the Fort expanded its display area and completed a matrix for a full long-term historical experience. In fact, the Fort has grown to meet and exceed expectations and potential, and has made great strides to become a world-renowned historical attraction.
Today, the Fort is a year-round operation as a cultural and interpretive museum, and a well-attended historical attraction. The summer time program is busy, accented by self-guided or guided tours through the Fort’s well-appointed period rooms, the Thunder Chief and Crowshoe exhibits, the Shockley firearms gallery, and brought to life by costumed interpreters, livestock and horse-drawn wagon rides.
Each spring, FWUIS partners with the local MS Society to host their annual run, with hundreds attending in all manner of weather to support the cause, and that is just a smattering of what goes on in our Fort to involve the community. February Family Day and Canada Day sees us throw open the doors to offer day-long events so city residents have a place to enjoy a fun and culturally interesting day in the city. Statistics prove that local visitation accounts for a very large percentage of our annual attendance.
During the Christmas season, the Fort teems with life–through school educational visits, evening school parties, private staff or service group bookings, night-time wagon/sleigh rides and other forms of seasonal functions. Our horse-drawn hay rides are popular each year at the BRZ Bright Lights Festival in Galt Gardens, supported by the City and downtown merchants. These events offer the community contact with our Fort and aid in raising our profile within the local millieu.
Through Christmas, our Gift Shop is proactive in offering unique seasonal items in a non-stressed shopping environment. Late November and December has proven to be one of our busiest months of the year, helping us in many ways to achieve our attendance and fiscal goals.
First Nations Contact
Fort Whoop-has been recognized by the Blood and Peigan Nations as an important link in their own historical story. Nation members are an important part of the family and offer incredible value to our site. The make-up of our governing society benefits from the participation of several members of the aboriginal community. Our volunteer corps teems with many who see this Fort as a part of the experience and history of their people. FWUIS has employed many aboriginal youth and students over its 42 years, and many maintain contact with us on a long-term basis as volunteers and patrons.
The Thunder Chief collection is a significant and valuable body of artifacts chosen by its owner to remain in southern Alberta in order that his people may visit them and remain connected, while being displayed to the many visitors. The acquisition and display of this collection was not done lightly, and the local Blood and Peigan are continually involved in order to ensure that the artifacts are properly interpreted. This professional and open exhibit receives overwhelmingly positive comments from our visitors.
The Fort’s gift shop stocks cultural and crafting supplies to serve band members. Their patronization assists the Fort in the maintenance of a revolving inventory. Visitors are impressed by the strides we have made in keeping the interpretation of this facility balanced between so many disparate aspects, recognizing the virtues of a constant indigenous presence.
The Fort welcomes hundreds of students annually to participate in educational programs teaching local history to the Lethbridge public and separate districts, and other communities of southern Alberta. Schools also attend from Calgary, Edmonton, central Alberta, and south-eastern BC, purely to learn of this Fort due to its placement in the school curriculum.
Aboriginal students from the city and nearby reserves attend to assist in learning the Fort’s significant part in their own culture. International students and English as A Second Language students from both the University and College have become regular visitors, taking our story and experience to every country around the globe.
The most satisfying thing derived from our education programs is when young visitors return as children with their parents and siblings in tow; then again as teenagers; or even as adults themselves¬ with their own significant others and children. Fort Whoop-Up leaves a generational impression.
The name of Fort Whoop-Up has brought countless throngs of visitors and tourists through Lethbridge. The aggregation over 42 years quite possibly reaches into the millions. Aggressive marketing through Travel Alberta and other agencies brought the name to the forefront of travellers. Many media sources have presented features on the Fort – including Canadian Cowboy Country TV, Antiques Roadshow, PBS, American Road magazine and True West magazine.
But the best marketer has been the word of mouth, as many do inquire of the place, and indeed come to see it, based on the recommendation of others. Tourists find the variety and the experience compelling and vast, and depending upon interest, our visitors leave with smiles on their faces and good feelings about the city and our area. While they are here, they may also visit the Galt Museum, Nikka Yuko and the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, and patronize our malls, stores, service stations, hotels, food service outlets and countless other businesses.
Overcoming Adversity With Community Support
None of the achievements come without some hardship. In 1995, we were hit by the so-called “Flood of the Century”. Natural conditions have continued to plague operations on many occasions, but thanks to City assistance and the incredible volunteer commitment of the FWUIS, long-term damage was avoided, the hardships were overcome and the Fort always rose again to open its gates to the public.
Most impressive in these challenges was the swift and immediate reaction of the Lethbridge general public at large upon learning that their facility was at risk. The volunteer turnout, the lending of services and equipment and just the support that was received was truly humbling. Lethbridge quite simply cares about this facility and will put their backs into supporting it.
Volunteer Involvement and Perseverance
The Fort Whoop-Up Interpretive Society means, quite simply, many things to many people. For the city at large, the Fort is a gem in the operations of the city’s many facilities. As a feature landmark, most southern Albertans could not imagine a time without it. It is a community, an extended family, a public servant and custodian of an incredibly vast, colourful and significant part of North American history.
Fort Whoop-Up is an institution recognized locally, regionally, provincially, nationally and internationally. The good will it has brought as an ambassador for Lethbridge is incalculable. The RCMP, to cite one example, has recognized Fort Whoop-Up as a significant component of their Heritage Center in Regina. Countless other illustrations exist.
There is quite simply no agency, group, individual or initiative that can operate this facility as well as the Fort Whoop-Up Interpretive Society. I couldn’t feature anyone who could maintain this level of excellence and service, and still offer such an attractive draw to the site. FWUIS is, without a doubt, a sturdy group of multi-taskers who meet all challenges and succeed.
Cities the size of Lethbridge are envious as to what we have built here: taking a real-world historical concept and bridging it into a jewel of a site. 2017 is the year of Canada’s sesquicentennial–AND the 50th anniversary of this city’s Centennial project.
What a monumental achievement it would be to realize that the special little dream the Kinsmen Club and the Lethbridge Historical Society had in those simpler times¬ remains in the valley, with the spirit and intent still intact and its current world-class status in place.
What an optic it would be for the Kinsmen, the LHS, and so many other organization and individuals who have been along on this half-century ride to be there to wish the FWUIS well and honor the hundreds of volunteers, living and past, who have dedicated themselves to this facility’s many facets of culture and service.
All it would take for that to happen would be to allow the Fort Whoop-Up Interpretive Society to keep doing what it does so very well.
Gordon E. Tolton, Historian and Author,
Healy’s West: The Life & Times of John J. Healy