Although the Canadian West was never as colorful or untamed as the American Wild West, it still had its share of drama, trailblazers, and interesting heroes, heroines, and villains. I have researched extensively to make my story reflect the times. My places and characters are all fictitious, but some were inspired by real people and events.
Alberta and Saskatchewan are not just prairie provinces. They share the Cypress Hills, a rumpled blanket of hills, coulees and ravines, bearded with a dense forest of pines and aspens that begins just inside Alberta’s south-eastern border and spreads horizontally for miles into Saskatchewan. It is the highest elevation on the prairies until you reach the Rocky Mountains.
Saskatchewan, prior to it becoming a province in 1905, was split into two areas. The lower half was called the District of Assiniboia where my story takes place.
The Thunder-Breeding-Hills (Cypress Hills) was named by the Blackfoot and Gros Ventres because the terrain seemed to trap weather disturbances, especially thunder, in the higher elevations. Later, when the Métis fur traders hunted here, they called the area, les montagnes des Cyprès, because of the tall pines, but when it was translated into English, it mistakenly became Cypress Hills. There are no cypress trees here. Other earlier names were Pine Hills and Grizzly Bear Hills. There was a large grizzly population well into the 1870’s. Huge herds of bison were also shot for their hides.
Fort Walsh was built circa 1875 by the North West Mounted Police, also known as Redcoats by some because of their bright red jackets. After the Cypress Hills Massacre in 1873, the government was forced to realize the serious issues out west and sent the newly-formed N.W.M.P. to bring law and order to the flourishing whiskey smuggling trade. There are several forts scattered across the prairies that are open to visitors, including Fort Walsh.
In 1875, cattle were initially brought up from Montana to supply the N.W.M.P. with food. Quick-thinking men saw the opportunity and soon set up their own ranches to supply meat and horses.
The Canadian Pacific Railway spanned the country horizontally by 1885, but rural areas still had to rely on horses, buggies and wagons, maybe even stage coaches, to bring in supplies and passengers from the terminals. Maple Creek would probably have been the closest to my setting, and then Medicine Hat (Alberta). Fort Benton, Montana, was a major hub for trade, as well.
Pine Coulee, protected by policemen from the fort, is a fictitious settlement nestled amongst coulees and ravines in the south-west corner of Saskatchewan and close to the Montana border.
French Henri is inspired by a real bronc buster, Dutch Henry, who broke horses for several ranchers in the Big Muddy area. He turned outlaw, rustling horses and cattle across the border into Montana and North Dakota.
Jones-Nelson Gang were real outlaws who terrorized the border areas with their cattle rustling and bank robberies. Frank Carlyle was an ex-mountie who was dismissed from the Force for “suspicious activities” and joined the outlaws. Ironically, he met his death by the gang leader. Some border ranchers aided the outlaws by sending the mounted patrol in an opposite direction. Then, with a strategically-placed lantern or barrel, they’d signal the outlaws when it was safe (or unsafe) to visit. In exchange, these ranchers suffered no loss of horses or cattle or ransacking.