Last April, I had the opportunity to visit Sounding Lake and area — something I’d wanted to do for a long time. Both cairns our small group visited are situated on privately-owned and leased crown land. We relied on our host to seek permission from the landowners and ranchers who lease the land to allow us to explore this piece of central-Alberta history. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and crocuses bloomed on the hilltops that overlooked the Neutral Hills to the south on the unbroken prairie near scattered piles of rocks. Our host surmised that these rock piles indicated First Nations grave sites, but this is only speculation. I’ve found no evidence since to support this.
Following the tour, I looked up the history surrounding Sounding Lake, the Royal North-West Mounted Police outpost there, including barracks and barn, and the story of its First Nations people. Most of what follows is from the local history book The Lantern Years: Buffalo Park to Neutral Hills and many of the accounts are written in the form of personal narrative. The Lantern Years was published in 1967 as a centennial project by the Hughenden Women’s Institute Book Committee.
Orville H. Smith
I took this first quote about the signing of the adhesion to Treaty Number Six from a narrative by Buster Smith beginning on page 230 of The Lantern Years: Buffalo Park to Neutral Hills. I’ve linked the full piece and more photos here. Buster was the son of Orville H. Smith who travelled indirectly from where he was raised in Missouri to Canada, herding horses along the way.
“Father [Orville H. Smith]was an old frontiersman, a free ranger, who didn’t like the idea of being fenced in, so he kept drifting. In 1877 he went to southern Idaho and bought up a big bunch of horses, trailed them north to Fort Edmonton, where he sold them at a good profit. He again went south to around Walla Walla and bought another bunch of horses and started north in ’78 with them. He had Bill Wagner and three other riders helping him. Near Coeur D’Alene they met a dispatch rider who warned them to change their route or they would meet up with Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé who was on the warpath, heading with his tribe for Canada, hoping to escape the U.S. Cavalry who were in hot pursuit. Smith learned later that they had narrowly missed meeting the party.
Some of the horses were sold at Fort Battleford and the remainder were driven to Sounding Lake, which was always a great gathering place for Indians. Father was there at the time Major Walker and Governor General Laird came to try to get the Indians to sign the Peace Treaty. Big Bear would not sign. He felt they were not getting enough (I don’t blame him) and he wanted a promise no more Indians would be hung. He rode around camp on a fine horse, all decked out in war paint, and tried to keep the other Indians from signing the treaty. There were attempts to cause trouble between the Indians and the Mounties. Father saw an Indian knock a Mountie down, but Major Walker held his temper and told the Indians to stop or he would arrest them all and take them to Battleford and lock them up. After days of negotiating, the treaty was signed, treaty money was paid, and trading began. The buffalo were plentiful then and fresh Buffalo meat was brought into camp every day. It was a time of racing, gambling, and dancing at night to the beat of the tom-toms, which kept up most of the night and could be heard all over the camp.
All the Indians were dressed in their best finery of beads and decorations of grizzly bear teeth and claws, feathered headdress, and white buckskins, and many had scalps hanging from their belts that had been worn by someone else not too long before. A pot of black tea was always kept boiling on the campfire and to this was added a good cut of old southern chewing plug or pain-killer tobacco to give the tea a little flavor and strength. A cup of tea was always passed around to the traders and you took a cup and pretended to drink it so as not to offend. The pipe-of-peace was passed too, and you always took a drag or two on that.
There was a big wide meadow south of where Sounding Creek, which gave fresh water for camping, flowed into the lake. The meadow was covered with Indian lodges on one side, while on the other was the North West Mounted Police camp and the tents of traders. Thousands of head of horses were herded in the hills beyond by the young boys of the camp.Buster Smith, from The Lantern Years, page 230
The Royal North-West Mounted Police at Sounding Lake
The above cairn located at the former site of the R.N.W.M.P. outpost reads:
Dedicated to the memory of the establishment and tenure of the R.N.W.M.P outpost located on this site (SW-36-3-W4th) during the period 1905-1908 and to members of the force charged with “upholding the right” from 1874 until the present day.
The Sounding Lake area is steeped in history of the early pioneers and native people, and has played a significant role in the early exploits of the N.W.M.P and R.N.W.M.P.
Erected June 16, 1973, the centennial year of the R.C.M.P., by A.E. Spencer, M.C. Sullivan, and others interested in preserving the historical past of the R.C.M.P.
This next quote is from the article called “North West Mounted Police at Sounding Lake” and I’ve linked the full article from page 175 of The Lantern Years here along with more photos. McCord was an early rancher at Sounding Lake at the turn of the century. He arrived there from the Southern United States in 1903. In 1904 Wilkinson, McCord’s business partner, returned to the States and brought back his two children, his wife, and his wife’s Black servant, Josh, who had been born into slavery in the South. Here is a seven-page history of the McCord Ranch from the Canadian Cattlemen (1952-53).
In the winter of 1906 one of McCord’s riders [Albert LaRoche] was lost in a blizzard and though the “Mounties” hunted for him all winter he was never found, but later the next summer a skeleton was found near Youngstown which was thought to have been the McCord rider.
It is estimated that there were 5,000 Indians, traders, Mounted Police and others gathered at Sounding Lake at the time [adhesion 157D to] Treaty Number 6 was signed.Author not cited in The Lantern Years, page 175
Treaty Number Six
Here is a quote from Treaty Number Six. This information was provided by R.W. Elliot. You can read the full article and see more photos here.
The treaty was paid at a few centres, at that time North Battleford and Sounding Lake. In June of each year the different bands gathered at these points not only for treaty payment but to celebrate, feast, dance, race, play games and visit those they had not seen for 12 months.R.W. Elliott, from The Lantern Years, page 256
And here’s the complete treaty from the Government of Canada’s website.
The Treaty Number Six cairn reads:
Dedicated to the signing of Adhesion 157D to Treaty Number Six by the Woods Cree and Plains Cree Indians, on August 19, 1878. At or very near this site known to the Cree as “The Nose”. The signing and subsequent treaty payment attracted some 5000 people to Sounding Lake.
This congregation of 4000 Indians, many Métis, 50 North-West Mounted Police, 33 traders and many others, was said to be the largest such gathering ever to assemble in the West.
The 1879 treaty payment was completed here with some 2000 in attendance. Noted visitors to Sounding Lake included: Gabriel Dumont, Charles Trottier, the Marquis of Lorne, Poundmaker, Big Bear, Fathers Lacombe and Scollen, Reverends John and George McDougall, trader and writer John McDougall, Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney, Lieutenant Governor David Laird, and N.W.M.P. Inspector John French.
Erected in 1978 by the Spencer Historical Sites Society (an investment in history).
Skulls, Both Human and Bison
On page 268 of The Lantern Years, the Whitelock family recalls the skulls discovered on their homestead. The full article is here.
In those days it was not uncommon to see bands of Indians, but a severe smallpox epidemic shortly before had badly ravaged the tribes. Indian skulls were scattered throughout the area. At one time Whitelocks had a number of skulls about their shack, but the Cree and Blackfoot tribes each claimed for their own any that they saw.Walter Whitelock, The Lantern Years, page 268
Here is a map of this area in east-central Alberta. Sounding Lake is situated between Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park and Consort, east of Highway 41.
A First Nation Encampment
Here’s an excerpt from a story submitted to The Lantern Years by C.A. Cousineau and D.I. Mossman about the remains of a First Nation encampment that the writers visited when they were young boys. I’ve linked the entire article from page 158 here and included more photos and more information about bison rubbing stones.
We found another place which we called “The Indian Camp.” It was about eighty rods northeast of the centre of Section 15-39-8 W 4th and covered an area of several acres. It contained eleven well-preserved sweat-houses, five teepees still standing, (coverings removed). One teepee was extra large with a pit in the centre a foot deep and about five feet across. There were sleeping cots made out of two poles a foot off the ground, connected by willows woven together. There were many places where small short sticks were stuck in the ground showing the outline of where skins of various sizes were stretched.
There was an Indian grave on a nearby hill. I hesitate to mention this. We boys started digging into it with our bare hands. First we found matches, then tobacco, an old pipe and a rusty jack-knife. The matches and tobacco were scattered all through the dirt. About two feet down we uncovered a blanket fairly well preserved.C.A. Cousineau and D.I. Mossman, The Lantern Years, page 158
I stopped typing the quote here because the rest of the story is a bit harrowing. You can access the whole account by following the link above the quote. The above quote does lend more credence to the grave sites located on hilltops. Note, though, that the writers do not talk about removing large rocks from the grave site.
Why “The Neutral Hills”?
This final quote is from an article that appeared in the Edmonton Bulletin in 1919, which was included in the history book and gives an explanation for the name of Neutral Hills. I linked the full article from page 269 of The Lantern Years here along with photos of the “sweetest flowers on all the hills.”
Mating birds and blooming flowers saw the opening of every fight and the dew froze upon the dead that made its finish. So, for moons of budding bush and blinding snow the Indian fight went on, and always, bowed with grief, was Manitou.
The of a sudden, rage burned in the heart of Manitou, and with his hand of fire he touched the plains between the warring tribes, and in a moment all were overcast with fear, for, where the hand of Manitou was laid, hills sprang up beneath it, and all the prairie roared with smoke and thunder.Harry W. Loughy, The Lantern Years, page 269
Thank you for visiting this post today. Have some information that I’m missing? Let me know.
– Lori on behalf of the Amisk-Hughenden Historical Society