Journal Volume 6 2010

Sir William F. Butler (continued/4)

The Great Lone Land

At this time there were no settlements west of Winnipeg, just a great vast wilderness stretching to the Rockies and inhabited by nomadic tribes of Indians - Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Cree, Piegans, and Salteaux. Archibald announced that the Government of Canada intended to take over the administration of this huge empire. Butler was instructed to carry out the following tasks:

    1. To examine the state of security in the region and advise how to arrange for the protection of life and property
    2. To ascertain the prevalence of smallpox and to bring medicines for the relief of those affected
    3. To ascertain the size of the trade in furs and advise on the potential for commerce

Quite a task for a military officer of 32 and the rank of Lieutenant. The Governor appointed him a Justice of the Peace to confirm his official status.

On October 24th 1870 Butler set out on his mission mounted on a pony named ‘Blackie’ and accompanied by a half-breed driving a cart with his kit, some food and medical supplies for smallpox sufferers. Butler’s joy at being once again alone in the wilderness did not last long: in early November a blizzard blew out of the north and the temperature dropped to 40 below freezing. They had now reached a point on the Saskatchewan River some 40 miles south of what is now Prince Albert. They tried to raft across the river and when that failed they waited until they judged that the ice was thick enough to support them. Unfortunately they misjudged and ‘Blackie’ fell through the ice into the freezing water. The pony tried gallantly to recover but the current was too strong. Butler was obliged to get his rifle and shoot the animal to spare him suffering. His description is poignant:

‘I went back to the camp and sitting down in the snow and cried like a child. With my own hand I had taken my poor friend’s life; but if there should exist … a happy Indian paradise where horses are never hungry or tired, Blackie at least will forgive, if he can but see the heart that long regretted him.’

Butler travelled 3700 miles through that terrible winter recording the condition of the few people he met, appalled at the cruelty and hardship of their lives, and personally enduring hunger, cold and fatigue which would have killed a lesser man. At the end of February 1871 he submitted his report to Governor Archibald, a remarkable document detailing the population, the number and distribution of Indian bands, and the extent of smallpox. He appraised the value of prairie soil for agriculture and suggested means of opening the territory to settlement without unduly disturbing the Indians. He set out a pattern for establishing law and order based on a force 100-150 men, well- mounted and backed by a travelling magistracy to dispense justice. This led to the formation two years later of the North West Mounted Police.

It is acknowledged that his report is not only a comprehensive social and economic record of the place and time but is written in a colourful and readable literary style. It is considered to be one of the great documents in the history of Western Canada.

His experiences were recorded in his memoir ‘The Great Lone Land’ which was published in 1872 and which is still a classic in the literature of travel.

Butler regretted the impact which the development of the territory would have on the nomadic Indian tribes. He admired their lifestyle and enjoyed sharing their activities but he recognized that more intensive exploitation of the territory was inevitable. In 1885 the railway link from east to west was to be completed and within 50 years the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta were to become the breadbasket of the western world.

Butler was poorly rewarded by the bureaucrats in Ottawa who failed to use his talents for further exploration in the western lands. He was still a lieutenant, and an angry and embittered man. He took a ship for England, again with the aspiration to join the French Army. However when he reached home France had been defeated. He still made the trip to Paris to see the situation for himself. He found France torn by civil war between the Government and the Commune; bloodshed, mass arrests and executions were the order of the day. He had no option but to return to join his regiment, the 69th, at its new depot at Chatham.

Fortune however turned in his favour. His book was accepted by the first publisher he submitted it to and, miracle of miracles, his oil speculation came good providing him with £1000 worth, approximately £17,000.00 in today’s money. Any other man would have been happy to enjoy his good fortune and indulge himself in pleasant recreation. He was also in a position to purchase a majority in the army which had long been withheld on merit alone. It is the hallmark of the man that he chose to take another leave of absence from the army and spend his money on a new and more ambitious expedition to the Canadian North west.


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