Members of the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society began a journey from Swift Current to Battleford this past Thursday, retracing the route of The Swift Current – Battleford Trail which served as a significant trail which linked the communities during the founding of the prairies.
The 18-day trek will feature a group of walkers travelling 330 kilometres along a route which periodically follows the exact spots of the over century old Trail. Last Friday they reached Stewart Valley, and on Sunday they had reached Sanctuary just north of Kyle.
“Over the next 18 days as we walk to Battleford we’re going to be very intimate with the land and all its natural resources. We’re going to be meeting some new people. Just ourselves, the walkers, we just kind of met last night. And of course we’ll be meeting people along the way. Many communities and farmers have welcomed us to stay overnight at their place. So we’re going to be in touch with people all the way up there,” noted walk organizer Hugh Henry.
Henry made a previous walk in 2015 with members of the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society, covering an over 300 kilometre walk from Fort Walsh to Wood Mountain. That walk traced the patrol trail travelled by members of the North West Mounted Police as part of the society’s Trails Program.
“I just thought, well, let’s take another step. Let’s do another sort of a second step. And because I was in the area, and I was familiar with this Trail, it seemed like a logical one to go with.”
Henry has mapped out a route which averages 20 kilometres per day across gravel and dirt roads plus through pastures. It also features stops at key historical points and markers along the Trail.
“The last couple of years I’ve been marking the trail, so I did get sort of a head start, just getting the local people and RMs tuned in to the fact that they have this significant trail in their backyards.”
A sendoff event was hosted on August 3 to see off the walkers. Before embarking on the trip, Henry commented that when planning the trip, three things came to mind – the land, the people, and the combined history built by the people and the land. He asked the assembled crowd to think back to a century ago and further in order to remember the written history of the Trail, but also the people who were here before that period. “The people that were here many hundreds of years ago, thousands of years ago, and how they lived in this landscape and travelled on this land, and survived.”
Métis elder Cecile Blanke shared some insights into both the Métis history and her own family connection to the trail.
The Battleford Trail was an important part of the early history of the Métis in this corner of Saskatchewan. The Trail was travelled by the Métis when they were hunting buffalo and travelling from Montana to Battleford. When the railway arrived in Swift Current in early May 1883, Blanke’s great uncle was one of the Métis who began hauling freight along the trail. Blanke’s grandfather Leo Larocque was a mail carrier, using the Trail to travel from Swift Current to the Landing, and then to Battleford during weekly trips.
“The train came to Swift Current in 1883, and there was no train in Battleford. So that (Trail) was the only way for them to get communication,” she said. “The Métis were the mail carriers and they were on this route.”
Her grandfather hauled mail from 1901 to 1905, and during that period he built a log shack between Swift Current and Saskatchewan Landing. Inside the shack, which had a door wide enough to fit a horse, he installed a stove, a large can for melting snow, along with food and wood, in case someone on the trail was caught in a blizzard.
Swift Current City RCMP Detachment Commander Staff Sgt. Gary Hodges shared some details of the role of the police during the era the Trail was in use.
The North West Mounted Police was established in 1883 to ensure orderly conduct in the newly imagined Western Canada. A report from 1885 indicates there were two constables stationed in Swift Current. However, there were many more officers sent to respond to the unrest that was developing in the Battleford district during the North-West Rebellion.
“Approximately 50 North West Mounted Police members accompanied Lt. Col. Otter and military units when they left Swift Current for Battleford in April of 1885. They provided security for the 543 troops as well as the 200 civilian teamsters who were contracted to haul the supplies. Additional members were also on escort duties and undertook regular patrols along the trail and the adjacent countryside for the rest of that year,” Sgt. Hodges said.
Starting in 1886 the police presence in the area was reduced in numbers, however police continued patrols to provide general security, enforce laws, and assist settlers that were in the area at that time.
“As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada this year, lets be mindful of all those who lived through the often difficult and turbulent times.”
Dr. Matthew Anderson of Concordia University, who is chronicling the journey on a blog, said during the first day of the trip they had walked past a traditional Indigenous burial site that has probably existed for 4,000 years.
“We’re all walking this trail for different reasons. Mine are these: 1. To draw attention to the fact that there IS a trail of national historical importance, walked by Big Bear and his starving and freezing Plains Cree, right after they signed Treaty 6, the route run by the Métis freighters hauling goods overland from the end of the CPR line at Swift Current to Battleford in 1882, and the route taken by Col. Otter and his troops on their way to fight the North-West Rebellion. 2. To show that it’s important to remember that there is a public interest in access even to historic trails on private land. And 3. To underline the importance of the Indigenous peoples to the history of Canada and Saskatchewan, and the long history they have in this area,” Dr. Anderson stated in his blog.
The Swift Current – Battleford Trail is a Saskatchewan Historic Site, and the Battleford Trail Ruts were declared a Municipal Heritage Site in 1984.