The story of a rusty gun found in central Alberta begins across the continent in 1863 when 100,000 New Model Army revolvers were being made at the Remington & Sons factory near the banks of the Mohawk River in New York State. The New Model Army was a popular sidearm because it was affordable and tough: most were destined for use in close combat by U.S. Army soldiers in the American Civil War. Between New York and Alberta, much of the revolver’s story is a mystery.
The gun was discovered along a path on Buffalo Lake in 2004 when Darryl Bereziuk, now Director of the Archaeological Survey of Alberta, was scanning dirt for tiny trade beads and arrowheads and spotted the rusty barrel. “We realized it was likely associated with an historic Métis occupation nearby. The artifact attests to how lively a place this was in the 1800s”. The design and markings indicate that the gun was produced in the latter half of 1863 and had been accepted by the U.S. Army. It was likely issued to a soldier in 1864 but it’s not known if the gun was used in the final year of Civil War combat that ended in 1865.
On the heels of the Civil War, one of the largest 19th century settlements in Alberta was beginning to form in a strip of parkland that separated buffalo grazing grounds to the south and beaver-rich forests to the north. At Buffalo Lake, a mobile group of Métis hunters and their families built winter cabins from which they would venture south in hunting parties to target buffalo herds that provided meat for Canada’s trade posts. Over 1000 Métis called Buffalo Lake home during its heyday from 1872 to 1878 (when combined with 400 Europeans and other First Nations at Buffalo Lake, it was over three times larger in population than contemporary Edmonton and Calgary). Buffalo Lake provided firewood, water, and commercial opportunities owing to its access to several traders and posts.
Métis territory extended from the Dakotas to Alberta and they maintained personal and commercial connections to First Nations on the prairies and a variety of Euro-Canadians and Americans so it’s hard to say how a U.S. handgun ended up at Buffalo Lake. At the end of the Civil War, thousands of surplus arms were sold by the U.S. Government while many soldiers kept personal guns when they returned to civilian life. A Métis hunter may have bought an American gun from southern free traders, exchanged it with a war veteran, or acquired it from whiskey traders who were pouring north onto Alberta’s prairies. Revolvers were comparatively rare in Alberta and would’ve been hot commodities (historic records indicate that there were 100 rifles to every revolver in the 1800s) . Based on a variety of cartridges and caps, Maurice Doll, who excavated at Buffalo Lake in the 1970s, argues that the Métis had ready access to American goods and had one of the most diverse arsenals of firearms in Canada at the time.
Why own a revolver at Buffalo Lake? The parkland was a contentious zone where Blackfoot and Cree historically waged war. This is what earned the name Battle River, which flows past Buffalo Lake. A particularly bloody contest was fought within kilometers of the lake in 1865. Add to this the influx of southern whiskey traders and ‘wolfers’ (American wolf hunters), both known for less than scrupulous behaviour. A revolver could be concealed during indoor trading interactions, used as a last resort in open field combat, or used on hunting expeditions. With a muzzle velocity of roughly 260 m/s, the New Model Army revolver could have killed buffalo at close range, which horseback riders often did. An openly displayed sidearm could also be for prestige and intimidation. Whatever the motivation, the attraction of U.S.-made revolvers was so great that Richard Hardisty of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Edmonton complained in 1875 that the desire for revolvers was pulling First Nations and Métis clients into the hands of opposing American traders.
The Buffalo Lake revolver may have been lost during travels to and from the settlement, thrown away after corroded or damaged parts left it unusable, or it may have been buried out of respect. The gun must have changed hands several times and witnessed a variety of scenes, from the Civil War to daily life on the edge of the northern prairies. This rusty revolver took an interesting path from New York to Alberta and its story is a reminder of the importance of firearms in the historical development of the continent.
A version of this article appeared in the March/April issue of the Canadian Firearms Journal.
Written By: Todd Kristensen (Archaeological Survey of Alberta) and Anthony Worman (Royal Alberta Museum)