Written by: Ken Favrholdt, BA, MA (Geography, UBC)
Much is written about the Whoop-Up Trail, the famous 320 kilometre route from Fort Benton, Montana to Fort Macleod used by whisky traders between 1869 and 1874.
However, there was also another important route used during this period. The Riplinger Trail was an Indigenous trail across traditional Blackfoot territory and home of the Blood tribe. Part of the trail in Montana it is believed, was part of the Old North Trail, the ancient migration route—the so-called ice-free corridor—along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. The Riplinger Trail was named after John Riplinger of the Northwestern Fur Company who built a post on the Marias River in Montana in 1869-70.
The route of the Riplinger Trail was well known to prospectors and whisky traders, and then to ranchers and settlers, especially after the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) established Fort Macleod in 1874. Although the Whoop-Up Trail was the shortest and most direct route from Fort Benton to Fort Macleod, the trail was an alternative route for transportation from Fort Benton via Fort Shaw, a U.S. army post on the Sun River west of Fort Benton. The NWMP used this as a mail route connecting with Fort Benton, and sent their livestock south from Fort Macleod to winter in the Sun River area.
Before the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railroad to Calgary in 1883, the Riplinger Trail was used to bring shipments of food and supplies to the Blood reserve from Fort Benton. The trail was used by the Blackfoot to travel between the Blackfeet reserve in Montana and the Blood Reserve in Alberta. It crossed the Blood Reserve at Stand Off on the Belly River, and then crossed the Waterton (Kootenai) River, heading north to Fort Macleod.
Belly Butte and the Blood Reserve
In 1880, Blood Chief Red Crow met with Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney to establish a reserve. In 1882, the Dominion Government dispatched land surveyor John Nelson to carve out a reserve for the Blood Tribe. He drew up a territory of nearly 1,700 square kilometres, large enough for almost 3,300 people, under Treaty 7’s formula that allotted land by population size.
The reserve was described in 1889 by the Government of Canada Order in Council:
The greater portion of the reserve is a high dry undulating plain. Its principal topographical feature is Belly Butte (Mokowanis) a well-known landmark with lofty escarpments of clay, facing Belly River. The principal Indian settlement is on the Belly River at Belly Butte, Turnip Hill (Massir-e-to-mo) is on the northern part of the reserve on the trail from Whoop-Up to Slide Out; Fishing Creek enters the reserve near the south-west corner and empties into the Belly River; and Lee’s Creek, which enters near the south-east corner, empties into the St. Mary’s. There are two large valleys in the reserve, called respectively, Buffalo coulée on the western side, which opens into the valley of the Belly River and Prairie Blood or St. Mary’s Coulée on the eastern, which opens into that of the St. Mary.
Belly Butte, overlooking the ancient trail, is sacred to the Blood people. Their oral history tells the story of Blood Clot Boy (Katoyis), who was swallowed whole by an animal and escaped by cutting its belly open with a knife. According to the Blood paleo-Indian story, the beast’s intestines spilled out and became the Belly Butte, the traditional home of the Blood people.
Stand Off along the Trail
Stand Off, originally on the west side of the Belly River, presently sits below Belly Butte. It is the main community of the Kanai Nation today and was established as a trading post in 1871 on the west side of the Belly River by a party of whisky traders headed by John Wren and John “Liver-Eating” Johnson. The unusual place-name was chosen for the fact that they had to “stand off” against the U.S. Marshal Charley Hard and the Blackfeet Indian Agent before they crossed the Medicine Line. The event actually took place 60 miles south of the boundary line along the Cut Bank River.
Rancher John Craig noted “dead lodges” in the trees and corpses on scaffolds in the area when he passed through on a cattle drive from Montana in 1882. Methodist minister John Maclean was the missionary to the Bloods in the 1880s, as well as the farm instructor. When Maclean arrived, the Bloods were still seeking a reserve. In October 1880, he directed Red Crow’s camp near Belly Butte to build houses for themselves, following his lead. “In this manner fourteen houses were in the course of creation & 49 Indians were busy at work…The women were busy hewing the [cottonwood] timber.” A ration house to distribute food was also built.
Besides the Lee’s Creek detachment near Cardston, the North West Mounted Police had a detachment at Stand Off for many years, connected by the Riplinger Trail. The famous saga of Charcoal, a young member of the Blood Tribe, played out in the area when he killed his wife’s adulterer. After eluding a large posse after him, he killed a police sergeant during the manhunt. Charcoal was finally captured on the reserve and hanged at Fort Macleod in March 1897, his body returned along the Riplinger Trail to Stand Off where he was buried at the Roman Catholic cemetery.
Mormons and the Riplinger Trail
The completion of the CPR to Calgary effectively ended the dependency on the Riplinger Trail as a transportation route from Montana to the British Northwest Territories. Nevertheless as the Latter-Day Saints discovered, it was still a convenient route to southwestern Alberta in the late 1880s.
In spring 1887, a group of 40 Mormons, led by Charles Ora Card and family, migrated from Utah to present-day Cardston picking up the Riplinger Trail at Sun River, Montana. At that time it was more commonly known as the Macleod-Benton Trail. In his diary, Card mentions the route they took from the international boundary, crossing Willow Creek and then the swollen St. Mary’s River near a NWMP detachment.
The Blood Tribe’s oral history relates how, at the time of their arrival, the Mormons had asked Red Crow for permission to set up camp. The Blood Tribe’s oral history also describes a 99-year lease signed by Red Crow, allowing the Mormons to stay on the land. This lease has never been located. The Mormons were camped within the boundary of the reserve as surveyed in 1882 but outside the boundary as surveyed in 1883. In 1888, the Mormons obtained Crown grants to the lands where they had camped and in 1889, church officials in Salt Lake City purchased the half section townsite from the Dominion of Canada.
The Blood Tribe has long claimed its land encompasses everything from the St. Mary River in the east to the Waterton River in the west, and south to the U.S. border, including the Town of Cardston, known as “the Big Claim”. Finally, in June 2019, a federal court has ruled in favour of the Blood tribe, who were short-changed by 160 square miles in the division of land under Treaty 7.
The route of the Riplinger Trail in Alberta is now replaced by Highway 2 between Fort Macleod and Cardston, Highway 501 to just west of Taylorville, and Range Road 242A to Immigration Gap. The ancient route is unmarked—but known for thousands of years by the ancestors of the Blackfoot on both sides of the Medicine Line—traversing their traditional lands.
Blood Tribe seeks massive land claim in Federal Court. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/alberta-blood-tribe-kanai-blackfoot-land-claim-waterton-1.4716390
Brownstone, Arni. “Reverend John Maclean and the Bloods.” American Indian Art Magazine, Summer2007.https://www.rom.on.ca/sites/default/files/publication/pdf/brownstone_macleanblood20081.pdf
Dempsey, Hugh A. Firewater: The Impact of the Whisky Trade on the Blackfoot Nation. Calgary: Fifth House, 2002.
Dempsey, Hugh A. Charcoal’s World.: The True Story of a Canadian Indian’s Last Stand. Calgary: Fifth House Limited, 1998.
Dormaar, Johan F. Alberta’s 49th Parallel: A Natural & Historical Journey. Lethbridge Historical Society, 2009.
Indian Claims Commission. Blood Tribe/Kainaiwa Big Claim Inquiry http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2007/icc-cri/RC31-44-2007E.pdf
John Maclean 1880– Diary 1880–1883. John Maclean Fonds, Box 11, File 1, July 22, 1880. 1883 United Church of Canada/Victoria University Archives, Toronto, Ontario. 1880– Daily Journal, Fort Macleod 1880–1888. John Maclean Fonds, MG29 D65. 1888 Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.
Wright, Dennis A., Guy L. Dorius, David L. Innes, Dale H. Lowry, “Mapping the Alberta Route of the 1887 Mormon Trek from Utah to Cardston.” In Alberta History, Volume 51, Number 3, Summer 2003.