Early Days

different cultures . . . prairie neighbours 

buffalo skull

In the early days, before the reserves and the settlements, the plains were almost barren of trees all the way northward to the Battle and North Saskatchewan Rivers. Vast herds of buffalo trampled the earth, carved out wallows to keep themselves cool in the prairie heat, and browsed the younger brush in the coulees for winter forage. Indigenous peoples used controlled burns to encourage grass growth and lure back the huge herds.

broken knife's lookout hill

Long distance trails, for trade and travel, for seasonal migrations, and to follow the buffalo, crisscrossed the area, as they had for millennia. Geographical features often served as trail markers since they were visible across the wide open spaces. The Eagle Hills, immediately west of Fort Battleford can be seen for miles in most directions. Rockhaven’s Big Rock Buffalo Rubbing Stone marked the trail west to Sounding Lake. The best vantage point in the area is still Broken Knife’s Lookout hill north of the Cut Knife townsite on Poundmaker Cree Nation.

red river ox cart

This is Treaty 6 territory and the Homeland of the Métis. Little Pine First Nation, Lucky Man Cree Nation, and Poundmaker Cree Nation are the Town’s neighbours. Their ancestors were buffalo hunters and traders, and they roamed the plains freely until forced to settle on reserves. The Métis were hunters, as well, and provisioners to the fur trade. The Red River Cart was their invention. It made overland travel with large loads possible. Eventually, the squealing wheels would be heard all across the prairies: taking meat and pemmican to the forts, hauling merchant goods for sale and trade, and transporting the worldly goods of immigrants to their new homes. 

early surveyors cut knife area 1905 ca

The Geological Survey of Canada was created in 1842 to explore the geological resource potential of Canada as the country expanded across the continent. In the west, the survey’s objectives also included mapping the route for an east-to-west railway, and more specifically, to encourage settlement and resource development in the Northwest Territories. However, before this expansion could proceed freely, two conditions needed to be met: the buffalo had to be removed from the plains, and Indigenous peoples needed to be permanently settled. Early surveyors, Cut Knife area 1905 ca

hand drawn battle scene at Cut Knife Creek hilltop

The 1885 Battle at Cut Knife Creek hill was one of a series of violent outbreaks protesting the forced movement, and subsequent starvation of Indigenous peoples. Federal troops marched west from Fort Battleford to attack Pîhtokahanapiwiyin’s (Chief Poundmaker’s) camp at Cut Knife Creek. The militia was defeated by the Cree’s guerrilla tactics under the leadership of war chief Fine Day. The troops withdrew and were only saved from slaughter due to the intervention of Pîhtokahanapiwiyin. This was the last defeat of government forces in the Northwest Resistance. Drawing from the correspondence of the Montreal witness.

triple box wagon

With the land surveyed and the Homestead Act in place, the lure of ‘free’ land, caught the attention of families from around the world. Settlers began to trickle into the area during the 1870s, but ‘free’ did not mean ‘easy.’ With virtually no trees in the area to construct a shelter, settlers often lived in sod huts until lumber could be purchased and hauled in by oxen team. The area’s first crops were seeded in Wardenville and before the railroad came to Cut Knife, harvests were hauled across the Battle River to the railway at Paynton. The road between Cut Knife and Paynton still crosses the Battle River. Today, a monument stands nearby to honour another hero of the Northwest Resistance, Mista Muskwa (Big Bear). Triple Box Wagon could hold 120 – 150 bushels.