Friday, September 7, 2012

Strychnine and Axe-attacks North of Cochrane Alberta, 1890

The old myth of the Canadian west as well-behaved and orderly, kept calm by respectable Mounties, and in no way related to the wild and woolly frontier south of the forty-ninth parallel, has not stood the test of time. Warren Elofson's Cowboys Gentlemen and Cattle Thieves (2002), is one work which argues that the image of the tame Canadian west dominated by metropolitan influences from Eastern Canada and Britain is in need of adjustment.  Elofson argues that Canadians could behave, "in astonishingly undisciplined and intemperate ways." He writes,
It is time to stop insisting on the absence of factors such as the frontier environment and lawlessness in western heritage. The frontier not only determined to a considerable extent the day to day practices utilized by the ranchers to run, protect and nurture their livestock, but did much to fashion their entire way of life, or culture in the broadest sense. A tendency towards extra-legal and even illegal modes and measures was part of that culture." (Elofson, xvi)

An 1890 North-West Mounted Police patrol report of the Cochrane, Bottrel, and Morley area seems to confirm Elofson's suggestions that the Canadian west could get downright unruly.  Corporal R. Macdonald was the leader of the patrol which set out west from Calgary at 8:30 a.m. on 6 June 1890.  What today takes no more than an hour's drive took the patrol all day, as they arrived in Cochrane at 5pm.  The next day they headed north on what was for some time called the Dog Pound, or Bottrel Road, but is now the Highway 22, (or, if you will, "The Cowboy Trail").  They stayed that evening at the Jenkins Brothers house.  The patrol learned that one of the Jenkins had been party to some spiteful violence which quickly escalated.

Corporal Macdonald's patrol report does not delve into the origins of the animosity between Jenkins and one James McDonough, but presumably a feud had been brewing for some time.  It may be the case that an errant canine was the source of the hostility.  As Macdonald wrote,
 A short time ago Jenkins + Nelson had determined to poison a dog belonging to James McDonough on account of its being in the habit of chasing their cattle.  Information to that effect was carried to him by Botterell - the consequence was a violent quarrel ending in the most abusive language by McDonough + a blow by Jenkins[. The] former then attempted to strike the latter with an axe. (RG18, Vol. 42, File 495)
It seems that McDonough was suspected of some foul play regarding poisonings in the area after the incident.  A horse some distance from Dog Pound Creek was found poisoned and it was discovered that McDonough had been to Calgary to buy fifty cents worth of strychnine.  Macdonald reported:
The bowels of the dead horse were examined by Dr. Heydon[?] of Mitford and strychnine was found in them.  In a conversation that I had with McDonough on the subject he said, "Its lucky that I live so far from him or he would suspect me of having killed them" he then went on to say "Its my opinion that they must have picked up some poisonous herb" and, on my telling him of the Doctors report, he said "Oh" several times in succession.
RG18, Vol 42, File 495. "Patrolling, Calgary District, Reports re."

The verdict on the McDonough poisoning case awaits further research, but the patrol report does provide some evidence supporting Elofson's thesis that the Canadian west could be violent.  The report gives great details on the region north of Cochrane, where in 1890 only twenty-four settler names could be procured in a area of approximately 500 square kilometers.  Corporal Macdonald reported healthy crops and fat sheep and cattle grazing on the open range.

Calgary Condominiums
Today the area is well-fenced, and cattle and a few sheep still placidly wander the grasslands, albeit with the occasional oil pump-jack in the way.  The Bottrel store sells grains and other agricultural goods, but children and adults alike from the nearby provincial campground seem to prefer the ice-cream.  Should one be interested in owning a piece of early western history, the store is up for sale!

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