The Last Great Battle

In the fall of 2012, the exhibit “Uncovering Secrets: Archaeology in Southern Alberta” highlighted 15 sites and features, telling human stories found under the soils and across the landscape of the area. The last major inter-tribal battle in Canada is one such story. It took place in southern Alberta on October 25, 1870.

The Cree and Blackfoot had been long time enemies when a large force of Cree, with Saulteaux and Assiniboine allies, decided to raid the Blackfoot. The Cree party of 600-800 warriors attacked a small camp on the east side of the Belly (Oldman) River, a short distance upstream from the confluence with the St. Mary River.

Unknown to the Cree, however, hundreds of Piikani from the United States had fled to the area following the Baker Massacre in Montana. These warriors quickly joined the battle and pushed the Cree east, up onto the flats (now West Lethbridge). The battle continued in a long coulee sloping down towards the east (just north of Whoop-Up Drive).

The Cree used old Hudson’s Bay Company trade muskets and bows and arrows as weapons. The Blackfoot had surplus American Civil War repeating rifles and handguns. Blackfoot warriors drove the Cree into full retreat towards the river. As the Cree tried to cross, Blackfoot warriors shot and killed hundreds.

Over 100 years later, local archaeological enthusiasts explored the coulees and found evidence of the battle. Metal detectors were used to find potential sites for probes. Within 8 mm of the surface they found Henry, Winchester and Spencer cartridges, along with lead and iron balls from muskets, confirming the oral stories about the types of guns both parties used. A few articles of copper and brass clothing decorations were also found, as well as long metal spear projectiles. In 1974, several cairns were still visible, erected shortly after the battle to mark the places where Blackfoot warriors had died. None remain today.

On March 18, University of Lethbridge archaeology student Tara Collett presents her excavation experience at Fort Vermillion I. More information about this program and “Uncovering Secrets”, including images, is available at