Gord Tolton is best known as the man behind the cannon at Fort Whoop Up, but he is more than just a “yahoo who likes to fire guns.” He knows all about the history of southern Alberta circa 1885, as he shows in his new book “ The Cowboy Calvary — The Story of the Rocky Mountain Rangers.”
“ The Rocky Mountain Rangers were to be Southern Alberta’s first military regiment. They weren’t just a bunch of yahoos who wanted to fire guns in the air,” summarized Tolton, sitting in his second home — The Lethbridge Public Library.
“They were some of Southern Alberta’s first settlers, some potentially, readers might find their great grandparents here,” he said.
The story unfolds before the backdrop of 1885 and the Riel Rebellion, Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, breaking of the first Indian treaties, worries of invasions from Indian bands and American raiders, miscommunication and a little bit of paranoia.
So a wide variety of people including former NWMP officers, military veterans, ranch hands and cowboys formed the Rocky Mountain Rangers to defend the countryside.
“It was a little anticlimactic because the rebellion did not spread to southern Alberta,” he said.
The book sets the scene for the formation of the Rangers by outlining the stories of some of the men who started it and the conditions and political climate they were living in.
There is an appendix including condensed encapsulated biographies of most of the members.
“It was an open range with no fences. So they wanted people who had the ability to ride and shoot,” he said.
The roots of the book came from his research into Kootenay Brown, a scout who among his accomplishments, founded Waterton Lakes National Park and was one of the original rangers. He discovered him and the Rangers while researching a shorter book on the Rangers for the Lethbridge Historical Society in the early ’90s.
“He was the most famous of the rangers,” he said.
The book explores two years of Southern Alberta prairie settlement.
“It shows the vast amount of change happening in a very short period of time, so I wanted to put people in the frame of mind,” he continued.
He names the enemy of the day — the Blackfoot, Blood and Peigan who were fighting for survival as buffalo herds they depended on for survival disappeared.
“They were were dependent on the government. The buffalo were disappearing and they were promised beef, so they just helped themselves which brought them into conflict with the ranchers,” Tolton said.
The book also examines First Nation Chiefs Red Crow, Crowfoot and Sitting on an Eagle Tail and how they handled the government and treaties.
“They could have joined the rebellion, but they were free to join the Rocky Mountain Rangers. So I’m detailing the causes as well. It deals with the broader scope of the rebellion,” Tolton continued.
The Rocky Mountain Rangers weren’t just around the Lethbridge/ Fort Whoop-Up Area, they were all over Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan from the Rocky Mountains to Cypress Hills to the U.S. border to as far north as Calgary - Edmonton corridor. The greatest concentration of Rocky Mountain Rangers was between Fort Macleod and Medicine Hat.
“One of the best known ranches was the Stewart Ranch by Pincher Creek formed by young militia veteran and Ottawa resident John Stewart.
While most people use Google for their research, Tolton did his the old fashioned way— sitting in libraries surrounded by dusty old books.
“While most people use Google for research, you probably shouldn’t. Most of my research was done the old fashioned way — in good old fashioned libraries, sitting here surrounded by books. Before the Internet became so big, I was in virtually all of the southern Alberta libraries, The Galt Museums and Archives with Greg Ellis, Calgary, the Glenbow the University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge College, Coaldale, Pincher Creek and anything I could get from inter-library loans,” he said. He also used a lot of “vanity books” — books published by individual communities chronicling communities’ early years and outlining the lives of the early residents.
“These are living memories. Without the Pincher Creek book, I wouldn’t have even known where to start,” he said adding he also talked to some of the families of the original Rangers.
“I even found the daughter of one of the Rangers,” he said.
The book is also full of details to place the reader right into 1885.
“The Glenbow Library and Archives has federal records all the way back to 1867. And I like to be able to tell people the cost of a saddle in 1885 in Chicago or what gauge a rifle was. People want to know those sorts of things. Details are what separates a historian from a BSer,” he said.
The book has received positive response in magazines like Alberta Views and during a variety of speaking engagements for organizations like the SA Light Horse Regiment.
Interest in the Rangers has even lead to an official Rocky Mountain Rangers Club in Pincher Creek.
“As a historian, it is nice to know what I do is relevant to people,” he said.
“ The Cowboy Calvary” is his second book for Victoria Publishing House Heritage House. His first was called “Prairie Warships,” which is also based around the Metis Rebellion.
He has several new projects in the works. The next big one is “Healy’s West” which is about John Healy, who built Fort Whoop -Up.
“ He was ambitious to a fault. He was a trader, a merchant. He even had an idea to build a tunnel under the Bering Strait. he was born without a dime and died without a dime,” he said.