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The Treaty Makers - Colonel James Farquarson Macleod

Colonel James Farquarson Macleod

James Macleod, along with Northwest Territories lieutenant Governor David Laird, was one of the treaty commissioners assigned to negotiate Treaty 7 with the Siksika, Kainai, Piikani, Tsuu T’ina, and Nakoda First Nations in the land that is now part of southern Alberta. The role Macleod played in the actual Treaty negotiations seems, by most accounts, to have been that of a figurehead, a man trusted enough by the leaders of the various First Nations that his presence would encourage, if not influence, the First Nations leaders to agree to a treaty  with the British Crown.

James Farquarson Macleod was born on the Isle of Skye in Scotland in 1836, the son of Captain Donald Martin Macleod of the 25th Imperial Regiment. James’ family moved from Scotland to Canada when James was still a young child, and eventually settled in Toronto, Upper Canada. He attended Upper Canada College in Toronto before studying at Queen’s College in Kingston, eventually graduating with a law degree. He worked as a lawyer for a time but was encouraged by his father to pursue a military career.

Macleod joined the Canadian militia, and moved up rapidly in the ranks. By 1870, he was a brigade major who served in the Red River Expedition sent to put down the first Louis Riel led rebellion in that year. After completing this round of service, Macleod joined the North West Mounted Police (NWMP). In July 1876, Macleod was appointed Commissioner of the North West Mounted Police and led the march west to put an end to the illegal whiskey trade that had crept into the Northwest Territories from the United States of America.

At first, the march did not go well for Macleod and his men. Unfamiliar with the territory, Macleod and his troops lost their way. They proceeded to Fort Benton, in the Montana Territory to replenish their supplies. It was at Fort Benton where Macleod was referred to Jerry Potts, whom Macleod hired on as a guide.   

Under Potts’ guidance, Macleod and the NWMP marched into the heart of Blackfoot traditional territory near Fort Whoop Up, the notorious American whiskey trading post, establishing Fort Macleod on the banks of the Oldman River in 1874. After working to put an end to the American whiskey trade in the Northwest Territories, Macleod was held with some esteem by the leaders of the Blackfoot tribes, and earned the name Stamikkso ‘tokanni, Bull Head, from the Piikani chief of the same name. It was, by most accountings, a well earned respect for Macleod. He was known for his fair dealings and his honesty, a true man of his word.

Macleod’s reputation among the Plains tribes earned him an appointment as treaty commissioner for the 1877 Treaty 7 negotiations. By most accounts of the Treaty 7 talks, Macleod’s role at the negotiations seems to have been based on the idea that his presence at the talks would encourage the various First Nations to place the same faith in the treaty as they did in the North West Mounted Police under Macleod’s leadership. He did not engage in the main negotiations, by most accounts of the treaty talks. Rather, he was there to reassure the First Nations leaders that promises would be kept.

Some Treaty 7 Elders have since claimed that this notion of Macleod’s stature among the Treaty 7 First Nations may have been exaggerated a bit. While Macleod was held in high regard by Chief Crowfoot of the Siksika and Red Crow of the Kainai, this did not necessarily mean that these men, or the other First Nations leaders, were willing to agree to a treaty simply because Macleod was there. Crowfoot seemed motivated to sit down and talk because of his deep concerns over what was happening to his people, and perhaps hoped that he could trust those who came with a treaty as much as he had come to trust Macleod and the NWMP. Red Crow, for his part, did not invest too much importance in the treaty talks, feeling initially that they were talks to settle land use for the First Nations and the incoming European settlers. Indeed, Red Crow did not show up personally at the negotiations until late in the process, as he did not agree the Blackfoot Crossing meeting location. Like Crowfoot, Red Crow’s relationship with Macleod inspired him to believe that good things could happen, but he was certainly not so naïve to believe that all men were like the NWMP commissioner. Other First Nations chiefs, like Medicine Calf of the Kainai and Bull Head of the Tsuu T’ina, in spite of Macleod’s presence, were very reluctant to enter into a treaty with the Europeans. It was only after consulting with the other First Nations chiefs that they came to favour the treaty as the best possible course of action, since the other major course might very well lead to open war with the incoming Europeans.

Life after 1877 for Macleod saw him stay on as Commissioner of the North West Mounted Police until 1880. After that year, Macleod left the police service to serve as a magistrate in the Northwest Territories. Almost twenty years to the month from when he first established Fort Macleod in the northwest, James Macleod died in Calgary in September, 1894, aged fifty-eight.

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