By Gary Wilson
Firearms and Horses Brought Change to Indian Nations by Gary A. Wilson
In the early 1700's, a major battle occurred between two Indian tribes in present-day central Alberta that significantly changed which tribes controlled northern Montana.
The Blackfeet Nation, consisting of the Piegans, Bloods, northern Blackfeet and their allies, the Sarsi and Gros Ventre, strongly desired to push south of the Red Deer Valley (between present-day Edmonton and Calgary) where the large buffalo herds spent their summer.
However, their main enemy, the Shoshoni (Snake), did not intend to allow their penetration into their vast territory. Most of their battles, though, ended in a draw. They typically formed opposite kneeling lines, and fired arrows at each other - with most glancing off their rawhide shields. But this balance of power changed about 1730, when the Shoshonis obtained the horse. Now they charged at the Blackfeet line, smashing the enemies heads with their stone clubs (Pukamaggan). The Blackfeet were not desperate, seeing they would lose more territory, not gain it.
Thus, they turned to their "friendly" trader enemies: the Plains Cree and Assiniboin(e) to the east in present-day Saskatchewan. These tribes did not have horses either, but did have firearms: the "North-West" long barrel, smooth-bare, muzzle-loading flintlock rifle. These were obtained from the Hudson's Bay Company and were made in England.
These adjoining easterly tribes had no great love for the Blackfeet, but they were trading partners; plus they would rather fight their common enemy in Blackfeet territory, not their homeland.
When the next battle occurred, the Shoshonis probably expected another easy victory with Blackfeet brains scattered all over the landscape.
But a strange, horrifying thing happened: in the front line of the Blackfeet warriors were ten Plains Cree and Assiniboin warriors, who opened fire with their "thundersticks". Each warrior had 30 musket balls, keeping two ready in their mouths and the powder horn in the other hand.
There were many dead Shoshoni when the smoke cleared, and adding to their disaster, the Shoshoni were hit with the diseases of the "Napekwan" (white men) soon after as they retreated southward.
The Blackfeet also obtained iron arrowheads, metal knives and axes, besides the horse. The Plains Cree and Assiniboin obtained the horse by stealing it from the Blackfeet!
The "Black-footed people" were now able to push the Shoshoni all the way south to the Three Forks region where they were found by the Lewis and Clark expedition.
The treaties of the 1850's gave the Blackfeet much of northern Montana from the Rockies to the mouth of the Milk River and lands south, until the present-day reservations were formed in both Montana and present-day Alberta.
Their former territory in north central Montana became the home of the Gros Ventre, now an enemy to the Blackfeet.
The horse and rifle dramatically changed the lives of the Indian people, but not always for the good as the Indian wars accelerated.