One day in 1875, a detail of Mounted Policemen stood atop a small hill overlooking the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers. After conferring with his men, the officer in charge of the detail, Cecil Denny, pointed at a section of slightly elevated level ground near the mouth of the Elbow and said, "We'll build the fort there"! At least that's the story told by the Calgary Herald when it announced Sir Cecil Denny's death. It's a good story, even if I havn't found it in any of Denny's writings, and whether or not it's true, it can truly be said that Cecil Denny helped build this city with his bare hands.
After making the long march West and helping to found Fort MacLeod, he was put in charge of overseeing the construction the new "Bow Fort", as it was called at the time, and by 1879, commanded Ft. Calgary and part of `E' Division.
Denny was educated at Cheltham College in England and subsequently in France and Germany but the romance of the frontier and the news of the formation of the North West Mounted Police lured him to Canada and in 1874 he received his commission in the force. His writings chronicle the early history of the Mounted Police and the political history of the time in some editorial detail. He pulls no punches and is free with his criticism of government officials of the time.
There are numerous tales of Denny's bravery, determination and dedication; particularly where it concerns his dealings with the Blackfoot people. In August of 1876, Denny, leading a detail of 10 men, left Fort Calgary for a Blackfoot camp to arrest a murder suspect. The camp was about 200 miles north east of the Elbow River.
After securing the prisoner, Denny and his men were asked to stay and attend a council with Chief Crowfoot. At the meeting, Chief Crowfoot said that they were glad the Mounties had come because there was some distress in the camp. The Sioux south of the border had asked the Blackfoot to join them in their battle against the Americans promising to come to Canada and help drive out the Mounties when they were finished. The Blackfoot had refused the overture saying that they had no quarrel with the Mounties. The Sioux had responded saying that they would make war on the Blackfoot after they were through with the American Army. Crowfoot asked Denny if the Mounted Police would come to their aid if the Sioux attacked.
Denny replied that if the Sioux attacked the Blackfoot without cause, they were duty bound to help protect the Blackfoot . Crowfoot then told Denny that , if the Sioux attacked across the border, he would send two thousand warriors to fight at the side of the Mounties. Thus began a long friendship between the Blackfoot people and Cecil Denny.
Denny was one of the signatories of Treaty #7, when Chief Crowfoot made his famous speech about how the Mounted Police had protected them as the feathers of the bird protect it from the frost. But events were not always to be so kind to the Blackfoot or to Cecil Denny.
Denny left the Mounted Police in 1881 and shortly thereafter became the Indian Agent for the Treaty #7 area. His rocky relationship with the bureaucrats which came to a head in 1884 when the Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs toured the West. The Deputy Superintendent refused to visit the reserves and when the chiefs came to Fort Macleod, he also refused any meeting with them . This disturbed Denny greatly because he wanted the government to see first hand the conditions on the reserves.
After the Deputy Superintendent returned to Ottawa, Denny was ordered to dismiss all his staff and to basically run the stores, do all the office work and administer the Treaty #7 reserves by himself. He was then ordered to cut the rations of food allotted the Blackfoot. At this point, Denny resigned out of frustration. In his letter of resignation, he criticised the Deputy Superintendent for knowing absolutely nothing about the treaties which his department was supposed to administer.
These sentiments were not Denny's alone. More than one NWMP Superintendent, one being R. Burton Deane, formally criticised the beurocracy of the Indian Department for their lack of knowledge about their jobs.
Denny turned his hand to ranching but was persuaded to come back into government service during the North West Rebellion in 1885 and be in charge of relationships with the Western Plains Bands. The government was worried that the natives in the south would join Riel and knew that Denny, with his good relationships with the Blackfoot, could help prevent this. Denny always said that the North West Rebellion was a great waste and could have been avoided had the government only negotiated in good faith with the groups involved.
After the Rebellion, he was a scout for the Mounties, a magistrate at Fort Steele and was placed in charge of the Peace River expedition. He became Chief Archivist for Alberta in 1922, a position which he held until shortly before his death. He died in Edmonton but left instructions to be buried in Union Cemetery at Calgary. He also bequeathed half of his estate to the RCMP Veterans Association. His title was inherited upon the death of his brother, but Sir Cecil never returned to live in his ancestral home.
Sir Cecil's monument was erected about 10 years after his death. A great irony is that the memorial marking the grave of Alberta's Chief Archivist is inscribed with an incorrect date of death; it is out by one month. However, if it is one thing I have learned about the men of the original NWMP, including Sir Cecil, it is that they had a good sense of humour. The story is often told of how Sir Cecil would tease Col. Macleod over the translation of the name "Calgary", saying that it actually meant "Cabbage Patch".
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