Jerry Potts was the finest half-Indian scout in the North-West Frontier

Posted in Historical articles, History, War on Friday, 13 December 2013

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This edited article about North America first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 493 published on 26 June 1971.

Crowfoot, Mounties and Potts, picture, image, illustration

In 1874 Chief Crowfoot made a crucial treaty with Colonel Macleod, aided by his indespensable scout, Jerry Potts by Angus McBride

The battle was not going as the Crees and Assiniboines had expected. Eight hundred of them had invaded the territory of their enemies, the Blackfoot, who had been weakened by smallpox, brought to them by the white man.

Yet after hours of fighting near what is now the town of Lethbridge, Southern Alberta, with bullets, arrows and stones hurtling through the air, the tide was clearly turning against the invaders.

The Blackfoot chief had swayed the balance. He had sent a party of warriors armed with repeating rifles to a small hill, from which they poured down a hail of fire. Then the chief himself led a ferocious charge against the demoralised enemy and the battle became a massacre.

There was something different about this chief, who took 16 scalps himself in that 1870 battle, the last tribal battle of the Canadian plains. Though he seemed built on to his horse like an Indian, he was a short, sloping-shouldered, bow-legged ugly little man with a drooping moustache, and his clothes were more like a plainsman’s than an Indian’s. It was not surprising, perhaps, for this was Jerry Potts, whose father had been born in Edinburgh and whose mother was a Blackfoot. He was a product of two warrior races, with Scots canniness thrown in for good measure!

Jerry was born around 1840 at Fort Mackenzie on the Missouri, where his father worked for the American Fur Company. Potts senior was murdered by an Indian and young Jerry was adopted in turn by a vicious Missouri trader and a kindly Scot.

When he grew up, Jerry spent more and more time with his mother’s people, who lorded it over what is now Montana and Alberta. Soon he was making his name as a warrior.

Once, he met a war party of seven Crows, who seemed friendly enough and started to take him to their camp. On the way he heard them plotting his death, thinking he did not know their language. He suddenly tumbled from his horse and, as he hit the ground, went to work with his repeater, killing four Crows before the rest fled. Then he collected a Blackfoot war party and destroyed the Crow camp.

In between Indian fights, he acted as a scout for the American Fur Company, and used to amuse himself with another half-breed by trimming each other’s moustaches at 25 paces with six-shooters. The fact that they survived, even when drunk, convinced the Blackfoot that they had supernatural powers, and the 1870 battle proved the point, not just because Jerry master-minded it, but because of an incident during it.

Just before the end of the battle, a Cree fired point blank at Jerry’s head. He hurled himself to one side, fell down, shook his head in surprise, got up again and finished off the Cree. Afterwards he discovered powder burns in his left ear. From then on, the Blackfoot believed that he could never be wounded in battle.

But the Blackfoot fell on evil times. American whisky traders sold them rot-gut liquor and often murdered or robbed them – even on Canadian territory, where they set up trading posts. The trouble was there were few Canadians on the plains and there was no law and order. Jerry’s mother and half-brother were murdered, and a particularly bad massacre of Indians by whites occurred in 1873.

The Canadian Government took action. The North-West Mounted Police came into being, and the next year 275 of them, mostly British and Canadian army veterans, trekked West to bring law and order and stamp out the whisky traders. They wore scarlet because down the years Indians had learnt to trust the Redcoats far more than the U.S. Cavalry!

These first Mounties were heroic men who were to tame the West very differently from their gun-toting American counterparts, but on that trek they suffered because they were not yet plainsmen – which was where Jerry Potts came in.

Having avenged his family, he was working for traders in Montana when two Mountie officers arrived to sign him up as a Scout at 90 dollars a month. They had heard he knew the West better than anyone else on the plains: the water holes, the camping places, and the Blackfoot on whose friendship the Mounties and Canada were to rely.

They chose the right man. In those first vital years Jerry guided most important expeditions, trained raw Mounties to be plainsmen, and acted as go-between and interpreter when his mother’s people met the representatives of the Great White Mother, Queen Victoria. He taught Indian lore to Colonel Macleod, who in 1874 made a historic treaty with Chief Crowfoot of the Blackfoot, and he helped keep the tribe friendly in several crises, notably the dangerous Riel Rebellion of 1885 when French half-breeds combined with the Crees under Louis Riel to try and sweep the white man from the West.

Jerry’s only fault as an interpreter was that he left out a lot! Once, some chiefs made long, impassioned speeches to Macleod who asked Jerry what they had said.

“Dey darned glad you’re here,” replied the scout.

His sense of direction on the flat plains is still a Mountie legend. In blinding snow it was uncanny. Once, with Macleod and three other Mounties, he was heading across the border to Helena, Montana, when they ran into a thick blizzard. They were forced to camp for two days, but their food and fuel ran out, so Jerry announced they must travel 30 miles to a spot called Rocky Springs, where there was shelter.

There were no landmarks, the snow was worse and within minutes everyone except Jerry had lost all sense of direction. The little scout led them to safety. It was only when they were sitting round a blazing fire that they discovered that for the final part of the journey Jerry had been almost completely snow blind, a temporary, but usually fatal, hazard of the northern plains.

Though Jerry remained more Indian than white, he was utterly loyal to the Mounties, even when drunk! When he had 35 horses stolen by Assiniboines, who fled to the States, instead of raising a war party, he did things legally, taking a letter from Macleod to Fort Belnap, Montana. There he was escorted to the Indian camp, and, sneering at his enemies, collected all his missing mounts. It was a bloodless coup!

After the Riel Rebellion, Jerry asked Commissioner Irvine if there was anywhere left where the buffalo roamed and the Indians were wild and free.

“Why do you ask, Jerry?” said Irvine.

“This country’s getting too darned soft!” said the scout.

He never retired, finally dying in 1896. They gave him a funeral at Fort Macleod with full military honours, firing three volleys over his grave with a general salute blown after each volley. One old Mountie later recalled: “As a scout and guide I never met his equal; he had none in either the North-West or the States to the south.”

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