The Cypress Hills have been a significant human habitation site for more than 8,500 years! They are among the most significant areas of ancient human habitation in North America.
Digs on the north slope of the Cypress Hills have found stone and bone tools as well as butchered and charred bone scraps. The area served as a habitation site, as opposed to a kill or quarry station and artifacts of the Besant, Pelican Lake, Oxbow and Bitterroot cultures have been found in the area.
Prior to 1870 Cree, Assiniboine, Gros Venture, Blood and some Peigan made frequent use of the hills. During winter months large animals such as bison and elk retreated to the woods and native people followed these herds, which provided them with the materials they needed to survive. Often they would winter in the Cypress Hills, an ideal location since the hills supplied wood, water, horse pasture, shelter and game.
The Blackfoot called this place "katewius Netumoo" - the Pine Hills.
Check out the Cypress Hills historical timeline.
The first Europeans to be officially documented as spending time in the Cypress Hills were those who were part of an expedition headed by Captain John Palliser in 1859. Captain Palliser described the Hills as "a perfect oasis in the desert."
In the 1870s, a number of trading posts were established along Battle Creek. Most of these trading posts exchanged liquor for fur and pelts. The two best known posts were operated by Abe Farwell and Moses Solomon.
The "Cypress Hills Massacre" occurred near Farwell's and Solomon's posts in 1873. A wolfing party made up of Americans and Canadians were returning to Fort Benton when their horses were stolen. They acquired new mounts and set off looking for the thieves. After spending the night at Farewell's Trading Post, for reasons not entirely clear, they fell into conflict with some Assiniboines who were camped nearby. One of the traders and thirty natives were killed. The day after the massacre, Farewell's and Solomon's were burned down. American wolfers stopped in at Farwell's.
The "Cypress Hills Massacre" helped shape the destiny of western Canada and encouraged the Canadian government to establish the Northwest Mounted Police.
Fort Walsh was established near Farwell's and Solomon's trading posts in 1875 and served the NWMP until 1883. Small outposts were scattered throughout the hills.
The NWMP patrolled most of southwestern Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta. They controlled the liquor trade, horse stealing and illicit border trafficking by both Indians and whites.
Fort Walsh National Historic Site is a legacy to the NWMP era. A visit to Cypress Hills is not complete without including Fort Walsh.
Métis bison hunters wintered in the hills on a seasonal basis. In warm months the hunters and their families followed the buffalo herds. During winter months they assumed a sedentary lifestyle.
The Métis had several winter camps in the Cypress Hills where they would stay until spring. Their villages normally consisted of log cabins and a church. They would often return to the same camps winter after winter.
When the fur trade ended, the NWMP post closed but the Cypress Hills lived on. Because the region was best suited to ranching, farming was short-lived in the Hills. Thousands of cattle grazed across the grassland as early ranchers stocked the open range. Many of the earliest ranchers were probably former members of the NWMP, many of whom were of British heritage.
Ranching remains the prime land use in the Cypress Hills and surrounding area.
There were several economic ventures in the Cypress Hills. The Louis Sands Lumber Company was operated from 1883-1885. A second sawmill was built in 1898 and was eventually sold to the Rutherfords, who operated the mill until 1912. The mill provided lumber to incoming settlers. Several small coal mines operated in the Elkwater Lake area until the mid-1900s.
This land is not simply a preserve where wildlife and natural vegetation are protected. The area has also been developed for recreational use by tourists. Elkwater and the surrounding Cypress Hills have had a long tradition as a recreational area. Picnicking, tenting, swimming and boating in the area have been enjoyed in the cypress Hills for nearly a century.
In 1989, the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan joined forces and created Canada's first interprovincial park. The Interprovincial Park Agreement was amended in 2000 to formally include Fort Walsh National Historic Site. The two provincial governments and the Government of Canada cooperate in the management of this unique geographical feature and ecosystem.