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Manitoba History: Review:John S. Milloy, The Plains Cree: Trade, Diplomacy and War, 1790 to 1870

by Walter Hildebrandt
Canadian Parks Service

Number 20, Autumn 1990

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The Plains Cree: Trade, Diplomacy and War, 1790 to 1870. John S. Milloy, University of Manitoba Press, 1988. 159 pp., xviii, ill., maps. ISBN 0-88755-141-6.

The Plains Cree is based on John Milloy’s MA thesis completed at Carleton University in 1972. In the decade following its appearance it became somewhat of a black market item in Western Canada, circulated widely and copied illegally by enthusiastic graduate students studying Native history. At historic sites like Fort Walsh, Fort Battleford and Batoche guides were eager and anxious to understand the movements and motives of the Cree. Books by Jenness and Mandelbaum were available but used an anthropological approach that focused on the structures of Cree society. Milloy’s history brought the Cree alive by focusing on the process of historical change that typified a dynamic people. He did this by tracing their adaptation to changing environmental, trade and military circumstances. Through the 1970s and 1980s those interested in Native history found Milloy’s study as interesting and as stimulating as Arthur Ray’s portrayal of the Cree as “economic men” in Indians in the Fur Trade. Milloy extended the image of the Cree as significant traders to the Cree as skilled and astute diplomats and military strategists. I can still think of no MA thesis that made such an impact.

Milloy emphasizes the alliance systems and wars of the Cree which made their move onto the plains possible. He shows that the Cree developed a keen sense of diplomacy in establishing and maintaining those alliances. According to Milloy, three distinct phases can be identified between the first direct contact with Europeans to the end of the fur trade era around 1870. The first period began in 1670 with the alliance between the Cree and the tribe situated to the west of them, the Blackfoot. The second phase was the period where the Cree developed a stronger alliance with the Mandan to the south who also supplied them with horses. Milloy labels this phase as the era of the Horse Wars lasting from 1810-50, a time when the Cree were increasingly in need of horses and were seeking alliances to the west. The third phase is labelled the Buffalo War period of 1850-70 when the Cree were competing with other plains Indians for the diminishing buffalo herds which had become their main source of food. By the end of this last phase, the fur trade was in decline and the Cree no longer played as crucial a role in the bargaining for furs. They were not simply trading to maintain and mark out territory. Milloy points out that before the arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company the Indians traded along the east-west axis established by North-West Company traders from Montreal, and even when the HBC moved to the bay area the Indians chose not to trade.

In the initial period after contact, the Cree lived along the shores of Hudson Bay north of the Ojibwa Indians. They became the first and main consumers of European goods in the 17th century and began to carry the trade of these goods to other Indians to the south and west. Their strategic position gave them control of all the major waterways that flowed into the bay. They blocked the access to Hudson Bay to all but the Assiniboine, who became allies as the Cree moved south from the bay. During these early years of the fur trade they began a two-pronged push westward: one along a route to the northwest and another along a more southerly route. By 1760, one hundred years after their first contact with Europeans on the bay, they had pushed back the Beaver Indians to the north and had reached as far west as Lesser Slave Lake. After an initial period of prosperity, the Cree had extended their area of operation far beyond their traditional habitat.

The Cree moved up the Saskatchewan River system. During this move they allied themselves with the Blackfoot and Mandan against their common enemy, the Dakota. The Cree traded with both of these allies as they were among the first to obtain the coveted European guns for trade with plains Indians. The trade in arms with the Blackfoot was particularly intense during the years 1732-54. This period, characterized by Milloy as one which featured wars of migration and territorial domination, ended by the turn of the century as the inland posts of the HBC became more accessible to other Indians. Thus the Cree were no longer needed as the suppliers of European goods. From 1680 to the 1720s, the Cree and Blackfoot lived peacefully next to each other and fought as allies against the Kootenay and Snake Indians.

As the southern Cree were now less significant as middlemen in the fur trade, they began their adaptation to plains life. They became dependent on hunting buffalo for their survival, but were also suppliers of pemmican to other traders. This plains life necessitated the use of horses, so the Cree forged an alliance with the Mandan to the south. The trade in North American horses had gradually moved north from the Gulf of Mexico where the Spaniards had first introduced the animals in the seventeenth century. The Cree continued to supply the Mandan with European goods, such as kettles, axes, muskets and powder. In return the Mandan supplied the Cree with agricultural products: corn, beans and tobacco. By the mid-nineteenth century the Cree had lost their position as primary suppliers of European goods to the Mandan as the latter were now able to trade directly with the inland posts being established in their territories. With horses, however, the Cree adapted quickly to the new life of buffalo hunting. But with the Mandan trade crumbling, the Cree were forced to look elsewhere for a supply of horses. Inevitably they came into conflict with the horse suppliers to the south, especially the Gros Ventre. During the period for 1790 to 1810, there was much fighting on the plains as new alliances were sought. The Cree took to raiding horses from their previous ally, the Mandan. Much of this happened as a result of the move inland by the Hudson’s Bay Company and the subsequent displacement of the Cree as middlemen in the fur trade.

The wars with the Gros Ventre occurred as the Cree attempted to gain more direct access to the horses being traded onto the plains by the Arapaho to the south. The Gros Ventre now called on their traditional allies, the Blackfoot, for assistance in their battle with the Cree for trade with the Arapaho. By 1790 the Cree lost an old ally as the Blackfoot joined with the Gros Ventre against them. These were the same Blackfoot Indians the Cree had once helped in driving the feared Kootenay and Snake Indians across the Rockies. The Blackfoot guns obtained from the Cree had given them a decided edge in these conflicts. The new allies for the Cree during this time became the Flathead Indians who supplied them with horses, while in return the Flathead received European goods the Cree were still obtaining from the HBC. During this period—approximately 1800 to 1850—the Cree consolidated their power on the plains but did not decentralize as the Blackfoot did. In the span of time since the company had moved inland, much had changed. The old, once reliable alliance with the Mandan and Blackfoot had crumbled. Yet with great ingenuity and an ability to adapt and forge new alliances, the Cree not only survived but prospered on the plains.

The years 1850-70 were characterized by dwindling buffalo herds. The Cree blamed the Métis and Whites for the decline but did not openly clash with them since they still relied on their trade goods.

The Cree fought often with the Blackfoot during this period. By the late 1870s the buffalo came less frequently into Cree territory but were still found regularly on Blackfoot land. The Cree therefore clashed with the Blackfoot in their quest for this buffalo territory.

Perhaps because the high expectations that were created for the published version of this work, one is disappointed that Milloy seems to have added little to his original text. More, I think, could have been said about the role of Native women (despite the author’s disclaimer). More analysis could also have been included of the characteristics of Cree leadership and about the “Fox” or Piapot leader of the Young Dogs, a mixed band of Cree, Saulteaux and Assiniboine Indians. This could have been done by looking at period newspapers such as the Nor’Wester or the Saskatchewan Herald. Also, some archaeological evidence exists which suggests that the Cree were in fact on the plains before the expansion of the fur trade—contradicting the thesis of Arthur Ray and by extension that of Milloy. Some discussion of this problem would have been welcome. Better proofreading and editing might also have prevented a few embarrassing errors such as the caption accompanying the photograph of the Cree chief Piapot which reads “ca. 1800” (Piapot actually lived from circa 1839 to 1903).

But the final word on this important book must be positive. It is, I think, an important corrective to the notion that well before their settlement on reserves the Plains Cree were decimated by disease, that their culture, government and economy was in ruins—crippled by alcohol and dependence on European trade goods. Instead, this book shows that the Cree made their own decisions and adapted as well as circumstances allowed. It is this older notion of the destruction of Cree Society in the nineteenth century that has traditionally been used by academics to justify Canadian government Indian policy since the treaties.

Studio portrait of the Cree chief, Piapot.

Studio portrait of the Cree chief, Piapot.
Source: National Archives of Canada, PA-41355

Page revised: 29 March 2022

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