Manitoba Historical Society
     Keeping history alive for over 144 years

Manitoba History: “Kootenai” Brown in the Red River Valley

by Graham A. MacDonald
Parks Canada, Calgary

Number 30, Autumn 1995

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

Please direct all inquiries to

Help us keep
history alive!

John George ‘Kootenai’ Brown (1839-1916) was a man of many parts. As a frontiersman of the northern plains and mountain regions, his natural habitat tended to be the international border country extending from the Red River to Victoria, British Columbia. In the fifty years following the publication of “I Remember” in the Farm and Ranch Review of 1919-20, “Kootenai” Brown’s legendary qualities grew with steady force. [1] “I Remember” was, in fact, an extended series of memoirs based on William MacDougall Tait’s interviews with Brown conducted during his later years. [2] It was not until 1969, when the Royal Rhodes military historian William Rodney published his excellent critical biography, that some of the hoary myths which had grown up around Brown’s memory (such as his having been an “Eton Man”) were placed under the magnifying glass. This and other questionable bits of lore were put to rest, and it remained only for the producers of a dramatic film in the early 1990s to give many of them a re-birth in ways which even Brown would have found surprising! [3]

John George ‘Kootenai’ Brown at Red River, circa 1866.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

John George Brown was born in County Clare, Ireland in 1839 and died at Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta in 1916, where he had been appointed as the first Park Superintendent in 1911. It is there, near the eastern entrance to the South Kootenay Pass along Pass Creek, that he lies buried, alongside his two wives. His first companion was a Métis woman, Olivia D’Lonais (Lyonnais) who bore him three children before her death in the early 1880s. [4] The second important woman in Brown’s life was Isabella or Chee-pay-tha-qua-ka-soon—“The Blue Flash of Lightning”—a Cree woman who became his wife and companion in the Waterton country. She outlived her husband by many years and was buried beside him in 1935. [5]

Brown’s second wife Isabella (Chee-pay-tha-qua-ka-soon), circa 1930.

J. G. Brown came to the West after serving briefly in India with the British Army’s Eighth Regiment of Foot. He was sent to the sub-continent in the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, but by 1860 he was back in the British Isles, following the recall of the entire regiment. By 1862 Brown had departed the military life and embarked for the goldfields of the Pacific Northwest via the Isthmus of Panama. When he left his homeland once and for all, he was accompanied by a fellow Irishman, Arthur Vowell, also a former veteran of service in India. It is possible they had known each other in the military. Their destination was the Cariboo country in the unorganized interior of British Columbia. [6]

Money was to be made and lost in the Cariboo, and by 1864 Vowell decided he had had enough. He opted out of frontier life altogether, repairing to Victoria where he then entered upon a career in the provincial civil service. He eventually became the Gold Commissioner for the Kootenay’s and later Superintendent for Indian Affairs for British Columbia. Brown meanwhile, decided to take on public service of another sort, one more in keeping with his training: that of a police officer in the Wild Horse Creek mining area near what later became Fort Steele. [7] By July of 1865 he had resigned from this position, undoubtedly to try his hand at the local mining prospects himself. The bloom was quickly off the rose in the Wild Horse however, and his eyes now turned eastwards.

In 1865 Brown, in the company of others, left the mining country of the East Kootenays. Together they struck out for Edmonton where mineral strikes were currently rumoured. He and his party emerged through the South Kootenay Pass and it was here, at its eastern entrance, that he first saw the Waterton Lakes, to which he vowed he would eventually return to settle. From this spot, confusion seems to have taken over with respect to the joint plan to reach Edmonton. Brown favoured moving north along the Mountains, but the others favoured a more easterly route which in fact took them towards present-day Medicine Hat. The miscalculation nearly cost Brown his life, for following a skirmish with the Blackfoot he had to remove an arrow from his back. The mining venture was now forgotten, and it was everyman for himself.

“I remember” he stated, “leaving Seven Persons Creek in the late summer of 1865. I had a notion that if I followed the river I would get to Fort Garry.” [8] Brown, alone now, headed northeast along the South Saskatchewan River eventually encountering members of a Cree band and the Métis of Duck Lake. He found about fifty families at Duck Lake and he accepted an invitation to winter among them. Brown already spoke French quite well but he now started to acquire the Cree language. Over the next year he became familiar with the customs and hunting ways of the Métis, and of the surrounding country between the Saskatchewan and Portage La Prairie. Some of the best passages in the Tait interviews concern his recollections of the mechanics of the bison hunt.

One of his former companions with whom he had parted company at Seven Person Creek, then appeared in the vicinity. He was named by the local Indians ‘Goldtooth’ and in the early spring of 1866 he and Brown decided to depart for the Portage La Prairie and then on to the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Brown’s recollection was that “Fort Garry was then only a very small place and I stayed only about a week.” [9] From Red River “Goldtooth” took his leave for eastern Canada, but Brown “got supplies from Charles House, an American Trader” and then commenced a period of trade dealings with the Indians of the Portage La Prairie area. This was a chapter of his life which his biographer stated “cannot be considered a credit to Brown.” [10]

I traded between Portage la Prairie and White Mud River, twenty miles west of Portage la Prairie, mostly with Chippewas and Crees who were in small scattered camps trapping rats, minks, foxes, coyotes and wolves. This was the summer and winter of ‘66 and ‘67. My trade was mostly in clothing and whiskey, but I had blankets, thread, beads, tea, sugar and a few odds and ends, but my big money was made in whiskey which I sold for $30 a gallon.

Brown’s activities in present-day Manitoba were centered on the district between the Red River and Lake Manitoba. Along the Whitemud “there was an Anglican Mission in charge of a half-breed clergyman.” This was undoubtedly the Westbourne Mission, established in 1859. [11] Some of his other neighbours were a “trader named Fry, an old English half-breed, ‘Wilcox’ Spence, and an old American, Andrew Jackson.” Brown, as usual, was on the move. “I had no permanent living place at White Mud River and was hardly ever in the same house two nights in succession.” [12]

Westbourne Mission, circa 1865.

If Brown was absent much of the time, part of the reason may involve his skills as a driver. He reported to Tait that in 1865 (but probably 1866) he was in charge of a train of one hundred and fifty carts moving between St. Paul and Red River, a train partly owned by Gibbons and Co. of Portage La Prairie. [13] About that community, Brown noted: [14]

Portage la Prairie was a very scattered settlement in ‘66 and ‘67. There were only a few structures of any kind—a windmill, a trading store, and a dwelling all belonging to a half-breed named ‘no Sutherland. A little later Gibbons & Co. started a store with old Johnnie Gibbons in charge and with him a cousin, Bob Olone, (sic) and a young clerk, Bill Salmon. (sic)

According to Garrioch, these “Yankee Boys” had entered the Portage area in the same years as Arch-deacon Cochrane’s death, 1859, and transporting 200 gallons of whisky with them. Sammon may have been a former officer in the U.S. Army. These names and others were linked with whiskey troubles in the Portage area in the spring of 1866 which led to Sammon’s death. [15]

Brown’s activities were thus marked from the beginning by an association with the violence occasioned by the liquor trade dealings between these people and Natives of several quarters. The Americans, as Brown recalled, included one “Jimmy Clewitt who, it is said sold the townsite of the city of St. Paul for a barrel of whiskey.” [16] The context of these troubles was reported on by the local clergyman and historian, A. C. Garrioch. While Brown was probably not blameless, he was by no means the main source of the friction of May, 1866 which led to a shoot-out with the “Red Lake” Indians from Minnesota.’ He was a relative newcomer, and is not mentioned by Garrioch in his account. [18] Characteristically, Brown added in his own version of the events: “I need hardly say that every one of us got drunk after the encounter.” [19]

Reverend A. C. Garrioch, 1930s.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

His reference to “Bob Olone” (sic) at the time of these “whiskey troubles” is interesting, for in the famous portrait of Louis Riel and his Council of 1869-70, early descriptions of the photo identified Bob O’Lone as the man seated in the front row to Riel’s right. [20] This version of the photo was incorporated into the works of many of the early Red River historians such as R. G. MacBeth. This figure was later correctly identified by G. F. G. Stanley as Hugh F. O’Lone, brother of Robert. [21] Both men were in the whisky business, however: they were “The American brothers who ran a saloon in Winnipeg.” [22] This was apparently the Red Saloon, recalled by A. C. Garrioch: “Three years later when the writer moved to St. John’s he found the Red Saloon contributing very considerably to the business of the little village.” Bob O’Lone had continued in the liquor business and was the proprietor: “No spot in Winnipeg was so often the scene of a drunken row as that occupied by the Red Saloon.” [23] Garrioch’s recollection was accurate enough, for Bob O’Lone was killed in a bar-room brawl in his own establishment sometime during the Resistance period, probably later in 1870. [24] It was his brother, Hugh F. O’Lone then, who represented Winnipeg in the Convention of November 1869 as part of Riel’s Provisional Government.

Louis Riel and his Provisional Government, 1869. Hugh O’Lone is seated (lower left).
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Red River Disturbance 1, N5396.

It was probably sometime later in 1866 that Brown visited Fort Garry again. He was there long enough to have his photograph taken: [25]

I sat for a tin-type photo at Fort Garry and was told that it was the first ever taken at the fort. The man with the camera was a Swede named Olsen from St. Paul and he had walked from one army post to another in Dakota.

The photographer did his job well, although it would not have been the first portrait taken at the Fort as other cameras, particularly that of Hime, had long been active around Red River. In addition, George F. Reynolds tells us that starting in September of 1865, well before Brown arrived in Red River, Henry McKenney Jr. was running ads in the Nor’Wester for his “New Photo Gallery” employing a “very superior instrument.” [26]

Customers in front of the Red Saloon owned by Bob O’Lone, Red River, 1869.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Brown claimed to have worked briefly for the Hudson’s Bay Company at Red River, during which he remembered “witnessing a most horrible thing” in the course of an altercation of unspeakable brutality between Sioux and Chippewa Indians near the walls of the Upper Fort. [27] Discounting Brown’s reputation for embellishment, there may be something in his recollection, for it is echoed in the recollections of Walter Traill and others, who preserve an attempt by the local Cree and Saulteaux to “bury the hatchet” with members of Standing Buffalo’s Sioux who had relocated to the British side after the 1862 Minnesota Massacre. This diplomatic effort was scheduled at Fort Garry, but it seems to have gone wrong, and turned instead into a bloody pitched battle from which the Sioux quickly retreated. [28] According to Traill, this event led directly to a better known act of violence perpetrated by Francois Desmarais, a Métis connected in marriage with the Sioux. Apparently moved by a spirit of revenge, Demarais was charged for disembowling a member of the Saulteaux tribe who at the time was trading within the Fort. Desmarais was eventually banished to Stuart Lake in New Caladonia. [29]

During this time at Fort Garry, Brown claims to have had a chance encounter with a man from the Dakota Territory, one Major Charles A. Ruffee, who was seeking riders for a new pony express which was to operate between Fort Abercrombie on the Red River to Fort Benton, Montana Territory. Brown took him up on the proposal and started to work for Rufee in the early summer of 1867. “He took two or three of us to Fort Totten and I began riding from this place to Knife River, a tributary of the Missouri where Theodore Roosevelt afterwards established his cattle-ranch.” [30] The enterprise itself was destined for trouble, planned as it was to run through hostile Sioux and Blackfoot territories. Brown was captured and detained by the Sioux in the fall of 1867 and it was not to be his only run-in with that beleaguered folk. Many of the station masters either deserted or were killed and the entire venture failed in 1868. Brown recalled being owed $400.00 in back pay. [31]

It now fell to the U.S. Army to establish its own communication service in light of the failure of Ruffee’s company. In April of 1868, Brown was taken on as a civilian “tripper” working out of Fort Stevenson, one of several forts under the command of that extraordinary man of the world, Major General Philippe Regis de Trobriand, “a Frenchman who had fought with distinction on the Union side.” [32] This new posting for Brown threw him back into the company of the Métis peoples of the Fort Stevenson area, who represented a major element of the population. This was a situation which alternately pleased and revolted De Trobriand, who found himself again among many fellow French speakers, but also amongst a people who he felt were in full flight from civilization. [33]

For the next two years Brown lived the kind of dangerous life that tended to be his trademark. He was captured by Sitting Bull and only his wits and luck removed him from this delicate situation. He finished his con-tract with the U.S. Army in the spring of 1869, and then moved to Fort Burfurd, further to the west, in reponse to the quickly consolidating American frontier. His task was to maintain communications between Fort Burford, Fort Stevenson, and Fort Totten near Devil’s Lake. [34]

It was during the course of a parallel scouting assignment for the U.S. Army, headed by Major General W. S. Hancock, that Brown found himself in Pembina on the Red River in the fall of 1869. Following what must have been a deliberate and decisive courtship, Brown married Olive Lyonnais in St. Joseph’s Church on September 26, 1869. [35] Brown then removed to Fort Totten where he continued his job for another two years. Despite rumours to the contrary, apparently fostered by Dakota resident John Henry Taylor, the Irishman Brown was not being courted by Riel and his annexationist friends in Red River to mount a Metis force from the American side. [36] In 1871, Brown relocated to Fort Stevenson where he eventually entered the service of the United States Army once again, as a scout and carrier. By 1874 his services were less in demand, the result of the relentless closing of the frontier. Rather than take an offered pay-cut, Brown and his family merged with the Métis of the Milk River region and participated for the next three years in some of the last great bison hunts in present day Alberta, Saskatchewan and Montana. [37]

At this point in his life, Brown left the Red River Valley behind in favour of the more westerly plains and the Rocky Mountains. With the disappearance of the bison, Brown took up the life of a wolfer and trader. Seemingly always where the action was, he became involved in the Fort Benton-Fort Whoop-Up axis and the rough way of life that it implied. His acquittal of a murder charge in Montana on Nov. 11, 1877 in the case of one Louis Ell, may have been the final prod to push Brown onto the Canadian side of the line where he lived out the remainder of his days. [38]

By 1878 he was engaged in trade and settled at a spot near Waterton Lakes, the same place to which, back in 1865, he had vowed he would return. Only in 1885, following the premature death of Olivia, do we catch a brief glimpse of the aging frontiersman moving across the plains once again in his role of Chief Scout for the Rocky Mountain Rangers during the Second Riel Resistance. He appears to have met his second wife during this period of service. With the end of the North-west troubles, Brown settled once again into his relatively sedentary life at Waterton as trader, wildlife guide and eventually as park guardian. [39] In 1895 on the recommendation of the Minister of the Interior, the Hon. Thomas Mayne Daly, the first Waterton Lakes Forest Reserve was established, a reservation which by 1911 had become a national park with “Kootanai” Brown the Superintendent. [40]

‘Kootenai’ Brown in western garb, circa 1895.

One last glimpse of Manitoba is recorded in a photograph taken at Waterton Lakes sometime between 1906 and 1912 in which the Métis author Marie-Rose Smith (1861-1960) is shown with Brown and others. She was born in the Red River Valley and then pioneered with her husband in the Pincher Creek area in the late 1870s. A regular visitor to the Brown home, she left a lengthy recollection of the frontiersman in her old age. Following Brown’s death in 1916, Marie Rose Smith remained in contact with Isabella until the latter’s death in 1935. [41] Isabella passed her last years in the home Mr. and Mrs. Henry Riviere at Twin Butte, north of Waterton. [42]


1. Farm and Ranch Review, Vols. 15 and 16, (1919-20); William Rodney, Kootenai Brown: His Life and Times (Vancouver: Gray’s Publishing, 1969).

2. “William McD. Tait,” Glenbow-Alberta Archives. Kootenai Brown Clipping Files.

3. The 1991 production The Legend of Kootenay Brown, presents some striking film footage shot in the Montana and Alberta country, but not much history. Kootenai Productions Inc., B.C. Film and the National Film Board of Canada, 1991.

4. William Rodney, Kootenai Brown: His Life and Times, 1839-1916 (Vancouver: Gray’s Publishing, 1969), p. 94.

5. Calgary Herald, December 1, 1934, (Alberta - Glenbow Archives. Clipping Files).

6. On Brown’s early career in the military, see Rodney, ch. 2.

7. Ibid., pp. 46-53.

8. William McDougall Tait (ed.), “I Remember” Typescript. a. 1919. Parks Canada. National Historic Sites Branch. Ottawa: 1970. p. 13.

9. Ibid., p. 16.

10. Rodney, p.68.

11. A. C. Garrioch, The Correction Line (Winnipeg: Stovel, 1933), pp. 258-9; and Gwain Hamilton, In the Beginning (Winnipeg: n.d.) p. 339.

12. Tait, p. 17.

13. Ibid., p. 65.

14. Ibid.

15. Garrioch, pp. 272-4.

16. Ibid.

17. Cf. A. C. Garrioch, First Furrows, 3rd ed. (Winnipeg: 1923), pp. 168-9; and The Correction Line, pp. 272-4; and Cf. Rodney, pp. 69-72; and “I Remember,” p. 18 f.

18. Rodney, p. 72.

19. Tait, p. 21.

20. R. G. MacBeth, The Making of the Canadian West (Toronto: William Briggs, 1898) p. 72 f.

21. G. F. G. Stanley, Louis Riel (Toronto: Ryerson, 1963), p. 146 f.

22. G. F. G. Stanley, ed. The Collected Writings of Louis Riel / Les Ecrits Complets De Louis Riel (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1985.) Vol. 5. p. 318; W. L. Morton (ed.), Alexander Begg’s Red River Journal and Other Papers Relative to the Red River Resistance of 1869-70 (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1956), p. 166 n.

23. Garrioch, Correction Line, p. 274.

24. G. F. G. Stanley, Louis Riel (Toronto: Ryerson, 1963), p. 161.

25. Tait, p. 22.

26. George F. ReynoldsThe Man Who Created Portage and MainHistorical and Scientific Society of Manitoba Transactions. Ser. III. No. 26 (1969-70), p. 23.

27. Tait, p. 81.

28. Mae Atwood (ed.), In Rupert’s Land: Memoirs of Walter Traill (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970), p. 44.

29. Ibid., pp. 44-5.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid., p. 22 and Rodney, pp. 72-4.

32. Rodney, p. 77; and Cf. Lucile M. Kane (trans. and ed.), Military Life in Dakota: The Journal of Philippe Regis de Trobriand. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982).

33. Rodney, pp. 7-8; Kane, pp. 48, 87 f.

34. Rodney, pp. 76-92.

35. Ibid, p. 94.

36. Ibid., p. 96; Kane, p. 192 n.

37. Rodney, pp. 100-112.

38. Ibid., pp. 114-18.

39. Ibid., pp. 139-53; and Cord Tolton, “Rocky Mountain Rangers: Southern Alberta’s Cowboy Cavalry,” Canadian West, vol. 9, no. 1 (1993), pp. 30-35.

40. Rodney, p. 173.

41. Jock Carpenter, Fifty Dollar Bride: Marie Rose Smith: A Chronicle of Metis Life in the 19th Century. (Hanna: Gorman and Gorman, 1988), ch. 7; Rodney, p. 213; Marie Rose Smith, “Eighty Years on the Plains,” Installment VII Canadian Cattleman, (Oct. 1949).

42. Calgary Herald, Dec. 1, 1934.

Page revised: 30 April 2010

MHS YouTube Channel

Back to top of page

For queries on the above page, please contact the MHS Webmaster.

Home  |  Terms & Conditions  |  FAQ  |  Contact Us  |  Privacy Policy  |  Donations

© 1998-2023 Manitoba Historical Society. All rights reserved.