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Canadian Cowboy Folklore

The legends of the Wild West era are often associated with American history; however, Canada also boasts a fascinating past filled with legendary folklore and the colourful characters that make these stories come to life. Western Canada is home to many captivating historic places to commemorate this unique era of outlaws, cowboys and the booming Canadian ranching industry. Bar U Ranch cattle / bétail du Ranch Bar U, Friends of Bar U Ranch

Back in the days of the Wild West when horse stealin' and cattle rustlin' were a cowboy's way of life, "sometimes you'd get, and sometimes you'd get got". The Wild West and its legendary folklore are glorified in American History, often leaving Canada's role and involvement overlooked. However, some of history's most notorious Western characters dominating these popular legends, made a name for themselves in Canada's Old West as well. The history of Canada's West would not be complete without including the era of horse and cattle thieves and outlaws hiding in the foothills of south western Canada.

Notorious Canadian and American bandits such as Sam Kelly, Dutch Henry and the legendary Nelson Jones Gang took refuge in the Big Muddy Valley in south western Saskatchewan. This secluded area filled with caves, gullies and bluffs proved to be an ideal place for evading the law.  The Western Canadian ranching industry was also strongly impacted by the presence of these outlaws, with some of Canada's most famous ranches sharing this colourful history.

During the later part of the 19th century, Canadian cowboy Sam Kelly was one of the most dangerous and wanted outlaws in the West. Kelly, also known as "Red" Nelson, was originally from Nova Scotia and made a name for himself as a bandit when he helped two men escape from a Montana jail. Kelly was apparently in cahoots with the town's sheriff who had led all of the town's men and horses on a wild goose chase to locate Kelly. While they were gone, Kelly broke into the jail and fled with the sheriff's two prisoners, allegedly tipping his hat to the sheriff's wife on his way out. Kelly earned himself a reputation and, alongside legendary American outlaw Frank Jones, eventually became known as the co-leader of the notorious Nelson Jones Gang. This dangerous gang was the reason for increased North-West Mounted Police patrol in the Big Muddy. The presence of law enforcement, however, didn't stop the gang from stealing, killing, looting and then retreating to the foothills and caves of the Big Muddy to evade justice.

Big Muddy Valley / Vallée Big Muddy, Flickr vtveen 2007The Sam Kelly Sites in Happy Valley, Saskatchewan comprise the caves in the Big Muddy Valley, where, according to legend, Sam Kelly and his Nelson Jones Gang hid from American authorities. The tall bluffs and shallow gullies of the Big Muddy Valley proved to be an ideal place for Sam Kelly and his gang to hide out. The tall peaks allowed the bandits to see when authorities were on their trail, giving them enough time to escape. The Big Muddy Valley and the Sam Kelly Caves became a stop on American outlaw, Butch Cassidy's, infamous Outlaw Trail which connected various hideouts and stations starting in south western Saskatchewan and snaking down through the United States to Mexico. Sam Kelly and his Nelson Jones Gang became experts on exploiting these caves, designating a cave for his men and another for their horses. It's even claimed that Kelly returned to live in his famous caves for a few years later in his life. After a career as one of the most lucrative outlaws of the Wild West, Kelly turned himself in to local authorities but, conveniently, there wasn't enough evidence to convict Kelly of a single crime. He then started a new life and began a legitimate ranch in Debden, Saskatchewan along with a few of his pals. The legend of Sam Kelly lives on in the town of Debden, as well as in Canadian folklore - visit these legendary caves and discover the life of an outlaw for yourself! Monty Montana, Western Stuntmen, Neil Summers

The Sam Kelly Sites are also associated with the homestead of another famous Western character: rodeo trick rider and singing cowboy Monty Montana. Inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1994, Monty Montana appeared in over 60 Tournament of Roses Parades in Pasadena, California and was quickly recognized by fans for his famous silver saddle. Monty Montana was a fixture of the Rodeo Circuit in both Canada and the United States and even appeared in various John Wayne western films. The remains of the homestead belonging to this legendary singing cowboy are located on the Sam Kelly Sites, making it a fascinating part of Canada's Western history.

Another notorious bandit associated with Canada was Henry Borne, or Dutch Henry. Known as an expert cattle rustler and the head of an extremely powerful horse-stealing ring with up to 300 members, Dutch Henry caused such a stir that demands for his arrest became constant, forcing him to escape authorities and retreat to Canada. Dutch Henry left his illegal horse ring in the U.S. and began a career in Canada's booming ranching industry, becoming a ranch hand in the Big Muddy Valley for respected rancher Pascal Bonneau. After earning Bonneau's trust, Dutch Henry eventually reverted to his criminal roots, turning against his employer and stealing his herd of horses. Dutch Henry left his mark on Western Canada's ranching industry and his legend lives on as one of the most notorious bandits of the Wild West.

Bar U Ranch / Ranch Bar U, Flickr FancyLady 2011The ranching industry in Canada's West flourished in the 1880s as Parliament established the grazing lease policy, a leasing system that supported ranchers. As a result, many ranches flourished during this time including Bar U Ranch, established in 1882. Now a National Historic Site, Bar U has remained a successful, working cattle ranch which is now open to the public. Settled among the rolling Porcupine Hills at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, Bar U Ranch was one of the first and largest corporate ranches of the West. Infamous American bandit, Harry Longabaugh, better known as the "Sundance Kid," gained ranching experience at the Ranch before returning to the U.S. and becoming a partner-in-crime to Butch Cassidy. Alberta's Old West ranching industry is certainly filled with intriguing characters!

Saskatchewan also has a very interesting and rich history associated with the ranching industry. In fact, the remains of one of the largest ranching barns ever built in North America are found at the Smith Barn Site, a historic place located in southwest Saskatchewan at the fork of the Red Deer and South Saskatchewan rivers. Smith Barn Site refers to the foundation remains of a large barn demolished in 1921. The enormous barn was built by prosperous rancher, W.T. Smith Barn Site, Flickr, Daryl Mitchell 2008"Horseshoe" Smith, in 1914. Before this, Smith had operated in Great Falls, Montana, along the American-Canadian border where outlaws and bandits on either side engaged in stealing and selling horses. Away from the international border and this illegal activity, Smith's massive barn and the vast acreage of his ranch made it one of the largest operations in the country.

The Canadian Wild West hasn't received the same legendary status as its American counterpart, however, many of North America's most legendary bandits also left their mark north of the border. The steep cliffs, mysterious caves, and shallow gullies of the Big Muddy Valley provided the perfect hiding spot for outlaws such as Sam Kelly, Dutch Henry and the Nelson Jones Gang. It is no wonder, then, that it earned its place on Butch Cassidy's Outlaw Trail. Western Canada's cowboy and ranching industry played a significant role in shaping Canada's history and the legends of the Old West's most notorious outlaws are still alive today.  


Friends of Bar U Ranch: information on what's happening today at Bar U Ranch such as visitor information, accommodations, pricing etc., as well as a detailed history of the operation.

Parks Canada's page on Bar U Ranch offering an extensive history and information on the exhibits, activities, and resources available at the National Historic Site.