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Alberta's Irish Legends: John George “Kootenai” Brown (1839-1916) b. Ennistymon, Co. Clare

Updated: Oct 12, 2023



John George “Kootenai” Brown (1839-1916)

b. Ennistymon, Co. Clare d. Waterton Lakes National Park, Alta.

Prospector, soldier, trader, interpreter, conservationist


John George “Kootenai” Brown’s life could—and did— furnish the plot for a movie: The Legend of Kootenai Brown (1991). Born in the beautiful but famine-ravaged town of Ennistymon and orphaned early, Brown used his family military connections to gain an army post in India from 1857 to 1861. Discharged in 1861, he and fellow-Irishman Arthur Wellesley Vowell made a slow and arduous journey via Panama to the United States and then Canada, lured by tales of a “New Eldorado”: the Cariboo gold fields in British Columbia, where “the banks of the river[s] were literally strewed with Gold.” However, few nuggets found their way into the pockets of the two men, and they parted ways.


Ironically, Vowell gave his name to a several B.C. landmarks after he became a reluctant government official in a series of remote mountain outposts that he loathed, whereas Brown gained his nickname from the region he came to love. He survived, if not thrived, in a series of isolated and often lawless regions of Canada and the United States. Moving on to the gold fields of Wild Horse Creek and finding crime was more plentiful than gold, Brown briefly became a police constable before deciding to try his luck at another site near Fort Edmonton. Not certain of their way, he and a travelling party made a strenuous trek through the Boundary Pass, resting briefly at a beautiful lake called Kootenay (now Waterton).


Lost in Southwestern Alberta, the travellers ran afoul of a Blackfoot war party, leaving Brown with an arrow in his back. (He reported himself none the worse for wear after extracting the arrow himself and dousing the wound with turpentine). It was the first of many near-death experiences he encountered in a varied career that took him to Saskatchewan and then Manitoba, where he traded with Indigenous communities. He then worked in the United States for a pony express mail service and as an interpreter, guide, and contractor for the U.S. Army. He narrowly survived hostile encounters with settlers and Indigenous people alike. He was briefly captured by Ta-tanka I-yotank (Sitting Bull) whose people were resisting army and settler encroachment. Another time, he narrowly escaped a murder conviction after killing a settler in a quarrel in Montana. In contrast to such hostile encounters, he found a welcoming home in a Métis community where he traded and started a family.

After years of wandering and narrow escapes, it is not surprising that the placid beauty of Waterton Lake drew him back, and he settled on its banks with Olive, his Métis wife, and their children in the late 1870s. When Olive died, he married Cheepaythaquakasoon, a Cree woman who was an expert hunter. While the family was able to live well on the area’s abundant game and fish, Brown used his experience as a soldier, interpreter, and trader to work for the North West Mounted Police, the Canadian Pacific Railway, and as a militia member in the Waterton area during the North West Resistance in 1885. While providing economic opportunities to Brown and the settler communities in the west, the railway was a devastating vehicle of change for Métis and Indigenous communities, bringing Canadian military in 1885 and then settlers too.


The railway also brought a new class of visitor: tourists and recreational hunters. Ironically, the impact of so many visitors threatened to destroy the natural beauty that drew them to Waterton. Brown’s dismay over the environmental degradation brought by tourism as well as by the discovery of oil in the area led him to his final and most fulfilling career. His advocacy led the Canadian government to set aside the lake and the surrounding area as a nature reserve in 1895. Brown was appointed a Fisheries Officer in 1902 and a Park Ranger in 1910. His championing of the area led to the reserve being expanded and granted National Park status in 1914. He remained a ranger and died in the park he helped create in 1916.


Further Reading

William Rodney, “Brown, John George, Kootenai Brown,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 6, 2023,


“The Adventures of Kootenai Brown,” The Mysteries of Canada https://mysteriesofcanada.com/manitoba/the-adventures-of-kootenai-brown/

Alex Weller, “Vowell,” In the Windermere accessed May 6 2003.

 

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