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Jerry Potts (c.1840-1896)

Jerry Potts (c.1840-1896)

Published: 01/15/2010 by Kate Schutz

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Warrior. Sharp Shooter. Interpreter. Scout. Guide. Whiskey Drinker. Murderer. Hero. Father. Diplomat. Peacemaker. Legend. Jerry Potts or Kyi-Yo-Kos (Bear Child) was a complex man who became an Alberta legend despite his humble beginnings. Born to a Scottish father, Andrew Potts, and a Kainai (Blood) mother, Crooked Back, Jerry Potts always had a foot in two worlds. His father was murdered when Potts was only two, leaving his mother to re-marry a man who treated Potts cruelly. When his step-father abandoned Jerry and Crooked Back, she returned to the Blackfoot tribe and left Jerry in the care of Andrew Dawson, the manager of the American Fur Company at Fort Benton. It was here that Potts learnt the ways of the fur trade. Raised in  both the First Nations and European worlds, Potts learned how to navigate the land, speak many Native languages and how to hunt and track with a bow and arrow and a rifle. He remained loyal to the spiritual traditions of the First Nations people but also adopted the vices of drinking and gambling adored by the European frontiersmen.

Potts left Fort Benton when the American Fur Company folded and took work at many trading posts including, the infamous, Fort Whoop-Up. He monitored supplies and translated between the American whiskey traders and the Blackfoot people. Potts also developed a reputation as a warrior among the Peigan and Blood tribes with whom he lived. In two separate encounters, he killed seven warriors single-handedly! He was asked to sit on tribal council and became a sub-chief, marrying five different wives and fathering two children. Potts grew increasingly worried about the effects of “firewater” traded in his First Nation community and grew to despise the traders (though not necessarily their product!) This hatred for the whiskey trade increased as Potts’ own mother and half-brother were murdered by a drunken man. Potts’ avenged his mother’s death; killing her murderer and vowing to never work for a whiskey trader again. 

On September 22, 1874, the North West Mounted Police arrived at Fort Benton and were looking for a guide to lead them through the prairies on their quest to establish law and order in the Canadian West. Jerry Potts was recommended and hired for $90 a month (double the average Mounties salary!). Potts became invaluable to the Mounted Police and many believe the March West would have been impossible without him.

Potts worked for the North West Mounted Police for 22 years. He helped choose a spot to establish Fort Macleod and arranged for Colonel Macleod to meet with Blackfoot leaders such as Crowfoot and Red Crow, counselling him on First Nations traditions beforehand. He was indispensable in negotiations
and advised the Blackfoot to stay out of the 1885 Rebellion. Potts served as an interpreter for the treaty commission during the Treaty 7 talks of 1877. The effectiveness of his translations is debated by many scholars today, but his contribution to history is indisputable.

Potts lived with his family on the Peigan Reserve west of Fort Macleod where he ranched. He still occasionally helped the NWMP when he was needed. In 1896, Potts died at the age of 58 and the original wooden marker from his gravestone is on display at Fort Macleod today. <>

Mountie Resources

Virtual Museum of Canada

Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Glenbow Museum – Mavericks

Photo courtesy Glenbow Archives NA-1237-1