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A-CA-OO-MAH-CA-YE (Ac ko mok ki, Ak ko mock ki, A’kow-muk-ai, known as Feathers and Old Swan), Blackfoot chief; d. 1859 or 1860.

During the later years of the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries there were at least three leaders of the Blackfoot tribe who bore the name of Old Swan. With the Blood and Peigan Indians, the Blackfeet were loosely united in the Blackfoot confederacy which occupied the western Prairies south from the North Saskatchewan River to the Missouri River. In 1795 Duncan McGillivray*, North West Company clerk at Fort George (near Lindbergh, Alta), noted that Old Swan, the earliest known leader with that name, had once been the greatest chief of the Blackfeet and “was respected and esteemed by all the neighbouring tribes; his intentions towards the white people have been always honest and upright, and while he retained any authority his band never attempted anything to our predjudice.” Because of his advanced age Old Swan had relinquished the chieftainship to Gros Blanc, “a man of unbounded ambition and ferocity” according to McGillivray. Old Swan died in January 1795 and by the turn of the century his son, the Feathers, had become chief. He adopted his father’s name.

In temperament, the second Old Swan was much like his father and was well regarded by his people as an effective leader and peacemaker. In 1801 and 1802 he drew maps for Peter Fidler*, Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor at Chesterfield House on the South Saskatchewan River, where he was a regular visitor. These maps, which bear his name, indicated the geographical areas known to the Blackfeet, and information from the first of them was instrumental in the drafting of Aaron Arrowsmith’s 1802 map of North America, used by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in their exploration up the Missouri in 1804. Old Swan was respected by the traders as a friend of white men and recognized as a peacemaker in the relations of his tribe with the Gros Ventres, Northern Arapaho, Cree, and Assiniboin Indians. In 1814 he was shot and killed by a Blood Indian, and a feud broke out between the Blackfeet and the Bloods, two normally friendly tribes.

The leadership of what continued to be identified for some time after the tragedy as “Old Feathers’ band” was probably assumed by a son or nephew, the subject of this biography. Known also as the Feathers, he was described in the HBC’s Chesterfield House journal in 1822 as “a Blackfoot Chief (much attached to the whites),” and like both of his predecessors he earned a reputation as a peacemaker. When he visited Edmonton House (Edmonton) in the spring of 1828, for instance, he stated that his people had become troublesome while he had been ill, but that he was there to negotiate a peace treaty with the Crees. Some time after 1828 the Feathers took the name of Old Swan and was thenceforth known by that name. In 1854 he prevented the shedding of blood during a drunken altercation between Blackfoot and Blood Indians at Rocky Mountain House (Alta) by coolly ordering both factions back to their camps; he then forced the traders to destroy the supply of liquor on hand. Henry John Moberly, HBC apprentice clerk in charge of Rocky Mountain House at that time, described him as “a Blackfoot of great authority, aged but still active,” and in gratitude for the intervention of the chief gave him one of his best horses. “Not that it meant much to Old Swan,” he observed, “he had three hundred of his own.”

By the early 1850s the leadership of the Blackfoot tribe was shared by three chiefs. The most influential of these was the third Old Swan, whose personal following, known as the Bad Guns band, consisted of about 400 persons. The other two chiefs were Nato’sapi (Old Sun), leader of the All Medicine Men band, and No-okskatos (Three Suns), leader of the Biters band. In 1858 Old Swan was listed as one of the principal chiefs of the Blackfoot tribe by Dr James Hector of the British North American exploration party under John Palliser*. Palliser was apparently highly regarded by Old Swan, who called him his grandson, and in July 1859 he accepted the chief’s invitation to visit his camp on the Red Deer River (Alta). “This very large camp was in many ways a novel sight,” said Palliser, “even to us who had seen so many Indian camps. We now found the Blackfeet here numbering about 400 tents.” When Palliser’s party left the camp the following day, Old Swan and a number of his soldiers accompanied them back to the safety of their expedition.

Shortly after Palliser’s visit Old Swan died, either late in 1859 or early in 1860, and his chieftainship was taken by a man named Omukaiee (Big Swan). Whereas Old Swan had been a friend of the traders, his successor despised them. William Francis Butler* described him as “a man of colossal size and savage disposition, crafty and treacherous.” Big Swan died of tuberculosis in 1872 and the leadership of the tribe passed to two chiefs from other bands, Nato’sapi* (son of Chief Nato’sapi) and Crowfoot [Isapo-muxika*].

Hugh A. Dempsey

PAM, HBCA, B.34/a/4: f.18; B.60/a/13: f.3d; B.60/a/25: f.55. W. F. Butler, The great lone land: a narrative of travel and adventure in the north-west of America (7th ed., London, 1875). HBRS, 26 (Johnson). Duncan McGillivray, The journal of Duncan M’Gillivray of the North West Company at Fort George on the Saskatchewan, 1794–5, ed. and intro. A. S. Morton (Toronto, 1929). H. J. Moberly and W. B. Cameron, When fur was king (Toronto, 1929). The papers of the Palliser expedition, 1857–1860, ed. I. M. Spry (Toronto, 1968). H. A. Dempsey, Crowfoot, chief of the Blackfeet (Edmonton, 1972).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Hugh A. Dempsey, “A-CA-OO-MAH-CA-YE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 3, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/a_ca_oo_mah_ca_ye_8E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/a_ca_oo_mah_ca_ye_8E.html
Author of Article:   Hugh A. Dempsey
Title of Article:   A-CA-OO-MAH-CA-YE
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   October 3, 2023