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POTTS, JERRY (also known as Ky-yo-kosi, meaning Bear Child), hunter, interpreter, and scout; b. in or before 1840 at Fort McKenzie on the Missouri River (Mont.), only child of Blood Indian Namo-pisi (Crooked Back) and Andrew R. Potts; he had four wives and several children; d. 14 July 1896 at Fort Macleod (Alta).

Jerry Potts was a product of a brutal and aggressive period in the history of the Canadian and American northwest that was characterized by murder, theft, drunkenness, and exploitation. To survive, one had to be a fighter, and Potts learned to fight early. Upon the death of his father in 1840, Jerry was given to American Fur Company trader Alexander Harvey by Namo-pisi prior to her rejoining her tribe. A violent, vindictive man, Harvey neglected and mistreated Potts before deserting him in 1845. AFC trader Andrew Dawson of Fort Benton (Mont.), a gentle man who was called “the last king of the Missouri,” then adopted young Potts. He taught the boy to read and write and allowed him to mix with the Indians who visited the trading post to learn their customs and languages. In his late teens Potts, who adopted the carefree mannerisms of the frontier, joined his mother’s people and from then on drifted between them and Dawson. As a person of mixed blood, he had to prove to both Indians and whites that he could cope in their respective cultures, and was well served by his quick wits, reckless bravery, and lethal accuracy with both a revolver and a rifle.

During the 1860s Potts was employed for several years by the AFC, and from 1869 to 1874 he worked as a hunter for various whisky traders. Much of this period of his life was shadowed by violence. He gained fame as an Indian warrior, and almost legendary accounts of his battles with the Sioux, Crow, and Plains Cree abound. North-West Mounted Police surgeon George Allan Kennedy later recorded one of these accounts, the story of the last and possibly the largest Indian battle in the Canadian northwest. In late October 1870 Plains Cree and Assiniboin Indians including Big Bear [Mistahimaskwa*] and Piapot [Payipwat*] attacked a camp of Blood Indians on the Belly River (near Lethbridge). Potts, with a group of Peigans, members with the Bloods in the Blackfoot confederacy, came to their assistance. After a daylong battle the Crees and Assiniboins, who lost about three hundred of their number, were put to rout. The slaughter was such that Potts said, “You could fire with your eyes shut and be sure to kill a Cree.” Life among the plains Indians was further brutalized by the effects of the trade in whisky during these years. In 1872 Namo-pisi was killed by a drunken Blood Indian while retrieving the body of another of her sons, and Potts soon after avenged her death by shooting the killer.

Violence such as this, and the abuses of the whisky trade, prompted the Canadian government to form the NWMP in 1873 [see Patrick Robertson-Ross*]. The first contingent of police travelled west in 1874 under Commissioner George Arthur French*, who met Potts at Fort Benton and engaged him as guide, scout, and interpreter. From the outset he proved an invaluable addition to the NWMP who were unfamiliar with both the territory they were to police and the Indian and Métis inhabitants living there. The laconic plainsman soon gained the admiration and respect of the NWMP for his frontier skills, bravery, remarkable sense of direction, and his detailed geographical knowledge of the area.

In the fall of 1874 he arranged the first meetings between Assistant Commissioner James Farquharson Macleod and Indian leaders including Crowfoot [Isapo-muxika*] and Red Crow [Mékaisto]. Potts contributed to the friendly relations that quickly developed between the NWMP and the Blackfoot Indians by explaining to each the customs, etiquette, and concerns of the other, and by acting as interpreter.

During the early part of his 22 years with the NWMP, few major patrols were launched that were not led by Potts. Later, scouts he had trained lessened his duties, but he continued to play an important role in maintaining good relations with the Blackfeet. In 1877 he contributed to the success of negotiations on Treaty No. 7 [see Isapo-muxika], and at the time of the North-West rebellion in 1885 [see Louis Riel*] he was influential in securing Blackfoot neutrality. His abuse of alcohol, coupled with tuberculosis by the 1890s, subsequently lessened his usefulness to the NWMP, and as the country became settled there was less need for his frontier skills. He nevertheless remained with the force until his death in 1896.

Described by NWMP officer Samuel Benfield Steele* as “a short, bow-legged man, with piercing black eyes and a long straight nose,” Potts left his mark in the history of the northwest as cultural broker, guide, and interpreter. The day after his death, the Macleod Gazette and Alberta Livestock Record mourned the loss of the man who “made it possible for a small and utterly insufficient force to occupy and gradually dominate what might so easily, under other circumstances, have been a hostile and difficult country. . . . Had he been other than he was . . . it is not too much to say that the history of the North West would have been vastly different to what it is.”

D. B. Sealey

Charles Larpenteur, Forty years a fur trader on the upper Missouri; the personal narrative of Charles Larpenteur, 1833–1872, ed. Elliott Coues, intro. M. M. Quaife (Chicago, 1933). The new west; being the official reports to parliament of the activities of the Royal North-West Mounted Police Force from 1888–1889 (Toronto, 1973). S. B. Steele, Forty years in Canada: reminiscences of the great north-west . . . , ed. M. G. Niblett (Toronto and London, 1918; repr. 1972). Lethbridge News (Lethbridge, Alta.), 30 April 1890. Macleod Gazette and Alberta Livestock Record (Fort Macleod, Alta.), 17 July 1896. H. M. Chittenden, The American fur trade of the far west . . . (2v., New York, 1902; repr. Santa Fe, N.Mex., 1954). H. A. Dempsey, Jerry Potts, plainsman (Calgary, 1966). P. S. Long, Jerry Potts: scout, frontiersman, and hero (Calgary, 1974). D. B. Sealey, Jerry Potts (Don Mills [Toronto], 1980). Turner, NWMP. Lethbridge Herald, 28 Oct. 1921.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

D. B. Sealey, “POTTS, JERRY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 1, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/potts_jerry_12E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/potts_jerry_12E.html
Author of Article: D. B. Sealey
Title of Article: POTTS, JERRY
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1990
Year of revision: 1990
Access Date: November 1, 2014