By John D. Pihach
Robert Armstrong, celebrated as a Canadian hero in 1885, is largely forgotten today. That transition from national hero to obscure historical figure is challenged in Mudeater: An American Buffalo Hunter and the Surrender of Louis Riel, (University of Regina Press, 2017) which puts him in the spotlight for the second time.
Born in Kansas in 1849, Armstrong spent two decades on the American frontier. He accompanied wagon trains, drove a stagecoach, and dodged arrows and bullets, but for much of that time he was a buffalo hunter. In 1882, to avoid the law, he moved to Canada and changed not only his name, but his entire life. Before he could settle down into a more conventional life in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, however, more adventures came his way. In 1885, he became a scout for General Middleton and after the fall of Batoche, he joined his fellows scouts, Tom Hourie and William Diehl, in searching for and making Louis Riel a prisoner.
Thirty-five years later, while living in Calgary, Armstrong looked back on his life and put down his recollections in a memoir. Handed down to his descendants, the memoir was dormant for a century before being roused and published, for the first time, in Mudeater. The memoir is presented in the book’s second section, after the reader has the opportunity to explore his life in greater detail. This includes investigating his claims, providing a broad account of his life, confronting unresolved controversies surrounding Riel’s apprehension, and exposing his double life.
Though this story is of long ago, it is of tremendous importance in an era when historians, and the country as a whole, continue to work towards reconciliation. In that process, historians have a new primary source that can illuminate contemporary questions. Issues facing First Nations today partly have their roots in Armstrong’s occupation, and the dilemma of identity confronts many today, as it had Armstrong.
History informs contemporary life. Much has been written about the past, but it is often from the perspective of a different era. A good example comes from the scholarly treatises examining features of Plains history. That’s why Armstrong’s story is different. His memoir, like a message in a bottle, allows us to travel back in time and have a first-hand account of life and events–not yet history–in the Wild West and of the events of 1885. Armstrong’s plain talk also reveals attitudes and behaviours of the latter quarter of the nineteenth century.
Through his memoir, Armstrong shares his experiences, distressing at times, as a buffalo hunter. In 1875 he witnessed destitute Cheyenne and Arapaho families camped near Fort Reno, the result of his actions and those of hundreds of other hunters. He informs that: “The majority of these Indians had been driven into the Post by white hunters who by this time had practically cleared large areas of country of the buffalo, and the Indians were often in starving condition.” Though aware of the tragic consequences of the buffalo herds’ destruction, he could not have imagined how long-lasting the repercussions would be. Loss of freedom, destitution, and dependency became the fate of other Indigenous peoples of the North American Plains and would contribute to problems that continue to burden succeeding generations.
Robert Armstrong, as he is known in Canadian history, straddled two identities—the publicly acclaimed white hero who captured Riel and the son of a Native American chief; the latter identity he concealed, along with his original name, Irvin Mudeater. It is regrettable that Armstrong chose not to speak about this issue in his memoir nor in interviews given to reporters, especially since his father, Matthew Mudeater, was such a prominent figure among the Wyandots. If he had, his story would have resonated more strongly with many First Nations and Metis individuals today who face similar choices—conceal, assimilate, or accept their heritage.
A rugged individual not likely given to introspection, it is impossible to know what Armstrong’s feelings were. He grew up in a Wyandot society that in many respects was closer to the white world than to the neighbouring Indigenous communities (whose members Armstrong calls Redskins and savages). After years on the frontier with white men, often in conflict with the tribes of the Southwest, not participating in the traditions of Native Americans, and decades in Canada where he chose to conceal his Native American heritage, he may have felt a closer affinity to white society than with his Wyandot roots. Yet, after two decades in Canada as Robert Armstrong, when he returned to Oklahoma for a decade-long stay he reverted to his Mudeater name and listed himself as “Indian” in the U. S. Federal census. Upon returning to Canada, he again became Robert Armstrong and claimed an English or Irish background.
In a strange way, it may be providential that his memoir had not been published in his time for then we would have had only half the story—that of Robert Armstrong and not a word of Irvin Mudeater.
John D. Pihach is the author of Ukrainian Genealogy and lives in Yorkton, Saskatchewan.