CANADA’S OWN ICONIC JOHN GEORGE “KOOTENAI” BROWN
John George “Kootenai” Brown was one of Canada’s most colourful frontiersmen. He saw most of the world during a great era of change, yet also actively participated in the development of this unique corner of the Canadian Prairies. Born in Ireland in 1839, he served in the British Army during the India mutiny of the late 1850s. Brown came to the New World via the Panama Isthmus. Active in the Caribou Gold Rush deep in the British Columbia interior, he also traded with members of the Kootenay First Nation. It was through this association that he earned his adapted nickname. He had a brush with western American frontier justice when, hired as a Pony Express Rider, he was tried for the murder of a North Dakota claim jumper. The verdict was self defense.
Brown first arrived at Waterton Lakes in 1865 after crossing the Continental Divide’s South Kootenay Pass. Immediately, he was captivated by the area’s stunning mountain scenery and vowed to return. This he did a dozen years later, establishing over the next four decades a series of rustic cabins and homesteads in his beloved Rockies. This frontier yet comfortable three-room cabin, located near the right bank of the Waterton River, was one of those sites. Many of the artifacts furnishing this log dwelling were used by Brown and his family or came via his many friends and neighbors. One such example is the hide-a-bed seen in the living room. Rough but functional furniture was painstakingly built by Brown’s friend, carpenter and Metis pioneer Ludgar Gareau.
Kootenai Brown’s initial work at Waterton Lakes included trading with the area’s First Nations, hunting, and touring tourists into the back country. Later, he became an advocate for preserving the Lakes for future generations. When the Kootenay Forest Reserve was created by the Dominion Government in 1895, Brown was appointed its first Warden. Some sixteen years later, the area was elevated to Park status and John George “Kootenai” Brown was appointed its Acting Superintendent.
Our local frontiersman was twice married. His first wife was Olivia D’Lonia, a Metis woman from the Dakotas. Together they had three children. Several years after Olivia’s death, Kootenai married Isabella, a member of the Cree First Nations. He fondly referred to her as “Neechemoose”, a traditional name for “sweetheart”.
Kootenai Brown passed away in July 1916 at the age of 77 years.