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By Gord Tolton & Farley Wuth
Copyright, Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village

A small tool–an everyday small tool–an everyday item to a horseman. Something so ubiquitous, history can’t even agree on pronunciation. But when Will Lee misplaced a simple farrier’s tool, his loss set off a chain of events leaving a huge impression on south-western Alberta.
As a teenager, William Samuel Lee left Ohio and trekked across America to the California gold rush with his brother Henry. Success earned enough for Henry to return to Ohio to establish a harness and buggy business. Will Lee may have fought in the Civil War–it would be difficult for an Ohioan to stay out of that fight. But the west beckoned, and he moved to the Montana gold gulches.

William Lee entered the buffalo robe trade in 1867, with the Northwestern Fur Company and opened a post on Lee’s Creek, a tributary of the St. Mary’s River, near Beazer, Alberta. Whether Lee knew or not, his post was outside of American territory, a few miles north of the unmarked border- the first known American free trading post in Rupert’s Land.

Americans were also interested in exploring the untapped creeks for gold. In 1868, dozens of gold seekers crossed the border, their supply lines underwritten by Montana merchants. Parties explored the Marias, Milk, Belly, Oldman, and Bow rivers, and found some color in a creek in the Porcupine Hills, but not enough to warrant sticking around. The expeditions introduced Joe Kipp, Charlie Thomas, George Houk, Joe Healy, Bedrock Jim Scott, John Nelson, Matt Holloway and George Houk to the countryside, joined by the “veteran,” William Lee.

Legends place Lee panning for gold at “i-spit-si”, an upper tributary of the Oldman River. A prospector’s gear was specialized, and included tools for shoeing horses and mules, vital when climbing steep inclines and mountain trails. A set of pincers, a pliers-like tool, was used to cut shoe nails, hammer them in or to pry a damaged shoe off the hoof. Lee lost his set in the creek, an event significant enough to be remembered.

Despite several searches, the pincers were not recovered¬–for another then years–In 1878–when the rusted tool was finally discovered–by the Mounted Policemen who founded the remount farm and referred to the site as “Pincher Creek.”

Lee proved no more successful than anyone else at finding gold, but his enterprise had broken some ground–as John J. Healy and Alf Hamilton founded the trading operation known as Fort Whoop-Up. By 1871-72, Lee appears in T.C. Power Company ledgers as an independent trader.
Lee abandoned Lee’s Creek post for a new site on the upper Oldman River, at the mouth of Pincher Creek. Importing Montana cattle to graze on the ample open plains, Lee could be noted as one of the earliest ranchers of southern Alberta. His “41” brand-one of the first registered was later sold to the Lynch-Staunton family. Lee was also said to have sold supplies to the fateful Lost Lemon mining expedition.

In 1871, Lee married Blood woman, Gutosi ki ake–known as Rosana, or Rosie–who assisted him in raising cattle and horses. Together they raised eight children.

In 1882, Lee sold the Post site to Moise and Julia LaGrandeur and moved to a new location. In his trapping days, he’d come across a lake where he decided to one day settle and establish a ranch, naming it Lee Lake. With the aid of son-in-law Jack Willoughby, he returned to claim the site and built a log cabin and several barns and sheds. A creamery was developed which sold butter to the Mounted Police, as well as a market garden that sold strawberries and surplus vegetables.

By 1880, Lee had accumulated some two thousand head of cattle and a large heard of horses that he grazed on open range. In the harsh winter of 1886-1887, Lee lost a devastating 800 head of cattle, when the herd stampeded over a snow-covered cliff into the icy river valley.
The Lee Lake ranch was lost in a bitter land dispute with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Lee abandoned the claim, and undertook to move his cabin and out buildings to property at Rock Creek, north of the future community of Burmis. With his sons, Henry and John, the Lees strategically filed homestead claims or purchased blocks until twelve quarters of land, that with an open range grazing permit, gave the family control on some 25,000 acres of grazing land. The Crowsnest Pass was said to have been his “Bull Pasture.”

Lee also established the Lee School District, built, and hired Miss Davis of Pincher Creek to teach his children and those of other settlers in a one-room log schoolhouse. He also operated a spa at a sulphur spring at the base of Turtle Mountain and built a two-storey hotel with son Henry and son-in-law Jack Willoughby.

Daughter Martha Caroline Cardinal described Lee as “a kindly father and a tireless worker...a generous helper to anyone in need. Many and many a time an unfortunate family received from him a quarter of beef to help them through the winter, and if a neighbor ever needed a team or a saddle horse to meet some unexpected emergency, he always went straight to Lee who never refused such a request.”

William Samuel Lee suffered a long bout with pneumonia in the fall of 1896. Despite several visits by Dr. Herbert Mead, he succumbed in November 1896, at Rock Creek. Using one of Lee’s own teams, Jack Willoughby took the body into Pincher Creek, where he was laid to rest at the town named for his misadventure.

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