Characters of the Stampede
The Origins of Calgary's Favourite Event
By Elyse Abma
For thousands of years people have come here to this in the Bow valley at the junction of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, Calgary has been a place where people from across the prairies gathered to meet, hunt, and trade. Prior to the 1600s the First Nations in the area did all of their bison hunting and travel on foot. When the Spanish reached what is now Mexico they brought with them horses which quickly became a useful tool to indigenous populations. Eventually, horses made their way North through escape and trade changing hunting and transportation for the Plains First Nations When Europeans settled in Southern Alberta they were intrigued by the bison and began to hunt the bison for their coats. While the First Nations had been strategically hunting the buffalo and using every part of the animal, Europeans hunted the herds en masse fur and drove them to the edge of extinction. Without the bison the Bow Valley was left with rolling hills and empty fields, so ranching and agriculture became a feature of the region. Soon cattle were brought in replacing the bison and vast ranches were everywhere. Ranching life was the height of the Western aesthetic. Roping, busting broncos, cowboy hats, and wrangling became how easterners and others outside of the prairies envisions the 'Wild West.' The Calgary Stampede has become a preservation of cowboy life out on the prairies, imprinting a 'Wild West' past on a modern present.
Today the Calgary Stampede remains one of the defining features of Calgary bringing millions of people to the city every year for the rodeo, parades, and exhibition. The Stampede has become a promotion of the 'Frontier Culture' prevalent in Alberta and the prairie provinces. 'Frontier Culture' is associated with agriculture, ranching, and rustic outdoorism and Calgary's Stampede has always aimed to embody this from 1912 until today. The first Calgary Stampede was held in 1912. During the early 20th century southern Alberta experienced an increase in immigration from America, as a result, the Americans brought with them 'Frontier Culture' and a fantasization of the "West" from the travelling 'Wild West' shows popular in the United States. Guy Weadick initially proposed the Calgary Stampede as an “authentic western experience” to bring together southern Alberta in the spirit of the 'West'.1 Paired with different views of the where Stampede grounds now stand, we will explore the lives of some of the earliest competitors and officials involved in the world renowned rodeo. All of these characters interacted with these grounds and, on this spot, they made history.
2. The Founder
The Stampede was an attempt to preserve the ranching way of life amidst rapid industrialization. Weadick moved to Calgary from a life of touring as the 'Wild West' and saw the city life turning the ranchers' experience into an urban one. The Stampede was his idea to remind Calgary of the 'Frontier Culture' that binds them and the rough and toughness it takes to be a 'westerner. As a young man Guy Weadick learned his skills as any cowboy does, by working on a ranch. Between being a ranch hand in New York and performing in 'Wild West' shows throughout the United States, Weadick developed a love for the cowboy life. Having toured across America he came to Calgary hoping to put his roping and wrangling skills to practical use again. The idea for the Stampede was to marry the event aspect of 'Wild West' shows with an authentic experience of working on a ranch. Weadick and his wife Florence LaDue, who was a “fancy roper” and fellow 'Wild West' performer alongside Guy, moved to Calgary around 1908. It was here that Weadick would discover his talent for promotion and create the Calgary Stampede.1 Weadick first pitched his idea for the Stampede to the Canadian Pacific Railway commissioner in 1908. While the commissioner liked the idea, he told Weadick that Calgary was not yet ready for such an event because the city could not feasibly host such an elaborate event. This age saw Calgary's population explode and the economy expanded dramatically. Calgary would soon be capable of hosting Weadick's dream. In 1912 Weadick pitched the idea to Calgary’s “Big Four” (the most influential businessmen of the time) and they were so inspired by his vision and charisma that they agreed to finance the Stampede providing Weadick with a $100,000 line of credit, over $2 million in today's currency. He was 27-years-old and planned the whole event in just a few months, but Weadick’s tireless work paid off and the first Stampede was a great success with a competitors from across North America and massive support from Calgary's residents and businesses.2 Guy Weadick’s ambition for parading the 'Western Spirit' was admirable and surprisingly inclusive. Weadick’s 'Wes't included anyone who lived in the west regardless of gender, race, or status. In creating his first Stampede Weadick went against the wishes of the Indian Affairs department and sent letters to the Treaty 7 First Nations bands inviting them to participate in the rodeo competitions. Women’s events were also hosted, although they were not permitted to compete for prize money and their events were less publicized. Weadick envisioned a West united under the authentic Stampede experience and he went out of his way to make sure of the authenticity.4 Between the Great War, economic turmoil and the rapid industrialization of Calgary, the Stampede was placed on a backburner. In an effort to boost morale after the post-war recession, the stampede was reinaugurated in 1923 and became an annual event that continues to this day.3 Unfortunately, Weadick’s time as the Stampede manager ended bitterly. The Great Depression of the 1930s cratered Calgary's economy and, as a result, the Stampede had less funds. To save the Stampede it was joined with the Calgary Exhibition and Weadick believed that the integrity of the Stampede experience was compromised. The strain wore on Weadick, who became prone to angry outbursts and slandered the Stampede board behind their backs. The board dismissed him in 1932. Though Weadick filed a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal, nothing ever came of it and Weadick was never involved with the Calgary Stampede again. He retired to his ranch where he wrote and lived until his death in 1953.5
3. The Legend
Tom Three Persons was born in 1888. The son of Ayakonhtseniki and Fred Pace, Three Persons was raised by his mother’s Kainai Nation husband on the Blood Reservation (about 200 km south of where you stand). In 1903 he was sent to Calgary to attend St. Joseph’s residential school where he learned to speak English and met his first wife. St. Joseph's was a residential school in the area with a reputation for inadequate health care and food for the indigenous children there. Additionally, children would often die at the school and were buried in a mass grave. After spending 3 years at St. Joseph's Three Persons yearned to go back home and for the life of a cowboy. He moved back to the Blood Reserve where he worked on his Uncle's ranch, riding through these foothills and learning the cowboy trade skills that would make him so famous.1 When Guy Weadick promoted the first Stampede, he recruited from all over the West and Canada, including indigenous peoples. It was not uncommon for the prairie First Nations to have ranches and cowboy skills; The loss of the bison due to over hunting by settlers created a bleak environment for indigenous peoples and they turned to ranching as a viable alternative to their lost pre-colonial way of life. Tom Three Persons was no exception, in fact, he was exceptional as a cowboy. The agent for the Blood Reserve, wrote specifically endorsing Tom Three Persons for the Calgary Stampede..2 "There is only one Indian here who has made up his mind to enter and her wants to enter for the two bucking contests. He would like to know if the Stampede Management provides the horses as it is impossible for him to get real bad ones down here and also har his entrance money to be in there by the 1st of August. His name is Tom Three Persons." 3 Throughout his rodeo career Tom Three Persons developed a reputation for drinking, smoking, and partying during the Stampede and living a wild cowboy life. This was a common trend among cowboy competitors at the Calgary Stampede, living large and getting into fights were part of Stampede culture and Three Persons lived up to the cowboy reputation. The glamour of the cowboy life lured people from near and far. The Stampede was an important event for the First Nations because it became a meeting ground for the young indigenous people were they would meet people from other reservations, many friendships were forged and marriages arranged on the Stampede grounds.4 When Three Persons died in 1949, he left a substantial legacy as a star cowboy of the Calgary Stampede. After his competition days Three Persons continued to judge Stampede events as well as operating his own ranch. Three Persons left a contradictory legacy; upon his death he left a 114-acre ranch and an estate worth around $2 million today and was respected for his ranching and cowboy skills. However,Three Persons was forever impacted by his childhood trauma at the residential school. He was less than kind to his wives and was known to take his temper out on his them, beating them and carrying on affairs with many women at once.5
4. The Rancher
Little is known about the early life of John Ware. Many speculate about the details of his upbringing and tales of his younger days as a slave. Author Grant MacEwan wrote a grand tale about a young Ware on a North Carolina plantation who dreamed of freedom and going west. MacEwan even claimed that Ware was a fighting boy, paired with other boys by his owners to brawl for their entertainment. While it is unknown if these fights ever occurred, it is likely that John Ware was either a slave himself or his parents were due to the migration of freed slaves to Canada following the U.S. Civil War and reconstruction.1 To muddle the story of John Ware further, a man claiming to be his brother turned up in Edmonton after Ware had been long established in the Calgary area. George Ware claimed that they were born on a Georgia plantation and freed in 1865. John Ware’s daughter, Nettie, knew little of her father’s early life but was able to confirm that he resided in Texas before settling in southern Alberta.2 There, like many other slaves were trained as cowboys in the American South and West, and others were taught by Mexican vaqueros and Indigenous people. John Ware became a rancher and excelled at it. He came up through the business and by ranks and was operating two ranches by 1902, he was well respected by his fellow ranchers.3 While Ware did not compete in the Calgary Stampede itself, he did win an expensive saddle at the 1893 Calgary Exhibition for lassoing and tying down a steer in 54 seconds. He continued to compete at small local fairs throughout what is now Alberta and in the North West Territories, shaping his legacy as a cowboy to contend with. Though he predates the Stampede, Ware set the precedent for cowboys to come with his legendary wins and western spirit.4 John Ware’s fellow rancher Slim Marsden noted that Ware’s undertakings were something that would “warrant a hero’s shrine in any hall of fame now-a-days.” When his horse tripped in a badger hole in 1905 and crushed him to death, the whole ranching community mourned him. However, while he was well respected by those who knew him, he did not escape the racism of his time. Ware was still subject to segregation laws and often was not allowed the same privileges as his colleagues.5
5. The Queen
Evelyn Eagle Speaker was the daughter of a Kainai Chief and grew up on a ranch. Though she initially turned down the nomination for Stampede Queen, she ultimately decided that this would be an excellent opportunity to represent the indigenous people of the Blackfoot Confederacy and address stereotypes of her heritage.2 The Stampede Queen competition began in 1946 when, the Stampede director saw other rodeo events had rodeo queens to promote their events. Not wanting to pass up a promotional opportunity, Patsy Rodgers (who was the daughter of a good friend of his) was asked to represent Calgary as the Stampede Queen. The following year the competition for Stampede Queen was created. Businesses could sponsor a single woman between the ages of 18 and 24, selling tickets as votes for their contestant. The 3 In order to conjure as much support as possible the chiefs of the Siksika (Blackfoot), Kainai (Blood), Piikani (Peigan), Stoney-Nakoda, and Tsuut'ina (Sarcee) nations all showed their support by giving Eagle Speaker the honorary title of Wapiti Princess and a feather from each nation. This support from all of the Treaty 7 nations received great publicity and increased her votes overall.4 Evelyn Eagle Speaker’s win was not without its controversy. Although she had chosen to wear traditional Kainai clothing throughout the competition, it was assumed by officials that she would wear the cowgirl apparel typical of a Stampede Queen if she were to win. Many letters to the editor were published in the Calgary Herald advocating for Eagle Speaker to be allowed to wear the traditional beaded doeskin dress her mother had made for her. It was thought that her Kainai clothing was more authentic and consistent with her identity and that the “Indian Princess” was something that the tourists wanted to see. Eventually it was decided that Eagle Speaker would wear her doeskin dress for the parade and cowgirl garb for the remainder of the Stampede events.5 Though Evelyn Eagle Speaker is the only indigenous woman to become Stampede Queen, her win encouraged more non-white women to be contestants. Chinese-Canadian Jennie Chow won the title in 1958 and was the only other winner not of Anglo-Saxon descent. In 1988 the “Indian Village Princess” title was created as a platform where indigenous women could compete; It had been established that the Stampede Queen competition favoured white women and the categories by which the contestants were judged left little opportunity for non-white women to win. The “Indian Village Princess” allowed indigenous people to create their own criteria for the winner to be judged fairly.6
- 1. Mary-Ellen Kelm. "Manly Contests: Rodeo Masculinities at the Calgary Stampede." The Canadian Historical Review 90, no. 4 (2009): 714-29.
2. The Founder
- 1. Brian W. Dippie. "Charles M. Russell and Guy Weadick: A Match Made in Stampede Heaven." Alberta History 60, no. 3 (Summer 2012): 15-16.
- 2. Dippie, 16.
- 3. Dippie, 20.
- 4. Mary-Ellen Kelm. "Manly Contests: Rodeo Masculinities at the Calgary Stampede." The Canadian Historical Review 90, no. 4 (2009): 729.
- 5. Max Foran. "A Lapse in Historical Memory: Guy Weadick and the Calgary Stampede." American Review of Canadian Studies 39, no. 3 (2009): 256-65.
3. The Legend
- 1. Robert Kossuth. "Busting Broncos and Breaking New Ground: Reassessing the Legacies of Canadian Cowboys John Ware and Tom Three Persons." Great Plains Quarterly 38, no. 1 (2018): 58.
- 2. Kossuth, 69.
- 3. Hugh A. Dempsey. Tom Three Persons. Purich Publishing (Saskatoon), 1997. 36.
- 4. Mary-Ellen Kelm. "Manly Contests: Rodeo Masculinities at the Calgary Stampede." The Canadian Historical Review 90, no. 4 (2009), 740.
- 5. Kossuth, 60.
4. The Rancher
- 1. Kossuth. 58.
- 2. Kossuth, 58
- 3. Kossuth, 61
- 4. Kossuth, 26
- 5. Kossuth, 63
5. The Queen
- 1. Alvin Finkel, Sarah Carter, and Peter Fortna. The West and Beyond New Perspectives on an Imagined Region. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2014. 113-155
- 2. Finkel et Al., 137.
- 3. Jennifer Hamblin. "Queen of the Stampede: 1946-1966." Alberta History 60, no. 3 (Summer 2012): 33-43.
- 4. Finkel et Al.,138-40.
- 5. Hamblin, 38.
- 6. Hamblin, 40.
- Dippie, Brian W. "Charles M. Russell and Guy Weadick: A Match Made in Stampede Heaven." Alberta History 60, no. 3 (Summer 2012): 15-23.
- Finkel, Alvin, Sarah Carter, and Peter Fortna. The West and Beyond New Perspectives on an Imagined Region. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2014.
- Foran, Max. "A Lapse in Historical Memory: Guy Weadick and the Calgary Stampede." American Review of Canadian Studies 39, no. 3 (2009): 253-70.
- Hamblin, Jennifer. "Queen of the Stampede: 1946-1966." Alberta History 60, no. 3 (Summer 2012): 33-43.
- Kelm, Mary-Ellen. "Manly Contests: Rodeo Masculinities at the Calgary Stampede." The Canadian Historical Review 90, no. 4 (2009): 711-51.
- Kossuth, Robert. "Busting Broncos and Breaking New Ground: Reassessing the Legacies of Canadian Cowboys John Ware and Tom Three Persons." Great Plains Quarterly 38, no. 1 (2018): 53-75.