At the outset, I must give credit, and a commendation, to the folks who compiled Now and Then, Battleford Historic Resources. I put my own spin on this article of course. But I confess much of the information on Senator Ben Prince in this essay is from this document. In particular, most of the credit goes to Don Light, Ross Innes and Doug Light who compiled this historic work, a project of the Battlefords North-West Historical Society. Even so, there was scant material on Chief Ben Swimmer. So, I have taken author’s licence to describe Chief Swimmer’s life “the way it must have been.”
If you want an extraordinary work on the history of Battleford, I think you can get a copy of Now and Thenfrom the Battlefords North-West Historical Society (Tammy Donahue Buziak, secretary-treasurer.)
I am writing about two remarkable men - Senator Benjamin (Ben) Prince and Chief Sam Swimmer (Ya Ya Num) of the Sweetgrass First Nation. Both were outstanding examples of servant-leadership and public service. But their backgrounds and life experiences were as different as night is from day. Senator Ben Prince was a self-made man – a man of wealth and privilege. Chief Sam Swimmer was not a man of almost limitless resources like Senator Ben Prince. He was immersed in his culture and gave his life in service to his fellow man (and woman) – First Nations and non-First Nations alike. Senator Benjamin Prince was a kind and generous man. He used his great wealth to help all who needed a hand.
Chief Sam Swimmer was born in 1878 at Sweetgrass First Nation. His father was Standing Stone and his mother was Yellow Mud Blanket.
Sam Swimmer was only four years old but he remembered the signing of Treaty Six at Fort Carlson. He remembered the festive atmosphere – the men in their leather and feathers and paint, and the women in their fancy dresses. He remembered the food and the singing and dancing. He remembered especially the Red Coats – the North West Mounted Police in their red ceremonial dress. Then there was the signing and a promise from the Great White Mother to honour the treaties “…as long as the river flows and the grass grows…” Then every First Nation man, woman and child received a gift of $5 from the commanding officer. $5! Sam had never seen so much money.
Sam Swimmer was a dreamer – like a shaman (medicine man) but he was not a shaman. In his dream, Sam was a fearless warrior of the Plains Cree who were renowned for their courage against their traditional enemies, the Blackfoot, and in the buffalo hunt. Sam and his father prepared for a buffalo hunt in the sweat lodge and with prayers to the Creator. They rode west towards the thunder on the plains. Suddenly, over the rise came a herd of 50 buffalo. Sam and his father raced toward the herd. Sam’s father shouted, “Cut off the big bull. Be careful, he can turn and gore your pony.” Sam got in closer, steering his pony with his legs only. The Plains Cree were magnificent horsemen and Sam’s endless practice paid off. This allowed him to knock an arrow and move in closer. Sam listened to his father; not to do so could result in serious injury or death. “Closer my son, closer,” yelled Sam’s father at the top of his lungs. Sam was 15 feet from the bull, which was running at 25 miles per hour. Sam’s father brought him to within five feet of the buffalo. “Now, my son, now!” Sam drew his bow to his left eye and sent an arrow through the 2,000 pound bull’s heart. With a draw weight of 90 pounds, it took a strong man to pull that kind of weight. Sam Swimmer was a strong man.
But what did the dream mean? Sam sought the answer in the sweat lodge and the pipe. What did the Great Spirit want him to know? Finally the answer came. Sam had met the test of courage. He would be a great chief leading his people to happiness and prosperity. He would be wise beyond his years, like King Solomon. He would negotiate with the white man, the Indian Agent first, and then the authorities. He would be a friend of those who were once his enemies. He would be a strong chief of the Plains Cree – a man of character and resolve.
Circumstances forced Sam to experience war early in life. He was only seven, but he saw his father prepare for war, and later he heard the stories. Poundmaker’s band was thrust into battle against Colonel Otter and his army at the Battle of Cut Knife Hill. The colonel thought it would be an easy victory. How could primitive weapons stand up to their repeating rifles and a Gatling gun (the forerunner of the modern machine gun). He underestimated Poundmaker’s war chief, Fine Day. Fine Day was a fearless warrior and a shaman. His skill and courage on the field of battle was unmatched.
Standing Stone’s battle experience was limited to the yearly contests with the Blackfoot along the Battle River, the traditional war grounds of the Plains Cree and Blackfoot. It wasn’t really war; it was an athletic contest. Horses were raced and warriors counted coup. There were archery contests and wrestling. There were some injuries, but no one got killed. Facing a white army with its superior firepower was another matter. Standing Stone broke out in a cold sweat and his heart raced. Then he remembered the shaman’s words before the buffalo hunt, “Be of good courage, my son, you are a warrior of the Plains Cree. Manitou is with you.” Standing Stone hurled himself into the battle.
The women and children took refuge in a coulee – protected from the battle that raged around them.
Standing Stone marvelled at how the British trained soldiers fought. Lines of six to eight men facing the field of battle, each overseen by a commanding officer who barked out commands – Load! the men dropped to the ground on one knee. Ready! Aim! Fire! This process was then repeated. The Indigenous warriors were not hampered by this rigid system. They fought a guerilla-type of warfare – shooting arrows or rifles (some of which were old musket loaders), rolling for cover and advancing. Some of the soldiers got through the Indigenous line. Standing Stone found himself in a life and death struggle with a young soldier. He raised his tomahawk to deliver a crushing blow. But he held back. He saw the look of terror in the young soldier’s eyes. He knew he was about to die. Standing Stone relented. He couldn’t do it. He shouted to the young soldier in Cree, “Go! Go!” Overcome with emotion and with tears in his eyes, the youth bowed to Standing Stone and then ran for cover. The Cree warriors led by Fine Day, routed Colonel Otter and his army.
The young men wanted to pursue the army and slaughter them all. But legend has it that Chief Poundmaker held them back with the words, “Let them go.” Standing Stone was in awe of the great Chief Poundmaker, and he passed on this pride and respect to young Sam.
Later, because he was only seven, he was not allowed to witness the hanging of Wandering Spirit and Man With No Blood and six other First Nations warriors – the largest mass hanging in Canadian history. The bodies were buried in a common grave northeast and down the hill from the fort. Again, Sam heard the stories and as he grew older, he determined to renounce the crucible of war, death and sorrow. He would give his life in the service of his fellow man.
Sam became a leading supporter of the Queen Victoria Treaty Protection Association. In addition, he diligently collected historic artifacts for the North West Mounted Police Memorial and the Indian Museum.
Sam became chief of Sweetgrass First Nation early in life and held this position until his death (after he died, his son Andrew became chief). Sam was a benevolent chief. It didn’t go to his head. He relied on the Great Spirit to help him make wise decisions for his people. He used his authority, not for personal gain, but to help his people. Like Senator Ben Prince, he was an altruistic servant-leader, and like Senator Ben Prince, he was a great man.
Chief Sam Swimmer set an example of hard work and business acumen. He farmed 200 acres and owned 80 cattle. And like Ben Prince, he helped those who could not help themselves.
It is almost certain Chief Sam Swimmer and Senator Ben Prince crossed paths more than once. The chief purchased food, and perhaps lumber and meat, from Senator Ben’s stores. He may have had some wheat ground at the Prince mill. Everyone knew Senator Ben and Chief Swimmer, so it seems more than likely that they knew each other. It is likely they became friends.
The chief passed away on Dec. 23, 1954, at the age of 66. He was respected by all who knew him. His was a life well lived in the service of his beloved citizens of Sweetgrass, and his white brothers. The Great Spirit was pleased.
We now turn our attention to Senator Ben Prince. He was born April 29, 1854, at St. Gregoire, Que., the eldest son of Benjamin Prince and Marie Louise (nee Bourdages). Ben and his brothers spent their formative years in and around their hometown. The wide open spaces of the western plains beckoned. Ben and his brothers had limitless optimism and energy. In addition they were well educated, and smart – business smart. On top of that, they were well formed and handsome.
Ben and his brother came west to Manitoba in 1878. After trying their hand at various businesses, they pulled up stakes in 1880 and made the arduous trip by horseback to Battleford. Three brothers followed – Joseph George, Hector and Jean Arsene. Arsene sought his fortune in the gold fields of the Klondike in 1898.
Ben and Alphonse were highly successful business partners in Battleford and surrounding area for 40 years. Shortly after arriving in Battleford, they started a farming operation, which quickly expanded to include exporting cattle to the east and the United Kingdom. They entered into a highly profitable business with another astute businessman – a Scot and a very successful and wealthy man in his own right – Alexander Macdonald. Macdonald was noted for his wholesale grocery business. Then, flush with success, the Prince-Macdonald enterprise built the first flour mill in the area. And, of course, they monopolized the industry – not by design, however, and only because no one else had the finances to construct a flour mill or was unwilling to take the risk. The money kept rolling in. So the brothers built a sawmill in 1883 on what is now 24th Street just north of Gowing Frost’s home. It was later relocated to the north on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. The Prince’s business empire reached new heights when Alexander Macdonald sold his grocery store to Ben and Alphonse. Typically, the two brothers then opened a general store and sold meat and lumber (no doubt lumber that had been cut and planed in the Prince Sawmill). The Prince brothers operated much like the Family Compacts in 18th century Upper Canada. You can’t build and run an empire like the Prince enterprise forever. Sooner or later, it is bequeathed to the children or sold outright. After his father’s death in 1920, Paul ran the grocery store until 1949. The lumber business and general store were sold to the Galvin Lumber Co. The farming operation, the flourmill and sawmill were sold for a hefty price as well.
Ben and Ernistine Brassard were married on Feb. 9, 1887. They had five boys and four girls, one of whom died in infancy. Ben served with the Home Guard during the 1885 Rebellion (see explanation – Re: Chief Sam Swimmer). As is fitting for a man of Ben’s stature, he was elected to the North West Territories Legislature in 1897 and was elected again in 1901. He served three terms as mayor of the Town of Battleford. He was a stalwart member of the Roman Catholic faith and contributed much to the building of St. Vital Church in 1883. His greatest honour was his appointment to the Canadian Senate by Sir Wilfred Laurier in July of 1909. After an immensely full and accomplished life, this great man passed away on Oct. 25, 1920.
The Senator Ben Prince’s mansion overlooks the North Saskatchewan Valley and the mighty river. It is without doubt the largest and most expensive mansion ever built in the Battlefords. It speaks to the wealth and power of a great entrepreneur. Yet it is common knowledge that Senator Prince never turned away a man in need. It is likely that Senator Ben Prince was the most successful man in the history of Battleford. He served his constituents, his church, his family and his business associates, and ordinary people. Senator Ben Prince was a servant-leader and an exemplary citizen.
What can we learn from the lives of Senator Ben Prince and Chief Sam Swimmer? First we can learn that servant leadership transcends race, culture and wealth. Second, we can learn leadership requires a selfless generosity, which both men had but in different contexts. And, it means a great leader puts the welfare of others before his own. Third, it means a great leader must have empathy for his constituents and must treat others in the manner in which he should wish to be treated. Finally, it requires that a leader must be strong and resolute and not swayed “by every wind of doctrine.” Both Senator Ben Prince and Chief Sam Swimmer had all of these qualities and lived their lives in service to their fellow man.
(Sources: Now and then, Battleford historic resources, 1998, Battlefords North-West Historical Society; Hiebert on Heritage, The history of bows and arrows, 2018). Photo credits: Now and Then. Military historian, Gil Bellavance, contributed significantly to the essay. His critique of the Chief Sam Swimmer piece was very helpful. And he noted that Chief Swimmer was a great man and deserved to be recognized. Disclaimer: In writing the narrative on Chief Sam Swimmer, it was necessary to weave facts with “likely have happened” and “could have happened.” Facts included his birth date, his parents’ names, the date of his death and his work with The Queen Victoria Treaty Protective Association and The North West Mounted Police Memorial and Indian Museum. “Likely happened” was his meeting with Senator Sam Prince, and learning from his father about the significance the Battle of Cut Knife Hill. “Could have happened” was Sam hunting buffalo with his father in a dream. Weaving “Likely” and “could have” into a story can bring out the relative truth.