History’s Horrors: The Wendigo of Fort Saskatchewan

Swift Runner was a trusted member of the Cree nation, a man who had worked with the local mounted police as a guide. His reputation took a turn for the worse, however, once he developed a fondness for whiskey. He descended into alcoholism. Unable to stay out of trouble, the police fired him, and eventually, he was sent back to his tribe, banished from the fort. Shortly after, he earned the disdain of his own tribe as well, taking his family to withdraw into the wilderness before the winter of 1878-1879. The following spring, Swift Runner staggered into a nearby Catholic mission. When the priests asked about his family, he said that they were all dead.

He explained that he was unable to find any food though the winter, his wife had committed suicide, and his children starved to death. The priests had their doubts. They knew of other Cree that were able to get through the winter with plenty of food. More suspicious yet was that Swift Runner looked healthy. He was as strong and full bodied as ever.

Inspector Sévère Gagnon was given the task to investigate. Upon searching Swift Runner’s camp, he found disturbing results. He returned to confront the Cree man. In response, Swift Runner took Gagnon and his team to a small grave that lie near the camp and explained that it was the grave of one of his boys. The inspector had the grave dug up and found the bones to be undisturbed… but there was one problem. There were other bones scattered about the camp. Bones that were unmistakably human. When shown a skull, Swift Runner said that it was the skull of his wife. Then, without needing to be pushed, he told the horrifying tale that had taken place over the winter.

Swift runner, wendigo
Bones brought back from Swift Runner’s camp

On the cold, dark nights of winter, something was calling to him in his dreams. The thing that haunted his dreams spread through his mind, consuming it, and taking it for itself. That thing was the spirit of the Wendigo. The Wendigo is a malevolent spirit that preys on the cold and starving during the long, hard winter nights in the north. It could consume its victims in more ways than one. Soon, there was no more Swift Runner, only Wendigo.

First, it made him kill and eat his wife. Not stopping there, it made him force one of his sons to kill and butcher his younger brother. After taking delight in the act, the Wendigo then hung Swift Runner’s infant child by the neck from a lodge pole and tugged at the baby’s dangling feet. The Wendigo proceeded to slaughter every member of Swift Runner’s family.

The detective was mortified and immediately took Swift Runner and the grisly evidence back to Fort Saskatchewan. The judge and jury did not view the Wendigo in the same light as the Cree, so Swift Runner was sentenced to death.

Swift Runner awaiting his execution

From the gallows, Swift Runner openly acknowledged his guilt and jokingly berated his guard for making him wait in the cold. He thanked his jailors for their kindness.

Just before the trap below his feet fell, he said, “I am no longer a man.” After the five foot drop, he died without a struggle.

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