Henry Ross Halpin was born in Ireland in 1856. His father’s family was made up of prominent journalists and clergy; his mother’s family was related to the Ross family, who had strong Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) connections. He moved to Canada in 1864 when his father, the Reverend William Henry Halpin, was hired as professor of Classics and Mathematics at Huron College, the original college of the University of Western Ontario. Young Henry Halpin had a great fascination with Canada’s Native peoples, and in 1872 he joined the Hudson’s Bay Company as an apprentice postmaster at Fort Garry. He served the HBC at Norway House, Nelson River Post, Oxford House, across the prairies, and in the Peace River District before taking over the HBC operation at Cold Lake, a branch post of Fort Pitt, in 1884. Although he lacked higher education, Halpin had an inquiring mind and was an amateur anthropologist. His lively memoirs reveal a deep understanding of Native life and the varied aspects of the fur trade; a friend of Big Bear, he was fluent in Cree.
In April 1885, just after the Frog Lake Massacre, Halpin was held captive for 62 days by members of Big Bear’s camp. During the capture of Fort Pitt, Halpin served as Big Bear’s secretary and wrote letters to the North-West Mounted Police inside the fort, asking them to retreat in order to avoid further bloodshed. Later, with the help of Big Bear, Halpin and the other prisoners were able to escape at Frenchman’s Butte. He then joined the Alberta Field Force as a scout, looking for those who had taken him prisoner. During Big Bear’s treason trial Halpin testified on behalf of his friend, stating that Big Bear was as much a prisoner as he himself had been, and was innocent of the murders at Frog Lake. Around the time of the trial Halpin was hired by the Indian Affairs Department as a translator. He worked at the Muscowpetung Reserve near Fort Qu’Appelle, and became friends with local MP Nicholas Flood Davin and with Robert Wilson Elliott, the local Justice of the Peace. He married Elliott’s daughter Annie and named his first son after Davin. Later, Halpin was the Indian Agent at Moose Mountain, and in 1901 he was living at Cannington Manor. After his wife died, he rejoined the HBC and worked at Fort Alexander in Manitoba, where he married a Métis woman, Flora Leask, and had a second family. He remained in the Libau, Manitoba area, and served as Justice of the Peace until 1928. He died in 1930 in Winnipeg.
David R. Elliott