by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
At one time, they numbered in the millions. As a herd migrated to new grazing grounds, the beasts stirred up an all-enveloping cloud of dust, and their hooves made the prairie echo with a sound similar to thunder. It was said that when observed, a single herd covered every direction of the compass, stretching outward until reaching to the horizon. Others claimed that trains had to stop in their tracks for hours in order to allow a herd to pass.
Thomas Farnham, while travelling the Santa Fe Trail in 1839, encountered a herd which he described as so immense that it staggered the imagination. It took him three days to make his way through the vast herd. “We travelled at a rate of 15 miles a day,” he wrote. “The length of sight on either side of the trail, 15 miles, on both ... of country ... so thickly covered with these noble animals that when viewed from a height, (one could scarcely) sight ... its surface.”
On the Canadian prairies, Henry Kelsey, reported in 1690 that the Cree called these noble animals Thatanka, which the English of his day called “buffillo.” More appropriately, “buffillo” were actually bison, but since first sighted by Europeans, the name buffalo stuck in common parlance.
Kelsey said that aboriginal claims that herds were so vast that they “darken the horizon” were not exaggerated. He reported that the destruction left in the wake of the “Buffillo Tide” made it impossible to journey on the plains, “by reason of so many beaten paths which the Buffillo makes, causing us to lose our track.”
It was estimated that before the hump-backed animal was brought to near extinction in the 1870s that buffalo numbered between 20 million and 70 million, and could be found from northern Mexico to Alaska. But their dominance of the North America Plains would eventually come to an end.
In November 1883, one forlorn bull was seen grazing in the outskirts of Souris, the last representative in Manitoba of the wild herds that had by the thousands wandered freely across the province’s prairie land. As with his kin that proceeded him, the bull soon after being sighted wondered off never to be seen again.
Years earlier, the sighting of such an animal would have solicited excitement and triggered a quick response from plains hunters. But in 1883, it was merely an occasion for sadness as those who saw Manitoba’s last wild buffalo were reminded that at one time the majestic hoofed creatures had thundered across the plains in numbers that defied imagination.
The two annual Métis buffalo hunts were the most important activities in the Red River region until the last half of the 19th century. Without the buffalo, there would have been no Red River Settlement and the fur trade would have suffered for want of a steady food supply.
“As soon as there was anything like a permanent settlement (at Red River), its inhabitants, primarily Métis with some English and Scottish halfbreeds, came to regard the twice-a-year buffalo hunt as their principal source of income and far and away their chief advocation,” wrote historian James A. Jackson in his book, Centennial History of Manitoba.
Hundreds of Métis would take part in the summer and fall hunts. The Nor’Wester, Manitoba’s first newspaper that began publishing in 1859, reported on the two hunts, providing an invaluable source of information — although far from the sole source — about where the hunters travelled and how the hunt progressed.
There were two sets of hunting parties engaged in chasing the buffalo: the “Main-river Band,” made up of hunters and their families residing along the Red River from Fort Garry to Pembina, and the “White Horse Plains hunters,” taking its name from the district which contributed the most hunters, but also included others living along the Assiniboine River from Portage la Prairie to Headingly (Nor’Wester, August 14, 1860). The latter party was primarily from Grantown, the Métis settlement founded by Cuthbert Grant on White Horse Plains, which is today’s St. Francois-Xavier.
“Of the beef killed in the summer, a small quantity is dried in thin strips, and the remainder chopped up very small and made into pemican (sic) — a mightly concentrated and healthy food, much used by travellers and the laboring part of the Red River population; whilst the cattle killed in the autumn are preserved fresh, by the action of frost, throughout the winter.
“Hence, the former is called the ‘dried-meat hunt,’ and the latter the green-meat hunt.’”
The newspaper commented that pemmican was the aboriginal people’s primary food, and the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) had “little else to depend upon.” If the hunt failed, as it did in 1859, HBC employees were “reduced to short rations of horse-steaks and boiled dog.”
“To provide for all these demands required great exertion; and thus thousands in our midst make hunting the buffalo the great concern of their lives. The muster roll of the main-river party alone swells to the dimensions of an army. Here it is — not simply derived from a mere approximation, but correctly ascertained by a close and careful count — 500 men, 600 women, 680 children; 730 horse, 300 oxen, and 950 (Red River) carts.”
The number of carts was not unusual, although they rose in quantity as the number of people living in the settlement increased and fur traders intensified the demand placed on manufacturing pemmican. In 1820, there had been 540 Red River carts, 820 in 1830 and 1,210 in 1840.
Alexander Ross, an early historian living at Red River, said the 1840 hunt was made up of some 1,630 men, women and children, of which 400 were mounted hunters. At the time, this figure represented about half the total population of the Red River Settlement.
During the summer hunt reported by the newspaper, the buffalo first appeared in the neighbourhood of “Bad Hill,” 100 kilometres from the U.S.-Canada border, where 200 hunters were engaged and killed 1,300 buffalo. Another 1,000 buffalo were killed within eight kilometres of the Souris River after the party had moved south. At this camp, the party manufactured pemmican, “and whilst thus occupied a herd of about 250 came by at a trot, running their last race: they were all brought down and converted into pemican (sic).”
Three other small herds of 80, 30 and 15 buffalo were also shot.
“Buffalo growing scarce, the expedition moved back to Devil’s Lake (North Dakota), where the more serious business of buffalo shooting was relieved by a bear, beaver, and deer hunt. This sport over — and a good sport it was, several grizzly bears and a variety of lesser animals being made to bite the dust — a council was held and a resolution passed to go to Couteau de la Prairie (the plain along the east side of the Missouri River in North Dakota) to hunt the buffalo which were still wanting to fill the carts.”
The fact that the Métis hunters shot so many grizzlies as “sport” helps to explain why the great bear is no longer a denizen of the plains.
The Nor’Wester on November 15, 1860, reported on the fall hunt that began along the Pembina River, about 60 kilometres southwest of “St. Joseph, the little village on Pembina Mountain.”
Prior to the actual hunt, the adult males chose 10 captains and from these 10 a captain of the hunt was selected. Ten guides were chosen to direct the progress of the hunt once it was underway. Each of the 10 captains had 10 soldiers under their command to enforce the rules of the hunt.
In 1860, according the Nor’Wester (November 15), there was a slight variation on the normal pattern: “a Chief, eight councillors and eight Captains had been elected, guides chosen and an army of forty soldats (soldiers) raised.”
The Métis adopted the military-style discipline first developed by their native ancestors, adding their own interpretations of the rules of the hunt. Eight simple laws held the expeditions together:
1. No buffalo to be run on the Sabbath Day.
2. No party to fork off, lag behind, or go before, without permission.
3. No person or party to run buffalo before the general order.
4. Every captain with his men, in turn, to patrol the camp to keep order.
5. For the first trespass against these laws, the offender to have his saddle and bridle cut up.
6. For the second offence, the coat to be taken off the offender’s back, and be cut up.
7. For the third offence, the offender to be flogged.
8. Any person convicted of theft, even to the value of a sinew, to be brought to the middle of the camp, and the crier to call out his or her name three times, adding the word “thief” at each time.
A correspondent, providing a first-hand account of the fall hunt for the Nor’Wester, wrote that the party crossed the Souris River on September 15 and ran a band of buffalo for eight kilometres from the river. “They halted that day, and the following; for except when absolutely necessary, the people of the plains never travel or hunt on Sunday.” Instead, the people gathered in their camp for a mass performed by a Roman Catholic priest accompanying the hunt.
From the Souris, the party went to the Missouri River in the vicinity of Fort Mandan.
“On Monday they ran again; and on Tuesday the hunters crossed the river where buffalo covered the hills for a distance of about three miles (five kilometres), and great was the slaughter.
“After the run is over, the hunter rides to where his buffalo fell, and marks each ... after which he doffs his coat and moccasins, tacks up his shirt sleeves, and proceeds to cut (it) up. And capital butchers these men of the plains are ... Then up jingle the carts sent (with the women) from the camp; the meat is thrown in, and off they go to cut up another, and perhaps a third, or more if the hunter has been fortunate; after which they all jolt back to the camp to gladden the hearts of the women with their store.”
The 1840 hunt described by Ross was arranged in parallel columns of two or four abreast stretching for about eight kilometres on the prairie. This hunt involved families from all Red River parishes who proceeded to a rendez-vous near present-day Pembina in order to determine their leadership.
The column reached the Sheyenne River near present-day Fargo, North Dakota, on its 20th day before sighting the first buffalo.
On July 4, the 400 mounted hunters arranged themselves in a line to approach the herd grazing a little over two kilometres away. At a signal from the captain of the hunt, they launched their horses into a gallop, coming within about 400 metres of the herd before it showed any signs of panic. When the buffalo began to stampede, the hunters fired their rifles repeatedly, aiming at the fattest cows, which were their primary targets. Bulls were considered only good for their tongues and humps.
The first run took about two hours and resulted in the shooting of 1,375 buffalo.
The best hunters shot 10 to 12 head apiece, while the poorer hunters each settled for a more modest two or three animals.
There was no pause at each slain animal. While still at a gallop, a rider poured out a handful of powder — which was carried loose in pockets — down the gun barrel, spat a musket ball from his mouth into the barrel, and then hit the gun’s stock on the saddle to settle the powder and ball at the bottom of the barrel. After this dexterous performance, the hunter was ready to fire again.
Each hunter had the uncanny ability to retrace his steps at the end of what seemed like a chaotic melee and claim the buffalo he had shot. In other instances, a rider would drop an article of clothing, such as glove, to mark the spot where an animal he shot had fallen.
Because of this ability, few disputes ever arose as to who killed which animal.
In addition, a well-trained Métis pony could weave its way through the stampeding beasts, taking advantage of any small opening.
Of course, there were spills. A hunter could be thrown and trampled or tossed in the air by the horns of a wounded and enraged bull. Sometimes, a hunter was struck by a stray bullet fired by another rider. At other times, an improperly-loaded weapon with a ball stuck half-way down the barrel resulted in the muzzle exploding in the hands of a hunter.
According to the September 11, 1862, Nor’Wester, “Broken legs and arms, hands shot off, &c. (sic), are the common results of this ‘running’ the buffalo, still hundreds of families nail up their houses and start off to the Plains every year, where they enjoy themselves for eight or ten weeks to the best of their abilities.”
A dramatic first-hand account of a buffalo hunt is provided in a November 30, 1912, Free Press article, entitled Buffalo Hunting and Indian Fighting in’60s, by a writer only using the initials I.C. The writer, who observed the proceedings near the Cypress Hills from a hill top, related that the ponies became restive and trembled in anticipation of the hunt. It’s likely I.C. is Isaac Cowie, a former HBC employee, who was also an historian and businessman. Cowie was noted for his his collection of Plains Cree material culture that is now housed in the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History. The authour of the article said he had once been employed by the HBC. He moved to Winnipeg in 1902 and wrote, The Company of Adventurers, four years prior to his death in 1917.
When the signal “Ho! Ho!” was given, the ponies, with little urging from their riders, galloped forward and the buffalo stampeded, “leaving clouds of dust behind, through which above and over a country full of badger holes the hunters blindly charged. After passing through and emerging from this veil of dust the hunters were at the heels of the herd and commenced firing. The bolder men on swifter steeds still pressed forward, firing as they went and reloading their flintlocks with almost incredible speed and dexterity. A few fell in the rush, tripped up by badger holes or other mishap; but the majority pursued the now frantic animals, firing shot after shot at the fat cows, seemingly regardless of the presence of their fellows in the line of fire. And the slaughter continued until the ponies became out-winded, and dropped behind the main herd or those cut out and scattered in the chase.”
There were other dangers encountered on the plains, not the least of which was the war-like Sioux. As the buffalo diminished in Manitoba, the hunters were forced to seek their game further to the south in the U.S., where the Sioux held sway and relied upon the buffalo for their very existence. Presented with such a body of well-armed warriors, it is no wonder that the Sioux regarded the Métis as intruders intent upon destroying their livelihood.
The military discipline of the Métis became paramount in hostile territory. While the men were hunting, the women and children were safe behind a ring of carts — a defensive corral, or laager.
Over the years, skirmishes between Métis hunters and the Sioux resulted in the exchange of victims on each side. The culmination of the conflict between the two groups was the Battle of Grand Coteau, where 2,000 Sioux on July 13 and 14, 1851, attacked a party of just 67 hunters — some of those enlisted to wield muskets were mere 12-year-old boys — from St. Francois-Xavier who dug rifle pits under their carts with women, children and livestock placed behind the circle of carts. During the two-day battle, the Métis successfully repelling charge after charge until finally the Sioux warriors in frustration gave up the fight.
But whatever the perils of the hunt, it provided a bounty for the “Tigers of the Plains,” as I.C. called the Métis.
“For several days and after ‘the run’ the women were busy drying the meat spread on stays or on the ground (in order to commence making pemmican)... The noise of the scraping of the hair off the hides was incessant — the hide having been first stretched by pegging to the ground, while the adherent fat and flesh were scraped off, and then the hide so prepared, stretched on a wooden frame and set up in a sloping position convenient for stomping off the hair. Then followed the process of Indian tanning.”
To make pemmican, the buffalo meat was first cut into strips and dried in the sun or over a fire. Once dried, it was pounded into a powder using an anvil stone that was struck with a stone hammer — six pounds (2.72 kilograms) of meat could make one pound (0.453 kilograms) of powder, so a 1,200-pound (544.31-kilogram) buffalo yielded 200 pounds (90.72 kilograms) — which was then mixed with hot melted buffalo tallow (fat).
The fat was primarily obtained from the hump and back of the animal. The hump, which could weigh about 30 pounds (13.6 kilograms), according to Charles Mair, who wrote an 1890 paper on the habits and economic value of the American bison that was presented in Prince Albert before the Royal Society of Canada. The hump was considered to contain the most tender fat. “The ‘back’ fat, which was rich, but was less delicate, lay immediately beneath the hide, and ran along the backbone,” wrote Mair.
“Marrow-fat was the plain Indian’s butter, and surpassed it in richness if not in flavor. It was prepared by breaking all the bones, and boiling them in water till all their oil was extracted. This was skimmed off, boiled again and clarified, and then poured into buffalo bladders, where it hardened into a rich golden mass which looked exactly like well-made butter.”
The Cree and Blackfoot, who taught the Métis and white traders how to make pemmican, used a mixture of four pounds of melted fat to five pounds of meat. According to most dictionaries, the word pemmican was derived from the Cree word pimihkan (mixing together grease and meat).
The aboriginal mixture, called prairie pemmican, disagreed with the more delicate stomachs of white traders, who came up with their own measurement for a more palatable product.
After being mixed, the pemmican was placed into compact buffalo hide bags, which were sewn up for storage and transportation. When properly stored, pemmican could stay edible for years. The standard weight of a bag filled with pemmican destined for the fur trade was 90 pounds (40.82 kilograms).
The Cree and Blackfoot made pemmican more tasty and nutritious by including saskatoons or blueberries, a practice that was eagerly adopted by others.
Mair said pemmican was first mentioned in 1541 in the narrative of Coronado’s expedition to New Mexico, “and the last bag of it (buffalo pemmican) was probably eaten on the banks of the Saskatchewan (River) in 1882.”
Ross said an 1852 hunt produced 1,089,000 pounds of buffalo meat. The HBC paid two cents per pound.
Following the 1840 hunt, the HBC paid £1,200 for the dried meat, pemmican and tallow, which was more than the price realized for all the crops produced during that year in the settlement.
(Next week: part 2)