1880s’ historical recounting of 1815–1829

Featured image: “I saw more buffalo than I had ever dreamed of before,” in John McDougall, Scenes of Life in the Canadian North-West (Toronto: Briggs, 1898), 95.

Excerpts from Donald Gunn, History of Manitoba from the earliest settlement to 1835 by the late Hon. Donald Gunn, and from the admission of the province into the Dominion by Charles RTuttle (Ottawa: MacLean, Roger & Co., 1880).

Abbreviations: Hudson’s Bay Company [HBC]; North West Company [NWC]. The two companies were in conflict to 1821 when they combined, under the HBC name.

xiv:  “The locality chosen [for Red River Settlement] … proved to be a good one, and drew about it a more than usually intelligent class of ‘freemen,’ as the retired servants of the [HBC] Company were called; among them Mr. William Smith, an English worthy full of strong, honest points … [who. like the author] married a daughter of Mr. [James] Swain … Happily for the new farmers, these were the halcyon days of the hunters. Buffalo were near and plenty …”

135: [1815, prior to Gunn’s arrival] “the buffalo … were only to be found on the great plains which extend from the Pembina Mountains to the Missouri. It was considered most advisable to send the [Selkirk] settlers [newly arrived colonists from overseas, residing at Fort Douglas, Red River Settlement] to Pembina, which was seventy miles nearer to the hunting grounds than Fort Douglas. … We have said that no provisions had been laid up for the maintenance of … [these] expected settlers. … The result was that the sorely tried and distressed strangers had to leave Pembina and perform a journey of over one hundred and fifty miles over the plains to where the Indians and others were hunting the buffalo. These unfortunate people [from the colony] had to perform the journey on foot, in the latter end of December … those of them, who lived after, could not relate the sufferings of that winter without a shudder. On their arrival at the hunting tents, Freemen, half-breeds, and Indians vied in extending their kind offers to the new comers. … before the spring some of the strangers had learned how to approach buffalo and became excellent hunters …”

140 [At Pembina c. 1816]: “The Canadian traders had but few persons to feed at this place and were enabled to lay up a great stock of provisions procured by the chase … Bostonais Pangman, a half-breed, was in charge of the place … great quantities of dried buffalo meat … [were confiscated by HBC aggressors, so that the NWC men of both Fort Gibralter and Pembina] … had to seek asylum among their kind countrymen passing the spring among the buffalo on the plains. Mr. John Severight [NWC] arrived safely at Qu’Appelle … Mr. Cameron [NWC] was still prisoner in his own house. …”

196: [Spring 1817]: “The buffalo had left the vicinity of the forests to pasture on the open and almost illimitable plains of the Missouri followed only by their ancient enemies, the red man and the wolf—for the half-breeds had not yet organized themselves into those great hunting parties which afterwards became so formidable … and nearly annihilated the buffalo.”

197: “the French Metis (Bois-Brules) … [sold the] produce of their hunt [to the NWC].”

“Plan of land bought by the Earl of Selkirk from Pegius and other Indians. 18th July 1817.” Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 4149347.

202: “His Lordship [Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk], soon after his arrival in the colony, convened the different bands of Indians who occupied the surrounding districts. Some of these little bands were composed of the descendants of Swampy-Crees and Saulteaux, who, at the former but rather recent period, left the forests on the east side of Lake Winnipeg to hunt the buffalo on the plains of Red River, and were known by the distinctive appellation ‘Nachdaweyack.’ Besides these, there were present a considerable number of pure Ojibois [sic] or Saulteaux, who, about the year 1790, had left the forests of Red Lake, and ever since continued to roam through the forests and over the plains that surrounded Red River. The Crees were also represented at this great convention by their chief, who, it has been said, exerted all his influence to prevent the formation of the treaty on which his Lordship had so much set his mind. Without a proper understanding with the Indians about the land, the colonists would be continually laboring under the fear of being attacked by the thoughtless and ill-disposed portion of the surrounding savages.”

205 [Winter 1817-1818]: “The buffalo, on which they [Selkirk’s imported colonists] had to depend for their subsistence, were at a great distance in the open plains towards the Missouri, and the want of horses or even dogs to drag the buffalo beef to the shanties from the hunting tents was keenly felt. Such was the low state of their finances that they could not purchase any of these useful animals, and without their aid they could not remain any longer in the position which they took up in the beginning of winter; so, with heavy hearts and emaciated forms, they set out on their long, dangerous and laborious journey over the frozen, dreary, barren wilderness that lies between Pembina and the Coteau, or high land, that rises to the north of the Missouri, where the Indians and freemen were hunting the buffalo, where they [the colonists] arrived all in good health, but thoroughly way-worn and in very destitute circumstances. However, in a short time they were able to procure, not only a sufficiency for the supply of their daily recurring wants, but were able by industry and frugality to make some provisions for future emergencies.”

207 [Spring 1818]: “The strong and vigorous [among the colonists at Fort Douglas] went to the plains beyond to hunt and to take the proceeds of their hunt to those [of their group] whom they left at Pembina. Fortunately for all interested the buffalo were within a short distance, say 40 or 50 miles from Pembina. The hunters had their tents along the Salt Rivers, where they procured abundance of food for the winter, and the means of making some provisions for the exigencies of the ensuing summer. Early in the spring of 1819 the [French-]Canadian families settled at Pembina.”

Peter Rindisbacher, pen and ink wash over pencil, “The Method of Crawling Up to a Herd of Buffalos in the Winter,” (c. 1830). Source: Library and Archives Canada, Mikan no. 2835796.

208 [Winter 1818-1819]: “Many of their [the colonists’] young men had become good hunters, could travel on snow-shoes, drive dog trains … and were in other respects falling rapidly into the free and independent habits of the hunter. Urged by necessity, they left their habitations on the Lower Red River, and went to pass the winter on the plains beyond Pembina …”

211: “… at Pembina and on the plains beyond that place. The buffalo, on which the multitude of half-breed settlers and Indians depended for their subsistence, were in great numbers, but kept far out in the open plains, which rendered hunting and taking the provisions to camp more laborious than at any time during the preceding year, when the cattle were near the woods; in other words near the camp, as it is in the woods only that the hunters with their families can venture to make their place of abode during the winter months. Notwithstanding the distance over which they had to draw their provisions, they had enough for winter and some to spare, which they made into pemican for summer use. In April they left the plains and arrived safely at Pembina…”

239: [Speaking of NWC voyageurs, upon the 1821 merger of the HBC and NWC]: “The birch canoe was allowed to decay; the hardy and athletic men, chiefly half-breeds, who navigated it in former, and to them better, times, were thrown out of employment, and to support themselves and their family had to become hunters, and, from some cause or other, they soon became disgusted with their condition in the district of Saskatchewan, and by degrees came to join the little colony at Pembina, and finally moved down to the Lower Red River and to White Horse Plains. The wealthy class possessed horses, and provided themselves with carts of so simple a construction that each hunter, as a rule, could make and repair his own vehicles. The forest furnished ready to his hand the requisite material either for construction or repair, and each party of hunters carried along with it the necessary tools, which consisted of an axe, hand-saw, auger, chisel and crooked knife, being all that was needed for the performance of the above simple operations.

As early as 1822, the hunters being inspired with a well-founded dread of the hostile Dahcotahs (Sioux), never ventured to the buffalo hunt, except in formidable and well organized bodies; they commonly made two trips, one in the summer and another in the fall. The first and greatest party left in the beginning of June, and generally returned, if successful, with their loads of dry-meat and pemican in the month of August. For many years the Hudson’s Bay Company was the only purchaser of the produce of the chase, and in consequence could regulate the market to suit their own interest by paying any price they thought proper. Yet, discouraging as this state of the market was, the greater part of these people could not exist without going to the plains, and, very often, especially the first trip, they could not go to the plains without receiving supplies in advance from the Company. Thus business was done for some years to their mutual satisfaction and advantage.”

241: “Those who may be termed the floating population of this region, consisting of French and English half-breeds, with a few others, hunted the buffalo during the winter of 1823 and 1824 on the great plains near the Great Salt River, whence they brought great quantity of the green beef into the settlement on sleighs, turning the surplus into dry-meat and pemican, with which they descended the river on the opening of navigation to exchange for such supplies as they required to fit them out for the summer hunt.”

242–243 [1824]: “The hunters accomplished their two trips and were successful in both. The Hudson’s Bay Company bought up all the pemican, tallow and drip [sic: dry?] meat that the people had to spare; many of them sold the last bag of pemican and the last bale of meat, and returned to the plains to pass the winter among the buffalo. The few hunters who had houses in the settlement and who were desirous of passing the winter months in them, reserved for winter use the principal part of what they brought in in the fall; and when these supplies ran short, as they generally did, they had to leave the settlement and betake themselves to the lakes to procure fish, or buy back a part of the provisions which they had sold the preceding summer, always paying one hundred per cent on what they sold the same at a few months before; but so long as it was on credit and only to be paid in kind, when they would return the ensuing summer from the hunt, they were perfectly satisfied.”

Robert Hinshelwood engraving after Seth Eastman, “Hunting the Buffalo in Winter [1847–1848?], (n.s.: c. 1854?).

245–246: “We have stated above that the French half-breed portion of our population, with some of the poorer class of the Lower Canadians, passed their time summer and winter on the plains hunting the buffalo. In the fall of 1825, a greater number than usual went to enjoy the pleasure of the chase and luxuriate on its produce; but, unfortunately, their hopes were not realized. Rumours reached Pembina, in January, to the effect that the hunters had been unsuccessful and that they were destitute of food and in great distress. Rumours of every kind being common in these parts, and oftener false than true, they did not receive much attention. However, in the early part of February, some person who had arrived at Pembina from the camp, not only confirmed the previous reports, but showed clearly that the condition of the freemen was far more deplorable than fame had rumoured. Mr. Andrew McDermott [whose Métis wife was Sarah Mary McNab] and Mr. Alex. Ross [whose First Nations Wife was Sarah ‘Sally’ Timentwa] were at Pembina, trading under a license from the Hudson’s Bay Company. These gentlemen might sympathize with the sufferers, but they had very little else to give. However, they immediately despatched a messenger to headquarters to make the sad condition of the unfortunate hunters known to Donald McKenzie, Esquire, who held the office of Colony Governor and Chief Factor in charge of the Company’s affairs in the district. This benevolent gentleman not only made use of the stores under his charge for the relief of the sufferers, but added the influence of his high position and personal character to induce others to join in the good work. The settlers delivered their contributions of food at Fort Garry, and some of them volunteered to take the stores to Pembina, which was, comparatively speaking, easily done, as the road was good. But very few of those for whom the charity was intended had yet arrived at that point, and the nearly insuperable difficulty lay beyond, as neither horse or oxen could go any farther, and the only practicable mode of conveyance, owing to the deep snow, was by using dogs and sleighs, which greatly increased the labor. The distance some of the sufferers were from Pembina was nothing short of 150 if not 200 miles; but sympathy for them was general, and those who had dogs and trains offered their services to carry supplies to the relief of the famine-stricken multitude, who, it was well known, were pressing on to reach Pembina. Train after train was loaded with the provisions, and entered on the boundless snow-covered plains, over which they had to travel with supplies. However, they had not gone far before they met some of those they were in search of, and from them they generally received such information as enabled them to find others. Many of these intrepid drivers traveled over a wide extent of country in search of their missing friends, numbers of whom, if not all, owed, under Providence, the preservation of their lives to the dexterity and unwearied perseverance of those who may justly be said to have snatched them from the jaws of death.

We have stated above how suddenly and unexpectedly the winter set in and the great depth of snow that fell in the early part of it. The hunters had arrived at their hunting grounds and found buffalo, but from various causes were unable to make any provisions for a future day before the storms of winter covered the plains with snow three of four feet deep. Their horses had become useless in hunting and on account of the great labor they had to perform in obtaining their scanty food from so great a depth of hard packed snow, were in a few weeks not only unfit for any kind of labor but unable to procure their own food. While thus destitute of food for man and for beasts, between the 15th and 20th December, a great snow storm came on, such as has rarely been seen on those wide and treeless plains. This storm, which blew from the north, continued to rage during three days and four nights, drove the buffalo before it beyond the reach of the hunters and killed a great many of their horses. After the weather had moderated the camp broke up, a group or family going here, another going there, in hope of finding wood-animals; others made their way to the Devil’s Lake expecting to take pike by angling; but all their efforts to procure food on the land or from water failed. Then they began to kill and eat the few emaciated horses that remained; those finished, the dogs were next resorted to, raw hides, leather, and even their old shoes; some had been found who had buried themselves in snow banks for shelter from the keen blasts that swept over the plains; but unfortunately their refuge, not in a few cases, had become their graves. The heat of their bodies melted the snow, they became wet, and being destitute of dry raiment, fuel and food, were frozen in a body of solid ice; others had been found one here, one there—along the road that led to Pembina, dead and frozen, where, on being overcome by lassitude they sat down to rest and were relieved from all their mortal sufferings by the hand of death. Some of these were found very near to Pembina, viz: a woman and an infant on her back was found within a mile of the place where she had succumbed in the arduous but unequal struggle for life, after having travelled 100 miles in three days and as many nights. The sufferings of most of these people exceeded everything of which we can form an idea. One family, consisting of the husband, wife and three children, were dug out of the snow where they had been buried for five days and five nights, without food or fuel; the mother and two of the children recovered. The famished crowds that arrived at Pembina were fed and nursed for a few days yet so debilitated were they, that on the way down to the settlement it might be said that they crawled rather than walked, and a few of them died by the way. Thus, after unparalleled exertions had been made by those intrepid men who went to the rescue, the survivors were brought to the settlement and supplied with such comforts as their circumstances required; some of them had their feet frost-bitten, other, hands and noses suffered likewise. The common belief was that over thirty of these hunters perished during that terrible winter.”

251 [After the flood of 1826]: “After the subsidence of the water the hunters left the colony to hunt the buffalo, and returned with their carts well loaded.”

266 [1829]: “… at what has since been known as St. John’s [Parish, Red River Settlement], but was then known as Kildonan … [there were] four or five Indian families who had left their frozen forests and came to the colony to visit a sister, a daughter, or some near relative married to a white man. Once in Red River, they must go to the buffalo hunt, generally as servants [meaning hired], but while there they were in their element, feasting from nightfall to morning, and when they returned with the last trip they were as poor as they had been when they commenced the first. They were permitted to erect huts on the east side of the river, opposite the parsonage, where they passed the winter months supporting themselves by working among the settlers. … but after passing a few winters in the milder climate of Red River, and having acquired a taste for the good things procured by the buffalo hunt and raised on the farms, they could not be induced to return to their former hunting grounds …”

Gunn and Swain

Donald Gunn retired to Red River Settlement with his Métis wife, Margaret Swain, in 1823. The photographic portraits above were taken sometime after 1860.

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