An 1856 Description, featuring a Buffalo Hunt of 1840

Featured image: Currier and Ives, engraving, “Life on the Prairie. The Buffalo Hunt,”  (1862), based on a painting by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait.

Excerpts from Alexander Ross, Red River Settlement: Its Rise, Progress, and Present State. With Some Account of the Native Races, and Its General History, to the Present Day (London: Smith, Elder & Company, 1856).

Alexander Ross, from portrait printed in The Fur Hunters of the Far West (1855).

[p. 15:] “Formerly all this part of the country was overrun by the wild buffalo, even as late as 1810, and of course frequented by wolves, which are always found in the same neighbourhood.”

[p. 83–84:] “we may here bestow a few words upon the frequenters of the plains, commonly called the half-breeds of Red River, a class we shall have frequent occasion to notice. We ought to remark, by the way, how far this appellation is from expressing the truth, as not a tenth part of their number really belong to Red River, although they have from choice made it the land of their adoption. Hither, in fact have flocked the half-breeds from all quarters east of the rocky mountain ridge, making the colony their great rendezvous and nursing place. … Some are respectable in their habits; others are as improvident as the savages themselves: but the chief dependence of all is upon buffalo hunting or fishing. …

These huntsman resort annually to the plains, where the buffalo abounds, and generally go the journey in carts. The number composing these caravans has been of late years about 350; but they are on the increase.  … It is only the more wealthy or venturesome class of which we here speak as huntsmen—the best of those called by the general name of half-breeds. A second and inferior class of the same people resort to the lakes, and live by fishing. …”

Sarah ‘Sally’ Ross, an Okanagan woman, wife of Alexander, photographed at Red River in later life.

[p. 96:] “The Flammonds were a happy family. Apropos of tea-drinking, the old lady remarked, ‘We passed a fine winter among the Assiniboines. We were twenty-three families, made buffalo robes, dressed leather, and prepared provisions, the whole winter: all of which we sold for tea as soon as earned. The seven opposition traders told us in the spring, that we had drank twenty-five chests!’ These people emulate each other in making the blackest and bitterest tea.”

[p. 204:] “Tea is now nearly as common in the Indian camp as in the settlement; but the half-breeds surpass everything yet heard of in the article of tea-drinking. In a small camp last winter, among the buffalo, there were thirty-eight adults, men and women, and forty-six children; and this small community, in the course of seven months, with the addition of a few Indians, consumed the enormous quantity of 3,528 pounds of tea! … [which] surpasses Mrs. Flammond, the jolly hostess …”

[p. 235:] “First, then, the class of which we are [now] speaking may be considered, in a general sense, as the children of the Hudson’s Bay Company—at any rate their adopted children; that Company having, at the period of the coalition [1821] with the North-West Company, become by law the rightful owners of their parents’ inheritance.”

[p. 241–273:] “… we turn more particularly to our proposed subject—the plains and plain-hunters. Buffalo hunting here … has become a popular and favourite amusement among all classes; and Red River, in consequence, has been brought into some degree of notice, by the presence of strangers from foreign countries. We are now occasionally visited by men of science as well as men of pleasure. The war road of the savage, and the solitary haunt of the bear, have of late been resorted to by the botanist, and the geologist; nor is it uncommon now-a-days to see Officers of the Guards, Knights, Baronets, and some of the higher nobility of England, and other countries, coursing their steeds over the boundless plains, and enjoying the pleasure of the chase among the half-breeds and savages of the country. Distinction of rank is, of course, out of the question; and, at the close of the adventurous day, all squat down in merry mood together, enjoying the social freedom of equality round Nature’s table, and the novel treat of a fresh buffalo-steak served up in the style of the country—that is to say, roasted on a forked stick before the fire; a keen appetite their only sauce, cold water their only beverage. …

With the earliest dawn of spring, the hunters are in motion, like bees, and the colony in a state of confusion, from their going to and fro, in order to raise the wind, and prepare themselves for the fascinating enjoyments of hunting. It is now that the Company, the farmers, the petty traders, are all beset by their incessant and irresistible importunities. The plain mania brings everything else to a stand. One wants a horse, another an axe, a third a cart; they want ammunition, they want clothing, they want provisions; and though people may refuse one or two they cannot deny the whole population, for indeed over much obstinacy would not be unattended with risk. Thus the settlers are reluctantly dragged into profligate speculation—a system fraught with much evil, and ruinous alike to the giver and receiver of such favours.

The plain-hunters, finding they can get whatever they want without ready money, are led into ruinous extravagances; but the evil of the long credit system does not end here, It is now deeply rooted, and infused into all affairs and transactions of the place. Nor, indeed, is this the worst. The baneful influence of these wild and licentious expeditions over the minds and morals of the people is so uncontrollable, that it unhinges all their ideas, and draws into its illusive train, not only the hunters, but almost every class of our population. So many temptations, so many attractions are held out to the thoughtless and giddy, so fascinating is the sweet air of freedom, that even the offspring of Europeans, as well as natives, are often induced to cast off their habits of industry, and leave their comfortable homes to try their fortunes in the plains; there, however, disappointment and ruin never fail to convince them of their error, and dearly at last do they repent their folly.

The practical result of all this may be stated in few words. After the expedition starts, there is not a manservant or maid-servant to be found in the colony. At any season but seed time and harvest time, the settlement is literally swarming with idlers; but at these urgent periods, money cannot procure them. This alone is most injurious to the agricultural class, and if so, to every other in the settlement; but we will now also look at the subject in another light—by calculating the actual money value expended in one trip, estimating also their lost time as follows:—

Hence the variety of articles and the large sum required for the outfit of one expedition; one half of the whole amount is generally on credit, depending on the uncertain and doubtful returns of the trip, to liquidate the debt.

To illustrate the subject further by this year’s expedition. On the 15th of June, 1840, carts were seen to emerge from every nook and corner of the settlement, bound for the plains. As they passed on, many things were discovered to be still wanting, to supply which a halt had to made at Fort Garry shop; one wanted this thing, another that, but all on credit. The day of payment was yet to come: it was promised. Many on the present occasion were supplied, many were not: they got and grumbled, and grumbled and got, till they could get no morel and at last went off, still grumbling and discontented.

From Fort Garry the cavalcade and camp-followers went crowding on to the public road, and then, stretching from point to point, till the third day in the evening, when they reached Pembina, the great rendezvous on such occasions. When the hunters leave the settlement, it enjoys that relief which a person feels on recovering from a long and painful sickness. Here, on a level plain, the whole patriarchal camp squatted down like pilgrims on a journey to the Holy Land, in ancient days; only not quite so devout, for neither scrip nor staff were consecrated for the occasion. Here the roll was called, and general muster taken, when they numbered, on this occasion, 1,630 souls; and here the rules and regulations for the journey were finally settled.

The officials for the trip were named and installed into office; and all without the aid of writing materials.

The camp occupied as much ground as a modern city, and was formed in a circle; all the carts were placed side by side, the trams outward. These are trifles, yet they are important to our subject. Within this line of circumvallation, the tents were placed in double, treble rows, at one end; the animals at the other in front of the tents. This is the order in all dangerous places; but where no danger is apprehended, the animals are kept on the outside. Thus the carts formed a strong barrier, not only for securing the people and their animals within, but as a place of shelter and defence against an attack of the enemy without.

From this statement [above] it is evident that the plain-hunters are rapidly increasing. There is, however, another appendage belonging to the expedition, and to every expedition of the kind, which we might notice en passant; for the reader may be assured they are not always the least noisy. We allude to the dogs or camp followers. On the present occasion they numbered no fewer than 542; sufficient of themselves to consume no small number of animals per day, for, like their masters, they dearly relish a bit of buffalo meat. These animals are kept in summer, as they are, about the establishments of the fur-traders, for their services in winter. In deep snows, when horses cannot conveniently be used, dogs are very serviceable animals to the hunters in these parts. The half-breed, dressed in his wolf costume, tackles two or three sturdy curs into a flat sled, throws himself on it at full length, and gets among the buffalo unperceived. Here the bow and arrow play their part, to prevent noise; and here the skillful hunter kills as many as he pleases, and returns to camp without disturbing the band.

Many a curious and amusing incident occurs at buffalo-hunting, one of which may be noticed by way of example. A friend of the writer’s, about this time, went to enjoy a few weeks’ sport in the plains, and often repeated, with a comic and serious air, a scene which took place in his own presence. Some of the hunters who were accompanying him were conveying their families across a large plain, intersected here and there with clumps of wood. When in the act of rounding one of those woody islands, a herd of buffalo suddenly burst into view, causing two dogs who were drawing a sled, on which a child and some luggage were being conveyed, to set off at full speed in pursuit, leaving the father and mother in a state of despair for the safety of their only child. The dogs soon reached the heels of the buffalo, and all were mixed pell-mell together; the dogs running, the sled swinging to and fro, and the buffalo kicking. At length a bull gored one of the dogs, and his head getting entangled in the harness, went off at a gallop, carrying the dog on his horns, the other suspended by the traces, and the sled and child whirling behind him. The enraged animal ran a good half mile before he shook himself clear of the encumbrance, although pursued by a large party, by whom many shots were fired at him without effect. The state of the parents’ feelings may be imagined; yet, to their utter astonishment, although both dogs were killed, the child escaped unhurt!

But now to our camp again—the largest of the kind, perhaps, in the world. The first step was to hold a council for the nomination of chiefs or officers, for conducting the expedition. Ten captains were named, the senior on this occasion being

Jean Baptiste Wilkie, in Manton Marble, “Red River and Beyond,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (February 1861).

Jean Baptiste Wilkie, an English half-breed, brought up among the French; a man of good sense and long experience, and withal a fine bold-looking and discreet fellow; a second Nimrod in his way. Besides being captain, in common with the others, he was styled the great war chief or head of the camp; and on all public occasions he occupied the place of president. All articles of property found, without an owner, were carried to him, and he disposed of them by a crier, who went round the camp every evening, were it only an awl. Each captain had ten soldiers under his orders; in much the same way that policemen are subject to the magistrate. Ten guides were likewise appointed; and here we may remark, that people in a rude state of society, unable either to read or write, are generally partial to the number ten. Their duties were to guide the camp, each in his turn—that is day about—during the expedition. The camp flag belongs to the guide of the day; he is therefore standard-bearer in virtue of his office.

The hoisting of the flag every morning is the signal for raising camp. Half an hour is the full time allowed to prepare for the march; but if any one is sick, or their animals have strayed, notice is sent to the guide, who halts till all is made right. From the time the flag is hoisted, however, till the hour of camping arrives, it is never taken down. The flag taken down is the signal for encamping. While it is up, the guide is chief of the expedition. Captains are subject to him, and the soldiers of the day are his messengers: he commands all. The moment the flag is lowered, his functions cease, and the captains’ and soldiers’ duties commence. They point out the order of the camp, and every cart, as it arrives, moves to its appointed place. This business usually occupies about the same time as raising camp in the morning; for everything moves with the regularity of clock-work.

All being ready to leave Pembina, the captains and other chief men hold another council, and lay down the rules to be observed during the expedition. Those made on the present occasion were:—

Having mentioned their honesty, we might state an instance in point: before reaching Pembina, on one occasion, a gentleman on his way to the States forgot, in his camping place, a tin box containing 580 sovereigns in gold, and in silver and bills the amount of 450l. more. The following night, however, a halfbreed named Saint Matte happened to encamp on the same spot, picked up the box, followed the gentleman a day’s journey, and delivered box and contents into his hands to the utmost farthing, well knowing it was money. Considering their poverty, we might well speak of Saint Matte’s conduct in the highest strains of praise. And this act might be taken as an index of the integrity of the whole body, generally speaking. This virtue is fostered among them by the mildest means; for what have such a people to fear from a breach of the penal code? Punishments here are scarcely more than nominal; and may well suggest the question to a more civilized community, whether it is always the severest punishments that have the best effect in reclaiming offenders.

On the 21st, after the priest had performed mass (for we should mention that a Roman Catholic priest generally accompanies these expeditions), the flag was unfurled, it being now six or seven o’clock in the morning. The picturesque line of march soon stretched to the length of some five or six miles, in the direction of south-west, towards Côte à Pizque. At 2 P.M. the flag was struck, as a signal for resting the animals. After a short interval, it was hoisted again; and in a few minutes the whole line was in motion, and continued the route till five or six o’clock in the evening, when the flag was hauled down as a signal to encamp for the night. Distance travelled, twenty miles.

As a people whose policy it is to speak and act kindly towards each other, the writer was not a little surprised to see the captains and soldiers act with so much independence and decision, not to say roughness, in the performance of their camp duties. Did any person appear slow in placing his cart, or dissatisfied with the order of the camp, he was shoved to one side sans ceremonie, and his cart pushed forward or backward into line in the twinkling of an eye, without a murmur being heard. But mark: the disaffected persons are not coerced into order, and made to place their carts in line themselves—the soldiers do it for them, and thus betray their lack of authority; or rather it is their policy so to do, for it would be impossible, in such cases, to proceed to extremes, as in civilized life. The moment the flag was struck it was interesting to see the rear carts hasten to close up, the lagging owners being well aware that the last to arrive must take the ground as it happens, however inconvenient. In less than twenty minutes all was in order.

The camp being formed, all the leading men, officials and others, assembled, as the general custom is, on some little rising ground or eminence outside the ring, and there squatted themselves down, tailor-like, on the grass in a sort of council, each having his gun, his smoking-bag in his hand, and his pie in his mouth. In this situation the occurrences of the day were discussed, and the line of march for the morrow agreed upon. This little meeting was full of interest, and the fact struck me very forcibly, that there is happiness and pleasure in the society of the most illiterate men, sympathetically if not intellectually, as well as among the learned: and I must say, I found less selfishness and more liberality among those ordinary men than I had been accustomed to find in higher circles. Their conversation was free, practical, and interesting; and the time passed on more agreeably than could be expected among such people, till we touched on politics.

Like the American peasantry, these people are all politicians, but of a peculiar creed, favouring a barbarous state of society and self-will; for they cordially detest all the laws and restraints of civilized life, believing all men were born to be free, In their own estimation they are all great men, and wonderfully wise; and so long as they wander about on these wild and lawless expeditions, they will never become a thoroughly civilized people, nor orderly subjects in a civilized community. Feeling their own strength, from being constantly armed, and free from control, they despise all others; but above all, they are marvelously tenacious of their own original habits. They cherish freedom as they cherish life. The writer in vain rebuked them for this state of things, and endeavoured to turn the current of their thoughts into a civilized channel. They are all republicans in principle, and a licentious freedom is their besetting sin.”

[pages’ long diatribe on improvidence and poverty—lest anyone think the hunters are doing well, which would undermine Ross’ sermon/ morality tale: that the wives and children supplement camp provisions (including ‘a little tea, and cups and saucers too—rather fragile ware, for such a mode of life) with wild roots, eaten ‘in a raw state!’ and all manner of smaller game animals and birds while on the trail is presented as proof of ‘misery and want’.]

James Hope Stewart, engraving, “The American Bison,” in William Jardine, The Natural History of the Ruminating Animals, vol. 12, Naturalist’s Library (1836).

“Early in the morning of the 22nd, the flag was hoisted; but reports from various parts of the camp prayed delay. Horses had wandered, oxen could not be found: a hundred horsemen were out in search of the missing animals; some of them, during the night, had returned to Pembina, and before they got back, and all the strayed animals found, many were so exhausted with fatigue that it was judged proper not to resume the march that day. So the flag was hauled down, and strict orders issued for the next morning. In the then starving condition of the camp [Ross, who apparently eschewed eating naturally available food, may be suspected of having one of the few ‘hungry’ camps] a day’s delay was a serious consideration; but it was unavoidable. When animals are allowed to stray, the turmoil and hallooing about the camp and environs is deafening; and the pursuit in search of them, as well as the harassing work bringing them back again, is far more destructive to the animals, on expeditions of this kind, than the regular march itself. Hence the necessity of guarding them well at night, apart from the risk they run of being stolen by the enemy when out of sight of the camp.

Of late years, the field of chase has been far distant from Pembina; and the hunters do not so much as know in what direction they may find the buffalo, as these animals frequently shift their ground. It is a mere leap in the dark, whether at their outset the expedition takes the right or wrong road; and their luck in the chase, of course, depends materially on the choice they may make. The year of our narrative they travelled a south-west or middle course; being the one generally preferred, since it leads past most of the rivers near their sources, where they are easily crossed. The only inconvenience attending this choice is the scarcity of wood, which in a warm season is but a secondary consideration.

Not to dwell on the ordinary routine of each day’s journey, it was the ninth day from Pembina before we reached the Cienne [sic] river, distant only about 150 miles; and as yet we had not seen a single band of buffalo. On the third of July, our nineteenth day from the settlement, and at a distance of little more than 250 miles, we came in sight of our destined hunting ground; and on the day following, as if to celebrate the anniversary of American independence, we had our first buffalo race. Our array in the field must have been a grand and imposing one to those who had never seen the like before. No less than 400 huntsmen, all mounted, and anxiously waiting for the word, ‘Start!’ took up their position in a line at one end of the camp, while Captain Wilkie, with his spy-glass at his eye, surveyed the buffalo, examined the ground, and issued his orders. At 8 o’clock the whole cavalcade broke ground, and made for the buffalo; first at a slow trot, then at a gallop, and lastly at full speed. Their advance was over a dead level, the plain having no hollow or shelter of any kind to conceal their approach. We need not answer any queries as to the feeling and anxiety of the camp on such an occasion. When the horsemen started, the cattle might have been a mile and a half ahead; but they had approached to within four or five hundred yards before the bulls curved their tails or pawed the ground. In a moment more the herd took flight, and horse and rider are presently seen bursting in among them; shots are heard, and all is smoke, dust, and hurry. The fattest are first singled out for slaughter; and in less time than we have occupied with the description, a thousand carcasses strewn in the plain.

Buffalo hunt

“Buffalo Chase,” in Manton Marble. “To Red River and Beyond,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (October 1860).

Those who have seen a squadron of horse dash into battle, may imagine the scene, which we have no skill to depict. The earth seemed to tremble when the horses started; but when the animals fled, it was like the shock of an earthquake. The air was darkened; the rapid firing at first, soon became more and more faint, and at last died away in the distance. Two hours, and all was over; but several hours more elapsed before the result was known, or the hunters reassembled; and who is he so devoid of feeling and curiosity, that could not listen with interest to a detail of the perilous adventure.

The moment the animals take to flight, the best runners dart forward in advance. At this moment a good horse is invaluable to his owner; for of the four hundred on this occasion, not above fifty got the first chance of the fat cows. A good horse and experienced rider will select and kill from ten to twelve animals at one heat, while inferior horses are contented with two or three; but much depends on the nature of the ground. On this occasion the surface was rocky, and full of badger-holes. Twenty-three horses and riders were at one moment all sprawling on the ground; one horse, gored by a bull, was killed on the spot, two more disabled by the fall. One rider broke his shoulder blade; another burst his gun, and lost three of his fingers by the accident; and a third was struck on the knee by an exhausted ball. These accidents will not be thought over numerous, considering the result; for in the evening no less than 1,375 tongues were brought into camp.

The rider of a good horse seldom fires till within three or four yards of his object, and never misses; and, what is admirable in point of training, the moment the shot is fired, his steed springs on one side to avoid stumbling over the animal; whereas an awkward and shy horse will not approach within ten or fifteen yards, consequently the rider has often to fire at random, and not unfrequently misses; many of them, however, will fire at double that distance, and make sure of every shot. The mouth is always full of balls; they load and fire at the gallop, and but seldom drop a mark, although some do to designate the animal.

When the runners leave the camp, the carts prepare to follow to bring in the meat. The carters have a bewildering task to perform; they have to make their way through a forest of carcasses, till each finds out his own. The pursuit is no sooner over than the hunter, with coat off and shirt sleeves tucked up, commences skinning and cutting up the meat; with the knife in one hand, the bridle hanging in the other, and the loaded gun close by, he from time to time casts a wistful look around, to see that no lurking enemy is at hand watching for the opportunity to take a scalp. The hunter’s work is now retrograde: the last animal killed is the first skinned, and night, not unfrequently, surprises him at his work; what then remains is lost, and falls to the wolves; hundreds of animals are sometimes abandoned, for even a thunder-storm, in one hour, will render the meat useless The day of a race is as fatiguing for the hunter as the horse; but the meat once in camp, he enjoys the very luxury of idleness. Then the task of the women begins, who do all the rest; and what with skins, and meat, and fat, their duty is a most laborious one.

Lithograph based on George Catlin, painting, “Buffalo Hunt: White Wolves Attacking Buffalo Bull,” (c. 1834). Source; Library and Archives Canada Mikan no. 2947074.

We have stated, that when skinning the animals late, or at a distance, the hunters often run great risks. Many narrow escapes are reported on such occasions. It was while occupied on this duty, in an unfortunate moment, that Louison Vallé, as already noticed, lost his life by some lurking Sioux, who had concealed themselves among the long grass. Vallé had his son, a young boy, with him, who at the time happened to be on his father’s horse keeping a look-out. At the critical moment, he had shifted his ground a few yards, and the enemy rushing in upon him suddenly, he had just time to call out to the boy, ‘Make for the cam, make for the camp!’ and instantly fell under a shower of arrows. But the deed was not long unrevenged. The boy got to camp, the alarm was given, and ten half-breeds, mounting their horses, overtook the murderers in less than an hour. The Sioux were twelve in number; four got into the bushes, but the other eight were overtaken and shot down like beasts of prey. One of the half-breeds had a narrow escape, an arrow passing between his shirt and skin; the others got off scot free, and all returned to the camp in safety.

Buffalo-hunting is called a sport, but the most miraculous and hair-breadth escapes sometimes occur, while at others no escape is possible: the hunter getting alongside an enraged animal, it makes a sudden thrust sideways, gores the horse, and occasionally kills the rider. It is with the buffalo as with rabbits, whether from the situation of the eyes, or some other cause, they see better sideways than straight forward. The writer was one of a party once, running buffalo, and while making our way through a herd, looking here and there, as the custom is, for the fattest animal before firing, a bull, hard pressed, turned suddenly round on one of my companions, who happened to be near me at the time; to avoid the thrust in this dilemma, the horse made also a sudden start to one side, when the saddle-girth gave way, and the rider, saddle and all, were left between the bull’s horns, which so surprised the sturdy brute, that with one toss of his head he threw the man high up in the air. Strange to relate, he fell on another bull passing a few yards off, and yet escaped with the fright alone, having received no other injury.”

[long passage describing the ‘chamois-hunters of the Alps’ as being overly drawn to the chase, a ‘savage habit’ incompatible with pursuing agriculture]

Of all the operations which mark the hunter’s life, and are essential to his ultimate success, the most perplexing, perhaps, is that of finding out and identifying the animals he kills during a race. Imagine four hundred horsemen entering at full speed a herd of some thousand buffalo, all in rapid motion. Riders in clouds of dust and volumes of smoke, which darken the air, crossing and re-crossing each other in every direction; shots on the right, on the left, behind, before, here, there, two, three, a dozen at a time, everywhere in close succession, at the same moment. Horses stumbling, riders falling, dead and wounded animals tumbling here and there, one over the other; and this zig-zag and bewildering mèlée continued for an hour or more together in wild confusion; and yet, from practice, so keen is the eye, so correct the judgment of the hunter, and so discriminating his memory, that after getting to the end of the race, he can not only tell the number of animals he had shot down, but the position in which each lies—on the right or on the left side—the spot where the shot hit, and the direction of the ball; and also retrace his way, step by step, through the whole race, and recognize every animal he had the fortune to kill, without the least hesitation or difficulty. To divine how this is accomplished bewilders the imagination. To unriddle the Chinese puzzles, to square the circle, or even to find out the perpetual motion, seems scarcely more puzzling to the stranger, than that of a hunter finding out his own animals after a buffalo race.

among the buffalo

J.M. Butler et al, engraving, “Among the Buffalo,” in John Charles Frémont, Memoirs of My Life: Including in the Narrative Fiver Journeys of Western Exploration, during the years 1842, 1843–4, 1845–6–7, 1848–9, 1853–4 (1886), 591.

The writer asked one of the hunters how it was possible that each could know his own animals in such a mélange? He answered by putting a question remarkable for its appropriate ingenuity. ‘Suppose,’ said he, ‘that four hundred learned persons all wrote words here and there on the same sheet of paper, would not the fact be that each scholar would point out his own handwriting?’ It is true, that practice makes perfect; but with all the perfection experience can give, much praise is due to the discriminating knowledge of these people; quarrels being rare indeed among them on such occasions.

When the buffalo are very numerous, as was the case this year, they run several times in succession, and then a day or two is set apart for drying and manufacturing the provisions, which is done on low stages by the heat of the sun. All provisions, however, keep the better if made a little crispy with the heat of the fire. In the early part of the season the bulls are fat and the cows lean; but in the autumn the case is the reverse, the bulls are lean and the cows fat. A bull in good condition will yield 45 lbs. of clean rendered tallow; cows, when in good order, will produce, on an average, 35 lbs. Flesh and bones, however, boiled down and consumed, will yield fully double that quantity.”

[a long passage devoted to Ross’ ideas on how to improve the hunt, which text he uses to repeat to the reader that hunters are, of course, people in a state of chronic want, and he includes imagined statistics regarding the number of animals needed to produce the ‘375 bags of pemmican and 240 bales of dried meat’ that he calculates were made in 1840—all calculations, however, based on imagined numbers]

“Abundance now caused every countenance to smile with joy, and the profligate waste of to-day obliterated all remembrance of the starvation of yesterday. The regulations of the camp not permitting us to remain longer than three days in one place, and the animals having left us, we raised camp to follow them, which led us far south to the elevated plateau, which divides the waters that debouch into Hudson’s Bay, from those that flow into the Missouri. On the 16th we encamped on the bank of the latter river, when about forty of our hunters went on a visit to the American trading post, called Fort Union. Here they were kindly received, and bartered away furs and provisions for articles they either fancied or were in actual need of; and, among other good things, the prohibited article of whisky, at four pounds sterling the gallon, abating nothing for what the Missouri had contributed to it. Our people, however, avowed it was the best liquor they ever drank, for it made no one drunk.*

[‘* The tariff of the Missouri trader is very high compared with ours in Red River. A knife costs 5s.; a pound of course plug tobacco the same; and a common blanket 25 s.; being considerably more than double of our prices for similar articles.’

After passing a week on the banks of the Missouri, we turned to the west, where we had a few races with various success. We were afterwards for some time led backwards and forwards at the pleasure of the buffalo, often crossing and re-crossing our path, until we had travelled to almost every point of the compass.

Breaking camp 1850s Dakota

Detail of lithograph (1911), based on Alfred Sully, watercolour, “Dakota Sioux Breaking Camp,” showing chief and headmen “of the early 1850’s.”

While in this quarter, one of the Sioux chiefs, called the ‘Terre qui brule,’ or Burnt Earth [Mah-Kah-Kee-Dah/ Makaideya, Mdewakanton Dakota; fought against the Sac and Fox at Bad Axe, 1832; died 1884], and his band, visited our camp. The affair of Vallé, and the eight Sioux who had been killed, was the subject of their mission. Among other things, the chief accused the half-breeds of wanton cruelty, ‘Only one of your friends fell,’ said he, ‘and for that one, you murdered eight of my countrymen.’ After some time, however, the affair was amicably settled. An Indian chief is always well received and kindly treated by the half-breeds. These people have a lively sympathy for the Indians, unless their half civilized, half barbarian blood is raised; and then they are worse than the worst of savages, for their cruelty and revenge have no bounds. A small collection was made and given to the chief, according to custom, and we parted good friends, as far as outward appearances went. We, nevertheless, kept a strict watch day and night; and this was rendered the more necessary as we had noticed several suspicious parties on the distant hills.”

[description of Sioux methods of communication over distances; then a passage on the inevitability of the demise of plains dwellers, and buffalo, in the face of ‘a more genial and interesting order of things … the husbandman and the plough.’]

“After a few more rambles and buffalo-hunts, we turned our backs to the south, and came gently down the smooth and undulating hills and dales, shrubless and bare, that lead to the north. The place being rather suspicious, the scouts and armed parties were sent out to reconnoitre, and to occupy the heights; viewed from which, the line of carts, several miles in extent presented an interesting and somewhat imposing aspect. Here Wilkie, with the officials grouped around him, stood viewing the different parties as they drew up to the camp with as much dignity and self-satisfaction as Wellington could have marshalled his victorious army after the battle of Waterloo.

But we had not long enjoyed these pleasing reflections, when one of the reverses so common in these parts darkened the sunshine of our happiness. In the morning of the 22nd, the atmosphere became suddenly overcast; the lightning flashed in vivid gleams, and presently two of our horses were struck dead. There was a lull till about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, when suddenly one of the most terrific storms ever witnessed, perhaps burst upon the camp. Thunder, lightning, wind, and rain, contended violently for the mastery. our camp was pitched on a high rocky ground, and yet, in the course of ten minutes’ time, the deluge of rain that fell set everything afloat. The camp was literally swimming. Several children were with difficulty saved from drowning; and so fierce and overwhelming was the wind, that the tents were either flattened to the ground, or fluttering like ribbons in the air. During this distressing scene, three of the lodges were struck by lightning, in one of which a Canadian named Courchaine was killed, and a gun which stood by him melted in several parts like lead; in the second, an Indian and his wife, and two children, being all that were in the same fate; two dogs were also killed. The inmates of the third tent escaped. Thunder-storms are of common occurrence at this spot, and we heard that two Indians were killed there the year before. …

[description of hail storms, Ross again underlining how dangerous and anxiety-inducing a hunter’s life must be]

On the 25th, as we drew near the Chienne River on our way home, while the hunters were busy drying their provisions for a fresh start, between forty and fifty Saulteaux, attached as camp-followers to the expedition, went off a distance of some ten miles to surprise and destroy a small camp of Sioux … [description of a conflict between Saulteaux and Sioux that Ross did not witness and may or may not have taken place] … We ought to have mentioned, that as soon as the Indians set off to find the Sioux, six of the half-breeds mounted their horses, made a circuit to reach a neighbouring height, and there remained smoking their pipes, and looking at their friends during the whole time of combat. [description of Sioux retaliation, reputedly diffused by ‘half-breed … mediators’ so that nothing happened, but Ross decides ‘Indians’ should not be allowed on the Red River hunt]

On leaving the river Chienne, Parisien, the same fellow who joined the Saulteaux against the Sioux, got into the dumps, and forked off to take a road of his own, contrary to the regulations of the camp, when Hallett, one of the captains, rode after him, and with a crack or two of his whip, turning his horses, brought them back to the camp. The fellow said nothing, but sat down in gloomy mood; after some little time, thinking better of it, he got up and followed his carts. [Ross again has a better idea on how to run the hunt] … A day or two afterwards, however, when getting out of danger, and within a short distance from the Côte à Picque, several small bands forked off under various pretenses, and were allowed to go. The main party, however, kept on its course till it reached Pembina. Here all the functions of the men in office ceased, the camp broke up, and the different parties, as they got ready, threaded their way to the settlement, where they arrived on the 17th August, after a journey of two months and two days. …” [Ross then argues that the hunt had a terrible effect on the farms and the farmers made no profit from hunting—again making calculations based on imagined numbers—and claims he knows of no hunter who ever did better than break even.]

hunters camp

Alexander Moncrieff, watercolour, “Half Breed Buffalo Hunters Camp, October 1857.”


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