Featured image: Alfred Jacob Miller, watercolour, “Caravan en Route,” (1867). Source: Library and Archives Canada [LAC] Mikan no. 2833881.
William H. Keating, Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of the St. Peter’s River, Lake Winnepeek, Lake of the Woods &c. &c. vol. 2 (Philadelphia: H.C. Carey and I. Lea, 1824), 38-43.
“Two principal settlements were formed, one at Fort Douglas, which is at the confluence of the Assiniboin [sic] and Red Rivers and the other one hundred and twenty miles by water above that, and near the mouth of a small stream named by the Chippewas Anepeminan sipi, from a small red berry termed by them anepeminan, which name has been shortened and corrupted into Pembina*, (Viburnum oxycoccos.)
[* The b has been introduced by Europeans; the theme of the word is Nepin, summer, and Minan, berry.]
The Hudson’s Bay Company had a fort here [Pembina], until the spring of 1823, when observations, made by their own astronomers, led them to suspect it was south of the boundary line, and they therefore abandoned it, removing all that could be sent down the river with advantage. The Catholic clergyman, who had been at this place, was at the same time removed to Fort Douglas, and a large and neat chapel built by the settlers for their accommodation is now fast going to decay. The settlement [at Fort Douglas] consists of about three hundred and fifty souls, residing in sixty log houses or cabins; they do not appear to possess the qualifications for good settlers; few of them are farmers; most of them are half-breeds, who having been educated by their Indian mothers, have imbibed the roving, unsettled, and indolent habits of the Indians. Accustomed from their early infancy to the arts of the fur trade, which may be considered as one of the worst schools for morals, they have acquired no small share of cunning and artifice. These form at least two-thirds of the male inhabitants. The rest consist of Swiss and Scotch settlers, most of the former are old soldiers, as unfit for agricultural pursuits as the half-breeds themselves. The only good colonists are the Scotch, who have brought over with them, as usual, their steady habits, and their indefatigable perseverance. Although the soil about Pembina is very good, and will, when well cultivated, yield a plentiful return, yet, from the character of the population, as well as from the infant state of the colony [at Fort Douglas?], it does not at present yield sufficient produce to support the settlers, who therefore devote much of their time to hunting; this, which perhaps in the origin was the effect of an imperfect state of agriculture, soon acted as a cause; for experience shows that men addicted to hunting never can make good farmers. At the time when we arrived at the colony, most of the settlers had gone from home, taking with them their families, horses, &c. They were then chasing the buffalo in the prairies, and had been absent forty-five days without being heard from. The settlement was in the greatest need of provisions; fortunately for us, who were likewise destitute, they arrived the next day. Their return afforded us a spectacle that was really novel and interesting; their march was a triumphant one, and presented a much greater concourse of men, women and children than we had expected to meet in those distant prairies. The procession consisted of one hundred and fifteen carts, each loaded with about eight hundred pounds of the finest buffalo meat; there were three hundred person, including the women. The number of their horses, some of which were very good, was not under two hundred. Twenty hunters, mounted on their best steeds, rode in abreast; having heard of our arrival, they fired a salute as they passed our camp. These men receive here the name Gens libres or Freemen, to distinguish them from the servants of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who are called Engagés. Those that are partly of Indian extraction, are nick-named Bois Brulé, (Burnt Wood.) from their dark complexion.
A swift horse is held by them to be the most valuable possession; they are good judges of horses, particularly of racers, with which they may chase the buffalo. Their horses are procured from our southern prairies, or from the internal provinces of New Spain, whence they are stolen by the Indians, and traded or re-stolen throughout the whole distance, until they get into the possession of these men Their dress is singular, but not deficient in beauty; it is a mixture of the European and Indian habits. All of them have a blue capote with a hood, which they use only in bad weather; the capote is secured round their waist by a military sash; they wear a shirt of calico or painted muslin, mocassins [sic] and leather leggings fastened round the leg by garters ornamented with beads, &c. The Bois brulés often dispense with a hat; when they have one, it is generally variegated in the Indian manner, with feathers, gilt lace, and other tawdry ornaments.
The character of the Bois brulé countenance is peculiar. Their eyes are small, black, and piercing; their hair generally long, not unfrequently curled, and of the deepest black; their nose is short and turned up; their mouth wide; their teeth good; their complexion of a deep olive, which varies according to the quantity of Indian blood which they have in them. They are smart, active, excellent runners. One of them, we are told, often chased buffalo on foot; we did not, however, see him do it. This man had a handsome, well-proportioned figure, of which Mr. [Samuel] Seymour took a sketch. He was very strong, and was known to have three times discharged, from his bow, an arrow, which, after perforating one buffalo, had killed second; an achievement which is sometimes performed by the Indians, though it is rare, as it requires great muscular strength. Their countenance is full of expression, which partakes of cunning and malice. When angry, it assumes all the force of the Indian features, and denotes perhaps more of the demoniac spirit than is generally met with, even in the countenance of the aborigine.
The mixture of nation, which consist of English, Scotch, French, Italians, Germans, Swiss, united with Indians of different tribes, viz. Chippewas, Crees, Dacotas, &c. has been unfavourable to the state of their morals; for, as is generally the case, they have been more prone to imitate the vices than the virtues of each stock; we can therefore ascribe to this combination of heterogeneous ingredients, but a very low rank in the scale of civilization. They are but little superior to the Indians themselves. Their cabins are built, however, with a little more art; they cultivate small fields of wheat, maize, barley, potatoes, turnips, tobacco, &c. A few of the more respectable inhabitants keep cows and attend to agriculture, but we saw neither a plough nor a yoke of oxen in use, in the whole of the upper settlement [Pembina]. Considering the high latitude of Pembina, the above-mentioned plants thrive well. Maize yields tolerable crops; so does tobacco, which even yields seed. The wheat which is in greatest repute here is the bearded wheat. The price of agricultural produce is apparently very high. Wheat sells for two dollars per bushel; Indian corn for three dollars; barley, which is much used by the colonists in soup, yields three dollars; potatoes from fifty cents to one dollar; and the other vegetables in proportion. It may be well, however, to add that these are nominal prices, there is no specie currency, every thing is traded for in the way of exchange for some other commodity, at the rates affixed to them by the Hudson’s Bay Company, of which the following may give an idea. Gun powder at one dollar and a quarter per lb. Buck and small shot at seventy-five cents per lb. Buck and small shot at seventy-five cents per lb. Tobacco two dollars per lb. …
[At Pembina] … the distance to the boundary line was measured off, and an oak post fixed on it, bearing on the north side the letters G.B. and on the south side those [of] U.S. On the 8th of August , at noon, the flag was hoisted on the staff … A national salute was fired at the time, and a proclamation made by Major Long, that ‘by virtue of the authority vested in him by the President of the United States, the country situated upon Red River, above that point, was declared to be comprehended within the territory of the United States.’ This declaration was made in the presence of all the inhabitants collected for that purpose. They appeared well satisfied on hearing that the whole of the settlement of Pembina, with the exception of a single log-house, standing near the left bank of the river, would be included in the territory of the United States. While fixing the posts, the colonists requested that they might be shown how the line would run; when this was done, the first observation they made was, that all the buffalo would be on our side of the line; this remark shows the great interest they take in this animal, to which all their thoughts recur. We might almost apply to them the observation made by Gomara of the natives of the province of Quivira, and which is strictly true of the Dacotas. ‘The people have no other riches, (than the buffalo); they are unto them meat, drink, apparel; their hides also yield them houses and ropes; their sinews and hair, thread their horns, mawes, and bladders, vessels; their dung, fire; the calves skins budgets wherewith they draw and keep water*.’”
[* … Vide De Laet, ut supra, L. 6, C. 17, and Puchas p. 778.]