H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

The great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory online

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instalment of colonists reached the bay coast in the autumn
of 181 1, advanced inland in the following spring, and, at the
confluence of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers, about forty
miles ''•om the foot of Lake Winnipeg, found themselves —


metaphorically speaking — at home. They were in the centre
of the American Continent, fifteen or sixteen hundred miles in
direct distance from the nearest city residence of civilized man
in America, and separated from the country whence they
came by an almost impassable barrier.

Unfortunately for the successful founding of an agricultu-
ral colony, such as Lord Selkirk had planned, the rival French
Canadian fur-companies, contending for the possession of the
territory with the Hudson's Bay Company, chose to regard
the new-comers as invaders, whose presence was detrimental
to their interests ; and the Indians also objected to the culti-
vation of their hunting-grounds. Between the persecutions of
two such powerful enemies, the colonists made, after the de-
struction of their crops and dwellings the first year, but little
attempt at agriculture, and adopted, perforce, the nomadic
life of the country, visiting the plains twice annually in pur-
suit of buffalo. This mode of life obtained until the coalition
of all the fur-companies, in the year 182 1, increased the size
of the colony by the acquisition of all the French hunters and
traders — who selected rather to remain there than to return to
Canada — and rendered the peaceful pursuit of agriculture

But it occurred that, by intermarriage with the aborigines,
and ten years of the free, roving life of the plain-hunter, agri-
culture had become distasteful to the younger portion of the
sturdy Scots, while the French, of course, still clung to old
habits, relying entirely upon the chase for a livelihood. So
it happened that, while a small minority of the first colonists


— those of advanced age — adopted the cultivation of the soil,
the large majority of the eight or ten thousand people form-
ing the settlement followed the chase ; thus presenting the
anomaly of a settled, civilized community subsisting by the
pursuits common to nomadic life ; in reality, civilized nomads.
From those early days up to the present, when civilization by
rapid strides has encroached upon and overrun that isolated
locality, the same mode of life has obtained, with, until with-
in the past ten years, no very perceptible change. The
French portion of the colony rely entirely upon the chase, if
we may except certain miniature attempts at farming ; the
Scotch alternating between seasons of labor with plow and
hoe and the semi-annual hunts ; the half-breed offspring of
the latter instinctively adopting the chase. The world pre-
sents no other such incongruous picture.

It is not within our province to enter upon the details ot
buffalo-hunting as practiced upon the plains, and with which,
doubtless, all are familiar; but it may not be devoid of in-
terest to follow this particular hunt to its termination, as pre-
senting certain peculiarities not found elsewhere.

The parties belonging to the summer hunt start about the
beginning of June, and remain on the plains until the begin-
ning of August. They then return to the settlements for a
short time, for the purpose of trading the pemmican or dried
meat, which forms the staple article of produce from the
hunt. The autumn hunters start during the month of August,
and remain on the prairie until the end of October, or early in
November, when they usually return, bringing the fresh or


" green meat," preserved at this late season by the extreme
cold, and fall buffalo-robes. This latter hunt, including all
the features of the former, we select as the subject of de-

After the return of the people from the summer hunt, and
a short time allowed for the sale of their produce, a few of
the recognized leaders of the chase assemble to arrange the
time and i)lace of a general rendezvous for the fall hunt.
The time is always set for the first days of September, but the
place of rendezvous changes from year to year, as the herds
of buffalo are reported by the summer hunters as being close
at hand or afar off. Of late years the rendezvous has been
made at Pembina Mountain, a locality on the United States
boundary-line in the northeast corner of Dakota Territory,
comparatively close at hand. From this point the hunt fre-
quently divides into two sections, one proceeding in a south-
erly, the other in a southwesterly direction. Both time and
place having been designated by the (for the time) self-consti-
tuted leaders of the hunt, the word at once passes through
the colony by that subtile electricity of gossip common to the
frontier as elsewhere, but generally dignified by the name of
news. The rapidity with which it travels, too, suggests the
entire needlessness of telegraphy.

A particular date is determined upon for departure from
the rendezvous, but it is customary to meet, if possible, some
days previous to that time, in order that everything may be in
perfect readiness. From the day of notification to that of de-
parture for the rendezvous, the colony is in a constant state


of preparation. In every door-yard may be seen the canvas
tents and leather tepees of prospective hunters, stretched for
repairs ; carts undergoing a like renovating process, and fences
decorated with dislocated sets of harness ; guns and accoutre-
ments burnished to an unwonted degree of effulgence ; ket-
tles strewed about the yard, together with wooden trunks and
other paraphernalia of the camp. As the time approaches for
the meet, the well-worn trails leading toward the rendezvous
become vividly alive with long trains of carts, oxen, ponies,
and well-groomed runners used in the final chase. Each
hunter takes, in addition to the carts necessary for the con-
veyance of his family — for the women and children have their
share in the labor equally with the men — a supply of extra
vehicles in which to load the meat and robes falling to his
share. And this train of carts, constantly augmented by new
additions, marching in single file, for days seems interminable,
sending up a refrain from ungreased axles that may be heard
miles away on the prairie.

While some of the carts are devoted to the conveyance of
madame, the hunter's wife, and possibly the younger children,
the remainder are filled at the start with tents, bedding,
camp-equipage, and provisions sufficient to last until the buf-
falo are reached. The ponies and oxen drawing them march
in single file, and each one being tied to the tail of the vehicle
before it, they become jammed together in a telescopic fash-
ion when a sudden halt occurs in the line, and elongated on
starting again in a way that is affecting to behold. About the
train, as it creaks monotonously along, the loose animals are


driven, and what with their tramping feet and the dragging
gait of the cart-animals the little caravan is likely to be hid-
den from view in the dark clouds of dust arising from the
well-worn trails. The rate of travel, estimated entirely by
time, is about twenty miles per day, and at this pace nearly
four days are required to reach the rendezvous.

Pembina Mountain rises on the north and east in a series
of table-lands, each table about half a mile in width, sparsely
timbered, and bountifully supplied with springs. On its
western slope, at the base of which runs the Pembina River,
the mountain terminates abruptly. Across the stream, flow-
ing deep below the surface in a narrow valley, the banks
remain of about an equal height with the mountain, stretch-
ing away toward the Missouri in a bare, treeless plain, broken
only by the solitary elevation in the dim distance of Ne-pauk-
wa-win (Dry Dance Hill). On this bank of the river is the
rendezvous, selected in accordance with an invariable rule of
prairie-travel — to always cross a stream on the route before
camping. As wood is not to be had on the western bank,
each hunter cuts a supply for his camp-fires as he passes over
the mountain ; and, as no more timber will be encountered
during the hunt, he also carefully selects an abundant supply
of poplar-poles upon which to hang the meat to dry after the
chase, and for use as frames in stretching robes to be tanned.

As hour after hour and day after day the carts come
straggling in, sometimes a single hunter with his outfit of
from three to ten carts, again a train so swollen by contribu-
tions along the road as to number hundreds, the camp of ren-


dezvous enlarges its borders, and presents a scene both novel
and picturesque. The elevated plain on the immediate banks
of the stream is covered with a motley grouping of carts, can-
vas tents, smoke-brown leather tepees, and, in lieu of other
shelter, small squares of cotton or raw-hide stretched from
cart to cart, or over a rough framework of poles. For miles
around the prairie is alive with ponies, hoppled, tied to lariat-
pins, or dragging about poles as a preventive against straying.
Mingled with this kicking, neighing herd wander hundreds of
oxen — patient, lowing kine, the youthful vivacity of which
has given place to middle-aged steadiness. Through this
compact mass of animal life gallop with a wild scurry, from
time to time, half-nude boys, breaking a narrow pathway in
search of some needed ox or pony, or hurrying the whole
struggling mass riverward.

In the camp the sole occupation of the day is the pursuit
of pleasure. From every tent and shelter comes the sound of
laughter ; every camp-fire furnishes its quota of jest and
song. Here a small but excited circle, gathered under the
shade of a cart, are deeply engaged in gambling by what is
known as the "moccasin-game." In an empty moccasin are
placed sundry buttons and bullets, which, being shaken up,
involve the guessing of the number in the shoe. The ground
is covered with guns, capotes, and shirts, the volatile half-
breed often stripping the clothing from his back to satisfy his
passion for play, or staking his last horse and cart. There
another like-minded party are gambling with cards, the stakes
being a medley of everything portable owned by the players.


In many tents rum is holding an orgy, and the clinking of ■
cups, boisterous laughter and song, tell of the presence of the
direst enemy of the hunter. In another quarter feasting is
the order of the day, and the small stock of provisions, de-
signed to supply the family until the buffalo were reached, is
being devoured at a sitting. The host knows this ; but,
then, he selects a feast and its consequent famine. Yonder
tawny Pyramus is making love to dusky Thisbe after the
most approved fashion. They seem indifferent to the ex-
posure of the camp, and conduct their wooing as if no curi-
ous eyes were upon them. About the many camp-fires
stand, or crouch, the wives of the hunters, busily engaged in
culinary operations, or gossiping with neighbors, while their
numerous scantily-attired offspring play about in the dust and
dirt with wolfish-looking dogs. The baby of the family,
fastened to a board, leans against a cart-wheel, doubtless re-
volving in its infantile mind those subtile questions pertinent
to babyhood.

Gathered in a circle apart are likely to be found the aged
leaders of the hunt, engaged in discussion of the weightier
matters of the time ; but, from the broad smiles lighting up
their bronzed features at times, it is doubtful whether many of
the subjects are relevant. Perched high on a cart-wheel,
farther on, sits a long-haired Paganini, drawing rude melo-
dies from an antiquated and fractured violin. About him
are congregated a crowd of delighted hearers, suggesting new
tunes, requesting the loan of the instrument long enough to
exhibit their own skill, or, seized with the infection, suddenly


breaking into an improvised break-down, or executing a pas
seul the very embodiment of caricature. Reclining under the
shade of carts, in every possible attitude, lie weary hunters
indulging in a siesta., from which to be rudely awakened by
some practical joke of their fellows, only to find themselves
bound hand and foot. Again, the awaking is made in a man-
ner more congenial by the mellow gurgling of proffered liquor
held to the lips. About the outskirts of the camp the veteran
horse-trader plies his calling, painting the merits of the animal
in hand in vivid coleur de rose. Above all rises the clamor
of many tongues, speaking many languages, the neighing of
horses, the lowing of kine, the barking of hundreds of dogs,
and the shouts and yells of fresh arrivals, as they pour hourly
in to swell the numbers of the already vast encampment.

In the afternoon, if the day be propitious, the camp be-
comes for a time comparatively deserted, the noise and ex-
citement being temporarily transferred to the distance of a
mile or more upon the prairie. Here the hunter presents a
totally different appearance from the lounging, tattered, un-
kempt personage of the morning. He has donned his holiday
apparel, appearing in all the bravery of new moccasins, tas-
seled cap, gaudy shirt, fine blue capote, and corduroy trou-
sers. His sash is of the most brilliant pattern, and wound
about his waist to make its broadest display. He is mounted
upon his best horse, with bridle and saddle decked with
ribbons and bravery, and has suddenly become an alert,
active, volatile, and excitable being, constantly gesticulating,
shouting, and full of life. A straight course is marked off


upon the prairie of, say, half a mile in length. After well-
known leaders of the hunt have been stationed at either end,
the racing begins. Betting runs high, the wagers of the prin-
cipals being generally horse against horse, those of outsiders
ranging from valuable horses down through carts and oxen to
the clothing worn at the moment. All is excitement, and as
the contestants dash forward, with that peculiar plunging of the
heel? into the flanks of the horses at every jump, affected by
the plain-hunter, it breaks forth in cheers and gesticulations
of encouragement to the favorite. All points of disagreement
are quickly settled by the dictum of the umpires, and the loser
quietly strips saddle and bridle from his much-prized
animal, and consoles himself for the loss in copious draughts
of rum.

To the regular courses of the day succeed a multitude of
scrub-races, gotten up on the spur of the moment, and involv-
ing almost every article of property as the wagers. Horses,
oxen, tents, guns, clothing, provisions, and spirits, change
hands with wonderful celerity, and to an accompaniment of
shouts and gesticulations that would do no discredit to Bed-
lam. The sport continues with but little abatement through-
out the afternoon, the races gradually growing shorter, how-
ever, and the wagers of more trifling value.

Toward night the huge cam j becomes again resonant with
a more intense Babel of sounds. The lucky winner on the
race-course parades his gains, and depicts in graphic panto-
mime his share in the sports ; while the loser bewails his losses

in maudlin tones, or arranges the terms of a new race for the



morrow. The betting of the afternoon is succeeded by the
deeper gambling of the evening ; and the sounds of shuffling
cards, the cHnking of the buttons and bullets of the moccasin-
game, and the exclamations of triumph and despair of winner
and loser, are everywhere heard. Rum flows freely ; for each
hunter brings a supply to tide him over the grand encamp-
ment, and start him fairly on his journey. As the night ad-
vances, the camp grows more and more boisterous, the confu-
sion worse confounded. The women disappear from the
camp-fires, and betake themselves to tents out of harm's way.
Drunken men reel about the flaming fires ; wild yells fill the
still air ; quarrels are engendered ; fierce invectives in many
tongues roll from angry lips, and the saturnalia becomes gen-
eral. The camp-fires light up the strange scene with a lurid
glare, and tent, cart, and awning, cast fantastic shadows over
all. The orgy continues late in the night, and, when the fires
flicker and die out, their last feeble glow reveals shadowy
forms stretched promiscuously about, sleeping the sleep of

With the first glow of coming dawn, the camp rouses into
life and vigor again. The headaches and fevers engendered
by the debauch of the previous night are carried patiently by
their owners to the river's brink, and bathed in its cooling
waters. The women once more appear about the camp-fires,
clad in dark-blue calico — which so effectually conceals suc-
ceeding accumulations of dirt — busied in preparations for the
morning meal. Their lords stand moodily near to obtain a
share of the heat ; for the mornings are chilly and raw. And,


as the excitement of the previous day has been dissipated by
sleep, and that of the opening day is still to come, the fea-
tures of the plain-hunter are in repose, betraying at a glance
the nature of his employment. The theory that one's daily
life leaves its impress upon the face meets with no more ample
corroboration than here. The countenance at first sight
would be taken for that of a resolute, reckless, and determined
man. It is deeply bronzed by exposure, and is marked by
numerous hard lines sharply defined about the mouth and
eyes. Somewhat Assyrian in type, yet it expresses a certain
cunning combined with its resolution ; the eyes are watchfully
vigilant ; the square lower jaw prominent and firmly set ; the
nose straight and somewhat hooked ; the cheeks rather sunken
and sparsely bearded. A faint glow of excitement, however,
instantly changes the expression : it becomes alert, volatile,
all alive — a face to dare any thing, to plunge into danger from
mere love of it, and yet not a labor-loving face, nor one capa-
ble of sustained effort in any direction not attended with the
excitement of physical risk.

This type of countenance pervades the camp more or less.
It assumes its deepest tints in the old hunters, degenerating
into a haggard, reckless air, and finds its mildest phase in the
newly-fledged buffalo-runner, about whose eyes the inevitable
marks are but beginning to form. It is not, perhaps, so much
the danger that paints these lines of life in sombre hues upon
the face, as the wild, reckless racing and slaughter of the final
chase — a chase leading for miles, and extending through long
hours, keeping nerve, muscle, and mind, at their utmost ten-


sion, and all bent upon slaughter. But, whatever the cause,
certain it is that no class of men more distinctly marked by
the characteristics of their vocation exist than the members of
this hunt. Even the women assume, after a time, the reckless
air of their husbands and brothers engaged in it.

The most positive, perhaps, of the recognized laws regulat-
ing the camp of rendezvous is that forbidding the departure
of any one from its limits after having once entered it. This
is to guard against covering the plains with straggling bands
of hunters whose presence would inevitably drive the buffalo
from their usual range. By reason of this self-imposed law, no
one attemps to leave the main body until all the hunters have
arrived — an event which generally occurs within a week from
the first formation of the camp. During that period the time
is passed much in the fashion above described, and, as a con-
sequence of so continuous a series of dissipations, all are
eager to break camp and start upon the long journey. The
day previous to that appointed for departure, however, is set
apart for the election of the officers of the hunt, and the
transaction of such other business as the exigencies of the
time suggest.

By this date the hunters are supposed to be all in, and pre-
pared as well as they ever will be for departure. The encamp-
ment has swollen almost beyond available limits, and become
dissipated and unruly to a degree. From two thousand to
twenty-five hundred carts line the banks ; three thousand
animals graze within sight upon the prairie ; one thousand
men, with their following of women and children, find shelter


under carts, and in the tents and tepees of the encampment ;
the smoke of the camp-fires ahnost obscures the sun ; and
the Babel of sounds arising from the laughing, neighing, bark-
ing multitude, resembles the rush of many waters.

Immediately after breakfast of the day previous to that
appointed for departure from the rendezvous, all the males of
the camp repair to a point a short distance off upon the prai-
rie, where gathered in a huge circle, they proceed to the elec-
tion of officers for the coming hunt. The votes are given first
for a chief, who shall see that all laws are enforced, and shall
have the power of settling all disputes. To this office is
almost invariably elected an old hunter, prominent both on
account of experience and executive ability, and for whose
comparatively exemplary life all entertain respect. The
second ballot elects twelve counselors who, with the chief,
make the laws, decide the direction of travel, and advise the
executive in all matters of doubtful propriety. These per-
sons, being necessarily men of experience, are chosen also
from the elderly men of the camp, or those who have followed
plain-hunting for many years. The third ballot is cast for
the election of four captains, each of whom will command a
certain number of men, called soldiers, who become the police
•of the hunt, mounting guard against Indians, arranging the
shape of the camp — an outer circle formed of carts, inside of
which the tents and animals are placed — keeping watch over
private property, arresting offenders, etc. These four men
must be of a determined mould, and are chosen from the
middle-aged hunters whose courage and vigilance are ap-


proved. Lastly, four guides are elected, who are to lead
the train in the direction indicated by the chief and counselors.
This position, involving a thorough knowledge of the country,
is always » filled from the ranks of the older hunters, whose
many years of service have rendered them acquainted with
every foot of the territory to be traversed. With this last
office the election terminates.

Before the crowd disperses, the chief and counselors
have framed a code of laws which is to govern the multitude
during the period covered by the hunt. This code varies a
little, perhaps, in phraseology from year to year, but is gene-
rally of the following substance :

1. No running of buffalo is permitted on the Sabbath-

2. No member of the hunt to lag behind, go before, or
fork off from the main body, unless by special permission of
the chief.

3. No person or party to run buffalo before the general
order is given, in which the entire hunt may participate.

4. Every captain, with his men, to patrol the camp in
turn, in order that a continual watch may be kept.

Penalties. — For the first offence, the saddle and bridle of
the offender to be cut up.

2. The offender to have his coat cut up.

3. The offender to be publicly flogged.

Any penalty is foregone, however, if the guilty party pay
a stipulated sum in money, meat, or robes, for each offence.
In case of theft the perpetrator is to be taken to the mid-


die of the camp, his name called aloud thrice, the word
" thief " being added.

The election having furnished the hunt with the requisite
officers, and a code of laws providing for all the necessities
and emergencies incident to its nomadic life, the huge en-
campment begins at once to feel their salutary effect. By
eventide the soldiers are selected from the numbers of the
young men, and a relief patrols the camp — for the laws are
enforced from the moment of their enactment. The effect is
perceptible in the lessened confusion, the cessation of public
drinking and gambling, and a general air of order and rou-
tine. The dissipation of the past week is replaced by atten-
tion to the details of the coming journey. Everything is
made ready for an early departure on the morrow. The
chief and his counselors assemble in the centre of the camp
and discuss the most advisable route to pursue ; the council

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Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 10 of 24)