H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

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

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being open to outsiders having suggestions to offer. The cap-
tains of the guard pass through the camp in all directions,
issuing orders as to the disposition of animals, carts, and bag-
gage, in such manner as to afford the best facilities for easy
and rapid loading. Play-day is over, and the real busi-
ness of the hunt begins. After the lapse of a night which,
in its quietude, forms a violent contrast with the seven
or more preceding it, the camp of rendezvous is broken up,
and the caravan begins to move.

The fortunate traveler who, standing upon the edge of
the Sahara, has seen a caravan trailing out into the barren
and interminable sand-dunes of the desert, the main body


tortuous and serpentine, the fast-disappearing head swaying
to and fro in the dim distance, has but few features of the
scene to change in depicting the departure of this mongrel
hunt for the barren buffalo-ranges of the plains. With the
first gleam of morning, before the mists have lifted from the
river, the flag of the guide is raised and the huge train starts
upon its way. One by one the carts fall into line, following
each other in single file, until the last vehicle has left the
camp of rendezvous. The train is now five miles in length, its
width varying from half a mile to a mile, as the press of loose
animals is greater or less. The creaking of the loose cart-
frames, the screech of ungreased axles, the shouts of wild
riders as they dash along the length of the train or off upon
the prairie in quest of some stray animal, the neighing of
horses, the lowing of kine, make a pandemonium of sounds
that may be heard miles away upon the plain. At the ex-
treme front rides a staid guide bearing a white flag, which
when raised, indicates a continuance of the march, and, when
lowered, the signal to halt and camp. About this standard-
bearer move, with grave demeanor, as becomes those charged
with important trusts, the old chief and counselors of the

Along the line of march are scattered the four captains of
the guard, who, with their men, keep order in the line.
Here rides on a sleek runner the average hunter, in corduroy
and capote, bronzed, sparsely bearded, volatile, and given
to much gesticulation ; next, an Indian, pure and simple,
crouched upon the back of his shaggy, unkempt pony, with-


out saddle, and using a single cord as bridle — a blanketed,
hatless, " grave and reverend seignior," speaking but seldom,
and then only in monosyllables ; then a sandy-haired and
canny Scot, clad in homespun, and with keen grey eyes wide
open for the main chance, eager for trade, but reckless and
daring as any hunter of them all, bestriding a large-boned,
well-accoutred animal, and riding it like a heavy dragoon ;
here, again, a pink-cheeked sprig of English nobility, doing
the hunt from curiosity, and carefully watched over by a
numerous retinue of servants and retainers. He has in his
outfit all the latest patterns of arms, the most comprehensive
of camp-chests, and inipcdimciita enough for a full company
of plain-hunters. From every covered cart in the long train
peer the dusky faces of Phyllis and Thisbe, sometimes chat-
ting gayly with the tawny cavaliers riding alongside ; again,
engaged in quieting the demonstrations of a too lively pro-
geny. In the bottom of every tenth vehicle, stretched upon
its back in the soft folds of a robe or tent, and kicking its
tiny pink heels skyward, lies the ever-present baby — a laugh-
ing, crowing, dusky infant, clad in the costume of the Greek
slave, and apparently impervious to the chill air of the early
morning. Scattered about among the throng of marching
animals ride the boys, servants, and younger men, engaged in
keeping the long line in motion. Everywhere there is a glint
of polished gun-barrels, a floating of party-colored sashes, a
reckless careering to and fro, a wild dash and scurry, a wav-
ing of blankets, shouts, dust, noise, and confusion.

As the day advances, the march becomes more toilsome.



The prairie, freed from the morning dews and heated by the
sun, sends up dense clouds of dust from beneath the tramp-
ing hoofs, half concealing the long caravan. Oftentimes the
trail passes over immense tracts ravaged by prairie-fires,
where the earth presents naught save the dense coating of
black ashes. In this event the train is likely to be com-
pletely enshrouded in the penetrating dust, filling mouths,
ears, and eyes, with its pungent particles, and discoloring
everything it touches. Animals and men suffer alike, and
the cooling, if not crystal, waters of the streams and creeks
crossing the line of march occasion a general rush for relief.
To avoid a long-continued trailing of dust — which bids fair
to suffocate the rear end of the train in the event of a slight
wind blowing, as is nearly always the case upon the prairie —
the caravan is frequently divided into four or five columns,
marching parallel with one another, each column nearly a
mile in length. When the march assumes this form, as it
nearly always does when the lay of the prairie permits, its
picturesque aspect deepens, and progress becomes more
rapid. It seems like the serried ranks of an invading army
advancing with slow but certain steps. The centre column
then becomes the guide, and at its head the flag of march is
held aloft.

With the exception of a short halt at noon, when no at-
tempt at camping is made, the columns merely halting in line
and loosing the animals for the hour during which dinner is
prepared, the march continues in this monotonous but pic-
turesque fashion until an early hour in the evening, when the


flag of the guide is lowered and the train forms the night-
camp. One by one the carts wheel into a vast circle, oft-
times two and three deep, the trains of each vehicle pointing
inward, until the complete figure is formed. The animals,
after being loosed, are turned out upon the prairie until
toward night, when they are again driven within the circle.
Another smaller line, following that of the carts and leaving
a considerable space between the two for the reception of
the animals, is formed by the tents, each with its camp-fire
burning before it. Directly in the centre of the camp are
pitched the tepees of the chief and counselors, in order to be
readily accessible for consultation at all times. The camp
is at once efficiently policed, and the best of order prevails.
The tramp of the day produces its natural effect, and, after
supper and the usual season of fumigation, the bustle and
confusion attendant upon so vast a collection of men and
animals die out. A little knot of the older hunters perhaps
linger in consultation about the central camp-fire for a time ;
but soon naught is heard save the tramping of horses and
oxen, or the startled exclamations of some sleeper suddenly
aroused by the unceremonious entrance of a wandering ani-
mal into his tent. Not even the vigilant guard is to be
seen ; but let any one attempt to leave the camp, and
shadowy figures will arise like magic from the grass without
the circle, barring his further progress.

At earliest dawn the march is again resumed ; the inci-
dents of one day being but a repetition of that preceding, if
\ve except Sunday. No law of the code, perhaps, is less


seldom violated than that governing the observance of this
day, so far as it applies to the labors of the hunt. The letter
of the law is strictly observed : no buffalo are run ; but
of its further observance? — well, let us see.

The camp of Saturday night is located, if possible, con-
tiguous to a plentiful supply of water, and amid an abundance
of buffalo-chips, which have long since taken the place of
wood as fuel. The Sunday breakfast is apt to be a late one,
and eaten at leisure. Immediately after it, however, the en-
tire camp moves as one man a short distance upon the prai-
rie. It frequently happens that a priest is with the party ; if
not, an acolyte celebrates a kind of open-air mass, the whole
assembly kneeling with uncovered heads upon the level plain
during its continuance. The devotions are apparently heart-
felt and solemn ; the rattling of beads, the muttering of pray-
ers, and the louder response, alone breaking the Sabbath
stillness. No Christian church in the city presents a more
devout and chastened aspect. The wild, reckless, swearing
hunter of an hour before has become a penitent soul, counting
his beads with a look of pathetic prayerfulness affecting to
behold. The services continue an hour or more, but the de-
vout assembly stirs not. The sun gleams down upon un-
covered heads, and glances into unprotected eyes, powerless
to distract attention from the mass. Thus did the warlike
Crusaders pause amid their tempestuous lives to call upon the
source of all blessings ; so did the Israelites in the wilderness,
bearing about the Ark of the Covenant. The plain-hunter's
devoutness arises in a measure, however, from the fact of


having to pray for all the rest of the week ; for on the inter-
vening six days his language is anything but that of prayer.
All things have an end, and so finally has the mass, for which
the assembly seem more than ever to be thankful, and betake
themselves to camp again for dinner.

The afternoon is not given to devotion. It has happened
on the evenings of the previous march that Francois, or
Pascal, or Pierre, has paraded the camp, shouting in stentorian
tones, " I, Pierre, challenge Franfois to race his bay horse
against my grey, the stakes to be horse against horse !" or, " I,
Antoine, challenge the camp to race against my roan for an
ox and cart !" These challenges have been accepted, hands
shaken in confirmation of the agreement, and the race ap-
pointed to take place the following Sunday afternoon. So it
occurs that a sufficient number of races are on the tapis to
occupy the entire time.

The chief is now, by virtue of his office, the umpire, and
lends his presence to render the sport legitimate and of ac-
knowledged character. What was once governed by individual
honor is now enforced by law. The counselors take places at
either end of the course as judges. The police are present to
preserve order and enforce the decisions of the judges. The
camp turns out en masse in holiday attire to witness the sport,
and all is excitement, gesticulation, shouting, and confusion.
The wagers rapidly change hands ; ponies and carts multiply
upon the fortunate winner ; favorite runners are lost to others
whose almost sole dependence rested upon them. Many
having lost ponies, oxen, carts, and runners, by racing or


gambling, now stake their own services as servants upon the
issue of a final race, and accept defeat with the philosophy of
stoics. The excitement engended by the sports of the after-
noon follows the hunter on his return to camp, and the day
which began with prayer and devotion terminates in clamor,
quarreling, and drink, if obtainable. More license prevails
than is allowed upon other days, and, morally considered, the
time had been far better passed in the usual occupations of
the hunt.

As the hunt approaches the scene of its labors scouts are
daily sent out to ascertain, if possible, the direction in which
the large herds of buffalo are feeding. No attention is paid
to the small bands that are encountered from day to day, and
firing at them is strictly forbidden. The object is to encounter
the main herds, when all the hunters may participate in the
chase with equal chances of success. The longing for fresh
meat, however, becomes at times too much for half-breed en-
durance, and to gain the coveted morsel, and avoid infringing
the law, an amusing method of capture is resorted to.

Two active hunters, taking in their hands the long lines of
raw-hide, called " shagnappe," isolate a cow from the herd.
Then, seizing either end of the line, they proceed to revolve
about their victim in opposite directions, so entwining her
legs in the folds of the cord as to throw her to the ground by
the very struggles she makes to escape. Once down, a few
dexterous twists of the line secure her head, and a knife fin-
ishes the work. This sport furnishes considerable excitement,
and is much affected as a relief from the monotony of the


daily jog. Then, too, it supplies what is likely to be by this
time a much-needed article — food. Strange as it may appear,
the improvident plain-hunter scarcely ever begins his journey
with a stock of provisions sufficient to last until the buffalo
are reached. And all the lessons taught by years of experi-
ence and semi-annual privation and suffering have failed to
impress him with the necessity of a more ample supply. Four
or five days out from the camp of rendezvous, frequently in
less time, half the train is invariably destitute of food. But
little appearance of it, however, is presented to the spectator.
The volatile hunter laughs and jokes and starves with a sang-
froid truly admirable. For all that, he borrows of his neigh-
bor, begs piteously for his children, or, when absolutely forced
to it, kills a pony or ox to replace the provision he might easily
have brought. Before this stage is reached, however, in nearly
every covered cart of the line may be heard children crying
for food, and wives pleading for the means of satisfying them.
At length the scouts, who for days have been scouring the
prairie in every direction, bring the welcome intelligence of
the discovery of the main herds. The line of march is at
once turned toward the point indicated, and the laws against
firing and leaving the main body are rigidly enforced. The
long train moves cautiously and as silently as possible. Ad-
vantage is taken of depressions in the prairie to keep the train
concealed from the buffalo, and not a sound is raised that
may give warning of its presence. Approach is made as
closely as may be compatible with safety, always keeping to
the windward of the herd. Then, if a convenient locality is


reached, camp is made, and busy preparations for the ensuing
hunt begin. Guns are carefully scanned, powder-flasks and
bullet-pouches filled, saddles and bridles examined, and, above
all, the horses to be used in the final chase carefully groomed,
for highest among his possessions the plain-hunter ranks his
"buffalo-runner." It is to him like the Arab's steed— a daily,
comrade to be petted and spoken to, the companion of his long
journeys, and the means of his livelihood.

The buffalo-runner belongs to no particular breed, the
only requisites being speed, tact in bringing his rider along-
side the retreating herd and maintaining a certain relative
distance while there, and the avoiding the numerous pitfalls
%vith which the prairie abounds. Horses well trained in
these duties, and possessing the additional requisite of speed,
command high prices in the hunt, often ranging from fifty to
eighty pounds sterling. On the hunt they are seldom used
for any other purpose than that of the final race, except it
may be to occasionally draw the cart of madame at times
when her neighbor appears in unwonted attire.

Before daybreak on the following morning — for a chase is
seldom begun late in the day — the great body of hunters are
off" under the guidance of scouts in pursuit of the main herd.
A ride of an hour or more brings them within, say, a mile of
the buffalo, which have been moving slowly off as they ap-
proached. The hunt up to this time has moved in four col-
umns, with every man in his place. As they draw nearer at
a gentle trot, the immense herd breaks into a rolling gallop.
Now the critical and long-desired moment has arrived. The


chief gives the signal. " Allee ! allee ! " he shouts, and a
thousand reckless riders dash forward at a wild run. Into
the herd they penetrate; along its sides they stretch, the
trained horses regulating their pace to that of the moving
mass beside them; guns flash, shots and yells resound; the
dust arises in thick clouds over the struggling band ; and the
chase sweeps rapidly over the plain, leaving its traces behind
in the multitude of animals lying dead upon the ground, or
feebly struggling in their death-throes. The hunter pauses
not a moment, but loads and fires with the utmost rapidity,
pouring in his bullets at the closest range, often almost
touching the animal he aims at. To facilitate the rapidity
of his fire he uses a flint-lock, smooth-bore trading-gun, and
enters the chase with his mouth filled with bullets. A hand-
ful of powder is let fall from the powder-horn, a bullet is
dropped from the mouth into the muzzle, a tap with the butt-
end of the firelock on the saddle causes the salivated bullet
to adhere to the powder during the moment necessary to de-
press the barrel, when the discharge is instantly effected
without bringing the gun to the shoulder.

The excitement which seizes upon the hunter at finding
himself surrounded by the long-sought buffalo is intense,
and sometimes renders him careless in examining too closely
whether the object fired at is a buffalo or a buffalo-runner
mounted by a friend. But few fatal accidents occur, how-
ever, from the pell-mell rush and indiscriminate firing; but
it frequently happens that guns, as the result of hasty and
careless loading, explode, carrying away part of the hands


using them, and even the most expert runners sometimes
find their way into badger-holes, breaking or dislocating the
collar-bones of the riders in the fall.

The identification of the slain animals is left till the run is
over. This is accomplished by means of marked bullets, the
locality in which the buffalo lies — for which the hunter always
keeps a sharp lookout — and the spot where the bullet en-
tered. By the time the hunters begin to appear, returning
from the chase, there have arrived long trains of carts from
the camp to carry back the meat and robes. The animals
having been identified, the work of skinning and cutting up
begins, in which the women and children participate. In a
remarkably brief time the plain is strewed with skeletons
stripped of flesh, and the well-loaded train is on its return.
Arrived at camp, the robes are at once stretched upon a
frame-work of poles, and the greater part of the flesh scraped
from them, after which they are folded and packed in the
carts to receive the final dressing in the settlement. Of the
meat, the choicest portions are packed away without further
care, to be freighted home in a fresh state, the cold at that
late season effectually preserving it. Large quantities are,
however, converted into pemmican, in which shape it finds its
readiest market.

Pemmican forms the principal product of the summer
buffalo-hunt, when, to preserve from decay the vast quantities
of meat taken, some artificial process is necessary. A large
amount is also made in the earlier part of the autumn hunt.
To manufacture pemmican the flesh of the buffalo is first cut


up into large lumps, and then again into flakes or thin slices,
and hung up in the sun or over the fire to dry. When it is
thoroughly desiccated it is taken down, placed upon raw-hides
spread out upon the prairie, and pounded or beaten some-
times by wooden flails, again between two stones, until the
meat is reduced to a thick, flaky substance or pulp. Bags
made of buffalo hide, with the hair on the outside, about the
size of an ordinary pillow or flour-sack, say two feet long, one
and a half feet wide and eight inches thick, are standing
ready, and each one is half filled with the powdered meat.
The tallow or fat of the buffalo, having been boiled by itself
in a huge cauldron, is now poured hot into the oblong bag in
"which the pulverized meat has previously been placed. The
contents are then stirred together until they have been thor-
oughly mixed ; the dry pulp being soldered down into a hard
solid mass by the melted fat poured over it. When full the
bags are sewed up as tightly as possible, and the pemmican
allowed to cool. Each bag weighs one hundred pounds, the
quantity of fat being nearly half the total weight, the whole
composition forming the most solid description of food that
man can make. It is the traveling provision used through-
out the Fur Land, where, in addition to its already specified
qualifications, its great facility of transportation renders it ex-
tremely valuable. There is no risk of spoiling it, as, if or-
dinary care be taken to keep the bags free from mould, there
is no assignable limit to the time pemmican will keep. It is
estimated that, on an average, the carcasses of two buffaloes
are required to make one bag of pemmican — one filling the


bag itself, the other supplying the wants of the wild savage
engaged in hunting it down.

It is only of late years that pemmican has come into pub-
lic notice as a condensed food valuable to the commissariat
upon long expeditions. Hitherto it has been a provision
peculiar to the Fur Land, and particularly to the service of
the Hudson's Bay Company. Notwithstanding the vast an-
nual slaughter of buffalo south of the forty-ninth parallel,
no pemmican is made there; the meat being used in the fresh
or green state, or in the foriii of jerked beef. The pemmican
of the English Arctic expeditions differs from the real article
in being made of beef mixed with raisins and spices, and pre-
served from decay by being hermetically sealed. Buffalo pem-
mican may be said to keep itself, requiring no spices or sea-
soning for its preservation, and may be kept in any vessel
and under any conditions, except that of dampness, for un-
limited time. It is one of the most perfect forms of con-
densed food known, and is excelled by no other provision
in its satisfying quality. The amount of it used through-
out the territory is almost incredible, as-, besides the enor-
mous quantity consumed in the company's service, it
appears, when attainable, upon the table of every half-
breed in the country. So essential is it to the wants of
the voyageurs, as the staple article of food upon the long
voyages made in the transportation service of the company,
that its manufacture is stimulated in every way by the
agents of that corporation, and every available pound is
bought up for its use. Until a comparatively late year, it


was the only article embraced in the trade-lists for which
liquor was bartered.

Another form of ]jrovision, also the product of the sum-
mer hunt and extensively used, is dried meat. In its manu-
facture the flesh of the buffalo undergoes the same treatment
as in the preparatory stages of pemmican-making — when it
has been cut into thin slices it is hung over a fire, smoked
and cured. It resembles sole-leather very much in appear-
ance. After being thoroughly dried, it is packed into bales
weighing about sixty pounds each, and shipped all over the

The serious decrease in the number of buffalo, which
has been observed year by year, threatens to produce a very
disastrous effect upon the provision trade of the country ; and
the time can not be far distant when some new provision
must be found to take the place of the old. We recollect
very well when pemmican, which now can be procured with
difficulty for one shilling and three pence a pound, could be
had at two pence, and dried meat formerly costing two pence
now costs ten pence. This is a fact which threatens to revolu-
tionize in a manner the whole business of the territory, but
more particularly the transport service of the company.

The camp, which has for days been on the verge of star-
vation, after the return of the hunters from the chase becomes
a scene of feasting and revelry ; and gastronomic feats are
performed which seem incredible to those unacquainted with
the appetite begotten of a roving life, unlimited fresh air, and
the digestible nature of the food. As with the daughters of


the horse-leech, there is a continued demand for more, until
the consumption of tongues, melting hump, and dripping ribs,
bids fair to threaten the entire camp with inimediate asphyxia.
All night long the feasting continues among the groups formed
about the camp-fires, and roasting, boiling, and stewing are
the order of the hour. Were the supply certain to be ex-

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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 11 of 24)