H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

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

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two or three envoys, or forerunners, are chosen, and are sent
in advance of the main body, by a week or more, to announce
their approach and notify the officers in charge of the quan-
tity of provisions, peltries, robes, horses, etc., which they
will have to dispose of ; and also to ascertain the where-
abouts of their hereditary enemies, the Crees and Mountain
Assiniboines. The envoys prepare for state visits of this
nature by an assumption of their gaudiest apparel, and a more
than usual intensity of paint : scarlet leggins and blankets ;
abundance of ribbons in the cap, if any be worn, or the head-
band trimmed with beads and porcupine-quills, while the bulk
of the cap is made of the plumage of birds ; again, a single
feather from the wing of an eagle or white-bird, fastened in


the scalp-lock, or the hair plaited in a long cue behind, and
two shorter ones hanging down on each side in front, each
bound round with coils of bright brass wire ; round the eyes
a halo of bright vermilion, a streak down the nose, a patch on
each cheek, and a circle round the mouth of the same color,
constitute the effective head-gear of the advance-agents. The
remainder of the costume is modified by climate and seasons.
In the summer they are almost naked, seldom wearing more
than the azaiii, or loin-cloth. In the colder months they wear
clothing made of the skins of wild animals, dressed, or with
fur on ; soft moccasins of deerskin, brightly ornamented with
pigments, beads, and stained quills of the porcupine ; leather
stockings or leggins of dressed deer-skin, ornamented generally
by fringes of the same material, covering the moccasins and
reaching nearly to the body, and suspended by a thong round
the abdomen. With the females the leggins extend from the
feet to the knees, below which they are fastened by a beaded
and quilled garter. A shirt, made of soft buffalo-skin, and a
necklace of bear's-claws and teeth, together with a fire-bag
and tobacco-pipe — the inseparable companions of every In-
dian — complete the costume. The forerunner is anxious to
make every article of his elaborate toilet tell with effect, as
his mission is regarded as an important one, in which a failure
to produce a favorable impression on the mind of the trader
would be fraught with disastrous consequences to the prospec-
tive trade.

Upon arriving at the post, the envoys are received
and handsomely entertained by the officer in charge, who


makes them presents according to their rank, and in propor-
tion to the anticipated value of the trade. They are feasted,
smoked, and, upon occasion, wined to a considerable extent.
In turn, they report the number of peltries, horses, etc., to be
traded by the band, and name the articles likely to be most in
demand by their brethren. Such goods are at once placed
where they may be easily accessible, and the quantity, if in-
adequate, is augmented by supplies procured at the nearest
post, should there be sufficient time for that purpose. The
forerunners are shown the stock of merchandise on hand, and
the quality of the goods ; the values of different articles are
explained to them, and the fullest understanding upon all
matters relative to the trade is arrived at. This completed,
and a few days of lounging indulged in, the advance-agents
depart to their tribe, and the little garrison of the Mountain
House prepare for the coming struggle.

Within the fort a searching examination is made of the
efficient working of all bolts, locks, gratings, etc., and of the
closing of all means of communication between the Indian-
room — a large apartment in which the Blackfeet assemble
previous to being admitted into the trading-store — and the
rest of the buildings ; guns are newly cleaned, reloaded, and
placed, together with abundant ammunition, by the numerous
loop-holes in the lofts above the trading and Indian-rooms.
From the shelves of the former are taken most of the blankets,
colored cloths, guns, ammunition, ribbons, bright handker-
chiefs, beads, etc., the staple commodities of the Indian trade,
with a view of decreasing the excitement under which the


red-man always labors when brought into immediate juxtaposi-
tion with so much bravery — an excitement which renders him
oblivious to furnishing an equivalent in exchange, and tends
to foster his habits of forcible seizure. Preparations are also
made within the stockade for the reception of the ponies to
be purchased, and their safe-keeping afterward, for the Black-
feet's fine sense of humor frequently leads him to ride away
an animal he has just sold, by way of practical joke upon the

All things being made secure, there remains for the use of
the Blackfeet the narrow passage-way leading from the outer
gate of the stout log stockade to the Indian-room — a passage
tightly walled up with smooth logs, in which no interstices or
footholds occur, in order to prevent all entrance into the
yard of the inclosure, — the Indian-room itself, and the small
hall-way leading from it to the trading-store. This latter is
closed by two heavy doors, the space between being barely
sufficient to accommodate two persons standing with their
peltries. In trading but two Indians are admitted into the
trading-store at one time, after the following fashion : The
passage-door leading into the Indian-room is opened, and two
braves admitted therein ; then it is closed, and the other door
leading into the trading-store opened. When the two war-
riors have finished trading, their return to the Indian-room is
effected by a similar process, one door always being kept
shut. Both these doors are made to slide into their places,
and are manipulated from an apartment occupied by the
traders ; so that the supply of customers is regulated as



desired. The trading-store is divided by means of a stout par-
tition extending from floor to ceiling into two parts, one for
the goods and traders, the other for the Indians. In the
centre of this partition an aperture of Httle more than a yard


square is cut, divided by a grating into squares sufficiently
large to admit the passage of an arm, a blanket, or a robe, but
inadequate to the admission of the red-man in person. This
partition is necessitated by the fact of the Blackfeet's forget-


fulness of the existence of counters, and the exasperating
pertinacity with which he insists upon close and personal ex-
amination of the goods. It sometimes happens, too, that he
expresses his dissatisfaction at the price of a much-coveted
article by desultory firing at the person of the trader, who, in
the absence of such partition, has no means of escape or con-
cealment. It is on account of a somewhat frequent repetition
of this occurrence that the two loop-holes in the ceiling im-
mediately above the grating are perhaps the most closely
guarded of any during the progress of a trade. From time to
time, as the shelves are depleted of their gaudy lading, ad-
vantage is taken of the absence of all Indians from the room
to have new supplies brought in ; care being taken to preserve
an equilibrium, the loss of which would lead to a correspond-
ing depression or excitement on the part of the braves. The
furs and provisions traded are at once transferred to another
apartment out of sight.

On the day appointed for the trade a moving cloud ap-
proaching over the prairie soon takes on a certain degree of
individuality, and the picturesque throng come in mounted
upon their gayly-caparisoned ponies, dashing over the ground
at full speed, sometimes singly, most often in knots of two or
three, or even larger groups. When the Blackfeet pay a visit
to the Mountain House they generally come in large numbers,
prepared to fight with either Crees or Assiniboines. The
braves generally ride free, while the squaws and children
bring up the rear with the ponies and dogs drawing the loaded
travailles. A travaille is an Indian contrivance consisting of


two poles fastened together at an acute angle, with crossbars
between. The point of the angle rests upon the back of the
dog or horse, the diverging ends of the poles drag along the
ground, and the baggage is tied on to the crossbars. The In-
dians use these contrivances instead of carts. It frequently
occurs that, in addition to the packs of dogs and horses, the
women are also heavily laden.

The Blackfeet, having successfully forded the river with
their peltries, by piUng them upon the backs of ponies which
they force to swim the stream, form a camp at some distance
from the fort, pitching their tepees and spreading the wet robes
out to dry. A tepee, or lodge, is generally composed of from
ten to twelve buffalo-hides, from which the hair has been re-
moved, and the skin nicely tanned and smoked. The usual
number of Indians to a tepee is seven, of which at least two are
warriors or able-bodied fighting-men. The camp being com-
pleted, the ponies for barter are selected, and the furs and
provisions made ready for transportation to the fort, and
easily accessible during the trade. The ponies of the Black-
feet are generally of a superior breed to those found among
other Northern tribes, and command higher prices. The
braves are very fond of their horses, and very careful of them,
differing in this respect from the Crees and Assiniboines, who
are rough and unmerciful masters. They have a custom of
marking their horses with certain hieroglyphics, painting them
over with curious devices, and scenting them with aromatic

Everything being made ready in the Blackfeet camp —


jifltrics collcclcd in small biincUcs, provisions packed, robes
and dressed skins dried and easily accessible, the best gar-
nicnls and most \i\id paint donned by the bra\es — whatever
is to 1)1' traded is now laid n])on tlie backs of ])onies and
s([na\vs, and llic entire camp approach the fort in long caval-
cade. Within a short distance of the stockade the jirocession
halls, and the officer in charge goes ont to meet them. A
small ( ircle is formed b\' the chiefs and head-men, the trader
enters it, and iht' ]iala\er begins. Many speeches are made;
each braw, first end)alming himself in a few words of feeling
eulogy, assurt's the officer of his inordinale affection for the
while raci- in general and his person in particular, and avows
his inlcnllon of conducting the ensuing trade in a strictly
honor, ibK- and orderly manner — the whole affair terminating
b\ Ihe prim ipal chief illusi rating his lo\e for his white brother
and his own "big heail " bv loading a ])ony with an hetero-
geneous collection of robes, leather, and pro\•isi^)ns, and hand-
ing horse and all he carries over to the ollicer. This is the
Indian manner of beginning a trade ; and, after such a present,
no sane man can ixis^iblv entertain a doubt \ipon the big-
hearledness of the donor. The custom has, howe\er, one
draw back the trader is expected to return a jnesent of twice
the \aliie. I'nlike the Spaniard, when the red-man extends
one the ki'y '^■'i his honse, he expects the offer to be taken lit-
erally, at Ihe same time grindy smiling i)\er the certain retri-
bution which awaits Ihe receiver. In fact, it is one o\ the in-
con\ enieni-es of ha\ing Indian frieiuls that, if inie expresses
admiration ^A amlhing they possess, it is almost invariably


handed over, and the unfortunate recipient of a penny i§ in
for a pound. In this case it is certain that, if the trader pur-
chases a hundred horses during the trade which ensues, not
one of the whole band will cost so dearly as that which de-
monstrates the friendship and large-heartedness of the chief.
For, immediately upon the knowledge of its receipt at the
fort, the gate is again swung open, and there is sent out to the
chief, in return, a gift of blankets, strouds, ammunition, and
finery, under the combined weight of which he staggers off,
looking like a vermilion Atlas. Such tangible proof of the
corresponding size of the trader's heart being received, the
chief addresses the assembled braves, exhorting them to con-
duct themselves in an orderly and peaceable manner, and not
prove him the possessor of a forked tongue by rude behavior.
The braves, standing ready with their peltries, and eager to
begin the trade, readily promise to observe his commands,
and move up toward the gate of the stockade.

The trader having returned to the post, all preparations
for the trade are completed, communication cut off, men all
stationed at their posts ready for anything that may turn up.
Then the outer gate is thrown open, and the eager crowd
rushes into the Indian-room. In a moment the door leading
into the little hall-way connecting that apartment with the
trading-store slides back, and two Indians with their peltries
enter. Then the door slides into place again, and the other
one opens, admitting the bra\es into the store. They look
through the grating, select the articles they want, and pay
for them in installments. An Indian never asks at once for


everything he wants, and then pays for it in one payment ;
but purchases one thing at a time, receives his change, then
turns his attention to another. In this way he seems to get
more for his money ; and the linked sweetness of shopping is
longer drawn out. The trade is rapidly pushed, and the
braves are at once returned by the double-barred process to
the Indian-room, and a fresh batch admitted, when the doors
are again locked.

The reappearance of each installment of fortunate braves,
with the much-prized articles of ornament and use, continually
augments the growing excitement of the waiting throng in the
Indian-room. Each one is eagerly questioned as to what he
saw, whether there was any of this or that article, and whether
the supply would be likely to be exhausted before the ques-
tioner's turn arrived. Each succeeding statement that there
were on the shelves but a few guns, blankets, a little tea, sugar,
etc., intensifies the anxiety, and the crush to get in increases
in proportion, under the belief that everything will be gone.
The announcement by the trader, through a loop-hole, that
there will be enough for all, scarcely allays the confusion in
any measure, the universal desire and rush to obtain the first
choice still remaining. Thus the trade progresses until all
the furs and provisions have changed hands, and there is
nothing more to be traded. Sometimes, however, the trade
does not proceed so smoothly. It frequently happens that
the IJlackfeet repair to the fort with but a small collection of
robes and leather, under which circumstances, being of a fru-
gal mind, they object to seeing their stock in trade go for a


little tea and sugar. These objections generally assume the
shape of bullets and knife-hacking, of which the walls of the
Indian-room bear plentiful evidence. Then the trading-store
is promptly closed, only to be re-opened when the sudden
ebullition of anger has passed away.

Upon the completion of the exchange of peltries and
goods begins the horse-trading ; and the method of carrying
it on depends much upon the humor which the Blackfeet ex-
hibit. If they appear well satisfied with the trade of goods,
then the horse-trading takes place immediately outside the
stockade — the animals being led within as fast as purchased,
and the Indians shown singly into the trading-store to be
paid. If an aggressive spirit obtains, however, a single brave,
with his pony or ponies, is admitted at a time within the yard
of the stockade, the trade effected, and the owner paid and
passed without the gate before the admission of a second.
Perhaps a more than usual care is exercised during the pro-
gress of this trade, from the fact that the Blackfeet generally
all gather about the stockade at that time, and, the majority
being already supplied with goods, they fail to recognize the
necessity of longer preserving peaceful relations with the

A peculiarity of these trades lies in the fact that money
values are unknown, everything being reckoned by skins, as
is the case throughout a great portion of the company's
territory. The skin is a very old term in the fur-trade, and is
based upon the standard of the beaver-skin, or, as it is called,
the made beaver. For example : a beaver, or skin, is reck-


oned equivalent to one mink-skin ; one marten is equal to
two skins, one buffalo-robe to six skins, a silver fox to twenty
skins, and so on throughout the scale of fur. In a like
manner all articles of merchandise have their value in skins.
Thus a brave brings a pony, which is valued at fifty skins,
and these fifty skins will be divided as follows : a kettle, five
skins ; a blanket, ten skins ; a capote, ten skins ; ammunition,
ten skins ; tobacco, fifteen skins. The brave hands over the
pony, and receives in payment a capote, a blanket, a kettle,
ammunition, and tobacco. The original skin, the beaver,
now seldom makes its appearance at the Mountain House,
those animals having been nearly exterminated in that part of
the territory ; but, notwithstanding the fact of the marked
deterioration in the price of the beaver-skin since it was
originally adopted as the standard of value in the fur-trade,
owing to the extensive use of silk in the manufacture of hats,
it still nominally retains the fictitious value first placed
upon it.

A somewhat amusing illustration of the universal passion
for dress, which forms a distinguishing characteristic of the
Blackfeet, equally with other Indians, occurs in these trades.
The fashionable costume of the red-man is not generally reg-
ulated by the variable moods of the mercurial Parisian ;
indeed, it has undergone but little change since the memory
of men. Certain interesting specimens of the race are said to
have been seen attired in even less than the vaunted Mexican
costume — a shirt-collar and pair of spurs. We ourselves re-
member to have seen one chastely appareled in a stove-pipe


hat. But it frequently occurs, during the trades, that some
doughty chieftain elects to appear in more than regal magnifi-
cence before his tribe ; and for his benefit, and those of
similar tastes, the company annually import certain ancient
costumes prevalent in England some half-century since. The
tall, stove-pipe hat, with round narrow brim ; the snuff-brown
or bright-blue coat, with high collar, climbing up over the
neck, the sleeves tightly fitting, the waist narrow — this is the
Blackfeet's ideal of perfection in dress, and the brave who
can array himself in this antique garb struts out from the fort
the envy and admiration of all beholders. Often the high hat
is ornamented with a decayed ostrich-plume, drooping like
the shadow of a great sorrow, which has figured in the turban
of some dowager of the British Isles long years since. While
the presence of trousers is considered by no means essential
to the perfect finish of the costume, the addition of a narrow
band of gold lace about the coat is regarded as imparting an
air of tone to the general effect not to be obtained in any
other way. For such a costume the Blackfeet brave will bar-
ter his deer-skin shirt, beaded, quilled, and ornamented with
the raven locks of his enemies ; his head-band of beautiful
feathers and shells ; and the soft-tanned and flowing robe of
buffalo-skin — a dress which adds a kingly dignity to his
athletic form for one which Pantaloon would scorn to wear.
Fortunately, the new dress does not long survive. Little by
little it is found unsuited to the wild life which its owner
leads, and, although never losing the originally high estimate
placed upon it, is discarded at length by reason of the many


inconveniences arising from running buffalo in a plug-hat
and fighting in a swallow-tail coat against the Crees.

In the old days of the fur trade, when spirits were used as
a medium of exchange, the most frightful scenes were wont to
occur. First suggested as a stimulant to the manufacture of
provisions, the amount given was limited to a small quantity
to each Indian at the termination of a trade. Even then no
drinking was permitted within a mile of the forts. Unfortu-
nately for the moderate use of this incentive to pemmican-
making, on the part of the redman, his acute intellect in-
stantly conceived the idea of utilizing this particular provision
as a perpetual legal tender for liquor. So he withheld his
pemmican until the food supply ran short among the forts of
the corporation, and forced a compliance with his own terms.
For all the other wants of his savage life he had furs and
robes to trade. The scenes that occurred in the Indian
rooms of the forts, during the progress of a liquor and pem-
mican trade, were not calculated to impress one favorably
with the moral status of either his white or red brother. The
spirit used was generally rum, which, although freely diluted
with water, soon reduced the assemblage to a state of wild
hilarity, quickly followed by stupidity and sleep. The
strength of the fire-water dealt out Avas varied according to
the capacity or hard-headedness of the different tribes. The
liquor for the Crees, as living in the neighborhood of the forts
and supposed to be capable of standing more, was composed
of three parts of water to one of spirit ; that of the Blackfeet,
a distant tribe, who had access to liquor infrequently, seven


of water to one of spirit. So great, however, is the power
which alcohol, in any form, exercises over the red-man that
the Blackfeet, even upon their well-diluted liquor, were wont
to become hopelessly intoxicated.

A liquor trade generally began with a present of fire-water
all round. Then business went on apace. After an Indian
had taken his first drink, it was a matter of little difficulty to
obtain all he had in exchange for spirits. Horses, robes, tents,
provisions — all would be proffered for one more dram of the
beloved poison. As the trade advanced it degenerated into a
complete orgy. Nothing could exceed the excitement inside
the room, except it was the excitement outside — for only a
limited number of the thirsty crowd could obtain entrance at
a time. There the anxious braves could only learn by hear-
say what was going on within. Now and then a brave, with
an amount of self-abnegation worthy of a better cause, would
issue from the fort, with his cheeks distended and his mouth
full of rum, and going along the ranks of his friends he would
squirt a little of the liquor into the open mouths of his less
fortunate brethren. There were times, however, when matters
did not go on so peaceably. Knives were wont to flash and
shots to be fired, and the walls of the Indian-rooms at many of
the forts show frequent traces of bullet-marks and knife hack-
ing, done in the wild fury of the intoxicated savage. Some
seventeen years ago this baneful distribution was stopped by
the company in the Plain districts, but the free-traders still
continue to employ liquor as a means of acquiring the furs be-
longing to the Indians. Great as was the quantity of pemmi-


can obtained from the Indians during these trades — more
than thirty thousand bags being stored in the company's forts
at one time — it is still small as compared with the amount
produced in a favorable year by the semi-annual buffalo-hunts
of the nomadic half-breeds.


Winter Travel.

A UTUMN in the Fur Land merges by almost imper-
■^ ^ ceptible degrees into winter. Nature yields reluctantly
to the cold embraces of the Frost King. The yellow leaves
cling tenaciously to the tree-tops; the prairie grasses are still
green when the snow comes. Early in November a thin
covering of fleecy flakes veils the landscape ; but the South-
ern sun is yet warm, and restores the autumal tints to the
face of Nature, A few days later on, the contest begins
anew : winter triumphs for a day, only to be again vanquished
by autumn. At length the battle-ground is occupied equally
by the contending forces. The traveled roads especially are
claimed by each ; and, plowed and furrowed by their fierce
forays, afford neither the splendid sleighing of the later win-
ter nor the dry wheeling of the summer. This has the effect
of bringing out in full force the various methods of locomo-
tion peculiar to the Fur Land. It is refreshing to view fromi

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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 14 of 24)