H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

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

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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 17 of 24)
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small size, but so closely packed that they cannot move freely.
On thrusting in an arm, it seems like plunging it into a mass of
thick mud. The snow in the vicinity is beaten down as hard
and level as a road, by the numbers of animals which flock to
these Lenten feasts. Tracks converge from every side ; here
the footprints of the cross and silver-fox, delicately impressed
in the snow as he trots daintily along with light and airy
tread ; the rough marks of the clumsier fisher ; the clear,
sharply-defined track of the active
mink ; and the great coarse trail of
the ubiquitous, ever-galloping wol-
verine. Around the margins of these steel traps.
lakes the trapper erects his deadfalls, certain of securing an
abundant harvest.


.Beavers, wolves, foxes, lynx, and the other larger annuals,
are generally caught by the steel trap. These traps resemble
the ordinary rat-trap, except that they are larger, have no
teeth, and the springs are double_^ Those used for wolves
and lynx, especially, are of very large size, and the springs are
so powerful that it requires all the force of a strong man to
set them. (^ chain is attached to one spring, with a ring at
the free extremity, through which a stout stake is passed, or a
weight fastened, and left otherwise unattached. When the
animal is caught, he carries the trap for a short distance, but
is soon brought up by the stake or weight becoming entangled
across the trees or fallen timbers. The track in the snow
soon leads to his discovery by the hunter. In setting the
trap, it is generally placed so that the jaws, when spread out
flat, are exactly en a level with the snow : the chain and
stake both being carefully hidden, and a thin layer of
snow carefully sprinkled over the top of the trap itself.
Fragments of meat are then scattered about, and the place
smoothed down so as to leave no trace. The fox or wolf,
feeding about, generally gets one leg in the trap, sometimes
both legs at once, and occasionally the nose. The trap-
per prefers catching the animal by two legs if possible, as
then there is not the slightest possibility of escape ; whereas,
the fox caught by one leg, often eats it off close to the trap
and escapes on the other three. The stump soon heals up
again, aftd becomes covered with hair. When caught by the
nose, they are almost certain to escape, owing to its wedge-
like shape, unless taken out of the trap very soon after


being caught. The wolf is the most difficult animal to catch
in the steel trap, being so sagacious that he will scrape
all round one, let it be ever so well set, and after eating all
the bait, walk away unhurt. The hunter catches them, how-
ever, by setting two traps close together, so that, when the
wolf scrapes at one, he is almost certain to get his foot in the
other J

In the remoter districts many of the larger fur-bearing
animals are caught by means of the poisoned bait. \_These
are simply small pieces of meat into the centre of which
strychnine has been inserted by means of a small hole. When
frozen it is impossible to distinguish any difference in appear-
ance between them and the harmless ones. The baits are
purposely made very small, so that, in the ordinary course,
they will be bolted whole, and are scattered along the paths
traversed by the animals. Poison is rarely used, however, in
the vicinity of settlements, owing to the danger of destroying
valuable train-dogs, or upon the open prairie, where it is
liable to poison the grasses, and so become dangerous to
horses and cattle. Wire and twine nets are also frequently
used in trapping furs, though principally directed against the
lynx, or wild cat. /

Though well nigh extinct in many parts of the Fur Land,
yet in others the beaver has held his own against all comers.
Nearly thirty thousand of these little builders are annually
caught along the shores and swampy shallows of Peace River,
notwithstanding the fact that they are a very difficult animal
to trap. A shallow lake is their favorite place of abode.


Along its edges, where rushes and sedgy plants appear above
the ice and snow, rise a number of small earthy mounds,
while around it the trees are felled in all directions, as if the
land had been cleared for farming. This is a beaver colony.
In summer and autumn the spot is a lively place enough, but
in winter there are no signs of animal life, the beaver keeping
within doors.

\ Arrived upon the ground, the trapper knows at a glance
the various signs of the animal's presence. Cutting down a
few stakes, he proceeds to point them at the ends ; and then
breaking the ice from around the beaver-lodges, he drives
them between it and the shore. This prevents the beaver
from running along the passage which they always keep from
their lodges to the shore, where their storehouse is located,
and imprisons those now in the lodge. The trapper next
stakes up those in the storehouse on shore in the same man-
ner, and thus imprisons those who may have fled there for
shelter, on hearing the sound of the axe at the lodge. Then,
taking his axe, he cuts through the lodge ; no very easy mat-
ter, owing to the vast amount of frozen sticks and mud of
which it is constructed. At last, laying bare the interior of the
structure, he reaches in his hand, gives a pull, and out comes
a fat sleepy beaver, which he flings upon the snow. A blow
upon the head from the axe puts an end to it, and the opera-
tion is again repeated, until all the inmates are killed and
packed upon the hand-sledge. For the Indian gorges on fat
beaver, and never throws away the meat, (

If it is the early autumn, however, and the ice has not


yet formed about the beaver-lodges, the hunter catches the
animal in a steel trap. iHe first finds out how the beaver gets
into his home, which is generally in shallow water. Then a
steel trap is sunk in the water, care being taken to regulate
the depth, so that it may not be more than twelve or fourteen
inches below the surface. This is accomplished by either
rolling in a log, or building in large stones. Immediately
over the trap is the bait, made from the castor or medicine
gland of the beaver, suspended from a stick, so as to just
clear the water. With a long cord and a buoy, to mark the
position of the trap when the beaver swims away with it, the
trap is complete. The unsuspecting beaver, returning to his
lodge, scents the tempting castor, purposely placed in his
road. As he cannot reach it as he swims, he feels about with
his hind-legs for something to stand on. This, too, has been
carefully placed for him. Putting down his feet to stretch
up for the coveted morsel, he finds them suddenly clasped in
an iron embrace ; there is no hope of escape. The log, re-
vealing his hiding-place, is seized by the trapper, the im-
prisoned beaver dispatched by a single blow on the head, and
the trap set againT*, A trapper will sometimes spend many
weeks encamped near a good beaver village.

The most dire and untiring enemy of the fur-hunter is
the wolverine, or North American Glutton — following his
footsteps, and destroying the martens after they are caught.
This curious animal is rather larger than the badger, with
a long body, stoutly and compactly made, mounted on

exceedingly short legs of great strength. His feet, large and


powerful, are armed with sharp, curved claws. Voracious and
blood-thirsty, there hardly lives a more cunning and crafty
animal. During the winter months he obtains a livelihood
by availing himself of the labors of the trapper. With un-
tiring perseverance he hunts day and night for the trail of
man, and when it is found, follows it unerringly, until he
arrives at one of the wooden traps. Avoiding the door,
he speedily tears open an entrance at the back, and seizes the
bait with impunity. If the trap contains an animal, he drags
it out, and, with wanton malevolence, tears it and hides it in
the underbrush, or in the top of some lofty pine. When hard
pressed by hunger, he occasionally devours it. In this man-
ner he demolishes a whole series of traps ; and when once
a wolverine has established himself on a trapping-walk, the
hunter's only chance of success is to change ground, and
build a fresh lot of traps, trusting to secure a few furs before
his new path is found out by his industrious enemy.

Such serious injury does the wolverine inflict, that he has
received from the Indians the name of Kekwaharkess, or
" The Evil One." Strange stories are related by the trappers
of the extraordinary ciinning of this animal, which they
believe to possess a wisdom almost human. He is never
caught by the ordinary deadfall. Occasionally one is
poisoned, or caught in a steel trap ; but his strength is so
great that it requires a strong trap to hold him. He seems
even to suspect the poisoned bait, and bites in two and tastes
every morsel before swallowing it.

Despite the hardships and fatigues which attend it, there


is something strangely attractive in the trapper's life. The
grand beauty of the forest whose pines, some of which tower
up over two hundred feet in height, are decked and mantled
in snow, and where no sound is heard, except the explosions
of trees cracking with the intense frost, excites admiration
and stimulates curiosity. The interest in the pursuit is
constantly kept up, by the observance of tracks, the inter-
pretation of their varied stories, and the accounts of the dif-
ferent habits of the animals as related by one's wild com-
panions. There is also no small amount of excitement in
visiting the traps previously made, to see whether they contain
the looked-for prize, or whether all the fruits of hard labor
have been destroyed by the vicious wolverine. But on the
other hand, the long laborious march, loaded with a heavy
pack, and covered with a quantity of thick clothing, through
snow and woods beset with fallen timber and underbrush, is
fatiguing enough. Provisions usually fall short, and the
trapper subsists, in a great measure, on the animals captured
to obtain the fur. As soon as the skins of the marten and
fisher are removed, their bodies are stuck on the end of a
stick, and put to roast before the fire, looking for all the
world like so many skewered cats. The only change in the
fatiguing monotony is the work of making traps, or the rest
in camp at night.

Selecting a large pine-tree for his night camp, the trapper
scrapes away the snow from about its roots with a snowshoe.
Clearing a space seven or eight feet in diameter, and nearly
four feet deep, he cuts the pinebroom from the ends of the


branches above him, and strews them at the bottom of the
hollow, till the snow is covered. This done, he collects a
huge pile of firewood and heaps it about the foot of the tree.
The ruddy flame glances up among the branches overhead,
and sends a myriad of sparks into the air. The sombre forest
undergoes a sudden and magical transformation. Before, it
was cold, silent, gloomy, desolate, and the pale snow looked
spectral in the dark. Now, the thick stems of the trees are
bathed in a genial glow, which penetrates the branches above,
tinting those near the fire witli a ruby tinge. The white snow
changes to a beautiful pink, while the tree-trunks, bright and
clearly visible close at hand, become more and more indis-
tinct in the distance, till they are lost in the gloom. The
snow walls about the trapper sparkle as if set with diamonds.
They do not melt as might be expected ; the cold is too in-
tense for that, and nothing melts except the snow quite close
to the fire.

Lying on a soft elastic couch of pine boughs, at his feet a
roaring fire of great trees heaped high, from which arises an
enormous cloud of smoke and steam, the hunter, wrapped in
his blanket, sleeps in peace. Sometimes, however, when the
cold is very intense, or the wind blows strongly, a single
blanket is poor protection. The huge fire is inadequate to
prevent the freezing of one extremity, Avhile it scorches the
other. Sleep is impossible, or if obtained, is quickly broken
by an aching cold in every limb as the fire burns low.





JOURNEYING along the line of open country extend-
ing between the North Saskatchewan River and the great
forest region stretching out toward the Polar Sea, in company
with a party of half-breed plain-hunters, we reached, one
dreary evening in November, one of those curious communi-
ties which are to be found in winter only along the borders of
the great plains of the Fur Land. Nothing like them exists
on the plains of the United States territories, because the
peculiar nomadic population necessary to their being is lack-
ing. On the south side of the forty-ninth parallel there are
comparatively few half-breeds ; on the north side there are
half-breeds whose great-grandfathers were half-breeds.

Situated in the sparse timber bordering a small tributary
of the Saskatchewan, the community consisted of French
half-breed hunters engaged in the usual winter quest of buffalo.
It was a picturesque though not over cleanly place, and will
probably look better in a photograph than it did in reality.
Some thirty or forty huts crowded irregularly together, and
built of logs, branches of pine-trees, raw- hides, and tanned
and smoked skins, together with the inevitable tepcc, or Indian
lodge ; horses, dogs, women and children, all intermingled in


a confusion worthy of an Irish fair ; half-breed hunters, rib-
boned, leggined, tasseled and capoted, lazy, idle, and, if
liquor was to be had, sure to be drunk ; remnants and wrecks
of buffaloes lying everywhere around ; here a white and
glistening skull, there a disjointed vertebra but half denuded
of its flesh ; robes stretched upon a framework of poles and
drying in the sun ; meat piled upon stages to be out of the
way of dogs ; wolf-skins, fox-skins, and other smaller furs,
tacked against the walls of the huts, or stretched upon minia-
ture frames hanging from the branches of trees ; dusky women
drawing water and hewing wood ; and at dark, from every
little hut, the glow of firelight through the parchment win-
dows, the sparks glimmering and going out at the chimney-
tops, the sound of violin scraped and sawed by some long-
haired Paganini, and the quick thud of moccasined heel, as
Baptiste, or Frangois, or Pierrette footed it ceaselessly on the
puncheon-covered floor.

Inside the huts a bare floor of pounded earth, or half-
hewn boards ; in one corner a narrow bed of boughs, covered
deep with buffalo robes ; a fireplace of limited dimensions, a
few wooden trunks or cassettes ; a rude table and a few
blackened kettles ; on the walls an armory of guns, powder-
horns and bullet-bags ; on the rafters a myriad of skins.
Every hut was the temporary home of several families, and
we have slept in structures of this kind, of not more than
twelve by fifteen feet in superficial area, where the families
ranged from fifteen to twenty members, of all ages and both
sexes. It might be useful to investigate the influence of this


mode of life upon manners ; whatever may be the result upon
the coarser sex, its effect upon women and children is not so
lamentable as may be supposed ; no perceptible lowering of
tone or compromising of taste follows, nor does the nature of
young girls, thus exposed to the gaze of an indiscriminate
crowd, change as much as might be expected ; the hereditary
sentiment, '" honi soit qui mal y pense," is too deeply seated
for that.

As a rule the winter hunters are of French origin, de-
scendants of the old traders and trappers of the Northwest
and X. Y. Fur Companies, though by long intermarriage
the blood of three or four nationalities often mingles in their
veins. Their grandfathers have been French-Canadian, their
grandmothers Cree or Ojibway squaws ; English and Black-
feet and Assiniboine have contributed to their descent on the
mother's side.

Now, as in the olden time of the fur-trade, there is no
uniform price for squaws, their qualifications being taken
into account, and a price demanded in accordance with their
capacity to render service. Usually one may be purchased
for a pony, a small quantity of flour and sugar, a little
tobacco and a bottle of whisky. But woe to the purchaser if
he should make his abode at any point convenient of access
to the band to which his squaw belonged. While she is with
the tribe the squaw is kicked about and whipped by any one
that takes a notion to do so. When she becomes the white
man's squaw things are different. There is not an Indian she
meets who does not claim relationship with her. She is sistei


to most of them and first cousin to the remainder. They meet
her with a kiss, and she feels that she must ask them in to din-
ner, and give each one something to remember her by. The
result of all this is, that the white man soon finds that he has
married an entire Indian tribe, and has made an ante-mortem
distribution of his property.

Many of the women in the winter camp were clearly of
unmixed Indian blood. Their general occupation, like that
of all the married women in the camp, when not engaged in
culinary duties, seemed to be the dissemination of nourish-
ment from the maternal font to swarms of children. This
maternal occupation among the half-breeds is protracted to
an advanced age of childhood, a circumstance probably due
to the fact that for four days after its birth the newly-born
infant receives no nourishment from its mother, in order that
in after life it shall be able to withstand the pangs of hunger.
The infantile mind, doubtless being conscious that it has
been robbed of its just right, endeavors to make up for lost
time by this prolongation of the term of nursing. In a simi-
lar manner the half-breed doubtless obtains his appetite for
strong drink from the fact that the first thing administered
to him after birth is a spoonful of strong port wine, or even
spirits, in order to insure him a vigorous constitution in
after life. From the persistency with which he follows this
practice as he grows older it is only fair to suppose that he
is insuring himself a vigor of constitution which will carry
him into the nineties.

Children, however, eat freely of buffalo or other meat.
In fact, half-breed and Indian life know only two seasons —


the feast time and the famine. When in camp in the neigh-
borhood of the buffalo-herds, or other game, living on the
fattest hump and tongues, the moose nose, or the daintiest
tidbit of forest and stream ; when on the march, glad to get
a scrap of dried meat or a putrid fish to appease the cravings
of hunger. While the meat lasts, life is one long dinner. A
child scarce able to crawl is seen with one hand holding a
piece of meat, the other end of which is tightly held between
the teeth, while the right hand wields a knife with which it
saws away between fingers and lips till the mouthful is de-
tached. We have never seen a native minus his nose, but
how noses escape amputation under these circumstances is
an unexplained mystery.

The amount of meat consumed in a winter camp is sim-
ply enormous. In every hut feasting is kept up from morn-
ing till night, and it is impossible to enter the dwelling of
a half-breed without being invited to dine. As a refusal is
regarded in the light of an intentional slight to the host, it
happens that the unwary guest goes about in a highly surfeited
condition. The invitation to eat forms, however, the most
prominent feature of half-breed hospitality, and is always ex-
tended in the kindest and politest manner. If spirits are
attainable, the feast sometimes occupies a secondary position,
but in one form or the other the stranger within the gates is
invariably invited and expected to participate. With the
half-breeds themselves the custom is invariable, and no well-
regulated 7netis expects to leave his neighbor's door without
a feast of the best viands in the house. And a feast with
this hybrid personage means no small draft upon the larder,
for, if the half-breed can starve better than any other man.


he can equally surpass other men in the quantity of food
which he can consume at a sitting. For long days and
nights he can go without any food at all ; but catch him in
camp when the buffalo are near and the cows are fat, and
you will learn what a half-breed can do in the way of eating.

Here is one bill of fare, as given by a traveler in the
North,* which may seem incredible, and yet we can vouch
for it as not being a whit exaggerated : " Seven men in thir-
teen days consumed two buffalo-bulls, seven cabri deer, fifty
pounds of pemmican — equal to half a buffalo — and a great
many ducks and geese, and on the last day there was noth-
ing to eat. This enormous quantity of meat could not have
weighed less than sixteen hundred pounds at the very lowest
estimate, which would have given a daily ration to each man
of eighteen pounds ! " Incredible as this may seem, it is by
no means impossible in a severe climate and living the active
life these men lead. We remember camping one evening with
three half-breed plain-hunters beside a buffalo-calf they had
killed shortly before dusk. The men began cutting the animal
up and feasting upon it. They were eating when we retired for
the night, and were still hovering over the fire when we arose
early in the morning. With the exception of the head,
which was slowly roasting upon the coals, there was nothing
left of the calf except the bones !

As an instance of what the half-breed regards as abstemi-
ousness, a certain missionary once told us that one of his
people came to him one day, and with great gravity and seri-
ousness said : " I know that Christianity is true ; that it is
* Major Butler, " Great Lone Land."


the great, the best religion — much better, very much better
than the pagan, my old religion. .Now," said he, "when I
was a pagan and followed my old ways — the religion of my
mothers — I could eat eight rabbits for my dinner, and then
was not satisfied. But since I have become a Christian, and
follow the new way, six rabbits at a time is plenty for me ; I
don't want any more ! "

So well is their tremendous power of digestion, and the
real necessities of their nomadic life, known to the Hudson's
Bay Company, that the daily ration issued by that corpora-
tion to its half-breed voyageurs and hunters is ten pounds of
beef per man, five pounds per woman, and three pounds pel
child, regardless of age ! Beef is so much stronger food
than buffalo-meat that ten pounds of the former would be
equivalent to fifteen pounds of the latter, and so on in pro-
portion. Beef is, of course, only used near the settlements
and is not regarded as equal in any respect to wild meat.
The diet of the company's servants depends much, however,
upon the district in which they serve, although the amount
in any locality is equally enormous. In the plain or Sas-
katchewan district the ration is almost wholly of buffalo-meat,
either fresh or in pemmican. In all the other districts, while
pemmican is issued when procurable, the regular ration is the
game supplied by the neighborhood. On the south shores
of Hudson's Bay, where wild-fowl abound, each man re-
ceives for his day's food one wild-goose ; in the lake district
or English River, three large whitefish ; in the Arctic region,
two fish and five pounds of reindeer-meat ; on the Pacific


coast, eight rabbits or one salmon ; in the Athabasca dis-
trict, eight pounds of moose-meat. All this in periods of

When the meal gets low in the bin, and the oil in the
cruse fails, the half-breed goes hungry with an indifference
to the existence of gastric juices that is affecting to behold.
But no amount of starvation has the effect of making him re-
serve from present plenty for future scarcity. The idea of
saving for the inevitable rainy morrow is entirely foreign to
his nature. It is useless to tell the plain-hunters that the
winter is long, and that the buffalo might move out of range,
and want stare them in the face ; they seem to regard starva-
tion as an ordinary event to be calculated upon certainly,
and that so long as any food is to be obtained it is to be
eaten at all times ; when that is gone — well, then the only

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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 17 of 24)