Saturday, September 06, 2008

Buffalo Hunt - PART II

Minnsota Buffalo Hunt - Butchering
Camping amongst the Slain. — Wholesale Slaughter. — A Sick Guide. — Parting from the Half-breeds. — A False Alarm. — Dismal Night's Lodging. — Dreadful Position. — Stinking River. — Death of the Guide. — Paternal Government. — The Fire - Water Curse.

OUR camp was now moved to the field of slaughter, for the greater convenience of collecting the meat. However lightly I wished to think of my fall, I found myself the next day suffering considerably from the effects of it, and the fatigue I had undergone. The man whom I had brought with me as a guide was also suffering much from an attack of the measles. Next day our hunters sighted and chased another large band of bulls with good success. At night we were annoyed by the incessant howling and fighting of innumerable dogs and wolves that had followed us to the hunt, seemingly as well aware of the feast that was preparing for them as we could be ourselves. The plain now resembled one vast shambles : the women, whose business it is, being all busily employed in cutting the flesh into slices, and hanging them in the sun on racks, made of poles tied together.

In reference to the immense number of buffaloes killed, I may mention that it is calculated that the half-breeds alone destroy thirty thousand annually. Having satisfied myself with buffalo hunting amongst the half-breeds, I was anxious to return to the settlement, in order to prosecute my journey. On proposing to set out I found my guide so unwell, that I feared he would not be able to travel. I tried to procure one of the hunters to take his place and return with me, but none of them would consent to travel alone over so large a tract of country, from fear of the Sioux, in whose territory we then were; and who they dreaded, from the late occurrence, would be watching to cut off any stragglers. Being unable to procure a fresh man, I was about to start alone, when my guide, who thought himself better, proposed to accompany me, on condition that he should ride in the cart, and not be expected to attend to the horses or cooking. This I readily agreed to, as his services as guide were of the utmost importance.

We started next morning for the settlement, a distance which I supposed to be somewhat over two hundred miles. A party of twenty of the hunters escorted us for eight or ten miles, to see that there were no Sioux in the immediate vicinity. We then parted, after taking the customary smoke on separating from friends. I could not avoid a strong feeling of regret at leaving them, having experienced many acts of kindness at their hands, hardly to be expected from so wild and uncultivated a people. We found a great scarcity of water on our return, most of the swamps that had supplied us on our way out being now dried up by the heat of the season.

We fell in with a great many stray dogs and wolves, which appeared to be led on by the scent of the dead carcases. After hobbling the horses, putting up my tent, and cooking the supper, I then turned in for the night, not without some apprehensions of a hostile visit from the Sioux, as we were still on their hunting grounds, and in the territory of the United States, being still a few miles south of the boundary line. During the night my guide, who was very ill and feverish, cried out that the Sioux were upon us. I started up with my gun in my hand, for I slept with it by my side, and rushing out in the dark, was near shooting my own horse, which, by stumbling over one of the tent pins, had alarmed my companion.

We travelled on the next day with as great rapidity as the ill health of my guide would permit, and on the evening of the 30th of June, we encamped on the bank of the Pambinaw. I lost considerable time next morning in catching the horses, as they are able from habit to run a considerable distance, and pretty fast, in spite of their hobbles. In the afternoon we arrived at the Swampy Lake, about fourteen miles across. A little before sunset we reached about the middle of it, but my guide complained so much that I could not proceed further.

I succeeded in finding a small dry spot above water large enough for me to sit on, but not affording room for my legs, which had to remain in the water, there being no more room in the small cart than was necessary for the sick man. Having no means for cooking, I was compelled to eat my dried meat raw. I tried to compose myself to sleep, but found it impossible, from the myriads of mosquitoes which appeared determined to extract the last drop of blood from my body. After battling with them until 4 o'clock next morning, my eyes almost blinded by their stings, I went in search of the horses, which had strayed away to some distance into deeper water, tempted by some sort of flags growing there. I had to wade up to my middle in pursuit of them, and it was not until 9 o'clock that we were able to proceed.

After leaving this dismal swamp we were within a day's march of the settlement ; and my guide, believing himself to be much better, insisted upon my leaving him to drive the cart, whilst I proceeded at a more rapid rate on horseback. This, however, I would not do until I had seen him safe across Stinking River, which the horses had almost to swim in crossing.

Having got him over safely, I left him, and proceeded onwards in the direction of the fort. But I had not gone far before I encountered one of the numerous swampy lakes that abound in this region, and render travelling extremely difficult. I had no doubt got on a wrong track, for in endeavouring to cross, my horse quickly sank up to his neck in mud and water. Seeing that I could neither advance nor recede, I dismounted, and found myself in the same predicament, scarcely able to keep my head above the surface. I managed, however, to reach the dry land ; and, with the lasso, or long line, which every voyageur in these parts invariably has attached to his horse's neck, succeeded In getting the animal out. I remounted, and endeavoured to cross in another direction, but with no better success. I now found myself surrounded on all sides, as far as I could see, with nothing but swamp. My horse refused to be ridden any further. I had therefore, to dismount, and drag him along as best I could, wading up to my very middle in mud and water abounding with reptiles.

That I had lost my way was now certain; and as it was raining hard, I could not see the sun, nor had I a compass. I, however, determined to fix upon one certain course, and keep that at all hazards, in hopes that I might reach the Assiniboine River, by following which I could not fail to reach the settlement. After travelling in uncertainty for ten or twelve miles, I had at length the satisfaction of reaching the river, and in two hours afterwards I arrived safe at Fort Garry. The next morning I learned that my guide had been brought in by two men who were looking for stray horses. The poor fellow had got rapidly worse after my leaving, and had only proceeded a short distance when he was compelled to stop. He only survived two days after his arrival.

Fort Garry is one of the best built forts in the Hudson's Bay territory. It has a stone wall, with bastions mounted with cannon, inclosing large storehouses and handsome residences for the gentlemen of the establishment. Its strength is such that it has nothing to fear from the surrounding half-breeds or Indians. The gentleman in charge was Mr. Christie, whose many acts of kindness and attention I must ever remember with feelings of grateful respect.

The office of Governor of the Red River Settlement is one of great responsibility and trouble, as the happiness and comfort of the whole settlement depend to a great extent upon the manner in which he carries out his instructions. The half-breeds are much inclined to grumbling, and although the Company treat them with great liberality, they still ask almost for impossibilities ; indeed, as far as the Company is concerned, I cannot conceive a more just and strict course than that which they pursue in the conduct of the whole of their immense traffic. In times of scarcity they help all around them, in sickness they furnish them with medicines, and even try to act as mediators between hostile bands of Indians. No drunkenness or debauchery is seen around their posts, and so strict is their prohibition of liquor, that even their officers can only procure a small allowance, which is given as part of their annual outfit on voyages.

Without entering into the general question of the policy of giving a monopoly of the fur trade to one company, I cannot but record, as the firm conviction which I formed from a comparison between the Indians in the Hudson's Bay Company territories and those in the United States, that opening up the trade with the Indians to all who wish indiscriminately to engage in it, must lead to their annihilation. For while it is the interest of such a body as the Hudson's Bay Company to improve the Indians and encourage them to industry, according to their own native habits in hunting and the chase, even with a view to their own profit, it is as obviously the interest of small companies and private adventurers to draw as much wealth as they possibly can from the country in the shortest possible time, although in doing so the very source from which the wealth springs should be destroyed. The unfortunate craving for intoxicating liquor which characterises all the tribes of Indians, and the terrible effects thereby produced upon them, render it a deadly instrument in the hands of designing men.

It is well known that, although the laws of the United States strictly prohibit the sale of liquor to the Indians, it is impossible to enforce them, and whilst many traders are making rapid fortunes in their territories, the Indians are fast declining in character, numbers, and wealth, whilst those in contact with the Hudson's Bay Company maintain their numbers, retain native characteristics unimpaired, and in some degree share in the advantages which civilisation places within their reach.

From Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America, by Paul Kane