Saturday, November 08, 2008

Eyewitness to a Hunt

The Red River Buffalo hunt was unique in North America. In the story of the westward march of civilization across the continent no other people organized themselves so efficiently and so extensively for a systematic assault on the buffalo herds.

These large organized hunts began in the early 1820s and continued until the early 1870s, though with gradually diminishing enthusiasm and extent as the herds dwindled and withdrew farther and farther westward. Probably no comparable community depended for so long a time and to such an extent on the "plains provisions" which the great hunts provided.

This excerpt, taken from Red River Settlement is of the spring hunt of 1840. At this time the importance of the buffalo to the economy of Red River would be hard to exaggerate. Though this account is of particular events which the writer witnessed, everything that he tells us may be considered typical of most of the great hunts.

From Manitoba Historical Society introduction notes to the following account...
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On the 15th day of June 1840, carts were seen to emerge from every nook and corner of the settlement, bound for the plains.

From Fort Garry the cavalcade and camp-followers went crowding on to the public road, and thence, stretching from point to point, till the third day in the evening, when they reached Pembina, the great rendezvous on such occasions.

Here the roll was called, and general muster taken, when they numbered, on this occasion, 1,630 souls; and here the rules and regulations for the journey were finally settled. The officials for the trip were named and installed into office; and all without the aid of writing materials.

The camp occupied as much ground as a modern city, and was formed in a circle; all the carts were placed side by side, the trains out-ward. These are trifles, yet they are important to our subject. Within this line of circumvallation, the tents were placed in double, treble rows, at one end; the animals at the other in front of the tents. This is in order in all dangerous places; but where no danger is apprehended, the animals are kept on the outside. Thus the carts formed a strong barrier, not only for securing the people and their animals within, but as a place of shelter against an attack of the enemy without.
In 1820, the number of carts assembled here for the first trip was 540

In 1825, 680

In 1830, 820

In 1835, 970

In 1840, 1210
From this statement it is evident that the plain hunters are rapidly increasing ... The first step was to hold a council for the nomination of chiefs or officers, for conducting the expedition. Ten captains were named, the senior on this occasion being Jean Baptiste Wilkie, an English half-breed, brought up among the French; a man of good sound sense and long experience, and withal a fine bold-looking and discreet fellow; a second Nimrod in his way. Besides being captain, in common with the others, he was styled the great war chief or head of the camp; and on all public occasions he occupied the place of president. All articles of property found, without an owner, were carried to him, and he disposed of them by crier, who went around the camp every evening, were it only an awl. Each captain had ten soldiers under his orders; in much the same way that policemen are subject to the magistrate. Ten guides were likewise appointed; their duties were to guide the camp, each in his turn — that is day about — during the expedition. The camp flag belongs to the guide of the day; he is therefore standard-bearer in virtue of his office.

The raising of the flag every morning is the signal for raising camp. Half an hour is the full time allowed to prepare for the march; but if any one is sick, or their animals have strayed, notice is sent to the guide, who halts till all is made right. From the time the flag is hoisted, however, till the hour of camping arrives, it is never taken down. The flag taken down is the signal for encamping. While it is up, the guide is chief of the expedition. Captains are subject to him, and the soldiers of the day are his messengers; he commands all. The moment the flag is lowered, his functions cease, and the captains' and soldiers' duties commence. They point out the order of the camp, and every cart, as it arrives, moves to its appointed place. This business usually occupies about the same time as raising camp in the morning; for everything moves with the regularity of clock-work.

All being ready to leave Pembina, the captains and other chief men hold another council, and lay down the rules to be observed during the expedition; those made on the present occasion were:
1. No buffalo to be run on the Sabbath-day.

2. No party to fork off, lag behind, or go before, without permission.

3. No person or party to run buffalo before the general order.

4. Every captain with his men, in turn, to patrol the camp, and keep guard.

5. For the first trespass against these laws, the offender to have his saddle and bridle cut up.

6. For the second offence, the coat to be taken off the offender's back, and be cut up.

7. For the third offence, the offender to be flogged.

8. Any person convicted of theft, even to the value of a sinew, to be brought to the middle of the camp, and the crier to call out his or her name three times, adding the word "Thief" at each time.
From Alexander Ross, The Red River Settlement: Its Rise, Progress, and Present State (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1972), pp. 245, 248-250