Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sketches by a Camp-Fire, Part I

This is the first of several posts taken from first-person accounts of a mid-nineteenth century expedition expedition started out in late August 1851...
Pierre Bottineau who contracted to take our [treaty expedition (1851)]1 goods and provisions from Sauk Rapids through to Pembina, is a half-breed Chippewa; of a highly-nervous temperament, with Indian features strongly marked, very swarthy, dark hair, tall, muscular, and active, and is about thirty-seven years of age. He is an excellent hunter and voyageur; was born in, and has spent his whole life in wandering in and exploring, this territory and adjacent country. He has along eight carts, each loaded with about five hundred pounds of freight, and six Canadian French boys as drivers; also two half-breed men of the Chippewa tribe - one his own brother...

Photograph by Tim Kiser. The Tongue River in Icelandic State Park, Pembina County, North Dakota, 23 August two, P.M., we started on, and soon found the dragoons again. They were encamped in the edge of the woods on Tongue river, where they remain till to-morrow. We now had eight miles of swampy prairie to cross, and at four, P.M., came in sight of the first houses at the Red river settlement, much to our great joy; as a house was as much a novelty to us after a tramp of five hundred miles across the unpeopled prairies, as the first sight of land is to the weary and tempest-tossed mariner.

The houses were full of half-breeds, who saluted us with the discharge of guns, &c. Dr. Foster and Mr. Lord rode on ahead, and were treated to milk and potatoes - a treat equal to that of the milk and honey received by the wandering children of Israel of old. A mile beyond we came to the unction of the Red and Pembina rivers, and found the trading-post of N.W. Kittson, Esq., and the settlement called Pembina in the angle at the junction. Here we found half a dozen log-dwellings, and a quantity of half-breed and Chippewa lodges; the American flag flying from the top of a tall flag-staff; with barns, stables, haystacks, horses, cattle, &c., and things generally looking very comfortable. On the muddy banks in front stood an admiring group of several hundred whites, half-breeds, and Indians, of all sizes; with any quantity of dogs, very large and wolfish: and amid this Babel of cries, yelps, barks, and shouts, from the said big dogs and little papoose Indians, we came to a halt and reconnoitered, on the southside of the Pembina and west of the Red river, standing almost glued fast in the sticky, tenacious mud, caused by the rains and annual overflow of these two rivers for three years past. The timber upon their banks is dead (drowned out), the ground destitute of grass, with tall, rank weeds three and four feet in height abounding.

The rivers are very muddy and deep, with but little current. Red river is about one hundred yards in width, and the Pembina twenty-five yards. The country is very flat all around, and the streams heavily wooded, while a thick growth of young, dead willows line the water's edge from Pembina to the Selkirk settlement. Mr. Kittson and Messrs. Rolette and Cavileer soon visited us and took us over to the town, giving us the freedom of the place, besides sending some Selkirk butter and eggs across to us at camp. Our carts arriving at dark, we built a rousing fire, pitched tents, covered the banks with grass and weeds, spread our oil-cloths and mattresses, and were once more comfortable.

This is our last night "out of sight of land" - slept out last sleep on the tented prairie for the present, which I regret, as it is far preferable to a bed of down within a palace. Slept well, too, considering the multitude of discordant and almost unearthly sounds which struck upon our drowsy ears, accustomed to quietness and calm. Now are heard the Indians shrieking and beating upon drums at their camp across the Pembina; and those big dogs keep howling dismally, like a host of wild, voracious wolves. The dark and cloudy night is made hideous with hell-like wailings; and the mournful sighing wind bears to our ears the sharp and piercing cries from a hundred deep-toned throats, sounding in their awfulness like the despairing howlings of the damned. So much for our first night at Pembina.

We have thus made the march from Sauk rapids to this place in twenty travelling days, being Twenty-two in all, and from St. Paul just twenty-five days. Messrs. Kittson and Cavalieer came through a short time since in twelve days, or about nine- and a half days of marching time, the quickest trip on record.
1 - The object of the expedition narrated in the pages these excerpts are taken from, was to form a treaty with the Red Lake and Pembina bands of Chippewa Indians for their country lying in the valley of the Red River of the North, and south of the British line. Governor Ramsey was appointed commissioner to treat with them, and Dr. Thomas Foster appointed secretary. The treaty was formed, but was afterward rejected by the United States senate...
[To Be Continued...]