Saturday, June 06, 2009

Sketches by a Camp-Fire, Part II

Weather cool and pleasant; the mercury forty-eight degrees at sunrise. This morning we rode a few miles out of town, and met the dragoons advancing, and then escorted them to the junction of the Pembina and Red rivers where we all crossed the former stream, to the settlements beyond. We found a busy scene on going over. The houses are built around an open space, and the square courtyard (so to speak) is filled with a miscellaneous crowd of half-breeds, Indians, of all sizes, with their lodges of bark and skins together with horses, cattle, carts dogs, &c., in great variety and numbers.

The houses are built of logs, filled with mud and straw; the roofs thatched with the latter, and some covered over with bark. Around the angles of the yard are various warehouses, and icehouse, blacksmith-shop, and the trading-house, or store, which is covered completely over with large squares of bark, and looked like an entire barkhouse. In front toward the river, are barns, and stables, haystacks, &c., with numerous horses and cattle feeding, and a general appearance of thrift, comfort, and industry, pervades the scene - so new and interesting to us all, after a three-weeks' jaunt across the prairies, in which we did not meet a single human creature, not even a roaming Chippewa or Sioux.

We took possession of Mr. Kittson's house, which he had kindly placed at our disposal, and celebrated our arrival by a sumptuous dinner, in which hot corn and potatoes, onions, &c., as big as pint tin-cups, formed the principal item in the vegetable line. These were grown in the gardens here, and are the only productions of the soil now cultivated at this place, no farming whatever being done, on account of the annual floods in the valley of the Red river, for three years past - the waters have risen to the height of thirty-one and thirty-three feet above low-water mark, flooding all the country and inundating the houses at this place to the depth of two and three feet. Mr. Kittson was obliged to leave the post at this place last spring, and take up his residence for a month upon the surrounding highlands. These floods, should they continue, will prove a serious drawback to the settlement of this valley, the half-breeds being loath to put in crops when they are liable to be swept off annually.

Mr. Kittson had some six thousand rails swept off from his place last year. To obviate this difficulty, a new town and an agricultural settlement has been laid out by Mr. Kittson, and the Rev. Mr. Belcourt (the catholic priest stationed at this place), on what is called the Pembina mountain, thirty miles to the west of this place, and bordering on the river Pembina. The situation is a very eligible one, in a fine farming region; the land is excellent, and the timber abundant. The town is called "St. Joseph's," and is situated upon the eastern slope of the longitudinal ridge of land, called Mount Pembina, which is in places heavily wooded, and presents an Alleganian appearance as it is approached or skirted along toward the east.

Since our arrival, the name of "Waucheona," the Chippewa term for mountain, has been selected by Dr. Foster, and adopted by Mr. Kittson, as the name of the embryo town; he being opposed to exhausting the whole calendar of saints, and making every one of them stand as godfather to every town, lake, mountain, or stream, in the territory.

In consequence of there being no farming operations carried on here now, we found no grain on hand to feed our horses, excepting barley, and that is brought up from the Selkirk settlements, one hundred miles down Red river. Barley is a stronger feeder than oats, yet not so good as corn. It produces more than oats, say about forty bushels to the acre; and the price below ranges from fifty cents to a dollar per bushel, the former being the stard price when no extra demand takes place.

This afternoon I took a walk across "the line," two miles below, in company with the Rev. Messrs. Black and Tanner, the latter a half-breed Chippewa. About half way down, we passed the residence of the Rev. M. Belcourt, a large, two-story frame-house, situated alongside of a rude log-church, surmounted by a wooden cross.

The site is a very pleasant and commanding one, upon the high ground about half a mile back from the river, and safe from floods. Gardens, out-houses, and vehicles, were scattered around, and an air of comfort, and the rude enjoyments of a far off home, were visible. I am told that all the half-breeds here are catholics, with perhaps a few exceptions, and that Mr. Belcourt has resided among them, at the settlements below, and here, the long term of twenty-three years and upward. He is at present at the Mountain. At the line (forty-nine degrees) we found an elm-post, which was planted in the ground, upon the river bank, by Major Woods and Capt. Pope, bearing date, August 14, 1849. Just beyond is the first trading post and buildings of the Hudson's Bay Company, in this direction, a rival post of Kittson's. The buildings are built of logs and mud, one story high, and thatched with straw, are very warm and comfortable, and built around an open square. Here we found an old Scotch gentleman, named Sittare, an employee of the Bay Company, and who has charge of this place. He is a native of the Orkney Isles, and has resided in British America the still longer term of forty-eight years. A lifetime spent amid such solitudes is enough to make a man a misanthrope, and no one need wonder at it if I were to say that the old gentleman was not the most agreeable personage that I have met in this direction.

His only companions were a few half-breeds; the trading-house was closed, no trade, or business of any kind on hand, and the whole place was dull and desolate. Slept in our tent to-night, as of old; it is pitched in the court-yard, in front of the main buildings, with large fires burning around, and at each, is assembled a motley group of whites, half-breeds, and Indians; while in the distance, the dogs are howling, the braves and younger squaws are dancing promiscuously around their lodges, singing and beating drums for their amusement, and perhaps as a lullaby to us. They succeed most admirably, in making the black night as hideous as possible. Our escort of dragoons, are encamped about one fourth of a mile back upon the prairie, and their camp of snow-white tents, with the American flag flying gayly in the breeze, presents quite a pretty appearance, in contrast with the half-breed and Indian lodges, which are dotted here and there, separately, and in little hamlets of a dozen, all around as far as the eye can reach.

Saturday, 13th (September) - Cloudy, cold, raw, and windy, most of the day. The wind is keen from the northeast, and feels like that of a winter's day in milder latitudes. The mercury was down to fifty degrees at sunrise, and only rose to sixty-five degrees. Early this morning, a large Mackinaw boat started for the settlements below, in quest of barley; ourselves and escort requiring three hundred bushels. The boat was manned by eight half-breeds, six of whom were oarsmen. They will occupy two days in going down; two more in collecting the barley, and getting it thrashed, as it now stands out in the fields in shocks; five days to ascend the crooked, sluggish stream, and will bring about one hundred and sixty bushels; after which they will return for another load, and immediately on their second arrival, say about the 1st October, we will start homeward. To-day the half-breeds and Indians were served out rations; the Indians received flour and pemmican for three days' subsistence; and the half-breeds the same; with an additional allowance to each family of four pounds of sugar, and one pound of tea, they all being great lovers of that beverage. This occupied all the morning. The Indians number some five hundred, and the half-breeds, who drew rations, about fifty families. The latter are living here during their attendance on the treaty, in skin-lodges; though I am told they have comfortable log-houses, when settled permanently at home; and when not out on their semi-annual hunt. I have observed a number of their houses along the banks of Pembina and Red rivers, and understand the rest to be at the Mountain, and away out at Devil's lake, about one hundred miles to the southwest. Their occupation at present is exclusively that of hunters; and their life is naturally a free and easy, and a careless one; hunting buffalo and making pemmican and ox-carts, occupy all their time. These carts are made entirely of wood, not even an iron nail is used, wooden pins and thongs and bands of hide, being substituted. The only tools used are an axe, a hand-saw, a three-quarter, and an inch auger, with chisels of the same size. The carts are sold for thirty shillings; which is the average price, except in the hunting seasons, when in demand, they sell as high as ten dollars. A pair of wheels alone, are then worth five dollars. They are very strong, and will carry twelve hundred pounds of buffalo and pemmican.

The fall hunt comes off soon after the conclusion of the treaty. The usual tie for starting upon the summer and fall hunts, is the 10th of June and September. Nothing but pemmican and dried meat is secured on these two hunts; the robes being all taken in the winter, when the hair is long; the party returned from their summer hunt just before our arrival here. They were unsuccessful too, for once, and returned quite poor and empty-handed. They had a desperate fight, about the 20th of August, with the Yankton Sioux, who were one thousand strong, and all mounted upon horses; the affair took place away off upon the Missouri pains, upon the western slope of the Coteau des Prairies, and resulted in the victory of the half-breeds after they had been entrenched behind their carts and an earth embankment, for a day or two. I did not ascertain the number killed on either side.

Sunday, 14th - Cloudy, cold, raw, and windy; quite unpleasant and unseasonable. An over-coat is necessary out of doors, this morning, and fires in the house, for comfort; the weather, as well as other matters, serves to remind us of our northern latitude. To-day we had preaching by the Rev. John Black, in the dining-room of the governor's house; a novelty most certainly, in this far distant region. The congregation consisted of about a dozen whites, and three half-breeds. The Rev. Mr. Tanner also officiated, sang, and prayed, in English; and this afternoon, he preached in the open air, to the assembled Indians in the Chippewa language. Some of them paid close attention, sitting in a circle upon the ground; while others were listless and wandering, and others stood looking on from a distance, with the dragoons and half-breeds. The Chippewa is a beautifully sounding language, like the Italian. Mr. Tanner uses the Chippewa testament and hymns, which were translated by his father, who was for many years a prisoner among them, and wrote a book thereon. Mr. Tanner is about thirty-five years of age, and a very superior man for his class; he was born on the east side of the Red river, opposite this place (MY NOTE: where present-day St. Vincent, MN is located); was educated at Mackinaw, and has acted as a missionary among the Indians at Red lake, for the last five years. He removed to this place a week ago, and intends farming, teaching school, &c., for livelihood after the conclusion of the treaty. His wife is a half-breed, and they reside at present, in a lodge in the yard at this place. He is a fluent and earnest speaker, and discourses with great fervor and much eloquence to his red brethren, and is calculated to do good, if any can be done among them; he has been with them on their buffalo-hunts to the Missouri plains, armed like the rest; and has hunted buffalo and made pemmican all the week, and preached the gospel to them on Sundays - this being one phase of missionary life upon the prairies. He also has a half-breed brother, a real heathen as he styles him, who ranks as a chief among the Indians, and who lives among them, and accompanies them upon their hunts. This afternoon, things are dull and quiet; the Indians are strolling around, or lying idly in their lodges; the squaws are lugging huge loads of wood upon their backs, which they cut upon the river's bank, and secure by a strap passing over their shoulders and around the forehead; their bodies bending beneath the heavy load. Dozens of dirty children, half-clad in a piece of still dirtier blanket, are also playing around. The half-breeds are sitting around the fires in the yard; some lying in their lodges, and others standing at a respectful distance, listening to Mr. Tanner. Their young priest, M. Lecombe, has come down from his residence at the mission-house since vespers, and is holding a consultation with the governor. He seems to be a very intelligent, fine, young fellow; and intends accompanying us homeward to St. Paul, on his way to Montreal; where the Rev. Mr. Black came from, on his way to Selkirk settlement; thus keeping up an equilibrium in religious matters, and effecting a change between these two distant regions, in the persons of two ministers of different faiths; which is pleasant to contemplate, and which will be of great advantage to all concerned.

The Treaty

Monday, 14th - Still cold, raw, windy, and unpleasant; wind east-southeast; it looks, feels too, very much like snow, and has for several days past; the mercury was down to fifty at sunrise. At noon the Indians met, and the treaty commenced in front of the governor's house; his excellency, with Dr. Foster as secretary, and others, were sitting at a table at the front door; the principal chiefs, braves, and head men of the Red lake and Pembina bands of Chippewas, were sitting on low seats in front, while around behind them in a semi-circle stood a numerous crowd of half breeds and Indians, men, boys, squaws, and papooses, accompanied by their dogs, who, for once during our stay here, were quiet. the governor opened the council by an address of some length, which was interpreted by the Rev. Mr. Tanner and James Nolen, to them; as also their replies made in return. An old Indian, named "Clear-Weather," replied twice to the governor's remarks, in which he was quite pert and facetious as he thought, and ended by wanting a plain statement of our business there, and what we were going to do for them - what we were going to offer them, told bluntly and without any circumlocution or ornament; he wanted no "sugared words or honeyed phrases." He was not all satisfied with what had been said to them, and wanted something more definite, explicit, and to the point, and then they would go and make up their minds upon it, provided their great father would present them at least two bullocks in the meantime, as they were extremely hungry and could not deliberate on empty stomachs. The governor then told them they were women, and not the great Chippewa hunters he had thought them; that it was their duty as children to present their father with something to eat, after he had travelled such a long weary journey across the prairies purposely to meet them; but as he was now satisfied that they were squaws, and knew not how to hunt, he would go himself this afternoon and kill them some buffalo, and asked them "if they would have cows or bulls!" This little sally or bit of byplay put them in a good humor, and the council closed till ten, A.M., to-morrow. The dignitaries and potentates of this region of the earth then walked off majestically and proudly; and these stoics (?) - these men without a teat (?) - were seen no more. In plain terms they removed, in double quick time, lugging off their tobacco on their shoulders, and driving off their cattle, with loud shouts, to camp, where the rest of the day was devoted to gormandizing, and to-night we have hell let loose again among them.

Tuesday, 16th - Cloudy, cold, windy, and rainy. At daylight a rainstorm set in form the southeast, and continued nearly all day. A regular old fashioned equinoctial; mercury down to fifty-four and only rose to sixty-one degrees. No council was held that day in consequence of the storm. The Indians all invisible; all at home in their lodges, surfeiting themselves on ox meat and pemmican. Things very dull and gloomy; everywhere around the tent-fires all extinguished, and the star-spangled banner droops and hangs straight down the tall flag-staff, reared high in air above. The mud in the court-yard is as tenacious as pitch, and glues a man to the ground as soon as he steps out. We were, therefore, compelled to be sedentary; spent the day, for my own part, in reading "Major Long's Second Expedition to the Source of the St. Peter's River, Red River Valley, and Across the British Line, in 1825-'26" also prepared and packed up provisions for a canoe trip to-morrow down to Selkirk settlement, Fort Garry, &c.

Wednesday, 17th - The weather has cleared off finely, and is cool and pleasant; wind west-southwest, and the sun quite warm; the mercury sixty-one degrees at sunrise. Rose at daylight and prepared for a start down the river, in company with the Rev. John Black, in a bark canoe, with two Boise Brules (Halfbreeds, the name signifies 'burned wood') as voyageurs. Our canoe was fifteen feet long, and three feet wide, and was pretty well loaded down with ourselves, our bedding, baggage, and provisions. We started at seven, A.M., and paddled down the crooked, muddy river at the rate of some four miles an hour. stopping several hours to breakfast and dinner upon the river bank, and more frequently to haul out our leaky, frail canoe, and pitch the bottom with melted epinette, a vegetable gum used for that purpose. We saw large flocks of geese and ducks swimming among the dead willows along the banks, and could have shot large quantities, but we had not time to stop and pick them up. The ducks were all quite tame, and would approach within a few feet of our canoe, being so unused to the sight of human beings as to feel no feat. Other birds are numerous, among which I notice the eagle, hawk, crane, crow, plover, blackbird, and pigeon; also observed a fish-duck diving after fish; he was a fine large fellow, with a long bill, and a bright scarlet head; he swam toward us boldly, and thereby saved his life by his fearless confidence.

Red River is a very uninteresting stream; its waters are a liquid mud and have a very disagreeable taste, and affect the bowels of all persons unaccustomed to their use. The banks of the river are low, and extremely soft and muddy; you sink in knee-deep immediately on stepping foot on shore, where you stick and flounder about considerably before reaching the dry, hard prairie-ground above.

Along its whole course, both banks, within the margin of the stream, are covered with the thick growth of drowned-out willows before spoken of, while farther back on the prairie, fine large trees, majestic oaks and elms, are in the same condition; and now stand towering aloft like high, giant skeleton sentinels, throwing out their dry and leafless limbs across the water, as if to guard its passage. Each tree is marked at the height of some thirty feet above the water by the heavy drift-ice during the spring freshets; and the bark of all the timber to their height is of a dirty mud color, which, with the dead, drowned-out trees, presents a very disagreeable aspect. In some places the timber merely skirts the banks on both sides, and a broad expanse extends far on either hand; at others the timber extends farther than the eye can penetrate, and no prairie at all is visible for many miles, all being a desolate solitude of dead and dying skeleton trunks of leafless trees. There are some trunks in the river too forming snags; the water is very deep, current sluggish, say about one mile an hour generally, and in some places almost impreceptible, with not more than half a mile of straight chnnel at a time; for while its general course is due north it twists and turns in a very serpentine manner, to all points of the compass. The river contains no islands, and the only rapids are down below Selkirk settlement. A fine steamboat navigation will be found from there up to the junction of the Bois des Sioux, a distance of nearly four hundred miles; and one far better than that of the Mississippi above St. Anthony. We passed by the mouths of a number of small streams, viz., the Red Grass, Marias, Gratiaro, &c., which all resemble deep crooked ditches, and pour out additional quantities of thick, dark, mud-colored water, the washings of the rich and fertile prairies, now blooming with numerous flowers, through which they flow.

This is a splendid evening, the finest we have had for a long time; the sun is setting beautifully into the bosom of the far-off prairie, as it were, while all Nature is calm, still, and composed; the silence only broken by the dipping of our paddles, the occasional chirping of a bird, and the rapid rising of the scared wild fowl from out the smooth, calm surface of the water as we approach. We halted at sunset, about forty miles distant from Pembina, and have a good camp in a thick woods, where the only drawback to our comfort is the mosquitoes, which are as usual extremely annoying to us. The warm sun to-day unfortunately revived them from the torpid state in which the late cold storm had thrown them. We have our bar put up, ten-fashion, the corners being fastened to four stakes, and the raised apex or centre is secured to a bent pole, which keeps it upright and tightly stretched. Our bed consists of a robe and three blankets, with our coats and overcoats, &c., for pillows. We are upon an old camping ground, where two hundred and fifty cords of wood has been cut and piled around for the use of the settlements below this winter. The night is very clear and fine, the face of heaven is smiling amid myriads of twinkling stars; the northern horizon is lit up with the rays and dancing beams of an aurora, while the woods and silent flowing river are illuminated by our camp-fire; our voyageurs are fast aslepp upon the ground before us, and not a sound is heard, save that of the crackling, leaping flames and the low tone of our own voices as we chat merrily. And now as my companion reads a chapter in his French pocket-bible, and I pencil down these sketches of fact and fancy by the light of the burning fagots - but hark! we have company it seems and are not so lonely as I thought - that was the hoot-owl's cry; and sounds like the wailings of a fiend in misery - that was the cry, long drawn out and dismal, of a distant wolf; and now they are heard yelping and barking furiously, like a pack of hungry curs. And what was that - more unearthly than the fierce war-whoop, which almost freezes the young, warm blood, and turns the stout, athletic frame to stone? Was it a "demon-spirit or boglin damned," or the mere howling of the rising wind, the precursor of another store, I see arising in the distant horizon! Ha! I see two gleaming, fiery eyeballs in the thicket of the underbrush: "Take that, to light you to better quarters" I hurl a blazing fire-brand toward the varmint, who, with another dismal cry, leaves us to quietness, and to repose and sleep. From Sketches by a Camp-Fire
- to be continued...