Friday, April 01, 2011

Pembina: Unique

Masthead - The paper was started by Horace Greeley

The article below - part of a series on new states in the Union - was written by an east coast newspaper  journalist sent to report onsite.  It offers an interesting 'snapshot' view of one year in the life of the Pembina/St. Vincent area, in 1889.

At that time, it was a few years into the intense settlement period. The area had been opened up; gone were the old fur trading, mission, and exploration days. It was a time of rapid growth and change. Read about how it looked to an outsider...



On the Border Line of the Dominion

Pembina sixty years ago and now - The old Hudson Bay Company Settlement - A Sportsman's Paradise

Pembina, North Dakota (May 18, 1889) - After visiting so many places destined to become the "grand metropolises" of the Northwest, one experiences a certain sense of relief in coming to Pembina. He finds a quiet little town lying against the Red River on one side and the international boundary line on another, removed by its situation from all vain ambitions, expecting little and content with enough. When the Scotch and English colonists of the Hudson Bay Company had pushed their way through Manitoba and had reached the spot that has since become known as Winnipeg, they encountered a party of Frenchmen under the patronage of the Northwestern Fur Company, and there was forthwith a quarrel. Each party said the other was poaching on its preserves, and the Frenchmen, backed by Indian allies, manifested an exceedingly ugly spirit. At last somebody fired a shot, and immediately a battle began. It ended in the utter rout of the British, and they retreated up the Red River and paused in the neighborhood of the 49th parallel. They were the earliest settlers of Pembina.

These people led any but a tranquil life. With the hated Frenchmen to the north of them, the treacherous Cree Indians all around them, and the fierce Sioux and Chippewa battling together below them, they had plenty to think about. They were presently reinforced by Lord Selkirk, to whom they were original indebted for all the delightful experiences they had gone through in this land of promise. He had obtained from the Hudson Bay Company a grant of all the Red River Valley, and he came out himself with another body of adventurers, and in 1812 he built a fort upon a spot perhaps a hundred yards from the site of Pembina's Court House. The lay of the land was pretty. A long, deep, narrow river that has since received as its name the name of the town, its banks overgrown with poplar, oak and elm trees, flowed into the Red River at a short distance below the fort, and the surface of the country was lifted here into mounds and depressed there into ravines, which served greatly to relieve the monotony of the expanding prairies. When Selkirk learned two years later that his fort and his people were on American soil, he moved them across the boundary line, and established them where they had the right to be, but several of their descendants are yet living in Pembina, and the traditions of these early days are a source of pride to the whole community.

The Pembina of today, however, is a town of recent growth, but little older, in fact, than its neighbors in the Red River Valley. People are still accounted young who have travelled all the way from Winnipeg through Pembina to St. Paul in dog-carts, camping in the snow and crossing the river in skiffs of buffalo hide drawn together in ten minutes and propelled by a pole, while boys and girls ten years old can tell you of Indian fights on the plains around the town where now the wheat is green and the pure blooded Indian is as rarely to be found as the bones of the buffalo, with which, even then, the prairies were literally strewn.

"There is nothing like Pembina in all Dakota."

There is nothing like Pembina in all Dakota. Not more than a third of its population are native Americans. Many are Canadians, many are half-breeds, many are Icelanders, and I saw one Esquiman [Spanish for Eskimo...] Not only the city, but the entire county of Pembina, has been overrun by Canadians. They have filled the county below it also, and still they come day after day. There are a million acres in Pembina County and 700,000 of them at least are held by Canadians. They make the very best citizens. They have given such value to the land, have produced such results from it and have so conspicuously demonstrated its fertility, that the acres of this county are now the most expensive in all Dakota...There is no way of telling an English-speaking Canadian from a native-born American. They are just like the rest of us, and they receive from everybody the heartiest kind of a welcome. The half-breeds and Icelanders are marked. They possess inevitable peculiarities. The French half-breed is an Indian just touched with the fleur-de-lis. The Scotch half-breed is ever and foremost a Thistle, with a weakness for blankets and beads and moccasins. There is something strange about the effects produced by crossing of bloods. The French half-breed is silent, swift, watchful, sinister and he always goes armed. The Scotch half-breed is slow, calculating, canny, and he hunts dollars with an eagerness and a persistency that tell their own story. But both, no matter what the degree of swarthiness in their complexions may be, have the Indian eyes, the Indian hair, and the Indian walk. Neither is of any great account in such arduous labor as the subjugation of the wilderness calls for. They are both Indian enough to prefer the hunting ground to the ploughed field. They loaf around Pembina, harmless and useless, half their time, and spend the other half fishing in the Red River or following the smaller one in search of ducks and geese or chasing wilder and larger game over the woody marshes of Northern Minnesota. It is only once in awhile that they develop into dangerous characters, for the law reigns with a healthy and vigorous muscle in all Dakota, and men whose natural inclinations are bad keep good out of respect for the prejudices of the community.

But in the early days a bad half-breed was regarded with more awe than a bad Indian. The terrible deeds of "Yaller Vic" are still recounted in Pembina with bated breath. "Yaller Vic" was a composition of Winnipeg, French, and Red Lake Chippewa, and no good was ever known to come from this mixture of ferocity and devilment. He came to an untimely end at the hands of a Buckeye tenderfoot. The only man in Pembina of whom "Yaller Vic" stood in fear was a storekeeper who had secured the services of a greenhorn clerk from Ohio. The merchant, soon after the new clerk arrived, started off upon his annual trip to St. Paul. Before leaving he told his clerk to write him concerning the progress of some newly planted potatoes, and also instructed him that never, upon any account, should he permit "Yaller Vic" to set foot inside the store. He had been in St. Paul about a week when he received this letter: "Deer Sur: Yesterday 'Yaller Vic' come to the store an' stated fur to walk in. Sez I, 'Yaller Vic,' keep out.' Sez he, 'I wants to come in.' Sez I, 'It ain't ter be did.' Sez he, 'I'm coming in,' an' he come. I tuck the gun an' kilt him He's dead. Sales is good. JOHN. P.S. them tertaties is all rite."

Nothing I have ever heard of more clearly illustrates the weakness of codified law than the legal proceedings instituted to punish the murderer of "Yaller Vic." John's lawyer showed the coroner the statue holding that the principal was responsible for the acts of the agent, and under that appropriate rule John was discharged, and the coroner held his employer. But when the employer was arrested, he set up a alibi, and showed beyond question that at the time of the shooting he was in St. Louis buying goods. It remains to this day a mystery who was legally responsible for the killing of "Yaller Vic."
"I doubt if there is another spot in America where you can see four men on the street corners talking four different languages and each understanding the others."
The Icelanders contribute another interesting portion of Pembina's population. I doubt if there is another spot in America where you can see four men on the street corners talking four different languages and each understanding the others. It is a frequent thing in Pembina to hear a French half-breed, a full-blooded Cree, an Icelander and an American discussing human affairs each in his own tongue. The Icelanders are to be distinguished by their round shoulders. They always walk as if they were cold, with their shoulders drawn into a knot around their heads and their hands stuffed into their trousers' pockets. Nothing could be more sheepishly tranquil than the expression of their staid and sober faces. They chiefly contribute to the well-being of society as cooks. An Icelandic cook is described to be a great comfort. He doesn't want nights out. You don't have to regulate the number of clothes you wear by the fear of his displeasure at the size of the wash, and if he isn't all a "chef," at least he isn't all a tyrant.

To a sportsman, Pembina is a paradise. From year's end to year's end, game is plentiful. He can begin his duck shooting in the spring, and can have his pick of about twenty varieties of wild duck that flock in immense numbers upon the Pembina River. The mallard duck is especially abundant, though pintails and blue and gray teal are scarcely less so. There is no better goose shooting anywhere than within ten or twenty miles of Pembina. The gray goose, Canada brant and the wavy or snow goose are all to be found. A curious device for attracting the wavy geese at night is adopted by the ingenious hunters of this region. They obtained it from the Indians. They go to some spot to which the geese are known to resort, and there they build an immense fire. Presently, and almost invariably, a flock of wavies will come and circle around the fire, falling a quick pretty to the hunters' shotguns. Canada Geese frequently hatch in North Dakota, and when their eggs are put under a hen, the gosling may be easily domesticated. Ducks and geese are the only wild fowl available for the under at this time of year, but it will interest ornithologists to know that the birds of North Dakota, all of which can be obtained in this neighborhood, are numerous and varied enough to stock a museum. The bald eagle is seen constantly, especially along the Pembina River and around Devil's Lake...Golden and gray eagle, the osprey, kit and falcon are all native here, and specimens are found in many houses and in all the taxidermist establishments. The sandhill crane, wary and hard to get at, but excellent to eat when taken, the white crane, the night heron, and the bittern often appear along the Pembina. The largest Dakota bird is the whooping crane, a snow-white fowl that stand about five feet high. Owls are here in great numbers. The horned owl, often two feet long with a spread of wing of five feet, preys on every other bird except the bald eagle. Snow owls and round heads are also plentiful. It would form a long catalogue to enumerate all the smaller birds peculiar to this region. They include a score of rare species much prized by ornithologists.

The fishing season begins almost as soon as the waters open and continues almost until they close. Pike, pickerel, gold-eyes and sturgeon are to be caught so easily that a string of sixty or seventy fish is often taken with a single line in a single afternoon. Sixty-pound sturgeon and fifty-pound catfish revel in the Red River to the unbounded delight of fishermen. The prairie chicken season comes on about the middle of August and endures until the snow flies. What are called prairie chickens here are really pinnated grouse. The male bird is rather handsome and very wild. He has win-like feathers projecting from his neck. The prairie chicken, as they serve it here, is food for a king. Ruffed grouse, or partridges, as we call them in the East, are common, though not much sought for where chickens are so numerous.

But the game of game, the game that distinguishes this country above all others, East or West, North or South, is to be found about thirty miles from Pembina towards the Red Lake region. Here, still in great abundance, are moose, elk, caribou and deer. Several of the present residents of Pembina came here simply that they might be able to better gratify their taste for hunting. They spend a month or two on the plains every winter, starting out with the first good snow. One of these devoted sportsmen, whose home is stocked with specimens of his prowess, has reduced the hunt to a science. He goes out with a few selected companions in a well-built cabin, light in weight but tightly put together, which he sets on wheels. Fourth bronchos pull it to the hunting grounds, and a sufficiency of ponies trained to stand under fire, follow. The cabin is supplied with sleeping berths, kitchen utensils, and extra tents and a little stove, and under the bottom such essentials as coal, oil, ammunition and guns are stored in separate compartments. This hunter has been out ten seasons, and he never fails to bring back a goodly load of game. Every now and then a black bear appears, but the favorite game is moose. Eighteen of these noble beasts were shots last winter. Several have been taken alive. They weigh from 800 to 1300 pounds. Elk will weigh from 400 to 700 pounds, and reindeer from 300-450. The ordinary deer is especially beautiful. They are often found with a solid bunch of fat upon their sides. The largest band of moose seen recently number seventy-seven, but bands of from fifteen to thirty are met with every winter. If it were not for the miserable Indians, who kill them all summer long, they would multiply rapidly, but it is impossible to compel the Indians, under present conditions, to respect the law, and the result is a steady decrease of the larger game. There are some specimens in Pembina that the museums of the country ought to possess. A moose head is owned here with twenty-two prongs upon his lordly antlers.

From:  New York Tribune, May 26, 1889