The Spirit of Resistance 7

The aboriginal people of Canada have often been referred to as a “stone-age people” at the time of contact with the Europeans in the early seventeenth century. One might even perceive the buffalo hunt as being a demonstration of this, comparing it to the mammoth hunts of their ancestors.  Let us see how the hunt out of Selkirk went in July of 1840. The Métis and Scot half-breeds comprised nearly half the colony.  In spite of  their lack of property they “held themselves above all restraint”. One might assume they had inherited the aboriginal belief that the land could not be owned.

As soon as spring arrived, a type of mania took hold of the colony, with the hunters borrowing everything they would need for the hunt on the promise of payment after the hunt. This led to a system of  “long credit” which did not help the borrower or the lender. The hunt was much bigger than one would imagine, with some 1,630 “souls” travelling along with perhaps even a member of the British nobility, taking part in the “pleasures of the chase”.  Their was no distinction given them as they sat down to a dinner of fresh buffalo-steak.

Let us look at a list of supplies ( including employees)  purchased (again mostly on credit) by the hunters.
1210 carts
620 hunters ( for the two months they would be away)
620 women (again for the two month period)
360 boys and girls
740 guns
150 gallons of gunpowder
1300 pounds of trading balls
6240 gun flints
100 steel daggers
100 (skinning knives)
403 buffalo runners
655 cart horses
586 draught oxen
1210 sets of harness
403 riding saddles
403 bridles and whips
1240 scalping knives
448 half axes
Camp equipment ( tents, cooking equipment etc.)
Total-£24,000 (roughly $107,000 American in 1800)

Finally the entourage gathered on the open plain where a roll was called and rules for the journey were decided. Leaders for the trip were named as all the carts were placed side by side with the trams outward forming a circle. Within this circle, the tents were placed in double treble rows on one end and the animals were placed at the other end in front of the tents as protection against an attack by enemies, particularly the Sioux. They were followed by a  pack of 543 hungry dogs . The dogs were a necessity in the winter as sled dogs when the horses could not make it through the snow. The hunter would wrestle the dogs into their traces and then donning his wolf costume, throw himself on the sled to get among the herd where he would silently kill the buffalo with bow and arrow.

Once they were settled, 10 captains were chosen, one of them the head captain. Under these 10, were placed 10 soldiers and under these, 10 guides. The guides duties rotated by day and each carried the flag their day. It was raised every morning to signal the raising of camp. Half an hour was allowed to be ready to march but this could be delayed by circumstance. The guide controlled all that happened in camp by day but when the flag was lowered the captains and soldiers began their duties. Like clockwork, carts were guided into position.

By now, they had arrived at Pembina and were preparing to move further out onto the plain to find the buffalo. Rules were made for the hunt.

  1. No buffalo hunting on Sunday.
  2. No one was to separate from the expedition.
  3. No one was to start before the general order
  4. Every captain was to patrol and guard the camp.
  5. For the first trespass of these rules, the offender was to have his saddle and bridle cut up.
  6. For the second offence, the offender’s coat was to be taken and cut up.
  7. For the third offence, the offender was to be flogged (whipped).
  8. Any person convicted of theft of any kind, was to be brought to the middle of the camp and shamed by having his name called out followed by the word “Thief”.

Although the punishments seem a little mild, there were very few if any misdemeanors in the camp. A priest was always there to accompany the expedition.

A break to rest the animals might be taken during the day.  Again, the flag ruled. When it was raised you moved, when it was down you stopped. The general start and stop times would be half an hour, the distance traveled 20 miles in a day.  If anyone lagged behind, the captain and soldiers would chastise him but make sure his cart was in line quickly.

At the end of day the officials would gather somewhere away to discuss the days events and plan for the next day. Conversation would inevitably lead to politics at which point the men would exclaim against any type of control on their society. Were they not all great and free men, free to live the way they saw fit? The plains were their home. Later, wandering the camp, Ross came upon some of the families of these men and found them, to his great consternation bordering on destitution. He bemoaned the hunters lack of forethought, their “feast or famine” way of life.

There was no actual way of telling where the buffalo would be. The course would generally be to the southwest, where the sources of the rivers were. The party of 1840 would travel some 250 miles before they came within sight of the buffalo. In no time, 400 hunters were assembled and ready for the chase. Like an army charging, they would start at a trot but were soon racing towards the buffalo which did not notice them until they were four or five hundred yards away. By the time they took flight, the riders were among them, guns fired, the air was filled with clouds of dust. The earth quaked with the weight of the racing herd. The fattest cows were always the most desirable and only the fastest horses could get to them at the front of the herd. The hunter, his mouth full of  musket balls, loaded his gun as he road. The best horses were trained to jump aside after a shot to avoid tripping over the wounded animal.

The hunter wasted no time getting to the animal to skin and butcher it. Most were surprisingly able to identify their kill. He kept a vigilant eye out for the enemy, a lurking Sioux only too willing to take his scalp. If this did happen, men from the camp would pursue the culprits and bring them down. Many runners were gored by a bull. The day was short and this led to many carcasses being abandoned, a factor in the decimation of the bison. If it rained the meat would be ruined. When the men returned with the hides and meat the work of the women commenced and that work was very labor intensive. At this hunt, 2500 animals were killed but only the meat of 750 animals was processed.  The chase was the greater part of the attraction. Many continued to go hungry in spite of the large kill.

The group next traveled to Missouri where the Americans charged them more than double the Canadian price for whatever goods they fancied, including the whiskey forbidden for trade in Canada. Wherever the party stopped, they would continue drying the meat for the trip home and soon they were caught up in the animosities of the Sioux and Saulteaux. The Metis, by befriending the Saulteaux put themselves in danger but managed to get back to Pembina where the parties broke up for the trip home. Once they returned, the HBC took its agreed upon share and  the market for the farmers produce dropped . After he had paid a little to his debtors the hunter was content to live off of his own surplus until the next hunt.  I am going to venture and say that it is highly probable that many of my Daigneault and Cyr ancestors went out on the buffalo hunt.

The Spirit of Resistance 6

In his book, The Red River Settlement, It’s Rise, Progress, and Present State, Alexander Ross describes three classes of Metis people who frequented the settlement.   The highest were the buffalo hunters who naturally, through pemmican sales, could afford to equip themselves for the hunt. The hunters were followed by the fishermen who lived near the lakes, surviving on fish. The lowest class were extremely poor, lacking both means and ambition. You could find them trailing in the wake of the hunt looking for any kind of subsistence. Also among the lower class were the old voyageurs and orphans. The Metis were a wondering people flowing in from lands east of the Rockies, using the Red River area as a rendezvous point.

Ross gives us an amusing anecdote about travel with a friend where the party comes upon a log hut in the woods. The guide introduces them to a family within, a husband, wife, elder daughter and a four-year-old. On the floor, four men are asleep, travelers. There is no furniture except for the bed the girl is sleeping on. Soon the rain comes and the roof is torn off. The floor becomes covered with water. No one seems too upset.

The child goes over to the fire to light a pipe of tobacco for her mother. She hands it to her mother and commences suckling after which she cries for the pipe. It is duly filled and handed to her. She then passes it to her father who then passes it to the older girl. The family would like to offer tea but they have none. Ross supplies it and they drink cup after cup of strong black tea. There is no food for the fish are low so Ross supplies food as well. The family regales their guests with tales of their winter with the Assiniboines. There they worked all winter tanning hides and preparing provisions which they sold for the highly prized tea, a staple of their diet along with fish and tobacco.

Relying on the buffalo was not as noble and idyllic as media would have us believe. In December of 1826, winter storms drove the buffalo ever onward away from the hunters towards Pembina, North Dakota. The weather was so severe that it killed the horses and put the people on foot.  It took some time for news of the disaster to reach the settlement during which horses, dogs, and even shoe leather were eaten. Many were found crawling along in the snow but some were found buried or frozen trying to survive. On the heels of this disaster followed a terrible flood during the spring break-up where not only the waters rose but the ice along with it to sweep everything away. This ice traveled to Lake Winnipeg and collided with the ice there which created a back-flow. The community was ready to move on until suddenly the water fell. The price of available goods sky-rocketed. The De Meuron soldiers who had come to the colony to defend it, now sold the settlers own cows back to them for exorbitant prices.

When I was a child my father told me stories of the great flood that hit Winnipeg just years before I was born. He amused me by telling me how people were rowing boats and canoes past the windows of their house.

It is worth thinking about the community as a whole in this instance. The Scots willingly helped the less fortunate Metis during these times, just as the Metis helped them by providing pemmican when they first arrived.

The Spirit of Resistance 5

It is hard to say whether Selkirk had any real notion of the circumstances the Scottish settlers would find themselves in when they arrived on the banks of the Red River (modern-day Winnipeg) in 1812. The journey to that point had already been an arduous one. Not long after their arrival, they were met by men “painted, disfigured and dressed in the savage costume of the country”, employees of the Northwest Company who ordered them out.  These were the “half-breeds” French and Scots. A new colony would block the company’s trade route to the northwest.

The new settlers, already exhausted, decided to continue on to Pembina, 69 miles away in North Dakota. Soon, they were followed by a group of Metis offering to guide them but this time working under their own egis. The language we now know as “Michif” did not seem to hamper negotiations and a rigorous trade was done leaving many of the colonists bereft of prized possessions including wedding rings and family heirlooms. In Pembina, the winter was spent living on the “products of the chase”. The next year, since no crops had survived, they returned to Pembina. This time they were surprised at the selfish behavior of the Metis and had to barter away some of their clothing to survive. They did not return back to the colony much better off than when they had left.

Out of this desperate situation, the Pemmican Proclamation arose, denying any outside trading of goods that were brought into or were a product of the colony. including pemmican. This started a type of civil war between the “Norwesters”, largely Metis and the Hudson’s Bay Company. It later became known as the “Pemmican Wars”.  The trade in buffalo products would be curtailed, thus reducing the livelihood of the Metis. It became so bad that some of the colonists actually joined their enemies in order to survive. Hatred welled until their homes were eventually burned to the ground.

Under the leadership of an educated Scotch half-breed named Cuthbert Grant, an order was issued,  “All settlers to retire immediately from the River and no appearance of a colony to remain.” It was signed by Cuthbert Grant, Bostanais Pangman, William Shaw and Bonhomme Montour.

My 4th great grandfather, Dugald Cameron, whom I have mentioned previously was a very willing participant in all of the events leading up to the of the “Battle of Seven Oaks”.  Speaking the Gaelic tongue and using it to inspire dissension among the settlers, he sent many off to Canada (Quebec) with the promise of land and goods. The determination of the settlers was paid with violence and upheaval. Those that did not leave moved up to Norway House, then called Jack River. Cuthbert Grant seeing the way events were going, attempted to stop the bloodshed but most of the men with Robert Semple were shot down. There still remains controversy over who fired the first shot.  Among the list of casualties, we find Toissant Vaudry another 4th great-grandfather who lost an arm. Alexander Ross states that it would have been better if Semple had gone out to talk on his own instead of displaying arms. The battle called Lord Selkirk back to the colony with a group of disbanded soldiers known as the “de Meurons” and led to actions on his part for which he would pay dearly.

Among my ancestors who may have been part of the uprising would be Charles, Jean and Pierre Beauchamp, Jean Baptiste Lagimodiere, Toussaint Vaudry, Louis Cyr, Joseph Daigneault and of course John Dugal Cameron through his wife Marie Lesperance.

Quotes are from Alexander Ross “The Red River Settlement: It’s Rise, Progress and Present State, Published 1856

The Spirit of Resistance 3

We get a better picture of what our ancestors were like if we can place them in the context of their times.  The Metis people were primarily descendants of the French fur traders. The French fur traders were from Quebec, often listed as “Canada” but their families may have been there for only a few hundred years if that. The Quebecois were primarily of Norman origin and are famous for retaining the culture of their ancestors. That became a little harder to do when you came west. The country was a creation of vastness, sweeps of prairie grass as far as the eye could see, raging rivers roaring out of the mountains only to trickle down to a creek, crippling cold….

There were people who could not deal with the isolation and hardship. Few could make the return trip home. Many came to escape oppression or poverty and many died in the attempt, especially women and children, for the promise of freedom.

You may have grown up with immigrant grandparents who retained a heavy British accent which left you with a “twang” often mistaken for a Texas accent. That is a problem I had into my 30’s.  You may have strange and wonderful memories of relatives you never did get to know,  like the man with black braids and buckskin I saw mending the roof of my Metis grandmother’s house.

During the times of the fur trade wars and Metis rebellions, members of my family were present in Selkirk and St. Boniface, Manitoba.
From Spraque and Frye’s Genealogy of the First Metis Nation:
Table 1: Genealogies of Red River Households, 1818-1870
Jean Beauchamp and Angelique Pangman
Pierre Cyr and Marie Anne Lagimonier 1) Angeliqe Klyne 2)
Joseph Daigneault and Genevieve Cameron
Louis Cyr and Catherine Martineau
Roman Lagmoniere and Marie Vaudry
Dougal Cameron and Marie Lesperance 
Jean Baptiste Lagimoniere and Marie Anne Gaboury
Toussant Vaudry and Marie Anne Crebassa

Again, the Marie Anne Lagimonier above was Louis Riel Jr’s cousin as his mother was Julie Lagimoniere.

I think it is important to note that the Metis people were a distinct society, separate from the French and First Nations. Many people ask about the native people in your family but that track could have been very long ago at the start of the fur trade.  Only a few generations passed before mixed blood began to dominate and the fur traders actually married Metis women. The marriages began to be between Metis people themselves, although culturally, the buffalo hunt kept native tradition alive. Also, you may have been from a line where the father was a Scot and generally would have been termed a half-breed.

What were some of the cultural symbols of Metis society?

The Flag

An infinity symbol representing the future of the Metis people.  It was changed to red for the hunt.

The Red River Cart
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Built as a reliable means of transportation over rough ground and known for the high squeal of it’s wheels. It was an all wood construction. Trains would go out on the buffalo hunts to carry back hundreds of pounds of buffalo meat.

The Sash
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Worn over the left shoulder by women and around the waist (usually to hold a capote closed) by men.  The capote commonly made from a HBC blanket.

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Pemmican

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Dried buffalo meat mixed with berries which was a survival food for the native people, passed to the Metis who gained a livelihood from it. It became their main commerce for canoes travelling between forts. Later, the Selkirk settlers would also rely on it to survive. After the buffalo hunt, the women did all the work, skinning, tanning and curing meat.

Fiddle Music and Step Dancing

Here is a sample of  the music and dance of the Metis people from a town close to where my mother grew up Dauphin, Manitoba, Four Nations Square Dancers.