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.
620 hunters ( for the two months they would be away)
620 women (again for the two month period)
360 boys and girls
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.
- No buffalo hunting on Sunday.
- No one was to separate from the expedition.
- No one was to start before the general order
- Every captain was to patrol and guard the camp.
- For the first trespass of these rules, the offender was to have his saddle and bridle cut up.
- For the second offence, the offender’s coat was to be taken and cut up.
- For the third offence, the offender was to be flogged (whipped).
- 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.