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.