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Sheep Drive From Kentucky from The Red River Settlement

by Alexander Ross

Manitoba Pageant, January 1960, Volume 5, Number 2

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

By 1832 the Red River Settlement was only twenty years old, even if we count its earliest infancy and the years of unproductive dispersion; but already many fine schemes and high hopes had been defeated by its isolation, immense distances, inhospitable climate, tenuous supply lines, and, not infrequently by human error and incompetence. Governor George Simpson of the Hudson's Bay Company who was tireless in promoting ambitious plans for the Colony's betterment, (such as the Buffalo Wool Company of the years 1821 to 1824) once said of it: "Red River is like a Libyan tiger, the more one tries to tame it the more savage it becomes."

Alexander Ross, author of the book from which this story is taken, was living in the Red River Settlement when the events recounted took place, and no doubt his narrative reflects the settlers attitude to this disaster.

Another account of these events may be found in Annals of Iowa Vol. XV, in an article by L. C. Sutherland entitled "Driving Sheep from Kentucky", which reproduces the diary of Robert Campbell, a participant in the drive.

"The history of Red River may be said to turn on a series of speculations. Notwithstanding the failure of his flax and hemp project, the Governor was still possessed with a desire to advance the interests of the colony, and at this period he again turned his attention to the introduction of sheep, which was always one of his most favourite designs. To this end he proposed the formation of a joint-stock association, in order to raise the sum of £1,200, to be laid out in the purchase of sheep from the United States, a plan which was embraced with great readiness, and the money as promptly raised. The Governor, on his part, generously offered to send Mr. Rae, a gentleman of the fur company, along with the adventurers, to superintend the business, and see the sheep brought safe to Red River; with him was associated, on the part of the colonists, Mr. Bourke, and the dissensions of these two leaders. as we shall see, ruined the undertaking.

These gentlemen, with only four men, crossed the wide desert to St. Peter's late in the fall of the year. From St. Peter's their course was directed to St. Louis, and from thence through the state of Missouri, where it was expected the sheep would be purchased, in which case the return home would have been comparatively easy. Here, how-ever, the leaders quarrelled. Mr. Rae was young, high-minded, active, and full of enterprise, but destitute of the experience which qualified his sagacious and equally stubborn colleague, whose haughty and overbearing demeanour was more than he could brook. The occasion of their rupture was as follows: On arriving in Missouri, the price of sheep was found to be from 5s. to 7s.6d. a head; but not being much of a sheep country, the people were so ill-advised as to demand of our travellers an advanced price of 10s. per head, it being rumoured abroad that they wanted as many sheep, perhaps, as the King of Moab rendered to the Israelites. Mr. Rae took offence at this attempt at extortion, as he considered it; and though the sheep were afterwards offered at 7s.6d. a head, he refused to deal with the Missourians, and was resolved to push on for Kentucky, a further distance of 450 miles. Remonstrance was in vain. To all that Mr. Bourke could urge on the score of increased difficulty in the transport of the flocks, and the other probabilities of mischance, Mr. Rae only whistled in reply, and went on his ill-starred course. After this little outbreak, Bourke scarcely interfered in the management of affairs during the whole journey.

Journey taken by agents of the Hudson's Bay Colonists 1832 - 1833.
Reproduced from Annals of Iowa Vol. XV.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

After a variety of adventures and loss of time, the party reached Kentucky, where the price of sheep differed little from that of the Missouri, being from 5s. to 7s. a head. Here the number was completed, say 1,475. But on their way back, as Mr. Bourke had remarked, they had to pay for pasture and keep every night, and not infrequently during the day, losing many sheep after all. On their way up the Mississippi another instance of their good management transpired. At a certain place they halted to clip or shear the sheep, and agreed with a person to give him all the wool at a stipulated price. The following day, at an hour fixed upon, the money was to have been paid and the wool delivered; but the individual not being able to raise the full amount agreed upon, the wool was ordered to be burnt on the spot, rather than sold for a cent less than the price bargained for. In the meantime a number of poor people had collected about the place, and made several offers for the wool, according to their means; their offers, however, falling short of the original valuation, were rejected with scorn, and the wool burnt.

By the time our friends got back to St. Peter's with their flock. they might, had they purchased on the Missouri, have been in Red River. The season was not only far advanced, but the weather excessively hot; and, under any circumstances, a journey of 1,500 miles must have been trying for the poor sheep, who are so much the more difficult to manage, as they want that instinctive apprehension of danger so peculiar to the deer and goat species. Nor were the actual dangers of the way of a trifling nature. As the party advanced over the trackless prairies, they had to force their way through oceans of thick and long grass, where a spark from a pipe, or the wad of a gun, would have sealed their doom. These parts likewise abound in a sort of grass, which, in its ripe state, has barbed and prickly points, like ears of barley; with these the sheep's hides got literally full, and by the action of their walking, they even penetrated their bodies, and caused death. The destructive effects of this fatal grass, aided by the fatigue and forced marching, caused the sheep to give up by tens and twenties every day.

It is sickening to relate, that every sheep which gave up was doomed to have its throat cut, by order of the chiefs who had been so unhappily trusted with their safety. In one morning only, while the party were at breakfast, the bloody knife settled the account of forty-four on the spot; Every now and then one or other of the men had to ride up to the conductor, who kept a long way ahead, with the news that so many of the sheep had given up. "Cut their throats and drive on," was the reply, without ever stopping or turning round his head. And although harassed with fatigue, as well as disabled by the cause we have alluded to, an hour or two rest was denied them. The managers were infatuated with the determination to get back with all possible speed to Red River, without the least regard to the lives of the sheep — nay, for one yard in advance, it mattered not if ten of those innocent lives were sacrificed. After all the cost and trouble, — when out of danger as we may say, and just on the eve of arriving, — these scenes of cruelty were persisted in, till at last, the men themselves becoming disgusted with the task, refused to use the knife any more; and the officials had to perform the delicate office themselves. At length, early in the autumn, and long before the fall weather set in, the party reached Red River, their flock reduced to 251 in number, of which many died after their arrival. From St. Peter's to Red River the road was marked for future travellers by upwards of 1,200 carcasses.

Page revised: 30 June 2009

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