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A Buffalo Hunt

by Cornelius J. Jaenan

Manitoba Pageant, January 1964, Volume 9, 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.

Probably many of you have wondered what it would be like to go on a buffalo hunt. Although we cannot enjoy such an exciting experience today we can, nevertheless, imagine some of the suspense and daring that were part of a hunt in the "early days". Rev. George Antoine Belmont (1803-1874) has left us a very vivid description of a buffalo hunt and I would like to share some of his thrilling paragraphs with you.

My dear Friend,

I can now describe to you from personal experience the buffalo hunting carried on by the inhabitants of our country, having been able to accompany them on one of their excursions. I must, by way of introduction, explain to you that the autumn hunt is always the one in which there are fewest hunters and this for the following reasons. A party of half-breeds who have not the means of wintering in the colony, scatters about in all directions, counting for subsistence during the rigorous season, upon the chase of the deer, the elk and the bear; others, who hope to gain more in hunting fur-bearing animals than in hunting the buffalo, follow, with this object, the course of the rivers and the shores of the lakes so that only one-third of the men form the autumn hunting party ..." [1]

Father Belmont tells us also that the summer hunt of 1845 had been a very disappointing one. In any case, in early September preparations got underway at St. Boniface and at White Horse Plains. The priest himself was among the last to leave White Horse Plains (St. Francois-Xavier) on September 9th. Three days later, he reached the agreed rendezvous on the Pembina River. On the way he had been caught in a terrible thunderstorm and said that, although he had been "violently shocked by the electricity of the Supreme Physician", his horse had suffered even more and had "remained stupefied for several days". On September 14, the guides were named (the camp was always highly organized, as was the hunt itself), the carts were loaded and the march begun.

The carts, to the number of two hundred and thirteen, advanced in three columns, some being drawn by oxen and others by horses. They formed lines much longer than would be first imagined if one did not know that to each of these conveyances are attached shafts of from fifteen to eighteen feet in length.

In addition some horsemen dispersed in all directions and disappeared in the distance, only coming back in the evening to the place indicated in advance for the camp. Like skilful sailors, these children of the prairies march for days through hills and valleys which, to the eye of the stranger, offer nothing distinctive, and they arrive in the evening, sometimes in complete darkness, precisely at the point indicated.

On the evening of the first day's march two scouts failed to return. By ten o'oclock the following morning they had rejoined the main party bringing with them fresh buffalo meat. The priest noted that this meat had "the consistency of leather" and that quite a number of the half-breeds suffered from "beef-sickness" (probably indigestion) as a result of eating it.

Each day thereafter small herds of buffalo were encountered and the half-breeds never failed to attack them. The great lumbering bisons ignored the hunters until these were within two or three rods of them and then "some threw into the air eddies of dust with their front hoofs; others rolled on the ground like horses, then, with the agility of a hare, they sprang up quickly". The animals dashed off wildly once the fifty-five hunters spurred their horses and charged them. The hunters, according to the astonished Belmont, were not only excellent marksmen but also amazing riders:

The rapidity with which they fire their guns is astonishing. It is not rare to see three buffalo brought down by the same hunter within the distance of fifty rods. Some fire as many as five times while their horses are traversing this distance at a run. This is their way of charging. Only the first bullet is rammed home; for the others they cap, pour in the powder, then, having the mouth full of balls, they let one of them fall into the gun; the saliva makes it stick to the powder in the bottom of the barrel. The horse, however, is abandoned to his own devices; but he is so well trained that when his master leans from one side to the other he understands it and obeys instantly.

After the first course, which lasted about a half hour, I counted one hundred and sixty-nine cows. We camped near this place. The next morning in another course one hundred and seventy-seven were brought down. The third day several horsemen rested; those who did hunt brought back to camp one hundred and fourteen cows; the fourth day one hundred and sixty-eight cows were killed. In all there were 628 cows. One might be induced to believe that we must have had enough load for 213 carts; nevertheless, much more was necessary than we had, for a large part of the meat is lost by the way they have here of cutting up and preparing the bison meat ...

Belmont gives us to understand that there were a number of dangers connected with running the buffalo in this way. Perhaps his most alarming comment concerns the cranes which some of the half-breeds shot. One of these cranes (which he said were abundant) had a wing spread of eight feet three inches. His description of it runs as follows:

This bird, the flesh of which tastes bad, is abundant in this part of the country. It feeds on roots which it digs out of the ground and pulls up with its bill. When wounded it becomes a redoubtable adversary. Raising its head to the height of a man, it pursues in its turn the huntsman and tries to pluck out his eyes. It has happened that young savages have had their bellies pierced and their intestines devoured by this ferocious bird.

The more usual dangers came from the buffalo. Once the animals were chased they could become quite aroused and would turn on horses and riders from time to time. Belmont was impressed by the bulls "furiously tearing up the ground or pawing it with their front hoofs" and was even a bit frightened by the fact that "under a bristling tuft of hair their eyes sparkle with rage". The animals always ran together when attacked and the bulls tended to form a solid guard around the cows. Since it was the cows that the hunters were especially after, it was necessary to break through "the compact phalanx of the bulls". Here, Belmont believed, lay the greatest danger of all.

"During last summer's hunt, one savage, thrown far from his horse which a bull had overturned, was a quarter of an hour the toy of one of these furious animals. Fleeing all the time at a run, he tossed the unfortunate hunter again and again fifteen or twenty feet in the air, always catching him on his horns. To give a feeble idea of the immense strength of these animals, it suffices to tell that one of them, happening to pass through the line of carts, threw himself on one of them and with one toss of his horns he made it turn over two or three times. Now, this vehicle, drawn by a horse, carried a load of more than a thousand pounds."

So, although we had no bullfights in Manitoba we certainly had the action, excitement and danger that one associates with such a sport.

Another danger that Father Belmont mentions is the possibility of a hunter being shot. His letter continues:

Fired from every side, they whistled about in a terrifying manner in the midst of the whirlwinds of dust which do not permit one to see anything at ten paces distant. Recently, in one of these hunts, one man had his belly pierced by a bullet. Fortunately, the wound was not mortal. On another occasion, the bullet pierced the hood, the shirt, the skin and the flesh of a hunter and was arrested by a rib ...

Nothing quite equalled running a buffalo herd over some steep embankment. No modern football match or hockey game could provide quite the same thrill to the participants. Belmont saw one such incident and describes it in language befitting a war correspondent:

Having started in pursuit of a numerous band of cows, they were at the very height of their ardor and speed when they arrived, pell-mell with these animals, on the top of a bluff, strewn with rocks, where cows, horses and horsemen were overturned and rolled about in such confusion that one can hardly see how any of them escaped being killed on the spot, either dashed against the stones or crushed by those who were following. One man, only, lost consciousness but soon regained his senses; two horses got up limping and a few cows had their legs broken. The unhorsed riders picked themselves up, uttering cries of joy to reassure their comrades and started again in pursuit, cracking their whips, in order thus better to make up the lost time; for, as may be imagined, the cows had not been waiting for them.

As the hunters chased the fleeing animals across the level prairies the priest was moved to join them. The excitement had proved so great he could not resist joining in too:

... I dashed into the midst of the hunters and brought down a cow. I was satisfied with that, although I felt myself tempted to go farther; but I had no reason at all to expose myself to danger and reproach.

Photo: Sled dogs attacking a buffalo; a Rindisbacher painting. Courtesy: Provincial Archives.

He did not feel that it was a good idea for a priest to engage in much hunting. After all, that was not the reason he had joined the hunting party. He had come along to help maintain discipline and order, to teach the children and provide religious services each day. The half-breeds seemed to feel that it was a good idea to have a priest along on the hunt too. But let us allow Father Belmont to tell us himself about these things:

We numbered in all 309 souls; I had catechised regularly 68 children; mass was said every day; God was served and glorified by the union that reigned among all the members of our little community. Twice the prairie had gotten on fire and each time providential rain had fallen to extinguish it. Full of gratitude, we were coming back, each one returning thanks to God for the good fortune they had had to be accompanied by one of their pastors; for it was to his influence that they ascribed the enormous loads that they were carrying back.

Would you not have liked to go on such a buffalo hunt? Just imagine - you would not have missed any school either because the teacher went too!

Notes

1. O. G. Libby, ed., Collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (Grand Forks, 1923), Vol. V, p. 134 ff.

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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