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The Buffalo

by Hartwell Bowsfield

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1965, Volume 10, Number 3

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.

Before the white man explored and settled North America there were nearly 60 million buffalo in the area north from Mexico to Great Slave Lake and from Pennsylvania to the Rocky Mountains and without them not only the Indians but fur traders and settlers would have had a difficult time.

To the Indians the buffalo meant food, clothing and shelter. Its meat was a necessity for survival; its thick robe furnished covering and clothing against the bitter cold winter; its hide was used for teepees, boats; hair and bones furnished many articles of use and ornament. Without pemmican, the food made from buffalo meat, the fur trader would have been unable to travel the long distances required in his search for furs and early settlers in the Red River valley would have starved if the hunters had not been able to supply them with buffalo meat.

It was from the Indians that the white man learned the methods of hunting buffalo. Until they had horses and guns and could travel further in search of buffalo and kill them more easily the Indians hunted on foot and with bow and arrow. One method used before horses, some believe, was to set fire to the prairie grass all around a herd and kill the buffalo as they milled about.

Another way was to drive the buffalo into a corral or pound built of logs or brush. A few young men would approach a herd cautiously - very often going down on their hands and knees with a wolf skin draped over them - and start the herd moving in a desired direction but being careful not to frighten or stampede them. The buffalo would move ahead of the wolves and could be steered into the corral by other Indians along the route or through a long V shape entrance made of brush on each side of the herd for perhaps a distance of two miles. In the corral the buffalo would be speared or killed with bows and arrows. Sometimes the long V line would end at the top of an embankment or precipice over which the buffalo would be run and killed. At such places on the prairies even today can be found thick beds of buffalo bones. Hunting buffalo was so important to the Indian that it was strictly controlled and organized. No man was supposed to go out on his own for fear of frightening a herd away and after the hunt everyone in camp, men, women and children took part in skinning the animals and gathering and preparing the meat.

Alexander Ross, a fur trader who settled at Red River and wrote a history of the settlement, tells us in his book about a buffalo hunt in which he took part in 1840. In June of that year over 1600 people gathered at Pembina to take part in the hunt. The camp was formed in a great circle with over 1200 Red River carts placed around the outside of the camp to provide protection should unfriendly Indians such as the Sioux attack. The first step was to hold a council to nominate the officials of the hunt and install them in office.

Ten captains of the hunt, one of whom was senior captain, were named and each had ten soldiers or police under his orders. Then guides or scouts were appointed who in turn had the duty of guiding the expedition from day to day. While in office the guide was in charge of the camp flag which was hoisted on his cart at the head of the expedition. When it was time to break camp the flag was raised and when camp was to be prepared the flag was taken down. While the flag was up the guide was in charge of the whole expedition. Even the captains were subject to him and the soldiers were his messengers. But when the flag was lowered his functions ceased and the captains' duties commenced. They determined where and how to arrange the camp seeing that each cart moved into an appointed place and provided protection for the camp and the animals.

After the officers of the expedition had been selected another council of the captains and guides was held to lay down the rules to be observed during the hunt. Very strict rules and procedures were necessary to organize such a large group as participated in the 1840 hunt. Since a hunt might last from two weeks to a month each person had to know what his job was and a certain amount of policing was required. Some of the rules set down in 1840 were as follows: No buffalo were to be run on Sundays; No person was to run buffalo before the general order; Every captain in turn was to patrol the camp and keep guard. How important these rules were is indicated by the punishments outlined. For the first offence against the rules the offender was to have his saddle and bridle cut up; for the second his coat was cut up; for the third he was flogged. If a person was convicted of theft he was to be brought to the middle of the camp and a crier was to call his name three times adding the word "thief" each time.

The party which left Pembina in June 1840 travelled 250 miles south west before sighting any buffalo. 400 huntsmen took up a position in a line at one end of the camp while the captain with a spy glass watched the herd and surveyed the ground. On his signal the hunters started - first at a slow trot, then at a gallop, and finally at full speed. The herd was then about a mile and a half ahead but it was only when the hunters were within four or five hundred yards that the buffalo started to paw the ground and take flight. The fastest horses then darted forward, the hunters singling out the fattest buffalo for their first shots. They rode right into the herd firing only when within three or four yards. Immediately the well-trained horse would turn from the buffalo to avoid stumbling over it as it fell and the hunter continued on as the herd thundered across the plains. This type of run lasted for about two hours, a good horse and an experienced rider selecting and killing in that time from ten to twelve buffalo. Much, however, depended on the ground. Where there were many badger holes horses would fall, riders would be thrown and some perhaps gored by a buffalo bull. Alexander Ross tells us that 400 hunters accounted for 1375 buffalo on the first evening of the hunt in 1840. As soon as the hunters had left the camp on their run the carts prepared to follow. When the run was over the hunters joined the other members of the expedition in skinning and cutting up the buffalo meat. A big hunt such as Alexander Ross describes was staged twice a year and thousands of buffalo would be killed for the needs of the settlement and the fur trade.

The main purpose of such a hunt was to secure meat for making pemmican which was the ideal food supply for the fur trade. Provisions of pemmican made at certain points on the prairies were carried by the fur traders on their long journeys across the country and kept on hand at the many fur trading posts. Having a food supply with them which could be kept in all kinds of weather and remain good for long periods of time, fur traders were relieved of having to take time to hunt on their journeys or from starving should they be travelling in country where game was scarce. Not all buffalo meat, of course, was made into pemmican. Very often it would be used dry. The flesh was cut into thin slices and placed on a rack in the sun to dry or a small fire was built under the rack, the smoke from which gave a pleasant flavour to the meat. A pile of such slices would be made into a bale by tying them together with buffalo hide and such a bale of cured meat would keep for a year or longer. It could be eaten just as it was, boiled, or heated in front of a fire. Pounded meat was made by beating this dried meat with sticks until it was broken up into small bits, then stored in buffalo hide bags.

To make pemmican the meat of the buffalo was first cut up into large lumps and then into slices which were hung up to dry in the sun or over a fire. The dried meat was next placed on raw hides spread on the ground and beaten or pounded until it was much like a mash. Bags made of buffalo hide with the hair on the outside were half filled with this powdered meat, melted fat from the buffalo was then poured hot into the bag and the contents stirred until they were thoroughly mixed. From time to time the bag, after being sewn up tightly, would be turned so that the fat would not settle to the bottom and when fully cooled the pemmican would be a hard solid mass of about 90 pounds.

There were many ways of eating this food. It could be eaten just as it was without any cooking, a handful of pemmican being enough for a meal. It could be broken into pieces, mixed with flour and fried. It could be boiled or made into a soup. Or there were ways in which it could be more fancy such as having berries added when it was mixed in the bag. One kind of pemmican, known as rubaboo, was made by boiling it with potatoes or onions. Although such food was invaluable to the fur trade it was not always thought of as the most pleasant food and to our taste a very little would probably go a long way.

It is difficult to imagine but literally millions of buffalo were killed first by Indians, settlers and fur traders and then later by hunting expeditions organized for the mere pleasure of the buffalo hunt. With the exception of one herd of woodland buffalo in the almost inaccessible country south of Great Slave Lake, there was not a single buffalo left in Canada by 1900. Further destruction was inevitable as settlement moved west and as the railway line stretched across the country bringing increased numbers of big game hunters. Today such sporting and hunting expeditions are organized to kill game in Africa but in the late 19th century they were organized in the same way to hunt buffalo.

In 1907, the Dominion Government decided to purchase a number of the few remaining buffalo in the United States and place them in a reserve in western Canada. The herd from which these were obtained had been started back in 1873 when an Indian by the name of Walking Coyote captured four buffalo calves close to the Inter-national Boundary between Montana and Alberta and took them to the Flathead Indian reservation. By 1884 the little herd had grown to thirteen and were then sold to two cattlemen, Michel Pablo and C. A. Allard, who kept the herd together until it numbered many hundred.

The task of getting 700 buffalo from Montana to Alberta proved more difficult than expected and required three years of planning. First of all the buffalo had never been herded and the round up of a wild herd took place under the greatest difficulties. Although Pablo had hired the most experienced cowboys and the best horses in Montana the loss of men and the strain on the horses was so great that his original plan of herding had to be abandoned. Day after day these men and horses would surround the wild herd trying to drive the buffalo into corrals but in six weeks of daily drives they were successful only three times for the buffalo would invariably turn on the riders and charge. Pablo therefore turned to another plan. A special fence twenty-six miles long was built from the buffalo pasture grounds to a corral and along this fence the buffalo were slowly moved, loaded and shipped by special trains to Alberta, a distance of almost 1000 miles over five different railways. In Alberta a fenced reserve covering 200 square miles had been built where the buffalo were turned loose. Here in captivity the herd survived and thanks to the efforts of a small group of tireless cowboys Canada was able to assist in preserving the buffalo from extinction.

Page revised: 18 July 2009

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