The Waning Herds
The last of the buffalo hunters tells his story of a North-West in the making
I LEFT St. Boniface at eighteen years of age to go west, buffalo hunting. I joined a trading party. I was hired to a man called Joseph MacKay, who had ten Red River carts and fifteen horses in his outfit. Mackay got his goods from Bannatyne, a big merchant at that time at Fort Garry. Bannatyne was an Englishman.
We packed everything in those ten carts and left Fort Garry on September 10, 1862. We came to a place called St. François Xavier, eighteen miles from Fort Garry, coming west. That was our first day. This place was MacKay's headquarters. He was staying with his father-in-law, Pierre Poltras. We stayed there for two days, fixing up things for the trip. On the third day we hitched up and travelled as far as Portage la Prairie. That was a distance of forty-two miles from St. François Xavier.
We generally travelled all day without stopping, except for two hours at noon to rest and to feed our horses. When we were in a settlement we bought fresh meat, but on the prairie we ate pemmicanbuffalo steak jxmnded with fat — and dried buffalo meat. The two women in the party did the cooking. They made fine bannock by mixing flour, water, and baking powder together, and cooking it in frying pans before an open fire. We carried butter in jars. and. of course, we had plenty of tea and sugar. Sometimes we could get potatoes at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s posts.
There were in our party Trader MacKay, his wife and little boy, MacKay's brother-in-law and his wife, and myself. Well, we traveil«! to MacKay’s headquarters at Big Stone Lake, near Victoria Mission—this was northeast of Edmonton and put up there for the winter. It took us nearly thirty days to make the trip.
MacKay's supply consisted of tobacco, tea, sugar, powder, shot, small bullets, Hudson’s Bay blankets, all kinds of prints and cottons, lots of vermilion, axes, butcher knives, files, copper kettles, guns, and lots and lots of alcohol.
We took in trade at that time buffalo robes, all kinds of furs— fox, wolf, beaver, otter, badger, skunk. Now, I want to buy a robe from an Indian. I examine it. I turn it over. If it is a gcxxl robe, I tell the Indian that it is a good robe, and that I will give him pee-ack-teap-sh (I am speaking Cree). That meant about $1 for a good buffalo robe. If it was not a gcxxl robe, I would not pay that much.
For one buffalo robe valued at $1.25 we gave in trade one pound of tea. which cost 25c at Fort Garry, and half a pound of sugar which cost 5c.
In trading with the Indians, we sold our tea for $1 a pound, sugar for 50c a pound, and T and B tobacco (four plugs to the pound) one big plug for $1. This tobacco cost, in Fort Garry, 80c a pound.
Any kind of print or cotton measured to the extension of the arms, approximately two yards, and which cost 10c a yard, we sold for $1 a yard. For powder that cost forty cents a pound by the keg—two little tin dipperfuls made a pound—we got SI a pound. Bullets that cost $2.50 for a twenty-five pound sack, we sold at the rate of ten for 50c.
We had different sizes of Hudson’s Bay copper kettles. If an Indian wanted a kettle, we would ask what size, how many gallons. The gallon size was priced at $1.50, the twogallon size at $3, and so on. Vermilion was pretty dear. We would take a knife, dip it into the tin of vermilion, and what we amid hold on the tip of it was worth 25c. (Later, when I traded for myself, I kept a teaspoon in my vermilion box
and gave a teaspoon fui for 25c). A pound of vermilion cost 80c wholesale. Butcher knives cost $2.50 a dozen. We sold the large ones for $2 each, the smaller ones for $1.75, and so on down.
An Incident at Boggy Creek
WHEN we got to Big Stone Lake, the boss decided to go buffalo hunting to get our winter’s supply of meat. So we made preparations and started.
We made for Father Lacombe’s Mission Station on the north branch of the Saskatchewan River. Father Lacombe had one of those Hudson’s Bay York boats. We planned to borrow it to transport our supplies across the Saskatchewan River. Father Lacombe was away, but his man, an Indian, lent us the boat. Those boats were very heavy. It generally took seven men to handle one. We took all our supplies across on this boat.
Now, we had to cross our carts. We tied each cart to a horse's tail, then made him swim the river and cross the cart. This is how we did it. We did not use rope—that would not have been strong enough—but shaggannappi, which is a thong made out of green buffalo hide. It was very strong and pliable.
I took my horse and tied one big knot at the end of his tail; then I took my shaggannappi and twisted it twice around the tail just above and around the knot, and fasten«! it with a slip knot. I fastened the other end of the shaggannappi to the pole of the cart, then drove my horse into the river. When he got to the other side, the men slipped the knot off his tail and let him go. The men pulled the cart up the bank. The river here was a little more than a quarter of
a mile across. We had five carts of our own, but there were in all twenty carts, as other hunters had joined our party. We put all the carts across the river in this way.
Mere is a little story and it is a true one. It was told me by Archibald MacDonald, chief Hudson’s Bay factor at Fort Qu’Appelle. About sixteen years after I crossed the Saskatchewan River in this way, he was driving to Fort Garry in a buckboard drawn by two horses. About eight miles this side of Portage la Prairie, at a place called Boggy Creek, he saw, as he went down the hill, a pair of horses attached to a wagon stuck in the creek.
MacDonald called to the man and urged him to try the horses again, but the traveller replied that he was tired trying. MacDonald said he would help him. The man had very light whifiletrees, so MacDonald threw a long shaggannappi to him and told him to tie one end of it to the tongue of his wagon.
“Now, I will tie the other end to the tail of my horse, and he will pull you out,” said MacDonald.
"Tie it to his tail ! I never heard of such a fool that would want a horse to pull with his tail,” exclaimed the man.
“Do as I tell you,” advised MacDonald, “and we will see who is the fool.”
The traveller fastened the shaggannappi as directed, tied it twice around the tongue of his wagon, and made a slip knot.
“Now, take your reins, back your horses a little, and when I tell you to command them, you will command them. Go!” shouted MacDonald, and away the wagon went out of the slough and up the hill. The man thanked MacDonald for taking him and his family out of the creek.
We were now across the river on the south side of the north branch of the Saskatchewan. We were travelling southwest in the direction of the Rockies.
We hitched up our horses. We had now about twenty carts in the brigade, a man to each cart. We travelled for two days, but saw no sign of buffalo. We were getting anxious, as we hadn’t much grub with us. But just then one of our scouts, who had started out very early in the morning on the lookout for buffalo, sighted a cow. which he shot and skinned. The carcass he brought back to camp on his horse before we were up.
We soon dressed. Each man was given a piece of buffalo meat, which he cooked for his breakfast. W’e made a big feast. The buffalo scout said that as this had been a
lone buffalo, he had shot it. Had he seen a herd, he would not have fired. A shot would have started a stampede.
The next day we came across a buffalo herd, a small one, and each man that had a buffalo horse— that is, a fast runner, one that can run a half-mile a minute—got on its back and chased buffalo. There were fifty or sixty in the herd, and out of these we killed forty-five. We used single and double barrelled guns, and loaded our guns as we rode. I was delighted, as this was my first buffalo hunt. We skinned the buffalo, cut up the meat and packed it in our carts.
Swimming an Icy River
THE NEXT morning we started back home. We had enough meat for the winter. It was now two or three weeks since we had left our headquarters at Big Stone Dike. It was the beginning of November and very cold.
When we reached Incombe, we camped on the edge of the river opposite the Mission. The trouble now was how to get across, because there was ice in big pieces floating on the current. The York boat in which we had crossed the river was now on the north side. There was only an Indian at the Mission—Father Lacombe was still away—and there was no man within a distance of fifty miles to help him cross the boat.
We rested beside the river that day. About dinner time the next day, I asked my boss, MacKay—he was a kind of lightheaded man and I didn’t want him to get crazy—if he had a horse that could swim as well as a man. He replied that he had a horse that was a good swimmer, and asked what was I going to do. I told him that I would swim the
river with the horse. He didn't want me to do that, he said : but I answered that I would rather risk my life swimming than stay with a crazy man. Then I asked him to have the boy bring the horse.
While the boy was gone, I put on very light clothes, lapjxid the tops of my moccasins over the lx>ttoms of my pants, and tied them down fast. I belted myself tight. Then 1 til'd a red cotton handkerchief over my head, jumped on the back of the horse and ran right into the river.
When the horse began to swim, I threw myself on the east side of him. With my right hand I held fast to his mane, and with my left I pushed the big floating pieces of ice away from his back. I kicked out with my legs and swam with all my strength. The horse was a great swimmer. He held his head and neck out of the water up to his shoulders. I íe was cold and swam fast. When we got to the other side, the Indian at the Mission took me into the house and gave me a well-sweetened cup of tea that he had made ready. He also gave me a piece of pemmican, into which Saskatoon berries had been pounded. He lent me Father Lacombe’s clothes to wear until mine got dry.
When I got well warmed, we started to take the York boat across the river. It was hard work for twro men. but we got it across. When I got out of the boat, I asked my boss how he liked that. He replied that he never expected to see another man do what I had done.
We crossed our baggage, meat and stuff on the boat. We left our carts on the bank of the river until freeze-up, when we could get them across easily. The others we tied to the tails of our horses and sent them swimming across the river. Then we went back to Big Stone I-ake. We had a house rented from a half-breed named Ka-pa-tooch who had two wives. He was a man that had no religion.
That winter my boss sent me out on a trading trip. He fitted up two dog trains, four dogs on each train, and gave me an outfit of $250 worth of grxxls, some dried meat and pemmican. I had my
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dogs well harnessed, plenty of bells on them and ribbons flying all over. These dogs were of common breed—we could not get Eskimo dogs but they were strong. Each dog could pull 600 pounds weight and race with it. I had a young Indian driving one team. We went pretty fast over the plains. Sometimes we would ride on the sleigh, and sometimes we would run beside or behind it.
South of what is now Edmonton, we came to a big camp of Indians. The band saw' us coming, and ont* of the headmen came out to invite us to trade in this camp, which was Poundmaker’s.
1 did not know' much about the Indians at that time, but MacKay had told me: “When you get to an Indian camp they will give you a tent for yourself always— the first thing you do is to give them a little tea, sugar and tobacco. Then they will make tea, smoke, visit, and tell each other that they ought to trade with you.”
Well, I did so. Soon the Indians began to come, the headmen, the squaws, the children. They drank tea. They brought their furs. We began to trade.
That was not a very good year for robes as the buffalo were beginning to get scarce, but all the same 1 made a good trade. I think I must have taken out of that camp twenty-two buffalo robes, and I took w'hat you call ten wolf skins—not coyote, but regular prairie wolf —five red foxes, also some dried meat and pemmican. The furs alone were valued at $300. My boss had given me an outfit of $250, but I tell you it did not take much gxxls to total $250 in those days. The prices of the goods were big, the prices for the furs small.
1 spent two days trading in Poundmaker’s camp. Poundmaker’s own tent w'as very large. It was conical in shajx, and tx)k sixteen buffalo hides to cover it. The buffalo skins were well tanned, and well decorated with strips, figures and animals. In his tent he had seven people— his own family.
There were about sixty tents, or lodges, in Poundmaker’s whole brigade. The Indians were mixed. There were some Crees, a few Assiniboines but very few, and a few Chipewyans. The Indians were always mixed in those big camps. Poundmaker himself was a Cree, but he had a little mixed blood. I will explain. There were two trilx's of Crees -the Crees, those having pure blood, and the Little Crees, those having mixed blood. I know that much alxmt Poundmaker. He was a little related to me by one of my grandfathers on my deceased wife’s side André Trottier, who was my wife’s grandfather.
Poundmaker was very quiet. He never visited the tents of his brigade unless he was invited. He did not come to trade himself.
I did business with his headmen, w ho called me Wa-ka-ko-chick. which meant "Turnedup Nose.” Poundmaker was a man of goxl judgment. He was well liked by his men, and that was everything. They had confidence in him. and were contented.
When I got back to headquarters, my boss said we had better balance our account to see whether I was in the hole or not. He had given me $250 worth of gtxxis, and 1 had brought back $360 worth of furs, which sold later in Fort Garry for a smart figure. MacKay was satisfied with my trade. He said :
"Welsh, 1 thought I was a g<xxl trader, but I see that you are going to beat me.”
Slaughter in a Hut
T-JERE is a story about some Crees that belonged to Poundmaker s territory, although not to his band. First, I will explain how the Indians of long ago used to track each other. When they saw tracks of an enemy in the snow, they stepjxd them out to see how fast he could walk or run. Then they knew whether they could catch him or not. These Crees had seen the tracks of a Black foot, so early one morning seven of them went on the warpath. On the third day from camp they came to a big butte.
and when they got to the top they saw coming toward them on the trail that led over the top of the butte, seven Blackfeet.
By and by the Blackfeet saw their enemies. Quick as lightning, they jumped into a kind of den. a sod fort without a roof.
Now the leader of these Crees was Ka-me-na-kouch. I le was a regular brave. I knew him wrell. 1 used to trade with him and he told me the story. He had only one eye. The Black feet had knocked out the other one. Ka-me-na-kouch told his men that they had the Blackfeet trapped and there was no sense in seven Crees dirtying their hands on them, and asked them to let him do the butchering. Well, this was hard on the others, but they had to listen to Ka-me-na-kouch because he was their leader. They agreed.
Ka-me-na-kouch took off all his clothes except his moccasins. It was winter, remember. Now he painted his body properly. I le used several colors of paint and decorated himself well. He took a fox skin that he carried, doubled it. and tied it around his neck. Then he took a string of small sleigh bells that he had with him, tied it around his w aist and let the end hang. Now he took a big knife the Hudson’s Bay Company used to sell those knives; they were used more for an axe than a knife —and went off to the den, singing his w ar song.
In Black foot he said to his enemies:
“Be aware of yourselves now. I’m going to give you fair play. I’m going to butcher you ail.”
I íe walked to the hut, hit his heels against it, and jum|x*d in among the Blackfeet. He butchered them all. They were so scared that they never touched him. He had scared them with his big knife. Now he called to his men, and asked each one to come and take a scalp. They did. After that, the Blackfeet called him Ka-me-nako-ye. which means “Tough Nut.”
ín the spring we went back to Fort Garry. Now I was not satisfied to continue working for another man. I wanted to work for myself. I was anxious to return again to the plains.
Toward the end of August, when the brigades were outfitting for the West, a man named Bobbie Tait, a Scotch halfbreed, asked me how I would like to take another hunting and trading trip to the plains for the winter. I told him that if he would give me good pay I would go; if not, I wouldn’t. I íe asked how $250 for the season, August 1 to May 1, would catch me. Everything found, board and all. I told him that his offer sounded good if he would keep his word. (He hadn't a very good reputation for keeping his word) Weil, he offered to give me a big outfit of goods and alcohol— lots of alcohol. Let me explain here that when I sell alcohol to an Indian, I take one gallon of alcohol and put two gallons of water into it. That makes it just gxxl for the Indians.
Tait said that since I had been out trading before, he would make me head man over the stock. I knew he was rather crooked and was afraid of him, so I asked him if he knew what responsibility that would throw on me. I le answered :
“Ho! I'll send my brother with you to keep your accounts. As well. I’ll send François Sauvé, and his wife and son. Sauvé will look after the outside work, mind the horses, get the wood, and do all the chores. His wife will keep house.”
I asked him to let me consider this offer, and promised to give him my answer in two days. I considered. I thought I would not lx' able to make that much money in Fort Garry, so 1 decided to accept Tait's offer. We drew up an agreement and signed it.
Alcohol For Robes
V\7E PACKED Bobbie Tait’s outfit on W twelve Red River carts and started from St. James for the Northwest. I think we must have had $2.000 worth of gcxxls, including alcohol. We started about the last
of August, 1863, and travelled to the Saskatchewan country, to a place called Round Plains (now Dundurn i along the south branch of the Saskatchewan River.
We got there pretty late, about the last of October. We made up our minds to make this place our headquarters for the season. Now I said to our two men—of course, I was the head man—that there was a brigade of Crees going to hunt buffalo across the Saskatchewan to the west. The river at that point lay a little north and a little east.
I told Charlie Tait that I wanted him to go hunting with the Indians, while I stayed and put up a house for the winter. He said he wouldn’t go, and when I asked him if he was the boss he didn’t answer.
Then I asked Sauvé, the other man in the party—he was my mother’s brother—if he would go buffalo hunting if I gave him a grxxJ active Indian to help him in the tent. He answered that he was just going to offer to go. I found a good Indian to help him, and got them across the river with the Indian brigade. I made up my mind that, as long as Charlie Tait would not do what I wanted him to do, I would make the beggar work. He was a big man but lazy; no heart in him.
The first thing I did now was to build a storehouse out of logs, into which I put all my goods and locked it up. Then I built a house and put all our property, clothes and housekeeping things, into it. We did not sleep in this house as it had no chimney or place to make a fire. We slept outside.
One day, after we had been there for two or three days, an Indian galloped up to my tent. He rode a fine horse. He was well painted with vermilion and finely dressed in buckskins. His saddle was well decorated with beads. He looked very flashy.
I spoke to him in Cree, asked him where he had come from, and what he wanted. He shook his head and answered in Assiniboine that he did not understand Cree. We S}X)ke in Assiniboine. He told me that he and his band of ten tents were going to camp on the top of the hill. In these ten tents there would be between forty and fifty Indians. It was the chief of the band that I was talking to, but I did not know it.
I found out by cross-questioning him that his name was Hoo-hoo-sish, “Little Owl.” I asked him what he wanted. He replied that he wanted to trade, and wanted to know if I was a trader. I replied that I was, and asked him what he needed. It was tea, sugar, tobacco, prints, blankets, and lots of other things alcohol as well, he answered. He said that he had lots of furs to sell. 1 told him I would trade with him. He said that he would go and tell his people that I had lots of stuff. He went back to his tents.
Well, soon another Indian came with a couple of buffalo robes. I asked him what he wanted for them. I íe had a copper kettle in his hand. I knew what that meant. It meant alcohol. He said:
“For one robe give me tea, sugar and tobacco. And for the other robe, you will give me alcohol.”
I bought the two robes. I filled his kettle, which held a gallon, more than half full of alcohol, and away he went.
By and by another Indian came with two robes. He wanted all alcohol for them. He carried a Hudson’s Bay copper kettle that held two gallons. I took the robes and examined them. I thought, “I will pay him pretty well for these robes. That will encourage the other Indians to come with their furs.” He clapped me on the back and said I was a good man, that I had given him lots of alcohol. He went away.
Soon I heard the Indians singing in their camp. They were getting pretty gay. Pretty soon four Indians came, bringing four buffalo robes. The trading went on for three days. Then an Indian from another band came and offered himself to me as my protector, my guardian. He said that as I had a lot of stock it would be wise to have him take care of me. Now, I could not understand or
speak Assiniboine very well, so I decided to take this Indian to teach me.
At the end of the third day. about noon, another Indian from HooHoo-sish's band came along with a gallon kettle. He said that the chief had sent the kettle and wanted me to fill it for him. I asked him where his robe was. He replied that they had sold all the robes that were worth selling; now they wanted me to fill the kettle with alcohol and give it to them for nothing.
I fixed a well diluted kettle of alcohol and gave it to him, then I told him not to come again and ask me for alcohol for nothing; that I must have robes for my alcohol.
After a while I saw the chief coming down the hill with three or four of his men. Just before that, I had given my Cree protector a good glass of alcohol to coax him, because I knew that we were going to have trouble with the Assiniboines. But I had given him a little too much. He got lightheaded. He couldn’t stand his liquor.
A Demonstration of Courage
THE CHIEF came into my house and said that he wanted me to fill his kettle with alcohol. I asked him for his robe. He said that he had none. When I told him that I would give him no more alcohol for nothing, he said:
“If you don’t give me a kettle of alcohol I’ll destroy all the robes I sold you, cut them all to pieces.”
I told him to go ahead. He pulled out a long butcher knife, and from where he stood at tlie door made a stab at a halfbreed that was visiting me. My guardian caught at the knife blade, which gashed his hand and sent the blood spattering about the house.
At this I jumped between the chief and my guardian to separate them. They were struggling for possession of the knife. I got my guardian off, shook him, and asked iiim if he was crazy. He said that he had never had a man talk to him like that before, and threatened to cut me to pieces. I told him to go ahead. At this he pulled out his butcher knife and made a plunge at me. I stood where I was to show the Indians that I did not fear them. They respected a brave man. I let him slash my shirt until it hung in ribbons from my collar. The knife gashed my chest and shoulder; I carry the scars to this day. I had had about enough of this.
There was a green poplar stick lying within reach on the floor and, knowing the Indian’s fear and superstition of being hit by a stick, I grabbed it and yelled to the beggars to clear out of the house because I was going to kill them all. They turned and fled, falling over each other as they ran. About thirty Indians had gathered in and around my house, but they all cleared out.
I dressed my wounds and put on another shirt. I was afraid now that the Indians would come back in larger numbers. I had no protection. I was alone, for as soon as he saw the excited Indians, Charlie Tait had run away and hidden. - I felt tired and hungry, for I had not had anything to eat all day. I had been too busy trading and working with the Indians. It was now nearly dark. I boiled my copper kettle, made tea. and got out some dried meat and marrow fat. I had a combination dinner and supper. Everything was quiet now.
I went to bed about eleven o’clock and fell asleep. About twelve o’clock Charlie Tait came back and wanted to know if I had had anything to eat. I told him that I had. but there was nothing for him. I fell asleep again. Then I awoke to hear an Indian singing his war song outside my tent. I thought, “Is he coming back again?” I had recognized my guardian’s voice. Remember I had two forty-gallon barrels of alcohol; about three hundred gallons, mixed. My guardian began to sing:
Y a -ya -ya -ya -ya -ya k iko-chick na-pa-ka-
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This meant that “Tumed-up Nose is a brave man and a wonderful man.” Now, you must understand that we had a parchment door. It was a well-scraped buffalo hide, stretched on a frame to fit the door. It shone like a looking glass. Well, I heard a rap on this parchment. When my caller
didn’t force the door, I knew he had come in peace. I jumped up and asked in Cree who was there. He replied that he was my protector, and continued that he wanted to come in.
I opened the door and he came in. On his back he carried a big bundle. His wife came in, too. with a big bundle. They went to the
middle of the room and laid their bundles on the floor. Then my guardian said:
“lam going to pay you for what I did to you yesterday, Wa-ka-ko-chick. If you had been a coward like me, we would have butchered each other. You were not afraid. That saved us both.”
He gave me robes to the value of $25—
buffalo, wolf, fox and badger. This was to pay for my shirt.
From my transactions with Hoo-hoosish's band. I took in trade over $400 worth of furs. Soon after this the Assiniboines went away hunting. I traded with them in their tents the following winter.
To be Continued