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The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk's Colonists
Chapter 21 Off to the Buffalo

Alexander Ross was a Scottish Highlander, who came to Glengarry in Canada, quite a century ago, joined Astor's expedition, went around Cape Horn and in British Columbia rose to be an officer in the Northwest Company. He married the daughter of an Indian Chief at Okanagan, came over the Rocky Mountains, and was given by Sir George Simpson a free gift of a farm, where Ross and James Streets are now found in Winnipeg. This land is to-day worth many millions of dollars. Ross was also fond of hunting the buffalo, and we are fortunate in having his spirited story of 1840.


In the leafy month of June carts were seen to emerge from every nook and corner of the Settlement bound for the plains. As they passed us, many things were discovered to be still wanting, to supply which a halt had to be made at Fort Garry shop; one wanted this thing, another that, but all on credit. The day of payment was yet to come; but payment was promised. Many on the present occasion were supplied, many were not; they got and grumbled, and grumbled and got, till they could get no more; and at last went off, still grumbling and discontented.

From Fort Garry the cavalcade and camp-followers were crowding on the public road, and thence, stretching from point to point, till the third day in the evening, when they reached Pembina, the great rendezvous of such occasions. When the hunters leave the Settlement it enjoys that relief which a person feels on recovering from a long and painful sickness. Here, on a level plain, the whole patriarchal camp squatted down like pilgrims on a journey to the Holy Land, in ancient days: only not so devout, for neither scrip nor staff were consecrated for the occasion. Here the roll was called, and general muster taken, when they numbered on the occasion 1,630 souls: and here the rules and regulations for the journey were finally settled. The officials for the trip were named and installed into their office, and all without the aid of writing materials.

The camp occupied as much ground as a modern city, and was formed in a circle: all the carts were placed side by side, the trams outward. Within this line, the tents were placed in double, treble rows, at one end; the animals at the other in front of the tents. This is the order in all dangerous places: but when no danger is feared, the animals are kept on the outside. Thus, the carts formed a strong barrier, not only for securing the people and the beasts of burden within, but as a place of shelter and defence against an attack of the enemy without.

There is, however, another appendage belonging to the expedition, and to every expedition of the kind; and you may be assured they are not the least noisy. We allude to the dogs or camp followers. On the present occasion they numbered no fewer than 542; sufficient of themselves to consume no small number of animals a day, for, like their masters, they dearly relish a bit of buffalo meat.

These animals are kept in summer as they are, about the establishments of the fur traders, for their services in the winter. In deep snows, when horses cannot conveniently be used, dogs are very serviceable to the hunters in these parts. The half-breed, dressed in his wolf costume, tackles two or three sturdy curs into a flat sled, throws himself on it at full length, and gets among the buffalo unperceived. Here the bow and arrow play their part to prevent noise; and here the skillful hunter kills as many as he pleases, and returns to camp without disturbing the band.

But now to our camp again—the largest of its kind perhaps in the world. A council was held for the nomination of chiefs or officers for conducting the expedition. Two captains were named, the senior on this occasion being Jean Baptiste Wilkie, an English half-breed brought up among the French, a man of good sound sense and long experience, and withal a bold-looking and discreet fellow, a second Nimrod in his way. Besides being captain, in common with others, he was styled the great war chief or head of the camp, and on all public occasions he occupied the place of president.

The hoisting of the flag every morning is the signal for raising camp. Half an hour is the full time allowed to prepare for the march, but if anyone is sick, or their animals have strayed, notice is sent to the guide, who halts until all is made right. From the time the flag is hoisted however, till the hour of camping arrives, it is never taken down. The flag taken down is a signal for encamping, while it is up the guide is chief of the expedition, captains are subject to him, and the soldiers of the day are his messengers, he commands all. The moment the flag is lowered his functions cease and the captains and soldiers' duties commence. They point out the order of the camp, and every cart as it arrives moves to its appointed place. This business usually occupies about the same time as raising camp in the morning, for everything moves with the regularity of clockwork.

The captains and other chiefs have agreed on rules to govern the expedition, such as, that no buffaloes are to be run on Sunday, no party is to lag behind or to go before, no one may run a buffalo without a general order, etc. The punishment for breaking the laws are for a first offence: the offender had his saddle and bridle cut up: for the second, to have the coat taken off his back and cut up: for the third, the offender was flogged. Any theft was punished by the offender being three times proclaimed "THIEF," in the middle of the camp.

On the 21st of June, after the priest had performed mass, for many were Roman Catholics, the flag was unfurled at about six or seven o'clock and the picturesque line was formed over the prairie, extending some five or six miles towards the southwest. It was the ninth was gained. This was a journey of about 150 day from Pembina before the Cheyenne River miles, and on the nineteenth day, at a distance of 250 miles, the destined hunting grounds were reached. On the 4th of July, since the encampment was in the United States, the compliment was paid of having the first buffalo race.

No less than 400 huntsmen, all mounted and anxiously waiting for the word "Start," took up their position in a line at one end of the camp, while Captain Wilkie issued his orders.


At eight o'clock the whole cavalcade broke ground, and made for the buffaloes. When the horsemen started the buffaloes were about a mile and a half distant, but when they approached to about four or five hundred yards, the bulls curled their tails or pawed the ground. In a moment more the herd took flight, and horse and rider are presently seen bursting upon them, shots are heard, and all is smoke, dust and hurry, and in less time than we have occupied with a description a thousand carcasses strew the plain.

When the rush was made, the earth seemed to tremble as the horses started, but when the animals fled, it was like the shock of an earthquake. The air was darkened, the rapid firing, at first, soon became more and more faint, and at last died away in the distance.

In such a run, a good horse and experienced rider will select and kill from ten to twelve buffaloes at one heat, but in the case before us, the surface was rocky and full of badger holes. Twenty-three horses and riders were at one moment all sprawling on the ground, one horse gored by a bull, was killed on the spot, two more were disabled by the fall. One rider broke his shoulder blade, another burst his gun, and lost three fingers by the accident, another was struck on the knee by an exhausted bull. In the evening no less than 1,375 tongues were brought into camp. When the run is over the hunter's work is now retrograde. The last animal killed is the first skinned, and night not unfrequently, surprises the runner at his work. What then remains is lost and falls to the wolves. Hundreds of dead buffaloes are often abandoned, for even a thunderstorm, in one hour, will render the meat useless.

The day of a race is as fatiguing on the hunter as on the horse, but the meat well in the camp, he enjoys the very luxury of idleness.

Then the task of the women begins, who do all the rest, and what with skins, and meat and fat, their duty is a most laborious one.

It is to be regretted that much of the meat is wasted. Our expedition killed not less than 2,500 buffaloes, and out of all these made 375 bags of pemmican, and 240 bales of dried meat; 750 animals should have made that amount, so that a great quantity was wasted. Of course, the buffalo skins were saved and had their value.

Our party were now on the Missouri and encamped there. A few traders went to the nearest American fort, and bartered furs for articles they needed.

After passing a week on the banks of the Missouri we turned to the West, when we had a few races with various success. We were afterwards led backwards and forwards at the pleasure of the buffalo herds. They crossed and recrossed our path until we had travelled to almost every point of the compass.

Having had various altercations with the Indians, the party reached Red River, bringing about 900 lbs. of buffalo meat in each cart, making more than one million pounds in all. The Hudson's Bay Company took a considerable amount of this, and the remainder went to supply the wants of the Red River Settlement for another year.

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