Tags: Alexander Ross; Métis; Buffalo Hunting; Pemmican; Red River Carts
At the end of my last post, the hunters had just caught up to the buffalo herd and were ready to begin the actual hunt. Ross described the morning of July 4 when the first buffalo herd was sighted as follows:
No less than 400 huntsmen…anxiously waiting for the word, “Start!” took up their position in a line at one end of the camp, while Captain Wilkie, with his spy-glass at his eye, surveyed the buffalo, examined the ground, and issued his orders. At 8 o’clock the cavalcade broke ground, and made for the buffalo; first at a slow trot, then at a gallop, and lastly at full speed.
The hunters approached to within 400 or 500 yards of the herd before the buffalo became aware of them and took flight. The hunters then burst in among the buffalo and the first shots were heard.
All is smoke, dust, and hurry. The fattest are first singled out for slaughter; and in less time than we have occupied with the description, a thousand carcasses strew the plain. [pp. 255-56]
By Paul Kane, 1846 [In public Domain]
Ross then backtracked to explain the importance of skilled buffalo hunter horses to the hunt. The best horses lead off the instant the buffalo take flight. An experienced rider with a good horse could kill 10 or 12 animals in the time that a man on an inferior horse would kill two or three. The most skilled hunters seldom fired until they were three or four yards from their target and seldom or never missed. Their horses immediately sprang to one side to avoid stumbling over the kill. Hunters carried a mouth full of balls and loaded and fired at full gallop. They seldom dropped markers to identify the animals they had killed.
Métis Hunting the Buffalo
By C. W. Jefferys, (p. 176 of The Picture Gallery of Canadian History, Vol. 2, 1945)
Ross found the hunters’ ability to identify the animals they had shot without using markers almost unbelievable. He wrote:
Imagine four hundred horsemen entering at full speed a herd of some thousands of buffalo, all in rapid motion. Riders in clouds of dust and volumes of smoke, which darken the air, crossing and re-crossing each other in every direction; shots…everywhere in close succession, at the same moment…dead and wounded animals tumbling here and there…and this bewildering melee continued for an hour or more…yet from practice, so keen is the eye, so correct the judgment of the hunter, and so discriminating his memory, that after getting to the end of the race, he can not only tell the number of animals he has shot down, but the position in which each lies.. [p. 261-62]
Once the hunters left camp, the cart drivers (mostly women) prepared to follow them to pick up the meat. The drivers had to make their way through a forest of animal carcasses, till each found the animals belonging to their families. As soon as the hunters had killed their last animals, they immediately commenced skinning their carcasses and cutting up the meat. Speed was of the essence because any animals not picked up before dark or caught in a thunder storm had to be abandoned to the wolves.
Although Ross indicated that the women’s work did not begin until the skinning and butchering was completed, this does not agree with the accounts of many other writers. The women cut up all the meat which was not to be eaten immediately into narrow strips which were hung on drying frames for two or three days. The best of this meat was then tied up into large bundles for transportation home. The less desirable cuts of dried meat, which were to be made into pemmican, were further dried over a slow fire until brittle enough to be pounded into a powder. This powdered meat was mixed with hot melted fat and dried berries and packed into untanned buffalo skin bags about the size of pillow cases. The bags were sealed with melted tallow and sewn shut.
Drying Buffalo Meat
By William Armstrong, 1899, (in Public Domain)
A buffalo hunt can be dangerous, but Ross thought that the injuries which occurred on the first day of the 1840 hunt were not “over numerous” considering that 1,375 buffalo tongues were brought into camp at the end of the day. Twenty-three horses and men were sprawled on the ground due to a rocky landscape with numerous badger holes. One of the horses died after being gored by a bull and two others were disabled by their falls. As for the men – one broke his shoulder blade, another had his gun burst and lost three fingers as a result, and a third injured his knee when it was struck by a spent ball.
Another risk attending the hunt was being attacked by the Sioux, who were enemies of the Métis at the time. Ross described the fate of a man named Louison Vallé. He was skinning a buffalo and was alone except for his young son. Suddenly Vallé was rushed by a number of Sioux. He only had time to yell a warning at his son before he was felled by “a shower of arrows.” The boy, who was fortunately on horseback, safely reached the camp to give the alarm. Ten men took off after the Sioux and caught up to a group of 12 warriors — four escaped and eight were shot by the Métis.
While Ross was not one of the hunters on the 1840 trip, he described an incident that occurred on an earlier trip when he was a hunter. One of Ross’ companions had a buffalo bull turn on him. When his horse made a sudden start to one side to avoid the bull, the man’s saddle girth gave way, leaving rider and saddle between the bull’s horns. The bull tossed his head, throwing the man high into the air. Almost unbelievably, the man landed on a second bull and managed to escape uninjured.
The Red River Cart
By C. W. Jefferys, p. 177
This will be my last Blog posting for several months because of preparations for Christmas and going away for most of January on a winter get-away.
Print copies of all my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website at
or by e-mailing me at email@example.com
Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.