In 1850, Major Woods visited the Metis at Pembina. He noted that a large number of Metis made their home at Pembina, and that these people were subsisting primarily by hunting buffalo. The old men reported to Major Woods that the buffalo had been depleted about one-half within their lifetime, and they realized that they must soon disappear.
From the best information Major Woods was able to obtain, the population of Pembina at that time consisted of 177 families. Of these, 511 were males and 515 females (about 1,026 people). They had about 600 Red River carts, 300 oxen, 300 work horses; 150 horses for buffalo hunting, and 1,500 hundred cattle. There were a few hogs but no sheep. Woods noted that the Metis population to the north at Red River Settlement was about 4,000 to 5,000.
Woods reported that the Metis at Pembina had tried farming some years before, but they had no market to sell their produce, so they gave it up and now only maintained gardens for personal use. The Metis were making most of their money by serving as trappers, hunters and voyageurs. Dried meat and pemmican were almost their sole source of sustenance, and they would go to the plains in the spring and fall in hunting bands of about 500 men, accompanied by their families. Each family would have from one to ten carts that they would try to fill with pemmican and hides by the end of the season.
The Metis had a system of government and self-rule consisting of a nine-person council. The council in 1850 consisted of Headman J.B. Wilkie, and his counselors J.B. Dumont, Baptiste Vallee, Edward Harmon, Joseph Laverdure, Joseph Nolin, Antoine ‘Labelle’ Azure, Robert ‘Bonhomme’ Montour, and Baptiste Lafournaise. The Metis were recognized as having Indian rights at Pembina, and the US Government took efforts to detach them from the greater body of Metis at Red River Settlement.
In support of Woods’ report, Father Belcourt, the attending Priest at Pembina gave his assessment of the Metis people. Belcourt wrote:
“The half-breeds are mild, generous, polished in their manners, and ready to do a kindness; of great uprightness, not over anxious of becoming rich, contenting themselves with the necessaries of life, of which they are not at all times possessed. They endure with lightness of heart when called upon to work in the course of diverse occupations. They have much openness of spirit, and their children manifest good capacity when taught…They are generally gay and fond of enjoyment; they affect music, there being but few, comparatively speaking, who do not play on the violin. They are a fine physical conformation, robust and full of health and of a swarthy hue. The men commonly marry at the age of seventeen or eighteen and as a general thing are of good morals. The half-breeds number over five thousand souls. They first established themselves at Pembina, near the mouth of the river of that name in 1818, when they had with them a resident Canadian priest. They had also erected a church, and were engaged in the cultivation of the soil with great success, when Major Long visited the country; and having ascertained the latitude, declared it to be south of the 49th degree. St. Louis being the nearest American settlement of any size, and the distance being very great, it was out of the question for the residents of Pembina to hold intercourse with it, except by incurring great expense as well as danger."
"When the US/Canadian border was established, the Hudson Bay Company tried to force the Metis to stay on the Canadian side of the border and make settlement about the mouth of the Assinaboine River, under penalty in case of failure so to do, of being refused all supplies from their store. At that time even more than at present, powder, balls, and net thread for fishing, were articles were necessary to their subsistence. In short they were being obliged to submit…[however] the military posts established at Abercrombie and Pembina served to keep many of the half-breeds from flocking across the line to populate the Red River Valley. [Additionally] we received many thousand sturdy Canadian settlers who became the sturdiest and best of that portion of the state, contributing millions to its wealth. The friction along the border long ago ceased and the utmost good feeling prevails. The Hudson Bay Company still exists but has entirely changed its line of trade and is now interested in the development of the country, rather than in the Indian trade which was its life decades ago."
LOUNSBERRY, C.A. NORTH DAKOTA MAGAZINE, VOL. III SEPTEMBER, 1908 NO. 1: POPULAR HISTORY OF NORTH DAKOTA.
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