This is a distinct class of people residing upon our frontier. They are the descendants of the early colonists of that country, by intermarriage with the Chippewa, Cree and Assiniboin Indians, and were, at a period not remote, residents upon our soil in their entire strength. When the line of the 49th parallel was marked, and the Hudson Bay Company found themselves located on our soil, the trading posts of that company were removed down the Red river about sixty miles. The half-breeds being principally in the employ of that company, and dependent upon them, were obliged to follow. This obligation arose from their inability to get the necessaries of life from other sources than from the agents of this company. This removal, I believe, was about the year 1824, when there was no communication between that point and the Mississippi river except by braving the perils of a long and difficult journey, through a wild waste of country inhabited alone by numerous hostile tribes of Indians. With this view of the case, we may well say they were compelled to leave our soil. Within the last five or six years, the settlements on the Mississippi river having extended themselves to a point within some 400 miles of Pembina; the establishment of a Fur Company post on our side of the line by Mr. Kittson, and the annual transportation, by large trains of carts, of merchandise to that country; these half-breeds have begun to return, and are fast filling up again the frontier within our borders.
The Hudson Bay Company has a charter which gives them the control of an immense territory, within which they reserve or appropriate entirely to themselves the fur trade. This is the only profitable business of the country, and a monopoly of it by a company must necessarily make dependents of all other inhabitants. This restriction cannot be infracted within their territories, or by their residents out of them, without a liability to imprisonment and fines. The farmer's title to his land is with the condition that he is not to engage in the fur trade. The merchant, the mechanic, the day-laborer and the hunter, are residents only upon this condition; and the entire interests of the country are thus made to center around a business that the great majority are excluded from [due to their Indian blood]. I was told on my arrival at Pembina, that the half-breed population were anxious to return to their former homes within our borders; but not having imbibed any prepossessions of the country — its appearance not being calculated to inspire them — I was incredulous until I learned that it was rather to free themselves from disadvantageous restrictions, than from preference for a locality which, according to accounts given me, is inferior to the one they now occupy. They also have a lingering fondness for the place of their birth, where reminiscences of parents and childish sports are revived by surrounding objects.
They furnished me with a list of the actual inhabitants of Pembina, exclusive of Indians, giving the names of heads of families, and dividing the whole into males and females, as follows: — 177 families; of these 511 are males, and 515 are females; making a total of 1026 now living at Pembina. They have about 600 carts, 300 oxen, 300 work horses, 150 horses for the chase, 1500 head of horned cattle, a few hogs, no sheep. The half-breed population on the English side is between 4000 and 5000. Of these, it is confidently expected by those living in our territory that the greater portion of them will remove to the United States. From my conversations with them, I think so myself; and I am almost certain of it, if the U. S. prohibit the half-breeds of the English territory from coming into our territories to hunt buffalo.
The greater portion of [the half-breeds] are descendants of the Canadian French. They speak the French language, are nearly all Catholics, with mild and gentle manners, great vivacity, generous and honest in their transactions, and disposed to be a civil and orderly community. They are hale and hearty, robust men, evidently accustomed to hardships and exposure, to which they submit cheerfully. They can hardly be called an industrious people, which is rather attributable to circumstances than disposition. I am told they commenced farming in the country, but finding no market for their produce, and having much to buy, it was necessary that they should resort to occupations that would yield them the means of purchasing the necessaries of life. At that time, the Hudson Bay Company traders were the only possessors of merchandize in the country, and would dispose of it only in a way that would promote their own trade. This was by them, employment of trappers, voyageurs, and hunters on the plains.
From the buffalo they get their "dried meat" and "pemmican," articles of subsistence which are almost the sole dependence of the people of that country. This always finds a ready sale for money or goods. Into these employments the people have been driven by necessity, in consequence of which they had to neglect their farms; the practice continuing, they abandoned them, and are now the victims of occupations they cannot discard, and are able to obtain from them only a bare subsistence. They now devote themselves entirely to fur hunting and the chase; by the former they command some money, and by the latter they live. They go to the plains in the spring and fall, in parties of from 300 to 500 hunters. They appoint, before going out, a captain who controls and directs their hunts, which assume rather the character of an expedition than the unregulated excursions of Indians or whites when abroad with such objects. Their families go with them, and each family has from one to ten carts. Within our territory there is no farming; the small gardens they cultivate yield so triflingly, that they are hardly worthy of notice.
They build log-cabins generally in the timber which they occupy in the winter, and leave in the summer. Each family has its "lodge" made of dressed buffalo skin, and when pitched, it is of a conical shape ten or fifteen feet high, and from ten to fifteen feet in diameter at its base. These have a doorway, with a buffalo skin hung over it, which is lifted for an entrance. The fires are built in the center, and the apex of the lodge has an opening through which the smoke escapes. At this opening a wing is attached, so that by giving it a certain position with reference to the wind, there is always a draft sufficient to carry off the smoke.
I found the Half-breeds possessing the semblance of a government. They had a council consisting of five of their principal men, in which was vested a jurisdiction relating to transactions among themselves. On the 24th of August these people had returned from their spring hunt, and about 200 of the hunters came to see me. They had appointed four men as their speakers. I told them that in virtue of their Indian extraction, those living on our side of the line were regarded as being in possession of Indian rights upon our soil; that they were on our frontiers treated with as component parts of their Indian tribes; that they either came under the Indians' laws or regulations, or formed such for themselves. I urged them to organize themselves into a band under a council or chiefs, invested with ample authority to act in their name, in all matters which might arise to affect their interests, to preserve and enforce order and harmony; that the US President would not allow them to engage in any of the difficulties among our Indians on the plains; that they were expected to live amicably with all Indian tribes, and generally to be good citizens. They told me they would return the next day when they had perfected an organization they were then arranging. My talk had taken a wide range, but not of importance enough to be even abridged. They wished to reflect and have consultations upon it.
The next day they returned in about the same numbers, and presented me with nine names as the committee they had selected for their government of the Half-breed population within our borders. Mr. Baptiste Wilkie, the first on the list, is the president of the committee. He is a French Half-breed, of a good character, well disposed towards the United States, and intelligent. The other eight of the council are men the most esteemed in the country, and friendly toward the United States. They say it is their wish to become agriculturists. It is their intention to make their improvements within our territory. They complain of the immense quantities of buffaloes that are killed annually and carried into the Hudson's Bay territory. They want some encouragement and aid from the United States, and they are anxious to have a military post established among them.
I told them that, on the subject of the English hunters killing buffalo, I had no instructions but from the facts that the Indians were making the same complaints; that Major Sumner had been ordered to the plains a few before with a military force purposely to drive back these invaders, and the Hudson's Bay Co. were so stringent in their laws about hunting in their territory, I thought it more than probable that the United States would forcibly prevent such trespasses, were they persisted in. They say that Major Sumner directed them to put up notices prohibiting that practice; that they had done so, but they were not respected. I told them they ought with safety to act upon the advice of Major Sumner, and enforce it, if need be, and our government would support them, as Major Sumner was an authorized agent and reported his acts on that frontier, and if not approved, they would have been corrected.
Their desire for a military post is urged on the ground alone, that it will give them a market. I told them our posts were established for the protection of the country. That if an armed force were necessary there to protect the rights of the citizens, or to support the laws of the country, it might be granted them, but that I was confident they would never get a military post among them for the sole purpose of affording a market for their surplus produce. They are beginning to be imbued with the progressiveness of the age, and expect soon, with the patronage of the government, to see their wilderness smiling in prosperity and beauty under the invigorating influences of railroads and steamboats. The matter-of-fact business of cultivating the soil and gathering about them all the comforts and enjoyments that a provident industry can bestow, is tame in their excited imaginations, and they did not listen with much satisfaction to the representations I gave them of the prosperous independence of our farmers, and how they attained it. They have nothing to sell, and in fact (in the way of produce) having nothing to live on; still they clamor for a market.
As the letter of the Secretary of the Interior to the President, in relation to that frontier, was sent to me with my instructions, I ventured to suggest to them that the United States contemplated opening that country for settlement. To do which it would be necessary, first, to extinguish their Indian title. That this was not determined upon; and as it was with a view of ameliorating their condition by extending to them in full the rights and privileges of citizens of the United States and the benefit of our laws and institutions, much would depend upon their wishes on the subject. The Half-breeds are delighted at such a prospect, and would readily acquiesce in reasonable treaty stipulations for the country. The Indians are more pragmatic of their high appreciation of such a blessing, though they did not seem averse to it; and I doubt not would be easily induced to consent. I threw out the suggestion that they might cogitate upon it in their musing hours, and then they will be ready to act if they should ever be called upon.
On the 26th of August when we left Pembina the half breeds informed me they would escort us a short distance on the road; on leaving, we fired them a parting salute from our howitzer. About seventy-five of them well-mounted and with fire-arms accompanied us two or three miles, and when about to turn back they informed me they would give us one volley, and drawing up in line with great promptitude and regularity fired one volley. Reloading almost instantly they gave two to the Governor of Minnesota, and again they gave three to the President of the United States, with a loud and prolonged cheer. I told them that we were under many obligations to them for their polite and kind attentions to us while in their country and were thankful for the testimonial they had just given us of the kind feeling they entertained towards us; that I would inform the President and Governor of the favorable estimation in which they were held and of the enthusiasm which their names inspired amongst a people living on our extreme and most isolated frontier. This ended our visit at Pembina, and left us on our way home.
SOURCE: (1850) Pembina settlement: letter from the Secretary of War Transmitting report of Major Wood, relative to his expedition to Pembina Settlement, and the condition of affairs on the north-western frontier of the Territory of Minnesota. US Government Printing Office.
A collaborative effort of members of the Ojibwe and Metis communities