One of the most vivid and detailed descriptions of a Metis buffalo hunt that I have found recently was written about in great detail in the Appleton’s Journal of Literature, Science, and Arts, for July of 1870. The Description speaks of “brigades” and hunting strategy, with a unique mention of Metis women driving the carts at the end of the great hunt. The description is as follows:
The most picturesque and exciting buffalo-hunts are those of the half-breeds in the northern Red-River country, where annually almost the entire population proceed in brigades to the great buffalo-ranges. From the earliest spring the preparations for these hunts begin. Rude carts, on two wheels, built entirely of wood, with large hubs and wide felloes, are constructed in great numbers. These are drawn by oxen, with harnesses of raw-hides. With as many carts as he can afford, for the transportation homeward of the buffalo hides and meat, and at least one fast buffalo-horse, with a gun, plenty of powder and balls, the hunter is prepared for the plains. The hunters go in "brigades", as they are called, of several hundreds, and often the entire town departs on the excursion—men, women, children, oxen, horses, dogs, with full supply of tents and housekeeping utensils. Women and boys drive the carts, while the hunters, mounted on their horses, guard the train, or ride off in search of buffalo-signs. At night they gather in a circle, called a corral, where the carts are ranged side by side, with the shafts turned inward. Within this circle the tents are raised and the lodge-fires made. A large camp of half-breeds is a striking sight. The dress of both men and women is exceedingly picturesque. They wear moccasins worked with beads. The men's trousers are usually of corduroy, their coats of common blue, adorned with hoods between their shoulders, and large brass buttons, a gay sash around the waist, and a jaunty cap of otter or badger skin, complete their toilet. Mr. Manton Marble gives, in a description of a visit to the Red-River country in an early number of Harper’s Magazines, a stirring account of an attack by a half-breed brigade upon a herd of buffalo, which we in part transcribe:
Just as the leader was sounding the horn, which was the order to catch up the horses, a rider was seen galloping at full speed down the hither side of a hill by which he had been hid from sight on the rolling prairie. All knew the message he had to bring, before hearing it from his lips. He had seen a herd of hundreds steadily pushing their way over the prairie toward the northeast, just beyond a high ridge which was the limit of sight in the direction the brigade was then travelling—nearly due south. The oxen that had been harnessed were again loosed, all the buffalo-runners saddled, and every hunter eagerly examined his gun and ammunition. The horses, too, knew what was in the wind; and the more high-spirited ones among them, which had been trained to the hunt, stood shivering with excitement, snuffing the air, and pawing the ground with their hoofs, needing a man's strength to hold them in. All the able-bodied men were speedily armed and accoutered, their superfluous clothing thrown off, sashes tied tighter, and girths buckled a hole or two higher, and, in less than five minutes from the time the rider had got to camp, the leader had given the order to advance, and more than three hundred horsemen were steadily trotting southward in the direction of the herd. In a few moments, they had reached a point where the ground began to rise gently to the height of the low ridge, on the top of which they would be visible to the herd. Here all drew rein, while the leader, with one or two of the older hunters, dismounted and crept along up the slope to reconnoiter, observe the progress of the herd and the lay of the land, in order to determine from which direction the charge had better be made. There was little time to be lost; the buffalo were already opposite the hunters, and the old bulls ahead might, at any moment, take a trail leading over the ridge and in full-sight of the train. A moment's glance told experienced eyes, peering through the tops of the long green grass, that the ground toward which they were moving was a rolling prairie with abrupt ascents and descents, and therefore full of badger-holes, dangerous able to the horse and his rider, while the ground which they had just passed over was very nearly level, with here and there a marsh, and fenced in, so to speak, by the stream which ran hither and thither, and wound around by the dinner camp-ground. Hastening down the slope and remounting their horses, a few quick, low words from the leader explained the order of the charge. A dozen or more of the fleetest runners were sent to the westward around the ridge, to head the herd and start them bock. The rest of the hunters gathered under its edge with ears pricked up.
The ruse was successful. The dozen hunters coming boldly into sight directly in their path, and spreading out slowly to the right and left without chasing them, and the favorable nature of the ground, making it harder for them to go to the one side or the other than backward, turned them almost in their tracks. The herd was not so large, but that very many of the buffaloes could see the hunters. The sage and long-bearded veterans who had led them stopped, were crowded ahead a few yards by the pressure of those behind, and then all were huddling together, cows and calves in the center, and the bulls crowding around, until the leaders broke through and led off at a steady gallop on the back track. This was the critical moment. The dozen hunters shouted at the tops of their lungs, and settled into a steady gallop on their trail. The three hundred and fifty horsemen came flying over the ridge and down its slope in full pursuit, and in front of them all, not a quarter of a mile away, a herd of nearly a thousand buffaloes in headlong flight, tails out, heads down, and nostrils red and flaring. For the first few hundred yards the chase was nip and tuck. The buffaloes were doing their best possible, as they always can at the beginning of a chase, and the horses had not so good ground, and were hardly settled down to their work. But soon the tremendous strides of the buffalo-runners began to tell in the chase and the heavy head long and forehanded leap of the buffalo to grow just perceptibly slack.
One after another the swiftest of the runners caught up to the herd, and over the plain. The green sward is torn up, clouds of dust arise, swift shots like volleys of musketry buffet the air, the hunters fly along with loosened rein, trusting to their horses to clear the badger-holes that here and there break the ground, and to keep their own flanks and the riders' legs from the horns of the buffaloes by whom they must pass to fit alongside the fat and swifter cow singled out for prey. And still they keep up this tremendous gait, flying buffalo and pursuing horse men. As fast as one fires he draws the plug of his powder-horn with his teeth, pours in a hasty charge, takes one from his mouthful of wet bullets and drops it without wadding or rammer upon the powder, settles it with a blow against the saddle, keeps the muzzle lifted till he is close to his game, then lowers and fires in the same instant without an aim, the muzzle of the gun often grazing the shaggy monster's side; then leaning off, his horse wheels away, and, loading as he flies, he spurs on in chase of another, and another, and another; and in like manner the three hundred of them. One after one the buffaloes lagged behind, staggered, and fell, at first singly and then by scores, till in a few moments the whole herd was slain, save only a few old bulls not worth the killing, which were suffered to gallop safely away. One after one the hunters drew rein, and, dismounting from their drenched horses, walked back through the heaps of dead buffalo and the puddles of blood, singling out of the hundreds dead with unerring certainty the ones they had shot. Not a dispute arose among the hunters as to the ownership of any buffalo killed. To a novice in the hunt they all looked alike, differenced only by size and sex, and the plain on which all were lying as is each square rod the facsimile of every other square. The novices had thrown on their killed a sash or coat or knife-sheath; but the best hunters had no need of this. To their keen eyes no two rods were alike, and they could trace their course as easily as if only four and not thousands of hoofs had torn the plain.
The carts driven by the women come up, knives are drawn, and with marvelous dexterity the shaggy skins are stripped off, the great, bloody frame divided, huge bones and quivering flesh, all cut into pieces of portable size, the carts loaded, and by sunset all are on their way to camp.
Reference: Appleton’s Journal of Literature, Science, and Arts, No. 66 Vol. IV. Saturday, July 2, 1870.
A collaborative effort of members of the Ojibwe and Metis communities