Red River Metis Buffalo Hunting
The manner in which the Red River Metis hunted the buffalo was an often spectacular event, with wild horseback rides by the stalwart Metis men moving within vast herds with guns blazing.
A description of the manner of the Red River Metis hunts is described in an 1887 passage by William T. Hornaday:
“Whenever the hunters discovered a herd of buffalo, they usually got to leeward of it and quietly rode forward in a body, or stretched out in a regular skirmish line, behind the shelter of a knoll, perhaps, until they approached the herd as closely as could be done without alarming it. Usually the unsuspecting animals with a confidence due more to their numbers than anything else, would allow a party of horsemen to approach within from 200 to 400 yards of their flanks, and then they would start off on a slow trot. The hunters then put spurs to their horses and dashed forward to overtake the herd as quickly as possible. Once upon it, each hunter chooses the best animal within his reach, chases him until his flying steed carries him close alongside, and then the arrow or the bullet is sent into his vitals. The fatal spot is from 12 to 18 inches in circumference, and lies immediately back of the fore leg, with its lowest point on a line with the elbow. This, the true chase of the buffalo, was not only exciting but dangerous. It often happened that the hunter found himself surrounded by the flying herd, and in a cloud of dust, so that neither man nor horse could see the ground before them. Under such circumstances fatal accidents to both men and horses were numerous. It was not an uncommon thing for half-breeds to shoot each other in the excitement of the chase; and while now and then a wounded bull suddenly turned upon his pursuer and overthrew him, the greatest number of casualties were from falls.”
Every year great hunting parties of the Red River Metis went west from the Red River and the enormous number of buffalo killed demonstrates the skill which they developed in hunting by the chase. Some idea of the size of these parties can be gained from the account of Father George A. Belcourt, who accompanied the Red River people on one of their expeditions. Although this was a small party compared to many, it contained 213 carts, 55 hunters and their families, making 60 lodges in all. This party killed 1,776 cows, bulls were not counted, although many were killed, which yielded 228 bags of pemmican, 1,213 bales of dried meat, 166 sacks of tallow, and 556 bladders full of marrow. This would average 33 buffalo to each family.
Another method of hunting the buffalo was to drive them into a large pen, or corral, called a pound. This method was adopted from the Plains Cree. A description of this method was documented by Professor Henry Yule Hind in the Qu'Appelle valley in 1858. According to Hind, a corral was constructed, some 120 feet in diameter, from the stumps of trees laced together with green branches and braced on the outside with props. Leading from the gate were two diverging lines, designated as “dead men” to guide the buffalo into the pen. Hind related, “When the skilled hunters are about to bring in a herd of buffalo from the prairie, they direct the course of the gallop of the alarmed animals by confederates stationed in hollows or small depressions, who, when the buffalo appear inclined to take a direction leading from the space marked out by the ‘dead men,’ show themselves for a moment and wave their robes, immediately hiding again. This serves to turn the buffalo slightly in another direction, and when the animals, having arrived between the rows of ‘dead men,’ endeavor to pass through them, hunters stationed here and there behind a ‘dead man’ go through the same operation, and keep the animals within the narrowing limits of the converging lines. At the entrance to the pound there is a strong trunk of a tree placed about a foot from the ground, and on the inner side an excavation is made sufficiently deep to prevent the buffalo from leaping back when once in the pound. As soon as the animals have taken the fatal spring, they begin to gallop round and round the ring fence, looking for a chance to escape, but with the utmost silence women and children on the outside hold their robes before every possible escape until the whole herd is brought in; then they climb to the top of the fence, and the hunters spear or shoot with bows and arrows or firearms at the bewildered animals..."
Hesketh, J. History of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa. Collections of the State Historical Society - Vol. 5, O. G. Libby, Editor Grand Forks, North Dakota, 1920.
Hind, H.Y. North-West Territory: Reports of Progress: together with the preliminary and general report on the Assiniboine and Saskatchewan exploring expedition. London, 1860, p. 5. See also, Henry Yule Hind, Narrative of The Canadian Red River Exploring Expedition of 1857 and the Saskatchewan and Exploring Expedition of 1858. London, 1860, 2 vols.
Hornaday, W. Extermination of the American Bison, Washington, 1887, 471.