The Beginning of the End
In 1860, it was reported that the annual Metis buffalo hunt started around June 15th. At that time, there were two great hunts – one originated from White Horse Plain (Grant Town), with the other originating at Red River settlement and Pembina. Previous to this hunt, these two hunts were united, but due to a difference that arose between these groups, it was decided to have separate hunts. The hunt originating at White Horse Plain focused on the area between the branches of the Saskatchewan River, while the Red River hunters focused on the Coteau de Missouri and Yellowstone River region.
It was also noted in the report that the hunters from White Horse Plain were increasingly staying on the plains and camping there through the winter (giving rise to the hivernant Metis) in places like Wood Mountain, Cypress Hills, and other places. These winterers had begun to trade only the hides and tongues, rather than processing the entire animals for sale, and keeping their meat harvest for themselves. This focus more on subsistence than trade created a relative reversion away from farming – as was common at Red River settlement – and many of these hunters became more attached to First Nations groups in the region. At the same time, the Red River settlement hunters were witnessing a cultural revival and were frequently bringing in large quantities of buffalo meat and robes for trading. They were, in some cases, receiving large sums of money in exchange and were spending it on luxury items and solidifying their position in Red River settlement society.
Others observed that the annual hunts were drawing fewer hunters each year, mostly because the herds were shifting further west – necessitating winter camping to reach these herds. Many of those who couldn’t make the western move – and who couldn’t afford to remain in settlement – were forced to pass the winter by spreading out and subsiding on randomly hunted elk, moose, and bear, and by trapping small fur-bearing animals to make money.
The increased settlement of Europeans into the region also began to take its toll. Much of the best land was being taken by the settlers and the Metis were not able to keep up with the economic engine that forced them towards the margins. By the late 1860s, the buffalo were moving further and further west and diminishing in number. Cattle and sheep were being brought in to replace them. Many more Metis began to drift westward and into the northern United States, where they could still hunt and earn a living by trading and enjoying their traditional freedoms for a few more years.
Hind, H. Y. (1860). Papers relative to the exploration of the country between Lake Superior and the Red River Settlement. Canada House of Commons.