The Excitement of Camp
The carts used by the Red River half-breeds are peculiar to the landscape and the hunt, and are of uniform make. They are constructed entirely of wood, without any iron whatever, the axles and rims of the wheels are no exception. Although this, at first sight, might appear a disadvantage it is really the reverse, as the country traversed by these vehicles always has some sort of wood available to mend any breakages which may occur.
The only tools necessary to construct a cart are an axe, a saw, and an auger; with these the hunter is independent, as far as the integrity of his conveyance is concerned. Indeed, the cart may be described as a box frame poised upon an axle connecting two strong wooden wheels. Each one is drawn by single pony or ox, attached by a harness of rawhide.
The carts devoted to the use by the wives and children of the hunters, is, however, much more elaborate than those used in freighting. The wheels and shafts of these carts have been shaved down to more delicate proportions; the body is decorated with certain cultural emblems in red and yellow ochre, supposed to represent vivid floral offerings; while over it is stretched a covering of oil-cloth or dressed skins, to protect them from inclement weather. It is drawn, too, by the best ponies in the hunters’ herd, and becomes a subject of rivalry and pride as much as feathers are for a bird. The remaining, freighting carts are filled with tents, bedding, camping equipment, and provisions enough to last until the buffalo herds are reached. Any additional horses not used for drawing carts are left to wander along with the cart train. The amount of dust from the carts and the animals is often enough to create dust clouds that can obscure the caravan as they travel on their well-worn trails.
The rate of travel for the cart train was about 20-miles per day, and about 4-days were needed for them to reach their rendezvous site west of the Pembina Hills.
The rendezvous took place at Ne-jank-wa-win (Dry Dance Hill, near present-day Pilot Mound, Manitoba). Over the subsequent hours and days, more carts rolled in from all over, and there were soon hundreds of carts and people in the camp. The elevated plain overlooking the nearby stream was covered in a motley group of carts, canvas tents, leather tepees, and even tarps or cloth strung between carts to create shelters for campers. The horses were turned loose and were roaming all around the prairies – tied to pegs in the ground, or dragging poles to ensure they could not stray too far. The oxen too were allowed to graze freely and low to each other.
In the camp itself, the sole occupation of the day was the pursuit of pleasure. From every tent and shelter came the sound of talking and laughter; ever campfire had its quota of laughter and song. Here and there were groups of men gambling and playing the moccasin game, cards, or games where buttons and bullets were shaken in bowls and shoes with the object to guess the number. The grounds were strewn with guns, capotes, and shirts, as people lost them through bad bets. Other tents were places where stories were told and songs were sung; with boisterous laughter at the telling of the dirtiest enemies or bravest hunters. Women preparing meals would loudly gossip and laugh with their neighbors and the children – dressed in a few clothes as possible – played in the dirt with each other and the dogs that had accompanied the camp. Feasting took place everywhere, and couples would sneak away for their own private ‘rendezvous’ away from prying eyes when they could.
In a central location the aged leaders of the hunt engaged in discussions of the weightier matters of the day and the forthcoming hunts. After a short while a long-haired young man jumped up on a cart and drew forth a violin. A crowd soon gathered about him and as he played, the crowd would shout out requests for new tunes and some asked to take the instrument themselves to show off their own skill or a new song they wanted to share. Dancing happened with every breakdown or reel.
The next afternoon, the men desert the camp and they seriously mount their horses wearing their finest moccasins, caps, and fine blue capotes and corduroy trousers, tied together with brilliant-patterned sashes. A course is set up and judges are stationed at each end. People began to place bets as to which horse and rider would be the fastest – wagering their horses, oxen, and finest clothing against their competitors. When the riders finally burst forward in the race, cheers of encouragement are shouted for the favorites. To the winners go the spoils and the losers grudgingly relinquish guns, clothing, and horses to them.
That night, the revelry continued as the day before, and the day after preparations are made for the hunt to come.
Wallace's Monthly. No. 1, Vol. 2, June 1876.