After filtering into the Red River region during the middle to late 1700s, the Ojibwe quickly adapted to life on the fringes of the prairies — hunting, trapping and expanding their territories westward, while enjoying new trade goods and relative wealth for their people. Unfortunately, due to several issues outside of their control, these good times didn’t last.
During the early 1800s a marked reduction in the beaver population occurred due to disease. This, coupled with the changes to the European demand for beaver, saw the regional fur trade — one of the main factors in their movement towards the plains — decline significantly. Thus, the first quarter of the 19th century saw a general decline in the fortunes of the Ojibwe. This decline in trade saw the XY Company fold in 1805, and North West Company was forced to merge with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821, as the traders sought to adjust to supply deficiencies. Having grown accustomed to many of the luxuries they could obtain from the traders, the Ojibwe first tried to forestall their discomfort by moving further into Dakota Territory and west of Lake Winnipeg, where better furs could be obtained. However, beaver populations continued to decline due to an epidemic disease that reduced the number of beaver even further. In response the Ojibwe turned to other fur-bearing animals, but these were not as profitable and brought less during trade.
At the same time they were dealing with the general decline in the small game fur trade, the rapidly growing Métis population was beginning to expand its influence in the region. The Métis — related by blood to many of the Ojibwe people — had their beginning before 1800, but their numbers were relatively small and their population was scattered, mostly near fur posts and other European outposts. However, the chaos of the early decades saw many fur company men left to their own devices. A good number of these Europeans chose to remain in the west. Many took native (or mixed-blood) wives and remained active in hunting, trapping, and other independent activities. This led to a remarkable increase in the mixed-blood population. Not completely part of their mothers’ Indian communities and existing far from civilized society, these Métis ‘children’ soon formed their own separate society that seemed to flourish after the Red River settlement was established and the regional economy shifted to buffalo instead of beaver. As the Metis were rising, the Ojibwe also started to feel pressure from scattered groups of Cree moving into the region. These Cree groups operated in a manner quite similar to the Ojibwe and competed for many of the same resources. Some of the Cree groups relied on previous ties to traders and relatedness to some of the Métis to gain a decent foothold in the local trade economy. These new people created a drastic economic competition to the Ojibwe, with the Métis often getting better prices for their furs due to closer relations with the traders, and the Cree digging in their heels in places that were formerly Ojibwe hunting areas.
By around 1815-1820, the Métis were dominating the regional buffalo hunts. Their strategy of using large, tightly organized parties could bring in much more meat and hides than a small band of Ojibwe ever could. In response, the Ojibwe coped by shifting their focus to areas that still had good supplies of game, such as the Turtle Mountains and Souris River valley. Many bands began hunting and living with living with plains Cree and Métis families, sharing the special skills and advantages of those groups. With their new alliances developing, the Ojibwe began to make moves to secure the area as well. In a period between 1804 and 1821, the Ojibwe and their allies sent war parties against the Sioux with the aim of driving the Sioux from region and gaining control of resources. With the area now safer, seasonal hunting and trapping was expanded and places like the Turtle Mountains became the base-camp location of many Ojibwe people. From there, buffalo could be hunted on either the Red, Sheyenne, or Missouri Rivers, beaver could be harvested in the local streams or on the Souris River, and other subsistence items could be easily procured. In addition, the growing interrelation with the Métis allowed the Ojibwe to begin demanding higher prices for their furs, and they became an equal partner in the pemmican trade as well. The population at Turtle Mountain was increasingly ‘mixed’ with many Assiniboine and Cree joining and marrying into the band as well.
The formation of this mixed-group at Turtle Mountain was unique, and it created a complex kinship system that allowed for much broader hunting efforts that could extend into areas dominated by Ojibwe, Métis, and Assiniboine-Cree groups to whom they were related — reducing conflict and warfare over resources, as happened with the Sioux decades earlier. This was unprecedented among indigenous communities on the Great Plains.
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Peers, Laura L. (1994) The Ojibwa of Western Canada, 1780 to 1870. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.