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Home >> From 1600 to 1867 >> Identity, Culture & Communities >> Articles/Diaries/Ephemera/Journals

Daily life and challenges for the various groups involved in the fur trade.

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Author: Joseph James Hargrave
Title: Red River
Publisher: John Lovell, Montréal
Year Published: 1871, First Printing
Copyright Holder: Expired; please credit publisher as John Lovell.
  -19- JJ Hargrave: Buffalo Hunt

Joseph James Hargrave (1841-1894) was the eldest son of HBC Chief Trader James Hargrave and his wife Letitia. Educated in Scotland, Joseph James returned to Rupert's Land in 1861 as an apprentice clerk in the HBC, and served as secretary to his uncle, William MacTavish, Governor of Assiniboia and of Rupert's Land. In 1869, he began writing weekly articles for the Montreal Herald about the Northwest and the anticipated transfer of Rupert's Land to Canada.

His 1871 book, Red River, is regarded as the best history of Red River written in the 19th century. It is both a history and personal observation of the economic, social, political and religious life of Red River, and argues that the settlement and its institutions owed their existence to the vitality of the fur trade. p168-70, 2nd pgh: "Conspicuous in importance... (to the end of 1st pgh on p170)... muzzle loaders."

"Conspicuous in importance amongst the annual events in the colony are the journeys made to the Plains by the Buffalo hunters at different periods of the year. The parties belonging to the summer hunt start about the beginning of June, and remain on the Plains until the beginning of August. They then return for a short time to the settlement for the purpose of trading their pemmican and dried meat.

The autumn hunters start during the month of August, and remain on the prairie until the end of October, or early in November, when they usually return bringing the fresh or “green meat,” preserved at that late season by the extreme cold. Those hunters, of whom there are many who remain on the Plains during the whole winter, employ themselves in trapping the fur-bearing animals, and hunting the buffalo for their robes.

The pemmican, which forms the staple article of produce from the summer hunt, is a species of food peculiar to Rupert’s Land. It is composed of buffalo meat, dried and pounded fine, and mixed with an amount of tallow or buffalo fat equal to itself in bulk. The tallow having been boiled, is poured hot from the caldron into an oblong bag, manufactured from the buffalo hide, into which the pounded meat has previously been placed. The contents are then stirred together until they have been thoroughly well mixed. When full, the bag is sewed up and laid in store.

Each bag when full weighs one hundred pounds. It is calculated that, on an average, the carcase of each buffalo will yield enough pemmican to fill one bag. This species of food is invaluable as a travelling provision. There is no risk of spoiling it as, if ordinary care be taken to keep the bags dry and free from mould, there is no assignable limit to the time the pemmican will keep.

It is the travelling provision used throughout the north, where, in addition to the already specified qualifications, that of its great facility of transportation renders it exceedingly useful. The dried meat is the flesh of the buffalo, which, when it has been cut in thin slices, is hung over a fire, smoked and cured. It is packed in bales weighing on an average about sixty pounds each, and is also much used as a travelling provision. The fresh or green meat supplied by the late fall hunt is consumed in the settlement, and is not much used in travelling.

The operations connected with these Buffalo hunts give employment to somewhat over one thousand men and twelve hundred Red River carts. The people go to them with their families, who are employed in preparing the meat after the animals have been killed. The whole of those connected with the business may be divided into two sections, of which one leaves the settlement by the road leading to Pembina, and the other by that passing the spot on the river Assiniboine, called the White Horse Plain.

The former proceeds in search of buffalo in a southerly, and the latter in a south-westerly direction. They act quite independently of each other. The carts leave the settlement in straggling parties without any bond of union, but, when once out on the prairie, they collect and choose a captain, who appoints subordinate officials of different grades, each of whom is charged with the performance of important and well-defined duties. They act as the police of the camp. Thenceforwards all is conducted in admirable order. A system of penalties, to which all must submit, is strictly enforced, and perfect harmony of progress exists in the camp.

Each evening all the carts are formed in a vast circle, into the centre of which the horses and oxen are driven, with the object of preventing thefts by prowling Indians and losses through cattle straying. After the camp has entered the country in the neighbourhood of which the buffalo are known to be, no gun is permitted to be fired until, in sight of the herd, the word of command is spoken by the captain authorizing the opening of the chase. The words given, the horsemen start in a body, loading and firing on horseback, and leaving the dead animals to be identified after the run is over.

The kind of horse used is called a “buffalo runner,” and is very valuable. A good one will cost from £50 to £70. The sagacity of the animal is chiefly shewn in bringing his rider alongside the retreating buffalo, and in avoiding the numerous pitfalls abounding on the prairie. The most treacherous of the latter are the badger holes.

Considering the bold nature of the sport, remarkably few accidents occur. The hunters enter the herd with their mouths full of bullets. A handful of gunpowder is let fall from their “powder horns,” a bullet is dropped from the mouth into the muzzle, a tap with the butt end of the firelock on the saddle causes the salivated bullet to adhere to the powder during the second necessary to depress the barrel, when the discharge is instantly effected without bringing the gun to the shoulder.

The excitement which seizes the bold huntsman on finding himself surrounded by the long sought buffalo renders him careless in examining too curiously whether the object fired at is a buffalo or a buffalo runner mounted by a friend, but I have never heard of any fatal accident having happened, resulting from the pell-mell rush and indiscriminate firing.

Guns, however, as a result of the careless loading, often explode, carrying away part of the hands using them, and even the most expert runners sometimes find their way into a badger hole, breaking or dislocating the collar bone of the riders in the fall. The breach-loading rifle is used in running buffalo by the wealthy amateurs who come from Europe to enjoy the sport, but the hunters of the country still almost universally use the old muzzle loaders."

Other Related Material
Read more excerpts from Red River - enter 'Hargrave' in the search box to your left.

See images of a hunt - enter 'hunting' in the search box to your left.

What does Joseph James Hargrave look like?

Check the Beaver Index - e.g., buffalo, bison, hunting, Métis, etc.

Did You Know?
Strict discipline had to be observed in the Prairie as Métis hunters could sometimes encounter hostile groups of Dakota or Assiniboine hunters pursuing the same herd of buffalo.