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Slaughter of the Buffalo

Back to The Riders of the Plains.

The following is an excerpt from The Riders of the Plains: A Reminiscence of the Early and Exciting Days in the North West (1905), by Cecil Edward Denny. This work is in the public domain.

Continued from Chapter X – Critical Conditions.

Chapter XI

Slaughter of the Buffalo

I WILL CONFINE MYSELF in this chapter to giving some idea of the country in which we had established ourselves, and the trade principally carried on in it, its capabilities, climate, and other particulars regarding it. In the first place, the buffalo, which even when we entered the country, roamed the plains in vast herds, had been ten times more numerous in previous years. In those days they ranged as far north as the Peace river, while in 1874 very few were to be found much north of the Red Deer river, which lies about a hundred miles north of the present city of Calgary. A few buffalo of a larger type than those found on the plains, and termed wood buffalo, were indeed to be found in scattered numbers in the far north, and some I believe are still to be found in that region. These were no doubt the remnants of the herds that used to range in the northern section, remaining behind when the main herds went south, and the different feed found in the timber country, to a certain extent, changed their characteristics.

It is a curious fact that for centuries the Indians had followed the buffalo and subsisted nearly altogether off them, without any apparent diminution of their numbers. Bands of buffalo would be found grazing in close proximity to Indian camps, but the moment white settlers came in, as they did early along the north Saskatchewan, the buffalo immediately left the vicinity, never to return. So it was in the south; as soon as the country began to be settled, the buffalo disappeared, always drifting south.

Of course the disappearance of the buffalo finally, was caused by the wanton slaughter of tens of thousands, thereby leading to their extinction, but it must still be remembered that in the old days the Indians were five times more numerous than when we came into the country, and in consequence the slaughter was much greater, but the fact remains, that on the advent of the whites the buffalo gradually disappeared until today I doubt if one is left in his native state.

Sometimes we would travel over miles of country with nothing but buffalo in sight as far as the eye could reach. On other occasions we would ride at an easy lope and see a continuous stream of tens of thousands passing not over a hundred yards ahead, and closing in behind in the same manner. It is almost impossible to realize that they have been completely exterminated in such a few years.

Buffalo JumpThe slaughter however was tremendous. I saw twenty thousand robes sent south to Ft. Benton in the spring of 1876 trade at their posts at Ft. Macleod and Calgary, together with those bought by them from outside hunters, who would camp out all winter, either trading with the Indians,      or hunting themselves. Thousands were killed by the Indians themselves for their own use, not only for meat, but for their tents, which were renewed each year. A tent consumed from ten to twenty-five skins. Therefore thousands were killed, and only the robe taken. An enormous number died from wounds received, and were never touched. The halfbreeds were also a factor in the destruction among these animals, slaughtering whole herds for only a portion of the meat, leaving the rest to rot on the prairie.

The wolves were another cause of their destruction. When we arrived in the country the large grey wolves ran in packs and were always found near the bands of buffalo, pulling down weak or wounded animals, and destroying many young calves.

An attempt was made by the government after we had been in the country a few years, to stop the killing of calves, and a law was passed to that effect, but it was a dead letter, the country being so vast and the other duties of the small force of police so arduous, that it was found impossible to enforce it.

Our only meat during the first two or three years consisted altogether of buffalo, as no cattle came into the country for some years later.

A Canadian wolfer.

Among other profitable furs in the country, that of the large grey wolf was not much behind the buffalo robe, being worth from two to three dollars each. Regular parties of “wolfers” used to start out in the fall, and remain out all winter, camped in tents, with a winter’s supply of food, and a good stock of strychnine. Their mode of procedure was as follows; a large number of buffalo would be killed, at considerable intervals from each other, each carcass being split in two and turned over, the ribs making a basin in which strychnine was mixed up with the entrails, and so left. The poison would permeate all parts of the carcass. The wolves readily took to this bait, and hundreds of them were killed. The wolfers would go out every few days and bring in the frozen carcasses of the wolves. They would pile them up until spring, and skin them when the warm weather thawed them out. Although the wolves are still numerous along the foot hills of the mountains, and do considerable damage to young stock, their numbers are as nothing to what they were in the buffalo days. Strange as it may appear, it is now almost impossible to poison them. They seem to avoid any bait set out, and considerable skill is required to successfully poison a wolf. The timber wolf was a distinct species, being generally found in the mountains, and being nearly black in color.

Deer of all kinds abounded on all the river bottoms, and grizzly, black and brown bears were numerous during the berry season. Elk were still in the country, but few in number, although not many years previously they roamed the plains in large herds, as the numerous horns testify. Moose and caribou were shot in considerable numbers along the mountains, principally by the Stoney Indians. They also killed numbers of sheep and goats, together with beaver and otter, but the hardest work was required to hunt them.

Beaver were very numerous on all the rivers a long way from the mountains, and when we arrived at the site of Calgary in 1875, a large beaver dam existed in full operation about a hundred yards below where the present Canadian Pacific Railroad bridge stands. Occasionally, rare skins could be purchased, such as white beaver, of which I have seen several, and white and black wolf skins. Silver and spotted buffalo robes, which were very rare, were to be had. A white robe I never saw, and from enquiries among the Indians, I doubt if such a thing as a genuine white buffalo robe was ever taken on the northern plains.

Birds of many varieties abounded, the grouse being the most numerous, and geese and ducks of many sorts frequented all the lakes in the spring and fall, but the country in the Edmonton district was the paradise for water fowl, as it still is.

The rivers were full of trout, but the plain Indians neither fished or killed the feathered game, with the exception of the Stonies. The Blackfeet were too indolent. They existed altogether on buffalo, which they killed with little or no trouble.

The prairies were, and still are, a vast pasture land, the grass although short being most nutritious. This prairie grass cures as it stands, in the fall of the year retaining all its nutriment, while the long coarse grass, growing in the north, and in the timber country, dries out, and makes poor feed when left standing. It was a curious thing that after heavy winters with plenty of snow the buffalo came out fat in the spring, while after open winters when plenty of water could be got from the rivers the buffalo were in poor condition. The buffalo ploughed the snow with their noses, to get at the feed, and the prairie where there was deep snow sometimes looked as if thousands of ploughs had gone over it, after a herd of buffalo had passed.

The native horses pawed away the snow, and thus got at the grass. We found that at first Canadian horses turned out in winter would starve, not knowing how to paw, but after one winter they soon learned from necessity.

The buffalo, in spite of all that has been said, was far from being a savage anima, and would seldom, even if wounded, attack a man. I remember seeing one of our men chased by a bull he had wounded. The animal was close behind, and he was swinging his carbine in one hand as he ran; by chance the butt struck the bull on the nose, when he immediately turned and made off, much to the relief of Trumpeter Pell.

The most savage and dangerous animals were those which had been driven out of the herds, on account of age, or some infirmity. These went by the name of “scabby bulls,” and were generally found in the patches of brush along the river bottoms. These animals would attack anyone on sight, and were dangerous to meet. Mountain lions and lynx were numerous in the country, and preyed on the carcasses of dead buffalo, but since the disappearance of those animals they are rarely seen.

Lynx.

The climate from the Red Deer river south, a strip about 100 miles wide, was subject to sudden changes or temperature, particularly in the winter. The thermometer might stand as low as thirty or forty below zero, a sudden west wind would commence, in temperature not much less than summer heat, and in an hour or so everything would be a sheet of water. These chinook winds could nearly always be foretold, as a dense black mass of clouds hung over the mountains in the west a day or two before the wind reached the prairies. These winds have been explained by many theories, but still are as far from solution as ever.

Long and severe droughts often prevailed in the summer on the plains, and still do. Nothing but irrigation will ever make this an agricultural county. That most certainly will, for the soil is excellent, and all it requires is water. For pasturage it has not its equal in the world. On these immense plains, where for centuries the buffalo roamed and waxed fat, both summer and winter, domestic cattle can surely do likewise, and are doing today.

Prospecting for gold had not commenced when we arrived in the country, and even today the mountains, except in a very few spots, easily accessible, are unexplored. But the day will surely come when rich mines of all sorts will be found on the eastern slopes of that vast range of mountains that stands like a wall on the western edge of the Territories. Across the line only a hundred miles south of the boundary, incalculable wealth has been mined at such places as Helena, Butte and many others, and it is hardly reasonable to suppose that this region abounding in gold and silver breaks off at the boundary line.

On our arrival in the country in 1874 the plain Indians numbered about 8,000, consisting of the tribe of Blackfeet proper, who were divided up into three branches, viz, Blackfeet, about 2,000, Bloods, 3,000 and Piegans about 1,000. These three branches were the same people, speaking the same language. A branch of them, the so called South Piegans, had settled for some years in Montana, in American territory, and had made a treaty with the American government, and were settled on a reservation near the line. There were also in the country the Stoney Indians, a branch of the Sioux tribe, living and hunting in the mountains, numbering about 1,000, and the tribe of Sarcee Indians, a distinct and separate tribe. These people originally came from the far north, and are no doubt a branch of the Chippiwayans who live near the great Slave lake, when the migrated south. None of their traditions tell when, but like the Blackfeet who also originally came from the far north, it must have been many hundred years ago. Their language was most guttural, and I have never met an Indian or white man who could speak or understand it. They soon picked up the Blackfoot and Cree languages, but to a great extent kept to themselves, mixing but little with other tribes. They were by far the most warlike Indians on the plains, and had been up to our advent at continual war with all other tribes on the plains. Their hand was against everyone, and every man’s hand against them, until from being a powerful tribe of several thousands they had dwindled down to a few hundreds. The balance was made up by a few scattered bands of Crees, who had left the north and intermarried among the Blackfeet. All these Indians were almost perpetually at war with the Sioux, Gros Ventres and Crows in the south, and with the Crees in the north, and they held their own well, being probably the most expert horse thieves in the west, and a terror to the settlers and Indians in the south. They would start out on foot in large war parties and travel hundreds of miles. I know of parties going as far south as Sault Lake city, and they never returned without large bands of horses. They were so expert that cases are known where white men, afraid of having their horses run off during the night, have slept with the picket ropes either held, or tied to their bodies, waking in the morning and finding their horses gone, the ropes having been cut during the night. Of course the Indians had to be continually on the watch on their return, for the Sioux and Crows were nearly equally expert and many a band of horses have they run off from the Blackfeet, and many fights have taken place between them in the Blackfeet country.

They counted their wealth altogether by the number of horses owned, and some of the chiefs owned as many as 500 head, when we first came into the country. The greater their wealth in horses, the more hunters they sent after the buffalo, and in consequence the more robes they had to tan. Thus they needed more women. Sometimes they had as many as twenty. It took years to only partly stop this inbred habit of horse stealing, and it will never be completely eradicated as long as an Indian remains. Like the buffalo, the plain Indians are fast dying, not many more than half the number remaining. Civilization has little effect on them, and only seems to decimate them faster. Those now left are but a poor sample, of the rich and free and warlike Indian we found on our first arrival in the Northwest. It will not be many years before they are extinct. They do not take to farming, and education either moral or physical, seems to have no effect on them. Missionary labor among the Blackfeet has proved from some cause a failure, and I know of no instance where a full grown man or woman among the Blackfeet has been converted to Christianity. In the north, among the Crees, it is otherwise, and much good has been done among them by missionary labor, of all denominations. It therefore seems certain that as this great country becomes settled, the Indian will become extinct in the same manner as the myriads of buffalo gradually disappeared before the onward rush of civilization.

Continued in Chapter XII – Severe Trip to Helena.

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I'm a Western Canadian writer, carver, and fiddler who has a special place in his heart for history and the unexplained.

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